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Aberrant: 200X - Lots of stuff happens, and Flicker erupts too[Fin]


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PROLOGUE

Saturday March 1, 2008:

Michael "The Evangelist" Lamb was watched and followed, by a complicated relay of radio chatter, mobile telephone calls, and hand signals by ten men from the moment he deplaned at the international airport in Bishkek, the capital of the formerly-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. He was traveling incognito, on secret business. To avoid recognition, he traveled with his Mazarin-Rashoud node dormant. It was a calculated risk; the loss in capability was worth the extra anonymity.

However, even with his node and nova abilities dormed, he was easily spotted and tracked by these men who had made it their business to know him on sight. Through immigration, and then customs, and then to the taxi stand outside the arrivals lobby, he was never out of the sight of the government-backed right-wing death squad who had a very specific axe to grind. Michael remained blissfully unaware of their presence. As a nova, he could draw on fearsome combat and sensory capabilities beyond the understanding of typical humans, but with his node dormant he was severely limited.

At the taxi stand, it didn't matter which one of the three waiting taxicabs he got into. All three had been pre-positioned specifically for this ambush. Right-wing death squads are very thorough.

"The Bishkek Hilton," Michael said, enunciating carefully in case the driver spoke no English, as he slid into the back seat of the taxi. The driver's face was obscured by the half-partition between the driver's seat and the back. Michael pulled the door shut, and after a pause noticed that the automobile had not moved.

"Bishkek Hilton," he repeated, looking at the driver more closely in the mirror on the windshield. He hoped that the driver could understand that simple landmark, even if he didn't understand English. The driver abruptly turned around to face Michael, revealing that his features were obscured behind a heavy green gas mask.

"Shit!" Michael hissed. Instinctively his node burst into readiness and his quantum-fueled aura manifested as he grabbed for the door latch, only to find it had been removed beforehand. That split second was all the time the driver needed to fog the trapped nova with a cloud of Moxinoquantamine from a aerosol can no larger than a mace dispenser.

Trapped, Michael spun in his seat to lunge for the driver, but only succeeded in catching the wet spray of node-silencing drug directly in his face at point-blank range. As he felt his energy rapidly fade away, he realized all too late that he'd been had. Even so, he refused to go quietly. In a struggle for survival, he grappled the driver and tore his mask off. Shrieking, the driver frantically clutched for his own door handle, desperate to escape the fog of Mox which seared his lungs. While the drug was useful to subdue a nova's node, it was lethal to baselines.

Two more masked men piled into the back seat with Michael as the driver curled up and died. Brandishing machine pistols, they held him at mute gunpoint as a third gunman replaced the driver, shoving his limp body into the passenger seat.

"Cooperate or you die," ordered one gunman, his voice distorted by his gas mask. He then spoke to the driver in Kyrgyz, and the taxi lurched into rapid motion.

"Okay," Michael surrendered, showing his palms. The second gunman produced a black cloth sack and roughly pulled it over Michael's head and shoulders. Cloaked in darkness, he was briefly surprised by the sting of an autoinjector, then blacked out.

PART ONE

Friday February 29, 2008:

"Two hundred combo, come on Nova!" shouted Jessica Harrell, a sophomore at Emerson High School in Cleveland, Ohio. On the adjacent dancing stage, Nova Madigan, a senior at the same school, danced quickly and expertly, slapping out a perfectly syncopated rhythm in time with the video display before her on the Dance Dance Revolution machine. Her red Converse high-top sneakers stabbed firmly and precisely at the panels set into the stage, tapping in perfect time to the music in a complicated pattern.

Nova, dressed in a hip-hugging crimson skirt over black fishnet tights, faux-leather faux-corset top, and fishnet shoulder gloves paid no attention to Jessica's shout. Performance at this level required single-minded concentration.

"Ssh!" shushed Jessica's friend, Cody. "I'll bet she's gonna do it this time. Don't mess her up."

It, in this case, was the pinnacle of dance videogame accomplishment, a triple-A score on a very difficult song. Every beat of the way through the song Nova had a timing window only milliseconds wide to step in the right place. To triple-A her favorite song, Kakumei, she'd have to make almost four hundred of these millisecond-accurate steps consecutively without a single lapse in timing or placement. The steps came at her rapid-fire, with several correct steps required every second for almost two full minutes. She'd made perfection her quest, even taking a part-time job to earn the money she fed into the arcade game on an almost daily basis, three tokens at a time.

On the stage, Nova stared intently at the screen, her body almost perfectly still above the waist as her hips and legs pistoned through a complicated sequence of rapid-fire steps. Thoughtlessly brushing a stray strand of her reddish-brown hair from her eyes, Nova focused on the display before her. She listened to not the music, but a memorized pattern of beats that she heard within her mind. With the arrows on the screen telling her where to step and the clicks in her mind telling her when to step, she advanced relentlessly toward perfection, aware that even a moment's distraction or stray thought would doom her perfect streak.

For the two minutes at a time as Nova played this game, her universe shrank into a tiny realm. She only felt her feet, only saw the arrows on the screen, and only heard the beat inside her thoughts. Subconsciously, Nova shoved aside any stray thought before it could command even a moment's attention and distract her from her mission. This total effort of will was the only way she could achieve a triple-A.

"Three hundred combo!" enthused the videogame's programmed narrator as the step count flashed on the display: 300, 301, 302, and higher. Less than one hundred steps remained, and the song--a modern techno dance remix of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude--reached its crescendo.

Unconsciously, Nova held her breath and clenched her jaw as the final ten step arrows emerged from the bottom of the screen and scrolled toward the top. With her fists bunched and her heart pounding out of her chest in deferred exultation, she remained locked in to the familiar rhythm. Despite the sudden surge of adrenaline which threatened to give her the shakes, she willed her muscles to remain steady as she stomped out the final steps.

The song ended and faded to silence, and for a fraction of a second the arcade too was silent, as every onlooker waited for the score report in anticipation. A moment later, the score was revealed: 371 perfect steps, and zero missteps, a AAA score. The display went crazy with flashing lights and a simulated siren blared victoriously. As one, the assembled crowd of friends and onlookers released the breath they'd been holding in a riotous cheer.

Nova did not share in that cheer. Instead she abruptly fell heavily and knelt doubled-over on the dancing stage, clutching her head between her hands as if to keep it from exploding. Her pulse roared violently in her ears, and even with her eyes clenched shut dazzling lights danced in her vision. Nausea washed through her like an icy wave, and she rolled onto her side on the floor, curled in a ball.

Nova shrieked in agony and surprise, and the power failed in the arcade for a brief moment, plunging everyone into darkness and shocked silence. A moment later, the power returned and the arcade was scarcely lit by the flickering fluorescent lamps and the glowing screens of the rebooting arcade games. The dim light revealed a changed Nova lying on the floor-- blinking in and out of complete invisibility in a random pattern.

"Holy shit," someone whispered. "Nova's a nova."

"That's kind of ironic," Jessica observed quietly.

PART TWO

Sunday March 2, 2008:

"Good morning sleepyhead!" sang Nurse Valerie Potter as she entered Nova's suite in the Cleveland Rashoud Clinic. Without pausing, she flipped the light switch and crossed to the window to open the curtains. The room was furnished in a style peculiar to hospitals-- cheery decorations contrasted with a gleaming white tile floor, stainless steel fixtures, and numerous inexplicable outlets, sockets, and taps set into the wall. While the room was devoid of beeping machines and monitors and hissing medical pumps, it was easy to imagine how the room would look if these were all wheeled into the room and plugged into the appropriate wall outlets.

"Mmph, good morning," replied Nova Madigan, sitting up slowly in her black and red satin pajama top and rubbing her eyes. Unlike two days earlier, she was not flickering in and out of transparency. She looked as normal as a nova could.

"How's your headache feel today, on a scale of one to ten?" Asked Valerie as she produced a digital thermometer from the lab coat she wore over her colorful scrubs. Nova obediently opened her mouth to allow her temperature to be taken.

"Not too bad," Nova said awkwardly around the thermometer, wondering why it was that nurses always asked questions only after jabbing something in her mouth. Two days of rest and regular doses of Adrenocilin had reduced the pain from a skull-splitting light-show migrane down to mere soreness. "About a three, I guess." When she'd first arrived at the clinic she'd rated her headache at "a fucking million."

"Terrific," Valerie said neutrally, jotting Nova's temperature on a chart. "After breakfast you're getting a visitor. Another nova."

Another nova, Nova thought, still incredulous at the notion that she'd hit the genetic lottery and erupted.

"He goes by 'Banhammer,'" Valerie continued, "but he's a really great guy, don't let that throw you."

"What's his real name?" asked Nova. The thought of addressing a grown man as "Banhammer" seemed weird to her.

"James Cooper," Valerie said after a short pause. "I'm sure he won't mind if you use his name instead."

"Cool," Nova said, relieved. "Why's he coming to see me?"

"Well, if you two get along," Valerie proposed, "He'll help you acclimate to your new node, and help you control it. Think of him as a coach or a mentor. He's very good at teleportation, so right there you two will have something to talk about."

Nova had, they had learned the day before, developed the ability to teleport when she erupted.

Valerie checked Nova's chart. "We'll keep you on Adrenocilin for now, for the headaches, but we're reducing the dose so that you can start to learn control of your abilities. If you think it hurts too much, we can bring the dose back up."

"Can I un-dorm?" Nova asked. Seemingly by instinct, she'd possessed the ability to activate and deactivate her node at will. She'd spent the past two days with her node dormed.

"Let's wait until the doctor and Banha-- James are here," Valerie said firmly, in that peculiar way that nurses have of phrasing orders as suggestions. "It's probably going to hurt when you do."

"I'll risk it," Nova said cheerfully, determined to prove her readiness. "I'm kind of anxious to see how this works."

"In time," the nurse replied as she walked to the door. "Breakfast will be here shortly. Be sure to eat a lot."

PART THREE

Monday March 3, 2008:

The subdued glow of a late-Winter sunset cast a rosy hue over the office of Doctor Edward Steiss, the Medical Director of the Cleveland Rashoud Clinic. Floor-to-ceiling windows dominated two walls, and massive bookshelves overflowing with reference texts and mementos of his career filled the others. Banhammer sat in one of the two comfortable chairs which faced the desk, his Eufiber colony configured to look like a sport shirt, casual slacks, and loafers.

"So, what do you think?" Asked the doctor from his high-backed leather chair behind his large and tidily-kept desk. He opened a drawer and retrieved a bottle and two glasses.

"She's a good kid," James replied casually. "Got a good head on her shoulders." The sandy-haired titan adjusted his posture in his chair, and it creaked under his weight. "She's not tripping with power the way some newbies do." James smiled wanly, remembering what a handful he'd been, before The Directive had recruited him and taught him control.

"That's our take, too," Edward replied, pouring a shot of single-malt whiskey for himself and his guest, unaware that he shared his liquor with his nemesis. "Shame about her Q. E." Nova's unsettling quantum expression, her constant state of flickering, ruled her out as a potential recruit for Teen Tomorrow.

"She's handling that well enough," James stated. Inwardly he was pleased that she'd not be recruited into the most visible part of Project Utopia. "Have you seen what she likes to wear? I think she grooves on nonconformity." James chose his words with care, cultivating the image of a light-hearted freelancing nova, and not a soldier in a hidden war.

The doctor nodded, and handed one drink to Banhammer, then raised his own before tipping back a swallow of the aged whiskey.

"That she does. I think that's what's helping her adapt so quickly to her new physiology. Mentally she's on top of everything."

"What about physically?" James asked, sipping his own drink. It burned pleasantly on the way down, but was as intoxicating as tap water to the nova.

"I think one more day of observed testing will benefit her," Doctor Steiss pronounced. "Get her completely off of Adrenocilin for a day, and really stretch out her node and see what she's got. I think that'll give her the confidence she needs to leave here on the right foot. Can you stay one more day?"

"I can swing that," James smiled. Earning another fifty grand to spend another day in the company of an attractive young nova suited him perfectly, and his duties with The Directive would not require his presence until later that week anyway.

"Outstanding," Edward replied, quite pleased. He opened a color-coded folder and produced a bundle of papers. "Here's what I'd like you two to go over tomorrow. . ."

PART FOUR

Tuesday March 4, 2008, shortly before midnight:

Nova slept soundly in the bed in her suite at the clinic, exhausted from a busy day spent with James, fine-tuning her control of her abilities. The tablet of Mox she'd been given at dinnertime (a large New York-style pizza, a side of bread sticks, an order of hot wings, and a two-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi) was beginning to wear off.

Without making a sound, her teleportation mentor appeared abruptly in her room, just inside the closed door. James glanced at the security monitor half-concealed in the wall lamp, and was satisfied to see that its red power LED was off. Before arriving, he'd tampered with it from the security station, catching the booth empty during the shift change. By teleporting into the room he'd avoided triggering the sensor in the door. His Eufiber was configured not as his usual casual outfit, but a dark-colored and close-fitting combat suit which helped him to blend into the shadows.

Crossing silently to Nova's bedside, he paused just out of arm's reach.

"Nova, wake up," he said quietly but firmly. His words pierced the veil of her dreams, and she roused. "Don't freak out, it's me, James," he said quickly, holding one finger to his lips to indicate that she should be quiet.

Nova sat up abruptly, scooting herself back against the bed's headboard and sitting up. For the first time, her node activated instinctively, and she began to flicker into transparency. At once she was faster, more agile, and ready for any surprise.

"What's going on?" She said quietly, looking James up and down, "and why are you dressed like that?"

"I need your help," James replied simply but firmly, showing his gloved palms in entreaty. "There's not much time. A good friend of mine is going to die unless we rescue him right now. He's been kidnapped by right-wing paramilitaries in Kyrgyzstan. I know where he is now, but they're about to move him, and I won't be able to find him after that."

That went by almost too quickly for Nova, even with her enhanced ability to process information. As smart as she had become since erupting, she still lacked experience.

"Kyrgyzstan? Paramilitaries? Wait, what?" she asked, folding her arms over her pajama top.

"It's a long story," James hissed, glancing over his shoulder at the door. He'd hoped that he wouldn't have to explain everything. "Long story short: I need you to go with me to retrieve him. He's not a teleporter, and he's probably drugged. There's no time to go through the authorities. Can you help me?"

Maybe it's some kind of test, Nova thought, considering the possibility that Project Utopia might be evaluating her in a creative new way. Besides, it was awfully exciting.

"Okay," Nova said simply. "Let me put some jeans on or something." She flipped the covers aside and turned to jump out of bed.

James shook his head and produced a small transparent acrylic box he'd concealed in a pouch at his hip.

"This is better, and faster," he explained. He removed the cover and tossed it onto the bedspread where it landed without a sound. He turned the box over and shook it into his hand and a small ball of mottled viscose goop thudded out. He tossed it to Nova. She snatched it from the air casually, and then almost dropped it in shocked surprise. Where she touched it, it felt alive, but not quite sapient. The point of contact between the ball and her skin tingled slightly, as if some kind of electrical energy were being conducted through that spot.

"It's Eufiber," James explained. "It'll do what you want, you just need to tell it."

Nova marveled in mute astonishment and stared at the bundle of semi-intelligent fiber in her hand.

"It's yours to keep, okay? I have extras. It's no big. Just hurry up please."

Like a stage magician wielding a crystal ball, Nova held the Eufiber colony in her outstretched palm and focused her thoughts on it, compelling it to stretch over her body (but under her pajamas) in a thin skintight layer. A moment later, the Eufiber responded and stretched itself accordingly. She was covered from neck to toes, with only her fingertips protruding from fingerless gloves attached to her long sleeves. Nova's pajamas rode over the Eufiber suit, and she took them off, revealing that she'd chosen to color her bodysuit basic black to match James'.

Unlike her clothing, her Eufiber outfit flickered in and out of complete invisibility in perfect synchronization with her own flickering.

"Whoa," Nova said, startled by this unexpected property of her new outfit. "That's new."

"It's attuned to you, Nova," James explained. "You flicker, it flickers."

Nova caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Flicker, she thought. Oh, why not?.

"Call me 'Flicker,'" Nova said with a smile. She resisted the urge to strike a bold pose. "So what's the plan?"

"Watch this and concentrate, just like we did this morning," James explained as he pulled out an OpNet-enabled PDA. On its screen, a satellite map of central Asia resolved into nations, then regions, then cities, then buildings and finally zoomed in on one building in particular. From above, the building looked like every other building in the industrial section of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan-- dirty, angular, worn, and anonymous. Nova watched carefully as the view zoomed in, allowing her eyes to communicate directly with her node, taking herself out of the loop as she had practiced earlier that afternoon. It was just like playing Dance Dance Revolution to her, only her eyes were guiding a new part of her mind instead of guiding her feet.

"Okay," she said, feeling something click within her mind. "I'm locked in, but I've never gone that far."

"Good girl, you'll do fine," James said. He put the PDA back into his pocket. "Aim for the alleyway in the back. I'll meet you there. Don't keep me waiting." Without as much as a salute or a handshake, he disappeared from the spot.

"I--," Nova began, then stopped. James was already gone, and she felt the pressure to quickly follow where he'd gone. Oh damn, here we go, she thought. Her excitement at her new Eufiber colony was gone, replaced by fear. Still, she knew that if she thought about the situation any longer, she might not be able to proceed, and what would James think of that? Without further hesitation or preparation, she exhaled and simply released her body from here and allowed herself to be there.

PART FIVE

Banhammer and Flicker did not arrive unseen in the alleyway behind the warehouse in Bishkek. A sentry positioned on the rooftop spotted them as soon as they appeared in the mid-morning light.

"Shit," he spat in the local dialect. Continuing to watch the newcomers, he keyed his radio. These novas could only mean trouble, he realized, since the prisoner transfer was supposed to be handled by agents of the Kyrgyz government, and not these foreigners. "It's Kanatjan on the roof. Two foreign novas have appeared in the alleyway." As he watched and raised his rifle, the novas--he saw that one was a powerfully-built six-footer, and the other was a girl--conferred briefly, and then disappeared again.

"What're they doing?" crackled the response over the radio.

"They've disappeared again!" Kanatjan replied hastily. "They might be inside now!" He received no response from the radio. After a pause he tried again. "Grigory, talk to me. What is going on?"

Nothing.

Cursing in Kyrgyz, Kanatjan left his post and descended into the building through a dirty hatch in the roof. He gritted his teeth at the squeal of the hatch's rusted hinges, and feared the sound would betray his presence. A ladder let down into a dusty interior storage room on the top floor, lit only by a single dim bulb. Through the floor below, the paramilitary could hear the sounds of heavy fighting, and gunshots. Kanatjan propped his rifle, too cumbersome for close fighting, into the corner of the room and drew his automatic pistol instead.

Creeping rapidly but stealthily along the dimmed and disused corridors, Kanatjan reached the stairwell and vaulted the rail, landing in a crouch with his pistol drawn. No one was in sight, and the sounds of fighting had faded and then abruptly ended. When he heard two foreign voices talking from down the corridor, he guessed that his comrades were probably dead. He reasoned correctly that these were the novas he'd seen outside. In the dim light he re-checked his pistol's magazine and crept towards the room where their nova hostage had been kept.

Two novas, he thought, planning his attack. They had surprise, that's all. Now I will surprise them. A battered convex safety mirror hung outside the door to the room. Even cracked and smudged, he could see the position of his dangerous prey in its reflection. The male nova was crouched over the wooden chair in which Michael Lamb was still tied. The female nova stood with both hands over her mouth, looking around at the carnage in the room. She looked especially pale to Kanatjan, even for a Westerner.

She's in shock, he guessed, creeping alongside the open doorway, shoot her twice, then take the other. Easy. As if in slow motion, Kanatjan saw everything in fine detail as he spun into the room in a half-crouch, both hands on the grip of his raised pistol. His training took over, his perception of time slowed, and he set to his task with an assassin's resolve.

Kanatjan first trained the pistol on the center of the female nova's torso. He noticed that she was flickering in and out of complete transparency, but set that fact aside as he continued his mission without hesitation. The pistol jerked in his hand as he squeezed the trigger, and he was surprised at how it seemed that he could see the slide recoil towards him, pause, and then slide back to chamber the next round. The spent shell casing flew up and to his right in a delicate tumbling arc.

As he adjusted his aim, dragging the sights back on taget, Kanatjan saw that his first shot had struck and torn a jagged hole in her outfit. She'd not yet reacted or begun to fall, however. There had not yet been enough time for that. He squeezed the trigger again, and then immediately shifted his eyes to the left and dragged his arms to the left as well to train his firearm on the larger and probably more dangerous nova who was--

Impossible! he thought. The nova was already atop him, filling his vision. The nova raised his fist, and Kanatjan saw that a spectral sword glowed in his grasp. Stumbling backwards to gain the space he needed to aim his pistol, he realized too late that he had failed. His point of view lurched wildly as his head was severed from his shoulders and he caught a brief glimpse of his own body, then he died.

PART SIX

"I think that's the last one," James said as he turned from the doorway and back to Michael Lamb and Nova. His quantum-powered sword disappeared into nothingness. Nova fell heavily to the floor, clutching her chest with both hands.

"Michael!" Nova gasped painfully through her teeth, lying flat on her back. Her hands were slick with blood, and she felt as if she'd been hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. Nothing, nothing at all, had ever hurt like this.

Michael jumped to her side, kneeling and taking her hands in his own.

"Let me see," he said, carefully pulling her arms aside. She resisted instinctively, but he was strong enough to overcome her reluctance with ease. He pulled cautiously at the torn edge of the Eufiber, which was wet with blood. More blood pooled in the center of her chest, obscuring the wound.

"Sorry," he muttered, and he tore the Eufiber with his hands and wiped away as much blood as he could. The wounds in her chest were not deep, he saw, just bloody. "How do you feel?" he asked as he gently rolled her half onto her side to check her back. There were no exit wounds, he observed. Good.

"Hurts," Nova gasped, gulping for air. Her entire torso ached, and every breath felt like a fresh beating.

"It should," James replied. "I think you've cracked some ribs, but it looks like the Eufiber and your tough-ass nova hide stopped the worst of it." He chuckled. "You just shrugged off two bullets to the heart, little lady. Barely a flesh wound; bloody as hell, but not bad."

Nova was less mirthful. "Still hurts," she coughed. James' diagnosis calmed her fears. "How's your friend?"

"Moxed out of his gourd," James replied. "If he comes out of this without brain damage he'll be lucky. How soon can you teleport again?"

Flicker assessed her situation. She'd been shot twice in the chest, she was still drained from all the training she'd done that afternoon, and the adrenaline rush of the sudden assault was gone. In addition, she thought she might be going into shock.

"I dunno," she croaked, starting to get her wind back. She propped one elbow under herself and tried to sit up. Big mistake! she decided, as a fresh wave of pain seared through her chest and she realized everything in her body was connected. She slumped to the floor again. "One jump, maybe," she decided.

Well, shit, James thought. His plan had included telporting from Kyrgyzstan to his safe house in London to deposit Michael Lamb there, and then back to Ohio. There was no way in hell he was going to take The Evangelist into a Rashoud Clinic. "Okay," he said, frowning. "You jump back to the Rashoud, and not a word of this to anyone. No games, no hints, no playing around. I'm deadly serious now: Not. One. Word."

"How are you getting," she asked, "Michael out of here?"

James chuckled. "These guys have a car outside, I'm sure. I know my way around this burg. I had planned to teleport out and be stealthy, but I can escape the hard way too."

Nova considered how handily he'd dismembered a half-dozen armed men and nodded.

"Okay, not a word," Flicker agreed. She wondered who James really was, and who he really worked for.

"Good girl."

Flicker aimed for the bathroom in her suite in the clinic, and arrived safely in the darkened room on the first try. She lay on the cool tile floor in the darkness, and decided to rest there a while before doing anything else. Remembering the nature of her Eufiber, she pushed the last of her strength into her outfit and asked it to wrap tightly around her chest, like a compression bandage. That done, she rested. As she rested, she considered the facts as she knew them and the events of the day, and tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

James "Banhammer" Cooper was not Team Tomorrow material, she knew, but like many novas had been hired by Project Utopia for the many other odd jobs that require novas. She'd seen his combat prowess just minutes before, and suspected that he was not hired for public relations, but for the kind of work that happened in third-world hellholes like Kashmir or Nigeria--or Kyrgyzstan.

He's a Utopian and he's violent, and he does things that are kept quiet. Yet he wanted to keep this mission a secret from Project Utopia, she considered. How did he learn where Michael was being held? Does he work for two employers at cross purposes? Who is the other employer? Where are his true loyalties? She knew he'd been loyal to his friend Michael "The Evangelist" Lamb, another nova, more so than to Project Utopia it turned out. Why was Michael in Kyrgyzstan, and if the mission to retrieve him was a secret from Project Utopia, then he was definitely no Utopian himself.

Slowly Nova came to admire James' massive brass balls. From within one of their own Rashoud clinics, while working as a mole in the Project, he'd staged a rescue operation that went against Project Utopia's wishes, even recruiting the assistance of a brand-new nova. She began to wonder if he'd somehow learned of Michael's plight through his contacts inside the Project, and if that was true, then what did it say about Project Utopia if they knew about Michael's abduction and did nothing to help?

Damn, she thought. I'm neck-deep in this too, now. Who does he work for, anyway? I have got to learn more.

While Nova's mind raced as she lay on the cool tile floor of her bathroom, the arriving security guard noticed that the camera in her room was malfunctioning. Alerted by the security guard, Nurse Decker looked in on her, opening the door quietly at first. In the darkened room she saw that the bed was empty, and Nova's pajamas were on the floor next to it. Since Nova was clearly not asleep, she hit the light switch.

"Nova? Are you okay?" she asked loudly.

Nova jerked in surprise and almost panicked, but remained where she was on the bathroom floor.

"In the bathroom!" Nova replied, hoping to convey the impression that nothing at all was amiss, and that she was definitely not bleeding all over the floor from two gunshot wounds to the chest. It didn't hurt as much to speak anymore, she noticed. After a pause, she added: "Too much dinner, that's all!"

Nurse Decker chuckled, relieved.

"Okay. If you need anything, buzz me."

"Will do!" Nova called, forcing her voice to remain cheerful.

Nova heard the door click shut, and she sighed in relief.

A half hour later, Nova noticed that laying on the hard tile floor was starting to hurt more than her gunshot wounds did, so she decided to get up. Slowly she braced herself on her elbows, and then pulled herself upright, seated on the edge of the bathtub. She wobbled a bit, then steadied. From there, she could reach the light switch, so she turned on the lights.

Nova was shocked at how much blood she'd gotten all over the tile floor and the bathtub, and at the bloody handprint she left on the light switch.

That will not do, she decided. The staff would obviously suspect something was wrong if they found the bathroom like this in the morning. She'd have to clean it all before dawn. Nova peeled back the upper part of her Eufiber bodysuit, now sticky and crunchy with coagulated blood. Have to wash that, too, she thought, and on a whim she ordered the colony to ball up in her hand, leaving her naked and bloody. She dropped the Eufiber into the bathtub and made a note to clean it later.

Nova examined the two wounds on her chest. She flexed her arms a bit, and noticed that she no longer felt the widespread throbbing ache she had at first, but a more localized and sharper pain at the entrance wounds. Looking down, she saw that the metal slugs were slightly exposed, never having penetrated too deeply into her flesh.

Now that's tough! she thought, marveling at how the Eufiber and her own flesh had stopped two bullets. She tried to grasp one of the slugs, but it was too small and slick with blood. Nova looked around for something to use to remove them, and noticed the tapered end of her toothbrush's handle.

"It'll have to do," she mumbled. Prying the slugs out hurt more than she had imagined, but she discovered that chewing on a towel helped. Afterwards, she rolled into the bath tub and filled it with hot water, and no bath in her lifetime had ever felt as wonderful. For now, cleaning the bathroom could wait.

EPILOGUE

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Doctor Steiss and Nurse Potter conferred in the corridor outside Nova's suite at the Cleveland Rashoud Clinic the following morning.

"These indications," the doctor said, tapping the chart, "don't make any sense. Something in her metabolism changed drastically from yesterday to today."

Nurse Potter nodded.

"She seems quieter, too, like she's up to something."

"Let's keep her another day or so and monitor her, and see what develops."

"I'll inform her mother," the nurse replied. "What should I tell her?"

"Tell her," Doctor Steiss paused. Where did you go last night, Nova? he thought. And why was your bath towel so bloody? What have you done? "Tell her that we're just being cautious and want to take good care of her daughter."

He smiled.

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