In My Daydreams

Hardwick Industries: Part 3

In My Daydreams

In my head, my Xiniti implant labeled the helicopter as “Pre-gravitic air transport capable of vertical take-off and landing.” It then followed it up with the word “helicopter” in human and alien languages.

Present in my head, but below my conscious awareness, were examples of different models of copters from different planets. If I wanted, I could call up whatever details the Xiniti high command thought their soldiers might need.

This wasn’t the time to investigate them, but I wanted to. You never knew what you might learn from alien designs for technology you were already familiar with.

A man in a blue suit stepped out of the helicopter, opening the door. A tall man with a bald head, he appeared to be in his thirties and wore a pistol in a shoulder holster. I wondered what rated that level of security. Had people tried to kidnap their executives?

Vaughn might rate a guard. Holding a scion of the Hardwick family for ransom could make you a lot of money if they were willing to pay.

Following the security guard’s lead, we stepped inside and snapped on our seatbelts. They were a little more complicated than car seatbelts, but about the same as the League “jet’s” seatbelts. Vaughn and I didn’t need help.

The guard grinned, revealing a gold tooth in his smile. “When they said interns, I figured you’d need help. Looks like you’ve spent a lot of time in the air.”

Then he sat down in front next to the pilot. I couldn’t see much of the pilot from where I sat, but I could tell that he had brush cut white hair, wore a white shirt with yellow stripes on the shoulders—like an airline pilot.

Keeping his voice low, the pilot said, “The long-haired one is Vaughn Hardwick-Jones.”

The corners of Vaughn’s mouth curved upward for a second.

“Family?” The guard glanced back at us. “That explains it. I’m sure you’ve been in the air more than I have.”

Vaughn shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. Uncle Russ’ family flies all the time. My mom and dad stay around here mostly.”

The guard turned to me. “What about you? Are you rich too?”

The pilot gave him a sharp look.

“Hey,” the guard said, “I’m not trying to be nosy or anything. Just friendly.”

“No problem,” I told him. “We’re not rich—not own your own plane level rich, anyway. My grandpa was a freelance engineer who did some work for Hardwick Industries as well as other clients. My dad’s a psychologist who’s written a few books. He does okay, but he’s only known among people who read books on parenting.”

Nodding, the guard said, “Parenting books? Maybe I should check those out. I might need them. I’m Ronnie, by the way. You’ll see me riding along on this flight most days. The pilot’s Bud. He’s assigned to this chopper most days.”

Bud spoke for the first time that I’d heard. He had a strong southern drawl. “That’s right and we just got clearance to take off. I shouldn’t need to tell anyone this but keep your seatbelts on. It won’t be a long flight, but if you need to use the bathroom, tell me. I’ll work it out.”

“Don’t worry about us,” Vaughn grinned at the man. “We’ll do our best not to be a problem.”

Bud nodded. “Thank you, sir. Taking off—now.”

I didn’t know how to tell a good helicopter pilot from a great one, but the ascent felt smooth and natural. Soon we were flying past the hangar for Hardwick Industries corporate jet and its runway. Bud pointed it out as we ascended.

Only then did I have a moment to take in the helicopter’s cabin—leather seats, a screen in front of each person, wifi, and a look backward showed that it had in the neighborhood of twenty seats as well as a bathroom.

It was nicer than any of the helicopters that I’d flown in for Stapledon. Most of those were military models. The cabin’s overlay of luxury features made it harder to answer whether or not it had armor, but I would have bet yes if forced to.

It only took twenty minutes to make it to the research labs. From the air, the view fit with everything else I’d seen so far. The Hardwick Industries campus sat in the middle of a block of land next to Lake Michigan. Thick forest grew next to all the roads that marked the borders of their property—including the beach.

The middle of the property had been cleared out and filled with two low, wide buildings, a helipad, and a runway. It was hard to say from the air, but I would have bet that the trees were thick enough that passing cars couldn’t see any of that.

The only hints that people did use the area were the dirt road on the north side of the property and the large white building on the beach. Even from the air, I could see people sunbathing, sailing, and everything else anyone did on the beach.

It was hard to know, but I thought I saw kids.

It was interesting, to say the least. After going to all the bother of hiding their research facility, it didn’t seem likely that they’d put a hotel on the property—unless it was cover. It seemed more likely that they’d house guests there or maybe employees.

I supposed that I could ask. Even as I considered how to approach the question, the Xiniti implant labeled the campus in my head. “Privately held human research facility. Abominator and Artificer civilizations’ artifacts detected but not reported to Galactic Alliance as per internal policy.”

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In My Daydreams

Hardwick Industries: Part 2

In My Daydreams

Eventually, I finished signing all the papers. My hand didn’t hurt, but that was more of a surprise than an expectation.

When I signed the last one, I looked up, handed Dr. Hansen back his pen and asked, “I understand that you talked to friends in government about me, but what made me qualified for this? I mean, this is secret enough that only Dr. Strazinsky can read my internship reflection and that I have signed a mountain of papers saying that I won’t tell anybody about this except for people on my projects inside Higher Grounds or that have a top secret security clearance plus codewords that will be defined later.

“I’d be surprised if I have Top Secret clearance. I’m pretty sure they have to do some kind of investigation for that to even be possible. I’m not trying to get out of it or something, but it just seems too easy. You know what I mean?”

I hoped I hadn’t blown my cover there, but it seemed like a question a smart person who didn’t have the behind the scenes information I had might ask.

Dr. Hansen and Dr. Strazinsky looked at each other. Dr. Strazinsky spoke. “We had to move quickly to make sure you get into the program. If they did the kind of investigation that the FBI usually does, you might lose weeks out of the semester. They’ve done a quick one already. You don’t have much of a record, so they don’t need to do as much as if you’d been involved with anything illegal. I think they’ll continue investigating for a little while after everything starts, but you don’t have anything to worry about there.”

I wondered if the FBI brought in telepaths or even artificial telepaths. I’d seen agents wearing psi helmets before. Of course, given the Heroes’ League’s relationship with the FBI, they probably didn’t even investigate. They just told them they had.

“Okay.” I looked at each of them. Dr. Hansen kept on smiling the same confident smile. Dr. Strazinsky’s smile slipped and reformed.

In moments like that, I wished that I had telepathy.

“I guess I’ll go then. When does everything start?”

Dr. Strazinsky said, “Tomorrow at one. It’s on the top sheet of paper. Did you take that?”

I looked down at my hands. I had, but I’d forgotten to read it. I held it up and waved it so that I could see it. “Yep.”

He smiled for a second. “And you planned for a year-long internship, right? This one goes from September through to April of next year with the option of becoming a summer job if you both want that.”

I looked down at the piece of paper. It did say that. Anyway, I’d planned on a year-long internship this year and arranged my schedule accordingly. Aside from that, I knew I wasn’t going to do an internship there. I had another one planned through the Stapledon program and anyway, six months of deep cover would likely be as much as I could stand—assuming we didn’t destroy the company.

“That sounds great,” I told them, gave them another wave and walked out the door.

Once I was out in the lobby, it struck me as an odd way to leave. I hoped they didn’t think I was an idiot. On the other hand, if they thought of me as a smart guy with a way to go in social skills, it would make them less likely to suspect I was a spy.

If only that were acting.

* * *

Around 12:30pm, Vaughn and I stood next to the helipad at Hardwick Industries Grand Lake campus. They had a shiny glass and metal building on the edge of Grand Lake. It stood in the middle of five other shiny glass and metal buildings since this was Hardwick Industries world headquarters.

Vaughn’s lip twisted. “You know how I told you we’d use the jet? It turns out that the jet is only for special occasions like when most of the executive leadership goes up there. Most of the time, we’ll be riding the helicopter.”

“No problem. I’m not disappointed. I’ve been in jets before. I can even fly them.”

Vaughn laughed. “Yeah. No kidding. Don’t tell the pilot. He might be able to tell you know too much.”

I might have shushed him, but we were the only people standing on the green grass next to the pad.

As I wondered if I could continue the conversation without the two of us discussing stuff that shouldn’t be discussed in public, the helicopter appeared above one of the farther buildings.

Black with tan stripes running down the length of the chopper, the helicopter had a longer body and smaller windows than I’d have expected. I wondered if it were armored, but I didn’t see any sign of weapons. It interested me though, that whoever had bought it expected to be attacked.

I wondered if this was a general anxiety or if they had a specific idea of who they might be attacked by.

Soon, it landed in front of us. One of the doors opened and a man waved us to come inside.

The answer might be in there, I told myself, and Vaughn and I carried our backpacks across the helipad.

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In My Daydreams

Hardwick Industries: Part 1

In My Daydreams

The next day, I got an email from Dr. Strazinsky and the Engineering department chair, Dr. Hansen. That interested me on several levels. First, because I’d been expecting an email from the department secretary with my internship information. Second, because while my engineering department adviser had to sign off on whatever internship I got, neither Dr. Strazinsky nor Dr. Hansen were my departmental adviser. Third, getting an internship meant getting information from a contact at the business, but didn’t mean a meeting with the departmental chair or anyone in the department once they’d accepted you and you’d accepted their offer.

If I hadn’t talked to Agent Lim, I’d have been worried, but as it was, I walked into Dr. Hansen’s office at the appointed time (three o’clock) with a good idea of what was going on.

Dr. Hansen had a corner office with a good view of the grounds from two of the four walls. Like Dr. Strazinsky, his office felt organized. All the books had been placed on the shelves that covered the walls. A few potted plants had been placed in corners of the room, giving the office a less drab feel than your average prof’s.

I wondered who watered the plants—Dr. Hansen or the departmental secretary. Giving each plant a quick look, I was relieved to find that my implant didn’t identify any of them.

It might seem paranoid, but, knowing as I did that intelligent plants worked for the Galactic Alliance’s intelligence services, it was worth a look.

Dr. Hansen smiled at me. Nearly seven feet tall with thinning blond hair, Dr. Hansen looked like the basketball player I’d heard that he had been in college. Twenty years past that now, he glanced over at Dr. Strazinsky.

“You,” Dr. Hansen told me, “just got lucky. I don’t think you have any idea how lucky you’ve gotten. You’ve been offered an internship from Higher Ground, a startup associated with Hardwick Industries. Higher Ground has a contract with the federal government to study alien artifacts, something that many of the best and brightest of our scientists want, but most will never get. Dr. Strazinsky’s the only person at our university who’s ever had that chance and now you will too, if you want it.”

He glanced over at Dr. Strazinsky and Dr. Strazinsky swallowed, saying. “I didn’t tell you everything when we talked, Nick. After our conversation, I shared your answers with a few friends from when I was working for the government. They told me that this internship was available and agreed that you qualified for it.”

Taking a breath, he said, “Dr. Hansen is right that this is an opportunity for you that scientists all over the world will envy. I hope that you’ll consider it. It won’t just look good for you, but also the department. We’ve never had any of our students placed in something that big—before or after they graduate. I’d say that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it isn’t if you take it. It’s possible that you’ll be able to make a life out of understanding alien technology. We’ll be investigating it for years.”

Dr. Strazinsky paused, watching my reaction and biting his lip. Dr. Hansen watched me from behind his desk where he’d sat down, unmoving.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll take it if they’re offering. I didn’t even know that was possible. I had no idea anyone was studying alien technology in West Michigan—at least not first hand. It is first hand, right?”

Dr. Strazinsky exhaled and Dr. Hansen gave him a look, but replied to me. “I assume. I doubt they’ll let you pick it up without filling out half a dozen forms and legal releases. This is the government after all. I wouldn’t doubt that it’ll be there in the building though. I’m sure you’ll mostly see pictures and look at the inside indirectly, but Dr. Strazinsky might know more.”

Shaking his head, Dr. Strazinsky said, “It’ll all depend on what they have. There are some pieces where we basically understand what they can do even if we don’t understand how they do it. There are others that might be for personal hygiene or they might be nuclear bombs for all we know. I’m sure they won’t pass out anything unfamiliar or that we know to be dangerous, but they might let you handle the more familiar and innocuous devices.”

“That sounds about right,” Dr. Hansen said, pulling a pile of paper from the side of his desk into the middle of it.

“I’m glad you’re interested, but because you’re interested we have to have you read and sign these forms.”

I stared down at the paper. “I’d thought you were joking about the forms. That’s a big pile.”

Dr. Hansen grinned. “It’s not so bad. You won’t have to sign every page, but you’ll have to initial a few. Think about it as practice for signing a mortgage.”

Dr. Strazinsky laughed. “It’s less paper than most mortgages.”

I took the pen Dr. Hansen handed me and leaned over the pile of pages, signing where it was needed.

After I’d signed a few pages, Dr. Hansen said, “There’s one more thing I should mention. You’re going to have to drive about an hour north of here. I hope that doesn’t cause problems. The university will try to help if it does.”

I stopped signing and looked up. “It shouldn’t be a big deal. I’m living in the same house with Vaughn Hardwick-Jones of the Hardwick family. He’s got an intership that’s probably in the same complex. I’ll see if I can ride with him.”

Dr. Strazinsky blinked and looked at me as if grown a third arm. “Oh. That’s an interesting connection. I didn’t know you… uh… knew people like that.”

Raising an eyebrow, Dr. Hansen gave Dr. Strazinsky a look. “I’m sure what he means is that the Hardwicks are big donors to the university and we tend to forget that their kids have friends just like anyone else.”

“It’s not like we’re anywhere near that well off,” I said, “but our grandparents were friends and my grandfather did work for Hardwick Industries.”

Then I started signing papers again. All of that was in the public record, I told myself. I hoped I hadn’t revealed anything accidentally.

“Excellent,” Dr. Hansen said. “Dr. Strazinsky will be your faculty contact with regards to this internship. He’s the only one on the faculty with a security clearance high enough to read about what you’re doing.”

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 10

In My Daydreams

“We take the business seriously, but not that seriously. Mostly, I mean. At his worst, I don’t know what Grandpa Hardwick did. He was pretty far gone near the end. For all I know, maybe he did kill people.”

Vaughn frowned.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m not up on what happened internally at your family’s companies during the worst of it. The funny thing is that right up until the end, my grandfather was still working on stuff for your companies—first, because he didn’t know and after he found out because he didn’t want Giles to know he knew.”

Shaking his head, Vaughn said, “I know. His patents are the basis of our ultrasound technology.”

Sitting up straighter, I thought about that. “I wonder how similar that tech is to my sonic weapons? Grandpa tried to make the designs different enough that it wasn’t obviously the work of the same person.”

“No idea,” Vaughn said, “but I’ve never heard anybody say that the Rocket designed our stuff. So I guess it worked.”

Another thought passed through my mind. “Hey, so if we do find out that your Uncle’s working with the Nine, how bad does it get on your side of things? It would have to go to the Feds first before anything else happens, but after that, they’d go public somehow.”

“Yeah,” Vaughn paused. “It wouldn’t be fun. I guess it depends on how public it gets. If only our family knows, he might be able to get around it. He’s got his supporters, But still, if he’s publicly linked to the Nine, he’ll be thrown out. No company wants that kind of publicity. Even if it’s only known inside the family for a while, there’s a lot of people who’d try to expel him preemptively.

“Don’t get me wrong. It would be messy. Really messy. Once you’re 18, you can vote your share of the business and it’s not a publicly held stock. So, it’d be family lobbying family and Uncle Russ pulling in favors or maybe even trying low-level blackmail and stuff. And I’m old enough to vote my share now, so I’d be in the mix.”

He stopped. “Wow. Holy shit. I almost wish you hadn’t asked me. I mean, I’m all in, but this is going to get crazy if it turns out to be true. If the Nine are involved, they might go after my family on his behalf. So it’s probably good that I know. We can plan for it, right? We can get the League involved and keep everyone safe somehow. I don’t get along with everyone in my family, but I don’t want anyone to die—not even Uncle Russ.”

Vaughn’s forehead furrowed and he met my eyes.

I needed to say something. “At the very least we can put bots near your houses to watch out for everyone. Plus, the Feds have to have a system for this. They protect witnesses all the time.”

Nodding Vaughn said, “I’m sure they do, but you remember what happened the last time they watched out for us—they left when no danger showed up before Haley’s Christmas party. Plus, they pulled people to help fight aliens when Ray and the Cabal were after us. We’ve got to do it ourselves too. I mean, the family’s already got security, but we don’t know that the Nine haven’t infiltrated them just in case. That’s their thing.”

With all the stories about Vaughn I’d heard secondhand in high school and his stint in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, it wasn’t hard to dismiss him as a spoiled heir, but he wasn’t. He was thinking it all through and it didn’t surprise me at all that his college entry test scores had showed it—to his parents’ shock.

His choice to join the Stapledon program, allowing him to avoid being dependent on them for money to attend college said something too.

“We’ll do what we can,” I said. “At the very least, we can watch everybody. We’ll just have to do it in a way that doesn’t raise suspicion. If we plug the streams into Hal, I don’t know what he’ll notice, but a lot more than you or I would.”

I paused, thinking about it. “He’d probably even like it on some level. Whatever research he’s doing on human behavior would probably benefit—even if he is doing it mostly so he can predict our moves in combat.”

Vaughn started nodding before I finished talking. “I like the idea—not the part where we hand over the secrets of the human psyche over to an alien AI, but you know he’ll do a better job than we would. I mean, think about it. He might be able to predict what Uncle Russ is doing before we figure it out—not to mention the Nine.”

“Alright,” I said. “I guess that’s what we’ll do then.”

Vaughn grinned and sat back in his chair, easily the most relaxed I’d seen him since the conversation started. “Cool. Uh… Did Lim tell you where our research labs are?”

I shook my head.

Vaughn paused, watching my reaction with a growing smile. “It’s an hour north of here. That’s what it took to put it right on Lake Michigan. So, you’ve got a long drive every time you work or… You ride to work with me. There’s an executive jet that flies up there a couple of times a day and if I put in the word, you can come along.”

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 9

In My Daydreams

Tiger sniffed his hand and leaned in to lick Jeremy’s face. Tiger had a large tongue, adding a significant layer of slobber to Jeremy’s right cheek and the side of his nose.

I’d have been worried that I’d just contaminated Jeremy with alien bacteria, but the Xiniti had already worked that out. We’d stopped by the Xiniti space station next to the Earth jump gate for debriefing and decontamination after we entered our solar system.

Bearing in mind that the Abominators terraformed the planets where they settled humans to use Earth species, the Xiniti had procedures for moving humans and animals from one to another without causing epidemics or dietary deficiencies.

I’d checked them out on my implant, but because it was outside my areas of expertise, I didn’t go too deeply into it. It amounted to wide-scale destruction and replacement of bacteria and viruses—using a mixture of nanotech, bacteriophages, and other techniques.

It almost would have been ironic if Jeremy would have gotten sick from Tiger’s lick. When I’d met him as a freshman, he’d been one of the world’s many conspiracy theorists who didn’t believe that we’d ever been visited by aliens. They believed it had all been faked for some terrible purpose.

Don’t ask me what that would be. I’d known aliens before I even knew what aliens were.

Anyway, Jeremy and I had both grown and matured since then. Besides, in that moment I wasn’t thinking too much about Jeremy. I needed to talk to Vaughn.

I met Vaughn’s eyes. “We should go back into my lab. Isaac Lim called me just now with something that we should talk about privately.”

Vaughn raised an eyebrow. “No kidding? I wonder what this is about. Is he trying to kick me off the team?”

I shook my head. “Nothing like that, but it is complicated and uh… family related.”

Vaughn blinked. “Awesome. I can tell this is going to be good.”

I looked over at Tara. “We won’t be long. You can talk or play with Tiger or something.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I know how this goes. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

We both looked at Jeremy. He’d backed against the wall. Tiger had stopped licking Jeremy’s face and moved his head down to sniff Jeremy’s crotch.

Meanwhile, Jeremy looked at me, then Tara, then back to me again, eyes wide. It was then that I remembered how a couple years ago he and two other guys had showed me a video in which Tara had taken down a street gang and saved a mother and daughter’s lives.

Jeremy and his friends hadn’t commented so much on her fighting skills—which were amazing—as much as on her body. I’d left because I’d wanted to go to my lab and also because listening to them talk about her had made me feel uncomfortable. I’d known her already back then.

On the other hand, she’d been in costume, so he wouldn’t recognize her. Plus, I hadn’t told her that story about him. They should be fine.

I glanced over at Jeremy. If I had to name his expression (wide eyes and expressionless face), I would have gone with poorly hidden terror. And that sucked because the four of us were basically going to be living together this year.

Well, he was going to have to figure this out. Besides Tara was good enough with people that she’d be able to finesse the situation somehow. At least I hoped so because I didn’t have any idea how to make this less awkward.

“Okay,” I said and walked back into the lab with Vaughn.

Behind us, I could hear Tara saying, “Come here, Tiger. Good dog. Good dog! Fetch the ball!”

Dog claws scraped across the concrete, followed by the sound of shattering glass. I wondered which trophy case it had been.

Tara’s voice said, “Oopsie. So, Jeremy, you’ve been rooming with Nick for the last two years. I know he’s in engineering. What are you majoring in?”

I missed Jeremy’s answer. He mumbled.

Vaughn and I sat down on the same stools that Tara and I had sat down on earlier.  Vaughn grinned at me, looking out toward the door.

“I kind of wish we were out there. Did you see Jeremy’s face? That was the face of a guy who’s got no idea of what he’s going to do next. I mean, he’s seriously uncomfortable. My guess is that he’s so distracted by what she looks like that he hasn’t noticed that she’s happy to just talk.”

“Yeah, I’m kind of glad I’m not out there.” I glanced toward the door, not seeing either Tara or Jeremy. I couldn’t claim I’d have been any better than he was except that I’d almost always been training or acting as Lee’s assistant when I was with her. All the time we’d spent punching each other hadn’t left me much time to be awkward.

Vaughn laughed. “So, what’s going on with my family?”

I took a moment to organize my thoughts. “It’s not so much your family as your family’s companies. They’ve invested in a company called Higher Ground which has some contracts with the Feds to study alien technology. The FBI suspects that the Nine have their fingers in Higher Ground too. So your uncle Russ might be connected to the Nine. Because of that, the feds are sending me in to gather information as part of my internship.”

Nodding, Vaughn said, “I see where this is going. I’m doing my internship in the same complex and so I might be able to help. Plus, being family means I can get in pretty much anywhere if I want.”

“Right,” I said. “That and also, are you okay with maybe going up against your own family on this? Because that’s the big thing here.”

Vaughn shook his head. “It isn’t. This isn’t going up against my family. This is maybe going up against Uncle Russ. A bunch of people in my family were ready to remove him from being CEO after the whole thing with Ray. Uncle Russ has always been involved in shady shit, but mostly he’s managed to keep it evidence free. So no one’s ever proved it, but this? If he’s involved with the Nine, that’s bad for the company and bad for my family. The way I see it, we’re working for my family—the law-abiding part, anyway. If he’s working with the Nine, we’ll throw him out on his ass.”

I thought about that, finally saying, “I’m beginning to feel like I just stepped into ‘Game of Thrones.’ That or maybe ‘The Godfather’.”

Vaughn grinned. “It’s not personal, it’s business. Except, believe me, it’ll be personal too. There are people in my family who’ve hated him since they were kids.”

“And now I’m getting a ‘Nine Princes in Amber’ vibe,” I said. “I hope your family isn’t as familiar with murder.”

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 8

In My Daydreams

“Okay,” I said. “I suppose I should ask what the name of the company I’ll be interning at is then.”

Lim grinned for a second. “No kidding. I like to think I do a better job briefing people than this, but here’s the basics. It’s called ‘Higher Ground’ which is both a reference to a song the founder liked and to the business’s mission—getting humanity into space no matter what that takes. It’s a startup that gets money from several sources, Hardwick Industries being the largest investor, but there are others. It’s also getting money from the Defense Department in addition to the alien technology they and other government agencies have collected.”

I rested my hand on my chin, thinking about that. “Why them? Why a startup? I’d half expect that they’d go to GE or some big firm.”

Lim sat back in his desk chair. “That’s a question. You’re not the only one to ask. The surface answer is that Alexander LePage—he’ll tell you to call him Sandy— is persuasive and he’s hired good people. Below the surface, he’s got connections that have helped him get those people and introduce him around. What we don’t know is where those connections come from—legitimate or not. Both are possible. We’ll send you more information about the business. You can ask me any questions you want after that. Still in?”

I nodded. “I’ve got to do an internship one way or another and I’d want to be in on that if I knew it were legal. So, sure.”

Lim straightened up in his chair. “Makes sense. The internship should count either way. You’ll just be observing after all. Later. Look for our information packet.”

“Okay. I’ll watch for that. Oh, and with regards to the Mad Scientist List… Is some completely different group going to contact me now?”

Shaking his head, Lim said, “That’s all outside the view of the person on the list. You’ll probably find that you have interesting educational opportunities that you didn’t expect for a little while.”

We said goodbye and the connection ended.

I walked out to find that Tara was playing with Jaclyn’s dog, Tiger. She’d become familiar with him during the summer after we came back from space.

Covered with short curly hair like a poodle or some terriers, he had jagged black, gray, and orange stripes. About the size of a Great Dane at this point, I hoped he was the runt of the litter. The adult version that I’d seen on the world where Jaclyn had found him reached sizes larger than horses and neared the size of small elephants.

Tiger barked at her to throw the ball and she did, causing him to scramble across the basketball court-sized room, dodging trophy cases and a glare from Kayla.

As he ran back, I noticed that the twenty-foot tall screen on the far wall showed an aerial map of the city with two smaller windows showing first-person views of the city as the people with the cameras swung from building to building.

I’d thought Kayla said that the patrol started in an hour? Haley and Marcus must have started early. I wondered if they were planning to put any of the footage online. People would get a kick out of it or so we were told by the for-profit wing of the Heroes’ League that licensed out our merchandise. Kid Biohack agreed. He’d had called me recently to offer unsolicited advice about our social media presence.

He was probably right, but I didn’t want to deal with it.

I walked over to Tara, reaching her as she was saying, “Who’s a good dog? Yes, you!”

And then she threw the ball again—because that’s what genetically modified super-soldiers do when dogs and balls are available, I guess.

Tiger bounded back across the room, his claws clicking on the concrete and earning Tara a look from Kayla. Tara meanwhile was laughing at the dog’s enthusiasm.

“He’s so funny,” she told me as I stood next to her.

I asked, “Did they have dogs in Infinity City when you grew up there?”

“Mm-hm,” she said, “but they weren’t very nice. There were stray dogs. Most of them were genetic experiments that were specifically programmed to eat human livers. They went around in packs. Then there were the dog-men on block T-59, but they didn’t let anyone in their territory. Plus, there were the cyberhounds. They might not count because they were less than 15% dog. Still, they were friendly sometimes. Oh, and some people had regular dogs, but nowhere near me.”

“Huh,” I said, remembering too late what my sister Rachel had told me—that all of Tara’s Infinity City memories were nightmare fuel.

Behind me, I heard the hum of the elevator, saving me the trouble of trying to figure out how to continue the conversation.

The elevator door opened and two people stepped out. Wearing a black leather jacket with a black t-shirt and black jeans, Vaughn either liked black or felt the need to look like the team’s “bad boy” even in his off hours.

Following him, Jeremy Barrows, my roommate at school for the past two years stared at Tara and then the dog as the dog ran toward us, dropping the ball in front of Tara.

As Tiger wheeled away from Tara to sniff Jeremy, Jeremy leaned backward, unsuccessfully trying to avoid getting the dog’s nose in his face. “Where did you get an orange striped dog?”

“Another planet.” I stepped backward and put my hand on the dog’s back.

Jeremy hesitated but held out his hand for the dog to sniff.

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 7

In My Daydreams

The corners of Lim’s mouth went up in what was almost a smile. “I’m glad. You’ve seemed a bit down lately and I wasn’t sure you’d be up for it. I would have been okay if you’d said no. I wouldn’t have been excited about it, but we’d try another route to get at them. You can still say no, by the way. I’ve been in combat and even when you win, it still takes time to heal, physically and mentally.”

I thought about it. “I think I’m okay. I had a period where I didn’t want to put on the suit after I got back, but this isn’t putting on the suit. It’s kind of the opposite. So, I’ll be okay.”

He looked at me for a few seconds. “That might be the best mindset that you go into this with. If you do discover something they’re doing wrong, we need you to document it—not stop it. If you feel like they’re onto you, you need to report it to us and we’ll come up with an excuse to get you out of the internship. If something really bad happens and you need to be rescued, let us know. We don’t want you to blow your identity as the Rocket fighting these guys.

“If it really is the Nine, they might already know or suspect, but there’s no reason to confirm it or to accidentally make it public. We’ll keep a watch on you and be ready to come in if something goes wrong during the operation.”

If the feds were willing to watch me, there wouldn’t be much of a reason to blow my identity. I knew I’d take my own precautions, but if the feds were willing to watch me, it meant I wouldn’t be bringing any of my friends in to help.

Isaac Lim put his hand up to his lips and then put it down, a gesture I put down to absentmindedness rather than any wish to hush me. “There’s one more issue that you’re going to have to decide on. I could tell you what I think you should do, but part of working with superheroes is knowing that they’ll do whatever they want anyway.

“So here’s what I need to tell you. You know how I said that Hardwick Industries is an investor in the company that you’ll be working for? Well, they own the building that the company works in and they’re not the only company in the building. It’s part of a medical complex that Hardwick Industries owns and they’ve got a bunch of pre-med interns there. Vaughn, your teammate, is one of them.”

“Oh,” I said, running that through my head and watching as Isaac Lim sat up in his seat, watching my reaction and shaking his head.

“In your situation, there are two ways to play it. If you think you can trust his judgment and that he’ll put the mission over the good of his family, then tell him what’s going on. He’ll be a powerful asset. If you’re not sure that he can keep it secret or you’re not sure of where his loyalties will lie, then don’t tell him.”

Lim delivered the last line in a low voice that gave it a feeling of finality—at least in my head. I didn’t have much doubt that he’d keep it quiet.

I remembered the last time that Vaughn felt like I was keeping him out of things. He’d taken it badly and I hadn’t even known he was angry about it until Cassie told me. Even if I couldn’t trust him, I felt like keeping him out of this might cause a permanent rupture between us. Maybe I was overestimating how much it would bother him, but last time I hadn’t even noticed there was a problem.

It might be that assuming the worst would be wisest.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.

“Keep us informed,” Lim said. “Whatever decision you make, we’ve got to know who our people are. If he’s working for us, we’ve got to support him too.”

“He’s part of the Heroes’ League either way. I have to tell him about something like this—especially given how it all played out after Ray and the Cabal went after us. I mean, you remember that Russell Hardwick hired Ray to protect them from the Cabal after he escaped from prison. Someone, maybe you guys, were looking into charging Hardwick after that came out, but the charges were dropped. I always assumed it was because he had money, but if he’s connected to the Nine… Well, Vaughn should know.”

I watched Lim for signs of what he thought as I talked and was a little disappointed. Lim nodded as I talked about Ray, but said nothing.

When I finished, he said, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t know Russell Hardwick is connected with the Nine. We don’t even know that the company you’ll intern at is connected to them. That’s what we need you to find out.”

Then Lim frowned. “I’ve never known how it was that Hardwick avoided getting charged either.”

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 6

In My Daydreams

That left me alone in the lab with tools, tables, the machines I used to fabricate parts, and the screens I used to design the parts and monitor the machines.

I reached out and used the nearest mouse to click to accept the call.

The picture changed from the FBI seal to Agent Lim’s actual FBI office—which could have passed for a professor’s. By that I’m not talking about Dr. Strazinsky’s which was organized and clean, I’m talking about the sort of professor where you have to take books or piles of paper off one of the chairs if you want to sit down.

His desk had several piles of paper on it, most of the paper inside thick manila folders. He also had a few Heroes’ League action figures on the desk, one of them an older one from the 1970s. The rest had been manufactured within the past year. The board had shown us the designs and asked us for our opinions.

Isaac Lim grinned at the camera from behind his desk. “Nick, you’re going to be surprised to hear it, but you just made my life a little easier.”

I moved the mouse so that the pointer no longer rested on his face. “Really? That does surprise me. It seems like I mostly make your life more complicated.”

He laughed hard at that. “You’re a superhero. Making my life more complicated is a given, but sometimes it makes my life easier in a completely different way. Case in point, you’re now on a list that you probably didn’t even know existed.”

Beyond whatever list Stapledon program students got on, I didn’t know of any other, so he was almost certainly right about that. “What list?”

He leaned forward toward the camera. “The Bureau calls it ‘The Mad Scientist List,’ but that’s not the real name. The real name is the ‘National Atypical Intellect Threat Assessment List.’ Basically, it’s a list of anyone who shows evidence of being smart to the point that they’re a threat to national security.”

“How did I get on that—” I didn’t even finish my question before figuring it out. “Did Dr. Strazinsky report me to you?”

Lim nodded. “More or less. It’s bigger than that, though. Dr. Strazinsky and other profs like him routinely slip questions that normal college students would find it impossible to answer into their classes.”

“And people like me fall for it and answer. Are the questions from supervillains or are they designed by a committee for the purpose of catching people?”

I watched as he smiled a little harder. “Good question. We do have a committee and we do adapt them from equations supervillains created.”

I sighed. “So now what? I’m on the list. What happens now and how does it make your life easier?”

Lim smiled wider if that were possible. “That’s the good part. Once we find people to put on the list, we don’t waste them. We’ve got a Stapledon like program for them, but it’s a little less direct. We direct their energies in ways that will get them a good income and do the country some good. In a few cases, we direct them toward areas where normal people need the help—like creating spaceships that can go through the alien gates or spaceships that can defend us from aliens attacking.

“That piece of the program’s newer, but it’s getting results. They used to keep people on this list away from high tech out of fear that they’ll get inspired in a bad way. So far, that hasn’t been an issue.”

He paused, frowned and looked directly into the camera. “Here’s where you come in. We’ve got a joint public/private project where alien technology that’s fallen into our hands is getting analyzed by experienced scientists as well as interns from the mad scientist list. It’s not something that we’d put kids from the Stapledon program into because we don’t want to draw attention to them, but it’s too late for that. You got on that list all by yourself and you’re someone I trust. So I’m sending you in. You need to do an internship for your engineering program at school. This will count. It’s a win-win. We both get something we want. For example, I get to send someone I trust into a program I wouldn’t normally get access to.”

I nodded. “What are you sending me in to investigate?”

Lim stopped smiling. “That’s where this all becomes a little less fun. Some of us in the Bureau have begun to worry that the Nine have their fingers in this particular pie. That’s what you need to find out. And it’s a little more complicated even than that. The Hardwick family companies own a piece of the company that’s in this joint venture. It’s not as if Russell Hardwick himself will show up, but it’s not impossible. You’re going to have to forget you’re the Rocket while you’re on this. Pretend that you’re just a kid with an internship. Don’t take the law into your own hands. Gather information and deliver it to us. That’s it.”

Taking a break from being the Rocket sounded like a relief. Chris had made appearances as the Rocket while I was in space. He might be willing to while I was doing this internship. “Okay,” I said. “I’m in.”

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 5

In My Daydreams

Tara nodded. “I hope so. At first, when you got back, you didn’t have any enthusiasm for anything but going to your lab. You did everything Lee asked you to, but only just enough. And you left as soon as you could after the class ended.”

I remembered it from another angle. After we’d gotten back, it was hard not to see our fighting lessons for what they were—a way to keep us alive and take the other guy out of the fight.

If you’d asked me before I’d left, I would have said the same thing, but at the time I hadn’t seen people die because they’d made a mistake or felt how close the line was between death and survival.

I wasn’t even sure why I felt so much worse after getting back from Hideaway than after fighting the Hrrnna in New York or the sentient dinosaurs from whatever parallel world that had been. I had theories. Fighting the Hrrnna had been an afternoon instead of weeks. I’d killed more thinking beings when I’d fought the dinosaurs. We’d practically nuked them multiple times.

At Hideaway, we’d lost or almost lost people I knew.

I couldn’t say that I’d known or even liked Jadzen Akri, Hideaway’s leader very much, but I’d known her daughter, Kals. We’d stayed for the funeral and I could tell that Kals felt her death. She wasn’t the only one who’d died.

Between running from one place to another, hiding in a cavern,  and fighting, I could think of at least a dozen faces that might or might not have survived the battles there. I could think of more that I knew were dead.

Maybe it was that? Maybe it was all the running and hiding or the period in which we didn’t know who was spying on us? Whatever it was, it went on for a long time.

“Plus, you zoned out even more than normal,” Tara said.

She didn’t need to add, “Like you are right now.” That was clear enough from context.

“I didn’t tell you much about what happened, did I?”

“You didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. I thought you’d talk about it when you talked about it.” She stopped, sitting across from me on a stool, leaning a little on the counter next to it.

Knowing Tara, that was the request. Sometimes she was indirect about wanting things. I told her the story, starting as Jaclyn, Marcus, Cassie, Lee and I flew away from Earth, visiting the Xiniti and getting implants put into our heads. I described escorting the colony ship to Hideaway and the battle with the Human Ascendancy that followed it.

Tara didn’t interrupt me often, but she did ask questions. I did my best to answer them, finally getting to the end and our flight away from Hideaway. “And that’s pretty much everything. After that, we landed at Stapledon and all of you saw us. I was relieved to be home. I don’t even know how to say how glad I was to be out of there—which is funny. I still dream I’m back there some nights.”

She nodded, looking into my eyes. “I know what you mean. I don’t know how much Rachel told you, but I was born in Infinity City. My mom and dad and I spent our entire lives on the run because my parents were like Romeo and Juliet. The True are obsessed with remaining exactly as they were designed and not mixing our genes with outsiders which includes True from parallel universes, no matter how much like us they seem to be.

“We lived in constant fear because they were looking for us and if they found us both of my parents’ people would have killed me on the spot because of what I am and then each of them. Even though I spent my whole childhood in fear and even though they did kill my mom, Infinity City is still home. I still dream of it, the good and the bad, more often the good now.”

“Hideaway wasn’t my home,” I said. “It happened to be a place where I got stuck.”

She gave a small smile. “What’s important is that’s it’s normal to miss it even though it was horrible when you were there. It will fade and you’ll feel better.”

“It already has. At least a little bit. I didn’t mean to go on this long about it.” I tried to think if I had told anyone else the whole story before. I’d told parts to Haley and Daniel had probably picked up more than I was aware of.

Leaning back, Tara brushed hair out of her eyes. “I think we all need to talk about our lives and especially the bad experiences—you too.”

“Do you?” I watched for her reaction.

She laughed. “Not too often. I’m careful about who it is. It’s safer that way. And not to change the subject, but thanks again for letting me do my residency here. I don’t know where I would have done one otherwise. I don’t have many connections outside of Infinity City.”

As I began to respond, my phone and the nearest computer beeped. When I checked the screen, it showed the FBI’s seal and the words “Agent Isaac Lim.”

That was interesting. I’d intended to call him about Dr. Strazinsky, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to do it.

“That looks important. I’ll step outside.” Tara got out of her chair and left the lab.

I’d have invited her to stay, but given the conversation I was about to have, it was probably better that she left.

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 4

In My Daydreams

And like all of the True, Tara stood out a lot. Unlike most superheroes, she had the physique women have in comic books—thin but with larger than average breasts, a look few women have in real life. Female athletes don’t either, though the ones that do get a lot of attention online.

All of which is a long way to say that if I had to bet, I’d bet that the True’s designer was a straight guy.

On the other hand, I supposed that if the men were just as attractive, the designer might have been a gay man or a straight woman, making a female True’s appearance accidental.

I didn’t share any of that with Tara. When I stepped into the kitchen area, she put down her duffel bag next to her suitcases and stepped forward to hug me, talking quickly, almost into my ear even as she pulled me close. As high pitched as her voice went, that was on the edge of uncomfortable.

“Thank you, I’m so grateful to be here. I thought I’d never find a place to do my residency.”

Tara wasn’t as strong as either Haley or Cassie, but I felt the material in my shirt tighten to protect me anyway.

She noticed too and loosened her grip, still talking. “I didn’t mean to do that. You’re okay, right?”

I smiled at her as she let go. “I’m fine. Cassie sometimes punches me in the shoulder to get my attention. That hurts.”

She smiled back. “Okay, good. It’s not good that it hurts when she punches you, but I’m glad you weren’t hurt by me. Sorry, I’m so scattered right now. I could be more like I am in class, but I don’t like being that detached all the time.”

“That’s fine. Be comfortable. If things are anything like they’ve been for the past four years, you’ll get plenty of time to think.”

I glanced over at Kayla who was watching the two of us. “Did you end up showing her around?”

Kayla shook her head. “You told me you’d do it or Vaughn would.”

I frowned, wondering where Vaughn was. It wasn’t out of character for him to be late, but he was generally better with something like this. Well, whatever, he was living at the house this year too. He’d be here eventually.

And anyway, Tara and I got along. We’d both assisted Lee in teaching fighting as well as attending his advanced classes at Stapledon. Showing her around wouldn’t be a big deal. She’d be spending the next year with us.

I shrugged. “Then I guess I’m doing it.”

Kayla let out a breath. “Good. Then I’m going back to my station. Marcus and Haley are going out on patrol tonight and they’re starting from campus. They might start early and I’ve got to be ready.”

She turned to Tara. “It was nice to meet to you. I’m sure we’ll enjoy working together. I hope they start you a little slower than they did me.”

Then she added. “At least you’re prepared for it. That would have been nice.”

After a look in my direction, she added, “Talk to you later,” and walked toward the big screen and computers on the other side of the room.

Tara watched her walk away and then looked at me, a hint of a smile on her lips. “She’s got a story to tell.”

I checked in Kayla’s direction. She was passing the first group of trophy cases. That ought to be out of earshot.

“We brought her along when we fought the Cabal with the idea that she’d help coordinate us. She was in powered armor and not in the front lines, but she was still too close to the action. They took her out. Plus, after she started working, we had the alien invasion and she was right in the middle of it. I only found out later.”

Tara took another look in Kayla’s direction. “She’s got a lot of spirit if that didn’t scare her off.”

I flashed back to another memory. “She kept her head during the dinosaur invasion. She was steady when we needed steadiness. She’s been better than we could have realistically hoped when Cassie suggested she could help.”

Tara smiled. “Good. I like her.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, “but you never say anything bad about anybody.”

Shrugging, Tara said, “But she’s still nice. That’s a good thing.”

I showed her around HQ—the hangar where we kept the League jet (which was semi-secretly a spaceship) and the other vehicles, the command center across the room, the storage rooms (though I didn’t open the ones with Abominator weapons), the exits to the tunnels, and we finished in the lab. I pointed out the stairway down to HQ’s basement, a giant, long term fallout shelter from the Cold War.

“We don’t use it for anything,” I told her as we walked into the lab and pulled out stools. “It’s full of bedding and dehydrated food. Grandpa thought people might stay in here for a year or more if there were a nuclear war. We should throw it all out. The food might be edible, but it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll need it now.”

Her brows furrowed. If she wanted to, Tara could pull details that she’d never consciously noticed into detailed analysis. World events weren’t her strength, but she could try.

“You can throw it away. The kind of catastrophe that would force people to live here isn’t likely anymore.” Her voice came out flatter than usual, but then reverted to normal as she continued to talk.

“But that’s not what I’m really wondering about. Are you still thinking about quitting?”

The real strength of her power was to predict opponent’s next moves or guess at thoughts friends weren’t mentioning to anybody.

“Less now than when we got back,” I said.

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 3

In My Daydreams

“They’re okay with that?” It seemed like something I could ask. The Galactic Alliance requirement that we couldn’t copy their technology had passed into general knowledge.

Dr. Strazinsky nodded. “The aliens aren’t as concerned about the math as the technology. I like to think that I’m exploiting a loophole in the system. Don’t tell anybody. The administration might get nervous.”

I thought about that. I’d heard of people doing that kind of thing in STEM courses. Our scientists and engineers seemed to be more bothered by the Alliance’s version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive than your average guy.

You could argue that the idea had some wisdom behind it. If a world got technology before they’d had any chance think through the technology’s potential impact, they might destroy themselves before they figured out how to integrate the new technology into their culture.

I knew of at least one alien race that was deliberately passing out new technology that would be far outside any species’ natural technological development. They were counting on younger species’ lack of experience to destroy those species.

“Are you sure?” I could play the clueless undergrad as well as anyone.

He smiled and in a voice that was likely intended to be reassuring, he said, “Yes. There’s nothing to worry about. Better minds than mine cleared the idea.”

“Okay,” I said and tried to think of something that would help me understand what was going on here.

The only thing that came to mind was, “Which super villain was it?”

Keeping his voice low, he said, “The Master Martian—not the first one. The second.”

My implant didn’t give me a massive brain dump worth of information. So either the Xiniti didn’t know anything about the second Master Martian or I didn’t yet have the right information to trigger recognition.

Still, it made sense in a way that someone whose schtick was claiming to be the son of the last Martian might be working with jump drive math.

My grandfather and his best friend, Giles Hardwick, had fought the first Master Martian and won back when they were twelve or something.

I frowned. “The second Master Martian… Is he still out there?”

Dr. Strazinsky nodded. “The last I heard. We were studying his journal to find out what he was up to next. I don’t know what the others learned, though. I only got the sections with math.”

I thought about that, remembering an unrelated but important event that I didn’t want to miss at home. “Is that it?”

Sitting back in his chair, Dr. Stravinsky said, “Yes. That’s it. You’re the only one who’s ever solved that calculation. That means that you’re either brilliant or that you’re very smart and happen to have the right background. Either way, people are going to be watching what you do. Make the best choices you can, ones that you’ll be able to live with later.”

“Sure,” I said, not sure why he felt compelled to start giving advice. “I try to make the best choices I can.”

Then we said goodbye and I left, unsure of what had happened there. All I knew for sure was that contacting Isaac Lim to find out if he knew something about Dr. Strazinsky was now on my list of things that needed to be done. That and checking if the Federal databases we had access to included anything about him.

I’d be able to do something about that sooner rather than later because I wasn’t living on campus this year, meaning that it was time to go home.

I stopped by the parking garage and grabbed my van, driving across Grand Lake in about ten minutes. It wasn’t a bad drive. I had the window open because it was still in the first week of September. The temperature was in the low seventies, the grass green, and sometimes, when the highway ran alongside it, I smelled the lake.

I rolled up to the small, white 1920s bungalow I’d inherited from my grandfather and drove inside the garage. The van barely fit. Making my way past the shovels, rakes, trimmer and other implements of lawn care that hung on the wooden wall, I crossed the distance to the house and walked through the door.

No one greeted me and I hadn’t expected anyone to. My grandfather was three years gone by now and the only one of my housemates that was home right now was waiting downstairs.

I took the hidden elevator down into the Heroes’ League’s headquarters. When the elevator opened, I stepped into the main room. Over the last year, it had again come to look like a superhero base again. We’d long since removed the cardboard boxes of memorabilia and placed them out of sight. Bearing in mind that one of the trophies our grandparents had collected had actually contained a supervillain, we’d gone over all the other trophies by technical and later magical means to make sure there wouldn’t be any more surprises.

As of now, none of the weapons on display worked. The big, black and silver disc that I referred to as the starplate still worked, but I’d set up a system that should allow us to catch anything that appeared on it whether we were there or not.

On the other side of the room stood a huge screen and in front of it several tables with smaller screens, but that was a long ways away.

The people were over here with me. As I stepped out, I heard Kayla say, “People should have been here by now. I hope nothing’s wrong. They haven’t called for backup or anything—oh, it’s Nick. So, I’m guessing that everyone’s just late.”

Two figures stood in HQ’s open kitchen area. Kayla was the smaller of the two. Tan with shoulder length, dark hair, thin, and a little taller than average for a woman, Kayla wore a gray Heroes’ League costume as she had at work for the past year.

Next to her stood Tara. Unlike Kayla, Tara wore street clothes (jeans and a green blouse) and carried a duffel bag. Two big suitcases stood next to her.

Maybe an inch taller than me, Tara’s shoulders were a little wider than many women the same size and her arms and legs hinted at muscle. Knowing what she was—the offspring of two nearly identical lines of genetically engineered super soldier—her size and strength made sense.

What I’d never understood is why the designer of the True had made them attractive. With dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and wide lips, Tara could have modeled.

If I were making super soldiers, I wouldn’t have made them stand out so much.

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 2

In My Daydreams

When class let out, I waited for everyone else to leave—which also meant waiting for five people with questions and others who wanted to add or drop the class. By the time that was done, the next class was already beginning to file into the room with their professor.

Dr. Stravinsky looked over at me as I stood there. “Would you mind walking to my office before we say anything about your quiz?”

I thought about it. “Sure.”

It wasn’t as if he was attempting to lure me back there so that he could murder me—probably. Deep in my psyche, I couldn’t rule it out even though a more realistic part of my brain knew that was ridiculous. Even if he did want to murder me, his office in the math department was next to every other math professor in the university’s office.

Plus, even though I looked like a typical college student wearing nothing more than a backpack, jeans, and a t-shirt, the clothes, and backpack transformed into a thin layer of powered armor. I referred to it as the stealth suit to distinguish it from my main armor. I’d been improving it throughout June, July and August.

Part of me wondered if that whole line of thinking was paranoid, but I’d spent the first month of summer break fighting in a war zone. Planning for the worst seemed like a reasonable way to avoid it.

We didn’t talk as we walked to the math department. Neither of us were much interested in making small talk, I assumed—that or I’d missed his attempt to make conversation because I was too deeply involved in my own thoughts.

The math department was an open room with a desk for the secretary in the middle, a wall of mail slots for professors that stood behind her and counters with a copier, and other departmental resources lying everywhere. Posters about math, academic scholarships, and off-campus programs covered the walls except for the professors’ doors. The doors showed the professors’ names as well as cartoons featuring math-related humor and whatever the professor felt compelled to announce to visitors.

Dr. Stravinsky’s was bare except for his name, a piece of paper showing his schedule, and few XKCD cartoons. He opened the stained wooden door and I followed him in, sitting across the desk from him.

Unlike some profs, his office felt organized. The books were all on bookshelves instead of threatening to consume the desk and the chairs. Photographs of his wife and children sat the corners of his desk which was clear except for his laptop.

His diplomas hung on the wall above the smaller of his three bookcases. He’d gone to the University of California—Berkeley as an undergrad and to Princeton for graduate school.

I wasn’t up on the standings of US mathematics departments, but I suspected that those two were in the top tier, making me wonder what he was doing here. Grand Lake University was in the top third of US universities, but I doubted any of our programs were in the top tier.

I supposed that the merely good graduates of great universities needed to teach somewhere?

Dr. Stravinsky cleared his throat. “I suppose you’re wondering why I wrote what I did on your test.”

“A little.” I tried to sound innocent and upbeat. Keeping my responses short would reveal as little as possible.

“You answered it correctly and not only that, you used a shortcut that I’d never seen before. If you’d pull out your quiz, I can show you.”

I put in on the desk and he pointed to where I’d shown my work.

“There,” he said. “When I thought it through, I understood why it worked, but I don’t know how you know why it worked.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. My grandfather was an engineer and he tutored me in math when I was younger. He taught me a lot of shortcuts and I might have built on some of them.”

That much was true, but I couldn’t lean on that too hard or he might make a connection between the original Rocket and my grandfather—which wouldn’t take a big leap to connect the current Rocket with me.

He looked at me, taking a short breath. “Is your grandfather still alive?”

I shook my head. “He died three years ago—before my senior year of high school.”

He exhaled, his head tilting downward a touch, becoming visibly less tense. “I’m sorry to hear that and please don’t take this wrong, but that’s a relief. That means that he wasn’t the man who created the equation I used. During graduate school, I did some work for the government, mostly the FBI. Sometimes they recover journals or plans by supervillains who are technical geniuses and they need someone to figure out what they were working on. I’ve helped with the math.”

He stopped, smiling as if that explained all of it.

“Uh,” I paused as if struggling to figure out what to ask, “how does that connect with the quiz?”

He blinked. “Oh. With permission, I sometimes use bits of what I read in tests and quizzes. I modify them a little so that I don’t give away anything important, but if I need a hard question to separate the best grades from the next best, I use one of them.”

That surprised me. It didn’t seem likely that the FBI would be okay with random bits of future technology being shared with the world. That meant that Dr. Stravinsky was either lying about having permission or lying about why he was doing it.

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In My Daydreams

For His Own Good: Part 1

In My Daydreams

Dr. Strazinsky stood in front of the class, staring down at the pile of paper in his hands. Then he looked at me, making me wonder what I’d done.

This was my Calculus III class, one of the few prerequisites I hadn’t comped out of. I was only taking it during my Junior year because of some annoying scheduling issues between my double major in electrical engineering and chemistry.

The professor took a long breath and looked out at the class. From his appearance, I guessed that he had to be in his thirties, but he felt older. I didn’t know whether it was the tan suit jacket with tie and slacks, or the slightly balding hair.

Whatever it was, if you were hoping for a young, charismatic professor, this wasn’t your guy.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like him. I did like him. He seemed smart, knowledgeable, and good enough at explaining the material. I didn’t need anything else in a professor.

He looked directly at me again—making me wonder what was going on, back down at the papers, and then back to the class. Then he began to talk.

“I know that no one enjoys taking a quiz on the first day of class, but I like to know what people actually remember from Calculus 2. As a class, you did well—well enough that I’m comfortable starting without too much review. So, we’re going to go over the quiz. Feel free to ask about anything you want, but I’ll go over the quiz in order.”

About a quarter of the class raised their hands. Dr. Strazinsky blinked but pointed to a blond guy wearing a blue and gold University of Michigan t-shirt. 

The guy said, “What was up with that last question? I had no idea where to even start. I’ve never seen that covered anywhere. That’s not part of this class, is it?”

The prof shook his head, smiling a little. “Don’t worry about that question. You’ll never see anything like that again. It’s not part of this class. It’s not part of any class you’ll ever take in this university. I put it on the quiz to see how you’d try to solve it and not because I thought you could find the answer. It’s not something an undergrad should be able to solve. Most PhDs don’t have the necessary background. So, don’t worry about it. In fact, don’t worry about this quiz. It won’t be part of your grade.”

Then he passed back the stapled piles of paper.

As the stack of quizzes passed from one person to another, my stomach began to ache. I’d thought back to the last class, trying to remember the question, but I couldn’t. Nothing in it had seemed hard and the last question hadn’t stood out from the crowd.

Maybe, I told myself, I hadn’t noticed it. If it were on the back of the last page, it would have been easy to miss. I’d done that sort of thing before.

Except then I thought about the looks the prof had been giving me. I hadn’t missed it. I’d probably answered it strangely. Using the implant the Xiniti had installed in my head, I’d been investigating advances that aliens had made in math. Even with the implant, I didn’t have the background to understand all of it, but I’d made a good beginning. I’d have made a better one if the Xiniti were more interested in physics and less interested in war.

Off the top of my head, I decided that all I’d have to do is explain some of the shortcuts I’d taken or maybe offer a proof for one or more of them.

Then I got the quiz back. I flipped it over to look at the back of the last page. It was blank. I hadn’t missed the last question.

I opened it to the last page and looked at my scribbled answer. It seemed simple enough. The question asked the reader to solve for the value of a variable assuming other values that the question defined. 

Then I recognized where I knew the equation from. It was a type of equation used in calculating the distance a jump drive would send a spaceship. I’d learned a lot about them early in the summer when I’d taught myself the basics about jump drives.

It wasn’t impossible that someone on Earth would come up with an equation like this. The math needed to put something into practice often predates a need to use it. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder how it had gotten on my quiz.

It was only at that point that I noticed the words, “See me after class,” written next to the answer I’d written on my paper.

It appeared that I was about to find out.

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Tieshaunn

14.a.1 Out of Time

Tieshaunn

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Some time ago

The wall crinkled, like a sheet of paper being crushed into a ball in one’s hand, only here, the crinkling led to expansion, with flat petals of plaster, sharper than razors, jutting out in unpredictable patterns.

Jared dove at the last second, his arms around the warm body that’d been clinging to him since she’d appeared above the city, and barely avoided getting sliced into coasters.

Kizzy cried out, but it was weak, her voice hoarse from crying and screaming into his chest, and he didn’t have time to pay attention to it anyway.

The house was crinkling and distorting around them, rapidly turning from the safe haven they’d been holed up in into a death trap – seconds counted, and Jarod made them count.

The door out was nearest, but the door had already started to crinkle, so he went for the open window on the far side of the room instead, leaping onto the couch beneath it, and then through it – since it had been open, the crinkling glass and frame hadn’t blocked it off yet, though even so, he only managed to get out half a second before the window was blocked off by blades so thin they seemed two-dimensional.

His feet hit the soft ground of the empty flower beds outside – his mother had been heartbroken, when she’d lost her prized tulips to an untimely storm – and he ran, looking around wide-eyed.

All around him, buildings, lamp posts, cars, everything that was above ground, was crinkling out, turning into twisted works of modern “art”.

But not the ground itself, nor any of the trees he could see.

Kizzy whimpered, and he paused as he stood just underneath a big tree planted in front of the three story building that’d once been his home, taking his eyes off the distortions around them, off the bright lights above that shifted as she moved, and checked his little sister over, making sure she hadn’t been cut somewhere.

She was fine, the gold-and-white summer dress with Lady Light’s weird symbol on the front still completely pristine, her bare legs and feet unharmed, save for a few scabbed-over nicks and cuts she’d gotten from rough-housing with friends in the park.

”Jared, I-“ she began to say, starting to raise her head, but he put his hand on the back, and pulled her in close.

He didn’t want her to see the people who hadn’t gotten away from the distortions in time.

Even as he did that, he saw the elderly Mister Teeper and his wife, Madison, holding hands for a moment as they stared out over the street, their eyes empty – they’d been impaled by their own house, he horizontally through the gut, and vertically through the back of the head, she diagonally across the chest, between her breasts, and through the right thigh, severing her leg there entirely.

The petals were so sharp, though, they didn’t stay there, their own weight easily enough to cause them to slide and fall over. Mister Teeper feel to the side, she to the back, and they were reduced to the consistency of  minced meat, falling through thicket of crinkle-blades.

“Everything’s going to be alright, Kizzy,” he soothed her, holding on tight. He was never going to forget that sight, but he was going to do his best to avoid her seeing anything like that. “Just, keep your eyes closed, and I’ll get us out of here.”

“B-but what… what about mom and d-dad?” she pressed, her voice barely audible even to him. “They’re still at th-th-the office, downtown…”

Whatever confidence Jared might have had, it died, and its corpse dropped to the bottom of his stomach like a leaden weight.

Kizzy didn’t know, she was too young to be told yet, but their parents weren’t office workers – they were superheroes, the both of them. Jared had found out about it years ago, when he’d snuck down the stairs in the middle of the night, only to see his tired mother use her power to pick up the tv remote from the kitchen table… while lying on the couch, a room away.

They’d told him who they were in costume, then, and he’d been sworn to secrecy. Kizzy, meanwhile, was to be kept ignorant until she was at least fourteen years old, they’d said.

They’re not that strong. If they fight that monster, they’ll…

He shook his head. No, he couldn’t afford to go down that road. If he had no confidence they’d be alright, then he at least had to pretend that he did, for Kizzy’s sake.

“They’re going to be alright, you’ll see,” he said, though the words rang hollow to him. “We’ll just, uh, I mean, they’ll find us, you’ll see. Just need to, to keep moving…”

His sister whimpered again, clinging to him as hard as she could, which wasn’t that hard, considering she’d just recently turned ten.

Still, while she was a lightweight, in the lowest percentile of height and weight for her age, he wouldn’t be able to carry her like this…

“Kizzy, I’m going to put you down, and then you have to climb onto my back and hold on tight, ok? But, uh, don’t open your eyes, k?” he spoke to her, his own eyes wide open, watching the crinkle-petals shifting around in waves.

“Ok…” She did as she was told, climbing onto his back, nearly knocking her and his glasses off when she smashed her head into the side of his, once she was on his back. He didn’t comment on it, grabbing her legs and getting up.

They said on tv that she changes her powers, now and then. As soon as the crinkling stops, I’ll, I’ll start running. Running towards…

Looking up and around, he could see the light above shift, a light show unlike any he’d ever seen, as if the northern lights had decided to form a dome over the city. It was supposed to move around with her, but the riot of colors was so confusing to look at, he honestly couldn’t tell whether it was moving at all.

Still, there were explosions and other power effects, in the distance, that told him the fight was most likely taking place at or near the beach front.

So the best way to go would be straight away from that. Just run, run, and keep running, until he was out of her desolation field – how big was it, again, a mile? Two? Three at most, he was sure.

He could run two or three miles, he was sure, even with Kizzy’s weight on his back. All that running he did for the track team had to be useful for something, for once!

***

It took minutes, which felt like hours, before something changed. Time spent holding Kizzy, speaking to her, keeping her as calm as he could.

Then, the petals stopped shifting around – they’d been moving into and through each other, like bad graphics in a video game or something – and went still.

In the distance, light seemed to be drawn in towards a single point, the entire area starting to grow more and more dim, save for the coruscant lights above.

She’s changed her powers.

He took one last deep breath, half crouched, shifting his shoulders and hips a bit to make sure Kizzy was properly balanced on his back.

She whimpered, clinging tighter, so tightly she started to choke him. She wasn’t very strong, but he couldn’t run for long like this.

“Kizzy… ease up a little, please,” he begged her, only to have her break into tears again, sobbing into the nape of his neck.

“I-I… I’m sorry, I… I’m so, so scared! I’m a stupid scaredy-cat, I-” she began to ramble, but he shook his head, his heart twisting into itself at hearing the sheer horror in her voice.

He had to distract her, somehow.

“How about you sing something?” he asked, out of the blue. She loved singing, even took classes, and anything would be helpful right now.

“S-sing? What, could I sing?” she asked, easing up on her grip, if only to use one wrist to wipe her runny nose.

“How about… that song you were practicing with mom yesterday? You know, that really old song about a bottle and stuff.” He’d barely listened to them, having preferred to focus on his video games – he really wasn’t into that old kind of music, at all, particularly when it was in a language he didn’t care for, but this wasn’t about him.

“Ok…” she replied, sounding dubious about what sense it made right now. Yet, she cleared her throat, and began to sing – it never took much to get her to sing.

At the same time, he took off, barely restraining himself from going all-in all at once – instead, he remembered his track teacher’s words, to work up to his top speed when he needed to run for a while.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium,” Kizzy began to sing, her voice far steadier than it had been since this nightmare had started, soft and sweet right beside his ear; she was almost whispering, a performance just for him to hear.

He ran straight onto the center of the street, where there were the fewest petals visible, and turned right, putting where he thought that monster was right behind him.

“Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!” Her voice picked up, as she got into the song, seemingly forgetting the now.

She usually did that, once she started to sing.

His feet pounded the concrete, his eyes held wide open, looking out for the slightest hint of a petal in his way, even as his surroundings kept growing darker. With how sharp these things were, if he so much as brushed one, he was going to slice himself and Kizzy to pieces before he even noticed something was wrong.

“Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt; alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.”

Mom, if we all make it out of this, I swear I’ll try to learn a little more about Germany, he thought, tears in his eyes, though those might have been due to him not daring to blink while running through this forest of razor-sharp death. I’ll even make an effort to talk to Gramps.

He’d never even been to Germany, but his mother had been born there, grown up until her father had packed up what little they owned and all but fled the German States, first to Britain, then across the pond. She’d always encouraged him and Kizzy to connect with that part of their heritage, but he hadn’t wanted anything to do with it since he’d been eight.

“Wem der große Wurf gelungen, eines Freundes Freund zu sein; wer ein holdes Weib errungen, mische seinen Jubel ein!”

His mother loved this song, even though it’d been Weisswald’s favourite, and his anthem besides. You couldn’t sing it, or even play the lyrics, anywhere in Europe, and not get lynched.

Whenever he’d brought that up, his mother would just say that Weisswald had liked to breathe, too, and no one was condemning that.

“Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele, sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!”

The encroaching darkness suddenly shifted, spots of light appearing, radiating out from a single point far behind him, and slightly to the left. Like flashlight beams, only much more focused, creating spots of yellow-white light on the surroundings.

Some of the beams of light shone right through his and Kizzy’s bodies, as if they weren’t even there, illuminating the ground ahead of them as he ran.

The hell! This can’t be good!

He jumped to the side, into beam-free area, just as the beams suddenly became so bright they seemed solid, yet without blinding, as if the light had hardened rather than intensified.

Then they turned back to just light, and started to shift around, like the lights from a disco ball being turned.

Wherever the lights had hardened, they’d cut right through whatever had been in the way between them and the ground, though without damaging the ground itself.

Kizzy’s singing was briefly drowned out, as several buildings around them collapsed.

He ran faster. The drills they did at school every few months said that her attacks often came in waves, starting out… not weak, because there was nothing truly weak about her, but less powerful, and built up over time, becoming more powerful with each successive wave.

If the heroes and villains… no, right now, they were all heroes, if the heroes didn’t force her to change her powers, the next attack would cover even more ground, or penetrate deeper, or set fires in the aftermath, or be better in some other way he couldn’t even think of.

Keep running.

His feet hit the concrete, getting into a steady rhythm again. He wanted nothing more than to just go all out, to run as fast and as hard as he could, but he had no idea how long he’d have to run, so he had to pace himself.

“Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehel, weinend, sich aus diesem Bund!” Kizzy picked her song back up, though she was off-key, choking back tears.

“Keep your eyes closed!” he told her, hoping to God she hadn’t caught a glimpse of the carnage they were rushing past.

He was doing what he could not to notice it, either – the people who’d survived the petals, most of them had been cut down by the solid beams. There were bodies littering the street and the front yards.

His feet splashed as he passed a section of road positively flooded with blood flowing from a school bus that’d somehow escaped crinkling out into petals, but had not escaped being turned into swiss cheese by the solid beams.

Some of the bodies within were visible. Some hung out a window, or were pressed against the glass.

None of them was older than Kizzy.

Jared wanted to stop, he wanted, more than anything, to go in there, as much as he didn’t want to get close to that carnage, see if there were survivors, wounded or not… the thought of leaving a boy or girl of Kizzy’s age behind to die, it twisted him up inside like nothing else.

He’d want someone else to do so for Kizzy, too, if he wasn’t there.

But there was no time. If he stopped, if he went into as tight a confinement as that bus, there would be no dodging the next wave of solid light.

No time to dodge, no time to help.

How many big brothers had lost their little sisters, just in that bus?

His feet hit dry concrete again, leaving bloody footprints the shape of his sneaker’s soles behind.

He left the bus behind, and in that moment, Jared had never hated anything or anyone near as much as he now hated that monster.

***

Now

Jared stepped up to the rim of the crater, crunching gravel under his white boots. He was exhausted, in body and mind, so much so his legs were trembling to hold up his body, but he could not bring himself to care.

He had to see this.

Below, Mindstar was staggering around, arms and shoulders slack, her head lolling around as her eyes refused to focus on anything, shedding streams of tears to accompany her incessant babbling, completely oblivious to the blood she was stepping around in, the bits of flesh and other parts she occasionally stepped on, or the blood-soaked, golden hair that filled more of the crater than the blood and the flesh combined did.

His eyes moved past her, seeking for something of the monster to focus on. Her lower body was mostly intact, and nude as ever, but that was not what he wanted to look at.

Instead, he found an eye, with a bit of messy, torn nerve and blood vessels attached to the back, having fallen so that it seemed to stare almost directly at him.

With its powers gone, the iris was purple, the only similarity to the princess being how deep, almost gem-like, the color was. Like looking straight at a circular…

What was the word? Something fancy, with an A… Amethyst. That’s the word.

Looking straight at an amethyst, where the princess’ eyes were more akin to sapphires. Beautiful, objectively, he, his very core, it refused to ascribe anything of true beauty to this monster.

Not even now, not in death.

The princess is going to be heartbroken.

The thought came unbidden, unwanted. He shouldn’t care about that, and yet…

He had a sibling, too. Though comparing Kizzy to the monster was ridiculous, or his relationship to her to the princess’ and the monster’s, he couldn’t hate the princess for feeling that way, not really.

He did hate everyone else who’d tried to defend the monster. And there were many. Imbeciles and ingrates who said it was just a victim of its own powers. Innocent, for its ignorance. That they’d regret the necessity of its death, if it could not be saved.

Jared would have spat out on its remains, if his mouth wasn’t dry as sandpaper. He’d run out of water six hours ago, as he’d been running himself ragged getting others into safety. Spending nearly all of the time he’d accumulated, leaving him with only seconds, which were now recharging, second by second, like grains of sand trickling into an empty hour glass.

This is good. As good as I could have hoped for.

To Hell with the people feeling sympathetic for it.

He had held Kizzy as she’d fallen apart at the news that their parents hadn’t made it.

He had held her hand when they’d buried the empty caskets of their parents, and what little had been found of their cantankerous, snarky, cuddly old fool of a grandfather.

No family left. No friends. No home. The entire southern side of Miami was gone, the people who’d lived there almost all dead.

Only Jared, Kizzy, and the powers he’d manifested, gathering up seconds to spend. Powers that he’d leveraged into building a new life for the two of them, with the right kind of foster family, with money and prestige.

None of it was enough to fill the holes left in their hearts, but it was a start.

He stared at that eye, feeling the black, tar-like weight of his hatred in his chest, his stomach, his head, coursing through his veins.

Fuck it. Fuck you, DiL. May you fucking rot in Hell, you fucking monster. I hope this hurt even worse than it looked, and I hope someone made a recording of it, so I can watch it every night before bed.

Maybe if he did that, he’d finally be able to sleep without having nightmares of her.

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In My Daydreams

Trees & Shields: Part 36

In My Daydreams

Possible responses hung in my head, most of them bad. I settled on, “I’m sorry.   I wish we could have done something, but none of us are any good at healing.”

I thought back to my friend Alex. He was good at healing. It would have been nice if the Ghosts had grabbed him along with Rachel. He couldn’t have survived the trip without a spaceship, and everything I knew through my implant and Rachel said that they didn’t bother with them.

Kals shook her head. “Iolan could have done it if he had access to all his equipment. The Ascendancy killed her in more ways than one. I hate them. I don’t know how, but somehow we have to destroy them. Not everybody, but the Ascendant and the Ascendant Council, the Guard… It all needs to end.”

“Iolan seemed to think that grabbing Marcus’ DNA would be a start.”

Kals laughed. “Yeah. In 300 or 400 years, we’ll have them on their knees. I’m sorry, but right now I don’t want to wait that long.”

“Good point,” I searched for something else that might distract her. “Four Hands seems to be starting something sooner. I gave him some of my tech that he thought might help. If the resistance talks to him, maybe you could coordinate. He’s still in the solar system. He’ll probably stay until he picks up all of his people on the other Ascendancy battleships. I don’t know where he’s going after that.”

She looked up toward space. “I’ll have to bug our Council about that. We should talk to him. I don’t know why no one thought to talk to four handers before. If anybody should hate the Ascendancy, they should. They’re dying in Ascendancy ships even if they don’t care who they’re fighting.”

Turning to look at the shelter and then back at me, she said, “With Mom dead, I feel like I have to take over what she’s left unfinished. There’s too much of it. I know I don’t have to do it all on my own, but even if I don’t lead the movement myself being visible will help keep it together. That’s what I’ve got to give that no one else does. I can show people that her presence can still be felt here.”

She looked up at me. “How long are you all going to stay?”

“Not long,” I said. “We’ve all got to get home. We’ll do what we can to help, but the mission’s over. I’ve got classes to get back to. So does my sister. And I feel like I should tell you that we’re not from where we said. I can’t tell you where we are from, but not that.”

She laughed again. “I figured that out on my own. Wherever you’re from, you’re not from an Ascendancy world. You don’t act like us and even though you know about us, it’s like you’re reading it from a book. You were leaning on your implant for everything.

“Even if I hadn’t guessed from that, your sister is with the Cosmic Ghosts and Tikki or Kee or whatever-she-is just wasted all the Ascendancy troops at once? Nobody does that. What are you really? Are you even human? I know your DNA’s got Artificer DNA in it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know right now. I’ll let you know when I find out. If I’m somehow connected to the Artificers it shouldn’t be that hard, right?”

“Are you going to stay for her funeral?” Kals stood, waiting for my answer.

“I don’t see why not. Unless you have a tradition that requires we wait here for months.”

Kals shook her head. “No. We have the funeral and then cremate the dead and we do it within a day or two.”

“We can stay for that,” I said, and we did, leaving the planet three days later with Jaclyn, Marcus, Cassie, Rachel, and I. We also brought Tiger. The dog wasn’t too big yet, but I had no idea what we’d do with him when he reached full growth. I didn’t even know what we’d feed him.

Katuk went back with the Xiniti, telling us that, “Perhaps I’ll visit your home someday.”

Kee disappeared during the cleanup after the fight. We didn’t see her again, but she did talk with Marcus before she disappeared. He didn’t give any details about what she’d said. “It’s personal,” he told us. “It wouldn’t mean much to you anyway.”

He didn’t say more than a few words at a time for the first few days of the flight back home.

* * *

We didn’t go back the same way. We stopped at K’Tepolu briefly, but Kee wasn’t back yet according to the people at her store. I made a quick call without telling Marcus. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if she’d come back, but I felt compelled to check.

We avoided the solar system and old battle site where Lee had sensed one of his own kind, but found Lee in a backwater system we were cutting through to avoid observation. Hal got a message and using the coordinates we’d been given, we matched speed with Lee and got close enough that he could pull himself into the airlock.

He spotted Tiger immediately, and said, “Interesting.”

The dog growled at him. Ignoring it, he grinned at Rachel, “Nice to see you getting in touch with family.”

Rachel leaned back in her chair and folded her hands over her chest. “It might have been nice to know earlier.”

Lee shrugged. “It wasn’t my place. The Ghosts tell their recruits what they need to know at their own pace.”

Rachel nodded. “No shit. A slow pace.”

I turned back from my place in the pilot seat to look at him. “What were you doing?”

Lee found a seat and pulled on a seat belt. “This and that. I created a powerful distraction, one that exists in more than one universe, making it impossible for my people to guess which universe’s distraction is the important one.”

“Good,” Cassie grinned at him. “It’d be nice if we get home to find a planet instead of a smoking ruin. And by the way, we succeeded too.”

“Mostly,” Jaclyn stretched her legs in her seat. She’d been complaining about soreness in her thigh, but it was healing.

Lee sat up in his chair. “I know. I saw some of it. I didn’t get too close. I couldn’t risk Kee sensing me, and to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did anyway.”

Turning in his chair, Marcus said, “If she did, she didn’t say so.”

Nodding, Lee said, “She wouldn’t. She’s careful. But anyway, I can’t deny it, you did everything you needed to do. You didn’t know that you were doing most of what you were doing, but you succeeded nonetheless.”

There, he had my full attention (and Jaclyn’s to guess from her look at him), “What did we do that we weren’t trying to do?”

Lee met my eyes and gave a wide smile. “A number of very important tasks that I couldn’t be seen doing. First, you got the Earth genes necessary to break down the Ascendancy caste system to a group that will use them to do that. Second, you connected the nascent fourhander rebellion with the Alliance and the Ascendancy’s rebels. Third, you connected yourselves and by extension me, with an old friend of mine, one that wouldn’t have known whether or not she could trust me if I showed up on my own. Now, even if she never said so, Kee knows that I’m working with you and against Destroy.”

He looked around the cabin, meeting eyes with all of us. “Because of you, the Ascendancy will fall in 100 years at most, possibly as soon as fifty. Plus, Kee will find a way to get in touch with me. She’s resourceful that way. Once that happens, I’ll be able to find out what the Live faction’s been up to for the last few eons. I don’t know where that will lead me, but I’m sure it will be interesting.”

Sitting up, Marcus strained against his seatbelt. “Are you kidding me? Did you use us? Was this all part of some kind of plan?”

Lee looked him in the face. “Exactly. It’s part of a plan that keeps Earth the least interesting planet on this side of the galaxy, thereby keeping it alive for thousands of years longer than if Destroy noticed it.”

Frowning, Marcus said, “When you put it that way, I’m okay with it.”

“You and me both,” Cassie said. “Big picture, everyone, Big picture.”

Not long after that, we stopped talking. Hours, days and many jumps later, we arrived home, joining Stapledon for the rest of the summer.

As grateful as I was to be home and see Daniel, Haley, and everyone else, I dreamed of Hideaway–the good and the bad, the battles we fought, and the people we knew. I remembered the scent of its forest, the roars of its migrating megafauna, the sizzle of handheld beam weapons, the ashes of the last battle, and the many, many deaths.

While I didn’t find myself diving for cover at the sound of car backfires, I felt that my memories had a weight to them and wondered how people did this job for 20 years.

Grandpa, I knew, had done it for nearly 40 years even though I knew he remembered things he’d rather have forgotten.  If you had a reason to do it, you found a way to continue.

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In My Daydreams

Trees & Shields: Part 35

In My Daydreams

Four Hands looked into the camera or whatever he was using. It might just as easily have been an image captured from his brain by his implant.

He paused, giving all of us viewing to look at him. Though I’d peg him as being in his late 20s (only a few years older than I was), he had bags under his eyes. I supposed that leading the Ascendancy forces after they’d been destroyed by us, followed by taking over the Ascendancy’s flagship, might be tiring and stressful.

“If any of the Cosmic Ghosts are listening, I ask you to save as many of my people as you can as you destroy the Ascendancy fleet. We’re not in charge, and we’re as susceptible to motivator commands as any human in the Ascendancy.”

He paused again, taking a breath. “We may even be more susceptible. The Abominators made us to repair ships and create new devices. They wanted us to be easy to control and not to do what I just did—rebel and take over using the technical access they entrusted us with.

“That’s why I’m asking the Xiniti, the Alliance military and the Ghosts to be kind to us. I think you’d find us better allies than you can imagine right now.”

I nudged Rachel, asking her if she had access to the public announcement channel and sent a message to Hal not to attack the Ascendancy flagship. If he used near space to attack, he might well destroy the flagship and that would be awkward.

Rachel nodded. “I can hear him. I’m doing what I can to pass his message on to the Ghosts. For all I know, they heard him themselves.”

She closed her eyes, mouth a thin line, hands clenched in fists. “I think I got through… And… They just got back to me. They’ll leave the four handers alone. I don’t think they were trying to destroy whole ships anyway. They’ve destroyed engines and weapons, but they left the rest to the Alliance and the Xiniti.”

“Okay,” I said. “I guess the colony’s safe then. I don’t think there’s anyone else fighting.”

Rachel sighed. “Good. They dragged me halfway across the galaxy to help you. I was supposed to start some kind of internship or something. I only barely got up to speed on that when the Ghosts yanked me out of there—which is annoying because it was looking interesting.”

“Who was it with?”

“Some kind of super covert ops team. I don’t think I can say anything even out here. They sounded like the kind of thing I might protest if I found out about it, but it also sounds like they try to do the right thing… I think I’d enjoy working with them.”

I thought about that. “It shouldn’t take that long to get back if you ride with us—a little over a week. I don’t know if that’s faster or slower than the Ghosts.”

She frowned. “I’m not sure. I think it might have taken longer for us to get here than that, but they were also showing me the ropes for interstellar flight. I haven’t got it all down yet, but when I do, I can cross a galaxy without a spaceship. Of course, I’ll also be part of some kind of interdimensional force for good. So it’s not like I’ll be doing that for fun. Anyway, I’ll probably fly back with all of you. No promises, but the way I understand it, I’ve got a long way to go before I’m even with the lowest Ghost.”

Around us, the colonists were tending to their wounded and even a few of the Ascendancy wounded, applying goos and sprays that would start whole new industries back home if I got a sample. It was tempting, but medicine wasn’t a major interest. Grabbing one of the Xiniti suits and taking it apart sounded like more fun, but I knew I had to ask permission if I wanted to do that.

Closer to the shelter, a couple colonists appeared to be replanting Crawls-Through-Desert in a big ceramic box. It appeared makeshift. Only two of the sides were the same color (pastel green) and none of the sides were flush. They all stuck out a little further than they needed to—as it might if they were in a hurry because a plant might die.

It didn’t float. A flat, floating platform hung in the air next to it. Too bad they’d filled the box with dirt before putting it on. It wouldn’t be much trouble for the Rocket suit, though.

I told Rachel that was going to help them and started walking that way, passing Jaclyn who was petting the dog. Cassie, Kee, Marcus, and Katuk were talking with the Xiniti. Rachel joined that conversation.

It didn’t take me much to get Crawls-Through-Desert on the gravity sled. He didn’t say much, but one of the colonists assured me he’d be fine. “Moving from one pot to another is a huge shock to the system for them, but give him a couple days and he’ll be okay. His wounds aren’t bad, but his pot was unfixable.”

Kals stepped out of the shelter. I began to ask, “How’s your mom,” but stopped halfway through.

The blank look on her face answered my question before she said, “She’s dead. They finished the surgery, but they couldn’t save her.”

She stood there, unmoving either because she didn’t know what to do or maybe because she was waiting for me to do something. I didn’t know. I did set the armor to transform into a block. Wearing it felt wrong.

As it fell away, she said, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t be her. I’m not going to take over for her. I was even thinking of asking if I could leave with all of you… But that doesn’t feel right.”

She looked down at the ground. “I wish we were normal people. Then she’d never have been involved with any of this.”

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In My Daydreams

Trees & Shields: Part 34

In My Daydreams

Marcus pursed his lips. “There’s no chance that you’re pregnant, right? I mean, you said you’d had that… turned off, but I didn’t even know who you really were at the time, so…”

Kee’s face darkened, but she kept on talking. “I was telling the truth. In our true form, we’re not fertile with humans. I’m not sure you’d even recognize what we do to reproduce as sex, but when we embody ourselves, we have to create something that can connect back to our true selves.

“So we could have reproduced, but if we did, our child would have too much power for your world to handle, and too little to defend itself from the Destroy faction for a long, long time. I’d never risk that.”

Taking a deep breath, Marcus smiled. “That’s good. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who makes a kid and then disappears. I wish you would have told me earlier, though. I never seriously expected that you’d come home with me, but when we got involved I began to hope.”                                                  

She took a breath and let it go. “I should have told you sooner. I wish I had, but then, when everything became dangerous, the moment never seemed to be right. Again, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let it go this long, but Tikki wouldn’t have wanted it to end, and sometimes we let our false personalities make decisions. It makes it harder for Destroy to tell the true from the false.”

Cocking his head to look at her as she talked, Marcus said, “Yeah. I can see that. Acting like you don’t know what’s going on will put them off guard.”

They kept on talking and I managed to relax. At least this wasn’t going to blow up. Knowing what Kee had just done, I didn’t want to see her angry—if only because I might have just broken up her strongest relationship in the last thousand years.

Next to me, Rachel smiled. “Well, it’s a relief to be wrong. They’re doing okay—for now, anyway. In my experience, what you feel about a breakup comes in waves.”

She stopped, frowned, stared up at the blue sky. “Bad news. This isn’t over. The Ghosts can send warnings to each other and right now I’m seeing a big one. The Ascendancy flagship is positioning itself to fire its railgun at the colony, starting with us.”

I turned to look at her. “Crap. ‘Rods from God’.”

She raised her eyebrow. “What?”

“Cold War era military idea. You shoot telephone pole-sized rods at the surface of a planet and get atomic blast level damage without the radiation. Are the Ghosts going to help?”

She shook her head. “They’re busy annihilating the Ascendancy fleet over on the other side of the solar system. A few of them could get here in a few minutes, but the first rod they fire will get here sooner.”

I stopped listening halfway through, trying to connect to Hal. When the connection opened, I didn’t wait for a hello. “You have my express authorization to do anything that works to stop the Ascendancy flagship from shooting a railgun at us.”

Hal’s voice came over my implant. “It is unlikely I’ll cross the distance on time, but firing the main gun might distract them. I’ll run simulations as I go.”

At about the same time, my implant’s emergency setting activated, registering a public announcement. Guessing what might be coming, I opened the message.

In my mind, I saw someone that could pass as an Ascendancy soldier except that he appeared to be in his fifties or older and wore a black uniform with a pattern of colored triangles in a circular shape. My implant identified him as an admiral and the triangles as medals.

“This is Admiral Makri Tzin of the Ascendancy fleet. You are in violation of the Human Ascendancy’s laws and will be destroyed. If by some accident, someone on this world survives, be sure that the colony is dead. Tell the Cosmic Ghosts that even if they destroy my ship as they are my fleet, the Ascendancy will endure and thrive. For now, burn rebels, burn.”

I opened a connection to Hal and he took the call, giving me his view of what lay ahead. The Ascendancy flagship was so far in the distance that it was little more than a dot. Hal fired the main gun. It wouldn’t be effective at this range, but it might distract them.

Admiral Makri Tzin’s voice and image reappeared in the public announcement stream. “We’ve loaded our railgun. This is your final moment. Fire!”

Except then, the admiral frowned, staring downward at what I assumed was a dashboard or control panel. “I said, ‘fire’!”

Then he paused, turning to look off camera to his right. “What are you doing here? I told you to—”

White light hit his body and the feed went dead.

Then another public announcement began. I opened it and Four Hands appeared in my view. He stood behind the same console the admiral had been using. Wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and tool belt instead of his Ascendant Guard uniform, he addressed the viewers.

“I’m Izzk Sekman, known as ‘Four Hands’ in the Ascendant Guard where I served the Human Ascendancy for more than ten years. In the Guard, I oppressed people in the Human Ascendancy’s name, much as my people have served the Ascendancy and many others by maintaining their ships.

“We will do so no longer.”

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In My Daydreams

Trees & Shields: Part 33

In My Daydreams

Whatever my reservations, it didn’t matter. The bubble expanded to cover the entire battlefield and that included all the troops that had been waiting in the wings and beginning to charge.

Connected to Kee’s not-quite-telepathy, I could sense how far it went—more than one hundred yards away in every direction.

Past the edge, the Xiniti that had promised to show up and help stood, staring at the bubble.

Inside the Ascendancy forces stood still, unable to move at all.

Kee, as I’d started to think of her again, said, “Do you want any of them to survive?”

I couldn’t read her mind, but I could feel her focus. I said, “I’d like them all to survive, but I don’t have any specific use for any of them.”

“I can’t hold them this way forever. The moment I step away, they’ll start trying to kill you again. I’ll end them now.”

Before I could say anything more, she pulled in more energy from each of the many sources she’d opened up. I could feel her pulling it in, allowing it to build up, and then she released it into the bubble, all of it directed into individual Ascendancy soldiers.

I knew somehow that she wasn’t aging them. She wasn’t using Tikki’s powers at all. She disintegrated them, absorbing the heat as the bonds that held their bodies together dissolved, leaving dust and bits of bone.

Then the bubble faded away and the skies became bright once again. I wasn’t sure why being within the bubble dimmed the light. I had theories but hadn’t had time to devote more than an instant’s thought to them.

Now it looked as though I might have more time. The small piles of dust all over and the complete lack of fighting told me what I already knew—no Ascendancy soldiers survived.

The Xiniti I’d seen through Kee’s eyes walked toward us slowly, looking from one side to another as if they expected creatures to appear out of thin air, burst out of the ground, or attack with no reason and no warning.

It wasn’t unreasonable given that the Ascendancy soldiers had just disappeared for no reason they knew of and no warning.

I considered using my implant to contact them but figured they’d contact us if they wanted us. It would be better to determine who’d survived all this. I asked the implant for a status update on all of us and it replied. Jaclyn was alive but hurt, Cassie alive and already healed, Katuk was alive, and Marcus was alive.

I looked around the camp for the others. Kals was alive and walking toward the shelter. She had to be looking for her mom.

Jaclyn’s dog stood over the piles of dust, sniffing them. Then he raised his leg and peed on one. Meanwhile, Rachel was solid and walking across the ground toward me.

I waited for her, planning to tell her that I was going to follow Kals and find out what had happened to Jadzen, but then I heard Marcus’ voice.

“Where’s Tikki and what are you doing here?” He faced Kee. His rifle lay on the ground.

Kee stood next to him where Tikki had been. When I thought about it, Kee and Tikki weren’t so very different. The body she wore as Kee appeared to be in its thirties and Tikki appeared to be in her early twenties or late teens. “Kee” had fuller lips and a squarer face, but they both had the same shades of dark hair and light brown skin.

If I’d seen them at the same time, I might have guessed they were sisters or maybe mother and daughter. They were variations on the same face and body.

“I’m sorry for the deception,” Kee said, “but I couldn’t leave K’Tepolu with you in this form. It would have raised too many questions and gotten too much attention. I really did like you as Tikki. I still like you, but if you think about what I did, you’ll know what I am. You already know one of my people and you know why this can’t work.”

Marcus’ eyes widened. “Oh, god.”

It wasn’t a completely inappropriate line under the circumstances.

Now standing next to me, Rachel said, “This isn’t going to be pretty. Take it from someone who been there.”

“I know your breakup with Travis was bad, but I really don’t think it’s the same.“

Still staring at Kee, Marcus said, “We had sex.”

I don’t know that I would have gone there next, but it did raise some interesting questions.

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In My Daydreams

Trees & Shields: Part 32

In My Daydreams

“What I’m asking is probably simple for you—take out the people who are trying to kill us or hide all of us or maybe move us somewhere else? I don’t know. A teleport would be ideal.”

She didn’t say anything but I could feel flickers of her emotions, much as I felt Daniel’s when I was back home. It wasn’t a telepathic connection or maybe it was, but if it was it felt different—bigger—a forty room mansion instead of your standard four bedroom house.

That’s a terrible metaphor, but I don’t have anything better than “bigger.”

We still had an implant connection, but she’d stopped using it, unwilling, I assumed, to risk standard communication methods.

I glanced around us and everything stood still, frozen at the moment that I’d tried to get her attention.

“I can’t risk it.” On the surface, her voice stayed level without growing higher or faster with emotion, but through our connection, I felt a flicker of fear.

Without showing any emotion that she wouldn’t have if she were teaching a college physics class, she continued, “If I hid all of you, I’d have to keep on hiding you until they left and I can’t be sure they would. If I moved all of you from one place to another, something would notice. Maybe my people wouldn’t notice right away but they would in time.”

“What about Marcus? He’ll die with the rest of us if it all goes wrong here.” Even as I said it, I felt hints of fear and anxiety that I knew wasn’t all mine.

“I’ve been running for millions of years now.” Her voice seemed to fill my entire being, reminding me that Daniel had told me that being in Lee’s presence could be mentally painful for him.

“I don’t want them to find me. I have so much more to do.” She said it matter of factly as if we were talking about the weather.

“Are you just going to let things happen if you don’t help us?” I watched her face as I asked the question.

She stared ahead of herself, but then she said, “I don’t know. I try to do what I can when I have the chance.”

She looked down.

I tried to catch her eye. “Look, if you can’t do something yourself, can you give me the power to solve this?”

That earned me a look. She stared at me as if she’d never looked at me before. She said, “No. It’s too early. Let me think.”

Then I stopped feeling her emotions and the world around me went forward again.

Blasts of energy flew through the air. Ascendancy soldiers rushed in. A beam hit the plant’s pot. He did his best to dodge, but the beam hit and the pot fell to the ground with a crash.

Cassie took two beams to the back. She fell to the ground, but rolled over and began firing back with her gun. As long as she didn’t get hit in the head she’d be fine, but I wondered how long that could last.

A wave of soldiers surrounded Jaclyn. I couldn’t see her, but every now and then blood would shoot into the air. I assumed she had to be alive.

I fired my laser, punched, and fired the sonics as fast as I could, unsure as to how long I could keep it up. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ascendancy soldiers pointing their weapons at Marcus and Tikki. Marcus had been stretched into a shape I thought of as “sniper Slenderman,” but now he’d contracted into a roughly human shape and was firing his particle accelerator rifle while smacking soldiers with tentacles that he’d grown.

Tikki stood next to him, surrounded by her bubble, seemingly doing nothing, but then everything stopped again and I was in contact with Kee.

In that moment, I felt something that reminded me of when I’d pulled a flaming sword out of nowhere using Lee’s power or arguably maybe through a combination of his and my own small hint of power.

This wasn’t me, though.

I felt small trickles of power opening and knew without being sure how I knew that they were Kee’s doing, that there were many of them, each of them a different source, and that they weren’t going to me. They were going to her. A part of me wondered if I could somehow tap them, but doing so without instruction or invitation seemed rude at best. At worst, it might be deadly.

Either way, it was unnecessary. The power flowed toward Kee and as her bubble absorbed it, it grew, expanding first to include Marcus, the nearest Ascendancy soldiers, Then the bubble grew faster, including me, Cassie, Jaclyn, Kals and the entire camp before I had time to notice, much less time to get away.

She was on our side, but I remembered what had happened to Agent 957. The bubble wasn’t a safe place to be.

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