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Not to change a winning day, Ryan redid everything like last time. He arrived at Renesco's place, waited for Ghoul to get in, then smashed the Psycho with his Plymouth from behind.

However, as he opened the trunk to grab his baseball bat and finish the job, the courier felt a pang of guilt. Could he live with such laziness? Beating an old bag of bones the exact same way, over and over again? Couldn't he give this moment a little more dignity and uniqueness?

Mmmm…

For the sake of novelty, Ryan grabbed his shotgun instead. He waltzed toward Ghoul and shot him in the left knee before he could even realize what was going on. The undead bastard almost collapsed, but managed to hang on to the counter.

“Hey, are you alright?” the courier asked his favorite target practice companion. “You don’t look alright.”

“You shot me!” the Psycho snarled, half-surprised, half-angered. “You shot me in the leg!”

“Do you need to go to the hospital?“ Ryan asked with kindness, reloading the shotgun.

“I’m going to—” Ryan shot Ghoul in the other knee, making him collapse to the ground screaming. “You bastard!”

“And now you do!”

The courier had the feeling they were going to do this routine a lot.


After shooting Ghoul everywhere it mattered—and even places where it didn’t—Ryan paid off Renesco and the Private Security, before diverging from the previous loop.

Having learned his lesson from last time, Ryan chose another hotel, one where he hopefully shouldn’t have his room firebombed; a place away from the tourist areas. He drove south, towards the Plebeian district, and he could already see the reason for the name; as soon as he left the strip and tourist hotspots, the architecture changed. Casinos and nightclubs vanished, replaced with three-story apartment buildings clustered together and narrow alleys. Small markets and cafes gave off a tantalizing smell of food.

Eventually, Ryan reached the Arab district, which he recognized by the billboard ads—most written in Arabic and Turkish, although he caught a little Spanish here and there. The locals called it Little Maghreb from what Ryan had heard.

He drove by a perfect replica of the synagogue of Turin—Ryan had visited the original, although he had needed a hazmat suit to survive the trip through the irradiated city—standing next to a mosque. Both buildings were slightly derelict, showing how little Dynamis and other corporations cared about maintaining religious sites.

However, the site that caught his attention was a hill at the south, which seemed to be the city’s highest natural point. An enormous estate stood atop it, roughly the size of the Vatican, and whose architecture was clearly inspired by antiquity work. It included an oversized, multiple-floor Roman villa, fountains, a private park, and even a smaller replica of the Greek Parthenon. Clearly, whoever lived there had a huge god complex.

Why the obsession with marble columns though? Why did nobody ever add obelisks, for diversity?

And strangely, nothing was built around that estate for kilometers, and only one way led to the summit, the hill being surrounded by a fortified fence and security forces. Curious. Ryan had a good idea who inhabited those halls, and so decided to stay as far away from it as possible.

Yes, there were a few people against whom Ryan didn’t dare to test his immortality against, at least not yet. Especially now that he had a lead on Len after so many years.

His hotel was… a lot dirtier than the previous one. The owner had traded security cameras for cockroaches in the walls, and Ryan’s bed smelled of Bliss, that mushroom drug everyone consumed nowadays. Someone even drew a dick graffiti in the shower, alongside a number to call a prostitute.

Ryan did the sensible thing.

He called, out of curiosity.

“Yeah?” a male voice answered.

Ryan glanced at the graffiti, then ended the call without a word, chuckling to himself. Some things never changed.


The next morning, like in the previous loop, Ryan did science in his underwear. This time, though, he focused more on reinforcing Fisty, to prevent the ice trick that allowed Ghoul to jam it in their last encounter. The courier couldn’t have his weapons underperform while beating up an old bone yeller.

He also did Dynanet research about sightings of submarines and bathyspheres in the local gulf but found nothing. He did learn that the old island of Ischia, the one he had seen while driving on the coast, was a toxic ruin since Mechron bombed Italy back to the stone age; unlike other areas, corporations never bothered to renovate it.

The Augusti had to send those crates somewhere, and there must have been a reason why they used Genius-made submarines rather than boats. Maybe it was to send supplies to the island? He couldn’t prove it, but Ryan had a good feeling about it.

A knock on his window interrupted his research, like the sight of a familiar winged heroine.

Ryan replayed the same conversation as last time, except on the third floor rather than the tenth. Wyvern seemed a little more nervous than in the last loop, though. Maybe it was the closeness to the mountain estate?

Also, Ryan noticed the locals had emptied the street below his bedroom when Wyvern showed up. They didn’t seem to like Il Migliore around here.

“You say the Meta will break out Ghoul today, with the complicity of corrupt Private Security guards?” Wyvern frowned. “How do you know that?”

“You don’t ask a magician to reveal his tricks,” Ryan protested. “I’m just saying, you should probably escort the creepy undead yourself.”

“From what I heard, even if they break him out, he won’t run far. The medics said he had more bullets than intact bones in his body.” Wyvern marked a short pause, focusing on her earplug. “Looks like you were right. The Meta are ambushing Ghoul’s transport convoy as we speak, in broad daylight.”

Oh, so that's why she left in a hurry before? She clearly hadn't been fast enough last loop, maybe this time would do the trick?

“Before you go save the world and save me a miniboss battle later,” Ryan pointed in the direction of the hill, and the estate on it, “what is the name of this beautiful and not at all suspicious Roman-themed park?”

“Officially? Hillside. Unofficially?” Wyvern sighed. “Mount Augustus.”

He even plagiarized Mount Olympus but renamed it after himself. It should have been called Mount Narcissus.

“Take care,” Wyvern told Ryan after giving him a business card, before flying off without a sound. Ryan watched her vanish at high-speed, wondering if she would make it this time.

Anyway, in spite of that little divergence, he didn’t have to worry. He just had to wait for Vulcan’s call and everything would be back on track. Since he was close to Augusti territory, no doubt they would contact him again in short order.

The call would come any second now.

Any second now.

KABOOM!

The sound of a distant explosion startled Ryan, who opened the window. He noticed a pillar of smoke reaching up to the skies, somewhat in the direction where Wyvern flew.

Shit.


Vulcan didn’t call him all day long.

Disturbed, Ryan went to the Bakuto casino anyway at night, but the guards refused to let him in when he arrived in costume. Unlike last time, they gently told him to fuck off after noticing his A-bomb.

As if it was a crime to carry a thermonuclear device nowadays!

So Ryan returned but unmasked and in civilian clothes; he even put on a classy red tie. This time, he managed to slip in, the guards mistaking him for a normal client.

“Hey, friendly nameless extra,” Ryan asked a card croupier, playing blackjack with a well-dressed group of professional gamblers straight out of Casino Royale. “I am looking for Zanbato. Have you seen him?”

“Zanbato?” the croupier frowned. “No, he’s not here tonight.”

“My plumber friend Luigi then?”

The dealer shrugged his shoulders. “No, I don’t think so. What is it about? I can give them a message if I see them.”

Damn it. Still, Ryan approached the dealer’s ear and whispered into it. “The orange is in the hen house.”

“The orange is in the hen house?”

“It’s a code, they will understand. Their lives depend on it, so don’t screw up.” The dealer nodded seriously, promising to deliver the message.

But still, goddamnit! Clearly things had gone off the rails somewhere, but what caused it? Shooting Ghoul? The hotel switch? Warning Wyvern about Ghoul’s escape? Whatever it was, it made him fall off the Augusti’s radar or changed their priorities, just when he finally found a lead on Len!

Ryan stayed at the casino just in case, playing for hours. Knowing the results of every game, he accumulated quite a nice sum at the roulette and Colosseum bets, although he was very careful never to overplay his hand. Having entire lifetimes' worth of cheating experience, the courier had mastered the art of looking like a professional gambler; sacrificing money when needed, discussing overcomplicated probability theories with other players, and faking nerve-wracking tension while waiting for the results. He also played legitimately at poker and blackjack, not even using his time-stop to look at his rivals’ hands.

In the end, the main defense against anti-seer methods was banality. Seers were rare and usually obvious, always trying to win it big; while skilled gamblers and talented amateurs were legion. Ryan just had to convince guards he belonged to the latter group, winning high but believable amounts, and it did the work.

Ryan usually enjoyed these tricks, but his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he kept asking himself questions. Should he go to the supply run at the harbor even without being invited? It could get him right back on the Augusti Path, but Ryan wasn’t sure if it would even happen now.

Also, who killed him in the last loop? The Meta were the obvious suspect, but it could also be an unrelated hit. Since the courier took a job for the Augusti after denying Wyvern, Dynamis could have simply ordered him dead.

No, the easiest solution was to reload and deviate after receiving the Augusti mission, but Ryan needed to die first.

Car crash? Too common already. Traffic had killed him almost as often as enemy Genomes.

Bullet to the head? The last time Ryan tried he woke up six months later, the medics congratulating themselves on their ‘miraculous’ surgery.

Train tracks? Unoriginal, everybody did that nowadays.

Roman suicide? Thematic and classy, but he would have to find a sword or hemlock.

“Nice play.” Ryan glanced at the left of his table, noticing that a stunning woman had taken a seat right next to him. She was an elegant lady with long black hair, a crimson gown, and a beauty spot on the right cheek. She played with a glass full of alcohol, clearly trying to get Ryan’s attention. “This is the first time I’ve seen you around here.”

It was strange how everybody wanted to be Ryan’s friend when he started making money. Was it his magnetic personality? “Sorry, I’m thinking about something else.”

“What could be more important than accumulating a big pile of money?” she asked, flirtatiously playing with her glass.

“I’m trying to find a suicide method that hasn’t been done before. Something original and over-the-top.”

The question took her aback, but the woman did consider it. “Jumping into Mt. Vesuvius?” she proposed.

Ryan could have sworn he already experienced a similar conversation in a previous loop. “Already done, though with Etna rather than Vesuvius.”

“I didn’t know,” she replied, sipping her cocktail. “Do you want to commit suicide or is this just theoretical?”

Already bored with the conversation and failing to find a suicide method he hadn’t already tried, Ryan raised his hand at a waiter. “Can I have an electric fan?”

“A fan, sir?” the waiter asked, confused. Ryan answered by giving him a three hundred euro tip.

One minute later, he had his fan.

While he took most of his winnings for himself, the Genome piled up thousands of euros banknotes in front of the fan, aiming for the center of the casino. The woman at his side probably guessed what crossed his mind, if the flash of recognition in her eyes was of any indication.

Ryan switched on the fan, which sent euro bills flying all over the casino. “To the fastest!” he shouted as loud as he could, a flash of greed in everyone’s eyes.

When the Genome exited the Bakuto, all the locals were fighting over the bills, the woman included. Even the bouncers and the staff tried to grab a fistful.

Ignoring the chaos he started, Ryan glanced at Wyvern’s business card and the Dynamis logo on its back. Should he check them out?

Mmm… no. Len was his priority—his only priority. He was tired of these long years of loneliness, and he wanted to find her at all costs.

The Augusti had provided him hints already. Ryan knew people used her Genius technology, and that people traded such devices in Rust Town. If the Augusti Path was closed to him for this loop, then he should try to figure out where they could have obtained the bathyspheres. If there was a black market for Genius goods, he should check it out.

He could always kill himself afterward.

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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