Dinner with the Antema family was a peaceful affair. Even after the little commotion of Nova’s arrival, no one held it against her. Even Camilla, though she sulked a bit and clearly wasn’t too fond of Nova, didn’t snipe at her constantly. She was just a bit more taciturn than her parents and her brother.
Rana had produced some home-made burgers, which had the advantage of only requiring one hand to eat. This let Nova speak more comfortably and actively participate in the conversation. They were also delicious enough to please even Nova’s sensitive taste buds.
Still, eating burgers was not a trivial science. Nova had to juggle dozens of variables at the same time: the force of gravity on the stuffing of her burger depending on the angle at which she tilted it, the friction between the salad and the steak, the lubricating effect of the melted cheese, the viscosity and surface tension of the ketchup, the pressure her fingers applied to the buns, the collisions between ingredients when taking a bite rearranged their relative positions… Fortunately, after focusing 95% of her total brain power on the task, she did manage to eat the burger with elegance and dignity, a feat which once again proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had far surpassed human limitations and ascended to a higher plane of existence.
“So you’ll accompany Sirius to university tomorrow?” Rana asked with a warm smile as they ate. “You’ll follow him to his classes?”
“Amidonia’s schooling system might feel foreign to you, since Altera’s is so different. I heard you don’t have any sort of grades at all, there, is that right?”
‘Yes. But I never went to school in Altera, either, so the differences won’t matter.’
“You never went to school?” Fareed asked, surprised.
‘I was homeschooled.’
“Why?” Camilla asked in turn.
‘Because I was a child with special needs.’
Those words had only been intended as a little joke, but Fareed, Rana, and Camilla understandably weren’t used to detecting sarcasm inside a monotone, emotionless, robotic voice. Thus, while Sirius himself only snorted quietly, Nova’s words caused a bit of an awkward silence for everyone else. Perhaps the short reply had caused them to assume those ‘special needs’ referred to Nova’s mutism and frozen face, and that other children bullied her to the point where she stopped attending school or something. Camilla looked at Nova with a thoughtful gaze which carried less hostility than before, while Fareed and Rana seemed almost guilty, as if they’d raised a painful subject.
Am I inspiring pity, here? I didn’t really intend to sound like a victim, though. Do I look like one? I wonder if I should feel insulted…
“Won’t you have some trouble following the course, though?” Rana asked after a moment, forcefully yanking the conversation back on track. “I don’t know if Sirius told you, but he’s part of the Department of Medicine and Pharmacology. The curriculum might be a little difficult for someone jumping into it halfway through.”
“It’ll be fine,” Sirius said, waving off his mother’s concerns before Nova could answer. “It’s not like Nova’s here to pass some exams or anything. She’ll only casually listen. And anyway, she knows a thing or two about medicine. Don’t you?” he asked finally, turning his eyes to her.
Nova nodded at Sirius’s question. ‘Yes. But mostly battlefield medicine. More staple guns and super glue than scalpels and sterile operating chambers. And I studied biology and anatomy in my father’s research facility. I think I’ll be fine listening to the lessons.’
Still, medicine, huh? What was that about not being a slave to the world and having a life beyond saving the innocent? Turns out that even in his spare time, this idiot is still learning how to save even more people…
“Battlefield medicine? Research facility?” Camilla repeated, astonished. Those indeed weren’t words one would usually associate with a typical child’s education.
‘My mother is a soldier. I trained with her, a while ago. My father is part of a team of researchers and scientists. They got together and taught me.’
Nova’s education had been comprehensive. Better yet, it had been engaging and tailored to her abilities. School teachers usually couldn’t focus all their attention on one particular child and had to follow the curriculum decided by their government, which often resulted in a subpar education, even for the better students. High grades were only remotely correlated with great knowledge. Learning by rote was enough to succeed and graduate but would bring little to no improvement to someone’s actual, real abilities. It was only raw data, something whose only purpose was to answer the specific question posed in the textbook, then to be discarded once the exam was passed. To Aaron and his mad scientist friends, however, it was all well and good if Nova could recite the list of all the elements in the periodic table or a complex physics equation. But they also demanded that she genuinely understand that equation and know when and how to apply it to solve actual problems – and even how to modify it to better suit her own use case. With her perfect memory, Nova could achieve the former effortlessly. The latter was much more difficult, and even now, she was still very far from completing the curriculum Aaron had first drawn up for her.
After I taught myself how to read and write, they probably all thought I was some kind of incredibly gifted genius who would breeze through every single subject without difficulty. Well, sorry to disappoint.
As she spoke, Nova didn’t miss the momentary sharp glint that flashed through Rana’s eyes when the topic of her military training came up. Fortunately, Rana didn’t offer any comment. Her eyes only flicked toward her son for a microsecond before she returned to normal, as if nothing had happened.
“But why would you even learn something like battlefield medicine?” Camilla continued. “It’s not like you want to be a doctor, right? No one would want to be healed by a surgeon who uses glue and a staple gun.”
‘Because it’ll be useful if I ever find myself injured.’
“You’ll never fight on a battlefield, though,” Camilla mumbled dubiously. “No one’s going to start a war against Altera.”
‘Not a battlefield. But maybe a situation like the one where I first met your brother.’
That caused another silence. Camilla shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and Rana asked the next question. “It never happened again, right?” Nova shook her head, and Rana continued, her voice and face serious. “Do you have reason to believe you’re still at risk?”
‘Yes. I’m such an asshole everyone is likely to try and murder me after spending five minutes in my company. Thus, I must always be vigilant.’
Rana blinked, but this time, everyone realized Nova’s attempt at humor when Sirius choked on his drink and was afflicted by a violent coughing fit mixed with laughter.
Eventually, the dinner ended on a positive note. The family didn’t force Nova to stay with them and continue making each other’s acquaintance. It was already quite late, and there would be time enough for that in the next few days.
When Nova retired to the room lent to her, she let herself fall onto the bed, her black hair splaying out around her head like a corona. She closed her eyes and spread out her arms and legs, rubbing them back and forth on the bed sheets. They weren’t quite as soft and silky as the ones back home, but they were good enough. After several years of sleeping in Viper Nest’s barracks, Nova was used to forgoing comfort.
She let out a tired sigh.
Tonight had been more draining than she’d anticipated. She wasn’t quite as bad at socializing as she’d been in her previous life, but it was still quite exhausting. Especially after being so accustomed to the blessed quiet and solitude of her lighthouse for such a long time.
Still, as wearying as it was, it was also pleasurable.
Not the socializing itself, but rather the simple fact and realization that she was no longer afraid of meeting people. This was the truly satisfying part. Every time Nova spoke to a stranger with confidence, she felt herself move further and further away from her previous life.
Even now, 19 years later, the thrill and joy of walking a different path, of being a different person, still hadn’t abated.
If I’d only known reincarnation was in the cards, I wouldn’t have waited 53 years for it. I would have directly jumped off a building. Though perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the same urgency to change if I hadn’t lived for so long as a piece of walking garbage.
*knock knock knock*
Nova glanced at the door. The person on the other side who had interrupted her musings had to be either Sirius or Fareed. The weight of the footsteps she’d heard approaching told her so. She let out another sigh, then forced herself back up off the bed.
After smoothing the wrinkles in her skirt, she opened the door and found herself face to face with Sirius’s father.
Farred smiled. “Nova, I’m sorry to disturb you when you’re trying to rest. Could I talk to you for a minute?”
In place of an answer, Nova stepped to the side and swept her arm toward the room with a flourish, as if she was a servant welcoming her master into the house. Fareed’s smile twitched upward a little more, but Nova got the impression that it still looked forced, somehow.
Fareed stepped into the room but didn’t take a seat, even though an empty chair was placed before a desk, in the corner. Nova didn’t let it bother her. She walked to the bed and sat facing him.
At first, Fareed looked unsure and hesitant, but he quickly gathered himself and looked at her seriously. “May I ask you a question? It’s important.”
Nova looked back at him and nodded.
“Are you like my son?” Fareed asked.
Well, well, well. What is this about, now?
Nova reflected for a second before shaking her head. ‘No matter what criterion you use, I am nothing like your son.’
“Nothing like him?” Fareed repeated, maybe because, depending on how one took that answer, it really could sound quite insulting.
Nova nodded seriously. ‘I’m female. I’m rich. I’m selfish. I’m Alteran. My sister is older than me, whereas his is younger than him. He enrolled in a university. He doesn’t have a motorcycle of his own and has to rent one. I play the violin. His eyebrows are thicker than mine. My eyes are green.’
Nova was about to continue playing dumb, listing all the myriad ways in which she was different from Sirius – it might take a while – when Fareed raised his hands to stop her with a strained smile on his face.
“All right, all right. You’re very different from Sirius. I got it,” he said, a suppressed chuckle coloring his words. “But that’s not what I meant.” His gaze sharpened, and he stared into her eyes. “I’m talking about reincarnation.”
Don’t come and try to blow my cover, son. And so bluntly, too. What the fuck do you expect me to say?
Nova tilted her head and took a moment to respond. ‘I’m sorry. Amidonian isn’t my first language. I don’t know that word. What does it mean?’
This was complete bullshit, of course. Amidonian might not be Nova’s first language, but she was as fluent with it as with Alteran. Or English. Or 36 other languages, from both Earth and Edea. With a perfect memory, learning such things was trivial. It also certainly helped that she had no need to – or more accurately, couldn’t – practice speaking them. Her bracer handled that part.
Fareed stared at her for a few seconds more, presumably trying to read the truth off her face. His gaze was quite intense, but Nova wasn’t worried. Her mother’s was worse, when she was angry, and Nova had managed to fool her many times before. Her poker face was flawless. Without a cheat like Wieslaw’s, it was virtually impossible to guess anything in this manner. Especially for someone who’d just met her today and was still unfamiliar with her habits and tells.
Fareed faltered. He hesitated for a moment, then laughed awkwardly and shook his head, running his hand over his short-cropped hair. “No, it’s nothing. I just asked something weird. I apologize.” Without further ado, he made for the door, giving her a parting smile. “Good night. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything.”
‘Thank you for your hospitality.’
When the door clicked shut, Nova didn’t relax. She waited until the footsteps faded away before letting herself fall backward onto the bed. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
She’d need to be careful around Sirius’s parents. Nova wasn’t sure about Camilla, but Fareed and Rana definitely knew things that ought to have remained hidden forever.
Well, I knew since long ago he’d blabbed to his parents about this. Same for Wieslaw. Fucking idiots, the both of them. They can do whatever they want with their lives, but only as long as they don’t pull me down with them.
It was the same concern Nova had with her own parents. Even if Sirius and Wieslaw didn’t admit Nova too was a reincarnator, her mere association with them marked her as one – or at least pushed people to suspect her.
And now that Wieslaw had spoken the Truth to Marian…
Maybe I should admit that I was indeed involved in something supernatural, but say that it was different from reincarnation. Like… an alien played with my DNA to increase my abilities when I was still a fetus or something. As long as I can prevent people from thinking I led a previous life, everything’s fine.
Nova remained awake long into the night, thinking about her options.