That put something of a damper on the whole ‘let’s cooperate amicably’ thing Wieslaw and Sirius had got going, but Nova didn’t regret saying it. She leaned back into her seat. ‘Just making things clear. Don’t want misunderstandings, do we?’
“Ah, sure…” Wieslaw said.
Sirius looked only mildly surprised at the verbal violence – he probably didn’t take it too seriously – but Wieslaw seemed more profoundly affected. It most likely didn’t mean that he was actually afraid of Nova or anything like that, but perhaps he wasn’t used to receiving death threats that rung true? A potentially significant weakness in his otherwise beneficial trait. If certain truths could disturb or disable him at a critical moment, it might be something Nova could use, if she ever needed to.
In any case, since she’d delivered her intentions, there was no need for her to reiterate her point. She continued with her next question. ‘Any information on the trials?’
“None whatsoever,” Sirius replied while Wieslaw composed himself. “We were simply told they would start upon our 24th birthday. Like you, I assume?”
Nova nodded as she reflected on that.
Our birthdays aren’t the same, though. Does that mean the trials will start at a different time for everyone? Or will they start once we’re all within our 24th year?
‘The other reincarnator you met?’ she absentmindedly asked, sucking more soda through her straw.
This time, it was Wieslaw who answered, having finally gathered his wits. “A man. Name unknown. Origin unknown. We know very little about him, really, except that he seems to be a textbook psychopath. Who just happened to reincarnate and acquire all the wrong powers.”
“You might remember another trait in the list,” Wieslaw said with a somber look on his face. “Requiring beauty, presence, and willpower all at 100. With a cost of 5500 points.”
When her perfect memory brought Nova the answer to Wieslaw’s riddle, she choked on her drink and started coughing, her eyes tearing up. It took her a good half-minute to get control of herself. When she raised her head again, neither Sirius nor Wieslaw looked amused at her ordeal. They both wore grave faces.
You gotta be kidding…
“Mind control,” Sirius finished, nodding.
Sirius nodded again. “He’s still alive, yes. And at large.”
No fucking way…
“We only found him by coincidence, while investigating one of Verizen’s prostitution rings. By the time we discovered what he was doing and got to him, he already had control of nearly 60 people,” Wieslaw explained. “He used them as hostages and obstacles when Sirius tried to get to him.”
“Right,” Sirius continued, a pained look on his face. “They were innocent civilians. Victims. I couldn’t just plow through them all, but they threw themselves in my way with almost suicidal abandon. By the time I managed to neutralize all of them non-lethally, the culprit had managed to escape.” He sighed. “The worst of it all is that those poor people all fell into catatonic sleep once their tormentor was gone. We suspect he destroyed their minds in some way, so that they wouldn’t be able to reveal anything about him.”
…Oh, please just tell me you’re kidding.
Nova was speechless. This was simply absurd. For a momentary kindness, Sirius and Wieslaw had allowed such a threat to escape? And now, those hostages were as good as dead anyway, and the other reincarnator was free to start over somewhere else. Except he’d be more careful, this time. They should have just blown up the whole city block the moment they knew where he was hiding and what kind of danger he represented. Tough luck for those few victims, but as far as Nova was concerned, they would have been acceptable collateral damage.
Still, it was interesting that the hostages all suddenly fell into a coma afterward. Perhaps, it was like Sirius had said – the reincarnator had destroyed their minds so they wouldn’t talk – but then, that implied his control of them was limited. By distance, perhaps? Or number? He released his control of those slaves of his who had already been compromised, in order to get some available slots and take control of new people elsewhere?
Or perhaps it didn’t represent a weakness at all, and he’d simply done it to spite Sirius after he spent so much effort trying to save them all.
To avoid complacency, it was probably best to assume the latter.
And it was even more interesting that this reincarnator ran away when Sirius came knocking. Why didn’t he control Sirius’s mind? This seemed to imply another weakness. It was likely controlling someone’s mind was subject to limitations. The most intuitive limit Nova could think of was that strong-willed individuals would be more difficult to control. Perhaps mind control also wasn’t so powerful that it could be used on the fly, in the middle of a fight.
All of those were plausible, but no matter what, a person with such powers – whether he was a psychopath or not, whether his intentions were good or not – was too much of a danger for Nova to allow him to live. He had to be killed.
By the way, how can all these guys purchase these crazy expensive traits like it’s going out of style? How did that cocksucker scrounge up more than 5500 points? That’s just absurd. Even if I’d chosen to be born without arms and legs, blind, deaf, mute and retarded, it still seems like I wouldn’t have enough points to buy half the stuff they have.
‘Have a portrait?’
“I can draw his likeness, if you want. He’s hard to forget,” Wieslaw said, leaning to the side. He disappeared below the table to riffle through the bag he’d left on the floor next to his seat, and resurfaced with a sheet of paper and a pencil. While he drew, he asked, “What do you intend to do?”
“And then? Will you send your mother’s PMC against him? I don’t recommend that.”
Nova shook her head. She wasn’t quite so stupid as to send human beings against someone with mind control powers. This would just be a recipe for disaster. It was much simpler to just…
‘Bomb him from orbit.’
“…Um, what? You’re joking, right?” Sirius asked, blinking owlishly. He looked at Wieslaw next to him. “She is joking, right?”
“She’s not,” Wieslaw replied with a complex expression as he kept drawing. “That was the truth.”
Sirius turned back to Nova. “Wait, didn’t you hear our story? He’s definitely going to have more of his controlled victims around him. If you just drop a bomb on his location, then you’re also going to kill innocent civilians! And what if he’s standing in a crowded marketplace when your bombs find him?”
‘Yes,’ the bracer replied in its cold, mechanical voice. ‘Too bad for them.’
Sirius looked positively shocked. “You don’t mean that. Think about it. What if it was your family on the line? Would you still bomb him, regardless of collateral damage?”
Of course, she wouldn’t. For her family, Nova was ready to brave some amount of risk. But not for random strangers she knew nothing about. Dropping a bomb on them, if it was for a good cause, would barely even tickle her conscience. And a better, more justified cause than the current one hadn’t been invented. The relief Nova would experience knowing no one would ever try to control her mind or that of someone she knew would vastly outweigh her guilt at those incidental, faceless casualties.
But that’s not what Sirius wanted to hear. Sirius wanted to live in a world where perfect, clean justice reigned supreme and uncontested. And Nova didn’t want to needle him unnecessarily, so she shortened her answer to a single word. Which happened to be both what Sirius wanted and a truth which wouldn’t trigger Wieslaw’s discernment.
In any case, Nova would be vigilant, now. If anyone she knew showed signs of being controlled, she’d have to take some measures to deal with it. Perhaps, she’d even find herself with no other recourse but to explain some part of the truth to her family, after all.
Shit. Why was there such a trait available for purchase at all? It’s like asking for something horribly wrong to happen.
Seeing Nova remain silent for a long time, Wieslaw spoke up to regain the lead of the conversation. “If we’ve answered all your questions, I would have some myself.”
Nova raised her gaze to him and nodded, still preoccupied with her own thoughts.
“How did it come to be,” Wieslaw asked slowly, as if choosing his words carefully, “that you were born in the single most powerful family on Edea? Did you spend points for this? Was there an option I missed to choose one’s social position, during reincarnation?”
Well, that was perhaps not entirely accurate. There wasn’t that much luck in the whole world. Added to that was the fact that Sirius and Wieslaw themselves coincidentally ended up in the same city, attending the same school? No. More likely, Nova’s circumstances were a free service from the god-thing, to protect Nova from the consequences of her own choices. Otherwise, if she’d been born in a more average family, she’d likely have been sold to a brothel or kidnapped and sequestered in a rich man’s basement as a personal sex slave.
How was I to know 94 points would have this much effect? It was supposed to scale according to my own tastes, so I just imagined the most beautiful woman I could and just assumed 94 would bring me to that point. But it’s already gone well beyond that. I guess I’m not a very imaginative person, and I guess the god-thing knows my own tastes better than I do. I’d almost feel sorry for that mind-control reincarnator, too. Poor bastard’s right up there at 100. Hahaha. His life must be pretty tough.
“I see,” Wieslaw said dubiously, like he couldn’t quite accept that lackluster explanation. “Another thing I’m trying to do is to understand the mechanisms behind reincarnation. Why did we reincarnate? Why didn’t others? How many more of us are there? What do the points we could assign to these ‘stats’ mean? Do they have consistent value across reincarnators? How did we earn them? Those sorts of things.”
“I’m assuming you won’t just write down the stats and traits you ended up with?” Wieslaw asked with a wry smile.
That would be akin to laying down all her cards on the table for the other players to see. There was no way Nova would do something so risky, even if Wieslaw truthfully told her that he didn’t intend to use that knowledge to her disadvantage.
“Then, can I ask you, what is the average value of all your stats? I’m at 75.7. Sirius –” Wieslaw flicked a glance at Sirius, who nodded his assent “– is at 85.4.”
That already sounded more harmless, and Nova liked that Wieslaw shared their numbers before hers on his own initiative, so she took half a second to recall her stat sheet and calculate the result. ‘75.9.’
Wait, I’m actually higher than Wieslaw, if only by a tiny bit? Ha! That’ll teach you to buy ridiculously expensive traits. Though I guess he isn’t mute. And he can smile. And he can have children, probably…
“Thank you for sharing,” Wieslaw said with a boyish smile that matched his apparent age, clearly pleased with Nova’s cooperative attitude. He continued with bolstered confidence. “What was the average value of your stats when you started your reincarnation, before effecting any changes? I was at 31.7. Sirius…”
When he once again glanced to the side to get Sirius’s consent, Sirius spoke up. “You can tell her anything at your discretion, Wieslaw. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Wieslaw nodded and said, “Sirius was at 35.2.”
Both Sirius and Wieslaw blinked in surprise at the much larger difference than earlier. For the average value to be so much lower than theirs, it was abundantly clear that Nova’s past stats must have been somewhat pitiful.
Wieslaw looked a little out of sorts as he continued down his list of questions, like he’d just accidentally uncovered Nova’s embarrassing history or something. “Ah, um, could you tell me how many unassigned points you started out with? Without taking into account what you earned through traits – I’m guessing your mutism is something you accepted in exchange for points?”
Nova nodded to confirm his guess, then stared silently at Wieslaw. It took him a few seconds to understand why she wasn’t answering.
“Oops, I’m sorry.” He lightly slapped his forehead. “I started out with 2826 points. Sirius, with 2063.”
Ah. Well, I guess that explains it. No wonder they could buy so many good things without having to sacrifice various bodily functions for it.
This time, the two gaped at her in open-mouthed astonishment. The difference was just too vast to be believed.
“Wait, wait,” Wieslaw said, raising a hand as if to dam the flow of the conversation. “Did you say 39? Did you mistype? Aren’t you missing a digit?”
’39 points,’ Nova said again.
Then, there was a long, awkward silence at their table. Sirius and Wieslaw looked like they didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Nova, on the other hand, just calmly drank from her straw, perfectly at ease. She imagined the two of them now felt like people who’d just realized they’d spent the past ten minutes unknowingly being insensitive and cruel to a pathetic, tragic victim. Like strong men boasting about their good health in front of a wimpy child, who then revealed to them he had terminal cancer.
However, Nova was neither offended by Wieslaw’s questions nor embarrassed by her answers to them. She was perhaps a bit envious of the advantage they’d enjoyed during their reincarnation, but even then, not to the point where she’d take it out on them. She’d done pretty well for herself even without those advantages, after all. She was satisfied with her current life, especially when she compared it with her past one on Earth.
Neither had she ever entertained the idea that she was the single greatest person alive, unmatched in the whole universe. For one, there was the god-thing who had reincarnated her. In front of such a being, Sirius and Wieslaw – and that fourth reincarnator, too – would only be incrementally bigger microbes than Nova. What was the point in microbes comparing themselves to each other? Dick-measuring contests between microbes would be laughable, from the perspective of the omnipotent god-thing, would they not? And so, Nova felt that the only object of comparison she needed to care about was herself. If she was a better microbe today than she’d been yesterday, it was all good, no matter how many ‘points’ the neighboring microbes possessed or how much bigger they were compared to her.
Of course, none of that even remotely implied that Nova would tolerate anyone looking down on her microbial self. This was a different issue altogether. Nova was a microbe with strong pride, such that, whether it be microbe-2826 or microbe-2063 or the mind-control microbe or even the god-thing himself, who could no doubt smush her with his pinky finger, she demanded that they all show proper respect and all use proper courtesy when interacting with her. Otherwise, she would use her tiny microbe fists to retaliate in any way she could.
So, she spent a minute delighting in the sight of her fellow microbes feeling guilty, thinking they’d hurt her feelings by bringing to light the fact that she wasn’t as big a microbe as they were.
Eventually, she brought their suffering to an end.
‘Any other question?’
Wieslaw threw himself on that lifeline. “Ah, yes. This one might be a little sensitive,” he said hurriedly. “I’d like to know the circumstances of your death, back on Earth. I’m trying to find commonalities between our situations that could explain why all of us were, for lack of a better word, chosen.”
“For my part,” Sirius said, knowing Nova wouldn’t respond without reciprocation and perhaps thinking it’d be more appropriate for him to speak for himself on this, “I died at 24 years old, year 2012, in Rio de Janeiro. I was, um… Let’s say that breaking up one drug or sex trafficking ring after another got me the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people. Eventually, they caught up with me and… tortured me to death.”
…All right. Well, um, wow, I guess. I’m amazed you’re doing the same thing again in your new life, then. Talk about not learning from your mistakes.
“I was 31 years old,” Wieslaw said then. “In 2020, Saint Petersburg. I was an analyst for GRU. After one of our agents defected, my identity was compromised. One thing led to another, and I ended up being ambushed by this defector. I died. The defector died too, though, so that’s something, at least.”
…What the fuck is going on with the tragic backstories, here? What is Random Civilian #3782 doing in this main character convention? Did the god-thing mix up the invitations to the party when he handed them out? Am I in the wrong place?
“What about you?” Sirius asked Nova with a solemn look on his face. It was clear he was anticipating a harrowing tale at least equal to his own.
Nova hesitated for a moment on how best to phrase her own dramatic, movie-worthy experience, then said, ‘Toronto, 2017. 53 years old. Lung cancer. Because smoking kills.’
What a boring fucking death. Should I have said I slowly died under the combined attack of tens of thousands of sticks made out of concentrated poison? It would be kind of true, I guess, from a hilariously melodramatic point of view.
Sirius and Wieslaw apparently shared Nova’s impression of her recounting. The tension that had been in the air while they talked about such a weighty subject deflated like a balloon leaking air – Nova could almost imagine the ridiculous sound that came along with it, too, like blowing a raspberry.
Afterward, Wieslaw and Sirius continued asking a few more questions about Nova’s circumstances. Most she readily answered, save for what she deemed too personal or relating to her safety.
Eventually, after the three of them had already spent nearly two hours talking in that coffee shop and Nova was finishing her third drink, Wieslaw started to conclude. “All right, thank you very much. Though, I have to say that you’re kind of breaking my expectations on the sort of people reincarnators are. When I first met you, I thought you’d also be… I mean…”
‘You insulting me, now?’
Wieslaw was familiar enough with Nova after this long conversation to recognize that question as the joke it was, even through the cold robotic voice that spoke it. “Hahaha, no, I’m not insulting you in the least. Quite the contrary, in fact.” He knocked down the last of his cup of tea – which was probably cold, by now – and squinted his eyes in thought. “I do have one more question for you. It’s only pure curiosity, but if you’ll indulge me? Why, lacking points as you were, did you invest so many of them in your beauty stat? Don’t you think it’s a bit of a waste? Isn’t it a bit… I don’t know…”
“Well… In a word, yes.”
“But then, why…?”
‘Is it a sin to be shallow?’
“When it relates to your life and death, yes, it is,” Sirius cut in before Wieslaw could answer. “We don’t know what the trials will be like. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but I think it would have been wiser to invest in more vital stats than beauty.”
Nova paused for a while, considering her reasons and how to express them adequately. Eventually, she looked back and forth between Sirius and Wieslaw, both pretty enough to be models or movie stars.
‘My beauty is 94. You?’
“I’m at 54. Sirius is at 63.”
Nova nodded. ‘Before reincarnation?’
“Beforehand, I was at 49. Five points were added automatically when I changed some of my other stats. Sirius? I don’t know your…”
“I was at 61,” Sirius answered before Wieslaw could finish his question. “Like you, upgrading some stats also added points in others. I gained two points like this.”
‘Started at 11.’
Wieslaw’s eyes widened. “Eleven?!”
Nova nodded. She hadn’t quite been a disfigured, deformed goblin, but she certainly hadn’t looked good. ‘Ugly’ would probably be the appropriate word, here. Her beard had been pretty nice, perhaps, but that only meant it clashed with the rest of her face.
‘You, 49 and 61.’ Nova slowly shook her head. ‘Difficult for born millionaires to understand pauper’s desire for money. Think having money is only natural. Think thirst for money is vulgar.’
Yes, spending so many points just to be beautiful was shallow. Yes, when considering survival, spending so many points just to be beautiful was wasteful.
But Nova didn’t want to merely survive.
Sure, being pretty would do little to help her survive falling off a cliff or taking a bullet to the head, but so what? If Nova got the chance to live another life, only to be just as miserable as before, then there just wasn’t any point to this whole reincarnation shindig, now, was there?
Loving her own appearance had brought Nova self-confidence and happiness, so why should she care if social expectations of humility and modesty called her happiness shallow and vain and narcissistic? Wasn’t she happy just the same?
More pragmatically, Nova was also dead certain that everyone she met would also have a better first impression of her, by simple virtue of not looking like a rotting pile of shit. Indeed, if spending 53 years with 11 points’ worth of beauty had taught her anything, it was that 99% of the world’s population reveled in that shallowness and would base their whole judgment of others on just such a shallow feature. ‘Inner beauty’ was merely a myth to console the ugly; no one actually gave a fuck about that.
“I see. Well, I suppose it’s true we’re perhaps not the most suitable people to judge such a thing,” Sirius said in his usual conciliatory fashion, shaking his head. “I apologize if I gave offense.”
Nova shrugged indifferently and finally rose from her seat, stretching. They’d really delayed their return to Saltwell. Nova’s parents would start to wonder what they were doing.
‘Shall we go, then?’ she asked, switching her bracer back from English to Alteran.