Sirius took the last turn down Altera’s famous Independence Street, where tens of thousands of citizens gathered to celebrate Altera wresting its newfound sovereignty from Amidonia’s hands, 159 years ago. In accordance with its reputation as a tourist destination, the place was quite picturesque, with buildings and houses of a distinctly different, quainter architectural style than the rest of the capital.
Sirius wasn’t a tourist, though, and his destination wasn’t Independence Street.
He continued until he found himself following the shoreline of Lake Baikan. Altera – the city, not the country – was built on the westernmost point of Lake Baikan, one of the most massive bodies of freshwater in the world. Most of the lake’s surface area wasn’t on even alteran soil, but instead stretched all the way from Altera to the middle-western highlands of Amidonia, bridging over the border between the two countries. It too was a tourist destination, and it too was picturesque.
Sirius was no more a tourist now than when he crossed Independence Street, but his destination was indeed Lake Baikan.
More precisely, he was headed to an old lighthouse a bit away from the city proper. It was built on a small point of land thrusting a few hundred meters into the lake, something like a miniature peninsula. The lighthouse had been decommissioned many years ago and left for nature to reclaim, and the new owner had taken care that her occupation and refurbishment do not harm the scenery too much. As a result, the entire peninsula was covered in colorful wildflowers and lush woods. The lighthouse itself was also beautiful. It didn’t rise up very high; it was quite stocky, as far as lighthouses went, and it was surrounded by several other buildings, which made it look even smaller. But the compound’s design was just as quaint and artistic as that of the houses in Independence Street. The lighthouse’s walls were white and clean, and the buildings around it constructed in an antique-looking style, like cottages from a hundred years ago. A small sailboat was moored to a wooden dock resting beneath the gaze of the lighthouse, its hull peacefully bobbing up and down on the waves marring the lake’s surface.
It was most definitely a very picturesque place.
It was most definitely not a tourist destination.
The new owner had purchased the whole peninsula from the government – at what price, Sirius didn’t know, but there were probably a lot of zeros on that check. Afterward, in her usual paranoid fashion, she had proceeded to install a downright frightening array of ultramodern security features to prevent malicious visitors from coming to disturb her.
Sirius cruised slowly toward the closed gate seemingly merging with the tall, thick hedges flanking it on both sides.
The gate looked like natural wood, but Sirius knew it was, in fact, an indestructible alloy of some sort, which he was pretty sure had come straight out of a certain secret and mysterious laboratory in Saltwell. On the gate, and spaced at regular points on the hedges cutting off the peninsula from the rest of the world, were hung warning signs informing visitors of such welcoming messages as ‘RESTRICTED AREA: DO NOT ENTER’ and ‘NO TRESPASSING BEYOND THIS POINT’ and ‘USE OF DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED.’
Sirius, keeping abreast of alteran news as he did, knew that these warnings weren’t in jest. He had read a story a few months ago on the internet that several particularly reckless and intrusive paparazzi had ended up dead after trying to follow Prince Louis on one of his frequent visits here. Sirius wasn’t sure of the truth of these stories. They sounded more apocryphal than anything, to be honest, but he held no doubt at all that some security measures were indeed lethal. The new owner had told him herself that she’d received a permit for just such a thing by leaning on her relationships with alteran royalty. Apparently, she had even installed anti-aircraft defenses, ‘just in case.’
The AI controlling the front gate recognized Sirius, and it automatically opened the way for him after only a second or two. He directed his motorcycle forward, and the gate closed soundlessly behind him. He passed first through a tunnel, its ground of packed earth and its walls and ceiling naturally formed by the trunks and branches of the trees on both sides of the path, after which the road turned narrow as it cut through a field of red and blue flowers, wooden picket fences delineating its edges.
Sirius coasted to a halt in the courtyard before the cottage and parked his bike. He left his helmet hanging on the handlebar and directed his steps toward the open wall of the garage, from where he could hear the clanking of tools.
“Nova, you’re going to be late!” he called as he crossed the threshold, forgoing conventional greetings in spite of the fact that the last time he’d seen her had been four months ago.
His host, sitting on the floor in the middle of her garage, didn’t bother looking back at him and kept her attention on the dissected motorcycle in front of her. The only sign she’d heard Sirius was that the fingers of her left hand played an elaborate dance in the air, whose steps Nova managed to make elegant and refined despite their apparent randomness.
‘I know, but my bike isn’t working,’ her robotic voice replied, unchanged since Sirius had first heard it except for its improved grammatical correctness.
Sirius sighed and approached, taking a look at the mess of engine parts and mechanic’s tools in front of Nova. “Did you do something with the engine again?”
Sirius watched Nova continue to tinker with the bike’s insides. “Couldn’t you have used your car?” he said, pointing at the truck parked on the other side of the garage, in front of a closed, pull-down screen door. “Or called a cab, if you didn’t want to drive?”
Nova’s left hand danced again, and the bracer answered. ‘A cab? From here all the way to Saltwell? Do you have any idea how high the fare would be?’
“The fare?! What do you care? Aren’t you a billionaire?”
‘Trillionaire, now. Ryner has been busy, recently.’
“Oh, well, good for you,” Sirius replied with a tone chock-full of sarcasm. “In any case, looks like your mother was right when she asked me to come and pick you up. Why don’t you go clean yourself up? I’ll drive you to Saltwell and back myself. You can just fix your bike later on.”
Nova finally looked up from her work. She hesitated for a second, then nodded. She threw the screwdriver she’d been holding to the side, where it accurately landed into an open toolbox. She wiped her right hand on her already dirty overalls, then held it toward Sirius, while her left formed more words.
‘My legs are asleep. Help me up.’
Alarm bells rang loudly in Sirius’s mind. After a few years of acquaintance, he was already used to this woman’s nature. He was also perfectly aware of her physical abilities. While nowhere close to his own, she was still an exemplary athlete. No way would she have trouble standing up after sitting for just a little while.
But it wouldn’t be gentlemanly to refuse her.
Mentally preparing himself for the worst, Sirius took Nova’s soft hand and gently pulled her to her feet. It didn’t take any effort to lift her weight, but when she was up, her legs apparently failed her, and she toppled forward, right into his chest. She immediately wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her breasts against him. Sirius stiffened when the intimate contact and the downward glance he couldn’t help but take informed him that she wasn’t wearing anything underneath the stained overalls. He’d become so used to her shameless fashion sense that he hadn’t even noticed before now. Drawing on all the superhuman speed and willpower his reincarnation had offered him, he whipped his eyes back up to Nova’s face to find her staring at him with her usual blank face.
She’d definitely noticed he’d noticed.
‘Oops,’ she said, her robotic voice and expressionless taking away any contrition from the word – not that there was any to be found there in the first place. ‘I tripped.’
“Did you now?” Sirius asked with a dry smile.
Nova released him and took a step back on perfectly steady legs, then walked out toward her cottage as if nothing had happened, the seductive sway of her hips drawing Sirius’s gaze.
‘I’ll take a shower.’
“…All right. I’ll wait for you outside.”
‘Are you sure you don’t want to watch?’ she asked as she disappeared through the door and into the house, not waiting for Sirius’s response.
Sirius sighed helplessly and went back into the courtyard, absently kicking pebbles on the way and watching them bounce randomly around. He leaned against the seat of his bike and closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the crisp bite of the early-spring wind. He could faintly hear the sound of the running shower from inside the cottage.
Even several years later, Nova still hadn’t gotten bored of teasing him like this, apparently. Sirius wished she’d go a bit easier on him. His poor heart was tired of doing somersaults everytime the two of them met.
He knew she wasn’t serious about it, of course. By now, the two of them had had enough time to understand that their respective values and principles were too far apart to really make it work as a couple. Sirius disapproved of Nova’s disregard for other people, while Nova was annoyed at Sirius’s idealism. Wieslaw, fashioning himself as an arbitrator between them, had once bluntly described it – right in front of Nova herself, too – as her being too evil for him and him being too good for her. Surprisingly, Nova had agreed, apparently flattered and amused at being called evil, for some inscrutable reason. Sirius wasn’t too sure real-life relationships could be summed up in such stark, black-and-white terms, but it was true that he sometimes wondered at how they’d become such good friends despite their differences.
Of course, no amount of moral or philosophical differences dampened the physical attraction Sirius felt for her.
Which, as evidenced by what had just happened, Nova knew and exploited mercilessly to harass him…
Sirius opened his eyes as a gust of wind drew waves through the field of wildflowers carpeting the grounds of Nova’s property. Sirius glanced absently at the beautiful scenery. He had to admit Nova had good taste, to come and live here in this small pocket of paradise.
Though it was perhaps a bit too quiet and lonely for his tastes.
The sight of the rustling flowers suddenly gave him an idea.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to Saltwell. Maybe I should bring a small gift for Marian and Lynn? And Esfir. Will Delia be here? Better make one for her, too, just in case.
Pushing himself away from his motorcycle, Sirius spent a few minutes picking wildflowers while Nova readied herself for the trip. When he returned to the garage, his hands were full of reds and blues and even a few rare yellows. Nova would probably be able to tell him the names of each species of flower he’d found, but Sirius had no idea. He just thought they were pretty.
He walked to the back of the garage where Nova had set up a clean and spacious workspace. A broad table stood in the center of it, surrounded by different pieces of machinery, not all of which Sirius recognized. An entire wall was taken up by shelves and cabinets, all of them neatly labeled in Nova’s artistic handwriting. The labels proved the shelves contained pretty much every material one might think of. Fabrics, leathers, woods, metals, ores, chemicals, electronics… In here were stored chunks of meteorite. Over there, electric relays. Down below was a tank full of… chlorine gas? Up there was… uh, uranium…?
Perhaps Sirius’s grasp of the Alteran language was suddenly failing him…
Yes, that had to be it. He must have gotten some complicated words confused with something else. Surely, everything here was perfectly legal and not at all poisonous or radioactive.
Wiping a little cold sweat from his brow, Sirius dutifully removed what he’d just seen from his cognition and dumped the flowers he’d picked on the table before looking around for what he needed.
Should be around here somewhere? I remember seeing them the last time I came. Ah, there they are…
Sirius pushed a wheeled ladder in front of the shelves that interested him and climbed up to reach them. From there, he took half a dozen circles of braided straw, all of them mercifully safe and uranium-free.
Nova probably wouldn’t mind if he made use of those.
Sirius brought them back to the table and got to work weaving the flowers into the straw circles to make colorful crowns out of them. It wasn’t much to speak of, really, but it was still more polite than arriving at the Storm house empty-handed.
By the time he’d finished and carefully stored his crowns of flowers in the cases attached to his motorcycle, Nova was just leaving her cottage, a small backpack hanging from her shoulders.
“You sure took your time,” Sirius said without heat. “Come on, let’s get going. We are really late already. Everyone is going to be waiting for us.”
‘It’s my birthday. I have the right to be as late as I want,’ Nova retorted as she straddled Sirius’s bike. She looked at him expectantly. ‘What gift do you have for me?’
“None. This isn’t Earth. People don’t receive gifts for their birthdays anymore after they’ve come of age. And you forgot your helmet,” he added. “Go take it. I refuse to be responsible for your death in case we’re in a crash.”
Nova didn’t move from the seat and simply extended her hands toward him, like a goddess waiting for the offering of her faithful and devoted servants.
Sirius sighed heavily and tromped back to the garage. He picked up Nova’s helmet and tossed it to her as he walked back to the motorcycle. Nova caught it and put it on, then lifted her chin toward Sirius, hinting at him to help her buckle the straps.
Sirius gave her an unamused stare for a few seconds, but Nova was impervious and made no move to secure the helmet. Eventually, Sirius had to give up and do it for her, or at this rate, they’d never get going. He reached under her chin, and with a little click, the helmet was safely locked. Nova quickly lowered her head and squirmed uncomfortably, looking ticklish.
Sirius shook his head. “Seriously. How old are you, now? Nineteen plus fifty-something… You must be well into your seventies, already. So why do I often feel like I’m taking care of a 9-year-old?”
‘I’m 72, today. So respect your elders, young man.’
Sirius straddled the bike in front of Nova and wondered not for the first time how someone more than 30 years his senior could possibly be so childish. It couldn’t be related to reincarnation, since both Wieslaw and Sirius himself, he felt, had always behaved quite maturely following their real mental age.
The robotic voice continued, undeterred by Sirius’s criticism, as Nova’s arms wrapped around his waist and she pressed herself against him. ‘Taking care of me is the price you have to pay for the privilege of feeling my boobs rubbing against your back until we reach Saltwell.’
Sirius sighed again. He could just tell that the trip would be long.
“…Try not to do anything weird when I’m driving, please.”