For the first time in centuries, Ryan woke up at peace with himself.
Certainly, he had had good mornings in the past. Waking up next to Jasmine would remain one of his most cherished memories. But nothing could compare to this beautiful moment. His body was numb from the endorphins; the tension in his muscles had long vanished. He could have stayed in his bed all day, smiling at the ceiling.
Ryan Romano was happy.
It took a herculean effort of will to rise up and put on his presidential costume, for he still had work to do. As he dressed, the courier glanced at the hole a robot made in his bowler hat. One loop ago, the cruel sight would have triggered an epic, city-destroying rampage.
But not today.
Ryan emerged from his room smiling behind his mask, and found Frank keeping watch in front of the doors. The giant immediately welcomed him with a military salute. “Good morning, Mr. President. Nothing to report.”
Ryan smiled at the poor, deluded creature, his heart full of warmth and compassion. “Agent Frank,” he said while putting a hand on the man’s back, though he had to stand on his toes. “You are the greatest hero this nation’s ever had. You are everything an American citizen should be.”
His kind words shook the titan to the core. Frank would have cried, if he wasn’t made of metal. “Thank you, Mr. President. Everything I do is to honor my father. He died from a KFC overdose while hanging Nazis with a lasso.”
“A most American way to die. He would be so proud of you, son.”
Though Ryan would have to make sure Frank and Len never ended up in the same room. He had the intuition it would backfire.
Leaving his favorite guard to his watch, Ryan moved into the recreational area while whistling to himself. He didn’t care about the hanged gremlins dangling from the ceiling, or how Rakshasa struggled to clean up a blood puddle on the floor.
Everything just felt… right.
“Oh, you’re awake, boss?” Ryan glanced at the speaker, noticing Sarin playing pool with Mosquito. The bugman had bandages all over his shoulders and wings. “We’ve got a problem. The rabbits kept pestering the kids to play outside, and they moved into the Junkyard after killing all the gremlins.”
“They flogged me when I tried to stop them,” Mosquito complained, pointing at the bandages. “They flogged me.”
“It’s okay,” Ryan replied calmly. If the plushies didn’t destroy the world today, it would be something else, like an asteroid or a plague. No biggie.
Hazmat Girl didn’t look convinced. “Didn’t you stress that your rabbits shouldn’t go outside under any circumsta—”
“My dear lovely Sarin.” Ryan put his hands on his VP’s shoulders. “Everything is going to be fine. I promise you, darling.”
“Are you high?” she asked while abandoning her cue, sounding disgusted with her superior. “I know we have a juice production facility, but… what’s the saying…”
“Don’t get high on your own product. I know, I ran a drug cartel.” Which turned out great! “Sarin, I have something to say. You’re not the best sidekick I had, that would be the Panda, but I like you. I like you very much.”
Sarin pushed Ryan back and raised a vibrating fist in his direction. He had opened his heart to her, and that was how she reacted? “Okay, what’s wrong with you? You’re weirder than usual.”
“I feel like being nice today,” Ryan said, letting out a sigh of pure bliss. “No cruel joke, no sarcasm, no mean remarks. Just pure kindness.”
“Well get back to normal, you’re creeping the shit out of me.”
“I prefer him this way,” Mosquito said, immediately trying to exploit the situation. “Does that mean we get free juice today, since you’re in a good mood?”
“Of course, dear leech,” Ryan said, the bugman loudly rejoicing. “Enjoy your day off, my friends. For tomorrow, we’ll go to war.”
Manada’s ultimatum expired the day after, and while Ryan had a plan to get rid of him, it would involve a clash with Il Migliore. Perhaps even the Carnival, if the two groups already made contact during this loop.
Now that the president had secured his white house and electoral base, he would take the city by storm.
The elevator to the lower levels opened before Ryan could explain his plan to his trusty minions. Mongrel stepped out first, followed by a blonde woman with bloodshot eyes. She kept her head down and avoided others’ gazes, as if afraid of overstepping.
It took Ryan a split second to recognize Acid Rain.
Her behavior, her posture, the way she moved… everything but her appearance had changed. She gave off an entirely different vibe than the murderous madwoman the courier had grown used to. Her posture screamed meek.
“Rain?” Mosquito asked, probably expecting the violent maniac to flip out and murder them. “Rain, is that you?”
“I’m, uh… I’m Helen.” Even her voice wasn’t the same, now that she didn’t scream all the time. “That’s my real name. Helen.”
“Who let you out?” Sarin asked, pointing her hands at her.
“The Doc. He said I… that the treatment worked.” Acid Rain scratched the back of her head as everyone looked at her in shock, before smiling sheepishly at Ryan. “Sorry I tried to kill you before. I… I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“It’s okay, I forgive you.” Ryan’s heart overflowed with compassion, and Sarin lowered her gauntlets. “I’m just happy you still have all your hair.”
“Chemo worked on me too,” Mongrel spoke, his voice surprising in its mundaneness.
Sarin’s head immediately turned in his direction. “You can talk?”
“Yeah, though my brain hurts when I speak.” Mongrel held his head in his hand. “I think my grey matter slowly fills the void left by the tumors.”
“I feel like I’m waking up from a long nightmare,” Acid Rain said, smiling at Ryan. “Thanks for helping. I… I’m truly grateful, like you wouldn’t believe.”
“But our current treatment won’t last forever, from what I gathered,” Mongrel complained with a groan. “Which sucks.”
No, it wouldn’t. Genomes’ enhanced metabolisms meant they developed a tolerance to chemical products much quicker than normal humans. Eventually, their mutations would adapt to Alchemo’s treatment, and the two Psychos would descend back into madness.
But that was the worst-case scenario, and Ryan knew he would make it right. “We have the tools to figure out a permanent solution,” he said, glancing at Mongrel. “I have the feeling we’ll need your assistance though.”
“Ain’t gonna fight you on this,” Mongrel said. “I don’t wanna go back to eating rats, ya dig? Never asked for that.”
“You drank, like, five knockoffs,” Sarin pointed out, unsympathetic to his plight. “You were already barely better than a dog when Adam found you scavenging trash.”
Mongrel shuddered. “I found a White Elixir while looting Old Rome’s ruins, but it didn’t do anything. I read White Genomes affected other Genomes, but I couldn’t get my power to work. So I figured, hey, there’s gotta be faulty Elixirs lying around, and I drew the short end of the stick. I already planned on buying a knockoff before I found my original, so…”
Ryan guessed how it went, a shiver down his spine. “You drank a knockoff since you believed yourself powerless, and you turned into a Psycho.”
Mongrel’s ability allowed him to stockpile more than one Elixir. By itself, it did nothing. Much like how Casper the ghost only transformed post-mortem, some powers needed very specific circumstances to activate, misleading their users.
“Yeah,” Mongrel confirmed with a nod. “I swear, if you find a cure, I’m never touching an Elixir for the rest of my life. Years as a maddened animal scared me straight.”
“Just to be sure, you aren’t going to stab us in the back either?” Mosquito asked Acid Rain. “You gutted our previous teleporter in a fit of rage.”
“No, no.” The young woman shook her head, her eyes betraying her horror. “I… that wasn’t me. I… I won’t hurt anyone, I swear.”
She sounded sincere, so Ryan gave her the benefit of the doubt. “Something has been bugging me,” the courier said, seizing the opportunity to interrogate her. “In your insane state, you kept rambling about how I barred the gates, and that something called the Ultimate One wanted you to win.”
“I…” Helen crossed her arms, uncomfortable at reliving her days as a madwoman. “Well, I don’t remember everything. It’s all a haze. But… I think it’s because of the portal inside you.”
“The portal?” Ryan frowned behind his mask.
“Yeah.” Acid Rain searched for the right words. “When I switch with my raindrops it’s… it’s not instantaneous. It looks like it from the outside, but from my point of view… everything goes purple, and I move from one spot to another through a corridor.”
“You enter the Purple World when you teleport, using it as a shortcut through space.” It explained why their powers could sense the other activating. They both shared a strong connection with the dimension fueling them.
“When I’m in this place, I… see a weird pyramid thing above us, watching.” Helen took a deep breath. “I hear voices too. I’m not sure if it’s talking to me, or something else, but… I hear people speaking. When I look at you in this state, I can see a pathway I can’t access. A pathway that you close. If that makes sense.”
“I see.” Ryan crossed his arms. “Thing is, I have been able to open a gate to the Purple World in the past, but only with my power boosted.”
“You could do that?” Acid Rain’s head perked up in hope. “You could… you could go back in time with that place. I know you could. It’s… all of space and time, it all goes back to it.”
Sarin gave Ryan a knowing look, and though he beamed with happiness, he was careful enough not to reveal the truth. Especially not now, when things were finally looking bright.
“I’ve… I’ve lost my family because of a… because of a mistake,” Helen said, joining her fingers and looking down. “That’s why I looked for a Violet Elixir. I could already summon the rain, but…”
“You drank a Violet Elixir, in spite of the risks?” Ryan asked.
Acid Rain shook her head, her face turning ghastly, her fingers shaking. “I found one, but… I thought I could give it to a friend. That maybe they would luck out. But Adam... Adam caught me and... he took the Violet Elixir, and said…”
Her stare reminded him of a traumatized victim having a PTSD episode.
“He said that If I really wanted to go back, I… I should do it myself. So he… opened the bottle and...” Her voice died down her throat, her breathing shortening. “And he…”
Ryan shivered as he listened to her tale, and suddenly realized that Hannifat Lecter’s obsession with force-feeding him an Elixir wasn’t a one-time impulse.
It was a habit.
That murderous bastard shattered people into broken shells of their former selves, until they had no other option but to follow him.
“I doubt we can help your family, Helen,” Ryan apologized, crushing her hopes. Even if he managed to access the Purple World, according to Darkling, the Ultimate One would preserve causality and avoid time-paradoxes. “But we’re going to help you, at least. I swear it.”
“I… okay.” The way she said it made Ryan feel sorry for Acid Rain, of all people. She gathered her breath, and managed to calm herself. “Okay.”
“Maybe you could ask the Augusti?” Mosquito suggested. Did he rediscover an ember of humanity? “I heard Mercury could raise the dead, and we made peace with them.”
“He raises them as mindless zombies, you stupid jackass,” Sarin said, before returning to the pool game. She wasn’t one for emotional moments. “Anyone else wanna play? I’m on a roll right now.”
“Sure,” Mongrel said, before looking at the dead gremlins dangling from the ceiling. “Also, why are there dead hanged animals above the table?”
“They’re our lucky charms,” Sarin said, as she sent an 8-ball rolling into a hole.
Toasty chose that moment to roll into the room, avoiding a blood puddle and immediately rushing at Acid Rain’s feet. “Hey, blondie,” the toaster greeted Helen, as it put on the charm. “Do you want me to… toast your bread?”
The poor woman looked at the toaster in absolute confusion, and then at Ryan. “Is this a prank?” she asked.
“If you don’t like your bread raw, I’ve got butter,” Toasty said seductively. His game was atrocious, but then again, he was a toaster. “Sweet, soft butter.”
“How can you get butter when you don’t have arms?” Ryan pointed out the obvious.
“Hey, you’ve got enough chicks vying for you already, leave some for us,” Toasty replied. “When are you putting me inside that big hot mech in the garage? Then, I’ll show you arms!”
“Tomorrow, my friend. Tomorrow.”
Wyvern had destroyed robots and mechs before.
But she had never fought a toaster.
After briefing his mooks on his devilish plan, Ryan moved to the lower levels.
Len had set up a modest Genius workshop in one of the underground chambers close to the holographic dome. Ryan had disabled the cameras and microphones for privacy, which Alchemo took as a sign he did dirty things with Len behind doors.
If the courier could trust the screens on the walls and the information banks they showed, the room used to be an archive of some sort. A holographic projector at the chamber’s center showed a map of planet Earth, with half a dozen glowing red points around Eurasia. Perhaps they indicated Mechron’s remaining facilities. Ryan would have to track them down after settling things in New Rome.
“Hi, Shortie,” he told Len, upon finding her working on the brain-copying machine. She had repurposed a desk into an improvised workbench. “You look good.”
He had grown used to seeing dark circles around Len’s eyes, but not today. She looked as well-rested as Ryan himself, and her cheeks had regained some color.
“Hi, Riri,” she said with a warm, kind smile. “Yes, I… I feel good. Alchemo gave me pills, and they work much better than my previous antidepressants. I can think clearly even when I’m not using my power.”
Though Ryan still distrusted Alchemo, he had to admit the Genius could do a great deal of good when he wanted to. If the courier learned how to reproduce his miracle drugs, he could provide Len with treatment across loops. In time, she might regain the same vivid, innocent energy of her teenage years.
“So any progress on the machine?” Ryan asked, looking at this device with reverence. It had saved him from centuries of loneliness. “Now we proved it works and Psyshock won’t follow us again, we can finally make long-term plans for the future.”
Especially since this loop would probably end with another firefight.
“I still can’t believe we just time-traveled,” Len admitted. “When I looked at Sarah, and how she had never seen my sanctuary, I… I understood how you felt. People forgetting you over, and over again… it must be maddening.”
“That was before,” Ryan said, as he sat on the workbench. “Now we can bring more people into the loop. I have an arrogant young disciple I would love for you to meet.”
“There’s a problem, Riri,” Len said, biting her lower lip. “The machine can only send one brain map back in time at once. Maybe I can improve it and raise that number, but for now… we’re limited to one person.”
“You then,” Ryan said, quickly understanding the method’s limits. “And we’ll need to rebuild the machine and send you back each time in an unbroken chain. If it breaks once, you’ll forget everything.”
“Unless we have a place where we can store the memories,” Len confirmed with a nod.
“We’ll need Livia,” Ryan said. The courier intended to talk to her so she could assist with the Psycho cure project, so he would kill two birds with one stone. “I thought you didn’t trust her?”
“She… she followed through with her end of the bargain.” Len took a deep breath. “I mean, she could have told her father to storm this place, but she didn’t. Maybe… maybe I misjudged her. I don’t want her to see the machine’s blueprints, but we could cooperate.”
“Do you have the resources to recreate the brain-scanner at your base, Shortie?” Len’s strained face told him otherwise. “Since Psyshock corrupted the prototype, we’ll need to create a new one from scratch.”
“I… no, I’m sorry. We’ll need better tech than I have. Vulcan’s, or this bunker’s.”
Unfortunately, the courier couldn’t conquer the bunker without help for now. After fighting the defenses, Ryan realized it would take an ungodly number of loops to take it over solo. He couldn’t take it without casualties either, at least not until he perfected the process through constant repetitions.
He could convince Vulcan or Dynamis to provide him with tech under the right circumstances, but Livia looked like the best option. If they could work out a deal, the Augusti princess could provide an enormous amount of resources and serve as a back-up. “I’ll ask Livia.”
“What next afterward?” Len asked. “I… even if some of them helped this time around, we’re surrounded by Psychos. Mosquito and Mongrel, they tried to abduct the children one loop ago.”
“I wouldn’t worry about the children. Considering their protectors, I worry more about running out of mooks.”
“I’m serious, Riri. It’s… It’s hard to pretend nothing happened. Every time I see the Meta-Gang’s members, I’m tempted to shoot them.”
“I was too,” Ryan admitted, “but I’ve come to realize that while there are monsters in their midst, some of them are victims of circumstances. I can’t help but wonder what they will do with their lives, if we can cure them of their madness and addiction.”
“They’ll just fall back into their old habits,” Len said cynically.
Ryan wasn’t so sure. Though it might be his inner optimist talking, he wanted to believe people like Mongrel or Acid Rain could turn their life around. He had the intuition Sarin wouldn’t start any trouble either, if she recovered a body of flesh and blood. His Perfect Run demanded he save those who deserved it.
“In any case, we’ll focus on mastering this bunker’s technology.” Darkling kept pestering Alchemo about the portal, but the Genius still struggled to overcome Mechron’s firewalls. While the bunker’s security systems didn’t attack on sight anymore, the key, critical areas remained out of reach for now. “And afterward, we’ll deal with Dynamis.”
Len nodded, her face betraying a hint of anxiousness. “We’re raiding Lab Sixty-Six this loop?”
“Yes. I already set things in motion to prepare the terrain.” Whatever may wait for them inside Dynamis’ fortress, they would soon learn it. “Len, there’s… there’s something I wish to talk about.”
She looked away. “What Psyshock saw in my mind, isn’t it?”
Ryan gathered his breath.
“I love you.”
There, he said it.
“I’ve loved many people. So many, you can’t count them all. I’ve loved Tea, and Jasmine, and… I admit I have a huge crush on Wardrobe.” God damn it, why was she already taken? “But out of all these relationships, ours… ours always had a special place in my heart. I… I hoped we could settle down somewhere. Build a house. Make children. You know, the old dream. I… now that you can remember, I… I have to know if you feel the same.”
He had waited so long to get it off his chest.
Len’s arms remained crossed, and tightened further. She kept looking away from him, avoiding his gaze; perhaps she wanted to spare him the sadness in her own eyes, or her emotions overwhelmed her.
“I…” Len struggled to find her words, and Ryan patiently waited for her to do so. “I still… I guess after all we went through together, it can’t ever go away. But...”
Such a small word, and yet one that crushed so many dreams.
“But so much happened, Ryan,” she said with a deep, sad sigh. “So much. I… I wish we could go back to simpler times, but… we can’t, even with your power. I’m… you’re my best friend, Riri, and… and I don’t want you to go away. But… I don’t feel I’m ready for us to become more than that. Perhaps never.”
Ryan listened in silence, having expected something like this.
“I’m…” Len finally looked into his eyes, and he could see she was terrified of his reaction. “I’m sorry, Riri.”
“No, it’s okay,” Ryan reassured her with dignity, and he meant it. “I had centuries to process these feelings and prepare myself. I... understand, Shortie.”
The courier didn’t like it, but he understood. He had clung to an idea of the past for so long, he couldn’t keep looking back. Things happened. Things changed. He had to accept them, and move on. Len still had her own issues, and couldn’t give him the emotional intimacy he yearned for. She already wanted him in her life against all odds, and he couldn’t feel entitled to more.
“I will give you your space,” he said. “Frankly, I’m just happy we can become friends again, and stay that way.”
All Ryan ever asked for, was for someone to remember him.
He couldn’t ask for more of Len, now that she fulfilled his dearest wish.
“I… perhaps I was wrong. I don’t think we’re best friends. It seems… it seems not strong enough a term.” Len gave him a bright, warm smile. “We’re family, Riri.”
Yes. Yes, they were family. Perhaps not the one Ryan had hoped for, but a family all the same.
He was fine with it.