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Scratching Eugène-Henry’s ears, Ryan mentally rehearsed his villain speech. He had put on the war hat, and prepared for battle.

Since Frank and the improved Mosquito were too big for the presidential van, the group instead switched to a light black truck and put the heavy-hitters in the back. Tea drove with a bandit’s hood covering her face, which made the android look like a hostage-taker. Sarin sat at the front, while Ryan kept the second row of seats for himself.

“Ah,” the Doll said while she looked at the road. “I feel nostalgic. It reminds me of the times we went out on picnics outside the farm.”

“Except with more mayhem,” Ryan added, his cat meowing on his lap. “And property damage.”

“This better be worth it,” Sarin said while typing on a tablet. “Even with the bunker under our control, we’re taking on Dynamis. The gov.”

“No, we’re putting big business back in its place,” Ryan replied. “If my plan works, and it will work, Dynamis will be too busy tearing itself apart to target us. Besides, Hector’s ultimatum ends today. Either we leave, or he does.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” His second-in-command marked a short pause, as she looked at the road. “Ryan, that bloody thing on the video... it’s inside all of us?”

“Inside everyone who took a Knockoff Elixir.” Which according to his calculations, covered around ten percent of New Rome’s population. Knockoffs cost a lot, but not as much as a house, and both Dynamis and Augustus made extensive use of the substance to bolster their forces.

One in every ten people they crossed on the street could become a Bloodstream clone at any moment.

“So almost all the gang,” Sarin said. “Whoever thought it was a good idea deserves to get shot.”

“Tobacco companies kill half their clients,” Ryan replied. Knowing Darth Manada, he probably thought the profit margin was worth the risk.

“They can’t get away with it,” Tea argued. “That’s monstrous.”

“Agreed.” Sarin nodded sharply. “And besides, they refused to pay us after all the risks we took fighting Augustus. Sweet revenge it is.”

“Sarin, Darling, are the videos ready?” Ryan asked.

“Yes, but Dynamis will probably take them down within minutes. They control the Dynanet and the airwaves.”

“Most, but not all of them,” Ryan said, as the truck stopped to pick up the crew’s last member. She opened the door to the courier’s left, and climbed inside the car.

For her first villain outing, Livia had settled on something simple, yet elegant: a black lounge suit with a red shirt and necktie underneath, alongside a Daft Punk-inspired helmet with the same color scheme. The outfit, while unable to hide her feminine curves, gave her a stylish androgynous look.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ryan introduced his new sidekick. “I present to you the one and only First Lady of our presidential regime, Queen Crimson!”

“Greetings,” Livia shyly introduced herself to the group. “I… I’m honored to meet you all.”

“Welcome, I’m the Doll!” Tea introduced herself warmly, while Sarin let out a grunt. “We’re going to have a fun time, you’ll see!”

The gynoid sounded disturbingly eager to participate in a criminal enterprise.

“Mr. President.” Ryan turned his head, Frank glancing through the window separating the light truck’s seats from its cargo. “Are you a Mormon?”

“No, though I will probably have to call myself a god at one point.” He couldn’t finish a villain run without one megalomaniacal speech or two. “Why such a question, Agent Frank?”

“You have the new and old First Ladies in the same car,” the giant explained. “Unless one of them is an intern?”

“I have only one wife, Agent Frank,” Ryan said, looking into the giant’s eyes. “And her name… is AMERICA!”

Well, the courier once had a rockstar phase with all the debauchery it implied. By the loop’s end, he had so many groupies, he didn’t remember half of them and could no longer walk straight. However, mindless sex’s novelty had quickly worn out. Ryan preferred an exclusive, intimate relationship with one person; something with a deeper connection than superficial lust.

He was looking for a soulmate.

“The Underdiver won’t be joining us?” Livia asked, a bit curious.

Ryan’s mood instantly worsened. “No, she won’t.”

After the disastrous Knockoff test, Shortie had locked herself in her room and refused to leave it. She didn’t let anyone inside, not even Ryan or Sarah. While the Genius had loved her father, in the end, that relationship was an open wound that never healed. All the progress she had made in the last loop seemed to have been washed away by the fear and the pain.

And Ryan could only help her if she let him in.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Livia said, upon sensing his unease. “I didn’t mean…”

“Queen, I love your costume!” Tea said at the front, trying to guide the conversation towards less awkward grounds. “Especially the French-techno style!”

“Oh, thank you.” Livia joined her gloved hands together, and though Ryan couldn’t see her face beneath the helmet, he would have bet his hand that she looked embarrassed. “Do you like it too, Quicksave?”

“I can’t diss anyone wearing a Dior suit,” Ryan reassured Livia, Eugène-Henry moving from his lap to the Augusti princess’. “See, even my cat approves. He only accepts the best.”

“Is it wise to bring him?” Livia asked, petting the feline while the truck moved towards Dynamis’ Star Studios. “I know cats have nine lives, but he will be in the middle of a warzone.”

“I guarantee you that everything will happen as I have foreseen,” Ryan said ominously, before giving her the Fisty Brothers to wear. “Put them on, please.”

“Gauntlets?” Livia asked. “What do they do?”

“They turn people into donuts,” the courier replied before checking the time. “According to our schedule, we have roughly one hour before Wardrobe and the others check-in to do their cameos. We’ll arrive right in time for the morning news.”

Soon, the truck reached the confines of Dynamis’ Star Studios. The park already buzzed with activity, an army of technicians and interns moving towards the cafeteria for their morning coffee shot. Two guards lazily controlled cars trying to get past the security checkpoint, none of them wearing power armor. As Ryan learned from his previous visits, Dynamis didn’t expect anyone to attack the place.

“Everyone put on their seatbelts?” Tea asked, her hands tensing on the driving wheel as they approached the checkpoint. “Ryan, subtle or loud?

“Loud.”

Was that even a question?

The Doll smashed the accelerator, and the truck rushed at the checkpoint like a bull at a matador. The guards jumped off the side of the road to dodge, as the Meta-Gang’s vehicle smashed through the security barrier. The vehicle continued its course through the parking lot at full speed, before abruptly stopping in front of a warehouse.

Technicians watched, astonished, as the supervillain crew exited the car. Ryan carried Eugène-Henry in his hands, Livia struggled to put Fisty over her gloves, the Doll opened the truck’s container to free its passengers, and Sarin unleashed a mighty shockwave to the skies.

This time, the Studios’ staff finally understood the danger and fled in panic.

“Finally out!” Mosquito said as he exited the truck’s container alongside Frank. Having overfed on high nutrient blood, the bugman had almost doubled in size. The crimson flesh beneath his exoskeleton had turned green, his muscles swelling until they became almost grotesque. Ryan thought he should change his name to Beefcake. “That’s the last time I share a ride with you, Frank.”

“Mosquito, dear, you protect the car, survey the area, and raise the alarm if someone tries to fly in,” Ryan said. The Doll grabbed a rocket launcher hidden beneath the seats and locked the truck. “Time to dazzle New Rome.”

Sarin blew up the warehouse’s entrance with a shockwave, while Beefcake took flight and ran circles above the studio. Ryan walked into the hole first, like a boss, while his minions followed in regimented order.

The group entered a reception hall, ignoring the terrified secretaries, interns, and workers too afraid to stop their advance. Most of the security guards weren’t paid enough to fight a band of Genomes, but one did dare to threaten Ryan with a gun. The courier froze time and disarmed him with one hand, using the other to carry his cat.

Ryan eventually reached a door protected by a keycard lock, reading the words ‘News Studio’ written on it. “Agent Frank?” the president asked his trusty bodyguard. “Open the door.”

The iron giant immediately looked around, and quickly noticed a terrified technician with a keycard around his neck; Ryan quickly identified him as Kevin, one of the scriptwriters working on the Panda movie in the previous loop. The man had frozen in place, holding a steaming coffee cup in his hand.

Frank lifted the scriptwriter by the pants, spilling the coffee all over the floor, and dangled him in front of the lock like a toy. The door opened upon registering the keycard.

“After you, Mr. President,” the giant said, as he dropped his victim onto the floor. From the brown spot on his pants, the scriptwriter had soiled himself.

“Thank you,” Ryan said while moving through the open door, only for Frank to walk through the walls around it as he followed. To each their own entrance.

New Rome’s news set was a wide circular room the size of an apartment, with half the walls covered by a large 3D screen. A well-lit anchor news desk faced two cameras, and a horde of low-wage slaves kept in eternal darkness. A handsome, brown-haired anchorman sat on a leather chair, having been ready to deliver the morning news when the Meta-Gang invaded the set.

“Everyone, hands behind your heads!” Sarin snarled angrily, as Tea threatened the staff with her rocket launcher. The fearful screams didn’t last long, replaced with cowering silence as Frank and the Doll herded half a dozen technicians into a corner. The cameramen continued their work under Sarin’s surveillance.

“I swear everything will be alright, if you don’t resist,” the Doll promised the hostages, even as she threatened them with a rocket launcher. “We don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“They’re our hostages, don’t coddle them,” Sarin said, as she hooked her tablet to a recording device. Livia stood in the background, too anxious to say anything. The Augusti princess didn’t have much experience with field work.

Ryan calmly approached the anchorman, and silently threatened his vital space. The man rose from his seat without a word and joined the other hostages, leaving the courier free to take over the chair. Eugène-Henry meowed on his lap, looking at the cameras like a furred diva.

“Do I look intimidating enough?” Ryan asked Livia, as he adjusted his suit.

“If you could raise your hat a little, that would be perfect.”

Ryan followed her advice and basked in the spotlight.

“We’re live, Boss,” Sarin said, forcing a cameraman to focus on Ryan’s mask.

The president silently glanced at the various technicians, noticing a young teen with brown hair and acne. “You’re an intern?” he asked her.

“U-uh, yes sir!”

“Bring me coffee. With milk and sugar.” The young teen immediately fled out of the room to fulfill his order, though Ryan wasn’t sure she would return.

In any case, the courier scratched his cat’s ears, and introduced himself to the camera. “Good morning, America! While it’s saddening you won’t hear the weather report—spoiler warning, go to the beach today—oh boy, will you get something better. I am Mr. President, and this is my message.”

He was born for this.

“I am Ryan Romano. Leader of the free world, conqueror of Monaco, and democratically elected chairman of the Meta-Gang. Yes, the same Psycho band that took over that dump of a northern district. We are currently taking Star Studios hostage until our demands are fulfilled. Don’t try to take us off the airwaves, because if anyone tries...”

Ryan put his mini A-bomb on the news desk.

“I call it the North Korea special,” he explained in simple terms. “Using highly sophisticated Genius technology too complicated for you to understand, this device can induce a thermonuclear detonation that will burn the whole city to ashes. If I were you, I would pack your stuff and leave for Milan.”

Ryan could hardly see the hostages’ faces with all the lights aimed at him, but he heard some of them gasping in shock.

Yeah, who would be desperate enough to go to Milan?

The intern returned with the coffee, and put it at the desk’s edge, as far away from Ryan as possible. “Thank you, slave,” the president said. “You shall be spared.”

“Can I go now?” the intern asked, sweating profusely.

“You can go to the photocopier,” Ryan crushed her hopes of a better life, before focusing back on the camera. He noticed Livia pushing the intern towards the other hostages, but didn’t pay much attention. “Now, perhaps you're wondering why this is happening, so we compiled a short movie.”

The screen behind his desk broadcast his recorded talk with Hector Manada.

Well, of course, the courier had ‘edited’ the film to make it fit within a five minutes length, but such were the rules of sensational journalism. He would probably release a director’s cut one day.

No more Knockoffs,” Hector Manada’s voice echoed behind Ryan. “My agreement was with your predecessors, and their demise changes everything.”

“Certainly we can continue where they left off.”

“Your people didn’t deliver, so why should I honor my side of the bargain?”

“Then I should reveal what’s inside your knockoffs. I’m sure your people will love buying a Psycho-in-a-can.”

“Do you have any proof?”

The video switched to the disastrous Elixir test, of Bloodstream’s horrifying essence turning the overpriced drink into a screaming slime. Livia let out a gasp of horror at the sight, while the hostages started to whisper between themselves.

“They’re taking down the video almost as soon as I put it on a website,” Sarin said while typing on her tablet, “but it still makes thousands of views each time I upload it.”

The president nodded, knowing once something was on the net, it would remain there forever. “I will personally perform the kids show version, and since I do not believe in CGI…”

Ryan put three plasticine figurines on the desk, representing Hector Manada, Augustus, and Big Fat Adam.

“Say hello to stop motion!”

An awkward silence followed. Tough crowd.

Ryan, who had a long experience with this kind of performance, did the voice-over. “Hey, I’m Mob Zeus!” he raised the Augustus figurine, while doing his best impersonation of the tyrant. “And I’m EVIL!"

Livia chuckled, and Eugène-Henry left Ryan’s lap to land on the desk. The cat started playing with the A-bomb like a ball of yarn, to everyone’s horror, and Ryan briefly interrupted his performance to glance at his pet.

“Good kitty,” he said, scratching Eugène-Henry’s back and feeding on the audience’s tears of despair. “You like my A-bomb, huh? You like it, do you?”

His cat meowed in response, and Ryan returned to his show.

“I am Hector, and I am so jealous of Augustus! He shines too much!” The courier played Manada’s figurine, before moving Adam’s. Each time, he imitated the original’s voice. “I am Adam! I am so fat, that last time I used a weighing machine, it let out death throes! I want to help, but I am poor!”

“Take my money, friendly whale! I beg of you!” ‘Hector’ answered. Nobody laughed at the spectacle, all eyes focusing on Eugène-Henry instead. By now the cat was rolling the A-bomb near the intern’s coffee cup, showing his royal behind to the camera.

Ryan put a fourth figurine on the desk, representing Psyspy. He carried an oversized knife of clay in his tentacle. “I am Psyshock,” the president voiced the brainjacker’s figurine, before moving it behind Adam’s, “and I am a traitor!”

“Mr. President, turn around!” Frank panicked, as he relived his previous charge’s murder. “Turn around!”

The Psyshock figurine stabbed Adam’s in the back, the madman collapsing. The whole building trembled, as Frank punched the ground in grief.

“And that’s where I come in, the hand of injustice!” Ryan smashed the Psyshock figurine, turning it to paste. Then he raised his plasticine-covered fist. “I have been disrespected! Humiliated! Unpaid! But never broken! They called me mad, but I will show them! I will show them all! I am taking all of New Rome hostage, until Dynamis pays me the ransom I deserve! The outrageous sum of one—”

“He’s gonna say it!” The Doll gasped.

“One!”

Ryan winked at the camera, and his countless fans behind it.

“One million dollars!”

The tense silence was broken by Livia’s giggling and the Doll’s sobs of happiness. “He dared,” the android said. “He dared.”

“Morons dare it all, that’s how you recognize them,” Sarin replied. “Boss, you do know american dollars cost almost as much as collection stamps nowadays?”

“You wanted them to pay us in pesos, perhaps?” Ryan deadpanned.

“You would need all of Mexico to pay one million dollars,” Frank said, spitting on America’s oldest enemy.

“In any case, the cavalry is coming to the rescue,” Sarin said, showing Ryan her tablet’s screen. Someone was live streaming Wyvern flying through New Rome’s skies in human form, aiming straight for Star Studios.

“They can’t silence the truth!” the president went on a rant before the camera. “We shall not give up in the face of intimi—”

Bleep.

Ryan glanced at Eugène-Henry, the cat having pushed the A-bomb’s big button and triggered the countdown.

“Well.” The president looked back at the camera, and smiled behind his mask. “That’s all folks!”

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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