Nova already knew the answer to her question. Or at least part of it. She’d only asked to test whether the boy would be honest about his purpose.
Divining his goal had only been a matter of listening in on his conversation with the person on the other side of his earpiece. Nova’s senses had been sharp enough to catch the voice coming from it, even from a few meters away.
While at the construction site, Sirius and his mysterious partner had talked about meeting Nova’s parents to negotiate for funding for a project of some sort. Which project was supposed to do ‘a lot of good for the world,’ supposedly.
Since they probably had no idea she was listening in, Nova felt that her savior and his friend would have had no need to lie. This comforted her in her idea that they could be trusted, to a degree.
However, as they saying went, ‘trust but verify.’
Well, actually, most of the time, this saying didn’t really apply to Nova. She already had some real trouble on the ‘trust’ part of the equation, so there was nothing to ‘verify’ in the first place. However, since Sirius had, in point of fact, just saved her from the bastards coming after her, she could probably afford to give him the benefit of the doubt. And if he spoke honestly about his goals and admitted he’d been tailing her for a while, that would be more evidence in favor of his trustworthiness.
First of all, once she was safe in the car and Marian had been conclusively reassured as to Nova’s safety, Nova went through the history of her bracer’s camera. The thing constantly recorded everything that happened around her. Usually, this history was sealed, in consideration of Nova’s privacy, but in an emergency, she could watch everything the camera had caught in its lens.
Her parents also had access to these records. In fact, they no doubt spectated the whole incident live from the point of view of Nova’s bracer, pulling the stream from the server on which it was stored as soon as they realized that something had happened to her.
In this case, the movie proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sirius had saved her. Nova watched herself fall to the ground, unconscious from the sensory overload of the flashbang bursting right next to her. The gunmen clustered around her afterward, making some chilling comments about what they intended to do to her – along with references to a ‘young master,’ who Nova was pretty sure she’d met this afternoon. Then, she watched, almost disbelievingly, as the polite and cooperative young man sitting in front of her with his hands tied behind his back, chatting with Hiraki, plunged through a wall and slammed into a mercenary like a freight train, sending the man flying into another. After that, the whole thing had ended quickly. And in the end, after the last mercenary surrendered, Sirius had carried Nova away from the scene.
…What the shit is this?
Her face remained impassive as always, but Nova’s hands shook a bit at the sight. This wasn’t the kind of ability one would expect to see from a 15-year-old. Actually, this was barely even the kind of ability one would expect to see from a human.
What’s up with this guy? How can he be so strong? And so fast? Is he on steroids or something? No, that wouldn’t be enough to explain it. Is he Superman? Can he fly, too? Can he shoot laser beams from his eyes?
In any case, Sirius definitely had some secrets about him.
It was a bit scary that he could probably kill all three of them in this car if he wanted to escape. Nova was pretty sure his binds wouldn’t hold him for one second, if he ever wanted to get out of them.
But still, it didn’t change the fact that she was grateful. She had to be. Sirius might indeed have secrets, and he might have had an agenda when coming to the rescue – make a good impression on her parents, as it were – but that didn’t really matter, especially since his ultimate goal was apparently righteous, even if she didn’t know exactly what it was. The simple truth of the matter was that he’d gotten her ass out of the fire when she’d needed it.
She would have to thank him properly.
Curious about who else she should thank, Nova then traced back the voice from Sirius’s earpiece. It was harder than she’d anticipated. Whoever was on the other side had taken some trouble to cover their tracks, the connection bouncing through several different proxies. Anyone trying that little trick on Earth would have had to expect a significant time lag on any transaction – not something desirable in any military operation – but Edea’s networks were a bit more robust and developed and allowed for such a thing more readily. Still, the (counter?)-terrorism suite in Nova’s bracer made the work less onerous, and she quickly singled out the IP address from which the transmissions originated. Subsequently translating that IP address into a geographical location was child’s play. This gave her a postal address in Verizen, capital of Amidonia, the neighboring superpower, which she could then match to a family name. Pulling the family’s records from Verizen’s census office revealed one Kalina Kowalczyk and her son Wieslaw Kowalczyk. The voice in the earpiece had been male. Kalina was a single mother. Wieslaw had no siblings. Wieslaw, 15 years old, was then her prime suspect for the voice in the earpiece. Finding Sirius’s name was scarcely more difficult. Nova found which school Wieslaw attended and compared the faces on the student roster until she found one that matched that of the young man in front of her. Black hair, black eyes, chocolate-brown skin, thick eyebrows, symmetrical features. Remarkably handsome, actually. He was probably a solid 65 on the prettiness scale. In fact, she hadn’t expected her search for his identity to end so quickly, but as it happened, Wieslaw Kowalczyk turned out to be classmates with one Sirius Antema. Nova went back to the census office database for information on the Antema family, and that was that. Address, phone number, relatives, the whole shebang.
She had discovered Superman’s secret identity in approximately seven minutes.
Superman really should be more careful. What if Lex Luthor read ‘Hacking 101’? It’d be easy to take Superman’s family hostage and gain a powerful goon.
Satisfied with her findings, she forwarded them to her parents with a little note to explain, so they could dig a little deeper before Nova arrived in Saltwell with Sirius.
Now, what exactly is that project of theirs, and why is it so important that it pushed two teenagers into traveling to another country in search of Mom and Dad?
If it was reasonable, Nova could perhaps put in a good word for them in her parents’ ears. It was the least she could do.
And then, she’d have to find that ‘young master’ who’d sent these gunmen after her.
And kill him.
# # #
‘Please explain why you followed me since yesterday.’
For an instant, Sirius froze as his mind flashed through the implications of Nova’s questions, the world slowing down around him in tandem with his increased focus.
I don’t know how she discovered I was tailing her, but it’s clearly not just a guess on her part. She’s not fishing for information, here; she knows. The worst that could happen would be to be suspected of aiding those mercenaries. In fact, it might already be difficult to prove that I truly was there to help, instead of one of their accomplices… Since Nova was unconscious at the time, they really only have my word on it. Better consistently tell the truth and build up some measure of trust. In any case, I’ll have to explain I was looking to meet Aaron and Marian Storm at some point. Then they’ll obviously guess my stumbling on Nova’s situation was more than just chance.
These thoughts went through Sirius’s head fast enough that no one in the car noticed the pause. When time started flowing again around him, only a fraction of a second had passed.
“This kid has been following you?” Hiraki said, blinking. “Since yesterday? How come I didn’t notice?”
‘Since concert. Motorcycle far behind. Noticed by chance. Same helmet and clothes,’ Nova said, pointing at the helmet resting between Sirius’s feet.
“Huh.” Hiraki nodded, still clearly surprised, before turning a suspicious gaze toward Sirius. She didn’t move the gun laid across her lap, but Sirius didn’t fail to notice that the finger that had been resting on the trigger guard discreetly slipped inside it and landed on the trigger itself in understated threat. “Care to explain, boy?” she asked.
Sirius nodded thoughtfully. “That’s true. I’ve been following you since yesterday. I was hoping to find an opportunity to speak to your parents, actually. I need their help for a project of mine, and I figured this was the best way to approach them. I’m sorry.”
The two bodyguards seemed surprised at this, and Ethan, who was driving the car, actually laughed out loud. “Well, well, well. Poor little Nova. Your charm seems to be falling. Your stalkers now care more about your mom and dad than they care about you. How is your ego holding up? Everything all right?”
Sirius could only make a bitter smile at being called a stalker, but he supposed he couldn’t exactly deny the accusation. He had been stalking the Storm children for the past few days.
Nova too didn’t seem to agree. Although she said nothing, the glance she sent toward Ethan seemed almost sulky – or was that just Sirius’s imagination?
“In any case, I can promise you I had absolutely no nefarious intentions in doing so. I just wanted to get a better idea of who I would be dealing with.”
“Hmm. What’s that project of yours that you need help for, then? If you need Aaron… Something for your school’s science exhibit?” Hiraki asked with a smirk. “Aaron’s skills would probably be enough to help you make a decent potato battery.”
Hmm. This might be a good opportunity. See what kind of reception my proposal will receive when I explain it to someone else.
“No, it’s nothing to do with science,” Sirius said slowly, hedging his words. “Basically, I need help doing what I did tonight. On a larger scale, and more efficiently.”
Everyone in the car apart from Sirius blinked at that.
“You are planning to be some kind vigilante?” Hiraki asked, nonplussed. “Wait, a vigilante from Verizen? Are you the guy who was all over the news a while ago?”
Sirius winced a little. Those news reports about his and Wieslaw’s work had been less than flattering. “Those… might have had something to do with me, yes. Though I must say that the reports in question were quite inaccurate and rather unfairly biased. I certainly never assaulted any policemen. Nor was I part of a rival gang or anything of the sort. I’m merely a citizen doing his civic duty.”
Both Hiraki and Ethan let out simultaneous snorts at his defense, but they didn’t push the point. At least, they didn’t seem to show any disapproval at his actions and goals, only… amusement, which comforted Sirius. Aaron and Marian Storm wouldn’t necessarily show the same acceptance, but these two bodyguards were at least employees of them. Surely, they must at least share some values?
Only Nova looked uncomprehending. ‘News report?’ she asked.
Hiraki glanced at her. “You didn’t hear? Well, that doesn’t surprise me. That’s what you get for spending the last few years living under a rock…” The woman shifted in her seat into a more comfortable position – her gun still in her hand. “You see, Verizen is home to a vigilan– no, a civically minded citizen, sorry,” she explained with a pointed glance at Sirius. “A few months back, that citizen took it upon himself to poke his nose into the business of some sort of mafia boss. Which quickly devolved into a full-blown gang war in the streets, before the mysterious citizen, astoundingly enough, somehow emerged victorious and dismantled most of the cartel’s operations. Kinda like what happened tonight, actually.”
“I didn’t expect that civically minded citizen to be a teenage boy,” Ethan said from the driver’s seat. He glanced over his shoulder for a moment, taking his eyes off the road. “Do you have military training of some sort?”
“Uh, yes, something like that.”
Sirius was actually somewhat confused by the response he’d earned, now. Nova’s reaction to learning he could destroy a whole criminal organization at his age couldn’t exactly be discerned – but then neither could her reactions to anything else – but the two bodyguards, while duly surprised and impressed, quite clearly believed him. Which was more than Sirius had expected. Could two trained soldiers so easily accept that a 15-year-old had this sort of ability, merely glossing over it with ‘military training’?
“Are you taking my word on it that I’m telling the truth? That I’m the one who took down that cartel?” he asked carefully. “You don’t find it… inconceivable at all? I might be using someone else’s hard work to set up a reputation.”
Hiraki chortled. “A few years back, I’d probably have called you a liar. But, well, there is Nova. She could probably do the same, if she tried.” She glanced at the expressionless girl sitting in front of Sirius. “Right?”
But Nova shook her head. ‘Tonight has proven otherwise.’
“Hmm. True enough, I suppose,” Hiraki said thoughtfully. “How did they take you down?”
‘Flashbang. Sensory overload. Fainted.’
Both Ethan and Hiraki made grunts of acknowledgment at this, while Sirius was only quietly astounded that someone could actually faint just from a flashbang bursting next to them. Those things were only momentarily debilitating, right?
Perhaps it was right in her face when it went off? I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m more curious about how she managed to kill so many of her pursuers before that. I’ll need to have a private conversation with her, at some point.
Sirius certainly hadn’t forgotten Wieslaw’s suspicion that Nova Storm might be a reincarnator. If that was true, he at least had to make sure that she wasn’t as much of a threat as the last one they’d met.
# # #
Drake sat in his comfortable office chair, looking at his son on the other side of the desk. The boy looked quite uncomfortable under his father’s cold gaze.
The silence persisted for a minute or two until Richard could bear it no longer. “Father, you wanted to see me?”
“Yes,” Drake said, forcing a casualness into his voice that was the polar opposite of his current feelings. “I was in a meeting with the head of house Athis, tonight, when I got an urgent call from my good friend, the commissioner of police. Would you care to guess what he said to me?”
“‘Are you completely insane?'” Drake replied to his own question before his son could. “Those were his first words.”
“Silence.” Drake didn’t have to repeat himself. The deadly threat in his voice made it perfectly clear what would happen if his order was not obeyed instantly. He settled deeper into his seat and rested his elbows on the armrests, steepling his fingers in front of his chest. “I didn’t understand why he was asking me that question, of course. And imagine my surprise when, after a small check, I suddenly discovered that Typhoon had been deployed into the capital, hunting for one little girl. An operation apparently green-lit by me, of all things. Amusing, isn’t it?”
“Father, I know I disappointed you, but I told you I would make this right! You agreed with me! What was I supposed to do? Doesn’t Typhoon exist to serve as our hands and feet when we need them?”
For a few seconds after those words, Drake stayed perfectly motionless in his seat, not even breathing, as he tried to control the surge of rage that rose up within him at this moment.
Then, before Richard could blink, Drake reached out over the desk, cupped the back of his son’s skull, and slammed his face into the hard wood of the desk. A satisfying crunch rang out through the cozy, luxurious office, and Richard fell back, crumpling over the edge of the desk and to the floor. The four bodyguards standing at each of the room’s corners didn’t bat an eye at the sudden display of violence.
Drake took a deep breath, taking in the blood now marring the gleaming wooden surface before him. He stood up and walked around the desk until his son came into view. His nose looked broken, but the rest of him seemed to be fine.
So Drake kicked him in the ribs.
As his son moaned on the floor, Drake let out a deep sigh and leaned down, grabbing his progeny by the hair and yanking him up until he met his eyes.
“Yes,” Drake said in a very quiet voice. “I did tell you to make this right. But what else did I say, just about five seconds before then? To pick your targets more carefully, fool. In this case, making things right meant something like writing a gently worded letter of apology to the girl you provoked, not sending a bunch of murderous mercs after her. Just how stupid do you have to be to think this was a good idea?”
“F–Father, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, I bet you are now. But I do not think you yet realize the depth of your folly.” Drake let go of Richard’s hair and let him fall back down to the floor, then stood up and returned to his own seat, on the other side of the desk. “This time, your actions will have some rather… dire… repercussions.”
Slowly, laboriously, Richard too made his way back to his seat. His face still bled, a sizeable bruise forming centered on his nose. “What should we do now, Father?” he slurred, subdued.
Drake’s eyebrows rose up at the question. “Now? We cut our losses. Our family is done in Altera. Marian Storm will never tolerate letting live someone who aimed at her favorite daughter. If we stay, we’ll wake up tomorrow morning to a volley of ballistic missiles dropping onto this house,” Drake said with a smirk, remembering the prophetic threat the Storm girl gave him earlier today.
Richard’s face blanched. “B–B–But, Father, the family… We’re…”
“Did I not just say it? The Clifford ducal house is done. We shall leave Altera tonight. I have enough contacts in Telon to start over, if it’s there.”
Drake’s voice didn’t waver at all as he spoke those words, but only through an extreme effort of will. The Clifford name had been a hallmark of Alteran nobility for nearly 400 years, and now, because of his son’s foolishness and propensity to make enemies everywhere he went, that name would end.
Drake looked at his son’s sorry figure. Had it been anyone else, he would have killed them for their mistakes, but even now, even now, he couldn’t bring himself to end Richard’s life, no matter how deserving of his fate the idiot truly was.
Still, he would suffer for this. Drake would break him out of his misguided ways.
Drake flicked his hand. “Go now. Gather what you cannot bear to leave behind. Leave the rest here. You have exactly two hours. For every minute of delay beyond that, I will break one of your fingers.”
Richard didn’t even take the time to give any acknowledgment to his father’s orders. He was openly crying as he ran out of the office and scrambled down the hallway outside toward his own chambers. He most definitely – and rightfully – believed Drake would make good on his threat if he needed to.
Drake closed his eyes and tiredly rubbed the bridge of his nose. His eyes were still closed when he felt one of his bodyguards approach. The man leaned by his ear.
“Sir, Mr. Lindgren has already left, along with most of his troops. We only managed to catch the few newest recruits that were left to guard their base. Only a skeleton crew, to give the appearance that the rest would come back and avoid arousing suspicion.”
Drake sighed again and shook his head. Somehow, he’d expected this. Walter Lindgren, Typhoon’s commander, knew when the wind had turned on him.
He and his unsavory troops had proved useful to the Clifford family on numerous occasions – the latest of which had been to retrieve the data from one of Aaron Storm’s downed satellites, though even then, they’d fucked up at the end with an unauthorized ambush on Viper Nest’s soldiers – but the man must have understood that he’d crossed a line with his actions tonight. Accepting the mission given to him by Richard, even if the boy had claimed Drake had agreed to it, had been one mistake too many. The man should have contacted Drake and asked for confirmation – surely he couldn’t have believed Drake would threaten one of the Storms in a way that could so easily be traced back to him. But in the end, Lindgren didn’t ask for confirmation.
He unhesitatingly sent his men on the mission.
Of course, he did. As long as he can make life hard for Marian Storm and her family, this self-destructive idiot would even jump in a fire. Or rather, he’d command his subordinates to jump in the fire. What is it with everyone around me placing their private, petty grudges before any semblance of sense and reason? Is the entire world mad?
Well, at least, Typhoon had failed.
If Nova Storm was safe, perhaps there was a way to mollify her mother enough that she wouldn’t pursue the Cliffords all the way to the other side of the planet.
“I’ll pen a letter to explain what happened. Send it to Marian Storm along with the heads of those Typhoon recruits you caught.”
“Yes, sir,” the bodyguard said with a sharp nod.
Drake sighed once more and rested his head on the back of his chair. He quelled the anger inside him again and grit his teeth.
Walter Lindgren and Richard Clifford were both idiots who favored their petty grudges over any tangible benefit.
Drake was different.
Certainly, even if his cretin of a son was at fault in the first place, Drake himself had lost too much this time to let it all go with a smile. He would do his best to take what revenge he could on the Storm family.
But only as long as it wasn’t too inconvenient, nor too costly.