“So, let me get this straight,” Wyvern asked, floating above the street outside Ryan’s hotel bedroom. “You came to New Rome hunting for the Meta-Gang, who managed to uncover a cache of Mechron tech beneath Rust Town. You also strongly believe that someone in Dynamis, probably Hector—namely, my employer—hired them to harass the Augusti.”
“Pretty much, yes.” Ryan nodded, wearing nothing but his underwear.
Wyvern smiled. “Am I being pranked?”
Was it because Ryan refused to wear a shirt? He had been replicating the plans for Vulcan’s armor when the superhero knocked on his window to make her sales pitch. “I would like to joke about it, but no, I’m serious.” The courier raised a thumb up. “Honest.”
Wyvern crossed her arms, a frown on her face. “Do you have any proof? These are dangerous allegations.”
“You can ask Ghoul,” Ryan said, pointing at a cooler next to his bed. “He makes the best ice cream.”
The superheroine’s frown only deepened. “But you didn’t let the Private Security bring him in custody.”
“I won’t surrender my favorite cooler,” Ryan replied. “Or else your incorruptible mooks will let him escape.”
“This meeting is going as well as I thought it would,” Wyvern lamented. “Let’s assume for a second that this isn’t some conspiracy theory and that I believe you. Why are you telling me this?”
“Because somebody trusted you.”
“Somebody?” Wyvern put her hands on her waist. “Quicksave, it will be difficult for us to build a degree of trust if you play your cards close to the chest. All in all, I find your tale rather… flimsy.”
“Well, she said you were naive too,” Ryan said and shrugged.
“I will not set aside what you said, but I only have your word on it. While you have a reputation for reliability, your psych evaluation implies you are highly unstable and prone to attention-seeking behavior.”
“Duh, you can’t make life a comedy without an audience. If you’re alone, it’s just a tragedy.”
Wyvern sighed, before offering Ryan the Dynamis business card anyway. “While I’m not sure you will follow through after what you just said, I suggest you meet with my manager. See if you are a good match, clear this up.”
“I hope he won’t mind if I bring a bottle of weedkiller?”
Wyvern couldn’t help but chuckle in response. “I wouldn’t try if I were you. Enrique isn’t fond of aggressive negotiations.”
And with those unwise words, Dragon Mom flew away and left the courier alone.
She didn’t believe Ryan, but at least the superheroine gave him the benefit of the doubt. It didn’t surprise the courier all that much. Wyvern didn’t know him well yet, and had been doubtful even with Mosquito’s testimony in an earlier loop.
And at long last, Vulcan called immediately afterward.
Ryan briefly hesitated to take the call, worried about how it would go. He eventually braced himself for the impact and answered. “Quicksave Deliveries?”
“What did the bitch tell you?” Vulcan’s encrypted voice asked.
The mere sentence sent a chill down the courier’s spine.
He had heard it before.
“My name is Vulcan,” the caller continued. “I represent the Augusti. We are the organization that runs things in New Rome, and most of Italy. Whatever the winged lizard promised you, we can offer more. We need people who get things done.”
Ryan listened to his former girlfriend the way one did a recording. “I’m sorry, mystery voice,” he interrupted her sales pitch. “But have we met before?”
Vulcan didn’t answer immediately. Perhaps he had called her out on a bluff. Perhaps she was toying with him, only to reveal that the armor had worked. That for once, things would be different.
Her next words hit him like a hammer.
“I think I would remember if we did.”
And like that, the last ember of Ryan’s hope died out.
“Anyway, if you’re interested, I sent you the Bakuto’s coordinates,” Vulcan said, Ryan not even bothering to check the email notification. “We own the establishment. Come tonight, alone, and don’t make us wait. We never ask twice.”
Yet, she just did.
More than twice.
Door-to-door salesmanship was difficult. You traveled for miles to pitch the perfect product to rednecks, only to be threatened with bodily harm.
A hand on a blue cooler, Ryan faced his meanest customer yet.
“What did you just say?” Shroud asked his visitor, a glass shard aimed at Ryan’s throat while his shack’s computer servers hummed in the background. It was so cute, how he thought the courier actually cared.
“That for one Ghoul Cooler bought, you get one free, Mechron-made orbital laser!” Ryan opened the box, with Ghoul’s skull glaring at him from within. “Made by Third World children paid five cents per hour and sold at the mere price of ninety bucks, this cooler is perfect for all and any improvised pick—”
“Cut the chit-chat,” Mr. See Through all but ordered.
“Matt, Matty, my friend, the sales won’t last forever,” Ryan mocked him. “You’re wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The shard pushed against Ryan’s throat, threatening to draw blood. “You think knowing my name gives you power?” Shroud threatened. “I was ready to risk discovery when I came to New Rome, and I fear nothing. So last warning: spill the beans.”
“Cannibal Adam is trying to access the control panel of a Mechron-made orbital satellite, called the Baha…” Ryan tried to look for the exact name. “The Bahamut!”
The shack’s windows all fractured when he said the word.
Shroud remained silent for a while, before removing the shard aimed at his guest’s throat. He sank on his chair in front of the shack’s computers, hands clenched. “Okay,” the vigilante finally said, at a loss of words. “Okay, how did you know that name?”
“Well, as you guessed, I can see into parallel timelines, and select the one which favors me the most,” Ryan lied. While he had grown to know the glass manipulator through the various loops, he was still wary of confiding in him so early in their relationship. “I’ve seen some ugly ones.”
“One where Adam the Ogre gets his hands on the Bahamut.” The mere thought made the vigilante flinch in dread.
Wow. Ryan had never seen him startled that much before. That could only mean one thing. “You believe me?”
“Nobody but the people involved in the Mechron raid knew about the satellite,” Shroud declared. “It’s possible there was a leak from someone like Nidhogg, but you haven’t been in contact with any of the survivors as far as I know. Also, if you wished to deceive me, you would have found something less outlandish.”
“Hey, are you implying I’m not naturally outlandish?” Ryan asked with mock outrage. “I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked!”
“No, you aren’t,” Shroud replied, his fingers fidgeting. The news really had him worried. “Why are you telling me this?”
“So you can tell your Living Sun to hurry up because I can’t destroy the bunker alone.” At least not yet. “What is taking him so long anyway?”
Shroud let out a sigh. “Regularly fighting threats of Augustus’ caliber means our team has a lot of turnovers. After our last outing, the Carnival doesn’t have the numbers to take on the Augusti. We have heavy hitters, but so do our enemies.”
Ah, that explained their tactics. Why rely on asymmetrical warfare to weed out the enemy if you were in a position of strength? “So, your leader is recruiting?”
“He’s calling in favors from old allies, but they can’t leave their own protectorates for long,” Shroud admitted. “Leo didn’t feel confident he could have everyone on board before the end of May.”
“Yeah, well, Hannifat Lecter is probably less than two weeks away from success too,” Ryan added, like the cherry on the cake. The Meta-Gang destroyed New Rome on May 18th, though the courier doubted it would happen on the same date again. “Tell your sun to rise faster.”
“I will scout Rust Town and interrogate Ghoul. If I confirm your intel…” Shroud joined his hands, his fingers intertwined. “If you are correct, then we can’t afford to wait, no.”
“A few days at most.” Oh? Well, that went a lot better than expected. Ryan thought he would have to argue for hours, but the threat was dangerous enough for the Carnival to finally throw caution to the wind. “If it’s confirmed, I will contact you.”
“Well, then, I will infiltrate the Augusti and deliver on my end of the bargain,” Ryan said while moving towards the door, leaving the boxed Ghoul behind. “You still owe me ninety bucks for the cooler.”
“No,” the vigilante replied, trying to shortchange the courier.
“Matty, I don’t do charity.”
“No, as in, the Augusti will wait,” Mr. See Through declared firmly, much to Ryan’s surprise. “If you are correct and Dynamis hired the Meta-Gang, then this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Wyvern offered you a chance to join Il Migliore. Take it and keep me informed.”
Ryan put both hands on his waist. “What about your planned hits on the Augusti? Because I won’t oblige unless I have your word that you won’t target a few.”
“We don’t have resources to wage war on both the Augusti and Dynamis, if it turns out they’re the Meta-Gang’s employers,” Shroud declared, although it clearly wounded him to admit it. “Augustus is a monster and his business kills thousands each year, but he will sit on his mountain unless challenged. That bunker is an urgent crisis.”
“So, you will stop your serial apartment bombing spree until we’ve downsized Dynamis?”
“How do you know about that?” Mr. See Through shook his head. “Whatever. You have my word. At least, until Mechron’s legacy is put to rest once and for all.”
Well, time for a Dynamis run then.
It was better this way. Ryan wasn’t sure he could stand an Augusti run so soon after losing Jasmine.
Sometimes, he wondered why he kept clinging to false hopes when clearly the odds didn’t favor him. Time and time again, the courier had thought he could confide in someone, and not have it all wiped away with his inevitable death. Yet he kept reopening old wounds, instead of just… letting it go.
“I guess hope is a scoundrel’s last refuge,” Ryan muttered to himself, exiting Shroud’s shack with a heavy heart. Hope was all he had, once the loop had stripped him away of everything.
Ryan moved to his Plymouth Fury, only to find someone had beaten him to it.
A white, Persian cat slouched on the car hood, his magnificent blue eyes dazzling Ryan with the splendor of their nobility. The creature meowed ferociously at the courier, who immediately recognized him.
“Eugène-Henry?” Ryan approached the Plymouth Fury, examining the cat carefully. It… yes, it was Eugène-Henry. The courier could recognize the noble animal’s lazy, prideful attitude anywhere.
How could it be? The cat should be in the orphanage at this moment, and he never showed up at the old harbor in any previous loop. What was happening?
Eugène-Henry let out a loud ‘meow’ sound, demanding to be petted. So Ryan obliged, raising his hand to scratch the animal between the ears.
Ryan’s hand touched only air.
There was no flash, no warning. One second, the cat was right in front of him; the next he had vanished.
Was he hallucinating? Or…
Wait, Eugène-Henry had been exposed to Violet dimension energies at the end of the previous loop; even perhaps that strange, alien entity the courier had briefly glimpsed. Could they have changed him somehow? Ryan knew cats were superior creatures, especially compared to dogs, but could these furballs truly gain superpowers like a Genome?
He had to go to the orphanage and check on the cat, just to be sure. Ryan sat on the driving seat, and prepared to make a short trip to Rust Town before meeting with his favorite cashmere supplier.
At least, that’s what he planned for until her voice came out of the Chronoradio.
And this time, it wasn’t pre-recorded.
Ryan’s fingers clenched around the driving wheel, and he moved the car away, to get out of Shroud’s range. He had no intention of letting the vigilante eavesdrop on private matters. “Shortie.”
For an agonizing minute, Len didn’t seem to know what to say while Ryan drove through New Rome’s crowded streets. Finally, she mustered her courage. “I heard the broadcast. Through your chronoradio.”
… she did?
Of course she did, she had been listening to his communications since he arrived in New Rome.
All these years, he had hoped for someone that could remember him. And now...
“Is it true?” she asked. “Can you… time-travel?”
“Yeah,” the courier said bluntly, tensing up. He should have felt relieved, even happy by that unforeseen development, but the barrier between them had risen up again. The loop had washed away all their progress. “It happened before. I don’t know how the recording went through time though.”
Maybe Len had managed to complete her invention before the Bahamut wiped Ischia Island off the map, or it was a side-effect of Ryan’s own experiment.
Len considered the news, before asking another question. “Why didn’t… why didn’t you repeat it?”
“Repeat that conversation, you mean?”
“You… you and I…” He could almost picture her biting her lower lip on the other end of the line. “It worked before. It could have worked again.”
“I told you before,” Ryan said with a sigh, though that didn’t make much sense from her point of view. “The… the breakdown that led to this conversation had been genuine. If I repeated it, it would have been fake. Even if it worked, if it was necessary for us to become friends again, it would have been manipulation.”
Though it killed him inside, he couldn’t replace the Jasmine he lost either. Ryan may see it as mere amnesia, his old girlfriend had a point. If you forgot actions you didn’t commit yet and chose to go on another path, were you truly the same person? Or would you become someone else?
“I guess I wanted our relationship to remain true,” Ryan admitted, speaking with the heart. “Even if it hurts.”
He knew it was a lot to ask for, but that was what the courier wanted above everything else. He didn’t want to save the world or anything like this, though he would. Ultimately, all that Ryan desired, was to be happy.
“Where are you going, Riri?” Len asked, her voice breaking. She tried to keep her composure, but his words had clearly affected her.
“To the orphanage,” he said. “I have to check up on something. And make sure the kids will be alright.”
Psyshock was alive again, and if Ryan committed to Dynamis this loop, he couldn’t rely on Cancel to kill the bastard permanently. He had to figure a way out of this conundrum.
Another short silence.
“I will be there too.”