Ryan went straight for the killing blow.
“CIA!” His hand moved inside his trench coat, and brought out a fake badge he had prepared for this day. “Arrest this man! The senate impeached hi—”
Adam didn’t let him finish, and instead pressed his cannon’s trigger. A black sphere came out of it, forcing Ryan’s group to disperse. The courier instinctively dived down towards the Street Fighters arcade game, desperate to protect it, while Livia and the Panda moved to the other side.
Though the cannon’s black projectile moved slowly, it shredded the bunker’s metal walls like paper, absorbing anything in its path like a tiny black hole. Ryan briefly mistook it for a Black Flux weapon, but on a closer look, the projectile simply pulled things towards itself.
A gravity gun.
Did it have something to do with Dynamis’ secret weapon to deal with Augustus? Food for thought.
Sarin immediately followed her boss’ lead, unleashing a shockwave at Livia. The seer saw the attack coming before the Psycho even pulled the trigger, and stepped out of the way. The Panda let out a fearsome roar and charged at Big Fat Adam, claws extended.
“See?!” Ryan looked at Frank while waving his badge, who was slightly confused. “He doesn’t respect the democratic process!”
But to his surprise, Big Fat Adam happily played along. “See, that’s what I told you, Frank,” Hannifat Lecter said with joviality, before backhanding the Panda so hard the manbear tumbled backward. “The storm is here. The CIA is taking over, trying to kill me as they did with Kennedy. They slew my vice-president, like they’re going to kill all the senators.”
“They won’t get to you, Mr. President!” Frank swore, his fists raised so high that they hit the ceiling. “The White House will not fall!”
“You have to protect democracy, Frank,” Big Fat Adam continued to brainwash his bodyguard with a sinister, televangelist’s smile. “If you fail all is lost.”
Frank let out a roar of rage, grabbed the recreational area’s bar counter, and threw it at the Panda. The poor manbear couldn’t dodge, the heavy projectile exploding on contact. Though it didn’t kill the seven hundred kilos bear, it stopped him dead on his tracks, and allowed Frank the Mad to bull rush him. The whole atrium shook with every step of the iron giant.
The fatass had anticipated someone might use Frank’s delusion against him, and prepped him up accordingly. That damn, cunning bloody bastard...
“You know, of all the foes I’ve fought in my long life, you’re probably one of the most dangerous,” Ryan confessed to Adam. Augustus was far more powerful, but Hannifat Lecter more than compensated in cunning and sheer depravity. “And that’s really saying something.”
“What can I say, mate? If a man is a man, he knows what he wants and gets it. And what I want,” He raised his gravity cannon at Ryan, “is to make you squirm.”
Ryan stopped time, the projectile stopping in midair. Good, a Black Flux weapon would have still worked.
Speaking of Black Flux, Ryan rushed at the false president to introduce him to his minority’s rights. Tossing his false CIA badge aside, the courier punched the cannibal in his stomach. Having managed to rattle Augustus in the previous loop, Ryan expected to inflict some damage. Big Fat Adam’s carbon skin was way less resistant than Lightning Butt’s body, as the latter tore through the former like butter.
The Ogre didn’t even flinch. If anything, the blow seemed to damage Fisty’s pistons more than the Meta-Gang’s leader.
Why? Why didn’t it work? Had his encounter with Lightning Butt been a fluke? Had Ryan only managed to hurt Augustus because the Plushie softened him up first?
Unless… unless Ryan needed to focus his powers first? The courier could only produce visible Black Flux particles while wearing the power armor, after all.
“I need the Saturn armor to use that power?” Ryan muttered to himself, right before time resumed. Hannifat Lecter’s projectile demolished the Street Fighters game, much to the courier’s dismay. “The arcade!”
This was it, if his Plymouth Fury getting drowned in garbage hadn’t ruined this run, that tragedy did!
“You tell me, mate,” Big Fat Adam replied, wielding his cannon with one hand and trying to smash Ryan with his other fist. He didn’t have time to do much, as a coil gun shot him in the left eye, blowing it up in a brief shower of blood. “Argh!”
Ryan took the opportunity to leap back to safety, glancing at his savior. “Thanks, I guess the two of you didn’t see eye to eye.”
“Oh, right, I’m supposed to quip,” Livia said, wielding the coil gun and aiming to finish Big Fat Adam’s bullet surgery. “Anyone in favor of safety glasses, say ‘eye’!”
Ryan groaned, but forgave her weak pun-fu.
She fired another projectile at One-Eye Adam, but he protected his face with his hand. The bullet bounced off his carbon skin, though it pushed his palm back slightly. “Sarin!” he snarled, trying to wipe the blood off his face. “Kill that one!”
Sarin unleashed a shockwave at Livia. Though she failed to hit the Augusti princess, her assault forced Livia to fall back to behind the ruins of the bar counter. The Panda wasn’t in a better position, the much bigger Frank having tossed him against one of the atrium’s walls.
Hazmat Girl turned at Ryan to blast him, and the courier decided to use his secret weapon.
Sarin froze in place.
“Your boss isn’t working to find a cure, but I am,” Ryan pleaded, a hand extended. “We can make you human again.”
She unleashed a shockwave, and he dodged by leaping to the side. “Are you a Blue or some shit?” Sarin asked angrily. “A telepath reading my brain?”
“You’ve got air for neurons, how could I read it?” Ryan asked, though all it did was infuriate the Psycho. “You must have seen it too. He’s throwing you at this base’s orbital command center, not at the Elixir labs!”
“He’s distracting you,” Adam said after wiping off the blood from his face. His only remaining eye glared with malevolence as he raised his gravity gun at Livia’s hiding spot. “Don’t listen and power through.”
“It’s true,” Livia said from her hiding spot. “Ryan!”
Realizing her intention, Ryan rushed at Sarin, just as a chill went do—
Time skipped forward a few seconds, and when it resumed, Ryan had slammed Sarin to the ground. Holes had appeared where Livia used to hide, and where Hannifat Lecter’s remaining eye should have been. The cannibal screamed in pain, while Livia kept hitting his head with bullets; the Panda had managed to free himself from Frank’s grasp by returning to human form, and then shifting back into the powerful animal.
“Look outside, we aren’t here to kill anyone!” Ryan told Sarin, before adding a caveat. “Except Psypsy and your boss, but they’re asses! The rest of you, we will cure!”
“Shut the hell up!” Sarin’s gauntlets vibrated, and she aimed for the courier’s head. A shockwave hit the ceiling, causing concrete and pipes to fall in the middle of the room.
“Think wisely, Bianca! You’ve been with him for years, and what does he have to show for it? Nothing! He doesn’t want to save anyone, and deep down you know it too! You think you will be able to return to a normal life as long as he’s around?”
“What chance is there to turn my life around at all?” she snarled, managing to kick him off her. Both rose back to their feet, with Hazmat Girl threatening to blast Ryan again. “Why would you care?”
“Because you don’t deserve this,” he argued, dodging another volley. “You don’t deserve to be trapped in that suit, unable to touch, to smell, to taste. You made a mistake when you took these Elixirs and you’ve paid for it ever since.”
“You don’t know what it feels to be me, jackass!” Sarin snarled back. “I don’t know how you can read my memories, but fuck off from them!”
She pointed her gauntlets at the ground to increase the size of her jumps, soaring above the room until she almost reached the ceiling. She bombarded Ryan from above with repeated short blasts, but the courier dodged each one. “I don’t want to hurt you, Bianca!” Ryan pleaded, showing one of the guns he kept in his trench coat. “I could breach your suit with a bullet in my sleep.”
“As if I would—” Ryan grabbed a weapon and shot her so fast, that she couldn’t even finish her sentence. The bullet grazed her mask, right near the point where it combined with the rest of the suit.
This time, when Sarin landed on the ground, she didn’t immediately attack. She touched her mask, and gazed silently at Ryan.
“It’s over for him,” the courier said, glancing at Adam. “But not for you. You can still survive this.”
“You don’t know me,” she said, “and you don’t know him either.”
“Oh, I do, and that’s why he will die. But it’s not too late for you.”
“Are you a white knight or some self-help shitstain?” Sarin let out a hiss of disgust. “Why should I even trust you?”
The courier answered by tossing the Fisty Brothers and his gun to the ground. Sarin flinched in response, perhaps expecting a trick, but all Ryan did was to raise his arms and put himself at her mercy.
“Bianca,” he said. “I’m your last chance. Your last, last chance at turning your life around. Don’t waste it.”
“I won’t,” Sarin replied, pointing her hands at his head. “I won’t waste the chance to wipe off that thick skull of yours.”
“You may slay me, but I have at my back a force you cannot hope to defeat,” Ryan bluffed. “You’ve been on the losing side long enough. You would rather die as Sarin... or live as Bianca?”
Sarin raised her vibrating gauntlets…
Her hands looked within an inch of opening fire, and her gas mask was as impenetrable as ever. Yet she didn’t attack. Ryan’s words had planted the seed of doubt in her mind, and now she didn’t know what to think.
Meanwhile, Livia ran out of bullets, tossing the coil gun aside.
“Head trauma, Ryan!” she shouted at the courier. Big Fat Adam had dropped his gravity gun, and the Augusti’s projectiles had slowly pushed him against the elevator’s doors. “His power only protects his skin, but not the organs beneath! If we keep hitting his head, he’ll get a concussion and bleed internally!”
“You’re Augustus’ girl,” Big Fat Adam rasped angrily, trying to detect her by sound. When he did, he lunged at her with nightmarish speed, mouth opened and hands raised. The blood flowing from his eyes made him look like a ghoul rising from the dead to devour the living. “I’ll send you back to your old man in pieces!”
Leaving Sarin to mull over her doubts, Ryan activated his power, caught Livia in the frozen time, and pulled her out of the way. Big Fat Adam’s sharp teeth closed on nothing but air, and Lightning Butt’s daughter instinctively grabbed the courier by the arm.
“You should stop doing that, princess,” Ryan teased her, her fingers holding him by the sleeve. “People will talk.”
“Let them,” Livia replied playfully. “You may rescue me as many times as you like.”
“Mr. President!” Frank tossed the wounded Panda aside and moved towards Livia and Ryan. “I’m coming!”
Instead of running away, Livia faced the titan and said two words.
For a moment, Ryan thought he had misheard, and so did Frank. The giant flinched, as if he had been stabbed in the heart.
“Your true name is Vladimir Khabarov,” Livia continued. “Not Frank.”
As Psypsy had said in a previous loop, Frank the Mad… Frank the Mad was no American.
He was Russian.
“This is communist propaganda!” Frank snarled, covering his head with his hand as if he could block Livia’s voice. “I was born in Arkansas, like Country Music!”
“Your family farm wasn’t in Arkansas.” Since Livia couldn’t hit the giant physically, she targeted his fragile mind. “It was in Novgorod. Your father wasn’t a cowboy, but a soviet, and he perished choking on stolen caviar.”
“Lies!” Frank snarled while raising his fist. He attempted to squash Ryan and Livia like bugs, but the courier froze time to move out of the way. The giant’s fist hit the floor, going through it like steel through paper.
Sarin chose this moment to pick a side. She blasted the ground below Frank, part of the floor collapsing below the giant’s weight. The self-hating colossus fell down the hole halfway, with only his torso sticking up. He attempted to raise himself up, to no avail.
“Sifu, get down!”
Ryan turned around, to see that Big Fat Adam had recovered and tried to flank him; the blinded madman must have detected them by listening to their exchange with Frank. Suffering from his cooldown, Ryan attempted to back away, but Livia held him by the sleeve.
Instead, his bloodied pandawan tackled the ogre before he could get anywhere near his master. The two brawled for a second, but the more experienced Adam quickly grabbed the bear’s hands with his own. The Psycho opened his mouth, to reveal a syringe full of swirling liquid.
An Elixir, but not a Mechron-made one. This was the same Blue Elixir the cannibal had attempted to turn Ryan into a Psycho with after blowing New Rome to kingdom come. And true to his sick obsessions, Adam spat it at his foe.
The courier barely had the time to blink in horror as the Elixir shattered on the Panda’s face.
Blue liquid splattered on the Panda’s soft fur; and though true Elixirs couldn’t bond to animals, that one must have detected the human beneath. The green Genome switching back and forth between his two forms as his body absorbed the liquid. Big Fat Adam pushed his victim backward to fall on his back with cruel glee, while Ryan held his breath in horror.
“I got one of you,” Hannifat Lecter gloated triumphantly.
“Indeed you did,” Livia replied with smug calmness.
Her tone surprised Ryan. Why didn’t Livia seem concerned? Why didn’t she fall back? Unless… unless she had seen this event in a vision, and let it happen? Why?
Only when the Panda settled back in his animal form, did Ryan understand.
His body had completely absorbed the blue Elixir, the syringe’s shards crushed beneath his mighty feet. Instead of madness, the monster of the east moved with focus, and purpose, and strength.
Out of all the millions of people living in New Rome...
“No way…” Sarin whispered with shock and jealousy, as the manbear took a step towards Adam. The cannibal heard him coming, but he had guessed what happened from the sound. The realization had left him too shocked to move.
Livia had predicted she and her father could take two Elixirs with no ill effect.
And when the Panda’s eyes shone with a blue hue, Ryan felt a moment of religious awe. A Gregorian song echoed at the back of his mind, and he could almost see holy light shining into the bunker.
For God existed, and He had fur.
The Panda launched himself in the air, his right leg and arms extended, the left knee folded. How could a giant bear fly like this, Ryan would never understand, but he did. Perhaps Big Fat Adam might have dodged, if he still had eyes, or maybe he would have been paralyzed in awe too. The Panda shouted his attack’s name, with his cute, amusing voice.
How could something so ridiculous look so good?
The Panda’s feet hit Hannifat Lecter’s head with so much strength, that Ryan heard a loud ‘crack’ as both connected. The monstrous Psycho flew backward and crashed on the ruins of the arcade, while the victorious bear gracefully landed on his feet. His pose reminded the courier of a Bruce Lee movie, and perhaps it came straight from it.
As for Adam the Ogre, he did not rise up again. And hopefully, he never would.
Frank, who had observed the scene with horror, attempted to free himself to no avail. His body absorbed the metal within the floor, trapping him further like quicksand.
“It’s over, Frank,” Sarin said, vibrating hands pointed at his head. “Don’t make me blast you.”
“I must fight the communists’ infiltrators!” he shouted.
And Ryan answered, “No, Frank. You are the communists.”
And then Frank was a zombie.
Or he might as well have been, for Ryan’s words were the coup de grace. The giant looked at his chest, scratching at it as if he could exorcise the Marxist-Leninist evil that infected him; but when he couldn’t, he slammed his head against the floor and mentally shut down. Perhaps his suppressed memories had resurfaced, flooding his brain just as Livia had expected.
His false patriotism shattered, the once-proud giant had become an immobile pile of scrap. The courier observed him in a minute of respect, as he watched this proud giant, this loyal bodyguard that perished protecting presidents so many times, reduced to such a pitiful state.
“How did you know about Frank’s past?” Ryan asked Livia, as Sarin lowered her gauntlets, still on her guard.
“I looked for a future where I won the fight,” the mafia princess replied not so smugly.
“Your power is almost as busted as your best friend’s.”
“Says the pot calling the kettle black,” Livia chuckled. “Speaking of best friends, ours should be done now.”
“I got one, Sifu!” the Panda said triumphantly, sitting atop a crushed Big Fat Adam’s stomach. “I got one!”
The circle was complete. When Ryan met him, the Panda had been the disciple.
Now, he was a master.
The ‘Battle for the Junkyard’ ended in a complete, near-flawless victory. The only loss on Ryan’s side was his car, which had been wounded in action; though the Chronoradio and key functions had survived the Land’s attack, so the time-traveler could always repair it.
The group had gathered the Psychos in the bunker’s hangar, with Sarin and the Panda helping Len move the unconscious Meta-Gang members into bathyspheres. They would transport the Psychos to underwater jails, until Ryan could figure out a cure for their condition. Psyshock’s thralls would also be kept there, to receive medical attention and avoid the bunker’s secret from spreading yet. They would be released once the base was destroyed.
As for Big Fat Adam, Len insisted on bubbling him too. Unlike the other prisoners though, he drowned to death in it, waking up just long enough to understand he was about to die. Communists could never make a good product, especially for people who tried to attack orphans under their care.
As for Fortuna and Shroud, they had both walked inside the bunker without a mask and arm in arm. The former looked giddy; the latter, as if he wished to die inside.
“You won’t believe it!” Fortuna announced. “Mathias… Mathias is the Shroud!”
“No way?” Ryan replied with a falsely surprised tone. “Your boyfriend?”
“My boyfriend!” Fortuna squealed, though her companion looked more… resigned than anything else. “I would never have guessed!”
“I knew he wasn’t all that clear,” Ryan said.
“How did it happen?” Livia asked, half curious, half displeased.
“The Land took back physical form to fight us at full power, as you suspected,” Shroud answered with a sigh. “A rock hit my mask while I was holding Fortuna, and it shattered.”
It must have looked very dramatic. “How unlucky of you,” Ryan put salt on the wound.
“All along I wondered why you were always there when I had a problem, but now I understand!” Fortuna put a hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder. “You were watching over me, like a guardian angel! How romantic!”
“That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Mathias replied, though he sounded a bit more ashamed than usual.
“You don’t need to be mean, I know you care now,” Fortuna said with a foxy grin.
A flash of flustered embarrassment passed on her boyfriend’s face, which he immediately suppressed with a stoic face. “I trapped the Land inside a glass prison outside, while Gemini surrendered after she realized all was lost,” he said, before glancing at Sarin. “Why is she still running around?”
“She turned her coat the right way,” Ryan replied. “She will be very important later.”
Mathias’ eyes squinted at the courier, and the Augusti woman at his side. “After we put the Meta-Gang in custody, we will need to talk about this place’s future… and yours. Yours most of all.”
“Have you told Sunshine about us?” Ryan asked, while Livia bristled.
“Not yet,” Shroudy Matt admitted. “I wasn’t sure if my hypothesis was correct, but after seeing this place… now I am. And I have enough questions for a lifetime.”
“They will wait after your girlfriend’s,” Ryan mocked him.
“Yes, indeed!” said Lucky Girl. “I want to know everything! How long have you been a hero? Are you on a team? Do you have a sidekick?”
Mathias sighed as Fortuna dragged him away. Though Ryan noticed he didn’t struggle as much as he should.
“They remind me of a tree and moss,” the courier told Livia. “She’s growing on him, and he’s starting to like it.”
“He will have to come clean to her though,” Livia said icily. “Or I will tell the truth for him. Fortuna deserves that much.”
Probably, but Ryan doubted Lucky Girl’s power would work so hard to set them together if it wouldn’t make her happy in the end.
“You look concerned, Ryan,” Livia said with a frown. “Is something the matter?”
“Yes. The bunker is ours with no strings attached, we caught Adam before he could pull off his plans, nobody I liked has died so far, and the Panda has two powers.” He emphasised these last words, because he could hardly believe it himself. “Everything went well.”
Livia chuckled. “Ryan, that’s good news.”
“I’m just expecting for the other shoe to drop,” the courier replied.
“Why would it?” she asked. “We worked hard, and it paid off. The previous loop ended in disaster, but we learned from it and acted accordingly.”
We. Such a sweet word to hear. Though there was so much left to do, Ryan no longer carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He had people willing to back him up now, for better or worse.
“What comes next?” Livia asked. “Now that Adam has been dealt with, we should prepare for what comes afterward.”
“I will infiltrate your family,” Ryan said. “Brief Alchemo, Len, and Sarin on the memory map front. See how to deal with Dynamis for good. Contact Vulcan to recreate the Saturn armor, see with the Carnival how we can deal with the bunker, Narcinia, and the Bliss Factory. Research the Psycho cure, and probably plan a trip to Antarctica.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Well, we will discuss how to deal with the Carnival together. I already started doing simulations, but you are our ace in the hole.” Livia smiled at him. “You will meet with Jamie tonight, to infiltrate my family from the bottom?”
“Yes. I put him on a list.” He hadn't interacted with Jamie, Ki-jung and Lanka for many loops, and he yearned to meet with them again. Now that he could theoretically bring a limitless number of people into his loops… he was no longer afraid of trying to befriend others for the long term. “But I meant something else for the infiltration phase.”
Livia raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, but I’ve been hesitating for a while. Because…” Ryan gathered his breath. “Because if I do, I can’t take it back. It will be complicated, and it may not work. But if it does…”
He left the sentence hanging, watching as Livia’s breathing shortened. She must have guessed his intentions, but since she couldn’t predict him, she felt anxiety rather than serenity. If he hadn’t misread all the signals she had sent him in this loop and the previous one, the seer wanted Ryan to make a move; but was afraid of the shame she would face if she had guessed wrong.
“Ask away,” she said shyly.
Ryan grabbed her by the waist and pulled her closer. Though she gasped in surprise, being unable to predict the gesture, Livia didn’t resist. She felt light as a feather in his arms, a fragile porcelain doll.
He ignored all the gazes his teammates sent him, focusing entirely on her blue eyes, and the pinkish blush spreading on her cheeks.
“Are you available tomorrow night?”