Standing in the middle of a white, underground experimentation room, Ryan let out a groan. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Too late, asshole,” Jasmine replied, as she used a screwdriver to close the armor’s lightweight alloy chest plate, leaving only the courier’s head exposed. Eugène-Henry Schrodinger meowed at her side, looking at his master with curiosity. “But I added a urine-recycling system if you want to drink your own piss.”
“Charming.” Ryan’s body didn’t feel so heavy, even if he wore a twenty-five kilogram suit of armor. The weight was evenly distributed to lessen the strain on his muscles, and the servos provided additional strength. While the courier wouldn’t be able to move as fast as in his glamorous suit, he could probably punch through concrete.
As per his demand, Jasmine had painted the armor purple, with orange lenses for the helmet’s eyes. Though Ryan looked like an oversized humanoid bug in it, he would remain outrageously flashy, and that was all that mattered.
Hell, his armor’s design matched Vulcan’s own. Wasn’t that adorable? Ryan had also memorized its schematics, so he could rebuild it in a future loop if needed.
Separated from a control area by a door and Plexiglas window, the place used to be an underground police interrogation room before the Wars. Jasmine had repurposed it into a lab, even managing to complete the armor in a matter of days using available material. The makeshift workshop was a far cry from Vulcan’s previous foundry, but it was sufficient.
They didn’t even have to lie about that project, not completely at least. Vulcan had promised Augustus that she would work on a new type of armor capable of enhancing Ryan’s power, and the would-be emperor had given his seal of approval. It seemed the courier’s power had left a good impression on Lightning Butt, or he just didn’t care anymore after his daughter’s demise.
Say what you wanted about the Augusti, but they got things done.
“Should have figured it out sooner,” Jasmine grumbled, as she grabbed the last part of the armor she hadn’t put on Ryan yet: the helmet. “You were just too fucking perfect. Was it a repeat performance? Did you fine-tune your sweet-talking until it worked?”
“No.” Though Ryan had centuries of experience with women, so he knew what made people tick. “You tried to kill me in a previous loop.”
“Did I succeed?” she asked, almost hopeful.
“Nope. Not even close.”
“A shame. Guess I might succeed this time.”
“It’s fine, half my girlfriends tried to kill me at one point or another,” Ryan replied with a smirk. “I’m a masochist.”
“I know you are,” Jasmine replied with a chuckle, though her mood quickly soured. “I’ve got a request, Ryan.”
“A request from you?” Ryan asked, quite surprised. Vulcan didn’t do requests, she gave orders. “How can I refuse?”
“If this fails… and it won’t fail, because I’m a genius…” Jasmine gathered her breath, as if admitting the mere possibility of failure took a colossal effort on her part. “But let’s assume that if it fails...”
“I won’t be able to transfer your mind.” In Ryan’s experience, failure would be the rule, and a potential success the exception.
“Yeah, right Sherlock,” she snapped, clenching her teeth. “If I don’t make it, it means I will cease to exist. The me right now.”
“You will just lose your memories,” Ryan argued. “Don’t be so pessimistic. It’s amnesia, not death.”
“I will lose memories of things I haven’t done. Stop kidding yourself, Ryan. I’ll be erased, end of the story.” She let out a sigh as if bracing herself for death. “So, if I don’t make it… I want you to leave my other self alone. Make sure she lives and doesn’t go to corpo-jail, but don’t pull off your summer fling crap on her. Don’t replace me with another Jasmine.”
“I understand,” Ryan said.
“Before, I said you wouldn’t forget me, and I mean it now. Even if I disappear… promise you won’t forget me.”
He had made that oath before and always kept it.
The helmet in her hands, Jasmine pushed her lips against Ryan’s. The courier put his hands behind her waist, the armor clinking as it moved, and held her tight. It was a passionate, intense kiss; he felt as if Vulcan wanted to eat him on the spot.
This may be their last.
“Don’t forget that,” Jasmine said upon breaking the embrace and putting the helmet on Ryan’s face. The courier started to breathe with a respirator and see the world through lenses. Vulcan then tried to grab Schrodinger, but the cat stubbornly refused to get caught.
“I think he wants to stay,” Jasmine mused.
“It’s a Schrödinger's cat,” Ryan replied, easily seizing the cat in his armored arms. “He’ll improve the odds.”
“Whatever, I hope he has enough lives remaining,” Jasmine replied, closing the room’s door behind her. The Genius sat next to a control panel beyond the window, sparing her boyfriend one last glance before starting her work.
The plan was for Ryan to open a rift to the Purple World with his enhanced power. Though the courier had never succeeded in doing so for centuries, it should allow for physical time-travel, at least in theory. It was a far-fetched plan, even a risky one, but they had exhausted all other options. Since they had lost the necessary tech for a consciousness transfer and Europe would soon erupt in conflict, there was no other way for Jasmine to survive the restart.
The chances were slim, but one could always hope.
“If you think you might die, why are you going along with it?” Ryan asked Jasmine as she began hitting buttons on her control panel, fine-tuning the armor’s functions. Schrodinger waited, strangely silent. “You could keep me chained up in your basement.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Jasmine replied, pulling a lever on her control panel. Words and numbers started to appear on Ryan’s lenses, the suit’s systems activating. “Roughly eight million people live in New Rome and its countryside. The Meta killed what, two, three million of them? No matter how I see it… one versus three million. You would have to be a huge dick to consider it a fair deal.”
“Some would have thought otherwise,” Ryan admitted. One Genius tried to keep his brain in storage in an old loop, to prevent the courier from reloading. “That’s why I tried to keep my secret under wraps after a few betrayals.”
“Poor you,” Jasmine mocked him, before looking at the armor regretfully. “I was a hero once.”
Ryan said nothing.
“I just wanted to change the world. Make an impact. Like your Len girl is doing, though she doesn’t get it yet. I guess that’s why I wanted you on my team, Ryan; I had the feeling we were going to do great things together.”
“We are,” Ryan reassured her.
“Yeah,” she replied, stopping her work to look at him through the window. “Make sure this disaster never happens again, okay? Kill that fatass.”
“I’m killing him in every single loop from now on, I promise,” Ryan said, frowning. “If I told the Augusti about the bunker—”
“No, don’t, unless I follow you. At best, Augustus will blow up Rust Town like he did now, casualties be damned. At worst… I don’t want to think about it.” Vulcan clenched her fists, scowling. “If I don’t make it, go to Laura.”
“I’m sorry, have I misheard?” Ryan asked, astonished. “You want me to go—”
“I was jealous, alright!” the Genius snapped, interrupting her boyfriend. “Because she’s so fucking perfect! And now she just apologizes? It’s sickening.”
Ryan didn’t answer, letting Vulcan vent out all her pent-up frustration. He had the feeling that the short Genius had invested so much in her bitter rivalry with her former teammate, that she had no idea what to do now that Wyvern had thrown in the towel. Maybe with time, Jasmine would learn to move on. To stop hating.
If she had time.
“I know her better than anyone,” Jasmine grumbled in admission. “She’ll help getting rid of that bunker, if only because she’s too stupid to see the possibilities. She isn’t corrupt, just goddamn naive.”
Ryan wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a compliment or an insult. Knowing Jasmine, probably both. “Do you regret joining the Augusti?” the courier asked his girlfriend.
She considered the question for a few seconds. “No, I don’t regret it,” Vulcan finally said. “It wasn’t the best choice, but it was mine. If that makes sense.”
It didn’t, but the courier accepted it all the same.
In any case, the Genius finished typing on the control panel and looked through the window. “Ryan, we’re ready. Open the path to that Purple World, for the both of us.”
“I will do all I can.”
“Do or don’t. There is no try.”
Both burst out laughing; Ryan couldn’t believe they even shared the same love for pop culture. Truly, they had been a match made in mafia heaven. Even if it ended terribly… this loop had been something special.
Gathering his breath and holding Schrodinger in his arms, Ryan activated his time stop. Now was the moment of truth.
The world turned violet, as the Purple World and their universe converged. Instead of freezing in time, Vulcan’s armor kept working inside the temporal anomaly. Even if the experiment failed, at least Ryan could upgrade his arsenal for later runs.
Two seconds within the time-stop, the courier immediately noticed something unusual. Bright violet particles began to appear inside the interrogation room, swirling points of light coming off from his person. They floated around the room, even as the universe remained frozen.
The armor was meant to focus Ryan’s power, to fully harvest the theoretical ‘violet flux radiation’ that powered spacetime manipulators. Could this be those particles?
As two seconds turned into three, four, then five, the number of these lights only increased at an exponential rate; from a few dozens to thousands, shrouding everything around him. Their color turned from bright violet to purple, and they grew from the size of fireflies to bubbles.
At this point, Ryan reached the ten seconds limit and decided to stop before he accidentally made a new save. This was a mere initial test to access more power from the Purple World, but it wasn’t worth setting New Rome’s destruction in stone.
The genome hastily cancelled his power...
But the world remained frozen.
In fact, the number of particles around him only increased, until they drowned his sight entirely. Schrodinger, Jasmine, the entire room vanished behind a veil of colored bubbles.
“Jasmine?” Ryan attempted to move, but his body refused to. Or rather, the armor didn’t follow his movement, keeping his limbs encased in steel. He couldn’t even sense Schrodinger in his arms. “Jasmine, I can’t stop!”
No one answered.
The veil of purple bubbles split open, finally allowing Ryan to see through the armor’s lenses. But instead of the interrogation room, the courier looked at an icy, silent wasteland beneath a dark sky.
Was this Antarctica? It would fit the stars’ positions in the skies.
Strangely, while the bubbles remained at the edge of his vision and the armor refused to move, Ryan saw snow move with the wind. It felt like watching a 3D movie from an outside perspective.
Ryan’s viewpoint focused on a dark metal dome emerging from the snow; perhaps a research station or something similar. His vision glitched out, showing a mahogany desk in a darkened room. Three figures spoke around a table, although Ryan couldn’t see them clearly; they appeared as phantoms made of blue particles.
“These higher dimensions defy physics and our understanding.” A woman’s voice. “Yet, to master these alien worlds and conquer the stars is mankind’s destiny. To survive, even thrive, in this hostile universe, humanity must ascend to a higher state. From man to overman… from homo sapiens to homo novus.”
“Ascension through genetic engineering.” A similar voice, but slightly different. Ryan couldn't explain it, but it seemed like the same actor voicing two characters. “But governments and institutions will try to stop us, to preserve the status quo. Those old fossils can’t see what’s up ahead; they live in the past, while the future came to us with this craft. We were warned.”
“Old nations are fragile things that will crumble to dust, or they will adapt. The chaos we will unleash…”
“Is well within our budget.”
What was that? A vision of the past?
The scene glitched out again, and this time he could only hear broken voices; purple particles obscured his vision, like a VHS tape suffering from a breakdown.
“There is no place for Black… out of all the colors, it alone can’t be safely harnessed. The creatures within the black dimension do not seem malicious, but their mere existence tears our lower reality apart. Physical laws cannot coexist with paradoxes.”
“All the ultimate ones are compassionate, but also narrow-minded… they only understand lower universes through the prism of their color. Limitless power without complexity.”
“Or perhaps they see farther than we do.”
The veil of purple parted ways, revealing a green meadow populated with white rabbit plushies, dozens of them. They all looked at him, raising their ears as if they could see him through time and space. Their fur was covered in blood, and the courier noticed a dismembered human corpse hidden behind tall grass.
“Hi,” Ryan said.
The plushies raised their tiny paws and waved at the courier in perfect synchronization.
The purple particles’ brightness intensified, and in a blink, they all exploded in a blinding flash. Ryan had to squint, though he managed to see a shadow inside the light; through it he saw hints of impossible geometries, shifting spaces and doors to other alien worlds. A crossroads between realities, whose existence defied the physics of mankind’s universe.
He had entered the Purple World.
The shadow grew in size as if Ryan approached it. It vaguely looked like an inverted pyramid covered in eye-shaped spheres, though the courier couldn’t work the details through the purple light. However, he could tell it was colossal in size. A flying structure the size of a planet, maybe a star…
No. Not a structure.
A living being.
The godlike entity looked at Ryan with its countless eyes, and—
It was May 8th, 2020, a brand new day in Rome.
His hands on the driving wheel, Ryan immediately parked at the nearest spot and glanced through the window. Cars passed by his Plymouth Fury and made their way towards the glitzy city, ready to gamble their souls to win fortunes in its glamorous casinos. Mount Augustus and Dynamis’ HQ stood proud, two would-be nations facing each other.
Ryan observed his surroundings, trying to gather his thoughts. He had traded the armor for his usual clothes, and after checking, confirmed that everything was back in its proper place. Either the entity had killed him, or it activated a failsafe in the Genome’s own ability.
And no sign of Vulcan either. She was supposed to call him immediately should she somehow manage to travel back in time, and so far, his phone had remained silent.
Jasmine hadn’t made it through.
“Well…” Ryan let out a deep, sad sigh. “That was a failure.”
The time-traveler wasn’t surprised, just… disappointed.
At least Ryan had managed to go back after all, instead of accidentally making a new save. It had only cost him a trusted friend, and everything else. But the Genome had a chance to make things right, and he wouldn’t waste it.
Gathering his breath, Ryan put on the chronoradio, and prepared to make his way towards Renesco’s place.
“I still think we’re alone in the universe.”
Ryan stopped, as Len’s voice came out of the chronoradio.
“It’s all dark and cold beyond our little blue planet.”
“We aren’t alone,” Ryan’s own voice answered through the radio. “And if you ask me, the stars shine brighter still.”
The courier behind the wheel froze, as he heard himself discuss with Len through the radio. It didn’t take him long to realize what was happening.
He listened to a recording. A recording of that conversation with Len, on the orphanage’s roof.
How? He didn’t record it, and neither did Shortie as far as he knew! How did it travel back in time? Did Len manage to send a recording through her device before Mechron’s satellite claimed her life? Or was it that strange entity’s doing?
Whatever the case, the whole orphanage conversation repeated perfectly, as Ryan had experienced it. Eventually, the courier’s own words echoed in his car.
“It can improve. Len, all you see is the dark, but everywhere you look, there’s light.”
Yes. Even if the world held much sorrow, it was also worth saving.
Ryan pushed the accelerator and drove towards New Rome, to begin again. It didn’t matter how many tries it would take, how many false starts and bad endings he would have to go through. He had a city to save, and a Perfect Run to complete.
The courier had made a promise to Vulcan, and he would keep it.