The world turned purple, as time slowed down to a crawl.
Raindrops froze in midair, never reaching the ground. A lightning bolt coursed through the skies, a scar of light in the heavens. Ryan didn’t even hear the sound of his footsteps as he moved.
He had wished for more time, and the Elixir obliged. The boy knew it deep within his bones, an instinct as natural as breathing. Ryan Romano halted time itself with a thought, much like a player could pause a video game.
But not forever.
A flash of light overcame his vision, followed by the noise of explosions and cold rainwater falling on him. Time began again, and Ryan nearly tripped on a puddle of water. Damn, did he need to focus on his power to keep time frozen?
Whatever the case, Ryan kept following the noise. He caught sight of Leo the Living Sun floating above the sea, unleashing streams of fire at Porto Venere’s Marina. The place used to be a touristic walkway, with multi-story colored houses facing piers meant for yachts. Years afterward, the paint had turned grey and lifeless, and the boats into scrapped husks. Ryan could hardly see the battle with the downpour.
He activated his power, and the world turned purple. This time, Ryan started to count in his head.
And time resumed.
Ryan could halt time for ten seconds or so. Afterward, his power failed him again. The boy attempted to stop the clock again each second, finally succeeding on the tenth try. He could pause the universe for ten seconds, but had a cooldown period of the same length.
A pretty straightforward power, all things considered. But would it make any difference? Bloodstream packed a mean punch, but he was fighting Leo the Living Sun. Ryan heard rumors that the guy fought Augustus and lived.
Ryan searched inside his pockets and brought out a small revolver he always carried on his person. He took a deep breath, cursed his luck, and approached the battlefield.
He was fast.
Leonard couldn’t believe his luck, when he glimpsed at a boy matching the description of Bloodstream’s son Cesare scavenging supplies while on a routine patrol. The Carnival had lost track of the Psycho days ago, even wondering if he managed to flee Italy. Leonard had called his allies, and immediately tracked down the boy to his father’s hideout.
Leo went into battle with only the Cossack and Mr. Wave for backup. The former’s white power armor would protect him from blood infection, while the latter had no circulatory system of any kind. Ace stayed on standby in a safe location, ready to teleport the wounded to Stitch’s infirmary if needed. The Cossack had suggested burning the entire town to ensure Bloodstream perished, kids be damned, but his teammates put their veto to that course of action.
They would do this by the book.
Unfortunately, Bloodstream must have sensed the trio's approach and ambushed them near the town’s ruined Marina. Leo bombarded the walkway with flames, while the Cossack did the same with a laser rifle. They only managed to set a deserted restaurant on fire, as Bloodstream dodged all their attacks. The bloody slime leaped from one spot to another like a flea.
“Meddlers, annoyers! Why does everyone insist on harassing me?!” Bloodstream shrieked. His voice struck Leonard as shrilling and high-pitched, like a young child throwing a tantrum. “Has every man on this God-forsaken planet gone mad?”
The pressurized blood making up Bloodstream’s skin crystallized into spikes, which he launched in all directions. Leonard didn’t bother to dodge, his solar body incinerating the projectiles before they could even reach him. Even the raindrops formed a cloud of steam around him, the skies darkening above their heads.
The Cossack flew away with his jetpack, but one spike hit his chest; the blood spear turned into a drill and attempted to dig a path to the human below the armor.
While Leo immediately stopped harassing Bloodstream to burn away his projectile before it could infect his teammate, the Psycho moved towards a half-rusted car near the walkway. His fingers turned into tentacles as they seized the vehicle.
“Ever since I took these potions, this world has been tormenting me!” Bloodstream lifted the car above his head and prepared to toss it at the Carnival’s flying members. “Trying to take my children away from me!”
“And all your troubles didn’t prepare you for…” A new, costumed challenger appeared on the ground, a crimson blur. “Mr. Wave!”
The living wavelength ran towards Bloodstream, his body turning into a laser. Mr. Wave transformed into a mass of crimson light moving in a straight line that cut through anything in its path. The superhero’s laser form tore Bloodstream in half, the car falling on the bisected Psycho.
Mr. Wave returned to his humanoid form a few meters away, doing some footwork as if slowing down. While he could move at lightspeed in laser form, the superhero could only move in a straight line and needed to transform back to turn around. He had once confessed to Leonard that his greatest fear was to be ejected into space, unable to turn back.
“Ugh, Mr. Wave has bloodstains on his cashmere!” Mr. Wave complained while looking at his suit. Bloodstream’s two halves quickly fused back together, and he crawled out of beneath the car. “You have made a powerful enemy today, tomato juice!”
“Just die!” Bloodstream turned both his hands into sharp axes, extended his arms into five-meters long tentacles, and attempted to behead Mr. Wave with a scissor blade motion. The superhero put his hands in his pockets and dodged the strike with a backstep.
“Lady Death once had a near-Mr. Wave experience,” the superhero replied, as Bloodstream frantically pursued him like an enraged bull after a matador. “Mr. Wave is too good for Heaven, and too scary for Hell!”
Leonard had to resist the urge to tell his teammate to stop with the boasts. Mr. Wave was good-natured and powerful, but also an unrepentant showoff.
Still, his taunts worked. Bloodstream focused entirely on Mr. Wave and ignored his allies, giving them some respite. Once the Psycho got too close for the superhero to dodge in his human form, Mr. Wave tore through his foe again in laser form. No damage lasted long, the maddened criminal pulling himself back together in seconds.
“You’re alright?” Leo asked the Cossack after burning the blood-drill to ashes.
“How much blood does he have?” the armored man grunted back, as he glanced at the walkway below them. Bloodstream’s spikes had turned back into liquid blood, slithering back to their owner.
“I can’t tell.” Bloodstream compressed the blood making up his body, so he might carry tons of organic mass in that slender frame of his. “I could incinerate him with one fireball, if we can immobilize him. I don’t want to go all out in case he keeps his children hidden nearby, I might wound them by accident.”
Easier said than done though. Leonard and the Cossack flew above the walkway, trying to keep up with their ally’s duel with Bloodstream. Upon realizing he couldn’t damage the Psycho for long, Mr. Wave switched to a defensive strategy. One moment he stood in one place, challenging Bloodstream with hand gestures and lazy footwork; and when his foe threatened to slice him, the superhero took a step forward, turned into a laser, and reappeared a few meters away.
But though Bloodstream lacked finesse, Leo had a hard time tracking his movements. He was a red blur, a cheetah, his body twisting at impossible angles.
“Stop dodging!” Bloodstream leaped from a building’s wall to the walkway in an attempt to catch Mr. Wave from an unexpected angle, but the living wavelength saw it coming and dodge with a mere sidestep. He didn’t even need to transform.
“Mr. Wave doesn’t move at lightspeed. Light moves at Mr. Wave’s pace.”
“Sure,” the Cossack said, the back of his power armor opening to reveal missile launchers. A rain of rockets fell upon the walkway, alongside the rain and lightning. Concrete and stone exploded into a cloud of dust, obscuring Leonard’s sight.
Leo guessed his ally’s plan: to force Bloodstream’s parts to reform after blasting him to smithereens. Mr. Wave reappeared close to a ruined restaurant, wiping blood off his suit, but the enemy remained out of sight. The dust cloud spread over the Marina, obscuring both the boats and the pavement.
“Catch!” Bloodstream screamed from within the smoke.
A second later, a rusted boat flew across the skies in the flyers’ direction. Leonard and the Cossack blasted it apart before it could hit them, parts falling into the sea. However, the Psycho leaped at them while they were distracted, emerging from the dust cloud with a maniacal laugh.
Bloodstream had stretched his right arm and twisted it on itself, building up strength like an elastic spring. He punched the Cossack in the chest before the armored warrior could retaliate, his empowered fist as powerful a cannonball. The blow cracked the Cossack’s chestplate, the armored warrior crashing on the walkway. Stone broke beneath him on impact.
“Cossack!” Leonard shouted, his teammate laying on the road, motionless. Worse, the hole in his armor left his chest exposed. “Ace! Evacuate!”
“Below the steel, the sweet blood!” Bloodstream cackled upon landing on the ground. He immediately moved on all fours like a hyena and rushed towards the Cossack. “Sustenance, at long last!”
Mr. Wave took a step forward and transformed into a laser again, hitting the Psycho from behind before he could reach the Cossack. The impact shattered Bloodstream like glass, but no sooner had Mr. Wave regained his original form did the blood drops instantly fused back into a humanoid form.
With a small opening, Ace opened a portal behind the Cossack. The teleporter grabbed the armored warrior and started pulling him to safety through the gate.
“Incinerate him, Sunshine!” Mr. Wave shouted as he engaged Bloodstream in a duel again. He dodged a crystallized axe by sidestepping, transformed in a laser to stop blood bullets in midair before they could hit Ace, and tore through Bloodstream like paper. “Mr. Wave will provide!”
Indeed he did. When Bloodstream threatened to pull himself back, Mr. Wave returned to human form, rotated on himself, and gored through the Psycho again. The superhero kept repeating the process, preventing the criminal from fully regenerating.
Knowing Mr. Wave couldn’t keep this up forever, Leonard gathered plasma in his hand, forming a shining fireball hot enough to vaporize every last drop of blood.
It was now or never.
Time resumed again, as Ryan powered through dust and smoke.
The Carnival and Bloodstream had transformed the walkway into swiss cheese, with craters all over the paved street. Len’s loving father got the thrashing of his life from a crimson blur too fast for the eye to follow. Ryan barely caught a glimpse of the fighter responsible for one second as it turned around, a humanoid mass of red energy held together by a purple suit. Bloodstream exploded in a shower of blood, reformed, only to explode again as his foe ran into him.
A freckled woman dragged an armored figure through a circular rift in spacetime itself a few meters away, with Ryan noticing an immaculate clinic on the other side. Leo the Living Sun floated above the area, shaping a miniature star in the palm of his hands. He would incinerate the Psycho so utterly, that naught but ashes would remain.
None had noticed Ryan yet, the dust, smoke, and heavy rain hiding him. And for a second, he was tempted to sit back and do nothing. This might be his only chance to watch the loathsome, immortal Psycho perish for good.
But… but Len wouldn’t leave without her father. She would never forgive Ryan if he left Bloodstream to die, and the Carnival… the teen couldn’t rule out the possibility that they would go after Shortie and him next.
Damn it, what should he do?
“Stop!” Ryan shouted, firing a warning shot at the skies. He couldn't make a decision. “Stop fighting!”
The fireball in Leo’s hands faltered, as he noticed Ryan. “Mr. Wave, the child!”
The wavelength Genome stopped hitting Bloodstream to look at Ryan, the energy making up his body assembling into a phantasmal face. The Psycho regenerated, while ‘Mr. Wave’ raised a hand at Ryan. “Kid, get back, it’s dangerous—”
The horror was raw in his voice, and Ryan realized he made a terrible mistake. The Carnival never intended to harm him or Len. They were true heroes, coming to save them from a bloodthirsty monster.
But a moment of distraction was all it took for evil to prevail.
Bloodstream unleashed a volley of blood bullets at the portal, one of his projectiles hitting the woman’s throat while she finished dragging the armored figure through. She barely had the time to gasp before her skin ruptured, crimson blood covering her skin.
Her voice turned into Bloodstream’s midway through her final scream.
“Ace!” The Living Sun shouted while the portal closed, the fireball in his hands dissipating. “Mr. Wave, fall back!”
The other Genome stepped back in disbelief, sidestepping to dodge Bloodstream’s sharpened claws. “Fall back?!”
“Mathias and the others are at the base!” The Living Sun shouted back in alarm, flying north at extreme speed. Mr. Wave’s gaze moved from Bloodstream to Ryan, and he muttered something too low for the time-stopper to hear. The superhero transformed into a living laser, tearing through buildings in his teammate’s direction.
“You’re alright?” Ryan asked Bloodstream, though it disgusted him to even ask.
“Cesare, I told you to protect your sister!” Bloodstream snarled, apparently perfectly fine. Whatever damage he had suffered healed in an instant. “You must listen to your father!”
The teen sneered in bitterness, as he realized that he would never be free of this monster. This was the perfect chance to get rid of Bloodstream for good, perhaps the only chance, and he threw it all away.
But he loved Len more than he hated her father.
“We don’t have time,” Ryan replied, lowering his gun. “Len’s submarine will leave soon. We have to go now.”
Instead of answering, Bloodstream froze in place. He looked at his adoptive son with disturbing intensity, sending a shiver down Ryan’s spine. “Dad?”
“Who are you?” Bloodstream asked with a shaken voice.
Ryan froze, as the Psycho didn’t recognize him. Perhaps, the Elixir in the boy’s blood had broken the man’s delusion. Or perhaps it caused him to fall into another delirium.
Bloodsteam’s hand grabbed Ryan’s throat, before he could finish his sentence. The Psycho’s grip was strong as steel, choking the life out of him.
“Where is Cesare?!” The Psycho’s maddened words became a distant echo, as air failed to reach Ryan’s brain. The bones in his neck cracked under the strain. His hand failed to hold his gun, the weapon falling on the pavement. “Where is my son?! What have you done to my son?!”
The boy attempted to freeze time and escape Bloodstream’s grip, but the delirious Psycho slammed his head against the pavement. A pain greater than anything Ryan ever felt coursed through his head, his vision blurring, brain matter flowing on the pavement. He couldn’t think, couldn’t—
“WHERE IS MY SON?!”
All went dark.
It was true what they said. Ryan saw his life flash before his eyes as he died. Events rolled back, from his death, to that messed up battle, to the moment when the teen foolishly emerged from the smoke.
And then it stopped.
Ryan blinked, as he stood in the middle of the walkway. The pain had vanished, and air filled his lungs once more. The rainwater fell on his warm skin, lightning thundered above his head, and his brain was back in his skull.
He… he was alive again.
Had Ryan seen a vision of the future? A warning of what would happen if he made the wrong choice? That sounded like too much of a Blue power to him, but it had felt so real. Ryan had died, and risen again.
His power could also create a checkpoint, like video games. It had granted him a new chance he couldn’t waste.
Ryan glanced at Bloodstream, the maddened Psycho prepared to strike the freckled woman with a blood volley. But this time, without the boy to distract him, Mr. Wave hit Bloodstream before he could even twitch. The woman closed the portal after dragging the armored knight through, vanishing from sight unharmed.
Ryan glanced at the Living Sun, the fireball in his hands so bright it hurt to look at it. Bloodstream attempted to leap away to safety, but Mr. Wave turned into a laser and tore off his legs, making the madman collapse.
Ryan looked at his adoptive father, the phantom sensation of his warm hands closing on his throat flashing through his mind. And as it did, the boy remembered all the times the bloodthirsty monster hit him and Len in the past. How helpless the children had felt, always cowering at his approach. How the Psycho had lapsed back into his violent madness, each time Ryan thought he might improve.
You will never change, Ryan thought, his hand on his throat. He could almost feel Bloodstream’s claws squeezing the life out of his lungs. This is you. This is what you are, and her compassion is wasted on you.
Ryan owed this monster nothing but scorn.
So he turned around, and abandoned Bloodstream to his fate.
He would tell Len he had been too late. She would despise him, but it was for the best. Ryan had seen the future first hand and come back from it. Her father was a hopeless case, and would never improve.
The Living Sun tossed his fireball at the walkway, the air shimmering with heat.
“Kid!” Ryan glanced behind him. Mr. Wave had noticed his presence, just as the fireball fell upon a roaring Bloodstream like God’s judgment. “Kid, get down!”
The fireball hit the walkway and expanded outward.
Ryan activated his power, running as fast he ever had before. The universe turned purple, freezing this moment in time.
An expanding wall of flames consuming the walkway, with Bloodstream burning to cinders at the center. A demon cleansed in hellfire.
The kind man in a suit, running after Ryan in a vain attempt to shield him from the fireball.
The Living Sun overseeing it all from above, surrounded by steamy rainwater.
Ryan’s legs moved as fast as they could, straining so much that the teen feared he would collapse midway. Seconds stretched on, but Len was so far away, and the fireball so close. The light would catch up to him the moment time resumed.
“Please!” Ryan begged, as he counted seconds from eight to nine. “More than ten! More than ten!”
But Ryan Romano didn’t run fast enough.
The frozen time shattered like glass on the tenth second, and the world exploded into flames.
Ryan didn’t know how long he stayed unconscious. When his feverish mind emerged from a coma to face a white wall, he thought he had perished for good and ascended to Heaven. Though Shortie didn’t believe in such things, her boyfriend always kept an open mind. After all, nobody who died came back from the other side.
At least, nobody but Ryan himself.
“Oh, you’re finally awake!” Ryan’s eyes wandered to his right, watching the shining holographic face of Mr. Wave look at him. The superhero anxiously waited on a chair, legs crossed.
Ryan blinked a few times as he regained control of his mental faculties. A bed sheet covered his body, and it looked like he recovered inside a hospital room of some kind. The teen thought he would suffer from burns, but his skin seemed healthier than ever.
“I thought you—” The wavelength Genome paused, as if he had said something stupid. “Mr. Wave thought you might sleep forever.”
“I… I thought so too.” Ryan glanced at his hands. “I’m… I’m alive.”
“Our medic does not inspire confidence at first glance, but he is good,” Mr. Wave said. “His life is a perpetual struggle to keep Mr. Wave’s suicidal comrades alive. Mr. Wave is too powerful to die, so he’s fine.”
“Is Bloodstream… is he gone?” Ryan asked.
The superhero joined his hands. “Your father…” His voice broke. “Your father died, little Cesare. Mr. Wave is sorry.”
He wasn’t my father, Ryan thought, and my name is not Cesare. “Good,” he said coldly. “Good. It had to be done.”
The superhero winced, but thankfully didn’t ask for details. He must have imagined what horrors Ryan went through. “Mr. Wave has to ask, is there another clone running around? Because Mr. Wave doesn’t like endless sequels.”
Ryan shook his head. “You got the last one.”
“Oh, good.” He sounded relieved. “Mr. Wave will keep an eye open just in case your dad makes a comeback, but he hopes there won’t be a reboot anytime soon.”
“What about Len?” Ryan asked, unable to understand half of what the eccentric superhero said. “Where is she? Did she take the submarine?”
“Your sister? Mr. Wave wants to know too. We couldn’t find her, no matter where we looked. Mr. Wave knows he scares the gods themselves, so it didn’t surprise him.”
A shiver went down Ryan’s spine. “How long was I out?”
From Mr. Wave’s embarrassed silence, he guessed for quite a long time. “I need to go,” the teen said, rising from his bed only to almost trip. His legs felt heavy and sore, as if he just woke up from being hit by a truck.
Mr. Wave caught him before he could collapse. His body felt strange to the touch, solid yet slightly fluctuating when someone touched him. Somehow, it reminded the teen of a trampoline.
“A true knight does not make a lady wait, but he must accept a mount’s help sometimes!” Mr. Wave carried Ryan on his back. “Show the way, and Mr. Wave will light it up!”
They didn’t even take the door. For some obscure reason, the eccentric superhero insisted on going through the window, saying it was the ‘adventurer’s gate.’ Ryan wondered if he was sick in his head, but he didn’t question a man willing to help.
Though he didn’t turn into a laser while carrying the teen, perhaps because it would harm him, Mr. Wave moved incredibly fast and never slowed down. Though the hospital had been in Genoa, the duo rejoined Porto Venere within minutes. Leo Hargraves had torched the whole village, probably to make sure Bloodstream didn’t leave a drop behind him.
When Ryan and Mr. Wave reached the boathouse’s smoking ruins, they only found a pond of water.
Len was long gone.
Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity was to do the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
Perhaps he could turn back time too.
The teen had the gut feeling his checkpoint wasn’t a one-time thing, but... well, after he failed to will himself back in time... Ryan only had one way to check. He was fine with whatever happened. In a single day, he had lost everything that ever mattered to him. He just... didn't see how he should go on. He felt numb and lifeless inside. If there was a chance he could make it better... he had to try.
He had been proven correct. Death was the end for most, but not for him.
It did him little good.
His power always brought him right before the explosion. He tried everything. Protect his head. Protect his chest. Dive down. Try to freeze time. Death hurt, but not as much as the idea of losing Len.
The fireball always caught up to him.
Ryan couldn’t outrun light. Couldn’t activate his power in the split-second before it hit. Couldn’t turn back the clock to earlier that day. However his power worked, it had chosen the worst moment to make a new checkpoint.
Ryan almost never died from the explosion itself though. Mr. Wave always managed to shield him from the flames with his body. For that, Ryan was grateful, because death hurt. But the blast always knocked the time traveler unconscious at best.
Sometimes, he woke up a few hours early or days later, depending on his injuries. But he was always too late. No matter how many times Ryan tried, he couldn’t catch up to Len. The time-traveler was trapped in an endless cycle, never making progress.
As he witnessed a Mediterranean sunset for what seemed like the hundredth time, Ryan tried to understand. Did the auto-pilot carry Shortie away? Did she see the explosion and believe her family had perished in the blast?
Ryan asked the Carnival for help many times. Once, he told them Bloodstream kept a backup clone and they looked for three weeks to no avail. Ryan felt slightly bad about using them, especially since Mr. Wave always did his best to help him. The superhero blamed himself for Ryan’s wounds, though the young man could tell from experience that the man had saved his life.
But no matter how much they searched, they couldn’t find any sign of the submarine, and Ryan had no way of contacting Shortie.
In the last loop, he fled from the hospital and hid from his own rescuers until they gave up and moved on. The Carnival always insisted he join an adoptive family, but Ryan had his fill of them. He wanted Len, and no one else. His gratefulness for the Carnival turned to resentment; though he knew it was irrational, they had deprived him of Len.
Perhaps it was easier for Ryan to blame others rather than himself. In the end, the teen couldn’t deny the fact he caused this disaster through his own poor choice. For no matter the path he took, it always ended the same way.
With Ryan Romano staring at the sunset, alone in the world.
“So?” Enrique Manada asked, facing a computer screen.
“The target’s last clone has been destroyed, as far as we can tell,” Dr. Nathaniel Stitch answered on the other end of the video call. “We are still trying to track down Len Sabino to confirm it, but otherwise it appears the threat has been dealt with.”
“That’s a relief,” Enrique replied. Though his father only cared about the warehouses and Genome employees whom Bloodstream had murdered, his son would have provided the Carnival with support on principle. The world was better with fewer Psychos in it. “We will keep an eye open, in case his daughter reappears.”
“Mr. Hargraves sends you his regards, and thanks,” the doctor said. “We wouldn’t have been able to continue the hunt without Dynamis’ cooperation.”
“It’s nothing.” All they did was to provide the Carnival with reports of Bloodstream’s movements through their own agents, and technical support in analyzing the blood samples. Enrique still shivered upon remembering Dr. Tyrano’s report. “It is always a pleasure to collaborate with the Carnival. My father still won’t budge on the question of Augustus, but I hope that one day, we can make common cause against him.”
Perhaps one day Italy could rise again from its ashes, as a country bound by the rule of law rather than the strength of Genomes. That was Enrique’s sincerest wish.
“Now we must destroy the remaining samples,” Stitch said. “Incinerate them utterly. If a single cell survives long enough to find a new host, the nightmare will start over again.”
“My brother is already taking care of ours. He burns as hot as your sun.” Enrique prepared to end the call, having another reunion planned afterward. “We’ll keep in touch.”
The Carnival member nodded before his screen closed. Enrique called Alphonse next, facing a glowing skeleton in a black hazmat suit. Blackthorn pitied his brother, whose power was as dangerous to his enemies as his allies.
“I have good news, Al,” Enrique said. “The Carnival successfully destroyed Freddie Sabino’s last remaining clone and sanitized the area. We can consider the threat dealt with.”
They wouldn’t have to nuke Porto Venere, just to be sure.
“Good,” Al replied gruffly. “Psychos are a plague upon this land.”
“Have you disposed of the remaining samples?”
Alphonse marked a short pause before answering, “Yes.”
Enrique joined his hands, sensing his brother’s annoyance. “You didn’t like it.”
“A power that could reshape someone’s entire genetic code in an instant… you must have seen the potential as much as I did. Even Father saw it. This power could have changed everything, not only for us, but all of mankind.”
“Its user killed countless people, and would have probably slain more.” If Bloodstream had been half as cunning as Adam the Ogre and used his powers well, he might have become just as dangerous as Augustus. “We have enough of one nigh-immortal psychopath on our hands, and I would rather avoid another. One cell is enough for him to return, brother.”
“I know,” he said with a grunt, still sore over it.
“Then you understand we made the right choice.” If they wanted the world to rise from the apocalypse’s ashes, they had to minimize risks for future generations. Their father only cared about money and reputation, but both Enrique and Al saw farther than he did. “You did good, Alphonse.”
“All for the dream, brother,” Fallout replied, before ending the call. “All for the dream.”