After a little hesitation, they left me alone with him. I stood there, waiting as they shut the door, smelling concrete and disinfectant.
“Funny to see girls in the League. Never saw women as vigilantes back in my day except for Ghostwoman. She was goddamn scary — phased her pistol through my armor and nearly into my head. Stopped me a couple times.”
“Did you really think she’d kill you?”
“I didn’t want to tempt fate. I heard what she did during the war.”
He looked up at me from his seat at the table.
“But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I know who you are, boy. The original Rocket and I, we both knew each other’s identities.”
“I knew you did. I saw the pictures in your lab. I didn’t know that he did.”
Cannon leaned toward me over the table. “He knew who I was before I knew about him. We had an agreement. We didn’t go after each other as civilians. We didn’t go after each other’s families. It was our own Cold War — mutually assured destruction — only this time it was personal, not international.”
I thought about it for a moment and then asked, “Why? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Why? Because as soon as you start going after each other as civilians it blows the whole thing open. I didn’t want to go after his wife and kids. I’m sure he didn’t want to go after mine. No. Pretending you don’t know just makes it simpler.”
“How did that work into challenging me last fall? He’s dead. You knew that, right?”
“Dead,” he snorted. “I had to be sure. Death turns out to be too fucking iffy around supers, but you’re right. You’re not him. That’s why I’m talking to you now. I read the newspaper, and the newspaper said there were two objects on the road. The ball was one of them. The other was some guy running at a couple hundred miles per hour. I know where the ball came from. I know where the parts for the exoskeleton came from. I know who I told about the ball, but someone else was with him on the road.”
He stared at me, and his face tensed. “I know that I might not get out of here before something happens. Federal bureaucracy works slowly, but if something happens to my wife and family, I’ve got a press release about the story of me and the Rocket set to go. It’ll go out whether I’m alive or dead. It won’t take much to guess who you are after that. Only one of his children stayed in Grand Lake.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I felt a surging need to do something about it, but “something” wasn’t coming to mind.
When I finally did manage to say something, I half shouted. “This is crazy. I’d have looked out for Ch–”
“Don’t say his name,” Cannon said.
I’d have glared at him, but through the helmet, he’d have no way to notice.
“I’d have looked out for him anyway,” I said.
“What, have you been training him? Does he have any sense of how to handle himself? Does he know who you really are? No, he doesn’t, and I had to be sure.”
“Geez,” I said. Then I walked out of the room, bending the edge of a table I brushed against, and shut the door behind me. It boomed as it hit the doorframe, startling the guards who were standing outside. Cannon might have said something else, but I missed it.
I checked to make sure I hadn’t broken the door or the doorframe by mistake.
I looked away to find everyone else standing just down the hall, looking at me.
Haley turned away from the group and took a step toward me. “I didn’t hear everything. Did he really just threaten to –”
“I’ll just tell everyone when we get back on the plane.”
She held my hand as we walked back. It was a nice gesture, but would have been more comforting if I could feel much of anything through the glove.
We didn’t talk much during the walk out through the gray, painted halls. I spent most of the time thinking about what had just happened. He didn’t have to blackmail me. I’d have watched out for Chris anyway. He was a friend.
He was probably the only person I knew that I could talk to about how anything worked, and actually have him care.
I could respect Cannon’s motivation, and even understand the reason he’d done it. He’d changed an unpredictable component of his plan into something more predictable. In engineering, that made sense. Pieces of a machine didn’t generally harbor lingering resentments.
I thought I might.
“Are you still thinking about it?” Haley asked as we walked out of the building.
It felt good to be out in the yard. A green area, even one surrounded by fences and guard towers, felt better than the inside of a building with concrete walls and no windows.
Men played basketball in the concrete yard behind the building next to the one we’d just come out of.
Just ahead of me, Daniel, Cassie, and Jaclyn talked about something. I wasn’t sure what.
I kept on running the conversation with Cannon through my head, prompting more questions. I thought of Chris as a friend. I wasn’t really close to him, but basically he was a friend. Was I really his friend? I’d basically ended up spying on him to find out what he was doing with his grandfather’s stuff. I hadn’t been upfront about the ball.
If he really wanted to use the exoskeleton, I probably ought to pull him into lessons with Lee, or figure out some way to train with him. We hadn’t really gotten to use it as a group, but I suspected Lee’s perspective on fighting could make a life and death difference.
I knew it had for me personally.
Of course, by that logic, I should have pulled in Sean and his group. Not that Sean was a friend at all, but how much guidance were they getting?
Unfortunately, I already saw Sean more than I wanted to, and I didn’t need to see more.
I liked Chris, but if he did turn out like his grandfather, I didn’t want to deal with it. On the other hand, Vaughn’s grandfather hadn’t turned out well, but Vaughn had been decent — so far.
I thought about it a little more before hearing Daniel’s voice in my head.
Daniel: Nick, relax. We can do something between full membership and no contact. If I meet him, I’ll get a good sense of him pretty quickly.
Me: That’s an idea.
Daniel: And don’t worry about Cannon’s blackmail attempt —
Me: You were listening?
Daniel: No. I said I wouldn’t, and I didn’t, but I couldn’t help hearing you think it over. I’ve got some ideas.
Me: Good. I —
I stopped thinking at him.
The League alert light in my helmet’s readout had started to flash yellow.