No matter how many times he would visit it, Ryan would never get used to Rust Town. The whole place reeked of misery and despair.
Atom Cat seemed to share his sentiment, as both drove through the slums with the Plymouth's windows closed and the air cleaner on. “It’s even worse than I thought,” he said, looking at a streetlight hanging by its cable, threatening to fall on the road at any moment. “Way worse.”
“You never went mice hunting here?”
“No, my family lives in the wealthy Patrician district. I lived a very sheltered life truth be told, even during the wars.”
“So a house cat then.” If so, Ryan’s threat of neutering him must have hit a bit too close to home.
“I guess I went stray,” his sidekick mused.
“I do wonder why this place is such a dump compared to the rest of the city though,” Ryan said. It reminded him of the bad old days when he scoured ruins for supplies, with Bloodstream breathing down his neck.
“It belonged to the region’s original inhabitants,” Atom Cat explained, “those who lived in the Gulf of Naples and escaped its bombing. They managed to survive, in spite of the poisons and plagues, but when Dynamis took over the region, the company forcefully relocated them to make room for its own people. I guess the homeless and the diseased didn’t fit into their picture of a shining capital city. There are plans to renovate the area, but they haven't materialized yet.”
He shook his head in disappointment, the sound of a cell phone’s alarm interrupting the discussion. Atom Cat looked at his mobile, but didn’t take the call.
Ryan glanced at the screen, seeing Atom Cat had missed fifteen calls from a certain ‘Fortuna’ and seven from one ‘Narcinia.’ “My sisters,” the superhero said before the courier could ask questions. “I keep in touch with them, but they want me back and don’t take no for an answer.”
“That means they love you,” Ryan replied without any hint of sarcasm. He could sympathize with people wishing to reunite with their family. The courier did wonder what made Atom Cat consider Dynamis to be a better option over the Augusti though.
Ryan suddenly wondered if Len, like Atom Cat, wouldn’t want to meet him, but immediately brushed off these thoughts. Of course she would rejoice when they met again, after so many years! It was just his anxiety talking!
“I love them too, but as long as they keep supporting the Bliss business I—”
Another person called Atom Cat, who stared at the name on the screen for several seconds, his gaze undecipherable.
Instead of ignoring the call like the others, Atom Cat outright turned down his phone, sighed, and messed with the radio to change his mind. When he finally settled on a channel, Ryan glared at his sidekick. “Hip hop, really?”
“You don’t like it, brotha?”
“No, I don’t!” Ryan changed the channel back to the Daft Biopunk chronoradio. The music switched into a combination of electronic, synth, and alien rhythms.
“Nice sound,” Atom Cat commented, as they passed through narrow streets. “Where are we going?”
“The Meta took over the junkyard area as their base,” Ryan said. “It’s located at Rust Town’s center.”
“I’m stopping you right here, I’m all for ambushing a lone Psycho, maybe two, but attacking their home turf with only the two of us is suicide.”
If Ryan had been alone, he would have tried anyway, but he wasn’t going to lead his sidekick to certain death. “Thing is, children have been missing in the area, according to my information. I've located an orphanage south of the junkyard, and I thought we should check it out.”
Atom Cat instantly tensed. “Children?”
“You’re surprised?” Ryan asked. The courier would love to say he was, but he had come to expect the worst when Psychos were involved.
“I’m surprised it didn’t get reported,” the superhero replied, the Plymouth passing near the city’s water reservoir. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, Dynamis heavily protected the area, armored soldiers protecting its confines. “Then again, nobody cares about this place.”
Eventually, the duo made their way to an isolated building surrounded by a dusty wasteland. The paint on the cinder block walls had vanished, peeled by time, and half the windows were broken. A large fenced area extended left of the building, housing dozens, if not hundreds of stray cats and dogs. The distressed noises they made and the smell they produced immediately overwhelmed the duo, as they parked the car nearby and stepped out of it.
“That's not an orphanage,” Atom Cat said with horror, while Ryan grabbed his Fisty gauntlets and put them on. The air here was less polluted than the rest of Rust Town, but not by much. “It’s an animal shelter.”
“It’s both,” Ryan realized, glancing at the animals with sympathy. The sheer aura of trapped desperation they gave off made him feel sick inside.
They found two children between ten and twelve at the orphanage’s entrance, playing with a dirty golden retriever near the open doors. One was a black boy with acid burn scars on half his cheek, the other a skinny brunette in a pink dress unfit for her size.
“Hey, fellas!” Ryan waved a hand at them.
The little girl instantly raised a crappy revolver at his head, having hidden it beneath her dress, while the boy clung to the dog. “Back off, druggie,” she told Ryan. “Or I’m blowing your head off.”
Aw, that was so cute!
Ryan froze time, grabbed the gun, and replaced it with a rock pebble. When time resumed, he had put the gun inside his coat, much to the girl’s surprise. “B—but?”
“Hey, I’m Quicksave,” Ryan said, raising his thumb like in a commercial. “I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone; and this is my trusty sidekick, Hello Kitty.”
“Don’t push it, Quickie,” Atom Cat replied, the nickname making Ryan feel dirty inside. “We aren’t here to hurt anyone. Can we talk to the staff?”
“There’s no staff,” the boy said, still afraid. The dog nuzzled his face to reassure him, and didn’t make any hostile move towards the Genomes.
“Grandpa took care of us, but he’s gone now,” the little girl replied while glaring at Ryan. “A druggie shanked him in an alley months ago.”
She said it so casually, it sounded almost normal.
“Wait, there’s no adult?” The more he heard, the more Atom Cat grew agitated. “But, how do you survive?”
“We can take care of ourselves,” the girl said with a proud face. “We scavenge stuff up and take the trash.”
“Mama sends up food and money every week—” The little girl kicked the boy in the leg before he could finish his sentence. “Ouch, Sarah!”
“Mama?” Atom Cat asked. The little girl kept her mouth closed, the other boy imitating her. “Sarah, that’s your name?”
“Give me back my gun.” She ignored Atom Cat and instead kept glaring at Ryan. “Give it back!”
“I can’t in good conscience return such a crappy revolver,” Ryan replied, having a reputation to uphold. “Let me buy you a real gun, like a Desert Eagle. Then you can credibly threaten people.”
“Quicksave!” Atom Cat chided him, before trying to build a rapport with the kids. “Who is this mama, your caretaker? Can we talk to her?”
“No,” Sarah replied stubbornly. “She’s busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“Busy,” Sarah replied, crossing her arms. “What do you want?”
As Atom Cat tried to argue with the kids that they only wanted to protect them, Ryan sensed tension in the air. The pets grew agitated, barking and meowing.
They could sense predators nearby.
A rusty, black minibus approached the orphanage, parking five meters away from the entrance. Other kids appeared at the windows, attracted by the pets' racket.
Three ‘men’ stepped out of the car, although they barely counted as such. Ryan instantly recognized one of them as the mosquito monster that wrecked his Plymouth in a previous loop. The second was a scrawny, bald man dressed like a plumber; disfiguring tumors grew out of his flesh and bloodshot eyes. He carried a rusty pipe wrench, and his smile showed rows of rotten fangs.
As for the third...
Ryan instantly recognized the tall and slender figure, in spite of his heavy black overcoat, hat, scarf, and sunglasses. The way he walked, like a shambling doll mimicking a man, the aura of quiet menace he gave off...
Psyshock, Adam’s second-in-command.
The three Psychos glanced at the group with menacing stares, Atom Cat instantly moving to shield the kids; so did the golden retriever, who barked at the newcomers with surprising ferocity. Psyshock himself focused entirely on Ryan.
“My, isn’t it little Cesare?” he said with a robotic, digital voice. “How you have grown.”
“Surprised? Once I have connected to a nervous system, I can recognize its unique brainwave pattern anywhere. Like a lost signal, calling home to Daddy.” His heavy sunglasses glittered under the twilight. “I thought the Carnival killed your father?”
“He wasn’t my father, and yes they did,” the courier said, cold and focused. He had last crossed path with that creep four years ago, before he drank his Elixir. Even if Ryan now had superpowers and could defend himself, Psyshock's mere presence made him feel uneasy. “How are the scars he gave you, Lightbulb?”
“They healed,” Psyshock replied, his digital voice turned threatening. Mosquito readied his claw-like hands, itching for a fight. “If you survived, I assume little Len did too. Good. I never got over missing the opportunity to extract her Genius brain.”
“What, kids aren’t enough for you?” Ryan taunted him.
“I have no interest in this meat, but we require a unique service from these goblins. I’m afraid nothing short of pygmies will do the trick. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of them; even feed them.”
“Adam is very fond of children,” Mosquito cackled, the other Psycho letting out a bestial grunt.
“That too,” Psyshock mused with cruel amusement. “Kids, gather your friends, and get into the car quietly.”
“Behind me,” Ryan said. “He’s got candies.”
“Yeah, the kids aren’t getting anywhere near you,” Atom Cat said, turning to Sarah. “Do you have a basement?” She nodded slowly. “Go hide there, and don’t come out until we say so.”
The noise of a plane echoed above the neighborhood, while the children and their dog fled inside the orphanage.
“I would check your math if I were you,” Psyshock said while trailing the children with his gaze; it made him look like a deadly wolf observing helpless fawns, much to Ryan’s disgust. Wires shifted behind the Psycho’s scarf and sunglasses, and electricity came out of his gloves. “You’re outnumbered, and outmatched.”
Why weren’t they attacking? Because they were worried they might kill the kids in the crossfire if they acted too early? They shouldn’t be thinking that far ahead, the sight of Genomes being reason enough to try and drink the heroes' Elixir-laced blood. These Psychos were too stable, too careful, as if...
“You’re well-fed,” Ryan realized. “You have a supply of Elixir.”
Psyshock appraised him for a few seconds, before barking orders. “Mongrel, Mosquito, capture little Cesare and kill the spare.”
“I hoped you’d say that,” Mosquito said, Mongrel hissing at Atom Cat like an animal. “I guess Adam can’t be mad at us for eating a few strays.”
Both groups glared at one another, but Ryan couldn’t focus, the sound of the plane growing stronger and stronger…
Ryan barely had the time to raise his eyes, as it landed right in the middle of the Mexican standoff.
The crash blew dust in all directions, Atom Cat taking a leap back on reflex and the Psychos retreating behind their minibus for protection. Only Ryan remained still, unfazed, as an enormous, gold-plated robot stood right in front of him.
“Quicksave,” Vulcan’s voice echoed from hidden loudspeakers, the suit’s camera eyes focusing on the courier. “You have denied my invitation.”
Ryan put his hands in his pockets and whistled, his mask protecting him from the dust. Atom Cat quickly got back on his feet, his eyes widening upon recognizing the newcomer. Vulcan’s camera eyes briefly glanced at the hero, but quickly focused back on Ryan with murderous rage.
“By going to that dragon whore without even considering my offer, you have done more than scorn me. You have insulted me, and for that, you will die.” She towered above Ryan, a cannon pointed at his head. “Any last words?”
Ryan gave serious thought to the question and then answered.
“You’re so short, your mother has to use a microscope to see you.”
Vulcan remained completely still, the towering armor casting the courier in its oppressive shadow.
“Oh, oh, I got a better one!” Ryan snapped his fingers. “You’re so short that your feet always dangle when you sit on a chair!”
The silence grew even tenser, broken by strange noises. Ryan recognized them as guns and missiles being loaded. Psyshock and his cronies recovered from the surprise attack, moving to encircle everyone and flank Atom Cat from the sides.
Tough crowd here. “How about this one? You’re almost tall enough for Wyvern to take you seriously!”
Vulcan let out a snarl and opened fire.