“And right in front of us, you can see Rust Town’s famous orphanage, where the most dangerous creatures in the world are raised in the wild,” Ryan said as he finished giving his team a tour of the area, parking the Plymouth near the entrance. “Human children.”

“You exaggerate,” Wardrobe chuckled, looking through the window. Len was waiting with Sarah and another boy near the orphanage’s entrance, the kids playing with a labrador. Unlike the previous loop, the Genius hadn’t put on her diving armor yet, sticking to her brown suit and water rifle.

“I think you underestimate these creatures,” Ryan argued. “They eat baby candies, and they listen to loud music at night.”

“Why are we here exactly?” Atom Cat asked from the back.

“Well, according to my intel, the Meta-Gang intends to target the place today,” Ryan said, though he didn’t mention which source. His words caused everyone to look at him in alarm. “They will abduct the residents unless we drive them off.”

“They intend to attack children?” Wardrobe’s adorable face had turned white from the horror.

“I would like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not,” Felix grumbled.

“Don’t worry, Sifu, we will save them!” The Panda said with enthusiasm, a hand on his chest. “We will break these villains like… like bamboo!”

“We will need to work on your puns, arrogant young disciple,” Ryan said as the group stepped out of the car, instantly catching the children’s attention.

“Oh, it’s Wardrobe!” Little Sarah’s eyes widened upon recognizing the heroine. It seemed that while she wasn’t as well-known as Wyvern, the fashion designer had her fans.

“Where, where?” another child asked, rushing out of the orphanage alongside half a dozen of the tiny devils.

“Riri,” Len whispered softly, while the children swarmed the heroes, most asking for Wardrobe’s autograph. The Panda looked really jealous of her fame, which he coveted for himself.

“Guys, this is Len, alias Underdiver,” Ryan introduced them. “She’s a friend. Shortie, this is Atom Kitty, my new BFF Wardrobe, and Superpanda. He can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes.”

“Atom Kitty, huh? Never heard that one before, Quickie.” Atom Cat crossed his arms while he observed Len. “Isn’t she a criminal though? I heard Vulcan paid the Private Security to have her released.”

Len immediately tensed up, looking at Atom Cat suspiciously. “Your corporate overlords are the real criminals,” she replied harshly, waving a hand at Rust Town. “This… this is their work.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Felix admitted with sheepish embarrassment. “You’re taking care of the place?”

“Someone has to.”

“Quicksave, you monster!” Wardrobe glared at him, having finished writing autographs for the kids. “I’m so disappointed in you.”

“About what?” Ryan asked with a frown.

“You can’t let your friend dress like this!” Wardrobe ranted, as she approached a very surprised Len and touched every part of her outfit with her soft fingers. “Her costume is hideous!”

Clearly, Len didn’t know how to react to this. “I’m, what, what…”

“The colors are all wrong, it stands for nothing, and it’s not even form-fitting!” Wardrobe started touching Len’s breasts, much to her dismay. “Look at her beautiful figure! All that potential, wasted!”

“S-stop please,” Len pleaded, as if attacked by an over-affectionate puppy.

“I’m sorry, darling, I can’t look the other way.” Wardrobe removed her hands from the Genius and adopted a pose reminding Ryan of the Rodin’s Thinker statue. She devoured Len with her eyes, the poor Genius now as red as a tomato. “We need silver and blue, with scales…”

“What’s your power?” Little Sarah asked the Panda.

“Oh, I can become the best creature in the world!” The Green Genome immediately transformed into his animal shape, much to the kids’ delight. “Overpanda overdrive!”

“It’s a bear!” a little girl squealed, as the Panda lifted her on his shoulders. “It’s a bear!”

“So soft and warm,” another boy said, as he touched the beast’s fur.

“Oh!” Little Sarah looked up at Felix. “Can you transform into a cat too?”

“No,” Felix replied with a gruff tone.

“But your name—”

“I like cats, that is all.”

“You are a huge disappointment,” Little Sarah snarked back at him, before giving in to the Panda’s cuteness. The animal eventually laid on his back, letting the children use his belly as a trampoline.

The Panda had found his power’s true purpose. Entertaining children.

Ryan would have found the scene quite funny, had his mind not been distracted by something else.

The orange is in the hen house… It was a joke phrase that Ryan told people when they asked details about his power. But he hadn’t used it once in this entire loop! The fact someone sent it to him could only mean one thing.

Somewhere, somebody remembered.

No, no, he shouldn’t keep his hopes up, in case they ended up dashed. For all he knew the Chronoradio could have broadcast that message. But in case someone did remember, who could it be?

Ryan remembered using that sentence three times. Once in the Bakuto during an early loop, once to Shroud when he asked his power, and once with Livia. It could have also been Jasmine, but why would she fake amnesia?

Livia, though, had seemed to recognize Ryan’s name. He was also pretty sure she had a second power like her father, one he didn’t fully understand yet. For all the courier knew, it could allow her to keep her memories from one loop to another.

Rah, his thoughts raised more questions than answers!

Ryan could ask the poor kitten for confirmation, but he had the feeling it would backfire. If it was Livia, Felix would ask why the courier received messages from Augustus’ daughter; he might mistake the time-traveler for a mafia mole, and ruin everything.

Children eager for an autograph managed to distract Wardrobe long enough for Len to escape her clutches. “Riri,” the Genius whispered to the courier. “Do you have a plan?”

“My idea to deal with Psyshock was a flop,” Ryan admitted. He thought Wardrobe could cosplay as Cancel and finish off the bodyjacker, but clearly, it wouldn’t happen. “We’ll have to go with yours.”

“I hope it will work,” she said, raising her water gun. “I never tried it before.”

Her bubble prison worked fine against Reload in the previous loop, so Ryan didn’t doubt its effectiveness. Unless of course, Psyshock had an automatic suicide button to avoid capture. The Psycho didn’t use any against Cancel, but she was nullifying his body-transfer back then.

Automatic triggers were nasty things. The courier developed one in his early loops, but he never found the right balance. One of his devices, meant to protect him against mind-readers, ended up mistaking his ‘saves’ as memory manipulation attempts. In another case, a chest bomb kept detonating at inopportune times. Eventually, Ryan gave up on the idea altogether, finding it more trouble than it was theoretically worth.

Had Psypsy reached the same conclusion? He couldn’t tell until they crossed that bridge.

Which, unfortunately, wouldn’t take that long. Ryan noticed Psyshock’s black, rusted minibus drive towards the orphanage, quickly followed by a second one.

The Meta-Gang had brought reinforcements.

He should have expected it. Without Ghoul to serve as a smokescreen, the Land probably noticed a large group of Genomes around the orphanage. Hopefully, Adam would keep his heavy hitters in reserve to protect the Junkyard, rather than send them all to the orphanage.

Ryan could do without another fight with Acid Rain. Especially since she murdered Felix the Cat the first time they met.

“It’s them,” Felix guessed, tensing up. “The Meta.”

“Go inside, right now,” Len told the children. “Hide in the basement, and don’t come out until I say so.”

“But ma—” Little Sarah protested.

“Do as I say,” the Genius asked more firmly, raising her water gun.

“Don’t worry, sweetie,” Wardrobe said with a reassuring wink. “Heroes always win.”

Unless they took a bullet to the head, but Ryan hoped it wouldn’t come to that. The children fled into the orphanage, the other Genomes preparing themselves up for a fight.

“Alright, guys, let me do the talking until bullets start flying,” Ryan said, stealthily grabbing a device from the back of his Plymouth Fury and hiding it inside his suit. He also put on the Fisty Brothers, determined to personally introduce them to Psyshock's jaw. “No matter what you hear, try to keep calm.”

“Y-yes, Sifu,” the Panda said, fidgeting in place. Though he tried to put on a brave front, Ryan could tell the hero wannabe didn’t have any experience whatsoever.

“What’s this?” Atom Cat asked, eyeing Ryan’s suit. “Some ultimate weapon?”

“You can say that,” Ryan replied, preparing himself for his performance as the Meta-Gang parked in front of the orphanage. “It’s a wiretap.”

Psyshock stepped out of his car first, followed by Mongrel and Mosquito. The other minibus stopped nearby, two more Psychos emerging from it. A reptilian humanoid, and a bipedal jaguar.

Ryan remembered them both from his suicide run. He had run the lizard over on his way to the bunker, while the jaguar-man, Rakshasa, could summon gremlins.

The two groups were evenly matched, or so it seemed.

“Little Cesare.” No matter the number of loops, the possessive way Psyshock said it always sent a shiver down Ryan’s spine. “And the delightful Len. It’s quite the reunion.”

“I told you, I smelled a pack of Genomes,” Mosquito said, cracking his knuckles. The other Meta seemed to barely restrain themselves. Mongrel showed his teeth, the lizard guy’s tail whipped the ground, and Rakshasa prepared to summon gremlins for support. “Guess it's blood harvest time.”

“Yes, though we only came for the children in that shelter, this is a good day indeed,” Psyshock said.

“Then you will have to explain that to Don Hector,” Ryan lied, channeling Blackthorn’s corporate arrogance. “He’s not happy with you already, so I wouldn’t recommend it.”

The sentence made Psyshock flinch.

It was an epic poker bluff, but Ryan knew he could still win with a weak hand. They didn’t call his style loose-aggressive for nothing.

The Meta glanced at their leader, who carefully examined Ryan. He sensed something was wrong, but the fact he didn’t immediately call out the courier’s bluff meant he had hit the mark.

“I did not have the pleasure of meeting with any Hector,” Psyshock said, suspicious.

“Oh well, in that case, we’ll cut off the juice,” Ryan lied as easily as he breathed. “If you don’t deliver results soon, you can say goodbye to your knockoff supply. These crates and the drones were a big investment on the big man’s part, and he doesn’t do charity.”

Now, that took Psyshock aback, because Ryan should have no way to know this information. He could have spied on them, but the knockoffs and drones were safely hidden inside the bunker. Most probably, the supplier himself had provided the information to Ryan… or he could time-travel.

Guess which Psypsy found more likely?

“Why are they here?” Psyshock glanced at Ryan’s team. All of them had tensed up, while Atom Cat seemed to brim with cold rage.

“The boss was worried you would go off-the-leash, and we would have to teach you a lesson.” Ryan’s fingers twitched dangerously. “Will we have to, Psypsy?”

The key to a good bluff was confidence. You had to seem so arrogantly sure of yourself that your opponent doubted his own judgment. Steve Jobs called it a reality distortion field, and it wasn’t that far from the truth.

The Meta-Gang’s second-in-command looked at Ryan dead in the eyes, the tension palpable. Their respective groups prepared themselves for a fight, for now was the moment of truth. The courier stood firm, with the arrogance of someone convinced he would always get his way.

And thankfully, Psyshock caved in.

“No,” he said, before pointing at a spot far from the two groups. “Here, let us discuss things far from unwelcome ears.”

Ryan glanced at his team and nodded at them. Hopefully, they could keep quiet until things inevitably escalated.

The two nemeses’ walked away from their respective groups, at the edge of the orphanage’s courtyard. “Explain yourself,” Psyshock cut straight to business. “Mr. Manada specifically asked Adam and I not to reveal his involvement, even to our own men. What changed? Why did he send you rather than go through the usual channels?”

“Somebody talked,” Ryan replied, faking annoyance with the Psycho. "The old channels are no longer secure."

“It wasn’t us,” Psyshock declared. “As we told your employer when we approached him, we are very careful about security. If there is a leak, it comes from your side.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ryan said while faking heavy skepticism. He noted that the Meta had approached Dynamis first, rather than the other way around.

“I personally altered the memories of anyone involved in our operations, to minimize risks,” Psyshock insisted, forced on the defensive. “The leak does not come from us. Is that why you brought these people? So I can check their memories?”

“No, they don’t like it, but they will keep their mouth shut,” Ryan lied. “Why is the big boss paying you off generously to visit orphanages? Don’t tell me the fatass wants some chicken nuggets for dinner?”

Hannifat Lecter had been cunning enough to keep his mouth shut in the previous loops, at least until he had blown up the city. The courier had the feeling Psyshock wouldn’t share his boss’ self-control. He was too arrogant and confident in his immortality.

“We intend to use these goblins as soldiers against the Augusti,” Psyshock lied as he breathed. “I assure you, we are making progress. We pushed them out of this district and started hitting their suppliers—”

“Barmen and normies,” Ryan replied disdainfully. “Where is the A-material? The Killer Seven? Pluto, Neptune? Looks like you’re underperforming, and company divisions who don’t bring results… get downsized.”

Okay, maybe he was laying it a bit too thick with the corporate metaphors, but it seemed to work. Psyshock lying about Mechron’s bunker also meant that Hector Manada probably didn’t know about it.

The more he listened, the more Ryan saw the bigger picture. Adam had learned of the bunker somehow, and came to Rust Town to unearth it. But since he needed time to do so quietly, the Meta’s leader had approached Hector Manada to secure a knockoff Elixir supply and pacify his crew of addicts. Adam promised to target the Augusti on Dynamis' behalf, without ever intending to deliver.

These Psycho bastards had planned to overthrow their ‘employers’ from the start.

“As I told Mr. Manada, we lack the numbers to move carelessly,” Psyshock argued, trying to save the knockoff connection. The Meta-Gang probably expected to take weeks to fully conquer the bunker, and they couldn’t jeopardize their juice supply until then. “We need to gather more information before we can make a strategic move.”

Ryan raised three fingers. “Three days,” he said. “You have three days to deliver results.”

“Three days?” Surprise broke through Psyshock’s emotionless tone. “That is way too short.”

“You have three days to deliver,” Ryan repeated boldly, “or the deal is off.”

Now, he was mostly trolling Psyshock before the coup-de-grace, but he hoped to make him panic enough to blurt out one last juicy bit of info. And he had guessed right.

“I have made considerable progress on the other project,” Psyshock argued. “If Mr. Manada was willing to extend that period, I could show him.”

The second project? Now, Ryan couldn’t be sure about it, but he could infer its nature from various elements compiled from the previous loops. “The brain scan?” the courier asked, hoping he had guessed right.

“Your technology, while primitive, is compatible with my power,” Psyshock said, regaining his composure. “I can easily copy a mind from one brain to another, as long as they are closely related.”

As Ryan had thought. He had wondered why the Dynamis/Meta alliance quickly collapsed in the previous loop with Psyshock’s death, but now it made sense. With the Meta’s failures against the Augusti and the brain-manipulator's demise, Hector Manada probably thought he should just scrap that alliance and cover his tracks. “How closely?”

“Clones would be the best, but we can work with close relatives. Siblings, children...” Psyshock marked a short pause. “Even Genomes.”

“Careful, there,” Ryan said, though he would make sure Enrique would hear of this. “What you imply could be taken the wrong way.”

“I am simply saying that it is an option, if your employer is willing to entertain it.”

And like that, Psyshock had given the courier everything he needed.

Ryan looked at the skies, hoping to see flying armor. Now was time for Vulcan to show up, and turn it into a ménage-à-trois. Any minute now. Any minute now…

Damn, was it the higher number of Genomes involved that made Jasmine change her mind? At least, Ryan was pretty sure he could rely on someone else.

“Was that enough for you, Mr. Windshield?” Ryan said, glancing at an empty spot.

Psyshock froze in confusion, until a voice answered out of nowhere, “Yes.”

“Oh well,” Ryan said, glancing back at Psyshock, who started to realize he had been tricked. “Psypsy, you probably don’t remember, but there’s something I promised you last time we met. And Quicksave always delivers.”

Ryan punched Psyshock in the jaw by surprise, as all windows in the area exploded into glass shrapnel.

A note from Void Herald

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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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