MERcURY OFF COURSE

CHAPTER NINE

Water.
 

I swirled around. Couldn’t tell down from up, back from front.
 

A massive, shadowy bulk surged beneath—wait, so that was down. And there were ripples of white lights above, past the water’s surface. Floodlamps?
 

Three rusted funnels yawned. Orange flames sparked from inside.
 

If it was under water, how was it on fire?
 

The bulk hurtled toward me, pushing the water aside in a torrent of bubbles.
 

Shipwrecks don’t rise!
 

I swam for the surface, but even with the energies of the pulsar stave lingering in my body, I was too slow. Everything was too slow.
 

The arms shot up through the darkness, twisted amalgams of flesh and metal, stabbing through my chest.
 


“Mercury?”
 

Rain tapped on the floor-to-ceiling window of our hotel. Dawn turned the sea and sky pale blue beyond the ghostly beach.
 

I rubbed my face. The bed made me feel like I was resting on a cloud—as if I’d ever taken a nap at a couple thousand feet up. Wonder if Airfoil had ever tried it.
 

Loredana was at the door, her reflection in the wall mirror to her left frowning with equal concern. She had on a dark windbreaker and pants, like she was going out for a walk, except I was pretty sure she had at least three weapons concealed on her body.
 

“Hey.” I sat up and forced a grin. “Rough night’s sleep.”
 

“Indeed. Cordelia is downstairs. I shall check in with her, but I expect we’ll move out in a bit. Gather your things.”
 

“Staved up and ready to go.” I tapped the weapon. It sat on the other side of the bed.
 

“Meet me in ten minutes.” She blew me a kiss and closed the door.
 

I blew a breath and sagged against the pillow. Rain hissed again. This wasn’t gonna work. How was I gonna stay in the best shape if I couldn’t get through a simple shuteye without having the same freaky dream over and over again? At least I had some more details to go on, this time.
 

“When will you know more?”
 

“When it’s ready to reveal itself.”
 

That was what Edie had said to me. A hint from her would have been nice. Instead, I was stuck with debilitating panic. There was no denying it, even if I didn’t remember the dreams—the shortness of breath, the sweats. I was sick of the attacks. I wanted to be the one attacking.
 

But I wasn’t ready. Just—scared.
 

I growled and pushed off the bed. Screw that. I had to be ready. If it meant faking it, fine. Other people were relying on me. Procyon. Loredana.
 

Took me a couple minutes to slip on a black jacket and lace up a pair of boots. I tucked the pulsar stave into its harness, then grabbed my phone.
 

I needed to talk to someone. But Loredana was in Operations mode. Not that she didn’t understand. The fear, though…
 

It wouldn’t let go.
 

I dialed.
 

The voice on the other end answered in four rings. “Mercury? It’s 5 am out here. I’d heard you went on a vacation. Second honeymoon?”
 

“Ramos, I’m freaked out and I don’t know what to do.”
 

Ramos didn’t say anything for such a long time I thought he’d hung up. When he did come back, the wry, stern tone was gone. “Okay. Explain it to me. From the top. I assume this has to do with the Promenade.”
 

“How’d you—?”
 

“Wilhelmina. She’s worried about you.”
 

I shook my head and mouthed bad words away from the phone. “She shouldn’t have butted in like that.”

 

“Well, if you survive your mission, be sure to chastise her when you get back.” Ramos snorted. “I’ll bring popcorn for that argument.”
 

“Focus, man. I’m serious.”
 

“I know you are. What are you afraid of?”
 

“She probably told you.”
 

“Doesn’t matter. I need to hear it from you.”
 

I paced the hotel room, tapping the phone on my lips, heart hammering. Why couldn’t I admit it? He already knew I was afraid.
 

“The water?”
 

“Yeah. Getting back out there. Under there. I thought it was just the pier, like underneath the Promenade, but the same thing happened at a stupid pond in the middle of Oklahoma. What am I supposed to do when we get out on the open ocean? Because that’s where we’re headed.”
 

“Fear’s strong, Mercury. Stronger than we think is possible.”
 

“Tell me about it.”
 

“I am, if you’d keep your trap shut. Don’t you think I’ve been afraid?”
 

“You never act like it.”
 

“Every time we’ve faced monsters, I’ve been scared out of my wits. I don’t want to die. If I do, I know where I’ll end up, so that’s not the issue—I have faith in the promises I’ve received. But dying? That’s not something I relish the thought of.”
 

I leaned my forehead against the window. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
 

“You can. And you will. Because no one else can. This is your path. Do you think you’d be able to stand against evil without God on your side?”
 

“I’m not a church boy, Ramos. Pretty sure he’s got your back more than mine.”
 

“He’ll still use those who don’t believe. And when it comes to fear, he’s the one who takes it all away. That’s why I stay by your side when the terrors come charging at us from dark dimensions.” Ramos’ voice shook, but I didn’t the feeling he was afraid or upset. There was a passion to his speech that I’d heard—well, from no one else. “I stand because I have to push back the fear for myself and focus on others. If I don’t fight, what happens to my city? What happens to my family? That includes you, son.”
 

Ah, he did it again. I blinked rapidly. 
 

“The best I can do is pray for you. I know people mock that all the time—thoughts and prayers versus actions. There are enough warnings about faith without deeds to keep me convinced. But there’s power behind that, too. Not the same as the power of the pulsar stave or the power to open a rip between dimensions, but powerful all the same.”
 

I pictured Ramos in his cell on Meda, locked there for months by Arkwright, clutching the crucifix in his hands. I saw him puncture the impenetrable barrier around Arkwright’s portal in Cavill Cemetery, finding a way to our enemies when nothing I did made a scratch. Maybe he was on to something. Maybe I could shift focus. To others, instead of me.
 

Hey, look. I don’t want to be afraid. I know I’ve screwed up—a lot, across a bunch of years. But I have people depending on me. I have a job to do. It’d be great if you could help. Ramos has something I lack. Think about it, okay?
 

It was silly and trite. My face burned with embarrassment before the last sentence formed. What was I gonna do, though? I was desperate.
 

“Deliver us from evil,” Ramos murmured. “Forgive us our sins. Fallen, but not forgotten.”
 

I wiped my eyes. “Thanks, Ramos.”
 

“He’s there with love for you, too, Mercury. Give him time. His will is one we don’t often understand—in fact, we can’t.”
 

“Think his will prevents major malfunctions on my part?”
 

“I know you’re stuck in your head. But you can’t go alone on this one. Trust me.”
 

My hand sprawled on the window. Left a print in the condensation. He was right. When was he not? I was waiting for the day Ramos’ advice proved bogus, but I’d be better off watching for the sun to fail rising.
 

“Ready?” He asked.
 

“Sure.” Or not. I blew out a breath. “Enjoy your morning. I’ve got a boat to catch and personal demons to slay.”
 

 

Our quartet wound up at the piers off Alton Road, across the channel from the local Coast Guard base. Cordelia and Randy did all the talking to the scrawny Asian guy in baggy shorts and Marlins ballcap. I waited with Loredana in Cordelia’s BMW, watching the negotiation through the shimmering raindrops caught in the car’s headlights. Sure, it was past 8, but it might as well have been evening with the gloom.
 

Twenty minutes later, Randy piloted us out of the channel on our very own speedboat.
 

Okay, so it was more luxury sedan than race car—Baia Atlantica 78, sleek and white, its hull reflecting Miami’s lights as we slipped from the channel. But she was fast enough. Randy opened the throttle up to 50 knots as we emerged into deep waters, sending us slicing across choppy waters.
 

Six hours’ ride on a dark ocean wasn’t as fun as it sounded. I took advantage of the gorgeous, wood-trimmed main cabin to go through one-man sparring drills with the pulsar stave. The wobbly deck underneath helped a bunch, actually, forcing me to concentrate not on just my aim but my balance. Easy to imagine an astral fiend’s tentacles slashing at my arms and legs. Or a cyber-spider’s sharp, knobby arm tearing through my skin.
 

The nightmare boiled at the edges of my memory.
 

Let it out.
 

Shut up, Whisperer.
 

Embrace the fear. It can drive you to defeat your enemies. Fear makes you desperate. Desperation gives you an edge when you fight without restraint.
 

I snarled and swung the pulsar stave through a brass-coated railing. Searing energies left a sizzling gash four inches across, an ugly scar.
 

Great. Here was hoping Procyon’s budget for this foray covered incidentals like rage-induced damage to a quarter million-dollar yacht.
 

The engines slowed. Had it been six hours already? I checked my watch. Five and a half. Close enough.
 

I went topside. The rain had intensified. It was a good thing the Atlantica was a hardtop. I zipped my jacket collar. “Are we there yet?”
 

“How did I know you were going to ask that?” Cordelia was scanning the sea with a pair of night vision binoculars. Good thing, too.  There was no way to make heads or tails out of the horizon, not in the gloom, though when I stared long enough, I could make out the difference between the murky, undulating waves and the solid steel horizon.
 

Hold up. There were lights flickering.
 

“Another vessel.” Loredana had a pair of binoculars, too. “Range?”
 

“Mile and a half.”
 

“Ain’t gone sneak up,” Randy said. He nursed the engines, the Atlantica creeping through the troughs and over the crests. “We get any closer, they’ll light us up—with bullets plus actual lights.”
 

“You’re not wrong,” Cordelia murmured. “Mercury, here.”
 

I took her binoculars. Yeah, sure was another ship—a fishing trawler, bigger than the Atlantica. Five people on deck. More silhouettes in the lit cabins below. Some carried long rifles. “Definitely Syndax. And it’s a safe bet they’re out here for the same reason we are.”
 

“I’ll take that money,” Randy said. “But if they are, they’re dumb.”
 

“You mean because they juice with dangerous particles derived from another dimension? Because I’d agree.”
 

“Nah. Their boat. She’s all wrong.” Randy flicked his fingers, his palm resting lazily on the Atlantica’s wheel. “Fishing smack. It don’t even have its cranes deployed. They might could net tuna but they’re not hauling anything off the floor. Not when it’s a hundred feet.”
 

“That’s it?”
 

Loredana nudged me. “We’re holding position over a shallow portion of the seabed, not far from Nassau. Average depth within a three-mile radius is two hundred fifty feet.”
 

If her word wasn’t good enough—which it was, duh—I had the depth finder as proof. That light-colored blob surrounded our boat and spread far enough to encompass the Syndax craft. Okay. So, they didn’t have a crane that could go deep enough. I peered through the binocs again. No sign of diving gear, either. The people on deck were watching the surface.
 

And a couple were watching the sky.
 

My nightmare flashed before me, but this time, it wasn’t accompanied by a spike of terror. One portion—the funnels underwater, the strange glow, the hulk rising in a rush of bubbles.
 

“They’re raising a wreck,” I said. “They’re gonna bring it to the surface.”
 

Randy frowned. “Welp, sure, there’s a couple of wrecks down there, but sound like you missed the part where I said they all got an itty-bitty crane and any one of those wrecks are too big to haul.”
 

“Not how I would have put it, but Randy’s right.” Cordelia pivoted, checking the area around us. “No sign of any other ships incoming, either. If they’ve got something that can salvage—”
 

I shook my head and pointed up. “They’re watching the sky.”
 

Loredana reclaimed the binoculars. Her fingers tightened. “My word. He’s right.”
 

I chuckled. “Don’t sound so surprised.”
 

“Well.” She smirked. “Miracles do happen.”
 

“Don’t make any sense,” Randy muttered. “What’re they bringing, one of them big old Russian choppers? Even they’re not powerful enough. That wreck’s got three funnels. Has to be four hundred feet long. Old freighter or liner…”
 

“Perhaps they only need a portion of it,” Loredana said.
 

“That still doesn’t tell us how they plan to sever part of the wreck and bring it up.” Cordelia glanced at me. “Assuming we can verify your intel.”
 

“Coming from a recurring nightmare? Your call. I’m trusting the source.” I tapped the side of my head.
 

“When did these dreams begin?”
 

“After my conversation with Edie.” I nodded at Loredana. “While you were waiting outside Forecasting.”
 

“Alabao!” Cordelia looked at me like I’d sprouted tentacles. “Edie? Forecasting? You actually hired Edith Pathkiller on as your Forecaster?”
 

I nodded. “She’s, ah, pretty accurate. And somewhat scary.”
 

Cordelia socked Loredana’s arm with a playful punch. “And you left that out of our chat. I knew I’d heard correctly. There you were, playing it for rumor.”
 

Loredana smiled. “One has to keep certain aspects of the job close to one’s chest, in these uncertain times. It’s a matter of security—hers and ours.”
 

“Oh, I understand.” Cordelia adopted a fake pout. “Just you wait until you need vital intelligence and I play coy.”
 

“Uh, ladies?” Randy gazed through the window canopy. “Think the chopper’s here.”
 

The clouds warped. Rain falling at an angle bent horizontal, spraying like a sprinkler head.  A dazzling white light shone down, targeting the fishing boat. One of the men on deck waved both arms.
 

The light shifted away from the boat, onto the ocean.
 

“Sneak us up, Randy,” Cordelia said. “While they’re preoccupied.”
 

“Nice and stealthy.” All out lights had long been doused, so the Atlantic stayed a dim wraith as Randy brought us around in a loop. Our course wound us down toward the fishing boat.
 

The chop got worse, until Randy killed the engine. “Rough stuff. It’s coming from just off their bow.”
 

That was because the water was swirling.
 

Whirlpool.
 

“They’re—remaining stationary.” Loredana spoke like she didn’t believe her own eyes, or the words accompanying them.”
 

The whirlpool grew, throwing up a spray as thick as rain in reverse. Randy restarted the engines, just to keep us from being drawn toward the maelstrom, which was a good thing, because something was emerging from the center…
 

The rusted top of a funnel.
 

Then, in short order, a second, followed a third.
 

We all stared. Nobody had anything clever to say.
 

When the miniature storm subsided, a ship sat on the surface. It was a looming hulk of a freighter—not a lot of portholes in the rusty hull, but plenty of rips and tears. The bow and stern were gone. It looked like they’d been ripped free. An orange glow seeped through the seams.
 

“Okay,” Randy finally said. “Guess they didn’t need the crane.”
 

My line, pal.
 

Loredana touched my shoulder. “Nor did they need a helicopter.”
 

Sure wasn’t a vehicle descending. Because the small, dark shape behind a blazing spotlight settled on the fishing boats was nowhere near the size of a chopper.
 

It was a person in a gray cloak and a faceless mask.
 

Cordelia made the sign of the cross. Twice.
 

Randy growled and reached for a rifle with a scope.
 

“That’s… not Airfoil,” I said. “And I take it the Garrison gang he’s affiliated with doesn’t dress in creepy fashion.”
 

“Certainly not,” Loredana murmured. “This is the Ashen.”
 

Supervillains?
 

Great.