It was May 14th in New Rome, and a handsome secret agent flew above the Mediterranean sea.
The wind brushing against his mask and magician's hat, Ryan peeked over his jetpack to look at Vulcan. The Genius was hot on his trail, piloting her slow, bulky mech. “Come on, you aren’t even trying!” the courier taunted his favorite dwarf over the intercom. It was the second round of the race, and she couldn’t catch up to him. “Then again, your mom was so slow, it took her nine months to make a joke!”
“The only slow thing will be your death when I catch up to you!” Vulcan snarled back as she accelerated, her mech thrumming like a supercharged car. Both contestants flew so close to the sea level that they blew water in all directions as they passed.
In spite of her threat though, Ryan maintained a decent lead as they toured Ischia Island; iron walls and wind turbines surrounded the radioactive dump, keeping the toxic purple miasma safely contained. Hidden turrets rose from the shoreline and pointed at the flyers, though their maker prevented them from opening fire at Ryan on sight.
“Why doesn’t your hat fall off?” Vulcan asked.
“It’s magnetized.” It came in handy for someone like Ryan, who favored acrobatics and explosions in his fights. “Also, you’re so slow, you make the post office look efficient!”
“You’re so fast, your girlfriend is always left disappointed.”
Ouch, low bow. This meant war.
“Oh look, a wyvern!” Ryan pointed a finger at an empty spot of water on his left.
To his amusement, Vulcan did cock her head in that direction. “Where?” she asked, before realizing her mistake. “You bastard, you will die for this!”
Ryan laughed, only for Vulcan to actually open fire with a volley of missiles. The courier had to freeze time to dodge them all. “You bastard, you cheated!” his rival complained when time resumed. “We said only tech!”
“I lied!” Ryan cackled like a maniac. “I lied about everything!”
The two contestants finished their tour of the island and came into view of the Castello Aragonese, that old fortress which Augustus refitted into a Bliss Superlab. The powerful stone fortress’s walls oversaw the sea from atop a volcanic islet and a garden of alien plants.
The ghostly skull of Geist appeared for a brief moment above the castle when the racers approached. A tornado of colored dust carried the house-sized apparition, and started strong winds slowing down the contestants.
“Come to see me win?!” Ryan shouted as loud as he could, barely dodging a seagull. Damn bird traffic.
To his surprise, Casper the Ghost apparently listened. “You better,” the specter replied with a casual voice, though it somehow carried across the waves. “I bet on you.”
Huh, so not only could that flying skull manifest anywhere on the island, but it also had sharp senses and could detect people in the area. This ruined Ryan’s original plan, but the courier was nothing if not adaptable.
Geist had bet wisely. For although Vulcan attempted to blast him at the last second with a crimson beam of light, the courier passed over the fortress first.
There was a coming short joke to make, but Ryan was too tall to make it.
“Damn it!” Vulcan snarled. “Damn it, damn it, damn it! Where did you find that jetpack?”
In Mechron’s bunker. “In a cave, in a box of scraps.”
“The princess’ wet cave?”
Damn, news traveled fast.
“I took shelter from a thunderstorm inside,” Ryan said, as they began another turn around the island. “Wait, is tomorrow’s meeting about my execution?”
Tomorrow was the Olympians meeting, which should end up with Zanbato confirmed as the new Mercury. Jamie hadn’t organized a welcome party this time around, perhaps because Ryan had spent most of his time with Livia; and with nothing to distract her, Vulcan had decided to check up on the Bliss Island’s defenses today.
It cost the courier an A-bomb and advanced technology to get into her good graces, but the Genius eventually invited him to participate in the inspection.
Truthfully, Ryan suspected Vulcan wanted to impress him with her technology. She wanted him as a lab assistant, but the courier had defended his independence and maintained a professional distance. Sort of. He assumed jetpack races counted as a team-building activity.
“Could be,” Vulcan replied, still sore over her defeat. “How much to spare your pretty head?”
“An A-bomb?” Ryan haggled. “Bloody or extra crispy?”
“Already got one, and prices are up. I guess you’ll die.”
“If they vote yes, can I die buried in pizzas?” Ryan didn’t think he had died that way yet. At least not with four-cheeses. “Or couscous?”
“I can arrange death by waffles,” Vulcan joked back.
Ryan had missed trading jabs with her. He had thought he would find the inspection agonizing, but to his surprise, he could interact with Vulcan without experiencing depressing flashbacks now. Perhaps it was his newfound desire to move on, or his Elixir’s advice finally sinking in.
Ryan would always cherish his Jasmine’s memories, like all the relationships erased by his power, but he no longer lived in its shadow. And neither did the current Vulcan. He could finally befriend her without comparing her to her past self.
“No seriously, I blow you a chef’s kiss,” Vulcan said, her mech mimicking the gesture. “I didn’t think anyone would be mad enough to make a move on Augustus’ daughter. You won’t live long, but I’ll come to your funeral.”
“Eh, going by Casper the Ghost over here, heaven has a revolving door.” Ryan chuckled. “How did you know?”
Vulcan shrugged. “Some of the staff members saw you kiss Minerva at Venus’ resort, and spread the word. I guess Augustus couldn’t kill the leakers fast enough.”
“I thought paparazzi were an extinct species?”
“Not for a lack of trying, no.” The duo reached the Bliss Superlab again, flying over the outer walls and towards a helicopter platform. Vulcan’s mech caused the entire fortress to shake as it landed, while Ryan crossed his arms and did his best to look good as his feet touched the ground.
When they arrived, armored soldiers were busy boarding a group of three armed helicopters and checking up on their weapons. Bacchus oversaw the operation with his hands behind his back, while young Narcinia waited alongside him while holding a flower bouquet.
Ryan couldn’t resist examining it, and he didn’t recognize half of the plants. Some were roses with petals of multiple colors, others fusions of lilies of the valley and yellow daisies. The colors mixed in a tasteful display for the eyes, and the smell was almost divine.
“You like it, Quicksave?” Narcinia asked him shyly, her brown hair flowing with the ocean wind. Her heart-shaped face was so unlike her adopted family, Ryan wondered why Venus didn’t change it. Perhaps Narcinia’s power interfered with her adoptive mother’s? “I made it for Mom and Dad!”
She should have added some hemlock and nightshade then. “It’s delightful,” Ryan said from the bottom of his heart. “But do they sing?”
“You can make any form of life from what I heard, so why not flowers that can sing?” Ryan asked mirthfully.
“Make them edible, so you have the full sensory package,” Vulcan snickered, her armor towering over the duo.
“You can’t eat flowers!” Narcinia protested. “But singing flowers… that’s a nice idea. I could have them blow colored fumes while they sing too.” She turned to Bacchus. “What song would you like, Father Torque?”
Andreas Torque, alias Bacchus, turned his gaunt face at his small protégée. His eyes were as black and lifeless as coal, and Ryan had yet to see him blink. One could almost see the bones beneath his priestly garbs. All in all, the man reminded the courier of a walking corpse. “Gregorian chants, to soothe the soul.”
“And Bliss for the fumes, to have a good time?” Vulcan deadpanned. Narcinia bristled a bit at that, clearly not very proud of working on making drugs.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s behind the times,” Ryan told Narcinia. “When in doubt, choose synthwave.”
“I don’t know that music genre,” Narcinia said. The poor naive child.
“I will teach you, and the meaning of life as well,” the courier replied.
“This reminds me, I will not be available for Venus’ dinner,” Bacchus said with his soft, calm voice. “I shall return to Ischia after meeting with our fellow Olympians.”
Narcinia didn’t hide her disappointment. “My mother won’t like it, Father Torque.”
“We are on the verge of a breakthrough, Ceres,” the priest chided her. “Idleness is the enemy of progress. It is not wise to make God wait.”
“Eh, It’s probably vibing in its Blue World,” Ryan said while testing the waters. “It knows you will reach It in time, like It knows everything else.”
That was a pure bluff and speculation, based on the courier’s knowledge of the Ultimate Ones, their dimensions, and what Livia had told him. Yet he hit the mark, for the priest’s head snapped in Ryan’s direction so fast that the courier worried he might break his neck.
“Have you reached Heaven?” Bacchus asked, his black eyes peering into Ryan’s soul. The stare’s sheer intensity might have made a younger man crumble to his feet in penance, but the courier had faced far worse. Still, the priest’s presence made him feel uneasy.
In a way, Bacchus reminded Ryan of Bloodstream. The courier could sense the madness festering beneath the lucidity. “No, but I’m trying to find a way in.”
“So am I,” the priest stated with a hint of enthusiasm. It must have been gratifying to meet someone who validated his beliefs. “I am close.”
“Pray harder,” Vulcan snickered. Clearly, she didn’t think much of the priest’s delusions. “Look, I’m very busy and this security inspection was a waste of my valuable time. Let’s escort you back on the mainland and be done with it.”
“There is no rush,” Bacchus replied calmly, before putting a hand on Narcinia’s shoulder. “Go climb in the helicopter, I will be with you in a minute.”
“Yes, Father Torque,” the young teen nodded, while Vulcan grumbled.
Bacchus took Ryan aside for a short talk, the two walking along the walls of Castle Aragonese. The priest didn’t take his eyes off the courier for one second, examining him with a quizzical look. “Your name is Quicksave, correct?”
“I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone.”
Andreas Torque observed Ryan without a word, studying him. He was probably trying to remember every tidbit of information he might have had on the courier, but came up short. He would certainly question the other Olympians at the meeting and investigate the time-traveler afterward.
“How did you find your faith?” Bacchus asked. “There must be a fascinating story behind your quest.”
“I have been to Hell before, so I figured I should check out the other place,” Ryan joked.
“A worthwhile goal, but I require a straight answer.”
Ryan could tell this man could smell falsehoods like Luigi, and he didn’t even need a power to do so. “Well, Father…” the courier looked around himself as fearing he would be overhead, before whispering into the priest’s ears. “I have met a local.”
“From these higher dimensions.”
Bacchus’ eyes seemed to shine for a brief instant. “How?”
“An Elixir opened the gate for a brief moment.” That was only half a lie too. “A deity lurked on the other side.”
“It seems we shared similar revelations then.” Bacchus shivered in pleasure, as if reliving the moment. “I only tasted Heaven once, when I consumed my Elixir, and I have yearned to return to it ever since.”
Ryan remembered his brief stay inside the Black World, and what Bloodstream once told him about the ‘Green Hell’ he had glimpsed in his dreams so many years ago. Back then, the courier had thought it was mere delusions, but now, he understood that his adoptive father had observed the Green World.
From what the time-traveler gathered, the colored dimensions exerted a powerful hold on Genomes. The Ultimate Ones attracted lesser beings to them like a moth to a flame. The priest must have contacted the Blue Ultimate One, which permanently affected his mind.
“I have been investigating these higher realms since, Father,” Ryan said, trying to play on the priest’s obsession. “When I saw this deity, I… it was bliss beyond words. An ascension to a higher state of being.”
“So you understand how I feel.” Bacchus nodded slowly. “To be on the verge of becoming something more than human, only to be returned to this sinful, imperfect world… it is maddening.”
“So, I have been researching the Alchemist,” Ryan said, cutting straight to the chase. “I thought only she might answer my questions. Clearly, she created Elixirs to establish bridges with gods. To make us divine.”
“That was Eva Fabre’s goal indeed.” The shadow of a smile appeared on Bacchus’ face. “A true prophet. I mistook her for the devil, but now I see that she was the Lord’s tool on Earth. A visionary. I only met her once, but she left quite the mark.”
Ryan could see that. “When did you see her?”
“On Last Easter. I had been tracking her for years, back when she was refining the holy Elixirs for the sake of us all. She vanished after enlightening me.”
“She’s hiding beneath the snow,” Ryan said. “I know she has a base in Antarctica.”
“Station Orpheon?” Bacchus shook his head. “You are mistaken. We sent people there and they found nothing. The station has been emptied for more than a decade, ever since a violet flash was seen above its skies.”
A violet flash? If the Alchemist had access to advanced technology, then she could easily hide a base in a pocket dimension or a similar place. Maybe even hide it in plain sight. The Augusti didn’t have the means to detect such an anomaly, but Ryan could probably find an entrance. “Do you have the coordinates of that pilgrimage site, Father?”
He did, and could quote it from memory. Ryan folded it in a corner of his mind. “If you wish, I could involve you in our new Bliss strain’s test trials,” Bacchus said. “This will let us contact God, I can feel it in my bones. This long tribulation is finally nearing its end.”
“I would rather avoid the sterility that comes with it. I thought God said we should be fruitful and multiply?”
“That part is Augustus’ will, without which he would not have sponsored the project,” Bacchus said, though he clearly had no problem with sterilizing a large part of the population. “God put him on Earth to separate God’s chosen from the unworthy. Not everyone may ascend, and Bliss will sort them out.”
If Ryan had any hesitation left about destroying that lab, the priest just destroyed them. The courier glanced at the specter of Geist floating above the fortress, his grinning skull watching the sea. How far could he sense invaders? For the operation’s sake, Ryan hoped that it wasn’t much.
“There is little time left to discuss the matter,” Bacchus said, Vulcan gesturing him to climb inside the helicopter. “But once I am done with more secular matters, we will delve into the higher mysteries together. I am sure we can help each other.”
Bacchus boarded one of the helicopters at last, the vehicles flying away from the island with Ryan and Vulcan on their tail. The priest and Narcinia never crossed the sea without heavy escort, perhaps in case Wyvern or members of Il Migliore decided to ambush them.
Ryan knew nothing would happen. Though the party at Jamie’s place didn’t take place this time around, the priest and Narcinia had made their way to the meeting without incident in previous loops. With the Meta-Gang shattered, no one would interfere.
No one but Ryan.
The courier half-considered having the priest perish in a tragic accident, but he traveled in the same helicopter as Narcinia. Besides, slaying a priest wouldn’t have been very Catholic.
“Permission to return and laze around at home, Herr General?” Ryan asked Vulcan over the intercom, as they crossed the sea and the helicopters landed safely near the old harbor.
“Permission to get out of my sight granted, minion,” Vulcan said, before adding. “Come check out my lab tomorrow, after the reunion. You’re wasted on the field.”
She wouldn’t give up on that internship offer. “I’ll consider it,” Ryan lied. Vulcan grunted and flew away, back to her base.
Instead of returning home though, the courier deviated from his course the moment he was out of sight. He turned his jetpack towards the sea and Ischia Island, careful to fly low enough to avoid notice by eyes and radars both.
“They’re gone,” Ryan said over the intercom. “Where are you?”
“Four hundred meters northeast,” Shortie answered.
The courier quickly reached the meeting point, a solitary rock rising from the sea close to Ischia island. The Mechron submarine’s periscope looked over the water, with part of the tower staying hidden behind the stone. Shortie and Sarin waited on it with an enormous suitcase, while Ryan noticed the edge of Shroud’s glass armor, as sea droplets hit its transparent surface.
“Right on time,” Ryan said as he landed on the submarine’s tower and set aside his jetpack. “It should just be Geist, turrets, and mooks now.”
“Just an invincible ghost and a few hundred men, you mean?” Sarin grumbled angrily. She hadn’t been onboard with the plan, and went along only because Ryan’s Think Tank had made progress on the cure.
“What about the security system?” Shroud asked.
“Vulcan showed me the defensive turrets’ location, but she wouldn’t let me inside the fortress.” The Genius was fond of Ryan, but didn’t fully trust him either. “I do have information about what’s inside, including a map.”
“And all it cost you was sleeping with the enemy?” the invisible vigilante mused. Indeed, it was Livia who provided them. “Unfortunately, even with your girlfriend’s intel, I cannot hack into Vulcan’s security system, or at least not without alerting her of my attempt. I will need to access terminals inside the fortress.”
“We are taking huge risks, Riri,” Len said. She trusted him enough to follow his lead, but remained uneasy. “Even without Bacchus, the lab is defended by soldiers in power armor, automated defenses, Genomes…”
And a ghost. One couldn’t forget the ghost.
In the end, Geist was the island’s true line of defense, a Genome of incredible power that almost nobody could harm, let alone kill. But thankfully, the specter couldn’t haunt multiple places at once.
“There won’t be a better opportunity,” Ryan argued. “Tomorrow morning, the Augusti’s high command will be hours away, too far away to intervene.”
“A night is a long time,” Sarin said grimly.
“You said you could reform in that time,” Len pointed out.
“I should, since these fucking turbines blow gas within the island and condense it,” Sarin replied angrily. “But I still hate it. If you don’t give me back my suit afterward, I’m killing you myself.”
“See the bright side. When you’ve opened a breach, you’ll get your own power armor,” Ryan reassured her, before opening the briefcase and looking at his own suit.
The Augusti knew Quicksave… but they didn’t know Saturn.
Ryan hoped that Sarin’s presence would deceive Mob Zeus, make him believe the Meta-Gang were still active and sabotaging his operations. Livia would help sell her father the lie, giving the group some precious respite before Lightning Butt inevitably tracked them down. After the loss of his superlab, he would stop at nothing to find the responsible party.
Len helped her best friend put on the Saturn armor, Ryan delighting as she draped a cashmere poncho on his shoulder. The courier had used the data gathered in the previous loop to improve on the power armor’s design, replacing the chest cannon with a modified variant of Adam’s gravity rifle, improving the flight systems, and reinforcing the parts which Lightning Butt had managed to breach. The courier also invested heavily in radiation and heat shielding, in preparation for a new confrontation with Fallout.
He had forgotten to add a proton pack though, which would have come in handy with Geist.
Once the armor was operational, Ryan activated his power. Time froze to a halt, black and purple particles floating around the courier. A violet ghost raced after him, his past self trying to catch up to the present.
Ryan immediately noticed something new.
“There’s more than before.”
One loop ago, the Black Flux particles were nothing but black spots among fireworks of purple. Ryan had to focus to notice them. Now they had turned into a small oil spill on a violet sea.
His Black Power, whatever it was, had grown stronger.
How? Did it leech off some of Fallout’s radioactive energies during their last confrontation? Darkling could remember things across multiple loops, so Black Flux probably ignored the usual rules of Ryan’s time travel. Or perhaps it had fed on the previous loop’s destruction? In this case, each reset should strengthen the ability.
What did it even do? If it could damage Lightning Butt, could it do the same with Geist? Could it kill the unkillable?
“I wish I could have Darkling on speed dial,” Ryan complained as time resumed. “Is everyone ready?”
The plan was for Sarin to infiltrate the island in gaseous form, which would confuse even Geist, and then sabotage key defenses during the night. Ryan and Co would then attack the lab on the next day while Lightning Butt held court, scrambling communications to prevent the Augusti from calling for help.
If all went well, Ryan might repeat the operation in his Perfect Run.
“Almost,” Shroud said, turning visible while looking at the open sea. “A friend insisted on coming when I said we were chasing ghosts.”
A friend? From the Carnival? Ryan didn’t hide his skepticism. “Trust me, if Lightning Butt sees Sunshine anywhere near his mountain, then it will be New Rome’s last sunrise.”
“Leo is hunting the other Mechron bases as we speak, though the teammate in question is twice as flamboyant.”
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat, as he looked at the sea with hope. Could it be? Could it be?
His maddest prayers were soon answered, as a ray of crimson light racing on the water itself. Only a man capable of stopping time could witness the pure perfection of a human-shaped laser racing across the sea, as fast as light itself.
In the blink of an eye, the newcomer had crossed the sea and stopped within a few inches of the child he had saved many years ago. Unlike Ryan, the man hadn’t changed across the centuries, his body a solid wavelength, his suit perfect in its vibrant colors and tasteful elegance.
“Jesus could walk on water,” the man said, “but only because he learned that trick from…”
Ryan held his breath, as his favorite superhero put his hands on his waist, showing the purity of his showy, bright cashmere suit.
Ryan squeed like a rabid fangirl, much to his team’s embarrassment.