And the whole thing started so well!
Right after Ryan punched Psyshock’s jaw out, Shroud revealed his ‘presence’ and unleashed glass shards in all directions. The situation quickly devolved into a chaotic melee, while the pets in the animal shelter howled as one.
Shortie immediately fired at Psyshock with her water rifle, the liquid forming a three-meters wide bubble around the Meta. The malevolent telepath struggled inside, unable to escape the liquid prison. Meanwhile, Rakshasa had summoned a dozen gremlins, Atom Cat attempted to engage Mongrel in close combat only to be repelled by a blast of compressed air, and Wardrobe’s costume transformed into a cosplay of Che Guevara. As for the Panda…
Mosquito instantly flew at him when the melee started, singling the bear out as easy prey whose blood he could drink. Except he forgot that Ryan’s disciple was a seven hundred kilos juggernaut bigger than a polar bear, and who hit just as hard.
So the Panda caught Mosquito’s sting mid-flight, pivoted on himself, and tossed the surprised Psycho against one of the black minibuses. The bugman hit it with enough force to trigger the alarm, but the Panda immediately closed the gap before he could recover.
“Bear Smash!” The Panda roared while he lunged at the Meta, hitting him so hard he bent the minibus’ metal doors; he then started beating the tar out of Mosquito with his bestial strength.
He was good!
The Panda was good!
He was ridiculous, but he was good!
Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t have the time to observe the animal brawl. The lizardman among the Meta lunged at an empty spot and slammed something against the ground, the blown dust revealing the invisible Shroud’s position. Ryan guessed the lizardman had managed to sense the glass Genome through sound or scent. The Carnival vigilante retaliated with shards, but they couldn’t cut through the Meta lizard’s tough scales.
Stopping time, Ryan rushed to Shroud’s rescue and punched the lizard with Fisty in the frozen time. When the clock struck again, the blow sent the reptile flying to the side, allowing Shroud to fly away. The glass genome switched targets to support Atom Cat with shards before Mongrel could incinerate him with pyrokinesis.
“Use pebbles!” Ryan shouted at Atom Cat, who still attempted to engage Mongrel in close-combat. “Use pebbles!”
“Oh, good idea!” Felix quickly caught on and threw a small stone at Mongrel, the projectile blasting the Psycho against the orphanage’s walls. Len managed to exploit his temporary incapacitation to trap him in another bubble, the rabid Psycho gasping for air.
Unfortunately, it turned out, Len’s bubble wasn’t powerful enough to fully immobilize Psyshock. When he realized all was lost, the malevolent mindjacker managed to raise a tentacle at his head and shattered his own skull. His grey matter flowed into the water, the Psycho abandoning his men to their fate.
“Damn, not again!” Ryan complained, as he pummeled the reptile Psycho into unconsciousness with Fisty. Shroud started shredding gremlins with shards while Atom Cat tossed explosive stones at them, but Rakshasa kept summoning more. By now, hundreds of the critters threatened to swarm the shelter.
At least, until they noticed Ryan and abruptly stopped.
“Huh?” the time-traveler asked, as the critters seemed to panic. One of the gremlins put two raised fingers behind his head, as if mimicking a rabbit’s ears, and then pointed at Ryan.
The creatures’ anxious expression turned into stark raving terror.
“Wait, you remember me?!” Ryan asked, the gremlins immediately running away as he approached them. They seemed to recognize him, even with a new costume.
Wait, of course they did! Rakshasa probably summoned these creatures from another universe and the genome’s ability only affected this one! “Come back,” Ryan pleaded. “Rabbits are friendly!”
The gremlins frantically escaped into Rust Town, much to Rakshasa’s shock and surprise. “Hey, come back here!” the jaguar-man ordered, even as Wardrobe rushed at him. “Come back, you cowards!”
Che Wardrobe tackled the jaguar to the ground, Rambo-style, and started manhandling him. Perhaps the costume gave her superhuman fighting skills or increased strength, but she quickly restrained the mook summoner with a chokehold. The vicious catman attempted to claw at her flesh, but Shroud nailed his palms to the ground with glass spikes.
“Back off!” Shortie warned, raising her rifle. Wardrobe released the chokehold and rolled away, just as Rakshasa became trapped inside a bubble of his own.
“You have the right to remain silent!” The Panda forced Mosquito’s bloody face against the minibus’ car hood, while holding him in a wristlock. “Perp!”
Ryan pitied the Mosquito. To be beaten by that bear must have hurt, physically and emotionally. A few seconds later, both the bug and the reptile Psycho joined their brethren in bubble confinement.
“I caught one, Sifu!” the Panda said, his bear face the very picture of happiness. “I caught one! We won!”
“No,” Len said, the only one crestfallen with the result. “Psyshock, he escaped.”
“I wouldn’t call that escaped,” Atom Cat said, pointing at the floating corpse in Shortie’s watery prison.
“Actually, can they survive inside these bubbles?” Wardrobe asked, as Mongrel and Rakshasa had both passed out inside their prison, while the wounded Mosquito gasped for breath. “They’re monsters, but killing them… it makes me feel uneasy.”
“They will survive,” Len nodded. “The special water provides them with enough oxygen to survive through direct skin contact... but not enough to stay conscious. Their body falls into suspended animation to preserve biological functions.”
All in all, the ‘fight’ had been a crushing victory, but unfortunately, Shortie had a point. They only caught mooks and Psyshock lived to fight another day. Which meant that the Meta could not only keep their enslaved thralls, but also operate Mechron’s mech.
While the Dynamis heroes rejoiced, Len’s face remained bitter. “I… I should have put more pressure,” she said, blaming herself for Psyshock’s escape. “If I had increased the oxygen ratio, I could have… I could have made him pass out quicker.”
“Shortie, it’s okay,” Ryan consoled her. “We’ll get that squid eventually.”
“You owe us an explanation,” Atom Cat scolded Ryan. “Who was that invisible guy?”
“That guy?” Ryan turned around, and realized Shroud had vanished. He must have turned invisible and left before the others could ask embarrassing questions. “That sneaky bastard, I hate it when he does that!”
“What was that for?” Atom Cat kept asking, suspicious. “That stuff about Hector? Because I assume it is the Hector?”
“Haven’t you heard?” Len snapped at him, her anger at Dynamis stronger than her social anxiety. “Your employer bankrolls the Meta.”
“Oooh, a conspiracy?” the Panda asked, clearly excited. “The Panda is all ears.”
“I heard, but that’s not possible,” Wardrobe argued, her quirkiness replaced with a skeptical frown. Even her costume changed from a South American icon to normal. “Why would he do that? Help monsters like these Psychos? It doesn’t make sense.”
“You just have to listen to Psypsy’s recording,” Ryan said, opening his suit to reveal the wiretap inside. “Our very own CEO hired him to attack the Augusti.”
To prove his point, he activated the recording. Atom Cat brimmed with rage, the Panda sat on his ass without a word, and Shortie…
When she heard Psyshock talk about the children, she looked positively murderous. In all his years knowing her, Ryan had never seen her like that.
“But it doesn’t make sense, if it were known, it would be disastrous for the company’s image,” Wardrobe argued, focusing on the marketing side of things. ”It could be an impersonator trying to ruin Mr. Manada’s reputation, or the Meta could lie to tarnish it. I mean, that’s what PR will say.”
“Who else could deliver crates of knockoff Elixirs to the Meta-Gang?” Felix replied with irritation, fists clenched. “I knew they were snakes, and I still let them bite me.”
“But, uh, if that’s true,” the Panda cleared his throat, a bit afraid. “Does that mean that we know too much? That’s what happens in movies, right? We know too much, so we’re all gonna die!”
“Nobody is going to die!” Wardrobe protested, hands on her waist. “We will do things by the book, and take that recording to our manager.”
“But what happens if he’s in on the conspiracy too?”
“You knew it would happen, when you brought us here,” Atom Cat accused Ryan. “That was your plan from the start. And who was that invisible guy?”
“He’s a friend,” Ryan said. “He’s very shy and not as transparent as he seems, but he’s a good one. A vigilante.”
“Was it why the Panda was recruited?” The Panda asked Ryan, his eyes widening in hope. “You couldn’t trust anyone else?”
It was technically true, in a weird way. Ryan was absolutely sure the Panda had nothing to do with any conspiracy whatsoever, because no illuminati in their right mind would hire him. “Exactly, young disciple,” he replied, raising a finger at the animal’s heart. “I chose you because of this.”
“No, your pure heart!” Ryan lightly slapped him in the back of the head. “You still have so much to learn!”
“Okay, okay, this is way above my pay grade,” Wardrobe replied after taking a deep breath, glancing at the Meta-Gang. “First thing first, what do we do about these guys? How long will these bubbles hold?”
“Hours,” Len replied laconically.
“Okay, good, that's more than enough time to bring them back to Optimates Tower,” Wardrobe declared with a nod. “Everyone loves a by-the-book arrest!”
“What, haven’t you heard?” Felix the Cat said with a tone filled with anger. He had left his family for Dynamis to do good, and the company had disappointed him. “They’ll be back on the street within hours if we do that!”
“So what, we kill them?” Wardrobe snapped back. “We can’t do that, we aren’t vigilantes. We stand for something. There are due processes to follow.”
“You would rather stick to your contract and risk letting these guys go? They tried to kidnap children to turn them into soldiers!”
“Hey, hey, everyone calm down!” Ryan said, before the argument could grow more intense. “Look, here’s my proposal. We call our beloved manager, he sends help to bring the perps into custody, and we give him the recording. That’s why I took it in the first place.”
“I can get behind that,” Wardrobe said with a nod. “I’m sure Enrique will clear this up.”
Atom Cat crossed his arms, glaring at Ryan suspiciously. “You’re both in on it. You and Blackthorn.”
“Sorry kitten, it’s top secret.”
“You’re both in on it, trying to expose Hector.” He marked a short pause. “Good.”
“And obviously, about what you heard today,” Ryan glanced at everyone, putting a finger on his mask where the lips should have been. “Shush…”
“The Panda will be as silent as a tomb,” his disciple promised, before rising back on his feet. “Can I make the arrest before the cameras? Bring the perps out of the car and into the tower?”
“Oh right, that will be your first arrest!” Wardrobe replied with a cheery grin. “You will see, you never forget your first. And with your new costume, I’m sure you will shoot up the popularity charts!”
“About costumes, why Che Guevara?” Ryan asked, the question had bothered him for a while.
“Because PR never lets me wear it, or Fidel Castro’s,” she admitted, a little embarrassed. “They say it’s too subversive, even if I can survive anything when I wear his uniform!”
Len’s head perked up, her communist radar triggered. “Are you a Marxist?”
“Uh, I would say I’m more of a social democrat,” Wardrobe admitted, leaving Len disappointed. The fashion designer immediately tried to cheer her up. “But I sympathize! I sympathize!”
Ryan heard his cell phone bleep, and he realized someone had sent him a message. “I have to go.”
“What? But you will miss the photo session!” Wardrobe complained, glaring at him. “Quicksave, it would be perfect to introduce your new costume to the world!”
“Sorry, Shortie and I need to bring the kids home,” Ryan said, while Len frowned at him. Though Psyshock’s temporary demise had not warranted a response from Big Fat Adam, the Meta would probably hit the orphanage again with heavy hitters unless evacuated. “And after that, I have a date.”
The unknown caller had sent him an invitation.
That evening, Ryan drove the Plymouth Fury south of New Rome, with Len sitting in the other seat. They made their way past the strip and into a place that could only be called a slum.
Well, maybe he was exaggerating. The place was terribly dirty, the ground littered with used drug paraphernalia, spent condoms, and even bullet casings, but it wasn’t as bad as Rust Town. Ryan didn’t see any feral dogs scavenging trash cans, and people walked around without the sense of paranoia that characterized the northern neighborhoods. The place was a dump, but somebody kept order.
Ryan parked the Plymouth Fury at the parking lot of a particularly uninviting motel, its wall paint peeling away and its neon sign flickering. The courier noticed the remnants of a pool nearby, long drained away. Only one of the rooms had the lights on, located on the first floor.
Cancel guarded the door. At least it confirmed his suspicions.
“It’s here,” Ryan said, checking the address sent by the mystery caller.
“I… I know this place,” Len frowned anxiously. “They call it Deadland Motel.”
“Yeah, it looks pretty dead to me too.”
“Riri,” she said, looking at him with concern. “They call it this way because… because a lot of people disappear there.”
It didn’t surprise him. The place was close to Mount Augustus, and isolated enough that the Private Security wouldn’t interfere. What surprised him was that Shortie had insisted on coming with him, after she evacuated the children to her underwater hideout. It warmed his heart. “If they wanted to kill me, they wouldn’t have sent me an invitation.”
“Are you, are you sure you want to do this?”
Ryan glanced at Cancel. “It’s the only way to be sure,” he replied, before smiling at his partner. “And with you as my backup, I have nothing to fear.”
“D-Don’t joke about it, please.”
“Yeah, but I gotta admit,” he smiled beneath his mask, “it’s nice to have someone watching my back.”
“Yes... I feel that way too.” She glanced away. “Please, be careful, alright?”
And after these emotional words, Ryan exited the car, climbed the stairs to the motel’s first floor, and made his way towards Cancel. “Hi Greta,” the time-traveler waved a hand at her. “Is Mortimer nearby?”
“Oh, hi!” she replied, waving a hand at him with the same cute friendliness as always. “He’s hiding in a corner.”
“Judas,” Mortimer’s voice answered, though Ryan wasn’t sure if it came from the walls or the ground. “Judas!”
“But have we met?” Cancel asked Ryan with a friendly expression. The courier had never seen her change it, no matter the loops. “I always remember masks and faces.”
“Well, you didn’t try to kill me yet,” Ryan joked.
“Oh, good, I would feel bad if I had missed you!”
“But if you’re here to kill me, could we pick something more dignified than a motel?” Ryan asked, pointed north. “I think there are some public toilets two streets away.”
“It’s fine, we’re here for security,” Greta reassured him, pointing at the door. “Someone wants to meet you.”
As he assumed. With one last glance at a worried Len waiting for him, Ryan opened the bedroom door and walked inside.
To his surprise, the inside looked far cozier and larger than the outside. It was a pretty normal room, actually, including a king-sized bed and various amenities, though Ryan couldn’t help but diss the blue wall paint. Someone had set a dining table, including coffee cups, a chessboard, and even cookies.
His host sat on the other side, waiting for him.
“Thank you for coming, Quicksave,” Livia Augusti said, as he closed the door behind him. “Or should I call you Ryan?”
Ryan frowned, a bit confused. “You do not know?”
“Not quite,” the mafia princess admitted. “But this is not the first time we meet, is it? How did I call you, before you turned back the hand of time?”
Goddammit, she knew, and Cancel was three meters away. “You called me Ryan,” he replied, trying not to show his fear. “We were casual acquaintances.”
“As I thought,” she replied, her face thoughtful. “The orange is in the hen house… I was confused about the meaning of this phrase, but now I understand. It was a message in a bottle. A distress signal thrown into the sea, hoping it would find its way to the right person.”
The Augusti princess poured Ryan a cup of coffee, and invited him to sit.
“Well, your bottle found its way to me,” Livia said with a smile. “Let’s open it together.”