The idea of helping me skip school amused Rachel as much as I thought it might.
It amused her enough to wake up at seven instead of nine, and pretend to be Mom. The school bought it. One of the nice things about not being the kind of guy who gets in trouble regularly is that the staff doesn’t recognize your mother’s voice.
She called from the phone in the upstairs hallway, bringing it into her room for the call.
After she hung up, she said, “So what are you going to do?”
“Work on the Rocket suit, and maybe a couple other things.”
“That’s such a waste of a day off from school. I skipped a couple times at the end of senior year, but I went to the beach.”
“In the spring? The water had to be pretty cold.”
“I didn’t swim. I hiked down the beach for a few miles with Chloe and Amy and their boyfriends. I can’t believe that was three years ago already.”
“Chloe and Amy? I haven’t seen either of them around. Are they home from school yet?”
“They are, but I haven’t seen them much because of, you know, everything. They came when I played at the coffeehouse.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
“There’s no reason you should. But you should know I’ve been going to HQ to practice during the day.”
“Mostly to not hear Mom and Dad tell me that I should be looking for a job, but it’s nice to practice somewhere quiet.”
Rachel drove me to HQ around eight, the same time she would have driven me to school, keeping us both under the radar — except she did bring her guitar.
I spent most of the morning casting pieces of the arm, and using miscast pieces to experiment with ways to put in circuitry and artificial muscles.
Rachel spent it practicing in one of the storage rooms. I didn’t hear her very well, but suspected that that was intentional.
We went out for lunch at Two Choppers (Rachel’s idea), and I got a falafel wrap. We could have had leftover pizza. Travis, and Marcus grabbed the mistakes on the way out of work most nights, so we usually had plenty of free pizza around — which was nice, provided you weren’t fussy.
I’d been getting fussier.
You might not believe it, but there is such a thing as too much free pizza.
Anyway, my League cellphone rang while we were at the restaurant. I checked it. It was Vaughn.
“Nick, are you skipping school?”
“No way. What are you doing?”
In the background, I heard him say, “Nick’s skipping. No joke.” Someone laughed. I thought it might be Cassie.
“I’m just working on stuff. Catching up on everything Travis and everyone else has been harping on.”
“Cool. Hey, I told Sean today. He knows all about Ray.”
“Wow. How did he take it?”
“I think he was kind of shocked, but that’s not all. He invited me to watch them practice.”
“Not to practice with them or anything because I don’t have powers, right? But they practice outside next to one of our buildings.”
“Outside? That’s crazy. Why?”
“I don’t know. Sean, probably. I bet he trashes buildings pretty quickly.”
“I could see that.”
In the background, a bell rang. “Hey, all of us non-juvenile delinquents have to get to class.”
As he hung up, I heard him say, “Cassie, you owe me ten bucks.”
Rachel laughed about the call all the way back to HQ.
After we got back, she disappeared for an hour, and I worked on the suit. I spent most of my time putting the new arm together. It would have been easier if it didn’t have so many layers — including the anti-magnetic mesh around the electronics, the artificial muscles, the ablative coating on the outside that protected the suit from lasers, the insulation against the suit’s sonic devices, and the gel layer that absorbed and spread out any force that managed to get past everything else.
If you put together the whole thing, and realized that you’d forgotten a wire or made a bad connection, you had take it all apart again. Forgetting a wire was easy when you considered that flight, sonics, and instrumentation could be controlled through the gloves. That didn’t even count the various sensors that sent information back to the helmet.
I had it out on the counter in the workroom, and found myself putting it back together for the second time when an alert came across the lab’s computer monitor.
I’d set it to notify me when certain keywords appeared in the transcript of a live bugging session.
“Ray” was one of the keywords.
As the alert moved across the screen, I clicked on the link, and found myself with a bug’s eye view of Russell Hardwick’s office downtown.
Unlike his home office, the decor was all metal and glass. The roachbot didn’t have the ability to pass it back to me, but the blurry blue past the office’s glass walls probably held a great view of Grand Lake.
The roachbot did a good job of showing Sean’s dad standing in front of Hardwick’s desk.
Except for his moustache, Mr. Drucker reminded me of Sean — tall, blonde, and angry.
That, and I’d never seen Sean in a dark blue suit, or for that matter, any kind of suit.
“You agreed just like everyone else,” Hardwick said.
“I still don’t like it. He’s an escaped convict, and keeping him here could land us all in jail. I agreed to let him give us some pointers on how to fight Prime and the Cabal. I didn’t agree to having his people take up permanent residence here, and get a truckload of gear from Syndicate L. God dammit, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that my employees get the gear they need to get the job done. I got them what they need, just like I get you what you need.”
“Bullshit. This is all bullshit.They’re going to sell us down the river the first chance they get.”
“No, they’re not. We’ve got the Impregnator, and they don’t. Ray’s got power, and one person on his team has a small talent, but until he brings us through this successfully, all they’ll get is the power juice.”
Mr. Drucker placed his hand on the nearest metal beam, as if steadying himself. “You’re seeing what you want to see Russell, or you’ve thrown in your lot with them. Either way, if you betray us, you’ll want to remember you’re not the only one with power.”
Metal came away from the beam, coating Drucker’s hand, and leaving the beam looking like a partially melted ice sculpture.
The metal surrounding the hand moved as naturally as his own skin.