Manhattan, New York City

Noriko Null has been where few mortals have gone before. She’s explored alien worlds, landed on a neutron star, drove a bike on the back of a space dragon, she’s gone to Hell and to other galaxies.

And yet, she feels that walking the hallway of this upscale apartment building is the hardest journey of her life. She stops in front of the door, biting her nails long enough to remember that her left arm isn’t even real anymore. Her artificial hand is twitching, a persistent glitch in the interface systems.

She rings the bell, feeling her heart beat faster. And for a moment she’d swear it just stopped, once Todd Slate opens the door.

-Noriko. That’s a surprise – her ex boyfriend greets her. Colder than how she remembers him.

-Hi. Can I, uhm, can I come in? – she asks. She’s discussed with presidents and gods, but when it comes to her personal life she feels pathetic every time she opens her mouth.

-Sure. Is everything okay? – he asks, easily seeing through her attempts to hide her distress.

Once inside, she can see that he clearly hasn’t finished moving: there are still unopened boxes, and most of the furniture is missing. She doesn’t need to be a genius to figure out what it means.

-You’re not planning to stay for long. You’re leaving New York?

-It’s a possibility. I’ll wait to see how the election goes.

-“The election”? – she asks, looking confused. Todd is so used to see her already aware of everything well in advanced that he almost doesn’t believe he has to ask:

-You that I’m running for Senator, right?

-You’re WHAT?

-You could you not know? I thought you knew everything!

-There are things I can learn only by connecting to the world consciousness. I haven’t done that since… – she answers, looking away and reflexively touching her artificial arm.

-Sorry. I didn’t come here to talk about my issues. I came to tell you that Kari’s getting married.

-I know. She invited me – he reveals.

-In hindsight, I shouldn’t be surprised that she called you before we could talk. I, uhm, I kind of made a scene when she told me. Did she…

-Try to turn this into a date to make us get back together? You know Kari, of course she did. But she said that if it makes us uncomfortable to go together, I can just be Vesta’s date.

-She’s a better friend than I’ve ever been – she sighs. When she looks up and stares at his eyes, she can feel her heart miss a beat again. He gets closer while she stutters:

-Unless, of course, if it makes you, you know, if you want, I, I wouldn’t mind, ah…

-You know you’ve hurt me, Noriko. You’ve said and done things I can’t forget.

-I know. I shouldn’t have come here – she answers abruptly, trying to walk towards the door; he grabs her hand, pulling her closer to stop her from leaving.

-I don’t regret what we shared. You’ll always be a part of my life – he says, kissing her forehead.

To his surprise, she reacts with a hug. And without saying a word, she starts unbuttoning his shirt.

 

Tanaka Tower, Tokyo, Japan

Kristen Lynn gets into the elevator alone, after bowing to one of the employees. She just has the time to press the button before feeling a hand on her shoulder and a voice saying:

-So how was the interview with… hey! – Max Black a.k.a. Quantum shouts, barely avoiding being punched in the face by the journalist.

-Max!? What are you doing here!?

-Shinobu’s office is protected; I don’t know how, but I can’t get inside.

-You could’ve waited for me at the hotel. I don’t care if you’re a super-hero: don’t. Stalk. Me.

-Sorry. How did the interview go? Have you found anything dirty on him yet?

-You can read my article for that. What do you want?

-I really want you to see the good that the Vanguard has done. Do you have plans for Thursday?

-Max, you’re a nice guy and all, but we never worked as a couple. I don’t want to go on a date.

-Not even on another planet?

Kristen has never moved as quickly as she does now, pressing the button to stop the elevator.

-As in, in space? Another world? – she asks.

-Yep. Kari’s getting married on her home planet and I’m invited, so…

-And Null is okay with me writing a story about it?

-Yes… and no. This is her proposal – Max reveals, using his N-Phone to project the hologram of a legal document. She skims through it, flipping the pages by gesturing at the image.

-You see, she doesn’t plan to keep this stuff secret forever. The day she decides to go public about what’s really happening in the Galaxy, you get the exclusive – Max summarizes.

-If I agree to let her decide when the public needs to know – Kristen comments, shutting off the hologram. She doesn’t seem entirely convinced, but she’s visibly very tempted.

-Well? What do you think?

-That I need to buy a dress. I have my doubts, Max; I just hope Null knows what she’s doing.

-C’mon Kris, this is Noriko we’re talking about. She always knows what she’s doing!

 

Manhattan, New York City

Noriko Null sits naked on the edge of the bed, contemplating her artificial hand.

-I have no idea of what I’m doing – she confesses.

Her voice wakes up Todd Slate, who isn’t really sure if she was talking to him; his attention is more for the numbers on his alarm clock.

-Nori, it’s three A.M. for Christ’s sake. How long have you been awake?

-Five days, three hours and forty-seven minutes – is her surprisingly precise answer.

-That’s a lot even for you. Is everything okay?

-I don’t know, Todd. It’s like… every time I try to sleep, I have these… these strange nightmares…

-You want to talk about them? – Todd asks, sitting on the bed and coming closer to her.

-There’s the one where I run a concentration camp with Nazis that wear my symbol instead of a swastika. There’s the one where Viper cuts off my limbs and lets Artemis rape me. That’s just slightly less disturbing than the one where I wake up surrounded by babies that call me mother. That one ends with me setting them on fire.

-They’re just dreams, Noriko – he reassures her, embracing her from behind

-I haven’t told anyone about them. I’m afraid they’ll think I’m going crazy again.

-C’mon, you’re not crazy. It’s normal to be scared for your first child.

-What? – she asks, looking down: Todd’s hands are on her belly, which is nine months pregnant. She jumps off the bed, fully into panic mode.

-No no no this isn’t real!!! – she says, running to the nearest door and opening it as fast as she can.

There’s a child waiting for her, a Japanese grade school girl.

-What’s wrong mommy? Who’s the pretty lady? – she asks, pointing at something behind Noriko.

She turns, only to see watch in horror a woman with green hair decapitate him with no effort. She tries to activate the Genius Gun, but it backfires as her artificial arm explodes for no reason.

-Wake up wake up wake up – she repeats: she knows this is just a dream, but the pain is real.

You thought you could do this forever, mortal? – Demeter asks, as a pair of metallic hands grab Noriko by the shoulders to lift her off the ground. Hands so hot that they burn her skin on contact.

<<YOU ARE NOT SMART ENOUGH TO CHANGE YOUR DESTINY>> – Hephaestus tells her.

-You’re not real… I killed you… – Noriko answers. The illusion of the Manhattan bedroom fades into the Throne Of The Universe, where a gigantic Selene and a much bigger Tiamat are watching.

You have blood on your hands, Null. Spilled for your own selfish desires – Selene accuses her.

You paint yourself as a hero, but your heart is as black as ours – Tiamat sentences.

-You’re just representations of my fears and doubts… you can’t hurt me – Noriko responds defiantly, despite how perfectly realistic her suffering is.

We don’t need to. You’ve brought this upon yourself – Demeter tells her, right before Noriko feels a terrible pain from her abdomen. She watches a bundle of mechanical tentacles burst out of her pregnant belly, then she wakes up.

 

Pyongyang, North Korea

Kim Yong-Su wakes up thanks to the sound of a terrified scream. Noriko is clearly in a state of shock, sweating and breathing irregularly. She frantically kicks off the sheets and checks herself: she’s still naked, but she’s not pregnant and she’s shaking.

-<What happened? Did you have a nightmare?> – he asks her in Korean, trying to touch her; she moves away, still in panic and visibly disoriented.

-Where am I? What am I doing here? – she asks in English.

-<You’re in my house. Where you dropped yesterday, don’t you remember?>

-No I don’t remember!!! What… what did you do to… wait, what color are my eyes?

-<I don’t understand if you talk English so fast> – he admits.

-<What color are my eyes?> – she repeats in Korean, covering herself with the sheets while trying to look where she put her clothes.

-<I don’t understand what’s happening. Are you on drugs?>

<WHAT COLOR ARE MY FU##ING EYES!?!?> she yells to his face, her eyes shining. Kim may be a former soldier, but she’s scaring him to death right now.

-<Silver? They’re silver. Maybe we should call a doctor?>

-This can’t be happening. This can’t be fu##ing happening – she mumbles, struggling to put her pants back on. She’s tracing her last memories: she was with Todd, they were talking, they started kissing… and nothing. She absolutely can’t remember how she got back in Korea.

-<Okay. Listen. This never happened, okay? Don’t talk to anybody about… > – she stops while she’s still putting her T-shirt back on, when she notices that Kim has reached for his cellphone: she grabs it immediately, crushing it with her artificial hand.

-<Why did you do that? You’re crazy!> – he says.

-<If you tell anyone, ANYONE, ANYTHING about what happened here, I will end you, understand? One word, ONE, and I will turn this country into a crater, UNDERSTAND!?>

-Why take the risk? – a woman behind her back asks, shooting Kim with a weapon that makes Kim explode from the inside out, covering Noriko with his blood. But when she turns it’s not Abyss that’s holding the Terror Gun: it’s her mother Leiko.

-The Nexus will destroy your soul, child. You’re just delaying the inevitable.

Noriko jumps at her, but Leiko fires the Terror Gun directly at her head, making it explode.

 

Manhattan, New York City

Todd Slate is holding Noriko’s hands: he didn’t know what to expect when he stopped her from unbuttoning his shirt, but it wasn’t seeing her freeze up like that.

-Are you okay, Noriko? – he asks her; she snaps back to reality, walking away from him. All of a sudden she’s pale as a ghost and shaking.

-I have to get out of here – she says, quickly walking towards the door; she stops just to check her reflection, confirming her eyes are still silver.

Once in the hallway she leans her back against the wall and tries to calm down: suddenly she’s having trouble breathing. She takes her N-Phone while repeating:

-It’s just a panic attack. Just a panic attack. Just a panic attack.

<Brain scan completed. No sign of alternate brainwaves detected. Warning: highly unstable oscillatory brain activity detected. Medical attention is advised> – the phone diagnoses.

-Don’t be ridiculous. I just need a little sleep, I’ll buy some pills at the nearest pharmacy.

<Loading automated response programmed by Null: “Remind me to never self-medicate again”>

-Nobody asked you – she replies, removing the battery from the phone and leaving it on the floor as she walks towards the exit.



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