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Ryan had been shot at more times than he could count.

Unlike Psychos or special cases like Augustus, all of the courier’s abilities, from his save point to the time stop, derived from a single unifying power. It was only through training and experimentation that Ryan discovered its multiple applications. In particular, it took him years of looping to realize he had an enhanced sense of timing.

The more he experienced a situation, the better Ryan became at predicting and reacting to it. If someone used a martial arts move once, he would subtly anticipate it next time anybody else tried it; the courier could predict when one would toss a smoke bomb to the ground, and catch it before being consciously aware of it. This made learning physical skills almost trivial.

It wasn’t all-powerful, since there were situations when even the fastest reflexes couldn’t make a difference—like getting beheaded by an invisible blade or hit by a laser as fast as light. Lacking any superspeed, Ryan couldn’t truly ‘dodge’ bullets or artillery.

But he could predict someone’s line of fire before they pressed the trigger. His body would then subtly shift, projectiles would miss, and give people the illusion that he could dodge even bullets. Combined with the time stop, the courier seemed impossible to hit from the point of view of outsiders.

So when Vulcan attacked him with her cannon arm, Ryan paused time for a split second and dodged out of the line of fire. A dense shell blasted the orphanage’s wall behind them, collapsing cinder blocks and opening a path towards what seemed to be a kitchen. The trapped pets behind the fence panicked, some frenzied cats managing to escape by climbing.

“Vulcan, it’s an orphanage!” Atom Cat shouted, but before he could rush to Ryan’s help, the Meta-Gang flanked him. The hero avoided a deadly punch from Mosquito and a small fireball from Mongrel; Atom Cat’s movements were chaotic, showcasing his lack of formal training, but his natural agility made up for it.

To her credit, Vulcan froze for a split second, vaguely ashamed. Instead of assaulting Ryan with heavy artillery and risk destroying the shelter, she switched to hand-to-hand combat. Mini-turbo reactors activated on the mechanical suit’s back in short bursts, causing the five-meter tall metal monster to move at the speed of a racing car.

Showing extreme agility honed over countless loops, Ryan backflipped to dodge a giant fist to the face, and then a stomp. “I have to hand it to you,” the courier began, before switching the meaning of his sentence, “because you can’t reach it!”

Vulcan’s attacks grew more frenzied, and when she no longer had the orphanage in her line of fire, she switched to heavy weaponry. Her mech’s shoulders opened to reveal minigun turrets, firing hundreds of pellets at Ryan. The courier used a mix of time stop and timing to avoid the attacks, trying to circle the machine and find a hatch for the cockpit.

Psyshock, meanwhile, threw away his overcoat, hat, and sunglasses, revealing his true self to the world. He had long shed his flesh, replaced with thousands of black wires which he usually shaped into a facsimile of a humanoid form. The only organ that survived his mutation was his skull, which left his bio-mechanical brain exposed. His neon eyes reminded Ryan of two bright torchlights.

Psyshock reshaped his wires to form eight elongated arms, turning himself into a horrific mockery of a spider. While Vulcan occupied Ryan and Atom Cat fought his cronies, the Psycho leaped over the area in a single bound, going straight for the orphanage.

Realizing this, Ryan decided to dump Vulcan and pursue Psyshock, but the Genius didn’t let him. Her hand lunged at the courier, big enough to crush him whole, while her miniguns provided suppressing fire.

In spite of her fearsome armor, Ryan could tell that Vulcan didn’t have much direct combat experience. Her movements were clumsy, and while her weapons aimed true, there was no foresight involved, no human cunning or improvisation; she probably outsourced control to a basic AI. Her armor was also clearly a prototype designed to fight a big and aerial target, instead of an agile and stylish gentleman.

In short, Vulcan had brought a Wyvern-buster to a Quicksave fight.

Vulcan could have won if she had carpet-bombed the area from above, but instead, she chose to announce her presence and make the battle close and personal. Ryan could sense a desire to prove herself in a fight, perhaps to outshine Wyvern.

Girl’s got issues.

Stopping time for ten seconds, Ryan moved to the armor’s left, dodging her hand and bullets. Then, he carefully punched the elbow joint with Fisty, aiming to maximize pressure damage. When time resumed, the recoil applied in full, and the mech’s arm shattered at the elbow point. The forearm fell to the ground, electrical jolts coming out of the damaged parts.

As he guessed when he first observed it at the Armory, much like medieval armor, Vulcan paid for her suit’s enhanced mobility with weakness in the joints.

“What’s this?” Ryan mused. “A short-circuit?”

“You aren’t funny, Romano!” Vulcan complained through her armor’s loudspeakers, clearly jealous of his peerless wit. “You think you are, but you aren’t!”

“Come on, don’t be small-minded.” As she retaliated with another volley of bullets, Ryan froze time and rushed to the orphanage, Psyshock having vanished through the hole Vulcan made in the wall.

Meanwhile, Atom Cat fared little better. Mosquito had taken flight like the insect he was, diving down to try and impale the hero with his stinger. While Atom Cat could easily dodge, Mongrel limited his movements. The strange Psycho flickering in and out of existence, propelling himself with short bursts of wind while attempting to hit the hero with his hand tool. Sometimes, he threw a fireball here and there, small fires starting all over the wasteland park.

Fireballs, limited invisibility, air conditioning... Ryan recognized these powers as those from knock-off Elixirs sold by Dynamis. Mongrel must have drunk a cocktail of them. Since the powers gained were but a shadow of those of true Elixirs, his body managed to handle more than two at the cost of his mental faculties.

Still, even if forced on the defensive, Atom Cat fought hard to regain the initiative in this two-on-one fight. He attempted to punch Mongrel, his hands shining with crimson energy, but in spite of his bestial snarls, the Psycho remained careful not to give his foe any opening.

When time resumed, Ryan had managed to reach the orphanage, only to backtrack when a dozen wires came out of the hole and threatened to catch him in a net.

Psyshock emerged from the hole, having grabbed four kids with his tentacle arms; Sarah, her friend, and two twin girls no older than eight. His cold alien eyes glanced at Ryan with disdain while one of his wires was making its way inside one of the twins’ nose, traces of blood and fur all over his body.

Without thinking twice, Ryan grabbed three throwing knives, intending to target Psyshock’s head.

In response, the Psycho moved Sarah in the way of Ryan’s line of fire, the girl screaming in fear.

Ryan froze in shock, which Psyshock immediately exploited to send a tentacle at him. Suffering from his time stop's cooldown, the courier couldn’t freeze the clock as the arm hit him with the speed of a harpoon. He managed to grab it with his hands as he was tossed to his back, the wires trying to reach his skull.

“Quicksave!” Atom Cat shouted, but Mosquito exploited the opportunity to tackle him from the side, throwing the hero through the pen’s fence. Dogs and cats immediately poured through, fleeing in all directions.

“Shush, it's easier if you don’t struggle, Cesare,” Psyshock whispered to Ryan, both through his mouth and that of the child he had connected to; needles appeared at the end of his wires, for an intracranial hijacking. “Just go limp and let me in. We’ll be one.”

Yeah, if the danger of his intrusive telepathy—no matter its physical limitations—hadn’t caused Ryan to feel murderous animosity towards Psyshock, the child abuse did it.

Apparently, Vulcan thought the same. Showing basic human decency, she stopped paying attention to Ryan and instead raised her armor’s last functional hand at Psyshock. “Drop the kids, mutant,” she warned. “I won’t ask twice.”

“Out of my way, woman,” Psyshock replied dismissively, positioning his hostages to protect himself from Vulcan's weaponry. Meanwhile, Mongrel moved towards the pen to finish off Atom Cat while Mosquito flew in circles above them. Some dogs who had remained behind instead of fleeing barked angrily at the Genomes present, but were too afraid to attack.

In response, Vulcan’s fingers opened to reveal holes and unleashed plasma streams at Psyshock. The Genius was very careful not to hit the kids, instead, cutting through wires with laser precision. The damaged parts fell off the ground like beheaded snakes, quickly rusting away into organic dust.

Exploiting Psyshock’s distraction, Ryan stopped time, cut the wires closest to him with his knives, and then rushed towards the children. With a swift swing, he severed the wires holding the twins and caught them while time resumed.

The wire invading the hostage’s nose kept moving on its own once severed from the whole but quickly fell to the ground. Psychock answered by sending his wires in all directions, targeting both Ryan and Vulcan with a rain of tentacles. The courier fled while carrying the twins in his arms, while the Augusti simply powered through the attack, her thick armor deflecting everything.

Meanwhile, while Atom Cat recovered from his last blow, the shelter’s remaining dogs found the courage to try and bite Mongrel when he approached. With a bestial snarl, the Psycho raised both hands, channeling a fireball through the right and a swirling vortex of wind with the left. The combination created a torrent of flames which consumed the pets whole. The poor dogs screamed in pain as the improvised flamethrower incinerated them alive, Mongrel’s hisses transforming into maniacal laughter.

Atom Cat rushed at Mongrel while he was distracted, and this time managed to grab his head with his hand. The Psycho’s body turned red, his colors muted by a crimson hue, and then exploded.

Scratch that, Mongrel was vaporized. His flesh weakly detonated, with barely enough strength to blow air, yet the blast annihilated him without leaving a trace. Clothes, skin, even the tool he carried; they all turned to dust.

Clearly, when cornered, Atom Cat had no problem killing.

This made Mosquito dive back at him, with murder on his mind. The young superhero froze, as if an idea crossed his mind, before grabbing a pebble on the ground and throwing it at Mosquito. The rock turned red, charged with Atom Cat’s power.

The Psycho protected himself with his arms, the pebble detonating on impact and propelling him against his own minibus. The car’s alarm activated, and combined with the noise from the battle, Ryan could barely hear himself.

Atom Cat could modulate the strength of his explosions and even delay them. Nice.

Ryan himself managed to dodge both Psyshock’s attacks and dragged the twins to a safe spot, one child despondent, and the other crying in fear. “It’s okay, you’re safe,” Ryan tried to console them, brushing their black hair with his hands, “Heroes are here.”

His good deed for the day done, the courier immediately returned to the fray. Psyshock had used all his wires to restrain Vulcan, trying to keep the mecha anchored to the ground while desperately trying to find a way inside the pilot cockpit. He looked like a giant squid, trying to restrain a whale.

Like before, that despicable bastard used his captives as human shields, preventing the Augusti from using her weapons in close quarters.

Enraged, Ryan charged at Psyshock, tossing knives at his skull. Wires deflected them, but this caught the criminal’s attention. “A teleportation power?” the Psycho hissed at Ryan. “You have become a Violet?”

“Normally, I would quip back, but in your case, you will go out the way of the rhinoceros,” Ryan said with dead seriousness, Fisty raised. “Painfully.”

Before Psyshock could react, Ryan stopped the clock again, leaped, and punched the Psycho through the skull in the frozen time. His fist gored through the Psycho’s metal bones and brain both like a donut.

Ryan liked to play with his enemies, but he knew better than to give any telepath a chance to fight back. Especially someone as loathsome as Psyshock.

When time resumed, Psyshock’s mutant body collapsed to the ground in a mess of wires and brain matter, dragging Sarah and the other kid down with him. Ryan quickly caught Sarah with his hands, while Vulcan grabbed the other.

“You know, Shortie, if you weren’t trying to murder me, I would call you halfway heroic,” Ryan said, putting Sarah on the ground while Vulcan did the same with her charge. “Little girl, can you take your friend and move away? The big bot is waiting for you to go to shoot me.”

Little Sarah nodded profusely, quickly grabbing her fellow kid’s hand and running away to safety. Vulcan remained silent, watching the children get out of the way with grim vigilance. Ryan couldn’t tell if it was regret, longing, or something else, but she seemed strangely subdued.

Then, when certain the children were far away, Vulcan attempted to fire plasma beams at Ryan’s face without a word.

Expecting the attack, Ryan quickly stopped time and threw knives at her cameras, blinding Vulcan before she could open fire. Atom Cat, meanwhile, attempted to punch Mosquito and blow him up alongside the minibus, but the insect flew away when he moved too close.

An enormous shadow flew over the battlefield, followed by a mighty roar.

Everyone present froze, from the tiniest animal to Vulcan herself, as a gigantic flying form came into sight.

An enormous, sixty-foot long white-scaled lizard, with an elongated neck, dragonfly wings, and golden eyes. Her claws could cut through steel, her tail ended in a flail, and a suit with Dynamis and Il Migliore’s logos covered her chest.

Wyvern.

Once she had finished showing off, the dragon landed right on Vulcan, stomping her mech underfoot with such force, it created a mini-crater below. If Ryan hadn’t damaged her cameras, the Augusti might have been able to fly away, but now Wyvern kept her pinned to the ground under her enormous weight.

Mosquito immediately attempted to fly away. The dragon, quicker, raised her hand.

SQUASH!

Wyvern slapped Mosquito from above, the same way a human did with a fly. The hit flattened the insectoid like a smear on the ground, his limbs and wings broken, green blood flowing out of open wounds.

Then, without skipping a beat, Wyvern slammed Vulcan’s mech to the ground, smashing the miniguns. The Augusti attempted to activate her mini-turbo reactors to fly away, but couldn’t escape the dragon’s iron grip.

“Don’t damage the reactor, Wyvy!” Ryan shouted at her, knowing the danger. “Extract the cockpit! The cockpit!”

Seemingly having heard him, Wyvern’s assault turned almost surgical in its execution, the dragon carefully extracting the human within with her claws without damaging the rest of the suit. Before the disheveled Augusti could react, Wyvern tossed her to the ground and Atom Cat moved to restrain her.

The intervention had lasted mere seconds. Ryan checked the mech, but thankfully, Vulcan had the foresight to install fail-safes in her armor’s fusion reactor. The city wouldn’t die an atomic death… this time.

Instead of inspiring fear, Wyvern’s victory caused great joy in the kids, who let out shouts of jubilation after a short silence. Only the child whom Psyshock had connected to remained despondent, her twin trying to wake her up. Ryan immediately rushed to their side to give medical help.

Thankfully, he had spent enough loops studying medicine and biology to give her a check-up. While intrusive, Psyshock’s orifice invasion usually didn’t damage the subject’s key areas of the brain; the poor child suffered from a mild concussion but would survive.

“Is she okay?” Sarah asked Ryan, the euphoria replaced with worry, as the orphans surrounded them.

“Yes,” he said, using his trench coat to remove the blood from his patient’s nose. “But she will need rest.”

“They killed the doogies,” one of the children said, looking in horror at the animals burning remains and the destroyed fence.

Wyvern observed the scene for a moment, from the hole in the orphanage to Psyshock’s rusting remains. “Quicksave, we are going to have a long, long conversation,” she said, her powerful voice more that of a roaring T-rex than a human. “You too, Atom Cat! What were you two thinking, going into hostile territory without authorization nor backup?! You could have died!”

“They were trying to kidnap children!” Atom Cat defended himself.

“Then you should have called me for reinforcements,” Wyvern replied with a firm tone. “You were lucky I trailed Vulcan to make sure she didn’t cause a mess.”

Speaking of Vulcan, she raged as Atom Cat kept her face against the ground, unable to escape his grip. Wyvern transformed back into a human, her suit adapting to her new size while she looked at the Augusti with a mix of vindication and pity. “You can only blame yourself for this, Jasmine.”

“Fuck you, Laura,” the Augusti Genius replied, bitter and angry. “Fuck you.”

“Does somebody have a rope?” Atom Cat asked, getting sick of restraining Vulcan with his mere hands.

“I have handcuffs and a blindfold in my car,” Ryan said, Wyvern raising an eyebrow at him. “I dated weird people.”

The superheroine glanced at both Ryan and Atom Cat, hands on her waist. “You’re both grounded.”

“Yes, dragon mom,” Ryan groaned, before turning towards Mosquito, agonizing in a puddle made of his own blood. “He’s still alive.”

“Barely,” Wyvern replied warily.

“Why did you kidnap the kids, asshole?” Atom Cat snarled at the Psycho.

“Suck my sting…” Mosquito hissed.

“Answer the question, and we will give you medical care,” Wyvern said firmly. While she was angry at her charges for acting on their lonesome, she had no pity to spare for the Psycho. “In your current condition, even with your enhanced metabolism, you will bleed out within minutes.”

Mosquito remained silent for a few seconds, probably weighing the odds of risking his boss killing him for snitching, versus dying right now. Survival instinct being a powerful force, he decided to speak. “It’s… the place… the shafts are too small for adults… and these crazy robots, they shoot Genomes on sight...”

“Robots?” Wyvern repeated.

“What place?” Ryan probed him, curious.

“A bunker Adam wants to access… below the Junkyard… don’t know what…” Mosquito hissed in agony. “Please, the pain… it’s atrocious…”

“I’ve dialed the medics when I saw the kids,” Wyvern said, touching her earpiece. “They should arrive soon.”

And with these words, Ryan handcuffed Vulcan, having helped save an orphanage. He hoped his karma meter would go up after that!

Other kids emerged from the orphanage, the battle over, and immediately rushed to Wyvern’s side, pestering her with autographs. Others moved to help their wounded member, Ryan hearing the name ‘Giulia’ being thrown around a lot.

“Hey Kitty, if you can create explosive projectiles, why don’t you carry throwing knives?” Ryan asked Atom Cat, that detail having bothered him. “It would be much more practical than grabbing improvised projectiles.”

“I didn’t realize I could use my power this way,” Atom Cat admitted, a bit sheepish, “I knew I could delay the detonation by a few seconds, but I never thought I could combine that with projectiles to attack at range. It’s only in the thick of action that it clicked for me.”

“Well, you’re still green.”

“And you’re...” he trailed off, trying to find a good quip, “Violet.”

“Wow, I will let you stew for one hour until you find a decent comeback.” Truthfully, Kitty should be proud to have done so well on raw talent alone.

Ryan himself looked at his cell phone, to see if the battle had made it to the news; instead, he received a notification from his devices inside Il Migliore’s HQ.

Backdoor detected.

Huh.

Ryan wasn’t the only one spying Dynamis through its computer systems. He set out to track down the IP to investigate, in case it was the assassin’s doing.

“Hey kids, I know the perfect way to cheer you up,” Ryan proposed, raising his phone. “Who wants a group photo with Wyvern?”

“Me!” “Me!” “ME!” The kids all raised their hands, much to Wyvern’s embarrassment and Atom Cat’s amusement. Even grumpy little Sarah seemed a bit enthusiastic.

They spent minutes waiting for the Private Security doing funny selfies, Vulcan glaring at them and Mosquito bleeding to death in the background.

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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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