Omoroca, 65.000 light-years from Earth

The Valkyrie shuttle is much more maneuverable than the Ragnarok, but landing on the planet wasn’t easy. The atmosphere is mostly sulfuric acid, blown away by winds hundreds of times more powerful than the most destructive hurricane. Noriko Null is seriously considering aborting the mission: judging by the dozens of alarms going off, the shuttle won’t last much longer. Until they’re suddenly silenced at once, when the winds shaking the Valkyrie disappear.

-What happened? We’re inside the eye of the tornado or something? – Quantum asks her.

-Probably: we’ve reached the coordinates given by Vesta. Stay sharp people, this could mean anything – Noriko advises her team.

Once the Valkyrie has landed, the team slowly walks towards her position: their Hostile Environmental Suits would allow them to move normally, if the ground wasn’t shaking.

-This is crazy: I’m not picking up any geological activity. This isn’t a normal earthquake: the star is pulling the planet so much, it’s affecting its tectonic plates – Noriko comments, her attention entirely focused on the holographic tablet in her hands.

-I think we’ve found the Dragon Tomb – Kari comments, causing Noriko to look up. The thick atmosphere forms an almost impenetrable fog, but the wind blows it away just enough to let her see the building before her. And inside her helmet, her jaw drops.

She’s already seen buildings as big as a mountain, but something’s different about this one. Maybe it’s the hundreds of pinnacles and spires that are constantly attracting lightning bolts, maybe it’s the huge entrance door full of incisions and circuitry, or maybe it’s the complete and utter silence surrounding it while the rest of the planet is ravaged by ravenous storms: just looking at it sends her chills down her spine.

-Good Gaea, am I glad to see you. This place gives me the creeps – Vesta greets them. She’s sitting on a pile of rocks, which are the only visible things aside from the building. Noriko stares at her: she’s wearing orange tight jeans and an orange tube top while they’re in powered armors.

-What? – she asks.

-It’s hot enough to meld lead around here and the air is corrosive. I can understand you, kind of, but how is the building still intact? And why didn’t we pick something this massive on the sensors?

-It’s not even the strangest thing about it, Nori: I can’t open the door – Vesta reveals.

-Aren’t you supposed to be strong enough to bench press a planet? – Kari asks her.

-Maybe we need another approach – Quantum says, pointing his fist at the door and releasing a blast of pure energy. His move surprises his colleagues: once he’s done, Noriko yells at him.

-Are you crazy!? This is obviously a very old piece of technology, what if you damage it!?

-Seems unlikely – Torn adds, hitting the door with the Soul Reaper: even the demonic scythe can’t get past the entrance, though.

-Guys, guys! Nobody’s ever made it in the past billion years, you seriously think we’ll just be able to walk inside!? – Noriko protests, walking towards the door. When she approaches it, however, all the circuitry suddenly glows and the door slowly, very slowly, creeks open.

-That’s convenient – Torn comments, while Noriko is still speechless.

-I’ll stick with “creepy” – Vesta confirms.

-C’mon. Let’s get inside – Noriko says, trying to sound more brave than she feels.

She can feel her heart beating faster. It’s so dark that the only way to see anything is for Vesta to create hundreds of small balls of fire that spread across the cavernous room, giving it the appearance of being lit by endless rows of torches. It’s dead silent, until Quantum speaks.

-Is it just me or this really looks like a church? – he asks. It’s hard to tell thanks to the bad lighting, but there are endless lines of pews surrounding the main nave. There are no windows, just strange painting depicting beings that seem human but have grey, somewhat scaly skin.

-Isn’t that the Grey Lady’s race? Maybe we’re onto something – Kari says.

-I don’t recognize the writing on the wall or the architecture. This could be the first truly alien civilization we’ve encountered… I’ve never seen anything like this – Noriko comments.

-I have, on the Winter King’s planet. I’ve seen some of these symbols in his castle – Vesta reveals.

Everybody is too focused on the strangeness of the place to say much else until they’ve reached the end of the nave. Above a flight of stairs they can see the altar, and behind that there’s a statue.

Smooth obsidian black marble, or something that looks like it when illuminated by Vesta’s fire, it depicts an androgynous with its arms crossed over its chest, making it impossible to tell if it’s supposed to be male or female. It’s not human: the limbs are longer than they should, the head is larger than it’s supposed to be, and it has no nose or mouth or ears or hair. Only golden eyes.

-Friend of yours? – Quantum asks to Vesta, pointing at the statue.

-If it’s a specific god or goddess, I don’t recognize it. Who knows who these people worshiped.

-It’s a Drylon – Torn states, with his usual understatement.

-Are you kidding me!?!? – Kari shouts, her voice echoing in the empty building.

-I’ve seen statues like this in the Aegean Galaxy. The people of Laestrygon are said to have been exterminated by Kronos because they worshiped the Drylon – he explains.

-I remember Poseidon dismissing it as a myth, but… uhm Nori, what are you doing? – Vesta asks.

Noriko has approached the altar and is now holding her hand above it, with a blank expression on her face. When she talks, her voice isn’t distorted only by the radio transmitter.

>NEXUS ONLINE. BACKUP ACTIVATION SEQUENCE RECOGNIZED – she says.

-Get away from that thing!!! – Kari shouts, with two of her duplicates appearing to drag Noriko away; as soon as they touch her, however, they disappear.

>LOADING TERMINAL EMULATOR.

-╣►◊▼‡╪►Ͻ♦■╣▌◘►₪. ╚♦▲₪▌╣■ ‡▲╣Ͻ╤▼▲╪◄- the altar responds.

>LOADING PROGRAM TEMPORARY FIX AND TRANSLATION SOFTWARE.

-╚♦▲₪▌╣■Ͻ♦║•╚►╤►. Please wait – the altar adds, its voice becoming feminine.

>WARNING. HOST BATTERY LOW. NEXUS POWERING DOWN AND AWAITING FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. What… what just happened? – Noriko asks, her voice normal again.

-You zoned out, like you did in Hell. Are you alright? – Quantum asks her.

The altar opens in half, releasing a small obsidian sphere, the size of an egg. It floats a few feet off the ground, then hologram of a woman rapidly forms around it.

Reboot completed. Welcome to Sanctuary, how may I help you? – the woman asks. She has grey skin and white hair, wearing a black uniform with white highlights.

-Didn’t see that coming – Torn comments.

-Who… what are you? What is this place?– Noriko asks her.

You are currently inside Sanctuary, an installation constructed by the Lar to ensure the survival of the Drylon race. I am Legacy, an interactive sentient database; according to your internal memory archives, you have encountered a similar technology before. You called it the Core.

-You’ve read my mind! How!?

I am Legacy. My purpose is to ensure the survival of the Drylon race, and as such I have the ability to interact with Drylon technology such as the Nexus inside your brain.

-Well, next time ASK before you do that! And what did you mean by “ensure the survival of the Drylon race”? – Noriko asks, right before Quantum adds:

-Yeah, I thought this was supposed the be the Dragon Tomb, shouldn’t there be a dragon?

You are indeed standing on the resting place of a dragon. That is, however, of secondary importance at best next to the treasure hidden in Sanctuary.

-Just get to the point! What’s behind all this!? – Noriko insists.

The last remaining sample of the Drylon genome in the entire universe. Would you like to see it?

 

On the bridge of the Ragnarok

Kari Zel is used to being left behind. But at least she has the luxury to know that, once everything’s said and done, she’ll be able to absorb her duplicates and learn what they did, so in a way she never misses anything. Todd Slate, on the other hand, is pacing back and forth nervously.

-I’m sure she’s fine – Kari says, without the need to specify who she’s talking about.

-How could you know? There are a billion things that could go wrong down there. She’s not a goddess for Christ’s sake, I shouldn’t have let her go ahead with this crazy mission!

-She’s the Slayer of Gods: she’s doing this because nobody else can. If you’re not comfortable watching her do crazy stuff, why are you on this ship? – she asks bluntly.

-I’ve been asking myself the same question.

-I know she wouldn’t want me to get involved, Todd, but is everything okay between you and Nori?

-I thought that with her alternate personalities gone and her mother dead she’d give a rest to these kind of… God I really sound like a jerk saying that, don’t I?

-You really love her, don’t you? – Kari realizes. Her Myridian upbringing has made her suspicious of the feasibility of monogamous relationships, but Todd has been a positive influence on Null.

-Now it turns out that Leiko’s not dead after all, and Noriko’s made even more powerful enemies. Will this ever stop? Or I just have to accept that she’ll keep jumping from one impossible thing to-

<Warning. Enemy units approaching> – L.O.K.I. interrupts him. Kari immediately switches the main viewscreen from the camera showing the planet to a radar reading of the solar system.

<Units identified as Talos robots. Brace for impact> – the artificial intelligence warns them, right before the Ragnarok is shaken by one robot after another bouncing off its powerful shields.

-Let’s make a deal: next time we both stay on Earth – Kari says to Todd, then creates a duplicate to push him out of the way: just in time to avoid the flames from the pentagram of fire that appeared.

Kari’s instincts kick in: when a female Demon appears from the pentagram, four duplicates are already attacking her from every direction. And if this were any other Demon it would’ve worked, but Pain is on a different league. Without moving a muscle she creates an energy sai to stab one Kari in the eye, a scimitar to cut another one’s arm, an axe to chop off the legs of another, and a chainsaw to decapitate the last. Fortunately these are all just duplicates, meaning they simply pop out of existence once damaged, but her efficient brutality is unsettling.

<Intruder alert. Activating countermeasures> – L.O.K.I. declares.

-Think again – Todd hears Noriko’s voice say. He can’t get a good look at her at first, since Pain has immobilized him with red energy chains, but he can see walking towards the ship’s holographic interface. And Todd can feel something buzzing inside his brain while she stares down L.O.KI.

<Emergency override acknowledged. Welcome back, mistress>

She walks towards Todd. She looks just like Noriko except for the red leather jacket, the long hair that reaches her back, and the black eyes with a silver iris.

-Well, what do you know. Null is even more sentimental than I thought, isn’t that sweet?

-Cut the crap, Void. How in the world are you still alive!?

-Why does everyone keep assuming I’m Void? I’m better than she ever was.

-That’s not really saying much.

-Oh wow, look at you, so funny in the face of danger. Can you even understand how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things, mister Slate? Oh who am I kidding, of course you can’t.

-We should go. The others will be here soon – Pain reminds her.

-In a minute. I wanted to blow up the ship, but now I have a chance to cause so much more damage.

-Are you sure it’s a good idea to threaten me? You’ll just-

-She doesn’t love you – Viper interrupts Todd, looking at him in the eye. Her stare is unsettling, and not just because of the black eyes or the sparks of electricity inside them.

-Losing her humanity is her greatest fear. She reasoned that being in a relationship would keep her human. She respects your work, she doesn’t mind your company and she occasionally f##ks you, but that’s it: you’re just her way to mimic human behavior.

-You’re… you’re lying. Why should I believe anything you say?

-Am I? Tell me you’re not starting to see things from my perspective. I’d say you’re a dog in love with his owner, but given the difference in mental capacity, you’re more like her goldfish.

-We really should go. I won’t miss this fight – Pain says, creating another pentagram of fire.

-Well, it’s been fun. See ya! – Viper finishes, stepping into the fire and vanishing with the Demon.

The energy chains disappear, leaving Todd alone with the echo of Viper’s words in his mind.



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