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It was May 10th, 2020 for the first time, and Ryan hadn’t blown up something yet.

Frankly, this surprised him. Seventy-two hours were almost a hard cap for him for non-destructive behavior; he didn’t always cause it, he just had a knack for getting into exciting situations. Ryan wasn’t drawn to adventure. Adventure was drawn to him, and he couldn’t wait for a new adrenaline rush.

Driving at night up north, the courier and his Plymouth left the wealthy districts for more industrial ones. Hotels and casinos slowly vanished, replaced with railroad stations, grey buildings, taxi centrals, and other businesses. According to the map, they should reach the old harbor in no time.

“Existence is subjective.”

“Mmm?” Ryan asked, turning his head to the passenger to his right. He had to lower himself in the car, to avoid reaching the roof with his head.

“Your question, about whether I exist if you can roll back time,” Zanbato continued. The man had put crates full of chemicals at the car’s back, then insisted on chaperoning Quicksave during his first job for ‘the family.’ Both were supposed to protect a shipment from attack and beat up the Meta if they dared to interrupt it. “We can never know we exist, so there is no objective truth to existence.”

“You’re still thinking it over?” Ryan asked, a bit surprised. He said so much nonsense in such a short time, that people usually forgot what he said halfway through.

“Yes. It’s disturbing.”

“Eh, you get used to the uncertainty.” Better not tell him the truth.

The sound of cars gave way to that of waves crashing on the shore, and the faint rustle of the evening wind. The city’s old harbor seemed rather derelict, rusting buildings standing next to abandoned waterfront warehouses. The remains of a massive supertanker overlooked the sea, having crashed against a stony beach; the captain must have been drunk when it happened. If humans lived in the area, Ryan didn’t notice any.

They had entered the Poor Zone.

The quality of the air also drastically declined, to the point that Ryan felt like he was kissing a professional smoker; the stink even overwhelmed the smell of the sea. He blamed it on the proximity of a nuclear power plant, industrial facilities, and the famous Rust Town further north. “Somebody call Greenpeace,” Ryan complained. “They can’t all be dead.”

“Dynamis uses knockoff Genomes to keep the pollution in Rust Town,” Zanbato replied as they drove towards the stony beach. “But they don't do much to protect this area.”

“Is this what remains of Naples’ old port?” Ryan asked, curious. He had always been interested in pre-war facilities, especially since most cities had been transformed into nice, aesthetic craters.

“Yeah. Dynamis is building new docks in the south for freighters.” Zanbato pointed at a spot at the waterfront. “We can stop there.”

Ryan parked the car between two warehouses, then stepped down alongside his chaperone. A group waited for them near the remains of a pier, next to a huge pile of crates and a minivan.

The leader, and the youngest, was an African-Italian barely above eighteen, yet taller than Ryan himself. Physically fit, he kept his hair short and dressed fashionably; he had invested his drug money on a stylized sweater, boots, and refined pants. He really gave off a cultured middle-class vibe, even if he was busy smoking a joint as the duo showed up.

The rest… well, they were grunts with submachine guns, nothing special. Cannon fodder with a short life expectancy, and even shorter opportunities for career advancement, whom Ryan could identify on sight nowadays. The courier nicknamed them Grunt 1, Grunt 2, and Gruntie.

“Finally!” the leader complained upon seeing the two Genomes arrive, “What took you so long? You were supposed to arrive first! We’re in the open!”

“Sorry Luigi,” Zanbato replied, much calmer. “Traffic delayed us.”

“Hey, Luigi!” Ryan said with his best accent ever. “It’s-a-me, Mario!”

Luigi frowned, trying to make the connection, and failing. “I don’t get it.”

“I think it’s video game stuff,” Gruntie said, the other mooks shrugging their shoulders.

Ryan sighed. “It’s exhausting,” he complained, “to be an island of culture amidst a sea of ignorance.”

“Luigi, this is Quicksave, the new muscle I told you about,” Zanbato made the introductions. “Quicksave, this is Luigi, alias Crypto. He’s our supply guy.”

“You have a superpower too?” Ryan asked, faking astonishment. Could the only guy without a weapon be special?

“Yeah, I have a bullshit filter,” Luigi replied, tossing his joint into the sea to share with the fish. “Who’s your favorite Genome?”

“Well, I don’t—” A foreign force took over Ryan’s mind, twisting his tongue. “Mr. Wave is so cool.”

“Seriously?” Luigi asked, a little peeved. “You like that cringey weirdo?”

Ryan couldn’t stop himself. “Also, I’m pretty hetero, but if Leo Hargraves sneaked into my room at night, I would still let him—”

“Okay, okay, stop, I don’t want the details,” Luigi said, the effect lifted from Ryan’s mind. “See? Once you start talking, you can’t lie to me.”

“One day,” Ryan warned, wagging a finger at Luigi, “You’re going to ask me the wrong question, and you won’t like the answer.”

As in, he would have to reload and start over. Bragging about his time stop was one thing, but Ryan always kept quiet about his save point. Someday, someone smart might figure out a way around his ace in the hole, so Ryan always kept it hidden up his sleeve.

“Why did you bring this guy instead of Sphere?” Luigi complained to Zanbato. “Or Chitter?”

“They’re busy elsewhere,” the samurai replied. “And you have five bodyguards.”

“Bullets aren’t going to stop any of the Meta,” his fellow crook replied, turning to the grunts. “No offense guys.”

Zanbato cleared his throat. “We can always argue about security after the job.”

“The submarines should arrive soon,” Luigi replied. “I paid off the Private Security to look the other way, so no problem on that front.”

“What about Il Migliore?” Ryan asked, curious. “Can you even buy superheroes?”

Luigi chuckled. “Those over-marketed clowns? Don’t worry, they make a show of hitting our operations from time to time, but they’re too scared of us to try anything truly disruptive. They usually go after independents, not professionals.”

“They let us do our business, we let them do theirs,” Zanbato explained, removing the crates from Ryan’s car. “It’s like the Cold War. But we’re close to Rust Town and the Meta already hit delivery runs like this one, so prepare yourself.”

“Then time to fist,” Ryan said, opening the trunk of his car to get his pisto-gauntlets.

Pisto-gauntlets were metallic gloves, first developed by the infamous Genius Mechron to equip close-combat drones. Quicksave’s own weapons looked like gauntlets with a hydraulic piston-powered ram built upon them. The mechanism pushed the ram forward, knocking back the enemy upon smashing; the courier even improved upon the original design by adding an electrical shock effect to the mix, for double the pain.

“They are pisto-gauntlets, but they aren’t any pisto-gauntlets,” Ryan boasted at Luigi, as he put his gloves on and showed them off. “I call them The Fisty Brothers because they fist people to oblivion. Everyone is afraid of nuclear bombs, but these? These are the real A-bombs.”

Only Grunt 2 laughed, proving that he alone had a future. Luigi looked at Ryan’s gauntlets, then at Zanbato. “Zan, I don’t know on which planet your guy lives, but it’s clearly not ours.”

“They say madness is a pit,” Ryan replied cheerfully, hands on his waist. “They’re wrong. Madness is a rollercoaster.”

“I kinda like him,” Zanbato told Luigi, as the other grunts helped add their crates to the existing pile. “He’s funny.”

“You like weird people, period.” Luigi shrugged, raising his sweater’s sleeve to reveal a watch. “Anytime now…”

The waters near the pier grew agitated, the trio looking over the edge. Three strange, spherical bathyspheres emerged from the waves, each large enough to house many within their confines. The machines lacked any form of cables, unlike old bathysphere models, and instead seemed powered by small propellers. Their reinforced glass door opened, but Ryan couldn’t see any controls or buttons inside.

Ryan gasped, instantly recognizing the design. “That’s Len’s stuff!”

“Hey!” Luigi shouted as the courier summarily pushed him out of the way to observe the machines better.

It barely took a few glances for Ryan to confirm his hypothesis. He could recognize her work among thousands; the fondness for an outdated, steampunk technology made viable again; the ruggedness of the design, with beauty sacrificed on the altar of barbaric efficiency; the crimson paint, her favorite, dulled by the sea.

The sight of the bathysphere awakened old emotions in Ryan, long-buried beneath the apathy and boredom. Nostalgia, joy, longing… and even hope.

Finally, after years of fruitless search, Ryan was finally on the right track. His days of solitude would soon be over.

He knew this mission would further his main quest!

“Len…” Ryan struggled to avoid having a flashback, turning to Zanbato and pleading like a child. “Where did you find it?! Please, please, please!”

“I dunno,” Zanbato replied. “Vulcan’s division takes care of the tech, not ours. We just transport and manage the supplies.”

“I’m not even sure we even own these machines,” Luigi said, dusting his clothes and bringing out a phone. He started typing as the grunts threw the crates in the bathyspheres, perhaps sending a signal to someone else. “Just help us put the supplies inside and I’ll look into it afterward. It’s getting cold, and it ain’t safe here.”

Speaking of cold.

Now that Ryan thought of it, it seemed to be getting chillier by the second. Unnaturally so.

Zanbato noticed it too, and immediately braced himself for an attack. A swirling sword of solid crimson light appeared in his hands, the perfect replica of a katana. “They’re here,” he said, the grunts immediately raising their machine guns.

Ryan looked around and quickly noticed them coming from the north.

A distant figure froze the sea, creating a bridge of ice on which he skatted. Ryan immediately recognized Ghoul, although instead of a hoodie, the geriatric disaster had covered his body in sheets of ice, forming a multi-layered armor. His body released a cloud of white mist, making it difficult to clearly distinguish his features.

Another figure flew behind Ghoul, although floating might have been a better term. The second Genome wore a black hazmat suit and gas mask, giving them a spooky vibe. Their gauntlets unleashed streams of compressed air, allowing them to propel themselves on the sea. In short, a living Chernobyl holiday ad.

“Ghoul and Sarin,” Zanbato recognized the two. “Maybe more.”

“I’ll take care of them,” Ryan said, eager to continue his main quest without interruptions. “You can continue with the menial manual labor, minions.”

“You want to take them on alone?” Zanbato asked, a bit concerned. “You’re sure? They’re killers.”

Aw, he cared! Ryan raised a thumb up and walked up north towards the stony beach and the supertanker. He almost slipped on the oiled stones, caught himself, and then glanced at the sea. The two Psychos clearly aimed for the pier and the bathyspheres, perhaps having been forewarned.

Then Ghoul noticed Ryan, who mimicked a home run with an invisible bat.

Like how a bull challenged a matador, the Psycho instantly veered off course, much to his companion’s surprise. He charged at Ryan with murder on his mind.

“You motherBLEEPer!” Ghoul screamed over the sea, the stone beach mimicking the arctic as he came closer. A dozen ice shards formed from the moisture around the Psycho, while he said so many insults that Ryan’s mind automatically censored him. “You BLEEP, I’m going to BLEEP your skull and BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP with my BLEEP!”

That wasn’t child friendly. That wasn’t child friendly at all.

“You grew back your teeth?” Ryan noticed. “You must have drunk a lot of milk.”

Ghoul responded by leaping on the beach, unleashing a dozen ice daggers at Ryan at the same time. Apparently, he no longer played baseball but throwing knives. The courier accepted the challenge.

Ryan stopped time, brought out the knives hidden under his trench coat, aimed, and threw them. When time resumed, Ghoul’s projectiles were deflected by Ryan’s own; most ice shards hit a warehouse behind, missing their targets, while a throwing knife found its way to the Psycho’s unprotected eye.

Nailed it! It took him so many restarts to master knife throwing, but it had been worth it!

“I’ll peel your skin, like an orange,” Ghoul hissed in pain as he removed the knife, his screams music to Ryan’s ears. The eye’s blood turned to strawberry-colored ice cream when it came out of the socket, making the courier hungry. “Then I’ll drink your blood, and the sweet Elixir it carries!”

The other Psycho chose that moment to land on the beach, hitting the ice floor with a loud thump and somehow avoiding slipping up. Ghoul’s white mist slowly widened the ice layer over the beach, which now spread to the sea and the walkway; Ryan suddenly wondered if he should add a scarf to his outfit.

“Ghoul, what the hell?” While her voice was somewhat muffled by the mask, miss nuclear disaster was clearly a girl. “You heard Adam. The shipment first.”

“That’s him!” Ghoul snarled, creating blades of ice over his forearms and pointing them at Ryan. “That’s the bastard who beat me up! I told you he was an Augusti!”

Slander? That was the thanks Ryan got for trying to alleviate that old fossil’s suffering? And they said euthanasia was progressive!

“I guess Adam can’t be mad at us for dusting one of ‘em then,” Sarin said, raising her gauntlets at Ryan as if he should be intimidated. She mustn’t have washed her hands. “If you knew what’s good for you, you should have stayed the fuck out of Rust Town, but I guess you pussies are pretty slow to learn.”

“Don’t worry,” the courier replied. “Whatever happens, Blower—”

“Blower?” the hazmat girl interrupted him, confused. “That’s not my na—”

“Your name is Blower now because you blow air.” Ryan then pointed a finger at one-eye, menacingly. “And now his name is Picard because I liked French frozen food.”

In retrospect, calling a girl Blower might have sounded a little dirty, because she became really upset.

Her gauntlets began to vibrate, unleashing a blast of compressed air at Quicksave. The ice below them began to crack from the shockwave, and Ryan realized he should have nicknamed her the Vibrator instead.

Stopping time for a few seconds, Ryan lazily waltzed out of the blast’s way, almost slipped on the ice, caught himself, cursed, and then let time resume. The compressed air blew up the walkway behind the beach, grinding stones to dust and redecorating the pavement in a straight line for at least ten meters.

Trying to make it a threesome, Ghoul skated after Quicksave speed rivaling that of a car, blades raised. Not swinging this way, Ryan dodged the attack by lowering his head. His time stop could last for up to ten seconds—and you could do a lot in ten seconds—but suffered from a cooldown duration afterward. It was equal to the amount of time Ryan spent freezing time.

Use the time stop for five seconds, can’t do it again five seconds afterward.

Not understanding the concept of personal space, Ghoul kept trying to nail Ryan with his blade and received a punch in the stomach for his trouble. Fisty activated on contact, the ram smashing through the Psycho’s ice armor and sending him flying backward to take a bath in the sea. The water froze right after he entered it.

Unfortunately, the contact with Ghoul’s white mist froze Fisty, jamming the pistons. Goddamnit, it always had performance issues when things heated up.

Not caring about her teammate, Sarin kept focusing on attacking Ryan, who chuckled at his own mental joke. The courier had to run away from the beach and on the walkway, as a shockwave collapsed the ice, even briefly stopping time to make it.

“You blow air very fast? That’s your power?” Ryan struggled not to laugh, but almost slipped on the frozen pavement, ruining the moment. Why didn’t he dedicate a loop to learn ice skating again? “My fan can do the same, and it cost me fifteen bucks!”

Seeing Ryan escape and still pining for his undivided attention, Sarin pointed her hands at her feet and unleashed a new shockwave. A column of compressed air propelled her upward, allowing her to leap over the harbor. Ryan looked up and got a perfect view of her back, but much to his disappointment, she seemed to float inside her suit. Very strange.

“Why the obsession, Blower?” Ryan asked, trying to unjam Fisty so he could introduce her to that crazy girl’s face. Nothing dirty. “Have you fallen for me at first sight?”

“Unfortunately for you,” Sarin replied, vibrating her gauntlets from above to rain short blasts at the walkway, “I’m a necrophiliac.”

Oh, a fellow quipper! Ryan was so happy to have some back and forth interactions, even if he needed to focus on avoiding the blasts. So many people just tried to kill him without exchanging pleasantries, it was just rude.

Stopping time again, Ryan ran away and managed to reach the part of the walkway which hadn’t frozen over. Running on ice was a lot harder to do than it sounded, and more importantly, made him look like a klutz. When time resumed, Sarin’s volley had turned the frozen pavement into a cheese. On the horizon, the courier noticed Zanbato and Luigi finishing the supply run, seeing that he could handle the situation well. “I’m sure we’ll break the ice between us.”

“That’s just pitiful,” Sarin replied upon landing on the roof of a waterfront warehouse. The height gave her a better view of the walkway, and solid ground allowed her to focus entirely on Ryan. This time, having resolved her own performance issues, she switched from short bursts to sustained fire.

“Did my invitation leave you… stone cold?” Quicksave shouted innocently to Miss Chernobyl, running away while managing to unjam Fisty. The sustained blast collapsed the walkway behind him, stones falling on the beach. Frankly, it surprised Ryan that they hadn’t woken up the whole neighborhood.

“Don’t you ever shut up?!” Ghoul’s voice snarled, as the drenched Psycho leaped on the walkway for a second round. Even with his armor of ice on, he left saltwater behind with every step, and… was that a starfish stuck to his leg?

“Anyway, as I said before you interrupted me, whatever happens…”

Ryan turned to face his foes and extended his arms, doing his best to look fabulous.

“I won’t take you seriously.”

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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