When Vulcan said she had a second spot in her cockpit, Ryan thought he would have his own baby seat at the back. But as it turned out, the Genius was more fond of motorcycle designs than cars.
“People are gonna talk,” Ryan said, holding Vulcan by the waist with his chest against her back as the mech accelerated. The crazy woman had designed her cockpit like a motorbike, with screens and computer interfaces at the front. The bench seat did allow for two people inside, but Ryan had to lean on the pilot due to a lack of space.
If outsiders could watch them, they would probably find their current positions suspicious.
“Let them,” Vulcan replied. Due to the oceanic pressure, the mech had entered some sort of alternate mode to protect its weaker parts, contracting its joints, shielding the cameras, and using only sonars and thermal sensors for navigation. From outside, the armor must have looked like a bulky lump of metal. “I don’t give a shit.”
“Interesting choice of design though,” Ryan said, hearing the faint noise of the fusion reaction powering the suit. “Was that a personal preference or—”
“Dynamis’ elite soldiers are trained to target the center of mass,” Vulcan cut him off. Ryan had noticed that she was very fond of lording over her knowledge whenever the occasion presented itself. “Since most armor cockpits are located there, this means enemies usually shoot straight at your vitals in a fight. I used to overcompensate for that with thicker shielding, but that’s pretty limited when you fight someone who can bench press tanks.”
“Ah, I get it,” Ryan realized, as he felt the mech slow down. “With your current design, the cockpit is actually located between the shoulders, thus away from the area where most soldiers shoot at. This improves the chances of successful ejection in a pinch, but you must also cut down cockpit space to avoid making the frame unwieldy.”
“I use a neural interface to control most of the systems,” she replied, briefly putting a hand in her hair; Ryan noticed some kind of black cranial implant hidden below her bun. “This removes the need for systems in the cockpit, except emergency ones.”
Oh, so that explained how she could command her suit from afar. Ryan wondered about her range. “I suppose it’s an even trade in exchange for the close, uncomfortable physical proximity.”
“If you use your hands to feel me up, I’ll castrate you,” she warned him. “I can already feel your cock in my back. Gee, when you said you were easy, you weren’t kidding.”
“You don’t want me to upgrade the difficulty to hard mode right now.”
Vulcan chuckled at the dirty wordplay. Ryan couldn’t believe it, but the violent Genius was quite lovely when nobody threatened her fragile ego. “You’re fucking shameless,” she said. “And here I thought you loved that girl though.”
“I loved her once, yes,” Ryan admitted. “But that was a long, long time ago.”
Well, his devotion to Len had never wavered through the years, but Ryan no longer desired her romantically; he had been in romantic relationships in the past, all erased by time. At this point, the courier could settle for a friend, even an acquaintance who could recognize him. Someone with whom he could have a connection that would survive his endless travels across time, no matter how fragile.
All Ryan wanted was someone who could alleviate his loneliness. No more, no less.
The courier sighed. Moving kilometers below the sea gave him the blues. “Are we there yet?”
“Are you going to ask this every minute?”
“Yes, until we are there.”
“If you ask it again, you can say goodbye to another A-place,” she replied.
“Are you coming on to me?”
The Genius ignored him, the mech shaking. Ryan guessed that they must have landed somewhere. “Are we,” he started, Vulcan glaring at him over her shoulder, “friends yet?”
“You must have a death wish,” the Genius said, the cockpit’s ceiling shifting. “And as a matter of fact… we’re here.”
A hatch opened above the courier, alongside a mini-ladder. Ryan could see a red lamp outside the metal suit, enshrined inside a rusted ceiling, but little else.
“I’ll be waiting here, working on other stuff,” Vulcan said, as Ryan started climbing out of the cockpit. “Since you guys need some time alone. Just don’t take too long, or I’ll leave without you.”
“You would leave a major investment stranded miles below the sea?” Ryan mused, before nodding at the Genius. “Thanks.”
“You did your job, I did mine. I ain’t a fink, Ryan.”
“Well, I certainly appreciate a woman of her word.” It saddened Ryan a little since he might bypass all these fetch quests in the future, depending on how things turned out now. He would have to find a way to balance the scales.
The courier climbed out of the mech, standing atop the suit.
The room looked like an airlock, albeit one big enough to house something as large as Vulcan’s suit; walls of steel surrounded Ryan, thick enough to withstand the undersea pressure outside. Vulcan’s machine stood with its boots in a puddle of water, enormous closed gates at the back, a smaller human-sized door at the front. While a lamp provided a dim crimson light, Ryan didn’t notice any camera.
“Shortie?” he asked, before leaping off the mech and onto the puddle. When he received no answer, he moved towards the smaller door. No sooner did he approach it, that he heard a sound coming from behind. The gate opened on its own, spurred on by an automatic mechanism.
Carefully, Ryan stepped out of the undersea airlock, and into an apartment.
Well, it looked like an apartment, albeit one sparsely furnished. It was around fifty meters square, including a main resting room, a small kitchen, and doors leading to what Ryan assumed to be a bedroom and bathroom. The walls were painted blue and red, her favorite colors.
The whole place smelled of her presence.
“Where’s that Jamaican crab to sing a song when you need him?” Ryan whistled to himself, finding this place too silent for his liking. Yet he didn’t see any stereo nearby.
The courier moved towards the kitchen, noticing a fridge. When he opened it, Ryan found an assortment of tasty dishes straight from the sea: crabs, fishes, algae… a tube seemed to provide the food from another part of the complex. The courier tested the sink next; it worked perfectly, but clearly hadn’t been used much lately.
“Shortie, where are you?” Ryan then wandered towards the main resting room, made of a sofa and a plastic table. Instead of a TV, the main room’s sofa faced a massive porthole allowing sitters to see the world outside; namely, an undersea abyss as dark as the blackest night. Strange fish looked on the other side of the reinforced glass, perhaps curious or attracted by the strange house’s warmth.
The courier noticed a pile of books on the table, including Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers—the exact same book Len found in Venezia all those years before—alongside Karl Marx’s compiled Das Kapital, and Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right.
Some things never changed.
However, much to his alarm, the courier also noticed a large amount of medications next to that mini-library. Ryan quickly analyzed them, identifying the products as Dynamis-made antidepressants and anxiolytics. Powerful ones too.
Ryan didn’t know Len's self-medication treatment details, but it was clearly unhealthy.
As the courier walked in front of the porthole and peeked through, he noticed other sources of light in the darkness. On a closer look, they came from other portholes in sphere-shaped structures, an egg nest at the very bottom of the abyss. A complex set of corridors linked the structures together, forming a vast community.
Did Len build that? Certainly not in six months, even with Vulcan’s help and funding. She must have spent at least a year slowly building this place, going to New Rome when she needed specific technology she couldn’t manufacture herself. If each habitat was a self-sufficient apartment, then there was enough space to house hundreds of people.
Silly Len, she was building her own undersea Khrushchyovka!
But still, this place felt like it lacked a soul.
There was no personal touch, no warmth to it. All the accommodations were utilitarian, meant to cover a human being’s basic needs without any aestheticism whatsoever. Besides the books, Ryan didn’t notice any source of entertainment or even a photo. This place was a brightly colored undersea tomb, nothing more.
He heard another door open behind him, perhaps the bedroom’s one.
She didn’t make a sound at first, yet he could sense her eyes peering at his back. She didn’t dare say anything, so Ryan broke the ice.
“Hi Shortie,” the courier said, looking over his shoulder. “It’s been way too long.”
It was her.
She was… she was both so familiar, and yet so different. But it was her, unmistakably her. She wore a brown diving suit, albeit not the towering armor as in the last loop, alongside some kind of water rifle.
Len had had a growth spurt since the four years they last met, although she was still small enough for him to tease her. Her teenage cuteness had blossomed into a true beauty, albeit one lessened by exhaustion and the pale complexion of her skin. She clearly didn’t go out often enough.
They both needed to take a vacation.
“Riri,” Len smiled, but it was more sadness than joy. Her voice was music to Ryan’s ears, yet she sounded so weak and anxious.
It had been so long since he had heard that nickname, that the courier had almost forgotten it. It awakened old emotions he had long since buried through decades of time-looping. Happiness, and sadness too; she looked so terrible, her eyes blackened by tiredness and antidepressants, that it made Ryan feel guilty not to have found her before. It was his job to make her happy, and she clearly wasn’t.
Ryan fully turned around to hug his oldest friend, but she took a step back when she saw him move from his spot. He froze in place, confused, while the sofa stood between them like an insurmountable barrier.
“Don’t… don’t come closer,” Len pleaded, a hand on her water rifle. She wasn’t pointing it at him, but she didn’t set it aside either. "Please."
“Shortie, what’s wrong?” Ryan asked. This wasn’t the reception he had hoped for, let alone expected. “It’s me. I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“I know,” she replied. “I know.”
Ryan tensed up at these words. “For how long?”
His best friend looked away, before finally confessing, “Two years.”
Ryan froze, as his reality came crashing down.
He had always refused to entertain the thought, even if… even if deep down, he knew it was the only logical explanation. Ryan had made so many waves across Italy, he thought that if Len was alive, then she would have contacted him. If she didn’t, he believed it meant that she was dead, captured, or in a terrible position.
Ryan never wanted to accept the most likely scenario.
Namely, that she avoided him on purpose.
“Why?” Ryan asked, feeling as if he had been shot in the gut. “Why? Why did you avoid me?”
She didn’t answer immediately, not with her voice; but her body spoke for her. Her trembling hands, her unease in Ryan’s presence...
“You’re…” The courier couldn’t believe it. “You’re afraid of me?”
“No,” she said. “It’s just… your presence.”
“You have PTSD,” Ryan recognized the symptoms, glancing at the pile of medications. Suddenly, it all started to make sense. “I remind you of the bad days. I remind you of Bloodstream. I’m… I’m an open wound.”
“Riri, your power,” Len shook her head, “it’s done something to your mind. I can see it. You’re not… you’re not stable. Your behavior, it’s… it’s not that of a sane person.”
“Len, I’m not insane,” Ryan protested. “I just get the joke.”
“You don’t get anything,” she accused the courier. “You never did.”
“You killed him.”
The words echoed across the undersea habitat, an awkward silence settling in.
“You led the Carnival to us,” Len accused him. “You didn’t pull the trigger, but you brought the gun.”
“I did,” Ryan admitted. He had an eternity to ponder his choice. “And it had to be done. My only regret is that it separated us for years.”
More silence. Len had never been good at articulating her feelings, but all these years had only worsened her social skills. He wondered if she had any people to talk to.
“Len,” the courier said. “Your father was never going to get better, and one day, he would have killed you. He almost did. I spent years studying the nature of Genomes, trying to find a solution to the Psycho condition; see if I could have made it right. But there is no cure. Or at least none I could design with the means at hand.”
Even Ryan, for all his power over time and causality, hadn’t dared take two Elixirs; for powers worked on a level far greater than mere gene manipulation. Another Elixir would cause his original power to mutate, maybe create another save point or permanently leave him mad. If Ryan ever became a Psycho like Bloodstream... with his save point, no one would be able to stop him. It would be an unending nightmare, for himself and countless others.
“I know,” Len admitted. “I know. But he was still my dad. That wasn’t your choice to make.”
Ryan put his hands behind his back, studying her for a moment. Then, he removed his hat and mask, so she could see his true face. The gnawing unhappiness beneath the smile.
“I apologize,” Ryan said, and he meant it. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
Len looked into his eyes, and then glanced away, unable to hold his gaze.
The sight hurt way worse than Acid Rain’s knives.
He bore witness to the end of his main quest, and it wasn’t a happy ending.
“Why did you make this place?” Ryan asked, glancing at the habitat. Perhaps there was something he had overlooked, a detail that could let him salvage their friendship.
“For me,” she said. “Then for others.”
“The orphans above,” Ryan guessed. “That’s what this place is for.”
“Yes,” she said, looking at the distant lights through the porthole. “I want to bring them here when it’s finished. Give them a place where they can belong, begin again. Make it right.”
“Len, you can’t retreat from the world, even if it’s harsh and absurd,” Ryan said. “Or else you will lose part of yourself too. Look at you, you’re… you’re miserable, Len. You're not happy living like this.”
“Riri, there’s nothing above for them, or for me,” Len argued. “There’s just violence and Psychos and powerful bastards kicking down the little guy. I thought the bombs had wiped the slate clean, but more than a decade afterward… it’s more of the same.”
“If that’s how you feel, then let’s make it better,” Ryan said. “I can help. I’ve got all the time in the universe to fix it. I can make everything right.”
“I am already… I’m already fixing it. I’m making a new, better place. A place where everyone is equal.”
“No, you’re running away from your problems, just as I did,” Ryan argued. “The medications are dulling the pain, but they won’t make it go away. No matter how many times you repeat the same process, the outcome won’t change. Neither will this place help you. It’s sunken. You’re literally sinking, Len.”
He extended a hand.
“Let me help you,” the courier asked her, begged her. “Once, you wanted to explore the world. We can do it. Travel together, and look beyond the horizon. There’s still so much to do, so much to learn. I’ve seen things you can’t even imagine. I can show them to you. We can start over.”
Len looked at his fingers, and for long, agonizing seconds, she looked tempted to take his hand. If only she would… then their days of loneliness would finally end.
But she didn’t take it, held back by her own fears.
Crushed at the sight, Ryan realized it wouldn’t do. She was too hurt, too wounded, to take the risk. Their friendship was an old wound she feared might fester again, and sink her deeper below the sea.
He was just making things worse.
“The world is absurd,” Ryan declared. “But it’s not hopeless.”
She frowned at him, confused.
“I’ve faced the same situation over ten thousand iterations, and made a different choice each time,” he explained. “If it was all hopeless, then nothing should have changed. A single man can’t make any difference, right? That’s fatalism for you. Well, fatalists are cowardly crybabies. Every choice I made led to a different outcome. Sometimes it changed little; other times, it changed everything. Sometimes, I killed people, and other times, I saved them.”
“Where… I don’t understand, where are you getting at?”
“That in the end, my decisions changed things,” Ryan said. “Even if I was the only one who could see it. It doesn’t matter if the change is big or small. The change exists. Yes, bad things often happen for no reason... and sometimes good things too. While not guaranteed, justice is attainable. Nobody is in control of anything, but that doesn’t mean your actions have no impact. So please, Len, don’t ever say it’s hopeless. If time-travel has taught me anything, it’s that everything can change, and the perfect ending is always within reach.”
Instead of burdening her with his own issues, Ryan put the Quicksave mask and hat back on, then walked towards the hatch’s door. She didn’t make a move to stop him. Even if she seemed to hesitate.
“No matter how bad it gets, Len, I won’t give up on finding happiness,” he said, looking over his shoulder at his old friend. “I hope you don’t either.”
Ryan walked away, his silent steps echoing below the sea.