What a bright day. As Ryan drove towards the ship graveyard and Shroud’s warehouse, he felt utterly happy with himself. The courier had the intuition that everything would turn out well for him this time around.
“I feel like you’re my lucky charm, my friend,” Ryan told Ghoul. “Like a rabbit’s foot, or a four-leaf clover. I should have kept you ages ago.”
The Psycho’s bodiless skull glared at him, hung on the rear mirror by a rope.
Surprisingly, it had cost Ryan less money to convince the Private Security to keep the Psycho for himself than imprisoning it. He guessed it cost more to feed a prisoner than to just ignore a vigilante.
Like all loops so far, Wyvern visited him, although she sounded a bit less enthusiastic this time, for some ghoulish reason. She had also insisted he deliver Ghoul for safekeeping, as a sign of trust—and for his own ‘safety.’ Vulcan followed with her own recruitment pitch, putting him firmly on the Augusti Path.
So far so good.
Ryan stopped in front of the warehouse, grabbed Ghoul with Fisty, and then stepped out of the car. “I will kill you,” Ghoul snarled. “I will kill you, I swea—”
He never finished his sentence, as Ryan started juggling the skull while whistling. He looked through the warehouse’s window, seeing neither the servers nor the friendly neighborhood assassin. If he didn’t have absolute trust in his power, the courier might have mistook the events of the previous loop for a feverish dream.
Instead of breaking in this time, Ryan knocked on the door, Ghoul’s nauseous skull under his arm.
“Hey, can you let me in, I have a car window problem?!” Ryan shouted. “Shroudy repair, Shroudy replace?”
He waited a full minute before the door finally opened, revealing a glass man and servers on the other side. “How did you know?” the Carnival member asked, glancing around as if expecting a hidden camera.
“Oh, I’m alone, my Carnival friend!” Ryan said, before showing him the skull. “Except Ghoul Wonder here, but it’s a package deal. Like Dresden and Bob, or Laurel and Hardy.”
“Get in.” Ryan walked inside, the Shroud closing the door behind them.
The Genome remained fully visible this time, perhaps believing the courier didn’t know about that trick. He sat in his chair, the screens of his many computers showing a map of New Rome with multiple locations marked. Most seemed to be Augusti fronts, like the Bakuto and Renesco’s place. A cup of camomile tea waited near the keyboard.
“Quicksave, how did you know?” Shroud asked him again, skipping the pleasantries and being all business.
“You don’t ask a magician to reveal his tricks,” Ryan replied, glancing at the cup. “Like this one: tea.”
He shook Ghoul’s head in front of the teacup until the skull let out a puff of white mist. The liquid turned cold, ice cubes appearing on the surface.
“True genius,” Shroud replied with heavy sarcasm, although he didn’t touch the beverage.
“He also works with fridges, and it’s eco-friendly.”
“I will rape you, you maniac!” Ghoul snarled. “I will kill you, and then I will rape your corpse while it’s still warm!”
“You deserve the pain, asshole,” the glass manipulator replied, completely unsympathetic to the Psycho’s plight. “You killed at least seventeen people, according to my files.”
“Only seventeen?” The Psycho laughed, before bragging. “I killed hundreds! Hundreds!”
He sounded really proud of it too. You would think Ghoul would know better than brag about his body count while in his current position, but nope. Shroud observed the Psycho with cold disdain, before turning to Ryan. “What do you want me to do with him?”
“Why, interrogate him of course!” Ryan said, caressing the back of Ghoul’s skull. “Isn’t that right, Skellington? You’ll tell us everything about this big bunker your big bad boss wants so much?”
“A bunker?” Shroud asked, instantly interested.
“BLEEP you, Quicksave! BLEEP you!”
“Shut up slave,” Ryan replied, before slapping Ghoul.
“Y-you slapped me!” the talking skull complained. “You slapped—”
And Ryan slapped him again, the Psycho glaring at him with fury and humiliation. “Everything you can do to me, Adam can do worse.”
“Oh, really?” Accepting the challenge, Shroud separated a glass shard from his armor, shaping it into a thin needle. The object floated right in front of the Psycho’s skull, lining itself with his left eye. “If you don’t tell me everything, that needle will work its way into your eye, and then the brain. Slowly, painfully. Then I will work on the other.”
“I have survived decapitation, bitch,” Ghoul replied, unimpressed. He stared at the weapon as it came closer and closer, without faltering.
Ryan sighed, putting his hand on Shroud’s shoulder. “What?” the glass manipulator asked, stopping his needle as it reached the cornea, “You believe he doesn’t deserve it?”
“I know you want to play Jack Bauer, but that’s not how you torture a Psycho,” Ryan replied, searching inside his trench coat while putting the undead’s skull on a corner of the desk.
Ghoul’s eyes changed from confident to mesmerized, as the courier revealed a green potion, put inside a perfume-like receptacle. Dynamis’ logo was plastered on it, alongside the concoction’s name.
“The Hercules knockoff Elixir, made in Dynamis,” Ryan advertised the product, dangling it in front of Ghoul. The skull tried to take it with his teeth, but obviously, he couldn’t do it without legs. “You like it? I bought it this morning. It grants superhuman strength and stamina, and I heard it feels like drinking a liquid orgasm.”
“Give it to me!” Ghoul snarled, his junkie addiction taking over. “Give it to me dammit!”
“Uh uh, it’s contraindicated for quadriplegics,” Ryan taunted him. “I guess I will have to flush it down the toilet.”
“Y-you monster!” The Psycho sounded genuinely horrified. “You won’t dare, do you know how much they cost?”
“What do they cost?” The courier exploded into maniacal laughter, chilling Ghoul to the bone. It made him laugh even more, with Glass Man looking at the scene in disturbed silence. “Life isn’t about money! It’s about having fun!”
“You have to stop him!” Ghoul snarled at Shroud. “You, glass man! You have to stop him! He’s mad! Mad enough to do it!”
“I don’t think I can restrain him unless you give me information,” Shroud replied, removing his needle and switching to good cop mode. “I barely have any control as it is.”
Ryan opened the bottle, letting Ghoul smell its sweet perfume, before tilting it sideways. Some of the product fell on the ground, the undead letting out a snarl of horror.
“Stop, stop!” Ghoul quickly caved in. “There’s a place below the Junkyard! A place!”
“A place?” Shroud asked, unimpressed, while Ryan kept slowly spilling the product. “That’s not enough!”
“A bunker, below the trash tower!” Ghoul said, his desperate eyes on the Elixir. “It’s full of robots and laser turrets, they shoot at Genomes on sight! We came to New Rome for it!”
This time, Ryan stopped spilling the knockoff on the ground, having kept half of the bottle. Ghoul let out a breath of deep relief, which was odd since he had no lungs.
“What’s in the bunker?” Shroud asked, his tone dangerous.
“Adam won’t tell us,” Ghoul replied, sounding truthful. “He only told a few. He doesn’t want word to get out.”
“So, you throw yourself at a fortified place without knowing what’s inside?” Shroud deadpanned, although he sounded more and more interested as he listened. “Forgive me if I find that sketchy.”
“Adam knows best,” Ghoul replied. “He always does. And he’s obsessed with it. He says it’s, how does he say it… the future, yes! The future! The automated defenses sense Genomes and we lost a few people to them, so Adam decided to send normies in! Even dogs!”
“Another question then,” Ryan said. “How about the sweet supply of Elixir you Psychos are high on?”
“I don’t know, alright!” Ghoul snarled, Shroud listening like a hawk stalking a dove. “Psyshock handles it for Adam. They distribute knockoff Elixirs regularly, so long as we play by the rules. If we disobey or we look into it, we’re cut from the supply.”
“It would be impossible to generate a supply of genuine Elixirs, considering their rarity,” Shroud mused, his arms crossed. “Do they come from Dynamis? If they are knockoffs, I would assume so.”
“Are you deaf? I already told you, I don’t know! I don’t give a BLEEP where that sweet nectar comes from, so long as it flows!”
Ryan turned towards the glass man, very proud of himself. “See?”
“That’s worrying, I will grant you that,” Shroud admitted. “I will look into it. Can I keep Ghoul for further interrogation?”
“Sure, I have the rest of the body in cold storage in my trunk.” Ryan chuckled at his own joke, doubly so when Ghoul sent him a death glare. “Though I would like it if you kept me updated on your progress. I promised someone I would get the Meta out of Rust Town, and I will follow through.”
Shroud tilted his head to the side but didn’t ask for details. Ghoul, meanwhile, grew even more agitated. “Give it to me now! I told you everything!”
Ryan looked at this skull, and into his tiny, adorable eyes. “No arms, no Elixir.”
The undead let out a snarl of pain and anger, which warmed the courier’s heart with twisted schadenfreude. “Hopes are like breakfast eggs,” he told Shroud, as he put the knockoff on the other side of the desk, too far for Ghoul to reach. “You can’t start the day without crushing them.”
Instead of responding, the glass man detached a part of his glass armor, reshaping it into a jar to imprison Ghoul’s skull inside. “Why are you giving me this information? What do you want in return?”
Ryan put his hands behind his back and leaned towards Shroud, until their heads were within inches of one another. “Where is Len?”
The glass man didn’t answer the question immediately. His brain seemed to have frozen in place, failing to compute Ryan’s words. “That makes no sense,” Shroud finally spoke up, shaking his head. “That question, that whole situation, makes no sense.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Saint Gobain? I believe it should be clear enough.”
“It is clear, but you shouldn’t…” He seemed to reach a eureka moment. “Is your power truly stopping time?”
Ryan said nothing.
“I always wondered why you called yourself Quicksave,” Shroud said. “You seem extraordinarily lucky as if you always know how things would turn out. As if the world itself would bend to your whims. You’re clearly insane, yet somehow, you always get away with all the messes you leave in your wake. You knew where I was without me leaving any hints, that the Psycho’s intel would interest me, and that I had the information you needed. It can’t be a coincidence, therefore it isn’t.”
“Oh?” Ryan looked at Shroud with curiosity. “Please, do go on.”
“You’re not actually stopping time,” Shroud argued. “Instead, I think you peek into various alternate realities, then select one that favors you and overwrites the current one. Advanced reality manipulation. The transition just looks like a time-stop to outsiders.”
Ryan listened to his rambling with great patience. He had to admit, it was a plausible theory, especially as far as Violet Genomes went. Though Shroud made the error of believing Ryan had only one visible power, instead of one power having multiple applications. The courier decided to be careful in his next loops, to make sure the glass manipulator never guessed his ability’s true nature.
“So, am I right?” the vigilante asked.
“Who knows,” the courier replied with a shrug. “But if you’re right, certainly you should listen to my wise words. Also, bet on the T-Rex tonight, and 'the orange is in the hen house’.”
“The orange is in the hen house?” Shroud asked, confused.
“If you remember these words, then you’re safe.”
This confused the Genome greatly, much to Ryan’s amusement. While he mentally pondered on the matter, the glass Genome turned toward his keyboard and started typing. A map of the west and the Tyrrhenian Sea appeared on the screen, and Shroud put his finger on a spot, in a maritime area roughly equidistant from New Rome, Sardinia, and Sicily. “She’s there.”
“The Vavilov basin?” Ryan mused, his heart skipping a beat.
“The deepest part of the Tyrrhenian Basin,” the glass Genome confirmed. “The Underdiver, as she calls herself now, has an undersea base somewhere in the area, three kilometers deep below the surface.”
Ryan gasped, as he connected the dots. “An undersea communist utopia.”
“You think this is a new Kremlin?” Shroud turned his head, quite surprised.
“She’s Marxist-Leninist,” Ryan replied, completely giddy. Finally, he had reached his goal. “How do I get in?”
“I don’t know,” the glass man replied, disappointing the courier. “Even with diver equipment, the place is full of mutant fish and other hazards. I didn’t look too much into it, since besides supplying and repairing their shipping submarines, she isn’t involved in the Augusti organization.”
“Wow, you actually told me everything.”
Shroud froze. “Yes, and?”
And if Ryan had known it would be so easy, instead of having to attack a movie studio or follow a seminar, he would have done that ages ago! “I hope you aren’t planning anything harmful with that information,” the courier said, changing the subject, “Because if you intend to do anything to her, then we’ll have a problem.”
“My only targets are the Augusti and Meta,” Shroud replied. “Although I suspect you already know that part. If I targeted every private contractor in the city, half of New Rome would be wiped out, and she finances an orphanage in Rust Town. She ships them food and money every week. I won’t attack someone trying to turn their life around.”
Ryan froze, as a few things fell into place. “The Meta-Gang intends to attack that place soon.”
Shroud immediately tensed. “Why?”
“You heard dem bones, they need normies to get inside the bunker. Apparently, some places are too big for adults to crawl into.”
“So you can peek into alternate timelines,” Shroud took this as a confirmation of his theory, although he clenched his fists. “You are a pseudo-precog, and you help me because this is the optimal scenario.”
“Don’t get too cocky, Windshield.”
“I will take care of the orphanage,” he said with firm dedication. “As for reaching your friend, I cannot help much. The only person who remains in contact with her is Vulcan since they have a technology trade going on. I can look into it if you want.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, but thank you,” Finally, the moment of truth. “You see, I have received an offer from both Wyvern and Vulcan to join their respective organizations.”
“I want you to stop your explosive assassination spree of the Augusti.”
“And why would I do that?” Shroud asked, his tone turning from cautiously friendly to cold.
“Because if I infiltrate the Augusti on your behalf, I don’t want to get blown-up by accident.”
The vigilante remained silent for a few seconds as he processed Ryan’s words, then he laughed. “You know that they have a truth-teller?”
“Luigi’s my problem,” Ryan replied, the vigilante a bit surprised that he knew the name. “What you want is to cripple the Augusti organization, correct?”
“Not cripple,” Shroud replied. “Destroy it utterly.”
“Which can be done without killing anyone,” Ryan argued. “Most of their revenue comes from Bliss.”
“Not all of it,” Shroud replied. “They have a finger in every pie. Prostitution, gambling, weapon trafficking, booze… but Bliss is the cornerstone of their business and money-maker, yes. It’s half their revenues.”
“And correct me if I’m wrong, all the Bliss come from their island superlab.”
“Yes,” Shroud confirmed. “I don’t know why, but they can only produce the drug there. Maybe they need a specific Genome or environmental conditions. I haven’t been able to get in, or even close. Security is too tight.”
“Well then, that’s it,” Ryan said, putting his hands on his hips in a Superman pose. “I’ll destroy this lab for you, and cripple their business!”
Glass man remained skeptical though. “Assuming you succeed, which… may be plausible… you want me to do what, ignore the criminal syndicate killing people every day in the meantime?”
“You don’t attack the Augusti, especially Zanbato, Chitter, or Sphere.” He might have included Luigi in the group, but Ryan didn’t like him and the truth-teller could cause problems down the line. “And obviously you won’t go after me.”
“Crippling their Bliss supply won’t be enough to destroy the organization,” Shroud replied. “It will weaken them, certainly, but we want to destroy Augustus’ empire permanently.”
“Yes, but if an assassin targets them, then the Augusti will be on edge and increase security around the lab,” Ryan pointed out. “If they get no early warning, and focus entirely on the Meta…”
The courier let the sentence hang, while Shroud joined his hands to ponder the offer. Frankly, he had everything to gain with this arrangement. The Augusti and Meta-Gang would kill each other without him having to risk discovery, and he would have an agent inside Augustus’ group supplying him with information. With his own access to Dynamis’ servers, the vigilante could secretly infiltrate every organization in the city, fix the whole board.
“Three weeks,” said the vigilante. “You have three weeks to destroy that lab. Afterward, the matter will be out of my hands and I can’t promise anything.”
“And in whose hands will it be then?”
Shroud remained silent as a tombstone. Perhaps he wanted to gauge the limits of Ryan’s abilities, or he didn’t trust him yet.
Well, hopefully, Ryan would have met with Len then, and it wouldn’t be his problem anymore. He didn’t care if Augustus and the Carnival fought one another, so long as he completed his own Perfect Run. He might even make another loop, just to bypass saying anything compromising to the glass manipulator.
“Don’t bother coming back here, I will contact you,” Shroud said. “I will keep you informed of the Meta investigation, and you will return me the favor as far as the Augusti are concerned. If you tell anyone I exist, I will learn of it, and the deal is off.”
“Deal.” Ryan presented his hand, Shroud shaking it. “Don’t take it personally when I say I hope we don’t meet again.”
“We both know this ain’t happening.” The glass manipulator dismissed him without a word, returning to his screens and files.
Ryan turned away, reached the door, and opened it.
“Quicksave?” Shroud called him from behind.
Ryan stopped on the threshold.
“I wish you luck, for everything. You’re doing good in the world. Don’t forget that.”
Ryan waved his hand at him without turning back, closing the door behind. He glanced at the sea beyond the ship graveyard, where Len waited for him.
Finally, the perfect path was clear.