For a second, none of the Psychos dared to move.
Instead, they looked at the surreal scene before them. That of an adorable rabbit plushie standing right outside the room, surrounded by blood and corpses. Ryan never told Len much about this unholy abomination, and so, these fools didn’t expect to awaken it. The seal had been broken, and hell set loose.
The plushie noticed the Black Elixir in Big Fat Adam’s hands, and looked at it with curiosity.
Don’t do it.
The plushie playfully glanced at Ryan.
Don’t do it!
And then, the worst came to pass.
The plushie noticed Little Sarah, bound on the table. Its ears raised up in interest, and it uttered cursed words, “Child detected!”
Finally realizing the danger, Psyshock launched his wire tentacles at the plushie, while Ghoul unleashed an ice shard volley. The possessed toy leapt into the air with unnatural agility, its eyes turning red. A laser blast hit Psypsy and vaporized his brain, the rabbit bouncing off walls to dodge attacks.
Realizing the danger of Ryan dying in the crossfire, Hannifat Lecter turned towards his captive with the Black Elixir bottle raised. “No escape!” he snarled angrily, intent on corrupting the time-traveler.
In a sudden but inevitable betrayal, Sarin unleashed a blast of compressed air at her boss. The attack threw Adam against a wall, shattered the bottle, and splattered him with black ooze. The vicious cannibal let out a scream of agony, as the Black Elixir ate through his reinforced skin and consumed him whole.
Call it Karma.
“Sarin, you traitor!” Ghoul raised his hands to freeze everyone in the room, too dim to realize it would kill Ryan and make him restart. Before Mr. Dem Bones could do anything though, the plushie bounced against his chest like a cannonball. The cryokinetic tripped on Adam’s leg and fell onto his boss’ lap, the black ooze immediately latching on to him as well. Soon, the scene looked like two birds desperately trying to escape an oil spill, and failing.
“Let’s hug!” the plushie abandoned everything to leap on the table and lovingly hug Sarah. The little girl’s gagging muffled her screams of fear and confusion. “We’ll be together, forever and ever!”
“What the fuck?” Sarin looked at the scene in shock, before getting her priorities straight. Using weak but focused vibrations, she disabled Ryan’s bindings one by one.
“AH!” Ryan gasped for air after spitting out the apple in his mouth. “That was close.”
“It’s not over yet,” Sarin warned, as the Black Elixir finished consuming its two victims. Somehow though, it didn’t collapse into nothingness like in the previous loop. Ryan quickly understood why. Ghoul couldn’t die, but the Black Elixir devoured its hosts.
And somehow, the situation allowed the Black Elixir to stabilize in the shape of a colossal, monstrous blob of dark goo; an oily shoggoth. Its victims’ eyes and mouth floated on the surface, the lips moving to form words. “You…” it said, the alien voice belonging to neither of its ‘hosts.’ “You… you open the gate… send me back… back to the Black…”
Sarin raised her hands to blast the creature, but Ryan stopped her by standing up between the ooze and her. He had an idea.
Look for the stars in the night sky...
“How about this?” Ryan told the shoggoth. “You help me, and I help you.”
If the creature was sentient and needed help, then perhaps it understood the concept of reciprocity.
The goo fluctuated and wriggled, but much to Hazmat Girl’s surprise, didn’t make a move to attack. It didn’t even try to assimilate Ryan, perhaps because it needed him alive and functional. “Help... how?” the ooze asked with a confused voice.
Ryan glanced at the corridor outside the room, glimpsing some movement on the other end. Psyshock must have summoned his thralls. “Helping me live through this would be a start?”
“Wait, you aren’t offing yourself?” Sarin asked, a bit surprised.
“Not yet,” Ryan replied. This run was doomed from the start, but it also provided a unique opportunity. “I’m all for assisted suicide, but only in moderation.”
“Alright…” The shoggoth slithered out of the room, Psyshock’s thralls immediately opening fire at the alien abomination. Bullets hit the creature without damaging it, and it quickly devoured them like it did with the Psychos.
“Man, you tamed a giant slime,” Sarin said, astonished.
“A shoggoth,” Ryan replied, before glancing at the other abomination in the room.
Correction, the two rabbit abominations in the room. While the original kept hugging Sarah by the neck, the clone pulled out a switchblade and cut her bindings. The poor girl immediately removed her gagging and took a deep breath, like Ryan before her.
“Are you alright, Sarah?” the courier asked her, the little girl backing away in fear and falling off the table.
“Who are you?” she asked in a panic. “Where are we? How do you know my name?”
Before Ryan could answer, the second plushie removed its switchblade to grab Sarah’s hand instead. “Let’s play together!” it said, all but begging its new bonded child, who had no idea how to react.
“Later,” Ryan told the critter, before trying to reassure Sarah. “I’m your mom’s friend.”
“Ma? She was all strange, and these guys… they took everyone.”
“Yeah, Adam wanted to throw them at the base’s defenses,” Sarin said, before observing the plushies more closely. “Do they multiply or something? Come here, fluffy.”
The two rabbits looked at Sarin with crimson eyes.
“Hey, hey, stop!” Ryan pleaded by protecting Hazmat Girl with his body, neither of the critters dropping their murderous attitude. “She’s thirteen too, in her head! Let’s save the other preteens first, then we resort to violence.”
The two plushies calmed down, speaking in unison, “Let’s go to Disneyland!”
“We’re not going to Disneyland,” Ryan said, cracking his knucklebones. “We’re already there.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on anymore,” Sarin admitted.
“Story of my life.” The courier looked at the corridor beyond the room, which the shoggoth had cleaned up of life. All the thralls, and even the plushie’s previous victims, had been consumed by the ooze. “Thanks for the assist, by the way. I almost regret beating you up in previous loops.”
“I didn’t help you pro bono, jackass,” she replied gruffly. “Do you have a cure? Can you make me human again?”
“I don’t have a cure on myself,” Ryan admitted. “But I think I have the resources to make one.”
“So like Adam.” She crossed her arms, disappointed, but not surprised. “Always the same bullshit.”
“Except he’s a sociopathic cannibal, and I’m a friendly, grass-eating time-traveler. One should sound a little more trustworthy than the other. Who else knows about my power?”
“Uh, maybe Acid Rain? She wanted to skewer you on sight, so Adam kept her outside.”
Whalie had kept the secret close to his chest to avoid a leak or mutiny, which served Ryan fine. If he could get rid of Psyshock, nobody else in the Meta-Gang would know the truth.
“So what’s the plan, Quicksave?” Sarin asked, as the two plushies both took Sarah by one hand and tried to lead her towards the slaughter. The little girl was still too cowed to follow through with it. “If you aren’t killing yourself.”
“First we save the children and Shortie, then we’re taking over.”
Sarin froze a second. “What, the bunker?”
“Yes, the bunker.” With Adam gone, most of the Meta outside the base, and his current allies inside, Ryan had a once in many lifetimes opportunity. Since the plushie had already entered its duplication phase, the run was ruined beyond repairs, but the courier would have the opportunity to study Mechron’s tech up close. “I will need a gun, and drugs. Something that can alter the brain quickly.”
“Like every drug ever?” Sarin deadpanned, but went along anyway. “I think Psyshock keeps a batch of Bliss in the infirmary. Mongrel can’t sleep without that stuff. The other hellions should be there too.”
“Well, let’s go take some eye medicine then.” If Psyshock was mostly made of brain tissues, then drugs should paralyze him like Enrique’s toxin. “Sarah, you stay with the plushies until Uncle Ryan comes back with your mom. You don’t leave them, but you don’t listen to what they say either. They’re a baaaaad influence.”
“Let’s play outside!” the plushies replied, eager to sow chaos.
Sarah anxiously bit her lower lip, exactly like Len. Adorable! “You’re leaving me alone?”
“Oh, you’re safe, trust me. It’s everyone else who isn’t.” Ryan walked outside the room and into the corridor, Sarin following him like his shadow. “We’ll clear the way.”
After a short walk, the duo entered an underground chamber with seven vats full of colored liquid, each representing a different Elixir. Mutated animals floated in three of them, linked to strange machinery, and Ryan counted two blast doors on each side.
The courier recognized the room as the one where he died fighting Hannifat Lecter in a previous run, though one of the blast doors was closed back then. The Meta-Gang must have unlocked the next area while he slept, but it did them no good; Ryan could hear screams and gunfire coming from the next room, as thralls tasked with exploring the bunker faced the shoggoth.
Android parts covered the ground, alongside the occasional tools. Since most were bloodied, Ryan assumed they were what remained of the plushie’s victims after it made its way to the cell. The thralls must have been disassembling robots before being interrupted.
“Infirmary is the other way,” Sarin said, as Ryan searched through the tools on the ground for a weapon to use. Eventually, he settled on a bloodied hammer, elegant in its simplicity.
“You’re not mad about Ghoul?” Ryan asked her, as they left the central hub for the next corridor. “I thought the two of you were an item or something.”
“What? No, I hate that mofo, it’s just Adam always pairs us up because we’ve got good power synergy.” Hazmat Girl suddenly considered the implications of his question. “How many times did we fight before?”
“If I looked up ‘jobber’ in the dictionary, your picture would come to mind.”
She flipped him the bird in response. A witty sidekick, she wasn’t.
“I knew this job would suck, but I still signed on.” Miss Chernobyl shook her head in annoyance. “What you said, about Adam…”
“He blew up New Rome with Mechron’s orbital laser. You were fighting with him until the end.” Which was why he remained wary of her presence. He still remembered her playing a song alongside Adam’s cronies, after they burned the city.
His words did seem to spook her though. “Guess I lost all hope of a cure then, but sheesh, burn the whole—”
She froze in place, as the towering figure of Frank the Mad walked in on them from the other side of the corridor. The colossus kept his body down to move inside the narrow space, the tentacled shadow of Psypsy slithering behind him. Ryan hastily hid his hammer behind his back, immediately thinking of a plan.
“Frank, capture him,” Psyshock ordered, pointing a tentacle at Ryan. He didn’t even pay attention to Sarin. “I want him alive!”
“Yes, Mr. Vice-President.”
The schizophrenic giant took a step forward, but Ryan quickly thought on his feet. “Agent Frank,” he said, pointing a finger at Psyshock with his free hand while keeping the hammer hidden with the other. “Arrest this Viet Cong traitor! He murdered President Adam!”
His words caused the giant to flinch in confusion, while Psyshock and Sarin were too confused to say a word.
“Ryan Romano, CIA!” Quicksave continued to bluff, now fully roleplaying. “This man is a commie sympathizer who murdered the POTUS! And he killed Kennedy too! The bullet bent, Agent Frank! He made it bend in midair!”
“You cannot trick me!” Frank said, regaining his composure. He might suffer from delusions, but he wasn’t entirely stupid either. “I know we brought you to Guantanamo for a waterboarding session, and you’re going back in there! You’re the communist spy!”
“He set me up!” Ryan kept accusing Psyshock with an experienced actor’s talent. “He set me up in an attempt to silence me! And when I convinced the President of the truth during the interrogation, he murdered him! He murdered him, Frank!”
“This is nonsense!” Psyshock said, though he didn’t dare attack Ryan directly. Perhaps reading Len’s memories taught him that he shouldn’t engage the courier without backup. “Frank, he’s trying to divide us. Don’t listen and power through.”
“Agent Romano is telling the truth, Frank,” Sarin said, finally understanding Ryan’s ploy. She pointed a finger at Psyshock, who hadn’t expected her betrayal. “I swear it, Psyshock murdered Adam. I saw it.”
“Sarin, once we are done, I will disperse you to the winds,” Psyshock threatened her, “you will never reform.”
“These are serious accusations, Agent Sarin,” Frank declared. Sarin’s lies had weakened his resolve. “Do you have any proof?”
“I have!” Ryan said, freezing time.
When it resumed, Psypsy held a bloody hammer in a tentacle.
“Look at his tentacles!” Ryan said, both Psyshock and Frank noticing the hammer. “He carries the crime’s weapon in his dirty tentacles! The President’s blood is still on it! He was trying to hit you by surprise with it!”
“A hammer,” Sarin said with a nod. Her acting, while wooden, worked somewhat. “A communist weapon. Those fools can’t help themselves.”
“Frank, you are immune to metal!” Psyshock argued while hastily throwing the weapon away. The delusional giant kept looking back and forth between his superior and Ryan. “I couldn’t harm you even if I wanted to! He stopped time and set me up!”
Unfortunately for him, his last words confused Frank even more. As Sarin had warned, it appeared the Meta-Gang’s leadership did keep their troops in the dark about the courier’s power.
And Hazmat Girl immediately seized the opportunity. “Do you hear him, Frank?” she said mockingly. “Stopping time? How childish. Now that he has been caught red-handed, he will tell any lie to save himself!”
“The president died in my arms, Agent Frank,” Ryan continued to appeal to the madman’s delusions, mimicking the act of holding a dying person. “With his last breath, he tasked me to find you! He said, ‘find Agent Frank… he who fought Nazis in Alamo, and Viets in the jungle… our greatest hero… only he…’”
Ryan shed crocodile’s tears.
“‘Only he can save democracy!’”
His tearful words echoed in the corridor, like a desperate plea for help.
Frank the Mad looked at the courier and Sarin, then at Psyshock, then back at the duo, and finally at his ‘superior.’ “Mr. Vice-President,” he finally spoke up, “I swear, we will clear this misunderstanding up with due process.”
“No, you dimwit!” Psyshock shouted, infuriated by the giant’s madness. “He is speaking nonsense! You’re not even America—“
But Psyshock had forgotten something that Ryan learned long ago in his anger. The main reason why it was so difficult to work with Psychos.
To run an asylum full of madmen, you had to speak their language.
“I voted for you!” Frank suddenly punched Psyshock so hard his head exploded in a shower of brain matter. The fist hit the corridor’s wall with such strength, it caused the whole bunker to shake. “I voted for you, and you betrayed my feelings!”
And as Dynamis’ psyche report on him attested, Frank didn’t react well to people contradicting his delusions.
“So long as I live, this great nation will never fall to communism!” Frank turned around and walked towards the other end of the corridor. Ryan guessed he intended to take the elevator to the upper levels, and hunt Psyshock’s newest host. “Better dead than red!”
The furious giant’s steps caused the ground to shake, leaving a cowed Sarin and Ryan behind. “I hope it was worth it, jackass,” she told him while glancing at Psyshock’s bloody remains, “because only Adam can manage Frank when he’s pissed. None of us can kill him.”
“My hope exactly.” As Dynamis predicted, without Big Fat Adam to keep them unified, the whole Meta-Gang would implode with the right push. And now that the path to the infirmary was clear, Ryan knew exactly where to start.
After a short walk, the duo reached the whitened room in question, separated from the corridor by a glass window; the exact same place where the courier had discovered Psyshock’s terrible immortality. The orphanage’s children were kept in cages like rats or strapped to operating tables, right next to crates full of knockoff Elixirs.
“Hi, kids!” the courier waved a hand at them with a bright smile. “We’re here to free you, and bring you to your mom’s magical place!”
“You’re going to rape us?” one of the children, Giulia, asked Ryan from inside a cage.
“What, no!" Ryan protested in horror. "Of course not, I would never do that! Why are you even asking?”
“You only have boxers on…” the little girl replied, unconvinced.
“Woman,” Ryan asked Sarin, as she started scavenging the supplies, “where is my supersuit?”
“I think Psyshock threw your clothes in the incinerator.”
Ryan’s gaze turned murderous. “Then these fools have chosen death.”
“This’ll help.” Sarin tossed him a Dynamis-made laser gun and a Bliss-inhaler. “Your weapon and drugs.”
“Perfect,” Ryan replied, immediately checking the gun’s energy reserves. Not good, but passable. “Got any remorse massacring your old comrades, buddy?”
“Nope,” she replied.
Excellent. Then, as if this day couldn’t get crazier, Ryan noticed half a dozen furred shapes leaping into the corridor outside the infirmary. The demonic critters looked through the glass window at the children, mesmerized.
“Children detected! Entering cute mode!”
And so began Ryan’s first Meta Run.
With chaos and madness.