It ended as well as expected.
With Ryan naked and shackled to a bed, a maniacal Vulcan in a black nightgown on one side, and the plushie on another.
“It was all a trap,” the courier accused the mad Genius, straining against the shackles. “You only cared about the plushie!”
“Very good, Ryan,” Jasmine said, playing with her knife. The inactive plushie looked on while sitting on a chair. “Now, tell me everything you know about it.”
“I would, but I look down on short people.”
“If you won’t talk,” Jasmine put the knife against his chin, and her free hand on his chest, “I will make you squeal.”
“Don’t look,” Ryan told the inactive plushie, trying to avert its gaze. “Please don’t look!”
A phone called in the other room, interrupting the roleplay.
Jasmine let out a heavy sigh. “Gimme a sec,” she said, stepping over an empty condom box before searching for her cellphone among their clothes on the ground. Ryan whistled while she moved out of the bedroom to answer the call.
As it turned out, Vulcan didn’t live in a luxurious villa, but inside her own foundry. She had repurposed the upper echelons of the area into a spacious, soundproof apartment in an elegant steampunk style. Brass pipes and tin gears formed the main decoration, although Vulcan had also embedded a plasma TV in the bedroom’s wall facing the bed. It was rather cozy and she even included a litter for Eugène-Henry, although Vulcan clearly didn’t clean up the place often.
Jasmine eventually returned, rolling her eyes. “Was it Mr. Monsanto again?” Ryan asked.
“Neptune. He’s pissed about last night and wants to call a meeting because he’s a pussy.” She let her nightgown fall on the ground, raised the bedsheet, and slipped below. Her naked skin brushed against the courier’s own, though she didn’t undo his shackles. “Ryan.”
“Don’t ever call me short again.”
“Come on, Jasmine, be the bigger person.”
Her knife hit the wall behind the bed, a few inches away from the courier’s face. Ryan didn’t even blink; by now, he had learned that her bark was worse than her bite. Though bite him she did…
“You’re lucky to be good in the sack, so you get to live another day,” Vulcan said, resting her head against his shoulder. “How many women have you had?”
“I lost count,” he replied. Practice made perfect.
“I figured as much. I didn’t know you could do that with a tongue.” Jasmine glanced at the rabbit watching them. “Actually, what is that plushie? Some pieces just don’t make sense, and I don’t know what to make of the energy readings.”
“I tried to use it as a probe to explore a higher dimension,” Ryan admitted.
“And?” Jasmine asked, not even questioning the sanity of it. “It worked?”
“Not really. All it did was allow something from the other side to hitch a free ride to our dimension. Now it won’t leave.”
“Wait, you’re saying that your rabbit is haunted?” Ryan nodded, and much to his horror, it made Jasmine even more curious. “That dimension, can you describe it?”
“It’s an area beyond space and time, but I haven’t been able to observe it much.” He frowned. “Why?”
“You know that Red Genomes can manipulate energy? From lightning to wavelengths?” Ryan nodded. “Well, Red Genomes, real Red Genomes, actually emit an energy field around them. Like radiation. This ambient energy, this ‘Red Flux’ can be captured, stockpiled, and then refined to make batteries. That’s how Dynamis makes laser weapons.”
“And you think this energy comes from another dimension?” Ryan asked, suddenly very curious.
“I think so, and Dynamis does too,” she replied with a nod. “The Firebrand knockoff Elixir alters genes so a Genome could perform pyrokinesis, but doesn’t create a link to the Red Dimension. So the body only uses the energy available, that of the human body.”
“That’s how your Fireman armor enhances their pyrokinesis,” Ryan guessed. “You take the batteries meant for laser weapons, and you transfer this Red Flux energy to the Genome’s body.”
“They become just as powerful as the original pyrokinetic Genome the knockoffs are based on, at least as long as the battery juice keeps flowing,” Jasmine said with pride. “Dynamis has been wasting fortunes in an attempt to create a bridge towards that hypothetical Red Dimension, though they haven’t managed to do so yet.”
“That Flux, do you think Genomes with other colors produce variants?”
“I suppose, but I haven’t been able to observe them. Red is energy, so it’s easy to measure it, and since almost all Red Genomes have offensive applications, my power has an easy time with them. But how do you measure life, like with Green Genomes?” She gave him a knowing smile. “Though, if you told me the truth about your power, we could work on it together.”
Ryan let out a shocked gasp. “You know about my true, true power?”
“Look, that bullshit you told Pluto? About how your power really works?” She looked into his eyes. “You were just pulling our legs.”
“I thought we did that this morning.” She chuckled. “Why didn’t you call my bluff?”
“Because I’m curious,” Jasmine replied, stroking his cheek. “You’re smart, funny, and the perfect gentleman, yet I can tell you’ve got your own agenda.”
“I’m just trying to help a friend in need, and find happiness.”
“I don’t think that’s all there is,” Jasmine said. “You joined this organization as a stepping stone for something else. It’s fine, I’m not particularly loyal to Augustus either. But I’m pretty sure your power is something world-changing. I don’t see why you would be afraid to reveal its true extent to Pluto otherwise.”
Ryan shrugged it off. “I think it’s a bit too early to talk about that.”
Vulcan sat on his chest, one leg on each side. “Then what will we be, Ryan?”
“I dunno, a summer fling?” Ryan needed to blow off steam after his last encounters with Len and the Meta-Gang, in more ways than one. “I don’t want to get too attached, and you’re probably going to forget me soon anyway.”
“You aren’t going to forget me, Ryan. I can promise you that.” Vulcan stroked the courier’s cheek. If only she knew. “I’m fine with a summer fling, but as I told you before, it’s an exclusive contract. Cheat on me and I’ll fucking kill you.”
“If you can do the fucking before the kill, I would appreciate it.” She lightly slapped him in response. “Hey!”
“You’ve got an attitude problem, but I’ll tame you, Ryan. I’ll tame you straight.” She put both her hands on his ears and ferociously kissed him on the lips, like a lioness marking her territory. “You know how to cook?”
“Good, because I don’t. We’ve got enough time for one more round and breakfast before the meeting.”
“It’s Jamie who’s going to be unhappy,” Ryan pointed out. “I was supposed to help them clean up the house in the morning.”
“Well, I’m higher in the hierarchy, so that’s an order. Entertain me, minion.”
Ryan stopped time in response.
When it resumed, Jasmine was the one shackled to the bed, the two having switched positions. “Fuck,” she said. “You can actually stop time.”
“You are going to tell me everything about Ischia Island, Miss Sharif,” Ryan said, his body towering above her. “We have ways of slipping past your defenses...”
“Narcinia is fourteen,” Jasmine smirked at him. “She’s too old for you.”
“In this case, I will have to pump you for information.”
Vulcan tried to keep a straight face, but ended up bursting out laughing.
She was kinda cute that way.
After dressing up and eating a delicious breakfast, Vulcan carried the duo all the way to Mount Augustus with her mech. Obviously, Ryan had put on the cashmere suit, delighting in its glamour and softness.
Augustus’ estate had looked enormous from afar, but it was even more impressive from above; Ryan estimated it to be around fifty hectares. Located atop a heavily-defended hill, the complex included a vast amount of monuments, the most impressive being a copy of the Parthenon to the east. An enormous, multi-floor Roman-themed villa covered roughly a third of the area, a marble palace worthy of a Roman emperor.
Most of the land, however, had been repurposed into a vast park, including Roman-theme sculptures, flower gardens, Versailles-styled fountains, and even a freaking zoo. “They have giraffes,” Ryan said in ecstasy.
The sheer luxury of the place awed even the jaded time-traveler.
Vulcan ended up landing near a swimming pool close to the villa, though a private sea might have been a better term. The enormous body of water was separated into smaller basins, some with fish, some without.
A group awaited them on a marble terrace, relaxing under the sun. Livia was among them, sunbathing in a one-piece swimsuit next to Narcinia. Augustus’ daughter immediately raised her eyes at Ryan and Vulcan when they emerged from the mech, welcoming them with a warm smile.
Pluto was reading a novel on a folding beach chair near her niece, keeping a mummified head on a small table nearby. She looked oddly peaceful for a mass murderer, though the head’s eyes moving on their own made the sight look quite macabre.
Finally, a group of older people discussed around a table near the villa, drinks in hands. One was a priest in his fifties, with a receding grey hairline and a gaunt face. He was so lanky Ryan could see the bones below the skin, but his black eyes oozed a frightening, almost maddened intensity. His every movement was carefully calculated, and he drank water rather than cocktails.
The priest, whom Ryan suspected to be Bacchus, was talking with a man entirely covered in thick armor. His equipment was heavily inspired by a Roman centurion’s dress, though it covered every part of the body and included a crimson cloak. The helmet included a metal face mask, and the time-traveler couldn’t see the eyes beneath.
The only woman of the group was a blonde woman in her forties, straight out of a playboy magazine; she kept her hair in a bun and wore an ancient Rome-styled dress adorned with gemstones. Though he could see only the lower part of her face and sapphire eyes due to a gold-plated masquerade mask, Ryan noted a family resemblance with Fortuna in that woman’s jawline. She was probably the lucky girl’s mother, keeping her arm around the red centurion’s.
The last man around the table was clearly the oldest, somewhere in his sixties. He had dyed his hair and thick long beard blue, which complemented his eyes. He wore no mask except a golden diadem and dressed in an elegant navy blue business suit including seashells as part of the design.
The old man instantly glared at Ryan and Vulcan upon seeing them, leaving the table with a dark look on his face; much like Pluto and Minerva, the family resemblance was unmistakable.
“That’s Neptune,” Jasmine pointed out the obvious.
“I could tell,” Ryan replied, waves starting to form out of nowhere in the swimming pool. Clearly, he was jealous of the courier’s better suit. “Can he drain the water within us with a thought?”
“Thankfully not.” His girlfriend smirked. “He’s an Orange, so organic matter interferes with his power. Besides, he is a macro hydrokinetic. The bigger the water volume, the greater his control. The priest is Bacchus, the couple is Mars and Venus, and the mummified head is Mercury.”
“I imagined him taller.”
“Mercury is a paranoid loon who doesn’t leave his home,” Vulcan snickered. “He can reanimate corpses and command them, so he sends them on missions.”
“Ryan, Vulcan!” Narcinia waved a hand at the couple upon noticing them.
“Welcome to Mount Augustus,” Livia said, though she didn’t rise up from her longchair. A true queen. “We were just discussing yesterday’s events. I admit you were right, I couldn’t anticipate anything like it.”
“Did we win a prize?” Ryan asked. “Personally, I would settle for a statue in my honor.”
“Marble or gold?” Livia replied with a wink, examining his suit. “I love it. It’s classy.”
“Ooh, I could add a few flowers if you want!” Narcinia told Ryan.
“Nah, I used all my weed killer on Blackthorn,” Ryan said, Jasmine smirking.
The banter was interrupted by a very furious Neptune. “You little, irresponsible brats!” he snarled, pointing a finger at Jasmine and Ryan. “I should drown the both of you right now!”
“Can you do it in Coca-Cola?” Ryan asked innocently. Much to his surprise, Vulcan didn’t smash his foot to silence him, and instead bantered back.
“It’s like being drowned in acid,” Jasmine told him. “Diabetes acid.”
“Yes, so my death will be quicker.”
“Do you have any idea what you did?” Neptune thundered. “Vulcan, you and your soldier could have sparked an all-out war!”
“Uncle, they did it on my orders,” Livia spoke up calmly. “I will take full responsibility for this.”
“It was still stupid,” Neptune snarled. “Blackthorn labeled your prank as a terrorist attack, promising retaliation.”
“Enrique must have suppressed the part where I undressed and put on the suit,” Ryan said.
Pluto, who had listened to the conversation, clearly struggled to contain her laughter, much to Ryan’s shock. Neptune glared at her. “Am I the only one here having a problem with this fiasco?”
“We were young too, Silvio,” Pluto replied, more amused than anything. “What’s wrong with letting them indulge a little?”
“I strongly suspect Hector Manada to have hired the Meta-Gang to harass us,” Livia said, all business. “This was a calculated attempt to put them back in their place.”
“By stealing a suit?” her uncle asked with heavy sarcasm, clearly not believing his niece.
“Did you summon us to bitch about it?” Jasmine asked with a shrug. “‘Cause we got important work to do.”
“There is also the matter of Mercury’s replacement,” Livia explained.
“As we discussed in our previous meeting, I stand by my decision to retire,” the mummified head spoke with an old, weary voice, startling Ryan. “I’ve grown too old for this.”
“Marco, last time I met you in the flesh you were lively for someone past pushing ninety.” Ryan turned towards the speaker, Mars. The Roman cosplayer had risen from his table to meet the group, his wife holding his arm. Bacchus followed his hands behind his back. “You’re still one of our best.”
“I personally know someone older than you with a youthful attitude,” Pluto said while giving Ryan a knowing smile.
“I’ve lived through three generations of the Camorra, children, yours included,” the talking head said. “I’m weary, I’ve earned more money than I could ever use, and I have no family left. I believe it’s time I buy a private island and spend the rest of my days drinking margaritas on the beach.”
“This will wait until after their punishment,” Neptune said, still glaring at Vulcan and Quicksave.
“For what, giving Dynamis their due?” Venus spoke up, greeting Ryan and Jasmine with a nod. “Did you see Felix during your attack, Vulcan?”
Vulcan shook her head. “No, only Blackthorn. They didn’t react fast enough to send heroes after us.”
“A shame,” the centurion greeted Ryan before shaking his hand. “Greetings, I’m Mars, though you can call me Luca. I appreciate you looking for my daughter at that party.”
“We had goat fights,” Narcinia said innocently.
“Oh by the way, what happened to Shub-Niggurath?” Ryan asked with concern. “Is she alright?”
“A guy and his girlfriend took her home,” Narcinia said. “They said they would put her to good use, but when I asked which one, they just put a hand on my head and smiled.”
Mars burst out laughing, while Venus glared at her husband. “I’ve got enough with a cat,” Jasmine whispered into Ryan’s ear. “I’m not taking a goat.”
“Well, I admit I’m torn,” Ryan whispered back, shuddering. “I don’t know where she has loitered…”
“Back to the important subject,” Neptune cut through the chit-chat. “Tensions with Dynamis are at an all-time high and they can’t tolerate a direct attack on their HQ. They will strike back, if only to keep face.”
“War now would be a tragedy,” Bacchus said, his voice soft and soothing like honey. He had remained silent for a while, listening to everyone. “Thanks to Ceres, we are on the verge of achieving Heaven. A conflict with Dynamis will interfere with that.”
“You and your ‘Heaven,’” Venus rolled her eyes.
“He is right though, war is bad for business,” Mercury said.
“It’s not always about the money, old man,” Pluto replied icily. “Sometimes, it’s about respect.”
“Do you want Alphonse Manada back in town?” Neptune sneered at his sister. “Because they will recall that madman if we push them too far, and then there will be blood in the streets.”
Ryan didn’t say anything while they argued, trying to assess how every member of the Augusti high command fit in. They were clearly divided into a moderate, business-minded faction and more brutal warmongers. Narcinia said nothing, too young to assert herself, but her presence at this gathering implied that she served a key role in the organization. And Livia oversaw the group discussion like a lioness observing her pack.
Though in the end, Ryan’s main quest was to destroy the lab and settle his deal with Shroud. “So, how did a priest end up making drugs?” he asked Bacchus. “I don’t think that’s very Catholic.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” the priest replied calmly. “All sins are forgiven, if done to reach Heaven.”
“I don’t think that’s how religion works, Father.”
“Ryan!” Narcinia nagged him, before turning to the priest. “He doesn’t know what he says, Father Torque!”
“It is fine,” the priest replied, his eyes peering into Ryan’s own with disturbing intensity. The courier suddenly realized this man hadn’t blinked once in the entire conversation. “You may not believe in God, but I assure you, It does exist. I’ve seen It with my own eyes, in all of Its divine glory.”
“It?” Ryan asked with a frown, while Jasmine rolled her eyes.
“Don’t get him started with this,” Venus interrupted them. “As for the Manada, we should have wiped them out years ago. That clan has been nothing but a thorn in our collective foot.”
“Honey...” Mars tried to calm his wife.
“They took our son!” she complained. “In the old days, we would have slaughtered them for less!”
“Felix is just having a rebellious phase.” Ironically, for a god of war, Mars seemed rather laid-back. “He is a naive boy transitioning into a mature man. He will come back into the fold, eventually.”
Livia’s eyes turned to cold steel upon hearing this. She grabbed a towel to cover her shoulders and rose from her longchair. “He won’t, and there will be no punishment for yesterday night.”
“Livia—” Neptune began.
“That is for Father to decide,” she interrupted her uncle, “and you know he will see things my way.”
Neptune flinched. “You called him?”
Livia nodded slowly, while the air grew oppressive. An electrical tension spread through the atmosphere, like during a thunderstorm’s approach. Everyone tensed up except for Livia herself.
The villa’s doors slowly opened, everyone staring at them in utter silence. Even Ryan, who was usually unflappable, remained still.
A towering, shining figure stepped through the threshold. A faint halo of crimson electricity surrounded his body, making it difficult for people to look directly at him. When he focused though, Ryan began to distinguish the shape of an aging man wearing a toga beneath the electrical shroud.
But when the courier looked into this man’s cold gaze, he realized that age hadn’t dimmed his brutality one bit.
“My daughter,” Augustus said, his voice echoing with the sound of booming thunder. “Why have you called me?”