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The current loop might be the calmest yet.

Ryan had finally optimized the Augusti path. He first completed the harbor mission without incident. Fat Adam didn't send anyone for once, and Ryan had previously taken care of Luigi. The truth-teller was scheduled to get out of the hospital on Wednesday, but Ryan intended to score a few goals during the hockey match’s second period.

Afterward, Jamie invited the courier to crash at his place, and he received a 'surprise' inspection from Pluto. The Underboss’ interrogation had been less thorough this time around, since the intel Ryan provided on Psyshock had earned him some measure of trust. The courier then landed a job as Vulcan’s assistant, who had lobbied very hard to recruit him after she got her hands on his A-bomb. She didn’t even ask him to trash Wyvern’s movie this loop.

Ryan had waited patiently for today’s Rust Town raid. He had provided all the necessary information for the Augusti to improve their odds, from the Land’s range to the powers of every Psycho he fought so far. He didn’t say anything linked to the bunker like the mech, but overall, things looked bright.

Truly, Ryan was pumped for this restart.

“Plasma tor—” Ryan handed Vulcan her tool before she could finish her sentence, the Genius too busy working on her armor’s cannon. “—ch. Wrench.”

Ryan handed her a wrench and a cup of coffee.

“I didn’t ask for a cup,” she said.

“You were about to.”

Vulcan stopped in the middle of her welding, putting her tools aside and raising her iron mask. A short silence took over her workshop, as she examined the courier from head to toe. “Ryan, where have you been hiding all this time?”

“Mostly behind explosions, and sometimes forest fires.”

“I should've hired you years ago,” she said without any hint of sarcasm. “You’re the best assistant I could ever hope for; hell, you anticipate my desires as if you read my mind before I spoke. You’re perfect, except for one thing.”

Vulcan pointed a finger at the white cat having taken over her workbench. Eugène-Henry meowed in response. “Why did you bring that furball here?” she asked Ryan.

“I couldn’t leave it at the shelter. It’s a noble cat, it can’t survive in the wild.”

“No, I mean, why did you leave it in my Armory as if he lived there? Now half the guards spend their shift petting it when they think I’m not looking. It’s distracting them.”

“Ki-jung doesn’t want him at the house. I keep telling her Eugène-Henry is too good to hunt rats, but she won’t hear anything.” Ryan grabbed the cat and showed him to Vulcan. “Admit it, you can’t resist him either. Look at him. Look at his big, beautiful eyes.”

The Genius didn’t look impressed. “If he causes an accident, I’m taking the repair costs out on your pay,” Vulcan said, before grabbing the cat. She put it on her lap and moved her feet on the workbench. “I had a ferret once. He wasn’t afraid of anything.”

“What happened to him?”

“He wasn’t afraid of cars either,” Vulcan replied with a morbid face. She liked her comedy pitch black. “Speaking of animals, about that rabbit plushie—”

“No,” Ryan interrupted her.

“But—”

“No.”

“Do I have to take it at gunpoint?” she threatened, her curiosity too overwhelming.

“You would have an easier time with my virginity, but spoiler warning,” Ryan whispered in the Genius’ ear, “it’s long gone.”

Vulcan chuckled, scratching Eugène-Henry between the ears. “I thought you were dating the Underdiver?”

“Oh no, it will be a miracle if we settle into anything.” Considering her issues, a long-distance radio friendship sounded more likely. “Though it would take a Genius to steal my wounded heart.”

“I would be careful with that smart mouth of yours, Ryan,” she replied playfully, his good mood infecting her too. “What’s up with you today? Is it the raid?”

“Of course it’s the raid, I can tell it’s going to be great!”

Especially now that Psypsy had perished for good.

Within one hour of his demise, dozens of people across New Rome had experienced brain seizures, including some Augusti mooks and Private Security members. The Augusti leadership had tasked Ki-jung to investigate, and from what she told Ryan, most of the victims missed entire days of their life. By nullifying Psyshock’s powers at close-range, Cancel had undone his victim’s brainwashing.

Since that squid hadn’t been sighted since the orphanage ambush, Ryan assumed he had perished for good.

The Meta hadn’t sent Sarin to attack the harbor, and according to Shroud, they hadn’t tried to press-gang Paulie either. This implied Psyshock’s brainwashing was Big Fat Adam’s main source of unpowered foot soldiers, and his demise had cost the Meta a lot of resources.

So yes, Ryan was in an excellent mood.

“You’ve got a hate-on for Psychos,” Vulcan mused out loud. “I’ve heard what you told Jamie. That they received knockoffs from Dynamis.”

“And you believe me?” So far most of his acquaintances among the Augusti considered it a conspiracy theory.

She nodded. “Lab Sixty-Six.”

“Hmm?”

“You know the Dynamis HQ, next to Il Migliore’s shiny tower? They make the knockoffs on the sixty-sixth floor. It’s the most defended place in New Rome.”

“Well, that’s not ominous at all. Is there a pentacle on the door?”

“No, but the head scientist is a creepy four-eyed maniac who calls himself Dr. Tyrano.” Vulcan snickered. “He cloned all the dinosaurs you see at the Colosseum Maximus. It’s not even his Genius specialty, he’s just obsessed with them; I’m pretty sure he only works at Dynamis because they let him make more of those reptiles. Anyway, you know that bastard Enrique?”

“I’ll never know why nobody suspects him to be a supervillain out to take over the world.” Ryan shrugged. “I mean, he has thorn in his Genome name.”

“I said the exact same thing to Wyvern the first time we met him.” Finally, someone else saw the truth! “Originally, Enrique was supposed to oversee the whole Elixir operation instead of Il Migliore. He visited the lab for two hours, and he immediately asked for a transfer afterward. Never learned why. If you ask me, there’s something really shifty about the knockoffs; even Augustus’ scientists never found a way to copy them.”

Ryan quickly grasped her point. “You think Dynamis uses the Meta as guinea pigs?”

“That’s something Hector Manada would do,” Vulcan replied with a sharp nod. “Augustus is brutally direct, but Hector, he’s slippery and insidious. He always manages to be where the evidence isn’t. Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll find any proof of his involvement, and the big boss doesn’t seem interested in an open conflict yet.”

“I’m surprised that the war between them is cold instead of hot, to be honest.” Ryan thought an invincible man would be far bolder.

“They fought over Malta a few years ago,” Vulcan explained. “Dynamis nuked it in an attempt to kill Augustus, who retaliated by sinking the island. Afterward, the big boss met with Hector Manada, and they hashed out a peace agreement.”

If there was a peace agreement, then it meant Dynamis had some kind of leverage over their opposition. Perhaps they threatened Augustus’ family or inner circle. Ryan had faced the same tactic while he lived under Bloodstream’s clutches; even near-invincible Genomes had emotional weaknesses.

“The party is on Thursday night, right?” Vulcan asked while changing the subject, though her question was purely rhetorical. “If the assault on the Meta’s base goes well, I think I will attend. Should be fun.”

“Shame I’m too old for that now.” Like the first time Ryan met him, Mortimer attempted to startle the courier from behind and utterly failed. “I would have killed it on the dance floor.”

“I’m sure you will catch up on Halloween,” Ryan replied by turning around, pointing a finger at the hitman’s skull mask.

“Nobody gives poor Mortimer candies,” Mr. Wall Pass replied, saddened by the lack of reaction. “He doesn’t spook anyone nowadays.”

“You’re early,” Vulcan noted with a frown. “Did something happen?”

“Well, there are fires coming out of Rust Town, chief. I thought you should know.”


As it turned out, the Meta had set the Junkyard on fire.

Ryan stopped his Plymouth Fury right in front of the fence. Mr. Wall Pass sat on the front seat, Fortuna, and Cancel at the back. “Oh my,” Mortimer said. “They don’t half-ass things, these Psychos.”

No kidding!

Ryan could only see flames everywhere he looked. The Meta had set alight the trash mountains with gasoline, turning them into candles, while clouds of smoke darkened the skies. Although the blazing inferno remained localized inside the junkyard, it might soon spread to the rest of Rust Town if left unchecked.

Vulcan landed in full power armor next to Ryan’s vehicle, just as shocked as everyone else. Their troops had surrounded the area without meeting any resistance, either from unpowered gunmen or Psychos.

What the hell happened?

“I checked what a sociopath was,” Cancel told Ryan, completely unconcerned by the giant bonfire. “That was mean.”

“But was it wrong?” Ryan asked back, his eyes focused on the flames. Did they blow up the bunker or something?

“No, but it was mean.”

“Sparrow, report,” Vulcan ordered through the intercom. “Any sign of the Meta?”

“Our lookouts told me Adam, Frank, Sarin and a few others are driving north on the old highway. Apparently, they’re skipping town.”

“They’re fleeing?” Cancel asked, immediately disappointed. “But we only killed three of them!”

“No fun, I wanted those sweet bounties for my mortgage,” Mortimer complained.

“Told you it would be a piece of cake,” Fortuna replied, too busy typing on her phone to pay attention.

“I can’t believe it,” Vulcan said. “They’re leaving? Why?”

Ryan couldn’t understand either. He didn’t believe for a second that Hannifat Lecter had truly given up, but why leave the bunker behind and make a show of destroying the Junkyard? Was there another entranc—

The submarine.

“That cunning bastard,” Ryan muttered to himself. The bunker had a hidden sea access route, so the Meta could easily hide below ground and resupply while abandoning the surface. As long as the bunker’s existence remained a secret, the Psychos could credibly stay under the radar until they unlocked Mechron’s tech.

Fat Adam would leave through the front door, and sneak back in through the back one.

Still, the fact that they pulled this stunt at all reeked of desperation. Psyshock must have been more important to their plans than Ryan thought, for his demise to shake things up that much.

“Something to say, Quicksave?” Vulcan asked him, having eavesdropped on his outburst.

“Maybe this is an elaborate ploy and they have secretly retreated to an underground base below the city,” Ryan said. “I’m sure they have a doomsday weapon, like a moon-defacing laser.”

“Or maybe they have a base on the moon,” Fortuna chuckled.

“I went to the moon once,” Mortimer said. “It was made of lead.”

Ryan didn’t clear things up. The current matter made him feel conflicted.

While he shamelessly flirted with her, Vulcan did try to murder him a previous loop while fully expecting to get away with it. Augustus had a reputation for brutality, and if Shroud’s story was true, then nothing good would come out of him discovering the bunker. Even if the Meta getting their hands on Mechron’s tech remained the worst scenario, he was wary of letting the Augusti do the same until he knew more.

Well, he could always inform them and reload later.

However, the second the thought crossed his mind, Ryan immediately thought of Len. He was finally making progress in renewing their friendship, and he was afraid of falling back into his old patterns. If he continued on the path of the Perfect Run, then he would have to repeat these meetings again and again, until they lost all meaning.

Should he save and commit? But if he did that, then he condemned all the people the Meta threw at the bunker’s defenses. The face of that terrified prisoner, carried around by Adam like a sandwich, still haunted the courier; mostly because it reminded him of his own while he was Bloodstream's pet. Ryan still had enough empathy to feel bad about that part.

So while he hadn’t told Len, there was a strong possibility he would have to restart anyway to keep the kill count at a minimum. But he had confessed everything, and she would forget again if he returned to the past.

Argh, indecision paralysis!

“Consequences suck!” Ryan shouted out of nowhere, drawing a few gazes. “It’s not fun! It’s not fun at all!”

“I’m so disappointed too,” Cancel complained, sharing his frustration at not being able to kick the Meta’s butt. “I didn’t think killing three of them would scare them away.”

“When you murder junkies are done whining, maybe we could call this a day and leave?” Fortuna asked. “I’ve got a date, and I’m sure he’s the one.”

“You say that every time,” Sparrow pointed out, although she said it with a hint of jealousy. “You go through boyfriends like kleenexes.”

“It’s different this time,” Fortuna insisted. “My power keeps forcing us to meet. He shows up to help after that gas leak almost destroys my apartment, I drop my books and he helps me gather them back, it starts raining and we have to stay under the same bus stop... he’s the one, I tell you.”

“You just say that because you had to pester him five times until he caved in, and you can’t stand being ignored,” Mortimer mocked her.

“Morty! Wait, how did you know I asked five times? Did you spy on me?”

“Your pain is nectar for my wizened soul.”

Ryan ignored them, trying to puzzle a way out of the situation, but the indecision paralyzed him. A suboptimal route for New Rome might allow him to keep his friendship with Len real, but a Perfect Run would save dozens of lives, if not hundreds. Should he risk letting the Meta access Mechron’s bunker in the hope of a better alternative to appear, or should he trust the Augusti to be responsible? Should he inform Wyvern?

For the first time in centuries, Ryan faced mutually-exclusive consequences, and it frustrated him. He needed more time to figure this out.

“Vulcan, do we give pursuit?” Sparrow cut through the chit chat.

“I’m torn,” Vulcan admitted. “I’m itching to test my new armor, but It could be a feint to lead us into a trap, and our job was to retake Rust Town. Which we did.”

“If the Meta are wise enough not to get in our way, let them cower,” Fortuna said, clearly determined to do as little as possible.

“Not even a little wedgie, for old time’s sake?” Ryan asked, calming down. No matter the eventual fate of this loop, the Meta had to die for the good of everyone else. “I could settle for killing, say, half of them.”

“It’s the respect and territory that matter, Quicksave,” Vulcan replied.

“They will come back later if you let them go,” Ryan argued. He had seen what underestimating the Meta had cost them in the previous loops. “Trust someone who has fought Big Whalie before, that bonfire is a mere smokescreen.”

Vulcan listened to his words carefully. “You think this is a ploy to lull us into a false sense of security? And that if we let Adam go, he will come back to fuck us harder?”

“And he won’t be gentle.”

“That’s a bit paranoid,” Mortimer replied with a shrug. “If you ask my poor old me, they bit more than they could chew and chickened out.”

“Quicksave’s intel has been spotless so far,” Sparrow came to Ryan’s defense. “I don’t think Adam the Ogre will give up so easily either. The Meta clearly came to New Rome to fight us, perhaps as mercenary work from our rivals. If they’re switching from territory grab to hit-and-run tactics, they might remain a problem for months.”

Vulcan considered the various viewpoints, before coming to a decision. “Sparrow, you and your men give pursuit; I want to know the Meta-Gang’s location at all times. I will join you to harass them from a safe distance with long-range weaponry.”

“Understood,” Sparrow replied.

“The rest of you kids will deal with the fire before it spreads to the rest of Rust Town,” Vulcan told the Genomes in the Plymouth Fury. “We can’t do business there if all our clients burn to death, so I will direct you to the nearest fire hydrants. Mortimer, make sure the Meta didn’t leave any booby traps behind.”

“What?” Fortuna looked up from her phone. “Why do we have to do it? Don’t they have firefighters?”

“I start fires, I don’t extinguish them,” Ryan protested. “It’s against my religion.”

“Too bad, God doesn’t sign your paychecks, I do,” Vulcan replied, before flying away. “Get to work.”

“How brazen of you to say that.”

Everyone groaned at Ryan’s joke, much to his silent amusement.

He hoped he hadn’t made the wrong choice.

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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 all his time writing tales and forbidden scrolls.

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