Noriko Null steps out of the Valkyrie shuttle, with a small jump that leads her to the rooftop; she couldn’t exactly bring the Ragnarok here, given its size. She’s carrying a lot with her: not just a backpack and a suitcase, but the Heaven-Slayer sword tied to her waist. Luckily she won’t have to carry them for long; as soon as she’s reached the door leading inside, Sif is waiting for her.

-Welcome back, ma’am. Please, allow me – the android says, taking her bags. After Viper, it’s a little unsettling to meet her: she’s visually indistinguishable from Noriko.

-How long have I been gone? – she asks. With the Time Mover’s effect, it was hard to keep track.

-Seven months, three weeks, five days, three hours and seventeen minutes.

-It was supposed to be just one month. Have you and O.D.I.N. been able to run everything?

-We have. Nothing significant has happened during your absence – the android reassures her, as they arrive at the hallway of the uppermost floor.

-NORI!!! – Bob Null greets his daughter, hugging her with a little too strongly for her tastes.

-It’s good to see you again, Father. I hope I didn’t make you worry too much about me.

-Of course I was worried, it’s my job! If Sif hadn’t updated me regularly about you, I would’ve jumped on the first spaceship available to find you.

“You weren’t supposed to tell him” – Noriko tells the android through the Neural Transmitter.

“He figured it out in three days” – Sif responds.

-Did you find what you were looking for? – her father asks.

-I guess I did. It was exhausting; it’ll be a while before I get back into space, that’s for sure.

-Tell you what. Why don’t you tell me everything at dinner? You can call Todd if he wants to join.

-Yeah, about that… you see, dad, Todd and I don’t… we won’t… see each other for a while…

-What!? That bastard dumped you!?

-No dad, I’m the bastard. I’ve always been the bastard – she replies, looking aside. Bob doesn’t need to notice her switching from “father” to “dad” to see she’s affected by this.

-Speaking of which, I found out mom’s still alive. So much for a normal family, uh?

-Sorry I’m late – another voice enters the picture. Noriko expected to see her personal physician, Catherine Kalama, to be there for her arrival. But her silver eyes open wide when she looks at her: she’s visibly pregnant, probably in the last trimester.

-“Nothing significant”!? – Noriko tells the android, raising her voice.

-She didn’t tell you? We told Sif to inform you – the Hawaiian doctor says, coming closer.

-Well she didn’t! How did that happen!? – Noriko asks her father.

-You’re old enough to know that already – Bob answers.

-You told me how contraceptives work when I was eight years old! How could you mess it up!?

-When she was eight? Don’t you think that was a little too early!? – the doctor asks Bob.

-Listen, Nori, these things happen okay? There’s no reason to be upset.

-There is if they happen to you! Were you just waiting for me to leave to knock someone up!?

-Noriko, that is way out of line – Bob scolds her. It’s extremely rare to hear him use that tone with his daughter, but it does seem to calm her down… somewhat.

-I’m sorry. If you want another son and to start a normal family, it’s none of my business.

-It’s a girl – the doctor clarifies.

-Of course it is. I’m happy for you, Father, you can have a daughter you want now.

-Apologize to Catherine. Now – Bob orders her. Noriko tries to resist his stare, but the girl who faced the Celestial Dragon of Destruction is helpless before him.

-I’m sorry, doctor. You’ve been a great friend to me and I’m sure you’ll be an excellent mother.

-It doesn’t mean we don’t love you, Noriko. You know that – Bob reassures her.

-We should tell her. I don’t want her to feel different from her sister – the doctor tells him.

-Why not? We have different ages, different mothers and we’re not even the same race, so why does it matter that I’m the unplanned one?

-She wasn’t planned either. It’s because of the bottle you sent – Bob tells her.

-What bottle? – Noriko asks, looking at Sif.

-The Dionysus wine you sent for the anniversary of your transformation – the android explains.

-Please tell me you didn’t drink it – Noriko asks her father.

-Pretty strong stuff. One glass and I woke up two days later in the maintenance room with no pants.

-Bob, please… – the doctor tries to make him change the subject.

-She lost her pants as well – he continues, completely missing the clue.

-Viper – Noriko mutters, leaving abruptly and increasing her walking speed, almost running away.

-Will she be alright? I don’t want her to get hurt – the doctor says.

-She’s the smartest person in the world. And even if she wasn’t, I know my daughter: she’s much stronger than she thinks she is. We’ll figure this out together – Bob tells his partner, kissing her.

 

Noriko Null’s room

The sliding door immediately recognizes the arrival of its maker, but she’s in such a hurry that she finds the time to bang on it twice. She runs inside to find what she expected: a bottle of Dionysus wine on her desk, next to an unopened letter.

Her hearth is racing. What if Viper put poison in it? Or something that could mutate the child?

Her mind comes up with a thousand terrifying scenarios by the time she opens the letter; her real hand is shaking. It’s in her own handwriting. She reads it:

Dear myself. If you’re reading this, I wasn’t able to kill you at the Dragon Tomb. Congratulations! You’re the one with the least flaws, after all. Unless you’ve decided to spare my life, in which case you’re not as smart as you think you are and I’ll hunt you down to make your life absolutely miserable. Perhaps you’re wondering why I hate you so much, if I’m you. Well, hello? Do you realize how much you hate yourself? Oh woe is me, I’m rich and smart but mom doesn’t love me and dad can’t keep it in his pants! Blah. Your wasted potential makes me sick. If you want to wallow in despair, at least have the decency to make it drunk. Drinks are on me, Null, make a toast to greatness and self-loathing. Insincerely, your better half, VIPER NULL.”

She reads the letter again. Then again, looking for some kind of code. And then she burst laughing.

Viper didn’t expect the Time Mover to screw with her plans: she must’ve sent the bottle just before entering the Dragon Tomb, where time was moving far slower than she expected.

Could it be this simple? Maybe she worried too much. Maybe Viper was just a sick person whose plan blew up in her face. Like her other personalities. Like the Scribe. Like her mother.

-Like myself – she says out loud.

She analyses the bottle. It’s almost full: they really didn’t take more than a couple glasses. It would be so easy to do the same… to forget about the galaxy, about Todd, about her father.

<Please forgive my interruption, mistress. Emergency meeting at the Operation Center>

-Thanks, O.D.I.N. Can you please tell me where’s Doctor Kalama?

 

On a lower floor

Catherine Kalama can’t exactly rush to the door, but she gets off the couch as quickly as she can.

-I’ll take it – Bob immediately tells her from the side of the apartment used as a kitchen.

-Stop pampering me, Bob, I can still walk – she replies, opening the door.

She doesn’t ask who it is: given Null Tower’s security, there aren’t many people who can get to the living quarters. She isn’t surprised to see Noriko, but she’s surprised by being hugged with such force that she almost loses her balance.

-I’m sorry! I didn’t really mean what I said! – she tells her.

-It’s okay to be upset after your first breakup – the doctor replies, maternally stroking her hair.

-Thank you for making my father happy and for being a good friend. I was being honest when I said you’ll be a wonderful mother, Catherine – Noriko tells her.

The doctor hugs her back. She can’t remember her ever using her first name.

-Have you decided a name? – Noriko asks, her hand almost touching the doctor’s belly.

-Nalani. Your father wanted some alliteration with her last name and I wanted a Hawaiian name.

-I know, it means “the heavens”. If you don’t mind, I’ve already set up a 25 million dollar trust fund for her education. Oh, and keep this for me, will you? Thanks! – Noriko says, handing her the bottle of Dionysus bottle then and rushing away without leaving her time to reply.

-It’s empty – the doctor comments, shaking the bottle.

-Isn’t my girl something? – Bob asks her, embracing her from behind.

 

Operations Center

Noriko stands before the door for a couple seconds, composing herself. She can’t let her team see her vulnerabilities: she needs to be larger than life when it comes to the Vanguard.

-Thank Gaea you’re here – Vesta greets her, practically shoving a warm cup of tea in her hands.

-What’s the emergency? – Noriko asks, looking around. Two Kari duplicates are carrying bowls of popcorn towards the main screen, where Torn is pushing a couch and Max Black is fidgeting with the controls of the communications system.

-This thing definitely needs an instruction manual – he complains.

-Max. What the heck are you doing?

-My apartment isn’t big enough for everybody, so I thought I’d borrow the room for a few hours.

-I’m afraid to ask why.

-Can you believe none of these people have ever watched the original Star Trek?

-I did catch a couple of episodes in the sixties – Vesta comments, stealing a handful of popcorn from Kari’s bowl before she reaches the couch.

-Okay, first: that is not an emergency, Max. And second, didn’t we just come back from space?

-C’mon, you’re not the only one who lost a birthday. You owe me one, remember?

-The most powerful person in the world and probably the galaxy owes you a favor, and you want to waste it on a TV marathon?

-We don’t want you to spend the night alone – Torn says.

-Dude! You’re not supposed to give away the whole game! – Max criticizes him.

-It is a stupid game then – Torn answers, clearly not caring for the remark as he stretches his legs resting his feet on the energy sword carefully balanced on two other swords.

-We never do anything together off-duty. With all the work we’ve done, we all deserve a little break, including you – Kari adds, jumping on couch; when she lands, a duplicate hands her the bowl of popcorn before disappearing.

-I appreciate the support, guys, but let me make one thing absolutely clear – Noriko tells the team, pausing to take a long look. Torn willing to experience a human pastime that’s meaningless to him, Kari limiting herself to use only one body, Vesta floating next to the couch with her legs crossed as if she was sitting on air. Gods, aliens and Demons feeling right at home.

-This does NOT count as overtime – Noriko concludes, taking her place on the couch.

She sits down between Max and Kari, sipping her tea. The galaxy and her heart can wait: for a while, she feels like she’s right at home.

 

Somewhere in the Enyo sector

Seedy bars are a constant in the universe, and this planet is no exception. The crowd is rowdy: the sector has changed gods three times in as many years. The voices stop when a woman with red skin comes inside. At most, all she can hear are whispers about her being a Demon.

-Salted wine – she orders, taking a seat.

-What? – a confused bartender asks her.

-Don’t you serve drinks? Bring me warm wine and salt. Now – the Demon clarifies.

-You look like someone who likes a challenge – another woman adds, sitting next to her. She’s wearing a blue cloak with a hood that completely covers her face.

-Do you want to fight me? – Pain asks, creating a red energy dagger and holding it to the stranger’s throat. The action causes the blue hood to fall, showing off the woman’s short white hair.

-I want you to hunt something for me – Artemis proposes.

 

New York City

Todd Slate gives a last look at Null Tower as he waits for the taxi to arrive. He hasn’t lived there for long, but it feels like an eternity to him: what started as a dream job then became his life. Perhaps that was the most important thing he had in common with Noriko. He tries not to think about her, something that he knows will be impossible for a while. The taxi arrives, but when he opens the door he finds it’s already occupied by a man dressed in white.

-Come on, mister Slate. Let’s go for a drink.

-I’ll call another… how do you know my name?

-It’s my business to know things. And since you’re currently out of a job, you can’t really afford the luxury of ignoring a rich man that knows your name.-

Every instinct in Todd’s mind tells him not to trust this man, but there’s something charmingly disarming in his voice. Against his better judgment, he gets in the car.

-What kind of business are we talking about?

-Oh, a little of this, a little of that. I’m the CEO of a little known thing called Sunshine Investments.

-And you plan to invest on me, mister…?

-Todd… can I call you Todd? Todd, have you ever considered a career in politics? – Hermes asks.

 

Nyktelios

The last time Eris was here, a hundred thousand years ago, the temple was surrounded by a beautiful garden. Now it’s a dry desert under a scorching red sun. She gets on her knees, in front of a black statue of a woman covered in robes that obscure her face, and prays.

-Can you hear me, mother, from the nothingness beyond the stars?

The day becomes night. Eris looks up: the sun is extinguished by a gigantic hand that elegantly snuffs it out between index and thumb, like a small candle. The smoking remains of the star coagulate into a pair of eyes, with eyelashes larger than a solar system.

-Hi mom. I know we don’t talk much, but I think I’ve found someone who can help you destroy all the other Primordials. Interested?

TELL ME MORE – Nyx answers, her voice resonating through the darkness.

 

Purgatory

A Talos robot watches the large glass tube empty itself, releasing gallons of thick green nutrients together with a fully grown human body.

<Resurrection cycle complete. Do you require assistance, mistress?> – it asks.

The naked woman leans on the robot to stand up; her leg muscles are weak since they have never been used before. She wipes the nutrients away from her face, straightens her long dark hair, and looks at the robot with her shining silver eyes.

-How many units remaining? – Viper asks, coughing repeatedly.

<Thirteen Talos units, including this one. The others have been destroyed by Tiamat or by Ares forces inside the Dead Zone during Operation Trivia>

-Thirteen, uh? I can work with that. How did the operation go? – Viper asks, turning towards the other glass tube in the room. It contains black energy, forming the silhouette of a woman.

<We have recovered the remains of Hekate, energized by the destruction of Tiamat. She has not shown any sign of intellectual activity>

-She’s brain dead. This is even better than I expected.

<Shall we begin the indoctrination program of Hekate, mistress?>

-The Triple Goddess is gone, my dear tin soldier, just like Tiamat. But together we can build something far greater than anything the universe has ever seen.

Viper’s hand touches the glass. The unborn creature on the other side mimics her behavior, with the two hands now separated only by an inch of transparent material.

-It’s not time for your birth yet, Amaterasu. Sleep now; when you awake, we will make the heavens shiver in fear.



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