“You’re not a human,” the film scriptwriter said. “You are a panda who drank a human-shifting Elixir.”
Ryan remained silent a moment, before exchanging confused glances with the Panda and Atom Cat. All three of them sat in chairs next to a cardboard cutout showing Wyvern transforming into a dragon, and faced two Dynamis screenwriters with very strange ideas. “I’m sorry?” the Panda asked, sinking in his chair while in human form. “That’s not my tragic backstory!”
“Yes, yes, we understand, but…” The first scriptwriter reminded Ryan of an accountant, his greedy eyes hidden behind glasses; he had traded his artistic soul for a suit, and it wasn’t even made of cashmere. “It won’t sell.”
“What my colleague wants to say is that it’s not inspirational enough.” The other, meanwhile, was a walking Hollywood cliche. Some thirty-something year old guy who thought wearing a sweater and sneakers made him look trendy. “Your public persona is marketed towards young children, and your story… I’m sorry to say it, but it's depressing.”
Ryan kinda agreed with them on that front. When the Panda told everyone about how he became a superhero, the courier had expected a funny adventure. Instead, he listened to an epic personal journey straight out of a Rocky movie.
“I thought it was pretty inspirational,” Atom Cat argued. “There were so many twists and turns...”
“Yes, but people don’t buy tickets to see a hero struggle,” Four-Eyes said. “They go to a movie to have a good time. Everybody says they hate power fantasies, but they sell well.”
“Which is why I think you’re a goldmine, Quicksave,” hip writer said. Ryan looked at the pass around the man’s neck, finally learning his name was Kevin of all things. “We can make so many cool scenes with your power, I think you might become the next action movie franchise.”
“I’m more of an R-rated black comedy material, to be honest,” Ryan said with a shrug.
Felix glanced at the Panda, growing more and more annoyed. “What do you think?”
“The Panda is glad to get a movie at all, to be honest,” the manbear replied.
“Do you want to be portrayed as…” Felix struggled to find the correct wording. “An uplifted mascot?”
“Also, that’s not how Elixirs work,” Ryan pointed out. “We had an exposition scene like two hours ago.”
“Moviegoers don’t care about how it works or doesn’t work,” Mr. Four-Eyes said. “But a bear becoming a human will appeal to young children better than the other way around.”
“I understand your skepticism, but that’s because you haven’t read the full ‘Pandamania’ script,” Kevin argued with a smile. “The movie starts with an eight-year old boy—”
“I’m out of here,” Felix said abruptly, rising from his seat and looking at Ryan. “Coffee break?”
“Coffee break,” the courier replied, before patting the Panda on the back. “Want something, my young pandawan?”
“Nothing, thanks Sifu,” the Green Genome replied, a bit embarrassed. “Coffee gives me ulcers.”
Ryan and Felix left the Panda alone with the corporate madmen, walking through Star Studios’ warehouse six. After Tyrano’s extensive testing, the team went there to both film a stinger scene at the end of the latest Il Migliore movie, and discuss possible plans for individual franchises. Countless engineers, actors, and technicians worked inside these walls, and though Il Migliore was Dynamis’ cash-cow, the company’s cinema branch produced everything from romantic comedies to action flicks.
Ryan had expected Vulcan to wreck the place, but the Genius was strangely quiet during this loop. A shame. He would have enjoyed a little chaos, since Dynamis focused entirely on bland money-makers rather than more innovative movies.
Wardrobe was busy acting as Wyvern’s stuntwoman, wearing the superheroine’s costume while she floated in front of a green screen; computer engineers then replaced Yuki’s face with a CGI of her template. The more he learned about Wardrobe’s power, the more Ryan thought the ‘copyright’ limit was only her way to systematize it. From what he understood, her power instead decided if a persona was ‘available’ for copying, or if it belonged to someone else. Since Dynamis allowed her to cosplay as Wyvern, she could do so, even if the persona was copyrighted.
It would also explain why she could dress as Augustus. Lightning Butt piggybacked Zeus’ myth so much, people had started to conflate the two personas together.
“You know, kitten, something has been bugging me about Dr. Tyrano,” Ryan admitted, as they made their way to the nearest break room.
“His dinosaur obsession?”
“No, the name,” Ryan explained. “Shouldn’t it be Dr. Tyranno with a second ‘n’? Like Tyrannosaure?”
“I thought only the french wrote it like that,” Felix replied with a snort. “Besides, it’s his true name: Alain Tyrano.”
“The dinosaur scientist’s family name is Tyrano?” Ryan asked with an eyebrow raised. “That’s like calling your son Van Doom, and he grows up to be a supervillain.”
“Yeah.” Much like the rest of the building, Dynamis put care into making the break room as trendy and aesthetically pleasing as possible. Equipped with a window view of the park outside the studios, the hall included leather sofas, a round table for conferences, and even a holographic fireplace. The duo walked towards the nearest coffee machine, waiting behind a line of caffeine addicts and overworked trainees. “So what’s your plan, Quicksave?”
“Bold of you to assume I have one,” Ryan replied. “Usually, I just wing things until they work out. The only plan that can’t fail, is the one you didn’t plan for.”
“You know what I mean,” his teammate said with a frown. “Why did you join Dynamis exactly? I can tell you aren’t the celebrity type, and that you’re playing a long game of some kind.”
“So are you, kitten.” They finally reached the machine, Ryan putting fifty Euro cents in the coin slot. The machine quickly started pouring a cappuccino inside a paper cup. “What made you want to leave the family fold?”
“Bliss,” he replied while asking for a normal coffee.
“Not milk? I’m disappointed.”
“If I change my superhero name, will you stop with the cat jokes?”
“No, I won’t.”
“You’re the worst,” Felix sighed as he grabbed his cup, motioning at a sofa near the window. Both heroes sat on it, peacefully looking at the green scenery beyond the glass. “I left because of Bliss.”
Yeah, Ryan figured as much. “Because they force your sister to make it?”
“Partly,” Felix replied with a frown. “Just how much do you know about me? Are you some sort of professional spy?”
“If I were, I would drive an Aston Martin,” Ryan joked, enjoying the smell of his cappuccino. “I know you’re the son of Mars and Venus, and that you temporarily shared a flat with Zanbato, Sphere, and Chitter.”
“Did Enrique ask you to watch me?” Felix asked, misunderstanding the situation. “Make sure I’m not a reverse-mole supplying info back to my family? Because he’s already doing a fine job of keeping me out of any real action anyway.”
That made sense. Knowing Blackthorn, he probably considered Atom Kitten more valuable as a potential hostage or intel source than as a hero. “Nothing of the sort,” Ryan replied, sipping the coffee. “I have a soft spot for people fleeing a toxic environment.”
“Bloodstream?” Felix chuckled at seeing Ryan’s reaction, delighting at one-upping him for once. “I did my homework too.”
“You know the worst part?” Ryan asked, as his thoughts turned to Len. “Even dead and buried... he still holds his daughter under his sway, and I don’t know how to break it.”
Felix waited a few seconds before asking the question burning on his lips. “Did you kill him?”
“No, but I arranged for his demise.” Atom Cat flinched at Ryan’s blunt confession. “Do you hate your parents, Felix?”
“Not enough to want them dead, but I wouldn't mind seeing them taken down a peg. They have a lot of blood on their hands, and they’re dragging my sisters into the ‘family business.’ They forced one to make drugs, and convinced the other to join the Killer Seven.” Felix shook his head in disappointment. “I thought my departure would force them to reconsider their choices, but Augustus’ grip is too strong.”
From what Ryan had gathered, his departure did shake his family, but they chose to blame Dynamis or hope he would return to the fold. Nobody in the Augusti seemed likely to turn their back on the organization, except Vulcan, who had never been loyal to begin with.
Atom Cat frowned upon glimpsing at something on the other side of the window, and Ryan quickly identified what. A very familiar rat observed the duo from beneath a bush, before quickly fleeing across the studio’s park when spotted.
“Chitter,” Atom Cat said with a frown. “She’s always watching me.”
“You were close?” Ryan asked, wondering if a rat swarm would suddenly appear to destroy the studio.
“So you don’t know everything.”
“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me soon!”
Felix snorted, but relented. “Zanbato and I were best friends once. Enough that we ended up sharing a flat for a few months, when I decided I should have my own place.”
“Someone stole Bliss batches from Mercury’s division, the one where Zanbato works. The casinos’ staff distributes it to clients, either for recreational purposes or to blackmail them. I helped Zan with the case, and it turned out the thieves were intelligent rats.”
“Chitter,” Ryan guessed.
“Yeah. We tracked the animals to their mistress and…” Felix stopped for a moment, looking into the distance. “It was… it was a horrible sight, man. She was squatting in an abandoned apartment infested with rodents, and she...”
“Hey, easy kitten.” Ryan put a hand on his teammate’s shoulder. “Don’t force yourself if it’s too hard.”
“It’s… It’s fine.” The would-be hero regained his composure. “You know Bliss can even affect Genomes? When we found her, the stuff had given her an overdose. She had blood pouring out of her nose and eyes, Ryan. Mold growing on her skin. If we hadn’t found her and rushed to a hospital, she would have died. And when the docs saved her life, do you know the first thing she asked for?”
Ryan frowned, having already guessed. “More Bliss?”
“More Bliss. That poison hadn’t just destroyed her life, Ryan. It enslaved her body and soul.” Atom Cat made a disgusted face. “That was a fucking wake-up call for me.”
“But not for Zanbato?”
“Zan…” Felix’s expression turned into a contemptuous sneer. “Jamie thinks he’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t know what freedom feels like. He owes his entire existence to the Augusti, and he can’t fathom a life outside it. Yeah, he went the extra mile to keep Ki-jung clean, but he was just trying to assuage his guilt. He doesn’t want to support the Bliss business, but at the end of the day, he does as he’s told.”
The renegade finished his cup and tossed it into the nearest trash can with astonishing accuracy.
“It opened my eyes,” Atom Cat continued his tale. “I talked to Narcinia, and she admitted she never wanted to make that drug. But our parents always guilt-tripped her back into it whenever she attempted to stop. ‘It’s for the greater good of the family, honey,’ or ‘addicts kill themselves because they can’t help themselves.’ And Jamie, he let Ki-jung fall into the mafia lifestyle rather than keeping her away from it. After I realized just how deep it went, I couldn’t stay anymore.”
“For all it’s worth, I think you made the right choice,” Ryan said, the story echoing a lot with his own. “You have the right to dump toxic people out of your life.”
“If it was just me, Ryan…” Felix sighed. “My family kills so many innocents, and it corrupts good people too. I thought Dynamis could help me change that, but now… now, I don’t know what to do anymore. From what I’ve seen so far, they’re just as bad in their own way.”
“Things can change,” Ryan said, trying to cheer him up. “No matter how bleak.”
His teammate scoffed in response. “You sound like a self-help booklet.”
“That doesn’t make my words untrue,” the courier replied with seriousness. “It can always improve. But you have to keep trying even if you fail, again and again. That’s the hard part.”
He wasn’t sure if these words were meant for Felix or Ryan himself, but he had to say them anyway. Both fell into an uncomfortable silence, neither knowing what to say next, and none wanting to return to the scriptwriters.
And then, calamity struck.
Her shrill voice sent a shiver down Ryan’s spine, like death crawling out of the underworld. Felix had the exact same reaction, his eyes widened in horror as he turned his head to look behind. “Tell me I’m dreaming…”
“Oh no, you aren’t!” Fortuna walked towards their sofa, wearing a fashionable golden shirt and skirt that exposed her legs for everyone to see. She smirked triumphantly when everyone ogled at her, glancing at Ryan as if expecting him to do the same. “Our paths cross again!”
Much to her fury though, Ryan ignored her entirely to focus on the keycard dangling from her neck. Where did she get a pass?
Oh, wait, stupid question. Of course a pass would magically fall into her hands!
“How the hell did you get in?” Felix asked his sister, clearly far from happy to see her.
“The studios held a lottery, with the winners gaining a guest pass,” Fortuna replied. “And that’s no way to greet your beautiful sister.”
“And Dynamis let you in?” Felix almost choked.
“Of course the corpos let me in, why wouldn’t they? Look at me. I’m me.” Fortuna put a hand on her waist. “Though they tried to poach me, and I had to promise I would consider it. Do you realize what you made me do, you ungrateful brat?”
“I didn’t ask you to come, sis.”
“You left me no choice!” Fortuna complained. “Neither of you answer messages!”
“Wait, neither of you?” Felix looked at Ryan with suspicion. “How do you know my sister?”
“That madman almost hit me with his car!” Fortuna complained. “And when I demanded he bring me and Livy home, he drove away like a savage!”
“And I regretted the ‘almost’ part ever since,” Ryan deadpanned.
“H-how dare you say something like that!” she protested, before making a haughty face. “But I guess I will forgive you if you invite me for coffee. I have expensive tastes though, but hopefully you aren’t as poor as you lo—”
“Is she always like this?” Ryan asked Felix, Fortuna glaring at him in response.
“Unfortunately,” Atom Cat replied with a heavy, heavy sigh.
“No wonder you ran away from home.”
“I should have known you would make the pair, you’re both infuriating!” Fortuna crossed her arms. “Felix, I’m here to bring you home.”
“Then you will leave disappointed,” the hero replied angrily. “I told you. Unless you leave the hit squad, we have nothing to say to each other.”
“We aren’t a hit squad, we’re bodyguards!” Fortuna argued. Clearly she didn’t understand the seriousness of her situation. “We protect the Olympians. It’s just that sometimes, we do it preemptively!”
“By murdering people who Augustus thinks might become a threat? How long until you confront someone who can negate your power and your luck runs out?” Atom Cat snarled. “You’re an assassin, Fortuna, and that’s all you will be to me unless you walk away from this shit.”
“What about Narcinia then? Do you know how heartbroken she has been since you left? What about Livy, you selfish ass?” Fortuna accused her brother. “We’ve seen the news, how you fought with Psychos in Rust Town. Don’t you think we’re all worried for you?”
“I can take care of myself,” Felix said as he rose from his seat, his tone dripping with venom as he faced his sister. “Now get out or I will show you the door myself.”
“I’m not leaving without you!”
The two started arguing so loudly they completely forgot about Ryan’s existence, with Fortuna accusing Felix of having abandoned their family, while her brother blamed her for joining the Killer Seven. The technicians looked at the scene with embarrassment, with a few members of the security staff wondering if they should intervene.
Ryan let the two siblings argue while he enjoyed his cappuccino, only for his phone to start ringing. “Oh geez, another unknown number,” the courier mumbled as he picked the call. “It’s getting cliché.”
“Quicksave?” The voice on the other side belonged to a man, and sounded somewhat familiar. Ryan was certain he heard before, but he couldn’t put a name or face on it.
“The one and only, but I’m in-between jobs right now,” Ryan warned. Come to think of it, he never received that call in the previous loops. He wondered what had changed? “To whom do I owe the pleasure?”
“My name is Leonard Hargraves. We crossed paths four years ago, do you remember?”
Ryan immediately froze in place, checked that the two siblings couldn’t hear him, and then answered. “How could I not?”
“I understand we don’t have the best history together, but one of our own recommended we contact you.” Ryan heard noise in the background, like someone talking to the Living Sun on the other side of the line. “Is Atom Cat with you?”
“Perhaps,” Ryan replied while squinting. “What do you want with us?”
“I think you know already, but fine. My team just arrived in town, and I wondered if you were both available to meet with us. From what I understand, we all want to cure New Rome of the cancers that infect it.”
Yes, they did.
“About time somebody cleaned up the trash.”