Ryan felt a ping of nostalgia as he drove on the highway.
It had been more than a month worth of loops since he first arrived in New Rome, and he missed driving into the wasteland, Mad Max-style. The world seemed open to him, all roads leading to a different quest. The courier could never anticipate when he would face a random encounter, whether it was a band of road warriors engaging him in a car chase or a mysterious hitchhiker out for blood. As much as he enjoyed civilization, Ryan was a creature of the road through and through.
The Carnival’s rendezvous point was located near the ruins of Pompei, south of New Rome. It had been quite easy for Ryan and Felix to slip away after the Fortuna incident. Nobody blamed her brother for wanting to take a breath of fresh air after their very public argument.
Ryan felt a little bad about lying to Wardrobe though. He could tell she hadn’t been fooled by their excuses, and knew something was up.
“Something has been bothering me,” Atom Cat said on the seat next to Ryan. The Plymouth Fury followed the Neapolitan coast, the sea on one side of the road, and cliffs on the other. “The Psychos have infiltrated Dynamis, right? If so, they probably have access to my DNA-tracker. They can follow us.”
“They could.” And in a past loop, they did. “But now they can’t.”
“Well, I’m not a Genius with a capital ‘G,’” Ryan quoted Jasmine, “but I’m still a genius.”
The time-traveler had wondered how the tracker worked; how could you track a genome by recording their DNA after all? However, after his discussions with Jasmine in the previous loop, the answer became obvious. Dynamis didn’t track Genomes through their genes, but by the Flux radiation they passively released.
So Ryan modified his car to keep the Flux radiation within its confines, using the method Jasmine pioneered. Of course, it was a poor man’s substitute for his ex’s power armor. Staying in the car wouldn’t cause Ryan to open a gate to the Purple World, but it would make the passengers invisible to Dynamis’ radars.
Hopefully, at least. Ryan still looked into his rearview mirror from time to time.
Felix didn’t ask more questions and looked out of the window, his eyes gazing at the Mediterranean Sea. Ryan could tell his friend appreciated the silence. His sister’s visit had put him in a foul mood.
Speaking of Fortuna, she started sending messages to the courier once again. Much to Ryan’s surprise, only half of them called him an ass and other names; the other half included questions about Felix’s wellbeing.
Aww, she cared!
The constant ringing of Ryan’s phone started to bother Atom Cat. “My sister again?“
“She’s very persistent,” Ryan said. “I know I’m smart, funny, and handsome, but my popularity surprises me sometimes.”
“Fortuna’s power causes almost everything that can go well for her, to do so,” Felix replied with a sigh. “She has never paid for anything, she gets gifts out of nowhere, and she always meets men desperate to worship her. After a while, it became a self-reinforcing loop of narcissism… and I think you broke it.”
Wait, that was it! Men threw themselves at Fortuna, so she took them for granted and crushed on the few ones immune to her charms! If Ryan behaved like the perfect gentleman to soothe her narcissistic ego, she would lose interest and leave him be! All he had to do was treat Lucky Girl for dinner, and overwhelm her with affection until she found another distraction. Kill her with kindness.
“Ryan,” Felix said, apparently reading Ryan’s mind as the courier typed a response on his phone. “Can you do me a favor?”
“If it’s about the cat jokes, then you’re asking too much.”
Atom Cat looked at Ryan, their eyes meeting. “Don’t fuck my sister.”
Ryan lost himself in the blue hue of his friend’s irises, as he prepared an appropriate answer. “Which one?”
“I’m serious, Quickie.”
“Don’t worry,” Ryan replied, putting a hand on his kitten’s shoulder. “If I had to fuck the whole family, I would start with you.”
Felix recoiled in surprise, much to the courier’s amusement. “Shut up and drive,” the hero said while looking at the road.
After a short hour’s drive without getting ambushed by the Meta, the duo finally reached their destination. A lookout-point on a rock, providing an unbeatable view of Pompei. Even the world’s end couldn’t damage the ruins more than Vesuvius did, and while they briefly served as a raider gang’s hideout, they had remained untouched by the wars.
Leo the Living Sun was already present, hovering above the lookout’s edge while in his shiny form. What a showoff. Though Ryan's eyes couldn't help but ogle at this perfect fiery form, and that lithe, flaming ass. The courier had slept with men, women, robots, monster girls... but never a sun.
A roguish woman with freckles and long auburn hair waited nearby next to an American bike, Ryan recognizing her as Ace, the Carnival’s main teleporter. “Damn, that’s really them,” Atom Cat gasped in admiration, as Ryan parked the Plymouth Fury. “I’m a big fan.”
“Thank you, Felix.” Unlike his favorite kitten, Ryan didn’t flinch as Shroud appeared on the backseat. “Truth be told, we wanted to talk to you for a while.”
“How long have you been here?” Felix asked, spooked.
“Far too long,” Mr. See-Through replied, as he opened the car door. “You drive like a madman, Quicksave.”
“Thanks for the compliment, but there’s only three of you?” Ryan asked as the group exited the car to join the other Carnival members. “You weren’t kidding about the turnover.”
“We’re six, with the others already at work in the city,” Shroud replied, sighing at the courier’s unimpressed silence. “I warned you we needed more time to gather our allies. Mushroom, Radiodead, and the Cossack are in France right now and won’t arrive before a few days.”
“I wish I could open portals that far,” Ace said upon hearing them, before smirking confidently at the newcomers. “But don’t worry, we still pack a punch. What we lack in numbers, we make up in quality.”
“Easy for you to say, you have a freaking sun on your side,” Ryan mused. While the Meta had them greatly outnumbered, they did have greater individual firepower.
The sun incarnate looked at Quicksave with a mix of amusement, and a tiny bit of respect. “Greetings, Ryan,” he said with his sexy, sexy hero voice. “I wanted to thank you for the help you provided to us so far.”
It felt so strange to meet this man again. From his point of view, it had only been four years, but for Ryan, it had been centuries since Bloodstream’s demise. And yet this event remained forever engraved in the courier’s mind.
Ryan couldn’t quite put a word on how he felt about the Carnival as a whole. On one hand, they separated him from Len for countless loops, but on the other hand, they saved him from Bloodstream, and he owed them a life debt. In the end, he leaned towards appreciation. Now that he had reconnected with Len, he would let bygones be bygones.
However, he had also grown to like some Augusti members during his loops, and the Carnival planned to destroy their organization one way or another. What Livia said about her mother’s death also bothered Ryan, who wanted to investigate.
The courier had come to New Rome to reunite with Len, but now… he had the feeling he couldn’t leave the city, even after the Meta-Gang’s destruction. A war was brewing, and too many lives were at risk.
“You were a Carnival plant all along?” Felix asked his teammate, interrupting his thought process.
“I’m more of a wild card,” the courier replied. “A one-man wrecking ball.”
Shroud chuckled. “At least you aim in the right direction. Honestly, at first I thought you came to New Rome to pick a fight with us.”
“I still haven’t apologized for what happened with Bloodstream,” Leo said, sounding genuinely apologetic. “I hadn’t seen you, and when I launched that blast—”
“The alternative was worse,” Ryan interrupted the humanoid sun. After all, he had lived through it once. “Bloodstream was sick and had to go for the good of everyone else. The end.”
“I see…” Leonard sounded surprised by the courier’s response, but didn’t push the subject further. The courier had literal centuries to emotionally process the events.
Felix glanced at Ryan with sympathy. Instead of offering vague bullshit, he simply patted his teammate on the back without a word, for which the courier was thankful. Though paparazzi would probably mistake the scene for something else, if they saw it... “As for you, Atom Cat, I congratulate you for your choice,” Leonard said, nodding at the younger hero. “It must have been hard to leave your family behind and stand for what is right. It takes great courage.”
“You said you wanted to meet me for a while,” Atom Kitten said, a little embarrassed. The scene reminded Ryan of an amateur boxer meeting Mohammed Ali by happenstance. “Don’t tell me you wanted to poach me too?”
“Pretty much, yes,” Shroud said.
“I wouldn’t use the term poach, but we are always on the lookout for new recruits, and I feel you have great potential.” The Living Sun marked a short pause, as if considering his next words. “There’s… also the matter of your sister, Narcinia.”
“My sister?” Felix instantly tensed up. “What about her?”
Instead of answering yet, Sunshine looked behind the group as a new car approached the lookout. A black Maserati parked near the gathering, and two familiar faces stepping out of it.
“Quicksave, Atom Cat.” Blackthorn removed the dust off his suit as he walked towards them, Wyvern acting as his bodyguard. “Things make much more sense now.”
Felix didn’t seem all so happy, as he glared at the Carnival. “You called them?”
“We didn’t,” Shroud replied, arms crossed. “They did. Blackthorn contacted us a few days ago.”
“There was a time when our two organizations considered allying against Augustus,” Enrique said, his tone utterly monotone. “Until Don Hector scrapped the proposal, as he always does.”
“Are we all present?” Sunny Boy asked.
“Almost,” Enrique replied, raising his sleeve to look at a Rolex watch underneath. “Though I hope you understand your mere presence threatens us all, Hargraves. If Augustus learns you are in town, he will climb down from his mountain and hunt you down like a dog.”
“He will try,” the Living Sun replied. “I made my decision long ago. I will not die before Augustus’ empire collapses and he faces justice for his crimes.”
“I am more worried about him going after us by association,” Blackthorn replied dryly before raising his eyes. Ryan heard a loud noise approaching from the coast. “But at this point, I guess it is inevitable.”
A heavily-armed helicopter, which Ryan recognized as a Boeing CH-47 Chinook, flew towards the group and prepared to land. The Dynamis logo was painted on the main door, which opened before the aircraft could land.
A towering figure emerged from within the metal husk, almost two-meters and a half in height. This Genome was more machine than man. A bulky, black power armor protected most of his body, except for the head, which was covered by a glass dome. A skull, though, would have been a better term. The Genome’s flesh seemed to radiate with a crimson glow kept contained by the suit, and leaving the bones visible like X-rays. The armor seemed to have even more weapons than Vulcan’s, including an energy minigun incorporated into the right arm, and rocket launchers on the shoulders.
Ryan instantly recognized that colossus for what he was, just by reading the stance and body language.
“You called him?” Wyvern asked Enrique with a horrified face.
“I had no choice,” the manager replied. While he tried to keep his composure, Ryan noticed the rose on his suit shifting, as if answering the Green Genome’s hidden unease. “We cannot win without his resources.”
“Who is this guy?” Felix asked, a little intimidated by the colossus’ fearsome appearance.
“Alphonse Manada, Dynamis’ VP.” Wyvern clenched her jaw, her eyes betraying her unease. “Alias Fallout.”
Fallout, Fallout… “The butcher of Malta?” Ryan asked, having heard the rumors.
“He dropped a nuke on Augustus in a failed attempt to kill him,” Shroud confirmed, before correcting himself. “Or rather, he was the nuke.”
Wyvern nodded in confirmation. “Hector exiled him to Sicily afterward, under the pretext of an ‘oversea assignment.’ I didn’t know he had returned.”
Dynamis’ Vice-President stepped down from his helicopter, the ground faintly shaking under his sheer weight. “Brother, Hargraves,” he politely greeted the people present with a deep, mechanical voice, before noticing Ryan and his cat. “Who are they?”
“Quicksave and Atom Cat,” Enrique replied.
“Quicksave?” Alphonse recognized the nickname, but for all the wrong reasons. “Bloodstream’s brood?”
Ryan tensed, but surprisingly, Blackthorn immediately came to the rescue. “He’s the one who provided the recording. I do not trust him, but our goals align so far.”
“I see.” Alphonse Manada examined Ryan closely, the courier waving a hand at the borg in response. The vice-president didn’t even acknowledge the gesture, all business. “And his sister?”
Ryan glared at the tincan, while Enrique answered, “I let her go.”
“You let her go?” When Blackthorn wouldn’t respond, even under his elder’s fiery gaze, Dynamis’ VP shook his skull. “You have always been too soft for your own good, brother. About time I came back to the mainland.”
“What do you want with Len Sabino?” Ryan asked, a dangerous edge in his tone.
“That is none of your business,” Alphonse Manada replied angrily.
“Her technology is impressive, you will agree,” Enrique said hastily. “After her stunt with her bubble prisons, I wondered about hiring her for security purposes. An undersea prison might be the best solution to keep Psychos under lock and key.”
Ryan could smell a lie when he heard one, but Leo Hargraves coughed and took over the discussion. “Gentlemen, please. We gathered you to discuss how to deal with the various criminal groups in the city, and we strongly suspect Dynamis might be supporting them.”
“Suspicions?” Felix snorted.
“Quicksave provided a recording where the Meta’s second-in-command declares having been hired by our CEO to harass Augustus’ forces,” Enrique explained calmly, Wyvern crossing her arms in quiet fury. “Considering Psyshock showed an intimate knowledge of top-secret Dynamis projects, and other circumstantial evidence, I assume the intel is genuine.”
“It is,” Shroud confirmed. “I have scouted the Meta-Gang’s territory, though I could not get close to their headquarters without the Land noticing me. They used repurposed Dynamis drones, and some of their unpowered mooks carried laser weapons.”
Though it clearly infuriated him to do so, Enrique kept digging his company’s grave. “I asked Devilry to investigate, and some of our technicians have been reported as missing. I believe either our CEO directly sent them to supply the Meta-Gang with Genius-made tech, or Psyshock used the opportunity to enslave them.”
Alphonse Manada listened to everything in silence, and when he finally spoke, it was with a tone of pure, unrestrained disgust. “Our father has betrayed our trust, and that of all of New Rome. We have nothing to do with this mess, I assure you.”
“Good,” Ace said, before clearing her throat. “Well, it’s bad, but hopefully that means we won’t have to fight?”
“We intend to hit the Meta and destroy them, before turning our attention to the Augusti,” Leonard declared. Ryan noticed that he avoided mentioning the bunker to the corpos, which was wise. Perhaps they hoped to destroy the base before the Manada siblings noticed its existence. “Will you interfere?”
“No,” Enrique replied.
“Yes,” his brother said, causing everyone to glance at him. “I will not stand by and let someone else clean up our father’s mess. I will personally remove that stain on our reputation.”
“Ah, I see now brother,” Blackthorn guessed. “You suggest a coordinated strike?”
“Il Migliore will support us?” Leonard asked.
“They and my elite security team,” Alphonse added. “We will surround the Psychos and wipe them all out, even if we must fight these animals street by street.”
“Now he’s speaking my language,” Felix whispered to Ryan. Indeed, the courier was surprised by the borg’s decisiveness. Though he was clearly a closet supervillain considering his fashion sense and bloodthirsty behavior, the courier might consider calling upon him in a future loop if things went well.
“I have some reservations,” Sunny Boy said. “If the Meta-Gang has infiltrated your organization all the way to the top, then the more people involved, the greater the risk of a leak.”
“We will only inform our most reliable heroes and officers,” Enrique argued. Which, when reading between the lines, meant ‘those loyal to us and not to our CEO.’
“A wise choice, but you forget a detail,” Shroud argued. “Psyshock will use hostages, and he can transfer his mind from one body to the next.”
“He can do that?” Wyvern asked with a frown. “I wondered why he killed himself fighting Quicksave’s group, but this makes more sense.”
“Unfortunately, we have no means of properly canceling his ability,” Shroud sighed, taking this personally. “He has started transforming homeless people into thralls and giving them weapons. A frontal assault will lead to casualties, while a small strike team can decisively behead the Meta’s leadership.”
Ryan clenched his fist, as he felt an ominous sense of déjà-vu. It was the first Rust Town raid all over again.
“There will be a conflict in the streets even if you miraculously defeat Psyshock and Adam,” Wyvern pointed out with a grim face. “The latter can barely keep his men under control, and without his unifying presence, they will probably rampage around.”
Enrique cleared his throat, commanding everyone’s attention. “Both strategies are not necessarily exclusive. The Carnival can focus on hitting the Meta’s leadership while our larger force surrounds their headquarters and contains Adam’s men.”
After a short moment of silent consideration, Leo Hargraves glanced at his teammates. “What do you think?”
“I could quickly transport groups around town,” said his teleporter. “Like during our battle with Mechron. If we coordinate properly, I think we can hit them hard before the Meta-Gang can prepare a counterattack.”
Though Shroud remained silent, Ryan sensed his gaze on his back. The glass manipulator probably weighed the pros and cons of involving Dynamis directly. On one hand, it would make destroying the bunker easier, but on the other, it increased the risks of discovery.
Eventually, the risk of Big Fat Adam getting his hands on orbital weaponry was too overwhelming to ignore. “When would you be ready?” Sunshine asked the corpos.
“Tomorrow,” Alphonse declared.
“That’s way too soon, Al,” Enrique protested.
“The longer we wait, the greater the risk of discovery,” the Vice-President replied with a grunt. “Father will grow cautious once he learns I have returned.”
“We can quickly mobilize, especially since Devilry is with us,” Wyvern told her manager. “By the time Hector learns who our target is, he will have no choice but to go along. I’m sure he will protest, but in the end, he can’t publicly support Psychos. Results will speak for themselves.”
“Brother.” Alphonse turned towards Enrique, his tone heavy. “Once we deal with the Meta and make them talk, you know what we must do. I can forgive Father’s cowardice, but treachery? Never.”
For the first time since Ryan had met him, Blackthorn let out a long, heavy sigh. It reminded him of a condemned sinner bracing himself for judgment day. “I hoped it wouldn’t come down to this, Al.”
“Father had his chance. For our company to survive, Dynamis needs new management. A firmer one.” Alphonse observed his brother and waited for him to commit. “Do I have your support?”
Blackthorn marked a short pause, before cautiously answering, “Yes.”
Wyvern’s eyes narrowed as she listened. “Enrique, are you suggesting…”
“A coup,” Blackthorn confirmed. “Once the Meta are dealt with, we will remove Don Hector from office whether he likes it or not.”
“It will be a civil war,” Wyvern warned. “Hector won’t go down without a fight, and our heroes—”
“Will make the right choice, or pay for the consequences,” Alphonse Manada said with an angry growl. “Corruption, fame, and greed have poisoned our ranks for too long; they let the Meta and the Augusti make fools of us. It’s time we purge the rot away, Wyvern. We cannot rebuild a functional post-war government on these foundations.”
Blackthorn glanced at the Carnival. “Where do you stand on this issue?”
“We will see,” Leonard replied. “After what he did, Hector needs to be deposed, and we will act to protect innocents from the crossfire.”
“However, this seems like a private matter between you boys,” Ace said with a smile. “And we have our own fish to fry.”
“Augustus?” Alphonse snorted. “You miscalculate, Hargraves. He’s our common enemy, and once Father is out of the picture…”
“If we succeed, brother,” Enrique pointed out.
“Yes, yes,” Alphonse Manada snorted, as he returned to his helicopter. Clearly, he had made up his mind long ago. “We will keep in touch. Brother?”
“I will serve as a liaison between everyone,” Blackthorn replied.
“Thank you.” And without wasting time, Alphonse climbed back on his helicopter and flew away. Ryan couldn’t explain why, but that man’s behavior reminded him of Augustus… and he didn’t appreciate it one bit.
“I like him,” Atom Cat said, glancing at Alphonse’s helicopter vanishing in the skies. “He gets shit done.”
Wyvern clearly didn’t share his opinion. “He does, but he doesn’t know when to stop either. If Alphonse becomes CEO...”
“I know,” Enrique replied. “But the die is already cast.”
“Felix, can I talk to you for a minute?” Leonard asked Atom Cat.
“About my sister?” the hero asked, as Sunshine invited him to walk away from the group for a private discussion. The living sun probably didn’t want the others to eavesdrop. Shroud, meanwhile, started discussing with Ace about the operation, bouncing off ideas how they could coordinate to surround Rust Town.
Ryan decided to interrogate Shroud about Livia’s mother, only for Blackthorn to focus on him next. “Don’t think I have forgotten you, Romano.”
“Of course you haven’t. Without false modesty, I’m unforgettable.”
“You planned all of this,” the manager accused the courier. “I can feel it in my bones. Yet I still do not understand your end goal. Nothing in your file indicates you went out of your way to settle a grudge against the Meta-Gang until you arrived in New Rome.”
“Do I need a reason to hate the Meta-Gang?” After what Hannifat Lecter had done in the previous loop, the time-traveler simply wanted him dead on principle. Ryan had promised Jasmine that he would kill Whalie in every single restart from now on, and he would follow through.
“I do not believe hate is your only motive,” Enrique said, his tone sharp and icy. “You have a hidden agenda, though I cannot fathom it yet.”
“Does it matter, Enrique?” Out of all the people present, Wyvern seemed to swallow the pill the least gracefully. “We have more pressing problems.”
“Hence why I let it slide so far,” the manager explained himself. “But make no mistake Romano, you will explain yourself once the dust has settled.”
Wyvern scratched her head. “Once the dust settles… your words say it all, Enrique.”
“Do you regret it?” Blackthorn asked, his tone softening. “You can still sit this out.”
“Never.” The heroine shook her head. “I joined Il Migliore exactly to run operations like this, and I’ve been waiting for your father to retire for years. If anything, I should rejoice that we can finally act as heroes, instead of pretending that we are. However…”
“You dread to see Alphonse in charge.”
“I want to protect New Rome, not see it turned into a battlefield. Your brother doesn’t stop until all his enemies are dead.”
“He can’t be that bad?” Ryan asked, the embarrassed silence that followed quickly telling him otherwise. “Can he?”
“None will say Alphonse doesn’t believe in a cause bigger than himself,” Wyvern said with a forced smile. “But if his father hadn’t sent him into exile, Dynamis and Augustus would still be at war. I want to see the Augusti crumble as much and their drug factory on fire, but it won’t be without civilian casualties. It’s… I’m torn. I’m truly torn.”
“Unfortunately, the more I consider it, the more I believe a conflict is inevitable,” Enrique said with a hint of regret. “Our respective visions of the future cannot coexist.”
Ryan’s thoughts turned to Livia, and her desire to reform her organization. “You could wait for Augustus to retire. The next person in the line of succession might be friendlier.”
“I thought we could reach an agreement with Augustus’ daughter once she took over the organization, yes,” the manager conceded. “But the situation is too unstable. Augustus' kind never goes into quiet retirement; once he learns our father sent the Meta-Gang after him, and he will know, he shall strike back. And let’s not talk about his feud with Hargraves.”
“I just don’t get it,” Wyvern said, hands on her waist. “Why would Hector risk so much by allying with someone like Adam?”
“My father believes he can buy everyone’s loyalty, if the price is right,” Enrique replied. “Money or knockoff Elixirs, it makes no difference for him.”
“But why does he prevent us from striking while hiring monsters to do it in secret?”
“I suppose my father believes he can outlast the competition while secretly weakening it. At least, until Augustus’ tumor kills him, and Dynamis can strike his organization without fear of retaliation.”
Ryan, who had stopped paying attention to the conversation, abruptly froze in place. “Come again?”