“I don’t know,” Alchemo said.
Ryan Romano slouched on his chair, the Saturn Armor’s sheer weight making it creak. Vulcan sat at his side, checking a portable computer with a frown on her face. “Well, can you give me more details, oh great keeper of knowledge?”
The cabin’s metal walls thrummed like a great beast’s bowels, as Alchemo transferred data to the Saturn Armor’s computer. Ryan watched a copy of his bioscan appear on his helmet’s lens, his organs and bones as violet as a plum.
He looked in perfect health, even after engaging in a worrying amount of euphoric substances.
“As far as the scanners are concerned, you are an average monocolor Violet Genome, with no genetic anomalies whatsoever,” Alchemo said. “You can only blame yourself for your eccentricity.”
So Ryan wasn’t a Psycho, or at least not a conventional one. The courier considered it good news. “Then how do you explain the chic jet black particles surrounding my body in the frozen time?”
“I know that I do not know,” Alchemo replied with a sarcastic tone.
“Don’t bring Socrates into this.”
“Whenever I develop a theory on powers and Elixirs, meatbag, you invalidate it!” The Genius complained. “I give up!”
“The armor’s scanners record these Black Flux particles, but I don’t know what to make of the readings,” Vulcan admitted, a cute frown of frustration on her face. “They keep changing.”
“So these particles follow quantum superposition?” Ryan asked. “The results change depending on the observation method?”
“No, the data keeps changing after being recorded.”
Vulcan turned her laptop in Ryan’s direction, allowing him to see the screen. Lines of codes and words shifted before his eyes, from binaries to trinaries, from numbers to letters and stranger symbols.
“This substance actively refuses to be categorized, and passively alters reality when I insist.” Vulcan ground her teeth in annoyance. “Either that, or you gained a second power that falsifies my data.”
“A Blue power then,” Alchemo said, jumping to the easy conclusion.
“I’m not yet colorblind, Braindead,” Ryan said. “I can tell black from blue.”
“None of this makes sense,” the cyborg complained, having grown angrier by the minute since they left the bunker. Perhaps the stress was getting to him? Ryan knew from experience that the Genius didn’t have a great mental fortitude. “A Paradox dimension? An energy that actively violates common sense? How do you want me to find logic in a situation that lacks any?”
“If the rest of our theory about Elixirs is correct, then this means you developed a link to this Black World. Perhaps even a secondary power.” Vulcan raised an eyebrow at Ryan. “What are you waiting for? Try it out.”
Ryan froze time, black and violet particles floating around him while his other self appeared in a corner. The poor ghost only advanced a few centimeters per second, desperately catching up to the courier.
Ryan glanced at his hands, and the black spots swirling around them, before raising them at Alchemo.
“UNLIMITED POWAH!” The time-traveler shouted while wagging his fingers like a maniac. “POWAH!”
Nothing happened. No black lightning, no blast of antimatter. Not even the thrill of unlimited cosmic power coursing through his veins.
“Nope, nothing I can figure out,” Ryan said as time resumed. Damn it, why didn’t the dark side come with a manual? “Either I don’t have a second power, or I need to figure out what it does before I can use it.”
“Disappointing,” Vulcan said, though she sounded more playful than angry. “Do you still produce particles without the armor?”
“No more than I generate visible Violet Flux without your wonderful suit.” Ryan only produced Black Flux with the Saturn Armor on. “Neither did my main power mutate, as far as I can tell.”
His time-stop worked perfectly fine, and his ‘violet phantom’ hadn’t changed either. Thus, his save point shouldn’t have moved forward in time, though Ryan could only check by resetting. He was in no hurry to try that out yet.
For all he knew, everything would return to normal on the next save, though his gut told him otherwise. The Ultimate Darkling could apparently violate causality, so Ryan’s condition had a chance to stick.
“Then this Black Flux works on another level than our physical reality,” Vulcan theorized.
“Don’t tell me you believe in souls?” Alchemo grunted. “I thought you were a rational person.”
“A Genome like Geist has no DNA for his Elixir to hang onto, and yet persists as a freaking ghost,” Vulcan pointed out. “A similar thing happened with Ghoul as far as I know. A pity your slime friend killed him on its way out, Ryan. It could have helped us figure it out.”
Ghoul’s remains hadn’t risen up after Darkling threw them up, proving that even immortals could die. Ryan couldn’t help but wonder how Black Flux would react to an inviolable object like Lightning Butt.
The courier needed information that even Mechron’s databases couldn’t provide. Knowledge from the same place where he might find a cure for the Psycho syndrome.
Ryan would take a winter vacation next time around.
Alas, they had other matters to deal with right now, as Shortie reminded him when she opened the cabin’s door in full power armor. “We’re surfacing, Riri,” she said, her voice firm and without any trace of hesitation. “It’s time.”
“Finally,” Vulcan said, as she closed her laptop. “Time to put on my supersuit.”
“Your immense culture is by far your greatest quality,” Ryan congratulated the short Genius, who responded with a smirk. “So, you’re coming with us?”
To his surprise, she shook her head in response. “I’m afraid that’s where we part ways. Boss’ orders. I’ll scramble Dynamis’ communications on my way out, which should help a little.”
Ryan didn’t hide his disappointment. “Don’t let the patriarchy tell you what to do, come fight the system with us!”
“Yeah, well, I like you, but not enough to disobey Augustus for your sake. You’re a Saturday morning cartoon comedian, but that mofo is more lethal than Ebola.”
“What’s happening?” Len asked, concerned. “Is it about the Carnival?”
She worried the last loop’s event might repeat itself.
Unfortunately, this loop’s apocalypse would be much worse.
“Nah, you heard about that rabbit cryptid thing on the news?” Vulcan asked, everyone looking away. “Well, it’s apparently a self-replicating killer robot, and currently assaulting our HQ. Augustus asked everyone to mobilize, which means they’re replicating faster than he can kill them himself.”
The midget glanced at Ryan with a knowing look. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that?”
“Nah…” he lied. “I want to rule the world, not destroy it.”
She whispered into his robotic antennae, as if they were ears. “I’m a Genius, but I’m also a genius. So don’t fuck with me.”
Two loops too late for that. “You should be fine, don’t worry.”
With her height, the plushies would probably mistake her for a child.
“Yeah, make sure to skip town afterward. I would be loath for us to end up on opposing sides.” Vulcan rose from her seat with a grin, the laptop under her arm. “I had fun.”
“Same,” the courier replied.
“Underdiver?” Vulcan glanced at Len, much to the shy Genius’ surprise. “Don’t hang out too much with him. You’ve got a great future ahead of you, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to live fast and die young.”
“I’ll… keep that in mind,” Len replied sheepishly, Vulcan leaving the room afterward with a shrug.
Alchemo waited for Ryan’s ex-girlfriend to vanish, before turning at the man himself. “So… what will it be?”
“You and Tea will stay behind on the submarine, so we can evacuate in short order,” Ryan explained. If all went well, they could raid Lab Sixty-Six within a short timeframe and flee before Dynamis could mobilize. “You keep sending the brain maps to Livia in our absence.”
“I already sent the ones you wanted, alongside a copy of Sarin’s molecular structure,” the Genius said, having failed to find a better solution. “Am I forgetting one?”
Yes, he did.
“Braindead, you’re an asshole.” Ryan’s bluntness caused the cyborg to flinch. “However… I’ve befriended assholes before, and someone taught me to let go of the past. To move on.“
The courier struggled to find the right words, while Len watched on without any of her own.
“What you’ve done, what the other you did… It hurt. It hurt more than you can imagine. But as you said it yourself, you’re no longer that person. The Alchemo that betrayed me is dead, while you are alive. So, while it feels wrong, I…” Ryan let out a long, long sigh. “I will give you a second chance. Send your own brain map to Livia.”
The cyborg marked a short pause, his lack of facial expressions making his thought process unclear. “Thank you, Ryan.”
“You won’t get a third chance,” the courier warned. “So don’t waste it.”
“I won’t,” the Genius promised, before excusing himself with a short nod.
“Is it wise to bring so many people with us, Riri?” Len asked with concern once Braindead had left the cabin.
“No. But I would rather extend a hand and be disappointed, than never do so and stay alone forevermore. Livia has a point, fear and paranoia lead nowhere.” Len looked at her best friend without uttering a word, her face hidden behind her helmet. “What?”
“Nothing,” she lied, though Ryan didn’t press the issue. “Are you ready?”
“Are you?” Ryan asked the hard question.
“No,” she admitted. “No, I’m not. But I… I can’t delay anymore. There is no other choice.”
“Well, let me put on an accessory and I’m ready to go…” Ryan searched the cabin for the last missing part of his outfit: a black cashmere poncho, which he immediately put on his armor. “How do I look?”
Len giggled, which the courier thought to be the most wonderful sound in the world. “You look cute.”
“I would have preferred you to say fearsome, but cute is nice. Besides, with all the plushies running around, I’m sure leporiphobia will become mainstream soon.”
Even Ryan had to look that word up.
“It’s nice to hear your bad jokes again, Riri,” Len said, as they walked out of the cabin and through the submarine’s narrow corridors. “You’ve been somber lately.”
“Yes. Usually… usually you joke all the time, but not so much anymore. Although…”
“Although?” he asked.
“Your smiles reach your eyes now.”
She knew him better than anyone else. “I do have an excellent sense of humor centuries ahead of its time. But... I guess I found it easier to laugh at pain rather than cry at it. My eternal life doesn’t feel painful anymore, especially with you at my side. I’m… there’s no word to express my relief.”
She understood though. She had seen him cry for the first time in centuries.
Ryan would have bet his hand that Len smiled warmly behind the helmet, and she raised her pinky. “Together till the end, Riri.”
“Till the end, Shortie,” Ryan pinky swore back. She had helped him live again, and he would return the favor.
The duo emerged from the Mechron submarine and walked on its metal husk, facing a burning New Rome.
Their vehicle had risen above the waters south of the blockaded harbor, the remaining Meta-Gangsters having moved onto small boats. They could hear the noise of gunshots, lasers, and missiles all the way from Rust Town, as corpo troops assaulted the bunker.
Toasty and the bunker’s robots had been deployed to occupy Dynamis’ forces, while Ryan’s group would ‘sneak’ into the HQ from behind. If all went optimally, everyone would live through the attack; the courier had even made a copy of Toasty’s AI, to ensure its survival.
However, the sight of a flying sun shining in Rust Town’s polluted skies complicated things.
Much like in the previous loop, the Carnival had chosen to collaborate with Dynamis. Considering how they dealt with Bloodstream, Ryan wondered if they had temporarily allied with the company to deal with the ‘bigger threat,’ or if something else was at work in the background.
To Ryan’s surprise though, New Rome looked relatively unscathed. Sure there were fires here and there, and alarms resonated across the street to urge people to stay at home… but he had expected more collateral damage now that the plushie had escaped into the streets.
Could it… could it have become tamer with time?
Len quickly disabused Ryan of that notion, putting one hand on his arm and pointing the other at the horizon. “Riri, look.”
Ryan glanced at Mount Augustus, the hill having turned white.
From afar, the discount Olympus looked similar to an erupting volcano. An endless tide of white fur overwhelmed the entire hill, like an enormous rat swarm converging towards the summit. Nobody could see the villa at the top clearly, as crimson lightning bolts, water arms, lasers, and energy blasts shot in all directions. The ground battle was probably a vision of armageddon.
Ryan’s feeble mind couldn’t understand what dark thought pushed the plushie on this course of action. He did remember that the fiendish rabbit had vanished after hunting Acid Rain during the Augusti Loop, whom Augustus had slain. Perhaps the creature wanted to continue their previous confrontation. Perhaps it had grown bored of helpless targets, and wanted to hunt bigger game.
Or perhaps, it simply wanted to make a god bleed.
Thankfully, Ryan had the foresight to ask Livia to evacuate to a secure location, because there would be no turning back. The plushipocalypse had begun.
Or Leporimachia? They did climb the equivalent of Mount Olympus.
“Whoever wins, the city is BLEEPED,” Ryan said. If Mob Zeus prevailed, he would learn of Hargraves’ presence with his blood already up and probably go on a rampage. If the plushies won, they would ride down the hill on a tide of blood and overwhelm the city. “I know.”
“This happened before?” Len asked, Ryan laughing and glancing away nervously. “It did.”
“It’s… you know, it’s not really important...”
“It’ll be the twelfth time that I destroy the world,” Ryan meekly confessed, Len tensing up in outrage. “But I swear there won’t be a thirteenth!”
“Mr. President!” Frank shouted, saving Ryan from a highly embarrassing conversation. Only the giant hadn’t taken a small boat due to his enormous weight, his head instead peeking from above the water. “We are ready to storm Mexico at your command!”
“Speak for yourself,” Mosquito answered, juicing up on a bottle of artificial blood. “What are we even doing?”
The leader of the free world oversaw his troops on the small boats. Only a handful of his men had survived so far, though thankfully most of the heavy hitters had made it. However, with the exception of Agent Frank, who wouldn’t die until every enemy of the United States had perished, most of Ryan’s allies looked disgruntled.
“What we are doing, Mosquito, is to write history with blood!” Ryan said, raising his clenched fist to the skies. “Today, New Rome. Tomorrow, the woooorld!”
“I don’t care about the world, I want the juice!” Rakshasa complained. The Land, that stone midget, let out a garbled sound. Somehow, the tigerman seemed to understand it perfectly. “Yeah, why did we abandon the Knockoff factory, after we suffered so much to get it?”
Ryan silently pointed a finger at Mount Augustus.
“Oh,” the tigerman said, having suffered the most from the plushies’ depredations. “Yes, that makes sense…”
“We have all the data needed to create a new factory, and enough stockpiled in the submarine to last months,” Ryan continued, trying to reassure his men.
“Then why don’t we leave immediately?” Acid Rain asked, biting her fingers. “I’m… I’m not sure picking another fight is a good idea.”
“We need Doctor Tyrano to develop a cure, and he’s in the HQ,” Ryan explained. “We get him, we torch Lab Sixty-Six, we leave.”
Well, that was the best-case scenario. The worst one would involve a reload, but Ryan hoped he could ‘borrow’ Dr. Tyrano long enough to develop a cure for Psychos to use in the next loop. They could even relocate to Antarctica, escaping Dynamis and checking up on the Alchemist’s base at once.
“Boss, I… I don’t wanna get choked, but the corpos have the Living Sun with them,” Mosquito pointed out, his voice meek and scared even after gaining in muscle mass. “He can move faster than sound, and… and he can pick fights with Augustus. I say we run while we can.”
“Yes, there will be other opportunities,” Mongrel said with a nod. “I want to get cured, boss, but… can’t we wait for a better opportun—”
Sarin sent a minor shockwave towards the sky, startling everyone.
“Haven’t you learned?” she said, as everyone focused on her person. “This guy… this guy is a gambler. The cheating kind. The kind that always wins.”
Ryan’s vice-president pointed at her superior with her finger, prepping him up.
“Adam spent weeks trying to crack that bunker open, and he did it in a fortnight!” she shouted, with a charisma the courier didn’t expect from her. “Adam always promised us a cure and never delivered, but this guy? This guy is pointing the way! Dynamis, Augustus, the goddamn Carnival? He ran circles around them all, humiliated them! Do you think this time will be any different?”
“Only President Ryan can save America!” Frank roared.
“Exactly!” Sarin said. “This guy brings a nuclear bomb to a gunfight, and wins his wars with a goddamn alien! This guy doesn’t play by the rules! He fixes the game and gets away with it! Would you bet against a cheater? Well, I won’t! He’s going to rob the whole casino, and we’ll only get a share if we follow! They say the house always wins? I say we burn it!”
Her bold speech silenced everyone for a moment, until Frank broke it by clapping his hands above the water. His applause was soon echoed by other Psychos, all doubts in the regime vanishing.
“Thank you, my dear,” Ryan thanked his second-in-command. “Your faith in me shall be rewarded.”
Sarin responded with what could pass for a shrug. “Remember your promise, or I’ll haunt you. I swear, I’ll find a way to come back.”
“I swear to repeat my term in office, as many times as it takes to fulfill my campaign promises,” Ryan replied. “As long as people force me to keep power, I shall keep guiding you with my benevolent iron hand!”
The submarine’s hull opened like a box, a metal platform rising from within. Vulcan’s mech stood proudly at its center, with a worried Tea at her side.
“Shit, that’s even worse than I thought,” Vulcan said, upon noticing Mount Augustus.
The Doll, much more concerned, moved on to hug Len goodbye. “Take care,” she whispered. “I’ll pray for your success.”
“If I don’t come back… if I don’t come back, take care of the children,” Len whispered back, too low for the Meta to listen. Perhaps she thought there was a chance Ryan wouldn’t reload, for whatever reason. “They… they need someone.”
“I will,” Tea said before breaking the embrace, and immediately moving on to hold Ryan himself. “I will be providing tech support from afar. Don’t take too many risks, alright? Your life comes first.”
“Should you ask me not to take any risks then?”
“We both know you can’t help yourself,” the gynoid replied wisely before breaking the embrace. “Don’t let a building collapse on you again. I won’t be there to dig you out this time.”
“Nah, don’t worry, we’ll take the stairway.”
The plan of attack was relatively simple. Mosquito would carry Ryan and Len to attack from above, while the minions attacked the building from below. Acid Rain would provide cover with her weather alteration, the Land would destroy most roads to delay enemy reinforcements, and Frank would simply force a path inside. Everyone else would provide support.
As for what would happen once Ryan’s group reached Lab Sixty-Six… it would be mostly improvisation, but the President believed in himself.
“Please take care of my cat in my absence,” the courier argued. “He’s a very precious creature.”
“There’s something you should know,” Vulcan warned, as she prepared to take flight and regroup with her gang. “My radars detected a spike of radiation west.”
Fallout. Dynamis recalled Fallout.
It made sense considering Hector’s fading star, but it would make the mission extraordinarily more difficult.
“How long until he gets here?” Ryan asked Vulcan.
“One, two hours,” she replied. “Can’t be sure.”
“Let’s make a new Chernobyl then,” Ryan said, his men chuckling. Sarin’s speech had infected them with what could pass for bravery.
The courier glanced at the Dynamis HQ on the horizon. “Now!” He addressed his troops. “Come with me, and take this tower!”
A chorus of shouts and roars echoed his proclamation.
Time to bury those daddy issues.