“You don’t think it’s a good cause?” Sirius asked, his eyebrows rising.
‘It is a good cause. It’s also a pointless and thankless cause. I refuse to put my life on the line for such a thing.’
“Pointless?” Sirius said, bristling. “We are doing our very best to save lives. How could that ever be pointless? Even if we saved only one person, it would all be worth it.”
Nova’s left hand moved animatedly as she strove to keep up with the conversation. It was at times like this one that the work she’d put in improving her bracer paid off. She’d applied the knowledge she’d gained in her past life – and shored up in this one – in machine learning to create an autocompletion system with predictions far more advanced and accurate than before. And she could even use the bracer one-handed, now – it didn’t even require gloves or anything of the sort; it instead read the movements of her fingers through pressure sensors inside the bracer translating the way the bones, muscles, and tendons in her forearm shifted beneath her skin.
‘One person out of 4 billion. That’s insignificant. How many have you saved in three years? Dozens? Hundreds? That’s still far from making a dent in Edea’s stack of problems. And you’re not even sure that person deserves to be saved. Do you perform background checks on everyone you help?’
For example, what if a mugger tried to stab someone, and Nova saved him. But the victim actually turned out to be a man who regularly beat and abused and tormented his wife and children? That would significantly conflict with Nova’s idea of morality. Better to let him die.
But then, what if this abuser was also the only thing preventing his family from falling into an even darker nightmare? If the sole breadwinner of the family suddenly died, the mother would have to prostitute herself and would eventually become addicted to drugs, while the children would join a violent gang and end up being shot to death in a street fight. This was one possible ending, out of a plethora of other, even worse ones.
What to do, then?
Save or kill?
To actually, truly, genuinely help people wasn’t such an easy thing for humans to do. The world wasn’t so simple that they could grasp all the in-depth consequences of their actions, further down the line.
Better to remain circumspect and only act when one’s interests were threatened – ‘interests’ in a very broad sense of the word; not just material interests, but also including safeguarding the life of loved ones and such. All the while acknowledging that one might just be committing evil by doing so.
Selfishness turned into a moral code, in a way.
To Nova, Sirius’s idea was undoubtedly more desirable and beautiful, but her own sounded a lot more practical and easier to implement.
“Of course, we don’t do background checks on the victims. We’re not here to judge who deserves to be saved. It’s not about that. It’s about helping as many people as possible, no matter who they are, because we trust that they can be good. And you may call it a thankless task, but we’re not doing it to be thanked, either. We’re just trying to take a step toward an ideal. You might deride it as a tiny, insignificant little step, but it’s still better than remaining rooted in place.”
‘Trust should be earned, not given willy-nilly. The trust you speak of is light and shallow, arbitrary and unsubstantiated, easily broken, worthless.’
“All right, all right, calm down.” Wieslaw suddenly said, interposing between the two with his hands raised in a placating gesture. Though his instruction to calm down sounded a little strange when the ‘heated’ conversation took place between an emotionless robotic voice and the soft-spoken – if passionate – baritone of Sirius. One was sitting peacefully on a swing, while the other stood there with his hands in his pockets. There was nothing to calm in the first place. “You two have already had this debate many times. Rehashing the same arguments once again is unlikely to change things. Nova, we’re not exactly asking you to save people. We’re asking you to help us. As friends.”
Nova stared at Wieslaw and tilted her head.
‘Emotional blackmail? That’s low. And why now? You’ve been doing fine without me for more than three years.’
Wieslaw and Sirius exchanged glances, and Sirius shrugged. “Fine. The truth, then. We want you to gain a bit of live combat experience. The trials are coming, and you need to be ready. You’re idling too much.”
Oh! Of course! I don’t know why I didn’t realize until now. They’re not trying to make me help them. They are the ones who are trying to help me. It should have been obvious. How sweet. And how very like the both of them…
‘Thank you. I appreciate your concern for my well-being. But I find your claim that I am idling offensive. Out of my 19 years of life, I have spent roughly 19 of them constantly training myself. And I’m proud of what I’ve become. I can do more things than the two of you combined.’
“Cooking? Tailoring? Carpentry?” Sirius asked dubiously.
Nova nodded. ‘Precisely.’
“Are those truly… vital skills?” Wieslaw asked in turn, clearly hedging his words so they wouldn’t sound too insulting.
Nova shook her head. ‘I don’t know. But combat ability isn’t everything. I refuse to assume anything about the nature of the trials. They could involve battle and violence, but they could also require of us something completely different. Thus I aim to become a thoroughly independent being, capable of surviving even if I’m stranded alone on an alien planet.’
Tailoring to produce tough, practical clothing appropriate for all kinds of weather patterns. Smithing to produce tools, locks, weapons… Cooking to know how to skillfully handle any ingredient and provide a healthy and balanced diet. Carpentry and architecture to build a solid house and furniture to fill it. Jewelry to earn large amounts of money by processing precious gems.
Her stint in Viper Nest had also provided her training ranging from fighting hand-to-hand, to operating weapons, piloting various vehicles, surviving in harsh environments…
Together, those came to fill in the gaps and add practical experience to the mostly theoretical knowledge base she’d built after studying in Aaron’s laboratories for years in mathematics – and most other formal sciences – along with physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering.
Nova was far from being the best in any of those disciplines, but in a situation where she found herself bereft of help, thrown in an unknown wilderness, she was confident she could survive – and survive well enough to call it living, even.
Specialization was for insects, not humans.
Or in other words, better to be MacGyver than Rambo.
I never went through that torture training, in the end, though. I’d like to say it’s a shame I didn’t enjoy such an educational experience, but somehow, I can’t bring myself to feel any regret at the lost opportunity…
‘I’m still training in combat, anyway. There is a well-equipped practice room at my lighthouse.’
“Martial arts, yes. But what about firearms? Do you have a gun range?”
Nova shook her head, and Wieslaw slashed his hand through the air as if to cut through all of Nova’s past arguments. “In any case, training in a perfectly safe environment is all well and good, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Live combat is completely different. There is no other way to get used to the fear and tension of real life-and-death situations than to experiences these situations.”
Nova certainly couldn’t deny that the last three years had been entirely peaceful. After that incident when she was 15, nothing fear-inducing or tension-filled had happened to her. Which wasn’t unexpected, really. Most people went through life without so much as encountering the slightest bit of action. Some would find themselves drawn into it, perhaps, and some – like Sirius and Wieslaw – would actively go looking for it, but Nova was neither of those.
Her life just wasn’t a frenetic blockbuster movie.
In fact, even that incident with Typhoon trying to kidnap her didn’t receive any climactic, Oscar-worthy conclusion. ‘Typhoon and the remnants of the Clifford family dropped off the grid and eluded retaliation.’ Bam. The End. Roll credits.
On the other hand, the fact that, in spite of the Storm family’s technological supremacy, their enemies managed to elude detection was quite impressive. And disquieting. In fact, their whole behavior at the time was suspicious. They had seemed to know more than they should have, about the downed satellite and about the capabilities of Nova’s bracer, for example.
But humans could live alongside disquiet and suspicion. Both faded with time. Anger cooled. Tension loosened.
It was the same with the mind-controlling reincarnator. He was different from Clifford, in that he didn’t know about the Storms’ surveillance capabilities, so he was not hiding quite as carefully. Aaron’s AIs swiftly found him after Nova fed them the portrait Wieslaw had drawn. Nova now had more information on him – his name or current alias was Sanjeev Venner, and if there was one thing to say in his favor, it was that Wieslaw’s drawing hadn’t done his beauty justice – but the man had never even approached Altera or Amidonia since he’d first been found. In fact, his encounter with Sirius must have seriously spooked him, because he remained far, far away on the other side of the world.
Of course, despite Nova’s insistence, there was no way her parents would authorize the bombing of a civilian population center just on her say-so, so he remained alive and well to this day. The only silver lining was that the sheer amount of criminal activity, death, and destruction that always followed him – the latest of which was a hostage situation in an elementary school, which ended with several hundred deaths, most of them children’s, and which served as the spark to a bloody and violent civil war – vindicated Nova’s warnings and put him squarely near the top of Viper Nest’s shit-list. Marian and her soldiers wouldn’t go actively hunting for him, as they weren’t a peacekeeping or humanitarian organization, but if he ever approached Altera, the first thing to welcome him would be a sniper round through the skull.
In the end, while he too was a threat, he was a distant, nebulous threat. He probably wasn’t even aware of Nova’s existence, let alone baring his fangs at her.
In practice, Nova’s life remained at peace.
Which, in her opinion, was a whole lot better than the alternative.
‘The idea of acclimating to the risk of death by experiencing lethal danger has one major flaw: the danger being lethal.’
“You won’t really be in any danger. Sirius will be there to help in case you need it. And don’t you own a high-tech bulletproof battle suit?”
Nova shook her head. ‘I’m forbidden from using it. Or any weapon.’
That had been part of the advice Nova’s therapist had given. To remove from her surroundings anything that would suggest to her that violence was the best way to solve her problems. Since Marian had already pretty much banned Nova from joining Viper Nest again anyway, this counsel was quickly accepted and put into practice.
“What if I could convince your mother?” Wieslaw asked with a sly smile. “If you wore your armored bodysuit and carried a weapon, would you accompany us?”
Nova tilted her head and stared up and down at Wieslaw. ‘You think you can convince her?’ Even through the robotic voice, her doubt was palpable.
Marian and Aaron took Nova’s mental health deadly seriously, especially since the therapist had heavily implied some of Nova’s eccentricities were their fault, based on their enablement of the isolated and essentially friendless childhood she’d lead. When the asshole said that, Nova almost kicked him in the face, but Marian had managed to restrain her in time. Afterward, vast amounts of reassurances that Nova was enjoying her current life immensely had barely managed to assuage her parents’ guilt. A consequence of this was that her family was greatly supportive of her friendship with Sirius and Wieslaw and of her desire to take up a few part-time jobs that would enliven her social life.
Of course, in the end, Nova was technically an adult. She could do whatever she wanted. But even forgetting the fact that Nova would rather avoid causing distress to her parents, the suit and the guns and the knives didn’t belong to her. They belonged to Viper Nest. So, if Marian wanted to keep her daughter from using them, it was her right.
“I’m only speaking theoretically,” Wieslaw said, waving off her question. “In the purely theoretical situation where Marian has been successfully convinced to let you wear the suit and carry a weapon, would you do it? Would you follow us to Amidonia?”
Seeing that Nova still hesitated, Sirius cut in with a provocative smirk. “If that makes you feel any better, you can just leave the decision-making to us. You won’t have to save anyone. You’ll only have to follow our orders.”
Nova glared at him. She knew he was goading her but still rose to the bait. ‘Shut up. I make my own decisions. Whether I do good or evil, I alone carry responsibility for my actions… Fine, then. If you can convince my mom, I’ll go with you.’
This was merely lip service so they’d get off her case, though. For Wieslaw to convince Marian…
Ha! Fat chance of that!
# # #
Nova watched numbly through the porthole at the landscape scrolling past far below. Then, her gaze flicked to the black suitcase secured inside the grated cabinet against the wall, which contained her combat gear, before trailing toward Wieslaw.
He sat beside Sirius, in the row facing her, his seat locked in a reclining position, as if he was preparing to sleep. He ignored her gaze and kept his eyes closed, reinforcing that impression even more. But he wasn’t sleeping. He sometimes shifted around, trying to find the most comfortable position the wide, padded seat could afford him.
Finally, he seemed to find it and let out a sigh of pleasure. “Haaa, this is definitely something else. Compared to a passenger airliner, riding your plane is so much more enjoyable. And fast.”
Sirius behaved with more dignity, but he was still looking around curiously at the luxurious appointments around him. He rubbed the soft armrests of his seat and glanced toward Nova. “You changed the decor since last time, right?”
Nova nodded, but Sirius still didn’t remove his gaze.
Sirius blinked, as if catching himself, and looked away, giving a wry smile. “Hmm, no, nothing. It’s just that… I think it’s the first time I’ve seen you wear such modest clothes.”
Wieslaw chortled at that, one of his eyes cracking open to give a small glance at Nova, as if to confirm her appearance, before closing again.
‘Because it’s the first time I meet your family. I need to show myself at my most demure so that your parents will agree to our marriage.’
This time, Wieslaw directly laughed out loud, while Sirius gave a pained smile.
Nova self-consciously rearranged her skirt. It was a black, high-waisted suspender skirt that extended halfway down her thighs. Tucked inside the skirt was a white button-down shirt with frills down its center and on its sleeve cuffs. A black ribbon closed its tall collar, while a white one tied back Nova’s hair. Her long, perfect legs were encased in black static-cling thigh-highs and a pair of black loafers with a decorative silver buckle. It looked a bit like a waitress uniform, but it was all very proper. Not much exposed skin, nothing inappropriate. The skirt and suspenders did frame and emphasize her breasts quite a bit, but compared to her usual style, it was a positively prudish outfit.
Well, she still wasn’t wearing any underwear, so perhaps ‘prudish’ was pushing it…
After carefully flattening the creases of her skirt and tugging on the sleeves of her shirt, Nova focused back on Wieslaw. ‘How did you do convince my mom?’
Wieslaw’s lazy smile widened slowly, and he absently pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Simple. I Spoke a little bit of Truth.”
Nova stiffened in her seat, and her gaze abruptly became 500 degrees colder.
Perhaps noticing the change in the atmosphere, Wieslaw opened his eyes and straightened his seat. He looked at Nova more seriously than before.
“Relax,” he said, switching from Alteran to English. “Your mother was quite surprised to hear the Truth resonate inside her mind, but she didn’t overreact or anything like that. And I didn’t say anything about you. I didn’t say anything about reincarnation in general, either. I only spoke about the gravitational anomalies popping up above the planet, and about Sirius and myself. I didn’t explain why we are so… unusual. All I told your mother was that something was likely to happen in a few years – I didn’t say to whom – and that it would serve you – and everyone else – to be ready for it.”
Nova hesitated for a few moments, trying to measure the implications and potential consequences of her mother knowing there might be supernatural hijinks afoot in the world. Wieslaw’s truthtelling couldn’t be mistaken for a natural phenomenon. There was no way that Marian would stay oblivious after that…
Nova was still full of trepidation, and she somewhat dreaded her next meeting with her parents, but eventually, she nodded. Her gaze softened, and she relaxed back into her seat.
This… was perhaps for the best.
Marian wasn’t an idiot. Depending on what exactly Wieslaw had said and how exactly he had said it, it was highly likely that she would suspect her daughter too was ‘unusual,’ as Wieslaw had put it. But as long as she didn’t find out that Nova was a reincarnated piece of disgusting garbage, it was fine. If anything, Wieslaw’s words would give Marian – and by extension, the rest of Nova’s family – some forewarning that something might happen to Nova in the future. They would be less distraught when it happened, whatever it was.
Seeing Nova accept his explanation, Wieslaw smiled and, without another word, cranked his seat back down into sleeping position.
Nova did the same and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the rising thrum of mixed excitement and fear rising within her. Not only at Wieslaw spilling the beans to her mother, but also at the idea that she would soon be embroiled in the frenzy of her friends’ vigilante activities.
She was starting to regret climbing aboard that plane, already.
This is insane. Why on earth did I ever agree to that?
Clearly, it had nothing at all to do with the fact that friends had come to her for help, for the first time in more than 70 years of life – even if said friends didn’t really need the help in the first place and were more trying to help her.
No, it surely wasn’t that.
Rather, the giddy atmosphere of her birthday party must have allowed their hot-blooded youthfulness to contaminate her sanity, somehow, leading to such a terrible blunder. She’d have to be careful not to make the same mistake in the future.
Haaa, whatever. It’ll be fine, surely. I’ll just stand there looking pretty and let Sirius do all the work. Right. Sounds like a plan. Now, let’s try to get some sleep, if I can…
Yesterday’s party had run quite late into the night, with Nova entertaining all her guests – at least, after all the excitement of her arrival cooled down – until the members of the royal family announced their intention to return to the capital, and everyone slowly dispersed.
That wasn’t the end for Nova, though. Lynn was quite angry at her little sister for betraying their secret and kept her up long into the night, scolding her mercilessly.
Nova had only managed to finally shut her up by stealing another kiss, then shutting the door in her face before she could recover from the shock.
I guess Esfir didn’t get my second kiss, either, then…
Nova slowly drifted off to sleep on the memory of Lynn’s sputtering, bashful anger.