Il Migliore’s HQ, the Optimates Tower, was the most luxurious place Ryan had ever seen.
Most of Dynamis’ properties were located northeast of the city, on the far opposite of Rust Town. Unlike its neighbor though, this district catered to the supreme elite of New Rome. Il Migliore’s tower was a seventy-floor-tall building, half penthouse skyscraper, half luxury hotel. The lower portion was bulkier than the top, housing gardens, pool balconies, and even helipad areas, while the upper floors belonged to offices. The building clearly took cues after the Art Deco movement, with its mix of luxurious, shiny splendor and modern geometric design.
Ryan himself had a meeting on floor sixty-three, sitting in an expansively decorated waiting room. A thirty-something secretary worked behind a desk on her computer, while another familiar face waited in another chair, near an office’s closed doors.
Through the room’s window, Ryan could see the actual Dynamis HQ nearby, a reinforced glass spire that oversaw the entire city; even the Il Migliore building couldn’t hold a candle to it in size, lacking at least twenty floors compared to its big brother. How fitting that the company’s fortress overlooked both New Rome and its superheroes’ base.
On a closer look though, Dynamis’ HQ reminded Ryan of those futuristic arcology designs, buildings meant to be entirely self-sufficient. He noticed a few greenhouses and gardens on some of the floors, even water reservoirs; however, past a certain point, something in the glass’ composition prevented the Genome from seeing through it. How suspicious.
Unlike downtown, both buildings were protected by the elite units of the Private Security; people in white armor with laser cannons implanted in the right arm and state of the art weaponry. Unlike their lesser cousins, they were a true military force, well-trained, and ferociously loyal to Dynamis’ interests.
He had heard that they didn’t even accept bribes!
“Excuse me.” Having been restless for an hour, Ryan turned to the other person waiting for an appointment. “Are you… the Panda?”
The poor manbear looked up at him with hope. Compared to the previous loop, the would-be hero seemed less bombastic and more subdued. “You know me?”
“Of course I know you! You’re the Panda! The very last of them!” Ryan said, pumping his fist for added effect. “When I see you riding your bicycle of justice, I always get goosebumps!”
“Thanks!” the hero replied, suddenly a lot more cheerful. He must be glad to have at least one ‘fan’ in the world. “I’m really trying to live up to my panda legacy, and make them trendy again.”
“But what is a solo hero doing here, in this bastion of corporate superheroism?”
“The Panda… the Panda struggles on his own,” he admitted. “I’m really trying to make a name as a solo hero, but it’s hard. None of the villains even want to fight me in public, because I’m simply too powerful for them.”
“I’m sure you are,” Ryan replied with heavy sarcasm, which the Panda completely missed.
“It’s so frustrating!” he said. “I can’t make it to the news without some big awesome duel, you know? Really, with great power comes great isolation.”
He sounded like he believed it too.
“Mr. Romano?” Ryan’s head perked up, as the secretary called his name. “Mr. Manada will receive you.”
Finally! “Good luck with the interview,” the Panda told Ryan, as the courier moved towards the office’s doors. “What’s your name?”
“Quicksave!” Ryan replied with a thumb up. “I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone!”
The secretary let Ryan through the doors and then closed them behind. The courier waltzed inside an office as big as a house, but whose space was mostly occupied by flowers. Geraniums, roses bushes, chrysanths, muguet, dozens of various species of plants were on display. The office even included a miniature Japanese pond, with golden carp swimming in the waters.
A tall, slender man waited for the courier behind a mahogany desk positioned to give the occupant a spectacular view of New Rome through a full window. If he wasn't the supreme authority of a superhero team, Ryan would have mistaken his host for a supervillain. The man wore an expensive tuxedo suit with a black rose on the left side, carried white gloves, and hid his face behind some kind of stylized white helmet reminding Ryan of the pre-war Daft Punk electronic band.
The courier could only applaud his fashion style.
“I am Enrique Manada, the Chief Brand Officer at Dynamis and Head Manager of the Il Migliore program.” The man shook Ryan’s hand, his voice pleasant to hear yet firm. He smelled like roses, probably perfume. “You may also call me Blackthorn.”
“I don't see any thorns on your cost—” Ryan gasped, as he noticed the matter making up the suit. “Wait, is that cashmere?”
“You have a sharp eye,” Enrique mused, showing Ryan a wooden chair and inviting him to sit down. “We have our own production program at Dynamis since we cannot import it from Asia. The production cost is horrendous, but you cannot put a price on elegance.”
While sitting, Ryan barely paid attention to the man, his eyes fixed on his clothes. He wanted a suit like that too!
“We have no shortage of volunteers wishing to join our superhero teams,” Enrique said, joining his fingers. “But few make it to my office. I believe in personal recommendations, Mr. Romano. If Wyvern hadn’t vouched for you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Ryan briefly wondered who had recommended the Panda of all people, deeming the mystery as important as tracking down his assassin.
“She seems to have a good feeling about you, especially after you forewarned her about our latest prisoner. Which makes me wonder how you knew about Ghoul's escape attempt.”
“Just a gut feeling,” Ryan replied innocently.
“I don’t believe you,” Enrique replied, going straight for the jugular. “We have been having trouble with the Private Security lately, and several members tasked with escorting Ghoul actively tried to help him run away. If you know of any security breach, I would be thankful for sharing the information.”
Well, Ryan had come looking for information too, so it was all good. The fact the Meta had inside men among the Private Security bothered him though. It didn’t surprise him that they would bribe locals to look the other way, but this gang seemed a lot more organized than most Psycho warbands.
He would look into it.
“In any case, I must thank you for coming here. I am certain our competition made you an offer, knowing Vulcan’s rivalry with Wyvern, and your trust in us won’t go unrewarded.” Enrique observed Ryan closely. “Why do you wish to join Il Migliore?”
“Ever since I was young, I always wanted to become an ad.”
“Like Mr. Clean and Felix the Cat. A recognizable icon of consumerism, with my face plastered on every cereal box.”
“Uh uh,” Enrique replied, seemingly seriously.
“To transcend the human condition and become a packaged product. That has always been my dream.”
“Uh uh,” Enrique nodded, “and the real reason?”
Ryan shrugged. “Greed?”
“Your psychological profile tells me otherwise.”
They even had a psychological profile? Poor boys, Ryan wondered how many people had gone mad compiling it. “Alright, alright, I thought it would be fun to try being a superhero, and I promised someone that I would kick the Meta out of the city as a personal favor. Business and pleasure.”
“The Meta-gang is a problem,” Enrique conceded, “although not as much as the Augusti. Who is this person you owe a favor to?”
“Some guy in Rust Town named Paulie. He probably won’t even remember me though.”
“I’m certain there is an interesting story behind this,” the corporate mastermind mused. “I will put my cards on the table, Mr. Romano. I feel conflicted about your case. You have an incredible power, with a very high development potential according to our research team. Your skills with weapons are impressive, as the security check-up can attest to. I didn’t even know one could fit so many miniaturized weapons in a kid’s plushie, even if I don’t see the point.”
“They will never see it coming,” Ryan explained.
“Which brings me to the matter at hand,” Enrique presented Ryan with a small pile of paper. “The sixteen pages long index of collateral damage complaints associated with your name, from people all over Italy.”
Something bothered Ryan greatly. “Only sixteen pages?”
“You expected more, perhaps?”
“Hell yes I did,” Ryan replied, “I guess I’m too good at silencing witnesses.”
The corporate Genome remained completely unfazed. “Plus eighteen demographic then,” he said. “Loose cannons have no place at Dynamis. If we sign a work contract together, foolhardy behavior will not be tolerated.”
“Hey, I always fulfill commands to the letter,” Ryan defended himself, wounded in his honor, “It’s not my fault if everyone leaves the methods open for interpretation!”
“I will not. However, I need more guarantees. While no one ever accused you of betraying a contract, you have a mercenary past and a suspicious link to a certain criminal Genius.”
He offered Ryan a photo, and the courier’s heart skipped a beat.
That was her, in a mugshot. She had aged a few years and had a black eye in the picture, but it was her, holding a paper with a number while glaring at the photographer.
“Len ‘Underdiver’ Sabino.” Ryan could sense Blackthorn’s eyes examine his face, looking for any sign of weakness. “Daughter of Freddie Sabino, alias Bloodstream. An extremely dangerous Psycho who almost rivaled Big Adam and Augustus in infamy, until his demise four years ago against Leo Hargraves’ Carnival. Many witnesses said he traveled alongside his daughter and an unidentified teenage boy, whose body was never recovered.”
“Alright, let’s cut the bullshit, greenhand,” Ryan said, completely serious and putting the photo in his coat. “Where is she?”
“In a place out of your reach, for now. I’ve had my eyes on her for a time. Her arrest was my brother, the vice-president’s, doing, and a missed opportunity for recruitment. He believes in harsh measures, I believe in rehabilitation. The public loves redemption stories.”
“If I behave, you will lead me to Len, while hoping that my presence will make her join your group.” Definitively an evil mastermind.
“Ah, now we are getting somewhere,” Enrique replied. “It will be much better for us if you told me the truth, Mr. Romano. How much is she worth to you?”
“Perfect. Here’s my offer then: you sign a five-year contract with Il Migliore, help us clean New Rome of the filth that infests it, promote Dynamis’ brand, and most importantly, you behave. In exchange, we offer you a clean slate, generous accommodations, and the opportunity to reunite with Miss Sabino.”
He handed Ryan a contract far, far heavier than the collateral damage complaints, but the courier didn’t even pay it any attention. That deal sounded a lot like Vulcan’s, minus the personal vendetta bit. “What do you want out of this, greenhand?”
“Most people think my family is only interested in profit,” Enrique said, “but what we really want, is to rebuild Italian society into a prosperous nation. A dream that unfortunately, cannot come to pass while groups like the Meta, the Augusti, and marauders run rampant.”
“A proud nation under copyright, eh?”
“We also wish to democratize superpowers by reverse-engineering and mass-producing Elixirs,” Enrique replied, ignoring the jab. “As per your contract, you will be subjected to a full DNA-based test; this will ensure the Private Security’s drones can track you should you default on your contractual obligations. You will also be asked to participate in our Elixir research development program. We have few Violet Genomes like you under our employ.”
He should have known they wouldn’t want him just for his pretty face. “You won’t succeed in replicating my power.”
“We have made great progress on replicating powers, even created fully functional knock-off Elixirs.”
“You won’t be able to reproduce my power,” Ryan repeated himself. “I’ve tried, more times than you can count.”
“Good, then you can share your findings with the research division,” Enrique dismissed his words. “As for hero work, we divide the Il Migliore franchise into two very different branches: the Pro-League, for established icons like Wyvern; and the Little League, for juniors and less-known superheroes. Obviously, you will start with our secondary division.”
Ryan listened as Enrique explained to him the rules inside the organization—mostly corporate blabbering—before grabbing the contract and skimming it. While the possibility to meet Len was tempting as always, the courier mostly wanted to identify the assassin during this loop. Access to Dynamis’ buildings and databases would help a great deal. If the company could introduce him to Len quickly, then all was good; if they delayed too long, he would simply take the information and return to the Augusti path.
Something caught his attention. “Only thirty percent royalties on merchandising?” Ryan asked. “That’s theft.”
“We will also change your name,” Enrique said, “Quicksave is not punchy enough for our marketing department, and video games are a very niche market nowadays. How about Timelord? PR says it will catch on quickly, especially with teenagers.”
A soulless name developed to please hordes of monsters.
Why did Ryan feel like he had made a deal with Satan?