Shit. Wieslaw, maybe a bit of warning, next time?
Sirius cursed in his mind, but he couldn’t exactly voice his displeasure at his friend out loud, what with the two belligerent bodyguards in front of him.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” he said to them instead, blithely.
“Sure, it isn’t,” said the male bodyguard. He didn’t sound like he believed Sirius, for some reason. “Would you mind dropping the girl sleeping on your back for us? Gently, if you please.” He gestured with his grenade launcher, which he definitely couldn’t use on Sirius without also blowing his charge to smithereens.
“No problem at all, sir,” Sirius said in a deliberately calm and steady voice.
With exaggerated slowness, Sirius knelt down and slid Nova Storm’s body off his shoulders, to gently place her upon the ground.
“‘Sir’?” the bodyguard repeated. He glanced at the female bodyguard. “Do I look so old that I’d be called ‘sir’?”
“It’s not that you’re old,” the woman said, never taking her eyes – or gun – away from Sirius. “This guy is just young. You can tell by his voice.”
“Ah, I see. I’m a tad less insulted, then.”
Sirius was wondering if their seeming politeness and cheer were a good sign, or if these two were like those psychopaths who bantered with their victims even as they butchered them. In any case, he was careful not to do anything that might even be remotely construed as an attack. He lowered Nova, a hand on the back of her skull so she wouldn’t hurt her head on the debris-littered ground of the construction site. He was just about to let go of her and step away when her long eyelashes fluttered, and her eyes slowly cracked open.
Thus, as she woke, she found herself staring into the tinted visor of a motorcycle helmet whose owner was currently embracing her in a rather suspicious fashion.
Sirius froze and hesitated for a moment on what, if anything, would be appropriate to say in this situation. He was quite distracted in his search for the right sentence by the rather stupid thought that her eyes were very green. Eventually, he settled for the second time in as many minutes on the classics. “This really isn’t what it looks like.”
Nova Storm apparently didn’t see fit to dignify that with an answer. In fact, she showed absolutely no reaction. Sirius would have expected at least surprise, if not panic, but the girl just looked blankly up at him. Then, she rolled to the side out of his hands, scrambling to her feet once she had put some distance between them.
Unfortunately, she probably was still a little groggy, because she tripped on her own feet and fell flat on her face almost immediately afterward.
“Nova? Are you all right?” the male bodyguard asked, clearly concerned, lowering his grenade launcher and approaching the girl to help her to her feet.
Sirius too would have tried to help, but the female bodyguard didn’t take her gun away from him. If anything, her finger seemed to tighten on the trigger.
“Don’t do anything rash, man,” Wieslaw’s voice said soothingly in his earpiece. “They’re not going to shoot you or anything. Hopefully.”
Sirius cursed again – inwardly – and raised his hands above his head.
“Up you go,” the bodyguard said as he drew Nova to her feet. “Are you injured anywhere?”
Nova Storm managed to stay upright this time and shook her head at him, then immediately flinched and brought a hand to her temple – though, strangely enough, she didn’t wince or frown or anything else like that; her face remained blank throughout.
“Headache?” the man asked.
This time, Nova nodded, more slowly and carefully than before. Releasing her steadying hold on her bodyguard’s arm, she reached for her left forearm with her right hand and froze mid-motion. Then, she looked at the floor around herself, as if she’d dropped something.
Sirius was really starting to get confused with this girl’s behavior.
“Did you lose your bracer?” the rulmian woman asked then, having apparently managed to catch a glimpse of what was happening next to her even though her eyes never wavered from her vigil on Sirius.
Nova nodded again at that, before massaging her temples again, the only other sign of the pain she seemed to feel a tightening in the muscles of her jaw as she gritted her teeth.
It took a moment for Sirius to make the connection with what he’d seen of the room upstairs. “Uh, I think I saw that bracer you’re talking about upstairs,” he said. “One of the mercenaries took it off you before I arrived. It might be damaged, though. I threw it at one of them during the fight. It might have suffered a few bullet holes.”
The three in front of him looked at him strangely – though Nova only looked at him, period.
The man was the one to speak first. “Fight? You fought against them? You’re not one of them, then?”
“No, I’m not. You’ll find them on the third floor. A few of these guys –” Sirius nodded toward one of the two sprawled next to the car, who he’d knocked out earlier, then looked at Nova “– were standing around you. You were already unconscious. That all looked mighty suspicious, so I decided to help and take them out, and you, to safety.”
“Nicely put,” Wieslaw commented, like this all had nothing to do with him.
After his attempt at an explanation, the female bodyguard looked at Sirius speculatively, though the barrel of her gun remained steady and trained right on his face. The man looked more receptive and smiled a little.
“Hmm. If you’re telling the truth – and I hope you’re conscious of the fact that we’re not going to believe you on your word alone, I’m afraid – then I’ll get on my knees and thank you for your kindness.” He shouldered his grenade launcher and glanced up at the dark building behind Sirius. “Third floor, you said?”
“Yes,” Sirius replied, his hands still up in careful surrender. “Eastern side. There should be at least two of these mercenaries still alive, though unconscious. One in the hallway. One in the room itself. I’m not entirely sure if the rest of them are dead. I didn’t have time to tie them up, so I suggest you be careful if you intend to go check on them.”
The man nodded. “Hiraki, you stay here and take care of Nova. I’ll go take a look at what we’ve got there.”
But the woman shook her head. “Absolutely not. Are you fucking crazy? We’re not staying here, out in the open, when we don’t know if more of these bastards are going to come. We’ve already been here too long. If they’d had a sniper on the nearby buildings, we could have been dead a hundred times over.”
The other bodyguard only laughed at that. “I don’t think we need to be worried about snipers. Didn’t you notice?” He pointed a finger up at the sky. “Our reinforcements arrived here at the same time we did.”
Both the rulmian woman and Nova Storm blinked at that, but only Nova looked up – this woman was quite a professional, to not get distracted from her target, even by her allies.
Sirius too looked up, curious at what the man could have meant. It took him a moment to make it out. Up in the night sky, visible only by the vague reflections of the city’s lights on its fuselage.
An airborne drone, circling high above the construction site.
Even at a glance, Sirius could feel the deadliness of its design, the streamlined curves of its armored form hinting at the firepower hiding inside. This was most definitely a war machine, efficient and powerful. Sirius had absolutely no doubt that, superpowers or not, if this drone targeted him, he would quite simply die. Thinking about it, it seemed almost ridiculous that these mercenaries had hoped to survive whatever they’d intended to do to Nova Storm. Either they were a suicide squad, or they were woefully ignorant of their opponents’ resources.
“What are they talking about?” Wieslaw’s voice asked. Presumably, the cameras he’d appropriated all over the city didn’t give him a good view of the sky to see the stealthy aircraft.
“A drone,” Sirius whispered in his mike, low enough to not be heard by Nova and her bodyguards.
The woman – Hiraki, if that was her real name – seemed reassured by this, and nodded. “All right, then. Hurry up and go check the situation in there. My arms are getting tired, here.”
To Sirius, the woman was clearly joking. The male bodyguard seemed to share this impression because he snorted. Turning away, he slung the grenade launcher over his shoulder and leaned down to take the assault rifle of one of the two unconscious mercenaries lying near the cars. Then, he disappeared into the shadows of the half-constructed building.
“Well,” Hiraki said once he was gone. “How about we pass the time with introductions? Would you mind removing that helmet, so that we can see your face?”
Sirius tensed at that. He glanced around. “I don’t mind, but can we wait until we’re out of sight of the city’s security cameras. I really don’t want whoever hired these mercenaries to see my face or be able to track me down.”
“Hmm. This is… not unreasonable, I suppose,” the bodyguard said. “Fine, you can keep the helmet, for now. But open the visor. Even if a camera catches you then, it’ll still be impossible to run facial identification on you.”
Sirius hesitated for a moment, before Wieslaw’s voice reassured him. “It should be fine, Sirius. I’ve taken control of the CCTV around the construction site, so I should be able to tell if anyone else tries to intrude. And she’s right about facial identification.”
Sirius nodded and – still slowly enough that no trigger finger would flinch at an abrupt motion – he lifted the visor of his helmet and made eye contact with the two women in front of him.
Hiraki quirked an eyebrow. “Well. What part of your face I can see looks very young. Almost young enough that you’d need to ask for your parents’ permission to be out this late at night…”
Nova, on the other hand, showed no reaction at all. No surprise or anything else. She silently stood there to the side, being her distractingly beautiful self and staring at Sirius. Sirius was even starting to wonder if perhaps she was in shock after the events of the evening, but her bodyguards hadn’t seemed worried about that at all, for some reason. Their profession should have made them aware of such risks, but beyond checking for actual, physical injuries, the two of them had shown very little concern for their charge’s mental well-being, like they took it for granted that she wouldn’t be traumatized by all this.
The next few minutes were spent in relative silence, with Hiraki pointing her gun at an unmoving Sirius as they waited for the other bodyguard to return. Nova had stepped to the side and righted her fallen motorcycle. She was examining the damage it had suffered, apparently. Apart from two large gashes on its tires, however, Sirius couldn’t see anything else obviously broken about it.
Not like his own bike.
Which had been completely and utterly wrecked beyond recognition.
Blown up, even.
How on earth am I going to explain that one to Dad? Should I recover the melted slag the bike became and give it to him as a memento? Or just tell him someone stole it from me? Yeah, that might be the simplest solution. He’ll still be angry, but angry at the loss and the thief. Not at me. It’s wrong to lie to my parents, but it’s better than being disowned…
Eventually, the male bodyguard returned, two unconscious men tied up like hogs on his shoulders. He carried them with little apparent effort, which impressed Sirius, before dumping them on the ground next to Hiraki.
“Phew. Finally done,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow before turning to Sirius. “And man, did you do all that upstairs? That was some shit. You sure aren’t fucking around when you save people’s lives, are you?”
Sirius shook his head. “Ah, no… Almost half of them were already dead by the time I arrived. I only dealt with the ones in the room itself.”
“Huh-uh,” the man said, his eyebrows rising as he glanced at Nova behind him.
She returned his stare with one of her own but didn’t provide any explanation of what had transpired before Sirius arrived. The bodyguard shrugged and removed the same transparent plate Sirius had seen and used in the fight from his belt.
“Here, your bracer. I suggest you call your mother. She must be worried sick.”
He handed it to Nova, who nodded in thanks before strapping it to her left arm. The thing looked a little damaged. Apparently, one or two bullets had impacted its surface, leaving little pockmarks over it.
What is this thing, in the end? It’s bulletproof, so is it armor or something? Like a tekkou?
As Sirius watched curiously, Nova pressed her thumb against a seemingly random spot on the plate, and it lit up from within, rows of icons appearing on it.
It’s a screen! Some kind of portable computer, then? But how? It’s flexible and transparent. And bulletproof. Why would anyone make a computer bulletproof?
Nova’s fingers flicked expertly over the bracer, and soon, a robotic voice spoke out.
Then, she reached into her pocket. Her hand came out holding a small earbud that she inserted into her ear. With a few more deft touches on the screen, Sirius’s sensitive hearing caught from that earbud half of a conversation Nova was seemingly holding with a woman – most likely Marian Storm. Nova never spoke, though; she only typed on her bracer during the empty silences between Marian Storm’s responses.
And only then did Sirius actually realize that Nova was, in fact, mute. He felt a bit thick to understand it only just now, but this at least explained some of her strange behavior since she’d woken up.
Sirius quickly tuned out the conversation between mother and daughter. It might give him some pertinent information about what they were like as a family, but it seemed terribly rude and invasive to listen in on such a private conversation, and he couldn’t bring himself to eavesdrop. From what little he had heard, at least, Marian Storm certainly seemed to love her daughter.
“All right, then. We should probably get going,” the male bodyguard said in the meantime, an apologetic smile appearing on his lips. “I’m sorry for this. I realize it’s not exactly a good way for us to thank you, if you tried to help, but it’d be great if you could come with us for a debriefing. If everything checks out, I can guarantee you’ll be handsomely rewarded for your assistance in this matter.”
“Perfect,” Wieslaw’s jubilant voice said. “An excellent opportunity to introduce yourself to Nova’s parents. Try to make a good first impression. If we can convince them to fund us, it’ll make things a lot easier in the future. If this pans out, we could make a lot of good for the world.”
Sirius smiled a little at Wieslaw’s encouragement and nodded to the bodyguard. “Of course. I understand.”
“Thank you,” the man said. “I’m afraid I’m gonna have to search you for weapons, first. Ah, do you mind if I tie your hands behind you back? Once again, I apologize for the necessity, but we’ve all had quite enough troubles for the day. You’ll be freed as soon as we can make sure you’re not a threat to Nova.”
“I don’t mind,” Sirius said. Truthfully.
He did understand the necessity – and this guy was at least polite about it, instead of surly and suspicious and aggressive. The fact that Sirius was strong enough to break out of even metal handcuffs also played a part in his agreement. The search ended quickly, without the bodyguard – who introduced himself as Ethan as he pat Sirius down – finding any weapon.
“Sirius,” Wieslaw cut in as Ethan took a step back. “Tell them about your earpiece. They allowed you to keep the helmet, so you might be able to hide it for a time, but they’ll get suspicious if they find it on their own later. They’ll wonder who you’ve been talking to. It might strain whatever negotiations you could start with them.”
Oh, shit. He’s right. I completely forgot about that.
“Uh, I think I should tell you guys right now that I have an earpiece hidden under my helmet that keeps me in contact with a partner of mine. I’m telling you this so that no one does anything… drastic… when I remove the helmet.”
“I see,” Ethan said, nodding thoughtfully. “Thank you for volunteering that information. Please relinquish the earpiece once we’re in the car. We’ll return it to you once this whole business is over and done with.”
Sirius nodded, and afterward, it took only a minute more for Ethan to dump the four unconscious mercenaries – the two he’d fetched from the third floor, plus the two Sirius had knocked out near the cars themselves – into the trunk, then to drive off. They only stopped for a moment as Sirius remembered the other mercenaries who had driven the car Sirius had shoulder-tackled, but these had already escaped and were nowhere to be found.
Then, they were on their way – to Saltwell, Sirius supposed, to make mama and papa Storm’s acquaintance.
Ethan was driving, while Hiraki had taken the back seat next to Sirius and was keeping an eye on him. Sirius, for his part, was sitting peacefully with his hands tied up. He had finally removed his motorcycle helmet and given his earpiece to Nova, who’d asked for it with her robotic voice after she’d apparently managed to reassure her mother on the phone that she was perfectly fine. Nova was riding shotgun, but she’d swiveled her seat around to sit face-to-face with Sirius, who was finding it increasingly difficult to prevent his eyes from drifting toward her, despite his best efforts. Even now that her conversation with her mother was over, she was still furiously typing away at the keyboard, though she’d returned the earbud to her pocket. Sirius wasn’t sure what she was doing.
“You really are young,” Hiraki said from next to him, sounding almost dumbfounded. “I’m honestly surprised. Aren’t you even younger than Nova herself?”
“I’m 15 years old,” Sirius confirmed with a smile.
Hiraki shook her head and sighed. “Children grow fast, these days… What’s your name, by the way? I forgot to ask.”
Sirius wondered for a few moments if he should give her a false name but quickly decided otherwise. He had no doubt that the Storms would easily find out his identity, now that he’d revealed his face to them.
Before he could speak, however, Nova’s strange, mechanical voice came first. ‘Sirius Antema from Verizen.’ She looked up from her bracer. ‘Thank you for saving me. I am grateful.’
“Uh, ah, you… you’re welcome.”
Sirius gaped at the girl in front of him, eyes wide. How could she possibly know his name? Yes, the Storms would easily find out his identity, but wasn’t this a little too fast? And even the city he came from? How had she done it?
Ignoring his confusion, Nova kept typing.
‘Please explain why you followed me since yesterday,’ the emotionless, artificial voice said as her green eyes stared unblinkingly into his.