This time, when the black car with the tinted windows came to pick up Marian for work, Nova hopped in alongside her, clad in dark-grey military fatigues adjusted to her small body size – probably not standard issue. The inside of the car was spacious, with enough room to stretch her legs. Flat screens were embedded in the headrests of the front seats, though both were powered off at the moment.
“Do you know where we’re heading?” Marian asked abruptly as they left the city of Saltwell behind.
She nodded. “That’s right. We use the private airfield out of the city – which legally belongs to me, by the way – as our headquarters. From there, we can easily deploy anywhere we’re needed. That’s also where you’ll be living for the next 3 months,” she added after a moment with a malicious smirk.
“That’s right. Since you want to learn how to be a soldier, it stands to reason that you have to live like one. Don’t expect any privileged treatment there. And I won’t be there to help you. You’ll have to rely entirely on yourself.”
‘Only 3 months?’
“Ask me that question again after you’ve gone through those 3 months,” Marian replied with a small breathless laugh. “But no. If that’s what you’re asking, the training for everything you’ve asked for won’t be done in just 3 months. Actually, I have enough material for the next few years, if you’re motivated enough. And if you want to get really good at all of this, you’ll probably be at it for the next few decades. Teenage super spies don’t exist. These things require training and experience, and that only comes with time.”
There were a few moments of silence as Nova typed her next question.
‘Who decides where to deploy troops?’
Marian tilted her head as if this was a strange question, which it kind of was, but writing proper transitions between topics was too cumbersome to do one-handed on the bracer’s keyboard.
“Ah, I see where you’re going with this. Right, it’s true that my greatest client is Jamil. Well, the alteran government, technically. But it’s certainly not the only one client I have. I also take work from other organizations or people. Even from other countries. And not just once or twice have I refused one of Jamil’s contracts. We’re purely a private military company. There are no links between us and the alteran crown. Though, I do have to say I’ve never actually worked against this country, since we live in it and all.”
For the rest of the duration of the trip, Marian continued explaining some of the context in which she and her subordinates operated. Some of it Nova had already discovered over the years, despite Marian’s efforts to keep her children out of her professional life, but some was new to her. For example, while she knew that Marian’s PMC had always been ridiculously successful, no matter what combat theatre they were dropped into, she only now learned that there were barely 40 soldiers under her command. It seemed awfully small for an army.
“Well, we’re not exactly an army. We’re just a small group of elite soldiers hefting some very modern and efficient equipment. But we’re not usually expected to fight actual wars. We’re more often called for surgical operations, to accomplish very precise objectives.”
As Marian’s explanation continued, the airfield appeared in front of the car. There was a tall, thick wall cutting off the road forward, the only thing allowing passage a span of metal, as tall as the wall itself, that slowly split down the middle and slid apart to clear the way.
“It uses the same AI system as Aaron’s facility to recognize people. Anyone unrecognized would alert the sentries.”
This brought a genuine smile to Marian’s lips. “Hehe. Didn’t you want to learn about stealth?”
The driver brought the car in a slow circle around the airfield – probably more as an introduction for Nova’s benefit than anything else – passing by hangars containing armored vehicles of all kinds. Jeeps, APCs, tanks, combat helicopters, fighter jets, troop transports… Technicians and mechanics busied themselves in those hangars, giving proper maintenance to the pieces of machinery that required it. The only part of the place that wasn’t enclosed by the tall, thick blast wall was the airstrip itself, which thrust out far into the nearby countryside.
Mom wasn’t kidding when she said they were well-equipped. How on earth does the government accept a private individual owning such an arsenal.
They ended the tour by coasting to a gradual stop in front of a low and wide building, whose double doors were already opened. Marian jumped out of the car, and Nova followed her. The bald-headed, muscular driver remaining inside, presumably to go and park it somewhere.
Within the building, Marian’s subordinates were already assembled and waiting for them. Right upon entering, Nova found herself the target of an array of curious stares. The owners of the stares could have formed a decent sample of every single culture or minority Nova could think of. Still, Nova supposed the most numerous group here displayed the usual traits of typical Alterans: tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed nordic Vikings. Marian must have mostly kept the recruitment local.
All of them wore the same uniforms, with a badge sewn on the chest pocket, the picture that of a coiled, rearing snake spitting and hissing with its mouth wide open and its fangs in obvious display. All of them also carried a handgun in a holster strapped to their thigh, along with a combat knife sheathed at the small of their back.
Before Marian could speak, a woman with hair cropped in a short and practical style stepped forward and started questioning her, a teasing smile on her face as she looked at Nova. “Boss, is it ‘bring your children to work’ day? Why wasn’t I told? My little boy also wants to see the tanks and the choppers.”
Looks like discipline is rather loose, compared to standard military.
Marian turned her eyes toward the speaking soldier. “Oh? I don’t mind if you bring your kids, as well, Yuri, but they’ll get the same deal as Nova. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Yuri looked vaguely dubious. “Um, That really sounds like a trap of some sort. May I hear the specifics of the deal, first?”
“Of course,” Marian replied, stepping behind Nova and placing her hands on her shoulders, pushing her a step forward. “Nova will participate in the training alongside all of you, with a few adjustments. She’ll be living here with you guys for the next few months.”
A deafening silence met Marian’s words.
It took almost a minute for the woman called Yuri to finally break it. “Um, I think I won’t bring my kids, then,” she said in a bland tone.
A tall, heavily muscled man with a incongruously gentle and pretty face spoke up next, also taking a step forward, his hands behind his back and his posture straight as a rod. “Ma’am, are you sure that’s wise? I mean no disrespect to the young lady, but this isn’t exactly a game.”
Nova glanced over her shoulder to gauge Marian’s reaction and saw her nodding to herself. “Of course, of course. I tried to dissuade her as well, but Nova insisted. So, here we are.” Marian glanced down into Nova’s eyes, as if speaking as much to her as to her assembled subordinates. “As I said, she’ll follow you all to training. There will be no need to show her any special deference and she will not enjoy any special privilege. Still, let me state a few ground rules right off the bat.” She released Nova and started pacing in front of the soldiers, glancing at each of them in turn. “No one is to discharge a firearm anywhere near my daughter when she’s not wearing ear protection. Anyone who does so will be severely punished. No one is to bully my daughter beyond the bounds of what I deem acceptable. Anyone who does so will be shot and their bodies left to rot in the sun. I’m not kidding.”
“Um, ma’am. Where exactly do those acceptable bounds lie?”
“Figure that out for yourself. Use your common sense, Connors. But I suggest you don’t make a mistake in your assessment, or as I said, I’ll put a bullet through your skull.” Marian stopped pacing. “Hmm. Well, I think those two rules will be enough, for now. I’ll see about adding more to them in the future.” She turned back toward Nova. “Nova, for the duration of your stay here, you’ll follow…” She spun right back toward the soldiers and hesitated before pointing toward the woman who’d spoken up earlier. “Yuri. Right. Just follow Yuri, and she’ll set you up with everything you need. Just ask her if you have any question, all right?”
Nova nodded and stepped toward Yuri, stopping next to her and turning to look at her mother, who nodded satisfiedly. “For the next few days, you will all continue with the routine. Next week, you’ll start showing Nova more elaborate things. I’ll give you the schedule.” Marian smirked. “Rejoice. For once, you’ll get to show off in front of a little kid.”
Little kid?! I’m not a little kid anymore, surely! 13 years old should already qualify as an adolescent. 13 and a half years old, almost. And if we count my old life, I’m twice your age!
“All right, then. Dismissed.”
And with that, Marian spun around on her heel and left without another word or look toward Nova. Another child – one without more than 60 years of mental experience – would probably have felt intimidated upon being left alone with a number of strange and most likely dangerous soldiers, but Nova didn’t really care. It was less stressful than presenting her first doctorate thesis in front of a jury of experts who seemed determined to see her fail and humiliate herself.
She turned to Yuri and typed over the keyboard of her bracer.
‘Hello. Pleased to meet you. Name is Nova Storm.’
Yuri looked at Nova with a strange look on her face. The other soldiers were still in the room, listening to the conversation between the two of them. “Ah, yes. I already know you. Well, we all know you, in fact. I’m Yuri. And this is Connors. As for the rest of these guys, you’ll just learn their names as we go along. There are too many of them for introductions, and they’re not that important anyway.” She glanced at her comrades with mock disdain, eliciting a volley of colorful insults that brought a smile to her face. “Well, like the boss – I mean, like your mom said, we should get you your gear. This way.”
Following Yuri and leaving the others to disperse and go back to their business, they exited the building and headed deeper into the airfield, Yuri taking that chance to introduce in more detail the buildings Nova had already seen while her car had circled around the place. Quickly, they arrived in front of a door above which a sign read, ‘Armory’.
Is this really supposed to be the first stop?
Yuri pushed open the gates and stepped inside before Nova. “As you might have noticed, everyone here carries a weapon. If you’re supposed to train with us, you should follow the rules, too.”
Yuri flicked open the lights to reveal a wide room filled to the brim with various sorts of weaponry. They were all kept safe inside lockers with mesh doors that gave a good view of their contents but with honeycomb too tight to slip fingers through. Yuri headed to one group of such and typed out a code on the pad locking the two doors together. There were 16 digits, and Yuri pressed them fast and unhesitatingly, but Nova’s eyes and memory were both enough to let her memorize the password.
Nova didn’t anticipate knowing the password to actually be useful, especially if it was reset regularly, but she still filed it away in a corner of her brain.
Yuri remained oblivious to her little slip and swung the doors open, examining the contents. “Hmm. This… should do fine, I think.”
After riffling through the locker for a minute, Yuri turned around and handed Nova a holstered gun. When Nova took the package, the unexpected weight almost caused her to drop it before she increased the strength in her arm. It was the first time she’d held a gun in her hands, whether in this life or the last, but strangely enough, she didn’t really feel much of the excitement she’d been expecting for this occasion.
“Haha. Heavier than it looks, huh? You’ll get used to it. Quite a bit of the weight on that comes from the magazine stored in that pocket there, actually. The empty gun by itself is pretty light. Oh, and just as a friendly reminder: even if the weapon isn’t loaded, don’t put your finger on the trigger and don’t point it at anyone. You don’t want to catch any bad habits. Also, don’t load it until we teach you some basic safety, okay?”
Nova sketched a nod that Yuri most likely didn’t see, her head still buried in the locker as it was. Before the woman could close the doors again, however, Nova’s usual robotic voice interrupted her. ‘Silencer?’
“Huh? Oh, right, your ears. The boss did say something about that, didn’t she? Okay. Give me a second.” Yuri once more started scrounging through the locker, while Nova strapped the holster around her thigh and belt, taking example on how it looked on Yuri. “That gun isn’t too noisy, anyway, but – ah, there it is. Here. You can slip it through that little loop, over there, on the holster. That’s what it’s made for.”
The silencer Yuri handed to her was long and blocky. And surprisingly enough, it wasn’t a cylinder. It was vaguely brick-shaped, with slightly beveled corners and edges, which made it match rather well with the shape of the gun’s barrel it was supposed to attach to, as if it was a natural extension of it rather than a separate accessory.
“You’re welcome. Aaaaand let’s not forget a knife.”
Yuri slammed the locker shut – it beeped as its electronic lock re-engaged – and headed toward the opposite wall. A large plank of wood was affixed to the wall, upon which rested a large variety of different bladed implements put up on little stands.
“So, do you have a preference?” Yuri asked. “Which one would you like?”
Nova’s gaze roamed over the various tools arrayed in front of her, until it landed on something good. She pointed out her choice to Yuri.
“Huh?” The woman glanced toward Nova, an eyebrow cocked in surprise. “Out of all of these, your favorite is the combat shovel?” With a nod from Nova, Yuri continued, shaking her head and sighing dramatically. “Haaaa… Nova, Nova, Nova… What am I going to do with you? That’s why you still don’t have a boyfriend, you know? At this rate, you’re going to be an old spinster, living alone with your cats and your combat shovels. You should try to be a bit more romantic. What kind of pretty girl picks the boring old shovel as her first choice? Don’t you want a katana, instead? Those are pretty cool, no?”
Nova wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. She sincerely felt the shovel was a very good choice. It was fiercely practical and useful in a wide variety of situation – it could be used to dig, obviously, but also to cut things with its sharpened edges, to smack things with its heavy head, to row a makeshift raft during a desperate escape down a river… It could even be folded for easy storage. As far as Nova could see, this was definitely the ultimate survival tool.
Also, there wasn’t such a thing as a katana, on this wall. The closest thing was a single-edged dagger with no crossguard separating the hilt from the blade, but it wasn’t even curved.
And I’m only 13 years old! Why am I being criticized for being single at such a young age? And what kind of boyfriend selects his prospective partner based on her favorite knife? That sounds like a recipe for a troubled relationship.
“Well, anyway. Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re here to pick a knife only.” Yuri grabbed one seemingly at random, then turned a solemn gaze toward Nova as she patted the shovel’s handle. “This divine artifact shall have to wait until you are ready to draw out its mighty powers, young grasshopper. In the meantime, it will repose in this holy temple, anticipating your return with bated breath, for you are its chosen wielder, as decreed by the prophecy of Tricanhamakifloristogethemon.”
…Um, what? Why did Mom put this crazy person in charge of my stay here, again? That man called Connors looked like a very fine specimen, too. Very down-to-earth, very no-nonsense. Wouldn’t he have been better?
Thanking her perfect pokerface for hiding her reaction, Nova took the knife from Yuri without so much as a twitch of an eyebrow. The handle fit well into her small hand. Following Yuri’s example, Nova clipped its sheath to the back of her belt, so that she could easily grab the hilt and draw the knife by reaching behind her hip.
Yuri, meanwhile, examined Nova’s figure up and down with a small smile. “Hmm. We still have to see to your kit and your sleeping arrangements, but I suppose that, now that you’ve carrying our weapons, you’re one of us, no? So, Nova, allow me to welcome you to Viper Nest.”
Nova had gotten used to her own name, after so many years, and didn’t twitch anymore when it was said out loud in full, but sometimes, she was still astounded by her parents’ peculiar naming sense.
I realize that PMCs are usually the bad guys, in contemporary media, but is there any point in being so blatant about it? I mean, ‘Viper Nest’? Really? Might as well call it the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and be done with it.