MERcURY OFF COURSE

CHAPTER FIVE

The first drops of rain spattered on my face and clinked where they hit the pulsar stave. I eyeballed this kid, the one who somehow thought he knew my name. I wasn’t gonna tell him he was right. It was supposed to be a secret identity.
 

Not that I was super careful about that secret.
 

“Is that your weapon?” Iggy raised a hand toward the pulsar stave. “Wow.”
 

“Hey! Look with your eyes.” I yanked it away. “It’s, ah, for illumination.”
 

The shorter kid, tipped up his Spider-man mask, revealing Asian features. They argued like brothers. “If it’s his weapon it’ll burn your hands, Iggy.”
 

“It’s not burning his hand, Oz.”
 

“Duh! It’s magic.”
 

“Children.” Loredana put on the sweetest, most comforting smile I think I’d ever seen on her face, like a kindergarten teacher soothing nervous students on the first day of school. “It’s quite late. You should be at home in bed, before your parents awake and find you gone. We wouldn’t want to worry them.”
 

Oz shook his head. “Dad sleeps through anything. Even monsters.”
“No such thing as monsters.” I deactivated the stave and slipped it into my jacket.

 

“Are so,” Oz said.
 

“Shut up,” Iggy hissed. “Mr. Hale, sir, we’ve seen the videos of you fighting. All those squid-things, and even zombies!”
 

“Iggy wants your autograph,” Oz muttered. “And a hug.”
 

Iggy sighed. I tried really hard not to laugh. The little brother reminded me of someone. Gee, wonder who?
 

“Look, guys, you can fake anything online. As in, Deep Fake. Slapping my head on a body from a video game is no big deal.” I waved my hand, Obi-wan style. “And when we’re talking about monsters—”
 

“They’re real,” Iggy said. “We know.”
 

“We captured them!” Oz grabbed a branch from the ground and swung it at the nearest tree. “Epic battle! They didn’t stand a chance!”
 

“It wasn’t that easy, okay? We had to trick them with their food. That was the only way we could lock them up in the chest.”
 

“The chest.”
 

“Yeah. The big trunk that came from Mr. Chesterton’s house.”
 

I didn’t know what to say to that. If I was just going on the Facebook post Loredana had showed me, I’d say the kids had hyperactive imaginations. But coupled with Edie’s shared vision, and the reality if the strangeness that came part and parcel with the Interstice…
 

“You’re speaking of the dinosaurs, of course,” Loredana said.
 

“They came to life and tried to eat us—tried to eat everyone!” Oz jabbed his stick into the tree. The stick snapped against the bark. “And we defeated them!”
 

“We were lucky,” Iggy said. “If our friends hadn’t helped us, I don’t know if we could have stopped them. You need a good team when you’re fighting monsters, right, Mr. Hale? I saw you with them—Airfoil! And the man who could vanish and reappear.”
 

I scratched under the back of my cap. He wasn’t wrong. “Okay. Let’s assume you’re telling the truth.”
 

Oz muttered something I couldn’t hear, that might have included the word “stupid,” but Iggy elbowed him, eliciting and “Ow!” and a return smack.
 

“That’s enough.” Loredana separated them at either end of her arms.
 

“The chest. It’s on the island. Where?” I asked.
 

“Um…” Iggy shuffled his shoes. “I don’t know. Not actually. Todd Sterns put it out there, because no one goes out on the pond.”
 

Oz pointed at the raft. “No boats allowed.”
 

“Sure. Rules are rules, but this is a secret mission.” I dropped my volume for the last two words. “Top secret. There’s a new monster. Not a big one. Probably just as dangerous as the big ones, though. We’re here to capture it.”
 

“One of the dinos?” Iggy asked.
 

“Not precisely,” Loredana said. “However, we believe it has been drawn to the phenomena which makes the chest a haven for your… Re-animated toys.”
 

“We could help you find it!” Iggy headed for the raft, standing himself at the front like he was gonna George Washington across the Delaware.
 

“Iggy! If we go out on the pond, Dad’s gonna kill us.” Oz pulled on his brother’s arm, but the older kid wouldn’t budge.
 

“Easy, guys. This is too dangerous. We can’t take you there.” I raised a finger. “What I need, though, is a pair of lookouts. Someone who can signal us with a flashlight if anyone comes around while we’re capturing the monster. You guys up to it?”
 

“Sure! We’ve got our flashlight.”
 

“Like the bat-signal!” Oz snapped on the beam. I got a face full of bright light.
 

“Yeah. I noticed.”
 

Loredana reached out and patted Iggy on the cheek. “There’s a good lad. Thank you for your service.”
 

Kinda hard to tell in the dark, with only a flashlight between the four of us, but I was pretty sure the kid was blushing. He sure seemed to have a lot more color in his cheeks.
 

Loredana and I pushed the inflatable raft out onto the pond, its bottom rustling over the grass. Hub rolled right over the edge, settling into the center. She managed to board with the grace of an equestrian mounting her horse. Me? I belly-crawled in but held the sides so we didn’t get swamped.
 

We paddled toward the island as the skies opened. Those drips? They became a full-fledged downpour. The ballcaps were no good, except to keep me from wiping my eyes every five seconds. Otherwise they soaked up water.
 

Loredana had her phone perched on her pant leg, secured by a Velcro strap. It emitted tiny but sharp beeps. A red light flickered on its top edge.
 

“Tachyon emissions are increasing.” She had to almost shout to be heard over the hiss of the rain. “Come around to the southeast side of the island.”
 

“Sure.” I spat rain. “How about you navigate, and I paddle? Since you’ve got the GPS and the tachyon dowser, to boot.”
 

Loredana turned the phone on its side and adjusted the slender, black oval with a white triple outline attached to the back. Gold lights flickered in a triple curve along the edge. “It’s holding up well despite being nearly as waterlogged as we are.”
 

“Super.” I could see the dark lump of the island, looming like a slumbering fiend. “Next mission or quest or whatever we take, we go somewhere drier. Winnemucca, Nevada, was nice and arid.”
 

“I shall consider that change to our itinerary after we secure the creature.”
 

The raft bumped against the island. Not a big patch of land. With the pond football field-sized, there wasn’t room for a huge sprawling mass. You could park a half dozen SUVs on it and have room for a romantic couple to stroll the edges, but that was it.
I pulled the raft up as Loredana disembarked. She ducked branches from the handful of trees and squeezed between tightly packed shrubs. Hub trundled in her wake, guided by the tracking systems in the phone. “Any luck?”

 

“Not as such. The signal is strong, and near, however…”
 

I didn’t like it when she stopped talking mid-sentence. I found her near a gash in the shrubs. A big gash. Like something had smashed through it.
 

“The chest was here.” Loredana traced her finger around an imprint where the grass had been flattened—a large rectangle. “Up until less than twenty-four hours ago.”
 

“It’s rainy here. You mentioned the weather being lousier than usual.” There was a long streak through the gash, down a shallow slope to the waterline. I brushed through the branches, letting them scratch my face and jacket so I didn’t ruin the path with my boots. “Maybe the chest slipped along?”
 

Even as I said it, the theory didn’t make sense. Iggy and Oz described the chest as being large enough to sit on top of and fit a boatload of toy dinosaurs. No way something that heavy would have slid even on the slickest, wet patch of grass. The slope wasn’t steep enough for rain and gravity to do the trick.
 

Loredana’s shoulder pressed against mine. “It did move this way. And I do believe you’ve found its resting place.”
 

“Yeah. Lucky me.” The flattened grass and streaked mud ended at a one-foot drop-off, where the island’s waterline had eroded along a five-yard patch. Something had gone over the edge. “How deep you think it is?”
 

“Impossible to tell.”
 

I extended one of the boat paddles to its max length and poked it down as far as it would go. “Three feet plus. Can’t hit anything.”
 

Loredana held her phone and its attached tachyon dowser above the drop-off. The red light blinked so fast it was almost a continuous pulse. “However deep the pond’s bottom, the spider—and one assumes, the chest—is down there.”
 

My guts shuddered. There was only one way to get it back up here and heading back into town to rent a tow truck wasn’t that way. I sat on top of Hub, who thankfully didn’t roll away and leave me cheeks-first in a patch of mud. Unlacing boots in pouring rain wasn’t the way I wanted to spend a night out with my wife, but I got them off and stowed my socks inside one. Better keep them dry. I stripped out of the jacket and the shirt, too, because I didn’t want every article of clothing soaking wet.
 

“Be back in a sec.” I winked at Loredana—because I needed the bravado waaaay more than she did—and jumped in.
 

“Mercu—!”
 

The tremendous splash and rumble of water in my ears cut off the rest of her cry. I powered the pulsar stave, which made for a handy underwater light source.
 

Would have been even better if there wasn’t so much silt I could only see a couple feet beyond my nose.
 

The pond was deeper than I expected. I felt like I sank for minutes until my toes touched the top of something solid and slimy. I bent over, shining the stave with one hand and feeling the surface of the object with the other.
 

The chest? Bingo.
 

Which was good, because the confining darkness wasn’t doing my anxiety any favors. I could already feel my pulse accelerating and my chest tightening. Shapes seemed to loom out of the silt. A figure grabbed for me. I shouted—big mistake, because water streamed into my big mouth—and slashed at it with the pulsar stave. The shadowy figure dissipated as the stave cut through, leaving bubbles streaming in its wake.
 

Then the chest bucked underneath.
 

My foot slipped. The one without toes, prosthetic from the knee down. Sure, it absorbed tachyon energies from the pulsar stave through me, but that didn’t mean it had great tread. I’d have to have Liz rig up an improvement.
 

And the plate-sized mutated symmachite hurtled up at my face.
 

Yikes! I’d seen Alien, and Aliens, and—too many of those movies. I had a flash of a giant version of a tick, with bizarre designs on its legs and body that could have been designed by Dr. Victor Frankenstein himself. Hundreds of tiny golden barbs undulated on its underside. No mouth though, so probably wasn’t going to implant eggs in my sternum.
 

I let myself sink to the muddy bottom of the pond. Sticks poked my ribcage. I let loose a blast from the pulsar stave. Bad idea. My aim was off because of the stupid churned up water, everything around me distorted and not where I thought it was. And the blast itself? The turbulence from it made the visibility worse.
 

The cyber-spider veered down, away from my face, which gave me an adrenaline shot of hope—until the creepy critter lassoed its tentacles around my fake leg. And pulled.
 

Pain lanced up into my muscles. I couldn’t move. I was stuck. Trapped…
 

Blackness pressed in on the sides of my sight.
 

One way out.
 

I twisted the stave-ax one last time. Its energies fizzled as my consciousness started to bleed away. Soon it’d be useless, because I’d be knocked out.
 

So, I cut…
 

A sizzling reached my ears. The cyber-spider flinched, unraveling its tentacles, and shot up through the hazy water.
 

What happened? The stave? It had repelled symmachites from my body—from everybody’s body, I remembered. And the leg channeled energies from the pulsar stave… Must’ve had the same effect.
 

That’s all I could put together when it came to rational thought. Fantasies of graphic death and suffocating pain overrode my head. I couldn’t even swim.
 

Finally, my toes located the chest again.
 

It roared.
 

Like, a chorus of roars, dozens of them of varying pitches, warped by being in a box full of air underwater. It jolted me, and I pushed off, arrowing toward the dim outline of the island’s submerged slope.
 

Had to reach it. Had to get out of the water.
 

Had to breathe.
 

I scrabbled through roots. Come on, Mercury. Get out of your own head. The cyber-spider… It was escaping. Up to the island.
 

Where Loredana waited.
 

I surged onto the miniature shoreline, panting, shuddering.  Sounds became clearer as water drained from my ear.
 

Gunfire.
 

Not a crazy shootout—brief controlled bursts. Flares in the dark.
 

“Mercury!” Loredana yelled. “Mercury, I need you to activate the stasis weapon! I cannot bring it online without the pulsar stave.”
 

Crap. Because I was the only one who could make it happen.
 

Backpack. Sitting by the raft. I sprinted for it.
 

Loredana was in a crouch, firing at the creature, which wasn’t easy because of its acrobatics. It bounced from tree to tree, emitting a constant, grating buzz, like a saw blade. Twice, it came within a tentacle’s length of cutting her but Loredana dodged. She brought the pistol up and fired again. She missed.
 

Since when did Loredana miss anything?
 

I yanked the stasis gun free of the backpack, glowering. She really did want the thing intact. Fine. I jammed the pulsar stave home and lifted the weapon.
 

The beam sliced the night air, forming its signature cloud around the top of a tree. Bad news: the cyber-spider somersaulted off the top and landed beside Loredana. Who did not blast the thing into pieces.
 

“Move!” I shouted.
 

Loredana dove into a cluster of shrubs. “Go!”
 

I fired again. The beam went too wide, encasing another tree in a cloudy stasis field. A bunch of moths froze midair.
 

Another shot. Another miss. The cyber-spider turned toward me.
 

“Come on!” I snapped. Why couldn’t I hit the thing? The weapon was vibrating so much…
 

Wait a second. The weapon was fine. I was the one making it vibrate. Because I was still shaking.
 

The creature hurtled at me, again, just like underwater, and I fired.
 

The beam struck its right legs—finally, a hit!—but it kept on coming. It glanced off the gun and ricocheted off my shoulder. A searing cold cut through my chest and left arm, sending pins and needles through my skin, deep into the muscles. Felt as awful as the few times I’d been snagged by an astral fiend hungry for my body’s energy.
 

Thankfully, this guy only got a nibble. It was enough to throw me onto the ground.
 

A thunderclap flat stripped branches off a tree overhead. I rolled over and stared up at a rip—or rather, the pint-sized equivalent of its nastier big brother. Think the top of Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can.
 

The black hole wreathed in crackling purple lightning was a perfect fit for the obnoxious, buzzing cyber-spider, which vanished into it. The rip snapped shut with a second bang.
 

After the furious sounds of our brief fight, the continuing downpour was downright comforting. My head dropped back, right into a mud puddle. With a rock in the center. Because, yeah, a headache was a super fun addition to exhaustion running its course.
 

“Mercury?” Loredana knelt beside me. She looped an arm under my shoulders. “What happened?”
 

“I… don’t know.” Not true.
 

“Are you hurt?”
 

“Bumps and bruises. The usual.” I grimaced as I got to my kneels and then stood. “We’d better find out where that thing went off to.”
 

“I shall contact Elizabeth.” Loredana lifted her phone but didn’t make a call yet. “Are you certain you’re all right?”
 

“Pretty sure we both know the answer to that question.” I removed the pulsar stave from the stasis initiator and wiped mud off its tail end before—well, great. My jacket was balled up on the ground, with my shirt tucked inside.
 

“There’s no need for a tone.” Loredana put her hands on her hips. “Had I known your plan—”
 

“Which went down the tubes once I got in the water. Yeah, I know.”
 

“I’m not casting blame.”
 

“Maybe I am, okay?” I ran a hand through my hair. “Give me a minute to process.”
 

She turned away, her posture stiff as a pine trunk. I sighed. What, three months in and we get a nice argument in the middle of a mission?
 

“Look,” I said. “I have to—”
 

“We have to go.”
 

I shrugged. “As soon as Liz tells us where.”
 

“No, Mercury.” Loredana headed for the raft, Hub slipping in the mud behind her. Concern laced her voice. “We must go now.”
 

That’s when I saw the flashlight flickering like a nightclub’s strobes.