The Pandamobile was… well, everything Ryan had expected.
A Dynamis-made copy of a second-generation Fiat Panda, covered in white and black fur to mimic an actual panda. It was comfy and cute, with a panda doll dangling from the rear-view mirror. A complete lack of imagination packaged by a corporation too lazy to make a custom car.
If the Panda hadn’t given him the keys beforehand, Ryan wouldn’t have touched the thing with a nine-foot pole. And even then, just putting his hands on the driving wheel felt wrong.
“I feel like I'm cheating on my long-suffering wife with a dirty whore,” Ryan said, thinking fondly of his Plymouth Fury. “I’m filled with regrets! Regrets and anguish!”
“Shut up and keep driving,” Atom Cat said from the front seat, repeatedly looking in the rear-view mirror for any sign of Pluto. The duo had reached the city’s suburbs, and would soon approach an overpass.
Great pillars of concrete lifted the highway out of New Rome above the road like a bridge, and loomed over shacks inhabited by the city’s poorest residents. While Dynamis had put some effort into keeping the highway functional, they clearly didn’t look below it.
Still, the sun was starting to set, and no sign of the Augusti yet. If all went well, the duo should reach the rendezvous point with Len near the Amalfi Coast at nightfall.
“Hey, you’re the one who prevented us from taking a better car!” Upon seeing the abomination, Ryan had immediately tried to ‘borrow’ the nearest sports car, but no, Kitten was too nice to allow it. “It’s your life on the line. One of them anyway.”
“Yours too now. Augustus will target anyone who helps me.” Felix sighed. “Sorry to be snappy, Ryan. I appreciate the help.”
“Have you fallen for me yet?” the courier teased him, just as his phone started ringing. Lucky Girl. “Because your sister has, in spite of my best efforts.”
“You shouldn’t be calling while driving,” Atom Cat said gruffly, as Ryan picked up the phone while driving towards a traffic light.
“Fortuna, darling, how can I make you even happier today?”
“Ryan?” Much to his surprise, she seemed confused to have the handsome courier on the phone. “How can it be, I was trying to call Felix! My power is never wrong!”
“Well your wish has come true,” Ryan said, while Felix shook his head like a maniac, “he is right next to me, begging me for protection.”
“He is?” Fortuna asked while her brother glared at the courier. “Oh my Ryan, you truly are the perfect gentleman, anticipating my wishes before I even think of them! Now, hand him the phone!”
“I don’t want it,” Felix said, as Ryan dangled the cellphone right in front of his partner’s head.
“Come on, don’t be a bab—”
The traffic light above them separated from the pole holding it above the ground, and threatened to fall on the Pandamobile.
Ryan activated his power, looked out of the window, and then skillfully drove out of the object’s way when time resumed. The traffic light crashed on the ground and shattered into pieces. “Sheesh, what happened to public service?” the Violet Genome asked, before shoving the phone against Felix’s ear.
“Stop…” the hero complained, until he heard Fortuna berating him on the other end. “Yes, Fortuna, I’m alive. No, I can’t tell you where I am.”
Ryan tried to relax, but didn’t have the time to as he noticed a car coming from his right. The courier had to veer at the last second to dodge the incoming maniac. “Does everyone in this town drive like crazy?” Ryan complained. New Rome’s traffic killed him twice on his first day. “At least I can stop time!”
Atom Cat tensed up. “It wasn’t an accident,” he said, pushing the phone away. “Can you feel it? The cold?”
“It’s her?” Ryan looked at the rearview mirror, but didn’t notice anything extraordinary. “How far does her range extend?”
“I don’t know, but if I can feel the effects, then she can track me.”
Damn it. “Milady,” the courier said, as he recovered the phone, “I’ll call you back.”
“Don’t you dare hang up on me again, Ryan—” The courier hung up on Fortuna, putting his phone back under his suit, and took a turn towards the highway.
Soon, the Pandamobile climbed on the giant highway and left New Rome entirely. The enormous road, lifted by pillars, oversaw the lush countryside around the city. The urban jungle was replaced with woods, country roads, and isolated houses. Besides a few diesel vehicles, Ryan had the road to himself.
“Kitten, you’re sure she can track people down with her power?” After all, Pluto didn’t notice that she had marked Ryan until they met in a previous loop.
“Yes,” Felix said, repeatedly glancing at the rear-view mirror. “Once she marks a target and activates her curse, it creates a sympathetic link between them. And the closer she is to her victim, the stronger her power is. I don’t know everything about her ability, but I learned that at least.”
If Pluto’s range extended so far they couldn’t even see her, and if she could truly sense her targets, then they had no way to surprise her.
Felix looked through his window, and gasped in surprise. “There!”
Ryan froze time, and looked through Atom Cat’s window.
A familiar black Lamborghini moved on the road below the highway, between the woods. A few hundred meters away from the Pandamobile.
Worse, two people on a motorcycle escorted the car. The driver was a gaunt, masculine figure entirely dressed in a black bodysuit covering him from head to toe. The other was a woman in a red leather jacket, her crimson hair flowing out of her biker helmet; she was carrying a submachine gun.
The road they followed led back to the highway, at a junction roughly a kilometer ahead.
“Kitten, put on your belt, we’re gonna rock,“ Ryan warned as time resumed. The courier smashed the accelerator, and the Pandamobile moved faster and faster. With luck, they would reach their maximum speed and beat their pursuers to the road junction.
“The Vamp, and Night Terror,” Felix said before looking at the speedometer, as it climbed to one hundred twenty and kept rising. “Can this car go faster than a Lamborghini?”
“Now, Kitten, don’t be stupid.” Pluto was driving a Lamborghini Gallardo, which could go twice as fast as the Pandamobile. That Dynamis abomination could reach a hundred and fifty kilometers per hour maximum. “Night Terror, you said? I think I heard that name before...”
“The Blue Genome of the Killer Seven. I don’t know what his power does, except it activates in the darkness.”
“Oh, so during the night?” Ryan was glad some of the Killer Seven used appropriate names themed after their abilities. “And the Vamp? She sucks you dry?”
“Not really, she can use pheromones to make people do stupid things, and even kill them on touch. I should have known they would send the one Genome I couldn’t blow up through direct contact.” Atom Cat looked through the window and ground his teeth. “They’re accelerating. They know we noticed them.”
Thankfully, the Pandamobile passed the road junction first, and had now reached its maximum speed. However, when Ryan looked into his rear-view mirror, he noticed the black Lamborghini and its escort pursuing them.
Pluto had engaged Ryan in a highway car chase.
She had no idea who she was dealing with. “Go get’em, tiger!”
“With pleasure.” Felix opened his window, and threw an explosive dart at their pursuers with insane dexterity. Though Night Terror’s motorcycle dodged the attack, the projectile exploded right in front of the Lamborghini in a catastrophic blast and blew dust everywhere.
A truck next to the Pandamobile suddenly veered off course, one of its wheels breaking down. Thanks to skills honed through countless stunts across his loops and selective use of his time-stop, the courier managed to dodge the vehicle as it fell off the highway.
“No reincarnations today!” Ryan mocked the truck, though he immediately had to avoid a pickup next. From what he saw, it suffered from the same problem as the previous vehicle.
Ryan had a nasty gut feeling, and checked on the various parts of the Pandamobile. He quickly realized their car hadn’t been spared either. “Oh great, the brakes don’t work anymore. Not that I ever needed them before, but...”
“It will become worse, the closer she gets,” Felix warned, as Pluto’s Lamborghini emerged from the dust cloud unharmed. The Vamp, meanwhile, raised her submachine gun at the Pandamobile. “Get down!”
Ryan didn’t need a warning. He and Felix lowered their heads, as a volley of bullets shattered the windows at the back of the Pandamobile and impacted the windshield. One of the glass shards deviated from its natural course and aimed straight at Atom Cat’s throat. The courier stopped time, grabbed the projectile, and threw it out of the car once time resumed.
“Does Pluto have any weaknesses?” Ryan asked while looking at the road ahead. The sun was starting to vanish behind the horizon, and if Night Terror’s power truly activated in the dark...
“I think she can only target one person at once,” Felix said, throwing another dart at Night Terror’s motorcycle. The assassin skillfully dodged the projectile, though at least it prevented his backup from aiming.
From the glass shard incident, Ryan guessed Pluto directed her power at Atom Cat. Which would have been a great asset to counterattack, if the two heroes weren’t in the same car!
“She needs physical proximity for the effect to get stronger,” Atom Cat said, grabbing a new dart from his bandoleer, “so if we get far enough, it will lose potency. Maybe the brakes will work again then.”
“What happens if she gets within say, ten meters of us?”
Felix scowled. “Heart attack.”
Ryan hoped it would take more than forty seconds.
Her power had to have a weakness. All Yellow Genomes had weird limits. They warped reality, transforming an imaginary concept or narrative into a physical law of the universe. They changed the very logic of the world.
“This world,” Ryan muttered out loud.
Pluto’s power might make death an inevitable certainty for her victims, but the Purple World belonged to the Violet Genome. Like how he ignored Fortuna’s luck, the courier could break Pluto’s hold on causality by stopping time selectively. Neither did Ryan think Pluto actually controlled the calamities she generated, or she would have caused their car to explode already.
She was Fortuna’s evil counterpart.
“She’s our final destination,” said Ryan.
“I’m sorry?” Felix asked, while Night Terror attempted to bridge the gap between their two vehicles and the Vamp prepared a second volley.
“You never watched that movie?” Ryan veered off to dodge a deer before it could hit the Pandamobile. A deer. On a highway! “Spoiler alert, the heroes live at the end!”
But they died in the sequel. He'd better not mention that.
While Atom Cat’s explosions prevented the Vamp from aiming her submachine gun and forced Pluto’s car to slow down to avoid getting blown up, Ryan could already see the consequences. The highway seemed to tremble, the structural damage from the explosions extrapolated by Cruella’s own ability.
Eventually, what was bound to happen, happened.
One of the pillars holding the highway two dozen meters above the ground in front of the Pandamobile collapsed, causing cars to fall to their doom. A large hole had formed between both halves of the road, one slightly higher than the other.
“Hold tight!” Ryan said, the Pandamobile now an unstoppable missile. The side of the road was located slightly higher than the other side, so they had a chance to make it. “I got this!”
“You’re sure?!” Atom Cat panicked, as he quickly put on his belt.
“I couldn’t slow down even if I wanted to!”
Ryan froze time for a few seconds to calculate the right angle, and then made the jump when it resumed.
Like the majestic beast it took inspiration from, the Pandamobile soared through the air with grace and dignity. The vehicle crossed the hole at full speed, Ryan adjusting its movements slightly to make the perfect landing. He then took a strong, confident pose, because when you made such a brave jump, you had to look the part too.
And then came the moment of truth.
The Pandamobile landed with a loud thump, Felix almost jumping from his seat as the vehicle continued its course. Ryan heard the sound of the wheels straining from the impact, realizing they might flatten soon.
Night Terror, that coward, chickened out and abruptly stopped his motorcycle within a few inches of the hole, much to the Vamp’s chagrin.
The Lamborghini Gallardo though, kept accelerating. The car soared through the air like the Pandamobile and made the jump, while Night Terror turned his bike around to find another way.
Unfortunately, while Ryan was undoubtedly the most experienced driver in the world, Pluto’s car could go twice as fast as his own. The Lamborghini started to gain ground, from three hundred meters to two hundred.
A chill ran down Ryan’s spine, like the hand of death crawling on his back. His heartbeat accelerated, his breathing grew a little shorter. The courier felt like a rabbit hearing the faint steps of a predator nearby. His vision started to blur at the edges, his fingers twitched, and he heard his own heartbeat in his skull.
Pluto’s evil eye was on him now.
“Hit her!” he snarled at Felix, Pluto’s power making him unnaturally anxious. “Hit her, hit her!”
“I’m trying!” Felix panicked, removing his seat-belt and struggling to find a new projectile. “And I’m running out of darts!”
In which case... “Kitten, hold the driving wheel.”
“What?” Felix hastily grabbed the wheel as Ryan kicked his door open, grabbing a revolver from under his suit. Then, as his cat struggled to keep the Pandamobile on track, the courier rose half out of the car.
“Didn’t you hear?” Ryan shouted to Pluto, as he froze time and aimed at the Lamborghini. “I’m immortal!”
He fired multiple shots, two at the windshield, one at the engine, and two at the wheels.
Almost all of them bounced off.
“A bulletproof car?” Ryan raged as time resumed, as he took back the driving wheel and closed his door. “They have bulletproof cars, and we have a Fiat Panda?”
Worse, the Pandamobile’s car hood let out a puff of smoke, a flame rising from below. The calamities had started targeting the engine.
“Leave me and run!” Felix shouted, as he found the only item left to throw: the panda doll dangling from the rear-view mirror. He grabbed it and prepared to throw this lethal projectile like a grenade. “They’re only after me!”
“No way, let me think!” Ryan snarled, his breathing getting shorter, his body colder. The sun had now set, night ruled supreme, and the enemy car was now within one hundred meters. “Let me think, I can figure—”
Ryan froze in fear, as he recognized the voice coming from his back.
He didn’t even dare look behind himself. He looked into the rear-view, and he saw.
It was dark outside, and Bloodstream sat at the back.
He was exactly like in Ryan’s memory, a monstrous, human-shaped blob of blood. And he remembered.
“You’re dead…” Ryan whispered, his voice breaking in primal fear. "You're dead."
“Because you killed me!” His arms lunged for Ryan’s throat and started to choke him, like in his childhood. The courier lost his breath, and control of the driving wheel. “Your own father!”
“Ryan, what’s happening?” Felix panicked, as he abandoned his plan to throw the doll to regain control of the car. Unfortunately, he couldn’t. Without the brakes, an intact engine, and a good driver, the Pandamobile veered off course.
The car crashed through the guardrail, and fell from the highway.
Felix screamed in horror, as the Pandamobile prepared to crash into the woods below. Ryan activated his time-stop, the instinct of a dead man.
Bloodstream’s hold vanished along with his ghost, though the pain in the courier’s neck didn’t. The Pandamobile had frozen a few meters above the ground, interrupting the fall.
Working entirely on instinct, Ryan kicked the door of his car open and grabbed the time-frozen Felix. He leapt out of the car with his friend, both rolling on the soft grass a few meters away from their vehicle.
When time resumed, the Pandamobile hit the ground and exploded in a fiery detonation. Smoke and fumes rose from the wreck, illuminating the darkness. Bloodstream was nowhere to be found.
He had never been there at all.
“An… illusion…” Ryan croaked, as he regained his breath and rose back to his feet. An illusion that could harm the target. Psychosomatic wounds? “Night Terror?”
“No time!” Felix said, pointing a finger at the highway above. The Lamborghini had stopped at the edge, Pluto and Sparrow stepping out of it to inspect the Pandamobile’s wreckage.
Ryan and Felix immediately fled into the woods, just as Sparrow noticed them. The assassin unleashed a crimson beam from her vantage point and set a tree on fire, but the two heroes managed to escape into the darkness.
The hunt had only started.