Null Tower, New York City

Noriko Null steps out of the elevator, closely followed by Max Black a.k.a. Quantum. She’s surrounded by a dozen holographic screens displaying a variety of equations, programs, chemical formulas and blueprints, all digitalized by the N-watch she’s wearing. Interfacing directly with her brain, the N-watch leaves her hands free to grab the espresso cup handed over by a Null-bot.

-…and before that I need to finish engineering new Godstones using only materials I can find on Earth, which I’ll need for the Mark IV Genius Gun as well. But supervising the new reactors and assembling the anti-Oracle satellite network takes precedence, I need them for when I’ll have the spaceship prototype ready for launch. Oh, and tonight I had an idea on how to use the adaptive properties of the Many genome to cure cancer, I’d like to have something for when I testify before Congress next month, because I know that when I’ll be at the economic summit the press won’t understand anything about the new economic system I’m going to propose, and that’s assuming that any of the finance ministers there understand it in the first place.

Noriko drinks her coffee, giving Max the first chance to utter a single word he’s had for a long time.

-What was my question again? – he asks, lost in her endless flow of words.

-“How’s it going?” – she reminds him.

-Seemed innocuous enough at the time.

-Look Max, I’m really busy right now. My deal with Artemis bought us some time, but we don’t know how long it will last: we need to be ready to defend Earth. I understand you want to know what happened to your sister and I do find the fact that I know nothing about Project Silver immensely frustrating, but right now…

-No I know, don’t worry, Kari and I can handle it. I just wanted to know if you want to hang out.

Noriko gives the cup back to the Nullbots, and looks at Max like he just landed from Mars.

-“Hang out” – she repeats.

-Yeah, y’know, as friends. We never see each other unless someone’s trying to kill somebody. Kari and Vesta have come over to my place a couple of times. Heck, even Torn’s shared a beer with me.

 

The evening before

Torn is sitting at the bar, hunched over his beer. He didn’t say a word coming in that didn’t involve ordering alcohol. You’d think more people would notice a guy with red skin, but it takes a long time before an attractive woman approaches him saying:

-Hey, nice tattoos!

-I prefer beer – he answers.

-I mean your skin. Is that like bodypaint?

-No.

-I like that trenchcoat. Where did you buy it?

-I skinned a rathicorian bear.

-I don’t get it.

-You can’t get it here. They live on Rathicor.

-I…think I’m going to leave now – are the last words she says to him, almost bumping into Max who rapidly takes his place next to the red-skinned alien.

-Well, look who finally decided to step out of the Tower. What are you drinking?

-Beer.

Waiting for Torn to say something, anything else, Max tries to break the ice.

-Any particular kind of beer?

-Cold.

-You don’t talk much, do you?

-No.

-Yeah I figured. Enjoying Earth so far?

-Yes. Lousy drinks though.

-You know I just can’t figure you out, man. You leave your planet to join the Vanguard and risk your life for us, and we hardly ever talk. We’re the only two guys on the team, we should stick together right?

Torn finally turns his head to look Max in the eye, without moving a muscle on his stony face.

-Are you suggesting an allegiance against Null?

-What!? No!!! I just mean we should be nice to each other, that kind of stuff.

-I see – Torn nods, turning his eyes back to the glass of beer.

-I’m just saying you’re not an easy person to read. I’m not even sure we’re friends.

-I saw you stand up to a goddess. That day, I learned all I need to know about you – Torn says, drinking his beer.

-Is that good or bad? With that voice coming out of a movie trailer it’s difficult to tell.

-What’s a movie?

-Nevermind. I need a beer every time we talk, Torn.

-Me too. Good times.

 

Now

The door to Noriko’s lab opens automatically as she passes by.

-I know I’m going to regret asking but what in the world is the point of this discussion, Max?

-You’re too busy. You need to relax or you’ll crash and burn.

-Max, you do remember that I’m directly responsible for thousands of employees, that I recently bought one of the largest technological empires in the world, and that my work is the best and possibly only line of defense this planet has against an entire galaxy filled with mentally unstable gods that want to enslave us all, right? I can’t just drop everything to “hang out”.

-And yet, your father has asked me to keep an eye on you. What does that tell you, Nori?

-That I am smarter than my father.

Max throws his hands in the air: who would’ve thought that talking to Torn would easy by comparison? But he owes everything to Noriko…his powers, the chance to make a difference, to witness impossible things up close and kick them in the face. No matter what, he will find a way to repay her.

-You want me to say it? Fine: you’re smarter than me, than all the Vanguard put together. WE KNOW. But you were  imprisoned by the Oracles, almost had a mental breakdown TWICE, discovered how horrible your mother is, and you haven’t had a single day off since you got that Nexus thing stuck inside your brain. Don’t tell me your ego is so big you can’t see that you MIGHT need some time off.

Noriko doesn’t answer immediately. She just stares back at him with her silver eyes, with that death stare that has literally made gods take a step back.

-Fine – she says with exasperation.

-So. Ready to have fun? – Max asks, crossing his arms triumphantly.

-Only if I get to choose the method.

-It can’t involve reverse engineering or people trying to kill us.

-You’re making it difficult on purpose, aren’t you?

-Yep.

-Of course you are…

 

Queen Hotel, New York

Kari and Vesta are standing before the five-star hotel. Kari is gathering the most attention thanks to her purple hair, but Vesta is unrecognizable since her hair is currently short and black instead of shoulder-length and bright red as usual. She goes as unnoticed and possible for a woman with the body of a goddess and an orange tube top.

-You’re sure this is the right place? – Vesta asks.

-IRIS says so. Erika Rhys has lived in the penthouse for the last month – Kari answers.

-That’s odd. It probably costs something like 500$ a night. Max’s sister’s girlfriend makes that much money?

-I have no idea. There is no record of a woman with her name that matches her description; it’s worth checking out. Ready to give me a lift?

-What?

-The penthouse is up there, we’re down here, and you can fly – Kari explains.

-I don’t like the idea of breaking into her room. In fact, I don’t even want to know how you used IRIS to learn where she lives.

-Fine, just get me on the balcony, I’ll break in by myself.

-Can’t Max do this? He can get inside completely invisible and intangible.

-Oh so you’re fine with someone else invading privacy? Get real Vesta, we need to get to the bottom of this.

-This better be worth it…

 

The penthouse

As soon as the lock’s been picked, Kari creates four duplicates to search more efficiently. Vesta follows her, floating barefoot a few inches off the ground. She was never into luxury, but she has to admit the place is pretty impressive.

-I don’t see anything suspicious. Let’s get out of here.

-Are you kidding me!? Just look at this closet! – Kari exclaims, opening a closet much bigger than several places where Vesta has lived.

-I don’t get it. It’s an empty closet, what’s suspicious about that?

-Where are her clothes? Even on Myridia I owned more than one set of clothes. I bet even you do!

-Well actually…I don’t sweat or get dirty or hot or cold so… – Vesta admits, causing the immortal goddess who can split mountains with her bare hands to blush.

-Found something! – one of the duplicates shouts from the other side of the penthouse.

-You don’t get off that easily, I’m taking you shopping when we’re done – Kari tells Vesta, before joining her duplicates.

What they find is a pile of books, newspapers and magazines. Kari concentrates on the magazines, while Vesta immediately notices two books that don’t seem to belong to the collection.

-Everything looks brand new except these: they’re much older.

-I can’t read them – Kari says after a quick glance at the covers: they’re not in English.

-This one is in German. “Four billion years of solitude, the geological history of Greenland”, written by… Heinrich Null?

-Boy does that ring a bell. Can you read the other one too?

-It’s Japanese. “Historiography of Greek mythology” by Noriko Wakahisa. The grandmother of our Noriko, except nobody’s supposed to know that. This isn’t making any sense.

-At least she wasn’t lying when she said she was a fan – Kari adds, holding a handful of books and magazines: Noriko, her inventions and her impact on society are on each cover.

While her duplicates are busy cataloguing what they found, the original summarizes:

-So to recap: she’s inexplicably rich, doesn’t own more than one set of clothes, and is obsessed by Noriko to the point of reading a book about rocks written by her great-grandfather. What else?

-All the other books are about civil wars and riots. Gods, you really had a lot of those on Earth – one of the duplicates answers. Vesta adds:

-Don’t remind me. As much as I find all of this suspicious, however, none of it is illegal. We should leave before she returns.

-Good idea. Maybe Noriko can figure out what…

-Not today. Max’s party, remember?

-Oh, right. I keep forgetting that Earth people do one thing at a time.

-Which makes me wonder if Erika is from Earth – Vesta suggests, looking once again at the odd combination of subjects in the books they found.



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