It was said that the show must go on, no matter what.
“And so, Little Gorynych attempted to catch the wild princess,” Ryan continued his play, having a three-headed dragon plasticine figurine pursue that of a pink princess. After running out of video material to humiliate Dynamis with, the courier had started to improvise. “But she ran too fast for his tiny legs, and poor Gorynych had forgotten he could fly!”
Nobody paid attention to his Shakespearean play, except Frank, whom the groundbreaking plot captivated. Everyone else instead focused on the inactive nuclear device on the newsdesk.
“You should have taken a dog, boss,” Sarin said, glaring at Eugène-Henry. The cat knew he had sinned, so he tried to look cute to avoid punishment. Unfortunately for him, Hazmat Girl didn’t have any heart to soften. “I understand why the Chinese ate them.”
“Come on, I disarmed the countdown,” Ryan said, though he had to freeze time for it. He abandoned his play to scratch his cat’s ears and reassure him. “You’re sorry you scared them, huh? You didn’t want to kill them all, it was an accident…”
Tea cleared her throat. It was just a vocal effect, since as an android she didn’t need to breathe. “Ryan, I thi—”
“Mr. President,” Ryan corrected her. “You’re my friend, Doll, but we’re on TV right now.”
“Mr. President, while I love animals, I believe you are spoiling your cat rotten.”
“Gooood,” his master replied with a deep dark voice, before noticing Livia nervously approaching him. “Yes?”
His new sidekick began to whisper in his ear. “I’m seeing Wyvern attacking Mosquito, and an Il Migliore team besieging the building alongside the Private Security.”
“Is the Panda among them?” Ryan asked, suddenly worried.
“Who?” Livia asked, apparently never having taken notes on the mighty manbear.
“The Panda, the chosen one,” Ryan explained, loud enough for the hostage and TV viewers to hear. “The only Genome whose power trumps mine. Our long-awaited duel has been foretold by precogs.”
Livia giggled behind her helmet. “No, I don’t think so,” she whispered, only to turn serious. “But… Felix is among them, and a few of my alternate selves die from glass shards to the neck.”
Urgh, so the Carnival did intend to target them this time around. The courier learned enough about Dynamis to predict their movements, but he couldn’t say the same for Hargraves. Did the Carnival ally with the Manada brothers like in the previous timeline? Or did they remain free agents for now?
“We’ll make sure nothing happens to Felix,” Ryan whispered back too low for others to listen, before hamming it up. “With our combined power, Queen Crimson, we will rule all of New Rome!”
“Start ruling your stupid cat and then we’ll see about the city,” Sarin said, unimpressed.
“In any case, we’re returning home.”
“What about the hostages?” Tea asked, almost hopeful. “Do we take them with us?”
Ryan shrugged his shoulders. “I realized it was a bit redundant to keep a dozen people hostage, when we have a nuclear device to threaten the city with.”
“And I do not think we have enough space in the truck,” Livia pointed out the obvious.
“Aw,” the Doll said, lowering her weapon and allowing the hostages to breathe. “I was starting to like them.”
Tea had known them for half an hour, and she already developed Lima Syndrome? She was too soft for the job.
The group exited the Star Studios warehouse one minute afterward, with Sarin carrying the A-bomb and Frank the plasticine figurines. Ryan walked at the front, holding Eugène-Henry in his arms like a diabolical mastermind on a stroll.
No sooner did they pass the warehouse’s doors than a shockwave almost caused them to trip up. The courier raised his eyes, and watched Mosquito wrestling with a fully transformed Wyvern up in the skies. The courier remembered that they fought in an early loop, with the dragon lady squashing the Psycho like a bug.
But now that Mosquito had overfed, he more than held his own. The flying beefcake punched Wyvern so hard that it caused windows in the vicinity to crack; the blow sent the dragon tumbling backward, but she quickly corrected her descent. She retaliated with her breath, Mosquito fleeing out of the path at astonishing speed.
While the two titans duked it out in the skies, the group prepared to return to their truck, only to find it surrounded by a dozen Private Security members in black riot gear. Multiple laser rifles pointed at Ryan and his men, while one wise soldier targeted the president’s crotch. None of them opened fire though.
As Livia warned, they also had a few Genomes with them. Atom Kitty, who didn’t carry throwable weapons yet; Reload, that cheap knockoff, who at least had the decency of bringing a lightsaber; and Ryan’s favorite hero in the world.
“Hi, Wardrobe!” The courier warmly greeted his future rival. “We finally meet in the flesh!”
“Hi, nice to meet you too, Quicksave!” Wardrobe waved a hand at the group. This time she cosplayed as an FBI hostage negotiator, with a megaphone in hand. “I loved your stop motion play!”
“Wardrobe, please don’t encourage that madman,” Atom Kitten said, hands raised. He looked like a cat ready to pounce on mice and eager to finally stretch his legs. Livia tensed at the sight of her ex-boyfriend, but wisely remained silent.
“Sorry, sorry!” Wardrobe apologized before raising her megaphone. “Please surrender, you’re surrounded!”
“And you’re outgunned!” Sarin replied while raising the A-bomb, Wyvern and Mosquito’s duel causing more shockwaves. “Back off!”
A few Private Security members raised their rifles at Miss Gasshole, but none dared to pull the trigger.
“I’m Mr. President now,” Ryan said, scratching his cat behind the ears. Frank stood proudly behind his master, while the Doll pointed her rocket launcher at Reload. “You should know, of all people. After all, Wardrobe… you created me.”
“I created you?” she asked with a frown, before studying his costume in depth. Her face paled, upon recognizing the ensemble’s perfect harmony of colors; the authority of the necktie, the softness of the gloves, the savagery of the bowler hat. “It was you… it was you who asked for the costume!”
“Wardrobe, you know this guy?” asked Reload, his hands tightening around his weapon.
“I designed his costume!” Wardrobe paled in horror at the terrible truth. “But I didn’t know someone would use it for evil!”
“It has skulls on the socks!” Felix snarled, pointing a finger at Ryan’s boots. “What did you expect?”
“That’s right, Wardrobe,” Ryan said, his voice as deep as the darkest abyss. “By creating this cashmere suit, you sowed the seeds of your own nemesis. A grim darkness born of your shining light.”
“My… my nemesis?” Emotion broke through Wardrobe’s face, as her wish for a flashy supervillain archenemy was granted. “I have a secret nemesis?”
“Yes, you do.” Ryan extended one hand at her, holding Eugène-Henry with the other. “Join me, Wardrobe. Become my archenemy, every day of the week. Together, nothing can stop our brand. We will build a multi-billion euro franchise, greater than even Star Wars! We will flood the market with merchandise, and we will rule the box-office! Only through me, can you achieve the popularity you crave!”
“Yes, yes! Oh Mr. President, I accept your offer!” Wardrobe surrendered to the lure of a long-term exclusive rivalry. “We’ll be fighting forever!”
“Good, how about we schedule our first fight tomorrow? Would tomorrow be alright?” Ryan took a few steps forward, not waiting for an answer. “I have a very busy agenda. Doomsday weapons won’t build themselves.”
Reload moved in the president’s path, weapon raised. “You’re not going anywhere, you maniac.”
“Is it me, or do you really think you can actually stop us?” Ryan channeled his inner villain, while Sarin dangled the A-bomb threateningly. “Don’t force me to assert my authority.”
“Be wary, Reload, he can stop time for an unknown duration,” Atom Cat warned his fellow hero. “He’s also probably a Genius of some kind from the bomb, but we don’t know his specialty yet.”
“A Genius?” Ryan blinked behind his mask. “Wait, you think I’m a Psycho with two powers?”
Atom Kitten snorted. “Dude, you hold an entire city hostage with a nuclear device and a band of mutants. Either you’re a Psycho, or you’re just psycho.”
“Your reputation for mental instability makes a lot more sense now,” Reload added.
Frank took a step, ignoring the laser rifles pointed at him. “Mr. President, do you want me to clear the area?”
“They’re going to do that on their own, or I’m pressing the butto—” Sarin froze, as the weapon suddenly vanished from her hand. “Huh?”
“I’ve got it!” Wardrobe rejoiced, having quickly changed her costume. Her clothes had transformed into that of a French gentleman with a monocle, a long cloak, and a top hat from which she had drawn the A-bomb.
Ryan immediately protested, “Someone is getting choked for th—”
Reload immediately leaped at the courier with his laser blade raised. However, Frank swiftly grabbed his leg in midair with one hand, and splattered him on the ground like a club. The poor Violet Genome immediately regenerated, and cut off his own leg before Frank could kill him again.
“Minions, dispose of these annoyances, without touching the truck!” Ryan ordered, as the Private Security opened fire. The courier froze time to sidestep the barrage, while Livia and Sarin took refuge behind Frank. The lasers failed to pierce the Doll’s reinforced metal body, though they burnt off parts of the artificial skin. “But leave me the young kitty!”
“I don’t have a cat theme!” Felix snarled, attempting to touch Ryan with his naked hand. The president gracefully sidestepped to dodge the blow, and then a second. Atom Cat’s hands furiously tried to reach for the courier’s chest, but Ryan had time and experience on his side.
The Doll and Sarin had engaged the Private Security in a firefight, answering the lasers with rockets and shockwaves. The same mook that threatened Ryan’s ultimate weapon hit Sarin’s shoulder, forcing her to cover the spot with a hand to avoid leaking out gas.
Meanwhile, Livia positioned herself behind Frank as he attempted to catch Reload, using the iron giant as a shield against the Private Security’s lasers. She seemed to be looking for someone she couldn’t see. Wardrobe backed off, wisely trying to keep the A-bomb away from the battle, and Wyvern above smashed Mosquito against the warehouse’s roof.
“Oh, well for a second, I thought I might need to use my hands,” Ryan taunted Felix. “I guess my legs will be enough.”
“I’ll show you hands!” Atom Kitten all but leaped at his foe, but the courier simply dodged and tripped him. The young hero crashed head-first into the ground, much to his fury and humiliation.
“It is useless to resist,” Ryan said, as he loomed threateningly over his former sidekick. Though he had no intention of harming his friend, someone else thought otherwise.
All windows in the area, including the light truck’s, exploded at once.
Glass shards flew at Ryan, and he felt a slight shiver down his spi—
Ryan stood with his hat against his chest.
The firefight briefly died out, as everyone tried to gather their thoughts.
Livia had activated her power, and skipped time forward. The Augusti princess stood near the truck, with a visible and bloodied Shroud lying on the ground; the vehicle’s container looked slightly damaged too. Livia had punched the invisible vigilante with Fisty, causing him to hit the container and lose focus.
As for the others, the Doll patched Sarin’s wound, both of them hiding behind Frank. The colossus had finally caught Reload, and seemed ready to crush his back against his knee. Atom Kitten was struggling to get Eugène-Henry off his face, the cat clawing angrily at his cheeks. Ryan had probably thrown his pet at the hero in the skipped time, but he couldn’t tell for sure.
Damn it, was that how it felt for others to fight Quicksave? That empty feeling of missing all the real action? No wonder the courier’s foes hated him.
Ryan raised his eyes, and witnessed Wyvern flying over his head. Dragon Mom had regained her human form, while Mosquito was slowly deflating back to his original size, embedded in the warehouse’s front wall.
“Surrender,” Wyvern warned, her face straining with fury, “I won’t hesitate to use lethal force.”
“You know what’s better than one A-bomb, Dragon Mom?”
Ryan plunged his hand into his bowler hat, and quickly brought out a tiny metal sphere before Wyvern could descend upon him.
Wyvern froze in midair, even as all Private Security members within earshot aimed at Ryan. “Wardrobe, steal the b—”
“If you want me to juggle,” Ryan performed an illusion trick to swiftly bring a third bomb out of his jacket, making it look as if he had duplicated the sphere. “I’ve got a third!”
Thank Mechron for his matter replicator! It made it incredibly easy to manufacture nuclear devices.
Almost too easy.
And as Ryan had guessed, while Wardrobe immediately changed back her costume to Arsène Lupin’s, she didn’t attempt to steal both bombs from under his nose. Her power had limits. Still, one Private Security agent attempted to shoot the courier’s arm to make him drop one of his nuclear devices.
Ryan simply froze time, and reappeared a few feet away. “Nah, nah, nah,” he said, his fingers brushing his weapons’ buttons. “You try anything, I stop time, and we play Dr. Strangelove.”
Wyvern frowned, though she didn’t make a move. “You won’t dare.”
“I literally let my cat do it on live television.” Ryan pointed out, his thumbs brushing against the buttons. “Wanna bet?”
For a tense and agonizing minute, nobody dared to move. Well, with the exception of Eugène-Henry, who finished clawing Atom Cat’s face to run back to his master. All eyes looked at Ryan, fearing he would follow through with his threat.
Wyvern’s jaw clenched so hard the courier thought she might destroy her own teeth, and moved her hand to her ear. The Geniuses in Dynamis’ HQ probably confirmed the bombs as genuine through an earplug, and Dragon Mom didn’t dare to call out Ryan’s bluff.
“As I thought,” Ryan said, smugly rubbing his victory into his foes’ face. “You see right here? That’s the difference between us. One gets to be the goddamn USA, the other gets to be Afghanistan.”
“Mr. President, didn’t we sign treaties on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons?” Frank asked, still holding a helpless Reload within his hands. The Violet Genome attempted to stab the iron giant with his laser blade, but inflicted minor to no damage.
“Yes, but nobody respects them,” Ryan replied, before glancing at his men. “Ladies and gentlemen, pack your things, we’re going home. Frank, get Mosquito.”
Frank immediately tossed Reload over his shoulder, his strength sending the poor Violet Genome flying above the warehouse, and then helped the wounded Mosquito hop back on the ground.
“Uh…” Mosquito complained as Frank helped carry him, blood gushing from his wounds. The bugman had regained his original size. “Damn, she hits hard… pain hurts so much...”
“You’re not going to get away with this,” Wyvern said, simmering with anger. While Wardrobe had turned into a nurse to help the wounded, Atom Cat glared at the Meta-Gang, claw marks all over his face. The disguised Livia did her best to avoid looking at him, perhaps out of shame.
“Au contraire, I think I will get away with it and the money,” Ryan said, as he opened the truck’s door for Livia. The Augusti princess grabbed Eugène-Henry and stepped inside the vehicle, imitated by Sarin. “Though hopefully, your boss won’t get away with stuffing a bodysnatcher into an overpriced product.”
“You think I believe any of this?” Dragon Mom tried to sound confident, Ryan could sense the doubt creeping in her voice. “That I can believe any of this?”
“Doll, darling,” Ryan asked Tea, as she helped the wounded Mosquito and Frank climb into the truck’s container. “Give our dragon friend the proof.”
“The blood?” Tea opened a hidden compartment inside her arm, much to everyone’s shock, and then tossed a small syringe at Wyvern. “Over here!”
The superhero caught the container with one hand, frowning upon seeing a small quantity of blood inside. “What is this?”
“A few drops of the Underdiver’s blood.” Though Dynamis already took samples and a DNA-scan, Ryan doubted the company shared them with its shining hero. Wyvern wouldn’t have signed with the megacorporation if she knew about its dirty secret. “Apply it to any Knockoff Elixir, and you’ll see the truth for yourself. I would suggest asking for Devilry’s help though. If that stuff touches you, you’re dead.”
Wyvern said nothing, even as Ryan prepared to climb into the truck last. The courier sent one last glance at the wounded Shroud on his way. “I’m surprised you decided to fight us,” he told the glass manipulator. “I mean, you went so far to hunt down all of Bloodstream’s clones. I thought you would go after Dynamis first.”
The courier frowned behind his mask. “Mmm?”
“We didn’t… stop it…” Shroud rasped, struggling for breath. Livia’s blow probably damaged a lung. “We just… delayed...”
“Delayed what? Bloodstream’s return?” Ryan asked with a frown, but the glass manipulator was in no shape to answer. The courier briefly wondered if they should bring the vigilante back to the bunker for medical attention, but it would only encourage Leo to attack them immediately. Dynamis would take care of him, if only because he tried to help them.
A few seconds later, Ryan sat inside the truck as the Doll drove it away, glancing through the broken windows. Nobody dared to stop them as they left Star Studios.
“So?” Ryan asked his troupe. “Who’s up for French?”
Livia let out a breath of relief, letting go of her stress. “That was amazing!” she said, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “I couldn’t tell how the situation would turn out at any point! Is it always like this with you?”
“Unfortunately,” Sarin groaned, covering the bandaged gash in her hazmat suit.
“Sometimes, there’s fire,” Tea added.
“We should do it more often.” Livia rested her head against the seat, Eugène-Henry sleeping on her lap. Ryan could understand her reaction. Much like him, she had forgotten how much she liked surprises. “Amazing.”
When they reached the security checkpoint to enter Rust Town, the Doll abruptly stopped the vehicle and let out a scream of horror. “What’s happening?” Ryan instantly tensed and looked out the window, only to face a vision of horror.
The Private Security checkpoint had turned dead silent. Literally. Two dozen Dynamis guards had been hung over an open archway leading into Rust Town, the ropes made of their own intestines. The number ‘885’ had been written with blood on the floor beneath them in a macabre display.
“Holy…” Livia put her hands on her helmet upon seeing this ghastly spectacle, reflexively trying to cover her mouth in horror. Eugène-Henry, meanwhile, glanced at the bodies with lazy disdain. “How could I… how could I not see...”
“You couldn’t see it,” Ryan said, as he fearfully realized who had perpetrated this terrible deed.
“The reason why this run is already doomed,” the courier replied, pointing his finger at the letters written on each corpse’s chest. Together, they formed a single, ominous sentence.HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
Ryan looked into the rear-view mirror, and watched two pointed ears slowly rise behind him.