He found Livia standing on the piers, facing the sea with a terrible look on her face.
Ryan parked his not-so-suspicious black minivan near the old harbor, and quickly looked around for any Killer Seven member. If Livia had brought bodyguards, they hid well; the courier suspected Mortimer lingered nearby, buried below ground. “Don’t tell me you came on foot?” the courier told the mafia princess, as he joined her in his full presidential costume. “We’re a long way from Mount Augustus.”
“But we’re close to Optimates Tower,” Livia replied with a sad smile. Not only did she look grim with the black circles around her eyes, but she also dressed the part. Her dark coat and austere clothes reminded Ryan of a young widow. “And I could only lose Mathias this way.”
So Mr. See-Through stalked her too? The glass-manipulator had made increasingly frequent forays into Rust Town lately, though he never stayed long due to the Land’s interferences.
Livia examined Ryan’s new costume from head to toe. “I love the suit,” she said, though she frowned at the hole in his bowler hat. “Did someone attack you?”
“I had to put down a robot rebellion.” Ryan shrugged. “I have a back-up bowler hat in my car, but I’ll wait for tomorrow before putting it on. I only wear that one for war.”
She chuckled, though her heart wasn’t in it.
The courier glanced at Augustus’ daughter, noticing the red marks near her eyelids. She had wiped off tears not so long ago. “He told you, didn’t he?” Ryan guessed. “Kitten. He told you the truth, about how he felt.”
Her face strained, telling him he had hit the mark. “Can we sit for a while, Ryan?”
“Sure.” They sat along the pier’s edge, their feet dangling above the sea. Ryan said nothing, knowing Augustus’ heir wanted an ear to listen to. One that wasn’t part of the ‘Family’. Not even Fortuna.
Livia put her hands on her lap, facing the distant sun. A faint breeze flowed from the west onto her face. She didn’t say a word for a while, as she tried to express her feelings into words. “I went straight to Dynamis. Something I never dared to do, because it increases tensions between my family and the Manadas in my predictions. If I didn’t know this wouldn’t matter in the long-term, I would never have dared.”
“Story of my life,” Ryan replied.
“I refused to leave until Felix would talk to me,” Livia continued her tale. “My bodyguards and the security were within minutes of starting a firefight when he finally came down. He wasn’t happy that I forced his hand, but he agreed to sit down and have a real talk.”
Ryan listened in respectful silence.
“I… I can see up to six futures at once, and I can switch them. My ability is always on, and sometimes it reacts to my emotional state. It shows me options based on what I want.” Livia looked away, her eyes wandering to Dynamis and Il Migliore’s twin towers. “I couldn’t convince Felix to get back together with me willingly in any alternate world I saw. There were many where I could force him, yes. But none where he would return out of his own free-will.”
She glanced back at the calm, peaceful sea, and the shadow of Ischia Island in the distance. “It’s… it’s not that we’re over, Ryan. There was nothing between us in the first place. It was… it was just decorum, and my own feelings blinding me to the truth. Whatever bond we shared, it’s gone, and I can’t get it back.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan said with a sigh. “I know it sounds cliché, but I understand.”
“You’ve been there too.” She looked at the courier sorrowfully. “I can feel it in your voice.”
“Yeah.” Ryan slowly removed his mask and hat, putting them at his side. The warm breeze on his face felt good. “I’ve spent centuries looking for Len, because… because I loved her. And now that she remembers… while we still share a close bond… the intimacy we had is gone.”
“Her father happened,” Ryan replied. Just like Livia’s ruined every chance she might have had with Felix. “Nostalgia led me to New Rome. I longed for a simpler past, and...”
He took a deep breath. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have a friend back. But it’s not the ending I’d hoped for.”
Livia gave him a glance full of compassion. “Love is a sweet poison, isn’t it?”
“I don’t regret tasting it though,” Ryan replied with a genuine smile. “All I wished for was someone to remember me. Someone with whom I could share my joys and burdens. Shortie agreed to help me carry some of the load, and… I’m fine with that. Better than fine.”
“Why are you still in New Rome, Ryan?” she asked him. “You came to this city to reconnect with your friend, and you did. Adam perished, and you could bury the bunker for good. Leave all of this mess behind.”
“It wouldn’t be the best ending, princess.”
“It would be a good one. For you, at least.”
“Would it be good for Felix? For Jamie, for Jasmine, for Yuki?” Ryan marked a short pause. “For you?”
The heiress looked somewhat embarrassed. “Don’t worry about me Ryan,” she said, “I will make things right.”
A blatant lie. He could see it in her eyes. Livia expected to face more trouble down the line, and to carry the burden alone.
“Well, you’re part of my Christmas list whether you like it or not,” Ryan joked. “And I’ll ask you the same question. Why are you still in New Rome?”
“Same reason as you,” Livia replied, her eyes focusing on Ischia Island. “Too many lives depend on it. If I leave, the throne will probably go to Bacchus or Mars, and nothing will change. It will just be more of the same.”
“How far can you see into a simulation?”
Livia joined her hands, as if hesitating to reveal that secret. Eventually, she did though. “A month or so if I truly focus. The predictions get increasingly unreliable the farther into the future I look.” Her expression transformed into a grim scowl. “Not far enough that I could learn about my father’s cancer before it was too late.”
So she had seen how the world would turn out in the future. While the butterfly effect probably whisked possibilities away, seeing a world with Bacchus in charge of the Augusti must have scared her straight.
“Can I confess something, Ryan?”
“You don’t have to ask. I won’t judge you.”
Livia’s fingers fidgeted, as she mustered her courage. He could tell that she was about to admit something she never dared to confess to anyone else before. “I… I don’t really feel comfortable around others. Even Fortuna, or my family. I love them but… how to explain…”
“You know them, but they don’t know you,” Ryan guessed her problem.
She confirmed with a slow nod. “You have the same problem?”
“I lived lifetimes with some people across loops, only for them to barely know my name in the last one.”
“I can process the realities I see at an accelerated rate, and I can’t turn my power off. I’ve seen all the ways my loved ones can react to a stimulus, what they plan to do. I know everything about them, but I feel like an outside observer in my own life. The events I see happened to other ‘mes’. I didn’t live these moments, I… I only watched them.”
Their respective powers built walls with others. “Is that why you’re telling me this?” Ryan asked. “Because you can’t watch me, that our moments feel genuine?”
She chuckled. “It plays into it, I believe.”
“I feel the same,” Ryan admitted. “Honestly, I kinda hated you at first. I’ve grown so used to controlling every aspect of a loop, that a foreign force like you messing up with my plans… It felt maddening. But, well, I had forgotten that I liked surprises.”
It felt nice to talk with someone who understood the loneliness Ryan had suffered through all these years. While their powers might have been wildly different, they did face similar problems.
Livia looked at him with an amused smile. “If I piggyback on your power as you suggested in your messages, you will have even less mastery over what happens.”
“Yes, but you said it yourself. Neither of us is getting what we want without cooperating with the other.” The courier crossed his arms. “So, if we gave you a map of your memories and a back-up of Len’s, would you go along with it?”
Livia’s smile turned into a scowl. “I don’t think that will work, Ryan. I know myself. I will never accept having my thoughts overwritten voluntarily, especially not by Dynamis-made tech. From my old self’s point of view, I can only rely on notes rather than personal experience. I will expect foul play.”
“Can’t you write a fifteen-page long warning you won’t read anyway, like search engines?”
“I’m more likely to assume someone tampered with my notes. I will find it more likely that you are a manipulative Blue capable of interfering with my ability. I’m already very wary of people like Bacchus.” Livia considered the matter thoughtfully. “How much does the Underdiver trust you?”
“I see where this is going,” Ryan said. “We send your consciousness back in time, you keep a copy of Shortie’s memories, and then I convince her past self to have her own overwritten.”
“Would she accept? You knew each other for years, while we met days ago. She’s more likely to go along with this plan than my other self.”
“I don’t know.” Hopefully, Len would figure out a way to send more than one consciousness back in time and they wouldn’t have to find out. “I’ll… I’ll ask her permission first. It would feel a bit manipulative otherwise.”
“You use your foreknowledge to get others to move the way you want to all the time,” Livia argued.
Len was a special case. “We’ll see with her. What about the other thing?”
“Help you find a cure for the Psycho condition?” The oracle seemed a lot less enthusiastic about that part. “Ryan, these people tried to blow us all back to the stone age.”
“The ones who wanted to are gone, and the rest…” Ryan’s thoughts turned to Acid Rain, Mongrel, Frank, even Sarin. All these people were victims of their own powers. “The rest deserve a second chance.”
And besides the Meta, how many Psychos were people who made a costly mistake, or victims of circumstances? Bloodstream, Jean-Stéphanie, Adam, and their kind had colored his view of Psychos. But now that he had seen the other side of the fence, Ryan couldn’t call a world where Acid Rain would remain a demented killer a Perfect Run.
“I gave them hope, Livia,” the courier declared. “I don’t want to disappoint it.”
“You will take it away when you turn back time again,” Livia pointed out.
“I will make curing them part of my final loop,” Ryan argued back. “I will perfect the process through multiple loops, and make sure they get a better ending. Maybe they won’t remember my promise, but I will.”
Livia hesitated for a full minute, joining her hands as she considered the proposal. If Ryan wasn’t mistaken, she used her sight to try to see the possible consequences, and it seemed to mollify her resistance somewhat. “Alright,” she said. “But in return, I ask for two things. First, you will involve me in every step of the way. I don’t want to help create something I might regret.”
“And second…” Her expression turned playful. “Why do they keep calling you Mr. President?”
Ryan couldn’t help but chuckle. “You want me to declassify that secret?”
“I’m curious,” she admitted. “I’m sure there’s an interesting anecdote behind it.”
Ryan explained to Livia the details of his coup d’etat, and her lips transformed into a grin. “You force them to sing The Star-Spangled Banner every morning?”
“Frank is a surprisingly good singer, but Mosquito…” Ryan shuddered, the infernal buzzing noise echoing in his mind. “If you didn’t want to slap him before he sings, you will afterward.”
“I wish I could do silly things like that,” Livia admitted. “Everyone around me walks on eggshells.”
“Can’t you force them to amuse you, jester-style?” Ryan asked. “What’s the point of having authority if you can’t abuse it now and then?”
“They fear displeasing me, but they dread my father’s attention even more,” Livia replied. “Although I admit Fortuna and I had some interesting adventures when we were younger.”
“We made wishes upon a star, and Fortuna asked for the star itself,” Livia chuckled. “A small meteorite fell in the garden. My father was livid.”
“Her power is busted,” Ryan complained.
“I know,” Livia answered with a knowing smile, albeit somewhat nostalgic. “Things were so much easier when we were children.”
Ryan glanced at Ischia Island in the distance. “Before your parents started grooming you to take over?”
Livia answered with a sharp nod. “I would appreciate it if you destroyed that island on your way out of New Rome. Once the Bliss Factory goes down, I can finally start changing things for the better. Maybe even keep Narcinia away from Bacchus, if I play my cards right.”
“You understand she will always remain the sticking point with the Carnival?” Ryan pointed out the obvious. “And Bacchus is only part of the problem. Mars and Venus also push her into making more Bliss against her will.”
“Mars and Venus, I can manage,” Livia explained. “They’re… followers, so to say. Mars in particular chose to become my father’s subordinate early and never wavered in his loyalty. He will only take responsibility for the family’s empire if it is thrust upon his shoulders. If I inherit, these two will do as I say; even leave Narcinia and Fortuna alone to do as they wish. They won’t like it, mind you. But they will obey.”
“But not Bacchus?”
Livia shook her head. “His obsession with Bliss borders on religious zealotry. He believes he can contact God with that substance, and it trumps all other concerns.”
Not a god.
An Ultimate One.
“Even then,” Ryan said, “if you really want to spare your family from a deadly confrontation with Hargraves, we’ll have to find a way to exfiltrate Narcinia from your father’s grasp.”
Livia winced. “I’m seeing Hargraves in my vision lately.”
Sunshine? Already? “Where?”
“Rust Town,” she admitted. “I believe he intends to attack you, and the odds increase with time.”
But the only reason Hargraves would appear so soon, would be...
If he knew about the bunker.
“So that’s why Safelite was so active lately,” Ryan muttered out loud.
How? Did Ryan’s presence among the Meta-Gang cause Shroud to pay more attention to Rust Town? Or did the glass manipulator manage to interrogate former thralls of Psyshock with the necessary knowledge to piece it together?
Perhaps he hadn’t done so yet, but would in the following days. “How long until the sunset?”
“It is too early to tell yet, especially since you can make my prophecies wrong.” Livia bit her lower lip. “Something else has been blurring my visions lately.”
Of course. One of the plushies had breached containment and escaped the Junkyard. If it was anything like with Eugène-Henry, the creature would probably pollute her future sight.
“I see Dynamis attacking Rust Town too,” Livia continued. “Enrique leads them in most possibilities, but others, his elder brother takes the lead. If he does come, the city burns not long after. The flames of war consume everything.”
So Ryan’s back-up plan of abandoning the surface and bunkering down the way Hannifat Lecter did looked doomed to fail. He had to go on the offensive. “Well, I have a plan to take care of Dynamis, and secure Vulcan’s help on the same occasion.”
“Vulcan?” Livia raised an eyebrow, smirking. “Why choose a road so complicated? If you needed her help, you could have asked me.”
“Nah, I know Vulcan. If you forced her to help, she would have ratted us out to Augustus out of petty revenge.” If anything, Jasmine’s irritability was one of the things Ryan found cute about her. “She will only help reliably if someone goes along with her wishes first.”
Livia immediately picked on the implications. “The two of you were close.”
Ryan avoided her gaze, staring at the sea. He felt still sore about losing Jasmine, his Jasmine. “Yeah. Yeah, we were. But now she’s gone for good.”
“Now that you can safeguard memories, why not repeat the loop where you formed a relationship?” Livia suggested. “Then you send her memories back.”
Ryan sighed. He had considered something like that, before deciding against it; that kind of thinking led down the rabbit hole. “Besides the fact she made me promise not to replace her, I cannot control your actions, so a perfect repeat is now beyond my reach. If I tried to recreate my Jasmine through various loops, I would probably obsess over every detail, and reboot if I find the result ‘lacking.’ I’m afraid I’ll start caring more about my idea of Jasmine, rather than the person.”
Much like how he had obsessed over Len, and what she represented to him.
“I… I see.” Livia looked torn about Ryan’s choice, but appeared to respect it. “Why do you need her?”
“We’re in the process of figuring out how Mechron could enhance his lieutenants’ powers. If I combine his tech with Jasmine’s…”
“You could boost your power, and perhaps bring more people across time.” He could tell that the possibility greatly interested Livia. “How will you proceed?”
“Well, I’ll go full supervillain, take over Dynamis’ Star Studios, and livestream Hector Manada’s crimes for the world to see,” Ryan explained his evil plan. “I’ll also chew the scenery, probably hold the city for ransom, and confront my archenemy Wardrobe in an epic battle. Or she will share the role with the Panda. I haven’t decided if I want my heroes exclusive.”
Livia’s reaction was unlike anything Ryan expected.
He thought she would laugh, show skepticism, pat him on the back and leave him to his fate.
Instead, the oracle took his explanations without a word, as she digested them. Livia opened her mouth to say something, hastily closed it, and then joined her hands together on her lap. A flash of hesitation briefly crossed her face before her expression turned shy, like a precocious child afraid to ask something stupid and suffer mockery afterward.
Ryan squinted at Livia, reading her mind. “You want to come.”
“Can I?” the Augusti princess pleaded with a sheepish smile. She looked so adorable at that moment, that Ryan couldn’t deny her.
Still, the idea of someone as proper and dignified as Livia participating in something so silly clashed with the idea he had of her. “You’re sure?”
“You haven’t said no,” Livia said with a grin.
“You do realize the danger involved?”
“Which is exactly why I want to come,” Livia said. “I will never have the opportunity to do something like this outside of a time-loop, due to all the ways it could go wrong. If you worry about my father, I can wear a mask and stick to my time-leap ability. Nobody else outside my family knows about its details.”
Ryan crossed his legs and slouched on the pier, regretting not to have brought his cat with him. “Miss Augusti, do you truly have what it takes to be a supervillain? It’s not just a question of power, but presentation. Style, charisma, screen presence… We’ll need to find you a costume, and a fearsome name. Minerva won’t cut it.”
“I have an extensive wardrobe,” Livia said before trying to think of a good alias. “As for the name, how about Timestamp?”
Ryan stared at her without a word.
“Timezone? Time-Out?” Livia asked, growing more and more awkward with each new proposal. Her cheeks turned red at his continued silence. “O’Clock?”
Why couldn’t she see it? The perfect name, the one most appropriate for her power? One that oozed style and would transcend the realm of pop culture? The perfect household name, to go along with a power nobody could explain?
The one and only.
“Isn’t that a bit pedantic?” Livia asked with a frown.
“Trust me,” Ryan smirked while putting a comforting hand on her shoulder, “it will do just fine.”
“So?” Len asked, as a blast door closed behind Ryan.
“Well, our Disney princess agreed to help with our cancer cure project, and to star in tomorrow’s movie.” The testing area reminded him of the interrogation chamber where he and Jasmine tested the power-boosting armor. A reinforced window separated a control room and its computers from an underground dome, where robotic arms manipulated a Dynamis-made knockoff Elixir. “I’ll swap her with Rakshasa as our ace in the hole.”
“Not the Doll, you ruffian?” Alchemo’s voice echoed through loudspeakers. “Why do you keep dragging her into your messes?”
“Trust me, she’ll do well.” Tea had been his main choice of a getaway driver during his drug cartel phase. “Besides, she accepted when I asked nicely.”
“She is too nice to say no to you, you disgusting excuse of a bioform!”
Perhaps, but from Ryan’s experience, the Doll would enjoy the trip. She suppressed strong criminal tendencies. “Anyway, how are things going with Mosquito?”
“The synthesized, nutrient-rich blood does bolster his enhanced strength, as you suspected,” Alchemo confirmed. “Early results are promising, though the effect does not last long. One hour on average.”
One hour was a long time, if exploited to its fullest. Ryan intended to bring Frank, Sarin, and Acid Rain to Star Studio, but an additional heavy hitter would always help.
The courier approached the window, standing next to Len. His best friend kept her arms crossed, observing the green knockoff beyond the glass with apprehension. She tried to keep her composure, but her true feelings were written all over her face.
“Shortie, I’ll ask one last time.” Ryan took a deep breath. “Are you sure you want to do it? Or rather, do you want to watch it?”
“I told you,” Len said with a frown. “I… I need to know, Riri. To get closure.”
“I’m more worried it will open old wounds. Or that it will cause a dangerous reaction.”
“I have incinerators ready,” Alchemo said, four flamethrowers dangling from the testing ground’s ceiling. All pointed at the knockoff. “If the worst comes to pass, I can send robots or call your black slime.”
“Riri, if our hypothesis is true… then Dynamis didn’t just capture my father.” Len’s worried expression turned into one of anger. “They packaged him. Turned him into a product. Even if it’s not… even if it’s not him, I can’t let that stand. It’s inhuman. I… I hope we’re wrong. But I want to be sure.”
“And if we’re right?” Ryan asked the right question. “If he’s really inside Lab Sixty-Six, what will you do? Let him out so he can kill again?”
Len didn’t offer an answer.
She had no idea herself.
“If you ask me,” Braindead said, although nobody did, “if you truly think we can cure Psychos, then why not one more?”
If there was something left to cure. If Dynamis truly used Bloodstream to make knockoffs, then they kept him in storage for almost four years. Who knew what Dr. Tyrano did to the bloody slime?
And truthfully, Ryan didn’t want to help Bloodstream even if he was alive. He wanted the slime dead and buried.
In any case, the testing would soon begin. A robotic arm dangled a pipette full of blood above the knockoff, while another opened the container.
Preliminary tests showed no match between Mechron’s knockoff Elixirs and Dynamis’; both achieved the same result through different methods. The bunker’s robots hadn’t yet managed to analyze Dynamis’ substance, so Ryan suggested a more direct approach. If his theory about Bloodstream altering Len’s blood to track her was correct, then it should react to the knockoff in some way. Subtle or obvious, a change should follow, and hidden cameras would film everything.
Ryan’s eyes focused on the green, swirling liquid inside the knockoff’s glass flacon. Wyvern had served as this ‘Hercules’ Elixir’s template. He wondered if the draconic knight in shining leotard would have participated in its creation, had she known how it was made.
The robotic arm pressed the pipette, a single droplet falling from it. Ryan and Len held their breath, watching the liquid fall for a moment that seemed to stretch forever.
The droplet hit the knockoff, and the Elixir screamed.
The knockoff’s container exploded into a dozen shards, as its green content turned bloody red. The contents spilled all over the testing floor, bloating like cake paste in an oven. The minuscule amount of liquid grew, and grew, and grew as fast as Darkling when it devoured Adam. The shape of a twisted parody of a human face formed on the slime’s surface, its deafening scream echoing through the reinforced window.
A chill went down Ryan’s spine, as he was brought back to his dark past. Back to the same terrible memories that Night Terror had awakened again, one loop ago.
He could never forget that voice.
Len let out a horrible scream of her own; not one of pain, but of pure fear and horror. The scream of a traumatized victim, living through a four-years old nightmare all the way again. Her skin turned even paler, her nails scratching her cheek.
“Len!” Ryan immediately held his best friend in his arms, hugging her tight against his chest. “Len! Calm down! I’m here!”
The howling slime crawled on the ground towards the windows, sensing Len, smelling its lost daughter like a bloodhound desperate for a warm meal.
The flamethrowers activated, torching the testing room. Flames as hot as Leo’s surface vaporized the blob to dust, its horrifying scream turning into death throes. Only ashes and silence remained.
Ryan didn’t know how long he held Len in his arms afterward. Her scream had turned to tears, her hands covering her face as if she could shield her gaze from the terrible truth. Her nails had dug deep into her cheeks to draw blood. She was so fragile in his hands, he thought she might break in half.
The courier let her cry into his chest, his eyes staring at the Elixir’s ashes. A terrible thought crossed his mind, alongside the sheer magnitude of Hector Manada’s crimes.
How many people in New Rome had drunk a knockoff Elixir?