Sitting on a sofa right next to the inactive plushie, Ryan stared into the abyss of the Tyrrhenian Sea. He found it relaxing to wake up to the sight of silent darkness and mutated fish, especially after he had grown used to New Rome’s noisy environment.
Each ‘apartment’ was a carbon copy of the other, each tenant free to decorate their own as they saw fit. Ryan had of course brought his entire wardrobe, and thrown euro bills everywhere to protect himself from the specter of Vladimir Lenin. It certainly haunted this underwater kremlin.
As it turned out, Len meant that she had borrowed the Meta’s own submarine during the raid. Now the vehicle waited right outside the underwater habitats, and Ryan had an excellent view of it from his underwater apartment.
However, while the submarine had allowed Len to smuggle the Plymouth Fury to her base, it also meant that the Meta-Gang could reach the area if they wanted. The courier would keep it in mind for future loops.
“Don’t do anything rash,” Ryan jokingly told the plushie while rising up from his sofa. He then moved through the corridors linking the underwater habitats together. Shortie’s own lair was next door to his own, probably because she worried the courier might influence the kids without surveillance.
Besides her own habitat, Len had established a workshop close to the living spaces. Unlike the comfortable apartments, this part of the underwater base reminded Ryan of a steampunk factory, all metal walls, and steam pipes. It wasn’t as well-equipped as Vulcan’s, and far less organized; Len had hooked the servers administering the underwater base to Dynamis’ brainscan machine, while half-finished machines covered various workbenches. Len had hung designs of submarines, underwater cocoons, and even artificial fish on the walls to save space.
Most important, Ryan’s Plymouth Fury waited in a corner. Len had removed the Chronoradio’s components, the engine, and pretty much every piece of Genius tech inside. He knew it was a sacrifice for the cause, but the sight of his beloved car turned into a husk filled the courier’s heart with sorrow.
And of course, Len listened to Alexandrov Ensemble’s March of the Artillerymen while working. Even Ryan had to admit that it was a good song, but his Genius friend couldn’t look more Marxist even if she tried.
Thankfully, somebody else was already annoying her today. “But Mama, you said I would get a suit too!” Little Sarah complained to Len, carrying a cat in her arms. The Genius was sitting behind a workbench, working on the Dynamis tech. “That I would be the Little Diver!”
“Sweetie, I know… but I have to work on something else first…” For once, Len had traded her jumpsuit for simple blue clothes. She looked a lot more lively when she turned to face Ryan, perhaps because she felt more confident inside her lair. “Hi, Riri.”
“Hi Shortie, Little Hellion,” Ryan greeted them, before recognizing the cat in Sarah’s arms. “Eugène-Henry!”
“He showed up in my room this morning,” Little Sarah said, the animal meowing in her arms. “Did you bring him from the surface to the magical place?”
“No, he brought himself,” Ryan replied, immediately petting the placid cat behind the ears. The feline’s teleportation ability had an enormous range. “Also, it’s called the Commie-Cave.”
“The Ark,” Len said with a frown.
“The Commie-Cave,” Ryan insisted. “Corpos are a cowardly and superstitious lot. To instill fear in their heart, we must abolish private property.”
Len rolled her eyes. “If this is… a Batcave, what do we call ourselves?”
“The Hammer and the Sickle,” Ryan immediately answered. “The perfect union of peasant and working-class superheroes. The children can become our minions, the Proletariat.”
Len let out a small sound that the courier hadn’t heard in centuries.
“Ma?” Sarah asked, having never heard it either.
“Shortie, you chuckled?” Ryan asked. Len tried to look away to hide her facial expression, but he was persistent. “Even you must admit my jokes are funny.”
“No, they aren’t,” his old friend replied while trying not to smirk. “You’re bad, Riri. You’re so bad, it loops back to good. Like a… like a boomerang.”
“What can I say, all my jokes are state-approved by our soviet supreme.”
Len now wore a warm smile on her face, which in Ryan’s mind was worth all the runs so far. “I’m not like that, Riri.”
“What’s a soviet supreme?” Little Sarah asked while petting Eugène-Henry.
“Wait, you didn’t send her to the Party Congress?” Ryan frowned at Len. “These children will be lost without a good revolutionary education!”
Len shook her head, the smile still on her face. “I… I haven’t thought much about education,” she admitted. “I was… too focused on building the place first.”
“What’s a soviet supreme?” Little Sarah asked, before glaring at Ryan. “Talk, motherfucker.”
“It’s a bad idea,” Ryan answered truthfully before patting Sarah on the head. “And that’s all you will ever know.”
Sarah immediately stuck out her tongue at him, causing Eugène-Henry to meow loudly and leap out of her hands. He immediately took over a server as his throne, looking down at the humans like a noble sphinx.
“Sweetie, can you leave us for a moment?” Len asked Sarah. “I… I need to discuss something with Riri. Privately.”
Little Sarah looked at Ryan and Len in turn, her gaze turning very, very suspicious. “Yes, Ma…”
The little girl left while squinting at them, and Ryan sat on the workbench once she was gone. “Are you happy now? They will think we do adult things behind closed doors… though we did, long ago.”
“That was…” Len’s face turned embarrassed. “Awkward.”
“Well, it was both our first time.” And they had to do it in a hurry, so her father wouldn’t notice. “I remember it fondly.”
Len didn’t answer, probably because they discussed an era long gone. Ryan still longed for the emotional intimacy they once shared however. Maybe that was what he was looking for with Jasmine; the echo of something once vibrant, yet long dead.
Was that how Livia felt whenever she thought of Felix?
“Have you made progress?” Ryan changed the subject upon sensing Len’s lack of comfort with the discussion.
“Sort of,” she replied, joining her fingers. “Have… have you?”
Ryan sighed. Now it was his turn to feel uncomfortable. “An idea crossed my mind,” he admitted. “Did your father ever use his power on you?”
“I… I don’t think so. I… if he had, I wouldn’t be here. I would have become him.”
“He could have done something more subtle. Closed your wounds, perhaps?”
“Why are you asking me this?” Len asked, her smile gone.
“You remember when you took your Elixir?” She nodded slowly in response. “Your father instantly knew you had done so. At first, I thought it was because he could sense blood and manipulate it from afar, but what if he had left a trace of himself inside you?”
“Like a... blood beacon?”
“You were his cherished daughter, his only reason to live,” Ryan said with a frown. “He always managed to find us when we wandered off.”
Len’s worried face told the courier she considered it a strong possibility. “You think… you think that’s what Dynamis is after? Something he left behind?”
“It’s possible. I will need a blood sample to check, and the tools in the back of my car.”
“What about the Knockoffs?” Len asked suddenly. “You, you studied Elixirs, right? Didn’t you… didn’t you notice a match?”
“How? The Carnival made sure to erase any trace of your father specifically to prevent him from returning. I had nothing to compare the Knockoffs to.”
“Until now…” Len frowned. “Riri, if there is a match…”
“I know,” Ryan sighed. “But can we focus on the brain-transfer project first? I… it’s dangerous, Len. It might take me more than one run to get into Dynamis’ labs, and I don’t want you to forget me again.”
“I… I will do what I can.” Len cleared her throat. “But there’s… there’s something missing. Something is wrong.”
Of course. There was always a new roadblock to overcome, but Ryan remained an optimist. “The tech doesn’t work?”
“It does,” she replied, pointing at the brain-scanning helmet. “It can make a brain-map and create a… a computer simulation. I can then send it… send it to a host, to overwrite the previous cognitive system. The closer the host’s nervous system to the simulation, the better. Otherwise… the host brain will degrade. Conflicting memories, confused neurons...”
“But if we send your memories to your past self, then there shouldn’t be any problem, right?” Ryan asked.
“It should be fine. Maybe a harmless concussion, maybe nothing.” Len crossed her arms. “Should work even wirelessly, when I’m done.”
“Then where’s the catch?”
“To wirelessly send the memories to a host through time, you need…” Len struggled to find the right words. “You need more power. More power than any natural energy source can provide.”
Ryan quickly caught on. “Like Violet Flux?”
“Yes. I think… I think we can only send signals, let alone the brainmap, back in time if we hook the Chronoradio to Vulcan’s armor.”
“But…” Ryan immediately noticed the problem. “That wasn’t the case in the previous run. The Chronoradio was destroyed, and Jasmine and I created the armor afterward. Yet we still received future recordings.”
“Yes,” Len nodded slowly. “I… I don’t think I sent the Chronoradio messages, Riri. Or at least, not the previous me. It… it could have been a future me.”
“That’s not how time works, unless I have been wrong about everything,” Ryan replied, scratching his hair. Only two time-periods could exist through his save point. “It has to be something else. All the messages revolved around our interactions during the previous loop.”
“Then... who sent the messages?”
Ryan tried to remember the end of the previous run, and his trip to the Purple World. The visions he had seen, and the colossal entity he briefly made contact with near the end.
‘The Ultimate Ones are compassionate, though narrow-minded.’
And the Chronoradio message happened right when Ryan seriously considered giving up...
“Not who,” the time-traveler realized. “What.”
Ryan looked at Eugène-Henry, as a few things fell into place. The cat had somehow gained powers across time, deliberately led Livia to the courier, and then appeared in the Commie-Cave right when Len considered studying Violet Flux for her experiment. Far too many coincidences at once.
“You aren’t teleporting at random at all,” the courier accused Eugène-Henry. “You’re being teleported by something else. Something showing us the way, telling us we can succeed if we work hard enough.”
The cat meowed in response.
“Riri, you… you’re talking to a cat…”
“It makes sense in the context,” Ryan defended himself, while Eugène-Henry licked his own shoulder. “You remember what I told you, Shortie? About what I saw in the Purple World?”
She quickly connected the dots. “You think the pyramid thing is… what, helping us?”
The courier nodded, leaving Eugène-Henry to his cleaning. “I’m starting to wonder if these visions, the Chronoradio signals, and Eugène-Henry’s teleportations are truly random events, or an attempt at communication.”
“That sounds…” Len tried to find the right words. “I dunno, a bit far-fetched. And if it’s as powerful as you think it is, why do so little? Why only teleport a cat around, of all things? Why would it even care?”
“I dunno,” Ryan admitted. “It’s just a theory. But I find all these strange coincidences oddly convenient, and I’m convinced the people I saw in my vision are either the Alchemist or connected to them.”
“You saw a base in Antarctica, right?” Len asked. “Could you identify where exactly?”
“Maybe,” Ryan replied. “I have only seen the night sky, not enough to pinpoint the exact position, but at least we can narrow it down.”
“We could visit that base,” she suggested. “With the submarine. Check, after… after we’re done with the rest here.”
The rest. Such an understatement.
“I guess I better work on that heist then,” Ryan said.
Since Len kept the car—and they weren’t even married—Ryan had to use a bathysphere to reach the surface, and then called a taxi to get to his destination.
“Is this karma for leaving my car to die?” Ryan wondered out loud, as he stepped out of the taxi and right in front of a Dynamis-owned hospital; the same one where Psyshock’s victims had been brought to during the courier’s first Il Migliore loop. Private Security members protected the building from intruders, but much to Ryan’s surprise, no journalists waited at the entrance. Either Dynamis kept the patients’ identity strictly confidential, or all media were in the company’s pocket. Probably both.
As he made his way towards the entrance, Ryan quickly noticed a familiar face leaving the hospital and climbing at the back of a Mercedes Benz. A young teenager with short brown hair, blue eyes, and a heart-shaped face.
As for her chauffeur, Ryan recognized him as Mortimer out of costume and with sunglasses. Though the courier only caught a glimpse of her, Felix’s adoptive sister looked quite upset. He guessed her meeting with her brother hadn’t gone well.
The guards let Ryan in after a quick security check, and the courier found Wardrobe and the Panda waiting for him in the entrance hall. The former was talking with an unknown woman, and the latter texted on his phone with tears in his eyes. They had brought chocolate and flowers with Felix’s name on them.
“Hi, Ryan!” Wardrobe greeted the courier, though the Panda was too focused on his task to notice. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
“Hi, Yuki,” Ryan waved his hand at his favorite fashion designer, before glancing at the other woman in the room. She was in her early twenties, with shoulder-long brown hair and striking amber eyes; probably British too. Unlike the more feminine Wardrobe, she wore a gray corporate suit, albeit one as stylish as Blackthorn’s.
“Hello, Quicksave,” she said with a warm smile, offering him her hand to shake. Definitely British. “I’m Nora, Nora Moore. Yuki spoke a lot about you.”
“She’s my girlfriend,” Wardrobe said with a smile. “The Architect!”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Ryan said, as he took Nora’s hand and kissed it in the most gentlemanly way instead of shaking it. The woman blushed a little at the surprise attention, though the courier frowned at Wardrobe next in displeasure. “But she doesn’t have a costume. I’m disappointed, Yuki.”
“I know,” Wardrobe sighed. “I tried.”
“I can’t wear a costume like yours at work,” Nora replied with an embarrassed smile, before glancing at Ryan. “I’m not a superhero, but an independent contractor and urban planner. I have a Genius power specialized in cities and architecture.”
“And she is amazing,” Wardrobe said with a bright smile. “Come on, Nora, show him!”
Her girlfriend showed Ryan her tablet, which showed advanced plans of arcology-like, self-sustaining towns, a flying city, and even an underground bunker settlement.
“So you can make any kind of city?” the courier asked, quite impressed with her work. He recognized most of the features thanks to his own knowledge, but Nora made excellent use of limited resources. “And for a fraction of the expected cost, from what I gather.”
“How could you tell?” Nora asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, you fully optimize the space, energy consumption, and material,” Ryan said, pointing at various parts of the designs. “Though I think you could move the generators closer to the water recycling for shorter heating circuits.”
“Interesting idea,” Nora said with a smile. “Are you a Genius too?”
“Ryan is super duper smart,” Yuki said, doing the courier’s publicity for him. “You should see his car and weapons, it’s a treasure trove!”
“Unfortunately my Plymouth Fury is in a garage for now,” Ryan said before returning the tablet. “Do you plan to resettle areas destroyed by the Genome Wars? Some of your designs don’t make sense otherwise.”
“You’re quite sharp,” Nora replied with a nod. “A lot of my projects were scrapped by the previous administration, but the new one seems more open-minded. It will be nice to design something other than fortress cities in Sicily.”
“Have you ever wanted to build an underwater metropolis?” Ryan asked, wondering if he should introduce her to Len. “Because I know a Genius specialized in sea-based technology. She’s a Marxist-Leninist however.”
“The idea of oceanic settlements crossed my mind, yes. I would be happy to meet with her, though considering her political leanings, it will be outside of Dynamis.” Nora observed Ryan closely, a warm smile on her lips. “Maybe we could discuss that in length another time? You seem quite knowledgeable about Genius tech, and I would be delighted to exchange with you further.”
The way she looked at him made Ryan realize that he really had a thing for female Geniuses, even when they played for the other team. “Tell me, did you design the Dynamis HQ and Optimates Tower?” he asked the Architect. “I think I recognized your style from the plans.”
“I did, yes, it was one of my earliest work, so I’m not all that proud of it. Why?”
“Nothing,” Ryan replied innocently, a sinister plan forming in his mind. “Also, I apologize.”
“For what?” the Architect asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I know everyone does that, but I shamelessly flirted with Wardrobe before I knew of your existence,” Ryan apologized, making Yuki all flustered. “I hope you don’t hate me for it. She really deserved it.”
“Oh, that?” Nora exploded into laughter. “It’s fine. I really like the bunny costume you made for her actually; we’ll make good use of it.”
“I’m sorry, Ryan, I would totally date you both at once if I could,” Wardrobe said with a sorry face. “It’s an exclusive contract. Civil union and all.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nora said with a coy smile. “But I will give you my blessing to send Yuki an application if we end up breaking up. You seem like a nice person.”
“But if I wasn’t with Nora, I would wear your bunny costume, force you into a Hugh Hefner one, and we would make love everywhere in my condo!” Yuki told Ryan with a wink. “I like beautiful people. Men, women, it doesn’t matter, so long as they dress well and are beautiful inside too. And you’re beautiful everywhere, Ryan.”
“Thanks,” the courier replied, happy to keep such a cultured, gentle soul as a friend. He would make sure they got to hang out together during his Perfect Run.
“Also Ryan, I imagined a new costume for you!” Wardrobe said while grabbing the tablet and opening a new file. “I was so, so sad when I learned you would leave the team, I had to make a new one!”
“We can still team-up,” Ryan said. “Like Batman and Superman. I’ll be the grim vigilante, and you the law-abiding citizen!”
“I’ve thought of that!” Wardrobe presented him a sketch of the costume, all dark and edgy except for a silver lining on the chest. “You’ve turned your back on the light and embraced the darkness; you’ve chosen to wear Karl Lagarfeld. No longer a villain, no longer a hero, but someone in the twilight! Yet the silver lining on your chest means that you’re still looking for redemption.”
“But it’s still made of cashmere?” Ryan asked, hopeful.
“Only the shirt beneath, hidden like your tortured soul,” Wardrobe continued, “the jacket will be made of guanaco.”
“Pure genius.” Ryan then glanced at the Panda, who hadn’t left his seat yet. “Is that any way to greet your sensei, arrogant young disciple?”
When the young hero looked up at his master, it was with tears. “I’m sorry, Sifu…” he said, holding his phone with his tiny human hands. “I just… I just can’t…”
He showed Ryan his cellphone, and the website he had been browsing.
“‘Pandamania?’” the courier asked upon reading the name out loud. The landing page represented his animal friend with a cape and a lightning hammer, with ‘The Panda’s true power’ written below.
“It’s a meme!” his young and naive disciple said, with tears in his eyes. “A meme site! I have memes!”
“He is a hit on the Dynanet and our social networks,” Nora explained. “His first merchandise sold incredibly well, almost as much as all other new recruits combined.”
Ryan could see why. It seemed the Dynanet users loved exalting the Panda as an unstoppable badass, photoshopping pictures of him in place of action movie stars. ‘The Panda is the Key to Everything!’ ‘Panda OP, please NERF!’ ‘One just does not say no to a Panda,’ ‘The Panda didn’t take a second Elixir to give Augustus a fighting chance’ and so on.
“I’m famous.” The Panda wiped away a tear. “Everyone thinks I’m amazing and strong…”
“You deserved it,” Wardrobe patted him on the shoulder with a smile. “You were so brave fighting the Meta-Gang, I thought you stole everyone’s spotlight!”
“Yes, young disciple, here is the reward for your hard work,” Ryan said, trying to imitate a wise elder’s voice, “but this is only the first step towards ascension! Many roadblocks await you!”
“Thank you Sifu, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t believed in me. You…” The Panda couldn’t prevent himself from crying. “You are my friend!”
“Hug me, you stupid manbear!”
And so they did. Tightly. He felt so warm and furry to the touch, even while in human form. Wardrobe looked at them for a moment and then joined in, while her girlfriend looked on with amusement.
Eventually, a nurse came for them. “Mr. Veran will receive you now.”