“When you say they’re similar to you in little ways, do you mean that it’s not obvious that you’re related just by looking at you?” That seemed like an okay way to get at the main question on my mind—whether she might be part of a cell of True and somehow not realize it.
It struck me as I asked that one of the True might well pick up that I knew what they were.
So maybe it wasn’t the best question, but if she recognized what I was after, she never showed it. She gave me a wide smile. “Not at all—well, they do look like me a little. You can see it in our faces, but my biological brother and sister look like our mother or our father, but I look like a mix. I wouldn’t have guessed we were related without online DNA websites. We’re a mix of everything around the Mediterranean—Italian, Greek, Northern Africa, Arabic, all of it.”
She looked from Vaughn to me. “Did either of you ever get your DNA tested?”
Vaughn laughed. “My parents got curious and it turned out we already knew almost everything. We’re English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh by genealogical research and DNA tests showed pretty much the same except they also included like three percent from Sub-Saharan Africa. We’re not sure what’s up with that. Is it random or did we maybe have a black ancestor who passed for white a few generations back? It’s fun to speculate about, but that’s all.”
Emmy turned back to me. “And you?”
I shook my head. “We haven’t done DNA testing, but I did a genealogy project in high school. My family’s German and Dutch with a little bit of ancestry from Norway and Sweden.”
I was lying—partly. I’d gotten my DNA tested when we were off-planet. My ancestry was mostly human, but with a clear connection to the Artificers, aliens from early in the universe’s history that were still divided over whether or not to destroy all other sentient life.
Emmy didn’t ask for more information though. We’d reached Vaughn’s stop. Emmy led us into a room that could best be described as a sea of cubicles, almost all of them filled with people staring at their computers or talking over the walls.
A few of them greeted Emmy and she’d smile and say, “hi,” but she didn’t stop. She led us next to the wall, passing offices, meeting rooms and labs—which was interesting. Ronnie had said the labs were in the other building. I supposed that these might be labs that didn’t analyze alien tech.
When we did stop, she led Vaughn into an office where a tall man wearing a suit and tie glanced over at the two of them, blinked, and pushed his chair away from his desk. While I didn’t hear everything, I watched as he pumped Vaughn’s hand as if his departmental budget depended on it.
To be fair, it might have.
Emmy stepped out and said, “You’re next.”
I wondered if I’d be able to keep the conversation going without Vaughn there to lead it. It turned out that my worry was unnecessary because Emmy could handle keeping that moving on her own.
“You’ll like them. Higher Ground is a fun company. The owner, Sandy LePage, comes from Silicon Valley and he told me he wanted it to be different from your average midwestern office. Oh, and I don’t know what he’s been told about you, but when I talked to him he was very excited.”
I don’t know what expression my face showed, but she frowned. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. After the last time, I said something, I should have known better. Sandy’s nice and even though they’re working on top secret projects, you’d never know it. It really is the fun side of the building and I know there’s a reason they’re excited to have you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’re right. I didn’t think I was nervous, but I guess I am.”
All of that was true. I hadn’t thought I was nervous, but discovering Emmy, noticing this place’s security, and being reminded that they knew enough about me they were excited to have me… Well, upon doing a quick self-assessment of how I felt, I realized that “nervous” described my emotions accurately.
Emmy reached out and put her hand on my shoulder. “Relax.”
I didn’t, but it was nice that she cared. “I’ll try.”
“That’s all anyone can do.” She let her hand rest on my shoulder a little longer before she pointed down the hall. “It’s at the end.”
During the walk, the hallway had jogged left and we were now walking next to the outside wall. From the inside, the mirrored glass was only dark, shaded glass.
As we walked, I thought about Emmy. Even beyond how she looked, she had Tara’s friendliness and optimism. In noticing my mood, she might even have a hint of Tara and the True’s ability to pick up small details and predict what people would do.
All the same, from what I’d seen of her, I wouldn’t say to myself, “This is the woman I want to use as a base for my unstoppable, genocidal army.” Well, not unless I wanted to create an army of therapists. She might be a good choice for that.
When push came to shove, the True didn’t have to be created here. This could be one of the realities where they never came into being. I could hope that she lacked some crucial ingredient.
As we neared the door, she said, “Remember. Relax. It’ll be fine.”
With that I opened the door, letting the two of us in. Then I stopped, absorbing the room. The words, “Higher Ground” hung in the middle of the room, glowing in green neon against a black background with smaller lights that suggested stars.
Unlike the rest of the building which had been all gray tile for the floors and white, black or gray painted walls, Higher Ground had wooden floors in the lobby and green paint on the walls. A pool table and a foosball table stood next to each other under the sign.
No one was using them.
I assumed that was because they were all working and looked past them toward the cubicles in the main area of the office. There, at least, it didn’t look any different than the Hardwick Industries portion of the building.
Even as I thought that a heavy man in a black t-shirt with a white Apple logo popped up from one cubicle holding a nerf gun. He opened up on a cubicle three cubes to his left, rewarded by a voice shouting, “Ow! Fuck!”
The shooter gave us a thumbs up, saying, “Heya, Emmy. Sandy’s on his way. He’ll be here any minute now.”
Emmy gave a lopsided grin. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
On the left side of the lobby, a door opened and a man walked through. He was tall, blond and wearing a gray and black striped suit jacket with blue jeans and without a tie.
Gawky even as a thirty-something, Sandy LePage gave Emmy a hug and then hugged me.
It was every bit as awkward as it sounds.
“Welcome to the team!” He released me and stepped back. “Good to meet you, Nick. I hope you’ll love the company like we do.”