“I’m losing him!” Wardrobe panicked.
It didn’t take long for Ryan and the Panda to locate their allies, who had turned the rubble of a collapsed building into a shelter. Cosplaying as a masked surgeon, Wardrobe had raised an improvised hospital tent from whatever material she could find.
She had managed to stitch up Atom Cat’s stab wounds the best she could, but Felix remained in a state of shock. Shroud, meanwhile, was losing blood at an alarming rate in spite of her best efforts. Acid Rain’s grenade had not only blown off his right arm, but impaled his thigh with shrapnel.
“Can’t you do CPR?” The Panda asked a stupid question.
“CPR can do almost anything,” Yuki replied, “but not give someone their blood back!”
“But there has to be something you can do!” the Panda panicked. “You could turn into Christ!”
“I can’t solve every problem by cosplaying as Jesus!” Wardrobe protested, quickly losing her nerve as her efforts failed. “Who can heal any wounds? I can’t think of the right persona!”
“I think I can help,” Ryan said while searching inside his suit for a knife and wires, to perform improvised surgery. However, even an optimist like him thought saving Shroud would be a long shot. The vigilante had lost an incredible amount of blood; if he wasn’t a Genome, he would have perished already.
The courier blamed himself for this mess. Ryan was used to fighting alone with no regard for collateral damage; he didn't do so well in a team, where he had to avoid friendly fire. The courier should have trained with his team before the battle, learned to coordinate better with the group.
Right before Ryan could start a last-chance surgery, he sensed an odd feeling down his spine; for a second, he thought Acid Rain had survived the headshot, only for a violet tear in space to open near the group. The Carnival teleporter Ace and someone dressed as a plague doctor stepped through, immediately flinching at their wounded teammate’s sight.
“Move away,” the plague doctor ordered, whom Ryan identified as the Carnival member Dr. Stitch. He opened a black bag he carried around his waist, to reveal an assortment of tools and strange organic devices. He quickly grabbed one of them, a horrifying white tumor with tendrils sticking out.
“W-why do you carry that on yourself?” the Panda asked, resisting the urge to vomit.
“My expertise is in viruses and bacterias,” Stitch replied, the tumor wriggling within his fingers. He quickly applied it to Shroud’s wound, the tumor grafting itself to the vigilante’s flesh. “My bacteria colony will help repair—”
“No time for mad science exposition,” Ace cut in, before focusing on Ryan and the Panda. “You two, report.”
“Sarin has been blown away, and Acid Rain’s skull blown out,” Ryan said. He couldn’t resist making terrible jokes when stressed.
“Good, Wyvern and Devilry are handling Frank for now, so we can assume the perimeter is secured,” the teleporter said with a nod, while Stitch and Wardrobe cooperated to save Shroud. “You can still fight, right? Then you come with me. Stitch and Wardrobe will go to the infirmary and treat the wounded.”
“We should take Wardrobe,” Ryan protested. “I mean, Whalie is as big as a whale, and Yuki’s Japanese. She’s his natural predator.”
Ace seemed somewhat amused by his joke, but remained serious. “We have many fighters, but not enough people to treat the wounded.”
“How are things going?” The courier asked, while Ace opened a portal towards what looked like a Dynamis hospital camp. Wardrobe and Stitch quickly dragged the wounded through the rift.
“Worse than expected, but still good,” the teleporter replied, closing the portal and opening another. “Leo and Mr. Wave blew up the Meta’s mech, but Adam barricaded himself inside his underground base. We’re fighting his remaining men door-to-door, and Psyshock is throwing brainwashed suicide bombers at us.”
As Ryan had expected, failing to kill the brainjacker caused casualties to increase exponentially. Most importantly, he could read between the lines.
Sunshine couldn’t destroy Mechron’s base without killing the Meta-Gang’s hostages, and now, they had to clean the bunker up with an old-fashioned assault. Which meant Dynamis had learned of its existence.
If the enormous casualties wouldn’t force Ryan to restart, this change would. Though they had provided valuable help during this loop, the courier didn’t trust Dynamis with Mechron’s technology. Too many corrupt elements in their ranks.
Ace opened a new portal, Ryan and the Panda passing through. In the blink of an eye, they left the toxic open atmosphere of Rust Town for the suffocating claustrophobia of Mechron’s bunker.
Ryan didn’t recognize the room, some kind of industrial warehouse with metal arms and cables dangling from the ceiling. Assembly lines dedicated to robot manufacturing had been repurposed into improvised barricades; the air smelled of ozone, and ominous red lights pulsed from the ceiling. The corpses of both Psychos and normal humans lay on the ground, torn apart by heavy weaponry.
Fallout and armored members of the Private Security had formed a line, bombarding the Meta-Gang’s barricades. To Ryan’s surprise, none of their enemies were mutated; they were all dog drones, brainwashed technicians, and enslaved denizens of Rust Town. Most of them carried Dynamis-made firearms, but a few wielded strange weapons with Mechron’s logo on them.
Most nightmarishly, all of them wore suicide belts, and the Meta-Gang had tied up people to their barricades. Not only did Psyshock throw brainwashed slaves at Dynamis, he dared use his few remaining sane prisoners as human shields.
“I’m just saying, that’s why I’m against automation,” a Private Security member in power armor declared, as he blasted a hound drone with a laser minigun. “First they steal our jobs, and then they try to steal our lives!”
“Yeah, and I’m paid three thousand a month when these things cost a quarter of a million to make,” another guard added, using a flamethrower to torch Psyshock’s brainwashed cannon fodder. “That’s the real economic inequality!”
“Shut up and keep fighting,” Alphonse grunted, raising a hand at a technician threatening him with a rocket launcher. His metal fingers shone with nuclear energy, before blasting the attacker apart with a gamma ray.
While the Panda smashed through a barricade with a roar and Ace fled through another portal, Ryan approached Dynamis’ VP. “How are things going, Atomic Cancer?”
“The brainwashed thralls blow themselves up if we approach them, and they use their free-willed captives as shields,” Alphonse grunted, completely ignoring Ryan’s nickname for him. “Disgusting.”
“We have to take down Psyshock.” Ryan turned around, noticing Enrique Manada behind them. The corpo kept one knee against the ground, surrounded by thin, nearly undetectable vines spreading through the bunker’s corridors. “He is the backbone of their defense. If he falls, the rest will follow.”
“Greenhand?” Ryan asked, quickly lowering his head to dodge a stray bullet. “You’re here too?”
“Surprised, Romano?” the grass manipulator replied dryly, fingers on the vines. Unlike Ryan’s, the corpo’s cashmere suit remained fully intact.
“I thought you were more of a pencil-pusher, bravely commanding from the rear.”
“You thought wrong.” Enrique turned to face his brother. “Al, I’ve located Adam and Psyshock. Second room to the right. I suspect it is the base’s command center.”
This worried Ryan greatly. If the Meta already managed to access the bunker’s mainframe, it meant they might access the Bahamut. Knowing Big Fat Adam, he would press the trigger as soon as he could.
“I will carve a straight path,” Alphonse said, his metal hands shining with radioactive energy. “Brother, you guide us. Quicksave, cover our rear.”
“Does anybody have a spare gun?” Ryan asked, having lost his own during the fight with Acid Rain.
“Take mine,” Enrique said, searching inside his suit and tossing a Beretta at Ryan. The courier claimed it as his own, though with a clear lack of enthusiasm. “What, Romano? Not good enough for you?”
“I’m disappointed it’s not gold-plated.”
“You have strange stereotypes about my social position, Romano.”
“Enough prattle,” Alphonse said, before putting his hands against the right wall. The heat increased as he channeled energy through the metal, melting it away. Within seconds, Fallout had shaped a hole big enough to allow the trio to progress.
After a few minutes of improvised digging, the group melted their way into a large room shielded by a colossal blast door. As Enrique had guessed, the area looked like the bunker’s central mainframe; large screens covered the walls, while ten colossal server towers served as pillars holding up the ceiling. A single blast door served as the entrance, red lights flickering as tremors shook the complex.
The most noteworthy part of the area, though, was the gargantuan biomechanical construct at the center. The machine, easily the size of an elephant, reminded Ryan of a human brain, albeit completely blue and outfitted with thick wires, alien implants, and electrical pylons protruding outward from the cerebrum. A mass of nerve-like wires connected the structure to a metal pedestal supporting the biomechanical brain, while a crimson force field shielded it from the outside world.
Psyshock had intermingled with the machine like a bloodsucking flea, his tendrils intertwining with the nerves. Hannifat Lecter stood in front of the force field, his skin covered in an alloy carbon and his eyes glancing at the screens above.
“You know, Psyshock, I think it’s time to go Old Testament on them,” Hannifat Lecter ordered his second-in-command, as he watched Dynamis’ forces break past their defenses on the screens. “Bomb Sodom and Gomorrah back to the stone age.”
“I can’t, I need more time to crack the firewalls—” Psyshock froze, as he and his commander noticed the newcomers. His cold voice turned furious when he saw Ryan. “Little Cesare... you and your sister ruined everything.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said, pointing a gun at the brainjacker while Alphonse raised his hands at Adam. “It’s always a pleasure.”
“Fontaine, Grey, time to surrender.” Even with all the chaos happening around them, Blackthorn remained icily polite. “Release the hostages, you’re surrounded. There is no escape.”
“Perhaps,” Big Fat Adam replied with a false smile, before revealing an item hidden behind his back, “but I got one last trick up my sleeve.”
A bottle full of a black, swirling liquid, with Mechron’s symbol stamped on some kind of colored glass. An Elixir, as black as a starless night.
A Mechron-made Elixir.
“You know what they say!” Adam said, raising the bottle and preparing to throw it at the group like a Psycho-making grenade. “If you can’t beat them, join them!”
Ryan froze time, calmly raised his gun, and shot the bottle while it was still in Adam’s hand.
Much to his shock, the liquid moved in the stopped time. Like a living blob of black oil, it surrounded the Ogre’s fingers, melting the carbon armor and seeping through his skin.
When the clock struck again, Big Fat Adam let out a scream of pain, as the ooze swallowed his arm and progressed through his body. “Sir!” Psyshock shouted in alarm, as the Black Elixir slowly covered all of its host’s body like a mantle of darkness.
Fallout immediately unleashed a blast of energy at the mutating Psycho with enough power to vaporize him. Adam raised his blackened hand, and an invisible force canceled the atomic ray. It simply stopped existing past a certain point.
Hannifat Lecter wished he had died though. His screams turned deafening, as the Black Elixir melted his skin and flesh, leaving only blackened bones and organs. The Psycho’s body couldn’t assimilate the Black Elixir, and it devoured him alive.
“What is this sorcery…” Blackthorn muttered to himself, horrified by the sight. Meanwhile, his more ruthless elder brother increased the output of his blasts, to no avail; the Black Elixir’s power trumped his own.
Adam’s skeleton shambled, the black ooze manipulating the bones like a puppet. The undead’s body degraded at an accelerated pace, organs dissolving… and yet it could still form words.
“You… you… open…” The voice didn’t belong to Adam. “You…”
The corpse raised a melted finger at an astonished Ryan, black ooze leaking from the emptied eye sockets. Blackthorn quickly forced the courier behind him, as if to shield him. Aw, he cared!
“You… you… must open…”
Adam was no longer in control.
The Elixir was.
“Open… the gate… send me… send me… to the Black… it is…” The voice turned from pleading to agonizing, as Adam’s jaw and throat started to dissolve. “This dimension... is not… send me… back...”
Afterward, even Hannifat Lecter’s enhanced body could no longer resist the degradation. The words turned incomprehensible, as the corpse collapsed into a puddle of black oil; having consumed its own host, the sinister substance dissipated into nothingness. Of the Meta-Gang’s leader, not even dust remained.
“Well, it was one hell of a slimming cure!” Ryan joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
After a brief moment of silence, Fallout attacked Psyshock next. One of his nuclear rays hit the force field, unleashing a pulse of energy that shorted out half the screens. Yet the defensive barrier held.
In response, parts of the ceiling opened to reveal automated gatling turrets, all of them opening fire on the group. Ryan briefly stopped time and pushed Enrique out of the firing line, sparing him a volley of bullets to the face. Fallout’s armor shrugged off the projectiles, while Dynamis’ VP increased his power’s output; he unleashed a sustained ray of focused nuclear energy at the forcefield, until Ryan had to cover his eyes to protect himself from the light. An unstoppable force fighting an immovable object.
The unstoppable force won.
The forcefield shorted out, and Psyshock barely had the time to leap out of the biomechanical database before Fallout hit it. The blast vaporized the giant brain, organic and mechanical parts alike, and continued its way through the wall behind. Steel and glass both melted before this almighty power. All screens and lights turned black, leaving only Alphonse Manada’s radiance to provide lighting, and the turrets abruptly stopped firing.
With the dexterity of a spider on the run, Psyshock used his tendrils to jump across the room and attempted to bypass the trio. Ryan froze time and shot the tentacles supporting his weight, causing the Psycho to crash on the ground before he could escape.
“Didn’t you hear, Psypsy?” Ryan taunted him, shooting a tentacle before Psyshock could smash his skull with it. “Today, we have fried squid on the menu!”
The rose on Enrique Manada’s suit grew thorn tendrils, until the plant had become a floral squid as large as Psypsy himself. Its roots restrained the Psycho, while the flower unleashed a burst of colored smoke right in his face. Psyshock struggled for a moment, before his whole body went limp.
“I knew Dynamis’ perfumes were low-quality, but not to the point of causing someone to faint,” Ryan mused out loud.
“I used a genetically altered brand of aconitine,” Blackthorn replied, which Ryan identified as a plant-based neurotoxin. “Since Psyshock needs to die to activate his body-transfer, hopefully keeping him in a state of unconsciousness should disable it.”
“And since Psypsy is almost entirely made of nerves, it’s doubly effective against him, even with his enhanced biology!” Ryan had to admit the idea was brilliant. Enough to shamelessly copy it in a later run.
“We do our research too, Romano,” Blackthorn said dryly. “You do not have a monopoly on intelligence.”
“Fallout to all teams,” Alphonse Manada spoke through an intercom in his suit. “Adam is dead, and Psyshock is neutralized. Move to secure the site.”
“Any idea what that was?” Ryan asked, glancing at the spot where Big Fat Adam had perished. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but the entity had singled the courier out among the group, much to his confusion.
Blackthorn shook his head in disgust, and if the courier wasn’t mistaken, a hint of remorse. “It was our early days all over again.”
“We had worse results,” Fallout replied while receiving a response through his suit’s intercom. Unlike his sibling, he couldn’t care less. “The drones and robots have deactivated, but Psyshock’s thralls are still fighting. I must order a full wipeout.”
Much to Ryan’s surprise, Blackthorn immediately protested. “Al, they are not our enemies, they are victims.”
“I do not like it either, but the lives of our soldiers take priority,” Alphonse replied coldly. “And the thralls fight to the death.”
“Guys, I can stop time,” Ryan declared, both Manada siblings looking at him. “I can disarm and incapacitate people safely.”
“Yes, Al, let us try to capture as many as we can first,” Enrique asked his sibling. “We may be able to cure them later.”
“You and your sentimentality...” Alphonse grunted, before barking orders through his intercom. “You have ten minutes. No more.”
“You heard him, Romano.”
“Yeah, Greenhand,” Ryan said, as they rushed through the hole in the wall. “Frankly, I’m a bit surprised. I thought you wouldn’t care about casualties.”
“We can’t always make the world a better place,” Enrique replied with a shrug, “but we have to try anyway.”
In the end, Ryan saved as many people as he could. He disabled suicide belts in the frozen time, disarmed more fighters than he could count, saved dozens of lives.
But he couldn’t save them all.
When the courier emerged from the bunker through the half-melted blast doors, the battle had ended in a decisive Carnival/Dynamis victory. Troopers had secured the Junkyard, forming a defensive perimeter and establishing sniper nests atop the trash walls. The fact Leo Hargraves had torched half the area didn’t bother them.
Since he couldn’t see the giant Kaiju battle and the ground had stopped shaking, Ryan assumed both Frank the Mad and the Land had been defeated. Most of the Meta-Gang’s cannon fodder had been restrained, bound either by iron chains or cocoons made of countless paper sheets bound together; either the Carnival or Dynamis had a paper-manipulator on their payroll. Ace opened portals left and right to let troops through, the Panda proudly carried a drugged-out Psyshock in his arms to containment, and Leo Hargraves circled above Rust Town to survey the area. The message couldn’t be clearer.
The Meta-Gang was no more.
Ryan should have felt happy about it, but the raid left him with a bittersweet feeling. Yes, he had fulfilled his promise to Jasmine and ensured Hannifat Lecter wouldn’t fire an orbital laser at New Rome. But Dynamis now knew about the bunker, and Augustus would learn of the Carnival’s presence soon enough. One problem had been solved, but so many others remained.
And one quickly called the courier.
“Romano.” Enrique emerged from the bunker, his rose back on his suit. “We have business ahead of us.”
“Is it about the Beretta?” Ryan asked. Frankly, he would return it on principle. The courier only accepted the best, and that gun wasn’t all that great.
“You may keep it for now,” the corpo replied with a scoff. “This is not over yet.”
“Stragglers to deal with? Can I run them over? I love doing that.”
“Leave the mooks to our troops.” Enrique raised his eyes, as Leo the Living Sun floated down to their position. “Hargraves.”
“Enrique, Quicksave,” Sunshine greeted both of them as he landed on the ground. “I assume the bunker is secured?”
“Yes, it is,” Enrique replied, looking at the Living Sun’s head. “You knew about it.”
Sunshine remained silent a split second, but was too much of a shining knight to lie. “Yes.”
“As I thought,” Enrique replied, not truly surprised. “I suppose you worried that word of this place might reach my father or Augustus. Wise, but troubling.”
“You know this technology is dangerous. It ended the world once.”
“In the right hands—”
“There are no right hands, Enrique,” Leonard interrupted Blackthorn, and Ryan was sorely tempted to agree. “Mechron’s legacy has to go.”
“Perhaps. In any case, we can decide what to do with this bunker like civilized people, after we deal with the problem at hand.” Enrique crossed his arms. “What about you?”
“I neutralized the Land with Origami’s help,” the Living Sun replied. “And I’m confident we captured or killed almost every Psycho active in Rust Town. The only ones unaccounted for are Incognito and Gemini. They must have used their powers to slip amidst your troops and escape.”
“I do not worry about these two. Without Adam to provide direction, they will be nothing more than a nuisance. We’ll catch them eventually.”
“Then we should be done,” Leonard said, arms crossed. “Or are we?”
“There is still one last source of concern,” Enrique said as a noise echoed from above. Ryan raised his eyes, noticing a helicopter preparing to land. “We found the evidence we needed, and Alphonse wants to arrest our father before he can organize a counter-coup. We’re going to the family manor, and we will clean up this mess once and for all.”
“I will go there first,” Sunshine said, preparing to take flight. “Make sure he does not get away.”
“Do not engage and wait for us,” Blackthorn commanded, Leo flying away with a nod. Once the Living Sun was gone, Enrique turned to look at Ryan. “Considering you planned all of this, I thought you might wish to be present as well.”
“Plan?” Ryan chuckled. “I don’t plan, I adapt.”
“You truly take me for a fool, Romano,” Enrique replied with a frosty tone, “but suit yourself. I warned you back then, once the day is done, we will have a talk.”
“I will drive to our destination,” Ryan said with a shrug. “No offense, but my ride is classier than yours.”
“Move quickly then,” Enrique said, straightening his suit as his helicopter blew dust in all directions. “History won’t wait for you.”
If only he knew.
Without wasting any more words, Ryan walked out of the Junkyard and whistled as loudly as he could. His Plymouth Fury self-drove to the trash labyrinth’s entrance, spooking a few Dynamis troopers, but Ryan prevented them from committing suicide by raising his hand in peace.
The second he sat on the driver’s seat, Ryan turned on the Chronoradio. “Shortie? Shortie?”
For a short while, Ryan worried the answer would never come, but it did. “Riri? Riri, can you hear me?”
“Thank God, you’re alive!” The courier let out a sigh of pure relief before looking at the skies. Enrique’s helicopter flew east of Rust Town after Leo Hargraves. “Where are you? Are you alright? Is everything okay?”
“I’m… I’m fine,” she replied while the courier followed Enrique’s helicopter. “Under the sea. I fled through the tunnels when Dynamis invaded the lower levels. And I...”
Ryan’s fingers tensed on the driving wheel.
“I have it,” Len declared, a quiet sense of triumph in her voice, “I have the braintech.”