Null Tower, New York City

The lights of the Operation Center are turned on the moment Noriko Null steps inside. There’s already a Nullbot present to hand her a steaming hot espresso cup, which she drinks in a single gulp without slowing down her walk. Todd Slate and Torn follow her closely: the door shuts itself behind them, with a glowing sign reading “locked”.

-So let me get this straight – Noriko says, pausing to put on her trademark green leather jacket, helped by another Nullbot.

-The man who tried to kill me is a demon sent by Hell.

-Yes – Torn nods; his calm demeanor is contrasted by Todd’s incredulity:

-Wait a minute. We are talking about an actual demon from Hell!?

-It depends on your definition of “actual”. It’s just a planet called Hell, there’s hardly anything supernatural about it – Noriko explains.

-Didn’t you say the same thing about gods?

-And I’ve yet to be proven wrong. Torn, have you had contact with your planet since we met?

-No.

-So how do your people know where Earth is?

-They don’t. But they can reach Earth by using the Stairway to Hell.

-The what? – Noriko asks; for once, she’s entirely clueless.

-A Demon can cut through space to reach another Demon. As long as we can sense the Blood, the distance doesn’t matter.

-Hey I remember, didn’t you use something like that when Abyss trapped us in the Null Dimension? We escaped thanks to you – Todd recalls.

-Yes. We should’ve reached Hell, but since Laceration was closer we arrived on her spaceship.

-You never told me you can cut inter-dimensional portals – Noriko says, raising an eyebrow.

-It’s not something we discuss easily with others.

-Unlike everything else, uh? But if this guy wants me dead, why doesn’t he teleport right in front of me and does it again?

-The Stairway is a very advanced technique; only the most skilled Demons can do it. And it can only be used across interstellar distances: as long as you’re on the same planet, he can’t use it to track you. That’s why he used the Mark of Damnation on you: now he’ll be able to sense your location anywhere.

-We’re getting off track here, guys: why does Hell want Noriko dead? – Todd asks.

-I can’t tell you – Torn answers.

Noriko sighs, holding the bridge of her nose.

-Torn, I’ve had just enough of your shtick. Quit dancing around the subject and just straight up tell me what you know!

-I’m not dancing – Torn says, looking at his feet.

-You see what I have to deal with? – Noriko asks Todd, pointing at the demon.

-Torn, this “Mark of Damnation” that infected Noriko… can you use it to track the demon?

-No. Any demon skilled enough to use the Mark can hide his presence, even to the Blood. We’re probably dealing with the Seventh Circle.

-From your tone, I guess that’s a bad thing right?

-They handle Hell’s security and, if necessary, they are allowed to carry out assassinations outside of Demon territory.

-Demon wetworks – Noriko understands.

-You can’t get wet on Hell. It’s too hot.

-So basically you’re saying that we can’t find this guy, and even if we could we wouldn’t get a chance to talk or negotiate.

-Yes.

-There must be a way to hide this Mark – Todd suggests, earning a look of disapproval.

-Hiding isn’t my thing. In fact, I think I know how to solve this – Noriko says, looking at one of the Nullbots and snapping her fingers repeatedly.

-Get me the Neural Coder. C’mon, I don’t have all day.

Yes, mistress – the Null bots answers, moving away to recover a small object from a nearby file cabinet. She fixes it behind her right ear, like a very bizarre accessory.

-Initiate creative mode. Security level: Silver Eyes Only – she says; the Tower’s computer system obliges, and a holographic screen with the word “loading” appears in front of her.

-What are you doing? – Todd asks her.

-Writing software. I can’t do it by hand; even the Neural Transmitter can’t keep up with the speed of my brain, so I built the Neural Coder to get my thoughts directly into action. Watch.

As soon as the word “loading” disappears, words fill up the screen in the blink of an eye. The lines of code write themselves too fast for any human mind to keep track.

-How is software going to catch a demon? – Todd asks, suppressing a yawn.

-Get some rest. This will take a while – Noriko suggests, without looking away from the screen: her silver eyes are shining and she doesn’t blink.

-It’s alright. I’m not tired – Todd lies, making himself comfortable on the couch.

 

 

When the smell of coffee wakes him up, it’s already morning. He stretches, noticing that Torn doesn’t seem to have moved at all; a quick glance at his watch confirms it’s been five hours.

-‘Morning. Excellent timing – Noriko greets him. She’s fully dressed, standing in front of a holographic screen that’s still filling itself with millions of lines of code; the Neural Coder is still firmly attached to her head, and she’s drinking yet another cup of coffee.

-You’re still writing that thing?

-I got carried away with a few modifications. I just loaded the program into the Tower’s mainframe, I was making a few final adjustments. Ready to see it?

-Amaze me.

-My pleasure. Alright then, computer? Load and launch O.D.I.N.

The screen flickers, its image transforming while the program comes to life.

-“Odin”? – Torn asks, raising an eyebrow.

-Omni Directional Intelligence Network. Since Vesta confirmed that the Norse gods aren’t real, I thought the name was up for grabs.

The hologram of a raven flies towards Noriko, “landing” on the palm of her hand.

I am at your service, Lady Null – the raven says, with a gentle yet deep male voice.

-So you built another IRIS? – Todd asks.

-Far more than that. O.D.I.N. is a fully self-aware artificial intelligence.

Indeed. And seeing how there actually is a Greek goddess called Iris, it would be unwise for the Slayer of Gods to associate herself with a servant with the same name – the raven adds.

-Bird. Where can we find the demon? – Todd asks, going straight to the point.

O.D.I.N. looks at Noriko, who smiles at her holographic pet as she answers:

-Go ahead. Show them.

The raven flies away, and its image transforms into a hologram of the planet: thousands of dots illuminate its surface, fading away one after the other.

I can analyze any database on the planet, but there’s no need to show off: every single computer and news outlet of Australia will be enough. This will just take a few moments.

-I see you programmed your humility into it. But is this legal? – Todd notes.

My actions are entirely untraceable by any technology currently available on Earth.

-That’s not exactly what I asked…

Found him.

The holograms of several newspaper articles appear, as well as points on a map to show their trail.

Six property damages caused by something that cut with ease through concrete. Judging by the starting position, I assume the demon wanted to reach Melbourne and traveled in a straight line.

-He doesn’t have a target there; he’s looking for transportation. Search the records for all tickets for international flights, then check and contrast with every information available on the people who bought the tickets. Be discreet about it.

-Nori, this is a blatant violation of privacy.

-I don’t care! I just want to catch this guy – she answers angrily, her silver eyes shining.

-He won’t risk being seen. He’ll hide inside one of the planes – Torn suggests.

Checking records. There is a cargo that departed a few hours ago carrying meat coming from a factory within the presumed travel line. It’s scheduled to arrive in six hours at Haneda Airport in…

-Japan. Of course it had to be freakin’ Japan – Noriko complains.

-That’s a lot of assumptions you made, but I guess we don’t have another lead – Todd concedes.

-And I won’t let that bastard slip away again. O.D.I.N, prepare the Valkyrie for launch.

The holographic raven flies towards Noriko before she can storm out of the room.

You shouldn’t go there. You would endanger the mission.

-I like this guy already – Todd jokes, but Noriko isn’t amused in the slightest.

-Nobody catches Null by surprise twice – she boasts.

-You have the Mark on you. He would sense your approach – Torn reminds her.

Noriko sighs; the situation is exasperating for her, and she’s hiding it very poorly.

-Okay, you win this time: I’ll stay here and coordinate. But if we want this to be a surprise attack you’ll have to stay as well, Torn; the demon can sense you as well, right?

-Yes. We should also bring Laceration here, since she’s a possible target.

-Wouldn’t that make things worse? Two demons near someone with the Mark? Since we are all connected to the Blood in some way, it’d be like making a much bigger target – Noriko says.

-You’re learning – Torn replies.

-That’s… not an answer, even by your standards.

Torn doesn’t reply immediately. He carefully considers his next words, before speaking.

-My daughter’s mission is to take me back to Hell. One doesn’t defy Hell’s will without consequences. But when Hell comes for her… and it will… I won’t let my daughter face it alone.

-That’s very sweet of you, Torn, but it would be much easier for me to help you and Laceration if just told me why your people are after… – Noriko replies.

-Neutrality.

-What?

-My people believe that the Universe is naturally in balance. Every action we take can be positive or negative, but if we keep our distance the Universe will retain its balance.

-That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You call this neutral!? – Noriko shouts, lifting the shirt to show the pentagram-shaped scar on her stomach.

-The Seventh Circle believes that, when the Universe is out of balance, extreme actions must be taken to fix it. I agree with them, but we have different definitions of “extreme”.

-Torn, I’ve had enough of this. Why does Hell want me dead!?

-I don’t think they do. The Demon had to touch you to imprint the Mark; he didn’t kill you when he had the chance. That’s not how the Seventh Circle operates. They want to take you alive.

-Okay, but why?

-You’ve had a great impact on the state of the Galaxy. Demons aren’t supposed to meddle in the affairs of gods and humans. To be involved on such a scale… it would be unthinkable.

-I can understand why they’d be angry with you, but I’m not a… oh crap. Don’t tell me…

-You are my blood sister now. You are bound to Demon law.

-And you didn’t think it was worth mentioning!?!?

-No – Torn answers honestly, with Noriko reacting by simply pulling her hair and groaning.

-I guess it was not a good decision – he concedes.

-YA THINK!? Is there anything else I should know about the whole blood sister thing!?

-Yes. I have the right to name your firstborn.

-Torn, when this is over, you and I are going to have a talk that’ll make you wish you were in Hell.



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