192 million miles from Earth

Noriko Null is looking at Mars from its orbit, deep in her thoughts. She’s sitting on the captain’s chair of her latest gift from the Hunter pirates: the ship Callisto.

Well, “gift” may not be the best word: she had to bargain for it. The Hunters wanted the Vanguard to give back the ship they had stolen from them, the Supreme Scorpion, but they were not going to supply them with another capital ship.

The Callisto is a much smaller ship, small enough to be carried inside the cargo bay of the Supreme Scorpion for most of the voyage, and much slower. While the Supreme Scorpion could easily reach two million times the speed of light, the Callisto moves a more leisurely 150 thousand times. To make the trade more equal, Noriko bargained to keep the exact location of Earth a secret from the Hunters, reasoning that too many people know its position already.

The newest ship of the Vanguard was dropped at Myridia, then it took almost 8 hours of continuous flight at top speed to reach Earth’s Solar System, and additional 4 hours to reach Mars (since the presence of the Palladium on Earth prevents travel faster than light within the orbit of Neptune).

-Are we done yet? The planet’s pretty and all, but I kinda miss Earth – Kari interrupts her thoughts.

-Don’t you have duplicates there? Once you absorb them, it’ll be like you never left – Noriko reminds her. Kari rolls her eyes.

-You don’t have to explain how duplication works to a Myridian, okay? It’s kind of offensive.

-Sorry. Force of habit.

-Why aren’t you in a hurry to get back, uh? It’s your planet, not mine.

-There’s still too much to do out here… the Alliance defeated Hermes and Eris, but I’m not entirely sure it’ll be able to form a stable government. There are too many conflicting powers inside it: the Guild, the Mortal Liberation Front, the Hunters, the Blue Rose, not to mention all the planetary governments… it’s a recipe for a civil war, if you ask me. I just hope the galaxy won’t end up being worse than when this whole thing started.

-Will you give it a rest already? – Quantum intervenes, looking away from the screen; he’s been uncharacteristically quiet for the past few hours.

-We fought some bad guys and we won, end of story. Nobody’s blaming you for the war and nobody’s asking you to run for President of the Galaxy: if things get worse, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

-We don’t need bridges. We have a spaceship. – Torn intervenes, missing the point as usual.

-I suppose you’re right. Kari, let’s do another test of the cloaking device before we leave Mars.

The purple haired girl groans at the thought of another test, just when Vesta returns to the bridge.

-You missed most of the sightseeing, Vesta. Take one last look at Mars, we’re going home.

-Thanks, but I’ve seen it already: I used to come here sunbathing all the time.

-Isn’t Mars a little cold for… nevermind – Noriko stops when she recalls who she’s talking to.

-By the way, Noriko, you… might want to sit… somewhere else – Vesta suggests her, biting a nail and looking extremely embarrassed.

-Why? It’s quite comfortable – Noriko answers. It’s made of gold and ivory, but the back and the armrests are covered in leather and brown fur.

-Y-yeah, but this is the Callisto. It’s…hm… it’s old. It’s from… it’s from Callisto’s time…

-It’s a Greek myth, isn’t it? – Quantum asks, prompting Vesta to explain:

-Yes, she was one of the… ehm, “attendants with benefits” of Artemis. Zeus changed his shape into an exact copy of Artemis, for, well, y’know what, with Callisto.

-Yes, and Artemis turned her into a bear as punishment, I know the myth. So what? – Noriko asks.

-The myth doesn’t say what… Artemis did… with the bear… afterwards – Vesta answers, timidly pointing at the chair with her finger. Noriko immediately jumps off it like it was on fire.

-Gaahh!!! Why didn’t you tell me sooner!? Seriously, your family is fu##ed up!!!

Of all people, Kari finds the scene funny enough to start a genuine laughter.

-It’s really, really not funny Kari – Vesta scolds her.

-It is mildly amusing – Torn agrees, although by the way his expression doesn’t change it’s possible his face doesn’t know how to smile. Noriko sighs: with the kind of company she keeps, it’s easy feeling the only sane person in the room.

-Quit joking around and set a course for Earth. And Vesta… see if you can find me another chair.

 

Null Tower, New York City

Todd Slate likes to think of himself like a man who’s always keeping up with the times, embracing everything new. But while his office is equipped with the latest holographic technology, he still has the need to see some things on paper to be able to fully grasp them.

He’s distracted from his thoughts by someone tapping on the window. Since this is a skyscraper there aren’t a lot of people who can do that: Noriko Null is one of them. She’s riding her Phoenix NX-2, a futuristic motorbike that right now is floating next to the building.

Todd slowly puts down the papers and deactivates the holographic screen. Even slower, he reaches for the window and taps the frame three times: the smart material reconfigures the window to include a hole large enough for them to talk.

-Hey Todd. It’s been a while.

-Null – he reacts coldly. It’s not like she expected a parade, but still…

-Can I come in?

-I need fresh air. Let’s talk on the roof – he answers, abruptly ending the conversation: another tap on the frame, and the window closes itself.

It’s an overcast afternoon. The clouds are gathering over the city. The wind is blowing, messing up Noriko’s hair; she puts her hands in the pockets of her green leather jacket to prevent them from shaking uncontrollably. It’ll rain soon.

-You came back early – Todd breaks the ice once he reaches the rooftop.

-Yes, we were able to wrap up things a little earlier than expected. It’s good to be back.

-Hm. What have you been up to?

“Easy question” Noriko thinks “Well I almost died, had a heart transplant from my clone, I was taken over by Abyss, I created Void, I fought Hermes and Eris, I won a war, I had a bad trip with an alien drug and I almost had drunken sex with Quantum… maybe I should skip a few details”

-It’s a long story. What about you?

-Well, I missed my father’s funeral because I was too busy taking your place.

It’s a good thing that her heart is brand new, because she feels it trying to escape from her chest.

-I… I’m sorry, Todd.

-Are you? Really? – he asks, with an accusatory tone.

-Of course I am! Listen, if there’s anything I…

-Stop it, just… just stop it. Take back your stupid command codes – he replies, taking off the expensive watch that identifies him as Null in the eyes of the Tower’s artificial intelligence and throwing it at Noriko. She catches it, thinking that this isn’t the best time to reprimand him for not following the correct procedure they established.

-You’ll find my full report when you’re back in your office, together with my resignation.

-What!? I won’t accept it, Todd.

-Of course you won’t. You never listen to me, or to anyone else for that matter.

-I understand if you’re mad at me for the way I’ve acted recently, but that’s not true Todd. You are by far my most valuable employee: that’s why I gave you control of my company when I left.

-Did you consider the possibility that I wasn’t suited for that kind of thing?

-Of course not. Because you were – she objects.

-Because Noriko Null knows everything better than anyone, right? That’s just how it is.

-No, because I knew you wouldn’t let me down – she answers sincerely.

-Did you think how hard it would be for me to take your place? I can’t work twenty hours a day, I can’t sleep at night knowing that if I do one thing wrong I could start a war.

-I didn’t force you to do anything, I asked if you wanted to – she answers, immediately regretting it.

-You think that you left me the chance to say no!? You just dumped your responsibilities on me and left because Earth was not big enough for you anymore!

-I did what I had to do. I saved the Galaxy.

-Well, congratulations. But you also lost a friend – Todd replies coldly, turning his back on her and walking away. She stops him by holding his arm.

-Wait! I’m sorry, I… y-you can’t leave, I… I missed you so much, Todd. Please don’t leave.

-You were gone for almost three months, Noriko. You could’ve called me at any time.

-I wasn’t… myself… for most of it.

-Would you have called if you were?

-I… I… – she hesitates. She’s on the verge of crying.

-Be honest with me. Did you think about calling to know if I was okay? Hell, I didn’t even know if you were alive or if you got yourself killed! Do you know how many times I had to lie to your father, telling him that that you were okay? Did you think about calling at all, just once!?

-I… thought… that I had… more important things… to do – she answers; her hand leaves Todd’s arm and wipes away her tears, but there are more coming.

-Because Noriko Null knows everything better than everybody else. Maybe it’s true, maybe you really are doing the best you can for Earth or the Galaxy or whatever. But I can’t deal with this s##t anymore: I’m only human.

-Please, Todd, I… I… – Noriko stutters, then suddenly stands straight: any emotion vanishes from her face, and her eyes change to black while keeping the silver iris.

-I hope that you will reconsider your resignation, mister Slate: you are a most valuable asset for this company. However, if your decision stands, let me reassure you that you will granted a sizeable severance package and a letter of recommendation for…

-Noriko? What… what happened to you? – Todd replies, taking a step back: he’s not worried by the eye change, but her mood swing was truly frightening.

-There is no cause for concern, mister Slate. My core personality is in grave distress, so I have taken the liberty to load a different operating system to deal with the situation. Surely we can all agree that this is the best course of action, can we not?

It’s the final straw. Todd walks away from her, leading back inside the building.

-I don’t think you’re human anymore – is the last thing he tells her before closing the door.

Void looks at him with a blank expression on her face. She walks towards the edge of the rooftop, keeping both hands behind her back. The rain starts to fall, hitting her wet cheeks: there is no logical reason to wipe away the tears, so she doesn’t.

-How disappointing. True, he was only the seventh most qualified person on the planet for the job, but ruling a single world for less than three months proved overwhelming for…

Her right hand, still firmly behind her back, is shaking.

-Now now, you should not antagonize me. We are, after all, the same person: unlike Abyss, I lack the intent to inflict unnecessary harm to others. I am you, Null, without your flaws.

Thunder roars in the distance. Void stands proudly, overlooking the city with her dark eyes.

-You should look at this as a golden opportunity, really. Leave behind your humanity, your illogical need for companionship and intimacy. Accept what you really are, and elevate yourself where you belong: above the rest of humanity.

Lightning strikes her, the flow of information coming from seven billion minds. The process is extremely painful, overloading all pain receptors; even Void can’t ignore it, but while she does fall to her knees she will not allow herself to scream.

-I will not fight you, Null, because I am you. You are just not ready to accept it yet.

Noriko regains control over her body, and she screams. But it’s not the pain: it’s a scream of rage, anger and a primal need to prove herself to be the dominant personality.

“Take your time. We are not a mortal… we are a Goddess” Void whispers in her mind.



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