It was May 10th. Psyshock would attack the orphanage any minute now, and a rabbit had hanged himself in the kitchen.
“Come on…” Ryan muttered to himself in consternation. The world-destroyer had used a rope rather than warm intestines, but it had scared Little Sarah to death all the same. “You know it won’t work, right? I’ve tried.”
The plushie played dead.
The courier’s eyes wandered to the walls, covered in gunshots; an empty Beretta awaited on the kitchen’s table, alongside knives, Len’s antidepressants, and alcohol. Little Sarah had come to Ryan crying upon finding the rabbit in this state, and the time-traveler couldn’t blame her.
That wasn’t the first complaint he had received either. Another child had found the plushie in the disaffected shower room with a bucket of water, a bloody pentagram, and a jumper cable; though thankfully it didn’t steal that from Ryan’s car.
Somehow the courier found the plushie’s behavior even creepier than usual.
“What are you trying to achieve?” Ryan asked carefully, unsure how that pattern would progress. The beast no longer reproduced in the presence of children but no longer seemed to care about them either, which worried the courier.
An orphan walked into the kitchen, to find Ryan talking to a hanged rabbit. He looked at the time-traveler and then at the plushie, his face as blank as a Dynamis infomercial.
“It makes sense in context,” Ryan said.
The child walked away wordlessly.
Ryan looked back at the plushie’s big blue eyes, trying to figure out what happened. He remembered what his Elixir had told him, when he briefly entered the Black World.
The plushie didn’t understand death, so it killed others in an attempt to figure it out; or perhaps because it found it funny. But its inability to slay Lightning Butt had forced the monster to reevaluate its approach. It had decided to understand death by experiencing it.
The plushie was having a suicidal phase.
How long would it last? Ryan’s own lasted a while, and involved at least two plane crashes, one yacht, lasers, sharks, piranhas—and as it turned out, Spy movies had lied to him—giraffes, drug-fueled orgies, and one meteorite.
The courier’s hand instinctively moved to the pocket where he kept his A-bomb, and Ryan sighed in relief upon finding it safely in its place.
And then the plushie’s ears rose up in interest.
“No,” Ryan said, shielding his bomb like a maiden’s virginity. “No, don’t you dare.”
The plushie’s head turned to look at Ryan, glancing at his pocket.
In the end, the courier left the plushie hanging from the ceiling and wisely slithered out of the kitchen. He felt the dreadful creature’s gaze on his back even when he exited the room.
If only the courier could pull the off switch. The realization this terrible monster had been pretending it worked all along had crushed all of Ryan’s hope of containing it. He thought of all the time he put the plushie on a shelf, thinking himself safe. Even when he and Jasmine—
Oh gods, it had been watching all along.
Ryan exited the orphanage through the front door on this terrible realization, his heart filled with dread and horror. Happy memories had suddenly turned dark and grim. “Riri,” Len said, awaiting him outside in full power armor. “I… I have something for you.”
She tossed him a handheld version of her water rifle, which Ryan gladly accepted. The Meta-Gang’s minibus had reached the courtyard.
The courier didn’t shoot at it on sight this time around, and instead waited for its passengers to step out. Mongrel, more beast than man; Mosquito, utterly anemic without the special blood juice which Ryan provided him in the last loop; and Psyshock, whose mere presence infuriated the time-traveler.
“Hey, Psypsy,” Ryan ‘greeted’ the Meta-Gang’s members, while Len’s fingers tensed on her rifle’s trigger. “I know you won’t care, but the kids here are underage. They’re way too old for you.”
“Little Cesare,” Psyshock replied, Mosquito cracking his knuckles and Mongrel letting out a bestial hiss. “And is that Little Len too? I could recognize her work anywhere. Is your father joining us from beyond the grave too?”
Len remained as silent as a grave, and Ryan couldn’t help but flinch. He already heard Psyshock say those exact words before, but they hit much harder now.
The telepath didn’t remember the previous loop, and since he hadn’t adjusted his behavior either, then Big Fat Adam was certainly alive again. Ryan would have preferred both of them buried for good, but it meant he could predict their behavior.
“Not yet,” Ryan replied, raising his water rifle. “I’m afraid this place is invitation-only. If you take another step, I will have to show you the door, face first.”
Psyshock’s tone turned vicious. “You were not so brave during our last—”
Ryan activated his power, shot both Mosquito and Mongrel with the water rifle in the frozen time, tossed his weapon, and grabbed a Bliss inhaler hidden beneath his trenchcoat.
“Encoun—” Psypsy didn’t finish his sentence, as Ryan applied the inhaler to his face and pumped his brain full of drugs. From the telepath’s point of view, the courier appeared to have teleported in front of him. Giant water bubbles had captured his allies, quickly drowning them into unconsciousness.
Tentacles wriggled free out of Psyshock’s clothes, revealing his true monstrous self, but the drug acted quicker. The telepath’s limbs trashed around like beheaded snakes while he collapsed to the ground, his brain overwhelmed by Bliss. Soon Psyshock went limp, liquid dripping from his inhuman skull.
The whole conflict had lasted half a minute.
“I prefer to make my fights fun and relaxing, like smelling flowers in a park, but you’re an exception,” Ryan said before kicking the helpless Psyshock. “You really overstayed your welcome.”
He was saving himself for Wardrobe anyway.
“That was quick,” a new voice said. Ryan didn’t even turn around, as Shroud appeared at his side. “I see you rehearsed.”
“About that, Shortie, you modified the oxygen supply as I asked?” Ryan pointed a finger at Mosquito, who struggled to stay conscious in the water prison. “Bugs and water don’t mesh well.”
“I… yes, I did. He shouldn’t get brain damage.” Len glanced at Shroud, leaving the next part of her sentence unsaid: this time.
The next member of Quicksave’s Avengers arrived while driving a fearsome bicycle, honking to intimidate his foes. The Monster of the East had come to lay waste to Psychos and evildoers alike, to bathe his fur in their blood.
“Is the Panda on time?” Timmy said as he abruptly stopped his vehicle near the Meta-Gang’s minibus, ready for battle. “He will save the day!”
“You’re a bit late for that round, my young Pandawan,” Ryan replied, patting the manbear on the shoulder. “But you’re early for the main course.”
“Oh, so we’ll eat before defeating bad guys?”
“We shall eat, yes,” Ryan raised a fist to the heavens. “We shall eat villains’ dreams and drink their tears.”
“I-I understand, Sifu!”
“What can he do?” Shroud asked, glancing at the Panda with clear skepticism.
“He can transform into the most powerful creature on Earth,” Ryan boasted on his apprentice’s behalf. “I thought he would be a good addition to your traveling circus.”
“T-that’s right!” The Panda nodded sheepishly. “I… the Panda doesn’t have much work experience, but it would be an honor to serve with the Carnival, sir!”
“You will learn,” Shroud replied with a shrug. “It’s not skills that make a hero, it’s the heart. You can pick up the first through time and effort, the second not so much.”
Ryan had half-expected the silicanetic to look down on the Panda like Enrique did, and was pleasantly surprised. Then again, the Carnival had a tremendously high rate of turnover, so they couldn’t afford to turn down volunteers. The mere idea of joining this illustrious group of heroes invigorated the Panda, the manbear ready to take names and prove his worth.
“How many more are we waiting for?” Len asked Ryan.
“Two more.” Ryan had considered bringing Atom Kitty to the party too, but putting him, his sister, and Livia in the same team was bound to backfire. At this point, Felix was too scornful of his family to stand them. “Afterwards, drug bust, and we haul everyone we catch to jail.”
“There is no need to keep them prisoner,” Shroud said while glancing at the captured Meta-Gang members. “They are Psychos and murderers, nobody will blame you for putting them down.”
“Putting them down?” The Panda asked, suddenly a lot less enthusiastic.
“We’ll bring them in by the book,” Ryan reassured his young Pandawan. “By the book.”
“And how do you intend to imprison Psychos?” Shroud asked with heavy sarcasm. “They have unique powers. Sarin and Frank the Mad in particular will destroy any jail they’re put into.”
Those two Ryan could turn around, and he had a solution for the rest. “Not if the prison is located twenty leagues under the sea.”
Mr. Looking Glass immediately caught on and glanced at Shortie. “Your underwater base?”
“I cut off some of the habitats from my sanctuary,” Len explained with a nod. “They’re, they’re self-sustaining, but isolated. Like an… an underwater asylum.”
“Unless they can turn into fish, the prisoners won’t swim far before the pressure crushes them,” Ryan said. “We can try to rehabilitate people before putting them six feet under, Glass Cowboy.”
“Even Adam the Ogre?” Shroud deadpanned.
“Now, don’t be silly. Whalie will be extradited to Monaco.” With luck, the staff would appropriately eat him and call it karma.
“Psychos cannot be cured,” the vigilante said, before crossing his arms in doubt. Perhaps he had guessed Ryan had a plan to change that, though he couldn’t tell just yet. “Unless you can pull off a miracle.”
“I’m… I’m not so sure either, Riri,” Len said. “But… well, imprisonment is always better than killing. That won’t change.”
Shroud suddenly turned invisible much to the Panda’s surprise, as the sound of a new car echoed in the distance.
Livia’s group arrived in a platinum version of Pluto’s Lamborghini driven by Cancel. Livia and Fortuna sat at the back. The former wore her Queen Crimson costume, without the helmet but with a new, white cat-themed necktie; the latter used a tight, white latex catsuit that only enhanced her curvaceous form and meshed well with her golden hair.
The sight of two Genomes in fashionable costumes restored Ryan’s faith in humanity.
“Livia, Fortuna,” the courier greeted his favorite ladies as they exited the car, before waving a hand at Cancel. “Oh hi, Greta!”
“Hi, nice to meet you!” the budding sociopath replied with the same cheery tone as the courier. “So, whom do I kill today?”
“That one, Cancel,” Livia said while nodding at the unconscious Psyshock, before greeting everyone else with a warm smile. “Ryan, Len, Mr. Panda.”
“I… hello.” Len wasn’t sure how to answer. Though Ryan couldn’t see her face beneath her power armor’s helmet, she probably examined Livia with mistrust. Shroud’s disappearance didn’t help matters; considering he hadn’t turned visible again, he must have learned of Cancel’s range and stayed out of it.
“Y-you know the Panda?” Timmy hyperventilated at people recognizing him.
“Not before Livy told me about you,” Fortuna admitted, though she couldn’t resist a black and white bear’s charm. “I looove pandas though, they’re so fluffy. I had a stuffed doll of one when I was a child.”
“The Panda is very cuddly in his natural form too,” the manbear replied with a friendly nod. “His fur is soft and perfumed.”
“Aw, he’s drugged out,” Cancel complained as she examined Psyshock. “I prefer it when they see what’s coming.”
“You mean…” The Panda gulped, suddenly a lot less enthusiastic. “You mean death?”
“Yes, death,” Greta replied as if it were obvious. “People are only genuine when they die. It’s only when I kill meanies that I build a real human connection with them. You should try it out sometimes.”
Ryan noticed the Lamborghini’s windows cracking at the edge, though it was barely noticeable.
“He can brainwash and take over others’ bodies, and getting rid of him is the only way to save his victims,” Ryan told the disturbed Panda. “Sometimes, a hero must get his hands dirty.”
Well, truth be told, there were probably non-lethal ways to cure Psyshock’s thralls, but the time-traveler didn’t care about them. The brainjacker and his boss were the strongest arguments for the death penalty the courier had ever seen, and would receive no mercy from him.
“Wait for my signal to execute him,” Livia ordered Cancel. “We will deal with the rest shortly.”
“As you wish, boss!” Greta replied, a hand on her waist. “You’re sure you don’t need more backup? The neighborhood isn’t safe.”
“Fortuna will take care of me,” Livia replied with a smile, before glancing at Ryan. “As will this shining knight.”
“I left my armor in storage, unfortunately,” Ryan replied.
“Let’s recover it then.”
Cancel pulled Psyshock’s body in the Lamborghini and drove away afterward, but not before Livia picked up her helmet from the car’s chest. The seer waited for the hitman to leave, to turn and look at an empty spot. “I can see you.”
Shroud dropped his invisibility to Fortuna’s surprise, and took his anger out on Ryan. “You want us to cooperate with his daughter?”
“My father doesn’t know anything about this plan,” Livia replied with a cold frown. “And he will not.”
“This changes little,” the vigilante stated. “I do not appreciate dealing with the heir of a drug-running empire.”
“Nor do I appreciate you dating my best friend and lying to her,” the Augusti princess replied icily, the glass telekinetic flinching upon realizing that she knew his secret identity. “But we all have to make compromises for the greater good.”
“Your best friend?” Fortuna scowled. “Livy, you like someone more than me?”
Shroud seemed to suppress the urge to put a hand on his helmet, while Livia reassured the oblivious Fortuna by warmly taking her hand into her own. “Of course not,” she said, “you are more than a friend to me. You are almost a sister.”
“And we would have been if Felix hadn’t treated you like crap,” the blonde replied angrily. “I swear, next time I see my brother I will clout him on his thick head!”
Shroud crossed his arms. “Why would you cooperate with us on this?”
“The same reason as you,” Livia answered. “To protect this city from destruction.”
“D-destruction?” The Panda asked, suddenly uneasy.
“About that, Livy, what are we here for?” Fortuna asked her best friend. “I haven’t mentioned this secret mission to anyone else, not even Narcinia, but I want to know.”
Shroud looked at Fortuna with a hint of scorn. “You came all the way here not knowing why?”
“Well, Livy is my dearest friend,” she replied confidently. “If a friend needs help, you give it no questions asked.”
This made Shroud shut up, and he seemed to look at Fortuna with a brand new perspective. Ryan wondered if he was starting to see the good qualities in Lucky Girl, just as the courier did in a previous loop. If only she wasn’t so vain, the courier might have dated her seriously.
“The Meta-Gang has found a cache of Mechron weapons,” Livia explained. “They intend to use it to destroy New Rome, and we must stop them.”
For a moment, neither Fortuna nor the Panda seemed to have understood what she said. The Panda looked at Ryan for confirmation, while Fortuna glanced at Livia as if she were joking. “Mechron? The Mechron?” she asked. “You’re joking, right? Livy, we’re in May, April is long gone.”
“I am not joking Fortuna,” Livia replied. “That is why the Meta-Gang thought they could take our families on.”
“Oh.” Fortuna blinked a few more times, before panicking. “Wait, why just the two of us?! We should tell your father!”
“So he can get his hands on Mechron’s weapons?” Shroud asked, less than thrilled by the prospect.
“Better than Psychos!” Fortuna replied. “I heard they eat people!”
“I have seen the future, Fortuna,” Livia said calmly. “That technology will cause harm no matter who gets it. It has to go. If anyone but us knows, it will find its way into the wrong hands.”
“I…” Fortuna scratched the back of her head. “You’re sure about this, Livy?”
Livia nodded gravely, and Shroud found his tongue again. “So this is a temporary alliance until the Mechron base’s threat is dealt with,” he stated. “We agree to destroy it together, and then it’s business as usual.”
“Yes,” the Augusti princess said with a nod. “Afterward, we will discuss what you came to New Rome for, and see if we can reach a diplomatic solution.”
Ryan said nothing, trying to make these two get along on their own. Thankfully, though he was ruthless when the situation called for it, Looking Glass would prefer something else than total war. “Everything rests on this mission,” he said.
“Alright, Livy. You’re the one who can see the future, so I won’t tell a tale.” Fortuna grinned ear to ear. “My power will guide us to victory.”
Ryan glanced at Len and the Panda, who had remained silent so far. “So, ready to clean up the trash?”
“This… this is everything the Panda trained for, all his life.” Instead of being crushed by the weight of the situation, the manbear had risen to the occasion. “This is the moment of truth!”
“They… they tried to take the children,” Len said, shaking her head. “They have to go, before they come back.”
“The children?” Fortuna glanced at the orphanage, noticing children looking through the windows at them. “Oh my gosh, and here I thought it was a dog shelter!”
“It’s both,” Shroud replied, before snickering. “Perhaps you could offer your next lottery winnings to those who need it.”
“That’s a wonderful idea!” Fortuna replied with enthusiasm, much to the translucent vigilante’s surprise. “By the way, have we met before? Your voice sounds familiar.”
Shroud’s tone turned drastically deeper. It reminded Ryan of Christian Bale having a cough. “Unlikely.”
Livia decided to switch the subject to something lighter, and instead smiled at a handsome courier with a hand on her chest. “Do you like this necktie more than the other one, Ryan?”
“You are perfect,” Ryan reassured her, before glaring at Fortuna. “Unlike the fashion disaster here. She doesn’t even wear a mask!”
“Excuse you? I have a fashionable piece to go along with my costume, thank you very much!” And on these words, Fortuna put a golden domino mask on her beautiful face. “Ta-da!”
Though the color did mesh well with her hair and clothes, Ryan wasn’t impressed. “Clark Kent, that mask doesn’t hide anything.”
“Of course it doesn’t!” She sounded almost proud of it too, putting a hand in her hair. “Look at me. Look at me. It would be cruel to deny our foes the ecstasy of my beauty, especially since this would be the last thing they ever see!”
“They’ll probably go blind from the horror,” Ryan deadpanned, Shroud chuckling in response.
“H-how dare you!” Fortuna put her hands on her waist, furious. “Be glad I am taken, if you had been my boyfriend I would have made you invite me for dinner to apologize.”
Ryan grinned behind his mask. “You are taken?”
“I have found the one,” Fortuna boasted. “The perfect gentleman.”
Shroud looked really uncomfortable, so Ryan decided to tease him further. “Do you have a photo of the victim?” he asked Fortuna.
“Of course!” Lucky Girl showed the group a photo of a sour Mathias Martel on her cellphone. The poor game designer looked as if he had been dragged in front of the camera by force. “Isn’t he the cutest?”
“Oh yes, he’s a very transparent person,” Ryan said with a nod. “You see it on his face.”
“His eyes are a window into his soul,” Livia added with a giggle, while Shroud did his best to ignore them.
The Panda, who didn’t know better, spoke his mind, “He doesn’t look very happy.”
“Because he doesn’t understand we’re meant to be together, but he will,” Fortuna said while putting back her cell phone in one of her catsuit’s pockets. “It’s fate.”
Ryan would have pitied Mathias, but better him than the courier. If the time-traveler had interfered in the previous days, then that golden retriever would have targeted him instead. “Time is running out,” Shroud complained, while Len agreed with a nod.
“I have timed everything based on the information Ryan provided,” Livia said. “Once Greta slays Psyshock, the Meta-Gang will go on high alert. It has to happen at the moment we attack the Junkyard, to deny Adam the Ogre time to prepare and maximize confusion in his ranks.”
“She made the plan?” Shroud asked Ryan, incensed.
“We did,” the courier replied with a shrug. “Hey, you wanted a seer, we have one.”
Looking Glass’ dislike was clear, but he had committed to this course of action and swallowed his pride. “We will destroy the Meta-Gang’s base after we finish,” he said. “I won’t take any risk of their technology ending in the wrong hands.”
“That is the plan,” Livia replied aloofly. “Len will attack from the water access, while we distract from the front. I will debrief you on the way to the Junkyard.”
“How far ahead have you planned?” Ryan asked his former first lady.
“Up until we move inside, afterward… afterward things become more difficult, especially since I still can’t see you.” Livia put a hand on her waist, which made her look glamorous. “Surprise me, Quicksave.”
“Leave it to me, Livy,” Fortuna said with a smirk. “None of these mutants are getting anywhere near you, I swear.”
Ryan had long pondered how to break into Mechron’s mainframe, realizing it would either take an ungodly amount of loops and memorization, or an army taking huge casualties.
Instead, he chose a third option: bringing in a living cheat code.
From what Ryan knew of Elixirs, he had assumed that Lucky Girl’s worked as a guardian angel, influencing events around the spoiled brat to make her happier. Perhaps it thought that Shroud would make the perfect match for Fortuna… or more probably making the vigilante fall in love with her would put her off the Carnival’s radar.
The courier wondered how far Yellow Elixirs could see in time. Fortuna’s power had limits since Ryan and other Yellow Genomes could counter it, but it was pretty damn powerful.
The only true obstacle among the Meta for Fortuna would be the Land. The terrakinetic had already slain Lucky Girl once before, so Ryan wasn’t in a hurry to see it happen again, but Livia seemed to have a plan to deal with her.
After this exchange, the group separated. Len dragged the captive Mosquito and Mongrel inside the orphanage, to put them in an automated bathysphere and then move on to Mechron’s bunker next. Ryan, the Panda, Livia and Fortuna boarded the Plymouth Fury, while Shroud flew above them. The courier smashed the accelerator, ready to bring the fight to the Meta-Gang.
And his car refused to move.
After a few fruitless attempts, Ryan turned around to glare at Fortuna.
“W-why are you looking at me like that?” the oblivious blonde protested. “It’s not my fault if you’re too poor to buy a Ferrari!”
“You don’t insult my car.” Ryan raised a threatening finger at her. “I’ve blown up cities for less!”
“Did you?” Livia and the Panda asked at the same time, the former more curious than surprised.
“If you even ask, then you don’t know me enough.” Ryan glanced out of his window, looking up at Shroud. “Translucent.”
The vigilante froze in midair. “No.”
“Yes. Sit in the back.”
“No,” he repeated. “Find another car.”
Ryan gave the vigilante ‘the look,’ until he gave in.
In the end, Fortuna happily sat in the backseat’s middle, an angry Shroud on one side and an amused Livia on the other. A happy and determined Panda sat at the front next to Ryan while he turned on the car.
This time, the Plymouth Fury worked again, and Livia couldn't stop chuckling.
There was no escape.