Sometimes, Ryan wondered if fate existed.
He had seen it across many loops. While they didn’t exactly repeat, events often echoed one another even after he interfered. Though the circumstances were wildly different, this loop would end similarly to the previous one; with New Rome burning, Ryan trapped in a suit of mechanical armor, and a Genius trying to transfer her consciousness through time.
It made sense. Ryan was only one person at the end of the day, a stone thrown into a river; until he mastered a loop enough to maximize his impact and send it off-the-rails, the sequence of events was tempted to reassert itself. The courier literally fought against the whole universe, and the rule of causality.
But even if it cost him a great many things, Ryan always prevailed in the end. He never gave up on his hope that things would be different, because each loop was a little better than the previous one. His life was a process, each iteration optimizing the final run.
And if the courier succeeded in ferrying more people across time, he could do more than just throw pebbles in the river. He could throw it off-course with a landslide.
“I will need you to activate your power when I ask,” Len said, as she put the modified armor’s helmet on Ryan’s face and hooked the courier to her machinery. “From what I gathered, the Violet Flux should build up, reach critical mass before… before you approach the ten seconds mark.”
“Good, I would rather avoid making a new save point.” Ryan looked through the helmet’s lens, though no data showed up on them. Unlike Jasmine’s armor, Len’s design was cruder, experimental. It would serve as a fulcrum for his power, but her computer would run the actual computations. “So, how should it go?”
“I will send the memory map to my… my previous self.” Len sat behind her computer. “My current memories should overwrite the old ones. Hopefully. Maybe.”
“It will work,” Ryan said, both for her sake and his own. “It has to. Everything is in place for it to work.”
“We can’t be sure…” Len shook her head. “I… I hope it will work, Riri. But I can’t promise anything.”
The workshop’s door opened, interrupting the discussion. A bandaged Felix walked inside the room, his gaze switching from Len to Ryan. The courier could see the disbelief in his eyes, and then the quiet acceptance.
He had been standing behind the door for a while.
“How long… how long have you been listening?” Len asked with a worried frown.
“Long enough,” Felix replied as he sat on a workbench in front of Ryan. “Nice armor, but I prefer the cashmere suit.”
“One day, I’ll make a cashmere power armor,” Ryan joked.
“I guess you’ve got all the time in the world needed, when you can turn it back?” Felix marked a short pause, his eyes focusing on his former teammate. “Time-travel. It’s crazy, but it explains a great many things. How long have you been at it? How far can you go?”
“Honestly, I don’t know how old I am,” Ryan admitted, before remembering one of his early encounters with Pluto. “Between five hundred and one thousand, give it or take. As for how far I can turn the clock, right before my arrival in New Rome.”
“You’ve been at this for almost a millennia.” Felix shook his head in disbelief. “That’s crazy.”
“Did… did Livia tell you?” Len asked with a frown.
“No, but I was starting to wonder. When you’ve eliminated the impossible, what remains must be the truth, no matter how improbable.” Felix shook his head. “I stayed around Wardrobe for too long.”
“You’ve made peace with Livia?” Ryan asked. It was one of the hopes he set for himself during his loop, and it would probably carry over to his perfect run.
“I wouldn’t go so far, but… I think she understands why I left now. It took a war, but her faith in her father is finally shaken. Still too little, too late.” Felix clenched his fists. “You can save my sister?”
“Yes,” Ryan said. “I will.”
“Thanks.” The hero let out a sigh of relief, but his face remained full of concern. “Can’t you bring me in for the ride too? You’ll need help.”
“No, sorry,” Ryan said. The machine could only host one brainmap. “Believe me, I would if I could.”
“We’re…” Len cleared her throat. “We’re not even sure I can make it at all.”
Felix took it well, all things considered. Or more likely, all that he went through lately had numbed his emotional reaction. “I see. And once you go back, we all die?”
“You will forget,” Ryan reassured him. “Like amnesia.”
“Amnesia... I suppose that’s one way to see it. Did…” Atom Kitten’s eyes squinted at Ryan. “Did you fuck me before?”
“No,” Ryan replied, much to his Kitten’s disbelief. Of all things, that was the bit he worried about? “I have a whole ‘Fuck, Marry, Kill’ list to fulfill before my perfect run. Marry Jamie, marry Yuki, fuck the Vamp, kill Psypsy...”
Len rolled her eyes, while Atom Cat crossed his arms. “I don’t know why I’m not even surprised,” he said, before falling silent. Clearly, he had a lot to process.
“I didn’t understand how much she loved me,” Felix said, looking at the floor. “Fortuna. I thought she would choose our parents over me, but I was wrong. I was wrong about her, and about Livia too. There’s still hope for them. I… I never appreciated my sister, Ryan. I see that now. My own parents signed off my death warrant, but Fortuna… she chose me over them. When her back was against the wall, she did the right thing.”
Neither Ryan nor Len said anything. Both understood that the hero spoke with his heart, and needed to get a truth off his chest.
“And when you turn back time, Ryan, I’ll forget that. I’ll be angry and bitter at her, all over again. Her death will mean nothing.”
“No, because I will remember,” Ryan reassured Felix. His opinion of Lucky Girl hadn’t been the best, but after seeing her sacrifice, it had greatly improved. She would make it through his perfect run, one way or another.
“Can I ask a favor, Quickie? Make sure I…” Atom Cat gathered his breath. “Make sure I understand that by the time you’re done, and without her dying. I… I don’t think I will ever make up with Fortuna, if you don’t interfere.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find a way.” Most likely, he would kidnap them both and bring them to family therapy. Even if he had to turn one of them into a pickle.
“Thanks.” A genuine smile spread on Felix’s face. “I had fun working with you, Ryan. You’re a good friend.”
“Damn it, Shortie, you should start the process before I die of diabetes.” Ryan looked away from Felix, as his Genius friend typed on her keyboard. “We never got around to doing a training montage with the Panda.”
“Yeah, I’ll carry that regret to my grave,” Felix mused. “Would have been fun.”
A terrible alarm echoed through the underwater base, interrupting the happy moment.
Ryan turned his head at Len, his heavy helmet slowly moving with his skull. A picture of the abyss outside appeared on her computer’s screen, alongside the shape of an enormous submarine. Projectors from Len’s base cast light on its hull, and the logo painted on its steel shell.
The computer bleeped, as someone tried to establish contact. Len cautiously answered with a frown, a new video feed forming on the screen. A ghoulish, shining skull looked at the Genomes in the workshop.
“So you lived, Atom Cat.” There was no relief in Alphonse Manada’s voice, only a hint of curiosity. “I was wondering where you had run off to.”
“Fallout?” Felix said as he climbed down from the workbench and approached Len’s computer. “What is the meaning of this? Aren’t you in New Rome?”
“I was, but we are moving our HQ and laboratories out of the city. Augustus destroyed our previous installations.” The Dynamis CEO glanced at Len. “And we will pick up Miss Sabino along the way.”
Len bristled in dread, much to Ryan’s frustration. “Et tu, Nagasaki?” he taunted the nuclear cyborg.
“Is that you inside that armor, Quicksave?” Fallout replied with a scoff. “Good, you’re coming too. I will give you ten minutes to get out of this underwater hole and join us onboard our submarine. We are on a tight schedule, and Vulcan might give pursuit soon.”
“No,” Len protested, shaking her head.
“We politely deny your request,” Ryan said. “Don’t force us to raise a new Berlin Wall.”
“I don’t think you understand.” Alphonse focused on Len, his shining gaze without emotion. “We need her, dead or alive. If you don’t surrender now, we’ll flood this entire complex and harvest the corpse’s genetic material.”
Shortie’s face lost all color. “There are children inside!”
“We helped you against the Meta,” Ryan pointed out, deciding to add this man to his kill list. “You have an odd view of long-term partnerships.”
“I knew of your dealings with Livia Augusti, Quicksave. You betrayed us first.” Alphonse grunted, ignoring Len’s comment. “It doesn’t matter. If you want to spare lives, you’ll join us.”
Felix didn’t hide his fury and disappointment. “I thought you were one of the good ones.”
“I am. Augustus will never be the face of Europe, so long as I live. All I do is to make sure he and his twisted kind don’t win.”
“How are you any different?” Felix snarled angrily. “You heard Hargraves. Augustus murdered an entire peaceful community to get his hands on my sister Narcinia. And now, you threaten the lives of children to put a Genius under your yoke.”
“The difference is that I do it to save human lives, not destroy them. Can you even fathom how many people Augustus slew? How many more he will kill, now that he has let go of whatever brakes he had?” Alphonse turned to look at Len. “The faster we end this war, the less people will die. If she comes with us, we will be one step closer to victory.”
“Why me?” Len asked, her voice breaking. “What… What did I do to you? Is this about the factory?”
“What point is there in telling you now?” Alphonse replied gruffly, but did shed some light on his motives. “You are the key to refining our Elixir processing, Sabino. To mass-produce these potions, so they’re no longer a tool of oppression by the few.”
“You want to make everyone a Genome,” Ryan realized.
“Yes. Augustus and warlords like him are able to exert so much influence because they concentrate Genomes into their organizations. But if everyone is powerful, then no one is. Don’t you get it? The only way to break these superpowered dictatorships, is to democratize Elixirs. And Sabino is the key to fulfilling this dream.”
He was a Red in more than one way. A shame; if he didn’t want to carve her open, Fallout and Shortie would have probably gotten along perfectly.
“Because you keep Bloodstream in your labs?” Ryan asked, Len bristling at his bluntness.
Fallout ignored them, denying them even information for the next loop. “I tire of this nonsense. What will it be? Dead, or alive?”
Len looked at Ryan, and her answer came swiftly.
“Better dead than corpo,” the Genius said, as she abruptly cut off the communication.
Alphonse immediately answered this act of defiance with a bombardment, the entire undersea complex shaking as projectiles hit the habitat. “Now, Riri!” Len ordered, as she booted her program.
Ryan immediately froze time, Violet Flux particles floating out of his suit. As they grew in number, the courier took a moment to observe the scene around him one last time. Water breaking through the ceiling thanks to Dynamis’ torpedoes; Len, looking at her screen with dread and hope; and Felix, who waited for the end with quiet dignity.
It wasn’t the ending Ryan had hoped for, and he swore it would not happen again.
Violet particles swallowed the world around him, and this loop came to an end.
It was May 8th, 2020 in New Rome. Not for the first time, and not for the last.
At least he could feel his legs again.
Instead of driving straight into the city, Ryan parked his car nearby and waited. Music came out of the Chronoradio, instead of a message from an erased timeline. Much like Eugène-Henry, whatever force had influenced the device during the previous loop had stopped doing so.
It was all up to Ryan now.
The courier didn’t say a word, didn’t move an inch. Dread overtook his body, as he desperately waited for a sign from Len. Any sign that she had made it through. Any sign that Jasmine’s loss and all the sacrifices afterward had meant something.
Ryan had never believed in any god, but right now, he was sorely tempted to pray.
The Chronoradio’s music stopped abruptly, and her voice came out.
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat, as a wave of intense relief overtook him. “Shortie?” he asked, his fingers fidgeting around the driving wheel. “Do you… do you remember?”
A short silence followed, and then came the moment of truth. The two words Ryan had hoped to hear one day, since he first gained his power.
After so many trials, so many false starts, so much loneliness and pain, Ryan’s patience had finally paid off. He had spent countless loops researching his power and accumulating the necessary knowledge; and many more gathering the tools needed to pull it off. This quest had needed contributions from Len, from Jasmine, and so many others, but it had finally reached its final stage.
This time was different.
Things had changed, and they would never be the same.
There wasn’t a word in any human language to describe Ryan’s joy. A centuries-old curse had finally been broken, and he would no longer be alone before eternity.
“Riri,” Len said with a cough, and he could sense something wrong in her tone. “You must go to the orphanage. Now.”
“Right now?” Ryan blinked, his relief overwhelmed by concern. “But Ghoul will kill—”
“You must come quickly,” Len interrupted him, her cough getting worse. “There’s little time. The procedure… there’s a problem, and I’m feeling… I’m not feeling right. Forget Ghoul, I… I need your help right now. Or it will all be for nothing.”
“Shortie, what do you mean?” Silence. She had cut the communication. “Shortie!”
Ryan smashed the accelerator, and immediately drove to Rust Town. Though the idea of letting Ghoul get away with murder annoyed the courier, even if it wouldn’t be permanent, he shut off his conscience. Len needed him. Asked for help.
And she remembered.
“It worked,” Ryan muttered to himself, as he drove north. He couldn’t believe it. “It worked.”
Len’s idea had worked! Maybe it had come with a health cost or side-effects, but it had worked! He was so overjoyed, so hopeful, that he threw money at the Private Security so they would let him pass through the Rust Town border.
It didn’t matter if the consciousness-transfer had side-effects; the fact it worked at all meant it could be perfected. The future was bright and hopeful.
Ryan’s phone rang as he came within sight of the orphanage. His cellphone didn’t recognize the number, but the courier did.
She had kept her word, but Ryan didn’t answer yet. Len was waiting for him in front of the orphanage’s doors, all alone. She wore her jumpsuit and carried her water rifle, her eyes sullen and her face pale.
More worryingly, blood dripped from her nose.
“Shortie!” Ryan hastily parked his Plymouth Fury, stepped out of the car, and immediately rushed at his friend’s side. “Shortie, are you alright?”
His best friend looked at him without a word, clearly sick. Did the transfer damage her brain?
“Shortie, I’m here,” Ryan said, approaching her. “It’s going to be alright, I sw—”
She shot him.
If it had been anyone else, he would have dodged. If it had been anyone but Len, the courier would have frozen time and moved out of the way. But his mind… his mind simply couldn’t imagine Shortie raising her weapon at him, and pulling the trigger. Ryan froze in place for a split second, and it was all it took.
Before he knew what happened, a sphere of water formed around the courier and immediately absorbed him. An intense pressure restrained his body, and liquid broke into his mask.
Why? Ryan held his breath, utterly shocked, as his friend observed him from the other side of the watery prison. And as he looked into her cold, soulless eyes, he realized something had gone terribly wrong.
Len came back through time alright.
But someone else hitched a ride.