It had been two loops since Ryan last met Vulcan in the flesh. The sight of her mech descending from above filled him with nostalgia, and longing.
Ryan stood in front of the bunker’s entrance, as Vulcan landed her vehicle atop a pile of trash. She climbed out of her metal suit, stood atop it like a pintsized conqueror, and smirked. “I love what you’ve done with the place,” she told Ryan, after giving a cursory glance at the Junkyard.
Mechron’s mech guarded the entrance while surrounded by burning helicopters; all of them bearing Dynamis’ logo. And yet, Ryan didn’t pay much attention to them. He only had eyes for this fierce woman, who once saved him from Hannifat Lecter at this very spot. His heart had beat for her then, and it still did so today.
“What’s wrong?” Vulcan asked, amused. “Have you fallen for me at first sight?”
“Even if I disappear…” she had said, all but pleading. “Promise you won’t forget me.”
It hurt just like the first day.
“Something like that,” the courier lied, before making a mock reverence to hide his saddened gaze. “Welcome to my humble abode, Miss Sharif. You didn’t have any problem bypassing the blockade?”
“I designed Dynamis’ anti-aerial weapons.” Vulcan shrugged, as she climbed down from her mech to join him. “They’re far too slow for me. So are your defenses, for that matter.”
“Try me!” Vulcan’s head snapped at Mechron’s scorpion mech, as a cheerful voice came out of it. “Fastest toaster in the west!”
Vulcan studied the mech with renewed interest. “I thought Mechron made sure his slave AIs couldn’t talk back?”
“We uploaded a new personality matrix worthy of this mighty machine,” Ryan explained, tapping one of the mech’s legs. “One perfect for the job.”
“I’m a toaster, I burn stuff,” the mech replied. “I’m pretty one-dimensional in what I want.”
It was the best kind of minion. The one that loved its dirty work.
With the Land dealing with any intruders on the ground with quakes, and Toasty bombarding any flyer, the Private Security’s haphazardous attempts at raiding Rust Town had failed miserably. Eventually, they simply decided to besiege the district. A ring of tanks and soldiers prevented anyone from moving in or out, and warships blockaded the harbor; in theory, nothing short of a teleporter would allow the Meta-Gang to escape.
A pity Dynamis didn’t know about the bunker’s underwater access. Ryan had carefully edited it out of the plans he sent to Nora, in case she connected the dots. Dynamis would devote all its resources to besieging Rust Town, leaving their HQ vulnerable to a sneak attack.
The fear of Ryan’s A-bombs would keep the megacorporation from attempting anything drastic, but only for a short while. Eventually, they would figure out a way to neutralize his weaponry, but by then it would be too late.
“Still, I’m surprised you showed up,” Ryan admitted, as he invited Vulcan inside the bunker. “Associating with us won’t be good for your reputation.”
“A deal is a deal,” the Genius replied with a smirk. “And a man humiliating that bitch Wyvern in front of the entire city is a man after my own heart.”
“If I don’t make it, go to Laura. Because she’s so fucking perfect!”
And it took New Rome’s destruction for them to bury the hatchet.
“Perhaps I can make the deal even sweeter?” Ryan raised his hat, and drew an A-bomb from it.
Vulcan raised an eyebrow at the courier, but accepted the gift gracefully. The happy face she made whenever he offered her this bomb delighted Ryan. “Are you trying to bribe me?”
“Yes,” the president replied, knowing she would love it. “Is it working?”
“I dunno,” she answered with a laugh, playing with the beautiful metal ball. “Mine are bigger than yours.”
“You haven’t seen my full arsenal,” Ryan replied, unable to resist. “I polish it every day.”
Vulcan smirked coyly. “I only believe what I see.”
Ryan could tell that if he put on the charm, Vulcan would fall for him again. They shared a natural, playful chemistry, the same love of big bombs and innuendos. Holding her in his arms and kissing her would feel like going home to his wife, after a long trip. It would feel just right.
“Don’t replace me with another Jasmine.”
And yet, Ryan had made a promise to Jasmine, his Jasmine, and would abide by her wish. Even if no one would hold the courier responsible if he broke his promise… he respected his old girlfriend enough not to betray her last request.
If only he had completed the brain-transfer machine before… before that cursed loop.
“Make sure this disaster never happens again, okay? Kill that fatass.”
At least he followed through with that promise.
Ryan led his ex-girlfriend down into the corridors overseeing the bunker’s hangars. Vulcan stopped at the repaired glass windows, observing the submarine and the tech gathered here. “A full Mechron base, right below our feet,” she whistled, as Ryan gave her a tour of the facility. “You really hit the jackpot.”
“We even have a matter replicator,” Ryan pitched her the benefits of her new workplace. “You just put in the design and the necessary material, and bam! Instant weapon!”
“And what weapon do you want from me exactly?” she asked, putting a hand on her waist. “Because I doubt you contacted me to build a teddy bear.”
“You underestimate their power. They lure you into a false sense of security, and then they hug you into submission.”
“Is that your plan to take over the city? Trade the nuclear bombs for teddy bears?”
Ryan had to keep her away while she worked, or he wouldn’t resist. The more Vulcan spoke, the more her wit pulled him in. “Well, if you want to know, we’ve figured out how Mechron enhanced his henchmen’s powers.”
Alchemo had finally overcome most of the mainframe’s remaining firewalls, giving the group access to Mechron’s key files. This immediately caught Vulcan’s full interest. “Go on,” she asked.
“I’ll share the data, but long story short, Mechron found ways to streamline the Flux energy a Genome radiates with biomechanical implants. The underlying theory is the same as with your power armors.”
Much like Dynamis’, Mechron’s Knockoffs were synthetic lifeforms mimicking the properties of genuine Elixirs. Though they weren’t sentient unlike Darkling or genuine Elixirs, they could modify genes based on data gathered from true Genomes.
However, the mad Genius had gone a step farther than the Manadas. Though they lacked an innate connection to the color dimensions, his Knockoffs could create microscopic portals to them with sufficient mechanical support. By channeling the Flux energy it generated and using data gathered from an existing Genome, Mechron’s machines could crudely imitate the template’s power.
The telekinetic mech Ryan fought in the bunker was only one example. By the end of his life, Mechron had started experimenting with biomechanical warbeasts capable of great destruction. His artificial Elixirs needed a lot more technical support to function than the originals… but they worked.
Ryan shuddered at what Mechron could have achieved, had the madman lived a few more years. If he had perfected his Elixirs and outfitted his robots with superpowers, he would have become unstoppable.
Still, these Knockoffs were pale imitations of true Elixirs, and far less efficient. So Mechrons’ AIs had gone further, which led to Darkling.
“You want me to create a suit of power armor,” Vulcan guessed, grinning with excitement. “Something that can supercharge your power.”
“Yes, with a cashmere poncho over it.” By combining data from both sources and the bunker’s advanced technology, Ryan knew his favored spitfire could create a magnum opus. The design would also incorporate Len’s signal tech, hopefully allowing the courier to send multiple people back in time.
However, he would need Len’s help for it, and his best friend still refused to leave her room.
“Up for it?” Ryan asked, once they reached the recreation area. Sarin, Acid Rain, Mosquito, and a few others had gathered in front of a TV post put on the bar counter, watching the news.
“Like the day I was born.”
“Do or don’t. There is no try.”
Those had been Jasmine’s last words, and they summed her up perfectly. She always gave it her all.
“Hey, Boss!” Sarin called him. “They’re going to talk about us!”
“Finally!” Ryan rejoiced, as he and Vulcan approached the TV screen. Obviously, Hector Manada denied everything and tried a silent campaign, enforcing a newsban to cover up Ryan’s revelations. But the damage had been done, and people talked.
It seemed that Dynamis had finally decided to address the elephant in the room through a press conference. Il Migliore’s full line-up had gathered at the Optimates Tower’s entrance, accompanied by Enrique ‘Blackthorn‘ Manada and PR specialists. Of course, Wardrobe always dressed chic, a pillar of culture among fashion disasters. Felix’s claw marks had healed, but he didn’t bother to hide his frustration. As for Wyvern, her face was utterly blank and lifeless.
Ryan glanced at the news ticker, each information worse than the last. ‘Unexplained explosions continue, children still missing after daycare attack; the Private Security refused to comme—’
The plushies kept causing more incidents across town. Tensions were at an all-time high, Dynamis was stretched thin, and people demanded answers.
Vulcan snickered, as Blackthorn invited Wyvern to take place on a stage and face an army of journalists. “More dog than dragon.”
“She isn’t corrupt,” Ryan said, “just naive.”
Vulcan frowned at him in response. “Who told you that crap?”
Which only highlighted how much she had changed as a person by the end. Jasmine had been willing to give up her grudge, but Vulcan wouldn’t move on by herself. Not without help.
Ryan listened silently as Wyvern addressed the crowd and all of New Rome. She of course condemned the Meta-Gang’s ‘terrorist threat’, promised retribution she couldn’t deliver, said everything was under control, blahblahblah...
“Many of you have wondered if the images shown on this so-called Mr. President’s video were genuine,” Wyvern said, her expression stoic and professional. “Or if his accusations about the dangers of Knockoff Elixirs were founded.”
The courier braced himself for impact.
The audience exploded into gasps, shock spread across the Il Migliore team, and the PR assistants looked at Wyvern as if she had lost her mind. Clearly, her outburst was entirely unscripted. Even Vulcan opened her mouth in surprise, astonished that her former ally would dare defy her employers.
Enrique Manada remained as still as a statue, and made no move to interrupt the superhero’s revelations. Perhaps he had wanted to say such things for a long time, but never had the courage to.
Felix’s reaction wasn’t so restrained though. The young kitten simply walked away from the press conference, and from Dynamis.
“I have checked,” Wyvern continued, her face twisting in anger and bitterness. “I cannot stay silent about this, nor remain with an organization capable of something so terrible. As such… I am permanently stepping down from my position as Il Migliore’s leader, though I will continue to cooperate with them against the Met—”
The declaration was met with an explosion of questions from the reporters, and a wide grin from Vulcan.
More modest, Ryan simply joined his hands.
“All according to keikaku.”
After Alchemo fully took over the bunker, he had set the robots to maintenance duties and tasked them to repair the place. The Genome research lab where Ryan had fought Mechron’s spider mech was no different. Though the machines hadn’t yet filled the ceiling hole created by Darkling, they cleaned up the floor and repaired broken vats.
When he entered the room, Ryan found Livia sitting on the same kind of robotic chair which Adam used to restrain him. The Augusti princess had removed her helmet, and grinded her teeth together as a mechanical arm gathered a few drops of blood from her left arm. Braindead had connected to a large computer system linked to the chair, observing the data on a screen.
“You’re alright, princess?” Ryan asked Livia, worried for her well-being. He could tell from experience that Alchemo had no problem roughing up his patients.
“I hope I will not regret it,” Livia said, covering her naked arm with her sleeve once the machine was done. “This information could cause great harm in the wrong hands.”
Ryan could see her point. Augustus had become the warlord of Italy by virtue of having two powerful abilities with no side-effects. A cure for the Psycho syndrome would potentially allow anyone to do the same, causing an arms’ race. “Even you must be curious about your special status,” the courier pointed out.
“A bit,” she admitted with a smile. “My father said we had been chosen by fate, but… I’ve always been skeptical.”
“Well, well, well,” Alchemo said, as results appeared on the screen. “How interesting.”
“Done bloodsucking young women?” Ryan asked, as he offered Livia his arm. The precog responded with a charmed smile, as she accepted his help with aristocratic grace. She didn’t let it go even once she had risen up from her seat. “People will talk.”
“As if I cared what the meat said! Now stop barking, and look. We will make history today.”
The courier and Livia obliged, looking at the screen. A woman’s bio-scan appeared, representing the skeleton and major organs; spots of orange and violet colors flared all over the body, like oil and water pushing against one another.
“This shows Helen’s results?” Ryan asked, Acid Rain having served as the first test subject.
“Indeed,” Alchemo confirmed. “Each of her Elixirs rewrote around fifty percent of her DNA, and they conflict. Sometimes the Orange Elixir affects fifty-one percent of her body, sometimes forty-nine… The exact percentages vary each day, creating mutations, tumors, and other health problems.”
The Genius uploaded a second picture, which Ryan assumed represented Livia’s bio-signs. The Augusti princess was almost entirely blue in color, with a slight spot of violet near the ears and brain. Unlike the previous scan, the colored areas didn’t move at all.
“Now, our friend here is very different,” the Genius continued his explanation. “Most of her genetic code has been affected by the Blue Elixir, to the point she might appear as a mono-color Genome at first glance.”
“I took the Blue Elixir first,” Livia said.
Alchemo nodded, before pointing a syringe-finger at the purple spot. “However, around two point five percent of her DNA has been rewritten by the second, Violet Elixir. Both substances are remarkably stable, and do not overwrite each other’s information.”
So Tyrano’s theory was correct, at least partly. Livia’s powers coexisted without conflicting or fusing. “The million dollar question being why this happened,” Ryan said. “And why only two point five percent?”
“Don’t you see the obvious?” Alchemo asked with smug confidence, happy to see the solution which had evaded the courier for centuries.
“No, but I’m sure you will enlighten me, oh great keeper of knowledge.”
Braindead didn’t even answer the taunt, too high on his superior position as a teacher. “The original Elixirs were meant to bond with humans. With Homo Sapiens. So far, all attempts to have Elixirs bond to animals have failed; even with chimpanzees, who share almost ninety-nine percent of our genome.”
“Even Mechron only succeeded by creating a workaround,” Ryan muttered. “Using technology to mimic a true Genome’s powers.”
“But what if… what if they had been on the right track?” Braindead mused. “Just not close enough?”
Ryan thought furiously about what he meant for a second, before the solution became obvious to him. “The Neanderthals?”
“Neanderthals?” Livia asked in confusion.
“The current Homo Sapiens species interbred with Neanderthals before their extinction, with the Eurasian population inheriting around two percent of their genes from them,” Ryan explained. “Neanderthals were our closest relatives.”
Livia’s eyes widened in genuine surprise. “Enough to confuse the Elixirs?”
“I believe so,” Alchemo nodded. “My theory is that your Elixirs mistakenly believe that they bonded to two different individuals, instead of one. This caused them to… share your body, for a lack of better term.”
The Augusti princess frowned in skepticism, immediately seeing the problem. “But if your theory is correct, then people with two powers should be far more common. As you said, this affects the entire Eurasian population. Millions of people.”
“You probably need a very specific ratio or combination of Neanderthal genes to fool the Elixirs,” Alchemo defended his theory, though he sounded less certain and couldn’t convince Livia. “Or it could be caused by a syndrome like chimerism, where one organism has cells from more than one genotype. Only a few hundred cases were ever recorded.”
“If it is so rare, why do my father and I share it? Is it inheritable?” Livia asked, causing the Genius to fall silent as he tried to find an answer. “Probably not, from your reaction.”
Ryan considered the matter, trying to find a logical explanation and assemble all pieces of the puzzle. His thoughts turned to Darkling, and his discussions with that sentient Elixir.
“They were taught,” Ryan muttered.
“I’m sorry?” Livia asked.
“Someone told me Elixirs were taught to bond with humans, probably by the Alchemist.” If Darkling’s tale was true, then it had been pulled from its home dimension by Mechron’s AI, but refused to behave afterward. “Which implied the bonding process isn’t natural for them.”
“Them?” His first lady looked more confused by the second. “I’m… I’m sorry, do you mean Elixirs are intelligent?”
“Yes, but not like us.” Even Darkling, who understood humans enough to talk to them, found their reality maddening. “They are alien lifeforms that don’t even use DNA; foreigners who have been given a crash course on our language. They know the words, but not the music.”
“So…” Livia frowned. “What you mean to say, is that Elixirs have only a superficial understanding of... us? About how we are made?”
“I can’t prove it, but it’s a plausible explanation,” Ryan said. He would need to confirm it with Darkling. According to his pet shoggoth, Elixirs were meant to connect lower lifeforms to the Ultimate Ones, eventually allowing them to ascend. But as the courier’s own experience showed, the communication wasn't perfect. The difference in mindset was too large. “Due to something in your genetic code, whether Neanderthal DNA, a unique quirk, or something else, your Elixirs believed they bonded to two different people sharing a body.”
“But it’s a fragile equilibrium,” she guessed. “If I take one more, the original Elixirs realize their mistake and start conflicting.”
“And Mongrel’s power grants him a limited control over how Elixirs behave,” Ryan added, glancing at Alchemo. “If we can reproduce his ability and combine it with gene therapy…”
“We could create a serum that would force the original two Elixirs to realign, and mimic the conditions that led to our test subject’s unique equilibrium,” Alchemo replied with a nod. Livia frowned at the test subject part, but didn’t comment. “Or alternatively, remove the extra Elixir and turn the target into a normal, monocolor genome.”
“But to create something this complex…” Livia reread her biosigns, before turning at Alchemo. “How long would it take you to create such a cure?”
Braindead let out what could pass for a sigh. “It may take months for Mechron’s AI to mimic Mongrel’s power, let alone design a cure from it. These machines are powerful, but the subject is eminently complex. My own Genius specialty does not overlap with this case study either.”
“We’ll need Dr. Tyrano,” Ryan muttered to himself. As the only Genius specialized in gene therapy, he could probably design a cure for Psychos if presented with the necessary data and resources.
Livia bristled, while Alchemo snickered in disdain. “Dynamis’ dinosaur maker?” the Genius asked. “Do you think he will help?”
“Not unless I convince him that my evil plan involves turning everyone into dinosaurs.”
“Just kidnap him then. You already escalated to terrorism, what’s one more crime?”
“He rarely leaves Dynamis’ HQ, and never without a heavy escort,” Livia said. “And if anything happens to him, Dynamis goes all in. He’s the cornerstone of their entire Knockoff operation, so they will try to get him back at all costs.”
“And if he dies?” Ryan asked with a frown. “Why didn’t your father try to have him assassinated?”
“Because then Fallout gets involved,” Livia replied ominously. The way she said it, she had foreseen it. “I think you can imagine how it will end.”
Yes, he could.
Would he react the same if he lost the other pillar of Knockoff production? Ryan intended to attack Lab Sixty-Six as soon as Vulcan finished her armor, and after opening Darkling’s portal home. He couldn’t afford to wait too long for someone like Fallout or Hargraves to force a way inside the bunker.
“Would Dr. Tyrano help make a cure at all?” Livia asked. “He turned a Psycho into a drink. This does not speak well of his moral fiber.”
Ryan still remembered how that scalie had tried to gut the Panda open to see how his ability worked. Without anesthesia. “He cares only about his research, and dinosaurs,” the courier said. “Not for lab safety.”
Unfortunately, Ryan doubted he could convince Dr. Tyrano to cooperate during this loop. He needed more information on the man. Yet, they would need Mongrel, Livia, the bunker, and additional data to create the cure. The courier only obtained access to these resources due to very specific circumstances impossible to replicate in the next.
“Livia, darling, do you have anything planned for tonight?”
She slowly nodded, albeit reluctantly. “My father asked for a meeting, probably about how to deal with you. I will have to return to him soon.”
Ryan could read between the lines. They needed to have a talk with Len, and prepare for the future. They needed to discuss how to end this doomed loop, and how to proceed afterward.
The Augusti princess turned towards the room’s door. “You can come in,” she said. “This does not have to end in violence.”
The metal door opened, and someone stopped listening through it.
“Better luck next time, eh?” Sarin pointed her gauntlet at Ryan, her fingers vibrating with power. “Not gonna work for me.”