Well, Ryan had to admit it. No matter how savage the attack, it had been a perfect sneak headshot. Wardrobe probably didn’t feel any pain.
“Wardrobe!” Reload shouted in panic, dropping everything to try and treat his teammate’s wound. It was in vain though; the courier had seen the bullet go from one side of the head to the other, and unless she had regeneration, the shot had slain her instantly. The Yellow Genome’s blood was flowing out of her skull and onto the ground, while flowers burned around them.
“Mortimer thought she would never shut up,” the hitman said without any remorse, keeping his rifle pointed at Reload’s head without pressing the trigger. In all likelihood, he had grown wise to his rewinding power.
“You…” While Ryan wasn’t surprised, Len struggled to find her words. “You killed her. You killed her.”
“You could have shot her in the knee!” Ryan said, quite pissed himself. While he didn’t know the girl until a few hours earlier, she seemed quite the theatrical superhero; she was long-term rivalry material! “She was fun, goddammit! Fun!”
“She would have recovered from a knee shot,” Mortimer replied with a shrug. For a second, Ryan had forgotten he was a brutal mob hitman beneath all the silliness. “With one exception, Mortimer hasn’t seen anyone recover from deat—”
“Murderer!” Reload snarled suddenly, charging at Mortimer with his weapon raised. The hitman quickly took a step backward to dodge. “You’ll pay for this!”
Len raised her water weapon at the Dynamis hero, hitting him with a stream of liquid; he dropped his laser blade in surprise, perhaps having been blinded by anger. Instead of propelling Reload backward though or cutting him in half, the water shifted around the hero and formed a dense, three meters-wide bubble around his body. When Shortie closed her water pump, the bubble stabilized and kept Reload immobilized.
“Thanks,” Mortimer said, before grabbing Reload’s laser blade as a trophy. “How long will it last?”
Shortie didn’t answer. She didn’t want to.
“She can’t talk?” Mortimer asked Ryan, who deactivated the laser blade and put it in a belt pocket.
“Yes she can, but not to you,” the courier said. “Also, you’re a jackass.”
“Hey, she was a corpo, why do you care?”
“She was my new archenemy, Mortimer!” Ryan said, raising a finger at the man’s mask. “You don’t kill a man’s archenemy! It’s like stealing his wife!”
“Oh, really? Sorry, poor old Mortimer is quite the ladykiller.”
Mortimer liked his comedy pitch black, like his soul.
Unfortunately for him, Len didn’t find the joke funny, and instantly raised her weapon at his face. “Hey, calm down!” the hitman protested, pointing his rifle back at Shortie. “What’s up with you?”
“I should have let him kill you,” Len said, clearly struggling against her instinct not to bubble the hitman to death. “You’re just as bad as the Meta.”
“Len.” Ryan turned serious, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s not worth the hassle.”
If she attacked him, then they would have the entire Augusti family after them. Ryan could handle them, but Len… didn’t need that trouble right now.
The aquatic Genius remained still for a few seconds, before lowering her weapon.
“Anyway, you’re the Underdiver, right?” Mortimer asked while appraising Len warily; unlike her, he hadn’t lowered his rifle. “Miss Livia said you were in charge of the evacuation effort.”
“I called bathyspheres already,” Len finally spoke up, her tone icy. Vulcan must have paid her to keep a few in standby as escape pods.
“Good, I was in charge of clearing the way and then getting our VIPs out,” Mortimer said, slowly sinking back into the ground. “I will be back soon.”
“You want to evacuate?” Ryan asked, pointing at Neptune repelling Dynamis’ air forces. “We’re sort of winning.”
“Bite me, Miss Livia’s orders,” Mortimer said while disappearing, “and you don’t argue with the money.”
Once he was gone, Ryan glanced at Reload’s watery prison, the Violet Genome trapped in a bubble he couldn’t escape from. His power restored him to his physical prime whenever he ran out of breath but never granted him the strength to escape. “Does it pop out if I stick a nail in it?”
“That’s all you have to say, Riri?” Len looked at Wardrobe’s body, and though Ryan couldn’t see the face beneath her helmet, he didn’t have to be a precog to sense his friend’s sorrow. “He murdered her.”
“Yeah…” Ryan moved towards Wardrobe’s body, closing the eyes. She deserved at least as much. “That happens.”
“She wasn’t a Meta, Riri. She was... she didn’t even use lethal force on you. How can you be so casual about it?”
“I told you,” Ryan replied with a sigh. “You get used to everything.”
“That’s the saddest thing I heard you say yet,” Len said. “Riri, you can’t… you can’t become numb to this.”
“If you let it stick to you, it just gets overwhelming after a while.”
She had no good answer to this. “I’m… I’m doing this for you, Riri. To pay you back. But that’s it. When this is over, I’m done with these drug dealers.”
Yeah. It reminded Ryan of that previous loop where he watched Jamie and co all perish before him. “I can make it right,” he said, almost absent-mindedly. “It’s just temporary.”
“At what cost?” Len asked him, shaking her helmet. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what, save people?”
“You don’t owe these people anything. That mindset of yours, it’s destroying you!” she protested, before looking at Wardrobe’s remains. “I tried to save everyone who deserved to, but… I couldn’t. I could only help a few.”
But the difference between them was, Ryan could save everyone who deserved it. If he tried enough times.
Len must have telepathy because she seemed to have guessed his trail of thoughts. “When this is over, let’s go away.”
“Away from what?”
“Away from this cursed city,” she said, all but pleading. “It will destroy us both. Maybe even kill us.”
“Wait, Shortie, does that mean you want me back in your life after all?” Ryan teased her. “No more radio exchanges?”
She remained silent for a moment, with the courier wondering if he had been too bold, too soon.
“Yes,” Len finally said, after some hesitations. “I… it won’t be easy, but… yes. I… I don’t think I ever wanted you out of my life.”
Ryan remained silent, as his oldest friend struggled to find her words.
“I don’t think I would have checked up on you for years, if… it was truly over between us,” Len admitted, flinching as an explosion echoed nearby. Neptune had knocked out one of the last helicopters from the skies. “I’m sorry. I’m not good at this.”
“I… it’s okay.” They would have time to get comfortable in each other’s presence once again. If anything, this loop had been worth it just to reach this point. “It means the world to me, but you know I can’t go right now. What about Rust Town?”
Ryan needed to use vaguer terms, in case anyone listened.
“Tremors,” Len said. “I think they are digging below it.”
Ryan had seen enough bad endings through his long life to tell where this was going. He grabbed his phone and tried to call Vulcan, unable to see her in the skies. “Jas? Jasmine?” Nothing but static. “Shortie, do you have good phone coverage?”
“Someone is scrambling vocal communications,” Len said, while five bathyspheres emerged from the seawater nearby, their doors opening automatically. “Dynamis, I think.”
As if on cue, Mortimer emerged from the ground, holding both Livia and Narcinia with his naked hands. It seemed he could apply his intangibility to others as long as they remained in physical contact.
While Narcinia was clearly shaken, folding her arms and looking at the ground the second Mortimer released her, Livia managed to keep her composure. At least, until she noticed Wardrobe’s remains. “You killed her, Mortimer?”
“I shouldn’t have?” the hitman asked.
“Now it will be a total war,” Livia replied, shaking her head. “Hector cannot back down after this. Maybe… maybe that’s why. Maybe it’s the spark.”
“My garden…” Narcinia lamented, looking at flames consuming her flowers. “I… I wanted to show it to everyone.”
“You will make another,” Livia told the younger girl, before barking orders at Len. “Underdiver, we start evacuating immediately. Mortimer, you will go back inside, bring Bacchus and Sparrow.”
“Should we evacuate at all?” Mortimer asked, glancing at the fortress behind them. Geist had managed to close the hole, and the Dynamis Genomes seemed to have started bailing out. “I mean, it’s crappy, but it’s our turf.”
“I keep dying,” Livia replied, a look of brief concern breaking through her tranquil expression. “My alternate selves. Their life is snuffed out in an instant, and I can barely see the cause. I assume Dynamis has a secret weapon, and they will likely unleash it on the island. Perhaps a nuke.”
Len looked at Ryan. “Not me,” he protested, before adding a caveat, “this time.”
Mortimer immediately phased through the ground once more, while Len assigned a bathysphere to everyone. “Riri, you go first,” she said, all but shoving him inside.
“Riri?” Narcinia frowned at Len. “Are you two…”
“It’s complicated,” Ryan said, sitting inside the bathysphere. It was a larger variant of the one Shortie used for delivery runs, optimized to hold multiple people inside. He sat on a crimson, semicircular bench, and immediately noticed seat belts. The bathysphere was equipped with multiple screens and buttons and even included what appeared to be an infirmary stock for emergencies. “I’m disappointed by the absence of sickles and hammers.”
“Narcinia, move in,” Livia said with a rush, pushing the younger girl to move inside. The Augusti Princess stopped midway, a strained frown on her face. “I… I don’t understand…”
“Livia?” Narcinia asked, stopping with one foot inside the bathysphere, and another out. “Livia, you’re alright?”
“I don’t get it,” the Augusti princess said. “It’s all bright and then dark…”
Livia suddenly took a step back, a sharp, translucent blade grazing her cheek and drawing blood.
Narcinia let out a scream as an invisible force pulled her backward and out of the bathysphere. Almost on instinct, Ryan froze time and peeked outside the bathysphere.
Narcinia floated six meters above the ground, held by an invisible force; Ryan could see the hint of a hand covering her mouth, and he immediately guessed who was responsible. He had probably stalked the courier and watched the battle from afar, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
When time resumed, Len raised her water weapon at the skies, trying to locate the invisible Genome; glass shards emerged from the sea, surrounding the group and bathyspheres like a flock of flying knives.
“So it’s true.” A voice came out of nowhere, but Ryan instantly recognized it as Shroud’s. “Assassination attempts will always fail.”
“Did Felix send you, Mathias?” Livia asked, her face unreadable while she looked up at Narcinia. Clearly, she could see Mr. Windshield perfectly fine. “You appear together a lot when I look at you.”
“Let’s just say we share a few moral sensibilities, especially as far as fighting vermin is concerned.” Shroud dropped the invisibility, carrying Narcinia above the ground while keeping a hand on her mouth. If she couldn’t draw blood, the Green Genome couldn’t use her ability. “A power that could have helped the world, as her mother wished… and your father uses it to poison innocent people. You disgust me.”
Livia’s iron glare faltered briefly, a brief look of remorse flashing on her face. “Start by giving me back my mother,” the Augusti princess said as she regained her composure, her face harshening again. “Then we will talk about morality. Now, tell your master to show himself.”
“Leo isn’t here,” Shroud replied, glass shards threateningly raised at everyone present, Ryan included. Though the Carnival assassin and handsome courier worked on the same team, he seemed determined to pretend otherwise. “But he will settle the score.”
“Lies,” Livia replied, her frown deepening. “If it’s not Hargraves, then…”
Did the skies clear up lately? The sun seemed to shine brighter for a second.
Ryan raised his eyes at the heavens, watching in amazement as a pillar of bright light fell from the skies, like judgment from above. He almost didn’t notice Len’s hand pushing him back into the bathysphere on instinct, while Livia looked at the skies with panic.
Ryan felt something in the back of his skull, and—
Fishes looked at him from outside the window.
Ryan blinked, glancing around in confusion. He was sitting alone on the bathysphere’s bench, seatbelt on and laser blade deactivated. The escape pod had clearly fled under the sea, and all he could see through the porthole were dark waters and swimming sea animals.
His enhanced sense of timing told Ryan time had moved forward without him noticing, but he couldn’t explain why. Livia’s doing? He didn’t know her power’s limits, but this feeling… It reminded him of Acid Rain triggering her power. A Violet power, not a Blue.
Vulcan said that Augustus gained two powers with no side-effects through a genetic quirk. How could they know that? Unless…
Questions for later.
“Shortie?” Ryan asked, trying to make sense out of the bathysphere’s buttons. “Len? Len? Len, answer me!”
“Warning: fallback point compromised,” Len’s pre-recorded message came out of the intercom. “Bathysphere rerouted to Rust Town. Please sit until the door opens.”
No answer. That device probably used an automatic pilot of some kind. Still, the screens showed a GPS map of New Rome, alongside the bathysphere’s rough position; he would reach Rust Town quite soon.
However, a large part of the map had turned red, including Ischia Island.
A chill moving through his spine, Ryan undid the seatbelt and looked through the porthole as the bathysphere ascended towards the surface. But as the escape pod emerged from the Mediterranean Sea’s depths, the courier saw a vision straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
New Rome was on fire.
Flames consumed the city, devastating the harbor, the strip, the entire coast; buildings had collapsed or been incinerated. A firestorm had taken over the highway leading into New Rome itself, with columns of smoke reaching as far as the clouds. Mount Augustus had crumbled, the proud hill now a fuming crater.
“What the...” Ryan muttered to himself, at a loss of words.
The skies brightened again, and a pillar of light fell upon New Rome.
Ryan had to put a hand on his eyes to protect himself from the radiance, but he saw it hit Dynamis’ HQ and Il Migliore’s tower in the distance. The following shockwave made the bathysphere shake, even if the device was kilometers away from the impact point.
When at long last the bright light subsided, nothing remained of Dynamis’ twin towers. Nothing but flames and ashes.
“Len,” Ryan turned to the control panel, desperately trying to find anyone to speak to. “Len, answer me? Len?! Len! Jasmine, anyone? Is anyone listening?”
How could it be? Had Leo the Living Sun hit the city earlier than expected and gone completely mad? Augustus could probably do that much damage too, but why attack his own seat of power?
Ryan’s eyes widened, as it all fell into place.
“Orbital Communications Center.”
One of the rooms inside the bunker.
Mechron had designed orbital weapons. If one of his toys remained in the dark reaches of space, a Damocles sword waiting for someone foolish enough to make it fall…
As he looked at the devastation, Ryan couldn’t help but wonder how many. How many people did it take? Without Psyshock to supply them with cannon fodder and with Dynamis turning on him, Adam must have thrown his own men into the meat-grinder. And through sheer desperation, he had succeeded.
Ryan had waited too long.
The Meta had unlocked Mechron’s bunker.