MERcURY OUT CoLD
Given the size of Bruno—that’s what Frank insisted we call his new mech toy—it made the most sense for us to travel by portal in groups. Dominic beamed himself and Frank out of the lab, which left me pacing while Sean ate yet another Snickers.
“Don’t gimme that look,” he said through a mouthful of nougat.
“What look? My mask is down.”
“The parent look. Like I’m gonna ruin my dinner ‘cause I’ve had like two candy bars.”
“It’s four, kid.”
“Whatever.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
I mouthed, Whatever, in sing-song fashion when my head was turned. I lifted the mask up. Too hot in the lab, especially while pacing.
Easy, Mercury, I told myself. Leave the kid alone. His dad’s in trouble.
Kind of like yours is.
No way. Couldn’t let myself think about Ramos. If I did, it’d be impossible to focus on the coming fight. It was gonna be tough as it was trying to avoid hurting Teget, who was my equal in terms of skill and strength. Ramos was an even tougher call. One wrong move, and I could kill him.
Dominic flashed back into the lab. The techs scurried after loose reports. Geez, guys, stretch the budget for some paperweights.
“Ready?” Dominic held out his hand.
“I’ll stand real close instead, thanks.” I budged up against him. “On my count.”
He shook his head. “That isn’t how this works.”
“Whatev—” Huh. I sounded way too much like Brandon’s kid. “Okay then. Ready.”
Dominic dialed up the Echo Watches. The world blurred and distorted.
And a body slammed into my ribcage.
It wasn’t fun to be frozen in space-time, hurtling through the portal but somehow also stationary, while stabbing pain rocked the same bruises I was trying to heal. It wasn’t until we emerged in Dominic loft that I realized the source of the pain was a stupid teenager untangling himself from our limbs.
Sean whooped like he’d witnessed the winning run of the World Series. “Awesome! So awesome!”
Not fair. He wasn’t even queasy.
“Are you out of your mind?” Dominic snapped. “You could have killed us all! Or worse!”
“I’m gonna regret asking.” I pinched my eyes shut and tried my best to not vomit. “But what’s worse?”
“Getting us trapped between dimensions.”
“What’s that like?”
“I have no idea and I don’t want to experience it.” Dominic raised a finger at Sean. “You stay right here. Procyon security will be along to get you on a flight back to Drake City—”
“No, they won’t! I’m coming with you guys. This is my dad we’re talking about. Frank thinks he can blow some stuff up and that’ll fix everything.”
“Wasn’t he your idea?” I muttered.
“Yeah, but, okay, he’s not always stable.”
“And this is the guy we let ride a mech gorilla,” I whispered to Dominic.
Sean grit his teeth. “Frank will fight until he’s dead, and that’s great on our side, but Dad’s against us right now and … I think I can talk him back. Out of it.”
“No. Not a chance.” Dominic pushed Sean toward the kitchen. “You stand over here.”
A flash of light made us both blink. Then came a few more.
“Let me go with you,” Sean said, “Or I’m posting these.”
When he said, “These,” he meant photos of me and Dominic standing in the loft’s living room, our faces unmasked.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
Sean narrowed his eyes. His thumb hovered over the Instagram button.
“Give me that!” Dominic reached for him.
“Hey, whoa, take it easy.” I got between them and had to push Dominic back toward the center of the loft. “Let’s bring the kid. Keep him back out of harm’s way.”
“How do you have any idea where safety is? With Airfoil in the loose—”
“My dad is not on the loose! I can help him!”
I whistled. Two fingers in the mouth and everything. Huh. I didn’t know I could do that. “Will you two shut up? Sean, you’re right, he’s your dad. Quit whining. We’ll take you, but so help me, if Brandon uses a gravity field to smash you into hummus, I’m not scooping up your bits and mailing them back to whoever your grandparents are.”
Dominic smiled, but I got in his face before he could activate Full Gloat. “And you, quit giving orders like you’ve got seniority. This is our mess; We’re going to clean it up. But I’m calling the shots, because so help me, I’m going to salvage something awesome out of this ruined night!”
Neither had quippy comebacks or even snide rejoinders. All they gave me were oddly similar sulky looks. Funny how much a 30-something married professional could resemble a teenage brat.
I pointed. “Portal. Now.”
We circled up, a sullen trio. Sean held his breath as the bubble of light expanded. He stared at the forested slope beyond.
Our entry blew the pine needles off every conifer in a twenty-foot radius. I squinted up at the setting sun. Its golden circle lounged on the other side of the towering peak, spilling its colors on the scattered snow. I blew out a feather of breath. Chilly up here, but not terrible. I let the pulsar stave send heat through the suit’s channels.
“It’s a decent vantage point.” Dominic lifted the black mask up from his neck, covering the bottom of his face all the way to the bridge of his nose. He zipped up his jacket and pointed. “Up there, from the northeast.”
“Yeah, I got it. Hand me your phone.”
The tachyon dowser routed its sensor information to the phone’s screen. A basic 2-D map of the region showed Brandon as a red blinking light. Incoming, for sure. “Hang on,” I said. “What about the plane?”
“Dropped off radar while you guys were fooling around in Winnemucca.” The voice pierced through static on my earbud.
I winced and rubbed at the side of my head. “Frank? You stop off for a bite somewhere?”
The hillside shuddered underfoot. Bruno stomped into our clearing, battering branches. The tachyon gun pulsed with purple lightning.
“You brought Sean?” Frank’s sigh sent the earbud into another round of static. “Great plan. Procyon has some funny ideas about the rules of engagement. What about Pathkiller?”
The tops of Dominic’s cheeks darkened. “I’ll, ah, be right back.”
He flashed out.
“Seriously? He forgot her?” Sean dissolved into laughter.
“Shut up, okay? Shut. Up.” In all fairness, I’d forgotten, too. But there were getting to be more bodies on this team than I could reasonably be expected to remember. Made me long for the days I worked solo.
“I’ll get into position,” Frank said. “Once I bring him down, it’ll be up to you to hold him down so I can pound him.”
“Yeah, I figured. That’s what we did at Winnemucca, though, and it didn’t turn out as well.”
“Strength in numbers, Mercury. He’s drastically outnumbered.”
“That didn’t seem to stop him when you guys faced down a mercenary army.”
“None of them could disable his powers.”
I checked the tachyon dowser. Only a few minutes remaining. Still just a single dot. “Hey, you said the plane fell off radar. How’s that possible? No way Serena got her hands on a stealth aircraft.”
“The crews at Rampart’s airport said it looked like a Learjet or the equivalent. My guess it has a reflective coating, or maybe active jamming. Either way, Procyon tells me the signal shrank until it was no bigger than a goose. Drones are up looking for it.”
“You caught up really fast on the intelligence of an organization that doesn’t like you very much.”
“Tyrone’s all right. He owes me, in any case.” The mech stomped out of our clearing, heading further up the slope, where the trees thinned out. “Don’t screw up.”
“Thanks. Great pep talk.”
I stood there, hands on my hips, not sure if any of this was a wise idea. That plane could be in San Camillo by now, leaving Teget ready to wreak some havoc of his own, but splitting up our forces could be a bad idea.
Security could handle my brainwashed brother and a cop. Without killing them, though?
Dominic rematerialized, this time with Edith Pathkiller. She wore a heavy woolen long coat with fur fringe, and she had—a bow.
“Seriously?” I mimicked firing a tiny arrow.
“If it was good enough for my grandfather, it’s good enough for me.”
To be fair, it was made of a thick, sturdy wood with Native symbols carved on the arms. Very cool looking. And the arrows she carried were modern, I assumed fiberglass and metal. Against someone like Airfoil …
“Incoming,” Frank said.
He could have been calling for a drizzle on the Weather Channel. But Bruno hunkered against the mountainside, reared up on its hind legs, and fired.
A purple, jagged streak crackled across the sky. Brandon whipped around it, angling toward the ground.
A second burst came closer, but this weapon was no laser—it moved way slower than the speed of light. Bruno sidestepped, with Frank maneuvering the mech for what must have been a better angle.
“Get back.” I pressed Sean behind me.
He slipped under my elbow. “If Dad can see me—”
“Okay, you know what?” I soaked in the energies of the pulsar stave and scooped him up under one arm. I whipped across the ground at high speed, vaulting toward one of the tallest trees that was back a good hundred feet from the clearing, but still visible from where we were making our stand. “Sit tight.”
Then I left him sixty feet up, clinging between heavy branches and swearing in a way I was sure his dad would ground him for.
A screeching filled the clearing. Bruno’s front arms tore off. They pinwheeled to either side. And a rift opened in front of the mech, a miniature canyon that grew by a foot every second.
“You’d better get clear, Frank!” I hollered.
“One second …” Steady breathing filtered through my earbud’s static.
Bruno let off a huge blast from the weapon, enveloping Brandon in a purple shower of sparks and lightning. He skidded along the mountainside, trying to get up in the sky again.
“Mine.” Edie drew back her bowstring. An arrow sliced through the air so fast I never saw it—but I did see the burst of gold-tinged light that exploded at Brandon’s chest, forcing him to shield his face. The same light rippled up and down the arms of her bow. Medan, maybe?
“Go.” I grabbed Dominic’s arm.
He teleported us to his loft—the temperature change made my skin tingle even under the full supersuit. Then we slingshotted ourselves back to Mount Shasta, six feet from where Brandon was tottering upright.
I planted the pulsar stave dead center to his chest.
He shouted. The air around us rippled. Dominic was thrown end over end, scraping a through four inches of snow mingled with dirt and rocks.
I dug in, bracing myself against a boulder.
Brandon grasped the pulsar stave, its yellow sparks writhing around his hands and mine. I wasn’t about to get dragged into a superhero version of tug-of-war, so I geared the weapon up for a blast. “Sorry, man, but this is gonna sting,” I murmured.
Purple light enveloped us.
Brandon and I broke apart. I felt like I’d come out of the worst flu ever—no strength. Not even a bit of get up and go that I’d have as a normal guy. Drained. Good news? My opponent was in the same state.
Frank. He’d managed to get off another shot from Bruno, even with the mech collapsed on its side in the huge trench Brandon had dug. But the power levels on the attached weapon flickered and died. Guess that option was off the table for the next few minutes.
I tackled Brandon.
We grappled for control—him trying to wrest the pulsar stave out of my cold but not yet dead hands, me ripping at the front of his jacket for the medallion. I could feel the lump beneath the fabric; A touch of its frigid surface, even under clothing, set my teeth chattering.
I pulled him upright. He rammed my backside into the boulder, which I’d bet did wonders for my spine. I could see his eyes in the ski mask’s openings—hazel, and aimless.
“Snap out of it!” I said. “You’re the superhero, not me.”
A tree branch walloped him across the back of the head. Brandon staggered away, our connection broken.
I felt the air wrinkle around us.
A flash of yellow-white energy caught him in the left shoulder and his upper chest, spinning him around. Dominic slipped and slid down through the snow, an Echo Watch searing with light around his right wrist.
The sudden attack gave me a clear view of the branch assailant—Sean, his jacket and jeans riddled with pine needles. “Dad!” he cried. “It’s me! Come on, Dad!”
Brandon froze, hunched over. His lips moved, but the only sound was a hoarse, indistinct whisper.
“What’d he say?” Frank was thirty feet away, with a Ruger pistol aimed at Brandon. At his head.
“Don’t shoot him! He’s trying to speak.” I waved Frank back.
“Excuse me for not being trusting.” Frank sidestepped for a better aim.
“Hey! No!” Sean got into the line of fire. He put his hands on Brandon’s arms. “Dad? Dad, wake up.”
Brandon straightened. He put his shoulders back, and his stance became more relaxed, yet more—athletic, I guess. Almost graceful. His whisper was louder and, unfortunately, I could make out one word.
“Oh, no,” Dominic murmured.
Yeah. That sing-song cadence I never wanted to hear again but kept haunting me from the other side of the Interstice. Feminine and masculine, rolled into an overlapping array of tones. Marigold Yen, merged with Alexander Arkwright, all wrapped up in the strident, smooth, insistent voice of the Whisperer.
Apparently, they’d graduated to possession via ancient tiny robots. Awesome.
“Get out of him,” I snarled, “Or I’ll beat you into the next dimension.”
“I don’t think that will happen without this vessel’s death,” the voice said. “In front of his child? You would slay him? I know you’re not the monster here.”
I heard metal click.
Sean shouted an indistinct warning. A gunshot rang out. Brandon’s head snapped back, but I didn’t see blood, and overhead, wood splinters sprayed.
“You tried to kill him! You almost shot him!” Sean flailed at Frank, who held him at bay with one arm, while keeping his gun—from which smoke was drifting—far away.
“Someone had to,” he snapped. “I would have taken him down if you hadn’t fouled me up. You don’t understand. No one else can get their hands on the medallion. And I mean no one. Would you rather I let the Garrison handle it? Or worse, allow them to apply a truce and let the Ashen clean up?”
Another blast of light sent Frank sprawling, his gun discarded, into the patchy snow next to where Brandon lay. I ducked down and checked on them both. Good. Breathing. I glared at Dominic. “Are you nuts? Quite trying to stun everyone!”
Dominic shook his head, gaze fixed on the other side of the clearing, both Echo Watches raised.
Teget stepped atop Bruno, brandishing his ax. The ski mask obscured his face, but I could read his body just as well—tense, energies pent up, ready for battle.
Ramos was with him, an M4 rifle aimed at me.
And Xia, the one guiding them, waved the black sword high above her head. A swirl of the symmachites stirred around Brandon.
You know what would have been nice? If Edie, the one who was supposed to be a better Forecaster than even Marigold, had foreseen any of this. Or was anywhere nearby. She’d evaporated like water on a hot sidewalk. Why’d Alvarez been in such awe of her?
If she had a great plan in mind, she hadn’t shared.
Fine. I’d take care of it.
“Sean,” I said. “Run.”
The kid sprinted for the trees as bullets and light ripped between us.