Shanghai, People’s Republic of China

Noriko Null returns to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai Hotel after a very long day. Of the many people who followed her in her trip to China… top managers and scientists from Null Energy, Null Pharmaceutical, Null Construction, Null Robotics and many other subsidiaries of Null Technology… only one person follows her to the Presidential Suite.

-That was brutal. I’ve lost count of many times you bowed today – says Todd Slate, her public relations manager.

-One thousand two hundred and forty-seven. These things are killing me – Noriko comments, handing over her purse to a Nullbot to free her hands. She takes off her shoes and unbuttons her jacket: from her exasperated sigh when she sits down on the nearest chair to keep her feet on the coffee table, she’s not enjoying having to wear business attire for a whole day.

-Tell me again why I have to wear heels while you get to show up with a suit and tie.

-You can’t negotiate with the Chinese government wearing jeans and a T-shirt – he reminds her.

-Can’t we just get rid of that rule?

-Noriko, you’re changing the world. You can survive wearing a dress.

-Speaking of the world, what’s the status of the Projects?

Todd takes his N-Phone and selects the holographic projector. He looks at six charts now floating in the air, summarizing their meaning:

-Project One is at 20%. All damages of the Artemis attack on China should be repaired next year. I guess that’s a big reason why they didn’t seem to mind you talking about human rights.

-Nothing like seeing half of your capital in ruins helps to put things into perspective.

-Project Two is also looking good. If we can get China to sign the Washington Protocol.

-They will, they just want to look like they’re calling the shots. After Artemis, there’s no way they’ll oppose the Planetary Defense Initiative.

-Project Three is also going as planned: your vaccines have already saved an estimated fifty million people. Project Four, Five and Six are… well, slow.

-Who’s stalling Four this time? Russia? Saudi Arabia?

-Congress. They say replacing fossil fuels with reactor technologies will kill too many jobs.

-I blame Senator Keen for that. He’s turned me into DC’s scapegoat.

-The good news is we’ve been able to secure a joint venture with NASA, so Null Aerospace will be officially open next month.

-What about Project Seven?

-There is no “Project Seven” – Todd answers, sincerely puzzled.

-Right. I forgot.

Noriko can be very hard to read, but after months of working closely together he’s learned to decipher some of her signals.

-Tell me you’re not keeping yet another secret from me.

-I keep secrets from everyone. What’s next on the agenda?

-Nothing, we’re done for the day. Care to join me for dinner?

-I’m not hungry. But enjoy yourself, you’ve earned it – Noriko answers, taking her own N-Phone and immediately starting work on some incomprehensible chemical formula. Todd understands the cue and turns to exit the room, when she calls:

-Wait. There is something else.

She gets off the chair, pausing awkwardly and fidgeting with her fingers.

-I…I haven’t slept well since I got back from the Vulcan Forge. Something’s not right.

-Should I call Doctor Kalama?

-I can’t have my doctor flying in. People will think I’m sick.

-You are sick. You have a heart condition. She asked me to keep an eye on you.

-I’m asking you the same. I don’t want to be alone tonight.

Todd raises an eyebrow, leading her to realize what she said and blush uncontrollably.

-I mean would you like to eat something together? – she quickly clarifies. She seems genuinely scared to be alone.

-Sure. It’s not like I know anyone else on this continent – Todd shrugs.


One hour later, on the other side of Shanghai

The last place where anyone would look for the richest person in the world would be a low-price Japanese restaurant in China. Noriko is sitting next to Todd; despite the presence of many westerners he sticks out, while she can be mistaken for a Chinese girl… as long as nobody notices her silver eyes.

-I really wish we hadn’t left the guards back at the hotel – Todd says, looking over his shoulder.

-Relax, I can take care of myself. Besides, nobody knows we’re here.

-Any particular reason why you chose this place?

-Not really. It seemed nice.

-Come on Noriko, you can’t fool me. I haven’t seen you order Japanese food once in the past year, and the one time you go out to dinner in China you pick this place?

-Well… back in New York, guys always assumed I grew up in a Japanese family, so they kept trying to take me to places like this. I hated it… I mean, there are a lot of Asians in New York, but not many who grew up with a single white dad. So I pretended to hate it, just to show them I was different.

-So why are we here?

-Oh I just hate the stereotype. I freakin’ love the food.

-Is that why your father didn’t come along this time? I mean you have enough money to buy Japan, you don’t have to come this far to eat sushi.

-My father needs some time away from me. He’s still working up the courage to tell me he’s sleeping with my personal physician.

-How did you know? I didn’t say anything!

-I’m the smartest person on the planet. You think I don’t know my own father?

-Of course. But if I may be bold…

-It’s what I pay you for.

-You do have a strange relationship with your father. You obviously care very much about each other, but you don’t seem to think much of his, let’s say, lifestyle.

-You are bold – she admits, taking her time to drink. After an awkward pause, she adds:

-He’s been through a lot. He deserves to be happy.

-And what about you? Are you happy? – Todd asks.

His question completely catches her off guard. Her silver eyes shine for a second, indicating she’s taking the question very seriously.

-I just killed a god. What kind of question is that?

-You forget that you also pay me to avoid questions for you, so don’t think I didn’t notice you haven’t answered. Noriko, why are we really here?

Noriko stares into the distance for what feels like an eternity.

-This gift I have… when I can focus it on a single goal, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. But when I lose control… well… you’ve seen what happens.

-You still blame yourself for Abyss?

-How could I not? We’re basically the same person. What does it say about me?

-It says that you’ll go insane again if you don’t learn to loosen up.

-Not this again – she rolls her eyes.

-I understand that you love your job and that you have responsibilities to the world, but come on, you’re just nineteen! You’re young, you’re rich, you’re pretty, you’re smart… There’s more to life than labs and meetings. You should let yourself have fun.

-Wait. Are you asking me out?

-What? Of course not! You’re my boss – he reminds her.

-I could fire you.

-That’s not… I mean I like you but… You’re doing this on purpose to mess with me, aren’t you?

-It is kind of fun.

They both laugh. It’s been so long since the last time she allowed herself to laugh that the whole moment feels completely surreal. Then someone whispers behind her in Japanese:

-<Pretend that you don’t know me>.

A man she’s never seen before sits right besides Noriko, carefully looking around.

-<But I don’t know you> – she answers sincerely. Her silver eyes shine for the full five seconds that she needs to cross-reference every database on the planet: there’s no trace of the man’s face.

-What’s going on? You know this guy? – Todd asks.

-<Your date is attracting too much attention. Your life is in great danger>.

-<He is not my>… wait, I know that voice. Ninja Guy!? – Noriko exclaims, switching from Japanese to English mid-sentence.

-Keep your voice down. The name is Black Knight, and I am here to warn you.

-Is that a threat? – Noriko asks, her hand reaching for the Genius Gun in her purse.

-There are people who want you dead – Black Knight declares as solemnly as possible.

-Really – is her deadpan reaction.

-Yeah, I think she’s aware of it by now – Todd stresses.

-I am not talking about the gods, or the space pirates, or the aliens, or the robots, or…

-Or the Empire of Shadows? – she suggests.

-We do not desire your death.

-Could’ve fooled me. Your agents tried to shoot me, stab me, blow me up…

-Things change.

-Not enough. Let’s go Todd, I seem to have lost my appetite – she cuts him off, standing up and ready to storm out of the restaurant. Before she can do that she almost bumps into a waitress.

-<Can I help you with anything?> – the woman asks in Chinese, smiling warmly.

-<I sincerely doubt it> – Noriko answers, pushing her away.

Still smiling, the waitress grabs her wrist and twists it, painfully. Black Knight is the first to react, jumping at the waitress in an attempt to separate her from Noriko. The waitress moves faster than any human should, then slams him on the table hard enough to break it.

Of course this is enough to throw the place into chaos. Among the screams, Todd is able to grab the waitress from behind and to shout:

-Noriko! Run!!!

The waitress doesn’t answer. Despite being twenty pounds lighter than him, she breaks free showing little to no effort: Todd is so vastly outmatched that he doesn’t even see her punch before she knocks him out. While still smiling.

Everything has happened fast, but not fast enough to leave Noriko without a plan. She doesn’t need much time to assess the situation: the woman is obviously an experienced fighter. She’s not just stronger and faster than she looks, she’s also smarter: she has stolen Noriko’s purse, where she keeps her gun and her N-Phone. Noriko only remaining weapon is the knife that Black Knight dropped before being punched through the table.

She reaches for it, but stops when she hears the familiar sound of the Genius Gun charging. It’s not supposed to work for anybody except Noriko herself, but not only the waitress hasn’t been electrocuted for simply holding it, she’s ready to fire it.

The gun charges up quickly; at maximum power, it can release enough energy to pierce solid steel… and the waitress is aiming right at Noriko’s head from almost point blank range.

An electrical discharge covers the gun. The woman’s image wavers, from the hologram of a Chinese waitress to a black woman.

-The Guild sends its regards – the woman says with a strange accent, pulling the trigger.

End of issue. Click below to navigate chapters.