Watching the Dynamis CEO’s face on his computer screen, Ryan scratched his cat’s ears. This G2 conference call wasn’t going well. “I think I misheard, Mr. Manada.”

“I said no,” Hector replied, the two using a secure channel to communicate. “No more Knockoffs. My agreement was with your predecessors, and their demise changes everything.”

“Certainly we can continue where they left off.”

“Listen to me, you little shit,” the CEO said, his calmness all but gone. “I know you met with the Augusti and hashed out a peace agreement. Psyshock brainwashed people on my staff, inside my house. Your people didn’t deliver and backstabbed me. So why should I honor my side of the bargain?”

How did he know about the meeting with Livia? Ryan had done his best to cover it up. Either the CEO had an advanced surveillance system, or plants among the Augusti. Perhaps both.

As for his reaction… Ryan thought the Dynamis/Meta-Gang alliance had collapsed in the past because Psyshock’s death ruined the brain-copying project, but he was mistaken. In truth, the brainjacker had initiated a slow, insidious takeover of Dynamis, brainwashing staff members and executives one by one. Psypsy’s demise had exposed his treachery, and made Hector Manada aware of the Meta-Gang’s true, nefarious intentions.

If only he hadn’t been greedy enough to hire them in the first place...

“Then I guess I will reveal the recordings of your discussions with the previous administration,” Ryan said, upon realizing he couldn’t maintain the old juice connection. “Because they kept recordings.”

Hector squinted. “Are you blackmailing me, Mr. Romano?”

“I prefer the term plata o plomo, Mr. Escobar.” Ryan always thought the CEO looked like a Colombian cartel leader.

“Then you’re firing blanks. A scandal will cost me less to cover-up than another knockoff delivery.”

“Then perhaps your competition—”

“We both know Augustus will never forgive the attacks on his territory, even if you submit to him. Your group signed its death warrant the moment you shook the hornet nest.”

That was why he had hired the Meta-Gang in the first place. They were the only Genomes mad enough to take on the Augusti in spite of the deadly consequences, except the Carnival. Still, Ryan had one last card up his sleeve. “Then I should reveal what’s inside your knockoffs. I’m sure your people will love buying a Psycho-in-a-can.”

Ryan had to give it to the man, he had a good poker face. But the courier could see the tension at the edge of his gaze. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“I know what you and your pet scalie keep in Lab Sixty-Six.”

“No, you don’t.”

Damn, he wasn’t biting. For all his faults, Hector Manada was cautious enough not to reveal truly incriminating information. Unlike Psyshock, he knew how to deal with bluffs. “Bloodstream.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Hector replied with a smug, punchable smile. “Do you have any proof?”

“I’ve analyzed the knockoffs,” Ryan lied. “I can publish the results.”

The CEO didn’t believe him, or at least not fully. But the courier could tell he had hit close to the mark. There was a link between the knockoffs and Bloodstream, as much as Ryan loathed to admit it.

“Many have tried to discredit our work, and yet we remain.” Hector Manada joined his hands. “Here’s my one and only offer, Mr. Romano. You keep the knockoffs, release my technicians, return my technology, and skip town within forty-eight hours without making waves. You will carry the secret of this agreement to your grave, and I will let you be. This experiment will have been a failed joint venture, but maybe we could make another deal in the future.”

Yeah, right. “And if I don’t file for bankruptcy?”

“Then I will answer with force,” Hector stated the obvious. “Enrique and Wyvern have been pestering me about sending Il Migliore to drive you out of Rust Town. My stamp of approval is the only thing standing between you, and annihilation.”

Gee, another big business threatening the government. It almost made Ryan want to become a socialist. “I’ll consider your offer.”

“Forty-eight hours, Mr. Romano. No more, no less.”

Ryan cut the communication, and Sarin entered the oval office soon afterward. “So?” she asked. “How did it go?”

“Everything is going according to plan,” Ryan said sinisterly, Eugène-Henry purring on his lap. Hector Manada had walked into a trap without even realizing it, and the courier had secured two days of non-interference. “Is everyone ready for the operation? We’re storming the mainframe or we’ll die trying.”

“Yeah, but there are new people at the Junkyard’s entrance. They fit the descriptions you gave us about that brainy guy and his robot daughter, so Gemini didn’t shoot them on sight.”

Alchemo had already reached New Rome? He must have dropped everything and left right after Ryan gave him the call. “Bring them to the hangar, Miss Vice-President.”

“Gotta ask, you’re sure of what you’re doing, right?” Hazmat Girl asked, a little worried. “I mean, even with our losses in manpower, we’ll run out of juice soon. You really don’t want to see the others when they’re missing their shot.”

Having lived with Bloodstream for years, Ryan had a pretty good idea how it would turn out.

Leaving Eugène-Henry in the oval office, the president walked towards the hangar, only to meet with a rabbit plushie in a corridor. The terrible creatures had grown more numerous lately, and without any children to bond with...

“Let’s play outside!” the possessed toy asked, hopping in front of Ryan’s feet.

“No,” said the president, but the abomination wouldn’t listen.

“Let’s play outside!” the plushie insisted, one of its paws revealing a switchblade.

“Not yet,” Ryan replied, the promise of future destruction pacifying the beast of the end times.

When he reached the hangar, Ryan found Frank dragging an old, 1986 Fleetwood Bounder right next to the unused Mechron mech. Alchemo and the Doll stepped out of it, all under Sarin’s watchful gaze.

“Careful, I have precious equipment in the back!” Alchemo was still the same brass and steel cyborg with a brain-in-a-jar for a head and syringes for fingers. It took Ryan all his willpower to keep a straight face at the betrayer, as he grunted at Frank for carelessly handling his car.

His android daughter Tea, alias the Doll, had changed a little. She was still a lovely redhead dressed like the stereotypical country-girl, but she had covered her arms with synthetic skin, making her truly lifelike. If Ryan didn’t know her true nature, he might have mistaken her for a human of flesh and blood.

And she glared at Ryan the second she spotted him.

“All clear, Mr. President!” Frank greeted the leader of the free world with a military salute. “Your guests have arrived!”

“Good work, Agent Frank,” Ryan congratulated him, while the Doll moved in his direction. “Hey, Tea, long-time no se—”

She slapped him in the face with enough force to make him flinch.

Sarin prepared to blast Tea to smithereens, while a furious Frank took a step forward. “Wait, wait, it’s okay!” Ryan calmed his bodyguards with a raised hand. “She’s my ex! She can do that!”

“Oh, she is a former First Lady?” Frank asked, instantly calming down. “A damn fine country girl you found, Mr. President. It reminds me of my native Texas, and the good old times...”

“You…” Tea glared at Ryan. “No word for two years, and that’s all you have to say? Long-time no see?”

Ryan sighed, as he massaged his cheek. He could have dodged with a time-stop, but a part of him thought he deserved it. “Was that really warranted?”

“That’s all you deserved,” Alchemo said dryly.

“Ryan, I understand you might have your reasons for leaving us. You always were a free-spirit, and that’s what I loved about you.” Tea crossed her arms. “But you didn’t even write!”

Well… Ryan did send letters once, asking how their robot cow was doing, only to receive a confused answer. As it turned out, he had referenced events erased in a previous loop, and something they never built in the final one.

The realization had crushed him so much he had erased that timeline too.

Unfortunately, Ryan knew a lot more about Doll than the other way around. He had learned everything about her past, everything she liked, everything she hated… they had done all the things Tea had dreamed of, like visiting France, but she only remembered a fraction of their shared experiences. From her point of view, Ryan and her had a brief fling; from his, they had been together for years.

And much like how Jasmine forgetting him had hurt, Ryan simply couldn’t stand carrying the burden of a shared past alone, especially after Braindead’s betrayal. So he left and tried to forget.

And yet… when he looked at her, Ryan realized some people he left behind had cared. That the little time they remembered spending with the courier had mattered. And it made him feel regretful.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said, not knowing what else to say. “I’m sincerely sorry.”

“That’s a start,” Tea said, her face softening a little. She simply couldn’t hold a grudge. “But you have a great many things to explain. What are you doing with these monsters?”

“Hey, I’m not a tincan pretending to be human,” Sarin snarled, the Doll ignoring her.

“You are a member of the Meta-Gang,” Alchemo said with disdain. “Frankly, the only reason we’re even here is because I owe this biological waste of a Violet a favor. I don’t even understand why he’s working with you.”

“Yes, Ryan, I thought you hated Psychos?” Tea asked, a little fearful for his well-being. “They… they aren’t forcing you to work with them?”

Sarin snorted. “You got it the other way around.”

“Nobody controls the USA,” Frank added. “We arrested our alien overlords and enslaved them.”

“I won a civil war for control of this great nation,” Ryan said. “Now I’m trying to find a cure for the Psycho condition… and to help a friend in need, first and foremost.”

While the Doll immediately looked concerned, Ryan’s words only aroused Alchemo’s scientific curiosity. “A cure for Psychos, you said?”

“Alright, Ryan, I’ll trust you. For old time’s sake.” Tea put her hands on her waist. “But there’s still one person you’re going to apologize to.”

The courier glanced at the minivan. “He’s inside?”

“Yes,” Tea replied, utterly serious, “yes he is.”

Ryan took a deep breath, and carefully opened the van’s backdoors.

As expected, Alchemo had brought a sizable part of his workshop, from wetware computers, multicolored jars of questionable content, miniature brain-scanners… and a toaster. Ryan looked at it, noticing four small wheels carrying it forward.

The tiny object drove to the edge of the car, facing the courier.

“Hi, Ryan,” the toaster’s vocalizer mimicked Schwarzenegger’s Terminator voice.

“Hi, Toasty.” Ryan could feel the others’ stares peering on his back. This was awkward. “You have wheels now?”

“Yep, Tea installed them when I got tired of watchin’ TV all day.” Unlike the others, there was no hint of reproach in the toaster’s voice. “Two years, Ryan. Two years. I hope you toasted a lot of chicks in that time, because I couldn’t get any.”

“Yeah, being a toaster probably reduces your opportunities,” the courier mused.

“There, still the same ol’ ableist.” The toaster let out a click sound. “Damn, I missed you, man. I love life on the farm, but you added a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.”

Sarin kept glancing between the toaster and Ryan, completely at a loss of words. “What, you thought the plushie was my first creation? That I was a one-trick pony?” the courier deadpanned. “I went through a robot-building phase.”

“Yeah, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel when he made me,” Toasty said as he drove out of the car and onto the bunker’s floor. “A lil’ bit of advice, don’t let him tinker in his boxers. You’ll spend days picking up the scraps.”

“You made an intelligent toaster.” Sarin glanced down at Ryan’s creation with skepticism. “Why a toaster?”

“I feel I'm being judged right now,” Toasty said.

“At one point in my life, I wanted to settle in France,” Ryan explained, “my greatest anxiety was to wake up with a lot of bread... and no way to toast it.”

Sarin put a hand on her gas mask without a word. “You know what, I don’t care anymore.”

“That’s not even the worst thing he did!” Braindead snapped, having held a grudge for years. “That dumbass equipped my gynoid construct for sex, and then left his dirty body fluids everywhere!”

“It’s okay, Dad, I have a cleanup routine,” the Doll replied, not at all embarrassed by the open outburst. “We talked about this.”

“Wait, you slept with a robot?” Sarin asked Ryan, finally putting the two and two together.

“I slept with everything and everyone.” Though in the end, after centuries of experimentation, Ryan discovered he was mostly attracted to human-shaped women. The courier wouldn’t say no to a new experience, like Darkling, but he clearly had a weakness for female Geniuses shorter than him. “I even equipped her with a detachable—”

“Anyway, a Mechron base, huh?” Alchemo changed the subject, instantly recognizing the bunker for what it was. “Did you escalate from drug dealer to terrorist when I wasn’t looking?”

“It’s not terrorism when our country does it,” Frank replied. “It’s an armed intervention.”

“Oh, awesome, a mecha!” Toasty rolled in front of Mechron’s scorpion war machine. “Could you upload my personality matrix into it? I mean, a giant robot is just a toaster with too much power. It’s meant to be, baby!”

“Is that why you need my unlimited genius?” Alchemo asked Ryan, while the toaster happily rolled around the mech. “For another prank?”

“No,” the courier replied dryly. “As I said, a friend needs help.”

Alchemo and his daughter exchanged a glance, their demeanor changing from angry to concerned. “Show me,” the Genius asked.

After taking over the Meta-Gang, Ryan had Len transferred to the infirmary, changing the place from Psyshock’s brainwashing assembly line into a true medical block. His comatose friend slept on an operation table, hooked to a respirator located right next to Dynamis’ brain-copying tech. She looked so peaceful in her sleep...

Unfortunately, the other patient in the room was insufferably loud.

“You thief, I’ll slay you!” Acid Rain strained against her restraints, strapped to an operating table. “I’ll escape, and when I do, I’ll rip you to pieces! I’ll carve the gate open with your bowels!”

“Hmm, typical Psycho.” Alchemo raised a handheld scanning device at her head, information appearing on the surface of his dome-head. “As expected, her head contains a nasty package of tumors and mutant neurons. I’m surprised she can even talk.”

“It’s getting harder to sedate her, Boss,” Sarin warned Ryan. “I think she’s building a tolerance.”

“I’ll slay you!” Acid Rain snarled at the courier. “You’re keeping them away from me! All of them! If it weren’t for you, I would, I could go back! I could go all the way ba—”

Alchemo hit the captive Psycho in the neck with three syringe-fingers, and injected her with colored liquids. Acid Rain let out a savage growl as her veins turned green from the intravenous transfer, before her voice died in her throat. A few seconds later, her gaze turned empty and lifeless.

“You know, if you wanted to practice euthanasia, there’s a retirement home two districts away from here,” Ryan told Braindead.

“I applied a treatment for brain cancer, and mood stabilizers,” Alchemo explained. He couldn’t understand black comedy. “They will destroy the cancerous growths, stabilize her humors, and repair the damaged neurons. It will be a temporary fix as long as her Psycho condition produces new mutations, but it should stabilize her mind for a while.”

“Huh…” Sarin crossed her arms. “Could you do the same with Mongrel? The juice wrecked his brain pretty bad too.”

“I thought you didn’t care about helping others,” Ryan said, remembering how Alchemo had gone along with his drug cartel plans, but never really cared about curing people’s illnesses.

“I didn’t,” Braindead admitted. “But the Doll nagged me into it.”

“I thought we should give back to the world,” the gynoid said with a smile and a happy nod. “So many people suffer from tumors due to the aftereffects of Mechron’s plagues, so I asked Dad to make a cure.”

“Besides, saving my neurocomputers from Alzheimer and similar issues was one of my top priorities,” Alchemo said, digging himself deeper. “I had plenty of test subjects this way.”

Yeah, still the same amoral mad scientist. At least the Doll acted as his Jiminy Cricket.

Ryan glanced at the unconscious Len. “Could you cure depression?”

“I can solve the physiological troubles associated with the syndrome, like chemical imbalances, but not the psychological roots. I’m no psychiatrist, and I don’t have time to listen to whiners.”

Still, if Shortie could avoid relying on antidepressants, perhaps… perhaps she could finally heal.

Tea didn’t miss the lingering gaze he sent to Len. “Is she…”

“It’s her, yes,” Ryan confirmed, the Doll looking at the unconscious girl with interest. “Len.”

“You came to this city to find her, isn’t it? That’s why you left. You still wanted to find your friend, after all this time.” The gynoid gently took Len’s hand in her own. “She feels so cold, the poor girl...”

“Mmm…” Alchemo examined the comatose Genius with his scanner. “Someone repeatedly attempted to rewrite her brain patterns in a short amount of time, stressing out her neurons to the point of a near complete shutdown. She won’t wake up on her own, I assure you.”

Ryan bristled, though he wasn’t surprised.

“We’ve got a copy of her mind.” Livia had sent the file, but begged for a better way to record the information; a brain map copying a human mind needed many lines of code. She strained her fingers typing the whole thing, and even then Ryan suspected her power had helped a great deal in processing the whole thing. “Could you repair her brain with it?”

“What is the point of overwriting someone’s mind with their own?” Alchemo asked with skepticism, before deciding he didn’t care. “Do you have the device that causes these problems in the first place?”

Ryan pointed a finger at Dynamis’ brain tech, letting the Genius examine it in detail. He didn’t look very impressed. “Mmm… I see… very subtle, yes,” Braindead said, as he examined the system’s helmet, “the system is booby-trapped, and will corrupt the new pattern during the overwriting with foreign elements…”

“Can you repair it?” Ryan asked.

“No,” Braindead answered bluntly. “The sabotage affects the machine’s essential parts. However…”

“However?” the courier raised his head with hope.

“However, I can easily reverse-engineer this machine and make my own. One that will work as intended.” Alchemo glanced at the infirmary’s walls, as if looking for a hidden camera or plan. “Is there a Genius workshop in this base? Knowing Mechron, he must have had a matter replicator assembled somewhere.”

“There’s one yes,” Ryan said, remembering it from the blueprints. “A biomechanical blue brain controls the base. We intend to force our way to the mainframe and take it over.”

“A U.B.,” Alchemo guessed. “A Universal Brain. The ultimate biomechanical data storing device. I always tried to build one, but never had the resources for it.”

It said something about Mechron that he was better than most Geniuses in their own specialty. “You could hijack it?” Ryan asked. He intended to do it without Alchemo’s help, but if the Genius had turned over a new leaf…

“If I can get access to it, yes. I suppose it is easier said than done?”

Big Fat Adam managed to do so twice as far as Ryan knew, though by throwing countless people at the defenses. Nora’s structural analysis should allow them to reach the mainframe quickly, but not without a fight. “Well, we were preparing to launch an assault before your arrival. I know you’re useless in a fight, so—”

“I’m not ‘useless,’” Braindead weakly protested. “I am a man of science, not a sharpshooter, but I can defend myself.”

“Not against robots,” Ryan said, glancing at Frank. “Which is why the US Secret Service will ensure your safety.”

“He will be safe, sir,” the giant assured him. “No president died under our watch! None that mattered!”

Of course.

“I’m coming, Shortie,” Ryan told his comatose partner. “Just wait.”

A note from Void Herald

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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