MERcURY OFF COURSE
Space wasn’t unlimited in a former missile silo. Heck, we’d used the biggest square footage for a cylindrical parking garage. Everybody made use of what was available. Tracking, the lab, and the infirmary got priority. Eventually, crews would finish construction of the new offices on Bay Avenue, where Procyon had lived before the Hedron of Orbits destroyed it this fall.
But for the moment, Forecasting was stuck in a closet.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. The room was a decent size, probably thirty feet on each side. Once you packed in steel racks containing jug after jug of water, though, there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room.
The steel door clanked shut behind me. I fidgeted with my sleeve. When Marigold ran Forecasting, it was in a softly lit office of soothing pastels and twenty shades of white, a serene, quiet space.
Edie’s version was quiet, all right. Like a cemetery.
I walked down the center aisle, catching glimpses of my warped reflection in the water jugs. Hundreds of me, like my own Muppet fan club. Creepy.
There was a single chair set in one of two pools of amber light. I sat on the leather cushion. Wooden legs creaked. Edith Pathkiller was already seated in an identical chair, facing me, eight feet away. Good social distancing, I noted.
Edie was a thirty-something woman, Native American, with black hair dangling clear to her waist, tied in a thick braid and coppery skin. Streaks of silver touched her temples. Two gold earring loops on each lobe and a tiny wolf piercing in her nose.
“So,” I said. “Fun fact. I found out you’re Cherokee.”
“Mostly.” When she spoke, it reminded me of hearing a breeze brushing through a forest. But it was also as commanding as a teacher’s, if a teacher wore red and white flannel sleeveless shirts, with blue jeans that had lost their knees. “Are you going to recite my bloodlines? There’s no extra credit.”
My smile faded. Did she know I was thinking the teacher reference?
“Tell me what you see.” She leaned forward, her elbows resting on her thighs, palms held up.
“Um…” I scratched the back of my neck. “Nice manicure, Edie?”
“Edith. And, no.”
She frowned. “Your role won’t progress if you can’t open your mind to the wider world, Mercury. There’s so much possibility beyond what we perceive with our five senses.”
“Okay. I kinda knew that, already, what with being born in another dimension—and getting married there. Besides, you’re the Forecaster. We take our direction from you about hints of the other worlds. Tachyon tracking can only get us so far.”
“The gift I possess isn’t one that’s locked away from other people. You have to open yourself to the perception of time. Time isn’t sitting still.” She tapped the wooden arm of the chair. “Unlike us. The past, the present, the future… They’re in motion. We’ve already traveled to the future, if you consider it.”
“I missed the trip.”
“No. Time wandered away while we were talking. You, me, the world, everyone and everything in it, is seconds older. The past of two minutes ago is gone.”
I nodded, as if I could understand what she was talking about. My questions and answers toward the more concrete—as in, where was the monster and how fast could I slay it. But I wasn’t about to push Edie on the matter. This was her domain.
“Oklahoma.” She reached for a tablet perched on the shelf to her right, which I realized was missing a few water jugs. A potted cactus stood under a tiny lamp, soaking in a light so brilliant I imagined I could feel the heat.
“Huh?” I thought she’d sneezed.
“It’s a state. In America.”
Yeesh. Thought I was the king of sarcasm. “Yeah, pretty sure I’ve flown over it.”
“That’s your first destination.”
Edie swiped through the table. She met my eyes with a stare that I found at once beautiful and disconcerting. “What’s your problem, Operative?”
“I don’t have a problem.” I shifted in my chair. One of the legs squeaked against the concrete floor. “We’ve fought against the same enemies. Means we’re on the same side.”
“Is that why Loredana is waiting outside my door for you to finish this session?”
“Okay, how about you cut out the mind-reading? Sure, she’s out there. You’re the new person. And given the reputation of the last person to hold your job, probably worth it to check in on you discreetly. But not as discreetly as we’d tried.”
Edie chuckled. “I don’t fault you at all. It’s her perfume, by the way. Not mind-reading. You’ve carried more of her scent on you than before.”
My cheeks burned. “Oh. Right.”
“Here.” Edie turned the tablet so I could see a Google map glowing in the dim light. I was expecting a detailed technical readout like the ones that would come across my phone from Loredana or Liz, courtesy of tracking’s geek team and their petabytes of available data.
No such thing. Liz had drawn a yellow circle around a suburban neighborhood. Gated community, surrounded by trees and empty land. Couple bodies of water.
Cold splashed on me like I’d been dumped in the bay again. Sweat beaded my upper lip. Easy, Mercury. Freaking out every time I saw a picture of a pond was not going to help me conquer my newfound phobia. “Thanks.”
Something she said echoed from the back of my mind. “First?”
“Yes. First destination.”
“There’s more than one? Have the cyber-spiders split up?” The name was growing on me, I realized. Nice work, Liz.
Edie gazed at me. “I’ve had—impressions. Hints. Nothing substantial beyond Oklahoma. But there’s something more. It won’t come to me yet.”
“When will you know more?”
“When it’s ready to reveal itself.”
I rolled my eyes. “The dream or the cyber-spider?”
“There’s no difference. We walk around like our presence doesn’t leave an imprint on the fabric of space and time, like we move through this world without consequence even though parts of us are from somewhere else.” She leaned back in her chair and, with a motion so smooth I admired how she didn’t fall from her chair, crossed her legs underneath herself. She was barefoot. Hadn’t noticed earlier.
“Look, maybe you could give me something more to go on.” I jerked a thumb at the door. “Loredana’s a ‘give me the coordinates, please’ kind of person, and I gotta say, that approach works for me.”
“Do you really want to see?”
She held out her right hand, fingers splayed. There was an onyx band on the pinky. The violet tattoo of a pawprint on her right shoulder glistened in the lamplight.
High … Five? I brought my hand toward hers. Go team!
She grasped it, fingers intertwining with mine. Her grip was so strong it caught me off balance and pulled my off the cushion. Knees? Meet concrete floor.
Edie’s voice was two octaves lower and overlapped with what sounded like a full chorus. Her eyes took on a purple tinge and went flashlight-white, LED bulbs of flesh, a lot like Bowen Cord’s when he threw ice magic through the air. He’s an ice-summoner … Never mind, long story.
As for me ...
I left the Forecasting room, shot through concrete and dirt and pine trees like they weren’t in my way, and hurtled through a blurred sky.
I yelled without sound. No wind buffeting me, either. No sensation. Not until I landed on the color-smeared grass of a tiny island in the middle of a lake with the force of a bomb’s shockwave. Mud stained my hands. Rain drenched my clothes.
There was a chest. Genuine treasure chest. It rattled. Something or somethings scraped at the inside, clawing for a way out.
Spindly legs of shimmering metal and mottled purple-gray scales crawled over its lid…
Back in Forecasting. Not wet. Not muddy. But breathing as if I’d run a marathon—or, you know, flown thousands of miles round trip in seconds.
“Any questions?” Edie wiped her palm against her jeans, gaze never leaving mine, even as the glow faded from her eyes.
Are you kidding? “Nope. I’m good.”
“Then sign here.” She swiped across the tablet and set it on my lap. Then she walked off into the recesses of the room and opened another door. Golden light flooded in. Might have been cozy office furniture beyond that rectangle, too, but she shut the door so fast my eyes hurt when darkness returned.
I glanced down at the tablet. A release statement readying me for in the field action.
“Paperwork,” I muttered.
Once we had the location plugged in for the cyber-spider, there wasn’t much we could do except wait for Liz to get her latest lab project completed. Whatever she had in mind for the ice gun we’d used to stop a giant mutated astral fiend from burning down San Camillo and its environs wasn’t an hour-long project.
It meant Loredana and I could go home for the night.
I made the drive in record time. I mean, how hard was it, when there was zero traffic? The governor of California had issued his shelter in place order with the coronavirus spreading throughout the state. How Procyon got itself exempted, I wasn’t about to ask, but I felt like I should wave at any passing car, just for solidarity’s sake.
Home was Loredana’s Tabb Terrace condo. We were still in the market for a new place we could call ours, but with Procyon business shunting our search efforts aside, we’d agreed on her place as the better of the two locations to inhabit on our joint incomes. Besides, it was way easier for me to adapt to Loredana’s condo than it was for her to settle into my loft. My old place would have needed a lot of work. Aside from the uniformity of color—pretty sure the painter had used every variation of white available from the hardware store—it was just a much more relaxing place.
Besides, she hadn’t fussed at all about the addition of a framed Cowboy Bebop poster. It hung bold red right next to signed headshots of Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith.
None of which I was actually looking at when the doorbell rang at seven the next morning.
I groaned and rolled over. Slapped at my phone twice before I could get the screen started. Then had to turn it right side up. My ear landed in a damp patch on my pillow. Drool. Classy. I rubbed at the corner of my mouth with my hand.
“You have my permission to shoot the offender,” Loredana murmured.
“Six fifty-six.” I slumped back against the pillow. “Not getting up.”
Loredana poked my bare ribs. “It is your turn. I answered the phone last time. You said, and I quote, ‘I totally owe you.’”
I winced. Yeah, yeah, I had.
The doorbell rang again. Then the jerk knocked.
“New least favorite person.” I whipped aside the sheets and staggered from the bedroom.
Hmm. I stopped by the mirror. Looking good, muscles and all, but probably shouldn’t answer the door in only black boxers. I snagged a Procyon T-shirt off the dresser and scooted out, phone in hand.
I dialed up some Aerosmith and let it blast from the speakers, giving me the opportunity for an awesome Tom Cruise Risky Business slide down the short corridor. I peeked through the door’s eyehole.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered.
I swung the door open. Agent Hudson Bowe, Department of Homeland Security, filled the entrance, liked he’d been poured into too small a container. Dude was the size of two football players, looking like a younger, blond version of Santa Claus who’d retired from the NFL and decided to live out the rest of his days on a ranch instead of slinging toys around the globe. The black blazer was the only thing formal about his attire. Rumpled white shirt pinstriped with green, blue jeans, cowboy boots…
“You can take the boy out of Montana but not the Montana out of the boy, eh, Bowe?” I leaned against the frame. “What’s up?”
“You, at Too Early a.m.” He smirked and hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets. The motion pushed his jacket back far enough I could see the shiny Homeland badge hanging from one pocket and the pistol dangling from a leather holster on the other side.
“Morning, Mercury. How’s married life treating you?”
“It’s Mark Hale. Says so on my driver’s license.”
“Sure does. And on all your other paperwork—of which there’s very, very little. I’m not here to play games. Tell me about that ruckus at the Promenade.”
“Ruckus? Haven’t been to a ruckus in a while.” I leaned back into the condo. “Hey, Loredana! When was the last time I took you to a ruckus?”
“Somewhere around your bachelor party,” came the bemused reply.
“See?” I grinned. “No ruckus.”
Bowe took a step forward. I sidestepped and blocked his passage. Bowe pointed. “Mind if I sit a spell?”
“Yeah, I do. Last time I extended hospitality to a federal agent, she wound up betraying all of us to a madman from another dimension.” I snapped my fingers. “Oh, by the way, if you’re looking for Serena Cyr, Loredana shot her and she got dumped into the Interstice. Not that you don’t already know all that.”
“You got a real smart mouth, you know that, Mercury?” Bowe snapped. Ah. Hit a nerve, did I? “Would’ve been nice if you’d tipped off Homeland so we could arrest her before she caused more trouble.”
“I didn’t have time to be put on hold fifty times trying to call, what, your anti-terror hotline?” I snorted. “Face it, Bowe—you should stick to the run-of-the-mill terrorists. Leave the otherworldly threats to the pros.”
“That’s a negative. You’re forgetting, Syndax Multinational operated on U.S. soil for years before they revealed their true selves. Homeland’s made their eradication a priority. My priority.” He pointed at me. “Which is why I’m here. To remind you to steer clear of them.”
“Steer clear. That’s a great idea. I’ll let them kill innocent people and leave the corpses for you to clean up, right?” I shook my head. “Fat chance, Bowe. Look: Clearly, we work the best when I leave presents via our SCPD delivery people. Why can’t you just be happy and take credit when I drop them off at your figurative doorstep?”
“Because you’re rogue. I don’t care how much pull you have elsewhere in the federal government—”
“It’s a lot,” I stage whispered.
“—There’s still proper channels for getting these things done. Can’t believe I’m ‘bout to say this, but I don’t got tolerance for cowboys.” He chuckled. “At least, not your variety.”
“That a racial comment?”
“I mean vigilantes.” Bowe sighed. “Don’t get all bent out of shape. Procyon’s actions leak out to the public more and more every day. Serena’s dropped more intel from both our organization’s than either’s comfortable with.”
“Let me try some active listening, Bowe—I hear you saying you’re going after Syndax and you want me to stay out the way.” I spread my arms and shrugged. “Fair enough?”
“Right on target.” Bowe dug a tiny pocketknife from his jacket and went to work on his canines like he had raw meat lodged in there. Who knows? Maybe he’d already eaten a steak. Or a whole cow. “‘Cause if you are snooping around outside of your jurisdiction, I’ll shut you down and lock you up until people with more say than either of us can clean up the mess. No more vigilantism for you.”
“Sounds like a great idea. Except when I say great, I mean stupid.” I lifted my chin. “Here’s a better one—when the monsters show up again, and they will, whether it’s here or elsewhere, you either stay out of my way or lend support fire to cut them down. Better yet, just get back in your fedmobile and watch it on YouTube.”
Bowe chuckled again. Didn’t sound happy, really. Kind of made me think of a lion or a bear, grumbling on a pleasantly full belly. The grin he had could have been full of fangs, too, if he’d been an astral fiend. “Syndax is a national security matter, so stay in town, Mercury. No one’s supposed to be traveling anywhere these days, so it shouldn’t be a stretch. If you don’t, keep in mind Homeland and I might not be far behind. Make sure to check your rear-view mirror, all right?”
He sauntered down the hall, like he had nowhere to go, whistling a tune I couldn’t place but might have pinpointed if I’d tuned in to country radio.
Well. That was fun. Nothing like getting threatened by a federal agent with an independent task force hunting the same ghostly remnants of an organization Procyon was trying to take down.
“A lovely chat, no doubt.” Loredana’s voice startled me enough I dropped my phone.
Her hand shot out and caught it. Between the white T-shirt with the red word “Prickly” in the center and the green pajama pants covered with cartoony white hedgehogs, she looked like a college gal who didn’t want to get up for class—except she already acted more awake than me. Without coffee. Which should have been illegal.
“Oh, you know Homeland. Always in the neighborhood to make sure we’re doing okay.”
“Their … interest in this matter with Syndax doesn’t change our operational plans.”
“Heck no.” I looped an arm around her shoulders. “Assuming Alvarez doesn’t wring his hands about this social call.”
“One assumes I intend to inform him.” Loredana tucked my phone back into my waiting fingers. “We should get breakfast and return to Procyon as soon as we can.”
“After coffee.” I rubbed my eyes. “Lots of coffee.”