MERcURY OFF COURSE
Liz was ready for us before noon. Which gave us plenty of time to talk to Alvarez about our upcoming travel plans.
He was, understandably, perturbed. Because “perturbed” was his default mode.
“I’ve spent all morning on conference calls with the directors of Homeland Security and the FBI.” Alvarez walked with us to the lab, two steps ahead. Quite the feat, considering he was shorter-legged than both of us. He didn’t fit in with the rest of the Procyon crew working in the base’s warren of corridors. A silver-gray suit with black shirt and red tie weren’t the dress code for people either in the lab coats of research or medical staff, the black polos of Security, or the varied civilian garb of Tracking. “The only highlight you need to know is that they’re both so busy sniping at each other’s heels that they’re not paying too close attention to our activities.”
“I would think we prefer it so,” Loredana said.
Alvarez stopped up short and glared up at us. He wasn’t a rolly-poly guy, but thickset, with wavy black hair and a goatee befitting the coolest pirate ever. I wondered if he’d ever wrestled, in high school or college. He walked like a guy who could take care of himself in a rough neighborhood. “I’d prefer it if Homeland agents didn’t have to make early morning visits to my personnel.”
I scratched the back of my neck. Loredana stared resolutely ahead.
“But that doesn’t mean I’m going to allow a desk-bound bureaucrat in D.C. to dictate our next moves. If this creature is in fact loose and has somehow manifested itself in Midwest town a thousand miles away, it has to be stopped.”
“Shall I interpret your comments as authorization to proceed with our mission?” Loredana could have been asking for a wine list at an elegant restaurant. Me? I bounced on my toes like a kid who found out tomorrow was a snow day—and believe me, I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had one in California.
“Interpret my response as acknowledgement that you need time off from your standard duties.” Alvarez frowned. “As soon as we get into our new office, we’ll be putting proper procedures back into place, but as it is, I don’t have time to micromanage Operations.”
“Bummer,” I muttered. “Wouldn’t want to deprive you of life’s joys.”
“I don’t need your glib attitude, Hale. Make sure you two come back alive. There’s a board meeting next week, and Loredana needs to on Zoom for it, away from danger.”
“I will convey my schedule to the next monster we encounter.” Loredana lifted an eyebrow. “If you’ll excuse us …”
Alvarez was already turning the next corner, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish into his phone. Couldn’t make out all the words—my translating suffers when Google isn’t involved—but somebody was behind on the armor-plated glass being secretly installed in the new office building.
As long as headquarters could withstand future gravity-distorting attacks that could crush entire structures, I was happy with that.
Liz’s lab had the least redecorating since our arrival at the silo. Not much there besides concrete walls, boxes of all shapes and sizes, tables covered with unidentifiable equipment. I knew she had a cleaner workspace somewhere else. She had to. No way she could have pieced together high-tech gear in what amounted to a dingy basement.
“Hey guys!” Grease stains marred her cheeks. Liz waved us over to where the ice gun used to be mounted. Good-bye three-foot-long cannon that harnessed the pulsar stave’s energy to produce intense cold. Hello short, stubby … Thing. It reminded me of half a toaster, turned on its end, with a narrow, rectangular slit for a muzzle.
“That’s kinda shrimpy,” I said.
Loredana prodded me. “Don’t be rude.”
“What? It is.”
Liz waved her hand like she was wafting a bad smell. “It’s okay, Ms. Lark. He’ll like it anyway. It’s a further modification of what started out as the portal device Gary DeBarthe created, and actually gets back to its roots. Nobody’s gonna freeze anything with this puppy! It’s a stasis initiator.”
“Okay.” I took it from her. There was a space where the grip should have been. “I plug the pulsar stave in here?”
“Yep. It works like the ice gun, in that respect, but when you aim it at an object, it kind of opens a rip.”
“No, no, it’s a tiny one.” Liz made a pinching motion with her thumb and forefingers. She squinted through the space. “Maybe about this big. More than what’s needed to disrupt space-time.”
“Not gonna lie, still sounds bad.”
Loredana pressed a finger to my lips and winked at me. “Let the poor woman finish. Elizabeth, this small rip’s purpose I gather is to incapacitate a creature rather than simply obliterating it or returning it to the Interstice.”
“Yes! Yes. I mean, we need to study one of these live, and even then, that’s difficult under microscopic conditions. Having a cyber-spider that we could dissect?” Liz clapped her hands together. “So much fun!”
I powered up the pulsar stave and inserted it into the energy port. A hum built to the level of a nearby, gigantic mosquito. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a target for me?”
“Try the cardboard box.”
“Which one?” But I picked out a half-open, empty container laying on its. I pressed the trigger plate in front of the stave.
There was a whip-crack of sound, a ripple of air, and a flash of purple light. A pale rainbow that seemed to be streaming in reverse struck out at the box, encasing it in a cloudy form. I could see multiple versions of the box—some brand new and sealed, other torn and crumpled. If I shifted my stance, the image changed.
“See? Stasis!” Liz slapped my arm.
“Great. But how do we move the object or target or whatever once it’s frozen like that?” I tipped the gun onto my shoulder. “Because I’m not keen on putting my hands into a mini-rip.”
“That’s what these are for.” She gave Loredana a pair of gloves with sleeves that reached up to the elbow. I could have sworn she’d cut them off my suit, except they were school bus yellow patterned with jagged black lines. “I patterned them after the supersuit. I mean, not last night. It’s been one of my side projects. They’ll absorb and deflect tachyon particles, providing a shield between the person and the latent energies swarming around a rip. We’ve got a mobile container you guys can use, like a suitcase on wheels. It’ll hold the cyber-spider for your return trip.”
Loredana slid the gloves on over her hands. Had to say, it gave her a serious superhero vibe. “Thank you, Elizabeth. These shall do nicely.”
“You bet!” She snapped her fingers. “Oh! I’ll go get your container. He’ll be handy.”
“He?” I shook my head as she sprinted from the lab. “You know, if we cut the cyber-spider apart, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this stuff. I bet it would even sublimate. Pile of goo, much?”
“That will not give us the answers we need. This is a new lifeform, one for which our experience with astral fiends leaves us unprepared. It is a danger that must be contained but not obliterated—at least, not until we determine the extent of its purposes.”
“Fair enough.” I removed the stave from its socket and twirled it, letting the alternating heat and cold seep into my fingers. Its energies had weird effects like that, depending on how it was being used. The thing felt like it had moods, at times.
Like when it had automatically purged my body of a symmachite infestation, preventing them from seizing control of me.
“But do me a favor,” I said. “Let’s keep their destruction an option.”
“It always is,” Loredana said.
Liz’s suitcase turned out to be an automated container on two big wheels. It was circular itself, with a hatch that opened into a ceramic space. Pulsing orange lights surrounded its curve on the inside. Outside, it was eggshell white with brass-colored panels.
It rolled up to me, halting a foot away from my shoe.
“Did you build us a droid?” I knelt and tapped on the unit’s hatch.
“Nope. I wish! It’s got a very rudimentary GPS system and sensing equipment. I’ve got a Bluetooth signal that will keep him following your phones.” Liz knelt with me. “But it won’t respond to voice commands or anything like that.”
“He’s similar to a car’s hubcap,” Loredana observed. “Or a wheel rolling free.”
“Hub.” I nodded. “Good enough name for me. Guess we’d better load up. I don’t suppose we can convince Dominic to portal us to Oklahoma.”
“Sadly, he’s otherwise occupied. We shall take my airplane.”
My disappointment at not having Dominic Zein use the Echo Watches to make our multi-state trip instantaneous vaporized as soon as Loredana said airplane. I grinned at my reflection in Hub’s shiny flank. “Hear that? I call shotgun.”
I hadn’t ridden in Loredana’s private jet since we’d fled San Camillo with Skipper—also known as Bowen Cord, a powerful magic summoner from yet another dimension—to Rampart, Colorado, in our first and only attempt to infiltrate Syndax. That had ended with us retrieving Gary DeBarthe, late of Procyon’s Tracking department, only to get trapped in a Syndax compound with a bunch of corpse-fiend zombies. If it hadn’t been for Dominic, who knows how long we would have been stuck.
But if I was gonna have to fly halfway across the country, I was happy to take the airborne equivalent of a Jaguar, leather seats and all—a Cirrus Vision Jet, a sleek, hot rod. The turbofan jet on its back screamed through a V-shaped tail as we pierced the clouds around San Camillo.
I napped clear through to Salt Lake City, dead to my surroundings until we touched down for a brief refueling—and restroom—stop. Talk about a ghost town. The place was near empty of fliers. The pandemic had gutted air travel, from what little news I’d absorbed on my phone. I nodded off again, just for a spell, because the Cirrus lifted into the air, bouncing through some mild turbulence.
“Back among the living, I hear.” Loredana looked as relaxed as I felt, sunlight reflecting off aviator shades, leaned back in the pilot’s chair.
“Don’t you mean, you see?” I stretched my arms, which meant I could touch both sides of the cockpit. “‘Cause I didn’t hit the can while invisible in the supersuit.”
“A joke, Mercury. Definitely ‘hear.’ Your snoring stopped.”
Loredana tapped her headphones. “Through these, too.”
“Well, that’s cheating if you keep the volume up.”
She laughed. I loved that sound. “Here, I think you’ll find this more diverting.” She handed me her phone from beside her seat.
It was open to a Facebook post put up by a mom of two young boys. They lived in Whispering Pines, our destination suburb. She rambled about how blessed she was to have a doting husband, a wonderful family, full of love and snuggles and blah blah blah. I rolled my eyes. If this was Loredana’s way to get me thinking about having a family, I had news for her—sickeningly sweet was not a motivator.
“Cute, I guess.” I set the phone down. “Her kids’ story about toy dinosaurs trying to eat them was fun. I’d read the book.”
“The narrative is fascinating, because of its provenance to our assignment. It is from the same coordinates Elizabeth and Edith marked for us.”
“I have also gathered atmospheric data from the region, compiled over the past year. Whispering Pines has experienced particularly unsettled weather compared to surrounding communities.”
“Okay.” I squinted at her. “Don’t like where this is going.”
“Our roles require us to be open to the possibility of new and improbable phenomena,” she said. “Procyon is built on such a principle.”
Hadn’t Edie said similar? The dream or vision or whatever she’d shared with me flashed back into my head. The rain, the creepy chest, the island in the middle of a pond…
“Hang on.” I re-read the Facebook post. “These kids—they claim they buried a weird chest with the dinos inside.”
“Yes, I saw.”
“Yeah, and so did I.” A couple taps put me into the map Liz provided, on both our phones. I zoomed in and held it up, giving Loredana a clear view of a pond with an island at its center. The pond was big as a football field, surrounded by homes and trees on a loop road at the far end of the gated community. Whispering Pines had its own fishing dock, with tiny boats visible on the satellite image. “That island. When Edie linked me to her vision, I was there. Saw the chest. Got mud on me and everything.”
“Remarkable.” Loredana lifted her sunglasses for a better look. “I had hoped we would narrow the search field, but this—”
“This is freaky.”
“I gotta say, this whole vision of me? Not a fan of a Forecaster being able to tap into my mind like that. Marigold never did.”
“We have to reassess everything we thought we knew about how she did her job, in light of her betrayal.”
I scratched the back of my neck. “Probably true. What’s the plan for when we get there?”
“You tell me. You’re the operative.”
“You’re the handler.”
“In more ways than one, it seems.” She smiled slyly. “I have the necessary credentials to bypass the gate guard. Once in the neighborhood, our objective should be the island immediately after dark.”
“Got it. Should keep the questions to a minimum.”
“From the residents, yes.” Loredana peeked over the tops of her glasses. “Whereas our questions of this mystery, I’m afraid, might take longer to answer.”
Whispering Pines’ gate house was a small house-slash-box with broad windows, a nice fit with the wooden fence surrounding the entire neighborhood. A lone guard in simple black uniform glanced up from his cell phone, eyes widening at the silver rental sedan with tinted windows. Of course, I guessed he was more interested in Loredana’s smile and her sapphire eyes as she peered over half-lowered shades. “Good evening.”
“Uh, evening, folks.” His voice was friendly, with a touch of anxiety at the edges. His badge read “Security,” on a silver strip over his pocket. “Sorry, but this is a gated community.”
“The gate tipped me off,” I said cheerily from the passenger seat.
Loredana pinched my leg but said to the guard, “I think you’ll find our credentials in order, Mr. …”
“Mr. Hardt. This is national security business.”
She handed him a small folio, like a passport. It had a gray cover and no external markings I could see. But as soon as Hardt opened it, he stared open-mouthed.
“Centerfold in miniature?” I whispered.
“Kindly shush,” Loredana said through gritted teeth.
“Yes, ma’am! I understand, ma’am.” Hardt fumbled the folio but managed to only dump it in Loredana’s lap. “We, ah, we’ll keep this off the residents’ radar. If anyone calls you in, I’ll mention it’s a local law enforcement drill.”
“I appreciate your discretion.”
The gate trundled open, and we drove in, taking the first right onto a road that ended near a sprawling park. There was more new playground equipment tucked in the clearing than I’d seen in one place.
The air outside was thick with moisture, humid enough for paper to mold in five seconds. I slung a backpack over my shoulder and lowered the brim of a black baseball cap. “Better hoof it from here, so the locals don’t report on a strange car cruising by their homes.”
“Agreed.” Loredana’s hair was secured under her cap. In our black jackets and olive-green fatigue pants, we didn’t look like we were out for a stroll, but operational attire was operational attire.
I, for one, was glad for the extra garb as we passed modest two-story homes hemmed in by big oaks whose branches reached like astral fiend tentacles frozen against the evening sky, black silhouettes on a deep blue background. No stars out, but a crescent moon. Clouds crept in from the northwest. My phone said to expect rain.
The prospect made me shiver, and that had nothing to do with the temps dropping into the 40s. There was rain in Edie’s vision, too…
“This way.” Loredana slunk between a row of shrubs tall enough to swallow an adult. Hub rolled between us, his treaded wheels super quiet. If it weren’t for the soft hum like a muted remote-control car, I’d have guessed he was still back in the airplane.
Lights were out in the houses on either side. Everyone was in bed, I guessed. In fact, most homes were dark.
I checked my watch. Ten fifteen.
We scooted through the trees on the sloping banks. The pond spread out like a mirror of the sky above. I craned my neck. Not long before the moon disappeared behind the clouds. “Once the moonlight’s gone, we can paddle out.”
“Excellent.” Loredana removed a dark bundle from her backpack. She spread it out and yanked on a silver handle attached to a short cable. The inflatable raft flopped open and began expanding. She pieced together a paddle from the backpack. “We shall make quick work.”
“As long as the stasis device doesn’t make too much of a ruckus. That Hardt guy would probably call the cops on us if we shine that thing like a beacon—”
Light blinded me. I whipped the pulsar stave out, igniting its energies, and pivoted in my crouch so I was guarding Loredana.
“Who’s there?” She had the heel of her hand on a holstered pistol.
A flurry of hissed whispers ended with a yelp, “Oz, no!” A dark shape hurtled at me, flashlight making those stupid blobs appear in my eyes when I looked away.
When I blinked through the afterimages, I was facing a kid wearing a Spider-man mask. “Okay, who are you? What are you looking for?”
A lot of interrogatory from a squeaky voice. “Kid, go home and stay in bed. Official business. As in, government.” Sort of. I’d have to worry about lying to children later.
“Get the flashlight out of his face, Oz!” Another kid, this one taller and working on being in charge, pushed the littler one’s hand down until the beam made a brilliant circle on the ground.
“Iggy, we gotta tell Mom and Dad! They’re not supposed to be here!” Spider-child pointed toward the island. “Nobody’s supposed to go out there!”
“Yeah, I know, but I think it’s okay. Don’t you know who it is?” The older kid looked up at me, eyes wide. He gestured at the pulsar stave. “It’s Mercury Hale!”