Washington, D.C.

The TV is on, but Todd Slate isn’t paying much attention: hearing Senator Keen’s latest speech on the dangers of Null Technology’s monopoly on Plasma Reactors is getting repetitive. He yawns, pouring milk in his cereals, when someone knocks at the door. It’s too early for anything but a neighbor or a delivery man, so he doesn’t put much thought into opening the door.

Much to his surprise, he meets a five feet tall Japanese girl with a leather jacket of a horrible shade of green carrying a motorcycle helmet in her hands.

-I am Null. I’m here to offer you a job – she says. Her silver eyes focus on Todd, noticing he’s wearing only a T-shirt and boxers, than looking at him again she adds:

-Pants are mandatory.

Todd is too embarrassed to be in front of a public figure in his underwear to focus on the shining eyes, mumbling something while Noriko Null goes straight for the remote and mutes Senator Keen.

-Null to meet you, I mean nice to meet you miss Null, can I get you anything?

-Apparently not – she answers after looking at Todd’s breakfast.

She leaves the helmet next to the cereal bowl and leans against the counter, explaining:

-Todd Slate, age 27. Bachelor’s degree in mass communications with minor in political science, masters degree in public affairs, currently a staff assistant at the Department of Justice. You are registered in the “New Heroes” forum with the username “Nullrocks38” and the password “ihatepasswords47”. You started a thread called “What I’d do in Null’s place”.

-You read the forums!?

-I read everything. Although I prefer to skip most Vesta fansites whenever I can and I make sure she doesn’t know they exist.

-So…did I write something you didn’t like or…

-On the contrary. I want you to oversee my public relations. You’re the seventh most qualified person on the planet for the job.

-“Seventh”? – he repeats, both disappointed and surprised.

-Once I excluded the ones living in other countries, yes. You also match the right psychological profile.

-I have a psychological profile?

-Of course. I made it myself. Do you want to sign your contract before or after breakfast?

-Now wait just a minute, I didn’t say yes!

-Please, I read your posts. And your body language is telling me in thirty-nine different ways that this is the happiest moment in your life.

-I…I don’t know what to say.

-“Yes” or “no” will be enough.

-What, no “I’ll give you time to think about it”? – Todd asks jokingly.

Noriko’s stern expression means she doesn’t really have to answer.

-Right, stupid question. Well, you wouldn’t come all the way to Washington if this wasn’t serious, so I’m in. But on one condition.

-I am Null. No one gives me orders.

-And I’m Todd Slate. I don’t like being bossed around.

-Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?

-What, is the smartest girl in the world afraid to answer a simple question?

-Smartest person – she clarifies.

-What?

-“Smartest girl” implies that a male or an older female is smarter than me. I am the smartest person on the planet.

-And you think I say ridiculous things?

Noriko smiles. No, it’s more of a smirk. Not the “you’re kind of funny” type if smirk, more like “it’s cute how you actually think you’re smart”.

-What is the condition, mister Slate?

-You have to give me a straight answer: what’s with the green jacket?

Noriko can think thousands of thoughts simultaneously, but out of the hundreds of conditions she’d imagined this was definitely out of the question.

-I’m the smartest person in the world, soon to be the most rich and powerful. My employees are living gods and my inventions redefined the word impossible. That is the one question that you want to ask me!?

-You value your privacy too much to tell me anything personal, you wouldn’t disclose any plans you hadn’t already decided to announce publicly, and I wouldn’t understand any of your inventions. But if I have to work for you I have to know what makes you tick. A teenage girl who could spend millions of dollars on new clothes that always wears the same ugly jacket? It means something for you, and I want to know what that is.

The girl’s self-control is too tight to allow her to show it, but she’s genuinely impressed.

 

She keeps her eyes on the cereal bowl when she talks; if she looked him in the eye, Todd might’ve noticed her silver eyes were noticeably dimmer.

-I got it when I was sixteen. I was supposed to go to a concert with a guy; our first date. Not only I caught him making out with another girl right outside the theater, he gave her the ticket he’d bought for me. So I just turned back and started walking back home, when it started raining. Hard. So there I was, sitting on the sidewalk just outside a place where people were having fun. Heartbroken, pennyless, wet and cold. Then someone put the jacket on my shoulders, said “cheer up kid”, and walked away under the rain. I watched her disappear into the distance, not once looking back. She didn’t say anything else. But you know what was inside one of the pockets? A ticket for the show.

-Did you run into the boy?

-I “accidentally” made him spill his drink on the girl’s dress. They still left together, but I was only human. I never learned who the woman with the green jacket was.

-That’s a funny story, I guess, but you didn’t answer me. Why do you still wear it?

-Because it’s easy to forget that people can do nice things for no reason at all. You know, I never even told this to my father.

-Let me guess: he didn’t want you to go to that concert.

-Good catch, mister Slate. So, do we have a deal? – Noriko asks, extending her hand for a handshake.

-Of course. I look forward to working with you, miss Null – he answers, completing the handshake.

When her silver eyes suddenly shine, he takes back his hand: it’s not something you see every day.

-What was that!? – he questions.

-The first of many things you are now authorized to know.

 

The Vulcan Forge, 2300 light-years away

Two Talos robots stand at attention when Lady Galatea walks through the door. Elytra has to keep herself intangible in this section of the Forge, where gravity is hundreds of times higher than what would be enough to crush her.

Even if the thick walls are made of neutral matter, the glow from outside makes the room uncomfortably bright: it’s inevitable when you build your headquarters on the surface of a neutron star. Elytra is seriously considering an escape attempt. The Talos can’t touch her, and gravity isn’t a problem when she uses the Ghost Maker. But she’s still deep into Hephaestus territory: she doesn’t have any illusions on surviving an extended trip while hunted by countless Talos.

-Where are we? – she asks, her eyes still adjusting to the brightness.

-The Throne Room. Load the galaxy map, boys – Galatea orders.

At the female robot’s request, the room plunges into darkness. She sits on the golden Throne of Hephaestus, crossing her legs; it’s clearly meant for someone much larger than her, but she carries herself like she owns the place. Two braziers light up next to the Throne, preceding the appearance of a holographic representation of the Milky Way. Or, as Elytra knows it, the Olympian Galaxy.

It shows the galaxy neatly divided between the major gods. It clearly shows the sector of Hepheastus surrounded by five others: Dionysus, Aphrodite, Artemis, Hermes and Persephone. But it also shows hundreds of green dots, surrounded by much smaller red dots.

-This is my lord’s domain. 305 planets, almost 15% of the Galaxy. Current mortal population slightly above 200 millions. I could give you the precise number, but organics are just terrible with numbers, don’t you agree?

-A third of these are planets used to belong to Demeter. Most of them must’ve had more than 200 million people each. You must’ve killed billions of people in just a few weeks! – Elytra realizes, much to her horror.

-I know, it’s a lot of work. My lord is very…determined to reach his goals.

-Which are…

-Total galactic domination and extinction of organic life – Galatea answers, sighing. When the female robot notices the shock on Elytra’s face, she smiles motherly.

-Don’t be so surprised. Hephaestus is the God of Technology: what he can’t conquer, he improves. I know you want the same thing for your people, the Lampyrians.

-What do you know about Lampyrians?

-Look at the screen, Elytra. Every single red dot is a Talos, and they feed everything they learn into the same collective database that I share.

Elytra glances at the screen: there are thousands of Talos, mostly gathered around planets in the Hephaestus territory, but they are already spreading elsewhere in the galaxy.

-What do you want from me? – she asks.

-If my lord learns the secrets of the Ghost Maker, his Talos army will become even more unstoppable. Offer him something of equal value, and I will make sure that the Lampyrians survive the slaughter he’s planning.

-Why? What’s in it for you? You’re just a robot!

-I am a robotic goddess. I don’t want organics to be exterminated, I want them to worship me.

-Are you insane!? – Elytra wonders. The platinum-skinned robot chuckles and says:

-Silly organic. I’m just programmed that way!

Elytra doesn’t have the time to consider her options: she can already hear heavy steps approaching.

-He’s coming. Pretend you’re intimidated – Galatea suggests, quickly jumping off the throne and adjusting her red dress and her golden hair.

 

Elytra kneels when the door opens. She keeps her eyes to the floor, feeling it shake with every step.

She can only see the bottom of the armor, noticing that one boot is much larger than the other.

<<Why is the device still attached to the flesh?>> he asks. His voice is heavily distorted, as if spoken through a microphone at the bottom of a well.

-I thought you wanted to inspect the organic specimen first – Galatea answers him. His breath is heavy, unnaturally regular.

<<Lampyrian. Adult female. Look at me, child>> – he orders.

Elytra does so. Hephaestus is completely covered by a dark grey armor, except for the red eyes that shine through the mask. He’s wearing an elaborate red cloak. He’s probably eight feet tall, but his noticeable hunch shortens him to about seven.

-Lord Hephaestus. Please spare my life and I will pledge my allegiance to you.

<<Hephaestus is not some lowly god that can be distracted by the fleeting faith of a limited organic mind. You are nothing to Hephaestus>>

-She might have something else that might interest you, my lord – Galatea interjects.

<<Her body hosts a Drylon device much older than her entire species. What else could she possibly offer to Hephaestus?>>

-I can lead you to the mortal who killed Demeter. Her name is Noriko Null – Elytra reveals.



Ø
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