Ryan thought this run would have been an Augusti one. Joining the mafia organization, climbing the ranks, perhaps challenging the Big Thunder Man for his daughter’s hand.
But as he prepared to assault the Bliss Factory with a ragtag band of misfits at his back, Ryan understood he had been mistaken. This run was a hidden, yet unexplored route.
The Carnival route.
Ryan and Shroud floated far above the Bliss Factory, hidden inside a cloud; the former carried by his armor’s propellers, the other by his own power. Len waited under the waves for an amphibious assault, while Mr. Wave and Sarin would soon fall in position.
“They will know it’s us,” Shroud complained, barely visible. “The Carnival. I shouldn’t have told Mr. Wave about this operation, that weirdo won’t listen to reason.”
Ryan gently slapped his translucent friend on the helmet, to his surprise. “What was that for?” the vigilante asked.
“You don’t diss Mr. Wave in my presence,” the courier replied. “If he wishes to strike fear in Lightning Butt’s heart, it is his divine right and we shall indulge him.”
“Wait, didn’t he save your life?” Shroud scoffed. “I should have known he influenced you. The cashmere obsession was a telltale sign.”
Ryan loved cashmere like any sensible human being, but Mr. Wave did open his eyes about its splendor. The courier’s first loops mostly revolved around the superhero saving him from an explosion, over and over again, shielding the time-traveler from flames with his soft wool suit.
The original plan was to blame the Meta-Gang for the attack, but while Mr. Wave had agreed to change his clothes, he simply traded his flamboyant suit for a black tuxedo and scaled boots. “They will know it’s you, Wave,” Shroud had complained, somewhat rightly. “You aren’t even hiding your face.”
“Mr. Wave is wearing an evil suit,” his dashing teammate had protested. “It is black, the underclothes were made in China, and the socks were woven with linen.”
Ryan had looked at his hero in shock and outrage. “That’s a war crime!”
“Indeed. So Mr. Wave surrounded them with tasteful alligator boots, to soften the blow. Like putting a flower on a Kalashnikov’s barrel.”
“Why are you using the third person?” Len had asked.
“First-person cannot properly contain the power of Mr. Wave’s name.”
Though Len had giggled, probably because she had grown used to Ryan’s own antics, the rest of the team didn’t get it. “Is yours always like this?” Shroud had asked Sarin, as she removed her hazmat suit to let her gaseous form out.
She had snickered in response. “You think there’s more of them?”
“I pray not.”
“Wardrobe,” Ryan had said, dashing all their hopes and dreams.
“I’ve heard of this Wardrobe,” Mr. Wave had finished. “Our meeting will be legendary, but Mr. Wave doubts the world will survive it.”
Afterward, Sarin had let her gaseous body flow through the wind turbines surrounding Ischia Island, causing a few dysfunctions. Geist had sensed her presence and left the fortress, but didn’t know what to look for amidst all the toxic gases.
Still, as Ryan observed the golden skull flickering in and out of existence around the island, he wondered how far the Yellow Genome’s powers extended. Casper the Ghost could clearly sense Sarin somewhere on the island, though she had no corporeal body. Did he sense her soul? Did people actually have souls? But if so, why couldn’t he sense Ryan and Shroud in the air?
This reminded Ryan of Monaco. Yellow Genomes usually had conceptual limits, reasoning in terms of abstract laws rather than scientific rules. Perhaps Geist could only detect people who technically set foot on his haunting ground, or something like that.
In any case, with the ghost busy and the Olympians holding their meeting, the Bliss Factory was temporarily without its main defenders. Now was the time to strike.
The assault began with a metal monster rising from the waves and landing on the shore.
With full access to Mechron’s armory, Ryan wasn’t the only one who upgraded his technology. Len had also exchanged her power armor for a new one, to reduce the risk of being identified. Her second mech was as bulky as Vulcan’s, and reminded Ryan of Cthulhu, with inorganic tentacled whips where the face should be. The hands finished with mighty crab pincers, and the armor’s blue paint job made it near undetectable in the water. The alien design was unlike anything Len ever built, and took more inspiration from Mechron’s own creations.
She immediately opened fire on the fortress with shoulder torpedoes, collapsing huge chunks of the outer walls. Vulcan’s turrets, the few which Sarin couldn’t sabotage without bringing attention upon herself, immediately opened fire. Ryan blasted them from above with his chest gravity-gun, black spheres collapsing space around them and crushing the weapons. Shroud also discreetly sabotaged the glass and silica components within the machines, causing severe malfunctions.
With the automated defenses down, Augusti guards in riot gear swarmed the walls still standing, while their allies in red, padded steampunk armor emerged from the main gates to intercept Len. Ryan recognized the latter as Vulcan’s corp of Pyrokinetic Genomes, their equipment turbocharging their powers. They tossed car-sized fireballs at Len, causing her outer shielding to heat up.
A red blur crossed the sea at blinding speed, hitting an Augusti Genome so hard that he crashed halfway through a stone wall.
“Mr. Wave will set his foot down,” Mr. Wave proudly announced his presence, hands raised to the skies, “and it will be in someone’s face!”
Ryan couldn’t help but fanboy over his idol, and squealed loud enough to cause guards to look up. “You idiot, you alerted them to our position!” Shroud complained before flying away, fully turning invisible and waiting for an opportunity to infiltrate the fortress. Ryan himself shrugged off gunshots. His armor could resist punches from Augustus and Fallout, so bullets easily bounced off.
The chilling, ghostly wind in the air though, was a greater source of concern.
Ryan barely had the time to fly to his left and avoid a rock the size of his car falling on his head. A glittering tornado of colored, supernatural dust manifested in its wake, a ghostly golden skull materializing above the fortress.
“What is all this racket?” Geist asked, though he didn’t sound concerned at all. If anything, he sounded bored as he oversaw the battlefield. An automated torpedo flew out of the water and landed on the island, with Sarin’s power armor held within. “Who are you guys?”
Ryan almost introduced himself as Saturn, before deciding it wasn’t a powerful enough title. “King Saturn,” he introduced himself, his armor modifying his voice. Time to abandon democracy for the divine right to rule!
“You can’t call yourself Saturn,” Casper the ghost replied, while telekinetically lifting broken remnants of the fortress’ outer wall. “I think my organization has a copyright on Roman names.”
“King Saturn!” Ryan activated his chest weapon. “With a capital ‘K’!”
His gravity projectile went harmlessly through Geist, not even fazing him. The specter replied with a rain of stones, each powerful enough to crush a tank. Since the courier was wary of overusing his time-stop lest his fighting style be recognized, he had to make circles around the attacks.
“A ghost?” Mr. Wave asked on the ground, holding an Augusti guard above the ground by the throat. “Are you one of Mr. Wave’s victims?”
“No,” Geist replied, as he telekinetically tossed more projectiles at Ryan. Other chunks he moved back in place to replace the outer walls, dealing with the assault with no more enthusiasm than a middle-manager filling his taxes.
“Give it time, you will be.”
“If I kill you will it count as murder, since you’re already dead?” Ryan mocked the specter before flying through him. He expected to inflict damage like with Augustus, but instead, he harmlessly phased through Geist’s ethereal skull. The specter responded by telekinetically slamming him to the beach below, and Ryan ended face-first buried into the sand.
“Oh, he fell down,” Geist noted, with a hint of amusement. “Did it hurt?”
This confirmed it. Ryan’s secondary power only worked during the time-stop.
The courier quickly guessed why. His power worked by aligning Earth’s reality with the Purple World, itself a crossroads between all of space and time; the crossroad through which he could draw energy from the Black World.
A mighty crimson shockwave hit the Bliss Factory while Ryan rose back up, causing the entire castle to shake and a barbican to collapse. Stones crushed Narcinia’s flowers near the fortress, and a hole opened to the chambers inside.
“Aw man, Ceres won’t like that,” Geist commented with a bored tone, while Ryan’s heat sensors informed him Shroud used the opportunity to slip inside the fortress. Though the specter hastily repaired the destroyed curtain walls, the invisible vigilante had already slipped in.
The courier looked at the blast’s source, a woman in an orange synthetic suit lined with strong crimson metal plates. The helmet resembled a mix between a gas mask and a knight’s helmet, while the gauntlets radiated crimson light.
Sarin had put on her own power armor.
Created in Mechron’s labs with data harvested over the previous loop, the suit was specifically insulated to resist the wearer’s own rusting power. It also spread her shockwave power through her entire body; when guards rained bullets at her chest, they flattened instead of inflicting lethal wounds.
“Not so easy to harm me anymore, eh, jackasses?!” Sarin gloated, before raising her hands and shattering a pyrokinetic Genome in power armor. “It’s payback time!”
“Look, I really hate working and I ain’t paid for this job,” the ghost said with the laziest voice possible, expanding the colored dust supporting his ectoplasmic skull. A glittering storm the size of a tornado soon surrounded the castle, forming an impenetrable wall around it. “Could you just, you know, go away? Or we could play Board & Conquest, if you’re up for it.”
“If you hate your job, why don’t you let us in?” Sarin snarled while sending a shockwave at the colored storm. The blast failed to get past the defense, and Ryan realized that Geist drew the strange substance from the Yellow World. The twisted storm blew sand in all directions, expanding the beach’s size.
“Father Torque promised to find a way to exorcise me back to Heaven if I kept the place clean, and I don’t know any other priest. I’m kinda bound to that island, so I don’t have an active social life.” Geist observed each member of Ryan’s team in turn. “Is one of you a priest, by any chance?”
“Mr. Wave has a Rabbi license.” The Genome in question leaped into the air and transformed into a laser, aiming straight for Geist’s ghoulish face. “And he will cut you like Solomon!”
Geist telekinetically stopped Mr. Wave in midair, the red Genome reverting back to his original form. “I’m Christian, so you’re out of luck,” the ghost said before throwing Mr. Wave into the sea. “Unlife is unfair.”
“Don’t tell me,” Ryan said while returning to the skies.
Geist let out a loud sound that could pass for a shrug, and his skull changed shape. Two ginormous golden bone arms and a rib cage formed below it, supported by the colored tornado protecting the Bliss Factory. The specter had turned into a colossus, and his hands lunged for Ryan.
“Wait, you can shapeshift?” Ryan protested as he did his best to avoid the colossus’ hands. “Why didn’t you do it against Dynamis?”
“Dynamis?” Geist asked, confused. He attempted to crush the flying courier like a bug with all the motivation of an exhausted desk jockey. “I can do pretty much anything a ghost can, which is surprisingly a lot. I wish it included moving out though.”
That Ghostbusters ad was the Yellow version of Leo Hargraves. Ryan shuddered to think what the specter could do, if he wasn’t limited to his haunting ground and had any motivation whatsoever. If he had any killer instinct, Geist would have realized that he could telekinetically crush people rather than toss them away.
Sarin and Len attempted to support Ryan, the former with shockwaves, the other with torpedoes. Neither seemed any more effective against the colossus’ golden arms than water guns against a statue. Mr. Wave raced back to the island on foot, a crimson dash turning water to steam in his wake. He tried to cross the tornado barrier around the Bliss Factory, only to be thrown back as if he had hit a forcefield.
“Okay, you’ve done it,” Geist said, his tone markedly more annoyed. “Ever watched The Mummy?”
“1932 or 1999?” Ryan asked, before realizing what the specter had in mind. “Uh oh, 1999.”
The beach below the flying courier began to shift and twist, forming waves like a raging sea. Len and Sarin were buried beneath them, alongside most of the defeated guards, while Mr. Wave had to run away in laser form.
The beach then started to rise, a sand tsunami forming at Geist’s will. The higher Ryan flew, the taller the wave.
“You know, I never tried to see how high I could raise it up,” Casper the ghost said, amused by Ryan’s attempt to escape. By now the sand wall had risen higher than the Bliss Factory and emptied the shore of sand. The courier hoped his allies’ power armors could shield them from the inevitable impact.
“Alright, Imhotep, I’m sending you back to the nineties!” Ryan swirled around Geist’s arms, bypassed them, and then went straight for the skull. “Teeth first!”
“I’m kinda dead already,” Geist said, unimpressed. He didn’t even bother to cover his skull with his giant hands, so confident was he in his immortality. “Even Cancel and Pluto couldn’t put me six feet under for good.”
“In that case, you force me to use my full power,” Ryan said, raising his fists. “Now I have to use my hands!”
The time traveler froze time right as his gauntlet reached Geist’s skull, but only for a split second. A trail of dark particles trailed from his fingers like a falling star’s tail as the world turned purple, a black meteor striding across the skies. An unstoppable force hitting an intangible object.
And as Ryan’s metal fingers connected with the specter, he felt resistance.
When time resumed, Geist’s golden skull flickered, black cracks appearing where Ryan hit him. The tornado of glittering dust that supported it weakened for an instant, and the telekinetic force that raised the sand tsunami failed.
Tons of sand collapsed onto the ground around the fortress in a cataclysmic crash. A cloud of dust spread over the island and the sea, to the point that Ryan couldn’t see anything within it. Some of the sand found its way to the fortress, tainting its strong walls yellow.
“You…” Geist’s gaze of ghostly light turned to Ryan in shock, his giant arms falling down like a stringless puppet. “You hit me!”
“Vade Retro Satanas!” Ryan said. Below, the dust had died down and Sarin propelled herself out of her sand prison with a shockwave. Mr. Wave reappeared from the island and started moving around the beach at high speed, perhaps looking for the buried Len. “Or you will see the back of my hand again!”
“You harmed me…” A strange colored substance fell from the skull’s eye sockets, a liquid version of the glistening dust Geist left in his wake. “You harmed me…”
He was… he was crying? Ryan felt bad for a moment, before realizing there was no sorrow in the ghost’s voice.
These were tears of joy.
“Finally!” Geist shapeshifted once more, his arms and rib cage vanishing. The colored tornado that shielded Castle Aragonese vanished, leaving the Bliss Factory defenseless. What guards the team hadn’t beaten, the ghost’s sand tsunami had crushed. “Go ahead, send me back to heaven! Rip my ectoplasm open, my soul is ready!”
Normally, Ryan had no problem hitting his foes, but something in the specter’s voice made him hesitate. He stopped time and lightly slapped the specter’s skull, who moaned as time resumed. The courier shuddered.
“Why won’t you kill me, you selfish tease?” Geist snarled, when his foe didn’t dare strike him a third time.
“Stop, you’re…” Ryan looked away. “You’re making it awkward.”
“Do you want to make me beg? Is that what you want?”
“If you take pleasure in it, it robs me of mine,” Ryan said, grossed out. “I’m all for euthanasia, but this one feels dirty.”
“I have waited fifteen years!” Geist’s skull complained while moving in the courier’s field of vision, forcing Ryan to acknowledge him. “Fifteen years as a ghost, unable to move on! Can you fathom how boring it is, to keep watch of this toxic dump? Nobody ever visits, except for work!”
The discussion made Ryan uneasy. “Look, I understand the downsides of immortality, more than you think,” the courier said, trying to find the right words. “But do you really wish to die for good? It’s not a decision to take lightly.”
If he truly wished to perish, Ryan would put the ghost to rest in his Perfect Run. But when his Violet Elixir presented him with a similar conundrum, the courier chose life over death. He didn’t want to go through with that option unless the poltergeist was absolutely sure of his decision.
“Are you serious right now?” Geist snorted. “Would you want to be a ghost bound to one place, completely intangible?”
“I’m sure there are ways around that limit,” Ryan replied. “And you got phenomenal cosmic powers out of the deal. You could probably go toe-to-toe with Augustus if you wished.”
Geist remained silent a few seconds, but the courier’s words clearly didn’t reach him. “What use is power if you can’t enjoy life?” he asked. “I can’t taste, I can’t touch, I can’t sleep or dream. I can’t have kids and there aren’t enough games to fill my time with. I can lift things with my mind, but they don’t feel warm. The world is cold to me, tin can. It’s unbearable, half a life.”
On the ground, Ryan noticed Sarin and Mr. Wave lifting Len from under the sand. His former vice-president listened to the discussion with rapt attention, probably because it struck home.
“I’ve tasted Heaven and peace, only to be yanked back to Earth,” Geist said. “I died years ago, but I can’t rest. All I can do is kill time. Unless you can raise me from the dead?”
“That’s beyond my power at the moment,” Ryan admitted. “But maybe in the future?”
“Yeah, and maybe I’ll still be rotting on this island while the sun swallows the Earth. I’ve waited for Father Torque to find a solution for years, and ‘maybe’ stayed ‘maybe.’ I’ll take my chances. Fifteen years as a ghost were fifteen years too many.”
Ryan still hesitated, so Sarin complained from the ground below. “Just finish him off already!” she said. “He ain’t strong enough to carry on, let him go.”
“Do you want me to fight back?” Geist asked in despair. “Is that what it will take? I don’t want to go there, mate, but I will if needed.”
“Alright, alright, I will do it!” Ryan said, highly disappointed. He closed his eyes, tightened his fist, and prepared to get on with it. “Don’t make a sound.”
“Hallelujah,” Geist replied, waiting for the end peacefully. “Heaven at long last. Thanks.”
Ryan froze time again, and punched the strange ghost with all his might. His blackened fist tore through Geist’s intangible body, black particles consuming the ectoplasmic substance like a black hole with stardust.
When time resumed, the blow had split Geist’s spectral body in half. The golden skull’s substance seemed to lose cohesion, snow melting under the warm sun to turn into droplets. The ghost dissipated, his immortality canceled. Below, Sarin unleashed a sustained shockwave at the castle, destroying the barbican which Geist had repaired a few minutes earlier. Mr. Wave immediately entered through the hole at lightspeed.
As he floated in the skies alone in solemn silence, Ryan remembered his brief stay in the Black World. The time traveler had prayed for an end to his immortality, a way out of his eternal existence... and the Ultimate One had obliged. It had given the time traveler the ability to harm the invulnerable, to kill those who couldn’t die.
Even Ryan himself.
In the end, a president’s best friend was the oil he mined along the way.
Ryan would have loved to say that after Geist’s demise, the Bliss Factory’s troops made an epic last stand to protect their drug batches. The courier expected to waste at least an hour to conquer the factory.
It took fourteen minutes.
Shroud, who infiltrated the fortress during the battle, had reached a terminal and hacked into the factory’s systems. With the security codes given by Livia, he opened all the doors and scrambled outside communications. Mr. Wave simply toured the factory at the speed of light, and finished piling up two hundred unconscious guards by the time the rest of the group entered.
“Ugh, and here I thought you would leave some for us,” Sarin complained.
“You can find a list of Mr. Wave’s enemies under the ‘extinct species’ category,” the man boasted, his tuxedo unblemished. “Mr. Wave does not kill, he exterminates.”
Before such wit, Ryan felt like a student in the presence of a master.
They advanced into the Castle Aragonese’s corridors and made their way to the Bliss labs within. In stark contrast with the ancient walls outside, the Augusti had reinforced the inner structure with steel walls and blast doors. Sarin broke down the few that Shroud didn’t open for them.
Eventually, the group made its way to the facility’s core, and the center of Bliss production. Bacchus developed his beloved drug in underground warehouses below the fortress, and even Ryan found the size of the operation mind-blowing. A vast glass garden housed the plants producing the drug’s raw material, strange flowers with light blue petals and yellow cores. A small army of workers in hazmat suits harvested the petals, with the plants regrowing their missing bits in minutes.
Afterward, the petals were drenched in oil, dried, and turned into a blue powder mixed with other chemicals. The resulting substance was routed through automated lines where a small army of robotic arms put Bliss in small canisters and hypodermics, filling entire crates each hour. From the quantity assembled, Ryan estimated the operation produced multiple tons of Bliss per day. Hell, the factory’s incinerator worked full time to eliminate the process’ waste.
Most of the installation was automated, and Len kept the few remaining workers at torpedo-point, hands behind their heads. “What’s happening?” Ryan heard Vulcan’s voice come out of a computer, while Shroud typed on its keyboard. “I received an alarm twenty minutes ago.”
“It was nothing, ma’am,” Shroud replied, disguising his voice. “Psychos tried to raid the factory, but Geist and your security system sent them packing.”
“Of course they did,” Vulcan scoffed on the other end of the line, too proud of herself by half. “I told you an inspection was a waste of time.”
“It was, ma’am. It was.” Shroud ended the communication and looked up from his panel. “I’ve downloaded the production data and deleted the camera footage. Let’s torch this place.”
“Oh yeah.” Sarin eagerly blasted the glass gardens and the plants within. The vibrations snapped the alien flowers in half, and the Psycho soon moved on to the assembly lines.
“Mr. Wave is quite happy.” His idol patted Ryan in the back as they observed the destruction. “He was worried you would grow up the wrong way, and that he would have to put you down like an old yeller. But you became a man of refined taste and great skill.”
“Thanks to your example.” After saving him so many times, Mr. Wave had left a powerful impression on Ryan.
“What were you up to in all these years?” Mr. Wave asked. “Mr. Wave tried to look for you a few times, but you never seemed to spend long in one place.”
“I conquered Monaco, won a town at a poker competition, and got an alien to autograph my Necronomicon.”
“Nice. In his case, Mr. Wave traveled to Tibet and explored the great mysteries of the cosmos. Did Mr. Wave create the world when he was born, or was the world made for Mr. Wave? Is it possible that the only gravity is the one produced by Mr. Wave’s charisma?”
“How can you stand this guy?” Sarin asked Shroud over the sound of her shockwaves.
“Only in small doses,” the glass manipulator replied.
“Mr. Wave understands. Prolonged exposure to Mr. Wave can cause a pathological desire to worship him, or near-death experiences. There is no middle ground.”
“Instead of standing by, there’s something you could help with,” Shroud said, after destroying computer parts with his power. “Bacchus has a secret testing area and… you will understand when you see it.”
Ryan did, to his horror.
Shroud led him and Mr. Wave deeper inside the facility, into a secret room behind a cold metal corridor. It was dimly lit, with most of the area kept in complete darkness. Ryan walked inside first, his steps echoing on the iron floor. He saw iron bars flickering in the dim light, and his heat sensors sending more than three dozen signatures.
Though his armor’s helmet filtered the air, the stench of human filth overwhelmed it.
The livestock pens were so small, that Ryan was certain they had been meant for pigs. They were piled up on each other like a tetris game, but there was nothing amusing about the sight. As his allies remained eerily silent, Ryan activated his armor’s lamps and looked through the nearest iron bars.
Three humans shared a cage so small, they couldn’t rise up on their feet. They must have crawled inside. The veins and lips of the captives had turned blue from Bliss overdoses, their skin so white and their flesh so thin that the courier could see the bones beneath. Two men and a woman. The cages hadn’t been cleaned up in a while, excrement piling up in a corner.
Though he had looped for centuries, Ryan hadn’t grown numb to such sights. Examining the captives filled him with revulsion, doubly so as he looked at the other cages, counting the people imprisoned within.
Twenty-three, he thought, stopping at a man whose eyes a swarm of flies had devoured. One dead.
“Does Narcinia know?” Ryan asked. “Does Vulcan know?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Shroud said. “Only Bacchus could access that part of the lab.”
The mad priest used these people to test his experimental Bliss strains, destroying people’s minds in an insane attempt to contact the Blue Ultimate One. These people were the most recent batch of ‘volunteers,’ addicts taken off the streets, or perhaps enemies of Augustus sacrificed to his horrendous drug wizard.
How many people had died within these walls, their corpses dumped in the incinerator?
“That…” Mr. Wave seemed at a loss of words, waving his hand at the prisoners. Their eyes didn’t follow his movements, their gaze empty. “I… Mr. Wave thinks someone scrambled their brain.”
Ryan had his helmet take pictures of the scene, and then ripped open the nearest pen. His armored hands bent the iron cages open. Shroud immediately grabbed the captive within, a woman no older than twenty. Blue mold grew over her skin, and blood had dried beneath her eyes.
Ryan walked out of the area while carrying two people on his shoulders, watching at the ruins of the production lines. Flames had started to spread, and threatened to engulf the underground facilities. Sarin had demolished them all and oversaw her work with a pleased stance, while Len evacuated the workers.
“Bianca?” the courier asked.
“What?” Sarin snapped back.
“Once we’re done evacuating, collapse the whole place,” Ryan said, his tone dangerous. “Bury it.”
Ryan would destroy the factory himself in his Perfect Run.
With Bacchus inside.