Sitting around Vulcan’s workbench in the depths of her lair, two Genomes brainstormed around a sketch. For the past hour, they had struggled to solve one of the world’s most important questions; some would say, the only question worth answering.
How many guns could you fit into one power armor?
“It’ll be better with rocket launchers,” Ryan said, discussing his armor’s design. Vulcan had chosen a design that fit the courier’s body rather than an enormous mech; an exoskeleton rather than a tank. “Two hidden switchblades below the arms, a big chest blaster, mounted turrets…”
“The goal is to increase your power, not blow up half of Rome,” Jasmine told him with a grin.
“Personally, I can settle for the Dynamis HQ.”
“In that case, you will need a bigger laser.” Vulcan scribbled on the design. “Nuclear-powered.”
“Let’s call it the Chernobyl,” Ryan said with a deadpan face. “You think some of their Genomes might survive it?”
“Yes, but they will become radioactive. If the laser doesn’t kill them, cancer will.”
Ryan looked at Jasmine with absolute respect. “So cruel, it becomes art.”
“I know,” she replied. “Now that I think of it, I could actually design a cancer ray. That would be fucking nasty.”
It was such a fun date, spending quality time with his girlfriend designing weapons of mass destruction. Then again, the courier had spent most of the weekend at Jasmine’s place, so the two had grown more familiar with each other. Jamie was too busy dealing with his new promotion, and while Dynamis hadn’t yet delivered on its promised retaliations, Vulcan had all but ordered Ryan to lay low for a while.
Well, as best as someone like the courier could.
“If your theory is correct and all true Genomes produce a Red Flux variant, then it should be possible to contain this hypothetical energy, even if we can’t observe it.” Jasmine brainstormed out loud while looking at the ceiling, both feet on the workbench. “I mean, your plushie keeps a creature from this Violet dimension sealed from what you told me.”
“I wouldn’t say sealed is the best ter—”
“Doesn’t matter, it can still contain it and prevent its energy from leaking out,” Jasmine interrupted him. “If we combine both our technologies, then we could design something keeping this hypothetical ‘Violet Flux energy’ inside you. Instead of dispersing the heat, we’ll ramp it up.”
And in theory, this would increase the energy his power would be able to access. “I love it when you talk dirty.”
“I’m so fucking excited about this, Ryan.” Jasmine was trembling from impatience. Much like Len and all Geniuses Ryan had met, she felt happiest when doing mad science. “We’re going to discover the source of powers, change the whole world. Scratch that, we’ll own it.”
“If you could, would you change your power?” Ryan asked innocently. “Trade it for something else?”
“Nah, I’m pretty glad to have mine. Hell, I wish I got it earlier, though I wonder how much my state of mind back then affected my power.” Jasmine glanced at him strangely. “You?”
Ryan sighed. “I dunno,” he admitted. “I’ve hated and loved my power in equal measures, but now, it’s just part of who I am. I can’t imagine myself without it.”
“I get it,” Vulcan replied, though frowning. “You’re a pretty private guy, you know that?”
“Do you want to know my secret identity?”
“You’re asking me questions you don’t want to ask yourself, and I don’t like that,” Jasmine replied. “I ain’t your psychiatrist, Ryan. In the end, everyone is on their own.”
“I know,” Ryan replied, his mood turning sour. “But it would be nice to be able to count on someone else long-term.”
“Close your eyes peacefully, knowing someone has got your back for life? I thought I had that once. Didn’t work out.” Jasmine pointed at her mech with her chin. “The only things you can count on are those you made yourself.”
Yeah, Ryan felt the same way about his car. “Do you know of the hedgehog's dilemma?”
“What’s that, a pet disease?”
“Two hedgehogs seek to move closer and share heat during cold weather, but they cannot avoid hurting one another with their spines. They want to snuggle, but that would mean lowering their guard.”
Jasmine quickly caught on. “Are you the hedgehog, or am I?”
“We both are.”
“Well, that’s fucking pessimistic,” Jasmine replied.
“It’s experience talking.”
Truth was, Ryan sincerely hoped that Jasmine’s armor technology would produce results; that somehow, things would be different this time.
Maybe he was a fool, but the courier would never stop believing things could improve.
He faced deadlines though. Though he had lost many men, Hannifat Lecter was still toiling inside Mechron’s bunker, and Ryan didn’t see any way to evict him without casualties or revealing the base’s existence. The best solution he had found was to recruit Shroud to invade the bunker, but the glass manipulator refused to move without his team’s support, and Leo Hargraves wouldn’t hit New Rome until next week.
“It could have happened differently,” Ryan said.
“Your power,” the courier said. “It’s not just the potion. It’s part you, part random.”
His girlfriend frowned. “What do you mean?”
“If you give two different Red Elixirs to one person in the same circumstances, he won’t get the same ability. If you give the same Elixir to one person while he’s afraid for his life or feeling safe, he will get a different power, though within the color’s classification. Same if he’s healthy, poisoned, or irradiated.”
“You can’t repeat an experience in the exact same circumstances,” Jasmine replied, skeptical.
Ryan could, and he did.
At one point, the courier thought he might eventually find a way to replicate his power... but while he had learned a great deal about Elixirs, he also learned it couldn’t be done.
Jasmine moved from her seat, grabbed a water bottle, and sat on Ryan’s lap as if she owned the place. He responded by putting his arms around her waist; she was warm to the touch. “But if I humor your theory,” she said, putting her back against his chest, “what you’re saying is, if someone had gotten my Elixir, they wouldn’t have become a weapon Genius?”
Ryan shook his head. “And if you had received my Elixir, you wouldn’t have gotten my power. The Elixir partly adapts itself to the person drinking it. And once the unique power has been assigned, nobody else can get the exact same one as yours.”
That was only true for the original Elixirs though.
“Makes sense. Augustus probably managed to use two without going crazy due to a unique genetic quirk, according to Dynamis’ research.” Jasmine rested her head on his shoulder, her face thoughtful. “How did you get yours?”
“A friend found it among a batch of three. I took mine while trying to get out of a hopeless situation.” The real tragedy was Len though. Shortie had won a power she would have loved under normal circumstances, but one that couldn’t grant her dearest wish. “And you, darling?”
“Stole it while trying to flee Libya,” Jasmine said with a scowl. “If you think Italy was a shithole during the Wars, then you haven’t seen my homeland. Now Dynamis owns the oil field, and nobody controls anything else. It’s all tribes and marauders killing each other.”
“Can’t be worse than Monaco.”
She raised an eyebrow, a little curious. “What’s up in Monaco?”
“Trust me.” Ryan looked at her seriously. “No matter how desperate things get, don’t go to Monaco.”
She chuckled at his confusing words. “Comb my hair.”
“Because I ask you to, minion.”
Ryan chuckled playfully, raising Jasmine’s hair and assembling it into a bun. The courier looked at the neural interface below them with interest. “Can you make a second one of these?”
”Sure,” she said. “I’ve got to admit it though, it’s not really my tech. It’s Dynamis’.”
“Hector has a decade-long project about downloading minds in new bodies to achieve immortality. Scan a whole brain and transfer it into someone else’s. I guess the man doesn’t want his sons to inherit anytime soon.”
“I always knew corporations would eventually find a way to trademark humanity.”
“They can’t, even if Hector would do that if he could. A brain is a complex thing, and it’s double the complexity when you’re a Genome. So they need cloned bodies, which their creepy Dr. Tyrano can provide.” Jasmine shrugged, before sipping from her water bottle. “That machine-human brain interface was one of their milestones. I’m not sure how far they have gotten since I left.”
“And you managed to remake that device from memory?”
“While I’m a weapon Genius, I’m also a genius, period.” Jasmine was too modest to boast. “That’s why I’m interested in your Chronoradio’s brain-interface. My human reaction time can’t entirely keep up with my armor while I use manual controls, but with a perfect interface...”
“A question crossed my mind,” Ryan said. “What happens if we each wear an interface connected to the other’s brain, and then do child-unfriendly stuff?”
She looked at him with a sly smirk, lightly kissing him. “We’ll have to try for research purposes,” the Genius said, before tossing her empty bottle away. Her boyfriend froze time to put it in the trash can. “But that will wait for later. It’s almost time to go to Ischia island.”
“Do you think my cashmere suit will protect me from the radiation?”
“No,” she smirked at him. “But my mech will.”
A true winning team.
Today was the Ischia island defense perimeter inspection; and while he wouldn’t be allowed inside the superlab itself, Narcinia had asked that Ryan come to visit. She probably felt quite lonely on that island.
Strangely though, Livia had given her permission and asked Vulcan to bring ‘extra muscle.’
“I still don’t get why the princess wants you to come, no offense,” Jasmine said.
“I don’t get her either,” Ryan admitted. He had the feeling Livia had her own agenda and played with her cards close to her chest. Curiosity about how their powers interacted couldn’t explain everything about her behavior. “Do you know what her power is?”
Vulcan shook her head. “She keeps it under wraps. All I know is that she’s a pseudo precognitive who can interact with alternate universes, but she doesn’t advertise.”
Considering Ryan intended to destroy the island to settle his deal with Mr. See-Through, she didn’t see very far. Vulcan hadn’t received any tactical advice or warning in the loops where the Junkyard raid went wrong either.
Either Livia lied about her abilities, or she had some harsh limitations.
“This inspection is a waste of time,” Jasmine vented off. “That superlab is almost as well-defended as this armory, and my place isn’t haunted. You would need an army to bring it down.”
And if Dynamis truly had a brain uploading project, Ryan would need to pay them a visit too. Len had already sent him the design of her communications system, though it was the equivalent of receiving a car’s computerized parts while missing the engine, the wheels, and everything else.
Now that he had seen Vulcan’s armor design, Ryan had memorized it. If he could combine Len’s tech with Jasmine’s, hook it up with the Chronoradio, and steal whatever brain-scan Dynamis had available… maybe he wouldn’t be alone anymore.
For the first time in a long while, Ryan felt hope.
The island of Ischia used to be a paradise once. A beautiful resort in the middle of Naples’ bay, where tourists from all of Europe came to enjoy its thermal sources and fresh air.
Somewhere along the way, the fabled paradise had turned into a hellhole.
Ryan didn’t know why Mechron had bombed this island, but he had done a pretty good job of it. Even more than fifteen years after the deed, a purple miasma covered most of the area, a plague so toxic it had killed every lifeform there. Plants, animals, humans… The substance's toxicity and radioactivity had transformed the island into a graveyard. Thick iron walls equipped with wind turbines circled Ischia’s coast, perhaps to prevent the miasma from reaching the mainland.
The only part of the island with any sign of life whatsoever was the Castello Aragonese, a pre-Christ fortress. Built on a volcanic islet, the castle was connected to the island by a stone bridge, shattered yet never rebuilt. In stark contrast with the rest of the island, the castle’s outer layers housed plant life; overgrowth and crimson, alien flowers formed a ring around the fortress.
Vulcan had spared no expense on the defenses either. Unmanned turrets covered the ancient stone walls, alongside automated anti-air defenses. Mooks in power armor kept watch over the facility, equipped with flamethrowers, mini-guns, and rocket launchers. Ryan would need to do a suicide run to get past the perimeter.
The Castello Aragonese had seen many masters come and go since its construction, from the Romans to the Kingdom of Naples. But the Augusti were the first to turn it into a drug lab.
After she landed her mech on the outer wall, unbothered by the defenses, Ryan stepped out of it; much to his surprise, the air was breathable, probably thanks to the mutant plants surrounding the lab.
He found Livia waiting nearby, looking at the Mediterranean Sea with longing. Sparrow and Mortimer acted as her bodyguards.
“Quicksave, Vulcan, welcome,” Livia politely greeted the newcomers, while Vulcan emerged from her suit. Armored soldiers immediately checked on Ryan, in case he had smuggled anything dangerous on the island. Well, more dangerous than usual. “I appreciate your punctuality.”
“We had to be in time for the group visit,” Ryan deadpanned.
“The poor Mortimer didn’t get any free candy at the end,” Mortimer complained.
“I’m afraid you will not be allowed inside, Quicksave,” said Livia. “The inner workings of this facility are top-secret for all but our elite members. Instead, you will stay outside and assist the staff in case we are attacked.”
“Can’t I get a meth cook internship?” the courier asked.
“No, but I’m sure Narcinia will show you the gardens when we are done,” Livia replied, before speaking to an empty spot. “Geist, please, don’t be shy.”
A freezing wind blew on the outer walls, while a yellow, ectoplasmic skull the size of a house manifested above the group. A swirling vortex of colored dust and eldritch energies surrounded the leering apparition.
But the ghost’s small, casual voice was completely at odd with his sinister appearance. Nobody had reacted with shock either, perhaps because they lived in a world with far weirder things.
“Somebody call the Ghostbusters,” Ryan said. “We’ve got a ghost problem.”
“I’m François,” the enormous skull replied casually. “Or Geist.”
“I prefer Casper the Ghost,” Ryan said, Jasmine chuckling. “Also, your name is François, but you use a German nickname? You aren’t one of these self-hating Frenchmen, right?”
“I thought about using the Spectre, but James Bond got there first.”
“Your whole existence has a lot of terrible implications,” Vulcan said. “Namely, it means there’s a freaking afterlife.”
Personally, Ryan thought it was simply Yellow Elixirs being weird, but Casper seemed to agree with her. “Heaven is all yellow and golden, though I only got a glimpse,” the ghost said, “I’ve been trying to get back in there, but so far, the gates are barred. Hopefully, Father Torque will manage to exorcise me.”
“Have you tried suicide?” Ryan suggested. “I know it’s not very Catholic, but maybe you can possess a corpse and then kill yourself again? If you try often enough, maybe it will stick.”
“I tried everything.”
“Fire? Ropes? Nuclear detonation?”
The skull said nothing for a second. “Haven’t done the last one,” he admitted.
“You won’t,” Livia said, her tone suddenly serious. “I won’t allow it.”
“The worst death is fire though,” Casper the Ghost argued, the skull shuddering. “Cooked meat is so painful, it makes you a vegetarian.”
“The rope is the best suicide method, by far,” Ryan said. “It’s painful, but if you do it the right way, it gets weirdly enjoyable. Takes a lot of trying to get the handle on it though.”
“Only one suicide attempt out of three succeeds,” Mortimer said with a morbid tone, “I feel so bad for the other two.”
“Mortimer, don’t encourage them,” Sparrow chastised him.
“Geist, please be on the lookout for invaders,” Livia declared, her voice silencing everyone. “The odds aren’t good today. I can perceive alternate realities from my point of view, but a lot of them have become dark lately.”
“Dark as in, you switched out the lights?” Jasmine deadpanned.
“Dark as in, I died in them.” She said that with the same detachment as Quicksave himself. “So fast I didn’t see the cause.”
“Well, that’s ominous,” Ryan said.
“I’ll say it again,” Vulcan brushed it off. “Attacking this place is assisted suicide, princess.”
“We will put that boast to the test.” Livia smiled before looking at Quicksave. “We will meet again later.”
Jasmine followed the Augusti princess and her bodyguards as they walked inside the facility, leaving Ryan and Casper outside. The courier looked at the sea, a simple question on his mind.
How could he blow this island up?