After Nova properly chastised her for using her as teasing material against Sirius, Lynn informed her that their parents had gone out early in the morning, after a messenger from Viper Nest’s airfield came to fetch them.
Nova wasn’t sure what word this messenger carried that her parents had to leave so early, but she resolved to send a notice to them as soon as she could about her suspicions on Sirius’s actions. Even if he did have nefarious intentions, Sirius probably wouldn’t act right away, but it was still better to make sure as soon as possible.
After finishing her meal, Nova returned to her room, leaving Lynn to entertain a helpless Sirius. Her computer had booted up, so she settled into the seat and cracked her knuckles.
Then, she froze mid-motion, the thought popping into her head that she needed to put her dirty clothes and bedsheets in the washing machine. She’d practiced laziness and procrastination enough in her past life, so despite cursing inwardly, she diligently got up, picked the pile in her arms, went downstairs to the washing machine, put the clothes and bedsheets inside it, closed the lid, started a washing cycle, and went back upstairs to her room, pointedly ignoring the murmur of conversation coming from the kitchen, where Lynn was making Sirius’s life difficult again.
Finally satisfied that she no longer had any pressing duties to attend to, Nova sprawled into her seat again, grabbing the keyboard and balancing it on her lap while propping her legs up on the desktop.
First, she sent that message to her parents. Then, confident that they would deal with everything perfectly, no matter how things turned out – they probably didn’t even need her reminder in the first place – she opened a web browser and checked the latest news.
The homepage of her aggregator was plastered with the headlines of the major news outlets, all remarkably similar in content.
They all – or at least, all the local ones – covered the events of last night. Some wondered at the identities of the two sides involved in the shootout; others deplored the lateness of the police response; others had printed out grisly photographs of dead bodies, one of them the first man Nova had hanged, stressing out just how increasingly violent the world became every single day and no one was safe anymore…
Really, the only thing lacking in all those articles was the truth. There certainly was no mention of Nova in any of them, but this was no surprise. Her family’s influence – and technological supremacy – ensured her involvement would never be discovered, let alone revealed to the public at large. More annoyingly, however, there was no mention of the opposite side, either. Best guess so far, according to the articles, was that two rival gangs had engaged in a territorial struggle and concluded it with a gunfight in which both sides essentially perished.
Which was absolute garbage, of course.
No way would gangs carry that kind of equipment. No way would gangs send a commando unit to hunt down a teenage girl, for no appreciable reason.
So, whoever it was had enough clout to smother the truth – just like the Storms themselves had done.
This was quite… irksome. Police and media control were only good and sane practices when you were the one enjoying their benefits. When other people did it, it was called ‘corruption.’ Blatant, evil corruption.
It also dramatically lowers the probability that Sirius is responsible for this mess. Right, I should have thought of that earlier… I’ve somewhat taken my privileges for granted since I was born with them, but not everyone can enjoy unlimited funding and equipment and influence. I didn’t search too deeply, yesterday, when I looked up Sirius’s identity, but what I did find in no way gave me the impression that he or his family would have enough money to hire mercenaries. These guys weren’t exactly on the level of Viper Nest’s soldiers, but neither were they random street punks with second-hand assault rifles, either. They must have cost a pretty penny. And they had the guts to start a war in the middle of Altera, which means they were confident the police wouldn’t be on their trail.
This implied their backer was powerful. Sirius wasn’t. At least, not politically, nor financially. In fact, wasn’t the whole point of his proposal to Aaron and Marian for him to borrow the Storm family’s power because he didn’t have it himself? That didn’t fit with someone who could already fund a group of mercenaries and put pressure on Altera’s higher-ups.
Nova continued browsing for a while, even finding a photograph of the front of the construction site, where the black SUVs the mercenaries had been driving were still parked. There was no sign of Nova’s motorcycle. The friendly, cooperative law enforcement officers must have taken it for safekeeping before the journalists could gain access to the scene and snap compromising shots of the license plate.
Mom and Dad must have spent the whole night on damage control…
A new article slid down on top of the pile on Nova’s screen. This one’s title was, ‘Police Commissioner resigns after shootout debacle.’
Well, I suppose someone needs to take the blame for the cavalry arriving so late, but isn’t this a bit too rushed? It’s been, what, 10 hours since it all happened? I imagine the investigation’s barely gotten started, and the police commissioner has already resigned? Sounds kinda fishy.
It wasn’t as if Nova felt any sympathy for the man’s plight, of course. If anything, his fate was well-deserved. After all, the police had indeed been ridiculously late to react. How could that have happened without at least his tacit consent? In a way, he was an accomplice to whoever had hired the mercenaries to hunt Nova down. Thinking about it, it was right and proper that he should resign.
# # #
“Resign? And what about it? You should already be grateful you get to keep your life. That’s more than you deserve, after what happened to my daughter.”
“Unavoidable circumstances? What unavoidable circumstances? Are you trying to inspire pity, here? Because your so-called circumstances can be summed up in one word: bribes.”
“Bullshit. Do you think I’m blind? Or just plain stupid? Even if that were the case, your subordinates are your responsibility. Their mistakes are your mistakes.”
“Enough. Shut it right now, or I’ll make sure you won’t live to see tomorrow. Just obediently go live out the rest of your miserable life in the countryside. Don’t even think about involving yourself any further. If you so much as dip a pinky back into this pond, I will shred you.”
Marian slammed the phone down and exhaled a short, frustrated breath. That asshole commissioner had been able to act as he saw fit in Altera thanks to his connections in even higher places than his, and Marian hadn’t interfered since it wasn’t any of her business. But if the dog thought he could continue on his merry way after yesterday’s incident, Marian didn’t mind putting him down for good.
She’d already allowed him to remain alive. That should have been good enough, but the mongrel actually had the gall to wag his tail and beg for more.
The nerve of that man…
Would Nova had been in so much danger if the police had actually bothered to move their collective ass and investigate the incident? Ethan’s decision to fire a grenade launcher in the middle of the city had been a good one, disregarding potential collateral damage. If the cops hadn’t been quite so crooked and shameless, the sheer noise of the explosions would have sent all police forces down in the streets looking for whoever was responsible. Even the military would have been called to deal with it. At that point, the mercenaries after Nova would unavoidably have been drawn in the commotion and caught before they could become a threat.
Instead, the Alteran police had followed the Clifford House’s instructions. They turned the other way and plugged their ears.
If heads didn’t roll for this, Marian would never be satisfied. Worse, people might start thinking that it was fine to attack the Storms with impunity, and such incidents would multiply. Aaron and Marian had many, many enemies – or at the very least, many greedy ‘acquaintances’ who would just love to get a handle on them by, for example, taking their children hostage. Once a single one got past unchallenged after treading on forbidden territory, countless more vultures would flood into the breach and peck at them from all sides. It was imperative that the Storms display a powerful, unforgiving image to whoever cared to look. The world had to know that any offense would result in extermination.
The last time someone had targeted one of their children was when the government of nearby Felling decided kidnapping Ryner would be a convenient way to ask for Aaron’s assistance in bringing their country’s weapons program to fruition. Needless to say, Aaron and Marian had not reacted well. Diplomatic immunity didn’t save the kidnappers. Viper Nest stormed the Felling embassy in Altera and torched it to the ground, killing everyone inside and rescuing Ryner from his captors. Then, a civil war flared up in Felling, for some unknown reason. And the members of the old government all perished under mysterious circumstances, too.
After that, the number of incidents Viper Nest had to deal with drastically reduced.
But perhaps it had been too long since the Storm family had demonstrated that they would not suffer threats from anyone.
Marian leaned back more deeply into her seat and swept a cold gaze over the row of eleven severed heads lined up on top of a nearby table. Their glassy eyes were gazing at her, as if still uncomprehending of their own fates.
They were the apology gift Drake Clifford had sent her.
Eleven. And they’re all youths. Only new recruits, looks like. If Clifford is under the impression that this’ll be enough to sweep this affair under the rug, he’s got another thing coming. If his son was responsible for the attack, like he claims, then why wasn’t his head included in the package? And, more importantly, Typhoon…
Typhoon was a private military company. Marian and her Viper Nest had come across them a few times in the past. They had always struck her as sleazy and disreputable. Certainly, everyone dealt in warfare, so there was perhaps no tremendous moral superiority to be had on either side, but Marian still felt any good professional should maintain a certain code of conduct while doing their work, even if the work in question often involved killing people.
Typhoon’s commander didn’t see things this way, however. To him, profit mattered above all else. And that philosophy had brought him no small amount of success, as it happened. Typhoon was well-funded and powerful. Not quite as much as Viper Nest, of course, which enjoyed the bottomless resources of the Storm family, but what Typhoon lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity. Their recruits vastly outnumbered Viper Nest’s.
Marian was well aware that Typhoon’s commander had often tried to trip Viper Nest’s feet, sometimes going as far as setting up ambushes where Viper Nest members were supposed to operate. All such ambushes had been mercilessly punished, of course, but the commander himself was slippery and had always eluded capture, going off to continue his pointless, one-sided rivalry.
What was that guy’s name, again? Algren? Palgren? Something-gren, I think. I can’t remember. Command should know. We must have records of him.
Typhoon’s commander’s name didn’t matter, anyway. What mattered was that he seemingly had the capability to garrison in Altera – essentially the Storm family’s backyard – without Aaron and Marian finding out about it. Typhoon’s presence in this country clearly wasn’t anything new. They must have been acting as Clifford’s attack dogs for quite a while, without the Storms being even remotely aware of it.
How could they have gotten past the information net erected over Altera?
Marian pondered for a while but eventually gave up that line of thought. She couldn’t see any way an armed force might have sneaked inside the country without setting off all kinds of alarms bells. She’d have to see with Aaron if he could find what vulnerability Typhoon had exploited to make their way in.
And then, it finally hit her.
Ah, I remember now! Tallgren’s voice! He was the one talking over the megaphone back in that forest. He’s the one who set up this ambush, then. But how did he – or Clifford – know that the satellite had fallen? Did they shoot it down themselves? Do they have that kind of capability?
Marian’s fingers thrummed restlessly on her desktop.
At least, Nova was safe now. And Lynn. Marian had sent a helicopter to fetch her, yesterday, just in case Nova’s assailants turned to her next. Ryner, on the other hand, was fine on his own. The Storm Corporation’s security forces were all well-trained specialists. They could take an assault from Typhoon, especially now that they were forewarned of the threat.
Marian sighed and rubbed her bloodshot eyes, stifling a yawn. The immediate danger had been dealt with, but there was still so much to do. She could leave the discussion with Sirius and his friend to Aaron – it was his help they needed, in any case, not hers…
Marian rose to her feet and exited her office. Outside, her subordinates were waiting for her orders. She swept her eyes over them. Ethan and Hiraki were absent, still resting. Others were deployed in or near the Storms’ house or in the capital.
“Yuri,” Marian called.
“Yes!” her second-in-command answered without missing a beat.
“Give Philly the green light. Tell her to burn the police commissioner’s house down.”
“Understood. Do we wait for him to evacuate his house, first?”
“I already told him to leave. If he didn’t listen, or if he didn’t move fast enough, it’s his problem. Just tell her to burn it to the ground.”
Yuri nodded, not a single hint of disapproval at the order.
“Next, arrange for a rotation. I want a strike team at my house 24/7, ready to intervene in case something happens. I also want teams patrolling Saltwell. And send a squad to reinforce Philly’s in the capital. I’ll need people in place there to uproot the remnants of the Clifford House. Oh, and tell Command to dig up everything we have on Typhoon. Ideally, find where they’re hiding,” Marian added after a moment’s thought, though she didn’t have much hope on that front. “They probably left the country even before Clifford himself did, but I want to make sure of that.”
“All right, boss,” Yuri said, then grinned. “What will you be doing? Or are you dumping all the work on us?”
“Me? Hmm, I think that, first, I will go and talk to my daughter,” Marian said, recalling the message she’d received earlier from Nova.
She might have a lot of work to do, but her children were more important. If she’d had a choice, Marian wouldn’t even have wanted to leave this morning before seeing Nova awake.
As the case may be, her absence had given her a bit of time to think about how best to help Nova deal with what had happened.
Clifford’s letter – and severed heads – directly disproved Nova’s suspicions. Which was good. But that Nova’s first impulse about her savior was to distrust and suspect his motives was a little concerning. Nova was still just a teenager. It would be fortunate if yesterday’s incident didn’t have any negative influence on her mind. Trauma could come in many different forms, and Marian wouldn’t be particularly surprised if her daughter came to distrust people on general principles after such a harrowing ordeal, in a subconscious effort to avoid a repeat of the experience. While it wasn’t necessarily bad to be wary, there was a thin line between wariness and paranoia that it was best not to cross.
Additionally, Nova, at only 15 years old, had already killed half a dozen people, these past two or three days. She hadn’t displayed any sign of guilt or distress, but this was Nova. It was difficult for her to display any sort of emotion at all.
And if she genuinely didn’t feel guilty or distressed, then that was concerning too. Marian had seen from the recordings of her daughter’s bracer how she’d dealt with the first mercenary she’d encountered in that construction site – clubbing him over the head, hanging him by the neck with electric wire while he was unconscious, then using his corpse to distract his comrade and kill him too.
Marian wasn’t sure if Nova realized that everyone had seen her do that, but in any case, they really needed to talk.