“This is stupid!”
“Lanka…” Jamie trailed off at the back of the car. “Calm down.”
Ryan listened to their bickering while peeking through his car’s window. Dynamis’ Star Studios—which won a prize for name originality—spanned roughly two and a half square kilometers of surface, located east of New Rome. They had an entire open park dedicated to them and roughly seven warehouses. From afar, Ryan noticed the staff moving cardboard cutouts, interns carrying coffee to their superiors, and stuntmen prepping themselves. The studios only had one checkpoint entrance, and few guards; they clearly didn’t expect an attack.
Still, the group had parked outside the studio’s confines, unable to find a path inside without security cameras in the way. Ki-jung napped with her head against her boyfriend’s shoulder, her eyes closed. While the group remained at safe distance from the studios, she had sent her rats to do scouting work.
From what Ryan understood, Chitter’s enhanced rat family acted as relays, allowing her to control a swarm of vermin over a large area. Ryan suspected that instead of true telepathy, which was a Blue power, Chitter physically modified her rats into an extension of her own nervous system. On one hand, it meant destroying her main rats would cancel her power for a time, but on the other hand, her vermin familiars could act independently without her direct input.
“I mean, why would we risk ourselves fighting Wyvern, aka the dragon shapeshifter who can take on the Boss, so he,” Lanka pointed an accusing finger at Ryan, who made an offended pose, “can earn himself a personal favor?”
“Because Vulcan wants it, and she’s one of the Capos,” Jamie replied, “and with luck, we won’t have to face her. I doubt she has time for actor work.”
“What happens if you’re wrong? None of us can take her on!”
Thing was, Ryan had a bad feeling too.
He couldn’t explain it, but the courier had developed a strong intuition over his various loops. And right now, his sixth sense warned him of danger, of someone watching him. Yet their current location should be a blind spot for the security cameras.
He should install a radar in his car.
A bit distraught, Ryan put on the radio and activated the special feature, hoping to find good old-school music to drown out the noise. “—in other news, the Roman Republic is still under curfew, after Gaius Julius Caesar’s assassination—”
Again with Caesar? It had been two thousand years! “What news channel is that?” Jamie asked, curious. “I don’t recognize the speaker.”
“It’s my Chronoradio,” Ryan explained, changing the channel. “It listens to channels across space and time. But for some reason, it usually defaults to the Roman Republic era.”
“You should work on your stories, blabbermouth,” Lanka taunted him. “They didn’t have radios two thousand years ago.”
“In one version of the past, they did.”
“You can’t have multiple versions of the past.”
Ryan looked at her with a deadpan look. It was wasted effort with his mask on, but still. “That’s not how time works,” he said, with the same tone as an adult talking to a petulant child.
“Fuck you, Einstein.”
“Whenever you want,” Ryan replied, before finally finding the Post-Apocalyptic Blues channel. Ki-jung chose this moment to wake up.
“So?” Jamie asked her.
“Wyvern isn’t present,” she said, scratching her neck. “Someone’s filling in for her.”
“See, I knew she didn’t do her own stunts,” Jamie told Lanka, vindicated. “She’s probably too busy with fieldwork.”
“There’s no guarantee she won’t fly in after somebody calls the alarm,” she replied, opening the window and lighting a cigarette.
“The bad news, however, is that Wardrobe replaces her for the stunts,” Ki-jung continued, “and Atom Cat is there too.”
Jamie didn’t sound concerned about Wardrobe, but instantly bristled when she mentioned the other Genome. “Wardrobe gains power based on her costume, right?” Ryan asked, trying to stir up his memory.
“If she dresses as a vampire she drinks blood and burns in the sun, if she dresses as Wyvern, then she can fly.” Ki-jung nodded. “It’s a very weak version of the real thing, so even if she dresses like Augustus you can still hurt her, and the effect lasts only as long as her clothes are relatively intact.”
“Yellow Genomes are bullshit,” Lanka complained.
“I can understand Wardrobe's presence, but Atom Cat?” Jamie asked his girlfriend.
“He’s doing a guest appearance in the movie,” she replied, showing concern. “Do we abort?”
“Abort?” Ryan turned his head around. “Why abort? He’s that powerful?”
“Atom Cat is... was, one of us,” Jamie said.
“He’s a spy?” Ryan asked. “Like James Bond?”
“No. It’s complicated.” Jamie joined his fingers, trying to find the right words. “He’s having a teenage rebellion phase, but he’ll come back into the fold, eventually. His parents are part of Augustus’ inner circle, and we’ve been explicitly forbidden from endangering him in any way.”
“Don’t let him touch you, blabbermouth,” Lanka said, “or you go boom.”
“He can transform anything into a bomb, but only with direct skin contact,” Ki-jung added.
“Interesting,” Ryan lied, before asking the really important question to Ki-jung. “CGI, special effects, or stop motion?”
“They use CGI.”
The courier put his head on the steering wheel, mourning the loss of cinema's golden age.
“So what do we do?” Lanka asked Jamie. “We go in gun blazing, make a ruckus, and then bolt away?”
“No,” Jamie replied, turning to his girlfriend. “Here’s what we’ll do. You flood the studios with rats from afar, make a ruckus, then we immediately drive away.”
Ryan immediately understood the obvious flaw in this plan. “Wait, we don’t fight anyone?”
“Betrayal. Betrayal!” the courier pointed a finger at Jamie. “You can’t do this to me!”
“I won’t let you get in a firefight with Atom Cat, Quicksave,” Jamie replied. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want any trouble on that front.”
“You ask too much!” the courier said, his fellow Genome sighing in defeat. “You’re killing me, Jamie! You’re killing me!”
“You’ll live through it.” The swordsman shrugged, before turning to Ki-jung. “So?”
“I’m your girl,” she said, falling asleep. Ryan turned to Lanka for support, but she simply looked out of the window, finishing her cigarette. He couldn’t blame them since they weren’t immortal, but damn, it sucked all the fun out of this mission.
As minutes passed, Ryan noticed agitation near the studio. People getting out of the warehouses, screaming.
Then they came crawling.
Hordes of thousands of black and brown rats. They escaped from the warehouses, breaking windows under their sheer weight. There were so many of them, that the rodents had to climb on one another to advance, forming waves and walls of fur.
Ryan almost felt pity for the poor Dynamis trainees, confronted with this terror while they toiled without any hope for a paycheck. Obviously, panic spread all around the area, the staff fleeing in all directions, coffee cups being spilled, guards desperately trying to shoot the rodents…
“My, my…” Ryan whistled. “This city has a rat problem..”
“That should satisfy Vulcan,” Jamie chuckled. “Now, let’s go home before the Private Security arrives.”
The courier couldn’t agree more, especially since he still felt uneasy.
Ryan pushed the accelerator pedal, abandoning the vermin-infested studio for the city’s broad lanes. As he drove all the way to the group’s shared house, he almost hoped for Wyvern to come from the skies, or Atom Cat to track them down on a motorcycle for an epic car chase. Or even the Meta to ambush them.
Instead, they returned home without a problem.
Frankly, New Rome's heroes disappointed the courier. Perhaps Leo Hargraves' Carnival had given Ryan a false image of what superheroes should be, since they were brutally competent, but Dynamis' corporate champions didn't impress him much.
“You’re sulking, blabbermouth?” Lanka asked him, finishing her smoke and throwing it out of the window. Ryan stopped time, caught the smoke, and put it in an ashtray in the glove compartment.
“It’s just, I expected a road bump of some kind,” Ryan replied when time resumed. His gut may have been mistaken. “This is boring.”
“See the bright side, you will finally see your girlfriend again,” Jamie tried to comfort him.
“What’s she like?” Ki-jung asked.
“I will present her to you,” Ryan said, much to her delight. He had to admit, he started to like this group. He wouldn’t get too attached nor make the effort to know them better since they could forget him anytime, but for professional criminals, they were quite nice to hang out with.
Parking the car in front of the house, Ryan let the others climb down but didn’t follow yet. “I’ll just listen to the radio for a bit,” he replied. “Can you call Vulcan?”
“Sure,” Jamie promised, “Also, it’s movie night. Robocop or Robocop 2?”
Ryan raised two fingers since he liked movies with stop motion; even if he had seen both films countless times already. He was busy trying to find the Jazz Sixties channel on his chronoradio when Ki-jung reached the house’s door, exchanging pleasantries with Lanka.
Except Ki-jung suddenly stopped, as she was within an inch of the door handle. Ryan lowered his car window. “What’s up?”
“I can’t sense the rats I left at home,” the rodent master replied, bothered.
“They scampered off?” Jamie asked.
His girlfriend shook her head. “I explicitly told them to stay and watch the place.”
Now, Ryan wasn’t the only one with a bad feeling. Lanka drew her gun, moving first with a frown on her face. Ki-jung took a step back, while her female friend put a hand on the door handle, the other ready to shoot through it.
Ryan instantly stopped time when he heard that oh-so-familiar sound, but it was already too late.
When the world turned purple, his power freezing everything in place, the house had already transformed into a giant burst of flames and debris; the inferno swallowed both Lanka and Ki-jung whole and incinerated them instantly. The blast had somehow caused all his car’s reinforced windows to explode into sharp shards and triggered its alarm.
Ignoring the glass shards grazing his skin, Ryan emerged from his car and rushed at Jamie’s side, making a futile attempt to rescue him.
When time resumed, he received a mouthful of dust, ashes, and stones for his trouble, the entire house having been vaporized. Jamie, thanks to his armor, was more shocked than hurt physically.
The swordsman rushed to his girlfriend’s side, but even with her Genome durability, the blast had killed the young woman instantly. Her flesh had been seared so much, her eyes had fried and one could see the bones.
“Damn,” Ryan said upon observing the corpses, before glancing around to look for the responsible. No one in sight, although he couldn’t distinguish things clearly through the smoke. “I didn’t expect that at home.”
“Ki-jung...” Jamie muttered while holding his girlfriend in his arms, his horrified eyes then wandering to Lanka’s body. He then turned to Ryan, panic overtaking him. “We have to go to the hospital!”
“It’s useless,” Ryan replied, having studied medicine enough to know they lacked either the tools or the time to make a difference, “They’re dead. You can’t do anything.”
For the first time since he met him, Jamie looked at Ryan with a new emotion: pure, undiluted fury. “That’s all you have to say?” he asked venomously. “They’re dead?”
Thing was, Ryan had seen so many people die, that he had grown numb to it. He cared on an intellectual level, but since he could still rewind time and avert this attack, the destruction carried no emotional weight. The courier liked both girls and would make sure they survived next time, but he didn’t see the point of being sad now; he would rather gather as much information as possible to make sure he prevailed in the future.
Ryan would have loved to say he had become a creature of logic… but apathy would have been a better word.
Still, Jamie’s incensed, distraught expression saddened the courier enough to make an effort; after all, the swordsman had tried to help him with his own lingering sadness. “It’s okay, I can bring them back,” Ryan promised. “I can—”
The courier noticed movement at the edge of his vision and turned around.
The glass shards from his car flew at him like thrown knives.
Worse, Jamie’s armor suddenly seemed to suffer from a short circuit, a surge of lightning electrocuting him. The swordsman Genome let out a scream of pain, as the sheer voltage fried his flesh and forced him to release Ki-jung’s corpse.
Shit, the killer was still nearby!
Ryan stopped time to dodge the knives. He looked around to locate for the source of the attack, but no one was in sight. Was the attacker invisible again?
He never had the time to confirm it, no pun intended.
The moment time resumed, the courier felt a sharp pain in his neck. His vision turned upside down, his entire body below the throat going numb as his ear hit the grass. Glass shards swirled above him like a tornado, shredding Jamie alive before he could recover from his own armor’s incapacitation.
Was that Ryan’s headless body at his side?
The beheaded courier could only widen his eyes, before all the glass shards fell on his skull like a rain of swords.
Ryan woke up at his Plymouth’s driver wheel, back to the beginning.
Instead of moving directly to Renesco’s place, the Genome parked his car near the city’s entrance, staying still as he gathered his thoughts.
“Twice!” he snarled out loud. He had been had twice when he was so close to finding happiness!
Okay, now, that settled it.
Someone was after him. Someone bold enough to attack while he had a whole group of Genomes at his back.
But who? Ryan was flattered to have a secret archenemy, but he didn’t see anyone with the means and motives except the Meta. Or did the assassin target him on principle due to joining the Augusti?
Was it a lone wolf? This person seemed like a professional, and you would need a mighty bomb to cause an explosion that powerful. Ryan dying right after he stopped time implied that the killer had figured out his cooldown period, and Chitter’s rodents had been killed to prevent them from warning their master. That must have involved a lot of information gathering, perhaps even a whole crew.
The way it happened… the one responsible could clearly control glass. Since they could fry the technological components of Jamie’s armor, perhaps even a silica kinetic. It could also explain the presumed invisibility as an optical illusion, or some kind of mirror suit.
The attack had been brutal, unexpected, and lasted less than five minutes. The killer was no inexperienced would-be hero like the Panda, but a cold-blooded professional.
The courier considered what to do next. Thing was, even if he succeeded on the mission Vulcan gave him and avoided the ambush at the house, continuing without dealing with the assassin might lead them directly to Len.
Although it infuriated him, Ryan decided to put his main quest on hold until he had dealt with that roadblock. That mysterious killer had already murdered him twice without ever showing up directly and clearly couldn’t care less about collateral damage. Worse, if the killer wasn’t a lone wolf but an agent of someone else, then killing them would only win Ryan a reprieve.
The meaning of life was finding happiness. Ryan didn’t feel happy without Len. Intentionally or not, this killer kept them apart, and so had to go. The end.
He didn’t want Jamie and his friends to die either. The courier took no pleasure in the suffering of others, notwithstanding assholes like Ghoul. His Perfect Run would involve everyone he liked being happy, and Jamie’s group was now part of that VIP category.
He wouldn’t let them die.
Ryan considered the matter with cold logic, to see how he could solve the problem in this new loop. So far, the killer had only attacked the Augusti or the courier himself, but that may be because Ryan worked with the criminal syndicate. Excluding the lone wolf hypothesis, only two organizations had the Genomes, motives, and resources to attack them: the Meta, and Dynamis.
If it was the Meta, well, Ryan had already promised to wipe them out, so it would be killing two birds with one stone. But his gut told him he had missed a detail, and he quickly remembered what.
Ryan remembered a flyer rescuing members of the Private Security when he had fought Ghoul and Sarin there. He thought he couldn’t see them clearly due to the darkness, but maybe it was because they were invisible, their presence only revealed by the smoke. Since the figure hadn’t helped the Meta but did rescue Dynamis’ employees, Ryan excluded the former as the guilty party.
This left only a lone vigilante… or an agent of Dynamis.
Time to take up Wyvern on her offer.