MERcURY OFF COURSE
The blank concrete wall was pitted and crumbling. Rusted pipes peeked out of jagged cracks. Down in the abandoned Titan-II missile silo in the hills north of San Camillo, nobody at Procyon Foundation’s hidden and temporary base had time for redecorating. Either that, or it wasn’t in the budget.
I didn’t mind staring at the rundown façade. Took my mind off reliving the horror of nearly dying.
“Blood pressure’s come down.” Doctor Arne Becker ripped the Velcro open and tossed the cuff onto the wheeled tray parked next to the exam bed. “Heart’s calmed, too. You were in tachycardia when they brought you back.”
“I guessed.” My chest ached, but at least I could breathe again. That, and I wasn’t shaking in terror anymore.
What was wrong with me?
“He was fine before he went in the water.” Garvey stood at the foot of the bed, arms folded, big as a semi except made of out human muscle. He hadn’t budged since he’d helped a pair of medics wheel me in on a stretcher, if you can believe it. “When I pulled him up, he was punching at me. I thought I might have to subdue him.”
I snorted. “We get it. I lost my nerve for a second. No big deal. It was a fluke.”
“Fluke? That’s funny. It’s pronounced ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’ Or so I learned in medical school.” Doc Arne’s slick handlebar moustache twitched as he scowled at us, making the young physician—as in, my age—appear twice as old and triply cranky. “Hence the P, H, and D. Does anyone else in here have those letters after their name?”
“No need to get all snippy.” Wilhelmina leaned against her cane at the bed next to mine. The knitting bag festooned with a very colorful cat clashed with her nighttime monster-fighting attire. She patted my hand. “Ain’t every day a body goes through the same fright as the one that almost ended his life.”
“Glad you’re all having fun diagnosing me.” I hopped off the bed. My head didn’t spin and I didn’t go into a dry-mouthed panic. I pulled on a gray T-shirt featuring Procyon’s double black parallelogram and silver star logo over the left breast. “Not going crazy. I had a flashback.”
“You had a panic attack, one brought on by plunging into identical circumstances that nearly killed you five months ago,” Arne said.
“So what? It happens.”
“Not to you. Not in the middle of a fight. Sir.” Garvey watched me like a parent expecting the next temper tantrum.
Okay. If they wanted one, I was ready to dish, after all the physical prodding and verbal poking. “Listen up, guys—”
“There’s no need to protract the debate or the diagnosis.” Loredana walked into the infirmary in time, as usual, to prevent me from embarrassing myself. Which usually happened when I opened my mouth. She was dressed in gray slacks and a pale-green blouse, professional, but not ready for a day at the office.
“Hey. How was dinner?” I kissed her cheek.
“Digestible. Too much Cajun seasoning.” She sniffed. Her English accent was a bit sharper, what with the spices stuffing up her sinuses. Never mind that she was squinting like she’d stared into the sun during a lunar eclipse, and that her nose was red from too much contact with tissues. “I believe I interrupted?”
Doc Arne tapped on his diagnostic tablet. “I was telling the patient, Ms. Lark—”
“Right. Ms. Lark-Hale.”
“Mrs.” Loredana crossed her arms. Her foot started tapping.
Doc Arne sighed. “Mercury’s undergone a severe panic attack, in the middle of what’s supposed to be his normal mission. He’s got to be benched from Operations.”
“Um, no,” I said.
“Out of the question.” Loredana shook her head.
“Things have been quiet, ma’am, except for these Syndax remnants.” Garvey managed not to break his gaze as Loredana stared him down. Impressive feat, considering I’d seen her go head-to-head with zombies. Then again, so had he. “Wilhelmina and I can handle them if Mr. Hale needs recovery time.”
“What I need is to A.) not be talked about like I’m not in the room, and B.) not be treated like an invalid because I had a panic attack.” A twinge shot up my leg—the one that I had severed five months ago. It was drown or amputate. The prosthetic Liz designed held up nicely. Hadn’t noticed it during the fight on the Promenade, not with it absorbing the pulsar stave’s energy just like the suit did. “I’m good. We should be working on why those Syndax crazies were keen on sacrificing someone and how they were able to trigger a rip on their own, because news flash, I didn’t see a portal gun on anybody besides Garvey.”
“That is what Elizabeth is attempting to ascertain. I came to escort you to Tracking.” Loredana offered her arm.
“Delightful.” My English accent was terrible, but I grinned at my concerned infirmary audience, looped my arm through hers, and off we went.
Our steps carried us about thirty feet down the curved corridors of the base when Loredana murmured, “How are you, really?”
I chuckled. “You’ve definitely spent too much time with me.”
“I believe that is part of the vow, ‘in sickness and in health,’ Mercury. Please. Be frank.”
The word conjured up images of a grizzled, bearded, George Clooney lookalike piloting an armored mech against Syndax warriors. I shook my head. “It freaked me out, no joke. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner, but then again, I haven’t been in the water since. No time for a beach vacation.”
“Prior to that, you reported no ill effects from your experience.”
The prosthetic leg had more of a clump to it than my natural appendage, less meaty, more plastic and metal. “Yeah, nothing to report.”
“That isn’t what I meant. In the months since, there had been few moments that have not gone interrupted by threats from within and without this dimension. The strain of that work and the pandemic at large has, I believe, affected us all. Hence the overly attentive nature of your comrades.”
“Not like we haven’t had any breaks.” My lips brushed her neck. Loredana snorted and goosed me in revenge. We rounded a corner, veering between two brawny guys from Security. They nodded. No sign of having noticed our public display of affection.
“Yes, quite.” Her cheeks grew redder. “We have had almost a year of overall unrelenting threat. Given you’ve suffered more in the face of adversity than any of us, it’s small wonder your incident didn’t happen sooner.”
Heck of a vote of confidence. “Let’s focus on Liz’s research, okay? Then we can discuss whether or not I should have a wellness day.”
“Dismiss my concerns all you want. Your mental well-being is no joking matter.”
She entered the doorway to Tracking a few steps ahead, before I could zing her in response. Hmm. Probably best not to. We’d only been married a few months, but I was getting better at reading her moods—as I’m sure she was at reading mine. So even though she’d picked up on me being touchy about the whole freaking out when underwater thing, I’d figured out when I’d needled her enough, she got angry instead of mildly perturbed. The lift of her chin, the thin line of her mouth, the resolute gaze…
All signs I’d fouled up.
“Hey. I’m not dismissing anything. This rattled me, and I don’t know how to deal with it –or if I should.” I held out my hand. “I’m sorry.”
She considered the gesture out of the corner of her eye for so long I thought she was trying to turn it to stone. Finally, her expression softened enough for a smile to curve the corners of her mouth. She took my hand. “I know. Apology accepted.”
“Aww.” Elizabeth Stojan was seated at the center console in Tracking, pink Converse sneakers propped on a desk. She wore black leggings and a long, yellow shirt under a denim jacket. Short spiky hair glowed as pink as the shoes under the fluorescent lights overhead. Another three people were scattered at their computers, muttering to each other from six feet away about whatever it was the data told them. Blinking indicators appeared on a map of California, with a box drawn around San Camillo and the northern coast.
What was that smell? Hand sanitizer, I guessed, with a touch of bleach. Tracking had never been cleaner.
“Good news, Liz?” I nudged her shoes over as I sat on the edge of the desk.
“You guys are so cute! I mean, that is good news, but the better news is what I found on the Syndax mercenaries before you turned them over to the feds.” She cracked her knuckles and, waving her hands like she was gonna pull a rabbit out of a hat, tapped her console’s screen.
The creature in the middle image looked as big as my hand, with gnarled, spindly legs. Its body was shaped like a tick, only with a robotic design. Something artificial, yet with natural elements—or vice versa.
“They had a symmachite on their persons,” Loredana said. “Remarkable.”
“Okay, but not just one. We took their armor to the lab because of the fluctuating tachyon readings we kept seeing, just like the ones that pointed us to the Promenade in the first place. Picked seven of these little guys off and quarantined them. They collapsed into their component molecules not long after we got them separated.”
“So, Syndax left us samples.” I squinted at the image. “And they’re dead? No chance of leaking out and infecting anyone to the point of being brainwashed?”
“No way. Don’t be silly. Crux’s sword is locked away in deep storage, nowhere near the lab.”
“That’s great, really.” I had no desire to repeat the exhausting battles I’d waged against Airfoil, my brother, and even Ramos when they were mind-controlled by the microscopic swarm.
Speaking of which…
“Correct me if I’m mistaken, Elizabeth, but when we last encountered these creatures, they operated as part of a great mass.” Loredana stepped toward the map at the front of the room. “What is the likelihood they reappeared in similar numbers this time?”
“Small. I mean, really small. Smaller than them.” Liz giggled. “But, okay, I ran the numbers through Cyril, and he thinks there must have been two more.”
“Never gonna argue with your supercomputer when he makes up his mind, but only nine symmachites?” I raised an eyebrow. “You could probably fit them all on a pinhead. Or the tip of the pin.”
“What? Oh. The magnification.” Liz’s shoes dropped to the floor. They squealed as she turned in her chair. She tapped commands into her console. Numbers appeared in the upper right-hand corner.
Loredana’s eyebrows lifted, her equivalent of a burst of profanity.
“That’s—you’re kidding. Ten inches?” I grimaced. “I would have noticed a creepy cyber-spider the size of a dinner plate.”
“Maybe, if it hadn’t been tucked into the guy’s vest. The astral fiend drained the soldier.”
“Burns on his hand?”
Liz shook her head.
“Yeah. I heard the leader of the band tell someone else to open the rift. Guess he wasn’t bluffing.”
“And no, I don’t know yet how exactly the spider-thing can do that. Manipulate a developing rip, I mean. Still working on it.” Liz wrinkled her nose. “I’d love to have a live one.”
“You did say there were two more, whereabouts currently unknown.” Loredana spoke over her shoulder, her attention refocused on the map.
“That’s what we’ve determined. Now, okay, so we have a couple tachyon hotspots that have popped up, and sure, we get a lot of those that never develop into anything.” Liz swiped a new graphic onto her screen. The giant map in front of Loredana expanded to include North America, plus the Caribbean. Purple diamonds flashed in sixteen locations. “The Interstice is constantly bumping up against our dimension. Most times you won’t see more than Two or Three on the old quality scale we use to classify those emissions.”
I nodded. Forecasting would always help narrow it down. Before Marigold Yen, the former head of that department and dreamer of prescient dreams, turned out to be the villain intent on merging our sunny dimension full of humans with the stormy one full of astral fiends who liked to dine on said humans. “So, what does our new Forecasting chief have to say about this latest development?”
Liz chewed her lip. “She, um, won’t tell me.”
Loredana sighed. “I can see I shall have to resend my memo on inter-departmental cooperation.”
“No, it’s not—Ms. Pathkiller’s keeping it to herself. I mean, she won’t tell me or anyone else in Forecasting no matter how nicely I ask and I can be really nice because I even brought her coffee—!”
“Liz.” I made a rolling motion with my hands.
“Sure. She says she’ll only tell the operative.”
I blew out a breath. “Well, we’ve got a boxful of those these days, but she probably means me.”
“It is imperative we obtain a more precise location for these two escaped symmachites.” Loredana and I rejoined Liz at her desk. “The damage they could cause running amok in their present enlarged state, I don’t want to imagine, but it would be a far greater catastrophe should Syndax remnants recapture them.”
“No kidding. But where’d they get them? You think somebody escaped our notice when Serena used her mercs and the symmachites to attack the base?” I sifted through my memories for the hazy recollection of San Camillo Police Department’s monster squad—don’t get me started on their acronym—hauling the guys we’d captured away to be federally imprisoned. “Something tells me no one was counting heads.”
“Quite. I suspect that may have been the case. I’ll inquire with Intelligence. Delia should be able to assist in this matter.”
Right. Cordelia Keyes. Loredana’s school gal pal, recently shown up at our wedding, and vanished just as soon. “Where’s she stationed?”
“Around and about.” Loredana touched my shoulder. “We should get you to Edith as soon as we can.”
Oh, great. A Forecasting dream session. I was never fond of those, even though Marigold had been as sweet as a guy could hope for. She and her husband Winston Yen had been a rare couple on my tiny list of friends.
Now Marigold was dead, absorbed into the supernatural monstrosity of the Whisperer, combined with Alexander Arkwright, the former CEO and villain boss of Syndax Multinational. Winston was locked in a supermax prison upstate for the next bazillion years.
I was sure glad my list of friends and allies had grown in the past six months. Otherwise the expanding roster of bad people seeking to destroy, distort, or otherwise foul up Earth was growing depressingly fast.
“Thanks for the briefing, Liz.” I held out my hand as Loredana and I walked for the door.
Liz high-fived my palm with a resounding smack. “I’ll get those possible coordinates locked down. Oh! And I bet we can come up with something fun in the lab to help you capture the cyber-spiders. Maybe if I rerouted the particle flow on the cold gun you used against the astral fury…”
Her voice faded into a constant stream of self-conversation as we turned down the corridor. I nudged Loredana. “You know, I don’t need an escort this time.”
“I never thought you did.”
“Sure.” I grinned. “Is that why you’re still walking with me?”
Loredana frowned. “Edith—Ms. Pathkiller—Her talents are as of yet untested.”
“The rest of Procyon didn’t think so. That’s why they had her hidden away in Middle of Nowhere, Nevada, claiming she was just some flunky running a secret outpost.”
“And you did hire her.”
“That is also true, though Mr. Alvarez, being the manager, signed the paperwork.”
Ack. Paperwork. “She hasn’t brought back Marigold’s disclaimer forms, has she?”
“Please.” Loredana stopped. She drew me in for a hug. “I am worried for you.”
“Hey. I’ll be all right.” We held on to each other as long as she needed. Not sure how many seconds or minutes, but since no one bothered us to get to Forecasting faster, I figured we weren’t missed. “I get it. You don’t trust her.”
“I am trying. But after Marigold Yen—”
“Forget her. Edie fought with us. She’s protected Procyon.” I placed a hand on her cheek. “Tell you what—why don’t you wait outside her office? Then you can deal with anything weird right away.”
Loredana smirked. “How kind of you to give me a directive that is, in fact, what I planned to do.”
“I’m that good.” I tapped the side of my head.
The Forecasting office was behind a metal door decorated with puke green peeling paint and a black sign announcing its name.
“Is there anything you need?” Loredana squeezed my hand.
“Yes. Absolutely.” I looked her directly in the eyes. Keeping a straight face was one of the hardest things I’d ever done in my life. “The half-eaten stick of pepperoni from the break room fridge.”
She swatted at me, but I dodged it. “The one bearing a Sticky Note proclaiming dismemberment for whoever steals your leftovers?”
I batted my eyelashes.
Loredana laughed. “I’d be happy to, assuming Garvey hasn’t eaten it again.”
“Garvey,” I muttered. “My new nemesis.”
I knocked on the door. Loredana started down the corridor for the break room, which was a few dozen yards to the left and around a bend. “Oh, and hey! We should probably consider heading home and getting some sleep soon. Before daylight. I hear it’s a good practice.”
“We can certainly do that, though, since it’s been a while, I’d rather we exercised instead.” She disappeared around the corner, that sly smile in place again.
Exercise. I grinned like a big goofball.
I loved being married.