Four Seasons Hotel, Cairo

Yong-Su Kim helps Noriko Null put on her green leather jacket, while she tries to avoid making eye contact. She’s following the news: they’re talking about the sudden appearance of an alien structure above Djoser’s Pyramid, but since it’s in Arabic the South Korean man tries to change the subject.

-Are you sure you want to go out there? That alien device you picked up almost killed you.

-I’m tougher than I look, trust me. You don’t have to worry about me.

-Are you sure? I’m sort of your bodyguard, so I feel bad for letting you down.

-It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let a civilian get involved in Vanguard business.

-I’m a civilian now, yes, but I was in the army remember? I can handle myself in a fight.

-So can I. Trust me, it’s for your own good – she replies, standing on her toes to give him a small kiss on the cheek before leaving the room.

 

On the roof

As soon as Noriko exits the building, Kari creates a duplicate specifically to hug her energetically.

-I told you to never scare me like that again!!!

-Are you sure you don’t want to rest a little more? – Vesta asks her.

-She’s ready – Torn comments, laconic as always.

-Thanks for the vote of confidence. We have a lot to cover – Noriko says, addressing the entire team. Even Quantum isn’t making any jokes this time.

-We’ve learned that the Winter King is about to invade Earth, with my mother’s help. We have Lar technology out in the open, which is bad enough, but I also discovered quite a few secrets when I interfaced with the Black Box. Turns out that not only the Lar were the previous users of the Nexus, they used it to rule this entire Galaxy along with several others… until Kronos conquered them.

-My father? – Vesta says, unable to hide the fear in her voice.

-The Black Box recorded a failed attempt to negotiate for peace. As strange as it may sound, Kronos was somehow aware that I was watching… and he almost killed me.

-You mean he reprogrammed the Black Box or something? – Quantum asks.

-As far as I can tell, the Black Box is a write-only device meant to be read only by a Nexus user; Kronos wouldn’t have been able to reprogram it. I believe he just saw me.

-That’s ridiculous, my father has been dead for the past million years! – Vesta objects.

-Clearly, I need to probe deeper into the Black Box recordings – Noriko reflects.

That’s what you got out of this!? Do you have a fetish for almost dying or what! – Quantum notes.

-How does this relate to the Winter King? – Torn asks.

-Great question. I think that… – Noriko starts to answer, before her cellphone starts ringing. She recognizes the sound as a high-priority call, and gestures the Vanguard to wait.

-I really have to take this. <What is it, Voron?> – she asks, switching from English to Russian.

-<If you’re asking, I assume you’re not looking at N.A.S.A’s deep-space network> – the eccentric scientist answers. Noriko’s silver eyes flash, and her neural implant transmits several complex instructions to her phone. The result comes a few seconds later as a list of coordinates.

-S#it. He’s already reached the Moon’s orbit.

-That’s impossible, we stationed the Ragnarok near Mars just to catch stuff like that! – Kari notes.

-We did? – Quantum wonders, receiving only a shrug from Vesta and disinterest from Torn.

-Max. Vesta. Tell him to go back to his planet – Noriko tells them.

Quantum disappears in the blink of an eye; Vesta floats a few feet up, then stops to ask her:

-What do we do if he doesn’t want to?

-I’m working on it – Noriko answers, her silver eyes shining once again.

 

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Kayla Black adjusts her blue costume and stares at herself in the mirror: it’s been months since she’s even considered operating as Blue Star, the only superhuman employed by the United States.

She doesn’t have many good memories associated with this identity and a far from perfect track record. She holds the blue mask in her hands, hesitating: the media are still talking about the alien building in Egypt, but it won’t be long before everybody will start counting on her.

-What is it? You’re not going to ignore the President’s orders, are you? – the Hispanic woman next to her asks. When Kayla doesn’t answer, Miranda Juárez hugs her, resting her head on her shoulder.

-You can do this, Kayla. You can be a hero like them; I believe in you.

-I’ll be back, I promise – the heroine replies, kissing Miranda on the forehead before putting on her mask. A few seconds later, there’s a blue streak of light shooting into the sky.

 

Tokyo, Japan

Kasumi is widely admired by the public: a beautiful socialite from one of Japan’s most influential families, recently married to the mysterious and extremely powerful Shinobu Tanaka.

But while she dreamed this could be the beginning of a real-life fairy tale, Shinobu turned out to be a cynical manipulator far more interested in his male attendants than in his gorgeous young wife.

She’s been locked inside the Tanaka mansion for weeks now, under the strict supervision of bodyguards and former Yakuza members; when she hears a familiar voice coming from her husband’s office, one of the few rooms where nobody else is allowed, she investigates.

She finds Shinobu discussing with a Westerner with unruly hair and a half open shirt, showing off perfectly sculpted muscles.

-I thought you were still in South Korea – she tells her husband.

-Not now, Kasumi. We are talking business – Shinobu tells her harshly, before being pushed aside from the foreigner who comes close enough to her to take a bow and even kiss her hand.

-Now now, Shinobu, is that a way to treat a lady? I’m enchanted to see you, Tanaka-san.

-You speak Japanese very well – Kasumi says, failing to get Shinobu jealous.

-I know my way around words. And please, call me Hermes.

-Do we really have time for this? – Shinobu deadpans.

-I’ll be quick. How close are you to your aunt Leiko?

-I refused to help her kill her own mother. She probably wants me dead.

-That’s what I like about your family: it’s so incredibly similar to mine. See, I know they’re about to start another divine war, and I want a place where I can hide until things have changed a little.

-You’re talking about Earth. Does that mean you’re going to stop the Winter King?

-No, that would bring the attention of the gods back to me. Don’t worry though, I have my ways to ensure his demise… but in return, I need you to do me a little favor – Hermes explains, showing to Shinobu a black dagger with a red line on the blade. The Japanese businessman doesn’t ask where it came from, even though it literally appeared in the blink of an eye.

-You don’t expect me to kill him, don’t you?

-Of course not! I need you to kill Leiko with it.

Shinobu takes the dagger, staring at it. It’s very light, but it’s definitely made of some metal.

-You’re asking me to kill the legitimate head of the Tanaka family.

-Don’t act like this hasn’t happened before. And besides, aren’t you the leader now?

Shinobu doesn’t answer, looking at the god’s eyes. They’re completely unreadable, as always. The mortal is the first one to blink, taking out his cellphone and making a call on the speed dial.

-Shingen? Put on the costume. I have a mission for White Star.

 

Earth orbit

For obvious reasons, Quantum is the first to reach his destination and the first one to have a look at the Winter King’s spaceship… or rather, his fleet. Taking the form of a beam of pure light, he bounces off the hull of a dozen different ships.

-Guys, we have a problem – he says by sending a radio signal towards Earth.

What is it? – Noriko answers half a second later.

-They have some sort of shield that emits anti-neutrinos. I can’t get inside any of these ships.

That’s odd, I don’t think they’re supposed to do that. I think they were ready for you.

-So what do I do now?

Wait for Vesta to arrive, we’ll think of something.

-Hold on, I think I just saw an opening in their field. It’s not much, but I think I can sneak inside.

Max wait, that could be a trap! Max? Max!? – Noriko repeats, without receiving a response.

Even half a second is too much time for someone who can move at the speed of light.

 

Inside the capital ship, a few milliseconds later

Quantum turns back into flesh and blood, instantly missing the complete lack of physical sensation he experiences when he’s made of energy: the ship is much colder than he anticipated.

-I’m inside; I’ll have a look around to check if they know I’m here – he announces.

-They can’t hear you – is the answer he receives, coming from the door that just slide inside the nearest wall to reveal two Lar men armed with alien rifles and a familiar Japanese woman.

-Leiko. Another alien invasion? Don’t you think you’re starting to repeat yourself?

-Fire – she orders. The soldiers next to her obey, firing a barrage of tiny energy darts that pass right through Quantum’s body once he turns it into pure light again.

-Come on, we’ve been through this before, haven’t we? You can’t do anything to harm me.

-I don’t have to – she says, holding a metallic cylinder small enough to fit in her hand. Once she presses a button, the entire room goes completely dark: the device absorbs all the light around it, including what was once a human being. A few seconds later, when the darkness disappears, Quantum is nowhere to be seen: there’s just a small blinking light on the cylinder.

Leiko Tanaka looks at the object in her hands, allowing herself half a smile.

 

On the bridge

Earth is now big enough to occupy the entire viewscreen, with the blue light reflected off its oceans flooding the bridge’s silver walls. The Winter King, sitting on his throne, seems unimpressed.

Send a message to the main spaceport. It would be rude to land unannounced.

-There doesn’t seem to be any spaceport, Your Majesty – one of the officers informs him. The armor’s mask hides the king’s frustration, as he wonders just how primitive a world could be.

Leiko Tanaka returns to the bridge at this moment, walking towards the throne and kneeling while presenting her trophy: the cylinder that is still holding Quantum’s energy.

-My lord. Please consider this tribute as a symbol of my loyalty to you.

Honor dictates that we refrain from harming this prisoner: take him to the scientists, for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Leiko, you can instruct us on where to find Null.

-Perhaps a scan of the planet to find its most advanced technology, my lord? – Leiko suggests.

-Incoming hostile, straight ahead – one officer warns the crew: the viewscreen zooms to the approaching object, a red haired woman surrounded by an aura of fire.

Vesta – the Winter King recognizes her, standing up from his throne and approaching the screen.

-We are receiving a message, audio only – the crewman announces, relaying the radio waves emitted by Vesta’s Neural Transmitter into the ship’s speakers.

This is a sovereign world under my protection, Winter King. I won’t allow you to invade it.

You misunderstand me, Lady Vesta. My intentions are noble: I seek the hand of Noriko Null.

She’s not interested. Turn back now or I’ll have to resort to violence.

-Hostile approaching at critical speed. Your Majesty, her temperature is increasing rapidly!

The will of the Winter King shall not be denied. Keep the course – the monarch orders, raising his hand and pointing it at the screen. When he closes it into a fist, Vesta’s fire is extinguished instantly and her body is surrounded by a solid block of ice. An instant later, something hits the ship’s hull so hard that Leiko almost loses her balance.

A pity; she would have been a fine subject. Have you found a place for us to land?

-No, sir… although we have found evidence of Lar technology. On the screen now.

Earth’s image on the viewscreen is replaced by an aerial picture of Egypt.



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