Atom Smasher wasn’t one for words, so he went straight for the kill.
His glowing hands unleashed a stream of red particles at the presidential guard. Sarin reacted quickly enough to retaliate with a shockwave, the blasts colliding in the middle of the room. The resulting explosion shattered all the Knockoff bottles on the production line.
Ryan froze time, Black and Violet Flux floating out of his armor, as he dragged his allies away from an Elixir shower. Even if one half of his team wore armor and the other regularly dosed on the juice, any drop seeping through a crack would ruin everything.
The courier always knew a fight with Fallout was a possibility, so he prepared accordingly. His and Len’s suits had been reinforced against heat and radiation, enough that they could survive sustained exposure; the Saturn armor could probably survive a close encounter with Leo Hargraves. And as he guessed, Sarin’s shockwaves could match the nuclear cyborg’s weaker particle beams, probably since they both drew energy from the Red Dimension.
However, Fallout had shown in Malta that his power could rival an A-bomb. While he shouldn’t go all-out in his main laboratory, Ryan had no idea how far his abilities and durability extended. Neither did he find blueprints of the cyborg’s armor in Dynamis’ database, nor a way to hack it.
But Ryan loved challenges, and he had a few tricks up his sleeve.
When time resumed, the production line was drenched in multicolored fluids. The robotic arms preparing the bottles had short-circuited, though the power armors in the room kept working.
“We should have killed you both years ago.” Alphonse Manada aimed his right arm’s energy minigun at Len and Ryan. “Completed the family set. I had the gut feeling you would prove troublesome.”
“You already killed us once,” Shortie replied, raising her water rifle. “This… this is payback.”
Len and Sarin attacked Fallout before he could open fire, the former with a stream of pressurized water, the other with a shockwave. Alphonse raised his left hand and expanded a shield of crimson particles outward from it, protecting himself. He then opened fire with his minigun, unleashing a volley of plasma shots.
What the weapon lacked in accuracy, it more than made up in firepower. The projectiles tore through walls and machines like butter, forcing everyone to dodge. Mongrel and Shortie managed to duck out of the way, but Ryan had to freeze time to spare Sarin five holes in her suit. “You know, if I keep saving you, people will start talking,” Ryan told his damsel in distress once time resumed.
“Don’t focus on me, take down that jackass!” his VP snarled back. “I don’t need help!”
Mongrel used an aerokinetic blast to propel himself towards the ceiling, and then threw a fireball past Fallout’s particle shield from his vantage point. The flames heated up the metal armor, but failed to inflict any damage while Alphonse slowly stepped forward. The reinforced walls were starting to look like cheese.
“Minions, keep him busy,” Ryan ordered his troops, while he dashed forward. Shockwaves, flames, and pressurized water forced Fallout to raise his shield, leaving his back exposed.
The courier stopped time and a purple phantom raced after him. Ryan crossed dozens of meters in a dash, dodging plasma bolts frozen in midair as he tried to figure out a plan. One of his devices could probably take down the nuclear disaster, but the cyborg’s power armor might have a countermeasure. The group needed to soften Fallout up first.
The courier bent a corner around the room, the ghost of the future past gaining ground on him. But it was nowhere close to catching up.
Ryan positioned himself behind Fallout, his feet anchored in the ground.
The ghost almost reached Ryan before the courier unpaused time. He activated his armor’s chest blaster, unleashing a searing white burst of energy from it.
As Vulcan warned, the recoil almost threw Ryan on his back. The intense heat created a bubble of compressed air around the cannon that pushed him backward, but the armor’s servos held. His cashmere poncho, however, turned to dust; another victim of this bloody, senseless war!
The blast hit Alphonse Manada in the back and propelled him forward like a cannonball, the impact tearing the minigun from his arm. Ryan’s teammates dodged out of the way as he crashed into the reinforced door. Already weakened by the minigun fire, most of the wall collapsed and Fallout continued his flight into the next room.
Ryan let out a cough, his chest burning. It came from the heart, as they said.
“Nice shot,” Sarin mused. “Is that what a drone strike looks like?”
“Sometimes, a leader must get his hands dirty,” Ryan replied.
“He’s not dead yet,” Len warned as she stepped into the next room, right before letting out a horrified wail. The rest of the group quickly followed, and froze.
The next room contained an entire factory so large, the ceiling probably took space from the floor above. A maze of machinery and tangled pipes formed the next part of the assembly lines, bordered by a catwalk wide enough to let a battalion walk in formation; Ryan guessed that this allowed groups of soldiers to take positions in case of an emergency. Strange devices covered in bulbs and flashing lights thrummed as they vomited Knockoff Elixirs. The usual mad scientist lair, in short.
The sight that awaited them made even Ryan, who had grown jaded to everything, pause for a moment.
A dozen naked humans floated in glass containers above the production line, like lightbulbs atop metal altars. Tubes injected thick red blood into their back intravenously, and others pumped out Elixir-colored liquids into the machinery. Ryan’s eyes stopped at the closest prisoner to the entrance, a muscled woman with black hair and white dragon scales growing on her neck.
Ryan also noticed a carbon copy of Devilry, and a feathered man which he identified as Windsweep, the Tempest Knockoff’s template. Others the courier didn’t recognize, but one pod contained a half-formed embryo of a panda-human hybrid.
They were modified clones of the Knockoff’s templates, transformed into living organ processors. Bloodstream’s fluids passed into them, absorbing their genetic material before being processed into Knockoffs.
“Shit…” Sarin said, unable to take her eyes off the clones.
Mongrel had a similar reaction. “I’ve been drinking people?”
Len’s hands trembled on her water rifle, her gaze following the blood. The pipes funneling it into the clones traveled through the walls, and towards another room behind a reinforced door.
The scaly Doctor Tyrano worked behind a large control panel near the cloning pods, his reptilian claws typing on a special keyboard adapted to his saurian biology. He briefly looked up his screen at the people invading his laboratory, but his reptilian expression was one of supreme disinterest.
“I’m busy,” Dr. Tyrano said while returning to his computer. He even ignored Fallout, who had landed on the catwalk and quickly risen to his feet. “Take it outside and come back later. I’m on the verge of a breakthrough!”
“You cloned the Panda!” Ryan raised an accusing finger at the scientist. “You maniac!”
“Blame the kids’ division!” he replied while continuing to type. “They’re obsessed with furry mammals!”
“You… you twisted...” Len snarled at Alphonse Manada. Crimson particles flowed out of the cyborg’s back, right where Ryan hit him before. “All of that… all of that pain, for a fistful of euros?”
“It’s all for the dream.” Alphonse shrugged off fireballs thrown by Mongrel, his metal shoulders opening to reveal rocket launchers. “All for the dream.”
Fallout fired a dozen rockets, clearly no longer caring about collateral damage. Ryan attempted to stop time, but immediately canceled the effect when his past self appeared in very close proximity. The armor extended his time stop, but also his cooldown period.
The president activated the suit’s laser weapons while shielding Len with his body, Sarin assisting him in blowing up the projectiles before they could reach them. While they avoided a direct hit, stray shrapnel ripped holes in Sarin’s suit and Mongrel’s chest.
Explosions shook the lab as Alphonse’s projectiles hit the ceiling, the assembly line, and the cloning pods. One rocket incinerated the Panda’s misshapen duplicate, while another damaged the pipes and caused blood to drip onto the catwalk. Though Len’s armor was undamaged, she looked at the red fluid with fear and disgust.
“Stop, Mr. Vice-President!” Tyrano shouted at Alphonse, diving beneath his control panel to avoid a rocket. “You’ll destroy the laboratory!”
“I’ll stop when they’re dead!” Atom Smasher snarled back and kept firing. The entire floor trembled as rockets hit the ceiling and blew holes in the catwalk. The wounded Mongrel had to dive to the side to avoid another projectile, while Ryan took another to the chest; thankfully, the Saturn armor shrugged it off.
This made Ryan worry. The Architect designed Lab Sixty-Six to make sure the laboratory would survive even the building’s collapse, but she didn’t mention anything about internal structural damage.
When Fallout thankfully ran out of projectiles, he raised his shining hands in Len’s direction to blast her.
Having reached his cooldown period’s end, Ryan froze time and quickly punched Fallout in the glass dome protecting his head. Empowered by his armor’s enhanced strength, the blow cracked the reinforced glass, making the Dynamis cyborg stumble back. His particle beams instead hit the ceiling, melting the steel.
“This glass dome isn’t protecting me from you.”
Red particles so similar to Ryan’s own flew out of the crack in Fallout’s helmet. The crimson, shining skull behind it seemed to scowl and breath nuclear fire. The air around him shimmered with heat.
“I am the hand that splits the atom, the light that slays life.” His fists burnt with a crimson glow, a promise of death and cancer. “All that I touch withers, and dies.”
“Didn’t anyone tell you?” Ryan raised his fists, revealing the blades hidden in his forearms. “I’m immortal.”
Alphonse attempted to grab the courier’s head with his glowing hand, and he was surprisingly faster than he looked. Ryan deftly dodged and responded with a punch of his own, but to his surprise, Fallout managed to deflect the blow and counter with another.
“You know Krav Maga?” Ryan asked in disbelief, but the armored cyborg responded with a particle beam to the face. The courier lowered himself to dodge the attack. “Minion!”
“On it!” Powering through his injuries, Mongrel launched an aerokinetic blast of air at Fallout’s left knee, making the heavy colossus stumble. Ryan exploited the opening to ram his fist and blade through the cyborg’s helmet.
Though the glass dome shattered into tiny pieces, releasing red particles into the air, Ryan’s retractable blade also shattered upon hitting Fallout’s skull. Perhaps the courier’s previous clash with Wardrobe had weakened it.
Fallout exploited Ryan’s brief surprise to viciously headbutt him, his skull unleashing an energy pulse on impact. The courier’s vision flashed red for a moment as the shock sent him flying backward, but the Saturn armor resisted.
Ryan gathered his thoughts as he lay on the floor, his vision blurring due to what felt like a concussion. Alphonse Manada loomed over him while what remained of his glass helmet melted. A crimson nuclear fire erupted from inside the cyborg’s suit, making Fallout’s skull look like the Terminator emerging from the flames.
His hand reached for Ryan’s head, but a stream of pressurized water hit him from the side. The liquid heated up into steam at his contact, but offered the courier a brief respite.
“Riri, back off!” Len had moved behind Tyrano’s control panel, while Mongrel flanked Fallout with air blasts. Sarin herself still struggled to cover the holes in her suit. Her gas leaked out, rusting the machinery and even the floor.
Ignoring the minions’ attempts to distract him, Fallout raised his armored foot above Ryan’s head, and attempted to smash it beneath his heel. Of course, Ryan had patented this authoritative move, and took outrage.
The courier froze time, violently kicked Alphonse in the chest to make him stumble, and rolled away to safety. Unfortunately, even the time-stop didn’t shield the courier from Fallout’s radioactive presence, as the constant warning messages on his armor’s lenses attested. Just approaching that Chernobyl advertisement might kill a normal human in seconds, and a Genome in minutes. They needed to take him down now.
However, the courier noticed something interesting as he rose back to his feet. The Black Flux he produced devoured Fallout’s crimson variant, like black holes eating light.
Questions for later.
Deciding to use his trump card, Ryan opened a small compartment in the armor's backpack, a black sphere no bigger than a tennis ball coming out. The courier tossed it at Fallout, the projectile hitting him when time resumed.
The black sphere expanded the moment it hit the titan’s skull, transforming into biomechanical goo.
“What’s this?” Fallout snarled angrily, as the substance spread on his skin and armor. Though Ryan worried otherwise, the cyborg’s mechanical suit had no contingency to resist the hostile takeover. The goo repurposed its steel to make more of itself, restraining the Red Genome.
“Nanomachines, son!” Ryan gloated. Mechron had used them to extract material in radioactive, high-temperature areas, but the courier repurposed them as a capture device. After all, as a president, he had to fight against nuclear proliferation.
Within seconds, Fallout found himself encased in a black goo coffin; unable to move, unable to fire a beam. Dr. Tyrano dared to peek over his computer while Ryan’s group relaxed a little. Perhaps the device would prove just as effective against Augustus.
Then the Saturn armor sent an alarm message, as it noticed an abnormal heat increase.
“Override safeties,” Fallout snarled, his body producing more and more light. Though the goo attempted to fully cover him, light rays came out of small cracks, the air growing oppressive. “Override!”
Ryan’s suit sent alarm messages, as the heat around Fallout increased. “No, no!” he panicked, the nanomachines corroded by the sheer amount of Red Flux coming from the trapped Genome. “You will blow up the place if you continue!”
“But you will be dead!” Fallout answered angrily.
“Cool him off!” Ryan ordered his troops. “Cool him off!”
Len bathed Fallout with water, and Mongrel with pressurized air, but neither helped much. The lab’s fire sprinklers activated, but the liquid turned to steam before it even reached the cyborg.
Half a dozen cracks rapidly formed in the nanomachine coffin, particle beams leaking out. One hit Ryan in the chest with such intensity he could feel the heat through the armor, and another...
Another split Mongrel clean in half at what seemed like lightspeed.
Realizing the danger, Ryan froze time. He quickly dashed towards the agonizing Sarin, grabbed her by the parts of her suit without holes, and dived behind the assembly line for cover.
The nanomachines gave out when time resumed, melting into a charbroiled shell. More stray particle beams came out of Fallout’s body, shattering the prison from within, cutting lines in the ceiling and the catwalk. Metal plates fell from above, the whole place collapsing. “Sir, calm down!” Ryan heard Dr. Tyrano shouting from his hiding spot. “You’ll kill us all!”
Perhaps the risk of harming his lead scientist calmed Fallout, for he stopped sending particle beams in all directions. Ryan peeked at the maddened Genome from his hiding spot.
Alphonse Manada had shed the nanomachines, his armor, and his humanity. He had turned into a blackened skeleton surrounded by incandescent flames and Red Flux particles. He had become a raging nuclear hazard, the ground melting beneath his feet.
“Come out, Quicksave!” Fallout’s voice now boomed like the heart of a burning star, as he looked for the president. “Come out and fight!”
He was like Hargraves, and just as durable.
The realization sent a shiver down Ryan’s spine, as he realized he had drastically underestimated Dynamis’ ace-in-the-hole; Fallout could have vaporized the group alongside the entire building, if he didn't risk destroying his own HQ. The courier should have asked Mechron’s AIs to develop a superweapon to take that living A-bomb down.
“Anything else that can kill him?” Sarin whispered at Ryan’s side, leaking out so much that her suit had flattened at the fingers. The courier had to stay a few meters away to prevent her from corroding his armor.
“None that won’t risk killing everyone here,” Ryan admitted, only to hear footsteps echo from the previous room. Unless...
Who needed a secret weapon, when they had a secret agent?
Frank had managed to climb up the elevator shaft and walked into the laboratory, his body absorbing machinery pieces on contact. The giant glanced at Alphonse Manada’s otherworldly redness, and immediately put the two and two together.
“A Soviet Mexican!” Frank let out a roar of pure patriotism. “I knew it was all connected!”
He had uncovered the true conspiracy behind everything.
Alphonse blasted Frank with streams of red particles, melting the metallic giant’s outer layers. The nuclear Genome didn’t even need to use his hands anymore; his chest, his mouth, his entire body emitted energy in any direction he wished.
Yet as a true American badass, Frank powered through the radiation and tackled Alphonse like a football player. Both colossi crashed into the wreckage of the Wyvern clone’s pod, trading blows powerful enough to shake the room. For a moment, Ryan hoped that his bodyguard might turn the tide.
But for all his might, Frank’s metal hands softened whenever they hit Fallout. The heat was too intense, and the Red Genome’s unique biology granted him heightened resilience. Much like Mr. Sunshine, Alphonse Manada had become something more than human; a living nuclear core.
And the factory’s ceiling kept raining metal panels.
“Stand still!” Ryan told Sarin, as he gestured at Len from across the room to stay hidden. “We’ve got to run before the ceiling collapse on ou—”
“Don’t waste time with us,” Hazmat Girl replied with a grunt. Frank let out a pained growl, as Fallout grabbed his metal head and started to melt it. “You go. You and your girlfriend.”
“The cure!” Sarin shouted from behind the assembly line and blasted Fallout off Frank with a shockwave. The radioactive Genome bled light and the sustained blast made him stumble, but it didn’t throw him off balance. “You need the data inside this place? Then take it while we keep him busy!”
“That’s suicide!” Ryan protested, assisting her by firing his chest laser at Fallout. The Red Genome formed a shield of crimson particles around himself, while Frank regained his footing. “You’ll get buried alive, if he doesn’t kill you first!”
“Now that Mongrel is dead…” Hazmat Girl briefly glanced at her ally’s corpse, and the possibilities his Elixir represented. “Now that he’s gone, none of this matters anymore. If that cancer advertisement kills you… if he kills you all of this was for nothing.”
She had accepted this loop was a lost cause.
“Your life matters!” Ryan protested, but almost stumbled as the ground trembled. The constant explosions had fragilized the factory’s foundations. “Sarin, don’t—”
“That’s not my name, jackass!” she snarled. “Why won’t you leave?”
“Because I’m not Adam!” Though the Meta were assholes… though he made use of them for his own objectives, Ryan couldn’t let them sacrifice themselves for him. “I promised I would help, and I still can!”
As long as they lived, they could find a way. Whether in Antarctica or somewhere else.
Sarin looked at Ryan in surprise, unable to say a word for a few seconds. But in the end, she had made her decision. “Then remember your vow next time around.”
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat, his fists clenching. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Your real name?”
She looked at Fallout. “Bianca.”
She dashed at him like a suicide bomber, while Ryan looked away as another friend went on to die for him.
No matter how many loops, that part never got any easier.
“Next time, I’ll save you,” he swore to himself, before freezing time. Regrouping with Len, the courier immediately grabbed Dr. Tyrano and slammed him against his control panel when time resumed. The dinosaur looked at him in alarm, his breath short from the heat. “Open the door to the next room. Open it now.”
“Why wou—” Dr. Tyrano didn’t protest long, as Len put her water rifle against his chin. “Uh, you make a convincing argument.”
Ryan froze time again, carrying both Len and Tyrano across the room. He sent a glance at his allies, his heart freezing in his chest. Alphonse punched a hole inside a half-melted Frank’s chest, and a cloud of gas escaped from an empty hazmat suit. The ceiling below the shining Fallout had started to rust.
“Why?” Len asked when time resumed, the trio had reached the blast door to the next room. Her helmet turned to glance at the damaged pipes, and the blood flowing out of them. “Why did you turn my father… why did you make all these horrors?”
“What, the Knockoffs? This is but the first step of my plan!” Dr. Tyranno admitted while putting his hand on the door’s bioscanner, unlocking it. “I am refining the substance so that it can not only change the host’s species, but its entire biological class! From mammal, to reptile!”
Ryan instantly put the two and two together. “You can’t possibly mean—”
“Yes!” The Genius turned to look at them with maddened glee, as the door opened. “Soon, I will create a Knockoff Elixir that can permanently turn any human, INTO A DINOSAUR!”
Ryan looked at the deluded, scaled furry.
In hindsight, he should have expected such a motive.
“Consensually,” Dr. Tyrano added, almost as an afterthought. “Becoming a superior reptile should be a fundamental mammalian right.”
The courier wanted to hate him, but he loved dinosaurs too.
A loud crack echoed across the facility, as the ceiling finally collapsed. Ryan barely had the time to force Len and Tyrano inside a steel corridor, before tons of steel and concrete collapsed inside the Knockoff factory. Alphonse, Frank, and Sarin vanished from the courier’s sight as they were buried alive. Dust and smoke flowed inside the corridor, while debris closed the exit.
Ryan and Len exchanged a silent glance, none of them uttering a word.
The others had earned their minute of silence.
Ryan, Len, and Scalie reached the heart of the facility after a short walk, a large, dimly lit atrium of thick steel and concrete. An enormous mechanical aquarium stood at its center, linked to complex medical devices, pipes, tubes, and a computer system.
As for the fish swimming inside...
It was a true shoggoth, an eldritch blob more deformed than Darkling had ever been. A dark red, protoplasmic slime as large as a house; a shapeless, twisted amoeba with temporary eyes forming on its putrid surface. If that thing had once been human, one couldn’t tell so at first glance.
And yet in spite of everything, Ryan recognized him.
It was him, in all his bloody, mutated glory. His long-dead nightmare had risen from the ashes. Len dropped her water rifle at the floor, rushing to touch the glass with her hand. The blob’s eyes looked at his daughter, both reunited at last.
In the end, blood called to blood.