“Do you want to be my friend?”
The plushie’s words echoed in the corridor, while Ryan found himself trapped between two monsters. On one side was a ruthless abomination against nature, and on the other, Frank the Mad. Psyshock remained in the background, carefully waiting for an opportunity.
The plushie and Frank locked gazes, two apex predators recognizing each other. The tension grew palpable, the rabbit throwing Pale Guy’s scalp away while Frank adopted a krav maga fighting stance. Eldritch whispering voices echoed through the hallway, promising sweet destruction to all living creatures.
“Behind me, Mr. Vice-President,” the giant told Psyshock, warily gazing at the rabbit. “It’s an Afghan hare.”
A tense silence stretched for several, agonizing seconds. No one was brave enough to take the first step. The plushie’s ears turned towards the Psycho ever so threateningly, while Frank’s fingers fidgeted. Ryan held his breath, knowing the following seconds would decide the fate of the entire run.
And then it started. The rabbit leaped forward, knife-claws extended, while Frank let out a bestial roar and charged. David versus Goliath. Robot versus robot. Man versus rabbit.
Of this epic battle…
Of this epic battle, nothing would be said, for Ryan ran away.
Realizing he would die if caught in the crossfire, the courier stopped time for ten seconds. He ran towards Frank, slid on the ground between the giant’s leg, and then quickly got back up and fled towards the other end of the hallway.
“I love you so much!” he heard from behind him.
And the clock was still stopped.
Unfortunately, the moment time resumed, Psyshock whipped Ryan in the torso with his tentacle arm from the ceiling, having attached himself to it like a spider waiting for his prey.
Thanks to the Rampage drug, Ryan didn’t ‘feel’ the pain, but he heard one of his ribs break under the strain. The blow propelled him further down the hallway, brightened by flashes of crimson light. The bunker trembled, as Frank frantically hit the ground and walls in a fruitless attempt to catch the rabbit.
“It seems you are quite the glass cannon, Cesare,” Psyshock mused, leaping with his wires and attempting to pin the courier to the ground. “You can dodge a thousand times, but you can only stumble so often.”
Ryan managed to roll over to dodge the attack, quickly getting back on his feet and running away. Psyshock pursued him, with the two demons remaining behind to fight.
Ryan eventually exited the hallway to enter another underground chamber, with lamps embedded in black panels all over the walls; blood had recently been spilled on the ground, leaving spots on the metal. Seven vats full of colored liquids, one for each Elixir, were lined up on a nearby wall. Linked to strange-looking machines, three of the containers held mutated animals; Ryan struggled to see them fully through the liquid but identified some strange hybrid of a lizard and dog the size of a Doberman in the violet tube. The laboratory had two other blast doors, one opened, one closed.
Psyshock’s tentacles launched themselves at Ryan, who had finally recovered from his cooldown. The courier dodged with a leap to the side after a short two seconds time stop, the drug in his system helping him fight off the pain of the broken rib.
“That’s all you got?” Ryan taunted Psyshock, as both he and the Psycho faced one another. “Guess it’s easier with Japanese schoolgirls?”
“Classy,” the wire squid replied, launching one of his tentacles. This time, instead of dodging, Ryan grabbed it with his hands. With the strength boost from the Rampage drug, he rotated on himself and tossed Psyshock against a nearby wall. The Psycho managed to recover but quickly turned still.
Heavy steps echoed close from the open blast door, something huge moving into the underground lab.
“My, my,” a playful voice with a thick New York accent interrupted the battle, “what do we have here?”
A massive figure, not as tall and massive as Frank but close, stepped through the broken blast door. An obese Psycho with the power to turn his skin into an indestructible, black carbon alloy, he was already transformed when he showed up. The man was heavily mutated, his face heavily scarred and possessing prominent teeth like a hippo. He dressed like a man from the fifties, though his clothes had fuming holes in them, probably from lasers.
And his eyes… his brown eyes shone with a mix of fiendish cunning and malignant narcissism. He briefly glanced at Psyshock, who instantly submitted without a word.
“Big Bad Adam,” Ryan said dramatically, “we finally meet again in the fat.”
“Oh my, we’ve got a new Mark Twain here,” the living balloon mocked him back. “Such a razor-sharp wit. You make Oscar Wilde proud, laddie.”
He was the worst kind of criminal.
The one with a sense of humor.
“You’ve been making a mess above, chump,” Adam said, keeping his left hand behind his back and his right one exposed. “I’ve been looking at you through our cams for a while. Sorry not to have welcomed you myself, I was busy doing important work.”
“Well, fatass, now that we got to know each other better, perhaps we can discuss your plan to conquer New Rome with a robot army over dinner?”
Adam chuckled. “You’re wired,” he mused. “They’re always wired when they say that. Sorry, mate, you’ll warrant no exposition from me.”
Well, it was worth a shot.
“Wait, widdy wait, you said we meet again?” Adam snapped his fingers. “You’re Bloodstream’s kid. Cesaire something.”
“Cesare,” Psyshock said, clearly itching to attack Ryan, but wise enough to humor his boss.
“Is that the reason for all this fuss?” Big Fat Adam asked the courier, raising an eyebrow while explosions echoed through the hallway nearby. “A score to settle? It’s old news, mate. Old news.”
“It was an impulse thing, really,” Ryan shrugged.
“Well, whatever the case, when you invade my home and start killing all my men, I take that real personal, mate. The ride’s over boyo.”
“Oh well, I had fun. I guess I’ll just blow myself up then.”
“Mate, we’ll survive your pretty belt.” Adam grinned, though his smile never reached his eyes. “You won’t.”
“A fight to the death then?” Ryan did some footwork and shadow boxing. “I’m pumped for a few rounds.”
“There won’t be a battle, kiddo. You see, you’re mistaken about something. The media call me Big Adam, because they don’t want to face what I am, but my real moniker...” He smiled, showing three rows of sharp teeth behind his lips. “Is Adam the Ogre.”
He revealed his left hand, and Ryan flinched.
Adam held a beaten and bloody teenager no older than fourteen within his fingers; probably some Rust Town denizen, clearly of Arab or Turkish descent. The prisoner had tears of terror at the edge of his eyes, pleading Ryan to save him with his gaze.
“And though I prefer to eat French,” Adam said with a vicious smirk, holding his captive with both hands like a sandwich, “I can settle for a kebab.”
He opened his mouth and prepared to bite his captive’s head off.
Time seemed to slow down as Ryan frantically thought of the situation, and it wasn’t even his power's doing. It was clearly a trap, a cruel blow to unbalance him mentally. The courier had gone far enough anyway, and trying to rescue the teen would probably fail. He had everything to lose by making the attempt, instead of sacrificing the hostage and making a getaway to explore the bunker further.
But there were some lines Ryan couldn’t cross, even without consequences. Afterward, it would be a slippery slope.
The courier froze time and charged at Adam, punching the ogre’s hand with all his might.
The fist broke.
His own, that is. Fisty and Ryan’s bones shattered on impact.
When time resumed, the courier didn’t even see Adam’s fist hit his chest. He just heard the impact, alongside his ribs and spine breaking under the strain. The blow didn’t detonate the explosive belt but sent the courier flying against the blue vat. The glass cracked on impact drops of liquid falling off Ryan’s body.
The effects of Rampage spared him from the pain, but the courier didn’t feel his legs anymore. He coughed blood, a warm fluid filling up his lung.
“You martyrs are all the same,” Adam taunted him, scratching his prisoner’s hair with his finger like a pet. “I knew you would do that when you stopped your rampage to save our testers. Psyshock, pick his brain open before he bites the dust. I want to know who sent the laddie after us.”
“Shut your eyes, Cesare,” Psyshock said with relish, his tentacles swirling around Ryan’s neck and lifting him above ground. “It’s easier when you look away.”
This was the end. Well, it was fun while it lasted, even if the last seconds sucked.
Ryan shouted his safe word.
“Jar Jar Binks!”
The belt let out a beep, before blowing him and Psyshock up in a fiery blast.
And so ended Ryan’s vacation.
As he returned a few hours earlier, driving towards Renesco’s bar, the courier felt like someone commuting to his job the day after a massive bender. He had his fun, but now was time to get serious again.
Should he do another Dynamis run, dig deeper into the Meta connection? He had the feeling it would come into play, even if he somehow managed to wipe Hannifat Lecter and his goons from the face of New Rome.
However, Ryan only saw one way to kill Psyshock permanently yet, and the option was Augusti-exclusive. The courier had already progressed rather far on that path, and he wished to see how this party would unfold.
And so Ryan prepared to return to the Augusti Path...
Until he remembered he would have to visit Len again.
To maintain the sequence of events, he would have to say the same things, make the same moves, go through the same heartbreak until it became routine. Every feeling, every special moment, emptied of their substance and uniqueness. An ancient bond turned into a formality.
Just like everything else.
Ryan parked the car in the first spot he found, his hands on the driving wheel. He stayed there for a few seconds, trying to gather his thoughts. He activated the Chronoradio, put some Post Apocalyptic Blues in the background.
“Len,” the courier said suddenly. “I know you’re listening, Shortie. Watching me. You’ve got to, somehow.”
He received no answer, no change in the world around him. But Ryan carried on.
“You have a table near your sofa, in your undersea apartment. You’re currently reading Karl Marx, Hegel, and the Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea book you found in Venezia. You kept them all these years because you’re a ship geek and that will never change.”
Ryan glanced through the window, at the sun shining upon the peaceful Mediterranean Sea. He couldn’t see anyone peeking over the water. Maybe she was, maybe not.
“I know because I was there. Just as I know you give the orphans in Rust Town supplies and money, and that you want to take them to your complex under the sea. Before you believe I’ve teleported there, or that this is a horror stalker movie, I’ll tell you a secret. My secret.”
Ryan inhaled and dropped the bomb.
“Len, I can time-travel, mentally. Not far, but I can relive the same events over and over again. I drank the Violet Elixir that fateful day, and it granted me that power. From your point of view, it has only been four years, but for me? It’s been many lifetimes. I’m probably older than most countries by now. I’ve forgotten more than you will ever learn. But never once did I forget you.”
Here he was, getting all mushy-mushy and sentimental. It felt so strange, as if the courier unloaded a burden which had weighed on his shoulders for days.
“I…” Ryan struggled to find his words since they came from the heart. He was never good at this, even before the loop. “I know why you don’t want to see me. You told me in another history, now erased. Why I hurt you with my mere presence. You hate me for what I did to your father, and how I remind you of the bad days. And I… I understand. I understand.”
It still hurt just to remember that conversation, but he understood.
“I want to help you, Len. Because I… because I care for you. But I don’t know how I can help. I never did. Some say I should persevere, others that I should let you pursue your own destiny without interfering. And… and I don’t want to learn the best way, Len. Because it means going through countless trials and errors. We will have the same conversations over and over again, you will forget everything, and every special moment we have will become routine to me. You won’t be a friend, you’ll be a goal.”
Still no answer.
“I don’t want to do that to you,” Ryan persevered. “So if… if you’re listening, and there is any chance we can make up and find a way around that curse of mine, please give me a sign. If not… if not, I will let you be. I will still take action to save the orphans from Adam and his band, but you’ll never hear from me again. I’ll be gone from your life. Because otherwise, it will hurt too much, for the both of us.”
He looked back on the driveway. “So please, I beg you,” Ryan pleaded, “please give me a sign. Anything.”
His forehead hit the driving wheel. “Don’t leave me alone again.”
Seconds, minutes stretched, with only the noise from the cars around him.
Hearing no response, Ryan sighed, regained his composure, and prepared to run over Ghoul yet again. If the courier waited longer, he might arrive too late to prevent his killing spree.
Her voice came out of the Chronoradio.
“Meet me at the orphanage.”