The Kremlin, Moscow

Dmitry Voron doesn’t like coming here. He’d much rather stay in his lab without other people bothering him than going through the trouble of passing the many hurdles of security, especially since he doesn’t even like the man who’s shaking his hand.

-Doctor Voron. One would think that a man of your intellectual stature would be capable of getting an appointment instead of showing up unannounced.

-You know I wouldn’t come all the way to Moscow if it wasn’t important, Vlad.

-It’s “Prime Minister” – the man clarifies, clearly bothered by Voron’s casual tone.

-I have something to show you. And as I’ve already explained too many times today, it’s not a bomb… you have to work harder on the scientific education of your security personnel – Voron says, positioning a small metallic device on the floor. The Prime Minister has learned to tolerate his lack of respect, considering Voron is almost single-handedly responsible for all of Russia’s advancements in superhuman warfare.

He expects almost anything from him at this point, except for the device to project a hologram of Leiko Tanaka: former Minister of Defense of Japan, former close ally of the Prime Minister, and as far as the world is concerned… formerly alive.

Thank you for accepting this unconventional meeting, mister Prime Minister – she says in Russian, with a rather heavy Japanese accent.

-The fact that you are still alive doesn’t surprise me at all, miss Tanaka. The fact that you would risk revealing that, considering what you did during the Guild invasion, that is indeed surprising.

-I don’t think she can use her mind-controlling technology anymore – Voron reassures him.

I don’t want to open old wounds, Prime Minister, but I do want to talk about the past.

-You have five minutes before I ask Null to track your signal – the politician threatens.

My mother was a historian. She taught me the importance of learning history. So when I discovered the existence of alien civilizations far older than our own, I did all I could to learn about them. From my conversations with the Mortal Liberation Front, the Core and the Scribe, I pieced together the clues to something that remains a secret for most of the Galaxy… humans are not the first technological species to rule Earth.

-This is ridiculous. Even if we know that aliens exist, the thought that they lived here is laughable: they would have left some sort of evidence – the Prime Minister comments.

They called themselves the Lar, and Earth was one of their research outposts millions of years ago. I know this because I am currently residing on the last remaining Lar planet.

-I assume there is a practical reason for this history lesson – Voron interrupts her.

Indeed. The current Lar monarch, the Winter King, is coming to Earth to force Noriko Null to marry him. Once he understands that Earth is former Lar territory, he will immediately seize it.

-The Scribe attacked Earth. Null beat him so badly that his fleet doesn’t exist anymore.

True, Voron. But the Scribe attacked with his modest personal fleet. The Winter Kingdom spans 247 worlds, and the Winter King himself… he’s more powerful than the Vanguard combined.

-If what you say is true, what can we do to stop him?

You can’t. But while he deals with the Vanguard, your forces can prevent the United States from interfering. Once the Winter King has conquered Earth, he won’t stay here to rule it personally… he will assign a representative. I can’t trust Null, the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Japan… which leaves you.

-And yourself. With all this talk about aliens, the part I have the hardest time believing is the idea that you’re not interested in ruling the world, Tanaka – the Prime Minister tells her.

I have my eyes on 247 other worlds.

-You want to overthrow this “Winter King”? You said he’s quite powerful – Voron says.

Beyond your worst nightmares. But that doesn’t make him more dangerous than me.

 

Colorado Springs, Colorado

If anyone was looking at the house right now, they’d see an African-American man appear out of nowhere right on the driveway. Of course it’s not exactly a coincidence: Max Black a.k.a. Quantum quickly scanned the area before transforming from infrared radiation to flesh and blood.

-Of all places – he shrugs, ringing the doorbell. He could have materialized inside, but he knows his sister appreciates her privacy. When Kayla Black opens the door, it’s extremely clear from the look in her eyes that she really didn’t expect to see her brother today.

-Max? What are you doing here!?

-Do I need a reason to visit my favorite sister? – he tries to joke, but she crosses her arms and gives him a stern look when she asks:

-I moved here six months ago. What took you so long?

-You live on the other side of the country!

-Which is what, half a second for you? C’mon Max, you never visit me unless you’ve screwed up something. What is it this time? – she sighs.

-Aren’t you going to introduce me? – another woman intervenes, coming towards the door. She’s a tall woman of Hispanic descent and very short hair.

-This is my brother Max, from New York. Max, this is my girlfriend Miranda.

-Or Lieutenant Colonel Juárez in case you were thinking of causing trouble – she jokes.

-Nice to meet you. Can I borrow Kayla for a couple of minutes? If I take too much, feel free to send the Army against me.

-Air Force, actually. Sure, go ahead, but I’m counting the seconds – Miranda says, leaving brother and sister alone. Kayla closes the door and practically drags Max away.

-She seems nice. You’re sure she’s not a secret agent or an alien spy, right? – he asks.

-I can take care of myself, Max, if that’s what worries you. Look, not that I don’t appreciate your visit, but I don’t have many opportunities for some R&R, so…

-Does she know you’re a superhero? – he asks bluntly, at least having the good sense of whispering.

-She doesn’t ask and I don’t tell, but we met during a military exercise in Fort Carson, so I think she figured out I’m Blue Star. Not that I get many assignments lately…

-I get the feeling. Vesta is helping out the relief efforts, but I don’t have much to do. It’s so frustrating, you know? I could blow up half the planet, but there’s nothing I can do against a hurricane without making things worse.

-Welcome to my world: ever since Keen became President, I’m getting less and less work.

-Noriko thinks he’s dirty. What’s your read on the guy, Kayla?

-Well I haven’t talked much with him, but I think he’s just scared of people with super-powers. And who can blame him, after Artemis and the Guild invasion? Sometimes I even scare myself, and I’m not anywhere as powerful as your own team – she admits.

-You’re not the first person to tell me something like this. You know, this is one of the reasons why I keep a civilian identity: Noriko can know everything, but she’s so focused on space politics that she can’t see how the public views her. Todd kept her in check, but now that he’s gone…

-Tell her to be careful, Max. It won’t take much to ruin her public image, trust me: there are already way too many conspiracy theories about her.

-What kind of… – Max begins to ask, but stops when he hears a voice he doesn’t recognize.

Hello? Are you receiving me? – the voice asks.

-Who are you? How did you get into this channel!? – Max asks, looking around suspiciously.

-Who are you talking to? – Kayla wonders.

-It’s coming through the Neural Transmitter. You’re not hearing anything?

I am transmitting this message directly into your brain; nobody else can hear me.

-Yeah, that’s not creepy at all. Do I know you?

Dmitry Ivanovich Voron. I suggest you to find an isolated spot to continue this conversation: I know from personal experience that talking with someone invisible can be suspicious.

-Max, what’s going on? – Kayla asks, not hearing a single word.

-Can we continue this conversation another time? Some weird Russian dude’s hacking my brain right now – Max tells his sister, vanishing into thin air in the blink of an eye.

-Did he really just say what I think he said? – she wonders, scratching her head.

 

The Grand Canyon

A few seconds later, Max Black a.k.a. Quantum sits down on the rocks. There’s nobody around him, for several miles in every direction.

-Why can’t I trace your signal? – he asks to the voice in his head.

Because I am a genius. Can you put me in contact with Null? She did not give me her phone number after our date.

-Can’t imagine why. Is this your idea of asking a girl out!?

I have important matters to discuss with her, and this time I can’t travel outside Russia without my government finding out.

-Why? I thought you were Russia’s Einstein or something.

Actually I think his reputation is overrated, but that’s beside the point. Someone called the Winter King plans to invade Earth, and the Prime Minister of Russia is going to help him.

-That sounds really, really bad. How do you know about this?

I would prefer to discuss things with Null, just ask her to contact me. She’ll know how… she’s Null. And tell her to hurry… I also have critical information about her mother.

-Sure, I’ll… wait wait wait. You know who her mother is!? Hello? Hello? – Max repeats, without hearing anything anymore: Voron just hung up on him.

-Where does she keep finding these weirdos – he shrugs, transforming into a beam of light.

 

Seoul, South Korea

Noriko Null is poking with her chopsticks at the sushi on her plate. Few people would suspect her of being the American billionaire: she’s not wearing her trademark green leather jacket but a rather plain grey sweater, and this is just a relatively cheap Japanese restaurant.

-We can go somewhere else if you don’t like it – her date, Yong-Su Kim, reassures her.

-What? No, it’s great, really. I was just thinking about this one time I had sushi in China. With… uhm… with my ex boyfriend. I mean, with who later became my boyfriend – she reluctantly admits.

-Good memory or bad memory?

-A little of both. We became more than friends that day, but I was also almost killed by an alien cyborg assassin and I had a heart attack.

-You certainly have an interesting life.

-You don’t know the half of it – she answers, going back to look at her food; Yong-Su surprises her by suddenly touching her hand. She doesn’t tell him it’s the prosthetic one.

-What if I wanted to know more about it? About the Null that the rest of the world doesn’t see?

-I’m not sure it’s a good idea. She’s very dangerous.

-I was a soldier, remember. I’m pretty tough.

-I’m warning you, she’s in a league of her own. Most people find her intimidating.

-Some guys like a challenge – he responds, getting a little closer. She didn’t even realize they were flirting until halfway into the conversation. It’s one of the moments when she hates having a super-fast brain: her mind is suddenly bombarded by a thousand thoughts in less than a second. Should she encourage him, after how the last relationship with a co-worker ended? Should she take the chance to find some happiness or keep him away from her dangerous life? Should she follow Hades’ advice and kill Helios or was it just a trap? How long will she be able to keep the hallucinations from coming back? And why is Quantum suddenly in the room with them?

-Hey Nori, you got a minute? – he asks. Obviously having a super-hero suddenly appear causes the entire restaurant to focus on them, and there would be dozens of people taking pictures of her if she hadn’t disabled all cameras as soon as she entered the building.

-Just one time I’d like to have a date without some kind of emergency – she sighs.



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