No matter what Wyvern said, Enrique ‘Blackthorn’ Manada had to be a sinister criminal mastermind.
As he waltzed into the man’s office, Ryan realized it wasn’t just his fashion sense or icy behavior. Almost all the plants the Green Genome collected were poisonous, and one of the fish in his Japanese pond was a fugu pufferfish, infamous for its neurotoxins. Though Ryan knew from experience it tasted wonderful, if prepared well.
Yeah, nothing suspicious about this man.
“I am Enrique Manada, Dynamis’ CBO and Head Manager of the Il Migliore program. Though you seem to already know that.” The manager shook Ryan’s hand after rising from behind his desk. “I am surprised you agreed to meet with us. Wyvern wasn’t very optimistic after your last exchange.”
“Well, I thought I should ask you directly why your organization hired the Meta-Gang,” Ryan said bluntly. “I figured we would lose way less time this way.”
His sheer frankness silenced Blackthorn on the spot. It seemed Wyvern hadn’t informed him of Ryan’s ‘conspiracy theories.’
Enrique hung back in his chair, quietly angry. He didn’t invite Ryan to sit, but the courier did so anyway. “Where does this nonsense come from?”
“I saw them with dozens of crates filled with Dynamis-made knockoffs. It looked like a Black Friday sale.”
“Seen, Mr. Romano? With your own two eyes?” Enrique’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Do you have any tangible evidence? Photos, samples?”
“I have this,” Ryan said, happily giving the manager a paper file he had prepared just for the occasion. “Here is the proof that some of your knockoff Elixirs went missing, disguising off-the-books deliveries to the Meta-Gang.”
The manager all but stole the documents from the time-traveler’s hand. Now was the moment of truth. If Enrique had Ryan killed on the spot or later that day, then he was clearly corrupt.
Blackthorn carefully reviewed the files without a word. However, the flowers in his office seemed to become more and more agitated as he read. Like Matty boy, his power seemed to automatically react to his emotional state, no matter how hard the Green Genome tried to hide it.
“How did you obtain these documents?” Enrique asked while halfway through his review, his tone sharp.
“I hacked into your databases,” Ryan replied. Well, technically, Shroud did it, and the courier borrowed the documents.
“You know I could have you jailed for this?”
Jailed? Not killed? “Don’t whistleblowers get legal protection in New Rome?”
“No,” Blackthorn replied, putting aside the documents. “Any other information you stole from our company?”
“Now that I think of it, some of your doggy drones ended up in the Meta-Gang’s hands,” Ryan remembered. “You shouldn’t leave that stuff laying around.”
Enrique looked at his guest without a word for a few seconds, then brought a cell phone out of his suit. He typed a number and called, though Ryan didn’t hear the person on the other end.
“I have been informed some of our drones have gone missing lately, probably repurposed by the Meta-Gang,” Enrique asked. “Do you confirm? Uh-huh, uh-huh… why wasn’t I informed? I see… I understand, don’t worry… pack your things, you’re fired.”
The last part was said so casually, to the point Ryan almost didn’t catch it.
Enrique ended the call and focused back on the courier. “Alright, Mr. Romano, let’s cut to the chase,” he said, done with the niceties. “What do you want?”
“For Hannifat Lecter to have a botched lipo.”
“Why? Revenge? Your psychological profile tells me you are no selfless vigilante.”
“You know, if you had asked me a few weeks ago I would say it isn’t personal, that it’s just business,” Ryan said, before remembering Len and countless others vanishing as the Bahamut’s light struck New Rome. “But it is personal now. It really is.”
“I see,” Enrique said, doing a mastermind’s pause. “I do not appreciate the methods you used to gather this information, but I will admit, it worries me. However, you understand that if the Meta-Gang has a sponsor inside Dynamis, it is someone in a high place. Probably from the board.”
“You say it like I should be worried.”
“Yes, because it means people in my own department could be compromised. For all you know, I could be involved. So why did you come to me?”
Ryan shrugged. “Frankly Greenhand, I thought it was a coin toss. A lot of people thought you were clean, but if you tried and failed to have me killed, at least I would know where you stood.”
And Ryan remembered his last discussion with the man, before Ischia Island’s destruction. Whatever Blackthorn may be, he seemed to have a vision of the future that didn’t involve people like the Meta or Augustus.
“Hmm, arrogant aren’t you?” Enrique said with a snicker. “Now, how does Len Sabino fit in this? I know you established contact with her shortly after your arrival in New Rome.”
“Wait, you had me followed?” It wounded Ryan, who thought he had mastered counterintelligence tactics.
“Dynamis keeps the Underdiver under close surveillance,” Enrique explained. “We know she went to that orphanage in Rust Town a few hours before this meeting, and you visited the district around the same time. I do not believe it is a coincidence.”
It couldn’t have been communications monitoring, or he would have learned about the time-loop. In all likelihood, Dynamis surveyed Shortie’s underwater base and trailed her wherever she left it.
“Wait,” Ryan said, making a connection. “That’s how Adam knew about the underwater base, you paranoid dicks!”
“I am not sure I understand, but if we assume the Meta-Gang benefits from a Dynamis executive’s assistance as your evidence implies, then… yes, they probably know about her underwater base. I assume you want to protect Miss Sabino?”
“Yes,” Ryan conceded, his voice turning serious. “But if you think you can threaten her to make me behave, you’ll die the way of the dinosaurs.”
“I have no such intention,” Enrique replied, though the courier couldn’t tell if he was honest. “But I want to know your motivations, and if I can trust you. You possess a useful power, but are also psychologically unstable. I have to see if you are worth the risks. Considering your motives, I do not think you are a long-term asset either.”
“I like to think of myself as a speculative investment.”
Enrique adopted a diabolical mastermind pose, making Ryan really wonder if he was truly clean. “You put me in a difficult position,” he said. “The circumstantial evidence you gathered implies corruption in my organization, and the responsible party might be someone with more clout than I. Investigating the matter will necessitate a high degree of trust, and with a few exceptions, I am not sure on whom we can rely on.”
“Say no more, I can be your semi-loyal secret agent!” Ryan happily suggested. “My car is even classier than an Aston Martin!”
Enrique considered the offer, before reaching a conclusion. “I will be honest, I do not like you, Romano,” he said bluntly. “But you seem set on investigating this, and I have the intuition it will cost Dynamis to let you act without supervision.”
And he was probably right.
“Here’s how things will work between us, Romano. You will join Il Migliore’s junior division for a six month trial period, under my direct supervision. We will not apply a DNA tracker until we have recovered the lost drones. Considering your reputation, nobody will blink at these conditions. But make no mistake, our association will be on my terms. Every piece of information you uncover will find its way to this desk. You do as I ask, no questions asked. And you will not hack the company's assets without my authorization. Am I clear?”
“Under three conditions,” Ryan replied, raising his fingers. “First, I keep my name. It’s a copyrighted brand.”
“I doubt you will be with us long enough to become a team mainstay, so you can call yourself Timestamp for all I care,” Enrique replied dismissively. “What next?”
“You don’t mess with the Underdiver. Ever.”
Enrique hesitated for a few seconds. Ryan was starting to suspect something was up; she was too minor a player for Dynamis to care so much about her. “Granted, unless she or you call for our help first,” the manager said, though with great reluctance. “And the last condition?”
Ryan looked at the man dead in the eyes. “I want a purple cashmere suit. With a matching tie.”
Enrique Manada joined his hands and considered the courier’s words. His response was swift and merciless.
“One just doesn’t say no to cashmere,” Ryan warned, his tone turning dangerous.
“You will meet with Wardrobe tomorrow, and she will make you a hero costume,” Enrique replied dismissively. “She will be your goddess as far as fashion goes. She will decide.”
“And if I’m a nonbeliever?”
“Then the kids marketing subdivision will design the costume,” Enrique said. “Over the years, they have learned to do their job with ruthless efficiency.”
That… that was unbelievably cruel and wrong! “I knew you were soulless, but I didn’t understand how much!”
“That’s part of the job,” Enrique replied dryly, before calling his secretary through an interphone. “Summon Devilry and Wyvern for a meeting, and inform the vice-president that I want a call. Tell them this cannot wait.”
“Sir, you already have a rendezvous with a new hero candidate planned,” warned the secretary.
“Who?” Enrique repeated though the courier had the feeling he was merely playing coy.
“The Panda, defender of the innocent,” Ryan declared, offended by the corpo’s utter lack of knowledge. “He can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes!”
“I doubt that,” Blackthorn replied dryly.
In response, Ryan joined his fingers. “You don’t know much about pandas, do you?”
“Is that so?” Enrique replied, his tone dripping with sarcasm. “Then I guess you won’t mind taking him under your wing? Considering his poor track record, I was considering giving the Panda a chance to impress us, but certainly surviving your presence will be a test in itself.”
Huh? That explained why the Panda ended up picking a fight at Vulcan’s factory. Greenhand must have asked him to capture a villain or something. “So you do know him.”
“Wyvern believes he has potential, and Dr. Tyrano thinks his power has interesting applications for his work. However, he seems… incompetent. I worry he might make any team he joins look bad.”
“Trust me, sir,” Ryan said, “When I’m done with him, you will never look at pandas the same way ever again.”
“Well then, the both of you will be a package deal. If he proves lacking, it will look less damaging if you were in charge of him than Wyvern. If it works, then all good.”
Fail and take the blame, succeed and share the credit. “But do I get to choose the team’s name?”
The manager clearly couldn’t care less. “I will summon you again shortly. Until then, you behave.”
And with these words, the manager gave Ryan a contract and dismissed him from his office.
The courier walked into the waiting room, where a poor animal in human form anxiously waited. Enrique canceling their meeting seemed to have put him on edge, but he looked at Ryan with his big hopeful eyes.
“Panda,” Ryan said, holding the contract.
“Y-yes, sir?” The would-be hero tried to look strong, but couldn’t face his anxiety. He looked so cute, like a human muppet.
“Panda, I’m sorry to say that your candidacy…” Ryan let out a long, distressed sigh. “How should I put it…”
The Panda’s heart seemed to stop, as all hope disappeared from his face.
“Your candidacy…” Ryan gave the Green Genome his contract. “Has been accepted.”
For a second, the courier thought the sheer relief would make the Panda faint, and he almost did. He clearly couldn’t believe Dynamis had given him a chance. “I… I’ve been hired? I’m going to join Il Migliore?”
“Yes, you are, you magnificent beast!” Ryan’s outburst made Enrique’s secretary glare at him in the background, but he ignored her. “What is your name, samurai, your real name?”
“Timmy! I’m Timmy!”
“It’s not very Chinese but it will do, Timmy, it will do!” Ryan said, putting his hands on the manbear’s shoulders. “You are now my teammate!”
“You… you want me on your team?” Tears started to appear in the manbear’s eyes. “Somebody wants the Panda on their team?”
“How can one say no to a panda?” Ryan asked rhetorically. Now, he just had to recruit Felix the Cat, and he would have built the ultimate hero team to take on the Meta-Gang. “I already have our group’s name! Quicksave the Pandas! It’s a new franchise!”
“Can we get a hero car?” the poor animal asked, overwhelmed with emotion. “A pandamobile?”
Why did Ryan have the feeling future historians would remember this moment as when his Perfect Run went wrong? But he couldn’t say no to a panda. “Of course we will get a pandamobile, so long as you don’t get anywhere near my car! And we’ll get movies, webtoons, tele-reality shows, our faces on noodles!”
“I… I will finally be famous, and honor my panda heritage!” The Panda wiped away his tears, now pumped up for battle. “What should I call you, sensei?!”
“I’m Quicksave, but privately, you shall call me…”
Ryan's eyes widened, suddenly inspired.
“Super Sifu Ryan.”
After promising to his new sidekick that they would meet again tomorrow morning, Ryan left the Il Migliore HQ and drove away towards Rust Town. The sun was setting beyond the horizon, and night would soon come.
“Shortie?” Ryan asked, driving the Plymouth Fury through New Rome’s busy streets. “Are you listening?”
“How… how did it go?” Len replied through the chronoradio, clearing her throat. She sounded somewhat relieved to hear from him, but also anxious.
“I’m still convinced Blackthorn is a supervillain, but he doesn’t seem to be the mastermind behind the Meta-Gang.” Though Ryan might revise his opinion if he ‘mysteriously disappeared’ in the next few hours. “They also keep you under tight surveillance. They know about the undersea habitat.”
Len didn’t reply for several seconds, as she usually did. “No matter where I go… I will never escape them,” she finally said with a heavy sigh. “No matter how deep I swim… their tentacles reach farther. They will never be satisfied.”
“Hey, we’ll figure a way out,” Ryan promised her. “And I don’t think they will bother you in the short term.”
Ryan’s hands tensed on the driver’s wheel. Maybe he had been too forward. “If… if you wish it. My door is always open if you need help, Len.”
Another silence followed, and Ryan realized they still had a long way to go.
As it turned out, the Chronoradio had recorded, and played, all of the duo’s interactions before the last one on Ischia Island. Which meant that Len had probably recorded and sent the information herself in the previous loop.
It had helped Len trust Ryan a little, even if she disagreed with his choice to approach Dynamis; enough that she let him stay at the orphanage. But a recording wasn’t a personal experience, and to the courier’s disappointment, it hadn’t allowed their relationship to carry over from one loop to the next. It had only helped him make a little more progress in a shorter time.
Eventually, Len found the silence too oppressive and changed the subject. “Sarah, Sarah couldn’t find your cat anywhere. You’re… you’re sure he gained powers?”
“Certain.” Eugène-Henry had been missing from the orphanage when Ryan last visited it. Ergo, something caused a change in the noble animal’s behavior. “Maybe he could help with your Chronoradio upgrade.”
“I… I don’t know, Riri. I don’t know. I will need more info before I can tell if my idea will even work.”
Yeah. Ryan’s goal for this loop, besides sending the Meta-Gang six feet under, was to get his hands on Dynamis’ brain scanning research. Besides weeding out whoever helped Big Fat Adam inside the company, joining Il Migliore would give the courier an opportunity to access their labs in due time.
“Thanks for the help, Shortie,” he said, looking at the road ahead. “I will bring reinforcements tomorrow, to help deal with Psyshock.”
With luck, he could get his other favored cat onboard.
“I… it’s nothing.” However, he could tell Len found the conversation straining, and she ended it abruptly. “I need to go. See you soon.”
“See you soon,” he replied, before glancing at the pile of antidepressants in his car’s backseat. This time, the courier intended to make Shortie follow an effective treatment, rather than poison herself through self-medication.
She deserved as much.
The path between Rust Town and Il Migliore’s tower forced Ryan to go through the shopping district. Also known as Sol Street, the area was a temple to fashion, its buildings home to prestigious clothiers, luxury brands, and perfume clothes. Pedestrians walked by each other while carrying shopping bags and taking phone calls; some Ryan recognized as knockoff Genomes, taking selfies of themselves showing off their purchased powers. Everyone competed to look the best, but nobody paid attention to anyone else. Of course, Quicksave’s fashion sense trumped them all.
Eugène-Henry suddenly leaped from a street corner while pursued by a woman, right onto the Plymouth Fury’s path.
Ryan abruptly froze time and smashed the brake, but the cat had vanished before time even resumed. Instead, the Plymouth Fury had stopped within an inch of a pedestrian.
“Hey, if you want to die to me, make an appointment first! I’m busy!” Ryan complained while looking out of the window, until he recognized the person he almost killed. A blindingly beautiful woman with long golden hair, and an extravagant dress.
“How can that furball escape me?” Fortuna complained, completely ignoring the car within an inch of her skin. “Me?”
“Fortuna, are you alright?” Livia Augusti walked out of the street, wearing a sleeveless black dress and an elegant, white rounded hat atop her platinum hair. She immediately noticed Ryan, and hastily nodded at him, clearly embarrassed. “We apologize for the commotion.”
“Hey, what are you two ladies doing here?” Ryan couldn’t help but ask, before noticing that Livia carried a luxurious bag. They had probably been shopping. “You aren’t insurance chasers, I hope? Because if so I will give no quarters.”
“Livy wanted to see that cat more closely,” Fortuna replied with a furious scowl, putting her hands on her waist. “Where did it go?”
“I couldn’t see it clearly,” Livia admitted, before frowning at Ryan. “And… I can’t see you at all.”
Couldn’t see… did Eugène-Henry partly exist in the Purple World? It would explain his random teleportations, and the Augusti princess probably couldn’t see the noble animal clearly if he existed in two realities at once.
“In any case, if you could step away from the road,” Ryan asked Fortuna, eager to return to the orphanage. “I only run over grannies or Ghoul.”
His dismissive tone made Fortuna look down on him, like a noble crossing path with the dirtiest of peasants. “Do you know who we are?”
“No, but I know who I am, and I’ll tell you!” Ryan replied with an upbeat tone. “I’m Quicksave. I’m immortal, but don't tell anyone.”
“I don’t care,” Fortuna replied, irritated.
Livia’s frown deepened though. “Quicksave, you said?”
She seemed to find the name familiar. Had Ryan’s visit to Dynamis caused Vulcan to put a hit on him already? In that case, he better leave.
Unfortunately, Fortuna didn’t see things this way. “In any case, we need someone to drive us home, and you will do nicely,” she said with a newfound smile, clearly expecting him to agree on the spot.
“Oh no, sorry, I’ve got something planned,” Ryan replied with a shrug. “Take the bus.”
Fortuna blinked. “I think I misheard.”
“Wait, she’s blind, and you’re deaf?” Ryan asked. “You cover each other?”
Livia couldn’t help but chuckle at the joke, but Fortuna didn’t find it funny. “What is wrong with you?” she asked Ryan as if it was only one thing.
“Fortuna, I will just call Sparrow,” Livia said, though she didn’t hide her amusement.
“No, Livy, he has to understand how the world works.” Fortuna moved towards Ryan’s car door and put her hands on the window, crossing the line. “Look at me. Look at me.”
Ryan slowly looked at the self-entitled brat, unimpressed. She was pretty to look at for sure, but damn, her personality made the courier want to make Felix an only child.
“I’m the best thing that ever happened to you, and that will ever happen to you.” Fortuna said it with so much confidence, Ryan was convinced she believed it too. “Your whole life led you here. To bring the most beautiful woman in the world, and her best friend, home.”
The courier seemed to consider the ‘offer’ carefully, while Fortuna’s insufferable grin grew wider.
“Eh,” Ryan said dismissively, before looking back at the road. “Six out of ten.”
And like that, he drove away into the sunset, leaving a speechless Fortuna and a semi-amused Livia behind. Ryan looked at the rearview mirror and noticed the Augusti princess kept watching him even as he disappeared around a street corner.
She looked intrigued, for a lack of a better term.