Ryan woke up on a terrible mattress, with a cat on his chest.
The animal looked at the courier with its big blue eyes, as he emerged from his deep sleep. The Persian cat had a coat of fur of the purest shade of white, and the lazy expression of a creature sleeping eighteen hours a day without shame.
It was the perfect Bond Villain cat!
Ryan immediately let out a cry of joy, while the cat looked at him with noble curiosity.
“I’m gonna call you…” Ryan briefly raised the feline above ground to check if it was a male or female, and then let his imagination do the rest. “Eugène-Henry von Schrodinger!”
Eugène-Henry meowed in response.
“The name sucks,” someone complained from the ‘room’ right next to his—another animal cage repurposed into a prison cell. Ryan recognized the voice as Sarah’s. “It sucks hard.”
“Much like many geniuses, I’m way ahead of my time,” Ryan replied, scratching Eugène-Henry behind his ears. “You like that name, don’t you? You like it, don’t you?”
“Is that the white cat?” Sarah peeked into Ryan’s private space, finding the courier sitting on his bed sheet, the cat on his lap. The courier promised himself to work on his diabolical mastermind pose, though he needed to get a cashmere suit first. “It has a sixth sense to find suckers willing to feed it. That’s why it’s so fat.”
“Hey, he’s not judging you on your appearance!”
“Once, I showed him a rat, like one meter away from his face, and that lazy furball didn’t even react.”
“Slander!” Ryan defended his new sidekick. “Is there a shower though? I think I caught fleas sleeping on that bed.”
“Yes, but the water is muddy. Ma says she will fix it today after she checks your car.”
“Goddammit, I hope she doesn’t find the bodies,” Ryan said, rising up from the bed. Eugène-Henry instantly took over his place and moved below the bed sheet, to better protect the mattress from intruders.
“There’s a spot for that,” Little Sarah said casually. “The druggies call it the Happy Hole.”
As it turned out, Rust Town did have tourist spots.
Ryan started dressing, but immediately noticed something wrong. Namely, his A-bomb was missing, and some of his weapons weren’t at their place. Someone had clearly checked on his belongings while he was asleep.
Shortie may be willing to help, but she didn’t fully trust him yet.
The courier emerged from the orphanage to find Len tinkering with his car, having opened the car hood to look inside. She had put the water gun aside, to her right.
“Comrade Shortie, just because it’s an all-American car doesn’t give you the right to wreck it,” Ryan said. “Find yourself a Lada.”
Len turned her head away from the engine, and Ryan's playful demeanor disappeared instantly when she grabbed the water gun. “Riri, what have you done?”
What did he do?
What didn’t he do?
Ryan glanced inside the car hood, his old friend keeping her weapon aimed at his head. Unfortunately, Len had found the brain and jumped to the wrong conclusions.
“Riri, have you…” Len clearly didn’t want to finish her sentence but forced herself to. “Did you put someone in there?”
“You wouldn’t believe how many tries it took before I found the right person.” He immediately raised his hands while Len made a mortified face. “Relax, I’m kidding, I’m kidding! It’s not even sentient!”
“Riri, don’t, don’t joke about this,” she sputtered, keeping her weapon raised.
“Sorry, sorry,” he apologized. “I default to humor when I’m stressed, and I didn’t have my morning coffee.”
Len remained as stiff and grim as ever. “Riri, where did it come from?”
“It’s vat-grown, a gift from another Genius.” No answer. “Shortie, I’m not a serial killer, and I don’t abduct hobos off the road to experiment on them.”
“Riri, I… I want to believe you’re not crazy. I really want to.” She shook her head. “But you keep a thermo-nuclear device with children nearby.”
Oh God, if only she knew about the plushie. “Len, there are no permanent consequences around me.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” she asked, biting her lower lip. “What if you jump into another universe every time you die, and leave a nuclear crater behind?”
“That’s not how my power works,” Ryan reassured her. “I guarantee you I’m not jumping into an alternate universe whenever I die. I checked. I wouldn’t do like, half the stuff I pull on a weekly basis if I knew I left a mess behind. My power only affects our universe, and all I do is give it an alcohol blackout.”
“That’s even scarier,” Len said, still struggling to understand his power’s full scope. “If what you say is correct, then you can rewrite the entire space-time continuum almost at will. It’s not mere time-manipulation, but reality warping.”
“Yes, Shortie, some people get water guns for Christmas, while I got a Fat Man,” Ryan said, putting a finger on the tip of her gun. “So, can you…”
She hesitated, clearly torn between trusting him and her own fears about him, but eventually lowered the water gun. “You will behave while you stay here,” Len said. “I… even if there are no consequences from your point of view, I don’t want anything dangerous near the kids.”
“Len, they have guns.”
“Because they need weapons to defend themselves in this shithole,” the Genius replied. “But that nuke, Riri, won’t help anyone. It’s just death in a can.”
“Okay, I will get rid of it.” He would hand it over to Vulcan, as a sign of friendship. “Can you give it back then? I swear you will never see that bomb again.”
She hesitated for a long, agonizing minute, before searching in her jumpsuit and handing him the bomb. Ryan put a hand on it, their gloves brushing against the other. The courier sensed her reluctance to give the weapon away, but she did it.
Although Len didn’t trust him, she wanted to. He wouldn’t disappoint her.
“Riri, why did you even put your hands on a weapon like that?” she asked, as the courier put the bomb inside one of his coat's inner pocket.
“You really want to know?” Len nodded, and Ryan sighed. She wouldn’t like his answer. “Because I was bored, and I thought it would be fun to have a nuke as a restart button.”
"Can't you automatically restart with your time-stop? You said it caused you early restarts."
"No. When I said an early restart, I meant an early restart. Have you never wondered why I called myself Quicksave?"
She finally caught on. "That's how you 'save.'"
"Yeah." By the time the courier had caught on to this mechanism, he had already burnt a lot of bridges. "And since I need to commit suicide to get back in time, I figured I should make it interesting."
The Genius looked at him with a mix of pity, sadness, and compassion. “Do you think your life is worthless?”
“No, of course not, I love living." If he had wanted to die for good, he would have picked a fight with someone like Cancel long ago. “As long as I exist, there’s always a chance things will improve.”
After an uncomfortable silence, Len abruptly changed the subject. “You slept well?”
“Eh, I’ve slept in way worse places,” the courier replied, before shuddering as he remembered one of his worst deaths. “Whatever you do, Len, don’t sleep in Monaco.”
“Shortie, I come from the future. Don’t go to Monaco.” He glanced at the car, and a flustered Len started putting the engine pieces back in their proper place. “Should I expect a mounted water turret? Please tell me that you added a gadget.”
“I was just checking the Chronoradio and its associated parts.” Only then did Ryan notice that while she had stopped pointing it at his face, Len kept the gun in hand.
“Pretty good tech, huh?” Ryan boasted about his car, putting a hand on the hood. “You’re the last Genius in a long line to work on this baby.”
“I saw that. There’s a lot I could work with, actually.” Len closed the hood once her work done. “Riri, why did you hook up a miniature particle accelerator to your radio?”
Ah, that was such a long story. Ryan worked many loops and decades on that particular quest.
“The Purple World is something of a crossroad, not only between time and space but between various dimensions,” the courier explained. “You know some Violet Genomes summon creatures like that monster from Alien? Or gremlins?”
“They’re pulling them from these dimensions?”
“Yes. Most of these universes radically differ from our own, but some are alternate histories Earth could have taken. Usually, these histories aren’t stable and constantly fluctuate, only becoming ‘real’ when observed.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Well, we humans think time is stable, that the past is set in stone, but in truth, it’s like the water you love so much, ever changing.” Ryan’s experience had taught him as much. “I mean, I just have to jump back and poof, it changes.”
“Have you never considered...” Len trailed off with a worried frown, unable to say it out loud.
“That I destroy the universe and everyone in it when I die? I try not to think about it.” If only because of the horrors involved. It was a rabbit hole of depression, questionable ethics, and self-misery. He preferred to think of it as a universal memory-wipe. “Anyway, I thought the Chronoradio could help me locate a specific reality, and then cross over.”
“A timeline where things went well for us,” Len guessed.
“Yes,” Ryan replied with a sigh, opening his car’s door. “But I never found a way to reach an alternate Earth, even with a custom particle accelerator. All I can do with the Chronoradio is listen to what could have been.”
“You’re going?” she asked with a worried frown. Did she think he would get himself killed? Then again, they were close to the Junkyard. “What about that undead madman in the backseat?”
“I’m supposed to receive a recruitment offer from Wyvern and then Vulcan, but I’m not sure if she will follow through if I’m in Rust Town. After that, I need to have my windshield cleaned, and Bone Daddy will become someone else’s problem.”
“Wyvern?” Len answered with a deeper frown than before.
“I heard Dynamis jailed you, so I investigated,” Ryan admitted. “What happened exactly?”
“They use the citizens of Rust Town as underpaid labor in their factories,” Len said with anger. “They pay them for dangerous work with just enough euros to feed themselves, but provide neither healthcare nor safety guidelines. One out of five people gets maimed or killed.”
“I don’t think Il Migliore supports these practices.” Even the junior heroes he had met during the seminar seemed more self-obsessed than actively malicious.
“They turn their eyes away from the real problems.” Len shook her head. “Not all criminals wear masks. Most wear suits and ties. Since nobody would stand up for this place, I did.”
“So you attacked one of Dynamis' installations?”
“The chemical plant,” she gave more details, her face turning grimmer. “But… they caught me. Somebody ratted me out and led the Private Security to my old workshop.”
“One of the people you tried to fight for?” Ryan guessed, his friend nodding. “I’m sorry.”
“I guess… I guess people always try to take the easy way out.” Len shook her head. “Wyvern didn’t bust me out, Vulcan did. And even then, it wasn’t for free. I had to help the Augusti transport their drug, take their blood money.”
“Well, I don’t intend to go to Dynamis this time,” Ryan reassured her. “I see only one way to kill Psyshock permanently, and it’s an Augusti-exclusive option as far as I can tell.”
Len clearly didn’t like the idea. Even if she collaborated with Vulcan, she clearly had no love for her organization. “We could capture him,” she said. “From what you told me, he has to die for his ability to activate.”
“If he’s smart, he will have a suicide button.” Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a thermo-nuclear device. Besides making the world a better place, taking down Psyshock would also prevent him from piloting that Mechron mech later on. “And while I don’t believe it, Vulcan says she can enhance my power. Unless you have another suggestion, they seem like our best option.”
Unfortunately, she didn’t have any alternative. “I’ve… I need more time, Riri. Time to figure this out.”
“Figure out my power, or us?”
“Both,” Len replied while looking away. “I want to help you, Riri. I really do. No one else should have to go through what you did.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said with genuine warmth. “The fact that you want to help at all means a lot to me.”
She blushed a little. “But the thing is Riri, even if we succeed in helping you, I… I’m not sure if there will be a we after that.”
That word had brought back memories of the time when Ryan believed they had a future together. He thought his feelings for Len had changed after so many restarts, moved past the realm of teenage romance. But every time he looked at his old partner, the courier always wondered what could have been.
And what could never be.
“There are things I can’t forget, Riri,” she admitted. “My father, that stuff with the bomb…”
“You don’t feel safe around me,” Ryan stated the obvious. Like Bloodstream.
Len shook her head sadly, and the courier drove away in silence.
“So, let me get this straight,” Shroud joined his fingers, like an evil mastermind. “There is a cache of Mechron technology below the Junkyard, which the Meta-Gang is trying to access. And Dynamis supplies them with knockoff Elixirs, contacts, and weapons.”
“Meow, that’s right,” Ryan replied, keeping Eugène-Henry in his arms, while Ghoul’s skull snarled inside a glass box. The courier briefly wondered if it was possible to waterboard on a head without the lungs, but pushed the thought aside.
Shroud remained silent for a moment. “This is concerning.”
What an understatement. Ryan tried to top it. “And the Titanic had a leak.”
The glass Genome turned around and started typing on his computer, various documents appearing on the screen. Ryan recognized them as financial statements, supply run reports, and logistical analyses. Shroud ran a program, apparently noticing a few troubling elements.
“There are some strange gaps between the stated numbers of knockoff Elixirs Dynamis produces, and what’s actually sold in their stores,” said the hacker. “I thought they were a statistical error margin or thefts, but it could easily disguise off-the-books deliveries to the Meta.”
“Could it be disguised by mooks or managers?” Psyshock could have brainwashed a few employees, subverting Dynamis without their knowledge; though the lack of attack on the company’s operations made that unlikely.
“Not without complicity from an executive,” Mr. Windshield replied. “They keep a tight ship on these potions.”
“Maybe Blackthorn then.”
“Unlikely,” said the SafeLite advertisement. “From what I know, he’s clean.”
“Have you seen his office and costume?” Ryan asked, Eugène-Henry meowing. “He’s obviously a diabolical mastermind.”
“What about his office? It looks great.” Clearly, he had spied on the place. “Do you know why Blackthorn ended up as Brand Manager and in charge of Il Migliore?”
“Because Hector Manada only trusts his sons.”
“Partly, but while Il Migliore’s heroes do fight crime in New Rome, they don’t wage war against truly dangerous Genome warlords like Augustus or decide Dynamis’ future. Their true job is to serve as the company’s face and follow directives, not make them. Enrique's position is prestigious, but not one with much power.”
“I see where this is going, and not just because you’re translucent.”
“Enrique Manada was groomed to become Dynamis' vice-president, until he started openly pushing for social reforms and Rust Town’s redevelopment,” Shroud explained. “The board sacked him, and the chairman decided to select his brother Alphonse as the VP instead. It backfired when Hector had to send Alphonse to wage war in Sicily to avoid a clash with Augustus, but you see my point.”
“Well, Blackthorn still looks like a Comic Book villain.”
“You’re the one looking like a villain with that cat. Why did you bring it here, by the way?”
Because Ryan was a cat person, as Felix could attest. “It’s a Schrodinger’s Cat, he increases my power twofold.”
“Don’t you need to use a black box first?” Shroud deadpanned, before turning serious. “Unfortunately, I have no proof except your word on the bunker question.”
“Psyshock is going to attack the orphanage soon, you can ask him yourself then. If he survives.”
“You think she will show up?” Shroud asked. Clearly, he had mind-reading on top of his glass control. “No, that was a stupid question. Of course she will, it’s a golden opportunity to strike at the Meta. If the Augusti trust your intel.”
“Well, if she doesn’t we will have to put Psypsy in an aquarium, like the squid he is.” Ryan shrugged. “Any hope we team up to attack the Junkyard? I would do it on my own, but something tells me it will be a blast.”
“We won’t have the numbers to directly challenge the Meta-Gang for some time,” Shroud admitted. This confirmed Ryan’s suspicion that he was only the vanguard, with the rest of his team scheduled to arrive later. “But if I confirm your information, then we will have to. Adam getting his hands on Mechron’s technology will cause a disaster.”
“Just to be sure, Mechron isn’t behind everything?”
“No, he’s very dead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Leo was there when he perished,” the glass manipulator replied. “Mechron is as dead as they come, and unless he has a hidden clone in storage, he isn’t coming back. Not from that.”
Was that a little unease Ryan detected in his voice? Mechron’s demise must have been something disturbing to bother the hardened assassin. “Come on, give me the gory details.”
“You will have to ask Leo himself,” Invisiboy refused to indulge the courier. “I will hold up our end of the bargain, and help defend the orphanage if you can’t get the Augusti onboard. In return, please don’t tell them about the Junkyard. If there really is a Mechron bunker beneath New Rome, it should remain buried.”
“Afraid Mob Zeus finds a bag of flour inside?”
“Even you must understand it won’t end well if he gets his hands on Mechron’s technology.”
Ryan shrugged and left the meeting with the path ahead clear. He would go to the Bakuto, but instead of pretending to look for Len, he would instead tell Zanbato he wanted to fight the Meta-Gang and that he didn’t trust Dynamis to do that. With luck, Ryan might secure a big surprise for Psyshock.
However, although he hadn’t noticed, Shroud gave the courier a key piece of information that greatly worried him.
“You will have to ask Leo.”
Namely, that Leo Hargraves would come to New Rome, probably with the rest of the Carnival in tow. If Ryan cross-referenced that tidbit with information gathered in the previous loops, then he had three weeks before the Living Sun and Augustus settled their rivalry in blood.
Ryan had better not be in New Rome by then.