The engines howled loud enough to shatter glass as the race car soared down the track like a berserk space rocket on wheels. The tires were already smoking from the speed and the heat, even though it had only been minutes since the race started.
The suspensions were pretty good, in that all of Nova’s bones had yet to shatter even though she sat right in the middle of this speeding coffin, but it still wasn’t comfortable. Demanding the same smooth ride she might enjoy in a proper vehicle, however, would be a bit much to ask in addition to record-breaking speed.
It was fortunate Nova’s ears were protected from the noise, though. Otherwise, she’d never have been able to drive the car. More likely, she’d have fainted the moment she revved up the engine. The thing was louder than a fucking flashbang, and it lasted for longer too.
But it was unavoidable. Ryner was pretty good at this. If Nova wanted to keep her lead and win, she couldn’t afford to slow down too much. Esfir, Lynn, Aaron, and even Marian had all already been eliminated. Just one more challenger and Nova would have won the Grand Storm Championship™, with all the bragging rights this feat entailed.
Marian had been an especially tough opponent to defeat, but Nova’s reflexes and dynamic vision had won the day, and the demon queen had been vanquished. None of the others had been even remotely as dangerous, and Nova’s close-to-professional level staved off most threats to her dominance.
And now, she was coming into the last turn of the last lap of the last contender. Victory against the axis of evil was in sight.
The only thought that had time to flit through Nova’s brain after she heard the tire burst was ‘I take that back.’ Then, her car spun to the side, the rear lifted up into the air, and it started bouncing and flipping along the track, disintegrating all the while. It was almost like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake at 400 km/h. When the car finally stopped, it was by crashing into a stack of tires lining the outside of the turn on the track. At which point, the state-of-the-art race car had been reduced to little more than shredded remnants.
Nova was, overall, fine. Perhaps a bit banged up, a bit sore, and definitely dazed by her brief but intense sojourn through the insides of a blender, but not lacking any organs and not bleeding all over the place. It wasn’t thanks to any miracle, though. Only modern technology and excellent build quality. Nova would never have strapped herself in a lightweight piece of carbon attached to a rocket engine if she hadn’t been convinced beforehand that the driver’s safety was assured throughout the experience. She wasn’t suicidal.
No, her health wasn’t what she was concerned about. Rather, it was the fact that victory had escaped her grasp at the very last moment. And it was her own damn fault. She’d pushed the car too much with only minimal maintenance between races. She should have paced herself better.
Nova pushed the emergency release button on the side of her pilot seat, and the battered cockpit automatically disassembled and sprang apart away from her, taking some of the other wreckage with it. Unlatching the security belt slung across her torso, she clambered to her feet and slowly made her way out of ground zero, picking her way through smoking, distorted fragments of metal and plastic. None of them would puncture her protective suit even if she were to step on them, of course, so her care wasn’t strictly necessary. The suit was, in fact, almost as tough and impenetrable as Viper Nest’s combat suits, though it didn’t share any of its other functions and was a lot thicker and less comfortable to boot. But it did its job, and that was what mattered.
When she finally made her way out of the part of the race track that seemed to have suffered some sort of shrapnel bombardment, everyone else was also arriving and met her halfway. Even Ryner had stopped in the middle of the track and disembarked. They’d all been rushing together with worried looks on their faces, but those relaxed upon seeing her walking toward them unaided.
“Nova, are you all right?” Lynn was the first to ask. “You gave us a fright.”
Nova’s fingers were encased in the suit’s gloves and had trouble making the dexterous finger motions speaking required, but she slowly managed to work her way through a reply. ‘I’m fine. Neck hurts a bit, maybe. I should win the race, though. Because I’m good enough to do cartwheels with my car.’
“You didn’t exactly stick the landing,” Marian cut in with a dry voice. “Are you sure you’re not injured? You came to a… pretty violent stop.”
Nova couldn’t answer immediately as both her hands were busy trying to operate the lock on the strap keeping her helmet in place. Finally, it clicked open, and she slid it off her head. She dropped it, and it clattered to the ground and rolled to a stop against her feet. Her hair stuck to her forehead with sweat, and her face was uncharacteristically red from the heat.
That’s another difference with the combat suits. This one is fire resistant too, but it doesn’t breathe as much…
Nova hadn’t really noticed until she took off the helmet, but when the breeze stroked her face, she finally realized just how hot it had gotten inside there. She quickly reached for the front zipper and pulled it all the way down. She almost expected a wave of steam to escape from inside the suit, but it fortunately wasn’t that bad. Still, the wind running across the bare skin of her chest was heavenly.
“Please tell me you’re not going to strip naked,” Esfir said in a voice full of resignation, causing Ryner next to her to burst out laughing.
Nova glanced at Esfir and wondered if this was an example of reverse psychology. Did Esfir actually say that because she wanted Nova to get naked?
Well, no. Even wishful thinking had to stop somewhere.
But Esfir also had to stop giving her loaded lines like that. She really could only blame herself when Nova retaliated.
Nova started stumbling theatrically toward Esfir while holding her head in her hands and feigning pain. ‘Esfir, you have to save me. I’m gravely injured, and you’re the only one who can help me…’
Before she could continue and get to the part containing the actual sexual harassment, however, Esfir caught Nova’s left hand and prevented her fingers from moving and forming any more words. “All right, you can stop right there. I’m not a doctor. If you’re injured, I suggest you ask your father, instead.”
Aaron nodded seriously. Even though he wasn’t a doctor, either. “I agree. Didn’t you say your neck hurt? It’d be best if you let me examine you. Better be careful after a crash like that.”
At this point, had her left hand been freed, Nova no doubt would’ve spouted something like ‘I’d prefer Esfir to examine me. Thoroughly. With her tongue,’ But Esfir knew her too well, and only tightened her grip on Nova’s hand to make sure she wouldn’t say anything outrageous.
Nova let out a defeated sigh and nodded.
“What about the car?” Ryner asked, walking among the debris, perhaps looking for anything salvageable. Unsuccessfully.
“I’ll call someone to take care of the wreckage,” Marian said casually. “And to clean up the track. It shouldn’t be a problem.” She gave Nova a bright grin. “We’ll celebrate Ryner’s victory once everyone gets home, all right?”
Nova picked her discarded helmet back up, then gazed forlornly at the remains of her defeated car and finally bade farewell to her dashed hopes for the Grand Storm Tournament™ Trophy.
The track was rented for the day. It didn’t belong to the Storm family, so they had to keep it in good condition. They did own the race cars they used to compete, though, so destroying one of them wasn’t too much of an issue. Mostly because they were obscenely wealthy. For anyone but the Storms, crashing a vehicle worth just shy of 900 million probably would have stung. A lot.
And so, while Marian remained at the track to handle the cleanup, Nova and Aaron drove to Aaron’s research facility near Saltwell while the rest returned to the Storm residence.
Though not before Ryner had gloated and shoved his glory in Nova’s face for as long as he could reasonably get away with it.
# # #
They made the trip in relative silence. Aaron engaged the autopilot but kept an eye on the road just in case, while Nova reclined in her seat and put her feet on the dashboard, her eyes closed and her chest rising and falling with the slow rhythm of sleep.
The necessary focus to drive race cars at a third of the speed of sound was exhausting. Aaron himself was quite tired, but since he’d been eliminated early into the competition, he’d had to run far fewer laps compared to Nova.
They soon arrived at the facility and Aaron nudged his daughter awake. She followed him inside, and though he didn’t comment on it, he couldn’t help but notice that, when Nova left the race track with him half an hour ago, her hair had been matted with sweat, and a few smudges of grime had been left on her cheeks and forehead from the basic maintenance she’d performed on her car during the breaks between laps. But now, her face was immaculate and her black hair so perfectly clean it almost shone in the sunlight.
A few years ago, Aaron might have dismissed that little tidbit without even thinking about it. But then Wieslaw had spoken to Marian. And a few weeks after Nova’s return from Amidonia, at Aaron’s invitation, he visited them again to also speak to Aaron himself. It wasn’t like Aaron had believed his wife had been lying, but he’d insisted on confirming everything with his own ears. Talks of nebulous ‘trials’ and strange… superpowers, would be the word, he supposed… sounded quite outlandish to the ears of a man who’d built a successful life around conventional science, after all.
Also, he’d wanted to have a little conversation about what had happened in Admidonia after Nova’s birthday. They hadn’t forced her to talk about it when she returned to Altera, but it had been pretty hard to miss the news reports flooding in about dozens of fatalities from a gang war in the streets of Verizen…
Still, Aaron had to concede.
Like Marian had explained, he’d heard the sound of truth in Wieslaw’s words.
Of course, neither he nor Marian intended to take Wieslaw’s words as their gospel. Even if they felt like the incontestable truth to their ears, even if Wieslaw genuinely believed it was the Capital-T-Truth, it didn’t mean it truly was. However, it would have been equally foolish to dismiss everything out of hand simply because the concepts of ‘superpowers’ or ‘magic’ or ‘ESP’ offended their delicate enlightened sensibilities.
Because, although Wieslaw refused to go into too much detail – and even insisted that the whole conversation remain a secret from Nova, as she wouldn’t like him blabbing too much to her parents behind her back – he had rather striking arguments in his favor. The taste of Truth in his own words. Sirius’s incredible physical feats, shot on videos and uploaded to the web by witnesses who had caught him in the act of fighting criminals in the streets of Verizen – or even demonstrable face to face if they used the card of fake footage. Police reports Wieslaw had claimed were all linked to a man capable of controlling other people’s minds. The unexplained, worsening gravitational anomalies occurring around the planet’s orbit more and more frequently, which had made launching satellites something of a hit-or-miss business these past few years. Wieslaw had even whipped out reports of suspicious behavior by some of Edea’s governments – nothing too concrete, and even Wieslaw himself had admitted that he was perhaps getting too paranoid on this one – but still a little more to add to the pile.
In the end, it had all formed large enough of a stack to put some doubts in the brain of a man of science. At the very least, both Aaron and Marian were convinced that neither Sirius nor Wieslaw were entirely normal people. Sirius’s abilities, in particular, were difficult to discount. They were easily testable, easily provable, and nothing in his background or his history provided any convenient explanation of where he might have acquired them.
On the other hand, Wieslaw had said nothing at all about Nova, beyond that ‘they were similar people and had thus become fast friends upon meeting.’
He’d said nothing. But he’d implied so loudly he might as well have been shouting. Aaron and Marian weren’t entirely sure what they should do with this information, though.
Apparently, their youngest daughter had superpowers.
In all fairness, it was pretty obvious Nova wasn’t exactly an average person, either. But in and of itself, that didn’t mean anything at all. Sure, the word ‘superpowers’ could easily explain away anything and everything. But how much, if any, of her behavior and abilities were the results of some mysterious superpower, and how much were the natural consequences of her environment, upbringing, and personality? Being quirky or eccentric wasn’t a symptom of superpowers, and ascribing all of Nova’s achievements and successes to superpowers and privileged circumstances instead of the hard work she put into them could easily turn extremely unfair and hurtful for her.
Nova couldn’t speak the Truth like Wieslaw – but then she couldn’t speak at all, in any case. She didn’t appear to have superior physical capabilities. She was very athletic, but far from Sirius’s extent, and seemed to have earned what she had through long training. Same for her proficiency in every other activity she’d ever tried her hand at. Nova had never shown immediate results in anything Aaron could think of. She only got good after learning and training, like everyone else.
If she had any advantage at all, it was her perfect memory, as well as her incredible thinking speed and reaction times. Nova didn’t make a secret of those.
…And then, the ability to keep her hair and body clean at all times, like he’d just seen today?
Were those Nova’s superpowers?
‘Hello. Edea to Aaron. Edea to Aaron. Shuttle has landed. Evacuate before self-destruct countdown reaches zero.’
Aaron blinked at the familiar robotic voice that interrupted his thoughts. The elevator had reached its destination, and Nova had already stepped outside before noticing that Aaron was lost in thought and wasn’t following her.
He smiled and resumed walking. “Sorry about that. I’m an old folk, now. I don’t have the energy I used to. Maybe I should have slept in the car, too.”
‘At least you didn’t crash. I can’t believe Esfir didn’t comfort me after I almost died like that. She’s really heartless. Ryner should just divorce her as punishment…’
Aaron chuckled but didn’t comment as his wayward daughter continued grumbling all the way to their destination.
Both of them knew this place like the back of their hands since the whole family had regular checkups in this place. Even beyond that, Nova was often interested in Aaron’s work and frequently visited him here to talk about his inventions or his research. Especially since she quit her pile of half-a-dozen job-apprenticeships, once she decided she’d gotten sufficiently good at all of them, her free time increased, and she even sometimes dropped by to assist in the experiments.
Having her here reminded Aaron of Nova’s childhood, when she came to study in this place instead of at school. He and his colleagues would take turns teaching her according to their specialties. The entire team would pore over the curriculum they wanted to go through and held long debates and arguments over how to best present such and such subject. They set up practical experiments to illustrate the points they were trying to make and taught Nova how to properly test and verify what they told her, so she’d be able to return to the answer on her own if she ever forgot or doubted it. Aaron couldn’t help but smile fondly as he remembered how her feet wouldn’t reach the floor when she sat at the desk they’d set up for her, how she would need to stand on a small foldable stool to reach the equipment on the worktable, how she’d handle each device and each test tube with two hands, slowly and carefully, because her fingers weren’t agile enough yet and she was afraid to break things.
Almost twenty years had passed since then.
Now, she was on their side of the fence and actively participated in the research. She wasn’t quite an expert in anything, yet, and she lacked experience, but she learned fast.
It didn’t take long for the two of them to reach the exam room. It was, in fact, the same room where baby Nova’s postnatal exam had taken place – though of course the equipment had been upgraded to match modern specs and advances.
While Aaron set up the scan, Nova went into the adjoining room to finally shed her racing suit – which, to Aaron’s resigned disapproval, she’d never bothered to zip back up. Modesty was clearly a value they had failed to instill in their youngest daughter.
Nova came back out a minute later wearing a patient’s open-backed robe, which wouldn’t interfere with the scan.
“Are you okay? Does your neck still hurt?”
Nova stretched, turning her neck back and forth and rolling her shoulders. Since she had left her bracer in the changing room and had nothing to write with, she used sign language to reply. Aaron was a little out of practice but managed to roughly understand.
‘Kinda sore, but okay overall.’
Nova climbed atop the scanner’s bed and lay down. She signed an OK to Aaron, who didn’t bother with any more instructions as Nova knew the drill. When he flicked the switch, the bed slid into the machine, and countless tiny electric arcs started sparking off Nova’s entire body.
After a few seconds, the readout began to appear on the computer screen before Aaron.
“There are a few micro-tears in your muscles and ligaments, probably from the crash. No treatment needed,” he said for Nova’s benefit. “You should be fine by tomorrow at your usual healing rate. As for the rest of you… Not a single cancer marker. You’re still below .03% chances of contracting even the most likely of them. Bone marrow integrity at 99.3%. Lymph nodes at 99.7%. DNA variance in new cells is well below the average for your age group. Eyesight is ridiculous. Nerve response is ludicrous. Digestive flora is in tip-top shape…”
After a while, Aaron just stopped quoting the actual numbers and instead tried to not repeat his adjectives. It was a shame the scanner’s system didn’t come with a thesaurus included. Eventually, he came down to the last piece of data.
“Estimated natural lifespan… Same as last time, 144 years.”
Through the camera, he saw Nova sign a reply. ‘Told you I was fine.’
“Indeed, you did. You’re probably one of the healthiest people on the planet. You’ll be setting a new record if you really do live to 144.” Aaron’s voice suddenly sobered. “The only real issue is the same as always. No development at all in your reproductive system.” He watched the camera for any response from Nova, but she didn’t sign back anything, and her face showed nothing of her thoughts. He sighed. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come up with a treatment plan? This isn’t like the nerve damage on your face and vocal cords. I’m pretty sure that we could clone the necessary organs and provide you with hormonal supplements to kick start menstruation. There would be no fear of rejection, and the surgery should be fairly straightforward.”
Nova shook her head without hesitation, and Aaron hit the release switch with another defeated sigh. While the scanner’s bed slid back out of the machine, Aaron went and retrieved Nova’s bracer from the changing room. When he returned, Nova was patiently sitting on top of the scanner’s bed with her legs crossed, picking at the hem of her patient’s robes as she waited for him to come back.
“Nova, I hate to belabor the point again, but even though you seem completely healthy, the absence of a menstrual cycle could have some consequences beyond the immediately visible. This isn’t the way a human body was designed to work. Your hormonal levels don’t seem to have harmful effects on you, but they’re still anomalous. E, everything looks okay about the rest of your body’s development. But the scans may be missing something. You know it’s not as accurate when it comes to the brain, especially. Some of your brain chemistry may be unbalanced, and we wouldn’t necessarily know about it.”
Nova had strapped her bracer to her forearm as Aaron spoke. Once he was done, it was her turn to let out a sigh, and she immediately typed a reply. ‘Wrong. This is precisely the way my body was designed to work.’
Aaron’s eyebrows shot up.
It had been a long-standing debate between them. In fact, dating back to when Aaron had first discovered that Nova’s reproductive system wasn’t developing correctly. It had been a pretty nasty surprise, but unlike with her mutism, there were treatment options available to fix it. However, even when Marian and Aaron sat her down and explained this to her, Nova was adamant that she’d hear none of it and wouldn’t forgive them forcing the treatment upon her. She made it abundantly clear that she found the very idea of giving birth intensely disturbing, even downright disgusting, and was instead glad she could avoid all the monthly unpleasantness that came with the territory. There was also the fact that Nova preferred girls and thus wouldn’t overly miss her inability to procreate anyway.
Both Aaron and Marian had still often attempted to convince her otherwise, more out of concern for her general health than because they wanted to push her to have children of her own. But even now, years later, Nova still hadn’t budged from her original opinion. If anything, she’d grown even more entrenched in it.
But this time, the way Nova had phrased her answer rang some warning bells in Aaron’s mind.
‘The way my body was designed to work,’ is it?
“Like Sirius’s body was designed to be stronger than average?” Aaron asked in a carefully neutral voice. He didn’t want to sound questioning. Nova was always extremely uncomfortable around that particular subject and could get very defensive very quickly when anyone even remotely approached it.
Case in point, Nova’s relaxed gaze, which had been wandering lazily around the room as they trod well-known conversational grounds, suddenly sharpened and snapped to Aaron. She stayed silent for a long time, but Aaron didn’t press her. He instead set about cleaning the room and resetting the scanner for the next person to need it.
Aaron wasn’t sure he’d get an answer, to be honest. It had been more than two years since Wieslaw spoke to them and they started to become aware of these supernatural matters. And in all that time, Nova had remained silent. Of course, they hadn’t been hounding her with questions or anything of the sort, but it still spoke of how incredibly stubborn Nova could be…
However, through some miraculous alignment of the planets or something like that, the robotic voice he was so used to hearing eventually gave him a single word of reply.
Aaron very deliberately did not smile. “Interesting. But I don’t understand why Sirius’s, uh, changes are positive, while yours are a net loss. He gained strength, while you lost the ability to bear children.” And then, it occurred to him to push that thought a little further. “And your voice? Your facial expressions?”
Nova shrugged, though the movement was much stiffer than her usual smooth and practiced grace. ‘Payment, I suppose. Lose something to gain something else.’
“Did Sirius pay something as well?”
Nova shrugged again. ‘Don’t know. Even if he didn’t, no one said the world had to be fair. No point in whining about it.’
That was quite the detached point of view, considering what had been taken from her, but Aaron supposed Nova had had more than two decades to get used to her circumstances.
Aaron himself, however, couldn’t show such magnanimity. It had never occurred to him before that his daughter’s condition might be something else than the result of pure natural happenstance. But now, he knew that someone or something was responsible. At least, Nova believed so, and Aaron believed her like he’d believed Wieslaw. There was no actual ring of Truth in Nova’s words, but she didn’t seem like she was only guessing, and Aaron didn’t think she’d be actively lying on such an important matter.
Aaron wasn’t thankful his daughter had been chosen by whatever force had effected these changes on her.
He was just angry.
Perhaps, a bit of his feelings showed on his face because Nova spoke up. ‘Don’t fret about it, Dad. I got a good deal. I’ve lead a fulfilling life. I can honestly say I have no regrets.’
“Isn’t this what you call ‘raising flags’? You sound like a heroine about to breathe her last at the climax of a movie.” Aaron scoffed with a fair measure of amusement in his voice, his poor mood dispelled a little.
Nova rubbed her chin thoughtfully. ‘Actually, I take that back. I do regret failing to convince Esfir to marry me instead of Ryner. That was a shame.’
“All right, all right. Spare me the details of your fantasies, young lady.” Aaron chuckled before gesturing toward the changing room. “Why don’t you put your clothes back on? We still need to congratulate your brother on his victory against you.”
Aaron almost laughed out loud upon seeing the withering look Nova gave him, but he refrained when she turned away and stomped her way into the changing room without voicing any protest.
His smile slowly faded as the door closed behind her and his thoughts turned back to their earlier conversation.
He suddenly had a lot of thinking to do.