Nova opened her eyes and let out a mute yawn, squinting against the glare of the sun filtering through the window. Snuggling in the covers of her oh-so-comfortable bed, she glanced at the alarm clock on her bedside table.
For someone who was in the habit of getting up bright and early, this was a bit much. But after spending the entire night flying a plane into a foreign country’s airspace, performing a halo jump out of said plane, traipsing through a dark forest, shooting down a helicopter, then getting back to the plane and flying back home, this little slip surely was forgivable. Especially since their mission to recover the black box ended up in disappointing failure – the thing was nowhere to be found, in the end.
Normally, Nova would have slept in the barracks at the airfield, but after what had happened, Marian had decided to give her an extended leave of absence from Viper Nest.
Basically, she’d been grounded.
I must be the first adolescent in the history of the universe to be grounded for shooting down a military gunship in a foreign country…
Last night, after being asked half a hundred times if she was really all right and if she needed to talk about what had happened, Nova had managed to convince her mother than she didn’t need psychological counselling and was, in point of fact, feeling a lot better than the guy whose brains she’d spread all over his cockpit. Eventually, she had been allowed to rest – at home – but not before handing over all her weapons and her combat suit.
Since when did I become the kind of person who feels naked and vulnerable without a gun? Maybe Mom’s right. I might be in need of a break.
Nova closed her eyes again and buried herself deep inside the silk covers. Over the past 2 years, it had been pretty rare for her to sleep in such a good bed. She’d almost gotten used to the rougher, coarser lifestyle at the airfield.
Last time was… 92 days ago. Ooooh, ohohoh… This is nice. I kinda missed this.
After savoring the sensation of the soft, light fabric sliding over her skin for a while longer, Nova finally gathered up the willpower to get out of bed. Since her trait kept her body clean, she didn’t bother taking a shower or anything like that and directly went to the dresser to pick some clothes. Just to make the contrast with her usual military fatigues even starker, she specifically decided to wear something extra nice, today.
When she went down the stairway to the first floor, a minute later, wearing a pale blue sundress with a ribbon of the same color loosely tying back her hair, her mind was flitting from thought to thought, as if unused to the rare idleness it had been allowed to enjoy after a long time.
I wonder what the people in my old life would say, if they could see me now. That old, chain-smoking, curmudgeonly fuck with the salt and pepper beard and the gravelly voice, wearing a pretty ribbon in ‘his’ hair… Yeah, no matter how I think about this, I must definitely take that secret to the grave. I’d die of embarrassment, otherwise… Ahem. More importantly, what should I do, now?
It had already been 2 years since Nova had started her military training. And it had been more than a decade since she’d started her overall education. Her preparation for the trials.
Even after all these years, she hadn’t lost sight of the objective.
A little more than 8 years left. I’ve already done some good work, if I do say so myself…
Nova glanced down at herself. A strong body. Good arms and powerful legs, tanned from hours upon hours spent exercising and working under the sun. There was a long, faint scar on the underside of her right forearm that her natural healing factor hadn’t managed to erase completely, yet, where she’d suffered an injury during some knife combat drills with Viper Nest. Apart from that, however, her skin was healthy – flawless, even – and perfectly sculpted muscles shifted visibly beneath it every time she moved.
I can’t really put a numerical value on it, but I should already be stronger than I was in my past life. Which is kind of sad, in a way. The old me wasn’t even as strong as a 15-year-old girl. I was severely lacking in machismo, it seems.
More than the strength of her body, however, was the sheer wealth of techniques and knowledge and experience she had acquired over the years, first in Aaron’s facility, learning from him and all his mad scientist friends, then in Marian’s PMC, learning from her and all her super soldier friends.
Hmm… I still have a lot of things sitting in my memory from my time with Aaron that I haven’t digested, yet. Pure data like this won’t do me as much good as if I actually understand and grasp what it’s saying. Should I take a break from everything and try to go through all of it?
It was like memorizing a specific math formula and its result, but not being able to apply it to anything else than what it was designed to calculate. This was fine, for a novice who had just been introduced to the material, but a true expert would want to go further. Indeed, it would bring much more benefits to understand the formula’s inner workings and what it could bring outside of its own limited context.
But that took time.
Still, Nova felt she could spare a year of peace and quiet, if it wasn’t spent procrastinating. One year probably wouldn’t be enough to go through everything she’d memorized, but it would be a start.
Heading into the kitchen, she fixed herself a very late breakfast and ate as her thoughts continued spinning round and round.
Or maybe I could try and actually master a subject of study. I may have learnt a lot, but all of it is superficial. I’m basically a jack of all trades, but I’m neither the best marksman, nor driver, pilot, martial artist, musician, dancer, athlete, biologist, astrophysicist, or mechanic.
The main problem with that idea, however, was that Nova had no idea what the trials would be testing. Her knowledge? Her physical strength? Both at the same time? Something completely different?
No, I should keep trying to build a wide, broad, solid base, for now, and specialize only once I know what will be asked of me.
Nova had just made her decision when Marian walked into the room. She blinked for a moment, as if she wasn’t used to her daughter dressing like this anymore, either. Then, she smiled. “Relaxing, yet?”
“Good. You’ve been at it for 2 years, now. It’s high time you took some well-deserved rest,” Marian said, pointedly not mentioning last night’s incident.
She hadn’t been here this morning, when Nova had arrived home from the airfield. As far as Nova knew, her sister didn’t have any competition scheduled any time soon, so she couldn’t think of a reason why she would be out so early in the day. Usually, at this time, Lynn would have been either still asleep or getting ready to go attend lessons at the university she’d joined at the start of the year.
Marian smiled. “She left a few days ago for the capital. Her school organized an outing at the Metropolitan Museum. They’re also going to see a few spectacles. A concert. These sorts of things. It’s a whole ‘culture and discovery’ trip. Do you want to go and meet up with her? I doubt that’d bother her.”
After a bit of hesitation, Nova eventually nodded to Marian’s proposal.
‘Tomorrow. Today, take it easy.’
“That’s good. Have a bit of fun, for once.” Marian pursed her lips as she looked at her daughter. “Do you want some company? Should I go with you?”
Nova wished she could smile. Instead, she took the trouble to write a whole, grammatically correct sentence on her bracer, selecting a youthful, female voice fitting her body more closely than the robotic one she usually employed.
‘You don’t need to worry, Mom. I’m perfectly fine.’
Marian seemed surprised by the sudden change of voice, and she stared fixedly at Nova, who quickly started fidgeting uncomfortably under her continued attention – while still maintaining her usual poker face. The contrast was so funny that Marian burst out laughing.
“Hahaha! Fine, then. I’ll trust you. But really, don’t hesitate to come to me if you need anything, all right?”
Nova nodded and fled into her bowl of cereals, pointedly marking the end of the conversation. Marian left the room while still chortling.
Ahem, ahem, ahem… Anyway, I said I’ll take it easy, but what should I do? Go see a movie, perhaps? I wonder what the theatre is showing, these days.
Finishing her breakfast, Nova left her bowl, glass, plates, and cutlery in the dishwasher, then directly left the house, putting on a pair of light sandals to complete the ‘summer holiday tourist’ look she’d got going.
It was only a few blocks down, as she was still half-pondering what exactly she should be doing beyond simply roaming the streets, that she realized she’d made a mistake. After spending so much time with Viper Nest, she’d gotten used to their presence, and they to hers, but here, everyone she crossed paths with stared at her and turned around to gawk as they passed her.
Inadvertently, it seemed that, sometime in the past two years, Nova had lost the habit of always wearing a wide-brimmed hat or a hooded top when she got out.
Well, whatever. I’m not going back home just for this.
Nova walked for a few minutes more until she reached the theatre. The large posters lined up above the gates advertised a variety of movies, but none of them really enthused her.
Zombie movie. Hell, no; I don’t like scary things. Rom-com. Boring. Movies with numbers at the end of the title are right out, since I haven’t seen the rest of the series. This is… a disaster movie? I guess that could work.
Ignoring the looks she was getting from the clusters of people loitering in front of the doors, perhaps waiting for their own friends to show up, Nova glanced down at her bracer and opened a web browser, quickly navigating to the theatre’s website. She brought up the film’s synopsis, and since it didn’t look too much like shit, she purchased a ticket for the showing starting in ten minutes, pressing down her thumb for its fingerprint in order to validate payment.
Nova entered the theatre and went straight for the turnstiles at the back, where she swiped the barcode displayed on her bracer’s screen to allow herself entry. She directed her steps toward the room indicated on her ticket. Inside, there were still quite a lot of free seats, so she chose one in a discreet corner to try and ward off potential harassment from ambitious young men – and women – who might lay eyes on her.
As it happened, however, the film did turn out to be shit.
# # #
Surveillance started again once little Nova left Viper Nest, even though it felt a bit strange for them to tail and protect one of their own, who’d participated in her fair share of missions.
Ethan and Hiraki had been assigned to the first shift, which would last for a few weeks, at which point the next pair would take their place.
“I think it has more to do with making sure she doesn’t do anything stupid than actually protecting her,” Hiraki said when Ethan brought up his concerns, her heavy rulmian accent still so exotic and pleasing to the ears even after all these years hearing it every day.
“I don’t know. I know she’s a bit hard to read, but I truly don’t think what happened is affecting her negatively. She’s bearing up very well.”
Yuri’s squad had come back from their failed mission yesterday night – or early this morning, rather – and had brought a slew of shocking news back with them.
First, the mission had been a fucking trap all along. Yuri and her team had fallen into an ambush, and their retrieval target had already been taken when they’d arrived. The opposing forces still hadn’t been identified when Ethan and Hiraki were assigned to Nova’s protection detail, though the boss had noted the enemy leader’s voice rang a bell somewhere in her memory; she just couldn’t place it just yet.
Second, little Nova, who’d been training alongside them since she was 13 years old and was basically Viper Nest’s mascot – not to say she didn’t pull her own weight, of course – had killed someone for the first time. Bringing down a Cobra-3XS combat helicopter as she did.
Everyone had been pretty worried that she’d be traumatized by the experience, the boss foremost among them. However, Nova had been very explicit about how little guilt and regret she felt over what she’d done. Some believed she was trying to repress her feelings, and that the more she tried to do so, the harder they would hit her when they finally rose back up to the surface. Others – Ethan among them – believed Nova was sincere in her reassurances, which actually might be the scarier possibility, when he thought about it. They’d all seen the recorded feed from Nova’s helmet cam, and she had certainly blown that pilot’s brains right out of his skull. That a 15-year-old girl could stay as detached and unaffected after doing such a thing to another human being was a little disturbing.
Still, it was little Nova. The kid had always been a bit weird, but no one was going to start treating her like some deranged psychopath. She was their friend, and they hers.
“Looks like she didn’t enjoy the movie,” Hiraki said with a smirk.
“Told you it wasn’t any good. I saw it. I left disappointed.”
“So, what do you think she’s going to do, next?” Hiraki asked, munching on a hotdog she’d bought while they waited for Nova’s movie to finish.
“Don’t know. Go into a bar to pick up some chicks, get wasted, then get laid? That’d sound like a plan to me, if I looked like her.”
Hiraki almost coughed out her hotdog at Ethan’s words and choked on a piece of it caught in her throat. Eventually, she managed to regain her composure and flicked off the small tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “Haaa… Shit, don’t surprise me like this.”
“Anyway, little Nova’s not such a loose woman. Don’t lower her down to your level, fuckwit.”
“Hmm, I don’t know,” Ethan said with a smirk as they followed their charge from a distance. “It’s gotta be rather tempting, sometimes, when pretty much anyone you ask would be willing to have a go.”
“I’ll tell her you said that.”
Ethan scoffed. “Go right ahead, shitface. She’s not the kind to take offense for something like that.”
“I didn’t mean Nova,” Hiraki said with a bright smile. “I meant the boss. I wonder if she would be the kind to take offense.”
“Oh, nononononono! Don’t do this to me! I’m still so young! I can’t die, yet! I have a mother with gambling debts, and my little sister needs to go to college, and my goldfish has lung cancer.”
“Beyond the fact that all your excuses are blatant bullshit, need I remind you that this is Altera, dumbass? In this country, college attendance is free, and social security will pay for your goldfish’s cancer treatment. Or you could take it to Aaron, I guess. Not only would the cancer be cured, but the fish would probably turn into some kind of godlike being of mass destruction and start a galactic conquest or something.”
“What about my gambler mom?”
“Put the worthless hag out of her misery.”
“Will do, ma’am.”
“Hmm. Wait. Nova’s entering a restaurant. Oh, girl has good taste.”
“‘Elroy’s Plaza’. You know it?”
“Yes. My boyfriend brought me here, once. Their penne with tuna and tomato sauce is excellent. They also make some sort of pasta cocktail with salmon and stuff in it. It’s delicious. I should send Nova a text with my recommendations.”
“Hmm. I’m starving, now. Thanks, Hiraki. Good job.”
“You’re welcome, dipshit. I live to serve.”
“Not to serve meals, unfortunately.”
“You want me to puke out my hotdog into a bowl so you can lap it up?”
“Wow, thanks. All of a sudden, I’m not so hungry anymore. Good job, once again.”
Hiraki sighed and glanced at Nova through the glass of the restaurant’s veranda, in the distance. “Haaa… Should we just invite ourselves to her table? It’s not like she hasn’t noticed us already. I mean, it’s not difficult to spot a tail when you know the people following you by sight… She’s probably just pretending she hasn’t, for politeness’s sake.”
“Maybe you’re right. I mean, it is pretty sad to eat alone at a restaurant. Doesn’t she have a boyfriend she could invite to spend the day?”
Hiraki hesitated for a few moments. “I don’t think so. Yuri said she doesn’t, and I’ve never heard any word to the contrary.”
“Such a shame. The prettiest girl in the world, wasted like this.”
“‘Wasted’,” Hiraki repeated, the word thick with disdain. “You make it sound like she’s a piece of meat someone dropped on the ground, and now they don’t dare to eat anymore because it’s dirty.”
“What? That’s not what I meant! You know that’s not what I meant!”
“How would I know that’s not what you meant?”
“You’d know that’s not what I meant if you weren’t such a moron.”
“Well, I’m not a moron, nor do I know that’s not what you meant.”
“If you’re not a moron, then you’re an asshat.”
“And you’re a dickfreak.”
“Dickfreak? What the hell’s a dickfreak?”
“You’re a dickfreak.”
“That’s not even a word. Stop trying to make up words. Dickhead. See? Now, that’s a real word. Feel free to write about it in your little diary. ‘Dear journal, today, I found out that my head is shaped in the approximate form of a dick. It was a moving discovery.'”
“Your comeback is too powerful.” Ethan said, shaking his head. “I am defeated and thus convinced of my inherent inferiority to you. Also, I don’t think the boss would be happy if we revealed ourselves openly. I think she means for Nova to distance herself from the Nest.”
“Hmm. I think you’re right,” Hiraki said, nodding to herself.
“So, we wait?” Ethan asked.
“All righty, then. In that case, wait for me here. I’m gonna make a run to that hotdog stand from earlier.”
“Buy one for me, too.”
“You already had one!”
“So? Now I want another.”
“You’re going to devolve from a dickhead into a fatass, at this rate.”
“You are a very rude person. I disapprove and will file an official complaint against your shameful behavior. You drooling cocksucker.”
“Hmm. All right, then. Another hotdog for the lady. I’ll even ask for a large helping of puke in it, as a special service just for you.”
“Thanks. I knew I could rely on you.”