“Cool,” Vaughn said. “Let’s go.”
He turned toward me. “You got everything?”
“I wouldn’t have locked up the van if I didn’t.” I looked over at Earthmover. “We can come back down here, right? The van’s actually kind of a school project itself, so I don’t really want to leave it in here. Ideally I’d want to bring it into wherever you have science labs. If I really had to, I could break it down into pieces and take it through the halls, but I’d rather not.”
Earthmover listened to me, and glanced over at the van. “That’s a science project?”
To be fair to him, the van was still white, and still said Castle Rock Plumbing. With my sister Rachel’s help (she was an art major), I’d learned how to fake rust convincingly, so the doors’ edges had brownish-red rust and flaking paint.
“It’s more engineering than science,” I said. “You’ll have to trust me on this one. If this makes it any easier to get it inside, you should know that it can fly.”
I couldn’t guess how many patents I could get out of it. Bearing in mind that the ceramic that composed most of it was very similar to an alien ceramic that we weren’t supposed to have access to in the first place, I’d be risking planetary annihilation to make it available to the general public.
I’d have to figure out a way to put some of the tech out there. It wasn’t the kind of nanotech that had the potential to turn the world into gray goo. This was something humanity could handle now—well, mostly.
Then Earthmover started laughing. “Is that the flying cat car?”
“Van,” I said automatically. “Really more of a mech in that form. Did it make the news already?”
“Youtube first, but SuperTV has had on-going coverage of the program’s arrival here. They played one of the videos of your vehicle taking off and flying over the traffic jam. Then they speculated about whose it was for the next fifteen minutes.”
Earthmover grinned. “Your inventions are considerably more whimsical than your grandfather’s. Was the exploding guitar supposed to be a tribute to the Who?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just thinking that lots of bands lit their guitars on fire, so what could I do that would be even crazier?”
He shook his head. “I’ll see what I can do about getting the van into the school’s labs. Worst case scenario, I’ll open up a wall for a few minutes.”
Then he said, “Let’s get moving. I’m afraid, we don’t have enough time to stand here and talk.”
He held the door open for us, and we all pulled our suitcases through. There were four elevator doors, and a staircase on the left. Earthmover pointed to the one on the far right, and we went inside.
The door closed.
As the elevator rose, Jaclyn said, “I’m a little surprised that the president of the compound, much less someone with a business to run, came to let us in today.”
Earthmover nodded. “It’s not hard to explain. I’m a busy man, and I’m not one of your teachers, but I’ve seen the news reports. I wanted to meet the new Heroes League.”
None of us said anything at first.
Then Cassie broke the silence. “That’s got to be a huge disappointment.”
Earthmover smiled briefly at her for a second. “Not at all, but it’s all been so busy I neglected to introduce myself. You know my codename, but my real name is Reed Jorgenson. It’s good to meet all of you. We’re informal here, so you can call me Reed.”
Cassie raised an eyebrow at him. “Great to meet you, but if you don’t already know my real name, I’m not going to offer it up. You don’t have a Stapledon program block, do you?”
Reed grunted, “No.”
“Then we probably shouldn’t volunteer our names. No offense, okay?” Cassie had already let go of her duffle bag, and placed it on top of her suitcase. Her hands were free.
I hoped she wasn’t preparing to throw down with him. He almost had to know our names already.
Reed shook his head. “I wasn’t expecting it. I can’t say it would be a lot of work to find out, but I accept your need for privacy. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Your grandparents were masters of the secret identity. We’re not as concerned with it here.”
I’d always heard that about the compounds. The way Grandpa described it, they’d been born of idealism during the late 1960’s and 70’s, but hit their peak in the 80’s. Many of the younger heroes didn’t want to keep secrets anymore, and they told everybody their names. Then they’d found that they had no place to get away from the fans, the news reporters, and the courts. Over a few decades the compounds had turned from hippie communes into gated communities who hired devastatingly effective legal teams and public relations firms.
Vaughn nodded as if it were news to him. “That’s amazing. I never want to find out what would happen if the news media connected my real life to my codename. There’d be way too many questions.”
Reed nodded. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. The media deliberately don’t go fishing for real names. They don’t want to stop a hero from doing what’s right, and some of them are afraid of getting on our bad side. I’m more worried about the public. Some of them don’t know when to leave you alone.”
Haley looked up at me. I don’t know what she would have said because Vaughn asked, “Do you have any advice for us? You were a hero for years, and we’ve just begun.”
Reed stood thoughtfully for a moment. Then he said, “Good question. I’ll tell you what I always wished people had told me before I put on the costume—think about what happens when it’s over. Ninety percent of heroes stop before they’ve been doing it for ten years. Sometimes they die. Some get hurt. Sometimes they’ve seen too many horrible things, and give up. While you’ve got the public eye, you need to get everything you can out of it—connections, contracts, cash. Then when you’re done, you can walk away knowing you’ll be taken care of.
“That’s one thing I like about your program’s college enrollment policy. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a degree. You may not have the experience you need, but you’ll have connections, and the ability to walk out of this life.
“It’s not for everyone,” he said.
The elevator doors opened.