MERcURY OFF COURSE
He didn’t see that one coming.
It was just like I’d suspected—word hadn’t gotten too far out about the pulsar stave. Namely, that the weapon’s energies could penetrate the gravitational warping of the medallions used by the Garrison and the Ashen. I’d seen Airfoil’s fancy, ancient jewelry, and had a sneaky suspicion about its relation to the Hedron of Orbits, that sentient artifact that tried its best to wipe San Camillo off the map.
But I digress.
My attack on the Ashen guy—Warrior? Agent? Whatever.—sent us sprawling over the water-slicked deck. We spun around, grappling with each other, with him trying to reach for the pulsar staves and me straining to tap the medallion with the same weapon.
When I’d tried that on Airfoil, it had temporarily deactivated the medallion’s powers.
Syndax mercs shouted at each other, I guess unsure of where to aim, until gunfire drew their attention away. I saw Loredana drag Cordelia behind a bent section of the wreck’s hull, as Randy shot at the mercenaries with both the TEC-9 and the Uzi. He stayed out in the open like an idiot, only kneeling when the return fire came his way, as sporadic and poorly aimed as it was.
The Ashen smashed his elbow across my jaw. Didn’t see stars, but man, I wished I had, instead of feeling the pain. I broke from his hold and rolled sideways, as bullets splashed in the puddle we’d landed in. I flopped onto my back and fire a blast from the stave, sending the Syndax assailant pinwheeling across the deck.
“Moron!” The Ashen raised his hand.
“Nope!” I blasted at him with both staves.
He must have gotten a partial shield in place, because the energy beams went all distorted and wobbly before they flipped him over the torn deck.
Meanwhile, the cyber-spider skittered between the mercenaries, clawing at their legs, and even leaping atop one guy’s masked face in a gut-churning imitation of everyone’s favorite scary aliens. I took pity and blasted it clean off.
Loredana’s warning brought me spinning around as a chunk of metal four feet across whipped toward my face like giant, razor edged Frisbee. I rejoined the stave and held it up, channeling as much power as I could through and into it.
The searing golden energies burned through the metal, shearing it in half, as molten bits hissed and burned against my wetsuit.
More gunfire—only this was a heavy, rhythmic shooting of a much larger gun. A long, slender Coast Guard cutter rode the waves, shooting at the fishing trawler. Which, it should be noted, not only attempted to shoot the cutter with machine guns but launched a couple rocket propelled grenades its way. Barely scratched the white hull.
The cannon on the bow of the cutter, though, BOOMED. The center of the trawler exploded in flame and fragments. Shadows jumped overboard.
“Surrender the wreck and prepare to be boarded!” Boy, the guy on the megaphone must really be having fun.
The Ashen snarled and hit me with what felt like a wall—like, one made of bricks. Since I’ve hit one face-first before, I knew the sensation, trust me. But then he twisted his right arm in a curling motion and punched the air.
Waves surged past the wreck. A big one out of the bunch changed course, by almost ninety degrees, and swept into the side of the cutter. It heeled over, water swamping its decks.
I struck back at the Ashen, opting for enhanced speed. In the space of a couple breaths, I sped across the deck, trying not to be distracted by the water droplets seemingly frozen midair. Hit the guy dead center in his chest. Had to sympathize with the muted crack, because my chest throbbed from where he’d knocked me a good one.
First? The pulsar stave glanced off the guy’s medallion. Lucky shot—or maybe the two relics were drawn to each other. Someday, I’d have to take a portal back to Meda and ask Teget. Figured my brother, busy safeguarding the temple of said relics, would know.
Anyway, metal clinked against metal, and the bubble trying to restrict me collapsed. The Ashen fell to his knees, gasping.
I abruptly remembered why he must be so exhausted, and how the wreck wasn’t sinking.
Because he’d been using a gravitational field to keep it suspended above the waters.
The deck slanted. My feet slipped. So did a couple of Syndax guys, only they continued their slide until they bounced off the edge of the deck.
Loredana rushed from concealment, gloves outstretched, for the still immobilized cyber-spider. I say “immobilized” because it was in its hazy containment field, even if it was bouncing down the deck like a discarded basketball.
“The medallion!” I shouted.
Cordelia had me beat. She skidded on her knees beside the toppled Ashen, who was struggling to raise himself on wobbly elbow. Cordelia bashed him in the side of his head with her fists, and then tore at the front of his tunic. I could hear the fabric rip even through the rain, and over the groan of the submerging ship.
She yanked a silvery-gold emblem from a chain around his neck, hoisting it free.
Good deal. But we were still short one package. I scooped up the stasis initiator and fired it.
Bullseye. One more cyber-spider stuck in a cloud.
“I’ve got it.” Loredana grappled with both frozen critters, her hair a tangle in front of her face. She grinned and brushed it aside with her elbow. “Now all we have to do is an admirable imitation of a dog paddle.”
I gestured into the distance. The cutter had righted itself. Zodiacs dropped from its sides and raced toward the Syndax goons floating between the shipwreck and the destroyed fishing trawler, which had completely disappeared beneath the waves. “No kidding. Once we’re aboard—”
A terrible rumble shuddered through the hull. The wreck lurched, throwing us aside. Loredana braced with her legs against the torn metal. I clung to her ankle. Cordelia, still hanging onto the Ashen and his medallion, banged shoulder-first into the same metal chunk.
Randy flew past us, limp as the proverbial noodle.
“No!” Cordelia almost dropped the medallion. “Catch him!”
He disappeared over the edge.
Wait. Was he unconscious? I thought I saw an egg-sized lump on his forehead.
I knew what I had to do. I was the only one unencumbered. I glanced at Loredana.
“Go. I have this.” She caught my lips in a fiery kiss. “I love you. And do not say, ‘I know,’ or you’ll be stuck in stasis between our current samples.”
I winked at her. “Love you, too.”
Then I let go.
The water wasn’t as cold a shock this time, because I slid in on purpose, but man, it sure hadn’t gotten warmer. Mercury Hale, human popsicle.
Darkness closed in. Debris struck my shoulder.
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.
I struggled to hold on to my breath. Grabbed for the pulsar staves. Their light broke through the surrounding gloom. Randy. I was down there to find Randy, before he drowned. No cyber-spider was around to attack. Loredana had them.
The shipwreck? Its bulk was overhead and a dozen yards away, settling deeper in the ocean. The orange lights were gone. It was a rusting skeleton. Nothing there could hurt me.
The pulsar staves illuminated metal. More debris? Nope. A gun. TEC-9.
Randy’s boot drifted not far from it—a boot still containing a foot, linked to a slack body.
I plunged deeper, willing the pulsar stave’s energies through my cells. There was nothing to fear. I knew how to swim. Knew where the surface was. My heart rate subsided into quick, steady beat. It got easier to hold my breath.
Well, not that much easier. I was still underwater.
I grabbed Randy around the chest. The hug was enough to jolt him awake. He thrashed in my grip, beating in my chest, until he blinked and saw who it was. Crazy fool grinned at me and gave a thumbs up.
I kicked for the surface, dragging Randy along. Lights glimmered. Searchlights from the cutter? Didn’t matter. I could see smaller shapes flitting above, intercepting tiny silhouettes. People were getting picked up. One cluster looked like it had too many arms—Loredana, I hoped, and Cordelia.
What about the medallion? I’d channeled its might. Felt its power. Was it Procyon’s now, since Cordelia took it off the Ashen guy?
Ancient forces beyond your ability to grasp, Mercury. Your time is ending.
Of all the—I ground my teeth. Fear swept through my body, my brain. Irrational terror. Everything that scared me, rolled into one. Wasn’t talking to you.
It doesn’t matter. We’re a part of you. The Interstice links us. You draw on it; we inhabit it. It is us. And you’re not the only one. Far from it. There are others who war in secret, or who dabble in the powers from beyond your dimension.
I gasped. Drank seawater. No. Not now. Not this close to the surface. The lights were just beyond reach. I mean, I only needed a few more inches—or was it dozens of feet?
I kept pushing. Reaching. My mind went haywire. I was gonna die—and with me, Randy. Two lives lost. To what? Fear? Why?
Deliver us from evil.
The pulsar stave’s energy rippled up my legs, through my chest, out my arms. I shot up like cork, which, to be fair, I’ve never actually seen. Not a big wine drinker.
We broke the surface. The cutter’s bow loomed in the distance, and the last of the funnels vanished beneath the waves.
“Mercury!” Loredana’s red hair was a beacon from the cutter’s stern—and so were the orange jackets of the Coasties with her. “He’s over there!”
I whooped. Randy repeated his celebratory water slap, while spitting up water. “All right!”
“You’re welcome.” I spat out my own mouthful. “Next time, text an Uber.”
“Yeah, you bet, but I bet they don’t have the weapons of doom like us!”
I really didn’t want to be bros, but I was glad we weren’t dead.
Until we kept rising from the waters.
Not the Ashen. Not again.
But the invisible grip didn’t mash us or tear us apart. Instead, it carried us as gently as if we were on Aladdin’s carpet—and no, I didn’t start singing “A Whole New World” because I wasn’t sure if Randy would glare at me or join in.
We landed on the deck ahead of the pilothouse. Loredana hugged me the moment my feet touched down. “Thank heavens. When you didn’t resurface—”
“It’s okay. I made it. I’m good.” I smiled at her.
“Really?” She brushed my hair, into goofy spikes, I was pretty sure.
“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
“He was great!” Randy slapped my back. This time, I didn’t mind the sting. “Hey, Dee! We oughta hire this guy!”
“He’s spoken for.”
Aw, man. Hudson Bowe tipped his Homeland baseball cap at me as he stepped forward with a couple of his generic agents and Cordelia. “You been busy, Mercury. I guess I owe you thanks for helping trounce Syndax—though as usual, we’ve got to clean up the mess.”
I assumed he meant the dozen or so Syndax guys lined up in handcuffs along a bulkhead. The Ashen guy was there, too, mask in place. He trembled. “How about supervillains? You got a place to lock him up?”
Bowe shook his head and pointed up.
Another figure alighted on the roof of the pilothouse. Not a shrouded nightmare, but a … guy. Light brown skin, crystal blue eyes, dark curly hair. He wore faded jeans and a nylon jacket, plus comfortable running sneakers, like he’d been out on a jog. He barely looked damp. “Good afternoon, all. Or evening, I suppose. It’s an odd sensation, having jet lag without a jet.”
“Who are you?” I tried to straighten up, like I was the man in charge, but my legs ached. I hoped he couldn’t see me shaking.
“My name is Weld. Pleased to make your acquaintance. If you don’t mind—”
He made a flicking motion with two fingers.
Cordelia gasped. The medallion hurtled from her belt pouch, into his waiting hand.
“I’ll be taking that to its rightful owners.”
“The Garrison,” I said.
“No. It belongs to the Ashen. So they shall have it. As for its owner, well, one can only surmise his fate given the magnitude of his failure, unless his superiors have a better use in mind.” Weld snapped his other fingers. “That reminds me. You secured the creatures, I see.”
I nodded. The cyber-spiders were shoved together in an immobile bundle on the deck. Loredana must have set them aside. I wondered what kind of container we could house them in until we got back to Hub the robotic suitcase for safe transport. “Might have to zap them into stasis again if it wears off.”
“No bother.” Weld curled his free fingers into a fist and twisted.
The cyber-spiders shriveled with a disgusting, crunching noise, their claws squelching in the water covering them. In a couple seconds, they were crushed into an unrecognizable, crusty mush. Then, those clumps just—went away.
“What have you done?” Loredana was on her feet, hands balled into fists. She’d probably have shot at the guy if she’d still had her gun.
Of course, that’s what the Coasties looked like they were gonna do. Four aimed rifles skyward.
“Let’s not, shall we?” Weld smiled. “My apologies, Mrs. Lark-Hale, but this incident has drawn our notice, and therefore, our intervention. The symmachites are too dangerous to be allowed continued existence, even for secure study in Procyon’s hallowed halls. I’m sure your dead samples won’t be an issue. It is the living which concern the Garrison.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal,” Bowe muttered. “You showed up and told me—”
“I told you whatever was necessary to prevent you shooting at me.” Weld flicked his fingers. The barrels of the Coasties’ guns snapped off, clattering onto the deck. “A word of advice, Mercury Hale—Steer clear of these creatures and any of their ilk. I should hate to meet you as an enemy, given your assistance against the Ashen.”
I sneered at him. “You meet me, you might wind up like him.”
“Yes.” Weld nodded. “We know.”
The Ashen lifted from the deck, soaring limply over us until he was face to face with Weld. Then the pair swooped away into the clouds. I swore I heard a sonic boom. Or two.
“Blast,” Loredana murmured.
“Hey.” I patted her shoulder. “Could be worse. I really thought Weld would answer, ‘I’m altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.’”
Cordelia stared at me.
“Empire Strikes Back.” Randy, seemingly unbothered by the massive knot turning black and blue on his forehead, kept gnawing on a toothpick. Where did he get another one? And how was it still dry? “Nice one.”
“I do believe,” Loredana said, “That I am in need of a true vacation now.”