It wasn’t the first time Ryan had woken up naked and strapped to a chair. At least his captors wisely let him keep his boxers; if naked, he would have gone on a rampage.
The courier coughed out leftover water, and it took him a while to see clearly. The room was dimly lit, cubic-shaped, and as unwelcoming as it could get. Steel walls covered in brown stains surrounded him from all sides, with a single reinforced door as the only way out and cameras in every corner. Ryan’s chair was positioned at the end of a tin table, where sat enormous plates shielded by steel lids.
The courier recognized the place.
“Cesare.” Psyshock was sitting at Ryan’s right, carefully opening a robot head with his tentacles and tinkering with the processors. “Did you sleep well?”
Ryan instantly froze time and attempted to lunge at the brainjacker. Unfortunately, he couldn’t move an inch. The courier’s eyes wandered to his hands and feet, noticing steel restraints almost everywhere it counted. The chair itself looked anchored to the ground, with syringe arms raised at the sides. He couldn’t even move his head!
Ryan attempted to bite his tongue and choke in his own blood, but his teeth hit a metal plate near the molars; when the courier focused, he realized a metal device attached to the chair restrained his jaw’s movements. Damnit, his captors weren’t usually this thorough!
“Can’t move, sleeping beauty?” Ryan recognized Sarin’s voice as time resumed. Hazmat girl waited in a corner on his left, back against a wall. “Gotta admit, I thought you were a goner for a second.”
“Where’s Len?” Ryan asked while glaring at Psyshock, the metal bits in his mouth making it difficult to speak.
“Working on your car upstairs, alongside my other thralls.” Other thralls. The very word made Ryan’s blood boil. “She is happier this way, Cesare. Little Len only feels at peace when she uses her power, and now, she will do so nonstop. It was an act of mercy. Kindness, even.”
How? How could it be? Did Psyshock infect Len during the bunker assault? No, Ryan would have noticed. Something in the tech?
The metal door opened, Big Fat Adam stepping through alongside Ghoul. “What’s wrong, Mr. Time Traveler?” the Meta-Gang’s leader taunted Ryan while sitting on the other side of the table. “Can’t kill yourself today?”
“I suppose the safe word is ‘weight loss’?” Ryan taunted him back, unimpressed.
“How witty, I guess we have a new Bill Murray in our custody.” Adam pointed a finger at the chair holding Ryan, while Ghoul took position right behind his boss. “You won’t restart this time, mate. Mechron used these devices for human experimentation. The chair will keep you alive, whether you like it or not.”
Ryan would have clenched his fists, if he could.
This was bad. This was really, really bad. He was restrained, and at the Meta-Gang’s nonexistent mercy. If Psyshock used his power on the time-traveler...
“How?” Ryan asked, as Hannifat Lecter put a napkin around his neck and prepared for his meal. The psychopath opened his mouth and brought out cutlery, alongside salt and pepper shakers. “How did you do it?”
“I told you before, Little Cesare,” Psyshock said, interrupting his work on the robot head. “Dynamis’ technology is compatible with my power.”
“I had Psyshock booby trap the tech the second Manada gave it to us,” Adam said, smirking to himself. “Anyone who gets their mind overwritten by it? They become Psyshock’s newest host. It was a back-up plan, in case Dynamis pulled a fast one on us.”
Ryan’s eyes widened, as he read between the lines. “It only happens during the overwriting? Not the memory map creation process?”
“Well, no.” Adam chuckled. “The sabotage would have been too obvious otherwise.”
Thus Livia still had an uncorrupted copy of Len’s mind, stored in the Blue World.
Ryan just had to kill himself, abort this loop, and then he could figure something out. Psyshock wouldn’t follow him back in time without Len’s machine, and the courier could find another way to transfer his friend’s memories back. Ghoul’s presence meant he had killed everyone at Renesco’s bar anyway, so this run was already ruined beyond repairs.
Adam guessed his intentions. “I’m sorry mate… you won’t get a happy ending.”
“Your real target was Hector Manada,” Ryan said, stalling for time as he furiously tried to figure a way out. “You wanted to take over Dynamis if he ended up using that technology.”
“What can I say, mate? People think I look like a fool, but you don’t reach my age by being one. Taking over your girlfriend as she went back in time was a fluke, but my insurance policy paid off.”
Adam lifted the lid off one of his plates, revealing some fried chicken alongside apples, and meat that wasn’t chicken meat. “You want some?” Hannifat Lecter offered the terrible dish to Ryan. “It’s Lebanese.”
“No, I’m a vegan,” Ryan lied. “My compliments to the chef.”
Adam chuckled, raising a finger at Ryan with a jovial smile. “You’re funny. I admire your wit and self-control. It’s like you went through something similar already.”
Ryan said nothing, causing Adam to raise an eyebrow. “You did?”
“You know what’s tragic about you, fatass?” Ryan taunted him. “You aren’t original. I killed dozens of you. It wouldn’t even be the first time I got cooked alive.”
“Wow,” Sarin said. “That’s messed up.”
While Adam kept his jovial smile, it no longer reached the eyes. The courier took some joy in wounding his ego. “Well, guess I’ll be the one to do you in,” said the Psycho, as he started eating. “Keep the best for last. Frankly, the only reason Psyshock didn’t scramble your brain already is that I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. I feel like we’re playing with fire here.”
“You are,” Ryan said, his voice dripping venom.
Adam chuckled while he continued his meal, and Psyshock took over. “She still loves you. Cesare.”
Ryan froze, his body trembling with anger.
“I dived deep into Little Len’s mind,” Psyshock said, twisting the knife. “I know her greatest secrets. I even know what she thought when you deflowered her; you didn’t leave a good impression, I’m afraid. But then again, you were her only one. The special one.”
“Shut up,” Ryan said.
“Deep down, she still believes you are the knight in shining armor who will make everything alright. She is just too scared to let you in. She thinks the white prince has gone rabid. It’s tragic, really.”
“It would be endearing,” Ghoul chuckled cruelly, while Sarin remained silent as a tomb. “If it wasn’t pathetic.”
To have these monsters use Len’s cherished memories as a taunt infuriated Ryan beyond words. But now his fury had cooled down into a cold, quiet feeling of hate. “One day, Psypsy, I will pick your brain open,” the courier warned, “but I assure you, it won’t feel pleasant at all.”
“We both know you are in no position to carry out this threat,” Psyshock mused. “Perhaps I will pair you and Little Len, once I have dominated your mind. It will be the closest thing to marital bliss you will ever experience.”
“Will it actually work though?” Adam asked as he finished his meal and wiped away his cheeks with his napkin. He had only left the apples untouched. “Your power modifies brainwaves, and he’s in two places and times at once. Which means two brains, right?”
“I should be able to overwrite his consciousness,” Psyshock insisted, clearly eager to brainwash Ryan. The brainjacker found a sick, twisted pleasure in forcefully invading minds. “It worked with Little Len, when she transferred her mind through time.”
“Should work.” Hannifat Lecter raised an eyebrow, a little skeptical. “That’s the optimistic outcome, but what happens if there’s a failsafe in his power? What’s the worst-case scenario?”
Psyshock seemed annoyed that his boss doubted him, but knew better than to argue. “The two patterns could conflict and cause brain damage. Maybe death.”
“But if his brain explodes right after he reloads, would his power keep working? Do we risk being trapped in an endless loop as he immediately dies and reloads? Or will it stop eventually? Could your brainwashing count as death as far as his power is concerned?”
A heavy silence fell upon the room, none of the Meta daring to say a word. Finally, Psypsy was forced to admit his own ignorance. “I do not know, Adam. But it should work.”
“But you can’t know for sure until you try.”
Psyshock’s silence was an answer in itself.
“Yeah, that’s my beef with your power, mate,” Adam said, as he glanced at Ryan. “We won’t know its limits until we test them, and if we mess up once, you win. You’re as bad as Augustus in your own way; if we fail, we die, so we’re too scared to even try.”
“Speaking of Augustus, his daughter keeps trying to contact him on his phone,” Psyshock pointed out. “Eventually, she’ll start suspecting something’s amiss.”
“Well, we planned to kill her anyway.”
“What I mean to say is that the longer we wait, the greater the risk,” Psyshock argued, looking at Ryan with what could pass for desire. “I can enthrall and force him to save.”
“But it causes his two selves to align, right? That’s what he told his girlfriend. We know his power activates when he dies, but what counts as death? Would stopping his heart for a minute count? Would rewriting his brain and destroying his personality count?”
Ryan knew the answers, but remained silent as a tomb.
“I can make him tell us,” Ghoul said, white mist surrounding his hands. “Freeze his extremities one by one.”
“My fingers don’t make the best ice creams,” Ryan replied, unimpressed. He doubted the Meta had anything that could surprise him. “Just chill out, Picard.”
The undead took a threatening step forward, but Adam stopped him with a wave of his hand.
“No need for that, Ghoul.” The Meta-Gang’s leader narrowed his eyes at his captive. “I can see it in your eyes, boyo. Everybody who thinks they can use you, Dynamis, the Augusti, they’re kidding themselves. You’re a goddamn hurricane. You can’t be tamed, or broken; just avoided.”
Godammit, why out of all the people who tried to capture Ryan, Adam was the only one smart enough to realize that?
Thing was, even if Ryan were trapped in a capsule and jettison into space, he would eventually die and find a way out. He had come back from Monaco, and faced overwhelming odds. They just had to slip up once, and Ryan would win the next time around. They were NPCs, and he was a Player Character.
However, Psyshock’s power did have a credible chance of brainwashing him across time. He needed to make Adam keep doubting, so he wouldn’t even try.
Wait. Something was wrong.
Big Fat Adam wasn’t doubting himself. At every point in the conversation, he had made the other Psychos doubt themselves, slowly guiding them towards his own conclusions. That manipulative bastard only gave his men the illusion of listening, to gaslight them into following his agenda. He had already made up his mind about how to deal with Ryan.
What was he really planning?
“He could be useful in another way.” Everyone looked at Sarin. “If he’s really a time-traveler, maybe he knows the cure? Psyshock could read his mind and find out.”
“The cure?” Ryan frowned. “The cure for what?”
“For us, jackass,” Hazmat Girl replied, as if it were obvious.
“A cure for the Psycho condition?” Well, that made sense. Ryan doubted Sarin wanted to stay a gas cloud trapped in a suit, or Mongrel, an animal unable to use the abilities he collected. “Is that what Whalie pitched to get you all in line? He isn’t working for a cure. He’s not even trying to save himself!”
The courier looked at Hannifat Lecter, sensing an opening to sow discord.
“Last loop, after we took over the bunker from you, I looked at the base’s plan at the entrance. And I noticed something interesting. You tried to conquer the place, room by room. But the path you took wasn’t the shortest to the lab, or the mainframe… but it is the shortest to the Orbital Communications Tower.”
Adam’s smirk didn’t falter, but his hateful gaze told Ryan he had guessed correctly.
That madman had made up his mind from the start.
“You want me to stun him, Adam?” Ghoul asked his boss, as Hannifat Lecter grabbed a big apple from his plate. “Freeze his lying mouth shut?”
“He doesn’t want to save anyone, not even himself!” Ryan shouted. “He just wants to kill everyone, because he’s a sick evil bastard who thinks he’s already doom—”
Adam shoved the apple into the time-traveler’s mouth like a pig, preventing him from speaking. The courier tried to swallow it and suffocate, but the metal plate in his mouth prevented him from doing so.
Psyshock had to know. The bastard was too smart not to guess his boss’ plan, but too sociopathic to care. Ghoul was too dim or too crazy to bother. Only Sarin seemed bothered, but Adam immediately noticed her unease. “Got anything to say?”
Hazmat Girl remained silent a moment, as if trying to digest the news. In the end, her survival instincts kicked in. “No, Adam, I don’t.”
“Good, because you’re a dear friend and I would hate to have you for dinner,” Adam said with a falsely warm tone, before grabbing another plate and removing the lid. “Especially when we’re reaching the dessert.”
The courier’s blood froze, as he gazed at the horrifying dish.
Sarah was bound and gagged like a pig on the plate, surrounded by salad and tomatoes. Tears of terror rained down the little girl’s cheeks, her eyes pleading Ryan, anyone, to save her.
Adam snickered, as he started salting Sarah with the shakers. None of the other Psychos flinched at the horrendous spectacle. “You think you can turn this around, mate,” the sadistic monster said, “but from what I gather, the only way we can lose the game is if you play. If you’re taken off the board, nobody will suspect a thing until it’s too late.”
Ryan didn’t listen, his eyes set on Sarah as he furiously tried to figure out a way to save her. Even after all these loops, there were still things that terrified him. Things that he didn’t want to see.
“Let’s suppose your power won’t work, Psyshock.” Adam looked at his second-in-command, once he had finished salting the little girl. “What else could deal with him permanently?”
Psyshock couldn’t tell. He only had Len’s memories to work with, and while Ryan told her much, he didn’t share everything either. “Cancel, maybe? From what he told Little Len, his power is top tier. Even Livia Augusti cannot affect him.”
“Shame. Guess we’ll use the tried and true method then.” Adam opened his mouth wide like a pelican, and shoved his hand down his throat.
A second later, it came out with a bottle marked with Mechron’s symbol.
The Black Elixir.
“You see that light in his eyes, people?” Adam said, dangling the container at a horrified Ryan. “That’s fear. First time he has been really afraid yet.”
No, no, no!
Ryan tried to escape the restraints, froze time, tried to pull off a Houdini, suffocate, anything! But the chair kept him frozen, and he had no tool to call upon!
“You’re sure, Adam?” Psyshock asked, quite uneasy with this development.
“Something has been bothering me,” Adam said with a cruel smirk. “He has been exploring all his options for centuries. Yet, he never tried to get a second Elixir, even with his unlimited tries. Which means that it’s the one thing he knows will wreck his save point beyond repair. If we can’t remove his power... we’re going to poison it.”
He didn’t want to neutralize Ryan’s power, he wanted to corrupt it! He thought turning the time-traveler into a Psycho would be just as devastating as firing the Bahamut… and he was probably right.
Worse, the Elixir bottle started to shake, much to the Psychos’ surprise. The thing inside the container wriggled at the courier’s proximity, and Ryan felt a chill down his spine. An unnatural cold he had never experienced before.
The Black Elixir remembered.
“Oh oh! Looks like that ooze really wants to bond with you too!” Ryan’s panicked expression only made Adam laugh louder. “Well, boyo... time to take your medicine.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve got enough of a supply to keep you hooked,” Ghoul added, delighting at the scene. Sarin kept her arms crossed, seemingly lost in her thoughts. “We’ll be like family.”
That moment was Ryan’s worst fear coming to pass. The cruelest, most terrible ending possible. Worse, Adam relished it. The bastard’s only pleasure in his own life was to destroy other lives. It wasn’t enough to kill the time-traveler; he wanted him ruined beyond recovery.
He would become the new Bloodstream. An unending nightmare.
The room shook as Adam rose from his seat.
First a tremor, then a second. Ryan thought it might have been the Land causing a quake, perhaps in response to an outside attack, but it sounded more like explosions from inside the bunker.
“What’s happening?” Big Fat Adam asked, as Psyshock rose up in alarm. Another tremor shook, the source closer to the room this time.
“The robots again?” Ghoul moved in front of the metal door, approaching his head and seemingly addressing the guards on the other side. “Hey! Hey, what’s up?!”
Ghoul barked at the door, and for a brief moment, neither Psyshock nor Adam kept an eye on Ryan, or even the terrified Sarah. Instead, they focused entirely on the metal door, with Hannifat Lecter covering his skin with a layer of carbon alloy.
Ryan noticed Sarin subtly move closer to him. The time-traveler thought she would execute him, but instead, Hazmat Girl moved her head next to his ears. “Do you have a cure?” she whispered, too low for the others to notice. “Can you find a cure?”
Ryan looked at her, utterly astonished by this turn of events. Was she the cause of the explosions? No, she looked as confused as the other Psychos in the room. She was just seizing an opportunity to jump ship, perhaps because his words had shaken her faith in Adam. She must have realized he wouldn’t deliver.
Could Ryan find a cure for Psychos? He had never managed to do so in the previous runs, but… he never had access to Mechron’s bunker before either, nor people like Dr. Tyrano.
Maybe… maybe this time would be different.
Ryan blinked repeatedly, hoping she would get the message. Sarin moved her hand behind the chair, and he sensed his restraints slowly weakening. Perhaps she caused the machinery to rust with her gas power.
“No answer, boss,” Ghoul said, covering his body in a thin layer of ice.
“Did someone come to rescue you, mate?” Big Fat Adam glanced at Ryan, causing Sarin to pull off her hand before he could notice her sabotage. “The Augusti? Did you prepare an insurance plan of your own too?”
Ryan wished he had.
Who could it be? Was it Livia? Did she gather forces and assault the bunker? Was it Jasmine? The Carnival? What kind of unstoppable force could have fought its way through a base full of Genomes?
“Ghoul, open the door,” Psyshock ordered the ice manipulator, tentacles raised for battle. “If it's not one of ours, kill it.”
Mr. Frozen Food obeyed the order, the door opening to reveal a metal corridor. Someone had painted the walls with blood, and two armed thralls of Psyshock dangled from the ceiling, hanged by ropes made of their own intestines.
Ryan’s savior waited right between them, its whitened fur as pristine as snow. For by praying for salvation from the Meta’s depredations within reach of a preteen child, the time-traveler had only called upon a greater evil.
And as the courier looked into the beast’s blue sun of an eye, this dark abyss of infinite darkness, he couldn’t help but wonder.
And the abyss answered, its long ears raised.
“I will always be your friend!”