MERcURY OUT CoLD
My first thought, after the haze cleared out, was, We’d better get out of here before the police show up.
My second thought? Edie! Is she okay?
Third? Alvarez is gonna kill us if Brandon doesn’t.
Dominic helped me up. We were slathered head to foot in so much dirt we’d have no problem camou-flaging ourselves if we went traipsing across the plains. Neither of us was up for the hike.
“You good?” My voice rasped like I’d spent way too long shouting in a nightclub. Or a coffee bar-slash-dance hall. Which was really where I would have rather been.
“Passable.” Dominic swayed. I held his arm, but he shook free. “I’ll be fine.”
“Come on. Edie.”
His eyes widened and he took off, though with a limp whereas before he’d hit a smooth stride.
Antiques were strewn about the sunbaked earth. The dusty, worn treasures and trinkets we had passed in a blur before the fight were reduced to debris. I hoped Procyon hadn’t spent too much out of their Operations budget to stock the place.
More importantly, I hoped they had backups for the sensitive tachyon array Tyrone Thomas was swooning over. But as I waded through the wreckage, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of advanced electronics. Plenty of wiring befitting an old building.
Dominic lifted a wood beam aside. “Where is this tachyon array?”
“Great minds.” I lifted a door that had been shattered in two. There was a heap of rubble to our left—the secret office, maybe. “Over here.”
The debris shifted. A hiking boot slammed through. Edie shouldered the rest of the debris blocking her way. Aside from scrapes atop her shoulders and a bruise on her face, she looked unscathed. Which was great, considering how scathed I felt.
“Good try, but not good enough.” She dusted herself off and slipped a backpack over her shoulders. Big old hiking bag, with patched holes. “Ready?”
“Ready for what?” I indicated the ruined store. “Don’t you have sensitive information we need to gather up? Electronics that need to be dismantled?”
Smoke drifted from the crumpled metal box behind her. The whole office was armored, turned out, which explained why it hadn’t blown apart when Brandon smashed through the building. “Molten slag in forty-five seconds,” Edie said. “We’d better get to Drake City, though, if we’re going to regroup.”
“I’m sorry.” Dominic held up his hand. “But Manager Alvarez at HQ would insist we ensure that the tachyon array is either secure or destroyed before we depart.”
Sirens wailed from downtown Winnemucca. A fire engine’s klaxon blared. “Yeah, and preferably fast,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s been called a tachyon array for operational security but trust me, it’s safe.” She stepped over the rubble of her outpost like she was treading through cow pies. Even kicked aside a broken set of porcelain dishes. So … I didn’t think she was attached to the contents of her store.
“Again, I’ll need proof of that before we escape.”
Edie put her hands on her hips. The way her biceps tensed, I didn’t think Dominic understood the full ramifications of irking that lady. “That’s gonna have to wait, Operative Gemini, until somebody with higher clearance than a two-year freelancer who accidentally fell into our sights can muster. Get us teleported back to Drake City before we all have to spend the night in the luxury of Winnemucca’s drunk tank.”
Dominic started to say something, but I clapped my hands across his mouth and around the back of his head. “Shut up,” I muttered, “And get beaming.”
Because I wasn’t looking forward to the next conversation any more than the rest of us.
The conference room at Procyon’s Drake City office seemed smaller, even though we only had one extra person. I bet having Manager Hector Alvarez shouting at us from a big screen had something to do with it.”
“This is outrageous! I expect a muck-up of this magnitude from Mercury, not you.” Alvarez loomed over us from the safety of his desk on the other side of America. Given how short he was in real life, I couldn’t take the looming seriously. Which is why I had my feet propped on the table and was leaned back enough so I could stare at the ceiling.
Dominic stood with his hands clasped behind his back. “Sir, with all due respect—”
“Who was that?” Alvarez asked.
I raised my hand.
“No one asked for your input at this point. You weren’t read in on this operation.”
“I’ll add that to the list as Stupid Thing Number Two you did when it came to this plan,” I said. “Number One being, you didn’t tell Loredana.”
“The decision to keep you both out of this operation was—”
“None of my business, I get it. Guess what? Still stupid.” I looked around the table. “You let this group get involved in what should have been a simple snatch and grab. The consequence of compartmentalizing your intel? Big-time superhero got brainwashed by the bad guys.”
“And you guys got stomped by him,” Sean muttered. “Because duh.”
“Why is there a high school student in a classified briefing?” Alvarez snapped.
“Personal connection to the case, Hector. He’s a valuable witness with insight to Airfoil’s psychological state.” Tyrone winked at me, so subtly I don’t think Alvarez noticed.
“And the man with the beard?”
I thought Alvarez was gonna need a new set of eyes when his were ready to pop clean from his skull. “Frank Belasco? Homeland will have us locked up in an unlisted detention center if word gets out he’s inside one of our facilities, Tyrone!”
“Take it easy. We’re locked down tight. And better yet, we brought Pathkiller in.”
“Oh.” Alvarez’s color returned to its normal, not-enraged hue. “She’s safe?”
Edie was using a military-grade knife to whittle a piece of wood. Where’d she get it, from the store’s wreckage? It looked like a table leg. Shavings littered the stone brown carpet. “Right here, Mr. Alvarez.”
“I apologize. I’ve never seen your image, Operative Pathkiller. I had no idea you were stationed in Winnemucca.”
“They keep my whereabouts low key, except in emergencies.” Edie raised an eyebrow, her smile as sharp as before. “Which, judging by how upset you boys all are, this qualifies as.”
“Of course. Well, any assistance you can render would be helpful.”
“You got it.”
“Sir …” Dominic raised his hand. What was he, in third grade? “About the tachyon array—”
Alvarez shook his head. “Tyrone, if you think this warrants it, read them in. Without Belasco and the boy.”
“Understood. Happy trails.”
“Yes. Excuse me while I assure the U.S. Air Force they don’t need to shoot down a superhero.”
Alvarez vanished from the screen. Tyrone dug out his wallet. He handed Sean a ten-dollar bill. “Vending machine’s down the hall, around the corner to your right. Go crazy.”
“Only if you don’t charge a bazillion dollars for a Snickers.” Sean took the money, though, and stalked by Frank.
“Sorry, Mr. Belasco. Kids only.” Tyrone waggled his wallet.
“No problem. I’ll check in with your techs about our weapons.”
As soon as the glass door eased shut, Tyrone sat at the head of the table. “I’ll make this easy to digest: Edith Pathkiller is the tachyon array.”
I blinked a couple of times. Dominic held up his hand, finger raised as if to make a point, then shook his head.
“Not that helpful? I should be clearer. There is no tachyon array. That’s how it’s recorded in all our files. Edith is the one providing insight on the where and when of potential rips between this dimension and the Interstice.”
“She’s in Forecasting?” Our San Camillo headquarters had been down a Forecaster ever since Marigold Yen had turned out to be evil and, well, disintegrated while trying to destroy Earth. But she threw great dinner parties that made me feel part of a true family before, you know, the evil.
“It’d be more accurate to say she is Forecasting. All of her visions precede what San Camillo and other offices experience.”
“Dark stuff.” Edie held the stick up to the ceiling lights. It had an edge that looked as sharp as her knife’s. “Nothing you’d be able to sleep through after seeing.”
“Why mislead us?” Dominic asked.
“To keep her existence a secret and keep her safe. That’s been her family’s way for generations, ever since Elijah Pathkiller wielded the pulsar stave in 1848.”
I could feel the cold metal grow even frostier though the suit’s fabric. Her ancestor had been there—the battle that determined the beginning of Procyon Foundation and its century-plus duty to protect our dimension.
“Six generations,” Edie said. “I’d like that to continue.”
“I bet. How can you help us now? We’re not dealing with astral fiends.”
“My sensitivities extend to objects that draw their power from the Interstice.”
“Meaning I can sense their approach, from great distances, but also up close and fast.”
I squinted at her. “Sounds like we can test that.”
“Only if you want more bruises.” She scraped a long peel off the stick with her knife.
“Suffice it to say, Ms. Pathkiller’s going with you, because of the somewhat desperate circumstances involved.” Thomas pulled a metal comb from his wallet and brushed at his beard as he continued, “Let’s all do me a favor and not tell Hector. He’d have a stroke and I don’t think the board wants to appoint a second new manager of the San Camillo office in less than a year.”
“Don’t tempt me with a Christmas gift,” I muttered.
The new—or, I guess, modified old—weapon wasn’t ready yet. I found myself with extra time and not a lot to do, besides be anxious, because while we were waiting, Airfoil was racing toward San Camillo and Serena had the rest of my friends on her airplane heading in the same direction.
Plus, it was late Saturday in a Procyon office, so besides Tracking and the lab, the place was deader than a recently slain astral fiend. But when my phone buzzed, I knew I needed to answer it.
<Alvarez contacted me. Urgent.>
I made the call.
“Mercury.” Loredana’s relief spilled from the phone. “Thank goodness you’re unharmed.”
“There was a little harm. No amputations, though, so I’m happy.” I grimaced at the muscle cramp in my leg above where the prosthetic attached. None of the bruises would be visible in a few days. Advanced healing would take care of that. For now, though, they were painful reminders of failure. “Airfoil and company are headed to HQ.”
“So I understand from Manager Alvarez. I assume they learned of our new location from Lieutenant Ramos?”
“Yeah. This mind control must allow Serena and her new BFF Xia access into the person’s brain.” I chuckled, though it was a weary sounding chuckle even to me. “Which makes it even better they didn’t latch onto my brain.”
“Quite. One can hardly fathom the level of distress your mad thoughts would inflict on them.”
“You, ah, coming back in because of this?”
“Sounds like a lousy reason to cancel your weekend.”
“Crises are nothing new to me. I have already chalked up my impending absence to a work issue.” I could imagine her smirk, the accompanying raised eyebrow.
“Sorry about that.”
“Nonsense. This is the life I chose—the one to which I’m called. It took your reminder for me to rededicate myself.”
“I’m glad I did, because Procyon would fall apart without you. There wouldn’t be the Procyon we know, no matter who sits in
the manager’s office.”
“Well.” Her voice dropped in volume. “I wouldn’t go so far—”
“Don’t kid yourself, Loredana. You’ve put your life in danger as much as me, sans superpowers. That takes as much courage—probably more. Which is me saying, if you want to sit this one out, you should. Go off grid for twenty-four hours. I’m not saying we don’t need you. It’ll be weird without you shooting things while we’re saving the world.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, I do—assuming, of course, you’re not making such a proclamation to keep me out of danger.”
I laughed. “Are you serious? Maybe if I didn’t think astral fiends were crying themselves to sleep somewhere whenever you showed up with me. No, I meant what I said. Think of it as your Christmas present and wedding gift wrapped up in one package.”
“One assumes the ring is present enough, along with all it accompanies.”
Well. I wondered if Procyon had dialed up the thermostat in this part of the building.
“I will consider your offer, love, but do not be astonished if I were to arrive at headquarters to greet our enemies,” she said.
“I wouldn’t bat an eye.”
“Text me when you and your team reach their rendezvous.”
“You got it.”
“I love you, Mercury. Be safe.”
All I could think about was her at her party with her friends, and me laughing up a storm with the guys—normal things that normal people who are about to get married do. Not wondering how to reschedule social engagements because brainwashed superheroes are trying to wreck a secret organization in charge of destroying monsters. “I love you, too.”
The call ended. I tapped the edge of the phone against my lips.
Dominic leaned around the door frame. “That sounded like it went well.”
“I have made it one of my skills. Searching for doppelgangers from an alternate dimension gets easier when you learn how to listen in on conversations that the participants would rather I didn’t hear.”
“Your mom must be proud.”
Dominic made a face. “Prouder than Father, if either knew what I was doing.”
Sore subject, apparently. “What’s up?”
“We’re wanted down in the tech lab. Frank’s getting geared up. Oh, and …”
I thought Dominic was right behind me as I head-ed for the elevator, but I had to stop. “And?”
“I can’t see why you’re worried.” He smiled. “From what I heard, you two trust each other a great deal more than a lot of couples I know, and there’s no barrier to honesty. I wish Jess and I had been that mature in how we communicated at the beginning.”
I bet that was the first time I’d ever heard anyone use the M-word about me. “Thanks, Dominic.”
“So, when it comes to the wedding night, and the honeymoon, you’ll be much better off if you communicate clearly what—”
“And we are so done here.” I skipped the elevator and pushed through the emergency door to the stairwell before he could finish his latest advice.
Footsteps slapping on concrete told me he was right behind, and by the time we emerged on the fifth floor and walked to the lab, he was side by side with me. Grinning like an idiot.
“You could have at least got me a present,” I said. “Make the evening worthwhile before it blew up.”
“Are you serious? Did you see the menu prices? At the restaurant in Paris?” He shook his head, still grinning. “I barely know you from Adam.”
“That doesn’t mean …” I lost the rest of my sentence when the opaque frosted glass doors to the lab slid open. “Wow.”
“I mean … It certainly is.” Dominic scratched at his chin.
The “wow” was reserved for the hulking figure at the center of the room, and I don’t mean Bruce Banner’s alter ego. It looked like a mad scientist had crossed a lion with a gorilla, fed it steroids, then turned it into a headless robot. Slate gray metal covered every inch, except where powerful pistons and hydraulics acted as artificial muscles. It sat on its haunches, front legs a foot longer than the back ones. A motor or other power source rumbled, smooth and low, not like a combustion engine.
“No visible weapon,” Dominic said.
“That’s because we’re attaching it.” Frank pushed long tubular weapon on a thick-wheeled cart, the gun suspended on chains. The front half of the weapon looked old—dented, scarred. The rest seemed as new as if they’d ordered the parts off Amazon.
“The tachyon weapon should distort any similar source it’s fired at.” Tyrone leaned on a nearby work-table. He gestured at a pair of young techs in white lab coats bearing Procyon insignia. They hustled to the robot’s side.
“Are you sure it’ll do the trick?” I asked.
“Since Airfoil himself brought us the prototype after being slapped around by it twice, yes, I think it’ll do the trick.”
Frank backed away as the techs wheeled the gun into position. Sean sidled up to him, chewing on the last chunk of a Snickers bar.
“Must be tough for you,” I said. “Got your action in during the Drake City siege and now a robot gets to play in your place.”
“Good thing it’s not a robot.” Frank crossed to the side of the machine and clambered up its side. I’d missed the handholds behind its shoulders. He pried open a hatch like a DeLorean’s car door.
A narrow, dark slit lit up with instrumentation. Screens. And controls.
“What do you think?” Frank patted the armored hide like he’d finally found the perfect puppy. “Should clear the ceiling in your loft, right, Mr. Zein?”
“No way,” I muttered. “Dominic wrecks my bachelor party and this guy gets a BattleMech.”