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Ryan thought his life was a role-playing game.

“Kill them all!” a druggie shouted from atop a roof, hitting Ryan’s car with a submachine gun, the bullets unable to pierce the shielding. Everywhere, the courier heard the sound of bullets flying. “Kill them all!”

But somewhere along the line, it had turned into a FPS.

Hiding behind his car with an earplug in his right ear, Ryan reloaded his pistol while mourning the Plymouth Fury’s paint job; at his side, Fortuna fired over her shoulder with a pistol with one hand, and texted on a phone with the other. She didn’t even aim, and her bullets always resulted in a headshot. At least she had taken to wearing a white, streamlined armor to protect herself.

Seriously, one bad haircut, and suddenly the world wasn’t safe anymore?

In total, twelve people, Ryan and Fortuna included, hid behind the cover of half a dozen cars and SUVs. Most were henchmen wearing riot gear and carrying powerful firearms, with one exception: a woman in a suit of heavy, red padded advanced armor whose design reminded Ryan of steampunk comics. That Genome had drunk the Firebrand knock-off Elixir, and as promised by Vulcan, her armor boosted her pyrokinesis. Sometimes, she looked over her cover to throw a car-sized fireball at the enemy.

“You know texting while fighting is the first cause of bullet accidents?” Ryan asked Fortuna, as one of his car’s windows exploded, shattered by a 20mm round.

“I’m texting my brother,” she replied dismissively, barely paying attention to the battle. The lucky Genome didn’t even bother to protect herself, the snipers having a clear line of fire to hit her head. Yet so far, every bullet had narrowly missed her helmet.

“Felix the Atom Cat?”

“You know that?” Fortuna groaned. “I’m in the middle of a firefight and he won’t answer his big sister!”

Having reloaded, Ryan froze time for ten seconds and peeked over his car. Beyond the protective vehicle line, the welcoming committee had taken refuge inside two half-demolished apartment buildings, surrounding the main road leading to the Junkyard. Most of the walls had fallen, but the remains provided snipers with enough protection. As for the road itself, the Meta’s men had blocked it with a trash barricade, leaving only small openings to allow their machine guns to fire through. The Augusti’s Firebrand Genome had managed to set the road on fire though, forcing the defenders to flee or die in the flames.

However, it didn’t look like the snipers would run out of ammo anytime soon. Ryan shot two of them, before taking cover as time unfroze. Far in the distance, west of his position, he noticed crimson beams piercing through Rust Town's polluted clouds. Sparrow’s doing, probably.

In total, Vulcan had deployed three hundred soldiers to retake Rust Town, divided in groups all across the district. Most of them were non-superhuman paramilitary. Others were Genomes having drunk a knock-off Elixir; people like Ryan or the Killer Seven, with original powers, were a minority in the squad.

The Private Security had watched the squadron move inside Rust Town without reacting, perhaps hoping the Augusti and Meta would slaughter one another. Vulcan then deployed her forces all around the Junkyard, where the Meta had established their headquarters.

Unfortunately, as soon as Ryan’s group approached the area’s outskirts, they found themselves welcomed by armed men.

“Vulcan here,” Ryan heard through his earplug. “How’s the situation?”

“It’s a camper contest here,” the courier replied. “It’s the bad days of Quake all over again! But my car is alright!”

“Yes, that’s the important thing,” Fortuna replied with a sassy tone. “If someone could help us, that would be great. I’ve got a date tonight.”

“You will wait,” Vulcan replied, although she sounded quite blase. “Cancel and Sparrow are busy dealing with Gemini and Sarin, and I’m fully occupied dealing with cannon fodder. It’s such a drag, pursuing them house to house.”

“No sign of Acid Rain or Adam?” the courier asked. The Meta’s leader was their main target, as Vulcan believed he alone held his group together; if he died, the Psychos would splinter and become manageable.

“Scared?” Fortuna taunted him, putting her cell phone back into one of her armor’s pockets.

“Frankly, I could do without Acid Rain,” Ryan replied, being in no hurry to die to her again. “Our powers interfere with one another. She can predict my shifts and counter them.”

“Then Fortuna will stay with you,” Vulcan declared. Wise choice. No matter how powerful she was, Acid Rain needed guns, knives, and weapons to kill. And Fortuna’s cheat code of a superpower allowed her to neutralize them. “And no, no sign of either yet. Nor of any of the big guns, oddly.”

“Why do I have to stay with that maniac?” Fortuna complained, as their fire Genome set a building floor on fire with a well-placed fireball. “Can’t you send me with Greta?”

“You will stay with Quicksave because I say so, brat.”

“I’m older than you!”

“Don’t waste my patience, Fortuna. Clearing out the outskirts is already more exhausting than I expected, so I’m not in the mood to hear your whining.”

Clearly, Vulcan didn’t think the battle would last for so long. The Meta had a lot more foot soldiers than anticipated.

Ryan briefly froze time and glanced over his cover to survey the situation. Much to his horror, a new, scrawny sniper had appeared inside the left building, rejoining two other men with what appeared to be an archaic rocket launcher.

“Uh, oh, rocket launcher to the left!” Ryan shouted a warning as time resumed. How did the Meta-Gang recruit so many mooks?!

“On it,” a voice echoed through the earplug.

Mortimer suddenly phased through a wall behind the sniper nest in the left building, taking them by surprise. Mortimer was the only member of his hit squad who went into the field without armor, perhaps because it interfered with his power. From what Ryan had seen, the killer could phase through surfaces, from cinder block walls to the earthly ground.

In any case, Mortimer slaughtered the mooks with a submachine gun, then phased through the ground within the blink of an eye. The man with the rocket launcher fell through a destroyed wall, falling on the ground below.

“Thirteen,” Mortimer gloated through the earplug. “I’m leading.”

“Not for long, Morty!”

Fortuna fired one bullet.

Two snipers fell from the right building’s roof.

Ryan was about to participate in the kill contest when the reality of the situation hit him like a deer in a headlight.

She… killed two people with one bullet.

She killed two people with one bullet.

“How did it work?” Ryan asked. “How did it work?”

“I don’t know,” Fortuna replied with a shrug, amused by his confusion. “The world simply bends to my whims.”

Ryan stopped time and spent the entire ten seconds looking at the scene and trying to puzzle it out. Did the bullet bounce back on one sniper's skull and killed a second? When he realized he had no logical explanation, he turned toward Fortuna as time resumed. “Can I cut off your foot?”

“What? Why?”

“Because if it’s anything like a rabbit’s, I want some of that sweet luck!”

“As a matter of fact, go BLEEP yourself, you crazy… homeless… you crazy homeless.”

Ryan looked on at her pitiful attempt at improvisation, shaking his head. “You're such a disappointment.”

Fortuna let out an angry snarl, rose up from behind the car, and unleashed a volley of bullets at the defenders. When she emptied her magazine, the fighting suddenly came to an abrupt halt.

Ryan peeked over the car, as did the rest of the Augusti. They only faced corpses with holes in their skull.

“Eighteen,” Fortuna declared, smoke coming out of her gun's barrel. “I win.”

“I call hax,” Mortimer complained. “You cheat.”

Their group had probably killed fifty people in total, and lost only one henchman, shot at the beginning of the firefight. Such was the gap between normal human beings and Genomes.

“Stay here and secure the area until I give new instructions,” Vulcan ordered. “I’ll be done in a minute.”

The Augusti spread over the perimeter, but Ryan didn’t join them. Instead, he focused on what truly mattered to him.

His Plymouth Fury.

“My car is alright,” Ryan let out a sigh of blissful relief after he reviewed the engine and key parts. The protective alloys had held against the gunfire. “I will have to repair the windows, but none of the vitals have been hit.”

“The vitals?” Vulcan mused through the intercom. “Does your car have a heart, on top of the brain?”

“All cars have a heart, but not everyone can hear it.”

“Poetic.” Ryan heard an explosion on Vulcan’s side, and then nothing. She must have gone Michael B. on her enemies. “Alright, all clear on my end. Cancel, Sparrow?”

“Sarin and Gemini retreated,” Sparrow replied, ever the professional. “We have control over the main roads.”

“And they’re mighty sore losers about it,” Mortimer said, his voice turning raspy as he cleared his throat. “Look at the skies.”

Ryan did so, noticing acidic clouds spread above the Junkyard, and extending towards the outskirts.

Acid Rain.

Thankfully for him, the clouds moved to the west, so she was Sparrow and Cancel’s problem this time.

“They sent weaklings to delay us until they could mount a counterattack with their heavy hitters,” Vulcan guessed. “But I wonder how they recruited so much manpower to draw upon. I miscalculated.”

“That’s trash mobs for you,” Ryan replied. The courier was quite optimistic though. If the Meta struggled to mount a defense, it meant the attack took them by surprise. He could always refine the plan in a future loop, make it into a blitzkrieg.

“I don’t understand Adam’s plan,” Vulcan muttered. “Now that we have control over the roads, he won’t be able to resupply and we’ll call in reinforcements. How does he expect to break the siege?”

“He’s a camper,” Ryan said. “It’s not about winning, it’s about getting off on our tears of frustration.”

“Chief, I only see mountains of trash from my rookery,” Mortimer said. “It looks like they’re shifting though.”

“Do we advance?” Sparrow asked. “We could take them in a pincer attack.”

Vulcan shot the idea down. “I’ll fly by and do some recon first. Hold the road, there’s definitely something fishy going on.”

Given an official order to laze off, Ryan whistled to himself, waltzing through the battlefield with his gun. Mortimer stood on the left building’s roof, watching the road like a hawk, while Fortuna had again begun to text on her phone. The courier checked the dead mooks’ weapons, in case he found one badass enough to add to his collection.

As he examined the various firearms, Ryan couldn’t help but notice the Dynamis logo on quite a few. It made sense since the company was the main weapon manufacturer in the area, but… suspicious.

As for the archaic rocket launcher, the courier found it oddly familiar. As if someone had pointed it at him not so long ago.

A doubt crossed the courier’s mind, as he turned the dead sniper’s body on his back, to get a good look at his face. His balding, familiar face.

“Paulie?” Ryan said, astonished.

“Who?” Fortuna asked, looking away from her cell phone.

“A Rust Town mechanic,” the courier replied. “But that makes no sense, he hated the Meta-Gang!”

“They must have press-ganged him into their service,” the pompous woman replied, her voice softening. “My condolences. You were close?”

“Once, I threatened to throw a plushie at him.”

Fortuna immediately returned to her texting and did her best to ignore Ryan’s existence.

“What the—” Vulcan’s voice turned from surprised to panicked. “All units, retreat!”

“What?” Fortuna asked, putting her cell phone away. “But we’re winning!”

"Retreat! They have Mechron tec—"

Ryan heard the sound of an explosion, both in the distance and through the earplug.

Then, without warning, the atmosphere turned oppressive.

Ryan couldn’t quite put a word on it, but he felt no longer welcome in Rust Town. He sensed hundreds, thousands of invisible eyes gazing at him in judgment; the courier’s body entered a fight-or-flight response, his muscles tensing in alarm. He had entered the den of a mighty predator and now had its full attention.

The psychic attack seemed to spread among the Augusti, Fortuna dropping her phone and suddenly collapsing to her knees. A cloud of yellow energy flared around her body, an ethereal field surrounding her. An invisible force pushed it back inside the Genome, compressing the halo.

Immediately afterward, tremors shook the ground, before escalating into a full-blown quake. Ryan struggled to stand on his feet, as some of the henchmen tripped and the road broke up into large rifts.

“It’s the Land!” Mortimer warned through the intercom. Before he could say more, the building he stood on collapsed due to the earthquake, the hitman phasing through the falling cinder blocks and vanishing amidst a cloud of dust.

Ryan had learned about her during the attack’s debriefing. That Psycho could fuse with an area, melding her body into it and gaining psychic control over a certain territory. Add geokinesis on top of that, and you had a truly deadly combination.

But apparently, their intel had miscalculated her powers’ range. The tremors spread all over Rust Town, collapsing every building in sight in a catastrophic domino effect and blowing dust across the district.

Fortuna shouted a warning as the buildings collapsed, debris raining on them. The Augusti ran in all directions, Ryan included, but some of the henchmen were soon buried alive under cinder blocks anyway.

“W-what’s happening?” Fortuna panicked, as the golden cloud around her started getting thinner and thinner, threatening to disappear entirely. Debris that passed through the yellow aura miraculously missed the Genome, but those that avoided it hit her armor just fine.

“I can’t get hit!” Fortuna panicked, finally getting the memo that her life was in danger. “Nothing can hit me!”

“Get into my car!” Ryan shouted a warning, rushing to his Plymouth. Above, advanced rockets pierced through the pollution clouds, falling down upon them like a rain of arrows. Ryan counted dozens, if not hundreds of them.

While the courier reached his car’s hood, Fortuna’s field short-circuited and she tripped on debris. Before Ryan could even react, she was buried beneath a rain of stone and dust. She would probably survive with her armor on, but she would need help to escape.

Whatever invisible force had taken over the area, it interfered with her luck.

Ryan stopped time, and to his immense relief, found that his power hadn’t been affected. It must have been a case of Yellow interfering with another Yellow, instead of something as threatening as Cancel’s negation.

However, even as he fired bullets at the missiles in an attempt to detonate them before they hit the ground, Ryan could only do so much in ten seconds. Most of the projectiles landed when time resumed, the courier thrown backward by a massive explosion.

Everything went white and silent for a moment, Ryan taking several seconds to regain consciousness. The left half of his body burnt, the flesh seared to the bone, and dust seeped inside his mask.

“We need reinforcements!” Sparrow shouted through the intercom, Acid Rain’s manic laughter echoing in the background. “Vulcan?!”

“I’m trying!” Vulcan snapped back, her voice almost covered by the noise of gunfire. “Ryan?! Fortuna?! Answer, damn it!”

Everywhere, Ryan could only see burning craters, corpses, and shattered stones. Clouds of smoke filled Rust Town’s polluted skies, turning the area into a vision of Hell. The bombardment had savaged the entire warzone.

And worse, his car, his beloved car, was a smoking wreck.

“Not again!”

What did the Meta have against his Plymouth?

As far as he could see, Ryan was the only survivor. The Augusti’s men had been blasted into burning body parts, even the armored one. Mortimer may have survived if he had phased through the ground, but he didn’t answer through the intercom. The courier heard explosions both west and east, the Meta launching a counterattack.

“Vulcan?” Ryan called through the intercom but received no answer. “Must I call Wyvern for help?”

He only received a static noise for an answer. Something interfered with their communications.

And then, emerging from the ruins and towering over the debris, the source of the attack showed up to finish him off.

It was a colossal dark blue machine, twelve meters long and four meters wide. Six metal legs carried its body, while a scorpion-like tail flung at the back, the tip replaced with some kind of laser cannon. Missile launchers covered the warmech’s back, while two flamethrowers and turrets formed the ‘head.’ Wire tentacles wriggled through small cracks in the shielding.

A silver gear with a stylized ‘M’ at the center was painted at the front.

Mechron’s symbol.

The enormous mech was clearly one of his robots, repurposed by the Meta into a weapon platform. From the wire tentacles slipping through the cracks, Ryan guessed that Psyshock piloted it from within, using his peculiar biology to hijack the machine’s command centers.

But the robot wasn’t scavenged. It looked pristine, and straight out of storage.

“Little Cesare.” Psyshock’s voice came out of the warmech, startling the courier. “What a surprise.”

“I come with a gift box,” Ryan deadpanned, struggling against the pain.

“Where is Ghoul?” the Psycho replied, wires coming out of a thin crack in the mech’s shielding, while its cannon aimed at Quicksave. “What did you do with the body?”

“I gave him to dogs, to play fetch with.”

Psyshock responded to the joke by opening fire, the cannon unleashing a massive, crimson beam straight at the courier.

Having outlived his car and seeing no point in continuing after such a slaughter, Ryan made a dramatic pose and embraced the light.


It was May 8th 2020 for… the ninth time?

Ryan didn’t remember and didn’t care all that much. He guessed the previous loop hadn’t been his Perfect Run in the end, and there was clearly still room to improve. Vulcan’s attack had gone terribly wrong, and now he had to consider what to do about it.

He also now knew where Len was, and how to contact her without owing a favor to either the Carnival or the Augusti. A connection he had overlooked, and now seemed so obvious to him.

The Meta subverting Rust Town’s denizens, and having one of Mechron warmechs in reserve, was cause for alarm. They also clearly had access to Dynamis-made weapons, and the supply of Elixirs implied a connection of some sort between the two organizations.

Wait.

The Meta that Ryan had captured in the previous loops said robots protected the bunker they wanted to access. Machines powerful enough to fight a gang of Psychos.

And Mechron was infamous for his robot army.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Ryan muttered to himself. The Meta wrecked his car, killed him multiple times, and finally erased the loop when he had finally managed to confront Len.

Now?

Now was the time for war.

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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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