Ryan hated hospital rooms. Even if useful for sanitization purposes, the constant whiteness made him feel sick and isolated.
Hours had gone by since the orphanage battle, its occupants evacuated by Dynamis and moved to one of the company’s hospitals. Psyshock’s victim had been put in an artificial slumber, laying on a warm bed with a respirator and brain scanning devices near her. Wyvern stood near the window, clearly struggling against the urge to sleep.
“Will she be okay?” Ryan asked Wyvern, both having stood watch over the girl for a while. “I know from experience you can recover from Psyshock’s ‘brain connection,’ but I have yet to see someone sedated afterward.”
“Medics said her brainwave patterns are highly abnormal,” Wyvern told him. “They will keep her in observation for a few days until they are certain she won’t suffer from sequelae.”
This worried Ryan a bit, making him wonder if Psyshock had refined his powers since the last time they met. At least the vile Psycho was dead for this loop, allowing the courier to relax.
Enrique ‘Blackthorn’ Manada chose that moment to enter the room, carrying a bright, exquisite bouquet in his arms.
“Well, well, I believe congratulations are in order,” the corporate mastermind said, putting the flowers next to the window. “A bit heavy-handed for my taste, but I expected collateral damage from your part, Romano.”
“What will happen to the children?” Wyvern asked, sounding quite familiar with her manager.
“We will take care of them,” Enrique said. “They will be hosted in a secure facility far away from Rust Town, and many people voiced their intention to adopt some of them. Let it not be said that Dynamis is not family-friendly.”
Of course they would try to exploit the situation for a publicity stunt. “Well, I’m sure everyone cared about them before I posted these photos on the Dynanet,” Ryan mused.
“Speaking of photos, Romano, I am highly disappointed in you,” Enrique scolded him. “I remember telling you that your name was Timelord now, yet you introduce yourself in your pictures as ‘Quicksave and his cat.’ Now the damage is done, and it might be even too late to correct that mistake.”
“Wait, that’s what bothers you?” Ryan asked, surprised. “You’re not mad about our little adventure?”
“Why would I?” Enrique asked, also genuinely surprised. “You and Atom Cat saved an orphanage while dealing a savage blow to this city’s criminal underbelly. You did good.”
“Yeah, but I skipped the training, and you said you didn’t like loose cannons.”
“I don’t, but I believe you are under a misconception. You are free to do as you wish, as long as you accept the consequences. If your actions, no matter how irresponsible, lead to a victory, then obviously it was done with Dynamis’ full approval; if you fuck up, then you did it on your own.”
“So, if I succeed,” Ryan summarized, to make sure he had heard it straight. “You take the credit, and if I fail, I take the blame?”
“No, no,” Enrique reassured him. “If you succeed we share the credit, and if you fail, you take the blame.”
A distinction without a difference. “I admire your pragmatism, sir. You are a genius, sir.”
“Enough with the fake servility, Romano, I get enough of that from the trainees.” He then joined his hands in a calculating mastermind pose. “Now, the bitter part.”
“Oh, I know that expression,” Ryan mused, who had seen it over and over again. “You are going to crush all our hopes and dreams with the dullest tone possible.”
“You catch on quickly, Romano,” Enrique replied dryly. “Vulcan is to be released.”
Wyvern’s eyes widened in fury, the first time Ryan had seen her lose her cool. “After she tried to murder two of our own? No! No way!”
“Wyvern, I understand how you feel but—”
“If she gets away with a slap on her back, I quit.”
As the silence stretched on, Ryan noticed the rose on Enrique’s cashmere suit started growing thorns, shifting as if ready to jump from its holder and attack. Even the flowers near the bedroom’s windows seemed to gain a life of their own, their petals swirling.
“Believe me,” Blackthorn said, his voice calm but betraying an undercurrent of anger, “I fully share your frustration. However, I do not have the luxury to act on it, and neither do you. The order comes straight from the CEO.”
“Hector himself? But why?” Wyvern asked, all but choking. “She’s the only one who knows how to make advanced armors! If she’s taken out, their entire operation takes a blow!”
“My father doesn’t want to spark retaliation from Augustus.” Enrique sighed. “We are in a period of detente with him. Don Hector believes another direct conflict would cost us more than sweeping this incident under the rug, especially after Atom Cat's poaching. If Vulcan remains in custody, Mars and Venus may convince their master to get down from his mountain.”
“What happened today wasn’t detente at all,” Wyvern pointed out. “Can’t you talk your father out of this?”
“I tried,” Enrique replied with a sigh. “I even called Alphonse for support, but it didn’t change anything. It would have been a different story if someone on our team had died, but since both your teammates and Vulcan survived, she will be allowed to leave with a warning. If she or another Capo tries anything like that again though, then it’s war.”
Wyvern closed her eyes, breathing heavily. “This can’t continue, Enrique.”
“Be patient, Wyvern,” Enrique said. “The time to clean this city will come.”
“You’ve been saying that for two years,” she pointed out.
“And I may say that for two more years if it prevents another Malta.”
“Huh? What happened in Malta?” Ryan asked. He heard rumors, but nothing detailed.
“It sank,” Enrique replied dryly, checking his watch under his sleeve. “I must go. Wyvern, Quicksave.”
At least he stopped using that name. Once Blackthorn left and the flowers turned inanimate again, Ryan glanced at Wyvern. The superheroine’s face had turned distraught, her eyes glancing through the window with disappointment.
“Wyvern, tell me,” Ryan coughed, "The armors used by the Private Security elite… it’s Vulcan’s work, right?” She nodded slowly. “I heard you two were close.”
“We were.” The superheroine frowned a bit. “Why are you insisting on the close part?”
“Her obsession with you seems… I dunno… a bit too passionate.”
Wyvern looked at him with an incredulous face, then a thought seemed to cross her mind. “No,” she said after some hesitation. “It’s…”
She let out a sigh, clearly not eager to speak about it. Ryan waited, knowing she would speak if not pressured. “She was my partner once,” Wyvern finally admitted, “Even before I joined Il Migliore.”
“My partner,” Wyvern insisted. “She was the brains, I was the brawn. However, since I was the only one in the field, the media and citizens attributed most of our success to me. Eventually, she tried to rebrand herself as a solo hero, but since she was a Genius, and the backbone of its high-tech military, Dynamis didn’t want her out of a lab. She was too precious to risk in a direct confrontation, but she didn’t see it that way. She felt sidelined and disrespected.”
Huh, so she stewed in her resentment, and eventually, Augustus approached her with a promise of a cushy Capo rank and total autonomy if she switched sides. “And you never noticed? I guess you weren’t that close then.”
“She never told me anything before she exploded, how was I supposed to know?” Wyvern replied with annoyance. “I trusted her.”
The bedroom’s door opened, a feline walking inside without making a sound. “Wyvern,” Atom Cat nodded politely, double-checking the door’s lock before turning towards Ryan, “Quicksave, you said the Meta had a supply of elixirs? What made you think that?”
“I can tell when Psychos suffer from withdrawal.” He had a long experience managing someone like Bloodstream. “None of them were, and they haven’t behaved like normal Psychos for weeks. It seemed to be the likeliest explanation.”
“Mosquito died while in medical care.”
Ryan immediately caught on, though Wyvern didn’t connect the dots. “What are you suggesting?” she asked, confused.
“The reptilians,” Ryan explained. “The reptilians struck again. They’re everywhere.”
Wyvern stared at him without a word.
She knew he was onto her!
“Can you be serious a minute?” Atom Cat replied, completely missing the joke. “Don’t you find it strange?”
“He could have died of natural causes,” Wyvern said, not really bothered by the fact she might be responsible. “I hit him hard.”
“Maybe, but if Quicksave’s theory is correct, then the Meta must have gotten their extra Elixirs from someone.”
Wyvern crossed her arms, thoughtful. “It is true that Private Security members tried to help Ghoul escape confinement,” she conceded. “But what you are suggesting is a very serious accusation.”
“Someone inside Dynamis is clearly helping the Meta,” Atom Cat declared boldly. “Supplying them with knockoff Elixirs, information, and support while covering their tracks. That’s the only explanation.”
“I don’t know, Felix,” Wyvern said. “I don’t—”
“Wait, your name is Felix?” Ryan cut off Wyvern, glancing at his sidekick. “And your superhero name is Atom Cat?”
“I don’t see the problem,” he lied. Ryan didn’t say anything, even if the jokes wrote themselves. That would be too easy.
Wyvern waited a second for him to calm down, before finishing her sentence. “I don’t doubt that some divisions of Dynamis are corrupt and that the Meta could pay off Private Security grunts to provide information and support. The Augusti do it too, and that has been a problem for years. However, Elixirs are something else. For anyone to secure a steady supply, they would need cooperation from top executives or key people, all heavily scrutinized. Even the Augusti need to buy the knockoffs through corrupt intermediaries to avoid detection.”
“They could be making their own,” Ryan suggested the obvious.
“Even the Augusti haven’t managed that feat yet,” Wyvern dismissed it. “I’m more worried about that bunker Mosquito told us about, honestly. I always wondered why the Meta-Gang never attacked Dynamis establishments, or tried to expand. Even their attacks on the Augusti were only an attempt to keep them out of Rust Town.”
It said everything about Psychos that attacking an orphanage was considered restrained on their part. “So all they want is that bunker?” Atom Cat asked. “They’re trying not to draw attention to themselves while they unearth it?”
“And if Adam wants it, it can’t be good.”
“Well, my good friends, the path ahead is clear,” Ryan said. “We go to the Junkyard and see for ourselves.”
Much to his consternation, neither seemed keen on the idea. “If they want this bunker so much, they probably have all their heavy hitters stationed in the Junkyard,” Wyvern pointed out. “Frank the Mad is physically stronger than me, Acid Rain possesses a devastating capacity for destruction, and Adam himself is as cunning as he is powerful. We also received reports that they recruited lone wolf Psychos like the Land, and with Psyshock’s demise, they will expect an attack. We will need numbers, recon, and an attack plan.”
“But can it be done?” Atom Cat asked. “Or will we let them go to avoid ‘escalating tensions’?”
Clearly, Enrique had given him the talk on his way out. Unlike the Augusti though, Wyvern seemed optimistic on that front. “The Meta aren’t Augustus,” she said. “Especially after that stunt, the public will want us to take action against th-”
She stopped talking, touching her earplug.
“What’s up?” Ryan asked. “Another late night commercial?”
“It’s the harbor,” Wyvern said grimly. “There has been a massacre.”
As dawn started to appear beyond the horizon and he fought off drowsiness, Ryan realized that he should have anticipated something like that.
He had ‘seen’ the assassin at the harbor, and the bathysphere shipment was scheduled long before the courier himself entered the picture. Of course Zanbato would maintain it even without Ryan’s presence, and with Ghoul’s arrest, the Meta sent Sarin to attack the meeting alone.
It must have seemed like a golden opportunity to score a few easy kills.
“Quicksave and his cat,” Felix the Atom Cat muttered on the front passenger seat, as Ryan parked near the security chord Dynamis established around the harbor. “I should sue you.”
Ryan looked straight into his eyes. “Your name is Felix, Cat.”
“It means lucky!” Atom Cat protested. “You’re never going to let me live it down, are you?”
“Then I will call you Quickie from now on.”
“I'll be blunt,” Ryan sighed. “That makes it sound like you have a thing for me.”
“Oh my, no!” Atom Cat replied, his tone dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t wish that on anyone, you’re horrible! You wouldn’t be able to handle half of me anyway!”
“Believe me, Kitty, if I took you, the experience would be so intense, that you would never be able to enjoy a girl ever again. I invented positions so powerful, the authorities had to make them illegal.”
When they arrived at the spot where Ryan had first met with Luigi and his goons, the duo only found corpses and Private Security members taking pictures of the crime scene. Sarin had left a few holes in the dock, indicating that she hadn’t gone quietly; her empty hazmat suit had already been recovered, drained of its contents. Ryan wondered if she had somehow survived.
The Augusti’s remains left nothing to interpretation.
Luigi and his unpowered goons had been torn to shreds by sharp blades, their corpses tossed into the ocean. Their blood colored the water red. Zanbato’s armor had short-circuited like during the last loop, shocking him to death; considering the hole in his chest, Sarin had exploited the opportunity to land a direct shot at his vitals, killing him instantly. The samurai laid on his back, a fallen warrior.
“The Punisher struck again,” Ryan muttered to himself, feeling slight guilt upon seeing Jamie’s remains. He liked the guy, and the fact he couldn’t save him during this loop made him feel a bit down.
The courier knew he could bring the swordsman back and he had seen people die so often he had grown numb to it, but still.
After a shocked silence, Atom Cat seemed devastated, immediately rushing to Zanbato’s side. “Fuck, it’s Jamie!”
Huh? “You knew him?”
“Yeah, we were pals before I left the family.” Atom Cat examined the corpse with hollow eyes. “Shit… shit!”
Ryan said nothing, unsure how to react. His last attempt to comfort someone had gone horribly wrong.
“I knew this day would come, I knew it. But he has a girl at home, man. Shit.” Atom Cat shook his head, clearly distraught and confused. “Quickie, do you mind giving me a ride?”
“You want to see his girlfriend?” Ryan guessed.
“Yeah, I believe an old friend should deliver the news. Even if I burned that bridge, Jamie deserved that much.”
Ryan turned to his sidekick, remembering how he himself died at Jamie’s house in the previous loop. “That’s not a good idea.”
Atom Cat looked ready to protest, but to his credit, he considered the courier’s words rationally. “You think they will target her next?”
Yes. This disaster confirmed that the assassin wasn't after Ryan specifically, but the Genomes associated with the Augusti. The courier felt a little wounded at not having a secret nemesis, though it didn’t explain how that mysterious vigilante figured out his cooldown limit.
Outside of Dynamis, who could be mad enough to take on an organization as powerful as Augustus’ and know Ryan enough to figure out his time—
Then it clicked.
“Oh,” Ryan spoke out loud. “No way!”
“I think I know who did this,” Ryan replied, opening his cell phone, “Which is both awesome and terrifying.” On one hand, that meant another route to unlock, but on the other hand… yeesh, the boss fights would be terrible.
Atom Cat cracked his knuckles. “So what do we do?”
Ryan showed him his cell phone and the location where he had tracked the hacker’s IP address. “We catch the lion in its own den of course.”