Ryan’s vision blurred. It was hard to focus; darkness lurked at the edge of his vision, and his strength left him. He couldn’t even feel his legs, and his whole body felt cold.
Maybe it was the loss of blood, or the leftover damage he suffered from the battle with Pluto. Or perhaps it was Eugène-Henry’s doing, as the cat teleported right in front of Ryan. The feline looked down on the trapped Genome without a sound, like a guide to the underworld.
Above the waterfall, a horrified Atom Cat held his sister in his arms, blood flowing from her chest. Pluto’s corpse fell down the waterfall, a hole in her forehead. The river pulled the Underboss downstream to her last abode; her curse had been canceled and the woods returned to normal, though it came with a cost.
Fortuna had made a lucky shot… but even luck couldn’t cheat death from her due.
“Fortuna!” Felix shouted, trying to cover his sister’s wound with his hand and prevent her from bleeding out. Ryan knew enough about medicine to know it was useless. If he had the tools and the energy, he might have saved her.
He would save her still. He would save them all the next time around.
In the end, only Ryan was cursed with immortality. Only he could carry that burden.
As he started to lose consciousness, Ryan noticed a metal shadow moving upstream. A mermaid in power armor crossing the river to rescue him.
“Riri!” Len shouted in horror while rushing at his side, immediately pushing away the debris keeping him down. “I’m here! I’m here!”
Always there to save him when all was lost.
“I must go now.”
For a moment, the courier thought he had spoken out loud, until he realized where the disembodied voice came from.
Something spoke through Eugène-Henry, using Ryan’s own voice.
“The rest,” the cat looked into the courier’s eyes, his feline gaze shining purple with the wisdom of the stars, “is up to you.”
A flash of violet light overwhelmed Ryan, and he lost consciousness.
When Ryan opened his eyes, it was to the tune of The International.
The ceiling was crimson red, and he faced a portrait of Marx and Engel. An intravenous device pumped his right arm with anesthesia, right next to a steampunk wheelchair of leather and tin.
Damn it, had he woken in a hidden Soviet lab again? Once had been enough!
Ryan’s eyes wandered around himself, his body feeling heavy; he had trouble breathing correctly, and his chest itched. Most importantly, he couldn’t feel anything below his waist, including his most dangerous weapon. Even Vamp died in an attempt to claim it for herself.
He was in a hospital bed, with a TV and a window leading into a dark undersea abyss. Sitting on a chair right in front of him, Little Sarah read Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. She hadn’t noticed him waking up.
Ryan turned his head, glancing at another bed near his own. Atom Cat laid half-hidden beneath the bed sheet, watching the ceiling with empty eyes. Bandages covered his torso, and he had an intravenous system of his own.
“Felix?” Ryan’s voice startled Sarah, who hastily closed her book. “Kitten?”
Atom Cat didn’t even respond. His gaze was a blank, empty abyss of nothingness, a thousand-yard stare.
“He has been like that since Ma brought you in,” Little Sarah said with a frown. “He doesn’t respond when people call him. I’ve seen that gaze before in Rust Town. He’s broken inside, and he’s not coming back.”
“He will.” Ryan knew that from experience. “Eventually, when it’s done chewing on you, the abyss spits you back.”
Of course, the courier would probably turn back time before Atom Cat finished that healing process. Even if she annoyed him, he couldn’t let Fortuna stay dead. Not after she gave her life to save her brother.
“Now you’re awake, get your ass out of bed,” Little Sarah said, before realizing the obvious. “Figuratively, I mean. How do you feel?”
“Without my legs, like Christopher Reeves.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
“And that’s why I can’t stand you.”
“At least I still have le—” Little Sarah suddenly stopped, as she put the two and two together. “Oh wait, I get the joke! Can’t stand!”
“Now, if you can bring me the wheelchair,” Ryan said, glancing at his new Plymouth Fury. “I will let you push me around a bit, but please don’t talk behind my back.”
“Do you want me to find you a parking lot?” Little Sarah replied, as she put her book aside and helped Ryan get into the wheelchair. As he expected, the rest of the courier’s body hadn’t been spared either. He had almost as many bandages as an Egyptian mummy.
“It’s a start, but you need training in pun-fu,” Ryan said. “How long was I out?”
“Ma brought you in yesterday night,” she replied, grabbing the pole holding the intravenous system and attaching it to the wheelchair. “The other orphans made bets about your death. Most said you wouldn’t make it.”
“I hope you bet on me.”
If he could trust her smile, she did. “Yeah, you’re too mean to die, and Ma… it would have hurt Ma, if you didn’t wake up.” Sarah glared at the courier. “She was in tears when she brought you here.”
“I didn’t plan on it,” Ryan said with a sigh. “Can you bring me to her?”
“Sure.” Sarah pushed the wheelchair towards the ‘hospital’s’ door, while Ryan sent one last glance to Atom Cat. Felix had stopped looking at the ceiling, and now glanced at the undersea abyss outside the habitat with a blank face.
Ryan couldn’t blame him. His own parents had signed his death warrant, and a sister he left behind died for him. It would shake anyone. “Felix…”
“I don’t want to talk,” Kitten said suddenly, his voice emotionless.
Now wasn’t the time. Maybe never.
Sarah pushed the wheelchair through a steel corridor, and eventually, to Len’s workshop. Ryan found his best friend tinkering on her diving armor, which she had linked to the Chronoradio and Dynamis’ brain-tech with cables. Some of the suit’s parts had been replaced with copies of Jasmine’s design, including the helmet. It seemed Len had decided to repurpose her existing equipment rather than make something new, perhaps due to lack of resources.
And Eugène-Henry stood atop a server, like a sphinx.
“Riri…” The sheer relief on Len’s face was almost palpable. “You’ve woken up.”
“Did you ever doubt?” he joked.
When the Genius winced, Ryan realized he should have kept his mouth shut. “Yes, I did,” she said with a frown. For the first time, he noticed the red shade around Len’s eyes, as if she had repeatedly wiped away tears. “I thought… I thought I was too late…”
“You’re an ass,” Sarah told Ryan with a glare. “I would kick you in the leg, if it wasn’t useless.”
“You can still pinch me in the arm if you want,” Ryan replied, and she did. “Ouch!”
“You deserve worse,” Sarah said, before looking at Len with concern. “Ma, you should rest. I can bring you a warm hot chocolate.”
“No, it’s okay. Thanks, sweetie.” Len forced herself to smile at Sarah. “Can you… leave us for a moment?”
The little girl clearly didn’t want to obey, but did so anyway. The workshop’s door closed behind her, leaving Len and Ryan alone.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan said immediately.
Len looked away. “I couldn’t save her. The girl. She was already drowning in her own blood when… when I...”
“She was dead before you even arrived.” Ryan moved the wheelchair forward, putting a hand on Len’s arm. To his surprise, she didn’t immediately back away from the physical contact. “Shortie, it’s not your fault.”
She pushed his hand away. “If I had arrived earlier...”
“You would have died,” Ryan said. “Who told you where we were?”
“I…” Her expression turned from saddened to embarrassed. “I hacked your phone. After you turned it off, I had to search for you on foot.”
He should be mad at her for this, but the NSA did it first. Ryan glanced at the device, and then at Eugène-Henry. The cat seemed delighted to see his master again, but his gaze had returned to its natural blue. “Did you finish the consciousness-transfer device?”
“I think so,“ Len declared with a frown. “But it’s gone.”
“What’s gone?” Ryan asked with a frown.
“Your cat’s energy readings. They’re gone. He’s a normal cat now.” Len shook her head, while Eugène-Henry showed them his royal ass. “Whatever caused his teleportation jumps before, it stopped.”
A Purple World entity had possessed Eugène-Henry like the plushie, and then left the building.
Why? Why did it act this way? What was the point? Ryan couldn’t figure it out, but he would in time. “How are things on the surface?”
Len instantly winced. Clearly, things had only changed for the worse. “Riri, you really want to know? You just woke up.”
“Yes, I want to.”
Len slowly moved towards a computer hooked to the servers, typed on the keyboard, and showed him the screen.
Droplets covered the camera recording the image, so Ryan assumed it came from a sea-based probe. But the quality was enough for the courier to see the disaster in all its glory. An awfully familiar disaster.
New Rome had turned into a warzone, with Augusti Genomes and Dynamis forces openly warring in the streets. The Private Security’s helicopters rained bullets on superpowered gangsters, who retaliated with fireballs. Flames consumed buildings, including the Il Migliore HQ, which Vulcan and an armored squadron bombarded with missiles. A horde of cybernetically enhanced dinosaurs soon emerged from the Dynamis tower, engaging the attackers in melee. The Panda led the charge.
Wyvern had been pinned to a building by countless spears and sharp weapons, while Mars dueled a colossal plant monster over the rooftops. Spatial tears opened around the centurion wannabe, raining swords and spears upon the vegetal abomination. Yet the creature retaliated with vines as thick as trucks, and pollen capable of melting steel. As Wyvern freed herself, Mars jumped from one rooftop to the other by materializing shields beneath his feet to escape her.
The strip had been flooded by a tidal wave, and corpses washed up on an artificial shore, only to rise up again to attack Dynamis facilities. Neptune himself rampaged across Rust Town, having shaped an astronomical quantity of water into the shape of a colossal squid. A living laser cut one of its tentacles, and was soon joined by Devilry. But in spite of their best efforts, the liquid elemental quickly pulled itself back together and continued its deadly march towards the junkyard.
The villa atop Mount Augustus had transformed into a fuming crater, over which two lights dueled to the death; a raging sun, and a crimson lightning bolt. Their fight was by far the most fearsome, both moving so fast even the camera had troubles following them. Mighty thunderbolts and plasma blasts rained down from the heavens, devastating the district around the mountain.
The camera provided a panoramic view of the disaster, eventually reaching the harbor. Mortimer, Lanka, and other Genomes fired at will against an unseen form, which almost gave Ryan a headache simply showing up on screen. A horrifying eldritch mascot with swirling tentacles for a beard, great dark wings, and webbed hands; a terrifying mix between a squid and a human, worn by a foolish Genome unable to control its public domain-powered darkness. The abomination let out a scream, whose garbled words Ryan’s maddened mind managed to understand.
Wardrobe had brought out the apocalypse suit. Things were that bad.
“It’s… it’s like that all over the coast,” Len admitted, as she sank in a chair of her own. “Not just New Rome. Sicily and Sardinia too.”
It was the end of the last loop, all over again. Destroying the Meta had only delayed the inevitable. So long as events remained on their current track, Dynamis, the Carnival, and the Augusti were bound to collide with disastrous results.
His Perfect Run looked so far away still. “I’m sorry Shortie, but Lab Sixty-Six will be for next time.”
“Yeah,” she replied with a frown. “It was like this? The previous time?”
“Not as terrible, but the result is the same. Adam just provided a bigger matc—” The computer let out a bleep. “What is it?”
“A call,” Len said, frowning as she typed on the keyboard. “Vulcan.”
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat. Was this a ray of hope, in the middle of another bad ending? “Open the channel.”
The picture on the screen changed from New Rome’s apocalyptic landscape, to a young woman sitting in a chair.
But it wasn’t Jasmine.
“Ryan,” Livia said with relief, as her visage appeared on the screen. “Thank goodness, since I couldn’t see you, I… I wasn’t sure.”
Len’s face turned into a scowl, while Ryan took it in stride. “If I were dead, princess, this horrible present would have ended abruptly.”
“True, but I worried that perhaps, you hadn’t told me the entire truth,” Livia replied with a joyless smile, before it broke off completely. “Fortuna, is she…”
“Dead,” Ryan admitted, causing Livia’s expression to deaden into deep grief. “Felix is alive, but deeply shaken.”
Livia fell entirely silent, her expression dead, her eyes looking down. “I… I foresaw it,” she muttered to herself, holding back tears, “but I hoped… I hoped I… is my aunt...”
“Fortuna died defending her brother from Pluto, and if she had her way, your late aunt would have killed Felix too.” Though it was blunt, Ryan thought she needed to hear the grim truth right now. “Your father gave the order, and Pluto didn’t think twice about carrying it out.”
“I never wanted this,” she said, joining her fingers. “I never… I never thought it would come to this.”
Even Len’s expression changed to sympathy, even if she clearly disliked Livia; perhaps because she empathized with the mafia princess’ situation.
Ryan sighed. “I will make it alright,” he said, his tone softening. “I will make it right again.”
Livia finally looked up. “Is there truly no other way?” she asked, her tone breaking. “Nobody will remember. Nobody but you. If nobody else remembers… if nobody remembers, it will happen again.”
Ryan glanced at Len, who shook her head. She had guessed his thoughts, and disagreed with the idea. Livia was sharp enough to catch on to their unease. “You have a plan to solve this issue,” she guessed.
“We can’t tell you,” Len said before Ryan could open his mouth. “We… I’m sorry, but no.”
“You are the Underdiver, correct? Len Sabino.” Livia regained her composure as she focused on Shortie, putting on her poker face. Perhaps she had started using her power to observe and predict the Genius. “You know everything.”
“Yes,” Len admitted. “And… I was against him telling you.”
“I understand why you distrust me, especially after… after what my aunt did.” Livia’s fingers fidgeted, the young woman unable to hide her shame. “But I swear, I never wanted this to happen. I did everything I could to stop it.”
Len wasn’t impressed much. “But you couldn’t.”
“No. No, I couldn’t.” Livia closed her eyes and bit her lips. The little gesture reminded Ryan of Len, so very much. “My father… he usually listens to me. But not on this. No argument, in any possibility I’ve seen, could cause him to reconsider. His hatred of Hargraves runs too deep.”
“Where are you even?” Len asked with a frown. “How can we be sure that others aren’t listening?”
“I am in a safe place outside New Rome alongside Narcinia. It’s a private line, I assure you. Vulcan’s private line, and she is too busy to listen.” Livia cleared her throat. “It’s… it’s precisely because she is too busy that I call you now.”
“How did you know… how did you know Ryan was here?” Len continued. “You said your power didn’t work on him.”
“It doesn’t, but I can still see the results of his actions afterward. I looked for a possibility where I could talk to Felix, and it always involved using this line. I don’t even know where you are.”
Ryan cleared his throat. “Shortie, I think that’s enough. We’re going nowhere with this.”
But Len would hear nothing of it. “She told you she could talk her father out of… out of doing stupid things. She couldn’t. What if she slips up about us to Augustus? Riri, she is a bomb—”
“I was wrong, alright!”
Livia’s outburst startled everyone.
“I was wrong,” the Augusti princess said, her expression twisting into a mix of remorse, grief, and disappointment. “I wanted to think Dad… I wanted Dad not to be capable of such destruction. But I was wrong. Even Narcinia…”
“You shouldn’t have trusted Augustus,” Len said. “It was written on the walls.”
“Didn’t you trust your own parents?” Livia asked bitterly. “When your parents told you something, did you distrust everything they said?
Len flinched as if she had been slapped. That remark hit too close to home.
“Look…” Livia let out a long, heavy breath. “If there is any chance to right these wrongs, I want to help in any way I can. My family caused so much pain, and now it’s up to you to make up for them. Now I understand the burden on your shoulders, Ryan. I… I’m not blind. I can see your wounds. After what you sacrificed to help me and Felix, I want to return the favor. I told you on the phone. You did not help an ingrate.”
“So you finally believe me? About how we weren’t enemies.” Ryan asked, Livia answering with a nod. “Took some trying.”
“I know maybe it’s too late, but… I was just scared, alright.” Livia looked at the courier. “I was scared of you. You’re just… you’re terrifying, Ryan. You know so much, but you can erase everything we do at will. You’ve done so countless times. None of my powers work on you. They work on Father, but not on you.”
When you put it that way...
Ryan said nothing, turning instead towards a silent Len. The courier could have forced the issue, but Shortie had been at his side through thick and thin. If she didn’t trust Livia enough to involve her in their scheme, then he would have to respect her wish. Even if he didn’t like it.
In the end, Len’s dilemma was the same as Ryan when he confided in Jasmine during the previous loop. To risk opening up; to risk betrayal and disappointment, for an uncertain future. To dare say something, and never take it back.
“We are…” Len hesitated, but finally spoke up. “We’re trying to develop a system capable of sending someone’s consciousness back in time.”
“Truly?” A streak of hope appeared on Livia’s face. “How can I help? Can I help?”
“I have created a memory map of myself,” Len admitted. “It will transmit my memories to my previous self. But my system… I can’t send more than one person back in time. At least not yet. I’m not even sure… I’m not even sure it will work at all. I modified one of my armors based on Ryan’s design, but… there’s no back-up. No way to be sure it will work.”
“You have one,” Livia said immediately, eager at the idea of contributing. Her guilt ate her up like a festering wound. “I may not retain my memories, but I keep a detailed journal. I could save information, and transmit it to Ryan in the next iteration. I could record your machine’s design.”
“No,” Len protested, still too suspicious of the Augusti princess to give up something that valuable. “No, not the machine. Never the machine.”
“The memory map then,” Livia proposed calmly.
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat. “You could record that?”
“It’s all data, is it not? Lines of code?” Len answered Livia’s question with a cautious nod. “Then I can take a snapshot. If the transfer fails, you will have a backup.”
The Genius then turned to the courier, looking into his eyes. It would be far less risky than providing the blueprints, since the brainmap was an enormous mass of incomprehensible data without the original machine or Len's own technology... but it meant Livia could keep Shortie's memories hostage. “Riri?”
After a short moment, Ryan answered with a nod. In the best-case scenario, it wouldn’t cost them anything; and in the worst-case… in the worst case, it could make all the difference. He wanted to trust Livia. The courier wanted to think that for once, he could rely on someone on the other side of time. That he wouldn’t be alone when he started again.
“Thank you. Both of you.” Livia made a deep, formal bow. “I swear, I will not disappoint you. When will you turn back time?”
“I suppose it will happen as soon as I send Shortie’s consciousness backward?” Ryan asked, glancing at his friend.
“Yes,” Len answered with a nod. “My system should cause an… an early end, as the message is sent.”
A polite way to say it would kill Ryan.
“Is…” Livia cleared her throat, trying to find her words. “Is it possible I speak to Felix beforehand?”
“I will link your feed to his TV,” Len said. “And send you the memory map too.”
“Thank you,” Livia said with a sad smile. “Thank you.”
Len cut the conversation short, the screen turning black. “You don’t like it,” Ryan said.
“No, Riri. No, I do not. If it goes wrong, she will have my life in her hands. If I fail, I… I will be her hostage, and she may use me against you. Do you understand that, Riri?”
“I do.” He narrowed his eyebrows. “But why did you tell her, if you don’t trust her?”
“Because I trust you, Riri,” Len replied. “And… I was afraid of you too once. But I was wrong.”
“Thanks, Shortie.” Damn, he had sand in his eyes. “If the world is just, you will remember these words.”
“It’s not,” she said, looking away. “But... I hope I’m wrong.”
The courier glanced at his cat, who now rested on the server. “It said it was all up to us now,” Ryan said. “It helped, but now, it’s all up to us.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“Eugène-Henry. It said it had to go, and that the rest was all up to me now.” Now, Ryan saw it clearly. The entity had sent Chronoradio messages to encourage the courier as he considered giving up, caused him to meet with Livia early in the run, and subtly provided help to Len. Positioning Fortuna so that she would save Ryan’s life, and indirectly convince Livia to assist. “It set events in motion so this very meeting could happen.”
“It would mean… it would mean that it sent Fortuna to her death intentionally,” Len pointed out, skeptical. “Should we trust something using human life so carelessly?”
“I just want to see the best in people. Even interdimensional horrors, without prejudice.”
Len wasn’t convinced. “Sometimes, there’s no good part. Some people are rotten to the core.”
“Yeah, I met Big Fat Adam,” Ryan replied with a shrug. “But I still want to see the best.”
Look for the stars in the night sky.