Earth is finally visible from the Twin Dragon’s escape pod, looming large in the round window.

-Oh my gods, it’s so beautiful – Kari says, almost crying at the view.

-I’ve seen worse – is all Torn is willing to concede.

-We need to decelerate. Max, can you hear me? – Noriko asks, talking to her N-Phone.

Loud and clear – is the answer coming from the phone.

-How is he talking in space? – Kari wonders aloud.

By turning into radio waves. You know, we’re going really fast out here. Vesta is doing her best to slow down, but we could really use some direction here.

-Relax, it’s an uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry. Just rocket science – Noriko replies.

If you’re trying to reassure me, maybe you should switch to “piece of cake”.

-Same thing for me, really. Alright, here’s what we gonna do.

There’s a bright flash in Noriko’s silver eyes, the same kind that always accompany the use of her superhuman mind. Only this time it’s so bright it makes her eyes disappear in a pool of white fire, and she falls to her knees.

-Not now…need to…hold back…

Kari doesn’t waste any time to help her, even though it hurts her mind to look at her eyes.

-What’s wrong, Nori? Hold back what?

Humanity – Noriko says with a thousand voices.

Guys? We have a situation here! – the N-Phone shouts.

Outside, Vesta is plunging into the atmosphere feet first, carrying the escape pod on her back; the friction is already surrounding it with flames. But it’s not what worries her: she’s the goddess of the hearth, and no flame will touch her friends if she doesn’t want to.

But there’s a storm brewing over the skies. A lightning storm that spans the entire planet…until all the electricity starts to rise and shoot a single, colossal bolt towards the prodigal sons of Earth.

-No. Freakin’. Way – are the words on Vesta’s mouth.

Max turns his body into a pure electron flow, trying to somehow lead the lighting somewhere else. It’s useless: the bolt carefully avoids both him and Vesta, moving as if it has a mind of its own, and hits the escape pod.

Inside it, the sparkles creep over the walls and leap straight towards Noriko. Torn quickly pushes Kari aside, but it’s not necessary: the lightning strike isn’t intended for her, and it’s no lightning strike at all.

It’s an update.

Noriko screams in pain as six weeks of information are fed directly into her brain; her body shakes uncontrollably, making the whole process similar to an epileptic seizure.

-What’s going on!? – Kari screams.

-Looks like the same thing that killed Demeter – Torn answers, materializing a red energy sword in his hand and using it to cut the lightning.

Noriko’s body goes limb.

 

Route 283

Ness County, Kansas

The escape pod is a bus-sized cylinder made mostly of titanium and aluminum; it should’ve disintegrated long before touching the ground. Instead, the drivers can see a red-haired goddess gently lay it down in the middle of a field.

-What the f##k happened!? – Max asks, materializing in front of the pod; he’s so upset that he forgets to put on his Quantum mask.

Torn cuts a hole in the pod’s walls, and two Kari carry Noriko outside.

-The lightning attacked her. So I cut it – Torn answers.

-She’s breathing, but something’s not right – Kari says taking her pulse. A duplicate checks her eyes: the pupils are fully dilated. The eyes are more unpolished grey metal than silver.

-We need to take her back home – Max decides.

-A 1400 miles flight? In her conditions? – Vesta asks.

-I think she’s coming to – Kari says happily. Noriko finally opens her eyes; their silver light is dim and intermittent, but it’s back.

She gets back on her feet, leaning on Kari to avoid falling down, and she points her finger at Torn.

-Never…cut the signal…again.

-If you say so – Torn answers bluntly.

-You almost killed her, you idiot – Max says, giving him a soft punch to the shoulder. Torn doesn’t flinch, which might explain why it’s like punching a wall.

-Hardly. He simply disconnected me from the worldmind during my monthly update; I had to reboot my brain to fix the damage.

-Wait, you can reboot your brain!? – Max repeats, impressed.

-“Monthly”? You mean you have to be struck by lightning like that every month!? – Vesta asks; Noriko was in a lot of pain during the whole process. She can’t imagine having to do it regularly.

-Why do you think I live on the top floor? Unfortunately, this means I have no knowledge on anything that happened on Earth during the last six weeks.

-Just great. So…now what? – Max asks.

-We head back to Null Tower. Normally I’d ask Vesta to fly me there, but with Torn and Kari…

-We need a vehicle. Gotcha – the Myridian girl nods, walking towards the road.

At every step, two duplicates appear by her side. When the first car approaches a few seconds later, twelve Kari have formed a human chain that prevent it from going any further.

The car comes to a screeching halt to avoid hitting any of them, and the driver starts to sound the horn and to shout:

-Hey, what’s the holdup!? Stupid kids…

The driver walks out of the car, ready to deliver an ear-splitting rant to the purple-haired twins that are blocking the street. Instead he comes face to face with the most beautiful woman he’s ever met.

-Excuse me, sir, but we need a ride to New York City. Would you mind taking us there? – Vesta asks with the most warm and kind voice the man has ever heard.

-No, I…I wouldn’t mind at all, I guess – the man stutters.

Then something punches a fist-sized hole through the car’s hood. The Genius Gun is still hot from the shot when Noriko aims it at the driver.

-Scram.

The driver doesn’t need to hear the order twice, and starts running for his life. Vesta grabs the gun from Noriko’s hand, like a mother scolding her child.

-What are you doing!?

-We just need the car. What if I told you he’s a registered sex offender?

-How would you know? – Vesta asks, shocked.

-I am still Null – Noriko answers, sitting in the car. Torn follows riding shotgun; Kari makes her duplicates disappear and takes the back seat.

While Max turns into energy disappearing at the speed of light and Vesta lifts the car over her head, Torn asks softly:

-Was he really a criminal, or did you just need some space?

-I thought you were the quiet one – is Noriko’s only comment on the matter.

She then just looks at the ground moving farther and farther away when Vesta starts flying, carrying the car on her shoulders in a 1400 miles trip back home.

 

New York City

It takes Max much, much less than the blink of an eye to be back: as usual, changing from flesh to energy and vice-versa takes most of the time. He flips the switch, but he can’t turn on the lights: the apartment is still in the dark.

-Of course, it’s been six weeks. Fighting space gods doesn’t pay the bills.

It’s easy to fix when Max’s entire body changes into pure light. Now he can see that the room has been stripped down to little more than walls and floor.

There’s no more shelves of comic books, no boxes of DVDs and comic books, no furniture with action figures sitting on top, and the comic books are also gone.

Not since fighting a killer goddess on an alien planet has Quantum been so mad.

Just outside the building, a man is holding a black plastic bag, mumbling to himself.

-What’s the point of owning a building if you gotta take out the thrash?

A laser beam disintegrates his garbage. Terrified, the man’s gaze follows the beam’s trajectory…where a masked man is scowling at him.

-31B. What happened?

-I don’t… hey you’re Quantum! Can I get an autograph?

The man shields his eyes from the massive release of light, and finds himself with Quantum’s hands holding his jacket.

-Apartment 31B. It’s empty. Why?

-The black kid’s room? He disappeared weeks ago. Dunno where he went.

-What about his stuff?

-Why do you care? Bunch of crap. Dunno why the suckers paid so much for it.

-“Suckers”?

-Chinese guys. Paid a couple grand to buy everything an’ keep my mouth shut.

-Chinese. Why would the Chinese pay to get my…wait. You sure they weren’t Japanese?

-Maybe. What am I, immigration? Look, I don’t want any trouble, okay?

-You’re not the one who needs to worry.

Quantum disappears in yet another flash of light, leaving his former landlord to wonder what in the world just happened, standing in front of the ashes of disintegrated garbage.

-I need more tenants like that.

 

Null Tower, Upper East Side

The sun is setting, and the giant Ø symbol on the top of the latest addition of the Big Apple’s skyline is casting its shadow over the city.

Vesta carefully puts down the car right in front of the building; after sustained flight over half the country, the vehicle’s definitely seen better days.

A duplicate of Kari appears in front of the car, opening the door.

-Nice ride – Noriko says, looking like she’s seconds from throwing up.

-Sorry it took so long. I couldn’t go supersonic without killing you – Vesta apologizes.

-We should do it again!!! – says the original Kari, jumping out of the car with the joy of an eight year old that’s just been on her first roller coaster.

-Indeed – says Torn, with the enthusiasm of an eighty year old queued at the post office.

Suddenly Quantum appears in front of them, practically shouting at Noriko’s face:

-You mother stole my comic books!!!

Noriko sights, rubbing her eyes. On top of her migraine, now this.

-Ma…Quantum. I’m gonna check whether the most powerful weapon in the galaxy is still where I left it. If everything’s alright, then I’ll worry about more trivial things. And after that I’ll worry about your stuff.

Without saying another word, she reaches the front door…where two armed guards are waiting.

-I’m sorry, miss, but the Tower is in lockdown. No unauthorized guests.

-I am Null. This is my home. Let me in and…wait. I don’t remember hiring you.

Suddenly, a hologram appears in front of the guards. It’s another Noriko Null.

Unless you want things to go ugly, impostor, you will leave this place at once.

-How dare you impersonate me!? I am Null!!!

Not anymore – the hologram says with an evil smile.

-I’m never getting my comic books back – Quantum whines.



Ø
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