When Nova heard a voice calling her, she looked up from her book, and her gaze swept toward the door. Her father was there, waving to her with a bright smile on his face.
Aaron was usually the one who came to fetch her, at the end of the day. Since his working schedule was rather loose – rather, he just didn’t have a schedule at all and worked or not as he wished – he could free as much time as he wanted to take care of his children. Sometimes, when he was too busy tinkering with his inventions, it was Asad who came. More rarely, it was Marian, when she returned from whatever mission had taken her away from the city.
Once, it had even been a young woman wearing military fatigues who had come for her. At the time, Nova had been suspicious, alert to the possibility of a kidnapping attempt, and had directly run away through the room’s back door. The young woman had caught her fairly quickly, though. Afterwards, the soldier had introduced herself as one of Marian’s subordinates. Nova wouldn’t have trusted that story, either, but Ingrid Astia had vouched for her identity, all the while trying very hard to restrain her amusement at the whole situation. Nova had been rather embarrassed by this little incident – though no one could tell, since ‘blushing’ was included under the label ‘facial expressions’ – but Aaron and Marian had both praised her for her reaction, after they learned of it.
Today, at least, there wouldn’t be any such misunderstanding. Unless someone had made a mask out of Aaron’s face, Mission Impossible style. And imitated his scent, too.
Nova waved back to her father, hinting to him that she had noticed him, and as he went to chat with Ingrid, she shut down her tablet and put it back into her bag. Then, she bent down and looked under her chair for her shoes, which she had taken off as soon as she had arrived because they weren’t very comfortable. It wasn’t that they were narrow and squashed her toes; it wasn’t that the sole was too rigid; it wasn’t that the backs of the shoes were ill fitted and scraped the skin from her heels. It simply was that wearing shoes in general wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, for her. There were just too many sensitive nerves in the feet. Being barefoot was much better.
Once she was ready, Nova grabbed the drawing of her family she had completed today and headed for Aaron. Absorbed in his conversation with Ingrid, he didn’t notice her come close, and after standing next to him for a few unsuccessful seconds, she had to tug on his pant leg to hail him.
He looked down at her in surprise. “Ah, Nova, you’re here. Good. Oh, what’s this?” He reached out for the rolled up drawing Nova was trying to give him and opened it. “Ooooh. Did you see this, Ingrid? My daughter is an artist. Look, it’s really good. I think I’ll have it framed. Marian will agree, too.”
“I know. I saw it. Very impressive.”
“Of course, it’s impressive. Nova made it.” He bent down and ruffled her hair, laughing like an idiot.
Ingrid thoughtfully looked at Nova for a few moments before asking a question of her own. “I’ve noticed she can perfectly read and write. Did you guys teach her, already?”
“What? No. We didn’t teach her anything specific. It’s not good to start too early. Children should just play as much as they want. They’ll learn the boring stuff once they get to school.” Aaron glanced down at Nova, who was still staring up at him, trying to act cute. “I guess she just picked it up on her own. She’s smart like that.”
“Yes, she is.” Ingrid tilted her head in thought. “So I take it you don’t intend to teach her yourself? I imagine a man like you would be good at that. At least, all those universities begging for you to become a professor would think so.”
Oh, yes. Good. Keep thinking in this direction. Perfect.
Being homeschooled was the ideal result Nova had been going for. School was too time-consuming. She couldn’t afford to blow 80% of her weeks listening to teachers going on and on about things she probably already knew – with her sharpened memories, she of course perfectly remembered the education she’d gone through in her past life – and needed to convince her parents that there were better ways to go about this.
“I frankly don’t know,” Aaron said finally, rubbing his chin, his nails scratching noisily on the uneven stubble that covered it. “It’s still a bit early to think about all that, isn’t it? And school is important for more than just learning stuff, right? I mean, I wouldn’t want my precious daughter to become a shut-in with no friends.”
Gaaah! Your words are too harsh, Dad! You’re denying my whole past life! It’s like I’ve lived 53 years as a failure, now! Shut-ins with no friends can live very fulfilling lives, too, you know!
“Anyway, how is Jamil? We haven’t had occasion to see him in a while, though I can understand why. I guess he’s rather busy, these days, what with the troubles at the borders.”
Ingrid nodded, a faint smile on her lips. “True. If you want to see him, you’re the one who’s going to have to move. He’s certainly too busy to leave the capital, right now. And as for how he is, don’t you have a television? I’m pretty sure they’d say something if anything happened to him.”
“I guess so. I think we’ll go see him soon. It’s been too long.”
“Warn me when you do; I’ll be going with you.”
“Sure thing. Now, young lady.” Aaron turned to Nova and knelt to fix the collar of her dress and straighten the straps of her backpack. “Are you ready? You haven’t forgotten anything?”
Nova shook her head in the negative, and Ingrid took this moment to apparently come up with something more to say. “Hey, Aaron, now that I think about it, I remember Lynn having this huge rabbit of hers. Doesn’t Nova have one of her own? I’ve never seen her with anything like that.”
Aaron laughed as he stood up and took Nova’s hand, turning to leave. “She does. She got one for her second birthday, but she doesn’t bring it outside. She doesn’t want to lose or damage it. More importantly, it’s way too big for her to carry it.”
“Is that right?” Ingrid asked Nova with a smile. “Even bigger than your older sister’s rabbit?” A nod confirmed her suppositions. “Haha! I’m getting a bit curious, now.”
“Well, just come to visit when you have the time, then. Come, Nova. Say goodbye to Ingrid.”
Nova waved her hand, getting a small wave back, then followed her father out of the building and to his car. The doors rose up vertically and both of them entered the vehicle. As soon as they were secured in their seats by the belts – they formed a cross in front of the chest, like for race cars and fighter aircrafts – the car drove off on its own after Aaron inputted the destination in the onboard computer.
As they drove, like every time, her father asked Nova how her day had gone, and she wrote a short account of what had happened on her notepad.
“Oh-ho! Calligraphy! So Marian bought you that book you wanted, huh?”
“That’s great. I’m looking forward to the results. Take your time, though. There’s no need to rush, even if you don’t obtain results right from the start. Some things take time, you see.” There was a small lull in the ‘conversation’ before Aaron continued. “The other kids have stopped bullying you, right?”
“Good. Don’t hesitate to tell Ingrid or one of the staff, if it happens again.” A small smirk appeared on his lips. “Don’t tell your mother, though,” he said with a playful wink.
Nova nodded in agreement but couldn’t help but think her parents were overreacting.
I wouldn’t really call it bullying… How could the words of 3- or 4-year-olds possibly hurt me? My mind may be a tad affected by my body, but thankfully not to this point. That would be scary.
It was just a few months ago, when some of the older kids at the daycare thought it’d be funny to tease and mock Nova for her inability to speak. Though Nova herself couldn’t have cared less, Ingrid had caught them red-handed and notified the parents of those concerned. At the time, Marian had reacted by storming into her special closet and grabbing her rocket launcher. Nova had no idea what it was the woman had planned to do, exactly, but tragedy had been avoided by a timely intervention from Aaron the Peacekeeper of Justice. After an intense interrogation session with Nova on what had happened and how she felt about it – which she’d taken as an opportunity to tell her mother in no uncertain terms that she didn’t mind being mute, in hopes of assuaging Marian’s guilt – the matter had eventually blown over. And as it happened, the other children had never done such a thing again; apparently, their parents had had a talk with them, as well.
As the car trip went on, Nova quickly noticed that they weren’t actually driving towards home. She turned a new page on her notepad and wrote, ‘Clinic?’
“You remember the way, huh? Well, it’s true you’ve been there a lot. But no, this time, we’re not going to the clinic. We’re going underneath the clinic. I’m bringing you to visit the lower floors, today. Marian and your siblings too will join us there once they’re back from work and school.”
Nova titled her head in question, which her father understood and answered in an infuriatingly vague way.
“You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”
Oh, my… Knowing Dad, the surprise must be one of the devices he built. Maybe a jetpack? Or a remote control for an orbital ion artillery?
Fluttery anticipation thrummed inside Nova all the way to the facility.
The place stood a bit away from Saltwell, a dome of white that grew like a featureless, giant mushroom between the surrounding hills. The dome itself contained the clinic Nova was so used to, along with a few other laboratories, but she knew most of the interesting stuff was actually hidden underground.
Once they arrived, no security checkpoints slowed them down as an unobtrusive hangar door opened for them; everything was automated, and the system had recognized their biometric signatures right from inside their vehicle. The car parked itself, and Nova and Aaron got out, heading for an elevator off to the side of the parking lot.
When the door of the elevator closed before them and the cabin started sliding down smoothly and silently, an androgynous mechanical voice rang out. “Welcome, Aaron Storm. Welcome, Nova Storm.”
…Please, don’t say my full name out loud. It’s embarrassing.
The first name ‘Nova’ was perfectly adequate. Good, even. It felt right to the ear. The surname ‘Storm’, as well, didn’t really deserve any particular castigation. It even sounded rather cool. A name you could boast about; something the protagonist would have in an action movie. However, that particular first name and that particular surname together sounded… like the alias of some comic book superhero. Or maybe like a cataclysmic natural disaster involving exploding stars and stellar winds; something that would destroy entire galaxies in a huge conflagration of flame and light.
A bit too awesome for a name, all in all.
It made Nova faintly uncomfortable, every time she heard it.
At least, they didn’t call me Mana. That would have been far worse. ‘Mana Storm’. Isn’t that the name of a high-level spell in an RPG of some sort?
The elevator was fast, so Nova didn’t have much time for self-pity. The doors quickly slid open to a hallway just as immaculate as those of the clinic upstairs that she was used to. In the distance, the sound of muted voices barely managed to make itself heard.
Aaron took Nova’s hand in his own, and they walked together, letting the voices direct their steps. Nova glanced around through the few opens doors they passed along the way, mostly seeing a great variety of machines whose purpose she couldn’t even begin to guess at. Once she thought she saw some kind of datacenter, several columns of servers forming pillars in a regular grid within the room.
Maybe there really is a sentient AI, here…
Soon, the reached the room from which came the babble of voices. Aaron went through the open doorway without hesitation, and Nova followed next to him. Inside, a smattering of her father’s friends were chatting happily. Asad was there, along with Amelia the doctor, Renoir, Thien-Loa, and a few others she saw more rarely.
“Oh, you guys are here,” Amelia said, turning toward Nova and her father. “Great. Let’s get started, already.”
Started on what?
Curious, Nova tugged on her father’s hand and tilted her head again.
“I told you we had a surprise for you, right? It’s a little something all of us have been working on since you were born. It’s finally been completed, now. There remains only a few minor adjustments.”
Amelia approached and ushered her into a medical reclining seat. With slight trepidation at what she imagined these ‘adjustments’ would entail, Nova climbed up onto the seat, Amelia helping her a little by giving her a lift at strategic moments.
“Nova, open your mouth.”
As soon as she was settled, Amelia was at her side, a small cotton swab in her hand. She used it to scrape the inside of her cheek, gathering her saliva. Then, without even a sliver of explanation about what was going on, she joined the rest of her colleagues, who were all gathered in front of one of the walls, discussing something before several strange instruments. Amelia was heading toward a part of the room containing what resembled a centrifuge along with something like a large 3D printer linked to a computer.
Wait, that’s not a printer. Isn’t that a DNA sequencer?
That would have explained the saliva sample. But why would these guys need Nova’s DNA? At least, judging by everyone’s concentration – they seemed to have even forgotten Nova was there; not that she wasn’t used to it, after knowing them for 3 years – it seemed a fairly important project to them. Now, Nova believed Aaron when he’d said they’d spent the last 3 years working on this project.
Just what did they build, this time?
It took a while for these final adjustments to be completed. Enough that, by the time all those researchers – her father included – came back to her to finally show her their work, Nova was snoozing peacefully atop her medical chair.
Marian was actually the one to wake her up – she had arrived, along with Ryner and Lynn, while Nova was sleeping.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” she said with a warm smile.
“Hey, hey! Nova! Look at this!”
Aaron was right behind Marian, a cheerful grin on his face, as he demanded Nova’s attention so that he could demonstrate his new toy. The thing he was holding up to her eyes looked like a thin, rectangular sheet of opaque, flexible glass. There were two adjustable velcro straps stretching from the long sides of the sheet.
And that was it.
Nova tilted her head again, while Lynn gave voice to her question. “Daddy, what is this? What does it do?”
“Ah-ha! Prepare to feast your eyes on an incredible piece of technology! I can tell you that this little thing here is a major step forward in the history of the greatness that is us!”
Behind him, all of Aaron’s friends looked quietly smug as he ostentatiously, melodramatically pressed a specific part of the sheet of glass. An image flickered over the glass for a moment, before a loading bar appeared, swiftly filling up. Once it was full, a row of icons could be seen over the glass.
“Is that a computer?” Ryner asked, looking interested. “How come it doesn’t break when you bend it?”
“An excellent question! Worthy of my son!” Aaron shouted, pointing a finger in Ryner’s face. “As you guessed, this is indeed a computer. However, every single component has been miniaturized to the extreme, while still retaining most of its processing power. Additionally, as you’ve most astutely pointed out, my dear Ryner, all of the materials used in this device’s construction are inherently flexible. Now, get this right. This isn’t a bendable screen; that would just be too pedestrian to make a fuss about. No, this is a bendable computer! Isn’t it just beautiful? This would sell for millions! No, what am I saying? This would sell for bazillions of darseks.”
“What’s a darsek?”
“I don’t know! I just made it up! It’s something good, though!”
Marian looked dubiously at her husband’s spittle-spraying enthusiasm. “All right, it’s impressive. I’ll admit that. But did it really warrant calling all of us here today? You even had Nova wait here on her own for such a long time. If you don’t explain yourself properly…” Her eyes flashed dangerously.
“Wait, wait, wait. There is definitely a good reason for this,” Aaron explained, waving his hands in the air to pacify his wife. “See, this is meant for Nova. It’s locked to her biometrics. If anyone else doesn’t have the master password, they can give up any idea of using it.”
Marian frowned. “Why are you giving this to Nova? What does it do?”
“Oh? You haven’t guessed, yet? All right, here it is. The moment of truth. Actually, what we focused on the most while building this little jewel was… speech synthesis!” Aaron watched as his wife reared up in shocked realization, as if an idea that should have been obvious from the start had suddenly slapped her in the face. Aaron continued satisfiedly. “You just need to input what you want to say, and the computer will speak it out loud. You can also select the voice you want to use from an array of different choices. You can program macros to quickly speak common phrases… No, really, even if I do say so myself, this thing is quite advanced. And the voices are really realistic and easily understandable. It’s not the worthless speech synthesis you can find on any public computer, you know? This is SPEECH SYNTHESIS, with huge, honking, blinking, neon capital letters of doom!”
…Are my traits going to be circumvented just like that? God-thing must be livid, watching this. I basically scammed him, out of his money – his points, I mean. Although, I suppose it’s his own fault for sending me to a high-tech world. Serves him right.
Now, even Marian, Lynn, and Ryner looked excited. The other researchers were staying back silently, trying not to intrude on the moment, watching over the scene with warm eyes.
Aaron stepped toward Nova. “Let’s try it right now, sweety. Show me your arm.” He pursed his lips for a moment. “Um, wait. Are you left- or right-handed? I never paid attention.”
Nova just wiggled both hands in the air.
Aaron cocked an eyebrow at her. “Do you mean, ambidextrous?” She nodded. “Great. Then it’s just a question of preference. On which arm do you want to have it?”
Nova raised her left arm, and Aaron nodded. After a bit of fiddling with the straps, the thing was attached to her, the screen laid out against the underside of her forearm. Nova waved her arm around experimentally, and the thing didn’t fly off, thankfully, though the feel of it against her skin was a bit uncomfortable.
“Go ahead. Try it out,” her father urged.
Seeing the rest of her family, along with all of Aaron’s friends, looking at her expectantly, Nova brought the screen in front of her eyes. There were several icons, but she focused on the one with the silhouette of a person’s face with spreading concentric waves in front of its mouth. The word ‘Speech’ was written right below it. She pressed it, and a keyboard appeared over the screen. She quickly typed something, strangely nostalgic at the feeling of having a keyboard at her fingertips again after all this time, then submitted.
‘Hello,’ the same mechanical voice she’d heard in the elevator said from the concealed speaker in the device.
As soon as the word came out, all the researchers cheered noisily. Marian was actually tearing up a little bit, while Lynn clapped happily and Ryner grinned at her.
Aaron laughed the loudest. “HAHAHAHA! EXCELLENT!” He patted Nova’s shoulder, jolting her whole body, apparently so taken by his enthusiasm over his new invention that he’d forgotten he was talking to a 3-year-old child. “I’m sure you’ll be very pleased with this little baby, when you find out all it can do,” he said with a smug face. “Wiosna coded in quite a few extra little tricks, while the rest of us were working on the hardware. For example, you can forcefully establish a connection to any bluetooth-enabled device around you and remote-control them. Isn’t that neat? Or you can tap into the local police chatter – you know, just in case you’re on the run for a crime you didn’t commit or something like that. Also, there is an embedded camera on the other side of the bracer, so don’t hesitate to take pictures or videos of stuff, if anything strikes your fancy. You don’t need to worry too much about storage space because everything is automatically synced to one of our servers. It’d be very weird indeed if you ran out. Oh, also you can launch a check for known vulnerabilities on an IP address and get root privileges for…”
“Aaron!” Marian suddenly called, pinching his ear. “Why on earth did you guys put all these dangerous things inside it? Are you insane?”
I have to agree with Mom on this. If the child were anyone else, I wouldn’t think it very wise to give a full cyber-terrorism suite to them. Who knows what they could do with it?
Aaron’s friends in the background were studiously looking elsewhere, pretending non-involvement in this matter.
It was at this point that Nova noticed it. The seed of carnage. And despite her gratitude towards her father, she decided to put the final nail in his coffin. Because it would be funny.
She quickly typed a few words.
‘Mommy. Come look.’
Marian, who was about to chastise her husband for being his usual irresponsible self, released him and turned toward Nova. “What is it, honey?” She quickly came over, and from behind her back, Aaron, who believed he’d been saved, gave Nova a thumbs-up.
Nova accessed the list of pre-registered macro and showed it to her mother. Most of them were innocuous enough, but she quickly scrolled down to the incriminating part.
One read, ‘Daddy is the best in the world.’
This wasn’t anything bad.
However, the one just below read, ‘Mommy is really scary.’
Marian seemed to freeze for a second, before her gaze turned back to Aaron, who still looked like he’d seen his wife escape the fate of becoming a self-made widow by a hair’s breadth. “Aaron, what are these macros of yours?”
“Oh, those? They’re just sentences I felt Nova would want to say the most often. Having them near at hand will prevent her from having to manually type them out all the time. Figured it’d be handy.”
“Is that so? What Nova would want to say the most often, is it?”
Nova chose that moment to press the first macro.
*beep* ‘Daddy is the best in the world.’
Hearing this, Aaron had the decency to look a little embarrassed. “Haha. Yeah, I guess I put in a few…” – *beep* ‘Mommy is really scary.’ – “H–Huh? Wait, no, what…”
As Marian stared at her husband, a stifling atmosphere suddenly pervaded the room. Lynn didn’t look like she really understood what was happening, while Ryner was facepalming silently, shaking his head at his father’s antics.
Just terrible. You’re making a 9-year-old embarrassed for you, dude. Seriously. Reflect on your behavior a little.
Aaron’s face was twitching, his usual smile frozen over his lips. Seemingly realizing something, he gasped and spun around, shouting, “You guys, which one of you plotted against me like this?!”
However, all his friends had already quietly left the room the moment Marian had first mentioned macros. None of them were there to hear Aaron’s accusations. It certainly looked like Aaron was the victim of a generalized mutiny.
“Husband,” Marian called as she stomped her way towards him, “are you trying to set my little Nova against me? Huh? Is that what you’re trying to do?”
“Hiyaaaaah! Noooooo! It wasn’t meeeeee!”