Honolulu, Hawaii

This is supposed to be a vacation home, to be used just during her maternity leave, but Doctor Catherine Kalama still reserved a room just to treat her only patient.

Noriko Null is sitting on a medical bed, looking away while the doctor examines the stump that is all that remains of her left arm, amputated at the elbow.

-You’ve been sleeping wearing your prosthesis again, aren’t you? – she asks.

-I keep forgetting to take it off. Now it’s itching like crazy.

-I’ll prescribe you something that helps. Any progress on your research to re-grow it?

-Not yet; it’s surprisingly harder than growing a clone. Listen, doctor… about sleeping…

-Do we need to have another argument about the fact that your body really needs to sleep even when your brain doesn’t?

-Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve found a way to force my body to sleep, but my brain is another story. I’ve always required much less sleep than a normal human, but lately… I just can’t seem to be able to fall asleep, no matter what I do – she confesses.

-You didn’t take medication without my approval again, haven’t you?

-No, no, I promise. Can you give me something to help me sleep? Fifteen or twenty milligrams of Zolpidem, for example? – Noriko suggests.

-Absolutely not. First, I’m hesitant to prescribe you sedatives when we don’t really know how much your brain chemistry differs from the norm. Second, that’s an absurd dosage! The recommended initial dose for women is just five milligrams. Third, I’m not convinced this isn’t psychological.

-Fine, I’ll take the five milligrams. I can adjust the dosage if…

-Remember what happened when you experimented with anti-psychotics?

-Please. I really need a good night’s sleep before Kari’s wedding – Noriko pleads. She sounds too desperate to be hiding something, and the doctor surrenders.

-Five milligrams of Zolpidem immediately before going to bed, with at least 8 hours before the time you want to be awake. Don’t drink alcohol or take ANY other drugs on the same day, and DON’T alter the dosage before consulting me, even if it doesn’t work. Got it?

-If it helps restore your faith in me. Though five milligrams won’t be enough for my brain.

-You’re just impossible as a patient – the doctor sighs, when Noriko’s phone beeps to signal she’s just received a message. When she looks at it, she smiles.

-It’s Voron. Can you believe that guy? I made an off-hand comment about the lagging in the response of my prosthetics, and he says he’s programmed a new neural interface to fix the problem.

-That’s very thoughtful of him. Are you taking him to the wedding?

-What? No! He’s a weirdo that works for the Russian government, I can’t give him access to alien technology! – Noriko protests. A little too rapidly, the doctor notices.

-So you’re inviting that Korean guy? Kari says he’s quite handsome.

-I’m not Kari. He’s a nice guy, but I shouldn’t get too close to someone who works for me… not after how things went with Todd. No, I’m afraid there’s nobody on Earth I can ask out.

-So you’re going to the wedding alone? Kari will be pretty upset.

-That’s not what I said – Noriko answers with a cocky smile and light in her silver eyes.

 

The Moon, currently 249.000 km from Earth

Kristen Lynn has never been in space before. She’s sitting in one of the Valkyrie shuttles, watching the satellite get bigger and bigger from one of the windows, trying to close her eyes as little as possible to avoid missing anything.

-This is incredible! And you’ve done this multiple times? – she asks excitedly.

-Yep. It’s a short trip for me – Max Black boasts, trying to impress her, but it’s hard to keep her attention when she can see the Moon this close… especially when the Ragnarok comes into view.

Kristen has seen the spaceship before, during the Guild’s attempted invasion of Earth, but now she can see every little detail as the shuttle approaches the cargo bay.

-It’s much bigger than I thought – she admits.

-It’s rather cramped inside. The engines and labs take up most of the space – Max reveals.

-How often does Null use the ship? To my knowledge it hasn’t returned to Earth since the invasion.

-It’s got some mileage. We usually park it around Mars and take a Valkyrie shuttle to go back and forth to Earth, since they’re easier to land without being seen.

-I still can’t believe how you make this sort of thing sound so… mundane – Kristen notices.

-What do you mean?

-You know how many people would kill to have powers like yours, Max? Or to be able to see up close the things that you take for granted? Instead, you treat going to an alien planet like going to a comic book convention.

-Let’s make a deal, Kristen. If this trip convinces you to trust Noriko’s judgment, you’ll go to an actual comic book convention with me.

-And if it doesn’t work?

-I’ll find a way to let you sneak into Null’s Antarctic station. Deal?

Kristen pauses. She doesn’t like to do this sort of thing… unless there’s a potential story involved.

-You’ve got yourself a deal, mister Black.

 

Inside the warship Ragnarok

Torn has lived among humans for years now; even he has learned that he has to knock on the door before barging into someone’s room. Especially since he knows Null is touchy on the subject.

-Come in – she tells him, and the door opens on its own.

The room is rather dull; considering the astronomical cost of the ship, Noriko could’ve afforded some luxury. She’s sitting on her bed, having removed her boots and jacket but otherwise wearing her trademark clothes. Torn is, of course, still wearing his eternal duster.

-Is Kari okay with you wearing that thing at her wedding? – she asks.

-Why? I wore it at my wedding.

-I bet that must’ve been an interesting ceremony – she jokes, inviting him to sit next to her. Once he would’ve been clueless about what a nod or a hand gesture could mean, but he’s not stupid: he’s learned a few things during his stay on Earth, and takes his place next to her.

-I have to apologize for what I said back in Hawaii, Torn. I really do appreciate the sacrifices you’ve made to join the Vanguard; you can go back to your family in Hell whenever you want.

-I know.

-It’s just… no matter how fast my brain gets, my mouth can still be faster than it needs to be.

-Are you asking me to teach you how to talk more slowly? – he asks raising an eyebrow.

-What? No, why would I ever ask you that?

-I don’t know. Humans are strange – he shrugs. He may have learned things, but he’s still Torn.

-We share a bond, Torn. You’ve been inside my mind. And you can see my soul, right?

-Yes.

-How does it look right now? – she asks. There’s something mesmerizing in the way his red eyes shine briefly when he looks at her; she wonders if her silver eyes have the same effect on others.

-Unfocused. Uncertain. Wandering. We should continue your training in Soul Resonance.

-I’m not feeling up to it. Torn, can you keep a secret?

-I’ve kept the coordinates to the Dragon Tomb a secret for eighty years.

-I’ll take that as a “yes”. The Nexus has a deteriorating effect on my brain; it will eventually drive me insane, like all Drylon technology. I’ve already turned into Abyss and Void; there’s a chance I may turn into something worse, and I won’t be able to turn back. If that happens… promise me you won’t let me live like that, Torn. Please.

-You want me to kill you if you lose your soul – he states bluntly.

-Yes. None of the others would understand, but I think you do. Can you promise me?

Torn’s face is simply impossible to read. But he nods solemnly.

-I swear on Hell itself that I’ll kill you if you ever lose your soul again.

-Thank you, Torn, it means so much to me – she answers, reaching for something on the nightstand that he hadn’t even noticed: a glass of water and a little pill.

-You don’t need contraceptives. I have no interested in having sex with you, Null.

-Dammit Torn, is there any kind of conversation you can’t turn into something uncomfortable? This is a sleeping pill, not a contraceptive!

-Do you take it because you’re no longer having sex? Does sex help humans sleep?

-I swear Torn, every time I think I’ve figured you out, you prove yourself to be even weirder.

-The pill does not appear to be working. You are still awake – he notices.

-Don’t be silly, it takes a while to take effect. And considering how superior my brain is, there’s a chance it might not even – she argues, but has to pause for a yawn.

-Is it working? – Torn asks. Just as Noriko falls into a profound sleep from one second to the next.

-It is working – he answers himself, staring at her. She’s an adult for a human now, but in Demon years she’d still be considered a child. He carefully positions her on the bed for what he figures is a more comfortable position, even disconnecting her prosthetic arm. He stands guard next to her bed.

-Such a powerful soul in such a weak body – he ponders. And without knowing why, he starts missing his wife and daughters more than ever.

 

Twelve hours later

Noriko wakes up to the sound of two people arguing with each other; it doesn’t take her much to realize they belong to Vesta and Torn.

-What’s going on? – she asks sleepily, looking around to find her prosthetic.

-See what you did? You woke her up! – Vesta tells Torn.

-She was sleeping fine until you came in – he answers.

-Guys, what’s going on? – Noriko asks.

-We’ve landed on Myridia. I wanted to let you sleep some more, but Torn insisted we wake you up.

-You mean I overslept? I never oversleep! – Noriko protests, still incredulous.

-I know, but you looked like you needed some rest. Are you feeling better? – Vesta asks; she knows Noriko doesn’t appreciate it when she acts like her mother, but she can’t help it.

-I feel… – Noriko starts to answer, looking at her artificial hand.

She sees her arm shed its skin like a snake, exposing the metal underneath it. The synthetic ligaments and the actuators activate to clench her hand into a fist, and she chases away the hallucination through sheer force of will.

-I feel great. Do I have time for a shower before we disembark? – she asks, changing the subject.

-This is Myridia, Nori, nobody’s going to tell you what to do. Take your time – Vesta tells her, before leaving the room. Noriko is tempted to smile, but she notices the way Torn is staring at her.

He doesn’t have to say anything. His red eyes say “I know” more than any words could.

-Not a single word to anybody, Torn. I don’t want to ruin Kari’s wedding.

-I promise. On one condition: when this is over, come to Hell with me.

-No offense, Torn, but your planet’s not the best place for a vacation…

-Your soul is in serious need of surgery. I know someone who could help.

-Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let’s just get this stupid wedding over with.

 

Null City Spaceport

Noriko is now used to the kind of welcome Myridia reserves her. She could see the crowd when the Ragnarok descended from the clouds, and it has enough space to land only because there’s a landing strip specifically consecrated to her name. In fact, the area where the Ragnarok lowers the gangway is probably the only place in miles that grants some privacy.

She recognizes the Myridian authorities and the Kari duplicate, but there’s a person she definitely didn’t expect to meet here… the President of the Mortal Senate himself.

-Syzar? What are you doing here? – she asks.

-I have a proposal for you, Null – he says, taking care to be photographed when he takes her hand.



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