It was a bright new day in New Rome.
The sun was rising. Bullets were flying. Rats were singing.
Standing at the balcony of Jamie’s apartment in casual clothes, a coffee mug in his right hand, Ryan glanced at the rodents occupying the area. Ki-jung's rats seemed to be doing some stretching exercises while dawn rose beyond the horizon, showing incredible levels of flexibility. They were cute, for enormous mutant rodents.
But Ryan was a cat person at heart, and he was in a foul mood.
He grabbed his cellphone with his left hand and played pre-recorded music he had prepared just for the occasion. The terrible noise of felines meowing echoed across the apartment, startling the rats and sending them into a frenzied panic. They immediately dispersed, hiding beneath the sofa.
“Ryan!” Ki-jung shouted from the kitchen, busy making breakfast. “Stop it!”
“What?” he asked innocently, the rats glancing at Ryan upon realizing his trick. “It’s not forbidden to listen to cat music!”
“I’m not forbidden to throw you off the balcony either!”
“What is all the racket?” Jamie emerged from his bedroom, wearing only a shirt and boxers. Without his armor, he reminded Ryan of a grizzly bear emerging from his cave. The first thing the mob enforcer did was to kiss his girlfriend, then join the courier at the balcony with a coffee cup of his own.
“Nothing,” Ryan replied, hiding his cell phone. Ki-jung's rats emerged from their hiding spots to gather behind his back, glaring at him. Seeing a dozen rats in that position may have frightened a normal person, but the courier just meowed at them.
“You’re impossible,” Jamie replied, his eyes blinked as he slowly woke up. A rat jumped on the balcony’s ramp, the Genome scratching it between the ears. “How are you feeling?”
“Ryan,” Jamie looked at him in the eye, “how do you really feel?”
Was he that bad at hiding it? Ryan looked at the distant, warming sun. “I don’t feel anything.”
“Anything as in…”
“Nothing,” Ryan replied with a sigh. “I feel empty.”
Well, to be precise, he felt like someone whose years-long quest had ended disastrously. Ryan had expected a happy reunion that would make everything better, and he had only found more tears and sadness. Emptiness had been his natural state for years, until learning of Len’s survival had given him a newfound direction. His endless existence finally had a purpose.
Except Len didn’t want Ryan in her life. Hell, she was an even bigger wreck than he was.
“But I’m used to it,” the courier replied with optimism. “That just means I’ve just got to find something to fill the void!”
Even that stunt with the rats was an attempt to get his mind off Len. He had found chaos and whimsical jokes a welcome distraction when in a bad mood. Confusion energized him, while introspection made him feel stale and restless.
Jamie shook his head, before looking at the sunlight too. “I’m sorry.”
“About your girl. I’m sorry she broke your heart.”
“I haven’t been dumped,” Ryan protested since he clearly had misunderstood the situation.
“I know rejection is painful,” Zanbato consoled him, digging himself deeper. “And that’s okay. It happens to everyone. She wasn’t the right person for you, or perhaps now was not the right moment. You’re still young, you will find someone.”
For empty platitudes, Jamie managed to make them sound inspired. Maybe because he earnestly tried to cheer him up.
“The worst part is,” Ryan said, letting out some frustration instead of bottling it up, “she’s in pain, and I don’t know how to help yet."
His words seemed to resonate with Jamie, who opened his mouth without saying anything, seemingly rehearsing his words in his head. He glanced at the rats and told them to shoo away. The rodents let out a vengeful screech at Ryan and then moved to the kitchen.
“You know one day, a former friend and I found someone having an overdose. A homeless woman.” Jamie spoke once the rats out of earshot, his voice breaking. “She would have died if we hadn’t been there.”
Ryan could sense the sheer emotion brimming in Jamie’s voice, and said nothing. It clearly came from the heart.
“Even when she was out of the hospital, I considered her my responsibility. I tried to help her clean herself up. It was hard. It was really hard. It took months to deal with the relapses, the bad habits, and help her find a job… a lot of my friends, they didn’t understand. They thought I was just wasting my time. That she was hopeless. But… but she wasn’t. It worked out. It was hard, but she recovered.”
Ryan glanced at the kitchen and Ki-jung’s shadow.
“People take time to heal,” Jamie said. “And from what I heard, that girl seems to have pretty deep scars. Don’t give up and do your best, but don’t beat yourself over it either.”
Ryan nodded but didn’t respond.
“I talked with the others,” Jamie said, swallowing his coffee without savoring it the way Ryan did, “and we will organize a party next Thursday at the house. To welcome you in New Rome.”
“A Hugh Hefner party, or a friendly house-warming party?”
“Genome-only, most of whom are single.”
“Hugh Hefner then. Wait, are you going to whore me out? Am I to pay the rent in my flesh and blood?”
“Don’t worry about rent. However, everything that will happen during the party will stay at the party. You may see... weird stuff.” The more Jamie spoke, the more embarrassed he sounded. “Stuff that would shock most people. I think you’re pretty open-minded, but… I’m not sure how much.”
Since Genomes were naturally immune to most diseases, including STDs, and had a high drug threshold, Ryan had a pretty good idea of how the party would degenerate. “Oh you know, without arrogance,” the courier smiled, “I’ve seen everything.”
“Okay, good. No Bliss or cats allowed, and you help clean up tomorrow morning,” Jamie added firmly. “Also, no matter what happens, don’t fuck Vamp. You can hook up with anyone, anyone, but her.”
“A forbidden romance route? How can I resist?”
“By reminding yourself that she’s a goddamn succubus who will drain you to death if you fall into her arms,” Jamie said, with a hint of dislike. “She’s a nasty shade of Green.”
“Why invite her at all if you don’t like her?”
“She’s part of the hit squad, and she takes it personally when she isn’t invited to group events. Trust me, it’s less drama that way.”
“And Livia!” Ki-jung shouted from inside the apartment. “Don’t forget to tell him about Livia!”
“And Livia too, thank you, honey!” Jamie shouted back, before focusing on Ryan. “She’s off-limits for a reason I cannot divulge yet, but trust me. If you make a move on her, you will die.”
Jamie didn’t know anything about reverse-psychology, did he?
Nah, the courier wasn’t in the mood.
“I think I will pass on the matchmaking attempt,” Ryan said, bored with romance. “I’ve had my fair share of hook-ups.”
“Really?” Jamie didn’t hide his surprise. “I didn’t take you for a party animal. Or at least, not that kind.”
“At one point in my life, my motto was ‘try them all until you find the perfect one,’” Ryan explained. “But afterward, it became stale and superficial. It was just doing the same thing over, and over again.”
“I… I think I see what you mean.”
“Also, why are you advocating for me to fight for true love, and then try to hook me up with someone else?”
“No, I said, you don’t give up on helping your friend with her issues, but if she isn’t interested, take the hint and look for companionship elsewhere.” Jamie put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder, overflowing with warm dad radiations. “I know it’s a leap of faith, but I’m sure you will find someone that can make you happy at that party. That’s all I wish for you.”
Ryan turned towards the apartment. “Ki-jung!”
“Yes?!” she replied, busy making lunch.
“If you don’t marry this man, I will do it myself!”
“I don’t share!” she replied with a deadpan tone.
“I told you that you had the same sense of humor,” Jamie said, putting a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. Both Genomes returned to the kitchen, putting their empty cups in the sink.
By then, Ki-jung had cooked a big brunch for her man and herself. However, she also handed a lunchbox to Ryan. “Here,” she said. “For midday. It’s bibimbap, so I hope you like rice and vegetables.”
“It’s fine, I was going to grab a sand—”
“Take it,” she insisted, all but shoving the lunchbox in Ryan’s arms. “Knowing Vulcan, she won’t let you out of her workshop until she has worked you to the bone.”
Goddammit, these guys were so nice, it was almost oppressive. They were killing him with kindness.
His lunchbox under his arm, Ryan prepared to leave for work but stopped in front of Lanka’s bedroom first. “Sleeping beauty?” The courier knocked. “It’s the police, wake up! Hands on your head!”
He heard a groan behind the door, alongside the sound of empty bottles falling to the ground. “Is it three in the afternoon already?”
“Then fuck off.”
Come to think of it, she remained awake very late into the night. She probably worked evening shifts.
After putting on his Quicksave costume, Ryan waltzed out of the house, put the lunchbox on the backseat, and then drove the Plymouth Fury away. Even at this early hour, traffic in New Rome was insane, reminding the courier of the worst hours of the pre-war era; right after leaving the suburbs, he found himself trapped in a jam. The courier opened the windows and put on the radio, singing to himself when he found the Pink Panther’s song.
“Tada, tada, tada tada tada…” Curse Henry Mancini, and his catchy tune.
He needed a cheery song, especially after last night.
The reunion’s disastrous ending had gnawed at him all evening, as he tried to figure out a way to help Len get over her issues. Unfortunately, he saw none yet, or at least none that wouldn’t make things worse. Ryan had gained a certain insight into human nature through his loops; his best friend seemed so far gone into her shell, that forcing himself into her life would worsen things. She needed to reach out to others first.
But if not him, then whom? The orphans? How did it fit?
His main quest had ended in a disaster, and Ryan didn’t know what to do next.
Well, now that he had somewhat fulfilled his main goal, the courier could devote his time to do side quests instead of starting a new loop. He had promised different people to drive the Meta out of Rust Town and to blow up the Augusti’s superlab, and the courier would be true to his word.
He didn’t know. Finding Len had been the driving force of his existence lately, a welcome intermission in his meaningless wandering. If he couldn’t help her, then…
No, he couldn’t allow himself to think this way. There was a way to solve this, he just needed time to figure it out.
“Don’t turn around.”
Ryan turned around in the back seat but saw nothing. “The green giant is in the garden,” he said. “The green giant is in the garden.”
“You’re supposed to say a code,” Ryan replied, looking back at the road. “What if I were a shapeshifter? You would have blown your cover. Frankly, you should leave the real work to professionals.”
“The orange is in the hen house?”
“See, you're learning.”
“How was your reunion with Len Sabino?” the Shroud asked, clearly sitting in the back while invisible. The courier wondered if he had waited all morning, just to surprise Ryan as he took off to work.
“Were you peeping?” Ryan sighed. “Not all that great, but I handled it like a champ!”
“I am thankful you didn’t rat me out once your goal was achieved,” Shroud replied, blatantly ignoring the question. “That makes me trust you a bit more.”
“Is there an actual reason you want to visit me, or do you just spook people on principle?”
“You wanted me to keep you updated on the Meta-Gang, and you are supposed to report how things are advancing on your side.”
“Shouldn’t you already know?” Ryan asked, quite certain the invisible jackass had kept him under tight surveillance. “I’m in.”
“You have infiltrated the Augusti, but not the right part of the organization,” the glass man said. “Bacchus leads the drug division, not Vulcan.”
“The road to complete a quest often takes twists and turns,” Ryan replied, raising his finger and delivering his wisdom. “Sometimes, you must wait for the right opportunity.”
“Like your party?” Shroud mused. “I will wait longer, but the deal is off without meaningful progress.”
My, for an infiltrator he wasn’t very subtle about thinly-veiled threats. “How about our Psycho friends?” Ryan changed the subject. “Did you clean out the trash yet?”
“They have a sensor, warning system, or maybe a seer.” Shroud sighed. “Whenever I move too close to the Junkyard, they send a heavy hitter after me. Neither invisibility nor disguises helped.”
“Alright, so no stealth mission. What else?”
“Didn’t you deal with him?” Ryan asked, remembering his previous message.
“Yes. More than once.”
Ryan looked at the streetlight. “Regenerators are annoying, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” Then the invisible jackass dropped the bomb. “But not as much as duplicators.”
Ryan didn’t move an inch.
“I tried to capture him at the orphanage,” Shroud explained, “but he killed himself rather than become a prisoner.”
Impossible. The only thing nearly as strong as a Psycho’s addiction was their survival instinct. Especially old ones like Psyshock, who had survived for more than a decade. Unless…
“You said they sent heavy hitters after you,” Ryan guessed. “Including him?”
“Including Psyshock, whose original remains are still in my possession.” Shroud’s visor became briefly visible, reflecting the dawn’s light. “That scenario should remind you of someone else.”
Len’s father had had an incredibly loathsome cloning power, as ghastly as it was effective. It had made him nigh-unbeatable for years until the Carnival tracked all his doubles down and managed to prevent him from duplicating. Psyshock had seen it in action. Could it have inspired him?
“If his duplication works the same as Bloodstream…” Ryan trailed, his hands clenching on the driving wheel. “I’ll take it personally.”
“I can’t confirm it,” Shroud replied. “But I thought you should know. If you learn anything new, please inform me.”
“Or I will deliver the pieces,” Ryan replied. “Anything else?”
“Bacchus, alias Andreas Torque, is a Blue,” Shroud explained. “He can drive others mad with visions and hallucinations, though I do not know what triggers his power. Tread against him carefully. I don’t have a lot of information on his person, except that he is an excommunicated priest. He rarely leaves the superlab, and only to visit Augustus. If you want to get into the division, you will need to reach him through an intermediary.”
“Great, a new chain quest. I suppose I won’t get a reward for it?”
No answer. The courier turned his head around, touched the backseat with his hand, and sensed nothing. Not even a calling card.
That bastard had stolen the lunchbox!