“It can’t be them.”
Ryan searched inside his car’s trunk, finally putting his hands on his secret weapons: his coil gun, and a bag of flour. “What do you know of Leo Hargraves’ Carnival, my feline friend?”
“That they’re wandering heroes fighting marauders, warlords, dangerous Genomes, and Psychos,” Atom Cat replied, his back against the car. “They help communities pro bono, then move on. They’re modern knight errant, not assassins.”
“That’s true,” Ryan conceded. Which was partly why he respected them as a group, even after the problems they caused him. “But they’re also pragmatic knights. When they fight, they don’t pull their punches. They hit hard and fast, and unlike most Genomes, they actually use small unit tactics.”
“You speak as if you fought them.”
“I did.” And they gave him his fair share of resets, especially in his early loops. “I was present when they killed Bloodstream four years ago and got caught in the crossfire. Now, usually, I love being in the middle of interesting things, but that day cost me something dear to me.”
“Something, or someone?”
It had been the day Ryan had drunk his Elixir, which he did to survive that disaster in the first place. He couldn’t fully control his save point back then, and he ended up trapped in a suboptimal route.
One which separated him from Len.
As the thought crossed his mind, Ryan glanced at the Mediterranean sea, the rising dawn refracting on its waters. As it turned out, the assassin had established their base in a ship graveyard between Rust Town and the old harbor. The supertanker he had seen on the shores was only the first of an army.
Metal husks of tankers, boats, and even aircrafts were lined up on a sandy shore, rusted by saltwater. Barnacles had made their home on the belly of ships and airbus planes alike, with small alleys between each steel corpse. The IP signal came from an isolated garage nearby, a metal hangar partly built inside a cruise ship. Probably some kind of chop shop, scavenging the husks and selling back parts.
Rainy, toxic clouds appeared north, though strangely, they moved against the wind and towards the harbor. Was it the doing of Dynamis, blowing the pollution away from Rust Town?
Atom Cat crossed his arms, remembering something. “Dad once told me that he fought their original line-up years ago, before he and Mom adopted Narcinia. Augustus was still establishing his powerbase back then. He killed half of the Carnival’s members and drove off the rest.”
Well, they had returned to finish the job. Better late than never.
“But I never heard anything about a glass manipulator.”
“They have a lot of turnover, so this may be a new recruit,” Ryan replied. Considering the invisibility and the fact they often killed through bombs or mundane means, such a Genome could credibly fly under the radar. Especially if all witnesses end up dead. “I can’t move the car closer or carry anything with screens. I’m pretty sure they can detect and control glass over a vast radius.”
“I don’t know,” Ryan replied, tossing his cell phone to the backseat, alongside all electronic devices. He only kept the nuclear bomb and the rabbit plushie. “They may even know we are here already.”
“Alright, then I will stay near the car, and if you don’t send a sign within half an hour, I will call Wyvern for help,” Atom Cat decided. “What about your mask’s goggles?”
“Silly, they aren’t made of glass!” Ryan replied. “They’re alien stuff!”
“Right, and that… is that flour?” Atom Cat frowned at Ryan’s toys. “Do you want to bake them a cake?”
“They will never see it coming.”
Atom Cat smiled thinly. “I know you won’t listen, but please don’t do anything stupid.”
“Don’t worry, I have more lives than your nine ones,” Ryan replied, packing his stuff and moving to the garage.
Though, he would be lying if the situation didn’t make him uneasy. The Carnival’s members were powerful Genomes, and that assassin had killed him twice already. A wrong move might result in another reset, and their previous history made him tense up.
As he reached the locked door, Ryan realized now would be the perfect time for a stealth mission. But he was pretty sure it was useless, and he never had the patience for them.
Instead, he shot the lock with his coil gun, the electromagnetic projectile going straight through the steel. “No country for old men!” he shouted, entering the garage weapon raised.
Unlike the movie, no one welcomed him with a shotgun past the door. In fact, the garage didn’t hold any car, engine, or ship parts.
Instead, it housed several computer servers.
Dozens of them in total, clearly jury-rigged and linked to an autonomous electric generator. Two air conditioners worked to cool them down while wires went through a hole in the ground, probably linking the system to Dynamis’ underground cables. A massive desk with a single chair stood in the middle, surrounded by screens.
Also, Ryan noticed that he could see the ship graveyard through the windows easily enough, yet he had seen none of these servers from the outside. There was definitely an optical trick at work.
Yeah, this wasn’t a recent development. They must have spent weeks, if not months, setting up this safe house.
Ryan approached the computer, currently displaying a boring screensaver on five different screens. It seemed he had busted the operation while the mysterious assassin had gotten away.
Or so they wanted him to think.
Without warning, the courier froze time, opened the bag of flour, and rotated on himself. He sprayed the white powder in every direction, on the screens, windows, servers, and the corners.
A humanoid torso appeared right behind him, standing in a corner with a partially visible sword raised.
Here you are.
The flour had hit some kind of invisible armor, so Ryan took the time to draw ‘kill me, I’m a perv’ on the chest. As time resumed, the figure froze as they found itself with a coil gun pointed to their head. “Caught you, Invisiboy!” Ryan couldn’t help but gloat, “Or is it Invisigirl? I can never tell.”
“I will move faster than your finger on the trigger,” Invisiboy replied, his voice muffled by his strange suit.
“Are we playing Lucky Luke? I can draw faster than my shadow… faster than time even!”
“I don’t think you actually stop time, Cesare Sabino, you only give the illusion of it,” he replied, absolutely calm. “Or is it Ryan Romano now?”
“Ryan,” the courier replied. He tried to identify the voice, but the suit muffled it too much. “I don’t think we met though, Mr. Carnival.”
The figure let out a sigh of frustration at being identified. “We did. Though you didn’t know I existed back then.”
“Ah, I wondered if you were a new recruit or an invisible ace,” Ryan mused. That explained a lot of his organization’s success if the Carnival had a hidden operative of his caliber. “What should I call you, then?”
Realizing that a fight wouldn’t break out unless he started it, the mysterious Genome became fully visible. His entire body was coated in bright blue glass, from head to toe; the substance prevented Ryan from seeing anything. The armor was completely shapeless, the face round like a featureless doll. It made the vigilante look rather eerie.
Ryan realized that this man mimicked invisibility by somehow bending the light around his armor, perhaps using the same process used in lenticular technologies. The courier could barely fathom the sheer control needed to pull that off, although that trick didn’t protect him from smoke or rain.
This was some powerful Orange Genome.
“You may call me the Shroud.” The glass man tilted his head to the side. “And if you haven’t shot me in your ‘frozen time,’ I assume you want to tal—”
Ryan threw the flour bag at his face.
Invisiboy stood in silence, the paper bag falling off his helmet and onto the ground; his face now looked like that of a clown with all the powder.
“That was highly immature,” the assassin said, dusting the flour off his helmet.
Well, he killed Ryan twice; the courier had earned the right to be petty. “Don’t blame me if I keep my weapon drawn,” the time-manipulator said since his current host’s sword remained ever threatening. “You’ve been assassinating a lot of people lately, and killing you is still on the table.”
“You and Il Migliore have nothing to fear from us,” the man replied, crossing his arms. “Our current targets are the Augusti and the Meta.”
“Oh, then I assume you must have hacked into Dynamis by accident.”
“Only to root out the infiltrators in your company’s midst,” the Genome scoffed. “To be honest, I’m surprised you even managed to track me down. I was very careful not to leave a trace.”
Ryan wasn’t in the mood to enlighten him, especially after he killed the courier twice. “Why did you kill Zanbato and his fellows at the docks?”
“Is that anger in your voice? Your concern surprises me.” The glass Genome walked towards the screens, ignoring the gun pointed at his head, and sat on the chair. “As far as I know, the two of you haven’t even interacted.”
“Maybe I did. And maybe so far, I didn’t see anything that justified killing him. Heck, he’s pretty low in the hierarchy as far as I know.”
The man joined his hands, the posture reminding Ryan of Enrique Manada. “Do you know what they were shipping at the docks?”
“Chemicals destined to the Augusti’s fortress-lab on Ischia island, which produces their Bliss,” Shroud corrected him. “The drug is then shipped through boats and submarines to local distributors all over Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Libya… a drug which is incredibly addictive and that Augustus uses to subvert communities, even as they struggle to recover from the Wars.”
“No matter their friendly neighborhood gangster publicity, the Augusti do far more harm than good,” the Genome declared. “And even if he killed no one personally, by protecting this shipment, Zanbato indirectly supported an organization causing almost twenty-thousand deaths each year, with three thousand in New Rome alone.”
“So if I understand right,” Ryan coughed, “You will reduce violence by committing more violence?”
On some level, the vigilante seemed to recognize the hypocrisy involved, because he hung back in his chair, thoughtful. Ryan couldn’t see his body language with the armor on, but he seemed conflicted.
“I don’t like it,” he admitted. “I really, really don’t. I would prefer to talk it out, or put criminals in jail. No matter what people say, you never get used to killing. Even my teammates within the Carnival frown on what I’m doing.”
Ryan wondered if the whole Carnival had infiltrated the city, or if this Shroud was just the vanguard, preparing the ground for his teammates. The Genome suspected he wasn't the only operative in New Rome; he couldn't have done so much damage alone. “I smell a but.”
“But the situation has degraded to a point that things will only get worse if we do nothing. The Augusti’s Capos can attempt to murder someone in broad daylight and walk out with a pat on the back. There is no government to keep them in jail, and Dynamis is too afraid of Augustus to truly take action.”
He had a point, but there was a glaring flaw in his argument. “Well, good luck trying to kill the invincible man then. It’s not like everyone has tried for years without any progress.”
“Augustus may call himself a god, but he is still only a man, and an aging one at that. He cannot peddle his drug in the street or exact tribute alone. He needs infrastructures, soldiers, and money to exert his influence; take away his subjects, and a king is simply a man wearing a crown. We may not be able to defeat Augustus, but we can destroy the Augusti.”
“Why now though?” Ryan asked, his gut telling him something was missing. “Things have been somewhat peaceful and Augustus sits on his ass. Why act now?”
The glass man said nothing for a few seconds, clearly considering whether or not to divulge any information. Eventually, he did. “You must have seen it already,” Shroud pointed out. “There is a war brewing between this city’s factions. A disaster that may spark a new round of Genome Wars and further devastation, if it is not prevented.”
“Ah, so you’re pursuing your Perfect Run too?”
“A perfect run?” Much to Ryan’s delight, Shroud seemed to understand the reference. “You could say that, but there is no perfect ending, Quicksave. Only the best for a certain group of people.”
How could it be that the only person who understood video game slang was the guy who had him killed? There was no justice in this world. “And if there is a non-murderous alternative to bring down the Augusti?”
“Do you have one?” Shroud asked, sounding a little hopeful. “Because I’m drawing a blank here.”
“Not this time,” Ryan replied. “But I will find it, I promise.”
Shroud observed him in silence for a few seconds. To his credit, he seemed open to the idea. “Well, in the unlikely case you do find a way to cripple the Augusti’s operations without killing anyone, then… yes, I will take it.”
Good. At least he wasn’t some Punisher immune to diplomacy attempts. Ryan could already see the perfect path to Len, and how to defuse the situation.
“Otherwise, I will ask you not to reveal the existence of this place or my presence in New Rome,” the vigilante explained. “We have nothing against you or Il Migliore; in fact, I would be happy to cooperate towards making New Rome a better place, once your team is purged of its saboteurs. Though, if you switch sides to the Augusti or the Meta, expect us to come to blows. You are simply too powerful a Genome not to be taken out early.”
Ryan remained silent for a moment, as everything became clear. “I don’t know whether I should feel flattered or furious.”
“You considered joining them?” The Genome sounded only curious, but something in his tone betrayed an undercurrent of tension.
“Naaaaah!” Ryan lied. Well, he would never join the Meta, but still. “But I wonder why you are okay with hitting the Augusti and not Dynamis.”
“In spite of their faults, Dynamis does try to rebuild a somewhat functional society,” Shroud grudgingly admitted. “The company has systemic corruption issues, as Rust Town can attest, but it is a stabilizing force in Europe and it can be reformed once Hector Manada retires. I can’t say the same for the Augusti, and let’s not talk about the Meta.”
The vigilante observed Ryan closely. “Thank you, by the way.”
“For what, your whiteness?”
The Genome seemed vaguely amused by the jab, but remained focused on the matter at hand. “For saving that orphanage. I was only informed of the attack after it was already over, and I wouldn’t have made it in time. I didn’t expect you to turn your powers to a positive end, but I’m glad you did. Frankly, I worried you might follow in Bloodstream’s footsteps, or hunt us down in revenge.”
“He was sick and his death was only mercy,” Ryan replied. “It’s separating me from Len that I can never forget.”
The glass man said absolutely nothing, a tense silence stretching between them.
Ryan pressed the gun against that man’s helmet. “You know where she is.”
“I do.” To his credit, the Genome sounded incredibly calm and confident for someone with a weapon pointed at them. “I mapped every faction in this city before starting the operation. Although in her case, the problem isn’t knowing her location, but reaching it.”
“Where is she?”
The Genome didn’t answer directly, pondering his words. “She never contacted you, in all these years.”
“She couldn’t,” Ryan replied. “She didn’t know I survived, because of you guys.”
“You were never subtle in your stunts, nor shy about spreading your true name. I don’t believe for a second that she never heard of you in four years.”
The courier’s finger twitched, nearly pulling the trigger. “What are you implying?”
“The obvious. That she never contacted you because she didn’t want to. And I think deep down, you understand that this is the only logical explanation.”
Ryan glared behind his mask. “You know nothing.”
He considered what to do with this information. The Carnival was clearly operating in New Rome as a fourth faction; they were the hidden route. However, his focus was finding Len, and he already saw a path towards her. The assassin was the biggest hurdle towards reaching her, and now, he knew the perfect way to defuse the situation.
He could see it already. The Perfect Run towards Len.
“You were followed.”
Ryan blinked at Shroud, drawn out of his reverie. “Plait-il?”
“You were followed.” Shroud glanced at the window, a rain downpour hitting it from outside. Sick, yellow-green water corroding the glass on touch, and which attacked even the metal walls.
No. Not water.
Impossible, he had been careful when driving or using his phone. Unless...
“The DNA tracker,” Ryan realized.
He knew he should have read the fine print!
An explosion echoed outside, telling Ryan that Atom Cat was currently fighting for his life. Without a word, Shroud turned invisible, all the flour on his armor falling to the side of his desk; he must have altered the glass layers to shrug it off.
Ryan raised his weapon and prepared to rush through the door when he heard a loud noise from above him. Something was on the roof, crawling towards his location.
Without warning, a wire tentacle broke through the garage’s ceiling and aimed for Ryan’s head.