With everything going on at Higher Ground, you’d think that I’d work on that and nothing else, but life wasn’t that simple.
We’d gotten to that point in the semester when the tests begin to appear and papers along with them. Electronic engineering and materials science weren’t majors with a lot of papers, but I did have to turn in a couple of short ones explaining the technical choices I’d made on projects. The tests weren’t bad—Dr. Strazinsky’s calculus class asked about material I’d learned on my own and “Principles of Photonics” was interesting enough that I couldn’t ignore it.
No, the thing that sucked time out of my life was that I had a Stapledon weekend on top of all that. That meant being teleported to Castle Rock, Colorado for the weekend and engaging in physical training, tactical drills, and a few lectures on top of whatever school work I hoped to do.
Twice monthly training weekends in exchange for free tuition wasn’t much to complain about, but I found myself doing exactly that.
We were all in the dorm room I shared with Daniel when we were in Castle Rock. It wasn’t just Daniel and me either. Cassie and Jaclyn were also there. We’d cleaned up after the last training session and were waiting for supper.
Crossing her arms as she leaned against the wall by the door, Jaclyn said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me any of this. I’m literally in HQ every day.”
Almost as tall as I was, Jaclyn’s dark skin, narrow face, and lean body reminded anyone who knew that she was the granddaughter of the Heroes’ League’s original speedster “C.”
I told her. “I keep on seeing your name in the entry records. When are you in?”
Her mouth twisted, “Around six in the morning. I walk Tiger and then I leave. Who’s been feeding him? You guys said you’d handle it.”
“Kayla. On the days when she’s not in, I do it, but I think Tara’s handling it this weekend.”
Shaking her head, Jaclyn said, “That sounds like a great internship.”
Cassie laughed. She’d sat down on my bed and was leaning against the wall, her platinum blonde hair on her shoulders, still bent from being in a ponytail when she was in costume.
Sitting up, she added, “And after that, she gets to clean up after it, right? Remember when we were on the way back? It pooped outside the ship at K’Tepolu station and the biological contamination alarms went off.”
Jaclyn closed her eyes and brought her left hand up to her face.
Looking from Jaclyn to Cassie to me, Daniel grinned. “Sometimes I feel jealous that all of you got to go to space, but you’re making me feel better all the time.”
“No kidding,” Cassie said. “You can be glad you didn’t get stuck in a one-room spaceship for a week with a giant puppy from space that someone,” she glanced over at Jaclyn, “decided she needed to bring home.”
Jaclyn glared at her for second and then they both laughed—which was a change. They’d never hated each other, but they’d never struck me as friends before the trip.
“Anyway,” Cassie continued, “you were complaining about your secret mission?”
And with that, we went through everything I hadn’t already told them—absolutely everything—because with Daniel being one of my closest friends and a telepath, he knew when I’d skipped or forgotten something important and asked about it.
When I was done, Cassie looked up at me. “I can’t believe you’re here instead of home. With all of that hanging over my head, I’d have skipped this weekend.”
Nodding, I met her gaze. “I thought about it, but in some ways, this is the closest thing I’ve got to a break and I decided to take it.”
Tilting her head she didn’t say anything for a second. “I get it, but if you need someone with an Abominator Citizen’s Mark, you know where to find me. I know the Nine are looking for me, but it’s not the first time the Nine and I have tangled. I can handle it.”
“It’s probably not a good idea—,” I began.
Cassie didn’t let me finish. “I got a look at the birthing chamber platform when we were in Medford. If they’ve got any control of the machine, they’re going to give someone a Citizen’s Mark. It’s in the library and it probably won’t take more than an hour to add it in. You’ll need someone to stop them.”
I hadn’t noticed it when I was going through the birthing chamber’s library but I hadn’t gone through the whole thing.
“I’ll call you if it all doesn’t move too quickly.”
In a level voice, Jaclyn said, “Even if she can’t get home from D.C., I can. I might not be able to control ancient alien artifacts, but I can break them if there’s nothing else we can do.”
“Same here.” Standing next to our bunk beds, Daniel grinned at me. “I might not be able to control alien artifacts either, but I think I can shut off somebody’s access to them.”
Cassie reached out to smack his leg with her hand. “Seriously?”
He nodded. “I think so. And Nick, you know that I’m not always right, but I’m feeling like something’s going to happen soon—maybe on Monday. Cassie might want to see if Chancy can be on call so he can teleport her in if you need her.”
I let out a breath. “Let’s do that.”
Daniel frowned. “Tell us if everything falls apart. Even if I can’t make it on time, Izzy can hit Mach 4. Between her and Jaclyn, you’ve got a good chance of handling what you need to. Depending on what’s going on, Izzy can bring me along.”
Between Izzy and Jaclyn, we’d have two people who were near impossible to take down and strong enough to shatter buildings. That would help.
Not long after that, we went to supper and the weekend passed like they always do.
On Monday, I went to my classes, turned in calculus homework without Dr. Strazinsky pulling me aside to talk to me about my internship, and made it all the way through the helicopter ride without anything special happening.
When Vaughn and I walked in through the big glass doors to Hardwick Industries, we found Victor talking to Emmy. She stood behind the desk wearing an expression almost as blank as Tara’s when she went into her alternate mental state. A slight curl of the lip flavored the expression on Emmy’s face, hinting that it was less dispassionate analysis and more controlled irritation.
Victor stood in front of the desk, towering over her and talking without stopping.
When she saw Vaughn and me, she gave us a wide smile and waved us over. “I’m so sorry, Victor. I’ve got a few things that I have to pass on to Nick and Vaughn. We can talk again later, but this might be a little while.”
Victor’s face tightened, but he moved away from the desk and managed a smile as he took a step toward the hallway that led toward Higher Grounds offices. Nodding to Emmy, he said, “Talk to you later. You too, Nick.”
Then he stared at Vaughn. “Vaughn Hardwick?”
“Almost,” Vaughn grinned at him. “Hardwick-Jones. My mom wanted to take my dad’s name, but she wanted me to have Hardwick in my name so she joined them together.”
“No kidding. I thought you were Russell Hardwick’s son.” Victor stopped walking, giving Vaughn a once-over that seemed to take in everything from Vaughn’s black jeans to his leather jacket, purple button-down shirt, and long hair.
Vaughn shook his head. “I’m just his nephew.”
“Then you’re a lucky man.” Victor grinned at us and started down the hall, glancing back at us one more time before he disappeared.
Catching my eye, Vaughn asked, “What did that mean?”
I stared down the hall, following the sound of Victor’s footfalls. “I don’t know.”
Emmy glanced down the hall after him. Then she walked over to the hallway and looked down it, turning back to us. “I wouldn’t worry about it. He doesn’t always make sense.”
“Okay,” Vaughn leaned sideways and looked down the hall. “What did you want to tell us?”
Emmy’s lips curled. “I’m sorry—nothing. I couldn’t think of a better way to get rid of him.”
Vaughn grinned. “I knew it.”
Stepping away from the hallway, Emmy said, “I know. I wish he’d notice. He’s stopped by here almost every day since… um… lately.”
Following Emmy, Vaughn moved away from the hall. “You could tell him you’re not into him.”
Frowning, she said, “Maybe I should. Being polite but uninterested isn’t getting me anywhere. Except… I feel like he’s the kind of guy who will make a scene.”
Thinking back to what I’d seen of Victor, I had to admit she had a point. “That’s possible.”
Emmy walked out from behind the desk. “I know. This is going to sound ridiculous, but my intuition is unusually good, maybe even psychic. I feel like something bad’s going to happen and all of us—including him—are going to be in the middle of it.”