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It had been a while since Ryan drove a group in his Plymouth Fury.

He often transported one or two people, especially when on a drunken bender or working as a getaway driver, but rarely a group like this one. Jamie wore his power armor in the back, while Ki-jung dressed with a green hoodie at his side. Her rats had taken over every corner of the car, hiding behind and beneath the seats.

Unfortunately, Lanka complained all the way at the front. “You cheated, blabbermouth,” she accused Ryan. She would have gone to the meeting with her bike too, had Jamie not insisted they all travel in the same vehicle for team-building. "I know you did."

“Someone is a sore loser here,” Ryan replied, having left yesterday’s table a few hundred bucks richer. Also, blabbermouth? He’d had way better nicknames! Like Lil’ Granny Destroyer.

“I counted cards,” Lanka said. “But you changed them. I’m never wrong about that.”

“So you accuse him of cheating, by admitting that you cheated yourself?” Jamie asked, unsympathetic.

“Of course I cheated,” Ryan admitted openly, much to Jamie and Ki-jung’s surprise. “And instead of condemning me, you should learn from it, my young Padawan. Failure is an experience.”

“Then you must be very experienced by now,” Lanka shrugged. Clearly, she could give as much as she took.

“There is nothing more human than cheating. You know who else accused the human race of cheating? Mammoths. They said, ‘hey, these humans they attack us with bows and spears instead of tusks, it’s not fair.’” Ryan looked at the sore loser. “Have you met any mammoths lately, Lanka?”

Jamie sighed at their bickering. “We’ll try tabletop games next time.”

The group parked near Little Maghreb, next to a fortress of stone and steel. The building had been some kind of foundry before the war until Vulcan took it over a few years back. This crimson castle of metal walls, pipes, and reservoirs seemed closer to an old army base to Ryan though; a lot of grunts patrolled the area, wielding shotguns, grenade launchers, and miniguns. He also noticed a few snipers on the roof, watching every corner of the streets around the foundry.

Apparently, it was an open secret that Vulcan’s weapon division operated there, but nobody was stupid enough to attack them. Not even the Private Security and Il Migliore. New Rome truly lived in a Cold War-like era.

It was also quite close to the hotel Ryan had used in a previous loop. No wonder Vulcan attacked Wyvern when she moved so close to their headquarters.

“Also, I want to say I am disappointed in you, ladies,” Ryan told Lanka and Ki-Jung. “Only Zanbato and I have costumes! You don’t even wear masks!”

“Why would we wear masks when the Private Security has files on us?” Ki-jung asked in confusion, leaving her rats in the car to keep an eye on it. “They even know where we live.”

“And there aren’t that many advanced armors to go around,” Lanka replied, although she had the common sense to supplement her outfit with a belt holster. “And what kind of a costume, a cape? Do you know how hard it is not to trip with it?”

“It’s not about practicality, it’s about looking stylish,” Ryan replied, hands on his trenchcoat, “Without a bright and colorful style, what are we? Mere animals! Culture is what elevates—”

“Aha, villains!”

Ryan paused and looked at a strange newcomer.

A person climbed down from a bicycle near the car, dressed like Rambo... except without the gun, and half the muscles. He had painted his face and dyed his hair white, with black spots for the eyes.

It looked ridiculous, truth be told.

The rest of the group seemed to recognize him, but instead of attacking, they all looked embarrassed.

“You have come farther than you should have, but you found your sworn destroyer!” the fool declared, trying desperately to look badass, but coming desperately short. “Prepare to face the wrath of…”

“Oh God, not this again,” Lanka sighed, the rest of the group eerily silent.

“THE PANDA!”

“The what?” Ryan asked, unsure whether to condemn this man’s terrible fashion sense or applaud his efforts. At least someone in this city understood the importance of costumes! “Is your power only getting laid every ten years?”

“Pandas are picky!” the ridiculous man answered, but something in his tone made Ryan dubious. He didn’t even look Chinese!

“He’s a ‘vigilante.’” Somehow, Lanka made the word sound ridiculous, rolling her eyes while she said it. Clearly, she didn’t take him seriously. “He can transform into a panda.”

“... and?” Ryan asked, expecting something else.

“And that’s it.”

“But a very big panda,” Ki-jung added with a chuckle as if to soften the blow.

Man, some Genomes were just unlucky.

“Has the fear of the Panda petrified you, villains?” The hero put his hands on his waist, mistaking the awkward silence for fear.

Did he seriously come all the way here to pick a fight? Ryan could respect that, although he should work on his introduction.

“Just ignore him, and he will go away,” Jamie replied, leaving for the Armory without sparing the poor would-be hero a glance. Ki-jung followed soon afterward, although she gave a pitiful glance at the poor animal. Even the foundry’s guards seemed to joke about the newcomer, not making any effort to intercept him.

“You will not escape me!”

Frustrated by this lack of respect, the Panda underwent a terrible transformation. Black and white fur grew on his skin, his body gaining mass and muscle. He grew claws and fangs, shedding his pants and jacket like a magnificent butterfly. The man was gone, leaving only… the Panda.

It was a pretty big panda though, even larger than a polar bear. Yet when he let out a scream, Ryan found it cute, rather than terrifying.

With a heavy sigh, Lanka joined her index and middle fingers together to form a ‘gun,’ and fired an orange sphere of energy with it. The projectile flew towards the Panda at an arrow's speed, and hit him in the nose. The poor animal instantly fell to the left side, paralyzed.

Ryan understood now why they called her Sphere.

“Alright,” Lanka said, drawing a Beretta 76 from her pocket. “I call dibs on his corpse.”

“You’re going to kill a panda?” Ryan asked, horrified. “They’re extinct!”

“Yeah, that means we can sell his fur to a collector.” She pointed her gun at the poor beast.

“I’m stopping you right there, Cruella!” Ryan moved in the barrel’s way, unable to stand animal cruelty. “I won’t let you kill the last Panda. You could get the death penalty for this!”

“He’s not a panda, blabbermouth, he’s an idiot! It’s like being already dead, except you lost your mind while alive!”

“I can’t allow you to anger PETA! You don’t know what those guys are capable of!” Or what they could do, before the Wars.

“Who the hell is PETA, a Genome?” she asked, confused, before lowering her gun in annoyance. “You know he’s going to come back and get killed by the guards later, blabbermouth? The way I see it, it’s survival of the fittest. At least I will make it quick.”

“I’ll take full responsibility for saving this disciple of style,” Ryan replied, his female companion rolling her eyes and putting her gun back in its holster. “I believe there is still hope for him, my marauding friend.”

She raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

That she was an ex-bandit? “The snake tattoo on your arm, which you tried to cover up beneath other ones,” Ryan replied, having noticed that detail during the poker night. “I already met people with it. Very unkind people.”

“I hope you killed them,” she replied, the guards letting them inside the foundry’s perimeter, “I belonged to a real band of savages back in the day.”

Oh yes he did.

Ryan and Lanka walked towards the metal gates, finding Jamie and Ki-jung discussing with another duo. Or rather, a woman was talking, and everyone else listened with occasional nods.

She was obviously a Genome; her skin was deathly pale, unnaturally so, and her long hair bright blue. This mature lady carried herself with an eerie sort of elegance, that of an otherworldly fairy among men. Unlike Ryan’s team, she had style aplenty, wearing a black Greek chiton dress as her costume, alongside sandals, a shark tooth necklace, and skull-shaped earrings.

Ryan couldn’t explain why, but he had a bad feeling about her. Mostly because Jamie and Ki-jung seemed stiff as hell when she spoke, and even Lanka tensed at her sight.

The courier also recognized her bodyguard as the woman who tried to flirt with him at the Bakuto, back when he had messed up with the chain of events. Although this time, she had traded her dress for a black uniform and an assault rifle. Since they hadn’t met in this restart, she didn’t recognize him.

The blue-haired woman and her bodyguard passed by Ryan and Lanka on their way to the parking lot, before stopping abruptly when she noticed the courier. “You,” the blue-haired woman said, her voice deep like someone used to being obeyed.

Moi?” Ryan pointed a finger at himself.

“How old are you?” she asked, her sharp grey eyes examining him closely. Somehow, it felt like locking eyes with a hungry crocodile peeking out of the water.

“What a question.” Ryan made a mock bow. “I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone.”

“No one is immortal,” she responded, vaguely amused. “I hope to reach your age one day though.”

Then she stopped paying him any mind and walked away with her escort.

“Shit,” Lanka whispered. “That’s not good.”

“Who is she?” Ryan asked, curious.

“Pluto, Augustus’ sister, and underboss,” Jamie said upon regrouping, clearly worried, “When he sends her, heads fall.”

“Isn’t Pluto a guy in Roman mythology?” Ryan asked. “I support gender equality, but wouldn’t Plutonia have been more appropriate?”

“I believe they had a theme naming thing in the family,” Lanka replied, relaxing once the underboss was out of sight. “The third member of the sibling trio, Neptune, serves as Augustus’ consigliere.”

At least they tried to respect the spirit of the names. Ryan appreciated the cultural reference. “What’s her power exactly?”

“If she wants you to die,” Jamie said, his eyes darkening, “you die.”

“As in what, she vaporizes you with lightning—”

“No, you just die,” Jamie interrupted Ryan, a hint of fear and wariness in his voice. Perhaps he worried—rightfully—that Quicksave would try to put this power to the test. “There is no warning, no protection, no counter. If she wants you dead, you die. The end.”

“Since we still have enemies alive, her power must have limits,” Ki-jung said. “But we don’t know them.”

This only made Ryan even more interested. He would check it one loop. Lanka, however, wanted more information. “Why was she here?” she asked Jamie.

“Five of our Made Men have died under mysterious circumstances lately,” Ki-jung replied instead.

“The Meta-trash?”

Jamie shook his head. “No, they would have loudly claimed these murders, and they aren’t their style. Poison powerful enough to affect Genomes, explosives, drowning and suffocation… The boss believes this is a new vigilante. Pluto and the Killer Seven hit squad will take care of this, and if they ask for anything, we are to assist them with the task.”

Explosives he said?

“My invisible nemesis struck again,” Ryan said, happy to have solved the mystery.

“Yeah, I thought the same,” Jamie said. “But unless the one responsible knocks at our door itching for a fight, we’re leaving the higher-ups to deal with this. Once the hit squad is after someone, it’s only a matter of time before the matter is solved.”

Ryan guessed it would be rude to say murdered.

“Alright, a few rules about how to address Vulcan,” Jamie told Ryan, as they stood before the metal gates. “Don’t make jokes about her height, and for the love of God, don’t mention Wyvern unless she mentions her first.”

Ryan nodded dutifully, the doors opening to let them walk inside.

Jamie led them on to a guided tour of the foundry, although it quickly became clear the name didn’t fully illustrate the truth. The building housed a whole weapon production operation, from the metal processing to the assembly line. The group walked through searing hot rooms full of furnaces and automated assembly lines; they produced guns, bullets, and rockets. Some of the guards even wore variants of Jamie’s own armor, albeit bulkier and far more intimidating.

Eventually, they reached Vulcan’s workshop. It was the quintessential Geniuses lair, full of bulky devices, glass bulbs providing light, and strange contraptions centuries ahead of modern times.

It also had a big, big robot on standby.

Scratch that, it turned out to be an enormous set of power armor, albeit nearly five meters tall and with the wideness to match. While humanoid, the suit was so bulky it might as well be called a tank with legs. However, considering the number of miniature turbo reactors, and the multi-joint design of the limbs, Ryan guessed the machine could move surprisingly fast in the field. And of course, it had enough weapons to rival a battleship, including a massive rocket launcher on the right arm, cannons, and even beam weaponry.

The courier also noticed multiple eye-shaped cameras dispatched all over the machine, perhaps to allow the user to see in all directions. Finally, the machine was plated with gold, probably to show-off as much as possible.

The builder was waiting for them, drawing plans on a large table. Much like Pluto, in spite of her codename, Vulcan turned out to be a girl.

And to Ryan’s surprise, she seemed a little bit younger than him, biologically. Eighteen, nineteen? In any case, she was petite, barely one meter sixty tall, with olive skin, sharp black eyes, and dark hair bound into a bun by a pencil of all things. She dressed rather casually for her station, a mere black shirt, dirtied pants, and unlaced shoes.

But when she looked at him, Ryan could see the fierceness in her gaze.

“I expected someone taller,” Ryan told her innocently. “Like Wyvern.”

The room grew incredibly tense, Everyone looked at him as if he were insane, except Vulcan, who gave him a murderous glare. Ryan looked away at the giant mech, whistling.

“We’ll see who is taller when I blow off your legs, jackass,” the capo said with a face that reminded Ryan of Len. She must have had the same height complex. “Because right now, you just stepped on a landmine.”

Here comes Napoleon!

“Quicksave, please, a little respect,” Jamie coughed, he and the rest of the team nodding at Vulcan. “I’m sorry, chief. He doesn’t know what he says.”

“Oh no, he does,” Vulcan replied angrily, glaring at Ryan. “The bitch is my personal N-word. When someone speaks it, they suffer.”

“Do you have any survival instinct?” Lanka hissed at Ryan.

“Of course not, I’m immortal. Survival instincts are for people who can die.” The courier glanced at the giant armor, noticing the enormous reactor on the machine’s back. “Is that a miniaturized fusion reactor?”

Vulcan’s face betrayed some surprise, although she remained clearly furious with him. “I’m surprised you could tell.”

“I worked on one once, albeit nothing this advanced,” Ryan replied, examining the rest of the suit. “And plasma beams for offense too. Clever, clever.”

“Maybe I should give you a live demonstration.” As Vulcan spoke these words, the suit moved on its own. The other Genomes took a step back, and Jamie in particular looked ready to summon an energy sword. “Though since you’ve got a brain, I guess I will only destroy the legs.”

Ryan simply kept observing this marvel of technology, even as it pointed its weapons at his lower half.

“Mmm.” Vulcan frowned, her anger replaced with astonishment. “You are awfully close to death, and yet neither your heartbeat nor blood pressure changed at all. No abnormal neural activity either. You give absolutely zero fucks.”

Wait, how could she know that? Did she have a telepathic link to her suit’s sensors?

Though he should feel thankful that her anger had left the building, replaced with curiosity. She probably thought he had some ace up his sleeve.

“I heard you carried advanced tech with you, Quicksave,” Vulcan said, the others too happy to see her calm down to say anything. “Are you a Genius?”

“Sort of.” He didn’t have enhanced intelligence, but he had spent so many loops tinkering with advanced technology, he might as well be a de facto Genius. Ryan looked into his trenchcoat and handed Vulcan the A-bomb.

“What a beautiful, elegant design,” Vulcan whistled, examining it under all its forms. “You made that?”

“Everyone should have a bomb on themselves for dissuasion!” Ryan avoided a straightforward answer, full of excitement in the presence of a fellow bomb-maker. “Bombs save lives!”

“Exactly,” Vulcan replied with the same enthusiasm, unable to restrain her geeky passion for explosions. “You know why the Cold War never went hot? Because everyone had A-bombs! Absolute destructive power is the key to peace!”

“Oh God, there are two of them now,” Ryan heard Lanka whisper to Jamie, who ground his teeth in uneasiness. Still, Ryan could see everyone relax a bit.

“What about Mechron?” Ki-jung asked mirthfully, a thin smile on her lips. “Bombs didn’t help against him.”

“An unforeseen variable, Chitter, like the Alchemist,” Vulcan brushed it off, before waving the A-bomb under Ryan’s nose. “You see this?”

“Uh, yes?”

“If you say Wyvern again, I’ll shove it down your throat. Since you’ve got precious skills, I’ll spare your life, but only this time. Don’t push your luck again, unless you want a one-way ticket to Killville.”

Nice place, he had been there a lot of times. “So, you’re not giving me back the bomb?”

“No, that’s your respect tax,” she said before brazenly stealing his device and putting it in her pocket. “If you join my division, I might change my mind. I’ve got a lot of workers, but few real engineers worth their salt. You have an attitude problem, but I’ll tame you.”

Ryan also noticed that her suit kept its weapons pointed at him, even if she sounded friendlier.

“I thought he might do well with Mercury’s.” Jamie cleared up his throat, defending his own division.

“I’m the one who looked him up first, Zanbato,” Vulcan replied. “If Mercury wants to find good men, he should get out of his house once in a while.”

“I’m very happy for the attention, but I’m not the person for long-term employment,” said Ryan. “I’m looking for Len, black hair, blue eyes, Marxist-Leninist.”

“Underdiver,” Vulcan replied, smirking when Ryan gave her his full attention. “But I don’t see how I benefit from introducing you to my subcontractor, especially if you aren’t with us long-term.”

Subcontractor? Finally, he could almost taste the reunion! “How much for the privilege?”

Vulcan replied with a laugh, sitting on her workshop table. “You think I’m a crook who works for money?”

“Then I have only my body left to sell.”

Ki-jung couldn’t help but chuckle at his joke, before quickly correcting her expression. Vulcan smiled a bit. “I don’t know if you’re ballsy or just insane,” she said. “But as a matter of fact, I have a need for fresh warm bodies to throw at a problem.”

“The Meta-gang?” Jamie cleared his throat. “You want us to take them down?”

“My crew will take care of the Meta problem,” Vulcan brushed him off. “The big boss gave us the go order. Just protect the shipments, and we’ll take care of Rust Town. No. What I have in mind involves fighting the ‘law.’

“The best kind of mission,” Ryan delighted. “Are we going to do tax evasion? There’s nothing more excitingly dangerous! Even Al Capone couldn't do it!”

“Nobody pays taxes, blabbermouth,” Lanka pointed out.

“The Private Security and Il Migliore have been a bit overeager lately,” Vulcan said with a sneer. “Nothing too damaging, but they’re testing us. They believe the Meta made our organization weak. We must remind them not to underestimate the Augusti.”

“You want us to attack Dynamis’ operations?” Jamie asked, Lanka frowning at the ‘us.’

Vulcan nodded. “Dynamis is currently filming a new Il Migliore movie. I want you to trash the studio, send them a message.”

“Isn’t the newest movie under work there…” Jamie trailed off, without finishing his sentence.

Wyvern’s Flight II,” Vulcan finished a vengeful glint in her eyes.

Yeah, totally business as usual.

“Do you want your personal vendetta crispy,” Ryan asked, “or extra crispy?”

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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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