For a long moment, Ryan didn’t say a single word.
He had put his mask on a side of the table, near the chessboard, and kept looking at his steaming coffee cup. The courier could lose himself in the bitter darkness of the soft, delightful drink.
Anything to alleviate the tension in the room.
“Your cup is not poisoned,” Livia said before clearing her throat. She wore a black turtleneck, classy, but casual. “If I wanted you dead, you would be.”
“Poison wouldn’t work anyway.” Ryan shrugged, before grabbing the cookies and drenching them in the coffee. “But there are still two hitmen right outside the door, and people call this place Deathland Motel. Now that I think of it, it kinda sounds like a horror theme park...”
“It’s for my safety.” Livia put her hands around her coffee cup, to better feel the warmth on her fingers. “My previous self seems to have perished abruptly, from what I can gather.”
“It wasn’t me,” Ryan protested.
“How can I be sure?” She asked with a frown on her face. “I know you lied about your ability to my old self. You told her that you could jump through alternate realities, when you could actually go back in time.”
“It was metaphorically true,” Ryan deadpanned before eating the cookie. It was quite sweet, but not all that good.
“Which is another way to say you lied,” Livia replied, unflappable. “I would have brought Crypto to this gathering if I could, but he had a hockey-related accident. I presume you were behind it?”
“I warned him!” Ryan protested. “I warned Luigi that if he kept ruining my runs, things wouldn’t go well between us!”
The courier had made it a point to target the truth-teller in every loop, even those where he didn’t join the Augusti. If anything, Ryan considered it preemptive self-defense.
“Which confirms my worries,” Livia said with a frown, looking into his eyes. “You don’t want your secret getting out, and will use violence to cover it up if needed.”
“Speak for yourself, Miss Two Powers.”
She flinched. “I… I don’t see what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, right,” Ryan said, truly tempted to leave the table anyway, consequences be damned. “Look, can you tell me what you want exactly? Or else I will take the door.”
“If you try to leave this room now, I will have no choice but hunt you down,” Livia declared, her eyes full of iron. “Your power is too great to be ignored, and I’m not sure you won’t be a threat to my family in the future.”
The courier glared at her, but she stood her ground.
“Ryan, the only reason I haven’t gone to my father yet with my suspicions, is that my previous self seemed to appreciate you,” she warned him. “I even called off Vulcan when she wanted to track you down. Don’t waste this opportunity.”
Ryan tried to figure how to deal with this. She didn’t remember loops but seemed capable of transferring information from one to the other, which made her incredibly dangerous.
Could he negate her advantage by canceling her power? He could always try to get Cancel to turn against her employer, but it seemed far-stretched and difficult. If Augustus’ daughter could truly interact with alternate universes beyond his reach, then even death wouldn’t solve the problem permanently. She would get right back to hunting him in the next run, and that wasn’t without considering whatever contingencies she put in place.
That wasn’t a worst-case scenario, but it was pretty damn close.
“I’ll ask again then,” Ryan said. He didn’t want to sound frustrated, but the whole situation made him incredibly uneasy. “What do you want?”
Livia inhaled, gathering her bearing. ”I want the truth.”
“The truth?” Ryan repeated the word, as the weight of countless years fell on his shoulders. “The truth caused me so much heartbreak, I guess I gave up on it. Some didn’t believe me. Some did, and went mad. Some went as far as trying to destroy me, because they didn’t want to forget. And some…”
The courier’s thoughts turned to Jasmine.
“Some did believe me, and tried to help. And yet, I kept dying, and they forgot. Over, and over, and over again.” Ryan let out a heavy sigh. “Those are the worst, because I never get used to them.”
Livia’s gaze betrayed a hint of compassion, but she regained her icy demeanor. “I think I understand,” she said. “I cannot say I can fully comprehend what you went through, but I think I see your point.”
“No, you can’t. And be thankful for it.” Ryan grabbed his own coffee cup. “You haven’t told your father, but have you told anyone else?”
“Why?” Her tone turned defensive. “Do you want to silence me?”
“No.” Ryan couldn’t even if he wanted to. “But more than half your ‘Olympians’ are murderous assholes. I don’t want any of them to know my true power.”
“If you don’t plan to move against them, then you should have nothing to fear.”
“Oh really?” Ryan deadpanned. “Your father personally tracks down everyone he remotely suspects of being a threat to him. What do you think Lightning Butt will do if he learns I can time-travel?”
“I…” His argument seemed to have hit the mark. “I could talk him out of this.”
“I don’t believe you,” Ryan replied dryly. “And let’s not talk about Bliss.”
“This has nothing to do with our conversation,” Livia argued, her body tensing. “Don’t try to change the subject.”
“It has everything to do with it,” Ryan insisted, sipping his coffee. “Bliss causes sterility in unpowered humans. I used to think Genomes were spared from that nasty side-effect thanks to their enhanced metabolism, but not anymore. Narcinia can create life as she wishes, so there’s no way she doesn’t know, and she’s way too nice not to have corrected that problem already. Hence, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.”
Livia’s fingers trembled around her cup, her facial features crinkled.
“Why would a cartel make most of its customers sterile? It made no sense to me, until I saw your father and his crew. People like Mars look down on normal humans, like cattle.” Ryan snorted. “Your father wants to kill normies. Bliss isn’t a product, it’s a weapon.”
“You think I wanted this?!”
The sudden outburst made Ryan recoil in his chair, as anger broke through Livia’s mask.
“You don’t think I already tried to change that?!” Now it was her turn to snarl at him, bottled up anger rising to the surface. “You don’t think I tried to close that death lab a thousand times? You think I want people to associate my family’s name with a drug that kills thousands each year? You think I want this?”
Ryan said nothing, astonished, as Livia put her hands on her face.
She… she seemed to fight back tears.
“My father won’t budge,” she said, her voice weak. “He will listen to me on almost everything, but Bliss… it’s his favorite project. His legacy. Narcinia… that girl could make the world so much better. She’s a miracle. But father… father doesn’t want to save anyone. He would rather be king of a cemetery.”
Livia no longer looked like the regal, confident daughter of Augustus. The mask had fallen, and beneath, Ryan only saw a young woman with far too much pressure and unwanted expectations thrown on her shoulders.
At this moment, she looked so vulnerable that Ryan’s anger vanished. “Livia, you don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to,” he said, taking her hand in his own. Her fingers felt so cold to the touch. “Even if they’re your family. You have the right to leave.”
“I have to,” she replied, pushing away his hand and wiping away tears. “Someone worse will take over the organization otherwise.”
Livia took a few seconds to recover her composure, breathing in and out while Ryan watched.
“I just want to protect my family, Ryan,” she said. “If… whatever they are, they are still my family. My father… my father is what he is, but he is still my father at the end of the day. Do you understand?”
These words made Ryan flinch, as they brought him back to the darkest days of his childhood.
“I don’t want them to die,” Livia said with a sigh. “That’s all I ask. I want to protect them. From Dynamis, from the Meta. From you, if necessary.”
“You won’t be able to shield them from the consequences of their actions.” The Carnival’s threat already loomed over Augustus’ empire.
“I know, but I still have to try and protect them. If…” She struggled to find her words, her eyebrows narrowing in bottled-up frustration. “I just want to know you won’t threaten them. That you aren’t out to kill us. If you can guarantee that, then… then I will keep your secrets, and let you be. That’s all.”
Ryan opened his mouth, closed it, and then finally decided to reassure her. “I don’t want to kill you or your family, Livia.”
Now that the courier thought it, wasn’t that what he had always wanted? Somebody capable of remembering him? His first instinct was paranoia, yet she had been nothing but helpful in the previous loop. Lightning Dad was a colossal asshole, but his daughter seemed… nice, for a lack of a better term?
“Thing is, I…” Ryan said, trying to find his words. “I always hoped something like this would happen. That someone like you would come along, and remember me. But now that it finally happened, I have no idea how to deal with this. It’s…”
“New?” she suggested with a sigh.
“Yes,” he said and nodded. “And not in a funny way. I’ve grown used to controlling everything in a loop, and now, you’re threatening to take all my progress away.”
“I understand,” Livia replied, with a forced smile. “I feel the same way about you. I never met someone immune to my power before. It’s… a little scary, and disturbing. I don’t know what to expect.”
They were both afraid of the other.
Hedgehog’s dilemma hit again!
Eventually, after a long minute of thinking, Ryan reached a decision. It was a very risky move, but he had pushed his chips on the table a long time ago. He might as well see the river.
“Alright, if you want the full truth about my power, then I will give it.” He would be as honest with her as he had been with Len and Jasmine. “But trust is a two-way street.”
She considered his proposal for a while, her face thoughtful. “What do you want in return?”
“I want the truth too.”
“How can I know that you won’t take any information I gave, and then use it against me in your next attempt?”
“What guarantee do I have that you won’t send your army of Genomes after my hide?” Ryan let out a shrug. “Thing is, if neither of us is willing to take a risk, then there’s only one way it will end between us. And...”
He looked at this woman, who reminded him so much of someone else.
“And I don’t want to go there.”
Augustus’ daughter said nothing, mulling it over as she sipped her coffee. Eventually, she reached a decision.
“Fine,” Livia declared, putting down her cup on the table. “I accept your terms.”
“First question then,” Ryan asked, glancing at the walls. “Why this motel?”
It made her chuckle a little, releasing some of the tension in the room. “That is the first thing you wish to know?”
“It’s cozy but I’m not fond of the wall paint. You should try purple, it goes well with everything.”
“Felix and I used it as our ‘hideout,’ of a sort,” Livia admitted, glancing at the chessboard. “It was a private refuge we used when we wanted to get away from our families. It’s discreet, and the few who know about it keep their mouth shut. Since you’ve joined Il Migliore, I thought it would be a good neutral ground.”
Ryan scoffed. “I will scold the kitten for his lack of taste then.”
“How is he?” she asked, her tone soft as if afraid of the answer. “Felix?”
“Shouldn’t you know with your power?” Ryan asked, before answering truthfully. “He’s fine, if disappointed. Il Migliore isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but he will recover. I don’t think he will be coming back though.”
“No, he won’t,” Livia agreed with a sigh. “His parents believe he will ‘wise up’ and return to the fold, but I know better. He was always too stubborn for his own good.”
After a short silence, Ryan decided to address the elephant in the room. “How did you remember?”
“You first, Ryan,” she asked, looking into his eyes. “You first.”
“You want the short or the long version?”
“The long one,” she said firmly.
Ryan strongly considered lying to her anyway, but decided against it. Odd as it may be, the courier fulfilled his promises, even if he was the only one who remembered them.
So he told her, without omission.
Livia listened to his explanations with an unreadable face, until he reached the end of his tale. He would have given everything to know what she thought, but her poker face was almost as good as Ryan’s own.
“I see,” is all she said, once he finished his tale.
“If you want to have me killed, now is the time,” Ryan replied. “Or at least, you can try.”
Livia stopped, and the courier was certain she considered lying to him too.
“You are right, Ryan. I have two powers. Not just one.”
But in the end, she was an honorable woman.
“You drank two Elixirs,” Ryan said. “Like your father.”
“I was the one to do it first,” she admitted. “I drank a Blue Elixir, which granted me the ability to see parallel timelines. And with that power, I realized both my father and I could wield up to two powers with no ill side-effects in alternate realities.”
“A genetic quirk?” Ryan asked, the princess nodding in confirmation. “What about your uncle and aunt?”
“They didn’t inherit the necessary genes. In the realities where they drank a second Elixir, they always went Psycho. And even in my case, a third Elixir would have turned me into a monster.”
Livia cleared her throat and adjusted her hair, like a teacher preparing a lecture. “Anyway, my power allows me to see and hear through the senses of alternate mes. A limited number.”
“How limited?” Ryan asked, as he stole a second cookie.
“Six,” the princess said, her eyes squinting. “If you want a metaphor, I can watch up to six plasma screens at once. I can switch the channels, but I cannot turn them off. My power is always active.”
“And you realized I could go back in time by talking with these alternate selves?”
“Yes and no,” Livia admitted. “Thing is, I don’t perceive these other Livia directly. I use a hub. It’s hard for me to describe it, but I constantly see myself in two places. The one where I'm at right now, and a blue place where I can select the channels. I have six screens, but I watch them in a room.”
Ryan immediately caught on. “And you can interact with that ‘blue room’?”
“Yes, I can record voices and notes, like an archive,” she nodded with a smile, happy he understood her. “I actually noticed notes I didn’t remember writing. I assumed that my alternate selves also had access to this place and recorded information… until I met you.”
“You kept notes on me,” Ryan guessed. “Notes with dates, about how you met a dashing rogue your power couldn’t perceive.”
“I wouldn’t call you dashing,” the princess teased him. Now that they had both opened up, the tension between them had slowly lessened. “But yes. If it had been recorded by an alternate me, then she shouldn’t have been able to perceive you. The way we met was also different, and I had the intuition you knew me already.”
“But how did you realize I was time-traveling?”
“I don’t know anything about video games,” Augustus’ daughter admitted with a sheepish smile. “So I looked up what your name meant. I quickly connected the dots, and it clicked.”
Ryan blinked at Livia, trying to see if she was serious. It couldn’t be… “You figured it out, and you aren't even a gamer? There are no words to describe my sheer disappointment.”
“I’m surprised you took such a risk with a name like that,” she said. “Unless it was another bottle thrown to the sea?”
Maybe. Ryan ignored the question, focusing on her power’s mechanics.
“Elements made me think that all true Genomes draw their powers from a higher dimension, that embodies their colors’ essence.” The more he had thought about that theory, the more Ryan had come to believe in it. “A dimension of energy for Red. The crossroads of all spacetime for Violet...”
“A universe of thoughts and information for Blue?” Livia guessed his theory.
“I think you are like me,” Ryan explained. “A part of you, perhaps a psychic presence, exists in that Blue World. It allows you to record information outside space and time, and to see through alternate realities.”
“But not my consciousness,” Livia realized. “Which is why my memories do not carry over when you overwrite our universe. I wonder why I didn’t notice the passage of time in these alternate worlds. Some should have carried on for years, if you don’t affect them.”
“Because I don’t think you actually see parallel universes, or at least not as you understand them,” Ryan replied. “I think your power creates and sustains them.”
Livia gave it some thought, before grasping his theory. “You think they aren’t actually universes that physically exist, but elaborate simulations?”
“Possibilities that collapse whenever you stop observing them. They only start existing when you use power.”
“Mmm, I never saw things like that,” the princess admitted. “But that would explain why you don’t appear in any of them. You are the controller. The one who decides if the current reality and all its possible branches exist at all. Your power trumps mine.”
“Both of them?” Ryan teased her.
“We can check,” she said with a smug smile. He had triggered a competitive instinct within her. “I mean, if you want.”
Ryan accepted the challenge, raising his hand and moving his fingers towards himself. “Bring it, princess.”
He felt something in the back of—
Time seemed to flash-forward, and when Ryan regained consciousness, the white pawn and black knight on the chessboard had moved. Livia, though, seemed extremely confused.
“Is that all you got, Violet?” Ryan taunted her.
“That’s very strange,” Livia admitted with a scowl. “Can you try your time-stop on me, Ryan? I wish to check something.”
He did, and she froze like everything else. Unlike her father, she couldn’t move in the stopped time.
“I think I sensed you activate it,” Livia said when time resumed, before noticing a cookie in her hand. “But clearly, I’m not immune to it.”
“Well, your dad is,” Ryan shrugged. “One of you was enough.”
“Oh, really?” Livia blinked a few times in a row. “That… that would explain some things.”
The courier raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“Sometimes, Dad seems to stutter, or stop mid-sentence before repeating himself. Uncle thought it was age catching up to him, but no one dared to confront my father over it. He’s very sensitive about growing old, and I suppose he didn’t want us to worry.”
“It must have been pretty annoying from his point of view,” Ryan said with a smirk as he imagined the scene.
“I think he would be torn between recruiting you for your power, or killing you for being an annoyance.” Livia chuckled, before leaving her cookie back with the others. Ryan guessed she was careful about her weight. “If he learns about you at least.”
Ryan promised himself he would time-prank Lightning Butt in the future. “Let me guess, you erased time and leapt past it?”
“Is that a reference to something?” Livia asked, and Ryan’s glare made her uncomfortable. “Why are you looking at me as if I were pitiful?”
It hurt to be a cultured person while surrounded by ignorance. He would have to do this woman’s education one day.
“My enhanced timing told me time moved forward a few seconds, and I’m pretty sure we both played a round of chess,” he said, glancing at the board. “You create a temporal anomaly where time flows forward, and since I never experienced a blackout like this one before, I assume it only affects a small area.”
“Very good guess,” she conceded. “Yes, I create a localized temporal anomaly where time behaves oddly. Events proceed as they should have, had I not used my power, but everyone except me is in a trance following a script. In that anomaly, I am the only one capable of adjusting my actions and applying force to objects, making me invulnerable; and when time resumes normally, only I remember my actions.”
Livia crossed her arms. “Or at least... that is how it works with everyone else.”
“But not me,” Ryan said with a smirk. “My time-fu is stronger than yours!”
“I can see the results of your actions, but not interact with them,” she admitted with a scowl, her pride wounded. “I put a white pawn forward, and the black knight moved on its own. As if you were a ghost capable of affecting the physical world, but immune to retaliation. Perhaps it is because you partly exist in this Purple World.”
If their powers interacted so weirdly together, Ryan didn’t dare to invite Acid Rain to the table. “So in that temporal anomaly, I am, what, intangible? Invulnerable?” Livia answered his question with a nod, and the courier remembered Ischia Island. “I think you might have saved my life once that way.”
Livia must have tried to ‘skip’ time in an attempt to survive the Bahamut’s blast, but her power probably ran out before she could find shelter. While Ryan was already in the bathysphere, and their weird power interference caused the device to move away. Or at least, it was his best guess. He would need more trial and error to figure out how their powers truly interfered with each other.
The princess’ expression turned from curious to sour, her eyes looking at her coffee. “Ryan, why did you join the Augusti in the past, and now work for our enemies? What game are you playing at?”
“Long story, but I agreed to destroy the Bliss factory on behalf of another organization,” Ryan said. “Or else they would take things into their own hands, and kill a lot of people.”
She scoffed. “I see.”
“I see you aren’t against it.” Ryan frowned, as his intuition kicked in. “Last loop, you insisted I go to Ischia Island when you were inspecting the defenses. Even if there was no reason for me to go there. You wanted me to sabotage that drug farm.”
“I must have suspected something was up with you then,” Livia replied while looking away. “Who asked you to do that? Dynamis?”
She looked into his eyes. “Then who?”
Ryan hesitated. He remembered how she interacted with Shroud last time, and he had the feeling her beef with the Carnival was personal. If she knew, the Augusti would track Shroud down, and the courier didn’t want his translucent ally to die. “I can’t tell you.”
Instantly, he felt the tension rising again in the room. “I see,” Livia said with a frosty tone. “Then, how did I die the previous time?”
“You really want to know?” Ryan asked her, and she nodded sharply. “The Meta murdered you with an orbital laser.”
The princess blinked as she digested his answer, and then frowned. “You’re lying.”
“I wish I was,” Ryan replied, the memory of that disaster souring his mood. “I’m working towards preventing it.”
“It’s impossible, I should have seen it coming,” Livia protested.
“You kept seeing yourself dying in alternate realities.”
“Then that can only mean two things,” she said, arms crossed. “Either the Meta-Gang has a method to counter my power, or they decided to attack me first in every alternate universe I observed. Some of my other selves should have survived otherwise.”
The Meta did have access to Mechron’s bunker and the technology within it, but Ryan considered the second option more likely. Knowing Big Fat Adam, he must have decided to target any precog capable of raising the alarm on his plans to destroy New Rome first.
Unfortunately, this made Livia ask only more questions, rather than less. “How did they manage to get an orbital laser in the first place?”
Ryan weighed the pros and cons of telling her about Mechron’s armory, before realizing the risk was simply too great. Augustus had destroyed it in an act of vengeful fury in the previous loop, but in this one? At the height of his power? This god-wannabe would probably decide to claim the bunker for himself. “I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t tell me?” Livia glared at the courier. “You would rather let Adam the Ogre get his hands on a WMD rather than tell me?”
“Look, it’s not that I don’t trust you,” Ryan protested, “but you will have to tell your father to deal with this, and—”
“My father isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t eat children for dinner.”
“That’s the bar you set for human decency?” Ryan snapped back. “You know he murdered Narcinia’s real parents, to use her as a hostage against Leo Hargraves?”
“Her parents were raiders, who deserved what they got,” Livia argued, clenching her jaw in anger. “And careful with what you say. Hargraves murdered my mother.”
Oh? That explained a few things. Ryan noted that tidbit for later, dead set on confronting Mr. See-Through about it.
“I’m just saying you should look into it, because the source seemed pretty trustworthy.” For all his faults, Ryan had grown to trust Shroud over the last loops. The vigilante’s desire to do good was genuine, though extreme. “He said her mother wanted to help the world, and that she had the power to do so.”
“Who told you that?” Livia asked, her frown deepening. “You won’t tell me either? I’m sure it’s the same organization who asked you to destroy Ischia Island.”
Ryan crossed his arms, standing his ground. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why?” she raised her hands in incomprehension. “Why Ryan? You say you don’t want to harm my family, but you’re willing to work with people who are. So why should I trust you?”
“Because I can make everything right.”
“And what if you’re wrong?” Livia shook her head. “What if you blow up Ischia Island with Narcinia still inside, and it sticks? What if the Meta-Gang manages to kill you permanently? You speak about trust, but you only tell me half the story!”
“Then, what happens if I ask about Lightning Butt’s invulnerability?” Ryan replied, tone rising up between them. “Will you tell me?”
“Why would you need to know that, if you don’t intend to go after him?” she replied angrily. “I am not going to stay idle while a Psycho plots my murder and who knows how many others, Ryan! So why should I trust you to help when you’re set on keeping me in the dark?”
“Because I don’t want anyone to die!” Ryan snarled while raising a finger at the princess, at his wits’ end. “You included!”
This time, his words silenced her.
“Do you know what it is to be me?” Ryan asked, frustration he had been bottling up for decades simmering to the surface. “To have the power to help everyone, knowing that every time I save, things will stick? That if I leave someone dead when I could have protected them, then it becomes my fault? Do you know how easy it would be to just say, ‘fuck them, I don’t care anymore’ and never turn back?”
After that outburst, the two fell into an awkward, tense silence. They had reached an impasse.
“I think you should go,” Livia said, holding her arms as if shielding herself. “It’s late, and people will ask questions.”
Yeah, they were done. For now.
Without further words, the courier grabbed his mask and moved towards the door.
He froze, his hand on the door handle.
“I don’t care about the rest of the organization, but if my father, my uncle, and my aunt die because of your schemes, I will destroy you,” Livia warned him. “Same with Felix, Fortuna, and Narcinia.”
“Fine, I have a list of my own,” Ryan replied with the same icy tone. “Len Sabino, the orphans under her care, my current team, Mathias Martel, Jamie, Ki-jung, Lanka, Narcinia, Jasmine, and my cat. If you guys target any of them, I swear you will never see me coming.”
Livia sighed. “It’s not over. I will call you again.”
“Sure,” the time-traveler replied, as he opened the door and walked out. “Whatever you say.”
As the clock struck midnight, Ryan drove the Plymouth Fury to the harbor.
“Well, here we are,” the time-traveler said, turning to his partner. “You’re sure you don’t want to go with me? I know you hate Dynamis, but they promised me a condo with an unbeatable city view.”
No answer. Len hadn’t said a thing since they left the motel. Perhaps her medication had run off, and she found the surface world tiring.
Or perhaps she expected Cancel and the Killer Seven to crawl out of the woods to attack them. But so far, Livia hadn’t sent anyone.
“I know you think you need to overdose on antidepressants for them to work, Shortie, but please, follow the treatment,” Ryan pleaded. “It’s for your own good.”
“Riri.” Len looked into his eyes, not bothering to hide her concern. “Why did you tell her so much? You can’t take it back now.”
Ryan could say he had no choice. That with Livia’s power, it was better to be truthful and try to build a good relationship, rather than go for the kill. He could say that he wanted things to change, even if it meant taking a risk.
But that would have been a lie.
Thing was, his reasons ran deeper than that.
An invincible psychopath trying to push his daughter into a situation she wasn’t comfortable with, and turning her into a target because they couldn’t harm him directly?
How could Len ask him why?
“Because I’ve seen it before,” Ryan said, looking at the Mediterranean Sea. “And it didn’t end well the first time around.”