It was May 8th 2020 for the fifth time, and Ghoul once again had a car accident.
As he climbed down from his Plymouth Fury after hitting his favored undead maniac, Ryan took the time to look at his beautiful partner. The car he had rebuilt from the husk he had found in the ruins of Florence, all by himself; over the years, Ryan had customized it into a marvel of technology that would make most Geniuses envious. The courier had drifted for years at the driver’s seat, survived countless explosions, rode over so many old people! Ah, the memories…
All in all, his Plymouth was the one constant in his life, the thing most important to him after Len. The partner he could never find in any human being since they couldn’t remember him from restart to restart.
“I swear, I won’t let anyone hurt you again,” Ryan whispered to his car while stroking the hood, like a cat. “The bad Psycho is gone.”
“Are you talking to your car?” Renesco asked from behind the bar counter.
“I’m not the one judging you on your current company!” Ryan replied, opening the car’s back. Once again, he decided to do something new and interesting for this restart. A method to avenge his car’s death upon the Meta-Gang once more.
“I know this sounds cliche,” Ryan told Ghoul, raising the jumper cables while doing his best German accent. “But we have ways of making you talk!”
After delivering a shocked Ghoul to the Private Security, finishing his delivery, and paying everyone off, the courier thought about his next course of action.
Intending to return to the Augusti Path—without screwing it up this time—Ryan returned to the first hotel he had booked in the city center instead of the southern district. He met Wyvern, warned her of Ghoul’s escape, and received her business card.
This time, Vulcan contacted him as normal.
He went to the Bakuto, met Zanbato, and received his mission. The day afterward, before he left the hotel, he hid a small remote camera in the room. Ryan had already booked a place somewhere else to avoid the assassination attempt, but he also wanted to catch a glimpse of the killer.
This time, Sarin showed up alone at the delivery. It appeared Ghoul remained in custody, and the Meta couldn’t spare anyone else as backup. Ryan would have wanted to say it had been a hard, tough fight. That he struggled for his life, and that Sarin proved herself a welcome challenge.
Instead, the battle lasted ten seconds.
He punched her in the face in the stopped time with Fisty; gas came out of the Psycho's mask, and she crashed on the supertanker like before. She could dish out a lot of damage, but couldn’t take it.
They hadn’t even destroyed the Old Harbor this time!
“I’m bored,” Quicksave complained, while the Augusti finished putting crates in the bathyspheres. The Private Security hadn’t even shown up!
“Good,” Zanbato replied calmly. “That means things are running smoothly. I would rather have boring efficiency every day than chaotic excitement.”
“That’s what she said,” Ryan replied, drawing a cell phone out of his pocket. It was an old pre-war Samsung he had tinkered with, enhancing its performance to match newer devices. With it, he could observe through his bedroom’s camera from afar.
The camera didn’t notice anything strange. According to the thermal sensors though, someone had flown close to the window, peeked through, and then left. Considering his room was on the tenth floor… definitively a Genome.
Now that he thought of it, he had glimpsed a flying hero during his first battle with Ghoul and Sarin. Could it be the same person?
“Does anybody know a flying invisible man or woman around here?” Ryan asked. “Asking for a friend.”
“Anybody with 100k in their account can buy an Invisibility Elixir at Dynamis,” Luigi replied, closing the bathyspheres after putting the last crates inside. He typed on his phone and the submarines vanished beneath the waves, carrying their supplies elsewhere. “For flight though…”
“The only fliers in town I know of are Wyvern, Geist, Vulcan, Devilry, Wardrobe, Mosquito, and Sarin,” Zanbato said. “Among them, only Geist can turn invisible.”
“Does he spy on people at night by peeping through their window?” Ryan asked. What confused him was that the mysterious visitor didn’t enter the room nor leave a bomb behind during this iteration. Did they detect the camera from afar and decided to avoid detection?
“No, he’s bound to one place outside town and can’t leave it at all,” the Augusti enforcer replied. “He’s a Yellow whose powers activated post-mortem, binding him to his grave.”
Ah yes, Yellow Elixirs. The potions granting ‘conceptual’ powers, from astral projection to bad luck. Ryan liked them, mostly because you never knew what to expect with them. Even by Genomes standards, their abilities were downright bizarre with weird limitations.
“Why the question?” Luigi asked, suspicious, Ryan feeling his truth-telling power activate.
“Someone like that blew up my bedroom a few days ago,” Ryan replied, which was technically true. The power forced him to be honest, but he could phrase his sentence to mislead. “As if that was original!”
“You certainly make enemies quickly,” Luigi noted, frowning. “How do you feel about that?”
Ryan prepared to tell a joke, but he felt an alien force take over his mind and change his words. “Nothing particular,” he admitted. “It helps fill the void.”
The Augusti present glanced at him strangely. “The void?” Luigi repeated, confused.
“I guess I feel empty, alone, and directionless inside.” Ryan shrugged his mind now on autopilot. “Like my brain is a bottomless well I try to fill with dopamine and endorphins. So the more trouble I have, the greater the rush and the happier I am. Truthfully, boredom is my natural state.”
An awkward silence followed.
“But on the bright side, I look fabulous on the outside!” Quicksave added to lighten the mood, before turning to Luigi, unable not to be truthful, “Can you remove that bullshit filter? It’s uncomfortable and it makes me want to kill you.”
“I have to be sure about something,” Luigi said, unsympathetic. “Are you a snitch or a double agent?”
“No, I’m on my own side only, and I have no cause at all!” Ryan replied, but couldn’t stop himself; his voice changed from happy to apathetic on its own. “To be honest guys, I’m only using you to find my old pal Len because I’m lonely and I don’t feel close to anyone else.”
“Man, you have serious issues,” one of the grunt guards said. “You should see a therapist.”
“I did, but I broke him first!” However, this was getting tiresome, and Ryan’s wits were at an end. He didn’t want to talk about his emotional hang-ups, let alone with strangers who wouldn’t remember anything soon.
“Now, Luigi,” the courier said, tensing like a lynx switching from being playful to threatened. “There is only one place where I don’t want anyone inside, and that’s my mind. If you continue, my knife will find its way to your back and nobody will save you.”
There, he wanted the truth, he had it. Thankfully, the privacy invader took the threat seriously. “Sorry for the probing,” Luigi apologized, Ryan sensing the effect lifted. “I had to be sure you weren’t pulling a fast one on us.”
The courier simply looked at his face without emotion nor a word, making the truth-teller uncomfortable. Damn it, he hated mind-readers and their cousins. No respect for privacy!
“I guess it’s time to split up and go on our merry way,” Ryan said, turning to Zanbato and eager to gather his thoughts alone. “I give you a lift this time?”
“No,” Zanbato said. “Change of plans. You’re going to my place.”
His place? “Shouldn’t you take me to dinner first?” Ryan mocked.
“Yes, of course, that’s the plan,” Zanbato replied, much to the courier’s surprise. “Do you like pizza? I cook it like no one else.”
Wait, he was serious? “My hotel is—”
“You’re going to stay at my place tonight,” Zanbato insisted, with the same tone as a big brother scolding his younger sibling. “What you need is a friendly, warm environment.”
“But I must catch my secret nemesis!”
“They will wait.”
“Give up, man,” Luigi told Ryan, clearly amused. “Zan is like cream. Sweet and it sticks to you when you get too close.”
“Is it vanilla ice cream?” Ryan asked innocently. “I love vanilla.”
“You should try chocolate,” Zanbato suggested. “It’s good for depression.”
What followed was one of the strangest moments of Ryan’s life. Being led at knifepoint to a dinner party was certainly a first.
Well, not literally at knifepoint, but metaphorically so. Zanbato simply stepped into Ryan’s Plymouth and refused to exit until the courier agreed to come home with him. Passive-aggressiveness at its finest.
In the end, with the mysterious assassin having backed down for now, Ryan couldn’t refuse a free meal.
Zanbato lived in a modern house north of Mount Augustus. The area was definitely higher-income than Little Maghreb nearby; local houses were large, modern, and built on steep hills overseeing the poorer districts below. Class stratification had never been made clearer.
His host’s home was a modern, two-floor house with an incredible view of New Rome and an infinity pool built next to the hill’s edge. Colored in rich warm brown and white tones, the place seemed both modest and fashionable. Clearly, mafia work paid well.
The garage opened on its own, Ryan parking his car between a Lexus ES and a heavily customized Harley Davidson sportster. Zanbato took the opportunity to remove his power armor, showing no apprehension at revealing his face to Ryan. The courier had to admit, the Japanese counterfeit was quite handsome, with a perfect jawline, buff muscles, and a three-day beard. Ryan would peg him somewhere around his mid-thirties.
“Jamie Cutter.” Zanbato shook Ryan’s hand. “No masks inside though.”
“You want to know my secret identity?” Ryan replied. “I must warn you, many have gone insane from hearing my true name.”
“Ryan Romano,” Jamie chuckled, the courier crossing his arms at his thunder being stolen, “To your credit, that’s pretty much all I know. My bosses couldn’t find much about you.”
“Really?” Ryan complained as he removed his mask, hat, and trench coat, tossing them into the car’s back. “But I’m unforgettable!”
“Not much before you went out in costume and started blowing stuff up,” Jamie clarified, opening the garage’s door and inviting his fellow Genome inside his home. The door led to a large living area that could probably fit a two-room apartment inside, including the kitchen, a sofa with a big plasma screen, and stairs to rooms above. Huge picture windows gave a marvelous sight of the city below, and the deco involved a lot of Asian art. A katana hanging on a wall, a Korean flag on the balcony, a statue of the buddha next to the TV...
Two people were already present. A dark-brown woman drank a soda can near the balcony, while an Asian girl sliced tomatoes behind the kitchen counter.
But Ryan didn’t pay them much attention, his gaze focused on something else.
Namely, the enormous rat on the kitchen counter, looking at Ryan with curiosity. The courier waved a hand at it, and the critter raised its tiny forelegs in response. Aww…
“Hi, honey.” Jamie kissed the girl in the kitchen on the mouth, while she put her knife and dinner aside. Probably his girlfriend. “I brought a new guest.”
“Hyun Ki-jung.” She nodded politely at Ryan, showing him a friendly smile. As skinny as her boyfriend was muscled, she kept her black hair short, dressed modestly, and wore discreet, yet elegant glasses. Ryan would have considered her pretty if she hadn’t suffered from weight loss and sore scars on the skin; the courier immediately identified her as a recovering addict.
“Waza?” Ryan answered.
“Waza?” Ki-jung replied with the right tone.
Ryan gasped in realization, having finally met someone who understood.
“Wazaa!” both shouted at the same time. This startled the rat a bit, who tilted his head to the side. The dark-brown haired woman looked at them as if they had gone utterly mad, while Jamie remained simply puzzled.
“It’s, it’s a very obscure reference,” Ki-jung reassured him. “You have to know the private joke to understand.”
“To be initiated in this brotherhood is the pinnacle of culture,” Ryan said, politely introducing himself to this delicate woman. “Ryan ‘Quicksave’ Romano. I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone.”
“You say that to everyone,” Jamie pointed out, lovingly putting his arms around his girlfriend.
“Because nobody remembers!” Ryan glanced around and realized the kitchen’s rat had brought his entire family. Three of his kindred watched a documentary on the tv, another slept on the balcony, and another leaped on Ki-jung’s shoulder like a Pikachu. They looked extraordinarily clean though, more pampered pets than pests.
“I control them,” Ki-jung told Ryan, petting the kitchen rat from behind his ears. “Somewhat. I telepathically connect with them, which increases their intelligence.”
“Blue or Green?” Ryan asked.
“Green,” she replied, meaning her power affected biology rather than mere rodent telepathy. “I’m Chitter.”
She probably thought Ryan would recognize the name, but he didn’t.
Finally having enough of the racket, or perhaps curious, the balcony girl decided to join the kitchen and socialize. Although rock-disaster would have been a better name. Ryan had never met someone with more tattoos on their arms and shoulders; she even bore a bird symbol below her right eye, although it was hard to notice due to her stained glasses. The woman dressed like a biker girl, with a white sleeveless shirt, blue pants, black boots, and a cross pendant around her neck. She kept her dark hair in shoulder-long dreadlocks, and unlike Ki-jung, she clearly exercised a lot.
“Who is that, Zan?” she asked bluntly upon eyeing Ryan. “A new hobo you found on the road?”
“Lanka!” Jamie chastised her.
“I prefer the term murderhobo,” Ryan replied, his pride wounded. “I don’t have any home, but I love stealing them.”
“Oh, really?” she didn’t sound impressed, trading her soda can for a smoke. She offered everyone one, including Ryan, but nobody took her up on it. “You don’t look like the killer type.”
“My costume is in the garage,” Ryan deadpanned, the woman snorting.
“He beat up Sarin so fast I couldn’t see it,” Jamie said, making Ryan swoon in pride. “Don’t push it, Lanka.”
“Ah, new muscle?” She played with her cigarette. “About time. Can’t ride near Rust Town without those Psychos ambushing me, and half our normies don’t wanna sell Bliss there anymore.”
“Can we talk business some other night?” Ki-jung asked, clapping her hand to get everyone’s attention. The rats gathered in a line on the kitchen counter, as if expecting a cheese delivery. “Can you help set the gambling table while we prepare the pizzas?”
“Do you like poker?” Jamie asked. “Entry fee is one hundred.”
“I don’t like poker, but I like winning,” Ryan joked, most smiling in response. Well, everyone except Lanka, who took it as a challenge. “Are you a team? Is this a Cosa Nostra reunion?”
“We are all Made Men and Women, yes, and we work together,” Jamie said, flinching at the Cosa Nostra comment, “We also share this flat for practical purposes. Since a few rooms are available, I wanted to invite you to crash for a few days until our business is done. It won’t cost you anything, and you will like it more than a hotel.”
“Zan owns the place, and he can’t help but invite strangers in need,” Lanka said, “Like that hobo.”
“You will never let me live that down, will you?” Jamie sighed, his girlfriend chuckling. “It was only two weeks until he found a job.”
“I appreciate the offer to spy on me, but I prefer my privacy,” Ryan replied.
“This is a friendly proposal with no hidden strings,” Jamie insisted, and much to the courier’s confusion, he sounded genuine. Weird guy. “Although I do think you would have much to gain by joining our big family, personally and professionally.”
“I’m just looking for Len,” Ryan replied, uninterested. “Black hair, blue eyes, Underdiver?”
“Underdiver?” This time, the name seemed familiar to Jamie. “I’ve heard that name somewhere.”
“The power plant incident earlier this year,” Ki-jung said. “That was him.”
“Her,” Ryan said, much to his hosts’ surprise.
“Ah yes, I remember.” Jamie nodded. “The Private Security caught her, and Vulcan wanted to break her out for recruitment. I'm not sure if the weapons division followed through with it however.”
“You don’t work for Vulcan?” Ryan asked, confused.
“Our capo is called Mercury,” Ki-jung told Ryan. “His division oversees gambling and logistics, alongside security work on the side, while Vulcan’s group controls the weapon trade. Our bosses cooperate sometimes, but usually, every group does their own thing.”
Gosh, they sounded more like a twisted bureaucracy than a criminal syndicate. “Wait, why did Vulcan send me to you rather than recruit me herself?”
“I’m one of the Augusti’s primary recruiters,” Jamie explained. “The capos trust me to evaluate potential new recruits for a first check.”
“If you’re here rather than in a trash can, that means you passed,” Lanka said, finishing her cigarette and starting a new one.
“I will introduce you to Vulcan tomorrow, even if you don’t want to join,” Jamie promised Ryan. “That should solve your problem neatly. Until then, you’re welcome to live with us. So… what do you say?”
Ryan considered the proposal. Truth be told, a lot of Genomes in the same place should discourage the mysterious assassin from bothering him again, and except Lanka they seemed like nice people in spite of their criminal background. It could be fun.
However, Ryan was leery to join communities, since he died often and they always forgot him afterward. Getting to know people only for them to treat you as a stranger afterward was just painful; only his friendship with Len predated his time-manipulation power.
Mmm… the courier could always bolt away when he felt too attached.
“I say four cheese,” Ryan replied, the others taking it as a yes.
“Alright, ground rules, no Bliss allowed under this roof, no cats or pest control, no cocaine after ten,” Jamie said, clearly radiating some kind of dad energy. “Everybody cleans up their shit, tinkering is in the garage, you warn us the day before if you want to host a party—”
Ryan listened in silence as if he would dutifully follow the rules.
Clearly, Jamie didn’t know him well yet.