All was well so far on the Augusti Path.
Ryan had met Zanbato as expected, beat up Sarin at the harbor, and now repeated the exact same conversation which would lead him to crash at Jamie’s house. All was well and good, to the sound of crashing waves against the piers...
“I have to be sure about something,” Luigi asked the courier. “Are you a snitch or a double agent?”
“Well, I’m not really on anyone’s side,” Ryan replied, but then his mouth acted on its own, “But I’m a Carnival infiltrator, yes.”
… or not.
Everyone present turned to look at him, a tense silence settling in. The grunts raised their weapons, while Zanbato’s face turned from shocked, to disappointed, and finally, to furious.
Okay, two lessons learned.
One, Ryan hated truth-tellers. Hated them, with a passion.
Two, Zanbato could make sashimi out of people with his laser sword. Ryan wouldn’t look at sushi the same way ever again.
But this time… this time, it would be different. The courier had rehearsed the perfect misleading answers. Luigi's power compelled Ryan to say the truth, but only according to the teller’s exact words.
“I have to be sure about something,” Luigi asked him again. “Are you a snitch or a double agent?”
“I can’t snitch on a group I haven’t officially joined yet, and I am not a double agent.” Technically, he was a triple one.
“Are you a mole?”
“Of course I’m not a mole, I’m human.”
There! Saved! He did it, he did it!
“Okay, I should work on my wording,” Luigi sighed but didn’t give up. “Are you, or do you intend, to relay information about us to another organization?”
“Well, yes, I intend to. Hell, I already did!”
Okay, third time's the charm.
Through timing and intelligence, Ryan had skillfully navigated through the chain of causality to avoid the fated question. He had put on the charm, befriended everyone, distracted the grunts with funny anecdotes. Now, the courier and Zanbato prepared to return to the Plymouth Fury, and go eat some delicious pizzas.
“Hey, Quicksave,” Luigi asked, as they took a few steps towards the car. “Before you go, there are a few questions I must ask every new recruit.”
“Luigi, seriously, please, don’t do it,” Ryan replied, his eyes pleading. “For your sake, don’t say this. It won’t end well, I swear it won’t—”
“Sorry, protocol. Are you a snitch?”
“Yes, yes, yes! Yes, I am! Is that what you want me to say, Luigi? Is that what you want me to say?”
Quicksave breathed deeply, fighting off his rising frustration.
“Luigi,” Ryan pointed a finger at the truth-teller, as everyone raised their weapons at the courier's face. “We’re going to have a problem, you and I.”
“Where’s Luigi?” Zanbato asked Grunt 1 when the truth-teller failed to show up at the harbor, leaving only the henchmen to deal with the operation. “Wasn’t he supposed to take care of the shipment?”
“Sorry, he was attacked yesterday night,” Gruntie said, carrying Luigi’s cell phone. Apparently, he would have to fill in for the Made Man. “He’s at the hospital right now, and he’ll be out of commission for a while.”
“What?” The news shocked Jamie, who clearly hadn’t been informed. “By whom?”
“Some crazy psychopath with a hockey mask and stick, from what I heard.”
“It’s a very dangerous sport, hockey,” Ryan said absentmindedly, looking at the sea. “I don’t recommend it.”
“Yeah, that was crazy,” Grunt 1 nodded. “Apparently Luigi returned home late for a party, you know, perfectly normal, he starts opening his home’s door and then BAM! Some Friday the 13th crazy jumps out of the shadows, breaks his jaw with a hockey stick, beats him up for a while, and then leaves.”
“Why?” Jamie almost chortled. “Why Luigi? Was it a robbery?”
“No, the maniac didn’t even take his money,” Grunt 1 replied. “Maybe it was a hate crime?”
“The attacker looked really, uh, passionate according to witnesses,” Gruntie said. “At least from what I heard.”
“Well, Luigi sleeps around a lot, a real homewrecker,” Grunt 2 pointed out, “Maybe it was a jealous boyfriend? It had to happen one day.”
“Or it could be the Meta.” Zanbato crossed his arms. “But then how did they learn where he lived?”
It actually took Ryan more time to find the hockey equipment than Luigi’s address. Nobody played that sport nowadays.
“Quicksave, you’re staying at a hotel right?” Jamie asked Ryan. “I think you should crash at my place for the night, just in case. The city isn’t safe at all”
“You don’t say,” Ryan replied.
After that, events happened as predicted. Jamie invited him home, they played poker, went to Vulcan’s factory, and Ryan saved the pandas from extinction.
Ryan’s mind had long entered auto-pilot, as he let his sense of timing guide him forward. The auto-pilot wasn’t really a sub-power, simply a state his conscious mind entered when he couldn’t be bothered to live through the same events over and over again. It was no different than daydreaming while repeating a mind-numbing task.
Humans were bound by the laws of causality. With a few exceptions, he constantly lived through an endless theater rehearsal. People held no mystery to him after a while, always reacting the same way to the exact same things; they forgot him and relearned the same information, over, and over again. They became machines, and Ryan the only human in the room.
The repetition would drive anyone insane.
But it was necessary suffering to reach the perfect ending and soon, it would finally end. Everything would turn right when Ryan found Len. He was certain of it.
His cellphone beeping snapped him back to reality, interrupting the flow of causality.
It took Ryan a second to remember when and where he was when he snapped back to consciousness. Extensive looping and repetition often eroded the Genome's perception of reality, especially when his power noticed an alteration in his personal timeline.
Ryan checked his phone, while Lanka had already left for Vulcan’s factory, the Panda laying defeated on the ground. The message involved a photo of Rust Town’s orphanage, intact, and a text below.
S: Psyshock taken care of. Children are safe.
Thanks for the tip.
Ryan lived for such surprises, good or bad.
When he noticed Pluto and her bodyguard talking with Zanbato, Ryan expected events to repeat until he met Vulcan. The Augusti’s underboss froze the exact same way upon meeting him, and said the exact same thing.
“You,” Pluto asked Quicksave.
“Moi?” Ryan answered, preparing to repeat the same conversation.
“Have we met before?”
This surprised Ryan, as he didn’t expect that answer. “Possibly, I’m unforgettable.”
“I’m sure of it, we already met,” Pluto replied, her tone turning from curious to confused. “Who are you?”
“Boss, what is it?” her bodyguard asked Pluto, while Lanka stood still next to Ryan. The underboss’ mere attention terrified her into silence.
“He’s marked,” Pluto said. “But I don’t remember him.”
And shit! Did her power somehow mark him across time?
“Is something wrong, boss?” Jamie joined the conversation, carefully backing Ryan up with Ki-jung.
“Who is your new recruit, Zanbato?”
Ryan prepared to joke when Jamie invaded his personal space, putting a hand on his shoulder. You speak to her when talked to, he all but said out loud. “Quicksave,” Zanbato answered Pluto’s question in the courier’s place. “He’s a Violet. Time-stopper.”
“Not a Blue?” Pluto observed Ryan with an intense stare, as if trying to peer into his soul. The courier couldn’t explain why, but he felt a growing pressure around him. The air thickened, something weighing on his mind.
“Cancel would have noticed a memory alteration or infohazard,” Pluto’s female bodyguard pointed out. “Maybe your powers interfere with each other somehow?”
Pluto didn’t seem convinced, her eyes set on Ryan. The courier whistled and looked away innocently, while Zanbato came to his defense. “Quicksave may be odd, but he is reliable,” the Made Man said. “He helped us fight off Sarin yester—”
“What’s your name, Quicksave?” she asked Ryan, completely dismissing Zanbato’s words. “Your real name.”
“Oh, I’m Ryan!” he replied with mock reverence, alleviating the tension. “Ryan Romano. I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone.”
“No one lives forever,” she replied coldly. “I’ve got places to be right now, but I will call you back soon to clear this up. Play stupid, play smart, run, or say no, and you will die.”
The way she threatened him… No, wait, that wasn’t a threat. That was a statement.
If Ryan didn’t follow her order, he would die. The end.
The courier and his group watched the underboss leave with her bodyguard in complete silence until they were out of sight. Nobody dared to speak up at first, so Ryan broke the ice. “So, who’s up for Chinese?” he asked.
“Shit,” Lanka said, letting out a breath of relief. “Blabbermouth, what the fuck did you do?”
“What didn’t I do?!” Ryan replied, just as confused. “Or would you prefer Italian?”
“This is serious, Quicksave,” Jamie said. “That woman is Pluto, Augustus’ sister and underboss. Her interest is not a good thing.”
“I suggest you follow her lead without question,” Ki-jung said, her face full of concern, “She can kill with a thought.”
“Why is she even here?” Lanka asked her team leader.
“The boss gave the go to hit the Meta-Gang hard,” Jamie replied, his arms crossed. “Vulcan will take command of the clean-up since she’s been itching to test her new weapons in the field, and Pluto loaned her the Killer Seven hit squad. I say it’s finally time we clean up the trash.”
“Especially after what they did to poor Luigi,” Ki-jung said with a frown. “To attack him in front of his own house… if you can’t feel safe at home anymore...”
“Are we sure that it’s the Meta who did that though?” Lanka asked, skeptical. “I mean, it was just a guy with a hockey cross. It if was a Meta, there should have been a lot more casualties.”
“It’s probably an unpowered junkie they paid off,” Jamie replied. “The Meta-Gang isn’t a big group. It would make sense for them to outsource their dirty work.”
Ryan listened to the discussion, trying to puzzle out the sequence of events. It appeared Shroud had followed through with his promise and stopped targeting the Augusti with assassinations. With no one to divert their attention, the criminal syndicate had decided to focus entirely on wiping out the Meta-Gang.
Ryan wasn’t sure how Pluto’s newfound interest in him would play out though. It could threaten his entire infiltration mission, and he had to figure out how she could identify him even after he altered the timeline.
Goddammit, every time he made progress, a new problem arose!
No, wait, it didn’t matter. Ryan only had to play along until Vulcan told him how to contact or reach Len. He didn’t have to stay with the Augusti longer than that. And if they tried to force him into one fetch quest after another…
Well, it wouldn’t end well for them.
They entered Vulcan’s factory next, with Zanbato lecturing Ryan on how he should talk to the Capo once more. Ryan barely paid attention, having already disregarded the advice the first time, but the tense meeting with Pluto made the courier reconsider how to treat with the mercurial Genius. With already one high-ranked Augusti suspecting him and his long-awaited meeting with Len on the line, there was no point in alienating another.
Even if he hated it, Quicksave would have to behave.
Ryan and co entered Vulcan’s workshop, the courier’s eyes immediately drawn to the enormous armor. It was odd to look at this enormous machine again after the Genius tried to murder Ryan with it.
Instead of teasing Vulcan about her height this time, Ryan focused entirely on the armor while Zanbato exchanged introductions with the Capo. Vulcan, however, quickly noticed Ryan’s interest in her work.
“Impressed yet?” she asked Ryan, clearly expecting him to flatter her.
“Interesting design, especially the miniature fusion reactor,” Ryan replied innocently. “But you should coat the joints with a protective, anti-shock layer. Someone might break them by applying selective pressure.”
“I thought of that,” she replied, a bit surprised by his insight. “But I haven’t found an alloy composite which may resist the intense movement friction without causing an arm-jamming. Considering its intended target, I favored speed over defense.”
Ryan remembered how Wyvern stomped on the machine last time but kept that amusing anecdote for himself. “Why not a plastic derivative then?”
Vulcan sat on her workbench, a flash of interest crossing her face. “Are you a Genius, Quicksave?”
“Not really, but I have experience with Genius-tech.” He absentmindedly tossed her the A-bomb. “And, well, pretty much everything.”
“Everything?” Wyvern’s nemesis observed the bomb with fascination. “Such a beautiful design...”
“Except ice-skating.” Now that he thought of it, Ryan really should dedicate a loop to mastering that skill, in case he had to fight Ghoul again. “You want to keep the bomb? Can I bribe you with it?”
“I can keep it?” By now, Vulcan looked like a child receiving a surprise Christmas present.
“Is that what love at first sight looks like?” Lanka mused with a deadpan face. “I thought it was a lie.”
“Careful with your tongue, Sphere,” Vulcan replied, keeping the bomb. “Quicksave, I want you in my division. You start tomorrow.”
Wow wow wow, she was skipping a lot of steps there! Jamie immediately tried to defend his imaginary purity. “I thought he might do well with Mercury,” he cleared his throat, “and Pluto wants to check up on him. She doesn't like him.”
“Pluto?” Vulcan shrugged. “She’s a paranoid bitch, but I know how to handle her. She didn’t even want me on the team when I joined, and yet, here I am. Don’t worry about her, Quicksave, I’ll cover you.”
Was she actually being nice? The contrast with the short-fuse, violent criminal who tried to murder Ryan a few loops ago couldn’t be clearer.
“As for Mercury, I scouted Quicksave first, and he’ll be wasted on minion work,” the Genius added with smug disdain, brushing Jamie off.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m not interested in long-term employment,” Ryan replied. “I’m looking for Len, black hair, blue eyes, Marxist-Leninist.”
“I know she has an undersea base and you’re in contact with her,” Ryan said, putting his hands behind his back. “If you could send me there, I would greatly appreciate it.”
“You’re well-informed,” Vulcan replied, before making a strange face. “Contact isn’t the term I would employ with her. We’re more like Genius penpals, trading tech sometimes. I can make a meeting happen, though not for free.”
Ryan thought she wanted him to invite for dinner as payment, but instead, she still ordered them to ruin Wyvern’s movie for petty revenge. Some things never changed.
Still, he looked around for hidden cameras or a bomb. Things couldn’t work out so well, could they?
“Come back tomorrow when the work is done and your trouble with Pluto is solved, Ryan,” Vulcan said. “I’ll give you your reward, and change your mind about the long-term employment part.”
The courier noticed she spoke to him on a first-name basis now.
Nothing better than an A-bomb to earn a woman's affection.
“That worked out well,” Lanka said when they left the factory, quite astonished. “I thought you would fuck this up somehow, blabbermouth, but she seems to like you.”
“Are you alright?” Jamie asked Ryan once they were out of the factory.
“Why the question, Yojimbo?” the courier asked back.
“You look subdued,” the swordsman pointed out. “I can’t say it’s a bad thing, but you seem to feel down, man.”
Sharp. In truth, Ryan didn’t feel so well because he was very close to reaching his goal. He had eliminated Shroud’s interference, things were moving smoothly, and unless Pluto decided to kill him outright, he should be able to meet back up with Len tomorrow. The path seemed clear.
He thought he would feel excitement, joy at having overcome all obstacles in the way, but Ryan couldn’t shake off a vague sentiment of unease. Like someone having trained all their life to climb Mount Everest, and having the summit in sight.
He was afraid of being disappointed.