The Capitol, Washington D.C.

The press has been waiting for this. The 24-hour news networks have been talking about this since sunrise, and now they can finally point their cameras at the action.

The roar of the Phoenix NX-1 signals the arrival of Noriko Null. Dozens of flashes illuminate the billionaire teenager as she gets off the hyper-technological motorbike.

She’s wearing her trademark green leather jacket, but this is her first public appearance without jeans and T-shirt. She’s traded them for a short-sleeved white office blouse and ankle length pants.

She takes off her helmet, revealing aviator sunglasses and tiny earrings shaped like her symbol Ø. With the press of a hidden button, the helmet suddenly becomes so soft that she can fold it and put it in her purse, like a scarf.

When she’s done and walks away from the Phoenix, the bike turns on by itself and starts revving up. Most of the press is too focused on the bike that drives itself away from the Capitol to bother Noriko.

A few brave ones follow her in the unflinching walk up the stairs, knowing well that it’s a lost cause: everybody knows that Noriko Null doesn’t give interviews.

 

Todd Slate is waiting for her, on the other side of the metal detector. Smiling.

-I look ridiculous – is the first thing she says to her new head of public relations.

-I told you it would work. Everybody’s already talking about the bike and the clothes: as far as the general public is concerned, this is a victory lap for you.

-And you’re still convinced that it was absolutely necessary for me to, and I quote, “girl it up a bit”.

-Well, yeah, you can’t impress America looking like a high school dropout. Not in the right way.

-I am a high school dropout.

-You don’t look like one now. But did you have to keep the combat boots?

-If you want to go ahead and try driving a transonic motorbike with high heels, be my guest.

-Well you may not like it, but I think you’re…

-If you call me “cute”, Slate, I’m gonna test my new Genius Gun on you.

-Now don’t go all sentimental on me.

 

Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker

This is one of the most secure places on the planet. It houses the Alternative Command Center of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD.

Although the day-to-day operations of NORAD are now at the nearby Peterson Air Force Base, the bunker is still one of the few places in the world capable to withstand a direct nuclear blast.

Beautiful Cancer tried to sneak in a few times in the previous decades, but security is more than airtight. Fortunately for her, she’s now possessing the body of someone who’s been working here for the past two years: Major Juliana Vazquez.

Even looking through the Major’s memories, however, there is no mention of anything called Project Silver.

“No wonder Leiko couldn’t find it alone. Even people working at NORAD don’t know it exists” she understands. Still, looking through official records of all visits, she manages to find a familiar name: Kayla Black is listed as having security clearance for something called “sub-level 28”.

Beautiful Cancer smiles.

 

Tokyo, Japan

Leiko Tanaka is accustomed to secrecy. She hid her connection to the Core when she was a child, hid her past to Bob when she was a teenager, hid her plans for Earth to the Mortal Liberation Front, hid her family’s connection to organized crime to her political allies, hid the source of her massive personal wealth to the stockholders of Scion Corporation…she’s been hiding something her whole life. These days, she’s hiding herself.

-Are we ready to begin? – she asks.

The only other people in the room are her genetically engineered servants, alien artificial lifeforms shaped like women. The latest batch of watered-down copies of the Many.

They don’t talk. Instead it’s a metal sphere, the size of a baseball, floating in mid-air next to Leiko’s throne that says:

In a moment. The Olympian devices I’m adapting are primitive enough without all this pathetic excuse for technology leeching its power.

-Are you sure Null is not aware of our efforts?

The Nexus is capable of absorbing all information on the planet, but its primitive host is not advanced enough to access anything that isn’t shared by at least a thousand primates. As long as you keep your inner circle smaller than that, the host will be even more clueless than other humans.

-Good. Losing direct control of Scion Corporation was a considerable blow to our operations, but at least it will make it easier to keep a low profile.

If you’re done wasting time with your kind, the system is operational.

One of the servants presents her a high-tech visor resting on a silk cushion. Leiko hesitates, glancing at the screens surrounding her throne: most of them show maps of various nations, but one is transmitting live the Senate hearing.

-Wait. Let’s see how this is going.

 

The Capitol, Washington D.C.

Senator Keen pauses dramatically, pouring water in his glass. He’s taking his time to make sure all eyes are on him, and it’s working.

Everybody knows that this hearing is happening only because of him. He was a vocal opposer of Noriko’s handling of the Talos attack and has been pushing for increased government oversight both for Null Technologies and for the actions of Quantum and Vesta. Considering the rising popularity of both heroes he was ridiculed for months, until Noriko caused the worst blackout in New York history. Now that public opinion has started to question Noriko, it’s his time to shine.

-Thank you for finally clearing your schedule for this hearing, miss Null. It really shows how much you value the right of the American people to learn how you jeopardized their lives.

-I wouldn’t put it that way – Noriko says. The cameras love to focus on her death stare: it’s clear she really can’t stand Senator Keen.

-Really? You’ll have to excuse me, miss Null, but I’m not a scientific genius like you. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how exactly a device that sucks all the electricity of a major American city can be defined as anything but a very irresponsible thing to build.

-The Negative Drive was not designed to do that. It was an accident. I fixed it. End of story.

-Would you care to explain how you fixed it, miss Null?

-I sent it into space.

-And would you care to tell us what happened to this “Negative Drive” in space, miss Null?

Before Noriko can answer, Todd whispers something in her ear. She clearly isn’t pleased by what he said, and begrudgingly replies to the Senator:

-I don’t know.

-You don’t know? – Keen repeats, incredulous.

-I don’t know.

-My apologies, miss Null. It seems you have an overzealous press agent, because I used to think you know everything. But, please, let me enlighten you.

Noriko is clinging nervously to her chair, getting angrier by the minute. The fact that Senator Keen is taking his sweet time to continue, theatrically sorting the pages of the large binder in front of him, is making things worse. Todd whispers again:

-Keep calm. If you make a scene people won’t remember anything else.

-I will not be patronized by a piteously small-minded opportunist – she whispers back.

-Ah, here it is. Are you familiar with NASA, miss Null? They have satellites that detected the sudden appearance of your so-called Negative Drive a little over the Moon’s orbit. According to their report that I have right in front of me, it exploded with the equivalent of 64 megatons.-

There is absolute silence following this statement. Senator Keen lets the idea sink in, especially for viewers at home, before continuing.

-Sixty-four megatons, miss Null. Let me quote further. “The device was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested. Had the explosion happened in New York City, where the device was supposed to be located seconds before the explosion, the resulting heat and blast pressure would have instantly killed from seven to ten million people”.

-The Negative Drive was not a nuclear weapon. It was an interstellar engine.

-But it did explode, miss Null, didn’t it? It shows that your technology is immensely dangerous.

-I have already given full collaboration to the authorities to reassure them that such an accident will not happen again, Senator Keen.

-Come to think of it, miss Null, a lot of strange things have happened in New York City in the last months. A meteor strike, a robot attack, and now this explosion. How many experiments have already put the lives of the American people in danger, miss Null?

-I had nothing to do with the meteor. And the Vanguard defeated the robot.

-Ah, yes, “the Vanguard”. A man that turns into energy and a flying woman who shoots fire. And apparently they’ve been joined by a man that paints himself red and carries energy swords, and a legion of armored women. Any other experiments we should know about, miss Null?

-Why are you doing this, Keen? – Noriko asks, standing up. Todd tries to convince her to sit down again, but she’ll have none of this.

-It’s because of the Plasma Reactors, isn’t it? My technology is making the entire energy business obsolete, and I know oil tycoons have you in their pockets.

I don’t think antagonizing him is a good idea” thinks a voice from Noriko’s mind.

He’s not worthy to speak to you. Cut out his heart” adds another voice.

“Hey, don’t you start again! There’s already too many personalities in here!”

“Shut up, both of you! I can’t think with all of you talking inside my head!” Noriko thinks back.

-Your technology, miss Null, is a danger to America! But I don’t expect someone with your family history to have much interest in the safety of the American people.

-Leave. My family. Out of this – Noriko spells out. Her silver eyes begin to shine.

Oh crap. This won’t end well” – one personality thinks.

-Why should we? – the Senator insists.

This is insolence. Rip his heart out in retribution” – another personality suggests.

What is it with you and hearts!?

-Why should we put our lives in the hands of a visibly unstable teenager with questionable loyalty to the United States?

 

Tokyo, Japan

Leiko has heard enough. She wears the visor, crosses her legs showing off the slit in her long black skirt, and finally declares through the radio:

-This is the Empress of Shadows. Operation Dark Dawn begins now.

 

The Capitol, Washington D.C.

Noriko slams her fist on the desk, shouting:

-BECAUSE I’M-

The other words (which would’ve been “smarter than you”) are drowned by the sound of the explosion. There’s no time to understand what’s going on: two dozen people wearing black uniforms and face-concealing masks have busted in through the hole in the wall, firing their machine guns at the ceiling.

 



Ø
End of issue. Click below to navigate chapters.