When the locals said that Rust Town was walled off, they weren’t kidding.
As he drove as north as possible, Ryan began to see the fortifications separating the district from the rest of New Rome. They weren’t so much walls as a mix of tall steel cylinders, wired fences, mounted cameras, and surveillance systems. Trained Genomes occupying watchtowers pushed back clouds of pollution away from the touristic areas and into Rust Town with wind manipulation, so rich people wouldn’t breathe the same air as the lower classes. Since they all seemed to produce currents of air, Ryan assumed they used the knockoff elixir marketed as ‘Tempest,’ that gave its user minor aerokinesis.
As he drove around the fortress in search of an entrance point, the Genome put on Dynamis Radio, listening to the news.
“—we received confirmation that the explosion in Little Maghreb yesterday was the result of a short duel between our beloved protector Wyvern and the criminal Genome known as Vulcan.” Ryan immediately raised the volume. “Vulcan, formerly known as Urban Guerilla, briefly served as Wyvern’s sidekick before joining the criminal syndicate known as the Augusti. Reports indicate Vulcan was forced to flee after causing great collateral—”
Oh, so that was why Vulcan didn’t contact him this time. Little Maghreb was probably close to the Augusti’s hideout, and he—or she? Ryan didn’t remember—decided to ambush Wyvern when the opportunity presented itself. They probably took heavy wounds and Ryan fell off their radar afterward.
Would the courier have to change hotels again? No, better to stay in the first hotel until Wyvern contacted him, and then switch places to avoid the assassination attempt that ended the last loop.
“—the Psycho cryokinetic known as Ghoul attempted to escape containment by the Private Security early yesterday, but was quickly recaptured by Il Migliore,” the radio continued. “Enrique Manada, manager of the superhero team, stated that ‘as long as Dynamis remains strong, warlords and madmen will never gain a foothold in New Rome.’”
At least warning Wyvern did make a difference. She probably relayed his tip about the Private Security being compromised to her team, who intervened in time.
Then again, it must have been hard for Ghoul to run away without his legs.
Ryan eventually reached a border checkpoint guarded by three Private Security guards. All of them carried riot gear and laser rifles. Their chief made Ryan a sign to stop, and the Genome did his best to look innocent.
It was pretty hard with the mask and full Quicksave attire, but it was the attitude that counted.
“Halt,” the guard said. “No entry without proper authorization or work permit.”
“I’m just visiting,” Ryan said. “I heard they have a zoo.”
“It is a zoo,” the guard grumbled. “Look, citizen, this is the frontier of civilization. Beyond is the untamed urban wilderness, and we’re the only people standing between New Rome and the hordes of barbarians who would tear it down.”
“Well, when I see you, I do fear for civilization.”
“You should,” the man replied, missing the obvious sarcasm. “So if you want to pass with proper authorization, you will have to contribute to our community’s mutual defense.”
“Sure,” Ryan replied. “You aren’t going to check my car for drugs, weapons, or anything dubious? I swear, I’m clean as the day I was born.”
“Depends on how much you contribute to the community.”
No wonder that the Augusti and Meta could get in and out so easily. Since the guards weren’t even trying to hide their corruption, they probably had very few surprise inspections.
The second he passed the checkpoint, Ryan understood why they called it Rust Town.
First and foremost, the air quality dropped drastically, even worse than the harbor; the smell of rust and chemicals was so pervasive, the courier wondered if someone dumped toxic waste out in the open. Ryan had to raise his car’s windows and activate his mask’s air filter just to make it bearable.
Almost every house and three-floor apartment buildings had fallen into a state of disrepair, windows were broken, cinder block walls were covered in graffiti, some even crumbling. The neighborhood was positively claustrophobic, narrow streets forming a labyrinth of alleys almost too small for his car to move in, fire escapes casting them in shadow in spite of the daylight. Streetlights didn’t work well, and a thick layer of smog colored the world in sickly yellow. Every piece of metal seemed to rust, probably due to the pollution.
Even Ryan, who had seen it all, felt appalled by the locals’ living conditions. Squatters had overtaken everything, dealers openly peddled Bliss to homeless people, and the locals avoided Ryan’s gaze when he looked at them. They all wore scarfs, face masks, or other protections against the gas, even the children.
At one point, the driver drove past a corpse, left to rot in muddy waters due to an overflowing sewer entrance. A pack of wild dogs waited nearby next to a pile of trash, perhaps waiting for Ryan to leave to feed.
Ryan had made jokes about everything, but he couldn’t muster the energy for humor today.
Seeing a dealer who didn’t avert his gaze, he lowered his window to ask where he could find Genius-made tech. The local gave the directions for a place called Paulie’s Shop, although not before trying to sell Ryan a gram of Bliss for an outrageous sum. It appeared prices had gone up since the Meta started hitting the local dealers’ suppliers.
Ryan didn’t have any trouble finding Paulie’s Shop, mainly because he had garish neon lights on his establishment’s sign; although the man could have chosen a wider, dead-end alley for his establishment. The Genome parked his car in front of the door, grabbed his coil gun just in case, and then walked in.
“Here’s Johnny!” Ryan shouted, opening the door without knocking.
The shop could be more aptly described as a disorganized garage, with shelves made of accumulated junk. it was a true and poorly-ventilated wilderness of tools; scavenged car parts hung from the ceiling, and bulbs provided as little light as possible.
The man behind the counter was a scrawny, balding little man in his forties, half-French, half-British; Ryan could identify these strange creatures on sight. In response to his unforgettable entrance, the shopkeeper had immediately raised a rocket launcher at his client. Probably scavenged Genius tech from the design.
“You…” A flash of recognition flashed in Paulie’s eyes, behind his goggles. “It’s you?”
“Yes, me!” Ryan was so happy; he had become so famous, people recognized him on sight! “Are you one of my fans?! I knew I had a few!”
“A fan?” the shopkeeper almost choked, aiming the weapon at Quicksave’s face. “You maniac, you destroyed my old workshop in Otranto!”
“I did that?” Ryan asked, confused. "When?"
“Two years ago, you crashed a plane on it, and then you gave me a letter!” Paulie snarled. “You had been hired to deliver my mail, and you said you wanted to make an ‘unforgettable entrance’!”
Well, it did sound like something he would do. Ryan observed the man with attention, and he seemed vaguely familiar. But…
“Maybe.” Quicksave shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t remember,” Paulie asked, astonished.
“Well, you clearly took it more personally than I ever did.” When he realized the poor man may have been forced to live in this dump because of him, Ryan instantly regretted his joke. “Sorry. Maybe I can pay you back for the bother?”
The shopkeeper ground his teeth in rage. Apparently, he didn’t want Ryan’s money. “Get the hell out of my shop before I pull the trigger.”
“You know I can stop time, right?”
“It’s a Facehugger missile,” the man replied. “Once it’s locked, the nanomissile keeps pursuing the target until it’s dead.”
What a way to start a business relationship. Normally, the courier would have taken the hint and left the shopkeeper alone, but he had a mission to fulfill. His coil gun lowered in one hand, Ryan searched in his coat, ignoring Paulie’s weapon.
He brought out the plushie.
At the sight of this white, beautiful rabbit plushie, Paulie’s face lost all colors. “You know what this is,” Ryan said, wagging his ultimate weapon at the shopkeeper. “If you don’t lower your weapon, I’m going to press the on button.”
“We’re in an enclosed space, and you can’t control it!”
“Neither can you.” Ryan raised his thumb, preparing to activate the switch on his WMD’s back. “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t do it,” Paulie threatened to pull his weapon’s trigger.
“Imma do it!”
The pressure in the room grew, Paulie shaking, until his nerves gave away. “Fuck,” he said, dropping his weapon on the counter. “How could you do that to a plushie? The most adorable thing, and you turned it into… into…”
“It sounded like a good idea at the time!” Quicksave argued, putting the plushie back in his coat for everyone’s safety. “I’m looking for homemade Genius tech.”
“Ah, I can’t help!” Paulie laughed, happy to be as useless to Ryan as possible. “You couldn’t have picked a worse moment! The Junkyard is closed, nobody sells anything!”
“I’m not looking to buy,” Ryan replied, glancing at the establishment with disappointment. Even the weapon Paulie wielded was shoddy and ready to crumble after firing a shot. “I’m looking for a very specific technology. Bathyspheres used to make supply runs in the water. Crimson-paint, steampunk influence?”
“Like Len’s tech?”
Paulie jumped back, startled, as Ryan closed the gap between the counter and himself in the blink of an eye. “Paulie, Paulie, Paulie,” the Genome all but purred. “Do you want to be my friend?”
“No,” the shopkeeper replied bluntly.
“Then tell me everything.”
The shopkeeper let out a sigh of disgust. “Black hair, blue eyes, a bit crazy?”
“It’s called Marxism-Leninism, but yes,” Ryan replied, more and more excited.
“That’s the same girl, then. She arrived in Rust Town six months ago, calling herself the Underdiver.” Ryan never heard of that nickname. To his disappointment, Quicksave and the Underdiver didn’t sound well as a comedic duo. Maybe Q&U? The Undersavers? “Just one of the Geniuses trying to do business without Dynamis or Augustus recruiting them, see what I mean? There used to be a big black market here for Genomes like her, who don’t have enough resources to be self-sufficient, but wanted to remain independent from big groups.”
Ryan nodded, silent, and entirely focused on the shopkeeper. The rapturous attention seemed to disturb Paulie, but it only encouraged him to speak faster.
“Anyway, she had managed to make herself an armor from scavenged stuff. It looked like an Old World JIM diving suit. She kept asking me for parts to maintain it, so we met often.”
“Did it have a minigun?” Ryan asked.
Paulie made a strange face. “How do you know that?”
Because he knew her perfectly. “Please continue.”
“Anyway, she sold some of her inventions to the Augusti to make end’s meet. You must know that she was… very passionate?” Ryan nodded knowingly. “She ended up attacking a chemical plant owned by Dynamis to protest about the working conditions there.”
That was Len alright. Always with that strange, almost cute sense of justice, obsessive desire to protect the weak, and hatred of private ownership. “And then? What happened?”
“What happened? Guess what happened! The Private Security attacked her workshop and caught her. I heard rumors that the Augusti broke her out, but nothing from her afterward. She vanished.”
This confirmed that the Augusti were likely the one true path to Len and should be favored, although… the fact the Private Security captured her means they probably had a file on her.
Still, that was more information he had learned since... since forever. Ryan was in a good mood. An exceptional mood. “For this information, Paulie,” he decided on a whim, “I shall grant you a wish.”
“Grant me a wish?” the shopkeeper frowned in disdain. “You think you’re Robin Williams?”
Finally, a man of culture in this dissolute city! “Of course not, I can only grant one wish, not three.”
Paulie prepared to blow him off, before marking a short pause. A thought crossed his mind. “You aren’t kidding? You are serious?”
“Whatever it is, I’ll fulfill it.” No matter how many tries. Quicksave always honored his word.
“Mmm… what do I have to lose, nobody else will do anything about it.” Paulie put his hands on the counter, joining his fingers. “You know a Psycho gang moved into Rust Town recently? The Meta-Gang?”
“You want me to Tarantino them?”
He nodded in confirmation. “They’ve taken over the Junkyard where most exchanges take place a few days ago, and then things got worse. They get worse every day. The Genomes, they kill ‘em and drain their blood; the normies, they abduct straight off the street. I don’t know what the Psychos do with them, but you don’t see them again.”
Paulie clenched his teeth.
“Even kids have gone missing.”
A chill went down Ryan’s spine, and his heart hardened. As he had told Zanbato, kids were sacred for him. Especially since he got along with them better than adults, and he had had a crappy childhood himself. “Does the Private Security know?”
“They know, they just don’t care. Private Security only protects key infrastructure like the power plant or the water treatment station, which I have to admit, they do zealously. The rest are just frontier guards who couldn’t care less about what happens within the walls.” Paulie sneered in disgust. “They don’t give a shit if a few homeless, junkies, and lowlifes go missing. The Psychos are doing them a favor, cleaning out their glitzy city’s trash.”
“What about Wyvern and Il Migliore?”
“Wyvern gets in a fight with a lone Meta sometimes,” Paulie admitted. “But she’s the only one who cares... and she can’t be everywhere. Until the Meta kill too many workers, assault tourists, or steal an Elixir shipment, Dynamis won’t lift a damn finger—”
“Wait,” Ryan interrupted him. “The Meta have been here for days, and they haven’t attacked Dynamis’ Elixir shipments or Genomes?”
Paulie shook his head.
“That’s odd,” the Genome pointed out. “Psychos don’t act like that. They usually make a mess of themselves trying to get knockoff Elixirs to feed their addiction, things escalate with locals, and then they go on a rampage. It’s always the same pattern.”
He should know, he had lived with one.
And yet these Psychos were awfully restrained by their kind’s standards. Come to think of it, from what he had heard the Meta hadn’t attacked Dynamis’ infrastructures at all; they only tried to drive the Augusti out of Rust Town.
The reason was easy to guess. Dynamis couldn’t care less about the area unless its buildings or agents were attacked. If ignored, they wouldn’t lift a finger. Ryan had thought the Meta-Gang had come to New Rome to fuel its addiction, but clearly, something else was at work.
Unfortunately for Paulie, Len was Ryan’s only priority for now. But he would honor his word, no matter what it took. “I will fulfill your wish in my Perfect Run,” the Genome promised, “I swear.”
“Your Perfect Run? You’re jogging?”
“It’s the perfect ending,” Ryan explained. It was a concept he had developed over his endless wandering; if he gathered every piece of information possible about a given place and inhabitants through his loops, then he could create the optimal situation. He would then dedicate his last loop to creating the perfect chain of events, which guaranteed the best outcome by his standards.
Then, and only then, would Ryan create a new save point and move on.
After learning where to go to reach the Junkyard from its occupant, Ryan left Paulie’s shop through the door and prepared to drive straight into the Meta’s nest.
But then a bug landed on his Plymouth, flattening it.
Ryan froze, as an enormous, three meters tall monster crashed on his car, crushing the roof, destroying the window, and shattering the engine. The creature looked like a twisted fusion between a human and a mosquito, a monstrous insect with a black exoskeleton and crimson flesh beneath. Its eyes set on Quicksave with hunger, his claws raised.
“I knew,” the mosquito rasped, his voice closer to an insect’s buzzing than a man’s words, “I smelled a rat sneaking i—”
“MY CAR!” Ryan screamed in horror, his sudden wail startling the Psycho.
The courier immediately stopped time, rushing to his Plymouth Fury and checking on its health. Could he save it? Could he save it?!
No. The damage was too extensive.
Ryan was overwhelmed with fury, and quickly considered going on a Kill Bill rampage, first against the mosquito, then every Psycho he could find. He would show them the terror of Hell unending! A curse straight out of Tartarus!
But… Ryan couldn’t bear to live without his beloved Plymouth.
With a depressed sigh, the courier grabbed a small metal sphere from his coat, and let time resume. “You see this?” he raised the sphere at the Psycho. “You see this?”
“What is this, a ball—”
“Now look at my car, which you destroyed, then back to the ball. It’s an A-bomb.” Click. “Now catch!”
Ryan tossed the bomb at the mosquito, who caught it with his hand due to sharp reflexes. The Psycho looked at the weapon, then back at Ryan, confused and horrified.
“Nobody touches my car,” Quicksave said. "Nobody."
As Rust Town exploded in a burst of nuclear fire, vaporizing the two superhumans with a flash of searing light, Ryan felt happy.
Finally, a new method he had never tried before.