Ryan Romano died countless times, by his hand or that of someone else.
But there was one death that trumped them all. The death that made him stop caring, and taught him to enjoy life. The perfect death, that no one should return from.
This is the story of this death.
This is the story of Monaco.
- April 1st 2017, France, Village of La Turbie.
The sun was falling behind the horizon, and the city of Monaco shone from below.
Standing at the edge of the Tête de Chien promontory, his trusty motorcycle and travel bag nearby, Ryan observed his target carefully. It had been five years since he had left Italy, and now was the moment of truth.
Well, technically it had been three months, but he lived through them again, and again, and over again. He had toured the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, looking for any sign of Len and her submarine. He knew they had planned to go to America before… before the separation, but she couldn’t have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. She had to have stopped somewhere closer. Somewhere within his reach.
However, Ryan was starting to lose hope. He had toured Greece, Spain, France, every place he could think of. He had wandered the post-Wars wasteland, and came up short. And if she had left Europe completely, relocated underwater or on a distant island, he might as well look for a needle in a haystack.
There was only one place around the Mediterranean Sea that Ryan hadn’t visited yet. The country everyone warned him against. The place nobody returned from.
“Monaco,” Ryan said, as he observed the coastal city. It looked… nice, for a lack of a better term. And it bothered him a great deal.
First of all, the microstate was still standing. That alone was unusual. Monaco had once been one of Europe’s most luxurious coastal resorts, a den for gamblers and millionaires; and somehow, it still looked the part after the apocalypse. It seemed the bombs, robots, and nano-plagues had stopped at the border.
The buildings and houses had been spared from any degradation, and yet the time-traveler didn’t see anybody in the streets. Boats and yachts floated in the sea, empty cars formed long lines on the driveways, and Ryan couldn’t hear any noise. Not even the song of birds.
“I know I’m tempting fate by saying this,” Ryan muttered to himself, as he usually did to alleviate his loneliness, “but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
The time-traveler saved this very instant, just in case. Many had gone to Monaco, searching for supplies, Elixirs, or a safe haven; but none returned.
But none of these people could time-travel either.
“Well, guess this is the last chance, Shortie,” Ryan said, as he climbed on his motorcycle and drove towards the city. “If you aren’t in the place nobody returns from…”
Well, he could always try to cross the ocean and reach America, if it still existed. But most likely, Ryan would have to face the obvious.
That Len was gone.
The time-traveler had made his presence obvious, sent signals through radio towers and whatever communication channels he could find. If she hadn’t contacted him yet, then she was either unable to respond or dead.
And Ryan didn’t know what to do, if he gave up on his friend. His quest to find Len had guided him through so many restarts, and he had no other purpose in life. No cause to dedicate himself to. The time-traveler had been feeling adrift ever since Bloodstream’s death, and not even his power could counter his gnawing sense of solitude. Without Len, his existence had no meaning.
Ryan chased away these thoughts, climbed on his motorcycle, and followed the path down towards Monaco. As he reached the city’s official frontier, the time-traveler noticed a badly-painted sign on the side of the road.
“The armies of Andorra shall never conquer our great nation!” Ryan read out loud. Wasn’t Andorra another microstate?
The apocalypse truly caused all the weirdos to crawl out of hiding.
Ryan drove through the streets of Monaco, and much to his surprise, nothing terrible happened. He didn’t instantly fall dead, and no crazy Psycho ambushed him. It was almost disappointing.
However, the time-traveler sensed the pervading tension in the air. The streets were clean, the cars were all parked in the right spot, and the streetlights somehow worked perfectly; yet Ryan knew the city needed to import electricity from the French Republic, which had long collapsed. When he peeked through houses’ windows, he found them empty.
Ryan made his way to Monaco’s most well-known landmark, the Place du Casino. The famous Monte Carlo casino stood strong and proud, its 19th century magnificence preserved from the apocalypse. The clock above the entrance remained stuck at twelve, though the lights remained functional. The fountain in front of the entrance worked too, surrounded by a lush lane and floral arrangements.
“Is there someone here?” Ryan asked, tempting fate. Only a heavy silence answered.
Well, maybe he should look—
The plaza vanished in a flash of yellow and violet.
In the blink of an eye, Ryan found himself inside a luxurious marble hallway. Paintings adorned the walls, chandeliers provided some light, and the room led towards large wooden doors.
After a brief moment of surprise, Ryan looked around, but found himself back against a wall with only his bag of supplies. Had he been teleported somewhere else?
Ryan glanced at the paintings, most of them drawn in a surrealist style reminding him of René Magritte’s. One painting, ‘The Genesis,’ showed two gloved hands opening an Alchemist Wonderbox. Another, ‘The Triumph of Monaco,’ represented an army of golden men overrunning Mechron’s robots.
Perplexed, Ryan grabbed his supply bag and walked through the hallway until he reached the doors at the end. He noticed a sign above them, exquisitely painted with the brightest colors possible.
‘MONTE CARLO GRAND OPENING!’
However, next to that sign, Ryan noticed words crudely carved into the marble wall.
‘DON’T TRUST THE CLOWNS THEY WILL EAT YOUR HEART.’
Ryan continued reading, finding more ‘advice’ carved into the stone.
“Follow the arrows to the suites before it goes dark.” A second sentence was written next to it. Whoever carved it had done so in a hurry: ‘DON’T USE THE STAIRS TAKE THE ELEVATOR.’
Ryan lowered his gaze, noticing arrows carved on the floor. More and more confused, he opened the wooden doors and walked into the next room.
Much to his surprise, Ryan entered a replica of the Monte Carlo casino; or at least, what little he had seen from pre-Wars pictures. His steps echoed in a vast lobby supported by pillars, the ground replaced with a giant roulette table with one meter-wide tokens. Candelabras dangling from the ceiling provided the light, and the art decoration was the peak of 19th century luxury. Ryan glanced at the windows, but all of them were walled off with marble.
“Hello, dear guest!” a voice said at Ryan’s left, someone having snuck up on him.
“Ah!” Ryan took a step back, and instantly activated his time-stop. Or so he tried. He felt his ability strain against an invisible force for a brief second, but time refused to stop.
Panicking, Ryan drew a gun hidden beneath his clothes, only to quickly realize his mistake.
The creature in front of him looked like a human, but only superficially so. Its skin was unnaturally white, and most importantly, a clownish mask made of solid gold served as its face. It wore a croupier’s costume, including a bowtie, an old jacket, and gloves.
“Welcome to Monaco!” said the clown with a cheerful voice, the gold mask moving unnaturally with each new word. Its eyes and mouth oozed darkness. “The greatest country on Earth! How may I assist you?”
Ryan tried to stop time again, but something prevented his ability from activating. Damn it, did this place interfere with his power? In that case, if Ryan died within these walls…
“Where am I, Pennywise?” the time-traveler asked, keeping his gun pointed at the clown creature.
“In Monaco, of course! The greatest, most prosperous nation on Earth, by the divine providence of His Highness Jean-Stéphanie!”
“Oh, a new guest!” Ryan heard a new voice, as another clown walked into the lobby, albeit with a face of bronze instead of gold. Like its fellow clown, it wore a croupier outfit and carried a silver plate under its arm. “Welcome! Can I offer you a drink?”
What—what the hell? Did Ryan enter a Stephen King novel by accident? “Jean-Stéphanie?” he repeated, unsure which of these two clowns to shoot first.
“His Highness Jean-Stéphanie the First, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, Conqueror of Liechtenstein and San Marino!” The golden clown waved a hand at a marble statue near the pillars, representing a strange creature in a flattering position. The figure vaguely reminded Ryan of a man in a suit with a fedora, but with elongated arms and distorted facial features. “His Highness rose from humble birth to ascend to the throne of Monaco in 2005, by virtue of everyone else being dead!”
It said that with such cheerfulness too...
“Ever since, he has bravely defended Monaco against the Andorran hordes trying to destroy our great nation,” the bronze clown continued, before pointing his hand in one direction east of the lobby. “Now, I can show you our five-stars restaurant, if you wish for a warm meal? Or perhaps you would prefer to enjoy a game of roulette?”
“Why are the windows walled off?” Ryan asked, as he glanced at the ground. The arrows carved on the floor pointed west. “Where’s the exit?”
“Why would you want to leave Monaco?” the bronze clown asked with a chuckle. “Why would anyone want to leave Monaco, the greatest nation on Earth?”
“I do,” Ryan asked, more and more uncomfortable.
“But you are a guest, you have been invited,” the servant continued, its mask morphing into a disturbing smile. While he sounded innocent and cheerful, something in his tone made Ryan shiver. “We are at your service during opening hours. We are always there for you, dear guest!”
The more he stayed in their company, the more uneasy Ryan grew. Their kindness felt fake and forced. “I’ll come back later,” he promised, following the arrows.
“But we’ll be closed soon,” the golden clown said, as he and the other servant followed Ryan. Their posture had changed slightly, turning threatening. “We will be closed very, very soon.”
“You stay away!” Ryan raised a gun at them, before noticing other clowns making their way into the lobby. While all of them dressed like croupiers, their masks were made of bronze, silver or gold. Though they maintained a respectable distance, they still stalked the time-traveler like a smiling pack of wolves. “I’m not afraid of clowns!”
“We only want to help you, dear guest!” the bronze clown said. He tried to sound reassuring, but it just came off as creepy. “We exist to serve man.”
Ryan remembered the message at the entrance, and suddenly wondered if the sentence had a double meaning. He followed the arrow trail and eventually reached an open elevator in between two stairways. The wanderer briefly looked at them, only to notice bear traps and wires placed on the staircases. With no other way out, he walked inside the elevator while threatening the clowns with his weapon.
The Genome noticed a sign saying ‘HERE’ right next to the fourth-floor button, and smashed it as hard as he could. The door closed in front of Ryan, as a dozen masked creatures glared at him in eerie silence.
“Dear guests.” Ryan froze, as he heard a male voice come from the elevator’s loudspeaker. “We must inform you that due to a national emergency, the Monte Carlo Casino will close early! But I assure you that, as long as His Highness Jean-Stéphanie protects us, the armies of Andorra shall never destroy our principality! Long live Monaco!”
What the hell was this place?
When the elevator reached the fourth floor with a ‘ding’ sound, the lights had gone out; and the elevator’s doors closed the second Ryan exited it. He also heard a sound coming from below, someone having triggered the wire trap.
Sensing that things would get ugly very soon, Ryan grabbed his cellphone and activated the torchlight option. The area looked like a hallway leading to various hotel suites, though the walls and doors had been reinforced with steel plates. Only one room, numbered 44, seemed to have light coming from the other side, so Ryan quickly knocked on its door.
“Hey!” he shouted as loud as he could, though nobody answered. “Is somebody there? Hey!”
Ryan looked at the elevator as its doors opened, half a dozen clowns emerging from it. This time, they didn’t invite him politely, or even say a word.
Instead, they each carried silver forks and knives in hands, and napkins around their necks.
“And that’s why children don’t like clowns anymore!” Ryan opened fire with his gun, while trying to stop time once more.
Not only did his power fail to activate, but a silver clown took a bullet to the face without slowing down.
The suite’s doors opened, and someone stepped out. To Ryan’s relief, though, his savior was a normal human, albeit one built like Conan the Barbarian. His savior wore some kind of scavenged outfit composed of an American football player’s helmet and pads, reinforced with pieces of medieval armor.
And most importantly, he carried a shotgun.
“I knew I heard something!” The man spoke in French, clocking his shotgun. The face beneath the helmet was wrinkled, the eyes an icy blue. “Move out!”
Ryan immediately stepped out of his savior’s way, as he fired the shotgun. The shot blasted a bronze clown apart, the creature leaking a white liquid rather than blood. However, the others quickly pushed the corpse out of the way and rushed at the humans with hungry looks.
“Go, go, go!” the man shouted at the time-traveler, and both bravely fled into the suite. The armored figure quickly closed the door behind them and locked the door, Ryan hearing a loud thump on the other side. The malevolent croupiers started screaming beyond the metal door, pummeling it with all their strength, but it held.
“One day, before arthritis gets to me, I’m going to go kamikaze on your ass!” the armored man shouted through the door. “I’ll shoot you all up like Tony Montana, and kill every last one of you!”
He then turned to Ryan. “You alright, kid?”
“I think so…” Ryan gathered his breath and looked around. As implied from the outside, the area was a luxurious hotel suite, big enough to welcome an entire family. Decorated in the 19th French century style, the place had walls white as snow, and windows walled off with marble. The suite included various amenities, from a sofa with TV, to a library and even a bar counter.
Most strangely, Ryan also noticed a hole dug into one of the walls, a pickaxe nearby.
“You sound Italian, are you a rital?” the armored asked, switching to Italian. He completely ignored the noises coming from outside and moved to the counter, leaving his shotgun within arm’s reach. He removed his helmet, revealing his utter baldness; Ryan would peg him around sixty, maybe a bit more. “You’ve wandered far away from your country, macaroni. What’s your name?”
“Ryan, you French cheese,” the traveler replied gruffly. “Ryan Romano.”
“Name’s Simon. I’m the sheriff of Suitestown.” The man said while bringing out two glasses and a bottle of Brandy. “Which date is it outside? Gotta check.”
“First of April, 2017,” Ryan replied with a frown.
The man let out a heavy sigh. “Fuck, twelve years, man. Twelve years trapped in this place. Is the planet still an irradiated dump?”
“Yeah, but where are we?” Ryan asked, demanding answers. “Is this the Monte Carlo?”
“I would say Hell, but you’re not that lucky. You’re in Monaco. The real Monaco, that nobody comes back from.” An alarm echoed in the room, and Simon looked beneath the counter to grab a landline phone. “Yeah, Martine?”
Though he didn’t understand the conversation. Ryan heard a woman’s voice on the other side of the line.
“Yeah, yeah, a new guy arrived and the croupiers followed him. Yeah, he’s safe. Don’t worry.” Simon looked at Ryan dead in the eyes. “You’ve got weapons in your bag?”
“Uh, three guns, bullets, medical supplies, food, and water…”
“Good. Gonna ask you to share. No selfish freeloaders here.” Simon then focused on the phone. “Yeah Martine, we’ll meet tomorrow. Take care.”
“You said you were the sheriff of Suitestown?” Ryan pointed out after Simon hung up, carefully accepting the glass. He noticed a book at the edge of the counter, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by Albert Camus.
“We’re about forty people spread all over the fourth floor,” the man explained. “I’m keeping the elevator border secure, maintaining the stairs traps. If we force the croupiers to use the elevator, it creates a bottleneck. Makes them manageable.”
“Have you seen anyone called Len?” Ryan asked, finding a ray of hope in this insane nightmare. “Len Sabino. Black hair, blue eyes, Marxist-Leninist. She must have arrived here one year ago.”
“Ain’t seen any commies yet, and I’ve been here for a while. Might be dead though. People like you, who arrive during the opening hours, they’re the lucky ones. Those who arrive at a bad time, well...” Simon gestured at the door. “They get eaten.”
So Len was either dead, or not in this place. Ryan prayed for the latter. “Are there—”
“There’s no other sanctuary, and no exit either,” Simon said bluntly. “The suites are the only safe zones. Something keeps them out, but only if the door is locked. We’ll find you a suite of your own.”
The man gave Ryan a fiendish smirk.
“You’re going to stay here for a while, p’tit rital.”
The clowns’ assault lasted for ten hours. They screamed and hit the door without any rest. When the lights returned in the hallway though, the attack stopped abruptly. The clowns calmed themselves and returned to the lower floor; as it turned out, they only turned hostile during ‘closed hours.’
The next day, Simon introduced Ryan to the community’s mayor Martine, a twenty-eight year old blonde living four rooms ahead of the elevator border. She quickly gave him a rundown of the situation.
Everyone in the town had the same story. They came to Monaco, either unaware of the danger, or underestimating it, and ended up teleported into the entrance hallway. Simon had been here the longest, a few months after the Genome Wars started.
Nobody else had powers, and Ryan’s own time-stop didn’t work in that strange place. Well, he still sensed his ability activating, but an opposing force canceled it at the last minute. When he learned more information about this place, the time-traveler eventually realized why.
The Monte Carlo Casino was a pocket dimension.
Or at least, that was Ryan’s best guess. Besides the suite’s floor, every room was a variant of eight others; a kitchen-restaurant, a giant roulette table, a lobby, a slot machines room, a retail shop, a card game arena, a stocking area, and a theater. Each room led to another, never in the same configuration, forming a giant maze with only the elevator and the ‘entrance hallway’ as the landmarks. According to the explorers’ estimation, the area covered at least eight square kilometers, four times the size of Monaco itself. And they kept discovering new rooms.
It reminded Ryan of a dungeon crawl video game, with computer-generated rooms. Except it was a lot less amusing than he remembered.
At least the coffee and restaurants restocked regularly, though nobody knew how it worked. Someone once placed a camera in a kitchen to record the phenomenon, and the food and water magically appeared during the ‘closed hours.’
Ryan wasn’t certain if his save point still worked. There was only one way to find out, and he wasn’t in a hurry to try the noose checkout. He had died a dozen times, and each experience had been harrowing so far. Many had told him death was a peaceful end, but they clearly never died before.
The community was divided into groups, each with a specific task; from explorers mapping the maze, to gatherers looking for food. Since he was one of the few experienced with firearms, Ryan quickly became Simon’s deputy, with his own suite right next to the elevator.
Right now, the time-traveler was escorting Martine’s group as they scavenged food. And he regretted it.
“Dear guest, I hope you have a happy time in Monaco, the greatest nation on Earth!” a silver clown told Ryan, presenting him with a plate full of exquisite shrimps and salmon toasts. “May I offer you these gifts from our chef?”
“Screw off,” Ryan replied, threatening the croupier with a gun. Martine, less categorical, swiped all the toasts away and put it in a bag.
The clowns were completely friendly during opening hours, which in Ryan’s mind, made them even creepier. They switched from false affability to murderous hunger eerily fast, and they were frighteningly good at sneaking up on people.
Worst, the Monte Carlo Casino often ‘closed’ early, at the whims of whatever force controlled the loudspeakers. The first time it happened, with only five minutes to return to the suites, Ryan thought his last hour had come. If he hadn’t made a mad dash at the elevator, he would have certainly perished.
A voice echoed through the loudspeakers. For a moment Ryan dreaded it might announce an emergency closing, but it was just the usual nonsense. “Today is a great day for Monaco! Our soldiers won a great victory against the duke of Luxembourg! The blood of our enemies shall paint our yachts!”
‘Monaco’ had been at war with Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Andorra, San Marino, but never the same one each day.
“Rise, Monaco, rise!” the voice continued. “Long live Jean-Stéphanie!”
“I’m not even sure he exists,” Martine told Ryan, “nobody’s ever seen him, not even the clowns.”
“Because His Highness is beyond our comprehension!” one of the creatures interjected, only to be ignored. “Long live Jean-Stéphanie!”
“Could be a Psycho,” Ryan said as the group finished its scavenging and returned to the elevator. If it interfered with his power, then it was probably a Violet. “Though I don’t get why nobody came after me.”
“Perhaps his power sustains him,” Martine offered, as they returned to the suites’ floor. “Any progress with your radio?”
“Nope.” Some of the books the group managed to scavenge included manuals or pre-Wars technology magazines. Ryan thought he could perhaps create a radio powerful enough to call for a rescue.
It was a fool’s hope, but until someone found an exit, it was all the group had.
“Wanna watch a movie tonight?” Martine offered him. “I found a cassette of La Grande Vadrouille the other day. It’s not high comedy, but it helps pass time.”
“Maybe another day,” Ryan replied, stopping in front of Simon’s room. “Gotta check on the old man.”
“I just don’t get why he keeps digging,” the mayor sighed. “I guess he’s occupying himself the best way he can.”
Ryan shrugged and unlocked Simon’s door. As the deputy, he had a double of everyone's keys.
After closing the door behind him, Ryan made his way to the hole in the wall, activated a torchlight, and walked inside. It took him more than an hour, but he finally heard the sound of a pickaxe hitting stone. Simon was busy digging with a torchlight strapped to his helmet.
“Hi, Simon,” Ryan announced his presence, though the sheriff didn’t stop. “We’ve got shrimp for tonight.”
“Ugh, I would kill for a hamburger,” the man complained, hitting the wall with his pickaxe. “How long has it been since you joined us, p’tit rital?”
“Six months… which means two more until they change the menu. They do that each time on Christmas.” The old man let out a sigh. “You know, there was this guy, who had a puppy dog. He thought it was cute, so he kept sending me pictures. Every time I looked at the furred thing, it kept barking at me. It barked, and barked, and barked. It was annoying like you wouldn’t believe. Every time it got on my nerves, I wondered… how does he taste?”
“The guy?” Ryan asked, a bit uncomfortable with the discussion.
“The puppy,” Simon said. “And one day… I couldn’t resist. There wasn’t much meat, but it tasted good. Like a Christmas gift I offered myself.”
“I’m not sure I understand where this is going...”
“God put us on Earth for a reason, p’tit rital,” Simon said while making a short pause. “Mine was to eat puppies. When I look at these rabid clowns outside, they all look like puppies to me.”
Ryan suddenly realized that years trapped inside a hotel suite did wonders for a man’s sanity. The wanderer dreaded to imagine how he would look ten years from now. “How long is your tunnel now?”
“Two kilometers, p’tit rital.”
“Two kilometers,” Ryan repeated. How had the whole thing not collapsed on him yet? “Your tunnel is two kilometers long now.”
“I have enough energy for ten more.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t think there’s an exit this way.” Though Ryan hadn’t given up on finding one, he had the intuition this insane dimension expanded endlessly. “I don’t get why you keep digging.”
The older man looked into Ryan’s eyes. “Have you ever read ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’?”
“No, but I probably will, since you pitch it to me all the time.”
“In it, Camus presents the fate of Sisyphus, forced to roll a boulder for all eternity. A purely meaningless task. But when he finally realizes that it’s futile, and he stops struggling against his fate, he is truly free. He has accepted his situation, and through acceptance, found happiness.”
“So you… what, you think we’ll never escape?” Ryan asked with a disgusted frown. “That all our efforts are for naught?”
“Yes, our efforts are futile. But I accepted them as meaningless, so I’m at peace with myself. You though, p’tit rital? You still think you’ll get out, and the more you fail, the more frustrated you become.”
“There’s someone waiting for me outside,” Ryan pointed out, remembering Len.
“I don’t think so,” Simon replied with a shrug. “But suit yourself. I’m just telling you the secret of happiness, but I can’t force it on you. What I’m saying is, when you’re confronted with meaningless absurdity, you’ve just got to roll with it. Like the boulder.”
“One day, you will realize the boulder isn’t your enemy,” Simon shrugged. “It’s your friend.”
“What happens if, through some miracle, you reach an end,” Ryan said. “But instead of an exit, your tunnel leads to another suite? How would you react?”
“I’ll find a new wall,” Simon replied with a bright smile, as he raised his pickaxe again, “and dig another hole.”
Ryan opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. “The boulder is your friend?” he asked with a frown.
“The boulder is your only friend.”
It was December 2035 in Suitestown, and little had changed except the menu.
Nobody had entered the maze for years, probably because people finally wised up to the danger of Monaco. Or perhaps their mysterious abductor had died, and his dimension kept working without him. Whatever the case, with no fresh blood, the community’s numbers had started to dwindle. Once nearly fifty at their peak, they were now half that number. Some had been eaten by the clowns, while others… just gave up.
Simon ended up committing harakiri yesterday, as he promised he would. He went out one night to die like a man, a cigar in the mouth, a bottle of vodka in his left hand, and his shotgun in the right. In the end, the croupiers didn’t kill him, though many of them died trying.
Instead, the old sheriff’s heart had failed him, unable to handle the stress of battle.
The creatures hadn’t eaten the body, though Ryan wasn’t sure if it was because Simon scared them even in death or out of twisted respect. The villagers burnt the corpse and buried the bones beneath the bar counter he loved so much, and Ryan had taken over as Suitestown’s sheriff. He even inherited Simon’s suite.
Ryan faced the tunnel, wondering what to do with it. Simon boasted he had reached the five kilometers mark before perishing, and would have probably continued had his body not failed him. He even left his pickaxe right next to the entrance; by now it had grown rugged from overuse, and could hardly dig anymore.
“The boulder is your friend, huh,” Ryan muttered to himself, as he grabbed the pickaxe.
It was December 2101 in Suitestown, and Ryan was the last man in Monaco.
He rested on his bed, a pile of food within arms’ reach, scribbling his life’s memoir inside a journal. Though nobody new arrived in decades, he wanted to leave any help he could in case someone ended up trapped in Monaco.
Over the century, the wanderer had explored the Monte Carlo Casino farther than anyone, but learned little more. The maze truly was infinite, as far as he could tell. None of the systems needed electricity to work, the landline phones linking the rooms functioning even while cut off from one another. There was no central communication system to carry orders through loudspeakers, no birthplace for the staff.
This place made no sense. It was a conceptual space, with no logic but the maker’s will. It had to be a Yellow Genome’s doing, but Ryan could never confirm it.
He had tried everything, from radios to bombs. He had blown up the entrance hallway, dissected the clowns, and even attempted bizarre occult rituals when all else failed. Nothing worked. There was only one way to escape this place, and Ryan had the feeling it would happen soon.
Two decades ago, when there were only five of them left with most too old to survive without help, the survivors summoned a meeting. All of them decided to take the bullet checkout option, except Ryan.
He had died too many times already to want to hurry it up.
A clown knocked on his suite’s door, interrupting his work. “Dear guest, perhaps you would enjoy a game of baccarat downstairs? We are organizing a tournament just for you!”
“No thanks,” Ryan rasped, refusing to leave his bed. They waited at the door day and night, those assholes. They waited for him to die like hungry hyenas stalking an old lion. But the time-traveler refused to perish out of sheer spite.
As a Genome, inherently better than humans, Ryan had aged gracefully. While his body showed wrinkles, he kept the vigor of a middle-aged man even while past a century old.
And then, Ryan’s health suddenly started deteriorating one year ago. Perhaps his Elixir-enhanced body came with an expiration date, or it was just the accumulated toll of living so long without natural light, fresh air, or company. Thirty days ago, the Genome woke up only to realize he couldn’t move far from his bed without collapsing. Thankfully, he had accumulated a food and water reserve just for this occasion.
Ryan slightly regretted not going on a suicide run like Simon when he had the chance. At least he would deny his jailers any satisfaction in his own way.
His old eyes wandered to the edge of his room, and the tunnel beyond. He had almost reached the fifteen kilometers mark when his body finally failed him, and it would remain one of his last regrets.
But most of all, Ryan regretted never finding Len. Never knowing what happened to her. He had learned a great many things over the years, devouring any source of knowledge he could find, sharpening his fighting skills, but he never discovered how the world continued beyond these walls.
He would die with unfinished business. That was the most ignominious part.
But… well, it had been a life at least. He had defeated Bloodstream, and made sure he would never kill anyone again. Ryan hadn’t done everything he could have done, but he tried. Maybe it was an old man’s last attempt at comforting his guilty conscience, but… as he closed his eyes for the last time, the wanderer thought he had found the acceptance Simon preached to him so long ago.
Accepting his fate didn’t bring him happiness.
But it brought him closure.
And so, Ryan slept.
And he woke up again, facing a bright light.
“What is…” The wanderer raised his hand, the overwhelming radiance too much for him. It burned his eyes with its brilliance, and that strange force brushing against his cheeks.
Was it… wind?
When Ryan acclimated to the light, he realized he was facing the sun. His hand was no longer wrinkled, his legs could still carry him, and he felt young again. So very young, so very strong. He breathed fresh air again, for the first time in almost a century.
As he looked down, and observed Monaco from above, it didn’t take Ryan long to realize where he was.
It was the same stone promontory where he last saved, almost a century ago.
“But I… but I died. I died in Monaco, and my power…” Did the pocket dimension prevent the time-stop, but not the save point? And yet, the way he perished… It couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. Ryan knew it deep within his bones.
Ryan Romano had died of old age.
And the whole thing started.
“I can’t die of old age,” Ryan realized, as he collapsed to his knees. “I’m… I’m immortal. I’m immortal.”
It would never end.
It would never, ever end.
He would always start over, all over again. Forever and ever. Though it could prevent the time-stop, even Monaco couldn't undo the save point. Even old age wouldn’t cancel his save point.
“Ah…” Ryan chuckled to himself. “Ah…”
Ryan exploded into nervous laughter, rolling on the stone near his motorcycle. He didn’t know how long he laughed, but by the end, the sun had long vanished, and his throat felt sore. Then the time-traveler rested on his back, looking at the stars in silence for half an hour.
Finally, when he rose up and looked at the stars, Ryan realized that he felt nothing.
He had been scared of death before. Dreaded it. He feared the pain, the loss, the brief oblivion after the light went out. Dying wasn’t fun.
But that was before.
Now, he was no longer scared. Death no longer felt painful. After realizing even old age wouldn’t put him down for long, the wanderer had grown numb to it all.
Ryan Romano was condemned to live. To carry that boulder at the top of the hill, and begin again. He remembered Simon’s words, and realized the old man might have been right. The time-traveler was Sisyphus reborn, and his life was absurd.
And instead of horror… Ryan felt a deep sense of liberation.
“You know what?” the time-traveler muttered to himself, looking down at Monaco below. “I don’t care anymore.”
If Ryan was condemned to live, it would be to the fullest. He was no longer afraid of anything, and he had all the time in the world. All the time to see how everything could play out, to try everything worth doing. His life was an endless game, and the sky was the limit. He was free to anything he wanted.
And right now, Ryan wanted to free Simon, Martine, and everyone trapped in this hellish place.
If the time-traveler’s life were a video game, it would be his first quest. The first of many, but far from the last. And after seeing the bad end, he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the perfect ending.
Ryan had embraced the absurd, and learned to love the boulder.