When I walked into Higher Ground’s office, I had two minutes in front of my desk to check email before Stephanie all but dragged me away to the lab. I’d literally just clicked on an email she’d written to me. The subject? “COME TO THE LAB NOW!”
Even as I logged out of my computer and stood up from my chair, I heard the door open and Stephanie grabbed my arm and led me out the door to the lab.
Letting go of my arm as the door shut behind us, she said, “You’re meeting with Ryan McCall. He’s the lab’s chief scientist.”
Walking next to her on the path to the lab, I managed to get out an, “Uh-huh.”
“You’re going to want to make a good impression. Even if you’re not planning to work here, it’ll get you better assignments now. If you were planning to work here, I’d be irresponsible not to tell you that he’s gotten people fired over the stupidest things.”
Eyeing her expression, I felt sure that she meant it. “Oh. So he’s not easy to deal with?”
She took a breath, “He’s relaxed and friendly on the surface, but he’s also the reason we’ve lost three scientists this year.”
I’d have asked more questions, but by then we were in the lab. We scanned in, walked through the “airlock,” and almost walked into the man were there to meet.
Ryan McCall stood only a couple feet back from the door. With bleached blond hair, a slim but muscular body, tight slacks, and a blue shirt with a noticeable sheen, he looked more like he was planning to go dancing than work as a scientist.
In retrospect, I thought I remembered seeing him talking and drinking with Russell Hardwick and Sandy before Stephanie and I started walking down the beach.
Nodding to Stephanie, he said, “This is Nick?”
“That’s right.” To me, she said, “Nick, meet Dr. McCall.”
He smiled and shook my hand. “Thanks, Stephanie. You can go now. I’d like to talk to him in my office.”
“Let me know when you’re done, Nick.” She met my eyes, giving me a look that I interpreted as “I told you he was a jerk.”
Nodding toward the other side of the building, he said, “This way,” leading me between groups of cubicles and cabinets full of samples, past the birthing chambers, and over to a row of offices along the far wall.
“She’s kind of hot,” he told me.
I guessed that he meant that as small talk. Maybe if I was noncommittal he’d move on to another topic? “Sure.”
He opened the door to his office. “How long have the two of you known each other?”
“A couple of years. We were in the same scholarship program so we ran into each other every two weeks during school. We’ve never been particularly close, but we get along.”
He chuckled. “She’s a good person to know here. She’s barely more than an intern herself, but she’s organizing the interns and acting as project manager for a few different things. That’s the nice thing about the newly hired. They’ve got something to prove.”
He indicated the chair in front of his desk. “Please sit.”
It didn’t seem long since I’d sat down across from Dr. Strazinsky, but this was a very different office. Dr. Strazinsky’s had been organized and professorial. This looked like the rest of the lab—concrete floor, thick metal cabinets that held samples and probably files.
A box with scraps of material sat on his desk. He fished a large one out of the box. My implant identified it as a ceramic material based on one the Abominators created that was commonly used in galactic civilization.
Holding the long, red shard above the box, he asked, “Let’s say that we want to analyze this material, but we can’t get a sample off of it that’s small enough. We’d like scrapings so that we can easily put them under a microscope or analyze them in other ways. We don’t have anything hard enough on Earth that we can scrape anything off of it, much less cut it or grind it down. Not even diamonds will work. What would you do?”
I looked down at the box of scraps, thinking about it and then looking for more of the same material inside. Diamond cut diamond. This should be able to cut itself.
Not everything inside the box was of alien manufacture. I recognized various metals, rock shards, and even gems in addition to alien materials.
Finding one of the same type as the original shard, I took it and ran my piece across it, leaving a long scrape down the length of it.
He laughed. “Very nice. You’re not the first person to try that, but you’re one of the quickest. A few had the same idea, but couldn’t identify the right material. Others carefully tried all of them—which I respect, but it’s so slow. Now, explain your reasoning.”
I put the shards back in the box. “I thought if diamond could cut diamond, this material could cut itself too. That’s all. Nothing too clever.”
He laughed again. “That’s what I like about engineers. They go for the simple, pragmatic idea. I think you’ll do well here. Now, what are you interested—”
His desk phone rang and he picked it up. I had little choice but hear his end of the conversation. He didn’t tell me to leave.
He spent the first minute or two listening, finally responding with, “I don’t care. I don’t care what you have to do or who owns it now. Get it. You’ve got a budget. Think about what you can do. Okay? I don’t care how. Get it or you’re fired.”
Then he hung up, giving me a quick smile, he said, “I can’t imagine what that sounded like to you. Sometimes we have to motivate our people to get what the business needs. I gave him a push.”