Midgard Station, Antarctica

In front of a large window over a frozen valley of Earth’s coldest continent, Noriko Null is relaxing inside a bathtub of expensive hinoki wood. It was perhaps a little indulgent to include a traditional Japanese bathtub inside a state-of-the-art and Top Secret research facility, but it was worth every penny: she could stay forever soaking into the hot water.

Unfortunately for her, she hears the sound she was dreading: the buzzing of an alarm, followed by the footsteps of three robots who walk in unison.

Mistress Null. Construction is completed – one of the Nullbots tells her, presenting the strange object it’s keeping in its hands: a left arm.

Noriko stands up, unashamed to be naked in the presence of three robots without eyes, and stretches out the stump of the arm amputated at the elbow, allowing the robot to connect it to the new arm.

The second robot is holding a new set of clothes, carefully folded to keep on top the black T-shirt with the white Ø symbol. The third one carries a couple of Genius Guns, which catch the first rays of the Sun rising above the Antarctic snow.

-Alright. Let’s get the show on the road – she says, closing her new fist: it’s glowing with electricity.

 

The White House, Washington D.C.

Leiko Tanaka has been here before, both when she was the CEO of Scion Corporation and when she served as Japan’s Minister of Defense. But today is something else: the light of her alien fluorescent blue dress illuminates the ice statues that trap the members of the Secret Service, and the sound of her heels echoes in the frozen state residence.

She walks past the Lar soldiers that salute her like the royalty that she is, taking her time to reach the Oval Office.

She finds President Keen, the most powerful man in the world, sitting at the Resolute Desk and looking absolutely terrible. She can’t blame him: the temperature of the entire planet has dropped below freezing temperature, his entire staff is either dead or frozen, and the military might of the most formidable military force on the planet just barely managed to destroy one enemy ship.

She realizes now that she underestimated the power of the Winter King: he was able to win even if Russia did not deliver the help they promised. And yes, they will pay for that, of course.

-You’re here to gloat? – the President asks her. He hasn’t slept for one minute, and it shows.

-You’re alive. You should be grateful for your King’s mercy – she tells him.

-He’s not my king. America will never surrender – he declares, talking not only to her but to the armored man that is looking at a portrait of George Washington.

I have yet to understand, Leiko, how your kind managed to survive for so long while being unable to respect their superiors.

-Don’t trouble yourself with such trivial issues, my lord. Earth will soon learn the advantages of joining the Winter Kingdom, especially now that I have this – she says, presenting to the Winter King a small black box with the red symbol for infinity on it.

This… could it be? After so long? – he says, taking the object in his gloved hands.

-The Black Box, yes, my lord. The combined knowledge of the entire Lar Empire.

How could you possibly have found it? My family has been searching it for ages!

-The Lar used Earth as a research station far earlier than the rise of human civilization, so when I found Egyptian hieroglyphics on Boreas, I realized the Lar were keeping an eye on this planet after leaving. When the Palladium isolated this solar system from the rest of the Galaxy, the knowledge of its location would’ve faded as well.

Do you realize what this means, Leiko? Hundreds of millions of years of technological advancement, thought to be forever lost to time, are now in my hands.

-Perhaps… our hands? – Leiko asks, getting closer to place her hand on the Winter King’s chest. His armor is so cold that she loses the sensation on her fingertips.

-Noriko has rejected your proposal. But you are a King, and you should have a Queen.

You wish to rule by my side?

-According to Lar tradition, any act of bravery by a subject must be recognized by the King. I just gave you the means to conquer the Galaxy, my lord; other than being granted the supreme honor to serve you as your wife, what other gift would be adequate? – she asks, touching the Black Box together with him.

She is shivering, and not just because of the cold. She’s been working to get to this point ever since Noriko exiled her to that frozen planet, and the anticipation is killing her.

Kneel before your lord – he tells her, and she obliges immediately.

Leiko Tanaka of Earth. Upon the name of your ancestors, do you solemnly swear unrelenting loyalty towards the Lar and their legitimate ruler?

-I do.

Then by the powers invested in me by the blood of my ancestors, I hereby elevate your rank to be second only to that of the Winter King. Rise, Leiko, first of your name as my Ice Queen.

-Just like that? That’s it? – President Keen comments. Both Leiko and the Winter King look at him, surprised to see him find the courage to stand up to them.

-A few words and you betray your own planet!?

-My lord. My authority upon our subjects is now second only to yours, is it not?

Your word is law now, Ice Queen. Your desires are inescapable orders.

-Then please, kill this man for disrespecting me.

As you wish – the Winter King answers, pointing his finger at President Keen and ready to freeze him to death… until he hears a strange sound coming from an object on the desk. He seems confused by it, waiting for the President to slowly pick up the phone.

-What are you waiting for!? Kill him! – Leiko protests.

He’s the leader of his people. Honor dictates that I respect his duties until I kill him.

-Hello? Y-yes. Yes he’s… he’s here. Hold on – President Keen answers, then with his hands shaking reaches for the button on the phone that puts the call on speaker.

-It’s for you – the President tells the Winter King.

So I heard you wrecked my Tower. Bad move, your majesty, bad move.

Null – the Winter King growls.

Oh, just so you know, I’m about to broadcast our little chat to the entire world and to your ships, so let’s keep it clean, okay? Hold on a second.

-We can track the signal and atomize her from orbit – Leiko suggests.

Is it on? I think it’s on. This is Noriko Null, speaking live to the jerk who’s responsible for freezing a perfectly good planet, the Winter King. And since we’ve already done enough damage to Earth, I figured we shouldn’t drag this out.

I agree. I will find you and put an end to any thoughts of rebellion.

Fine by me. Tell you what: come find me at 76° South 134°42′ West, and we’ll fight it out.

“She giving away her coordinates!?” Leiko thinks, wondering if her daughter has gone mad.

One on one, no backup, no allies. If you win, Earth is yours. If I win, you get the hell out of my planet and never come back. So what do you say, Winter King?

I accept your challenge, Noriko Null.

Great. See you there in one hour, and don’t be late.

 

Midgard Station, Antarctica

Noriko Null arrives at the office room that the team has rapidly adopted as their meeting place.

Almost everybody else at the base is here: the rest of the Vanguard, including the frozen Vesta, Voron, Red Star, Kayla Black and Lily. Only dr. Kalama and Nalani are missing.

The first thing Noriko sees is the Nullbot serving her a cup of espresso; the second is Max Black a.k.a. Quantum shouting:

-Are you out of your freakin’ mind!?

-I see you’ve rested well – she deadpans, taking a sip of coffee.

-Why did you give our position to the Winter King? We threw everything we had at him and look at what that got us! – he insists, pointing at Vesta: the goddess is just a frozen statue now, so cold that the air around her is still getting colder.

-I’ve got this. Put this on her wrist – she tells him, showing him something she just pulled out of her leather jacket. It looks like a metal bracelet with a tiny screen on it.

-I invented it last night. It’s a miniaturized magnetic trap – she explains.

-What’s it gonna do? – he asks, being careful not to touch Vesta as he places the device on her.

-Confine her atoms in a specially shaped arrangement of electric and magnetic fields.

-Is that going to free her?

-Not until you shoot her with a laser.

-I tried to do that – Kayla intervenes – even the most powerful laser I can generate can’t heat her up.

-I know. Which is exactly why we’re about to do the exact opposite – Noriko reveals.

-Wait, I don’t get it: you want to use a laser to make her colder!? – Kari asks.

-Laser cooling? It’s never been done on such a macroscopic scale – Voron notes.

-I know. But I figured out how to control the laser to reduce the thermal vibrations of atoms on a human scale – Noriko explains.

-So… you built a freezing ray? – Max asks Noriko.

-More of a freezing field generator, but yeah. Do you mind? – she says, pointing at Vesta.

-Man, I love my job – Max comments, transforming his index finger into a single beam of light.

The energy is intercepted by the field, bouncing inside it repeatedly. The photons reduce the temperature in the air around Vesta, but instead of making things worse it somehow seems to make the ice more fragile: the goddess is able to break free, even if it’s not without paying a price. Her skin is so pale she almost looks dead, to the point that Quantum comes closer to check… only to rapidly jump back when her body suddenly catches fire.

Where. Is. He? – she asks with barely contained rage.

 

The White House, Washington D.C.

Leiko Tanaka watches the Winter King disappear in the light of his ship’s teleportation device, and she smiles: the fool didn’t even notices he was being manipulated.

-You’re going to lose, you know – President Keen tells her.

-I never thought you would be Null’s fan.

-You two have the same flaw: you think the rules don’t apply to you. That makes you overconf-

The President of the United States disappears before he can finish the sentence, replaced by a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Or rather, a god.

-I swear to Dad, that guy is such a bore. Missed me, honey? – Hermes asks her.

-How brave of you to show up only when the Winter King is gone. I received your present, by the way – Leiko reveals him, taking something from her belt: a black dagger.

-I took it from the scorched remains of White Star. Sharp enough to cut diamond like butter, impossible to manufacture on Earth. You sent him to assassinate me.

-Never send a mortal to do a god’s job, I suppose – Hermes shrugs; in the time Leiko blinks, he’s in front of her with his hand on her throat.

-I despise getting my hands dirty like this, but… what? – he wonders, noticing that his hand has actually stopped right before touching her. And that he can’t get any closer.

-Keen was right: the rules don’t apply to me anymore – Leiko tells him, plunging the dagger into his abdomen and twisting it. He tries to slap her, fast enough to disintegrate her skull, but he’s completely immobilized before he can do anything.

-How… how are you doing this!? – he asks, holding both hands on his wound. Leiko slowly unzips her dress to reveal what she’s wearing as a pendant: a small red cylindrical container.

-The Vial of Destiny, the last remaining sample of Drylon genetic code. It seems that the programming that stops the Primordials from harming a Drylon extends to their descendants. But thanks for the dagger, Hermes: I’ll be sure to put it to good use – Leiko says as she teleports away.



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