New York City isn’t the easiest city to find a decent house, especially if you’re unemployed, but when you know Null it’s not really a problem.

-This is awesome, isn’t it? – Max Black exclaims, with hands on his hips as he proudly examines his new apartment. It’s nothing to write home about, really, but to him it’s a castle.

-I still don’t get why you can’t live at the Tower like everyone else – Vesta complains, effortlessly carrying three boxes of comic books balanced on one hand.

-That place gives me the creeps, with all those Nullbots. Thirty robots and less than ten people in a skyscraper that has a nuclear reactor…not the best place to live.

-It’s not nuclear. And Torn likes it.

-Yeah but c’mon, he’s Torn. The dude makes the Grim Reaper sound like the life of the party.

-Hades isn’t so bad once you know him.

Max looks at her like she’s from outer space, which isn’t far from the truth. Then he takes something from his pocket: a pair of glasses.

-You should get ready, my friends will be here soon. Put these on.

-What for? – Vesta asks, taking the glasses.

-I have a secret identity, remember? If they see me with Vesta, they’ll know I’m Quantum.

-You’ve got to be kidding me.

-Oldest one in the book. Besides, I don’t think they’re gonna look at your face.

-You know I’m older than…wait, what did you say?

-Nothing!

-He said they’ll be looking at your breasts. Hi Max! – Kari introduces herself, followed by two duplicates who are moving the couch.

-Kari – Vesta greets her, crossing her arms over her low-cut tube top.

-Hey, if you got them, flaunt them – Kari taunts her, lifting her own breasts.

-You’ve been watching TV again? – Vesta changes the subject.

-No, I’ve got a dozen duplicates doing that for me. By the way Max, I met your friends downstairs, they’ll be here any moment now.

-They saw you use your powers!?

-Just relax, I told them we’re twins – one of the duplicates reveals.

-This is so stupid – Vesta complains, wearing the glasses. Her hair quickly turns from bright red to dark brown, shortening from shoulder length to a bob cut.

-Since when can you do that!? – Max asks.

-I don’t know, since the Crusades I think. Are you sure this is a good idea? There are so many crises in the world we could…

-Later. We can’t do Vanguard business 24/7 or we’ll go insane. We need to have fun sometimes.

-Besides, with Leiko and the Blue gone, it’s not like there’s any big threat now – Kari shrugs.

 

Outer space

An army of five thousand Kari duplicates is swarming the docking bay, keeping the guards too busy to notice the woman in the orange uniform fleeing the scene.

“Oldest one in the book” this Kari thinks; by the time they’ve dealt with the other duplicates she’ll be long gone.

She takes one of the elevators out of the docking bay. It runs through the outside of the installation, so Kari can finally understand the situation…which isn’t good, to say the least.

It’s a space station built on an asteroid. She can see the Twin Dragon, Demeter’s former mothership, but it’s far from the only ship docked here.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller ships are ready for departure. They come in all size and shapes, but they all have one thing in common: a golden bow painted on the hull.

“Artemis Hunters. Since when do space pirates have a fleet this size!?” she wonders, when the elevator doors open.

Elytra Elater, captain of the Distant Horizon, is on the other side. Pointing a gun at her.

-Kari Zel of Myridia, I presume?

Before she can finish the question, a dozen Kari duplicates are already attacking her.

 

Earth, Max Black’s apartment

Vesta is drinking a beer, watching Max having fun with his friends and the three Kari duplicates.

He told them he has a job at Null Technologies and that Vesta and Kari are co-workers…which isn’t far from the truth and isn’t so unusual: Noriko is hiring so many people these days. She may be a genius but Plasma Reactors, Sound Nullifiers and N-Phones don’t build themselves.

A fourth Kari duplicate appears next to the fridge to get a few beers, asking:

-Mind telling me why you’re here by yourself?

-This was a bad idea. Sooner or later they’ll find out I’m a goddess.

-And what’s so bad about that?

-You don’t understand…it’s happened so many times. They fall on their knees asking me to make them immortal, or to heal the sick, or to return their loved ones from the dead. I can’t do any of these things, I’m just the goddess of the household fire. And once they discover it they try to drown me, or burn me at the stake, or worse.

-Look, they’re just watching a game. Nobody’s gonna ask you to raise the dead.

-I appreciate the thought, Kari, but I’m not one of them. I look human, but I’m not.

-So what? You’re the only goddess I know that acts human, and that’s what counts. We’ve both been running away for too long, Vesta. It’s not what you’re running away from, but why.

-Hey there’s a fourth one!? – one of Max’s friends exclaims.

-Kari has many “twins” – Max says, giving a disapproving look at the original Kari.

-Yes. Large families are quite common on Myridia – she says smiling.

-Myridia? Never heard of it.

-You wouldn’t know it. It’s not on Earth.

-America – Vesta whispers.

-I mean it’s not in America. It’s in, uhm…

-Russia – Vesta suggests.

-Yes. Myridia, big town in Russia. Very big. Like, five hundred people big.

The room fills with laughter; thinking she just made a joke, Max’s friends go back to watch the game. Kari resists the urge to clarify that five hundred is a lot of people for a Myridian city, since it means five million duplicates. Instead she says to the goddess:

-Thanks for the assist. Where did you tell them you’re from?

-Greece. They seemed to buy it.

-Why can’t I come from Greece too?

-Because “Kari Zel” doesn’t sound very Greek. By the way, if anyone asks, my name’s Olympia.

The goddess and the Russian twin with purple hair drink their beer, watching humans.

-What are the rules to this “football”?

-I have no idea – Vesta admits.

 

Outer space

It should be an easy fight: as a Lampyrian, Elytra isn’t as strong as a human being. However she’s able to become intangible to avoid all of Kari’s hits, although the Myridian doesn’t know how: as far as she knows Lampyrians don’t have powers.

Elytra becomes solid again to fire her gun at one of the duplicates, who disintegrates on impact. Kari takes advantage of this to attack, but stops when Elytra phases her arm inside Kari’s chest.

-Make a move and I’ll squeeze your heart – she threatens. By the tone in her voice, she means it.

-What’s going on here? Where are we?

-I ask the questions. Are you alone?

-Myridians are never alone.

-Don’t give me that propaganda bull###t. Are you working with Talas Khanos?

-Why should I? He’s a monster.

-I know. But I need him. My people need him.

-Why?

Elytra looks at Kari in the eye. She’s trying to understand if she can trust her.

-I’m five months old. I won’t live longer than twelve months; neither will my daughters. Khanos is a master geneticist; he says he can extend our lifespan to match humans.

-And he needs the Twin Dragon for that? Can’t you see he’s just using you?

-We’re going to take over Myridia – Elytra reveals.

The mere mention of her home planet is enough to make Kari’s heart jump. Her world has already seen so much death; she can’t bear the thought of an invasion.

-You’re Artemis Hunters. Space pirates. Myridia doesn’t have any resources to steal.

-Except a Drylon artifact that gives everyone born there the power to duplicate at will. I have hundreds of thousands of pirates under my command; in a few years, they will be billions.

-And how’s that gonna help the Lampyrians?

-Khanos needs to experiment on the Harpies.

-The Harpies? Why would anyone want those man-eating beasts to…

-They’re our mothers. Zeus fu##ed so many of them that Lampyrians evolved as a separate species. But Harpies are practically extinct; Artemis is the only one who doesn’t want them dead, and she keeps them just for the hunt. If we take them to Myridia…

-In a generation all Harpies will have the power to duplicate – Kari understands.

-Yes. Talas Khanos will have enough Harpies for his experiments and my daughters will have a chance to live more than a year. And the Hunters will be a force to be reckoned with.

-Why are you telling me this?

-Because Khanos told me what happened on Myridia. You helped Null kill Demeter.

-I didn’t do it to hand over Myridia to a bunch of pirates and monsters!

-No, you did it because you wanted to save your own people. I want the same for mine.

-Threatening me won’t do you any good, you know that. I’m just a duplicate: if you hurt me I will simply disappear. And you will gain nothing from me.

-I know. That’s why I’m doing this – Elytra says, taking her intangible hand out of Kari’s body.

Kari checks if there’s any sign of damage, but she’s completely unharmed. And Elytra is holstering her gun.

-Why are you telling me all this?

-Because I need your new goddess. I can’t trust Khanos; if he betrays me, I need Null to finish the cure. If she’s half of what I think she is, she can do it.

-And you think Null will help you out of the goodness of her heart?

-No. I think she will help me because if she doesn’t, I will make sure that the Harpies eat each and every Myridian on that planet.

The two women study each other for what seems to be an eternity. The fight could start again at any moment. Finally, Kari asks:

-How do I get out of this place?

-I will give you one of my ships. No tracking devices: you can check if you want.

-I will. If this is some kind of double cross…

-If I wanted you dead, do you honestly think you’d be able to walk away from here alive?

Kari doesn’t answer. She knows that look: Elytra is a killer. She’s not bluffing.

-If you hurt my people, you won’t get away from me. Intangible or not.

She’s not bluffing either.

 



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