- Spring 2018, farm near Firenze, Italy.
An eighteen-years old Ryan Romano kicked the laboratory’s door open, naked as the day he was born. “Braindead!” he shouted, raising a rabbit plushie above his head. “I did it! I did it!”
His ‘roommate’ Alchemo, who had been busy operating on an extracted dog’s brain, raised his head at Ryan. This lanky cyborg had bones made of brass, steel pumps for organs, and glass for veins; his hands ended with syringes. A brain and two green eyes floated in its glass dome of a skull, glaring at the time-traveler.
“Why are you naked, you shameless exhibitionist?” The voice that came out of the cyborg’s speaker was annoyed, but not surprised. “Have you let your base, biological urges run wild yet again?”
“Yes, but no!” Ryan replied happily, waving his new invention at the cybernetic Genius. “I just couldn’t wait to show you the truth!”
The cyborg looked at the beautiful toy without a word. For a moment, the only sound that echoed in the workshop was that of computers. The Genius’s laboratory was a true den of mad science, a chaotic gallery of brains in jars, tubes full of multicolored, chemical substances, and experimental weed strains. The Chronoradio awaited on a table nearby, hooked to an artificial brain and a miniature particle accelerator.
“What is this?” Alchemo finally asked. “A scavenged children’s toy?”
“The test probe!” Ryan replied proudly. “It’s way more imaginative than another rover!”
“And why a lagomorph plushie, exactly?”
“Well, it’s cute. If the dimension is inhabited, it will lull the locals into complacency.”
To prove it, Ryan flipped the back switch, waking up the plushie. Its blue eyes shone with artificial light, and it immediately played a pre-recorded message, “I love you!”
“See?” Ryan asked. “It comes with lasers and is programmed to protect children under the age of thirteen. It’s completely safe.”
“Sometimes I wonder if your neural connections are damaged beyond repair,” Alchemo said, absentmindedly finishing his current surgery. “But it is as you wish.”
Alchemo, or Braindead as Ryan liked to call him, was a Genius with a special focus on neural technology. Brain-machine interfaces, brains in a jar, sensory drugs, if it involved neurons, he could do it. Ryan had known him for over two years, at least from his point of view. They even started a drug cartel together in a previous loop, though that venture ended with Ryan shot by one of his maddened customers.
But it was fun! Maybe Ryan will dedicate this new loop to make their Rampage start-up work this time?
In any case, the time-traveler had dedicated the last decade or so to mastering Genius tech, learning from the best. With enough knowledge, the time-traveler hoped he could find a way to travel further back in time; before he drank his Elixir.
Progress was slow but worthwhile. Alchemo in particular might finally find a way to make the Chronoradio work.
“Put something on before the Doll sees you,” the Genius all but ordered his roommate. “You already corrupted her mind enough with your ‘body enhancements.’”
“You’re just jealous of my android design talent.”
“I fail to see the use in mammaries in an asexual gynoid construct,” Alchemo replied icily, completely missing the point. “Anyway, toss that thing into the accelerator. You still will not tell me the purpose of these experiments?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Ryan replied, moving towards the device. The mini particle accelerator took the shape of a small metal tube with a hatch, hooked to the Chronoradio. Ryan quickly opened it and put the plushie inside, like a child in an escape pod.
“We won’t know unless you try,” Alchemo grumbled.
Well, maybe Ryan could? Most of the people he confided in during the early loops didn’t believe him, but Braindead had grown more and more open-minded in the Violet Genome’s company. “How about I tell you if the experiment is a success?” the courier asked, before remembering something important. “Also, you should stop abusing that metaboost drug you designed. The side effects will catch up to you.”
“How do you kno—were you looking into my stash? You thief, I should have you expelled from my property!”
“Sure, sure,” Ryan replied, knowing the cranky genius’s bark was worse than his bite. “Alright, so the particle accelerator should send the plushie to that alternate dimension I told you about. It is equipped with a camera and the best artificial intelligence hardware I could find.”
“Knowing you, that’s not saying much.”
Ryan eventually put on a red shawl around his waist, though only because Braindead refused to activate the machine unless he covered his most powerful weapon. Once they were ready, Alchemo transformed his fingers from syringes to USB keys and hooked himself to a computer. The particle accelerator made a terrible sound as it activated, like the roar of a living engine.
“So far so good,” Braindead said, processing data directly into his brain. “Energy readings are stable.”
“Did it teleport?” Ryan asked, hands clenched in excitement.
“I wouldn’t say it teleports, but it coexists in two dimensions so long as the accelerator is active,” Braindead replied with what could pass for a shrug. “Are you sure you want that device hooked to a car’s engine? Seems like a waste of promising technology.”
“Oh, I’m certain.” If the accelerator managed to send the plushie into another dimension, then it should allow the Plymouth Fury to do the same. Ryan could settle for an alternate Earth where his family and Len were both still alive. “Have you watched Back to the Future?”
“I don’t watch movies, I live them.”
Oh, right, the old Genius hooked his brain to artificial ones to experience false memories. Ryan himself wondered if he should enter the market considering his wealth of experience, though two-thirds of his past would be rated 18+.
Eventually, the noise from the particle accelerator lessened and finally subsided completely. Ryan expected to find the plushie missing, but instead, a brief, violet flash suddenly erupted from the accelerator the second he opened the hatch.
When it subsided, his creation looked up at its maker with its big, beautiful blue eyes. Ryan blinked, the plushie tilting its head to the side.
“Uh, Brainy, are you controlling my rabbit from afar?” Ryan asked, the plushie raising its ears as if it was a living being, instead of a stylized exploration probe.
“Let’s play together!” said the plushie, raising its tiny hands on its own. The time-traveler started hearing sound coming from the robot, strange whispers the time-traveler couldn’t decipher. Was the speaker broken?
“Why would I touch that dirty thing, except with a stick?” Alchemo replied, disengaging from the computer to observe this furry wonder of engineering. “Perhaps the energy blast fried the hardware?”
The plushie glared at the Genius, its blue eyes turning red.
Aww, it could even make an angry fa—
Alchemo’s glass skull exploded as a laser went through it, vaporizing the brain inside. Ryan barely had the time to cover his head with his arms, shards cutting his skin while the cyborg’s body collapsed to the ground.
The rabbit’s eyes shone with malice, the hidden lasers within having activated on their own.
“Damn it, that’s the fifth time!” Ryan complained, looking at Alchemo’s remains. “Fifth time I got him killed!”
The plushie clearly didn’t think it did anything wrong. “Let’s go to Disneyland!”
“Not today,” Ryan replied, deeming this experiment a failure. “Now I have to reload before Doll finds him.”
With a sigh, the courier casually headbutted the nearest jar and used a glass shard to slice his own throat.
Ryan woke up a few minutes earlier, gazing into a blue abyss.
The plushie looked back at the time-traveler, orienting its ears at him instead of attacking immediately.
What happened? Why did Ryan reload now instead of the day before? He hadn’t created a new save point since yesterday night! Did… did the experiment force him to save on reflex? Whatever the case, Ryan was sure it remembered.
“It is still in our dimension?” Alchemo replied, moving towards the accelerator to look at death once more. “Is the hardware still functional?”
The plushie’s eyes turned red yet again.
Ryan immediately attempted to activate the switch on its back and save the Genius, but the plushie hopped out of the particle accelerator and onto a nearby table. Alien voices echoed through the room, as the rabbit’s left hand revealed a hidden blade, which it quickly raised at Ryan.
“Wait, you equipped it with a switchblade?” Alchemo asked. “Also, you have a weird choice in sound design for that thing.”
“It was for self-defense only!” Ryan replied, wondering if he should just use a time-stop and be done with it.
But he couldn’t figure out what happened for the life of him. The time-traveler didn’t program the plushie to react like this! Had the accelerator damaged the hardware inside? It was as if something else, something intelligent, controlled it from afar…
Ryan’s eyes wandered to the plushie’s shadow, and he realized it didn’t belong to a rabbit anymore. The shape didn’t fit any creature of this world, but that of a monster with tentacles, appendages, and impossible geometry defying comprehension.
Okay. The good news, the particle accelerator worked. Somewhat.
Bad news, it had worked in reverse, bringing something in instead of sending a probe out.
“What is all this racket?”
A new voice echoed in the workshop as its door slowly widened, and a redheaded, green-eyed woman walked in. While she looked normal at first glance, with a lovely heart-shaped face, one only had to give a cursory glance at her arms to realize her true nature: that of a lifelike mannequin, animated through technology.
Doll was a robot, a gynoid animated by an artificial brain created by Alchemo; one advanced enough to pass the Turing test. Though he pretended to have created her to assist him in his work, Quicksave was sure the Genius actually wanted human company. Brainy might have let go of his physical needs, but emotional ones were another matter entirely.
Still, Alchemo had only equipped her with a human face, a featureless body, and called it quits. It had fallen to Ryan to make her body truly humanlike, in all the ways that mattered.
He even gave her a name.
“Tea, back off!” Ryan shouted, the plushie hiding its switchblade arm behind its back and changing its eyes from red to blue. Even the alien voices had suddenly fallen silent. “It’s dangerous!”
“Dangerous to you, mayhaps,” Alchemo mused, none the wiser. “Methinks you cannot control your own creations.”
“Dangerous?” Tea looked at the plushie, immediately joining her hands together. “It is so adorable… what are you hiding behind your back?”
The plushie slowly revealed his hand.
But instead of a switchblade, it held a rose.
“I love you!” it said to Tea.
The gynoid couldn’t help but gush, as she took the flower. Wait, Ryan thought, where did it find a rose in this lifeless dump? “Thank you,” Doll said, petting the plushie behind the ears. “It is adorable.”
“Tea, step away from the rabbit,” Ryan pleaded. “You don’t know where it has been!”
“But look at it, it’s cute,” the gynoid replied, holding the rabbit on her shoulder like a child, and the tiny monster didn’t resist. She looked at Alchemo, who had observed the scene with some degree of amusement. “Can I keep it, Father?”
“If you want, Doll,” the Genius replied with a grunt, uncaring. “Do as you wish with it.”
“Hey, wait, you can’t dispose of my stuff like that!” Ryan protested.
“Stop stealing from my medicine stash, and we’ll talk.”
The plushie looked at Ryan over Doll’s shoulders, its eyes turning from blue to red.
Eventually, what was bound to happen, happened.
A containment breach.
“Research log B-101,” Ryan told himself, fully dressed and rifle in hand. He didn’t record anything though; he just wanted to monologue. “My hunt for the plushie continues. The beast has eluded capture so far, but I do not despair.”
The plushie had used its cuteness to lull Tea into a false sense of safety, and then immediately ran away when she wasn’t looking. Ryan had followed its trail for over three days.
It wasn’t difficult. He just had to follow the corpses, strung to trees with their own intestines.
“The beast is learning,” Ryan observed. The first ‘ropes’ had been crudely designed, collapsing under the weight of their owner. The newest ones were thicker, stronger, more complex. “Though it appears to focus its unbridled hostility towards humans.”
While the rabbit attacked Alchemo on sight, Tea didn’t trigger a hostile reaction. Ryan had also crossed paths with animals like wild dogs and hares during the search, yet none had perished at the plushie’s vicious claws.
Perhaps it found humans to be the most dangerous game of all, or something about homo sapiens infuriated the creature on an instinctual level.
Eventually, Ryan tracked the plushie to a farm closest to Alchemo’s. He didn’t have to look too hard; he had heard the voices when he approached the area.
He found the farm’s owner, a woman named Sarah, tied up on a bed of broken wood right in front of her barn. The plushie had shoved an apple down her throat, like a pig ready for roasting. The responsible party stood next to her, eyes crimson and white fur drenched in blood.
It seemed to struggle with lighting a match with its associated box, while its captive looked at Ryan with pleading eyes.
“Bad rabbit!” Ryan shouted, raising his rifle at the monster he had created. “Drop the match!”
The rabbit looked back at the time-traveler and finally lit a match.
“Don’t do it,” Ryan warned, keeping the rifle aimed at the creature’s head. In response, the plushie dangled the match over the woodpile, seemingly entertained by the woman’s muffled cries. “I know violence solves many problems, but not all of them!”
Ryan and the plushie looked at the barn, a blonde child no older than ten peeking through the door. A tense standoff between an armed man and a murderous rabbit, with his mom in the middle...
Well, this must have been quite an embarrassing sight.
“Child detected.” The rabbit’s eyes turned blue, and the alien voices fell silent. “Entering cute mode.”
The rabbit instantly dropped everything to rush at the child, the lit match falling towards the woodpile and the captive. With supreme marksmanship honed through countless restarts, Ryan managed to shoot the match with the rifle, blowing it out before it could set the victim ablaze.
The child screamed and stumbled as the plushie powered through the barn’s doors.
“You are my best friend!” said the rabbit, grabbing onto the screaming child’s leg with its bloody hands. “Let’s hug!”
Ryan briefly worried for the child, but thankfully, besides refusing to let the kid’s ankle go, the rabbit didn’t attack in any way. The plushie’s programming kept working, preventing it from attacking children under thirteen and activating the protection subroutine.
Now, the time-traveler just had to free the captive, pull the switch, and everything would return to normalc—
Ryan blinked, unsure if he was experiencing hallucinations.
For while the blood-drenched rabbit still held on tight to its new, and unwilling, best friend… a second, white-snow plushie had appeared out of nowhere, looking at Ryan with its big blue eyes.
That wasn’t good at all.
Research log C-011…
Well, actually, now wasn’t the time to monologue.
Though only a ruin after the world ended, Firenze had only a few days ago welcomed a population of refugees, trying to rebuild the city. Dynamis had an enclave there, and even Augustus’ drug cartel had a presence in the area.
But today, Ryan didn’t see any humans as he walked through the city’s empty streets. He didn’t hear a sound.
But he wasn’t alone. Everywhere around him, white forms occupied every corner of the city.
Rabbit plushies, everywhere. On the roofs, on the ground, behind the windows. None made a sound or even twitched. They just watched Ryan, as if they were all mere drones bound by a singular intelligence.
“Well,” Ryan said, “I fucked up.”
It seemed that the child had triggered a new pattern in the creature. Perhaps its sheer happiness allowed it to divide, or it ‘summoned’ alternate versions of itself from other universes. Whatever the case, the plushie had started reproducing.
And like all rabbits… the plushie multiplied exponentially. By the time Ryan had tracked the second one to Firenze half a week after the farm incident, it was already too late. The time-traveler wasn’t sure what happened to the city’s population, but he had no intention of finding out.
“Alright, I just doomed humanity yet again,” the time-traveler said, sighing before looking for a rope to hang himself with while the rabbits watched. “I shouldn’t make it a habit...”
During the next loop, Ryan went to sleep with a clear mind, happy to have contained the dangerous anomaly.
In the end, Ryan dealt with the plushie by activating his time-stop and flipping the switch off the moment he reloaded. The creature possessing it might seem capable of remembering his past loops, yet it remained bound to its host body’s programming. Sort of.
As it turned out, the accelerator had fried the hardware, damaging the camera. Not only could Ryan not extract any information about whichever dimension the plushie had been exposed to, the robot shouldn’t even function.
Why did it follow the original programming if the CPU no longer worked?
Ryan himself didn’t remember how he made the plushie in the first place, and half of its pieces didn’t make sense on a closer look. It had been a stroke of inspiration, born of his raw nakedness. Perhaps the plushie’s behavior was caused by its mechanical part, or by the abomination now using it as an anchor on Earth… or perhaps a combination of both.
Ryan hesitated about destroying his creation, considering its threat to the world at large, but decided to keep it. It could prove an amusing last-resort weapon, and he was curious about its true nature.
Also, destroying the plushie might release whatever dwelled inside into their reality. Even Ryan wasn’t crazy enough to try.
In any case, the courier closed his eyes, dreaming about new adventures and how he would tell Braindead the truth. The plushie looked down from the bedside table, inactive.
For hours, there was no movement in the room. Even the noises coming from Alchemo’s workshop stopped; the Genius ended his hard day’s work with a moment of relaxation, replaying harvested memories from before the war.
And then, with the slightest click sound…
The plushie’s ‘off’ switch flipped to ‘on.’
Without making any noise, the plushie hopped on the bed, leaning over the sleeping Ryan. The courier’s slumber was too deep for him to notice, even as the shadow of death approached. The plushie observed its human creator without a sound, watching his chest rise up with his breath.
“I will always be your friend,” the plushie finally said.
It raised the bedsheet to keep Ryan warm and then sat on the nearest pillow. The switch moved from on to off, and the plushie played statues.
They would have so much fun together...