MERcURY OFF COURSE
It was bad enough we couldn’t get any closer to the formerly sunken ship without drawing attention from who knew how many Syndax mercenaries aboard the fishing trawler. We were lucky the Ashen person hadn’t spotted us.
Because if he—or she, I guess—did, we’d get ourselves crushed in a gravity forcefield.
Yeah. The Garrison and the Ashen were two sides of a secret society coin, entities opposing each other in their concealment of powerful medallions that let the owner manipulate localized gravity. Brandon Tusk had one of those. He broke the rules and established himself as the superhero Airfoil before helping me save San Camillo from destruction.
He did the latter by holding up a giant lake in the sky, preventing it from drowning my city. So, made sense I was nervous about the bad guy who had the same powers.
“How bad is it?” Cordelia asked Loredana.
“Syndax forces in San Camillo were using the cyber-spiders in their attempt to breach the Interstice, with moderate success. Leaving them in their hands doesn’t bode well for us. Or for anyone, for that matter.”
“But you still want to take it intact.”
Loredana glanced at me. “Even if we sink the ship, they shall raise it again.”
“Not if we scatter the pieces,” Randy muttered.
“Look, I can blast the sucker with the pulsar stave, but it’s not gonna do a bunch of damage against a boat that big.” I looked at everyone in turn. “Which means, you’re talking about something that can produce a bigger bang.”
“C-4,” Randy said.
“No, Randy.” Cordelia shook her head.
“I’m sayin’! We got enough on board—”
“Explosives were not discussed as part of our infiltration option.” Loredana crossed her arms. “Not to my recollection, Delia.”
“They were a backup option. Not necessary, but helpful. You know me.” Cordelia smiled. “I like my options.”
“Hey.” I rapped the pulsar stave on the wheel. “How’s about we figure out how we’re all gonna board that ship without being noticed? And tossed through the air like a toy a kid in the bathtub got bored with?”
Bad news: The answer was swimming.
Or scootering, I mean.
We slipped into wetsuits and donned compact SCUBA gear, with enough air for us to get over to the risen wreck plus the return trip and some extra. I tested the air and made sure the mask fit. Could have used the supersuit, for amped up power, but the thing wasn’t waterproof, and I didn’t want to freeze to death on my way to battle.
“Randy, make sure the boat’s ready.” Cordelia stuffed an Uzi into a dry bag. She, like the rest of us, also had a combat knife lashed to her thigh.
Randy saluted. “You bet.” He disappeared onto the bow.
“Hate to break it to you, but I’m not a fast swimmer.” I was keeping an eye on the fishing trawler, which bobbed against the shipwreck’s hull. A bunch of guys attached lines, bringing the two vessels together.
“Not a problem.” Cordelia pulled a tarp off a row of what looked like black bullets with twin fans—sea scooters. “Just be careful where you park.”
“And where precisely did you have in mind?”
“The stern. Or the gash where it used to be prior to the wreck being broken up. Around the other side from our nosy guests.”
Randy rejoined us. He and Cordelia got into the water first. The hum of the sea scooters was almost lost under the hiss of the rain and the rumble of the waves.
Loredana caught my arm. “Are you with me?”
“In both ways.” I kissed her. “Don’t worry.”
“Stay by my side and we’ll make it.”
No time to freak out now. I secured the pulsar stave and made sure my own dry bag—the one containing the stasis initiator—was hooked to my belt. Then I splashed into the ocean.
So far, so good. My body held together even as my mind searched for new and fun ways in which to panic. I kept replaying my conversation with Ramos, focusing on his words, his voice, and then pulling in pieces of our old conversations. You know, the ones in which he was arguing with and/or yelling at me. Good times.
It was a necessary distraction from the depths. We were maybe twenty feet below the surface, with little illumination except from glow sticks attached to the undersides of the sea scooters. Speaking of which, “scoot” they did—eight miles an hour felt quick when we had to cross about a mile’s worth of open sea.
Having other people around finished the job my replay of Ramos’ chiding had begun. My brain went mission-only, to the point I found myself wishing I had my playlist blasting from my earbud. Oh, well. No sense in ruining a good thing.
Our formation stayed tight, but staggered, so no one was blowing bubble trails from the sea scooters’ fans in anyone’s faces. The wreck’s hull was easy to spot, because the orange glow stayed as constant as a campfire’s coals. Cordelia and Randy steered right, dipping down toward the jagged edges of the ship’s missing stern end.
Loredana and I followed our local guides into the gaping metal wound. We surfaced in a long, open compartment with bowed ceiling and bulging walls. Every surface glistened with decades’ worth of sludge and slime overlapping chunky rust.
Cordelia stowed her scooter to one side. Randy had already abandoned his ride. He knelt by an open hatch, a TEC-9 aimed at the dark opening.
Both had suppressors for their guns. Loredana drew an HK45 semi-automatic pistol from her dry bag and affixed a bulky silencer of her own.
I joined everyone at the hatch, with the pulsar stave powered up and split in two. “Who gets to go first?”
“Guy with the magic sticks,” Randy said. “’Less you wanna rock paper scissors for it.”
“Thought you were gonna say ladies first.”
“Seriously?” Cordelia brushed between us. “Follow my lead and try not to kill anyone on our side.”
I hopped through the hatch before Randy could recover from our mutual chagrin. Loredana followed, holding up her cell phone. The tachyon dowser on the underside pulsed as we made our way forward. Randy watched our backsides—at least, I hoped not literally, because that would be Loredana’s backside and nothing about that was okay.
Not that I had anything to worry about. Randy was the one who should be worried. Because if Loredana caught him, well, he’d have more fun if I beat him up with the pulsar staves, let’s put it that way.
We’d just checked the first intersection of corridors when the entire wreck shook, like someone had backhanded it. I braced against a bulkhead which, thankfully, didn’t crumple under my arm. I wondered for a second when my last tetanus shot was.
The throaty roar of an explosion cancelled that segue.
Randy checked his watch and grinned. “Not too shabby.”
“Good timing, on your part,” Cordelia murmured.
“Never been late yet. Good thing, too, since it’s C4.”
“Since when did you have time to plant explosives on the fishing trawler?” I asked. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Ain’t their boat.”
Loredana covered her mouth at the same time I slapped my forehead. “You blew up our ride?” I hissed. “What’re we supposed to do, swim back to Miami?”
“We take the Syndax vessel,” Cordelia said. “Destroying the Atlantica provided a distraction.”
Sure enough, I could hear distant motors starting.
“Inflatables.” Loredana nodded. “You’re splitting their forces.”
“Misdirect, Lori. Classic.”
“Yes, quite, though again, communication would have been welcome.”
Cordelia shrugged. “Sorry. Not used to sharing.”
“Tell me about it,” Randy grumbled. “Y’all want to have a town hall debate on this or we gonna find our creepy critter?”
“Critter.” I nudged Loredana. “You’ve got the dowser. Better if you lead the way.”
“My thoughts precisely.”
We rearranged our positions so I could walk a step behind Loredana, with Cordelia right behind me.
“Still can’t believe you’d spend all that money on a boat and then blow it into a million pieces,” I whispered to her.
“Not our boat. Not even Procyon’s.”
My momentary relief vanished under a tidal wave of worry. “It’s—not a government boat, is it? Like Homeland, or FBI?”
Cordelia shook her head. “Heroin dealer. He owed me money after I did him a favor.”
“Rescued his granddaughter from Syndax. She’s fine. But then I found out he tried to sell Randy and me to Syndax instead of being appropriately grateful.”
“So, you stole his yacht and blew it up.”
Cordelia’s smile seemed a lot less friendly in the light of the green glowsticks. “Sometimes when you gamble, you lose.”
Note to self: Don’t play poker with Loredana’s best friend.
The wreck must have been a cargo vessel, because we traced the tachyon emissions through a maze of passageways and across yawning storage compartments, none of which were fitted out like cruise liner staterooms. Sludge was heaped in corners. Fish flopped in pools left behind from the ship’s resurrection. No human bodies, though. Which meant we only had to deal with the dark and the cold and the sensation that we were being watched.
Orange light seeped through cracks as we got closer to the signal. I could have sworn the pulsar stave was vibrating, but maybe it was a phantom thing, like a phone you think is alerting you but it’s not.
“You know,” I whispered to Loredana. “We forgot something.”
She raised an eyebrow. Worth whole sentences.
“Hub. The robot container.”
“Yes. I realize that. Hardly a simple matter to bring him out to sea. He’s stowed in the airplane.”
I made a circle motion with my finger, as if I could encompass the entire situation and the spooky old boat. “So…”
“We shall simply have to improvise.”
To be fair, she was wearing the gloves Liz had designed. Yellow and black patterned hands clashed so badly with the sleek wetsuit I felt like I should quip about a fashion faux pas. As grim as everyone was, and as quiet as they kept, I figured it would be in bad taste.
See? That’s maturity.
Metal slammed against metal forty feet ahead.
I ignited the pulsar stave. A muted gunshot barked. Something whizzed by my head.
“Stand down!” Cordelia hissed.
I glanced back. Randy had the TEC-9 raised to the ceiling. A tendril of smoke curled from the muzzle. “Seriously? You could have taken my ear off!”
“Nah.” He resumed his crouch. “Only if I was aimin’ for it.”
“What was it?” Cordelia asked.
“Part of the bulkhead collapsed,” Loredana said. “Unsurprising, given the dilapidated state of the craft.”
Shouts erupted in the distance. We all brought our weapons up and, thankfully, Randy didn’t try again to blow my head off. But someone else was shooting. The crack of automatic gunfire was clear enough, if muted by distance through who knew how many rusty metal walls.
The screeching noise? That was new.
Orange lights rippled to the right—I mean, star-board side. Should’ve brushed up on my nautical lingo before we hopped off the Atlantica.
Cordelia motioned with her right hand. Randy pressed against the bulkhead, hidden in shadows. Loredana backtracked down a set of steps and propped her arms at the top, for a stable firing platform.
“Guess the guy with the glowing weapons stays out in front,” I said.
Cordelia smiled and pointed up.
Ah. Lots of places a guy could wedge himself up there, between pipes and steel supports. I jumped at the bulkhead, pushed off at an angle, and swung into a prone position. Took some grunting and twisting to get myself turned over so I was facing down, and when I did, Cordelia had vanished. Too many dark hiding spots to figure out into which one she’d scurried. Heck, the only reason I could see Randy was because A.) I knew here he’d gone and B.) he snorted and spat onto the deck. Classy.
I saw Loredana sighting down her weapon. She winked at me
Footsteps. “Hey! There’s a guy on the ceiling!”
Guess I should have paid closer attention instead of winking back.
I swung down, feet slamming into the back of the Syndax’s mercenary’s head. There were two muffled gunshots and the second guy’s kneecaps went red. The pulsar stave clobbered him in the face mid-scream.
Two down and out.
“Shoot.” Randy worked a toothpick like a pry bar. “Guess y’all don’t need me. Want I should go for a swim?”
A yelp. I whipped around, but instead of a third Syndax soldier ready to kill us, there was a limp form sprawled on the deck beyond the next hatch. Cordelia stepped over him, wiping the blade of her combat knife along her sleeve. “Keep moving. They’ll be spreading out around the ship.”
“Chasing the same quarry, no doubt.” Loredana indicated the tachyon dowser. The red lights told us we should head farther to port. Problem: No hatches in that direction, or bends in the hall.
Solution? Pulsar stave.
I cut a blistering outline through the bulkhead, metal sizzling and spitting. The rough oval sloughed off, splashing into the next compartment. Loredana clambered through first, with a small flashlight affixed beneath the barrel of her pistol.
The ship shuddered again. Metal squealed, like we had collided with something else, but it didn’t feel like we were moving.
“Another bomb?” I asked Randy as he climbed into the compartment.
“Not ours, if it is.”
“Mercury.” Loredana waved the phone-slash-dowser. “Continue.”
“I love it when you get all terse and commanding.” I started cutting through the next wall.
“Yes, well, were I to become monosyllabic, perhaps that would teach you to curb your verbosity.”
Randy chuckled as he chewed on his toothpick.
“That means you talk too much,” Cordelia whispered to my right.
I rolled my eyes. “Never heard that one before.”
The cut was complete, but the section was stuck. I went a little crooked and the piece didn’t flop out like the last one. Sue me. I hauled off and kicked it.
A three-foot-wide piece of metal fragmented underfoot, and my leg punched through the remainder like I’d stepped into wet cardboard.
And one of the cyber-spiders flung itself at my face.
I dropped onto my back, in part because like I already said, I’d watched all those Alien movies and didn’t want any of those nasty, ragged pincers near my chiseled good looks, and also because I figured the thing’s sudden appearance would prompt my three teammates to empty entire magazines of bullets at it.
Right on both counts.
The cyber-spider might as well have been a figment of our imagination, because every shot either missed it or sparked off its hide—which, it should be noted, had taken on a cracked appearance, like the surface of a dry lakebed. Difference was, instead of darkness in those cracks, orange light fizzled out. Also, it had grown. We were now dealing with a mutated critter the size of a German Shepherd.
“Why do they always have to grow?” I snarled and flipped back onto my feet.
“Don’t destroy it!” Loredana hollered.
“Yeah, I know, on it!” I yanked the stasis initiator from my belt.
“Down!” Randy tackled Cordelia, who shouted. Sounded like she was annoyed she hadn’t been able to line up another shot.
Just as well. I didn’t need a frozen Procyon Intelligence person to drag back through the bowels of this damp old dump.
The stasis beam struck the cyber-spider as it sprang off the opposite bulkhead for a second attack. The creature twisted mid-air, shrieking like a cat whose tail got pulled, only a thousand times more hideous. The mouth—scratch that, three mouths—on the belly was an addition I didn’t recall from Liz’s tutorial.
But it hovered in that cloud of distorted light, stuck.
I shouldered the stasis initiator and sighed.
“No time for rest, sadly.” Loredana brushed strands of wet hair from her face. “One cannot expect our interlude to have gone unheard.”
“Like the frickin’ Fourth of July,” Randy muttered.
Hey, nobody made you go all Rambo, even with silencers,” I snapped.
“Suppressors.” Cordelia was checking the hole through which the cyber-spider had emerged. Another corridor?
“I have it.” She had her sleeves rolled up, exposing the custom gloves Liz had loaned her. Purple sparks skittered around the cyber-spider’s cocoon of light as she touched it.
Metal groaned. Why did it keep doing that? I looked up.
Wrong, as our president liked to say. The noise came from below. The deck shuddered.
“Rats,” Randy grumbled.
The floor collapsed like a soggy paper towel. Next thing I knew, we were in freefall.
And the splashdown was a cold shock two seconds later.