MERcURY OUT CoLD
I had the pulsar stave ignited, ready to beat back a slavering astral fiend when it …
It was totally dead in my apartment. The only thing battering down my windows was the rain outside. Gloomy clouds shrouded
San Camillo’s buildings in a sticky fog. Sticky and cold. Just another beautiful December.
The pulsar stave was deployed but not powered—not yet. A flicker of will extended through my fingers sent yellow-white energies along its carvings, delivering just enough heat to its target. Said stave flicked a slice of pepperoni off the pie slumped against the inside of a white cardboard box from Carlito’s. Warmed it nicely. To be fair to the box, its molecular makeup wasn’t much different than the grease soaking its base, so it was probably more pizza than container.
I tossed the slice into my mouth and chased it down with pop. I burped, then let out a contented sigh. Which nobody could hear, because I was on my own. Just me and The Mandalorian.
“Yeah, living the dream,” I said to the empty apartment.
I twisted on the couch, hoodie and blue jeans barely warm enough. Should’ve kicked on the heat. Forget that. No way. The forecast said it was supposed to be sunny and low 60s. Not this rainy and 40 crap.
Great. I sighed. Baby Yoda was cute and all, but even he couldn’t banish my gloom. If there were literal doldrums, the city was stuck in them. And it was only noon.
My phone perched on the arm of the couch, brushing against my hair when I stretched and yawned for the 95th time that afternoon. Man. Had I even left the apartment? Never mind that. Had I left the cushion?
Biggest question: Since when did I care?
Boy. Save the world a couple of times and one’s sense of carefreeness gets easily supplanted by responsibility. What a drag.
Enough of that. I punched the speed dial icon at the top of my phone. It rang twice.
“Oh, hi, Mercury!” Elizabeth Stojan’s voice could have shot a beam of light from my phone’s screen, it was so sunny. I pictured her in—ironically—the darkest room of Procyon Foundation’s temporary secret headquarters, pink hair catching the glow from dozens of display screens ranging from tiny to huge. “Nice day outside?”
“No, Liz, it’s raining. Miserable.”
“Oh, yeah? I couldn’t tell since we’re down here below the silo but I always like to imagine it’s pretty out because otherwise it just makes the day dreary and slows me down and then I can’t get anything done, which is bad because if Ms. Lark—”
“Got it, Liz. Say, since you’re hanging out in Tracking, could you—”
I blinked. “Nope? Nope, what?”
“Nope, as in, no tachyon spikes, no interdimensional rifts, not a single rip in the past three weeks, or any other readings out of the ordinary.”
“Okay. You auditioning for Forecasting? I thought they were fresh out of dreamers to tell us when astral fiends might next make their appearances.”
“No, um, but this is like the sixth time you’ve called me since Tuesday.”
Tuesday? I craned a neck. There was one of those freebie nature calendars stuck to the fridge, this year’s featuring coastal California photos. December was a nighttime image of San Camillo’s skyline glittering across the bay. Yikes. It was Saturday. And me, without plans. I mean, without plans beside epic Star Wars.
“Still there, Mercury?”
“Yeah, I’m here. I figured I’d check. It’s quiet around here.” Especially with Loredana gone. She and her girlfriends had headed Los Angeles for a ladies’ weekend. Good timing.
We were getting married in twelve days.
I glanced at my stealth suit. Gray and black patterns fit together like puzzle pieces, glistening in the lamplight. I should be off the couch, fighting crime. Seriously. With the near end of the world a few months before and the almost-immolation of San Camillo not long after, I’d kind of let the whole local vigilantism thing slide. I mean, I’d charged for the work because hey, I
needed the money, but since I’d been back in Procyon’s good graces, I didn’t require extra income.
Not a great reason for taking a break, I know.
I checked my phone. Yeah, the public had noticed. People griped about me not preventing the things police had to clean up after—all the ravages of a big city. But keeping everything this side of the Interstice dimension safe from astral fiends who’d love nothing better than to drain humans of their lives took priority.
Maybe it was time to branch out, though. As in, the real hero stuff.
“Okay. So, let’s do it.” I slapped my hands on my knees and launched upright. And immediately grimaced, thanks to the dull ache in my leg that turned into a full-fledged stabbing pain. My prosthetic held my balance nicely, but the stump where flesh and blood ended still hurt. Bad weather made it throb worse.
I grabbed the suit. Shimmied out of my jeans and into the form-fitting attire. The pulsar stave’s energies writhed across its surface and bled into the suit, which channeled them into—well, channels, I guess. Bright lines on the jumpsuit’s borders. The stave’s energies also filtered into the prosthetic leg, which Liz had built along the same technology as my outfit. Lent me a nice boost if necessary.
I checked myself out in the mirror and grinned. “Not too shabby.”
So, Liz didn’t have any monster for me to chase, huh? No problem. I could find bad guys aplenty. I banged open the living room window and leap onto the fire escape …
Right. Still raining.
The cold downpour hadn’t let up. I let water run off my face a moment before concealing all my features with the suit’s mask. “Seriously?”
Well, good thing the suit’s feet were fabricated with traction in mind. They stuck like magnets to the slippery metal as I vaulted down the fire escape and across to the next building.
Yeah, I know—dumb move, leaving my apartment that way. The suit had a bonus, though: Invisibility. Or, better put, adaptive camouflage. I was a blur of asphalt, brick, glass, and clouds as far as anybody who glanced out their window was concerned.
Ready to rock. Ready to put the smack on bad guys in my neighborhood.
And after thirty seconds perched on the railing, the rain managing to dampen me even through the supersuit, I took another look out the cars splashing through the puddles past lampposts sporting soggy wreaths and muttered, “Forget this.”
I went back in and shut the window. What was my major malfunction? It’s like I was tangled up in astral fiend’s tentacles, except pizza and beer and TV were threatening to drain my life away. I yanked the mask down and rubbed my face. Get a grip, Mercury.
Gee, it was almost like some major event had me anxious.
Spoiler: I’d never been to one. Not even someone else’s. So, the thought of standing up in front of people with Loredana before me, in the dress she still wouldn’t reveal …
Fear’s not a word I throw around lightly.
My phone buzzed. Fingers crossed—Liz? No such luck.
Instead the caller ID told me I was getting Lieutenant Gabriel Ramos, San Camillo Police Department. Joy. I answered, “Yo.”
“Will you stop? You sound like you’re auditioning for an MTV special.” Ramos had one of those voices that made him sound like he was perpetually perturbed—which, in fairness, he was. And I may or may not have had something to do with that on more than one occasion. “Suit up and get out to Court Street, by the overpass.”
“MTV special? Look, Ramos, if you’re gonna insist on talking like a forty-something I’ll have to up my game for snarky rejoinders.”
Ramos sighed. I swore I could feel the breeze. “Just hurry up, will you? This one is right up your alley and I didn’t want to call out the rest of the task force.”
Task force? As in San Camillo Police Department Extraordinary Crimes Task Force? Whew. Clunky acronym aside, I was all about putting in some mileage with the SCPDECTF—or goon squad, as we liked to call it. “On my way. Don’t slay any monsters before I show up.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He hung up the call.
And I had already flung myself through the rain to the next building.
Court Street’s neighborhood didn’t look any better in the rain. But it smelled less terrible, because of the trash getting flushed down the gutters. I mean, sure, the electric candles in scattered windows and the one plastic Christmas tree put up a valiant fight against the blahs. Gloomy weather made the ramshackle buildings and pockmarked asphalt more depressing. Bonus? No drug dealers hanging out on the street corners. Even they stuck to indoors.
I somersaulted off a rooftop, did a parkour bounce twice down the sides of it and its neighbor, and thumped atop a Dumpster without slipping. Heck of a superhero landing.
Too bad the only person to appreciate it was Ramos.
He crouched behind the same Dumpster, his semi-automatic pistol drawn. Huh. He didn’t have his rifle, so it must be an astral fiend of the smaller variety. Funny Liz hadn’t spotted it—but given the way Procyon reorganized its secret activities, I wasn’t surprised they’d missed a rip and the accompanying fiend’s entry. “Hey, Ramos.”
“Get down here!” Ramos wore a SCPD ballcap and a navy-blue jacket with the same insignia on the back. He had rubber boots on over his shoes, which if you’d ever seen his fancy Oxfords, you wouldn’t mock. A white collar peeked from under his jacket, plus the top of a black tie. Spiffy as always. “Stay out of sight.”
“What gives?” I splashed next to him. Mud spattered his coat.
Ramos grimaced and wiped it off. “I had a call we were supposed to show up at this location.”
“Oh yeah? Liz tip you off?”
“It’s not that simple.” He chewed his lip, as if he were a 10-year-old boy afraid his dad was gonna find out a baseball broke the living room window. Ramos, nervous? What kind of bizarre day was this? “Here it comes.”
No kidding. Rain that had been falling straight down swept into a mini typhoon, swirling a few feet in from the mouth of the alley. Light exploded from its center, expanding into a glowing sphere.
“I’m on it!” I willed power to the pulsar stave and broke it in half, wielding each one like a short dagger. Their energies coursed through the suit and soaked my cells. Man, I felt like I could have run from San Camillo across a couple time zones to the Mississippi River. I blasted for the newborn portal.
The raindrops slowed, frozen like jewels as I accelerated across the couple dozen feet to the portal. Cracked me up, when I moved fast and everything went like molasses, because even Ramos’ shouted warning became a low-octave, distorted parody of the real deal.
Whatever was coming through the portal, I was gonna plant the pulsar stave clean through its ugly face.
It wasn’t until the portal’s writhing light show coalesced into a decidedly non-monster form that I realized, duh, the rips that spat out astral fiends were ringed with purple lightning and dark as night, whereas this thing was a glowing soap bubble that had just popped.
Too late. My arms were in motion, slashing through the air with blazing beams of yellow-white extradimensional energies.
I broke left, hurling myself aside before I straight-up slaughtered Dominic Zein, the guy diving out of his own portal. He slid sideways in a move I’d have expected of a trained ninja, not an architect.
Fortunately, blasts of blazing light from the shimmering wristbands he wore helped knock me off course.
Unfortunately, they had the side effect of slamming me bodily into a brick wall. I rebounded and ended the heroic charge on my back.
“Ow,” I said. Seemed appropriate.
Dominic’s face appeared upside down over mine, glowering with all his teeth—wait a second. Upside down. The jerk was grinning. “I told you surprising him would be a great idea, Lieutenant.”
Ramos holstered his gun. He stood there, hands on his hips, shaking his head like your average disappointed assistant principal looking for the next punk kid to drag to detention. “We could have just messaged him.”
“But he likes things with style, with flair. Right, Mercury?” Dominic moved aside and offered me a hand. I let him help drag me upright.
“Yeah. Super fun.” My head throbbed. A quick touch and my fingers came away with a streak of blood. No biggie. I’d heal up inside of the next fifteen minutes, especially with all the energies flowing from the stave through me and the suit. “This your guys’ idea of a practical joke? Watching me turn Dominic into a human kebab?”
“Don’t say that. Kebab.” I heard a gurgling; Dominic rubbed his stomach. Dude was wearing black slacks, nice shoes, and a white shirt with black tie. Just like Ramos. “I’m famished. Let’s get out of the weather.”
“I might have left that part out of our communication.” Ramos smirked.
“Hey, kids.” I pointed with both staves at my chest. “Here’s me, still not finding this funny, and still getting soaked.”
Dominic sighed. “This is what I get for being spontaneous.”
“Except you just said it was your big plan. For what, exactly?”
He scowled and pointed his wristbands at us. The Echo Watches, handy devices for teleporting from Point A to Point B on Earth and also to myriad other worlds—like Meda, which was my home dimension, or the alternate Earth that Dominic had visited to track his evil twin. Both long stories. But good ones.
The portal swept us up in dizzying spin of zero gravity and darkness. I thought I might die. Which, in fairness, I thought would happen every time we teleported. Before I did, though, the portal dumped us out on the wood floor of a warm and blessedly dry loft apartment.
Ramos staggered back onto a couch. “This had better get easier if we’re using the same mode of transportation all night.”
“It will. Relax.” Dominic doffed his jacket and brushed at thick black hair. The guy looked like a Middle Eastern movie star, slim face and dark eyes. The suit jacket underneath completed the picture.
Hang on. Ramos was wearing a blazer, too.
I dragged the supersuit’s mask off and glanced at them. “Men in Black marathon? Because I gotta say, not my favorite movie.”
“If this is the attitude he exhibited during your encounter, I would surmise the revelation was not received with great mirth.”
Hold up. Teget? Yeah, the young guy of mixed Asian-and-other descent lounging on a second couch, warming his hands by the fireplace. I was used to the smile on his face, framed by a neatly trimmed goatee and moustache, but I was not used to him dressing up like a third member of the Blues Brothers. He preferred loose-fitting padded armor and leather, manufactured on Meda, in our home dimension. The sleek wool trenchcoat made him look even cooler.
“Guys, c’mon. Why’s my brother dressed like—” I waved my hands around. “Like all of you?”
The door to the loft—Dominic’s, I recognized—opened. A tall, broad-shouldered redheaded man in his late thirties came in with a garment bag slung over his shoulder. Blue eyes targeted me, and he chuckled. Brandon Tusk: Flying superhero from Drake City on the other side of the USA. “You got him? Nice.”
“Hey, yourself. Sorry I’m late, gang. I had to pick this up from the Procyon office. The Rampart manager insisted Ms. Lark left it for Mercury and …” He let go of the garment bag. It flew twenty feet across the room. I snagged it by its hook with one finger.
“Your size, Mercury.”
“Brandon …” I massaged my forehead. Yep, headache. From brick wall impact or annoyance? Take your pick. Because flaunting our powers in mixed company was generally a bad idea. “Ramos isn’t in on the team roster.”
“Oh.” Brandon winced. “I’d assumed you’d told him our identities.”
“He hadn’t.” Ramos was staring at him, but not in fear. At least, he didn’t seem scared, or even amazed. “Don’t worry. I assumed you were the one called Airfoil.”
“A gifted investigator,” Teget said to Dominic.
“I’m that, yes, but it’s down to process of elimination.” Ramos held up three fingers. “Three of you stop the Hedron of Orbits from destroying San Camillo. Two of you were sloppy with masks, and I was right there in the action, getting a good look. Only one of you kept your face a closely guarded secret—and that one was good at making things fly.”
“We might as well put up billboards,” I muttered.
“Quit whining, Mercury.” Ramos straightened his tie. “Don’t be the grump at your bachelor party.”
“The celebration of your approaching marriage!” Teget bounded from his seat, with way too much enthusiasm. He grabbed me by the shoulders and swung me around. Twice. “Brother! Let us gift to you this evening of merriment!”
“That’s me, all about merriment.” It dawned on me that my brother, my mentor, and two superheroes from across the country had kidnapped me to Rampart, Colorado for a bachelor party. Using a portal. “Wait, are you serious? My party?”
“Against my better judgment, but, yes.” Dominic shrugged. “Figured I could minimize damage if I planned it. So, go get changed and we’ll get out of here. Reservations are at 8.”
I checked my watch. Still running on Pacific Coast Time even though I’d teleported across the Rocky Mountains. “Um, that’s in like seven hours.”
Dominic extended his wrist. The Echo Watch separated into a whirl of fragments, and a new portal appeared, this one anchored to a faint stain on the wood floor. Wind whipped at the magazines discarded on a coffee table.
I peered through the light-fringed doorway to—the Eiffel Tower?
“Not in Paris!” Dominic hollered over the roar of wind. “Let’s go!”