“This is the Berlin Wall,” Ryan said, as he stood between his troops and a blast door, “the last frontier between western civilization, and complete annihilation.”
He glanced at his minions, all ready to die for their country, and because they had little choice. Sarin kept her arms crossed, carrying herself with dignity in this dark hour. Darkling lurked in a corner, still sore about its nickname. Alchemo grunted, eager to see the mission done. The rest of the cannon fodder, Gemini, the Reptilian, and Ink Machine waited anxiously; knowing that as red shirts, their odds of survival were slim.
The Land, Mosquito, and a few others remained above ground to protect the Junkyard. Rakshasa had the critical task of appeasing their ever-numerous rabbit overlords, before their numbers reached critical mass; a doomed task, unfortunately. As for Incognito, Ryan had sent him to Dynamis, to lay the groundwork for the run’s final operation.
The last member of the crack team soon showed up, holding a black briefcase. “It’s here, Mr. President,” Frank declared, as he presented the holy item to his dark master. “The Nuclear Football. It came with the mail.”
Ryan held his breath, as he touched the soft leather with anticipation. He had been careful to order it through a complex route, so the sender wouldn’t learn her client’s identity, but his efforts had paid off. At long last, the courier’s diabolical plan had reached fruition.
“What’s that, Boss?” Sarin asked, a bit confused. “A secret weapon?”
“The only one that matters.”
Ryan stopped time, and when it resumed, his clothes had fallen on the floor except for the boxers. His display of manliness was welcomed with surprise and shock. “Oh my…” Ink Machine said, a bit surprised.
“Not again, you exhibitionist!” Alchemo complained. “If you lead us to battle naked, I’m taking the door!”
“Eh,” Sarin said, as she glanced at Ryan’s boxers. “I’ve seen bigger weapons of mass destruction.”
The president ignored the masses, as he slowly opened the briefcase and gazed upon the dark power within.
Wardrobe’s presidential costume.
Unlike his previous clothes, it was pure black and red; this time, there would be no more playing around. This suit was unlike anything Ryan’s foes had faced before: unrelenting, merciless, uncompromising.
Ryan slowly and silently put it on before his troops, to establish his stylish dominance over them.
The dark pants first, because it was cold in the bunker. They fit his body curves perfectly, and oozed villainous sex appeal.
Then he put on the black leather boots, to stomp protesters’ faces. With skull-themed socks.
A cashmere red shirt and black suit, Karl Lagerfeld style. Because when you embraced the dark side, you dressed German.
A strong and powerful necktie, to represent his authoritarian, unflinching leadership.
Velvet gloves, to choke his minions when they talked back.
A black jacket, that would flow with the wind when he looked threatening atop rooftops.
A red and silver mask covered most of his head, except for the eyes, so that his evil gaze may terrify children.
And finally, a savage bowler hat, to show he meant business.
No light. No hope. Only one word.
“Perfect,” Ryan said, deepening his voice to sound more intimidating.
His men remained too intimidated to say anything, except for the idiot of the group. “I don’t find it anything special,” the Reptilian said. “And I think it’s a bit too edg—”
In response, Ryan choked him with one hand.
It had taken him years to master this move, but the sudden lack of air and blood brought the Reptilian to his knees. The mook attempted to grab the president’s arm with his hands, but the lawful authority only strengthened his grip around his victim’s throat.
“I find your lack of taste disturbing,” Ryan said, his tone promising only death.
“I’m… I’m sorry…” the Reptilian managed to sputter, his reptilian face turning purple.
“I’m sorry who, handbag?”
“I’m sorry… Mr. President…”
Ryan released the protester, and let him gasp for breath. He glanced at the other Psychos, who all straightened up. Frank carefully grabbed the president’s old clothes and put them in the briefcase.
“Alright then, mooks, listen up,” Ryan addressed his troops, as he put his trusty coil gun around his belt, and the Fisty Brothers on top of his velvet gloves. “Our goal is to reach the base’s mainframe thanks to a shortcut, and allow our brain-dead friend to hook up with it.”
“Are you questioning my authority?” Ryan asked Alchemo. “Because I respect freedom of speech.”
The Genius glanced at the Reptilian, who had barely recovered from the choking. “Two years,” Alchemo said, “and it’s still the same nonsense.”
“I love democracy.” Ryan promptly continued with his explanations. “Your job is to make sure he reaches his destination. Frank and Darkling will force a path forward, and we’ll follow suit.”
The steel giant immediately made a salute, having put the briefcase aside. “Yes, Mr. President.”
No answer from his back-up though.
“Darkling? Darkling?” Ryan glanced at his favorite ball of black goo. “Darkling, are you giving me the silent treatment?”
“... my name not Darkling...” the slime answered unconvincingly, its countless eyes looking away.
“Then what is it?” the president asked smugly.
“... not Darkling.”
Alright, Not-Darkling it was.
“Now, before we go in, I would deliver a speech, but let’s be honest, a Psycho’s life is nasty, brutish, and short.” Ryan put his hands on his waist, Darth Vader style. “Our fists and guns will do the talking instead.”
Though Ryan would be lying if he didn’t feel a little anxious about this operation. Many of the circumstances that made it possible wouldn’t repeat, from Psyshock going to the past, Sarin acting as a guard, or Darkling using Ghoul as a vessel at the right time. Nor could the courier expect the plushie to play along and stick to a script.
For the first time since Ryan had started looping, this run would be a one-shot. Unrepeatable.
While he had memorized the shortcut itinerary suggested by Nora, Ryan expected to face heavy resistance. Big Fat Adam had lost most of his men reaching the mainframe, after all, which meant that the things on the other side could kill Genomes. One laser to the head, a single fluke, and this run would end abruptly.
But Ryan hadn’t gotten this far without taking risks, and Len needed it.
“Now,” the president stepped aside and raised his coil gun, “Sarin, be a dear and use your vibrator.”
“One day, I’ll show you a vibrator...” His second-in-command raised her hands, and blasted the steel door away with a mighty shockwave.
She was immediately welcomed with a hail of laser fire.
Ryan hastily froze time, grabbed Sarin, and pushed her out of the way before a stray ray could hit her. On the other side of the broken door, the courier glimpsed a squadron of cyclopean androids, each firing rays from their single eye. They had assembled in tight, defensive positions along a large steel hallway.
“Texas smash!” Frank immediately shouted as time resumed, before bull-rushing the robot squadron. The giant crushed anything in his path, his body absorbing the machines’ metal parts on contact.
Darkling immediately slithered after him, and the group followed. Ryan and Alchemo remained at their formation’s center, with the Psychos forming an escort around the two of them.
All hell broke loose.
Ryan barely took a step before he had to dodge a bullet, as the walls opened to reveal twin miniguns on each side. A volley hit Ink Machine by surprise, but her liquid body caused the projectiles to pass through her harmlessly.
Before they could hit the rest of the group, Ryan froze time and shot both weapons with his coil gun. Thankfully, the projectiles were powerful enough to perforate the turrets, blowing large holes inside them.
His minions, thankfully, didn’t stay idle. Sarin assisted Frank by blasting away robots with shockwaves, with the Reptilian tackling any tin can approaching her too closely. Ink Machine leaped around the room and used her liquid form to seep inside a robot and take it over, using it as a metal shield to protect Alchemo.
The strangest member of the Meta-Gang, Gemini, also pulled her weight. While appearing like an ethereal woman of shining light at first glance, Ryan had realized the truth upon closer examination: her tentacled shadow was the real her, and the shining woman a mere illusion. And that shadow could kill. When it hit the robots’ shadows, their bodies suffered the same damage.
However, the corridor’s lights suddenly increased in luminosity. Two robots moved their pitch-black shadows in such a way, that they seemed to grab Gemini’s.
They figured it out, Ryan thought, astonished, as the robots’ shadows restrained Gemini’s own. It had only taken the machines a few minutes to guess the nature of her power and figure out a counter. They had also realized that Frank could absorb metal on touch, and switched from trying to dogpile him to laser volleys.
These things could learn. Worst of all, the way they moved, avoiding friendly fire, and coordinating almost perfectly… they weren’t individual units, but a hivemind’s pieces.
And within minutes, that same intelligence had identified Alchemo as a key target; perhaps because Ryan and the others focused on protecting the Genius.
“Darkling, shield the medic!” Ryan shouted while pointing at Alchemo, the shoggoth immediately switching from attacking robots to protecting the Genius. The ooze swirled around Alchemo like a barrier without touching him, stopping any laser from coming his way.
Instantly afterward though, the machines switched targets. This time, they focused on Ryan. Five robots unleashed a volley of lasers in his direction, and a sixth attempted to tackle him.
“What, you couldn’t identify me as the leader until I opened my mouth?” Ryan taunted them while he activated his power. He leaped out of the lasers’ way in the frozen time, before smashing the sixth robot’s chest in with Fisty. “Haven’t you looked at my costume?”
A laser made a hole in his bowler hat the moment time resumed, infuriating him. Ryan angrily retaliated by shooting down the machines holding Gemini with his coil gun, freeing the Psycho. Her shadow quickly tore the remaining robots apart.
Having slaughtered the opposition, Frank resumed his rampage and smashed through the next door. The new room beyond the hallway took the shape of a large dome, with the ceiling layered with holographic projections representing the solar system. Ryan noticed a red point in orbit around the Earth, far beyond the Moon.
However, he didn’t have time to look at the beautiful spectacle, as small holes opened all over the dome. Eye-shaped drones flew through, and opened fire at the group with submachine guns. Darkling immediately reshaped itself into a slimy barrier, shielding the entire group from the initial volley.
The holograms above their heads brightened, the illusory sun turning supernova and unleashing a blinding light. Blast doors on the walls opened and more cyclopean androids walked through, an unrelenting tide of steel.
While Darkling formed a wall to protect Alchemo, Frank rampaged through the ground-bound machines, his metal body shrugging off lasers easily enough. Unfortunately, his lack of range prevented him from hitting the floating eyes, leaving the task to Sarin and Ryan.
The courier eventually resorted to stopping time, both to push his second-in-command out of a bullet’s path and to hit the damn flyers.
Unfortunately, the rest of the group didn’t fare any better. Cyclopean robots were trying the same ‘shadow grab’ tactic their predecessors used on Gemini, except this time with greater numbers. Eight robots grabbed the Psycho’s shadow from all sides, and then started dismembering her. Gemini’s light body flickered out and collapsed in a bright flash.
Five other cyclopean machines had cornered Ink Machine, and incinerated her with sustained laser beams. The liquid Psycho dissipated into colored steam, her body unable to stand the heat.
Even the Reptilian had only avoided death so far by staying near Darkling.
“That spot!” Ryan pointed at his left once he had a brief respite, near a junction between the dome’s wall and the floor. “The structural weakness should be here, Chernobyl!”
“Stop calling me that!” Sarin complained, but obeyed all the same. Her gauntlets vibrated, and she started targeting the spot with shockwaves. Cracks slowly began to appear on the floor, the metal foundations floundering under the strain.
Of course, the machines instantly attempted to stop Sarin, but Darkling formed a defensive wall around her, Alchemo, Ryan, and the Reptilian. Only Frank was left out, but he clearly didn’t need help. Eventually, Hazmat Girl blew a wide hole in the floor.
The path to the mainframe.
Ryan, now in full general mode, barked orders. “Reptilian, with us!” he ordered, while Sarin leaped into the hole. “Frank, Darkling, cover our rear!”
“I am not equipped for clim—” Alchemo started complaining, only for the Reptilian and Ryan to grab him like a potato sack before jumping into the void. Frank and Darkling moved to cover the hole behind them, snatching any eye-drone attempting to follow through. The two titans remained there, brave Spartiates holding off the whole Persian army.
The courier and his allies landed in a strange, ghastly gallery of vats and glass containers. Each of them contained half-formed humanoid bodies, some with their organs floating in colored liquid; while they had human features, the creatures’ limbs were unnaturally long, and part of their faces had been replaced with machinery.
A Genome research lab.
Pipes on the walls filled the vats with what Ryan guessed to be Elixirs. The Reptilian, in particular, could barely restrain himself from drinking their contents.
“Where are we going next?” Sarin asked, pointing at two blast doors. “Left or right?”
“Neither.” Ryan instead glanced at a key point in the gallery’s right steel wall, right behind a green vat. If they collapsed it, they would gain direct access to the mainframe’s room.
Sarin moved in front of a steel panel, and released colored gas from her fingers. The wall rusted at an accelerated rate while Ryan raised his eyes at the hole above his head. Thankfully, Darkling had wisely sealed the hole with its body, preventing drones from slipping through.
“Mr. President!” The Reptilian shouted, his hands on the ground. Apparently, his enhanced senses allowed him to notice slight vibrations. “I sense something coming from the left. A robot, bigger than the rest.”
Oh well, it couldn’t be a dungeon raid without a boss at the end. “Braindead, behind me,” Ryan said, pushing the Genius closer to Sarin. “Reptilian, hold the line. It’s time to die for your country!”
“I would rather avoid that, Mr. President,” the reptile complained.
Ryan raised his hand to mimic a choking motion, and the mook rediscovered his patriotism.
The left blast door opened a few seconds later, and a three meters-tall machine walked through. The creature looked like a vat on six steely spider legs, with two mechanical hands at the front. Crimson liquid swirled inside the vat, as an energy bolt raced through the substance; Ryan could see a tiny crimson spot at the center, a speck-sized portal leading to a realm of overwhelming power.
The Reptilian immediately rushed at the robot, but never reached his target. The machine pointed a hand at the Psycho, and a crimson glow lifted him above the ground.
That machine was a telekinetic Genome. A true telekinetic, capable of applying force to anything with Red Flux energy without restriction.
The machine sent the Reptilian flying at the ceiling with such force, it flattened the Psycho. The scene reminded Ryan of a mosquito being crushed by a flyswatter, the mangled body falling on the ground when the killerbot stopped applying force.
And now, the thing had turned its attention towards Ryan, raising a steel hand in his direction.
The courier froze time the moment he sensed pressure in the air, immediately moving away from his current position and firing a shot. The coil gun’s projectile bounced off the strange glass protecting the red substance, much to the time-traveler's annoyance.
“Tell me, robot, can you touch yourself with that power?” Ryan taunted the machine, which answered by trying to slam him against a wall. Only the courier’s use of time-stop and enhanced timing allowed him to avoid the Reptilian’s fate. “I hope those hands aren’t just for show!”
The machine answered by telekinetically ripping out steel panels from the walls, and throwing them at Ryan.
It was no fun to banter with a mindless machine. The courier might as well be speaking to a wall, so he focused on avoiding the projectiles and closing the gap.
Stopping time at the right moment, Ryan punched the machine’s left arm at the joints, snapping it in half with Fisty. He hoped it would disrupt its telekinesis; the courier couldn’t afford smashing the glass container in close combat, or he might risk being drenched in Elixir. The arm fell off when time resumed, but the robot instantly retaliated by trying to impale the courier with its spider legs.
Thankfully, Wardrobe’s costume had been fashioned for war, and didn’t rupture from the courier’s acrobatics.
Thanks to Ryan’s diversion, Sarin had melted a tunnel and escaped inside with Alchemo. The courier tried to follow, but the machine attempted to grind him into paste with its remaining arm. Though the time-traveler managed to activate his time-stop and move away each time the creature started applying force around him, the robot blocked the tunnel’s entrance.
Thankfully, Darkling chose that moment to slither through the ceiling’s hole, and fell directly on top of the robot.
The eldritch horror swallowed the machine with its black ooze, its mere proximity negating the machine’s telekinesis like Alphonse Manada’s radiation. The shoggoth dissolved the Red Elixir inside the vat, absorbing the liquid and the portal into itself.
“Bon appétit, my dark friend!” Ryan said as he fled into the tunnel, leaving his pet shoggoth to its meal.
A minute later, the courier made his way into the bunker’s command room, crimson lights and screens flickering above his head. A red forcefield shielded the central, biomechanical brain, which Alchemo desperately attempted to bypass. Sarin, meanwhile, struggled to hit the turrets with shockwaves.
“I’ll take care of the turrets, help our brainy friend,” Ryan told Sarin, as he reloaded his coil gun and opened fire at a turret. A projectile went through the machine and caused it to explode.
Activating his power, Ryan reached a gatling turret and leaped at it. Then, he started riding it like a bull, forcefully aiming it at the other weapons in the room. A hail of bullets flew across the room once time resumed, but the distraction allowed Sarin to regroup with Alchemo.
While Ryan provided suppressing fire, the Chernobyl cosplayer released her gas at the metal pedestal holding the giant brain; part of it rusted, and caused the forcefield to short-out. Alchemo immediately used the opportunity to climb on the biomechanical construct.
Much like Psyshock in the previous loop, the Genius intertwined with the giant brain, nailing it with his syringe-fingers and connecting to the alien machinery. Blue lightning raced through Alchemo’s exposed brain, his nervous system directly interfacing with the base’s own.
And then, the turrets abruptly stopped firing a single shot. The one that Ryan had seized deactivated, much to his disappointment. He had loved the brief rodeo.
“Is it over?” Sarin asked, glancing at the turrets as if expecting them to open fire again.
Alchemo’s answer was lukewarm. “I’m changing the admin privileges and ID credentials, so it registers us as ‘staff.’”
“Well, I can’t hear tremors or gunfire,” Ryan said, “so I would call this operation a success.”
They might have lost a few redshirts, but the information gathered on the defenses would serve him well.
As if to answer the courier’s thoughts, the screens around the mainframe showed videos of the bunker’s rooms, from the recreational area to the holographic observatory. Frank had piled up a hill of robots at the center, which somewhat obscured the camera’s vision of the room. Other screens showed underground labs, a futuristic armory, and a miniature particle collider.
“It’s incredible…” Alchemo sounded giddier than Ryan had ever heard him. “All the wealth of information within this thing. All the secrets it uncovered… I can’t access all the files yet, but I can already see what they contain.”
“Is there one on Psychos?” Sarin asked, hopeful.
“Yes, and that’s not all. How Mechron enhanced other Genomes’ powers, how Elixirs work... It’s all there. All the research, all the secrets.”
Alchemo looked at Ryan with what could pass for a triumphant pose. “We’re going to change the world, meatbag!”
The new brain-copying machine looked exactly like the old one.
Ryan held his breath as he stood right next to a sleeping Len, a helmet covering her face and rewriting her memories. The infirmary’s lights blinded him, and he could barely hear himself over his accelerating heartbeat. He had trouble breathing, even without his presidential mask.
“It’s okay, Ryan,” Tea tried to reassure him. “I’ve monitored her lifesigns. The treatment is working.”
“Will Ma wake up after this?” little Sarah asked Alchemo, as he oversaw the memory transfer. Her plushie companion kept glaring at the Genius with crimson eyes, probably remembering their previous interactions. “At long last?”
“Yes, she should,” Alchemo replied with flat affect, before removing Len’s helmet. “The transfer is done, and I repaired the damage caused by the machine’s overuse. She should recover consciousness soon.”
“It’s…” Ryan sighed, as it killed him to say it. “Thanks.”
“I owed you a favor, did I not?” the Genius grunted. “If anything, I should thank you. Accessing Mechron’s database will supplement my own rese—”
“Dad,” the Doll interrupted her maker, glancing at Sarah and Ryan in short order. “Now is not the time.”
“Ugh, I will never understand why a human brain puts so much importance in base feelings.”
“You made a daughter, didn’t you?” Ryan replied, not in the mood for jokes. “You cared too.”
Alchemo stood still as if he had been slapped, before turning towards the door. “Whatever. Doll, come with me. The real work begins now.”
“Take care, Ryan,” the Doll told the courier, before smiling at Sarah. “You’re coming with us too.”
“What?” the little girl protested. “I’m staying.”
“I understand it’s important to you, but…” Tea glanced at Ryan. “I think he needs a moment alone with her. He’s been waiting a very long time.”
That was one way to put it.
Ryan sighed when Sarah squinted at him. “Look, your mama and I… we were close.”
Little Sarah crossed her arms in suspicion. “How close?”
“Enough that I thought we might end up making a brat like you one day,” Ryan replied bluntly, the young orphan reddening. “There, I destroyed your childhood. Now get away before I do the same with your adulthood.”
“Ew, disgusting!” Sarah covered her mouth. “Did you…”
“Yes, we did!” Ryan looked into her sweet, innocent eyes. “And we were sixteen.”
Sensing his partner’s distress, the plushie grabbed Sarah’s robe. “Let’s play outside!”
“I… I need fresh air…” Sarah said, finally letting Tea and her furred partner push her out of the room.
At long last, Ryan was alone with Len.
As he watched her chest rise up with her breathing, Ryan was brought back to his childhood, when he waited for Len to wake up so they could play outside. He had been in the same position years ago, looking over her like a big brother.
‘She still loves you.’
Psyshock’s words echoed in the courier’s mind, as Len began to stir. Her eyelids threatened to open, and the time-traveler felt the tension building up in his fingers.
“Shortie?” Ryan asked, holding her hand. It was so warm to the touch, so fragile. “Sleeping beauty? I’m not the prince you asked for, but it’s time to wake up.”
Her bright blue eyes opened, and Len looked up at his face.
For a second, Ryan worried he might see Psyshock’s cold, sociopathic gaze, but thankfully not. It wasn’t a look of fear, or confusion, or surprise. It was the elusive look he had waited centuries for, but never achieved.
A flash of recognition.
“Riri…” Len’s bright smile melted Ryan’s heart. “I… I remember.”
Such short words, and yet so meaningful.
“Riri, it worked!” Len rejoiced. “The transfer worked!”
Ryan felt something warm fall down his cheeks. His breath shortened, as he felt a tight pressure build up around his chest.
“Riri?” Len’s expression turned from joy to concern. “Riri, you’re… you’re crying?”
Ryan collapsed to his knees and exploded into tears.
He couldn’t say a word, let alone move, as the crushing weight of time was suddenly lifted off his shoulders. The centuries of loneliness washed over him like a torrent. The accumulated pain he had buried away, fled, denied, and carried came roaring back to the surface.
His brain burned like a blazing fire, and his heart tightened inside his chest. It was a moment of pure joy, but he felt so heavy, so weak, so feeble. He felt like a wandering knight whose bright, shining armor had fallen off his body, revealing the raw sadness underneath.
Ryan couldn’t even raise his head at the lone witness of his breakdown. He didn’t have the strength. He didn’t have the strength left. He spent it all in Monaco, in France and Spain, and everywhere else. He exhausted it fighting Adam, fighting Psyshock, fighting the Augusti and Dynamis and his countless foes across centuries. He had wasted it all running forward, back to the past, always searching for the perfect ending.
He felt her arms move around his neck, and she filled this dark, cold world with warmth.
“It’s okay, Ryan.” Len hugged Ryan tightly, like she often did during their childhood. His head rested against her shoulder, while she kept whispering words into his ear. “I’m… I’m here, Ryan. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”