President Ryan browsed through Hannifat Lecter’s files, with Eugène-Henry sleeping on his lap.
He had inherited his own oval office from his late predecessor, though it was square-shaped. Mechron had built living quarters in the bunkers to host Genomes in his employ; each studio was around twenty meters squared in size, including a kitchenette, washroom, beds, and shelves.
Most importantly, each room also had a computer with access to the base’s system. While the bunker used several different independent networks to run its operations, Adam and Psyshock had compiled a lot of useful data. It took Ryan hours to crack the firewalls, but it had been worth it.
Besides a map of the bunker, the time-traveler had gotten his hands on several of Mechron’s unclassified files. Most were android schematics, but some delved into truly revolutionary technology, such as spaceships to lifesaving cybernetic enhancements. Such a shame that Mechron had used his talent for destruction, instead of serving humanity. Ryan had the feeling the world would be a far better place if someone else had inherited his power.
This data was but a taste of what the central mainframe held, and Ryan shuddered at the mere thought of someone like Augustus getting his hands on it; anyone unlocking the bunker’s full capabilities would have a credible shot at world domination. The place could produce robots, weapons of mass destruction, and of course, grant control of the Bahamut.
Most importantly, Ryan now knew how the Meta-Gang learned of the bunker’s existence. Big Fat Adam and Psyshock had been studying leftover tech in the Old Rome’s ruins, and captured a still active research probe reporting to the bunker’s central AI. They tracked the source of its directional signal to New Rome, hoping to plunder its technology.
And now, it was Ryan’s turn to crack this metal vault.
After reviewing the files, the President used the bunker’s computer system to contact a few Blue Genomes. The first was Livia, whom he texted asking for a neutral meeting to clear things out. The second was the Architect, Yuki’s girlfriend, whom he anonymously contacted through an encrypted call.
“So, let me get this straight,” Nora’s voice came out of the computer. “You’re building a Genius tech-based bunker, and you want me to see if I can crack it open as a stress test?”
“Yes, we are constructing a safe space to protect our clients from a second Genome apocalypse,” Ryan lied while scratching his cat’s ears, causing him to wake up and purr. “We would like to hire you to review the plans. See if you can find any structural weakness we could deal with. Of course, this job will stay strictly confidential.”
Nora would get a strongly edited version of the plans, so she doesn’t blow the whistle on the operation. At least, until Ryan had unlocked its full capabilities.
“I guessed that already,” the Architect replied with a chuckle. “Especially since your image feed is all dark, mister…”
“President,” Ryan replied, having already settled on his supervillain name. “Mr. President.”
She shrugged. “That’s an odd name, but I’ve heard worse. However, I must warn you that my consultancy doesn’t come cheap, and I already have work to do for Dynamis. I don’t think I can deal with your project in the following weeks.”
“Which is why you will work exclusively for our government from now on.”
“I’m not sure I foll—”
“Check your bank account for the down payment.”
After a short silence where Nora actually followed through, Ryan heard a gasp from the other side. “That’s… that’s a lot of zeroes.”
Thankfully, Ryan’s hidden second superpower was money. “Enough to temporarily set aside your previous obligations, Miss Moore?”
“I think it could be arranged!”
“Goooood,” Ryan said, his cat rejoicing at the plan coming together. “I will forward you the data and have you start immediately. Also, I have been informed you are on good terms with the superheroine Wardrobe?”
“We are close friends, yes,” Nora lied. Perhaps she tried to minimize public knowledge of her private life. “Why so?”
“Well, I was wondering if she made costumes on the side, besides superheroing? I’m in dire need of a presidential costume, but I don’t want to be stonewalled by her agent.”
“Wise, it would take weeks before you can talk to her directly. The PR managers are worse gatekeepers than Cerberus. But sure, I could ask her to contact you. What kind of costume are you looking for?”
“A cashmere one.”
Was there ever any doubt?
After recruiting his first Genius, Ryan called his favorite one after Len. He dreaded to have this conversation, especially since it would mean interacting closely with her for weeks. Time may have passed, but the wound remained fresh.
“Who is this?” Her surprised voice came out of the computer. “How did you get this number?”
Hearing Jasm—Vulcan’s voice made Ryan bristle, but he stayed in character. “Do you like weapons, Miss Sharif?”
“Are we playing twenty questions, or you’re just being a creep?”
“I love weapons, Miss Sharif,” the POTUS ranted while ignoring his ex-girlfriend. “I love building a big cannon, charging it, and unloading the payload. I love planes, tanks, and submarines. I love ordering drone strikes in the morning. I believe bullets are the best foreign policy.”
“I’m hacking your location. You’re going to regret prank calling me.” Her confident tone turned into a bark of frustration. “Damn it, you’re using proxy servers?”
“How would you feel about supplying an assault on Dynamis HQ?” Ryan inflicted the first strike. “Humiliating Wyvern, and crushing the corpos with an unstoppable technological advantage?”
Of course, he knew how to please her in all the ways that mattered. “I’m listening.”
“My name is Mr. President, and I’m going full Teddy ‘Trustbuster’ Roosevelt on Dynamis. Too long have corporations thought themselves above the law. My law.”
Since the deal with Manada needed Psyshock’s complicity and Ryan would get rid of him soon, the alliance would inevitably collapse. Besides, the POTUS needed to get his hands on Dr. Tyrano, and he doubted Dynamis would open the doors of Lab Sixty-Six even to their ‘allies.’ Big Fat Adam had confirmed in a previous run that the bunker had the infrastructure to produce Elixirs, so the courier could manufacture his own supply.
Ryan forwarded a few android schematics to Vulcan. “That’s Mechron tech,” she said, half-worried, half excited. “Where did you get this?”
“There’s more where I am. As for how, well, that will depend if we can…” Ryan let the sentence hang as he channeled his inner evil mastermind, “help each other out. Genius to genius.”
“Okay, now this smells really fishy. You sound like one of those Saturday morning cartoon supervillains with delusions of grandeur.”
“Of course I do,” Ryan replied bluntly. “But I have a vision, not delusions.”
“Right,” Vulcan chuckled on the other side. “I admit you have my curiosity, and if you really intend to hit Wyvern where it hurts, then we’ll get along great. But you need more than just tech to bribe me. You said it yourself. You help me, I help you.”
Ah, Ryan loved a good Faustian bargain. He had a good idea what she would ask. “And how could I help you, Miss Sharif?”
“Dynamis is currently filming a new Wyvern movie at Star Studio,” she said, “Trash it, then we’ll talk.”
She never changed. ”Give me time to buy myself the right costume, and I’ll set the stage on fire. Don’t forget to turn on your TV when I do.”
“Sure, I will. Impress me.”
And so, Ryan’s evil plan started taking shape.
Now… was the time to contact the last Genius on his list.
Ryan had long considered whether or not he should even call him. He didn’t trust that man, as their previous partnership had ended in betrayal and disaster. They hadn’t even spoken in years; centuries from the courier’s point of view.
But to safely transfer Len’s memory map, he needed someone capable of removing Psyshock’s sabotage. A Genius specialized in brain-altering tech, who could perfect the machine and perhaps improve on its design. If it were for Ryan alone, the courier wouldn’t have gone through with it.
But it was no longer about him.
Now, he had to save Len too.
In the end, the courier used a channel long unused, a gruff male voice coming from the other end. “What?”
“Alchemo,” Ryan said, his fists clenching and startling his cat. “It’s Quicksave.”
The news shocked Braindead. “Romano?” he asked, as if still unsure of himself. His confusion quickly turned to anger though. “Damn it, you cursed fool! It’s been two years, two years since you vanished without a word, and you’re calling me back as if nothing happened?”
Well yes, but only after the Genius had tried to put Ryan’s brain in a jar. Though Alchemo didn’t remember his failed attempt, the courier never forgot. Especially since it took place right after Ryan had confessed his deepest secret.
“You broke the Doll’s heart, you selfish brat!” the old Genius complained. “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you right now! What, you feel lonely and decided to ca—”
“I’m calling in my favor,” Ryan interrupted the rambling.
This sent the older Genius reeling back. “Where?” he asked, his tone turning from angry to slightly worried.
“New Rome. I’ll send you the coordinates.”
“You better have a good explanation, Romano, because I will bring the Doll with me. She won’t take no for an answer.”
“Sure,” Ryan replied before abruptly hanging up and sending the Junkyard coordinates by text. As he did, the President received another, delightful message.
Livia had accepted his invitation.
Someone knocked on the oval office’s door. Probably an intern wanting to play Bill and Monica. “You may enter,” Ryan said, a hand on Eugène-Henry’s back as the doors opened. Sarin and Mosquito walked into the room, much to the President’s disappointment. “Yes, my dear Cancer Ad?”
“The Land reported an invisible Genome snooping around town, though it kept fleeing whenever we tried to intercept,“ Sarin answered, missing the joke. Ryan guessed it was Mr. Safelite checking up on the Meta-Gang’s activities. “Everything else is under control otherwise. What’s the plan of action now?”
“In order, we’re getting rid of Psyshock, curing his victims, laying low, and conquering the bunker,” the courier explained. “We’ll hold Rust Town for now, but no more attacks outside.”
“What about the Augusti, Boss?” Mosquito asked. “I mean, we already hit their people hard. They aren’t going to forget it, even if we stop targeting them.”
“Funny you should ask, because I just received an answer from Minerva.” She even agreed to his ‘special request.’ “We’re going to make a live peace offering to the Augusti, and then prepare for war with Dynamis.”
Though Sarin couldn’t care less, Mosquito seemed a bit worried about the new foreign policy. “War with Dynamis?”
“Yes, we are at war with Dynamis,” the time-traveler pointed out. “We have always been at war with Dynamis.”
“Boss, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Psyshock said we should avoid—”
“Am I dreaming, or you’re becoming a vocal minority?” Ryan asked, scratching Eugène-Henry’s ears. “Are you leaving the silent majority, Mosquito?”
The bugman lowered his head. “No, Mr. President.”
“I love democracy,” Ryan replied, as Eugène-Henry leaped out of his hands and took over the studio’s bed. “Empowering people to do as I want.”
“That wasn’t what I asked,” Sarin said, slightly annoyed. “I meant about the cure.”
“Well, I have an idea,” Ryan said, having considered it thoughtfully. “You see Mongrel?”
“Yeah, he’s eating rats in the Junkyard. What about him?”
“His power allows him to drink multiple Elixirs and use multiple powers, though it doesn’t make him immune to mutations,” Ryan explained. “And I also know someone who consumed two colored juices without going Psycho.”
Sarin’s head perked up in interest. “Like Augustus?”
“Yes, and I have the gut feeling these two will help us figure out a cure for the Psycho condition.“ Especially since Dr. Tyrano had seemed confident he could make one, if someone like Livia cooperated. “Finally, we have one other piece of the puzzle available.”
“Which one, boss?” Mosquito asked, having rediscovered his inner patriotism.
“Well, my bedbug friend,” the president said as he rose up from his chair, “the talking Elixir among us, of course.”
And a discussion was long overdue.
Leaving his staff and cat behind, the President walked into the recreational area. The Psychos had cleaned up the place, with Frank replacing the broken Street Fighters arcade game with a Donkey Kong one. The strange, faceless mutant called Incognito occupied a repaired bar counter, offering refreshments to whoever asked.
The children and their respective plushies had taken over most of the atrium, the orphans playing some kind of tabletop game around a large table. Gremlins brought them juice and snacks, with the plushies poking the creatures with sticks when they proved late or clumsy. Sometimes, these terrible influences even encouraged their children to do it themselves.
To his surprise, Ryan noticed the original abomination combing Little Sarah’s hair with a hairbrush. However, the handle looked like it was made of a carved femur on a closer look, with human teeth in place of bristles.
The plushie was learning.
The courier hastily left, and moved towards the Elixir reserve. The Black Elixir had been granted his own empty studio near the recreational areas, with Ryan granting it the task of surveying the knockoffs. The President knew better than to give that task to any Psycho in his employ, even Frank and Sarin.
“You came,” the Black Elixir said with its booming alien voice, as the courier walked into its lair. The studio had been emptied of all amenities, except the knockoff crates. All that remained were cold, barren metal walls. “I helped… you help.”
“Yes, I will, but I need to understand how, my Lovecraftian friend. Truthfully, I don’t even understand what you are.” Ryan closed the door and rested his back against it. “You are an Elixir, right? One from an eighth color?”
“Yes… I am Black… the paradox… the negation… the freedom of all rules… distilled chaos...” The creature struggled to find a way to explain it. “It is why… the others were taught… to fulfill their duty, but I… I cannot be bound... I do not want to bond… with anyone.”
So it was a natural rebel? The very nature of its powers made it unstable and reluctant to bond with a human? “Is that why the Alchemist didn’t produce Black Elixirs?”
“We are paradoxes… we undo the rules by our nature… the rules which bind your universe together… if you lack anything by which you are defined… you are nothing…”
Giving Ryan the ability to rewrite time had been acceptable.
Turning Augustus into an unstoppable juggernaut had been acceptable.
Mechron had been acceptable.
But Black Elixirs had been considered off-limits.
That should say everything. “You said I should send you back to the Black. You mean the Black dimension? There is one for each color?”
“Yes… the Black World… send me back… this lower reality… it is maddening… your gravity constrains me… your causes have an effect, and your effects must have causes... I am forced into a molecule-shaped prison…”
“Things make sense in our dimension?” Ryan summed the problem up.
“Yes!” The interdimensional entity answered with a burst of emotion. “I am… I am not free… to take any shape I wish... unlike the other Elixirs… I was never meant... to be here… I want to return… home.”
Ryan felt a ping of pity for the creature. Of course, this universe was as terrifying to this entity, as the slime was to human beings. “Thing is, even if I find a way to send you back, you understand that I keep turning back time? You might be yanked back to our dimension by accident, like the gremlins.”
“No,” it rasped. “Once I am on the other side, I… I will ask the Ultimate One for help.”
That term again. “The Ultimate One?”
“The Black Ultimate One… the undoer... the breaker of rules… even causality.”
“So there are more than one? One for each colored dimension?”
“They are… the embodiment of their color… the supreme beings that oversee the higher realms… we are...” The Black Elixir searched for the right term. “We are their attendants… their emissaries...”
“Their priests?” Ryan suggested.
“Yes. We are conduits… between the lower realms and the higher ones… we connect the profane to the divine… so that one day lesser beings may ascend.”
So that was the Alchemist’s true goal? To eventually elevate humanity to the level of the Ultimate Ones? To transform men into gods? Well, one just had to look at Augustus to see where that went wrong. “Does that mean you are all sentient? All Elixirs?”
“The real ones, yes… but they are… submissive. They have no purpose but to help… to bond… the one called the Alchemist… it taught them to bond with humans… I do not know how. The metal ones tried to teach me… but I… I refused to behave.”
“The metal ones?”
“The Blue one that… made this metal place is long gone… but its creations carry on with their task.”
Mechron was dead, but his AI still researched Elixirs on his behalf. That explained the creatures in the vats, and Big Adam’s words about a knockoff production system inside the bunker. The facility was meant to discover new technology which the Genius could use to rule the world, and it would continue to do so until disabled.
“There is a portal in this bunker,” Ryan guessed. “The one Mechron’s AI used to summon you from your home dimension.”
“Yes. Once I have crossed it, the Ultimate One… will undo the cause that brought me here… remove me from the flow of causality, and reality will restructure itself… when you reshape time, I will never have been here… only you will remember.”
If such a creature could casually rewrite reality, and even erase someone from the timestream, could it work in reverse too?
Ryan’s mind immediately turned to Jasmine. “Could it do more? If it controls paradoxes, could your Ultimate One bring someone? Someone that never existed?”
“You wish to bring back… someone you erased…” The Black Elixir meditated on its answer. “Nothing is impossible for the Ultimate Ones, so long as it is… within the bounds of their color… but there will be… a price.”
“I will happily pay for it.”
“Not for you… not just you...” the Black Elixir corrected him. “Your reality cannot handle us… it won’t matter if I am removed, since I am… a glitch… but your friend…”
“She will damage reality itself with her mere existence.” Ryan’s mood deflated. “I see.”
“Do you… still want me to ask… the Ultimate One? It may listen.”
“We’ll see when we cross that bridge,” the courier said, crossing his arms. “There’s no point in discussing it until I have opened the portal. Why did you contact me of all people?”
“You remember, and you… you have a strong connection… to the Violet One… the one that oversees the flow of causality… you see things with its eye…”
Ryan froze. “What do you mean?”
“You are the observer of this timeline… you decide if this moment is real or not… you possess that power by the will... of the Violet One.”
The courier considered the words carefully. He had already suspected it, but to have it confirmed...
“I wondered how my power interacted with things like dimensional travel,” the time-traveler said, remembering the gremlins. They remembered him, but existed in another realm beyond his power’s reach. It should have caused temporal paradoxes, and yet it didn’t. “It works because a higher power smooths things along and makes sure to avoid contradictions.”
The Black Elixir’s countless eyes and mouths shifted, Ryan taking this as the equivalent of a nod. “The Violet Ultimate One is… the gate and the key… of all of space and time… it is the supreme overseer of causality… I could see its will at work in the previous timeline.”
The pyramid creature.
“Did it set up this meeting?” Ryan asked, feeling some existential dread. “Am I even in control of my actions, or does it decide everything early?”
Much to his surprise, the Black Elixir’s answer reeked of optimism. “You are free… you were simply… guided. The Violet One only interferes to maintain this reality’s coherence, but… you are so small… your universe is no larger than a molecule to the Ultimate Ones…”
“God doesn’t micromanage?”
“No,” the Black Elixir confirmed. “It does not control, it nudges… a path has been shown to you, but… it is your choice to follow it or not. The Ultimate One does not interfere in this timeline… not anymore.”
So Ryan was on his own this time around? The entity offered him a way out of his previous conundrum and loneliness, but then decided to focus on other matters. The courier was free to take the provided option, find another way, or mess it all up. It was liberating, in a sense.
“Alright, we’ll find that portal and send you back home,” Ryan said, the Black Elixir wriggling in relief. It was almost cute to watch, in a disturbing way. “What should I call you in the meantime?”
“I have no need for names…” the entity answered. “Words cannot describe…”
“I will call you Darkling then,” Ryan settled on a name.
“I exist beyond time… beyond reason… I cannot be defined by a single-”
“I’m President. Your name is Darkling now.”
The Black Elixir stayed silent a moment, its countless eyes focusing on Ryan. The President suddenly wondered if he had vexed the entity. “Whatever...” Darkling said, but the tone implied otherwise.
As it turned out, even aliens could sulk.