Eventually, Nova and Delia’s efforts managed to lift the mood, though Louis’s mind was still clearly elsewhere, and the three spent most of the day together. As Delia had told her on the phone, she and Louis recklessly put off whatever responsibility they bore to make time for her, and even Jamil and Celes, the king and queen, popped in to say hello. Of the Astias Nova knew, only Ingrid wasn’t there – she was still working at the daycare in Saltwell, presumably.
When the sun started dipping toward the horizon, Nova finally bade her farewells and left. Fortunately enough, no one assaulted her on the way out or anything like that. It looked like the day would end peacefully.
Leaning against the side of her motorcycle, Nova let out a tired sigh and glanced back at the vast palace behind her.
Even though I tried to be as definitive as possible, I wonder if that’ll be enough to convince Louis he’s barking up the wrong tree. He’s not the kind of guy to cling on for dear life and make himself a bother, but he’s also not the kind of guy who’d give up on what he wants at the first hurdle. I’m not sure what he’s going to do.
Nova helplessly shook her head, and her eyes returned to her bracer’s screen, where the transcript of the conversation she’d just had with Marian was displayed. Nova had called her upon leaving the palace, first to inform her of what had happened with Duke Clifford and his fuckwit of a son, then to ask if anything new had been discovered about the attack Viper Nest had suffered in that Amidonian forest, two days ago.
Marian’s answer on the latter subject had been short and clear. ‘Nothing yet. Stop thinking about it. Enjoy your time off.’
Is Mom trying to distance me from Viper Nest? I hope that won’t interfere with my training too much…
As for Duke Clifford, Marian had said the man was unlikely to act against Nova so impulsively. Apparently, he was a very sane man, and he knew what kind of resources the Storm family could bring to bear against him if they ever needed to. Still, they had both agreed that Nova should return to Saltwell as soon as she could, to avoid any mishaps.
A bit late, today, though. I’ll go back to Ryner’s apartment for now, and leave the capital tomorrow morning.
Sending one more text message to Hiraki’s number, warning her and Ethan to keep their eyes open, Nova slung her leg over her bike’s body and settled into the seat. A few seconds later, she was leaving the palace’s parking lot and joining traffic, driving slowly and carefully.
Her brain was working at around 80% capacity, scanning all the vehicles around her as she weaved through them, seeking for anyone who might be following her. It didn’t take long for her to find her bodyguards’ car. Ethan and Hiraki weren’t even trying to hide; they only kept their distance a little, more for form than anything else. They clearly weren’t taking this too seriously.
The sports bike took her a bit more time to catch, though.
It hung back a lot further than Ethan and Hiraki did, but on the long avenues of the capital, it eventually failed to escape Nova’s notice. Someone with worse eyesight wouldn’t have been able to see it from so far away.
Someone with worse memory wouldn’t have realized that this same bike had also followed behind Nova, yesterday, during her short excursion with Lynn, after her performance at the Royal Concert Hall. At the time, Nova hadn’t been looking for anyone following her; she had merely caught sight of that motorcycle in her mirrors once, by chance. Like everything else, that bit of data had stuck in her memory, waiting for the opportunity to be useful.
Once would be coincidence, but for me to find it behind me again today… And it’s not getting any closer; that guy is driving as slowly as I am. Would someone owning a bike that powerful unnecessarily restrain his speed like this? How suspicious.
However, this raised some rather disquieting questions.
Whoever was driving this motorcycle probably wasn’t linked to this afternoon’s matter. Nova had only met the two Cliffords today; this guy had been following her since yesterday.
Nova suddenly felt like she’d been dunked in a tub of icy water. Her blood ran cold in her veins.
Lynn had been there, at the time.
If something had happened…
Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! All right. All right. No need to hesitate. Kill him now. I don’t have any weapons on me at the moment, though. That’s something of a problem. Closest Viper Nest safehouse in the capital is… there. Go.
Gritting her teeth, Nova picked up speed and changed course, veering away from Ryner’s apartment at the Storm Corporation tower.
# # #
Sirius didn’t try to approach his quarry too closely. In fact, he remained well over two blocks away from her. His motorcycle was pretty eye-catching, and the bodyguards following behind Nova Storm as she drove through the city would catch him quickly, if the reputation of Viper Nest’s soldiers were half as good as it sounded from listening to the grapevine.
Even if he hung back, he wouldn’t lose her, anyway. It had taken some effort for both of them, but Wieslaw now tapped into the city’s array of security cameras – some of them, at least – and kept an eye on the girl for him. Even if his partner suddenly lost his connection, for whatever reason, Sirius would still only have to follow the tracer he’d surreptitiously placed on Nova Storm’s motorcycle, last night. All in all, they were well-prepared to follow her wherever she went.
But all this didn’t really suit Sirius’s character.
“I’m not sure investigating his children is the best way to introduce ourselves to someone we need to ask for help,” he eventually said, after considering for a good ten minutes how he should phrase his objections.
“Don’t be naive,” Wieslaw’s voice replied in the earpiece connected to Sirius’s smartphone. “In a way, you might very well consider Aaron Storm as the most powerful man on this whole planet. Haven’t you heard that power corrupts? Now, I’m not saying he’s some terrible, murderous tyrant, but neither am I saying we should trust him implicitly. It’s just too risky.”
“Then let’s follow him around,” Sirius said sullenly. “And his wife. But investigating children is… It just doesn’t sit well with me, is all.”
A chuckle crackled into his earpiece. “Children? Need I remind you that the both of us have just turned 15? All of his children are older than us. We are the children, here.”
“You know what I mean. If we count our memories from Earth, I’d be in my late 30s. And you’d be, what, 50 or 55? This feels wrong. Like I’m bullying a little girl. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
“We’re not harming anyone. And we’re not going to harm any of them in the future, either – unless we catch them committing a crime, I guess. Then we’d have to harm them, for their own good.”
Sirius shook his head. His gaze beneath his helmet was troubled, and a bitter smile was on his lips. “I doubt we’re going to find anything at all, in any case. If Nova Storm is anything like her sister…”
“Well… yeah. Lynn Storm seems to be clean,” Wieslaw said with evident reluctance. “But Lynn Storm might just be the exception. Her siblings’ cases aren’t as clear-cut as hers. For example, Ryner Storm is the CEO of the Storm Corporation.”
“So, it’s a bit shady how his company is raking in so much money, so quickly, don’t you think? He’s only 21 years old. For the first enterprise of a young business school graduate, the Storm Corporation is much too big, and much too successful.”
“Shady?” Sirius repeated, doubtful. “No, I don’t think so. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a company holding the patents of some of Aaron Storm’s inventions to grow like a terribly infectious fungus.”
“Nice simile. And I suppose you do make a good point.”
“Have you found anything wrong with his finances? Everything checks out? You did investigate in more detail than just concluding it looks shady, right?”
“Of course, I did. And no, I didn’t find anything incriminating. But he might just be hiding his dirty secrets deeper than I could reach.”
This time, it was Sirius who chuckled at his partner’s rampant paranoia. “So Ryner Storm is clean, too.”
As Wieslaw admitted defeat once again and stewed in impotent rage, Sirius realized he’d been too focused on the conversation and had lost Nova’s trail. He quickly glanced down at the screen of the smartphone docked on the small stand between the bike’s handlebars, then took a left at the next intersection, following the map’s instructions.
“Are you sulking?” he asked after a few more seconds of silence.
“I am not. I’m only cursing your overly trusting nature. How do you explain Nova Storm, then, huh? I already said so, but there is no way a teenage girl would ever leave so little trace of her existence.”
“Didn’t you see her dance in front of an audience of 1500 people, yesterday? You’ve got 1500 traces, right there.”
“Exactly. She played in front of 1500 people, and yet, the only one there who knew her name was her sister. There is even no trace of her name in the Concert Hall’s archives. I checked. A man named Sloan was supposed to play here, that night. Instead, an ‘anonymous artist’ took his place. ‘Anonymous artist.’ Who goes so far as hiding their name when they’re playing the violin? That doesn’t strike you as a little odd? Not even a little?”
“Maybe she likes to keep her private life private?”
“This goes a bit beyond that, don’t you think? I mean, I could glean a few things on her, here and there, but she has absolutely no imprint on social media, and she seems to have spent most of her life off the grid. She has no education record or police record or whatever record. She’s never gone to a public hospital, nor even to a physician to get a prescription. I didn’t find any bank account under her name, no matter where I looked… No, seriously, even I am impressed by how thoroughly that girl’s hidden almost everything about her life. If you told me she was part of a secret society of assassins, I would believe you 100%.”
“You always assume the worst of people,” Sirius said. “There are other possibilities. You should consider them, as well.”
“Other possibilities?” Wieslaw asked dubiously. “Like what?”
“Well, she was wearing a mask yesterday; I couldn’t get a good look at her face. But I can tell you she’s beautiful. Stunning, even. Her parents might be trying to protect her by keeping her out of the public eye.”
“…You’re defending her quite strenuously, aren’t you?” Wieslaw asked suddenly. “Ooooh, I see what this is! She’s beautiful, huh? You fell for her charms, didn’t you? Tsk, tsk. What a naughty boy.”
“Where did that come from?!” Sirius asked, flustered. “She’s only 15!”
“So are you.”
“Not this again! You know what I mean!”
“Whatever. In any case, her beauty should only make her shine all the brighter, not the other way around. It makes the evidence against her even more incriminating. I’m telling you, something is wrong with this girl.”
“She might be an alien,” Sirius said pensively.
“She might indeed. Or she might be another reincarnator.”
The thought instantly blew all levity and embarrassment away from Sirius’s mind. He and Wieslaw already knew they weren’t the only reincarnators who had come to this planet from Earth. They’d already found one other, by chance, and that guy had been bad, bad news. If Nova Storm turned out to be the same, this investigation was indeed critical.
“You think so?”
“Hmm, it’s a possibility. Not a very large possibility, but a possibility nonetheless. I’d have to meet her to make up my mind one way or the other. For now, it’s just food for thought.”
Sirius sighed. “This would all be much easier if we could spy on them in Saltwell, though. Are you sure you don’t want to give it a try?”
“Saltwell is Aaron and Marian Storm’s backyard. The moment I put a toe – even a virtual toe – out of line in that city, I’ll have a drone strike heading for my house. And you know how my mother hates uninvited drones.”
“Couldn’t you do it sneakily? Like, by hacking a satellite and flying it above their heads or something?”
“You’ve watched too many movies, I think. Are you going to ask me to hack the Pentagon, next? Do I have to remind you that I’m doing all of this from a desktop computer in my bedroom? A computer made of retail, civilian parts bought at a supermarket from the salary of a single mother? I think I’ve done pretty well with what I have, already, thank you very much.”
“There is no Pentagon anywhere on Edea.”
“Nonetheless, I don’t have the hardware necessary to do anything too complicated. Isn’t that precisely why we require Aaron Storm’s help? Batman is only Batman because he has money and gear.”
Sirius took another turn. In the distance, a few blocks down the broad avenue, he could just barely see Nova Storm weave between the slower vehicles occupying the road. One of the cars between her and Sirius was that of Nova’s bodyguards – or perhaps they drove on a parallel street; Wieslaw would know and tell him if it became relevant. It was already rather late in the evening, so even though this was the capital, there weren’t as many cars out than during the day. Sirius spent his time contemplating, not for the first time, how much more boring it was to tail someone than in the movies.
He was still at it a few minutes later, when a dump truck suddenly burst out of a side road and violently crashed into one of the cars driving peacefully along the avenue.
Sirius couldn’t help but shout out, and in his shock, he braked too hard and almost fell off his bike. He quickly regained control and slowed as he approached the scene of the accident. The dump truck looked heavily dented, but from what Sirius could see through the open window, the driver was relatively fine. His head was resting against the airbag that had burst out of the steering wheel, but his eyes were open, though a bit bleary. As for the car the truck had crashed into, it most definitely wouldn’t go any further. The front right wheel had been bent so much out of shape it was now part of the engine block. From where he stood, Sirius couldn’t see the state of the people inside the car.
“Wieslaw,” he called hastily. “Keep tracking Nova. There was an accident, here; I’m going to stay and help until the EMTs arrive.”
Sirius grabbed his smartphone and was about to call emergency services, when Wieslaw’s voice cut him off. “Wait. The people in this car; they’re Nova Storm’s bodyguards. Pretty big coincidence that they were the one to take that dump truck in the face, don’t you think?”
“It’s an ambush, you mean?” Sirius frowned in thought, then shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. They may be injured and in need of help.”
“Wait! You have two more cars inbound on your position, coming from the same street as that truck. It’s definitely an ambush. Get out of there!”
Sirius hesitated. His conscience told him he should stay and provide help to whomever needed some, but his reason told him that he wasn’t wearing a vest and wasn’t carrying a gun. His reincarnation may have granted him superhuman abilities, but surviving direct gunfire unprotected was not one of them. He still hadn’t made up his mind when the two cars Wieslaw had warned him about arrived, drifting on the asphalt and burning rubber for a few meters until they stopped. Armed men scrambled out of them, assault rifles at the ready.
Cursing quietly, Sirius abandoned his motorcycle and hurried to take cover in a narrow alleyway that bisected the block bordering the avenue. He knelt there, taking in the scene, on the lookout for an opportunity to act.
He was preempted when a woman of rulmian descent leaned out of the window of the crashed car and discharged a submachine gun into the driver of the dump truck, who had just groggily stumbled out of his cabin.