Honolulu, Hawaii

Doctor Catherine Kalama holds her daughter Nalani tightly, watching Noriko Null ready to shoot Dr. Voron in the head. She can’t decide what’s stranger: how quickly Noriko went for her weapon, or how the Russian scientist is completely at ease.

-Nori, what’s happening? You invited him here! – one of Kari Zel’s duplicates tries to placate her.

-I’ve never met him in my life – she replies.

-I apologize, Null, but it was necessary to meet you. I promise your AI was not damaged.

-You mean O.D.I.N.? You hacked O.D.I.N.!?

-Come with me for a walk – he changes the subject, getting off the couch and walking off the bungalow. She hesitates for a moment but then follows him, gesturing to Kari to stay behind.

Out on the beach, she stares at him as he takes off his T-shirt. She pulls from the worldmind all the information there is about him, trying to get a read.

-We don’t get much sun in Russia. I better catch up – he tells her, suddenly speaking in Russian.

-What do you want from me, Voron? – she says, suddenly speaking in Russian.

-Call me Dmitry. I don’t like politeness – he answers, starting his walk on the beach together with his conversation.

-So what do you know about me, Null?

-Dmitry Ivanovich Voron, born in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 35 years ago. Chess grandmaster at 10, Ph.D in computer engineering at 12, Pd.D in aerospace engineering at 16…

-Yes yes, I have nine of those, the complete list is boring.

-So what is the Russian head of superhuman research doing in my father’s house?

-You are a hard woman to find, Null. I wanted to give you this – Voron says, taking out his phone and using it to send her a file. She reads it directly on her left arm: there’s a hologram projected on her skin, showing a comprehensive amount of data.

-I have studied you, Null. I know you used to own an alien piece of technology called the Heart Of The Universe; you used it to repel last year’s alien invasion, but you lost the device when it sank at the center of the Earth.

-And how do you know this? It’s a secret, and the Heart is invisible to any piece of technology on Earth, mine included – she answers, still studying the data he transmitted.

-I know because I’m the second smartest person on the planet, Null. And I found your little device.

-Okay, I’m… I’m actually impressed – she admits. The research is solid, and it includes a map of Earth’s core with a highlight of where the Heart Of The Universe currently resides.

-Why do this, Voron? Once the Russian government knows about this…

-They don’t know about my research. Or that I’m here. I’ve done this for only one reason, Null – he tells her, coming closer and putting his hands on her shoulders.

-Would you let me have a look inside your brain?

-What!? No!!!

-It was worth a try. Then how about dinner? We can discuss our research together.

-Are… are you asking me out or trying to steal my technology?

-I am doing both – Voron admits without a problem.

 

Argos, 100 light-years from Earth

As President of the Senate of the Mortal Republic, Alexer Syzar wields more political power than any mortal before him, with hundreds of planets under his leadership. He’s certainly the only mortal that can receive a goddess in an official state visit and treat her as an equal… but even if Tyche can only see so much of this world’s capital from the windows of the state ship, she can immediately tell that Syzar isn’t as powerful as he pretends to be.

-I see you have quite a few temples here. The Church of Null seems to be very active – she says.

-Perceptive as always. Trying to establish your superiority to me, or jealous of Null’s popularity? – he asks back. As nice as she is, he can’t forget she’s the daughter of Hermes.

-I’ll go straight to the point, Syzar. Null has won a place on Olympus for a representative of mortals, but she won’t be that representative. And thanks to Hera’s ruling, you can’t be either, unless you marry someone.

-You think I’d have trouble finding a wife? – Syzar asks, raising an eyebrow.

-No, I understand you’re quite handsome for a mortal. And I know that you’re too smart to choose a wife without carefully considering the political implications.

-I’m not sure I follow you, Tyche. Are you proposing to marry me?

-Don’t be ridiculous, Hera would never agree to that, and I’d have to find a new husband once you’re dead. No, I have plans for my own marriage, but I do have a proposal for you, Syzar. Are you familiar with the latest gossip from Myridia?

-Myridia isn’t exactly at the top of my priorities lately.

-That’s about to change. You should schedule a trip there and get your most formal attire ready.

 

Molokai, Hawaii

The view from the sea cliffs is incredible. The ocean is so blue and so clean that is almost looks fake, especially next to the rocks covered with lush vegetation.

The only sign of civilization are the Valkyrie shuttle and the two people sitting on the grass, with their backs against the aircraft, eating from plates of takeaway sushi.

-This is surprisingly good – Voron says, struggling with the use of chopsticks but otherwise appreciating the meal.

-This is absolutely brilliant – Null admits. She’s not paying any attention to the food: her eyes are focused on the hologram projected by her left arm, which is showing Voron’s research on the Heart Of The Universe.

-I knew you would appreciate genius – Voron nods smugly.

-You seriously came up with this on your own? No outside help whatsoever?

-I borrowed some time on the supercomputer of the National Defense Management Center, but other than that, yes, it’s all mine.

-This is incredible. I mean, I could probably do this in a couple of afternoons, but… yeah, after me, you’re definitely the smartest person on the planet – she concedes, turning off the hologram when Voron takes her left wrist and lifts her arm.

-Uhm, what are you doing? – she asks.

-It’s even simulating a pulse. You synchronized the sensor matrix with your nervous system?

-I did. You studied my work on prosthetics interface, didn’t you?

-I have studied most of your technology, yes. How did you manage to avoid lagging?

-I didn’t; there’s a delay of half a second before I feel anything touching my left hand. You know, Voron, with all these questions, you didn’t ask me how I lost half of my left arm.

-Would you tell me the truth about it?

-Probably no.

-So I don’t ask. Your body is the least interesting thing about you anyway.

-Gee, thanks – she sighs, taking away her hand. She didn’t even notice he was still touching it.

-Did I say something offensive? I am bad with people.

-I can tell.

-Sorry. You are decently attractive, but I am more interested in your mind. In fact, I’m certain you are the only person smarter than me that I’ve ever met.

-Please tell me I don’t sound that smug when I talk about how smart I am. Voron…

-Dmitry, please.

Voron, why exactly are you here? It can’t have been just to show me your research.

-I was hoping that, if I showed you mine, maybe you could show me yours – he replies, getting uncomfortably close.

-You may want to, uhm rephrase that? – she says, shifting away. It’s like talking to Torn and her father at the same time.

-Your plans for the world, Null. I am not happy with how my country is running things and I know you can’t possibly be happy with yours. What are you going to do about it?

-Let me get to the point, Voron: you want me to share confidential information with you?

-Yes. We should work together: we are kindred spirits.

We literally just met!!!

-I know I can’t possibly match your resources, Null. But I deeply admire you and your work and I want to be your ally. What do you say?

Noriko is so surprised by Voron’s bluntness that she doesn’t know how to answer. Fortunately for her she doesn’t have to: there’s another Valkyrie shuttle approaching the cliff, specifically one piloted by Kari Zel. It gets a little too close, and the passenger… another Kari Zel… doesn’t wait for it to land: she just jumps off it, rolls on the top of the other Valkyrie already parked, and lands on her feet right next to the couple. Anyone else would’ve broken something from a stunt like this, or would at least be out of breath. Kari instead runs to Noriko, who barely had the time to stand up before finding herself being hugged by an overjoyed Kari.

-I just came here from orbit! I couldn’t wait to tell you! Sorry I interrupted your date! – Kari tells her, even more energized than her usual.

-Uhm, this is not actually a, what? – Noriko tries and fails to complete a sentence.

-Sorry, it’ll just be a moment – Kari reassures Dr. Voron, then gets on her knees in front of Noriko and clasping her hands, as if in prayer.

-Noriko Null, do I have your permission to marry?

-… – is all Noriko can say. Her mind is drawing a blank at this point.

-That’s odd. Are all your employees required to ask this kind of approval from you? – Voron asks.

 

Palace Hotel, Tokyo

Kristen Lynn thanks the bellhop who brought her luggage in the room; he replies with a polite bow before leaving the room. When the blonde journalist arrives in her bedroom, there’s an African American man sitting on the bed.

-Nice place for a vacation. Kind of expensive for a journalist – Max Black tells her, taking off his Quantum mask. She doesn’t fall for his smile and replies coldly:

-You know following your ex girlfriend on the other side of the world means stalking her, right?

-I hoped it would be considered romantic.

-Not when you can do it in the blink of an eye. Though working on a story would be much easier if I had your powers.

-You’re here to talk with Shinobu Tanaka, right? I really don’t like that guy.

-I’m not dropping the story. But I might be free for dinner if you’ve reconsidered telling me what you were doing when you disappeared for months in space – she tells him, softening her tone.

Max’s mind goes back to what Todd told him about Kristen: she would do anything for a story.

-I’ve already told you everything I’m willing to share. And I’m not asking you to drop the story, I just want you to remember that Shinobu is dangerous. He has ties to the Yakuza, you know that.

-You mean he’s the head of what’s left of the Yakuza, after he murdered every single boss that didn’t follow his lead – she corrects him.

-Exactly. I don’t want you anywhere near that guy, Kristen. Please, let the Vanguard handle him.

-The same way you handled Leiko Tanaka? A lot of people believe Null had her killed, Max.

-And what do you believe?

-That President Keen won the election because people are afraid of the Vanguard. He was the only one willing to stand up to her, and he found an ally in Shinobu.

-Oh come on, we saved the world! Several times!

-You showed that the Vanguard can stop an alien invasion. Make no mistake: America, Russia and Japan are building these “super-armies” specifically to fight you. And it’s not a bad idea.

-What!? You can’t be serious!!!

-Ask yourself this: if Null really wanted to take over the world… would anyone be able to stop her?



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