Seoul, South Korea

Noriko Null enters the hotel room she just paid for, slamming the door behind her to distance herself from the crowd that’s already following her. Yong-Su Kim is right behind her; as her security guard, he has already seen the kind of attention she attracts, but this is the first time he experiences it up close. And when Quantum materializes inside the room it’s only the second time he sees him do something like that.

-<I’m so sorry for this mess. It’ll just be a few minutes, can you wait in the other room?> – Noriko tells him in Korean, while he tries not to stare at the African-American superhero.

-<You’re not in danger, are you?>

-<Not yet. You don’t need to worry about me, I’ve got this covered> – she reassures him.

Quantum watches the Korean man exit the room, then Noriko grabs his collar and pulls him toward her to look at him in the eye, with her own silver irises shining brightly.

-What the hell were you thinking!? When the Neural Transmitter is in privacy mode, it means I want some privacy!!!

-I said I’m sorry! It’s not my fault the world’s in danger during your date.

-The world’s always in danger, Max. What is it this time? – she asks with a sigh.

-The Winter King and your mother are about to invade the planet with Russia.

-What are you talking about?

-Your friend Voron called me on the Neural Transmitter. I don’t know how, but…

-Him again. Doesn’t anyone have manners these days!? Hold on a second – she tells him, closing her eyes to concentrate. When she opens them again, they’re shining so bright that Quantum has to look away. Once he turns towards her again, the scenery has changed completely: they’re no longer in a hotel in South Korea, but in a secret laboratory in Russia.

-What the… did you just teleport us!?

-Don’t be ridiculous. I just reprogrammed the Neural Transmitter to trace Voron’s signal and transmit visual and auditory information from his holographic projector into our brains.

-A rather impressive feat. And considering I’m hearing your associate talk in Russian, I assume you’re also providing a simultaneous translation? – Voron asks, rising from his chair: in his eyes, the two Americans have just materialized in front of him.

-I’m not here to fish for compliments. I believe you told Quantum something about my mother?

-Indeed. I’ve known your family since I was a child; making the deduction that you’re the daughter of Leiko Tanaka wasn’t especially hard.

-Does the Russian government know? If you’re thinking of blackmailing me, Voron…

-Does she always needlessly antagonize her allies like this? – the scientist asks Quantum.

-When they bring up her mother. It’s a touchy subject.

-We’re not allies, Voron, I barely know you. How can you possibly know about the Winter King?

-Perhaps it’s better to show you – he says, pushing a button on the holographic projector.

All Quantum can see is a blurry image that vanishes after half a second, but Noriko seems worried.

-Dammit. Is the Prime Minister really going along with this? – she asks.

-It’s hard to say. But he’s increased the surveillance on my laboratory, so he probably suspects that I’m going behind his back – Voron answers.

-I think I’m missing something. What was that image supposed to be? – Quantum asks.

-I showed her a sped up recording of my meeting with the Prime Minister. He’s going to use the super-powered suits I created to attack the United States military. I won’t help him betray Russia.

-Something doesn’t add up. My mother knows that invading Earth risks retaliation from the Mortal Republic; she knows something we don’t. She was close to Hermes, could she know about Zeus?

-I don’t get what’s so hard about this. If the Winter King shows up we can just kick his ass, right? I mean, he’s just a guy with an armor that gives him freezing powers! – Quantum reminds her.

-An armor Hephaestus deemed too dangerous to use. Thank you Voron, you gave me an idea on what could prevent this invasion.

-I am risking a lot to provide you this information, Null. Should I become a target, can I count on your protection? – Voron asks.

-Of course. But it’s dangerous to talk like this; I’ll set up a secure private channel for you.

-Sounds like the start of a productive relationship – Voron nods, shutting down the projector.

The hallucination disappears as fast as it manifested, leaving Quantum confused.

-Don’t tell me you trust that guy!

-Not entirely, but he did provide me a lead worth investigating. Keep yourself free tomorrow, we have a lot of work to do.

-“Tomorrow?” – he repeats.

-In case you haven’t noticed, it’s nighttime.

-And? It’s not like you need to sleep or… oh. The date’s going that well?

-Max, just get the hell outta here – she insists, practically pushing Max out the room until he rapidly vanishes by turning into pure light.

-Superheroes. It’s like herding cats – she sighs, returning to Yong-Su in the bedroom.

She finds him sitting on the bed, looking at the news: the Korean station is talking about a recent travel into the country by Shinobu Tanaka. The world knows him as nephew of Leiko and businessman, while Noriko knows him as the terrorist called Black Knight.

-Everything okay? – Yong-Su asks, while Noriko is focusing on the news: Shinobu Tanaka is scheduled to visit Russia tomorrow, something important enough to make her silver eyes shine.

-It’s too early to tell. Sorry I ruined our date… I was genuinely having fun – she answers.

-It’s okay, I guess I have to expect the unexpected from you. You could’ve introduced me to Quantum, though.

-I can make it up for you. Are you free tomorrow?

-You should ask my boss – he jokes, although she doesn’t like to dwell on the possibility to have once again a relationship with one of her employees.

-Very funny. You should get some rest, tomorrow will be a busy day.

-I’ll sleep on the couch – he proposes, walking towards the door until Noriko stops him.

-Wait. I have, uhm, I have something to tell you. Promise you’ll keep it a secret.

-Sure – he answers, worried by the sudden shift in her tone and in seeing her take out a small plastic container full of pills.

-I have pretty much lost the ability to fall asleep without taking medication. When I take it, I’m completely knocked out for at least eight hours… and it makes me vulnerable.

-I’m not sure why you’re telling me this – he admits.

-I hate being vulnerable. But I’m tired of being alone. I’m not sure I’m ready to go farther than this, but I was hoping that you’d… well…

-Watch over you while you sleep?

-God, I sound so pathetic when I say it out loud, isn’t it? – she asks, lowering her head in shame.

-Not to me – he reassures her, kissing her forehead.

 

Null Tower, New York City

The plate on the door reads “Kari Zel – Executive Vice President”, but Kiros Zel doesn’t know what that means. The blue-haired Myridian enters the room, finding his wife with her feet on the desk busy reading from a tablet; one of her duplicates is talking on the phone, another is typing something on a holographic keyboard, and a third one is rearranging the furniture.

-Enjoying the new position? – Kiros asks her, sitting on the desk.

-It’s quite a challenge. It won’t be easy to make all the managers and directors accept a new supervisor they’ve never even heard of, but you know how much I love new experiences.

-I have to ask you, Kari… what does this company actually do?

-Pretty much everything at this point. Null Technologies owns shares in more companies that I can count; it’s come the point that O.D.I.N. manages almost the entire day-to-day operation.

-Isn’t that Null’s computer? I would not trust a machine with so much power, Kari.

-Neither does Noriko, that’s why she gave me this job; she wants to concentrate on the Vanguard and her own secret projects… including whatever she’s building in Antarctica.

-You sound disappointed – Kiros notes.

-Even when she gives me unprecedented access to her business, she’s still keeping secrets from us. I know she means well, but… it sounds more and more like something her mother would do.

 

Boreas, 3.000 light-years from Earth

Calling this an icy planet wouldn’t give it enough credit. The entire surface is covered in ice and snow, and it would be easy to consider it uninhabitable at first glance.

A small vehicle flies towards one of the hundreds of thousands of caves, opening its door under the cover of a blizzard. A woman wearing a blue cloak embellished by white fur walks towards the entrance, followed by two large men wearing uniforms.

The cave is large enough to provide cover for a small village. All eyes are on the woman: not because of her followers or her attire, but because of the strange color of her skin.

The vast majority of the people of Boreas are grey-skinned Lar, most of which are wearing short-sleeved clothes: at -70°F, it’s the heat of summer for this planet. There are easily distinguished from the Lampyrians, who are not only blue-skinned but who are cold enough to cover the bat wings coming out of their backs.

The pink-skinned alien among them reaches one of the houses, where her guards wait outside of the door marked by a strange sign: a circle crossed with a diagonal line.

Once inside and out of the public eye, Leiko Tanaka rubs her hands over her arms in the attempt to gather the slightest amount of warmth. She’s greeted by the only other human on the planet, a woman wearing a hooded green robe.

-Welcome to my chapel, Lady Tanaka. I expected you would be aboard the ship right now.

-We leave in a few hours; the Winter King is busy with preparations, so this is a rare chance to make a few last errands without attracting his attention.

-Perhaps you could take one of my duplicates with you. The chance to see Lady Null’s planet…

-We have discussed this, Ganos Lal. Syzar and I have helped you to get here, but if the King knew about your proselytizing…

-My apologies. I should not question the decisions of an emissary of Null, Lady Tanaka.

-Speaking of your work here, I see it is progressing fast. I wouldn’t expect to see a place of worship within a couple of weeks – Leiko congratulates her. She finds the self-appointed Supreme Pontiff of the Church of Null to be an annoying idiot, but a very gullible preacher can become a tremendous asset in the right hands. Although the pretense to consider her own daughter a goddess is a very hard price to pay for Leiko.

-The word of Null spreads fast, my lady. I expected the Lampyrians to be receptive, since Null graciously expanded their lifespan from two to ten years, but the Lar are also surprisingly interested in her. Especially since Hephaestus ruled over many words now under the control of the Winter Kingdom, and news of Null killing him has spread rapidly across the stars.

-Still, I would not have expected the Lar to convert easily, given the lack of a religion.

-On the contrary, my lady, the Lar are a deeply spiritual people. They worship and honor their ancestors as the Olympians do with their gods: this was originally a temple dedicated to the very first Lar that conquered the galaxy millions of years ago.

-And you believe they could replace this worship with my… with Null, if I can provide solid evidence of a connection between her and their ancestors.

-I do, my lady. Although I still can’t understand how you found any connection between these old walls and Earth – Ganos Lal admits.

Behind her, in the center of the chapel, a panel has been painted with three triangles next to a lion with wings and the face of a woman. Or, in the words Leiko associated with the image, three pyramids and a sphinx.

-Call it a hunch – Leiko answers, allowing herself to smirk.



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