Null Tower, New York City

Todd Slate wakes up, realizing the lack of warmth on the other side of the bed. He sighs, pressing the button on the nightstand that controls the bedroom’s isolation from the rest of the Tower.

-Where is Noriko, O.D.I.N.?

Laboratory 37B, floor 85. Should I call her? – the artificial intelligence asks.

-No, I have to talk to her face to face. Don’t tell her I’m coming – Todd answers, stepping off the bed. His shirt is nowhere to be found, something that’s happened a lot since he moved here: Noriko is the smartest person in the world, but you’d swear she never learned to clean her room.

He just grabs the first clean clothes he finds: it’s four in the morning, and since Vesta is off the planet it’s unlikely he’ll meet anyone still awake.

 

Laboratory 37B

Noriko Null is supervising the work of a dozen Nullbots: they’re assembling something twice her height, a metallic dome on top of a base full of unrecognizable equipment. She’s just standing in front of the device, motionless and expressionless, until Todd Slate arrives.

-Hello Mr. Slate. Trouble sleeping? – she asks, without even looking at him.

-I could ask you the same thing. What are you doing here?

-Supervising the construction of the Warp Scatter Nullifier. I figured out how the Palladium works.

-Really? – he asks, coming closer. He should be mad at her for leaving him to sleep alone after missing from home for weeks, but there’s something charming about her passion for her work.

-Well, technically I deduced what it does. How it’s able to do it is another story, but I’m sure I can replicate the results in a much, much smaller scale. Instead of making the entire solar system invisible to the rest of the galaxy, I can make a spaceship completely invisible to anything.

-Wow. You really think you can do that? – he says, putting his arm over her shoulders. She doesn’t look like she got out of bed fifteen minutes ago; she even had time to put on her trademark jacket.

-I already made a weapon that mind-rapes gods. How hard can a cloaking device be?

-Couldn’t it wait until morning?

-I do my best work at night.

-You can say that again – he jokes, kissing her neck. She remains expressionless.

-I do my best work at night – she repeats.

-You spend too much time with Torn. Also you’re really cold, are you alright?

-I am at optimal temperature. Can I help you with anything?

-Yes, I think we can pick up where we left – Todd says, pulling her towards him to kiss her. She doesn’t give any resistance, but she’s also as passionate as a pillow. Her mouth moves awkwardly and it’s as dry as a bone.

-Alright, that’s enough! – Noriko shouts. Only it’s not coming from the girl Todd is kissing: another Noriko steps away from the device, holding a soldering gun and only wearing Todd’s shirt.

-What the hell!? – Todd says, pushing away the Noriko he was kissing a second ago.

-Is something wrong, mistress? – that Noriko asks, keeping a cool and controlled voice.

-You made another clone of yourself!? – Todd asks.

-Of course not! Sif, go to standby mode and await further instructions.

-Yes ma’am – the duplicate replies. She lowers her head and closes her eyes.

-Is… is that a robot copy of yourself?

-Synthetic Impersonation Facsimile. I’ve used holograms to cover my absence in the past, but they have limits. Sif should fool anyone into believing she’s real, assuming they don’t make out with her.

-Please don’t tell me you’re jealous of your robot double. You’re not leaving again, are you?

-I have to. As soon as the Warp Scatter Nullifier is completed…

-You just got back from space!

-Todd, we’ve talked about this. I have responsibilities to the Galaxy.

-I know, I know. It’s just that… ever since the invasion, we barely see each other.

-I thought we picked up the slack tonight – Noriko says, feigning interest into one of the open buttons of her shirt if it means avoiding looking at him in the eye.

-I’m not just talking about sex. I feel like you’re trying to get some distance from me.

-What? What gave you that idea?

-You disappeared into another galaxy for two weeks without saying a word! And whenever I want to talk, you always have something else to do.

-I suppose I have given you the cold shoulder too many times. Alright, I have time to talk now.

-In front of her? – he asks, pointing at Sif.

-She’s offline. Does it have anything to do with the election?

-You refused any public statement, but I want to know what you think.

-I think you can figure out my opinion of the President – she answers. Her silver eyes shine.

-You don’t think it’s my fault?

-What? Look, we both thought she’d be the one to win, but she was part of the same administration that had to deal with North Korea’s mess and an alien invasion. As soon as the emails about the Empire of Shadows business came out, she had no chance.

-I know, but electing Senator Keen? You save the Earth from aliens, and America chooses the guy who spread the rumor that you weren’t really American!

-I don’t like the idea of having to deal with President Keen for the next four years, but I don’t get why you’re taking this so personally.

-I’m your Public Relations Manager. If the guy who called for your arrest can be President…

-Well at least he didn’t win the popular vote.

-I don’t think I can do my job while we’re in a relationship, Noriko. I’m resigning.

-What!? No! That’s ridiculous, I can’t accept that!

-Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t fire me if I wasn’t your boyfriend.

She does look at him now, and it’s pretty obvious she’s not going to lie this time.

-It doesn’t mean I don’t respect your work, Todd. In fact, this is one of the most selfless things anyone’s ever done for me.

-There’s something else. Take me with you for your next mission.

-Todd, that’s very sweet of you, but it’s going to be dangerous.

-It’s also a very important part of your life that we never share. I think we should change that – he says, holding her hands. He gets closer and kisses her. She doesn’t object; there are a million reasons why this is a bad idea, but she chooses to get lost in the moment.

She leans against the device she’s building; when he starts to unbutton her shirt, she stop him.

-Not in front of the robots – she pleads.

The Nullbots have stopped working; they’re staring at them with their faceless heads, while Sif is right next to Noriko, motionless.

Do you require assistance, mistress? – one of the Nullbots asks, with a deep robotic voice.

Both Todd and Noriko try their hardest not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.

-Everyone, please leave. You too, Sif, and lock the door behind you – Noriko orders.

-Yes ma’am. Have some fun – Sif says, walking past her creator’s boyfriend and smacking his butt.

-Did your robot double just flirt with me?

-Maybe she just wants you to find a new job.

-Well, I do my best work at night – he jokes, helping her take off her shirt.

 

The White House, Washington D.C.

Robert Keen is sleeping soundly; it’s only a few weeks, but he’s already realized that being President of the United States is exhausting. He wakes up when something hits him; not hard enough to really hurt him, just to startle him. Before he can check the metal that was tossed on the bed, he sees there’s someone standing in the room.

-We have to talk – the man in the shadows says. He glows faintly and disappears.

-Hm? Did you say anything, honey? – the First Lady asks, without opening her eyes.

-Go back to sleep. I’ll be right back – the President says, stepping out of bed.

It takes him a few minutes to reach his office, all the while staring at the object in his hands: a bugging device he recognizes. Once he’s reached the Oval Office and turned on the lights, he says:

-You can come out, son. There’s no need to be secretive.

-Oh really? – Quantum asks, changing his body from light to flesh and bones. The African-American superhero is standing in front of the President, who is still wearing his pajamas.

-Then please, explain to me why I found that bug in my apartment, Keen.

-That’s “mister President” to you, Quantum. Or should I call you mister Black?

-What is your deal, Keen? Stealing the election wasn’t enough, now you’re spying on us?

-Careful, Quantum. I can make you testify before Congress, just like I did with your boss.

-Yes, I remember that stunt. How did that work out for you? Oh yeah, you were attacked by the Empire of Shadows and we saved your butt!

-The Empire of Shadows, yes, a terrorist organization that acquired superhuman weapons from Null herself. And before you boast about defeating them, their last major action was a war with Abyss… yet another terrorist that became a menace because of Null. Are you seeing the trend?

-Oh come on, you can’t blame Null for everything! What’s your deal, Keen, really? I could understand pushing the anti-Null rhetoric to get elected, but now that you’ve won, what’s the point?

-The point, Quantum, is that I firmly believe you and your friends are the greatest menace this world has ever faced.

-This is ridiculous. Null saved the world multiple times, and she cured freakin’ AIDS!!! Is it really that hard to accept that we’re the good guys, Keen!?

-The good guys? You control most of the world’s energy production, most of its economy, you have an army of robots, four superhuman agents, three of which are not American citizens by the way, advanced alien technology that you refuse to share, a heavily armed spaceship…

-Jealous much, Keen?

-I can’t ignore the fact that the Vanguard has the means to take over the world, Quantum.

-Yes you can, because we’d never doing something like that!

-You did it before. You want to discuss planet Myridia?

Quantum is left speechless. How could Keen know they briefly took control of Myridia after killing Demeter? His sister Kayla works for the government, but she doesn’t know about Myridia. Eris was briefly under custody, but she was exiled on Earth at the time. Quantum just can’t think of a retort fast enough, but he figures he has to do something when the President is staring at him.

-Just stop spying on me. You really don’t want to see my bad side.

Quantum disappears into a flash of light. President Keen leans on the desk of the Oval Office, catching his breath. He put on a brave face, but he was afraid Quantum would resort to violence.

Not only that, but Shinobu Tanaka was right… they really did take over an alien planet. And President Keen might really need him as a close ally.

 

Lipara, 10.000 light-years from Earth

Vesta doesn’t really mind the heat of the sea of molten lava. But while she’s sitting on a chair of neutral matter, with a Talos robot serving her a cup of ambrosia tea, it’s hard to forget these former slaves of Hephaestus are responsible for killing billions of people.

Tyche, sitting next to her, doesn’t seem to mind. She’s only concentrating on the female robot on the neutral matter throne, whose perfectly white chassis reflects the planet’s gloomy lights.

-Thank you for granting us this visit, Galatea IX. It’s a chance to renew our alliance.

-The Talos Collective left the Alliance because we weren’t considered as equals, Tyche.

-Because your robots kept attacking defenseless planets – Vesta reminds her.

-With my dear Hephaestus dead, we need other neutron stars to build other Talos units, which means we must expand our territory. Unless this option is on the table, there can be no alliance.

-How about this: you take over the Hekate sector, and I will officially recognize you as its ruler.-

Watching the evil smile grow on Galatea’s metal lips, Vesta recalls why she left divine politics.



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