Len put her hand on the aquarium, and Bloodstream’s putrid eyes looked at her. The sight filled Ryan with scorn and disgust.
“How?” the courier asked, his own breath shortening, a sharp pain around his neck. Even after all these years… even after all these years, he still remembered his adoptive father’s hands tightening around his throat. It was true what they said. You never forgot your first. “How…”
“Uncontrolled Psycho mutations,” Dr. Tyrano answered with a shrug, misunderstanding the question. “The vice-president refused to feed him Genomes, so his genetic code kept degrading into something utterly alien. The human part simply couldn’t keep up with the powers after a while.”
A thought crossed Ryan’s mind: that this was the fate that awaited all Psychos, if they couldn’t stave off the decay. The Elixirs reshaped their bodies into something inhuman. Something better suited to contain the unlimited energies of the colored dimensions.
Was Bloodstream even sentient anymore? Did an ember of humanity remain, or were only the Elixirs left? Did he recognize his daughter, or the smell of her blood?
“Is he…” Shortie’s voice sounded so shaken, so weak, that Ryan could barely hear her words. “Is my father… is my father in there?”
“We chemically neutered the creature years ago, and he stopped all attempts at communication afterward,” Dr. Tyrano replied with no tact whatsoever. He might have been a Genius, but social relationships clearly weren’t his specialty.
“How could you… how could you do this?” Len hissed, looking at the mad scientist. “There… there was a man inside!”
“Not quite, management flagged him as a company asset,” Tyrano said, completely missing the point.
Ryan moved towards the computer panel hooked to the aquarium, his Saturn armor easily hacking into the closed system. Data showed up on his lenses, from biological analyses, to reports of Knockoff testing. The courier quickly confirmed that Dynamis had Bloodstream in custody since 2016; Tyrano cloned him from samples taken after the Psycho raided a company warehouse.
Ryan also noticed a folder called ‘Monster Girl Project’, which he refused to open. He had the feeling it would traumatize him for all loops to come.
Most importantly though, Ryan learned that Dr. Tyrano used an encrypted email system to discuss with others, mainly his lawyers. The courier memorized the access codes, so he could directly contact the deranged Genius in a future loop.
“Why… why did you want me?” Len asked, pointing her water rifle at Tyrano. The dino maniac raised his hands in surrender. “What was the point?”
“Because your father implanted a foreign agent inside your blood cells, and it causes the Knockoff to react violently on contact,” Tyrano confessed. “Since the old agent inside your blood precedes the chemical neutering, synthesis creates a new substance capable of resisting it. Our consumers inevitably… reverse.”
A polite way to say they transformed into Bloodstream clones.
“I petitioned management to study you in-depth and reduce risks of reversion, but Mr. Enrique kept vetoing my proposal,” the scientist complained. It made the courier respect Blackthorn a bit more than before.
“Here’s the million-dollar question then,” Ryan said, glancing at the bloody shoggoth floating in its aquarium. “How do we kill this thing?”
Len flinched. “Riri…”
“Len, your father is gone,” Ryan argued, waving a gloved hand at the Psycho-in-a-can. “He’s not even human anymore.”
“You said… you said you could find a cure for Psychos!” she protested.
“I think we can cure humans of their mutations, not turn tomato juice into a Homo Sapien.” Ryan watched, as Len’s weapon shook from her trembling hands. “I’m reading the analysis reports right now, and he shares less than fifty percent of his DNA with humans now. Bananas are closer to us than he is.”
Even with all the time in the world, which Ryan had, they would need a Genome with a miracle solution power. Besides, the courier had no intention of wasting so much time on helping that irredeemable monster. He had raided this lab to confirm Bloodstream’s survival, but the boogeyman that haunted his childhood appeared long gone.
Ryan would have given all his money to see Len’s reaction beneath her helmet. She stood still for a moment, before lowering her head and weapon both. She didn’t say a word, as she registered her friend’s words. Perhaps she always knew it would end like this, remaining in denial until she had the facts laid before her eyes.
The father she loved died years ago.
“I don’t suppose you have a cure for Knockoffs?” Ryan asked Tyrano.
“Of course we have a cure,“ the mad Genius protested, much to the courier’s surprise. “Do you think we’re criminally negligent?”
“You turned a monster into a drink!” Ryan replied bluntly. “You’re worse than Pepsi!”
“But the risks of reversion and health issues approach zero, as long as only one dose is used!”
“Which is exactly why I’m nationalizing this place and confiscating all its assets. Including you.”
“You can’t nationalize a perso—”
“I’m President of the United States of America, which is basically the world,” Ryan interrupted him. “We’re nationalizing you, and your cure. How does it work?”
The scientist opened his mouth to protest further, until Ryan pointed at his chest weapon. Ah, the perks of a monopoly on force...
“I developed an injection-based neutralizing agent, which attacks the Bloodstream cells and repairs the target’s genetic code back to its pre-consumption state,” Dr. Scalie admitted. “A stronger variant of the formula can be injected inside the aquarium in case of a containment breach. It destroys the Knockoffs entirely.”
“But not Alchemist-made Elixirs?” Ryan asked for confirmation, the Genius shaking his head. It made sense. Bloodstream-based Knockoffs remained mutated Psycho cells in the end, while true Elixirs were alien entities beyond conventional biology. “If your cure only works through injections, then what happens if multiple Knockoff-users revert at the same time? Even if you destroy the original source, it won’t erase the substance inside all your customers.”
“The risk of a mass-reversion is nonexistent,” Tyrano replied with a shrug, tempting fate.
These guys had no plan at all. Dynamis’ criminal negligence defied comprehension. “Alright, in that case, you’re surrendering that cure, and coming with us to Area 51.”
The dinosaur squinted. “Area 51?”
“A Mechron base, if you want to be technical.” Since Ryan knew the location of others, they could always retreat there to research a cure for the Psycho condition. He had made a promise to Sa—Bianca, and would keep it. “We can make safer Knockoffs than the bottled slimes you harvest here. Elixirs that follow health-safety protocols.”
“A Mechron base?” The Genius’ eyes lit up in interest. He couldn’t resist the lure of a Mechron-made lab. “You know what? I am under contract not to work for the competition, but if you abduct me I won’t resist too much. I think kidnapping counts as force majeure?"
“In my case? It’s an Act of God.” Ryan defended religious tolerance, but only for his own cult. “Now, where is your Bloodstream vaccine? We’re euthanizing him on our way out.”
Len didn’t even respond, much to Ryan’s surprise. He had expected her to fight back his decision, but finding the truth had shaken her to the core.
Ryan downloaded the Bloodstream vaccine’s data, to use in a future loop. Now, they had to figure out a way to leave the building with Tyrano, if possible. Since Ryan knew about the encrypted emails and confirmed Bloodstream’s survival, he could always contact the scientist in the future and optimize the Lab Sixty-Six raid.
His armor’s sensors suddenly noticed a sharp increase in temperature.
No… “Shortie, get down!” Ryan shouted, but his friend didn’t listen. She gazed at the aquarium without a word, lost in her thoughts. “Shortie!”
One of the room’s walls melted in a crimson flash.
The blast came from the previous room, clearing off the debris blocking the path outside. Ryan covered his helmet with his hand, as a cloud of dust filled the laboratory.
Alphonse Manada had returned, a living incarnation of nuclear flames. But he wasn’t alone. A small troop of men in power armor followed him, led by none other than his brother Blackthorn. Vines and moss covered the Il Migliore manager’s armor like a second protective layer, and he alone carried no firearm. Still, he didn’t look happy to be there, glancing at the aquarium with disgust.
“None of this would have happened, if you and father didn’t lie to me back then,” Enrique said, as his men raised their weapons at Len and Ryan. The courier prepared to fight his way out. “Wyvern was right. This can’t go on anymore.”
“It will all work out in the end, you’ll see,” his brother replied, lying to himself. “As for father… he will be out of the picture after this, one way or another.”
Fallout raised his hand at Ryan and Len, but didn’t open fire. The risk of breaching the aquarium was too great. “All your men are dead, and you are surrounded,” he threatened. “Give up.”
“I don’t think so,” Ryan said, moving closer to Len while Tyrano hid behind his computer. “I’ve still got the A-bomb in my backpack. If you want a big ol’ mushroom salad, you’ll get it.”
“I don’t believe you,” Alphonse replied, calling the bluff. “I don’t understand what you intended to do here, mutie, but you failed.”
“Shortie, cover me,” Ryan said. He couldn’t take Fallout head-on, but they could bypass him if they played their cards right.
But his friend didn’t answer.
Len raised her water rifle at the aquarium, and opened fire.
A pressurized liquid stream hit the glass before Ryan could stop time. The Private Security had opened fire at Len while Enrique vainly raised a hand to tell them to stop; their lasers were frozen in midair, so the courier tackled Len to the ground out of their reach.
“Shortie, what the—” Ryan couldn’t finish his sentence, as he took a good look at her helmet.
He could only see thick black blood wriggling behind the visor.
Ryan glanced at the captive Bloodstream in horror, the monster’s putrid eyes staring at his daughter with sinister intensity. While the creature was no longer sentient, his proximity triggered the infection inside Shortie and allowed it to take her over.
Some of the lasers hit the Aquarium’s protective barrier as time resumed, and Alphonse charged forward with an angry roar. Len’s visor exploded, blood tendrils coming out of it and forcing Ryan to leap back. The courier could only watch as blood leaked from his friend’s scaphandre armor, the substance having consumed her from within. As for the aquarium…
The glass had cracked, and shed tears of blood.
Ryan barely had the time to take a few steps as Len’s tendrils joined with the slime trapped inside the aquarium. And Bloodstream screamed.
The aquarium violently detonated, as the imprisoned monster grew in size and strength. The monstrous ooze grew fanged maws hissing in a maddening cacophony, glistening blue eyes as wide as TV screens, and porous holes unleashing geysers of Green Flux particles. A strange, alien moss formed on anything these particles touched, like an infection from another reality.
Ryan wished he could erase his memory at will, as he watched Len’s armor absorbed into the ooze she once called a father. The ogre devoured his daughter.
Blackthorn extended his vines to bring Tyrano to safety, but too late. Red slime drowned the scientist, and Alphonse had to use an atomic blast to keep the monster at bay. The ooze took a stream of nuclear fire to the face, but instantly regenerated. Bloodstream’s monstrous form kept expanding, filling the room with its vile flesh.
Now that it had consumed Len, the monster turned its attention to Ryan. Those glistening alien eyes showed neither intelligence nor a sign of recognition; only hunger. The mind had deteriorated beyond saving, and only the instinct to spread remained.
Bloodstream had become a virus.
Worse, some of the Private Security members started screaming, blood flowing out of their armor and shattering their visors. The Knockoffs in their circulatory system had started reverting, though Ryan didn’t know how far the effect extended.
“What’s his range?” Ryan muttered to himself, a disturbing thought crossing his mind.
Sprinklers rained a white substance in the room, probably Tyrano’s vaccine. But the liquid failed to affect the empowered Bloodstream, the mutated horror turning into a bloody tidal wave.
Ryan froze time the second his cooldown period ended, and fled as fast as he could.
Alphonse Manada had formed an energy shield around his brother and himself, repelling both the tidal wave of blood and his own men. Ryan glanced at Tyrano, but the man had already drowned inside the eldritch red sea.
The courier fled through the hole in the wall, leaving the Manadas to fend off for themselves. Ryan couldn’t take the risk of Bloodstream getting past his armor. If the monster somehow managed to take him over and corrupt his save point...
Ryan had to return to Livia to finish the memory transfer. “I gotta get back,” he whispered to himself, as he reached what remained of the cloning factory. “Back to the past.”
The roof had collapsed on the cloning factory, burying the room and Ryan’s dead allies beneath tons of rubble: though Alphonse Manada had successfully melted a path. With the ceiling gone, acid raindrops were falling on the ground from a hole above. Ryan activated his jetpack, just as time resumed.
A flood of blood overflowed into the factory an instant later, spreading through the building. Ryan managed to escape the flood, flying in the skies above the Dynamis HQ. If Bloodstream could generate mass from nowhere, then it meant his mutations had empowered him beyond his original powers.
But Ryan didn’t understand how much, until he took a good look at New Rome.
The city had turned red.
People mutated everywhere Ryan looked, blood bursting from their skin to transform them into Bloodstream clones. Every Knockoff Elixir across New Rome had reverted to its original nature. Genomes turned into monsters, attacking the uninfected like rabid dogs. On the ground, Ryan watched a single Bloodstream clone fire crystallized spikes at Private Security personnel. Everyone scratched by the projectiles joined the zombie horde.
Fires had spread everywhere, with even the acid downpour unable to drench them. Mount Augustus had turned into a fiery candle, the smoke coming from it obscuring the skies for miles, and Rust Town didn’t look any better.
“His power has no range anymore,” Ryan realized, his throat sore from the phantom pain of his first loop. “The whole world. He will spread to the whole world. He will become the world.”
This was a nightmare.
“Helen?” Ryan shouted. The acid downpour continued to fall somehow. “Helen, where are you?”
He caught sight of her on the ground. A bloody monster, switching places with raindrops as it fell down on the uninfected like a hawk on mice. Bloodstream could not only infect Genomes, but keep using their powers.
If he infected Ryan…
If he infected Ryan, Bloodstream would gain access to time travel.
“Tea? Alchemo? Braindead, are you there?” Ryan called the rest of his team in frantic panic, only to be met with radio silence. “Anyone?”
But nobody answered.
Ryan thought he would only care for Tea, but her father’s silence… it made his heart ache for a moment.
Damn it, this was the third apocalypse taking place in New Rome since he started, and the worst by far!
“Livia?” Ryan called while changing the frequency. The building below him turned red, as the ever-growing Bloodstream shattered the window and flowed down the steel walls like a waterfall. A long tendril thirty meters in size attempted to capture the courier, who dodged and flew away south of the city. “Livia? Livia!”
If Bloodstream got to her before he did...
A soft, reassuring voice answered his plea, “Ryan.”
Ryan let out a breath of relief. “Livia, are you well?”
“Yes, I’m… I’m in a safe house in Sorrento.” She marked a short pause, her breath hastening in panic. “Ryan, what’s going on? My visions… I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It’s raining blood outside.”
Thank God, his first lady had made it to the Cheyenne Mountains. “Barricade yourself and prepare for the memory transfer. I’m sending you the data I gathered. Record it and don’t touch anyone but me. Not a drop of blood.”
“It’s Dynamis, isn’t it?” she guessed, coughing. “Is it… is it too late to do anything?”
“It’s too late this time,” Ryan replied bluntly, his fists clenching in rage. “But not for the next.”
He could have sworn she had nodded on the other end of the line. “Don’t die on the way,” Livia pleaded. “I will be waiting for you.”
Ryan cut communications, as he crossed paths with other flyers in the skies. Leo the Living Sun and Shroud oversaw the devastation in shaken silence; though the latter created a cloud of flying glass shards upon seeing the president approach.
“Truce!” Ryan shouted, crossing his arms. “Truce!”
“You caused this!” Shroud snarled. “This is all your fau—”
Leo Hargraves broke out of his trance and raised a hand to stop his comrade. He understood that at this point, they couldn’t afford to fight. Not even a dashing supervillain. “Is your sister…” Sunshine asked Ryan, acidic rain turning to colored steam on contact. “Is she dead?”
Ryan looked away, his silence a confirmation in itself. “I’m…” Leo the Living Sun looked down in complete defeat. “I’m sorry, for her. And for you, Mathias. We failed your mother’s last request.”
“We couldn’t stop it,” Shroud muttered to himself, his voice breaking in sadness and despair.
“You knew this would happen?” Ryan asked, more disappointed with himself than anything
“It was foretold, so we… we tried to destroy Bloodstream, but...” Leonard struggled to find his words. “We failed.”
“We only delayed the disaster,” Mr. See-Through said, before glancing at his teammate. “Leo, you have to do it.”
“If I unleash my full power, everyone in the city will burn,” Leo warned. Ryan had never heard him sound so… so defeated. “Millions will perish.”
“And if a single bird gets away, the whole world will follow.” Shroud let out a sigh of resignation. “There is no other way.”
“The whole world is affected,” Ryan said. Even though he would reload soon, he didn’t think Leonard deserved to have these deaths on his conscience in any timeline. “Dynamis has Genomes outside New Rome, and they probably turned. It’s useless.”
“But it will delay the virus’ spread,” Shroud insisted. “We can gain enough time to protect other comm—”
Thunder echoed above their heads.
Crimson lightning struck Shroud, cooking his flesh within his own glass armor. The bolt formed a hole in his chest, vaporizing organs and sending the vigilante falling down to a burning street below. Leo let out a shout of horror and surprise, while Ryan looked up at the bolt’s source.
“Hargraves.” Augustus descended from the clouds above, clad in crimson lightning like a shining angel cast down to earth. “I should have known you were involved.”
Lightning Butt’s clothes had been torn to shreds, but the man himself was unharmed. His right hand carried the upper half of a destroyed rabbit plushie, its white fur blackened by ashes.
The gods had won the Lepiromachia.
“You fool!” Leo snarled at his archenemy, his flames now blindingly bright. “The world is at stake here!”
“The only world I want to live in,” Mob Zeus replied with his fist raised, “is one where your sun has set.”
Moving as fast as Ryan on a good day, the warlord punched Leo in the chest, his fingers tearing through the flames to hit a burning core underneath. The blow sent the Living Sun crashing onto the ground, the impact vaporizing Bloodstream clones into ashes.
“You!” Ryan snarled in true fury, as Lightning Zeus charged lightning to smite his fallen foe. This maniacal man would put his personal vendetta above anything else! “You selfish discount ivory statue, I’ve had enough! You’re going down somehow!”
Mob Zeus looked at him with murder on his mind, and Ryan cursed his tongue.
The courier reflexively stopped time just as the discount Greek god unleashed an electrical storm in his direction. Though the Purple World overshadowed New Rome and trapped it between two seconds, neither Augustus nor his lightning slowed down. The invulnerable man completely shrugged the time-stop off.
But Vulcan made the best armor, and Ryan expected the unexpected.
Mob Zeus blinked as the courier’s chest weapon absorbed the crimson bolt. The mechanism didn’t have a limitless energy storage capacity, but it gave the time traveler enough time to strike back.
Though he knew it was useless, Ryan punched Augustus in the face with all his might.
And it felt good.
His armored fist hit the man’s ivory cheek, violet and black particles swirling around his fingers. Ryan expected to hurt himself more than Discount Zeus, especially since it felt like hitting a wall of diamond; but to his surprise, the blow startled the tyrant. The punch didn’t inflict any damage, and seemed no more effective than a light slap, but it shorted out the lightning halo for an instant.
For a brief moment, Ryan could see the old man beneath the godly facade, his eyes widening in shock while the courier’s fist still touched his cheek. Lightning Butt’s gaze turned from surprise to fury, and if the courier wasn’t mistaken… a hint of fear.
“I felt that,” Augustus said.
Time unfroze as Ryan registered these words, and Mob Zeus punched back.
He hit harder than Wyvern, Adam the Ogre, and anyone else Ryan ever fought before. His fist cracked the armor’s chest protection, shattering the weapon beneath into scraps, and sent the courier flying backward. The time traveler hit a building, came out on the other side, and barely managed to regain control of his flight before he crashed on the ground.
The jetpack had survived the blow, but the armor had been breached. A single drop of blood could slip through. Even now he sensed an acid raindrop burn his skin below the steel.
So Ryan immediately focused on regaining altitude, and looked behind him.
Thankfully for the courier, Hargraves had engaged Augustus in melee, delaying him for now. Sunshine had become a blinding star blazing across the skies, his heat causing the atmosphere to simmer around him. However, Ryan could see the shadow of his invulnerable enemy trying to grab the living sun’s core; perhaps that was Hargraves’ sole weakness.
The living sun’s fires burnt Augustus’ clothes, but they couldn’t melt his ivory body. Leo could delay his foe, but not defeat him. Eventually, the superhero would either retreat, or perish.
And then Augustus would go after Ryan.
The president redirected all remaining power to his jetpack, and left New Rome in the dust.
It took Ryan one hour to reach Livia’s hideout.
New Rome had long vanished in a flash of crimson light by then, its building, its land, its people incinerated. Whether Alphonse Manada went nuclear or Sunshine turned into a supernova, Ryan would never know. Though he was miles away by then, the courier still felt the blast’s shockwave.
It changed nothing.
As the courier flew over a forest, he watched the trees turning red, their leaves transforming into organs, their bark into crystallized blood. Even some birds had turned into abominations, pursuing Ryan to infect him; though they were too slow to catch up, the sight filled the time traveler with horror.
This blue planet would soon turn red.
He found Livia waiting for him in Sorrento, south of New Rome. She stood on the roof of the same building where Ryan had been evacuated, back when the Meta blew up the city. The courier thought the Augusti princess was foolish to expose herself, before noticing the ring of ash surrounding the building. Dozens, if not hundreds of turrets formed an impregnable perimeter around the safehouse, vaporizing any Bloodstream clone approaching.
Thankfully, the security system recognized his armor and let him pass.
“Remind me to send chocolates to Vulcan after the reset,” Ryan said as he landed on the roof, covering his chest with one hand. Acid Rain’s raindrops had eaten at his chest, blood dripping from the cracks left by Augustus.
“Though not perfect, no one can deny her security systems are effective.” Livia’s eyes wandered to his wound with concern, and though he warned her not to touch blood of any kind… her fingers trailed against his chest of steel. “Who did this to you?”
“Your dad,” Ryan replied, causing Livia to bite her lower lips. “Even with the world going down in flames, he still wanted revenge above all else.”
“I see,” she said, her eyebrows furrowing. “And Len? The others?”
“Just me.” Ryan let out a tired sigh. “Again.”
And over again.
“Just us.” Livia looked at him with pity and compassion. “This is what you were trying to stop? Or something else? I can’t imagine the burden on your shoulders. It must have been agonizing.”
“There is still time to change this terrible ending.”
Ryan had the data he needed for his perfect run now. All pieces of the New Rome puzzle.
He only needed to assemble them in the correct sequence.
“Yes. But next time…” Livia looked up at him with determination. “Next time, you won’t carry this cross alone, Ryan. I swear to you.”
No. Ryan would have other people to help carry his load. Livia, Len, Alchemo, and others. Their memories would endure this reset, and he would ferry their minds across space and time.
The time-traveler opened the Saturn armor’s backpack, bringing out a metal helmet. He carefully put it on Livia’s head, and hooked the device to his suit’s Chronoradio. “Will it hurt?” she asked.
“Only for me, but don’t worry. I’m immortal.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” she replied with a smile. “We’ll find a painless way next time. I won’t have you die for our mistakes.”
Ryan almost told her not to make promises she couldn’t keep, but though this loop ended bleakly, it also filled his heart with hope.
Next loop would be different than anything that came before. The courier had no idea if his power would even stay the same, now that the Black World’s power coursed through his veins. This reset was a dive into the unknown.
But someone would wait for him on the other side.
“We’ll see,” Ryan said as he activated his power. He halted the march of time, his armor turning dark purple. A torrent of violet particles surrounded him and Livia like a flood, with the occasional black spot floating among them like oil in the water.
The courier noticed an ivory man flying in their direction, far too late to change anything.
As the transfer finished and this loop collapsed in an ocean of violet particles, Ryan thought back to his brief fight with Augustus. He had wondered what wish the Black Ultimate One granted him, but now he had his answer.
What did you call a power that could kill immortals?