I couldn’t argue with her. We stood at the nexus of humanity’s extinction by the True, the possibility that Higher Ground’s mission to understand alien technology would kick off humanity’s genocide by the Xiniti, and the more day to day menace of the Nine and their attempts at worldwide influence.
By this time we ought to be used to it. Things we’d done during the summer had the potential to affect the fate of far-flung human and alien civilizations that spanned the galaxy around us—not to mention becoming peripherally involved a civil war between Lee’s people that had lasted for millions, possibly billions of years.
The difference being, of course, that the stakes felt higher when they affected the city where you lived.
Haley and I sat on a couch I’d pushed into a corner of the lab, holding each other and talking about other things until she had to go. We both had homework.
The next day was Friday and Friday meant that I’d be attending class in the morning, followed by a helicopter ride to my internship.
When Vaughn and I met near the helipad, he pushed his hair back, straightening his ponytail. “Today’s going to be a little different. It’s not going to affect you too much, but me? It’s going to be a day from fucking hell.”
“Why? What’s going on?” Even as I asked the question, I noticed a group of people in suits walking out of the nearest building. Near the front, I saw Ronnie, the tall, bald security guy we’d seen every time we took the helicopter. Next to him walked Russell Hardwick, CEO of Hardwick Industries. Fatter than Ronnie, he was almost as tall and bald, standing out in the crowd because of his bulk.
Though no judge of clothes, I would have bet that Hardwick’s blue suit cost more than Ronnie’s blue suit by a factor of ten.
To my surprise, Russell Hardwick wasn’t the only person in the mass of suits I recognized. Next to Russell walked Vaughn’s mom—Suzanne Hardwick-Jones. Smaller and slimmer than Russell, she had the same square face and dark, black hair as her brother and her son. She wore her hair in a pixie cut.
The suits crowded around us in a vast wave of employee handbook approved clothing. They didn’t get too close though because “Uncle Russ” made a beeline for us. Vaughn’s mom matched him step for step.
In a warm baritone voice, Russell Hardwick said, “I hear the two of you have had the helicopter to yourselves this week. I’m afraid we’re going to have to commandeer it today but don’t worry, you’ll get your choice of seats.”
“Sounds great, Uncle Russ,” Vaughn said as Russell Hardwick shook his hand, following it up with, “Hey Mom. I’m on time and I didn’t wear leather.”
He wasn’t wearing leather. He wore a red button-down shirt with a black tie. I wore Higher Ground’s standard—t-shirt and jeans.
Vaughn’s mom’s eyes narrowed even as Russ laughed. “I can’t deny it,” the man said. “You turned out well even though you did give us all a scare for a few years there. Didn’t he, Suzanne?”
In a level voice, she said, “I was always confident he’d work his way through it.”
She said more to Vaughn, but I didn’t get to hear it. Russell Hardwick had closed in on me. While part of my mind had already suggested three different ways I could take him down without killing him and two more that posed a serious risk, a more realistic part held out my hand.
Russell Hardwick took it. He had a firm grip and I must have too. He looked down at my arms. “You work out. That’s not something I imagined when I heard you were an engineer. Of course, your grandfather was a soldier first and never lost the look. You take after him. That’s a good thing.”
“You knew him?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
Russ nodded. “Of course I did. He was my father’s best friend in the world and the best engineer this company ever had even though he was never a full-time employee. He even came by after Dad died. He was a good man. I’m sure you didn’t see me at the funeral, but I was there.”
“I saw you.”
He smiled. “Good. I wanted your family to know I cared. He and his wife were a comfort after my dad died. I always thought of them as family.”
It would be nice to think that Russell Hardwick couldn’t be a bad guy if he liked Grandpa, but I also knew that Rook, a guy who might be one of the Nine, was a fan of Grandpa as the Rocket. Rook told me so while he was trying to kill me once.
“Thanks,” I said, stalling for time as I tried to figure out if this meant that the conversation was ending now.
Russ shook his head. “It’s barely enough, but there’s something I’d like you to consider. I’m sure you’ve got other prospects but when you’re finishing school and looking for your first job, keep Hardwick Industries in mind. You might even get to work with ideas based on your grandfather’s technology.”
He grinned at me and gave me a wink.
“Thanks again. I won’t forget it.” I kept my voice even, trying to project sincere interest even if I wasn’t sure how to do that while hoping that wink didn’t mean that he knew I’d become the new Rocket.