Nightfall was upon Rust Town when Ryan arrived at the orphanage. His good and unwilling friend Ghoul was trapped at the back, missing most of his limbs. Hopefully, his presence would get the Land off the courier’s back for the evening.
“I would take you out on a walk,” Ryan told his captive while stepping out of the car, “but I don’t think this place was built with the elderly in mind. Besides, the kids there are too old for you.”
“BLEEP you!” Ghoul snarled. “I swear I will—”
Ryan closed the car’s door behind him, the skeleton’s insults turning into muffled noises. Most of the animals were asleep in the big pen, a few dogs barking at the courier as if he were an intruder. Unlike his previous visit, the orphanage’s doors were closed, though Ryan could see light coming from inside.
The Genome knocked and waited. Eventually, a little girl in pink opened the door, raising a gun at his face. “What do you want, druggie?”
“Hi, little Sarah,” Ryan introduced himself. “Is your mama here?”
“How do you know my name?” she asked, looking at his hat. “You’re a magician?”
“Oh yes, I’m especially good with explosions and disappearing acts. Watch.” He stopped time and switched her crappy revolver with a Desert Eagle. “See?”
“So cool...” she said with admiration, examining her new toy as if it were a doll. “Is it loaded?”
“Yep, but I put the safety on. I can switch it for a shotgun, or pretty much any firearm.”
“You’re Mr. Ryan?” she asked him, the courier nodding. “Mama is inside. She said you would come.”
“Can I get in, or do I have to break my own hole?” he asked, pointing a finger at a broken window nearby.
“You can. But you do anything to Mama or the others, and I will disappear your face.” Ryan said nothing, making her frown. “That sounded way better in my head.”
“It comes with practice, my young punawan,” Ryan said, walking inside while she closed the door behind. From within, the orphanage looked as dilapidated as the outside, with wallpaper peeling from the walls, and only one lamp for two rooms. Sarah wagged her new toy at Ryan, guiding him through.
Now that he could take a good look inside, Ryan grew convinced that this place had been an animal shelter first, and repurposed into an orphanage years afterward. The kids had made bedrooms out of caged compartments originally meant for animals, half of them already sleeping or reading old books from Jules Verne; some of the children slept with a cat or dog under their bedsheets.
He found Len in the kitchen, cooking fish for a group of four kids gathered around a table.
His old friend wore the same brown diving suit as last time, and she kept the water gun in a corner of the room. The kitchen clearly lacked equipment, since Len used a camping stove for the meat.
She immediately froze still upon seeing him, Ryan removing his hat and mask like a true gentleman. “Riri,” she said.
“Who is this, ma?” Ryan recognized the speaker as the girl whom Psyshock tried to brainjack, Giulia. He examined her facial features, the vague shape of her skull, and a chill went down his spine.
Psyshock had a similar facial structure when he attacked Ryan at Shroud’s shack.
He also noticed the boy that had been playing with Sarah, before the Psychos attacked the area. His golden retriever waited at his side, looking at the dish while wagging his tail. “He looks weird…” he said, observing Ryan’s costume.
“He’s a magician,” Little Sarah showed them her Desert Eagle. “Look!”
“Sarah,” Len scolded her but took no step to remove the gun. “What did I tell you? Don’t point weapons around, especially not at strangers.”
“It’s fine, Ma, I know how to use them!” the little girl pouted in response.
“Yeah right, you can’t even hit a soda can at three meters,” a boy taunted her, Sarah pinching him in the arm. “It’s true!”
“Ryan, this is Sarah, Giulia, Romain, Albus, and Valeria,” Len made the introductions, before looking at the courier with a conflicted face. “Kids this is Ryan. He’s an old… an old friend.”
“Does he come from the magical place?” little Valeria asked, a dark-skinned brunette no older than twelve.
“You don’t talk about the magical place to strangers!” Sarah told her, the other girl putting her hands on her mouth. “Sorry, Ma.”
“It’s okay,” Len replied, putting a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Can you serve the food to the others and make sure everyone gets their share? I must talk with my friend.”
“Is he your friend or your boyfriend?” one of the boys pestered her. “I want to know!”
Len responded with a strained smile, while Ryan remained silent. If it had been anyone else, he would have cracked a joke, but he didn’t want to embarrass her. “I’ll be back soon,” Len promised, grabbing the water gun and leading the courier outside the kitchen. The kids looked at them with suspicion, Sarah clapping hands to get their attention.
“It’s nice, what you’re doing here,” the courier started, immediately finding his words awkward. Len had that effect on him nowadays, to the point he couldn’t do sarcasm in her presence.
The invisible barrier between them wouldn’t fall anytime soon.
“Thanks,” she said, embarrassed, before leading up towards a stairway. “We can go to the roof. They’ll listen through the door and pester us otherwise.”
Ryan was pretty sure they would follow and try to eavesdrop on them anyway. He knew children all too well; none of them could resist the lure of a magician’s hat.
Len led him to a door reaching the roof, locking it behind them. Ryan sat at the edge, his feet dangling into the void. His old friend glanced at him before sitting in the same position, albeit with two meters of distance and her water gun in hand.
For a moment, neither dared to break the ice, both glancing at the skies above. Even with the lights of New Rome and the polluted air, the stars shone as bright as ever. It made Ryan wonder if he should invest a few loops in researching how to build his own spaceship and explore the universe.
A ski vacation on Pluto sounded quite appealing.
“Kinda reminds you of the old days, doesn't it?” the courier spoke up first. “We always debated if there was sentient life out there.”
“I still think we’re alone in the universe,” she replied. “It’s all dark and cold beyond our little blue planet.”
“We aren’t alone,” Ryan argued back. “And if you ask me, the stars shine brighter still.”
She shifted uncomfortably on her spot. Ryan realized his attempt at small talk just made it awkward. “Did we...” Len trailed off, biting her lower lip. “Did we already have this conversation?”
So, she had taken him at his word. It seemed Len still trusted him somewhat, even after all this time. “We only talked once, in your house under the sea,” Ryan admitted. “You told me you didn’t want to see me after I led the Carnival to your dad, how you had known I was alive for two years, and that you had built your underwater base for Sarah and the others.”
“So it was true,” Len muttered to herself. “Time-travel. It’s… it’s possible since many Violets can alter spacetime on a limited basis. But… I still can’t grasp it. Do you travel physically? Or is it just information transfer?”
“I can mentally return to a point I fix at a specific moment, with my last one made a few hours ago,” the courier explained. “Only my consciousness travels back in time.”
“A save point, like in your video games?” Ryan had always loved playing with them, whenever he found a console that still worked. “Can you…”
“I can’t move my save point back into the past, no.” The courier shook his head. “When I create a new point, it erases the first. I wish I could save your father, save us, save the world, but I can’t. I can’t change the past, only the present, and future. What’s done is done.”
Len winced at his words. Ryan instantly regretted his bluntness, but he had to say it. He couldn’t let her get any false hope up. “How does it work?” she asked more questions. “You create or travel to alternate timelines?”
Ryan shook his head. “You know about Schrodinger’s Cat? The thought experiment? Some psychopath puts a cat in a black box, where the animal has a fifty-fifty percent chance of dying or surviving. As long as you don’t open the box to check the result, the cat is technically both alive and dead.”
“I heard of it,” Len replied. Of course she would, she read everything she could get her hands on. “I thought it was meant as a nonsensical joke towards quantum physics.”
“It was a joke. But as it turns out, I’m a cat, both alive and dead at once.”
Ryan joined his palms together as if holding something unseen. “That’s our spacetime continuum,” he explained. “It’s a black box where all of time and space happens. All moments in time, all possible timelines. Past, present, and future.”
“It’s too small to contain the whole universe,” Len replied, smiling thinly. The sight warmed Ryan’s heart; it appeared the children had a positive effect on her mood, compared to the last loop.
“You just have to fold it enough times.”
“But if our universe is the box, then does that mean there’s something outside it?”
“Yes.” Ryan nodded. “A dimension outside space and time, the observer’s dimension. Let's call it the Purple World.”
“The Purple World?” she frowned.
“I haven’t set on an exact name, but Purple World sounds nice.” Even Acid Rain seemed to agree. “The Purple World exists between all moments in time and points in space, though I only really affect the first part.”
Len listened without a word, trying to make sense out of his words. But she was smart, even without her power, and while it seemed outlandish, she agreed to entertain the theory.
“I actually exist at two points in time,” Ryan continued his explanation. “When I create a save point, I divide. One version of me exists in the Purple World, trapped between two seconds, and another me continues on; the person you’re facing right now. I’m both at once, and we share the same consciousness. You can say that my power is temporal bilocation.”
“So when you die, it’s like Schrodinger's cat,” Len’s expression changed into one of horror. “You’re alive and dead at once.”
“Yes, except that since my consciousness is spread between the two versions, I cheat. I collapse the timeline where I’m dead, and I create a new copy from my save point with the knowledge of the erased future. All events between the two points are undone.”
“But you don’t have to die to trigger that power, right?” Len asked, pleading. When Ryan didn’t answer, she put a hand on her mouth in horror. “How…”
“How many times?” Ryan shrugged. “Countless.”
“How can you say that?” Even with their troubled history, he could see the compassion in Len’s gaze. She had remained ever so kind. “The implications… it’s horrifying, Riri.”
“Well, my first few dozen times were terrifying,” Ryan admitted. “I went mad or catatonic from the stress a few times. But past the first thirty or so, it became normal, like taking a cold shower every day. You get used to everything, even death.”
It didn’t ease up her worries at all. If anything, Len grew even more concerned for him. “But since you exist in two time periods, some conceptual powers, White Genomes, or memory-altering attacks could affect both versions.”
“I suspect someone like Cancel, wait, do you know Cancel?” Len nodded. “Cancel would cause my power to unravel if I died in her vicinity. Obviously, I’m not going to tempt her.”
“And the stopping time? Did you take...” she stopped herself, the question going unsaid.
Did you take two Elixirs, like my father? Are you a Psycho?
“I only have the save point as my power,” Ryan reassured her. “The time stop is an application of it. I cause both of my divided selves to converge, and thus both our reality and the Purple World align. This creates a temporal anomaly where I’m the only one capable of applying force to objects, and my power protects me from the negative side-effects. It’s a pretty sweet deal. However, if I keep it up past a ten seconds limit—”
“The two versions of you fuse. You open the cat’s box and look inside.”
“Which always causes me an early restart, meow,” Ryan said, but she didn’t smile. “I’ve spent decades studying the Purple World, trying to see if I could use it to improve my power and make more than one save point.”
“Your Chronoradio, that’s why you made it?” she guessed, Ryan nodding in confirmation. “Did you succeed in physically entering that dimension?”
Ryan thought of the rabbit plushie. “Not really,” he replied, frowning at her. “By the way, how did you hack into the Chronoradio? Or knew I had one?”
She bit her lower lip. “I’ve… I’ve been…”
“You’ve been stalking me?”
“Watching you for a while,” Len replied while blushing, which made her look adorable. She immediately changed the subject. “That Purple World, are you the only one who can access it?”
“Some Violet Genomes can tap into its power.” That was the only explanation for Acid Rain’s abilities. “Maybe all Violet Genomes derive their abilities from it. A human body can’t do half the things a Violet Genome can, even while heavily mutated.”
Len fidgeted in place. “Riri, how old are you? It must have taken years, decades to figure all of that out.”
“I don’t know,” the courier admitted. He had long lost count. “Maybe I'm five hundred years old, or eight hundred. Maybe more.”
“And you’ve been looking for me all this time?” Now she sounded positively guilty and remorseful.
“You couldn’t know,” Ryan replied. He could never hold anything against her. “I thought you were dead or out of reach after the first decades, so I just wandered off trying new things. It’s only when I got my hands on a piece of your tech that I realized you were somewhere in New Rome.”
Len turned away, something appearing at the edge of her eyes.
“Shortie?” Ryan frowned, as he watched her hold back tears, “Len, are you crying?”
“I’m crying for you,” Len said, looking at him with clear guilt in her gaze. “You’ve been… you’ve spent centuries alone and I...”
“Len, I—” He raised his hand toward her.
She visibly flinched before he could touch her, making Ryan back away.
“I’m sorry,” Len repeated, feeling even more crushed. “Just… just give me time to process all of this. It’s… all of this at once, it’s too much. It’s too much at once, Riri.”
“It’s okay. We’ve got all the time in the world.”
He instantly regretted it saying that as Len’s face darkened even further. Goddammit, why did every word he spoke make things worse?
“Every time you die, everyone forgets you,” she said, wiping away the tears. “Over and over again.”
“Except you,” he replied. “You’re the only person who knew me before the time loop. I know that’s selfish, but...”
“You thought I was the only one who could make this eternity less lonely.” Len glanced at him with compassion. “Is there no way for someone to remember you? To replicate your power?”
“I can only carry my own mind through restarts, and in all these years, I haven’t found a technology or Genome capable of copying my power. Maybe I could have gotten more results if I crossed a few lines, but I had to keep some. The consequences don’t stay, but the memories do. And if I get used to bloodshed and brutality, I… I’m afraid of what I might become.”
“You’re afraid you will become like Dad,” she guessed, her gaze hollow.
Ryan didn’t want to say out loud, but yes, he was. Years around Bloodstream had given him a taste of what sociopathic brutality did to everyone, and how there was no coming back afterward. When you embraced the darkness, it followed you everywhere.
“Why not ask Dynamis?” Len asked, even if she clearly disliked the possibility. “They can copy powers.”
“Their knockoffs only get the ‘genetic’ part of powers, not whatever cosmic physics support them,” Ryan replied. That was why their potions were weaker than the original. A Firebrand Elixir allowed someone to produce fire using their own enhanced body’s calories, but a true Red Genome had access to a near-infinite power source. “I mean, unless they can somehow access the Purple World, a knockoff Elixir based on my genes won’t have any effect.”
His friend said nothing for a few seconds, before finally putting her water gun away and crossing her arms. He had already seen her in that position when she entered a Genius fugue state or thought of a new concept.
“It’s happening again,” Len lamented, as she failed to come up with an invention that might help Ryan’s case. “I can make wonders, but nothing that could help right now. Like Dad.”
“It’s fine.” Just the fact she wanted to help him at all made him feel happier. “Nobody can do everything, and you can do a lot already. Even Vulcan admires your work, and she has an ego the size of Saturn.”
She smiled, thinly, but it didn’t reach the eyes. “If you don’t think there is any solution, and that I will forget this conversation,” Len said, looking him dead in the eyes. “Why have it at all?”
Ah, the hard question.
“I don’t think there’s a solution, no, but I want one to exist. Vulcan is making progress on upgrading powers, and Mechron already could.” And there was an entire cache full of his technology below the earth. “Hope springs eternal, you know? Even if the chance is slim that I can make people remember me, and that we could make up… I want to try.”
She didn’t reply, her gaze thoughtful.
“Psyshock will attack this place in two days,” Ryan changed the subject.
“Why?” Len asked, more saddened than surprised. She must have expected something like that to happen since Big Fat Adam and his crew moved in.
“There’s a bunker full of Mechron tech below the Junkyard, and the Meta are trying to break in.” Her head immediately snapped at him in alarm. “I suppose Psyshock will try to collect the children when they run out of cannon fodder to throw at the defenses. And someone at Dynamis supplies them with knockoff Elixirs for a reason that escapes me.”
Her skin grew paler the more he spoke. “I’ll take care of this,” Ryan promised. “I did it before.”
“This city...” Len shook her head, glancing at Rust Town and New Rome beyond. “It’s never going to improve, no matter how much you try.”
“It was bad even before the Meta arrived,” she replied. “Dynamis, the Augusti, they’re all the same. They only care about money and power. I tried to make a difference, to help people, but… it’s just the way things are. This place isn’t New Rome, it’s the New Babylon.”
“It can improve,” Ryan insisted, pointing at the stars. “Len, all you see is the dark, but everywhere you look, there’s light.”
Len didn’t believe him. “We already argued about it,” she guessed.
“Yeah,” the courier admitted. “After our previous talk, I thought I could wipe out the Meta, honor some debts, maybe make the surface good enough that you would want to return.”
“You don’t have to,” she insisted. “Let the Meta and Augusti wipe each other out for all they care.”
“Len, we can’t let the Meta get their hands on Mechron’s weaponry,” Ryan argued back. “It will be the Genome Wars all over again.”
It would be Bloodstream on a countrywide scale.
“Riri, it’s going to destroy you,” she argued, a hint of desperation in her voice. “It already did. You… you aren’t stable at all, Riri. How many times did you fail?”
“Enough to succeed.”
She took his words in but offered none of her own. If anything, she seemed to withdraw even more.
“Well, sorry to burden you with all of this,” Ryan apologized, rising up until he stood dangerously close to the edge. One step and it would be a free-fall. “Thanks for listening, Shortie.”
“Where are you going?”
“There’s a nice hotel where I stay in the city center,” he replied, putting his mask and hat back on. “I need to go there so events proceed favorably.”
She considered his answer and then said. “No.”
Ryan froze still for a second. “No?”
“You can… you can stay here.” Len breathed long and deep. “It’s not comfortable, but… you can stay here for the night.”
“Len, I can’t. If I don’t go to the hotel, Wyvern and Vulcan won’t—”
“Stay here, Riri,” Len asked, looking up at him. This time, it wasn’t a proposal, but a request. “Please stay. This time.”
Ryan opened his mouth to protest, since it would throw his timing in jeopardy, but… when he looked at her pleading eyes, and the worry in them, his resistance melted away.
“Alright,” Ryan said. “I’ll stay.”