MERcURY OUT CoLD
The Uber driver was a bald white guy with glasses so thick they could have been made of bulletproof glass. He didn’t speak. I mean, not a single word. Didn’t make eye contact, either.
Just as well. I wasn’t in a chatty mood.
I know, right? That’s how you know things were bad.
My breath fogged the window of a Ford Taurus that looked like it hadn’t been out of a garage since it had been featured as a “futuristic” car in Robocop. Same lousy gray color, too.
“Yes, sir. I understand.” Dominic had his phone pressed to his ear. “6 o’clock. We’ll be there.”
I waited until he ended the call. “Procyon?”
“Tyrone Thomas. We’re to meet with him this evening.”
Argh. This evening. Part of my body thought it was still late night. Another part told me I’d eaten lunch and dinner and there was no way I should be hungry. And tired. “He have a plan in mind? Besides us beaming back to Rampart and hoping we don’t get whipped?”
“He’s been in touch with Rampart office. They sent security over to my loft.”
“And? You should have led with that.”
“Empty.” Dominic leaned against the upholstered headrest. I wanted to tell him he’d better show if he was gonna do that. “They’re searching the city.”
“I wouldn’t bother. They’re either trying to track us down, or they’ve gone back to Meda for the night's blade.” The though chilled me worse than the gray winter weather outside. “If Teget uses the ax combined with the it, the bad guys are one step closer to permanently open a path between our Earth and the Interstice.”
“Which you’ve already avoided. The Battle of North Beach.”
“Finally, somebody gets it right.” I shifted in my seat. Brandon’s shirt was a size too large for me. Who knew a librarian was so built? Guy must do pushups in his sleep—or with a book drop on his spine. Dominic and I were both wearing items from his wardrobe.
“You guys wanna shut up for like five seconds?” Sean was punching away at his phone.
“How many texts have you sent your dad?”
“A lot.” He glared at us. “He’s not answering.”
“I don’t think brainwashed super—” Dominic elbowed me, then pointed at our mute driver. Right. Operational secrecy. “Parents are big on returning messages, kid.”
“He’s never ignored them. Except if he told me ahead of time he was going off-channel.”
“He’s left you with no way to contact him?”
“Just a couple times.” Sean frowned at the phone screen. “He went on these missions for a few days … Never said where he went or what he was doing. But he’s been weird since he fought Domitian. No, wait … Since the party after that. Something spooked him.”
“If he’s leaving you out of it, there’s probably a good reason for staying tight-lipped,” Dominic offered.
“Yeah, whatever.” Sean tapped the driver’s shoulder. “Up here, on the right.”
We were on the state highway winding up the coast away from Newport, Drake City’s grimy industrial suburb. The sprawling train yards were a mile behind. Pine trees hemmed the road in on both sides, allowing only fleeting glimpses of the slate-colored Atlantic Ocean between clustered trunks to our right. Not much out there except scattered driveways.
The car pulled over onto a dirt shoulder. A short, gravel path disappeared into the trees. No address marker. No mailbox. Not even a power line.
Dominic passed the driver a few bucks for a tip. “Thank you.”
I watched the guy drive off as I zipped up a Hull Branch Library sweatshirt against the cold. “You’re, ah, not gonna make him wait?”
Sean snickered. “Dude. Do you even know how Uber works?”
“Listen, kid.” I pointed a finger at him.
“Yeah?” Sean watched me like a cat contemplating if it wanted one mouse or two for lunch.
“You’re grounded.” I brushed past him on the way up the gravel driveway.
I heard a grumble that sounded like, “Not my parent,” but let it pass.
We rounded the bend of pines into a clearing home to two buildings—a shed with a brown metal roof and corrugated steel sides, and the house. Which, it should be noted, was made out of a shipping container. Scratch that: Two of them, welded side by side, set on sturdy posts. The end farthest perched on two huge metal and concrete supports set into the rocky coastline, where the Atlantic’s waves churned against black boulders. The nearest end featured a wooden porch, home to a forlorn flowerpot and a sagging Adirondack chair. Smoke hung in a haze over the clearing, a gift from the narrow aluminum chimney.
“That’s impressive.” Dominic craned his neck as we approached porch. “The roof’s cantilevered. Looks like the builder incorporated an attic into the space between. Choosing wood paneling for the exterior accents was risky, though, given the climate.”
I rolled my eyes. “Let’s get the number of his architect so you bros can compare notes.”
“Well, I would be interested to know how he—”
“Kidding!” I grabbed his shoulder and aimed him for the porch. “Ring the bell.”
Dominic frowned. “I think the homeowner’s aware of our arrival.”
Okay, so I’d missed the security camera in its tiny black dome over the door. And missed that the door wasn’t a lovely entrance welcoming visitors. Nope. Solid steel, with a tiny slot for a window. Come to think of it, most of the windows on the home’s flank were small portholes, except for the long glimmers of glass at the far end.
“No sweat.” I rapped my knuckles on cold, wet metal. No sign of a doorknob.
The door swung in. I caught a glimpse of flannel and blue jeans. And a gun.
Of course it was a weapon. Because apparently nobody greeted me at a door with a smile and a handshake. I missed Jack Jackson.
The guy had a shotgun pointed at my stomach. A shotgun with a magazine attached that was as long as its barrel.
“No soliciting.” He chambered a shell. Didn’t need to. The voice itself would have stopped me in my tracks. It made me happy I wasn’t a selling carpet cleaner.
“Um, you know, signs are cheaper.” I kept my hands at my sides.
“Still.” The guy was stone-faced, with a salt-pepper mix of dark and silver hair. The beard gave him the craggy features of George Clooney. You know, less The Peacemaker and more an updated version of Syriana. But less charming,
Sean pushed between me and Dominic. “Quit it, Frank. They’re like dad’s superfriends.”
“Great. I feel much better about them turning up on my doorstep.” Frank aimed the shotgun at the porch. “Superheroes. What a joke. I don’t see any leotards, though, so that makes you somewhat smarter than Brandon.”
“As fun as it is standing out in the cold and getting insulted by a stranger, how’s about you let us in so we can deal with our pressing problem?” I snapped. “Namely, your protégé getting brainwashed.”
“Sean told me.”
“Seems like you’re doing a lousy job mentoring if he falls off your radar like that.”
“I’ve been out of the picture for a while. Had to get out of town, as they say.” Frank smirked. “Brainwashed, is he? Chalk that up as another reason Brandon never should have gone public. The Garrison keeps its possession of the medallions secret for this exact reason. Those relics are too powerful to lose.”
“One hundred percent agree.” I gestured at Sean, who tossed his bag on a couch. Inside. Where it wasn’t freezing.
“No need to hurry. I’ve got to vet you boys before—”
Light flashed to my right. Dominic had blinked out. Again.
Frank’s shotgun whipped up. “What happened? Where’d he go?”
The return portal opened behind Frank, to his left. Dominic’s Echo Watches pulsed, their components still spinning. Frank’s shotgun glowed like a toaster’s hot coils.
Frank shouted and dropped the gun. Dominic caught it.
I folded my arms and grinned. “How’s that for superfriends?”
“Not bad.” Frank nodded.
“Sorry about that,” Dominic said. “I don’t think I damaged the gun too—”
Frank grabbed Dominic’s right shoulder and punched him in the stomach. Dominic doubled over, coughing and groaning. Frank retrieved the shotgun and perched the muzzle six inches from my frozen nose. “Not too bad, but sloppy. Come on in. Coffee?”
The house had an open, airy feel for a place build out of a couple shipping containers slapped together. Frank had a fireplace going in the living room, which took the far quarter of his home. Floor to ceiling windows of thick, steel-framed glass treated us to a view of the surging slate waters of the Atlantic beyond the mouth of Sculpin Bay.
“All right, Brandon’s brainwashed.” Frank offered me a steaming mug. “How so?”
“Thanks.” Yow. Hot stuff. As in, blistering temperature. I slugged back a mouthful anyway. “Brainwashed, as in, ancient nanites. We think.”
“Not a reassuring tactical analysis.”
I shrugged. “We tend to wing it.”
“We being Procyon Foundation?”
I glanced at Dominic, who was holding his mug against his stomach. Still sore, no doubt, from where Frank socked him.
“Time for full disclosure, if you want my help.” Frank sipped his coffee, never breaking his stare.
“Procyon Foundation is a charitable organization,” Dominic said. “Its primary goal is to better the communities it serves.”
“You do a lot of ‘bettering’ when you kill monsters?” Frank smirked. “I’ll put my cards down first, all right? The Garrison is aware of Procyon’s true activities, just like I’m sure they have a file on ours.”
Dominic cleared this throat. “Well, I—”
I lit up the pulsar stave. Dominic shut up. Frank’s hand slipped to the belt line of his jeans, under the edge of his flannel shirt. Concealed carry, much? “This is getting nowhere. Yes, Procyon pays me to kill monsters. You probably heard about the messes we’ve had out West lately. All true. Okay? So, let’s make with the plan to get our friends un-brainwashed.”
“That’s the best thing a grown-up’s said so far today,” Sean muttered.
“You knew the deal,” Frank said. “You came to me for help? I’m going to assess the situation.”
“Oh, come on, Frank. Dad’s in trouble! I don’t care what your stupid Garrison rules say about getting involved. Let’s go meet with their people and see how we can put our forces together.”
“Yeah. Forces.” Sean jabbed a finger in Dominic’s direction. “He told Mercury about ‘security’ at Procyon checking something out. And I’ve seen the videos from San Camillo. There’s like dozens of guys in black with automatic weapons! No way they were all cops.”
Frank smirked behind his mug. “Procyon has a private army. There’s a shocker.”
“Well, your sarcasm game is on-point, if nothing else,” I said. “But the kid’s right. We need every helping hand we can get. I, for one, would rather go up against by brother and a cop and a superhero without Procyon’s guys because I want to keep casualties low.”
“Smart.” Frank drained the last of his coffee. “Bad news for us, of course, but that’s the way it goes. Okay. I’ll go with you.”
“Really? Yes!” Sean pumped his fists.
“That’s great. Yeah.” I scratched the back of my neck. “Armored vehicle aside—which, by the way, I heard was destroyed—what’s your skillset?”
Frank crossed to a handsome cabinet crafted from walnut. He pressed his thumb to a black box affixed to the handles. The cabinet was filled with guns, a dozen and a half that I could see.
“Classically trained, as your generation would say.” He drew out a rifle I recognized—SCAR-H, same kind that I’d seen in Procyon’s arsenal. “That, and I have some experience with the medallion that Brandon carries. Not that particular one, but close enough.”
“Oh, yeah? They let you polish them?”
Frank slammed home a magazine and checked the sights on the rifle. “Only when I wasn’t using one for twenty years as a member of the Garrison.”
Sean snickered. My cheeks burned. Pretty sure they were the same color as the laser indicator gleaming under the barrel.
Dominic clapped my shoulder. “Very smooth. I think, Mr. Belasco, we’ll get along just fine. Let me call us a ride—”
“No. Absolutely not. I’m driving.” Frank pulled on a worn leather jacket and slung the rifle on a strap over his shoulder.
Great. Boomer mobile?
Sort of. But not one I was gonna complain about.
That tarp in the shed? It covered up a hardtop Chevy Chevelle, four-door, dark blue with white stripes. When Frank turned the engine over, man, I could have heard it back in Paris.
I couldn’t help grinning as we rumbled back into the city, on warm leather seats.
Maybe this bachelor party thing wasn’t turnout out so bad.
Tyrone Thomas, Operations supervisor of Procyon Foundation’s Drake City office, was going to hit his head on the ceiling. No joke.
He was a tall Black guy, probably six and a half feet tall, dressed as classy as a guy in Loredana’s role should be—in a masculine fashion, of course. Navy-blue suit, white shirt, brown wingtips. His beard and hair are trimmed so well, he and Ramos could have had a grooming contest.
Thinking about Ramos was a bad idea. I slumped into one of the chairs surrounding a table of glass and steel in the curved conference room on the seventh floor.
“I had Tracking put a satellite into play for traces of tachyon emissions.” Thomas used his phone to trigger a screen on the far wall. A map of the United States glowed, with Procyon offices marked by white and black diamonds. A red indicator moved steadily away from Rampart. “But we were a bit late getting a move on. Security determined that Airfoil and his accomplices left Rampart on a private jet.”
“Hey!” Sean snapped. “My dad’s nobody’s accomplice.”
Frank stood behind Sean, arms crossed. He kicked Sean’s chair and put his finger to his lips, shushing the kid.
“Mr. Tusk is flying sans aircraft.” Thomas’ voice was soothing, which was a bad thing for me because the combination of leftover pizza and rich Thai food—plus a fair amount of alcohol—was not offset by the two cups of coffee I’d consumed. “Tracking got a fix, but it wasn’t until the Salt Lake City office phoned screaming that we knew what the situation was.”
“I wasn’t aware Procyon had an office in Salt Lake,” Dominic said.
“Not officially. It’s under a holding company.” Thomas tapped his phone. The map slid over, replaced by images of a—well, an office. Glass and beige concrete, same as most buildings on its block.
You could tell the Procyon one by the giant hole bashed through the front door.
“Brandon did that?” Frank’s voice didn’t betray emotion. He could have been commenting on the chance of snow. Still made me squirm.
“Witnesses are unsure of what happened. I’ve got some slowed-down surveillance footage of a black and white blur. Looks more like a business suit than a suit of armor.”
“That would be him.” My guts twisted. The sensation had nothing to do with too much or too little food. “Did anyone get hurt?”
“No. Staff issued an evac as soon as the first tremors started.”
“Thank God,” Dominic murmured.
“So, he took out one of your smaller and more secretive offices,” I said. “Unmarked. Right? What about the rest of the gang?”
“The jet’s continuing west. We lost track of to where, precisely.” Thomas returned us to the map. “Intelligence got back to us on its registration—fake, like our Salt Lake City office’s identity. They peeled back five layers of dummy corporations and pulled up Syndax Multinational.”
Dominic winced. I shook my head.
“That’s—bad?” Sean frowned.
“You see those videos of crazed ‘terrorists,’ as the news called them, fighting alongside monsters in San Camillo?”
“Yeah. The ones who might be zombies or be with zombies …” Sean’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
“Oh is right.”
“We still don’t know how it is Brandon and the others are being controlled,” Frank said.
“Hold up. Serena Cyr mentioned symmachites. Ancient Greek, maybe,” I pointed out.
Thomas stroked his beard. “That’s troublesome and worrying. I heard mention of symmachites in the old Historic Vault files. Semi-smart microscopic machines that could subsume a man’s will, make it subject to another’s.”
“Mind-controlling nanites?” I shook my head. “Let me guess. Medan tech?”
“No one’s got a clue where they come from. Not Meda, as best we know.”
Even though it meant the mini robots controlling my friends hadn’t come from a dimension I knew was stocked with powerful
weapons, my unease stuck around.
“Where is the jet headed?” Dominic asked.
“San Camillo. But there’s one other hidden office between there and Salt Lake. A listening post, really. Winnemucca, Nevada.”
I blinked at the map as he zoomed in the image. “There’s—literally nothing out there.”
“Sure. Nothing but one of our most sensitive large-scale tachyon arrays. One that relays a boatload of data to the rest of our offices in the U.S.” Thomas scowled. “No big deal.”
“You’re short on time,” Frank said. “Airfoil’s speed’s reaching beyond three hundred miles per hour these days.”
“As we estimated.” Thomas glanced at me. “If you boys can intercept him at Winnemucca, buy us some time, we can stop him.”
Dominic and I looked at each other. “It is the two of us versus him,” he said. “We’ve put up a good fight before.”
“That’s why we asked,” Thomas said. “Our intel indicates you three had a tussle here a few months back.”
“Sharp intel.” I rubbed my face. “You said you can stop him. What, you have an extra medallion around? Because from what I’ve heard, only another member of the less-than-awesome Garrison or their evil equivalent can stop somebody with one of those toys.”
Thomas glowered at Frank. “Not for lack of trying to reach them.”
“No, Mr. Hale, what we have is a decades-old prototype of a weapon—a portable emitter designed to penetrate and disable the powers provided by tachyon-enhanced weaponry such as the pulsar stave. I’m rushing the tech gang through what they’d rather have be methodical research. In a couple hours, we can have a semi-working model.”
“Way after Airfoil reaches Winnemucca.”
I stood and stretched. “Well, your gang better move fast. Because if we get ourselves stomped, San Camillo’s gonna need someone else to point and shoot. Come on, Dominic. Time to beam back to your place.”
“This is a hasty idea, but I suppose it’s our only option.” Dominic rolled up his sleeves.
“The only one in the timeframe.” Frank braced himself on the desk. “Tyrone, if your techies get me that gun, I’ve got a way to deliver it.”
“It’s not man-portable anymore. We had to mount it because it’s producing considerable kickback.”
“I’ve got a set of four wheels perfect for it.”
“Better re-think that, Frank.” I stood near to Dominic and readied for the vomit-inducing transit through the portal. “Because we can only get it to San Camillo via Dominic’s loft in Rampart. So, no tanks.”
Frank seemed to consider that. “Let me grab a tape measure.”
Before I could argue, the Echo Watches blasted us out of Drake City and toward a really bad idea.