The car slowly coasted to a stop before the front gate of the Storm family’s house, and everyone disembarked. Considering the amount of power – and incidentally, money – Sirius knew they possessed, the house didn’t fit his expectations. It certainly wasn’t a worthless, ramshackle dump, but neither was it a large manor. It was just a normal, though sizeable and modern, upper-class house. It also had a lovely garden, dotted with small lamps whose light outlined pebbled trails that led off the main path and around the estate, cutting between trees and bushes and decorative boulders. A tall, closed fence surrounded the garden entirely, preventing prying eyes from seeing what was inside. Even this late at night, the house’s windows were brightly lit, but Sirius couldn’t see anyone in the few rooms he idly checked.
Before their group of four could reach the front door and enter, it opened on its own, and a middle-aged woman came out to welcome them. She was tall, her hair and eyes too dark to mark her as a native of Altera. And although she wasn’t particularly physically imposing, she moved with the kind of deadly precision that told Sirius it would be a very foolish idea indeed to underestimate her.
Marian Storm didn’t pay attention to anyone else and pounced on her daughter as soon as she saw her, hugging her with such enthusiasm that, if he hadn’t known any better, Sirius might have interfered in this attempt to choke the girl to death.
“Nova,” she said, then hesitated, as if not knowing where to even start, before simply deciding to cover the basics. “Are you all right?”
Sirius and the two bodyguards stood silently to the side as Nova first nodded in reassurance, then abruptly stopped and shook her head.
“What’s wrong?” her mother asked, her voice filled with concern.
‘Had to leave my bike. Flat tires. No time to look for spares.’
Marian’s face quickly relaxed, and a wry smile appeared on her lips as she ruffled her daughter’s hair. “If the only problem you have is that your bike has a flat tire, I think you got out of this mess pretty well.”
Nova only shrugged in response, and her mother’s smile widened. Marian then turned to the two bodyguards.
She nodded at them. “Excellent job, you two. Well, no. Not excellent. Decent job. Barely decent. Just good enough that I won’t immediately fire you, I guess.”
“Boss,” Ethan whined, “there was nothing more we could have done. Who could have expected that someone would be so crazed as to start a war smack-dab in the middle of Altera?”
“You could have,” Marian said, scowling. “It’s your job to expect these sorts of circumstances, no matter how unlikely they might appear. It’s what I pay you so much for.”
Hiraki didn’t seem like she wanted to deny her superior’s accusations, but Ethan continued arguing. “Well, we were ready for the eventuality, right? We did have a successful firefight against some of them. And everything ended up fine, in the end, didn’t it?”
At this, Hiraki gave two obviously fake coughs and threw a sidelong glance at Sirius, who was patiently standing next to her. At least, Nova had asked that his hands be untied, during the trip from Altera, so he wasn’t too uncomfortable while he waited. “No thanks to us,” the rulmian woman muttered, then slapped Sirius’s shoulder and pushed him forward a step. She raised her voice in an obvious attempt to divert the conversation toward safer waters. “Boss, this is Sirius Antema. He’s the one who saved Nova. We asked him to come with us to clear up a few things about the incident. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, you were right to do so.” Marian’s gaze finally turned to Sirius, and she looked at him seriously. She nodded solemnly. “Thank you for protecting my daughter.” She threw a glare at Ethan. “I’m sorry you were forced to do so.”
“It was no problem at all, ma’am,” Sirius said, smiling as affably as he could. He could almost hear Wieslaw cheering him on, all the way from Verizen, 5000 kilometers away. “Anyone would have done the same in that situation.”
Marian Storm softly snorted. “Your first sentence is entirely correct. It truly was no problem at all for you to deal with those mercenaries. Your second sentence, however, couldn’t be any further from the truth, which is precisely why we’re all so grateful. Now, come in. I’ve made you wait on the doorstep for long enough to prove how poor a host I am, I think.”
Sirius wasn’t quite naive to the point he actually believed his own words. They’d been mere polite noises. He could only give a bitter smile in response as Marian ushered him and Nova through the front door. Before following them in, she glanced at Ethan and Hiraki.
“All right. Despite it all, tonight can be considered a successful mission. Return to the airfield and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow morning for a full debriefing.”
With snappy replies – probably the most military-like thing Sirius saw these two unmilitary-like soldiers do tonight – Ethan and Hiraki quickly scampered away, as if fearing another talking-to. They clambered back into the car and drove off hastily, the tires throwing gravel everywhere as they skidded on the path.
“Don’t ruin my garden, you idiots…” Marian muttered after them as she watched them flee, but the small smirk on her face when she turned back to follow Sirius and Nova took most of the bite out of the reprimand.
The inside of the Storm house was warm and cozy, spacious without feeling empty. It felt like a house that had been lived in. Marian led them through a red-wallpapered hallway deeper into the house, walking shoulder to shoulder with Sirius while Nova followed half a step behind, her mother holding her hand and tugging her forward like a small child.
“Thank you again for your help, Sirius,” she said, with apparently genuine gratitude. “I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t burst in when you did.”
Sirius shook his head. “Ethan and Hiraki would have burst in in my stead, if only a minute or two later. They had things well in hand, even without me poking my nose into it.”
Sirius didn’t believe the two bodyguards would find themselves in too much trouble with Marian, but he still tried to put in a word in their favor. Sirius had chatted with them quite a bit during the car trip to Saltwell, and he’d had time to… perhaps not develop any actual friendship, but at least understand they were both good people.
Though they did blow up my bike. Should I mention that at some point? I usually subscribe to the idea that a good deed is its own reward, but my father’s not going to see this the same way. I doubt he’d even believe me if I tried to explain what happened…
The three quickly reached a room in which an enormous screen took up an entire wall. In front of the screen, past a low table, were arranged a couple of comfortable-looking chairs and a sofa. A tall, muscular, blond Viking of a man with a wireless keyboard on his lap occupied one of the chairs.
And on the screen was a video call showing a thin, wiry teenager sporting a pair of large glasses that suited him rather well and made him look strikingly intelligent. He was wearing an oversize t-shirt and was sitting in his bedroom – a bed could be seen in the background, with a couple of posters pinned to the wall above it.
Sirius recognized the room in the video. He’d been there before, many times.
In fact, he also recognized the boy.
“Ah, there they are,” Aaron Storm said, craning his head around the backrest of his chair and looking at the three new arrivals.
Wieslaw’s eyes also flicked to the side, not precisely toward Sirius’s actual position in the Storms’ living room – or study, or TV room, or conference room, or whatever this room was supposed to be – but rather toward where his position should be on Wieslaw’s computer screen. A half-bitter, half-wry smile made its way onto his face. “Hey, Sirius. Fancy meeting you here.”
Sirius froze for a moment, his mouth gaping open. “Wha…?”
Aaron didn’t seem to mind his guest’s reaction. He rose out of his seat and looked at his wife. “Ethan and Hiraki didn’t come in?”
“I let them return to the airfield. I’ll talk to them tomorrow.”
“Hmm.” Aaron grunted his acknowledgment and approached Nova. He wrapped her in a hug as tight as Marian’s earlier one. “You all right, kiddo?”
‘Lost my bike,’ the robotic voice answered from within his embrace.
“It’s fine; it’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” Aaron comforted her in a soft voice. “The police will take good care of it. It’s evidence in a criminal investigation, after all. I’ll make a few calls, and they’ll send it back to us in a jiffy.”
Their little exchange gave time for Sirius to compose himself and discard the shock he’d been feeling. Since Nova managed to discover his identity so quickly while in the car, it stood to reason that her parents would also be just as efficient. Perhaps Nova herself even sent them the info. Thus, while they indeed acted fast, finding Wieslaw and contacting him still wasn’t too much of a stretch.
Yep. No need for surprise. Did Wieslaw already explain everything to them?
Sirius’s question was swiftly answered when Aaron walked over to him, offering his hand in greeting. “Sirius, welcome, and thank you for saving Nova. I’m truly glad you were there to help at the right time.” He gestured at the wide screen behind him and smiled teasingly. “As you can see, Marian and I have already made your partner’s acquaintance. Just before you guys arrived, Wieslaw was telling the two of us about your… little project.”
Wieslaw nodded, that helpless smile still on his face. “I suddenly got a video call invitation just as I was about to go to sleep after the night’s, uh, festivities,” he explained for Sirius’s benefit, then his eyes flicked between Aaron and Marian Storm. He shrugged. “I didn’t expect you would be the ones to contact me first, but since any cooperation would have required us to tell you what exactly we planned to do anyway – and how exactly we required your help – I didn’t feel any need to conceal our purpose.”
Now, that sounds like a little lie…
Sirius had known Wieslaw for several years, now, and if one thing about him had been immediately apparent during their acquaintance, it was the man’s constant wariness and prudence, sometimes almost bordering on paranoia. From Sirius’s point of view, Wieslaw would definitely have preferred to remain in hiding for as long as possible. Even during any negotiations with the Storm family, he would have kept their goals vague as much and as long as possible until he was at least reasonably certain the Storms would, in fact, cooperate. To be forced to reveal his cards so early was undoubtedly beyond Wieslaw’s expectation – although he probably also knew that things would start moving at a much faster pace, after Sirius’s performance tonight. It had simply been so great an opportunity to make a positive impression on the Storm family that even Wieslaw couldn’t bear to let it slip away.
And of course, more than anything else, there had been an innocent girl in danger who’d needed saving…
Aaron nodded thoughtfully for a few moments, before clapping his hands. “Well, it’s already very late. We can discuss this matter more deeply tomorrow morning when everyone is rested and refreshed. Wieslaw, we’ll call you again then. I hope you’ll be available?”
“Of course.” Wieslaw’s image on the screen nodded decisively. “No problem at all. In point of fact, I’m also available if you prefer we discuss this matter face to face. Sirius is already on site, anyway, so I don’t mind also making the trip to Saltwell.”
“Yes, I think I’d like that, if it’s not too much trouble. Don’t worry. I’ll pay for your plane ticket and everything. We can set everything up tomorrow, if you’d like.”
Wieslaw smiled. “Perfect. Then, I’ll see you tomorrow.” His gaze flicked to Sirius, and he flashed a grin that made him look his age, but he left without saying anything more. The call cut off, Wieslaw face abruptly disappearing from the screen and making place to a computer desktop with a smattering of icons over a plain grey background.
With Wieslaw gone, Aaron turned to Sirius. “Sirius, you must be quite tired, as well. We have already prepared a guest room for your use, and there’s a meal waiting for you if you’re hungry, so make yourself at home.”
Sirius shook his head. “Thank you very much for your hospitality, but I already grabbed something to eat before everything happened, so I’m fine.”
Sleep, on the other hand, did sound tempting. It was already nearly 4:00 am, and even though Sirius could pretty much stay awake for several days straight without being too impaired, it was still far wiser to get a good night’s sleep every day.
“Alright, then. Nova will guide you to your room. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything.” He turned to his daughter as he continued. “Nova, would you mind showing Sirius to the guest roo… Hmm…”
Aaron’s voice sputtered out when he saw Nova lying on the sofa, resting her head on her mother’s lap. Her eyes were closed, her breathing deep and regular. She was obviously sleeping – and Sirius could tell by her slow heart rate that she wasn’t faking it. The conversation had only lasted a minute or two after they joined Aaron here, but apparently, that had been enough for Nova to quietly fall asleep without Aaron or Sirius noticing anything. Clearly, the night’s events had been more exhausting for her than everyone else had assumed. But in a way, this was a more human reaction than her previous stoicism. Sirius was already astonished that the girl managed to remain awake for the entire duration of the car trip back from Altera.
Hopefully, she won’t have any nightmares about this whole ordeal.
Aaron smiled ruefully and rubbed the tip of his nose. “Ah, well, if you’ll accept, I suppose I shall guide you myself, in my capacity as the patriarch of this household.”
“If you would be so kind, I’ll engrave your magnanimity onto my soul, kind sir,” Sirius returned with a grave nod and a perfectly straight face.
Aaron gave a chuckle – probably more polite than actually amused – and guided Sirius through the hallway and into a bedroom on the second floor, before bidding him a good night. The room was lovely by any standard, and everything he could possibly need to spend a restful night was here. Pajamas were neatly folded on the pillow, and a small table near the window bore a bottle of water along with some snacks.
Left alone in the silent room, Sirius sat on the edge of the bed and let out a long sigh. He had expected a lot more talking to be involved once he arrived here in Saltwell and met Aaron and Marian Storm, but unexpectedly, they’d only exchanged a few words before Sirius was accepted into their house. They even gave him a room to use, as if trusting him implicitly. Perhaps, it had to do with the conversation they’d had with Wieslaw before Sirius arrived. And perhaps, it also had to do with their seemingly complete confidence in Sirius’s version of what had happened with Nova at the construction site.
No, they’re not just confident. Judging from Marian Storm’s comments about how it was no problem for me to save her daughter, it’s more like they saw it happen. Was their drone there the whole time? But how could it have seen inside the room from all the way up in the sky?
Maybe he’d have more answers tomorrow.
Giving another sigh, Sirius flopped down onto the bed, lying spread-eagled atop the clean sheets. Slowly, a small smile lifted the corners of his lips.
Looks like they don’t trust me all that much.
Sirius’s senses were sharp beyond belief. The people in the neighboring rooms didn’t make much noise at all, but they still couldn’t escape from his hearing. Or his sense of smell.
That distinctive, crisp scent of metal and oil…
Firearms, rigorously maintained.
Probably more of the same ilk as Ethan and Hiraki. The Storm family had taken precautions against him, after all.
This didn’t bother Sirius. If anything, it comforted him. The parents of a girl who’d almost been killed or kidnapped shouldn’t just casually welcome a stranger who’d been involved in that same incident into their house. They should guard against him, in case he was somehow more deeply involved than he’d admitted. In that case, suspicion was the natural, wholesome, rational reaction.
It also didn’t bother him that Aaron didn’t instantly agree with their request for funding and cooperation, even after Wieslaw’s explanation. Tonight had merely been a preliminary introduction, if that. If the man had been convinced to equip two teenagers, no matter how strangely mature and competent, with high-tech military gear, Sirius would have found that very peculiar indeed. It was already good enough that he treated the two of them with respect and courtesy and didn’t immediately laugh off their ideas on account of them being so young.
The real work would start from now.