Ryan had to admit it, being the damsel in distress was a nice change of pace. Usually, he was the one doing the rescuing.
But it wasn’t very relaxing, for the Junkyard had erupted into complete chaos. An increasingly taller Frank traded blows with Wyvern in dragon form, the colossal reptile pushing her opponent against a pile of molten trash. For every hit the superheroine inflicted, the Psycho seemed to gain additional height. However, Lanka sniped him with white-colored spheres from her vantage point, shrinking Frank and keeping his size manageable.
Was she Cancel’s lost sister or something?
“You teamed up with Wyvern?” Ryan asked Jasmine, astonished.
“Temporarily,” Vulcan replied, unleashing a volley of bullets at Adam. While the Psycho’s carbon skin shrugged off the projectiles, the repeated shock prevented him from moving forward. “Very temporarily.”
You could tell the situation was bad when those two set aside their differences.
Having devoured the Land and left nothing behind, Chitter’s rats moved on to Adam, but the Meta’s leader proved to be a harder meal. He stomped on the rodents, turning them into blood smears on the ground; even when they tried to bury him under their weight, his enhanced strength allowed him to shrug them off.
Exploiting the distraction, Ryan grabbed a knife with his unwounded arm and managed to free his leg from the Land’s dirt binding with it. Meanwhile, Jamie, showing his badass samurai credentials, jumped off his rookery and created a sword of red light mid-flight. Swinging his blade during the descent, he cut through Frank’s back as easily as butter, leaving a scar around the waist.
Unfortunately, the Psycho’s metal body quickly regenerated from the wound, and while Lanka slowed down his exponential growth, she couldn’t stop it. Frank would reach eight meters in height soon.
“Anything that can take down the communication tower?” Ryan asked Jasmine, needing to shout to be heard over the sound of gunfire. “I mean, their gun is bigger than yours, no offense.”
“I wasted most of my good stuff on the reptile over there,” Vulcan replied with frustration, quickly running out of ammo. Without suppressing fire, Adam was now free to move and brought out a warhammer from his gullet. “Cover me while I reload.”
To give himself more time to think and plan, Ryan activated his power. The world turned violet, the courier looking under his suit with his left arm. He couldn’t feel the right one, Adam’s chain having shredded its key muscles.
Could a Desert Eagle be powerful enough? A higher caliber gun perh—
“So you were the source of these anomalies.”
Ryan flinched, before looking up to the skies.
A man of ivory floated above the Junkyard, shrouded in a blinding electric aura; powerful streams of whitened winds came from his feet, allowing him to hover above the ground. He alone moved in the frozen time, standing above and looking down on the humans below.
Electrohydrodynamics. He used electrical charges to ionize air molecules and allow himself to fly.
“I was starting to wonder,” said Augustus, carrying a half-burnt corpse in his hand. From the clothes, Ryan recognized it as Acid Rain’s. “You would make a powerful Saturn.”
Time resumed, and Lightning Butt focused on the other people present.
The moment Augustus came into view, everyone stopped moving; even the blinded Adam seemed to have sensed his presence. The lightning emperor’s mere presence, and the sheer electrical tension coming from his person, cowed everyone present into silence.
“You failed,” Augustus told Adam, tossing Acid Rain’s corpse on the ground below like a piece of trash. “Even Hargraves’ flames could not warm me. You thought this feeble light could kill me? You thought that anything could kill me?”
To his credit, Adam quickly recovered from his surprise. “Frank, squash him!”
The now eight meters-tall giant immediately pushed Wyvern aside and attempted to smash Augustus with both hands, the way a man crushed a mosquito. Instead of dodging, the lightning emperor raised his arms and stopped the giant’s hands with his own.
As he did, Frank’s metal skin shifted around Augustus’ fingers, covering them; even Mob Zeus looked briefly surprised by this development. It seemed Frank the Mad’s metallic structure tried to digest Augustus’ hands but struggled to. It reminded Ryan of a dog trying to chew a bone too hard for its teeth.
But it made no difference.
Augustus looked at Frank and blasted the titan’s head with a blinding lightning bolt from his eyes. The sheer power behind the blow melted the Psycho’s steel body, leaving a pile of molten metal where the brain should have been. Though pieces of him remained stuck to Augustus, Frank collapsed to his back.
“Ryan, get down!” Vulcan activated her propellers and grabbed Ryan, flying out of the giant’s falling shadow. Chitter’s rats fled in all directions, while Wyvern, Jamie, and Adam dispersed. Frank hit the ground and blew dust in all directions, missing the tower by an inch. He remained still, even after the dust settled.
Without wasting time, Augustus gracefully landed on the ground and began to slowly walk towards Adam. Instead of cowering, the nihilistic Psycho glared back at the invincible man.
“My sister, daughter, and goddaughter died because of you.” There was no word on earth to sum up the cold fury coming from Lightning Butt’s mouth right now. “Their deaths were swifter than yours will ever be. I promise you a Tartarus.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Adam replied while swinging his warhammer at the invulnerable man’s head. “Even if I die, I already won! You all lost!”
His weapon flattened on impact, while Augustus didn’t even flinch.
“Well, it was fun while it lasted,” Adam said, before outright shouting. “Adam to Bahamut! Change target to current lo—”
Augustus casually backhanded Adam in the face, tearing off his jaw and sending the carbon-made man to the ground. The emperor then kicked the Psycho in the stomach with enough strength to make him crash against the orbital tower. While everyone looked on, too terrified to move or say anything, Lightning Butt started stomping his victim. The Psycho’s hardened shell folded like aluminum under the savage beating, bones breaking, legs twisting.
When at long last, Adam had become a bloody, battered mess on the ground, Augustus lowered his neck to look at his victim dead in the eyes. “Any last words, vermin?”
It wasn’t a laugh of despair or madness, but the taunting cackle of a monster happy with his work. A loud, gregarious laughter of pure schadenfreude.
It only enraged Mob Zeus further.
“At the end of the day, for all your delusions, you only bear the first man’s name.” Augustus raised his foot above Adam’s face. “While I am a god.”
Augustus stomped on the head with a sickening crack. Adam fell silent, drool falling off his mouth; his outside turned from carbon to scarred skin, weak and vulnerable. The Meta was still breathing, but with a nasty concussion.
He might soon wish he was dead though.
“Soldiers, grab this piece of trash and send him to Venus. He will not die until I have him nailed to a cross on Ischia Island, his screams soothing my daughter’s soul.” Augustus then turned to Wyvern. “We fight now?”
“Fight over what?” Wyvern regained her human form and waved a hand at the devastation around them, while Jamie and Lanka immediately rushed to tie Adam up. “The ashes?”
“Then get lost,” Augustus replied, glancing at the communication tower. “Now that I look at this cursed ground clearly, there is an entire crypt of metal beneath our feet. Mechron’s tomb I assume.”
“What are you going to do?” Wyvern asked with a frown.
“Finish what Hargraves did not have the guts to.”
Lightning Butt’s electrical aura grew brighter and stronger, his body building up energy inside itself. The courier immediately realized what the thunder emperor planned, and how it would ruin everything.
“No!” Ryan pleaded, turning to Vulcan, whose face he couldn’t see beneath her helmet. “There’s still bound to be something down there that we can use!”
“Ryan,” his girlfriend replied with a hint of finality. “It’s over. If we stay, we die.”
Augustus unleashed a lightning blast at the orbital tower, his overwhelming power short-circuiting the force fields and snapping the building in half. One half of the tower fell on the junkyard’s ground with a cataclysmic shockwave. The aura around Augustus briefly vanished, revealing the human underneath: a statue of ivory, with pieces of Frank’s body still stubbornly attempting to eat away his hands.
Lightning Butt looked sick, his cheeks creased and his eyes sullen. But he was already recharging, and this time his aura turned brighter than ever.
Vulcan grabbed Ryan in her arms and flew away, the courier too weakened by his wounded arm and blood loss to protest. Everyone evacuated in short order, Wyvern assisting Lanka and Jamie in dragging Adam away, and leaving the lightning emperor alone.
Twenty minutes later, a mighty thunderbolt hit the junkyard in a cataclysmic detonation, burying Mechron’s bunker once and for all.
As expected of Rampage’s side-effects, Ryan started throwing up everything he had eaten in the last few days once the drug wore off. With his existing wounds and a damaged arm, Jasmine had him sedated.
When the courier woke up in a hospital bed, it was surrounded by his friends and a cat. Jamie sat on a chair with his girlfriend on his lap, and Jasmine was petting a white cat. Only Lanka stood on her own feet, her back against a white, featureless wall.
“Hello, sleeping beauty,” Lanka mused, though her usual devil-may-care attitude had softened up a little.
“My, were you worried for me?” Ryan asked, raising his bandaged left arm. He could actually feel pain now, which was an improvement over its previous state. “Didn’t anyone tell you I’m immortal?”
Ki-jung chuckled, though her boyfriend didn’t. Jamie was happy to see the handsome courier alive but clearly didn’t like the joke.
“There.” Jasmine all but dumped the white cat on her boyfriend. “Now it’s your turn.”
“Schrodinger!” Ryan grabbed the cat, who immediately took the courier’s lap as his own throne. “You’re alive!”
“I don’t know how,” Jasmine admitted. Ki-jung looked at the cat with a worried gaze, clearly forcing herself to stand the feline’s presence for Ryan’s sake. “Out of everyone at the factory, only that fucking cat made it out alive. That pet is luckier than Fortuna.”
“Did she make it out?” Ryan asked, before correcting himself. “Who else made it out?”
“Precious few,” Jamie admitted with a sorrowful face.
“Fortuna and her parents were far enough away from ground zero to avoid being killed outright, probably thanks to her busted luck,” Lanka added. “The house almost collapsed on us when the Meta targeted Mt. Augustus, but we avoided incineration. Neptune survived too.”
“Is…” Ryan’s voice died in his throat. “Is Len alive?”
The group exchanged glances, while Jasmine scowled outright.
“You don’t need to sugarcoat it,” Ryan declared, his hand tensing on Schrodinger’s back. “Say the truth outright. I expect it.”
“Almost everyone on Ischia Island perished, either from the laser itself or the searing ashes,” Jasmine said bluntly, though she was clearly crestfallen. “Only Geist lived if you can call it that, and the few of us who were fighting outside ground zero. The Underdiver… didn’t survive.”
Ryan said nothing for a moment. Whether it was because of the anesthesia, the tiredness, or the gnawing realization that he had completely messed up this run... he couldn’t muster the strength to feel anything.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie apologized. “I know it’s a cold comfort, but nobody could have stopped this.”
He meant well, but it only hurt more. “I could have,” Ryan said.
Once again, he had failed to protect Len from Psychos.
“You couldn’t,” Jamie insisted. “It happened in a flash, no time to think.”
“You’re a hero, Ryan,” Ki-jung said. “You probably prevented Adam from firing that beam again and killing thousands.”
“It was completely foolish, you mean!” Jasmine snarled at Ryan. “What were you thinking, attacking them head-on?”
“Hey, I tried to call for backup but nobody answered!” Ryan replied. “And I thought I could pull off a Tony Montana.”
“Well you did,” Lanka said with a snicker. “Your own drug did more damage to your system than the Meta, from what I heard.”
“We’re in Sorrento, south of New Rome,” Jamie told Ryan.
“You can still see the fires out of the windows,” Lanka said, Ki-jung elbowing her.
“It’s one of our cities, so it’s safe here,” Jamie reassured the courier, in an almost paternal way. “With your Genome metabolism, you should recover in no time.”
At this point, Ryan wasn’t sure if he should drag out his recovery time or put a bullet in his head right this instant. He decided to wait a little, to get a clearer picture of the situation. “What’s going to happen now?”
“We bury the dead,” Jamie said grimly. “After that, we rebuild and we continue to move forward. That’s all we can do.”
“I don’t think now is the time to speak of it,” Ki-jung told her fiancé.
“Yeah.” Jamie rose up alongside his girlfriend. “We’ll let you rest, my friend. Lanka.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Lanka said, as the trio left Jasmine and Ryan alone. The courier heard her grumble while closing the door behind them. “Goddamn lovebirds…”
Vulcan waited a few seconds for the other Augusti to leave, before turning to Ryan.
“You’re holding up?” She tried not to sound concerned but wasn’t very good at it. “You owe me one.”
“Unfortunately, I can only pay with my body; my money went down in ashes.” Ryan’s response drew a chuckle from the Genius. “Is my car alright?”
“No,” Jasmine shook her head, mourning this beautiful device’s destruction too. “Adam blew it up alongside my foundry.”
If Len’s demise hadn’t finished off Ryan, his car’s murder did. The Chronoradio was gone, and even if he memorized the plans for Len’s device, it wouldn’t work without the brain powering the Plymouth Fury.
What did his car do to the Meta to deserve such bitter treatment? Besides running them over again and again?
Someone knocked on the hospital room’s window, the Genome couple immediately looking up at it.
“Hi,” said Wyvern while opening the window from the other side. Ryan found the scene extraordinarily familiar.
Jasmine immediately revealed a gun hidden beneath her trousers, pointing it at Wyvern’s face. “Get the fuck out of here, Laura.”
“Jasmine, can we stop doing… doing this?” Wyvern sighed. “Stop fighting for once? After everything that happened, aren’t you tired of it too? I come in peace.”
Vulcan kept her weapon raised, finger on the trigger… and then lowered it.
“How did we fall apart?” Wyvern asked, looking down while she entered the room through the window and landed on the floor.
“You started it,” Jasmine replied, putting the gun aside. “Aren’t you helping the civilians?”
“I was, but the Carnival arrived to help.”
Jasmine’s eyes widened in alarm. “Does Augustus know?”
“Not yet, but he will soon,” Wyvern said. “He and Leonard can’t stand each other, so I expect more fighting soon.”
“What about Dynamis?” Ryan asked.
“What I always feared will come to pass,” Wyvern admitted. “Alphonse Manada is in charge of what remains, including all the troops in Sicily, Libya, and Spain. The truce won’t hold with him in command. If anything, I think he sees it as an opportunity to wipe you all out for good.”
“There’s going to be a new round of Genome Wars,” Jasmine muttered. “They’re going to fight over the scraps.”
An awkward silence fell on the room. While he wouldn’t live to see it, Hannifat Lecter had won. He had ruined Europe for years to come.
And worst of all... the plushie was still out there.
“This is your fault,” Jasmine told Wyvern with a scowl. “You hired the Meta. You planted the seeds from which this disaster grew.”
“I… I didn’t,” Wyvern shook her head. “Jasmine, I swear I didn’t know. Neither did Enrique, bless his soul. If anyone is at fault, it’s Hector. I would have stopped him if I had known.”
“That’s your problem, Laura. You could never pay attention.” Vulcan shook her head, skeptical. “Why are you here?”
“I came to apologize,” the heroine admitted, causing Jasmine to blink in surprise. “I still don’t understand how we went from friends to enemies, but after all that happened, I’ve been reevaluating my choices. I don’t want to fight you again, and… whatever I did that caused you pain… I wish to apologize for it.”
Jasmine listened without a word, different feelings changing her expression. From disbelief, to anger, to regrets. “Get out, Laura,” she finally said, unable to process it. “Get out.”
“I understand,” Wyvern replied with a scowl, before turning to the courier. “Romano, I’m not sure why you chose to join the Augusti, but… what you did was very brave. There’s still time for you to turn your life around, become a force of good in the world.”
“Yeah,” Ryan replied, looking at the sleeping cat on his lap. “There’s still time.”
With one last glance to Jasmine and Ryan, Wyvern flew through the windows, probably to rejoin New Rome.
“You knew,” Jasmine said once she was gone, glaring at her boyfriend. “About that Mechron bunker. That’s what you were hiding.”
“I knew Mechron kept a weapon stash below,” Ryan admitted. “Not that he had an orbital laser’s control panel.”
“And you didn’t tell me?!” she snarled. “Fuck, Ryan, we slept together! In my bed! It couldn’t hurt to trust me a little!”
“Jasmine, I swear—”
“Shut up,” she interrupted him, looking away. “Just shut up.”
Schrodinger let out a cute meow as if to alleviate the tension in the air. Ryan petted him between the ears, wondering if Shub-Niggurath had also survived the devastation. Though most of his thoughts were for the orphans in Len’s undersea base. With luck, the automated systems would provide for them, but without Shortie…
All in all, this run had been a disaster.
Mechron’s bunker had been blown up, like his car, the Chronoradio, and whatever brain-copying research Dynamis stockpiled in their HQ. His plan to transfer someone else’s consciousness through time had been dashed.
The courier only had one option left; his only chance to salvage something from this run, and that was Vulcan’s power-enhancing armor. But would she help him after everything? He wasn’t sure.
At this point, he should just ask Vulcan for her gun and pull the trigger.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Jasmine broke the silence. “I know I’m beautiful, but that’s just creepy.”
“I was thinking about what you said,” Ryan said. “A little trust. You knew I was hiding things but you said nothing to Augustus or the others. Why?”
“I wonder myself,” the Genius replied with a shrug. “I dunno, you’re smart, you’re fun, and I like you. Simple as that.”
“Like, as in present? So you still have a thing for me.”
“Don’t push it, Ryan,” she replied, though he saw the edge of a smile on her lips. “Yeah, I still have a little crush, and that’s why I’m mad at you for your stupidity. You can only really be pissed at people you hate or care about.”
Ryan smiled a little, though the heart wasn’t in it. Thing was, he had plenty of people he had grown to hate, but very few people to care for. He had always remained careful not to get attached to others because it only hurt more when he looped.
Thing was, Vulcan had kept some of his secrets when she could have easily betrayed him. Even now, she hadn’t completely written him as a lost cause. She wasn’t a good person, as his Dynamis loop could attest, but she wasn’t all that bad either.
A little trust… it had been a while since Ryan had trusted anyone except Len, because trust was a fragile thing that could easily turn into an open wound. Because it was something that once given couldn’t be easily taken back.
But this whole disaster happened because he couldn’t trust anyone but Len with the bunker’s secrets. If Ryan always did the same things all over again, then he would get the same results. Maybe… maybe it was time to change.
Maybe it was time for him to change.
“I can time-travel.”
Trust was a two-way street, after all.