Tiger sniffed his hand and leaned in to lick Jeremy’s face. Tiger had a large tongue, adding a layer of slobber to Jeremy’s right cheek and the side of his nose.
I’d have been worried that I’d just contaminated Jeremy with alien bacteria, but the Xiniti had already worked that out. We’d stopped by the Xiniti space station next to the Earth jump gate for debriefing and decontamination after we entered our solar system.
Bearing in mind that the Abominators terraformed the planets where they settled humans to use Earth species, the Xiniti had procedures for moving humans and animals from one to another without causing epidemics or dietary deficiencies.
I’d checked them out on my implant, but because it was outside my areas of expertise, I didn’t go too deeply into it. It amounted to wide-scale destruction and replacement of bacteria and viruses—using a mixture of nanotech, bacteriophages, and other techniques.
It almost would have been ironic if Jeremy would have gotten sick from Tiger’s lick. When I’d met him as a freshman, he’d been one of the world’s many conspiracy theorists who didn’t believe that we’d ever been visited by aliens. They believed it had all been faked for some terrible purpose.
Don’t ask me what that would be. I’d known aliens before I even knew what aliens were.
Anyway, Jeremy and I had both grown and matured since then. Besides, in that moment I wasn’t thinking too much about Jeremy. I needed to talk to Vaughn.
I met Vaughn’s eyes. “We should go back into my lab. Isaac Lim called me just now with something that we should talk about privately.”
Vaughn raised an eyebrow. “No kidding? I wonder what this is about. Is he trying to kick me off the team?”
I shook my head. “Nothing like that, but it is complicated and uh… family related.”
Vaughn blinked. “Awesome. I can tell this is going to be good.”
I looked over at Tara. “We won’t be long. You can talk or play with Tiger or something.”
She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I know how this goes. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
We both looked at Jeremy. He’d backed against the wall. Tiger had stopped licking Jeremy’s face and moved his head down to sniff Jeremy’s crotch.
Meanwhile, Jeremy looked at me, then Tara, then back to me again, eyes wide. It was then that I remembered how a couple years ago he and two other guys had showed me a video in which Tara had taken down a street gang and saved a mother and daughter’s lives.
Jeremy and his friends hadn’t commented so much on her fighting skills—which were amazing—as much as on her body. I’d left because I’d wanted to go to my lab and also because listening to them talk about her had made me feel uncomfortable. I’d known her already back then.
On the other hand, she’d been in costume, so he wouldn’t recognize her. Plus, I hadn’t told her that story about him. They should be fine.
I glanced over at Jeremy. If I had to name his expression (wide eyes and expressionless face), I would have gone with poorly hidden terror. And that sucked because the four of us were basically going to be living together this year.
Well, he was going to have to figure this out. Besides Tara was good enough with people that she’d be able to finesse the situation somehow. At least I hoped so because I didn’t have any idea how to make this less awkward.
“Okay,” I said and walked back into the lab with Vaughn.
Behind us, I could hear Tara saying, “Come here, Tiger. Good dog. Good dog! Fetch the ball!”
Dog claws scraped across the concrete, followed by the sound of shattering glass. I wondered which trophy case it had been.
Tara’s voice said, “Oopsie. So, Jeremy, you’ve been rooming with Nick for the last two years. I know he’s in engineering. What are you majoring in?”
I missed Jeremy’s answer. He mumbled.
Vaughn and I sat down on the same stools that Tara and I had sat down on earlier. Vaughn grinned at me, looking out toward the door.
“I kind of wish we were out there. Did you see Jeremy’s face? That was the face of a guy who’s got no idea of what he’s going to do next. I mean, he’s seriously uncomfortable. My guess is that he’s so distracted by what she looks like that he hasn’t noticed that she’s happy to just talk.”
“Yeah, I’m kind of glad I’m not out there.” I glanced toward the door, not seeing either Tara or Jeremy. I couldn’t claim I’d have been any better than he was except that I’d almost always been training or acting as Lee’s assistant when I was with her. All the time we’d spent punching each other hadn’t left me much time to be awkward.
Vaughn laughed. “So, what’s going on with my family?”
I took a moment to organize my thoughts. “It’s not so much your family as your family’s companies. They’ve invested in a company called Higher Ground which has some contracts with the Feds to study alien technology. The FBI suspects that the Nine have their fingers in Higher Ground too. So your uncle Russ might be connected to the Nine. Because of that, the feds are sending me in to gather information as part of my internship.”
Nodding, Vaughn said, “I see where this is going. I’m doing my internship in the same complex and so I might be able to help. Plus, being family means I can get in pretty much anywhere if I want.”
“Right,” I said. “That and also, are you okay with maybe going up against your own family on this? Because that’s the big thing here.”
Vaughn shook his head. “It isn’t. This isn’t going up against my family. This is maybe going up against Uncle Russ. A bunch of people in my family were ready to remove him from being CEO after the whole thing with Ray. Uncle Russ has always been involved in shady shit, but mostly he’s managed to keep it evidence free. So no one’s ever proved it, but this? If he’s involved with the Nine, that’s bad for the company and bad for my family. The way I see it, we’re working for my family—the law-abiding part, anyway. If he’s working with the Nine, we’ll throw him out on his ass.”
I thought about that, finally saying, “I’m beginning to feel like I just stepped into ‘Game of Thrones.’ That or maybe ‘The Godfather’.”
Vaughn grinned. “It’s not personal, it’s business. Except, believe me, it’ll be personal too. There are people in my family who’ve hated him since they were kids.”
“And now I’m getting a ‘Nine Princes in Amber’ vibe,” I said. “I hope your family isn’t as familiar with murder.”