MERcURY OUT CoLD
Ramos had to call in SCPD’s special task force, because A.) we didn’t have a private prison for the supervillains we defeated, and B.) no way we were inviting Homeland Security onto the premises of our new secret base.
Still satisfying to watch six guys wrapped head to toe in black body armor load Xia into a secure van.
“I’ll have to turn her over to the feds,” Ramos said. “I’ve already had to let a dozen calls go to voicemail. One from the mayor. Two from the governor.”
The cops loaded into their vehicles and drove off, engine noises receding into the forest surrounding the base. “Nice. You gonna try for autographs?”
Ramos shook his head. Then he grimaced. “Remind me not to do that for a while.”
“You’d better get Doc Arne to check you out.”
“On my way now.” He clapped my shoulder. “Nice work.”
“Really? ‘Nice work?’ You’ve got to be joking.” I chuckled. “Just took out my own allies, including a superhero with the capability of crushing us all in our sleep, and brought in a legendary forecaster from Procyon’s oldest family line!”
“After letting her base of operations get destroyed.”
“What? Hey. We had it covered.”
“That isn’t how I remembered it.” Edie was standing to my left. I swore that spot was empty air a few seconds ago. “You cost me some of my favorite brass candleholders.”
“Sorry.” I scratched my neck. “In my defense, there wasn’t a lot of time to train up on fighting superhero-turned-supervillain.”
“Don’t worry. It was time for change.” Edie tilted her bow over one shoulder. She lifted her chin, as if feeling the breeze blowing across the tarmac of the makeshift landing pad. “I knew as soon as I got the call from Thomas.”
Tyrone Thomas? That reminded me … I glanced at the bunker. Bruno the mech slumped on its hind legs, hatch wide open. “Any luck?”
Brandon climbed out. “Nothing. Not a scrap of paper.”
“You seriously didn’t expect Frank to stick around, did you? I mean, he is a wanted man.”
“No, I understand. We just …” Brandon ran a hand through his hair. “We’d been through a lot. I’d hoped he was back in time to help for good. But not so much as a hint as to where he’s been hiding out.”
Sean climbed out behind Brandon. He shook his head and very emphatically mouthed, No.
“I bet he’ll turn up,” I said. “Seems like a reliable guy. Especially when you need someone to lend firepower.”
Brandon’s expression darkened as he and Sean walked over to us. “It’s not a major deal, but … Never mind for now. Sean, we’d better get going.”
“I know, Dad. Maybe check in with Doc Arne? See if you’re like cleaned out of all the evil robot things?”
Brandon smiled and mussed his hair. “Not a bad thought. I’ll be right back. And Mercury …” He offered a hand. “Thank you again for saving my son.”
We shook. “Hey, I can only take so much credit. Loredana’s the crack shot.”
“Yes, but you led the team. You made the tough calls when things went sideways. That’s no easy feat.” He grinned. “I might even take notes.”
I placed a hand to my chest. “Be still my heart!”
As soon as he ducked inside the bunker entrance, Sean glared at me.
“What gives?” I jerked a thumb. “I thought Frank was his Obi-wan.”
“Yeah, okay, but Frank doesn’t want Dad knowing where he’s at.” Sean shrugged. “Whatever. Something about finding his own way without interference.”
“Is that why the Garrison didn’t show up to either of these shindigs?”
“It’s like Frank said. If they had come out, they would have killed him. And taken the medallion. Not what Dad wants.”
“I bet death isn’t on his checklist,” I muttered.
“Sure.” Sean scuffed at the dirt. He refused to make eye contact. “Okay, so, thanks for helping him out. And not killing him.”
“You bet, kid. You’re not a bad sidekick for Airfoil.”
Ramos chuckled as Sean hurried inside the bunker, presumably to check on his dad. “That is not unfamiliar.”
“The attitude?” I snorted. “I bet, with the ages of your pre-teens and teen-ogre.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean them.”
We headed into the base, weaving between Procyon staff busy with repairs. There were a lot of loose wires I hadn’t noticed on our initial rampage. Smoke, too, but since no one was screaming about a fire or running around with extinguishers, I figured it was under control.
The infirmary was wall-to-crumbling concrete wall full of people, too, most of whom were sitting in rusty metal chairs with hideous puke green padding or laid out on beds. Brandon sat on the edge of one of those beds, arm extended, as a middle-aged Asian woman in scrubs drew blood. Sean had his face buried in his phone, shoe kicking against the wall. Kid looked so pale I was gonna asked him if he wanted smelling salts. My theory? Not a fan of the needles.
My favorite surly Millennial doctor was barking orders at people. I mean, if he were any more literally barking, I’d tell him to sit and stay. But his hair was slicked to perfection, and the beard groomed without so much as a millimeter out of place.
“If I wanted them sent out the door without a blood sample, I wouldn’t have said give me a blood sample from everybody,” he snapped at a tall, reedy young black man in medical scrubs. “Why don’t you try that one more time before I send you to Elizabeth for target practice!”
“Doctor Becker.” Loredana’s voice cut across the tumult. Even dressed in her goofy Dr. Who sweater, with her arms folded she was every inch the operations boss. “We’re all stressed. I would suggest you search for the mythical bedside manner I know you possess. The holidays are coming soon, after all.”
“Humbug,” Arne muttered, but he returned to checking on Alvarez’s bandage without further whining.
“How’re you holding up, Mister Manager?” I gave Alvarez a thumbs up.
“Well, considering my wound.” Alvarez sighed. “Once again, we’re in your debt.”
“You’re welcome. Also, how’s that a bad thing? Because you act like we didn’t win.”
“I’m glad of that. But I’m worried you’ll collect on the debts you’ve accumulated.”
I pantomimed shooting him. “You know it. And it’ll involve copious amounts of vacation. Just remember to call me first when you’ve got a top-secret mission that involves evil weapons or sentient ancient robots. Because I’m the best.”
Loredana rolled her eyes.
“Ever humble. Ms. Lark, if you’d take over things until I recover …”
“Gladly.” She looped an arm through mine. “At least until our nuptials are resolved. Join me in the lab, my love.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I winked at Alvarez as we headed out the door.
Liz’s testing lab was a cold, bare set of concrete walls and slab. A straight-up box. Wires ran in thick bundles across the ceiling and walls, like highways of electricity and data. A row of bright white lab coats hung by the door.
She and Dominic examined the black sword, which was suspended on hooks inside a container of transparent plastic. More wires ran from it into a bank of computer hard drives.
“Mercury!” Liz was a petite woman of Middle Eastern descent with a shock of pink hair and fire engine red Converse sneakers. She flung herself onto me, squeezing my ribs in a hug that was both heartwarming and injury-aggravating. “You made it! Though I don’t know why I sounded so surprised because you always make it through even when the odds are overwhelming which is crazy because there’s so many enemies that get thrown—”
“Liz.” I patted her back. “I’m okay. We’re okay.”
“Oh, good. Great!”
“Lordy, if that ain’t the understatement of the decade.” Wilhelmina, real name Sherry Jean Crown, strolled into the lab like she was on vacation. Which she must have been, because she wore flowery blouse of mingled pastel colors and a flowing coral blue skirt. She even had on flipflops, and her skin, the shade of rich mahogany, had gotten darker against the shock white hair.
She flipped up her sunglasses and patted my cheek, blue eyes shining. “Mornin’, child.
“Hey, you.” I checked my watch. Morning? Seriously? Yeah, it was well past midnight. Oof. “Checking in on everyone?”
“Only to make sure you ain’t all been killed. Which it’s nice to see hasn’t happened.”
“So sweet. Anyhoo …” I gestured to Liz. “What’s the scoop on our latest razor sharp, uber powerful artifact?”
“It’s made of the same Medan materials as the pulsar stave, the ax, and the night’s blade, but combined in ways I haven’t seen.” Liz pulled up her report on her table—and by report, I meant a mishmash of data streams filling the screen. “Of course, there’s a whole bunch of other alloys mixed in that I don’t recognize. They’re none we’ve seen before, either.”
“She’s convinced it has something to do with how Xia controlled the symmachites.” Dominic prowled the periphery of the container. His face was drawn, pale, but he seemed to be recovering well. “There’s evidence of circuitry at a microscopic level. Very advanced.”
Dominic swung a device that looked like a gun, except it was a microscope mounted on gimbals. I peered into the other end. The lines along a chipped edge of the sword—the chip itself too small to be seen with the naked eye—were dazzling. “Those look kinda familiar.”
“They should. I’ve gotten a peek at Airfoil’s medallion.” Liz’s cheeks flushed. “I maybe kinda took a picture when he wasn’t looking and enhanced it with Cyril. He was able to clean it up.”
Sure enough, the image Liz offered next on her tablet was a fuzzy, smeared version of the same circuitry I’d seen through the microscope. “Wow.”
“Indeed.” Loredana took a turn with the microscope. “I shall endeavor to convince Manager Alvarez we need to question the individual called Xia about what she experienced under the influence of this weapon.”
“Well, she hadn’t absorbed any of the symmachites, if that’s what you mean,” Liz said.
“I understand. Nevertheless, she was able to exercise control over our operatives and other individuals using direct mind-to-mind communication, with the symmachite microbes as the conduit. How the sword achieves it we have yet to determine.”
“Any luck in the Historic Vaults?” Wilhelmina examined the tablet. She swiped through data until she found a magnified image of a symmachite. Think of a tick, except cybernetically modified and with way too many fangs. “’Cause this can’t be the first time the symmachites have reared their nasty little heads.”
“I … No. Not yet.” Liz studied her shoes. “I mean, Cyril’s running a search and I was hoping he’d get back to me—”
“Don’t you worry none. I meant the older stuff, not what got scanned in.” Wilhelmina pocketed her sunglasses and glanced at Loredana. “I hear these things were hiding in an ancient Greek pot. Might could be Procyon had a similar find a few decades back.”
Loredana nodded. “I have a contact in Intelligence who might be of service.”
As soon as Wilhelmina turned from the screens, Liz swiped back to where she liked them and relaxed.
“Bigger problem.” I scratched my chin.
“This thing’s got no name. Nothing memorable.”
“Robo-sword?” Dominic tried.
“Terrible,” I muttered.
“Dark edge!” Liz offered.
“For goodness’ sake,” Loredana said. “Can we wait until it’s property cataloged and investigated before bestowing a silly codename?”
Dominic covered his mouth with his hand. That didn’t stop the chuckle from bleeding around his fingers.
“Don’t worry,” I told Liz. “She’s just cranky because she got her party interrupted. And speaking of which …”
I winked at Loredana. “I think we both deserve a Take Two.”
Carlito’s had plenty of seats open. It was Sunday afternoon, and we’d arrived after the post-church crowd had cleared out. The tinny music over the speakers and the scuff of shoes on tile floor were enough to set me at ease.
Having a much more relaxed version of our bachelor dinner was even better.
Our five were seated at a round corner table— “The booth of power,” Teget deemed it as he slugged back a glass of pop.
I raised my glass. “To the best super-team a hero could hope for! Even if I did have to save all your butts.”
Groans rippled around the table. Brandon flicked a mozzarella stick my way—unassisted by his fingers, of course. I caught it and devoured the weapon in one gulp.
“Don’t forget to breath in between bites.” Ramos clinked his glass against mine.
“Yes, sir, Lieutenant.” I was glad we could get laughter back so fast after things had gone dark. But it was easy with these guys. Easier than I’d ever thought it could be, considering that nine months ago I was resigned to a solo life.
The things world-endangering threats will do to a person, am I right?
Dominic nudged Brandon. “Don’t throw all our food. You promised Sean the leftovers.”
“It’s the least I could do after I abandoned him yet again,” Brandon said. “No, not really. He’s with his Uncle Reed—my friend. There’s a new superhero movie they were both dying to see.”
“What, and you ditched your kid for a delayed dinner with us?” I clucked my tongue. “I feel the need to chastise you.”
“Don’t bother. I can’t stand those films. Sean knows it.”
“You cannot stand tales of heroic adventures undertaken by beings who possess phenomenal gifts?” Teget chewed on his ice as if he were in the Sahara and he’d been given his first cold treat in days.
“There’s an overabundance of irony there,” Dominic said.
“I think it’s fair to say none of us were planning this journey as the way our lives would play out,” Brandon said.
“But it’s our path now,” Ramos said. “There’s no backing down from it. I know, I’m the cop, and there’s a thing or two about duty I take for granted that you all could learn. That doesn’t change our responsibility.”
“To safeguard our worlds,” Teget said. “And those beyond which may need our protection.”
“Heavy stuff.” I shook my head. “Let’s keep our voices down so this doesn’t wind up on Twitter.”
“He’s right, though. Both are.” Dominic idly swirled a straw through his pop. “I could have lost everything if I’d been more blind to the threats facing us. Procyon gave me a chance to fix what I’d broken and give back more than I’d been given.”
“Good deal.” I gestured with a mozzarella stick—a half-eaten one. The pizza had better get here quick or I was gonna duel Teget for the last one in the basket. “As far as I’m concerned, the more allies we round up, the better.”
“Glad you feel that way.”
Man. I seriously was gonna check for an Echo Watch on Edie’s wrist if she appeared behind me one more time. A smirk lurked at the corner of her mouth.
“Sorry, Edie, this is the boys’ party. Girls are on the other side of the restaurant.” I waggled my fingers in an exaggerated lovey fashion at Loredana, who sat with Liz and Wilhelmina against the far wall. She blew me a kiss. It wasn’t her weekend away, but she said it would tide her over until her girlfriends could get back to town.
“I can tell by the rise in tachyon pulses as I approached the table.” Her smirk unfolded into a grin. “And the increase in body odor.”
“Burn,” Brandon said.
“That sounded like your kid,” Ramos murmured. “And mine.”
They clinked their glasses together and poured more pop.
“I just wanted to congratulate you again on the victory and tell you I’m looking forward to having you fill out paperwork for me,” Edie continued.
“I’msorrywhatnow?” The words spilled out.
“Loredana’s offered me the Forecasting office here—at the San Camillo office.” Light glinted off the wolf nose ring. “See you bright and early after the honeymoon.”
I watched her walk back to the ladies’ table. She said something to their gathering and all four burst out laughing.
“Is it too late,” I asked the guys, “To request a transfer? Like, to Meda?”
“She is a great warrior, and a worthy ally,” Teget said.
“Absolutely.” I rubbed my forehead. “I’d just rather be eaten by an astral fiend than get paperwork.”