Nova lay atop her bed in Sirius’s house, waiting for the hour to come.
The briefing and subsequent debate on how they would proceed to best dismantle this organ trafficking ring had taken most of the afternoon. Since her two companions had vastly more experience when it came to such matters, Nova mostly let them make the decisions and only interjected when absolutely necessary.
Still, a growing sense of trepidation had sprouted inside her as she realized more and more starkly that she’d somewhat underestimated the balance between the two sides.
Three barely superpowered dumbasses against truckloads of armed gangsters. With victims – in other words, potential hostages – Sirius and Wieslaw insisted on saving.
Granted, despite the gangsters being armed, their weapons weren’t precisely military grade, let alone Viper Nest grade, but a bullet was a bullet, even if it wasn’t standing at the very apex of what bullets could be. Even the lowliest of all bullets was a tiny pellet of concentrated death moving far faster than Nova could react to.
In fact, the more she thought about it, the more Sirius and Wieslaw’s continued survival astounded her. Sure, they had the equipment Aaron and Marian had given them, but these advantages could only be pushed so far. They weren’t instant-win factors.
And yet, the two kept acting like they thought they were comic book superheroes.
Batman’s greatest weapon against the scores of mooks arrayed against him wasn’t his martial skill; it was his plot armor. No way was an extra with no speaking lines going to take out Batman. At least, not for good. It just didn’t make any sense, dramatically speaking. This was the privilege of main characters.
Unfortunately, while she couldn’t speak for Sirius and Wieslaw, Nova herself wasn’t very good main character material.
It’s a shame there wasn’t a ‘plot armor’ trait available for purchase. It would have been worth sacrificing a few more bits of myself to get the required points. Hmm. I guess allowing me to be born as part of the Storm family could count, in a way?
Still, the Storm family name wasn’t bulletproof. Without her combat suit, one stray round from an incompetent moron wildly spraying his subpar assault rifle could put her down for good. She only had to look at the facts of 3 years ago to remind herself of that. Back then, the only reason she’d survived the attack on her person was that her enemies had tried to take her alive. The moment they’d stopped fucking around and started shooting, she’d gone down for the count in less than 20 seconds.
Marian, in her great wisdom, had acknowledged this fact from day one and trained Nova as a sniper, someone standing far behind the front lines of battle and the whizzing bullets. And Nova, in her great wisdom, had also emphasized her specialty to Sirius and Wieslaw during the strategizing. In the end, they had all decided that Sirius would continue being his suicidal self and clear all the buildings he wanted, saving widows and orphans aplenty, while Nova hung around the surrounding vantage points with her sniper rifle to provide cover fire and pick off the stragglers.
At least, that gives me a decent chance of surviving the night.
And yet, despite this, the knot of anxiety in Nova’s stomach didn’t disappear.
She wasn’t afraid much, since she’d already made sure she wouldn’t be in too much danger. And it wasn’t like she felt uncomfortable with the idea of killing people. As far as she was concerned, anybody who entered her crosshairs tonight had done more than enough to deserve what was coming to them. Neither was she all that concerned about the well-being of Sirius and Wieslaw, and of the gang’s victims. She didn’t personally know any of the latter and, in the end, carried no real responsibility to save them. As for the former, well, they were her friends. But Nova wasn’t their nanny. If they insisted on putting themselves at risk, it was their choice, and it stood to reason that they had to accept the consequences. If they ended up dying, Nova would certainly be affected for a while, but their presence in her life wasn’t a necessity. She was used to living without friends – especially now that she had a family to fill the need for human company.
So why am I still nervous?
Nova closed her eyes and took deep, slow breaths, trying to regulate the state of her body. She tried to regain that sense of peace and joy that she felt this morning while sleeping in the sunlight under the tree.
It worked, a little.
It at least helped pass the time until Sirius knocked on the door to her room. Nova got off the bed and opened the door.
“Shall we go?” Sirius asked with a perfectly relaxed smile.
Despite the nature of their planned activities tonight, he was dressed in very fine and fashionable clothes. Dressed like this, he was handsome enough to top most celebrities.
He would soon swap for something a bit more discreet, of course.
And a bit more bulletproof.
The sole purpose of his current attire was to support the alibi they’d elected to use to explain their absence tonight. Sirius’s family, along with Wieslaw’s mother, believed the three of them would join a party at a local nightclub with some friends from university. This story had the distinct advantage of being partly true; such a party was indeed taking place tonight, and Sirius and Wieslaw had indeed been invited. They just wouldn’t show up to it.
This story also had the benefit of giving Nova some much-needed perspective. When the alternative was partying in a fucking nightclub surrounded by people she wanted nothing to do with, murdering violent criminals in the streets sounded downright heavenly.
Nova gave Sirius a nod and grabbed the biometric metal suitcase containing her gear. Her hands were steady. Then, she followed him down to the first floor. Sirius’s family was there to see them off. Rana and Fareed were smiling, but Camilla looked like she wanted to eat Nova alive.
She scowled. “Why are you taking your suitcase? What’s inside?”
Nova hefted the suitcase appraisingly. ‘Armor. And a variety of guns, knives, and explosives. Every tool of murder and destruction a deranged killer could possibly need.’
“Hmph.” Camilla didn’t seem to believe Nova’s technically truthful reply. She snorted and stalked away, though not before shooting Sirius a somewhat bitter glare. She likely resented not being invited to the ‘party.’
His family affairs aren’t really any of my business, but I should probably remind this idiot to address the problem of his little sister’s affections, before the problem festers. It would be a shame if he started fighting with his own family.
Still, Camilla’s response was perfectly natural. The reactions of Sirius’s parents, on the other hand, were quite a bit more meaningful. Sirius’s father was distinctly forcing himself to not stare at her too openly. He’d definitely made the connection and taken her words at face value. Of course, he knew of his son’s… hobby. And Rana… She acted much more naturally than Fareed, but Nova had been paying particular attention to her. Indeed, her ridiculous reply to Camilla’s question had mostly been for Rana’s benefit. Would she take Nova’s words seriously, or would she simply accept them as the humorous ‘lie’ they so obviously were? It only lasted for an instant, but in the slowed time of her cognition, Nova clearly caught the narrowing of Rana’s eyes, the tightening of her lips, the flick of her gaze between her and Sirius.
Yep. She definitely knows. How come Sirius and Fareed don’t know she knows? Is this the thing about being too close to the issue?
So, Rana knew. Perhaps not about Sirius’s superpowers, but at least about his nightly activities. She actually, genuinely believed Nova’s ‘joke’ that her suitcase contained very illegal weapons. Didn’t that disturb her at all? Did she approve of Sirius’s actions? Didn’t they involve a tad too much bloodshed for her tastes? Nova wasn’t sure how Rana’s chosen career of hunting for violent criminals influenced her perceptions of Sirius’s vigilante business. What did she feel when she saw that her beloved son, in defiance of the law she’d sworn to protect, had murdered a dozen gang members last night? Did she comfort herself with the fact that he’d saved even more victims?
In the end, however, neither Rana nor Fareed made any comments. At least for now, both of them seemed content enough to let their son be a violent, homicidal maniac thirsting for the blood and skulls of hapless criminals.
Could Wieslaw have spoken the Truth to them, as well? That would explain why they’re so hands-off about this.
This wasn’t the time for questions, though. Right now, Nova wasn’t in the mood to prod Camilla or discuss morals with Rana.
As the taxi they called drove them toward Verizen’s industrial district, where they would link up with Wieslaw, Nova closed her eyes and thought back on her training. Since that incident when she was 15, she hadn’t held a gun or done anything even remotely adventurous or violent. After more than three years of what Sirius and Wieslaw called idleness, someone else might have needed some time to get back in the game and reacquire their past familiarity with their old skills.
But Nova held the advantage of her perfect memory. With 100 points invested in the stat and a trait to sublimate it, at this point, her memory didn’t really work like a normal human’s anymore. If recalling past events, to a normal person, felt like watching a blurry and imperfect movie, with only the most noteworthy elements kept in the frame and all the fluff removed during editing, to Nova, recalling past events was more like directly visiting the set where the movie was filmed and watching the actors do their thing with her own eyes. Essentially, remembering her past allowed her to relive it, with the same accuracy and detail as she enjoyed living in the present. She could remember the feel of holding her sniper rifle, the amount of strength she had to put in her finger to squeeze the trigger, the smell of combusting gunpowder, the sounds of her muscles and bones creaking, the thoughts and feelings that flashed through her heads during every single instant.
She didn’t need to get back in the game because, for all intents and purposes, she’d never left it. She was just as ‘used to it’ now as she’d been three years ago.
Sirius remained in companionable silence while Nova reminisced.
It took a little while for the taxi to reach the industrial district, where modern business offices and glass skyscrapers made way to uglier factories, warehouses, power plants, and refineries. Quite conveniently, in here, few residences could be seen, and accordingly, few people walked the streets this late in the evening.
They let the driver overshoot their actual destination, just in case, then exited the car. They walked back a few blocks, retracing their steps until they reached a warehouse even more dilapidated than the others around it. There was no light inside, and rust covered both the huge warehouse door and the smaller employee door next to it from top to bottom. The front wall was made of cracking stone covered by flaking paint, and some of the windows were outright broken. It looked like shit. Certainly, it wasn’t a building anyone would pay any particular attention to.
Which, Nova supposed, was the point.
Sirius led the way. He opened the employee door, which creaked with melodramatic loudness, just as the rust on it suggested it would, then headed deeper inside the dark warehouse. In the back, behind shelves of large piled crates whose wood has turned black with humidity and rot, was an office sheltered behind broad panes of thick, grimy glass. The office had a doorway, but it didn’t have a door to fit in that doorway. Presumably, the door itself had already rotted to nothing.
“This way,” Sirius said as he entered the office.
Nova followed, looking around. If her face could’ve shown any expression, right now, it would have been twisted in distaste. Sirius didn’t seem to mind, but the smell of dust and dirt and mold was revolting, and Nova could easily spot the cockroaches and other icky critters skittering over the floors.
‘I understand the need for secrecy, but you could have chosen somewhere else to hole up. This place isn’t very hygienic.’
If Sirius were injured and tried to return to the Batcave through this warehouse to tend to his injuries, he wouldn’t make it five steps past the door before dying from a sudden infection.
Sirius smiled as he walked to the back wall of the office and the filing cabinets propped up against it. “The outside may look like this, but the inside is much cleaner, I assure you.”
He opened the top shelf of the cabinet and reached inside. Nova almost shuddered seeing him do that. She assumed there must be a button or a fingerprint scanner inside, but what if a spider had snuck in since the last time and he accidentally squashed it.
Perhaps Sirius had nerves of steel and didn’t show any reaction upon squishing a spider with his bare hands, or perhaps there was no spider at all. In any case, a part of the floor next to the filing cabinets soon slid to the side to reveal a set of stairs leading down toward an immaculate corridor with white walls. When Sirius had said it would be cleaner, he wasn’t kidding. The corridor would have been approved as sterile in even the most stringent hospitals. The contrast with the outside was shocking.
Sirius and Nova made their way down. The Batcave wasn’t very big. Its surface area was only equal to that of the warehouse above it, and one couldn’t dig too deep under any large city without hitting on pipes and underground railways. Still, it wasn’t like a whole regiment lived down there. For two or three people, this was more than enough. Doors on both sides led to adjoining rooms – the doors were all closed, so Nova couldn’t see what was inside, but she’d seen the blueprints her father had drawn before construction – while in front, the corridor opened up to a sizeable hangar. A bunch of motorcycles was parked off to the side, while a van waited in the center of the room, its front lined up with an upward ramp that led to street level.
Wieslaw was inside the open van, working in front of a wall of computer screens. He turned to greet them when they arrived. “You’re finally here. Good. So, Nova? What do you think of this place? Pretty good, don’t you think?”
Nova nodded. ‘Serviceable. But clean up the warehouse above. I almost puked three times on my way in, and Sirius had to fight off a tide of plague rats.’
“The plague rats are our last line of defense. So are the flesh-eating crows and rabid werewolves. Their presence is sadly necessary to prevent a security breach.”
Wieslaw laughed as he stepped out of the van. He was already wearing one of Viper Nest’s combat suits – minus the helmet. The suit was as revealing as ever, but even though Wieslaw’s build was thinner than Sirius’s, he sure didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. He wasn’t very tall, and he usually wore loose clothing, so it wasn’t always obvious, but he was remarkably fit.
However, Nova wasn’t really in the mood to drool over handsome guys, either.
“You two should get ready, as well, and we’ll start immediately. We’ll be on a tight schedule if we want to follow the plan.”
Sirius nodded and gestured for Nova to follow him. He led her to one of the doors they’d passed on their way to the hangar. He opened it to reveal a spartan but functional bedroom. “You can use this room to get changed. You can leave your civilian clothes here, too. If you need any military equipment, the armory’s over there.” He pointed at another one of the doors.
Nova nodded and stepped into the room. While Sirius closed the door behind her and entered the adjacent room, she dropped her metal suitcase onto the bed. She pressed her hand against the scanner, and after a second of analysis, the LED above it flashed green. The bolts holding the suitcase shut slid free, and Nova lifted the lid.
In the suitcase was folded Nova’s combat suit, with her helmet next to it, looking up at her. Below the armor was a disassembled sniper rifle and ammunition. Inside the foam filling the suitcase’s lid were stored a few more weapons, along with a basic first-aid kit.
Taking a deep breath, Nova started to disrobe.
# # #
After putting on his suit, Sirius swung by the armory he’d pointed to Nova to pick his usual weapons. A handgun, a shotgun, an assault rifle, some flashbangs, a combat knife. All in all, with the added ammunition, it made for quite a bit of weight strapped to the webbing covering his suit and hanging off his shoulders.
But it was all necessary.
It would be best if the criminals they were hunting tonight suddenly decided to repent and surrender peacefully, but experience had proven that this was almost never the case. Pretty much every single time, things would devolve into a violent struggle.
And when that happened, Sirius was the front line.
In any case, with his current strength, a few firearms were no more a strain than if he was carrying a few light wooden sticks. He could lug them around all day without tiring in the least.
After loading every weapon he’d be bringing into the city tonight, Sirius left the armory and headed to the hangar. The door to Nova’s room was open and her clothes strewn over the bed, so she had probably already joined Wieslaw back there.
Indeed, when he returned, he saw them both. Wieslaw was back in the armored van, working on the computers, confirming the last-minute details of their targets, tracking them on the city’s network of security cameras. Nova was waiting on the side, her arms crossed under her breasts, leaning against the hangar’s wall. She was wearing the same kind of combat suit he and Wieslaw did. Strapped to one of her thighs was a holster containing a silenced handgun, while on the other was sheathed a knife. Its blade looked broader and thicker and heavier than that of the ceramic knife still attached to the small of her back. A belt was looped around her hips, holding a hand grenade and two small pouches presumably containing ammunition. A sniper rifle was propped up against the wall next to her.
It was the first time Sirius saw Nova wearing this kind of outfit. He was surprised by how much it changed her atmosphere. Of course, he’d expected her to look good in it. That kind of tight clothing seemed singularly designed for the sole purpose of showing off her magnificent curves. But in the middle of a gunfight, looking good held little to no value. The thing Sirius hadn’t expected was that, dressed like this, Nova looked remarkably intimidating. Colder. If the usual Nova was flighty and flippant and whimsical, like an annoying younger sister, this Nova felt utterly emotionless, ruthless, almost machine-like. Perhaps it was the helmet. Its bottom half looked like a gas mask, with round filters on both sides, while the top half was featureless, without any apparent eyeholes to help make it look more human. Indeed, even if Nova’s own face too was always frozen in a blank mask of indifference, her eyes were actually quite expressive. Looking into them, Sirius could usually tell her mood fairly easily. But now that they were hidden… This Nova felt foreign to him.
Sirius approached her, and her helmet turned to glance at him, but he wasn’t quite sure what to say. Perhaps fortunately, he didn’t have time to think about it for long, as Wieslaw jumped out of the van again.
“Ready to go?”
“Ready,” Sirius said, giving a decisive nod.
Next to him, Nova wordlessly picked up her sniper rifle.
“Good. Then let’s go get these guys.”