With his Plymouth Fury out of commission, Ryan had expected to be transported in a Cadillac. Instead, he had to settle for the same black minivan which the Meta-Gang used to attack the orphanage in the past.
These Psychos had no taste at all!
“This is a disgrace,” Ryan complained at the back, Eugène-Henry on his lap. Sarin was driving at the front, while Mosquito sat on the second row of seats. “At least it’s a Chrysler!”
“Nobody can see us with the tinted windows,” Sarin grunted at the front, as she drove through New Rome’s streets. They had left Rust Town soon after dusk, and Ryan had taken the opportunity to memorize the name of the border guards they bribed to get out. “People raise the alarms when they see us out in the open.”
“Yeah, right, a black minivan doesn’t scream suspicious at all.”
“Half of us are too big to fit in a normal car, Boss,” Mosquito pointed out, having to lower his head to fit inside. “We have to transport Frank by truck.”
Ah, the logistics of superhumans. Ryan wondered how the Danish managed to deal with their giant serpent overlord Nidhogg. They probably had to redraw the maps after every transformation. “What’s your second power, Mosquito?” the president asked, as they traveled through the southern slums. “Besides the whole bugman thing.”
“I took the Hercules knockoff, the super-strength one.” Mosquito let out a sigh. “Didn’t work out well. I only get the superstrength after I’m filled with blood, and I weaken every minute afterward.”
“You took a second Green?” Ryan asked, squinting in skepticism. “Why? You didn’t want to go for the full rainbow?”
“Well, being a giant mosquito isn’t very glamorous, ya know Boss? I figured if I drank an Elixir of the same color as the first one, it would wash away the first power and replace it. It made sense to me.”
“You’re a dumbass,” Sarin said out loud what Ryan was thinking.
Mosquito bristled. “Yeah, but at least I’ve got a body.”
“Shut your mouth!” Sarin stopped looking at the road to raise her hand at Mosquito, as if to blast him. “I’ll tear your wisecracking head off!”
“Hey, everyone calm down, there’s a cat at the back!” Ryan said to defuse the situation. Mosquito and Sarin exchanged fingered gestures, but the Meta’s new vice-president focused back on the road. “Besides, you took two Elixirs too, Chernobyl. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
“That’s fucking different, asshole,” Sarin replied. “I took my Elixirs soon after Last Easter, back when nobody knew taking more than one was a terrible idea. While that bug knew exactly what he was getting into.”
Ryan blinked. “Wait, you’ve been like this for fifteen years?”
“Fourteen. I swear, if you find a cure, first thing I’ll do is to fuck someone’s brains out. Fourteen years of celibacy, man; fourteen years. I don’t get how priests do it.”
There was a sick joke to make here, but even Ryan had standards.
Mosquito had none though. “Well, they learn how to handle kids.”
Ignoring the bugman laughing at his own joke, Ryan meditated on this information. Sarin’s situation made him pause, but watching her join Adam in burning down New Rome lessened the sympathy he might have felt for her. As for Mosquito, he happily helped to abduct orphans to throw at the bunker’s defenses.
Yeah, these two had made bad calls. But instead of turning their life around, they kept making worse ones. If anything, the only mutant the courier felt pity for was Frank the Mad, who clearly suffered from a mental illness and needed psychiatric treatment. Maybe it was Ryan’s experience with Bloodstream talking, but the time-traveler had a hard time seeing Psychos as anything but monsters.
Eventually, Sarin reached their destination, and parked the minivan in front of Deadland Motel.
Livia and her escort were waiting in the parking lot. Unlike last time, where she had shown up with only Cancel and Mortimer, the Augusti princess had brought reinforcements. Sparrow, Night Terror… and Luigi the Hockey Victim.
Damn it, Ryan knew he had overlooked something!
“Howdy, legitimate gentlemen,” Ryan greeted the group, as he and his Psycho bodyguards emerged from their car. The president carried Eugène-Henry in his hands. “We come in peace!”
“Hi, I’m Cancel!” Only Greta raised a hand and waved it at the group with a fake smile. Ryan wondered what it would take to break her cheerful demeanor. “Nice to meet you!”
The others weren’t so enthusiastic though. Mortimer hid a gun beneath his cloak, Sparrow shielded Augustus’ daughter with her body, Night Terror stood still in eerie silence, and Luigi courageously stayed at the back.
As for Livia...
“So, you’re the new leader of the Meta-Gang?” Though she seemed confident and in control, Ryan noticed the slight unease at the edge of Livia’s gaze. While she could read notes left by her previous self, the presence of Psychos didn’t help make her feel safe. “Quicksave, is it?”
“President,” Ryan replied, carrying his cat in his hands. “Mr. President.”
“Who elected you?” Mortimer asked, curious.
“You don’t want to know,” Mosquito replied while shuddering. “They had... persuasive arguments.”
“Six against three,” Sarin taunted the Augusti. “You really fear us that much?”
“Considering you’ve been attacking our businesses lately, we expected a trap,” Sparrow replied, before checking an earplug hidden beneath her hair. “Miss Livia, it seems they indeed came alone.”
“I know the previous administration and yours didn’t get along well, but it’s all in the past now,” Ryan said. “We want peace between our two nations. We even brought a gift to show our goodwill.”
“A gift?” Greta’s smile turned genuine, having been informed ahead of time. “I love gifts. What kind of gift?”
“The old administration, of course!” Ryan said before snapping his fingers. Mosquito opened the black minivan’s chest, grabbed the content, and tossed it at Livia’s feet. “Packaged just for you.”
Psyshock wriggled on the ground, blissfully out of commission.
The Augusti princess looked down at the brainjacker’s limp body with contempt. Sparrow and Mortimer studied the Psycho with curiosity, while Greta’s gleeful joy turned to disappointment.
“Aw, he’s drugged out?” Cancel complained, as she noticed the liquid dripping from Psyshock’s mouth. “I prefer it when they understand what’s coming. It doesn’t feel right otherwise.”
“We fished this squid yesterday,” Ryan said. “You’ll need to negate his power first to make his death stick though.”
“Wait, she can negate powers?” Sarin asked, immediately interested.
“Yes, I am doing it right now,” Greta said with pride, which Ryan confirmed after a failed attempt at activating his time-stop.
“Then why am I still made of gas?” Sarin complained, before raising her hand to the skies. “Huh, I can’t generate shockwaves anymore.”
“I don’t know why, but some powers trump mine,” Cancel said with disappointment. “Like the Boss. He can’t shoot lightning in my presence, but he’s still invulnerable.”
“And be thankful for it,” Sparrow said ominously. “He would have killed you otherwise.”
So this confirmed Ryan’s theory. Cancel didn’t nullify powers; she disrupted the Elixir’s connection to their color dimension, preventing access to this bottomless power source, but couldn’t affect physical mutations.
However, she managed to negate Mongrel’s pyrokinesis in a previous loop, which he got from a knockoff that didn’t draw upon the Red Dimension for fuel. Ryan tried to reconcile these two contradictions, until he realized the missing link: Mongrel’s original White Elixir. Since it was the one keeping his multiple powers in balance, by disrupting it, Cancel probably caused his other abilities to go haywire.
As for Augustus, it could only mean his invulnerability was a physical mutation. Combined with the other information Ryan had gathered, then Mob Zeus’ body probably mimicked the properties of a specific metal. A superior variant of Frank’s power.
Probably an Orange.
A damn strong Orange, but it didn’t explain how Lightning Butt could move in the stopped time, or why most powers failed to affect him… unless…
Unless the metal itself had unique, anomalous properties.
It was just a theory and he would need to test its limits, but Ryan felt he was onto something. More worrying, since Ryan’s power relied on his connection to the Purple World, it meant Cancel’s power would probably kill permanently. His other self would remain trapped in the purple world, unaware his future incarnation had perished.
“Anyway, can we wait until the squid wakes up? I want to see the light go ou—” Mortimer drew a silenced pistol before Greta could finish her sentence, and shot Psypsy twice in the head. “Morty, you hyena! Find your own kills!”
“What?” he asked, smoke coming out of his weapon. “It’s teamwork. You soften the prey, I finish it off. Fifty-fifty."
“But you always get the good part!”
Ryan would lie if the sight of Psyshock’s corpse bleeding out on a parking lot didn’t fill him with joy. “VP, please call our staff to check if Psypsy’s victims recovered,” the POTUS asked Sarin, before turning at Livia. “So? Do we sign a peace treaty, shake hands...”
“Let us discuss that inside a private space,” she replied. “Luigi will be present as well.”
“You’re really sure about that?” Ryan asked, disliking the man’s presence. “He might go mad from the revelation.”
“I hear people’s dirty laundry every day,” Luigi replied with a snort. “Nothing you say will surprise me.”
Oh well, he asked for it.
Livia led the two men upstairs, to the same cozy suite where she welcomed Ryan in the previous loop. She invited them to sit around the table, with the cookies and coffee cups already set. “A drink?” she offered Ryan.
“No thank you,” Ryan replied, letting Eugène-Henry leap onto the bed nearby. His host couldn’t suppress a raised eyebrow. “Is this really necessary? You should have all the information available.”
“I wish to hear it from you,” Livia said, glancing at Luigi. “And have my intel confirmed.”
“Don’t try to lie,” the truth-teller warned Ryan. “You can’t.”
“Do you want the short version or the long one?” the time-traveler asked, as he sensed Luigi’s power take over.
“You could give a summary,” Livia proposed.
Time to rant!
“I am a time-traveler, and I’ve been at it for centuries. I’ve lived a full life in Monaco, which I don’t recommend, and I’ve tried pretty much everything you can think of. Including beating you up, Luigi. Livia, you can make notes that carry through my time jumps, so everything you wrote down is true; this is the third loop where we meet and I really hated how you took away my control over all factors, but like cancer, I’ve learned to live with it. Also, you really remind me of a friend who suffered from a toxic family environment, so I want to help. I beat the shit out of the Meta-Gang last loop before they could kill everyone with an orbital laser, but your daddy waged war on the Carnival and Dynamis and the city burned again.
“I saved your ex-boyfriend from your aunt for you, but she ended up killing Fortuna instead, and your Lightning Dad smashed a Living Sun into New Rome and I had to reload. But Psypsy managed to follow, which didn’t end well for him; I helped feed Big Fat Adam to a black alien whom I called Darkling, because it eats hope and happiness. Then I gave the Meta-Gang the democratic choice of voting for me or dying, I became President, and I love democracy so much I’m never relinquishing power until my death. The whole timeline is ruined so I decided to try new stuff like finding a cure for the Psycho condition, and also, you have the brain patterns of a friend trapped in your head, which I really want back, please. I haven’t doctored your notes or anything, and I have no intention of causing you trouble until you go after me first.
“Except for you Luigi. I hate you, I hate you so much. The first time I beat you was one of my eternal life's best memories, and I love doing it. I love it so much I’ll keep doing it in every loop until the last one. Also, nothing you will do during this loop really matters since I’ll reload eventually, so your life is meaningless. You don’t matter.”
Ryan joined his hands. “I think that’s all.”
By the time he had finished, Livia’s fingers fidgeted around her coffee cup, and her gaze lost itself in the pitch darkness of her beverage. Luigi’s stare had turned distant, as he underwent an existential crisis.
Eventually, Livia glanced at her truth-teller. “Luigi.”
“I overworked you, and you need a vacation,” Livia said with a calm, friendly tone. “To make up for it, I will make a generous deposit on your account. I think twenty million euros should be a good compensation. You leave New Rome right now.”
Luigi’s eyes widened in shock. “Like, what, now now?”
“Now,” Livia said, her tone less friendly than before. “You leave and you don’t look back.”
“Where am I supposed to go?” the truth-teller protested.
“Not here,” Livia said with a smile that wasn’t a smile. “Obviously, you won’t say a word of this to anyone else, even my father. If you do, I will know, and your free-time will be cut short. Do you understand?”
Luigi was an ass, but he could see the blood on the wall.
“Also, if you don’t leave the city by next sunrise, I will beat you up with a hockey stick,” Ryan blurted out while still under the power’s effect. “Oh wait, no, I’m president now. I can order drone strikes.”
Luigi wisely rose from his chair and left the room. Ryan briefly froze time to look out the window; the truth-teller was running down the motel’s stairs as fast as he could, much to his fellow Augusti’s surprise.
“Convinced, princess?” Ryan said as time unfroze, sitting back in his chair.
“I admit this is… a lot to process, even with prior warning.” Livia glanced at Eugène-Henry, who had claimed the bedsheet as his own. “Why can I see him this time? My notes said I couldn’t before. Is this a different cat?”
“No, but he lost his power,” Ryan replied with a shrug. “You’re sure Luigi won’t talk?”
“He will be too busy processing what he heard to do anything about it,” Livia replied before wincing. “Sending him away now is the best choice. My power gave him one chance out of three of killing himself if I didn’t.”
Ryan couldn’t tell he was surprised. In his experience, it was usually the most common response to people learning the truth, closely followed by attempting to capture the time-traveler himself. “So, you believe me?”
“Well, your tale does match what’s in my records, but there are a few things I wish to discuss.” Livia peered into Ryan’s eyes. “Since you’ve taken over the Meta-Gang by force, it means you control the bunker during this iteration?”
So she knew. Of course she did. Her father probably had moles in Dynamis, and Livia probably recorded its existence in her notes for future loops. “Yes.”
“What will you do with it?”
“Well, for now, I’ll learn everything I can about its content, and then I will destroy it in the final loop,” Ryan explained. “It’s an apple of discord. Every time it’s unearthed, it spells disaster for this city.”
She frowned. “You’re sure what’s inside can’t be used for good in the right hands?”
“There are no right hands,” Ryan quoted Leo Hargraves, and he was tempted to agree. “True, some of the technology inside can benefit humanity, and it will once I’ve filtered it out. But you must understand a big orbital laser will never be used for positive ends.”
“No, probably not,” Livia admitted. “You want to cure Psychos?”
“I thought you could help me with that, actually.”
“You want to figure out why my father and I can use two powers with no side-effects,” she guessed, crossing her arms. “Dynamis already made a similar offer, but I refused to assist. They would use this knowledge to make an army.”
“And I will use it to cure people.”
She looked away. “I’ll… I’ll consider it. Just give me some time to process everything, Ryan. It would be so much easier if I could remember directly, instead of catching up with written notes.”
“Maybe you could,” Ryan said. “But Psyshock sabotaged the tech needed. I’m trying to figure out how to solve that during this loop.”
“Is that why you need Len Sabino’s mental map?” she asked, and the time-traveler nodded in response. “Alright. I will need time to type down all the data, but I could forward it tomorrow at the earliest.”
“Wait, you’re giving it to me?” Ryan asked, surprised. “Just like that?”
Livia blinked in confusion. “Yes, why? That wasn’t our deal?”
“Yes, but I expected another fetch quest or a blackmail attempt.”
“I am not an ingrate, Ryan.” The Augusti princess sounded a little offended by his skepticism. “Though I do not remember it, from what I read, you did me a great favor. I trust my previous self’s judgment.”
That… that was extraordinarily noble of her. Someone else would have tried to use that leverage to exact concessions. “I’m deeply in your debt.”
“No, Ryan,” she answered with a smile. “I’m the one with a debt, and I’m clearing it off the books.”
The time-traveler looked away. “You know, I’ve been doing this alone for so long… after what happened with Psyshock, you can’t imagine how good it feels to have someone helping me out with no strings attached.”
“‘You’re not alone,’” Livia said, “That’s what you told my other self. It impacted her enough to write it down, and… I believe she had come to trust you a great deal. Even though it will take time for me to catch up, I hope we can continue on this path.”
Yes. Ryan too. “So what next, princess? You will join me in trying to explore the bunker?”
Livia shook her head sadly. “I think my father will get suspicious if I do. He already wanted to eliminate you before I convinced him a conflict would only benefit Dynamis, and even then my family will want to retake Rust Town. I can give you a week or two, but afterward, you will need to leave or hide beneath the earth.”
“Yeah, I expected as much,” Ryan said, finally deciding to sip a coffee cup. “To be honest, I don’t expect this loop to last that long. Too many things went off-script.”
Livia’s smile faltered. “There will be no long-term consequences? You will reload, no matter what?”
“Yes. If you want to try something you never dared to before, now is the time.” Livia didn’t answer, focusing on her cup. “It’s about Atom Kitten, isn’t it?”
“I… I thought I should use the opportunity to try and make up with him. See if…” The princess struggled to find the right words. “See if I’m wrong.”
Livia and her ex-boyfriend had a final talk, right before the end. Ryan didn’t know exactly what they told each other, but he strongly suspected it.
Felix had told her the truth. About why he left, and wouldn’t return. That he never loved Livia at all; not the way she did. Her old self had written it down, and sent a bottle to the sea to reach her next incarnation.
And now, Livia was in denial over the bitter truth. She needed to prove this information wrong, to see if she could change the ending.
Ryan knew, because he had been there first. He wanted to talk her out of it, because she would only hurt herself, but he respected her wish. The princess needed to learn the same lesson he did.
More and more uncomfortable, Livia hastily changed the subject. “There’s something else you should know, Ryan. A few of our members perished in mysterious circumstances lately. Assassinations, bombs…”
As Ryan worried, without the handsome courier to talk him out of it, he had already started his assassination spree. The president had tried to visit Mr. See-Through at the harbor on his way to the meeting, but the hideout almost blew up in his face instead.
Shroud had seen Ryan with the Meta-Gang, and assumed he turned Psycho.
Which meant the Carnival might start targeting Ryan during this loop, as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already. At least the fact the Meta-Gang didn’t send anyone to the harbor prevented a massacre there, as seen by Luigi’s continued existence. “Are Jamie Cutter, Lanka, and Ki-jung still alive?”
“They are,” Livia confirmed before frowning. “You think they will be targeted next?”
“Yes.” Shroudy Repairs bombed their apartment once, he would do it again. “I’ll find a way to avoid a war in New Rome. I’m sure there’s a combination of events that can prevent an open conflict. A path to the perfect ending. I just need to figure it out.”
“We,” Livia corrected him. “We need to figure it out.”
Ryan examined her closely. “Princess, your father—”
“Ryan, stop,” she cut him off.
“Your father put a hit on Felix and sent his armies to burn New Rome to the ground,” Ryan said. “True, Alphonse ‘Walking Cancer’ Manada shares half the responsibility, but Lightning Butt is clearly part of the big picture problem.”
“I… I read my other self’s report on the war.” But since she hadn’t experienced these events, it hadn’t had the effect Ryan would have had hoped. “I… I understand who my father is, Ryan. I do. I’m not blind. But he’s still my father. I don’t want him dead. I want him to retire and away from power, so he can’t harm anyone else.”
“And let him get away with all his crimes?” Also, retire? To quote Enrique, men like Augustus didn’t go into quiet retirement.
“Like you want Hargraves to get away with my mother’s death,” Livia replied, her tone harshening. “Ryan, you spoke of a perfect ending. What is it to you?”
“An ending where all the people I like get to live happily ever after,” Ryan said. That was horribly cliché, but that was the truth. “An ending where as many innocents as possible survive.”
“I want to save as many lives as possible and make my loved ones happy too,” she said with a sigh. “We’re both making concessions here. I’m… I’m willing to set aside my own grudges, if you set aside yours. If you’re right, and there is a path to a good ending, then… then we can find something that satisfies us both. If we cooperate, then we will find it eventually.”
And if they couldn’t find a common ground, then nobody would get their happy ending.
Ryan exited the suite a few minutes afterward with Eugène-Henry in tow, quite happy with the meeting. He wouldn’t have to worry about the Augusti this time around, and he had secured Len’s uncorrupted brain-map.
Now, he only needed the technology to make the transfer work.
“So?” Sarin asked, as Ryan returned to the minivan while stepping over Psyshock’s corpse. “Do we pack our things and run, or…”
“We signed a peace treaty, but we will keep an American presence in Rust Town for a while. Maybe we’ll retire them next year.” Of course, nobody would believe it, but it was the thought that counted. “What about Psypsy’s thralls?”
“The ones in our custody returned to their senses, right when Psyshock bit the dust,” Sarin said. “They completely forgot their time under his control, but they can think for themselves now.”
Ryan nodded, knowing it was only a matter of time before Dynamis reacted to this change. However, someone else was always on his mind. “And Len? Is she alright?”
Chernobyl’s short hesitation told him something had gone wrong.
“They… she’s awake, but doesn’t respond,” Sarin admitted. She sounded strangely apologetic for once. “Like a vegetable. I think Psyshock scrambled her brain real bad on his way out.”
That bastard… he had tried to make sure Len wouldn’t recover, even if he was somehow beaten. He couldn’t just die with dignity, he had to twist the knife.
If Shortie had brain damage, then Ryan had no choice but to rely on Alchemo. He didn’t like it at all, but he was running out of options. Almost.
“What do we do next, Boss?” Mosquito asked, arms crossed.
“I received a thirty-five pages report from an underground base specialist.” Yuki’s girlfriend had been nothing if not thorough. “Time to commit robocide.”
Even without Psyshock, Big Fat Adam had managed to gain partial control of the bunker.
Ryan bet he could do better.