Grandpa stared out at the water, not saying anything else.
“What precautions?” I asked.
Turning back to me, he said, “I don’t know. The regular ones they took with all of their families, but more than that on the advice of Gunther. He wasn’t there, but Joe mentioned his name.”
We talked longer than that, but he didn’t have anything more to add about the block, Grandpa Vander Sloot, or anything about the League. We talked about Grandma who’d taken the car into town to do grocery shopping. She didn’t know that Grandpa Vander Sloot was the Rocket or that I’d be flying in this morning. Grandpa Klein had chosen our meeting time to make sure she’d continue to remain ignorant.
We also talked a little about Dad’s younger sisters, their husbands, and my cousins. Grandma Klein had given birth to my dad when Grandpa was still in graduate school and they waited to have more kids until after he’d been hired in at Grand Lake University. All of my cousins were at least three years younger than I was on Dad’s side, much like my youngest cousin on my Mom’s was three years older than Rachel and five years older than me. We weren’t close to any of them.
I didn’t dislike them. In fact, Ana (short for Anastasia), the youngest cousin on Mom’s side, was even an electrical engineer. We’d bonded a little over that last year in Chicago for an extended family Christmas. Her response to me explaining that I was double majoring in electrical engineering and materials science had been, “You’re insane.”
“It gets worse,” I’d told her. “I started double majoring in electrical engineering and chemistry before I realized that materials science fit better. So, I’ve also got a minor in chemistry. I’m still getting out in four years.”
She’d smiled, continuing to fiddle with the three earrings in her right ear, “It sounds like you’re a better fit for my job than I am. I’m working with a lot of materials scientists now. Our focus is on using nanotechnology to create self-repairing materials. I’d say more, but I think that’s more than I should have said already. If you’re looking for a job after graduation and you want to move, let me know. We’re always hiring.”
As I flew back, crossing over Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Lake Michigan, I wondered where she worked. I mean, I didn’t wonder about that the whole time, but I wanted to know. If they were working on nanotech, I might learn something or, almost as likely, improve whatever they were doing.
I wasn’t planning on dropping the business with Chris, but she was talking about exactly what I’d designed my armor to do. They might even be aware of it and using it as proof of concept. Hopefully, they weren’t the ones providing rip-off Rocket armor to Protection Force. Worse, it might not be impossible that they were funded by the Nine or maybe Rook himself.
As paranoid as that thought was, I set the implant to remind me of it later. I needed to look into it just in case. If I didn’t have the time, maybe I could pass it over to Hal. The jet’s AI might find it boring, but at least it would get done.
Midway across Lake Michigan, the dark water extending to the horizon on all sides of me, my mom called. I considered not answering, but knowing that I’d be in the air for at least ten minutes anyway, I took the call.
“Hey Mom. Is everything okay?”
Mom paused before lowering her voice and answering, “Should anything not be okay?”
Between Dad, Martin Magnus, the Dominators, the Abominators, the Nine, Armory, and my recent, paranoid thoughts about Ana, I could think of a few things that might not be okay, but I said, “No.”
Her tone lightened, “Good. I was calling because Uncle Steve’s here for a day or two. If you want to see him, you should stop by soon. You know what he’s like. He said that he was planning to stay the night, but if he gets a call, he could be gone before supper.”
Like Uncle Joe (Joseph Vander Sloot, Jr.), Uncle Steve was a mechanical engineer, but unlike Uncle Joe, Uncle Steve never got married, never settled down, and never had kids. He’d gone from contract to contract, traveling all over the world, never staying anywhere for more than a few years. Closest to Mom in age, he was also the one she got along best with of her brothers. I liked him too even though arguably I’d seen more of Uncle Joe’s and the twins’ (Uncle Charles and Uncle Curtis) families.
“Sure,” I said, “I can drop by. I’m almost home. I’ll walk over in half an hour. Probably have to shower first.”
About 35 minutes later, I walked through the garage door and into the utility room, passing through to find Uncle Steve sitting at the dining room table where I’d been the night before. He put down his mug of coffee as he stood up to greet me.
A little over six feet tall, Uncle Steve had a beard, brown and streaked with white, that reached to his chest. He wore jeans and a black t-shirt showing a flying saucer with the word “Boston” written across it.
He held out his hand, “Good to see you, Nick. You look more and more like my dad all the time. All you need to do is disappear mysteriously and it’ll be a perfect resemblance.”
“He did that?” I asked.
He grinned, “All the time. But’s not much of a mystery to me now. He owned his own business. Those guys never get any rest—which reminds me, didn’t you just start a business? That’s what Joanie was telling me.”
“Yeah. A friend of mine and I are officially ‘Cannon & Klein Engineering.’ We’ve managed to get a couple of contracts, one of them because my friend Vaughn happens to be the son of Hardwick Industries’ CEO.”
Uncle Steve nodded, “Suzanne’s the CEO instead of Russ now. I heard about that. That’s why I should have stayed home after graduation instead of taking that contract in Saudi Arabia. I’d have contacts here instead of everywhere and be running my own business instead of going wherever the business is.”
He stopped, grinned, and then laughed, “Nah… I’d never have survived running my own thing. I like moving around and I like being able to just do the job and let someone else keep the client happy. Say hi to Suzanne and see if she rememberers me. I had a big crush on her back in the day. Don’t tell her that, though.”
Mom’s mouth twisted, “She knew and still remembers.”
Uncle Steve froze, “Then maybe don’t mention me. It might not help.”
Deciding not to mine that unexpected vein of social awkwardness, I said, “What are you doing now? Did a contract just end?”
Nodding, he said, “Yeah. It was the craziest thing. I got hired to work on this Caribbean island. You might have heard about it in the news. It used to be Metafight Island. Now it’s Renewal Island or something like that. I got hired to work on powered armor for Len Jones, better known as Armory, an ex-superhero. It was all legal from what I heard and it was a great place to work.
“Except… a few months in, I started to see that they were putting the North Korean flag on some of the mechs. That’s when I knew I had to go. I was beginning the process to see if I could get out of the contract and then, well, everything you saw on the news happened. Fortunately, I was on the day shift and not the night shift. So I missed all the excitement, but that’s totally fine.”