None dared to move, as Sarin pointed her gauntlets at the group. Energy built up within her hands, ready to unleash mighty shockwaves.
Truth be told, Ryan didn’t fear his rebellious VP. He could easily stop time and defeat her. However, they were in an enclosed space with Knockoffs kept in vats nearby; if she unleashed a shockwave and splattered the courier with the substance, even by accident...
“So, it’s treason then?” Ryan joked. “You know you will get impeached for this defiance, right?”
“You’re the traitor!” Sarin threatened him with her gauntlet. “You promised me to find a cure! I’ve believed you, killed for you, and now… and now you can’t follow through with it, you’re going to turn back!”
“Sarin, darling, there are others in the ro—”
“I won’t let you time-travel again,” Sarin snarled, uncaring. “Not until you cure me first. Even if it takes you months, I won’t let you go back until it’s done.”
Ryan tensed, and glanced at the other people in the room. Livia remained unperturbed, probably using her power on Sarin to find a way out. And Alchemo...
He wasn’t surprised.
“You knew,” Ryan said. “You bastard, you listened at the door when I told you not to.”
Every time the courier found the strength to trust that brain-in-a-jar, he found a new and interesting way to betray his confidence.
“I did no such thing,” Alchemo replied, though he sounded apologetic. “But when you wanted me to upload that girl’s memory map…”
“You checked her memories,” Ryan realized, infuriated. The Genius could harvest and read memories from others. “Like Psyshock.”
“I had to, to make sure there was no sabotage left,” Alchemo defended himself. “I am not the wronged party here, meatbag. Why didn’t you tell us, you selfish brat? After everything my daughter and I did for you?”
“Because I told you once!” Ryan snarled, raising a finger at Alchemo. “And you betrayed my trust! You went mad and tried to extract my brain, to prevent me from reloading!”
The Genius stumbled back as if he had been slapped.
“Tea had to finish me off mid-procedure, to spare me from decades of imprisonment,” Ryan continued. “You couldn’t live with the knowledge that you would forget everything.”
“Because you’re killing us, asshole!” Sarin snarled. “You’re playing with our lives!”
“That is not how it works, Sarin,” Livia spoke up, completely calm. “This is your psychosis talking, not you. I understand you must feel desperate—”
“You can’t understand me, jackass. You can’t even understand what it is to be me.” Sarin clenched her fists. “Six months.”
The Psycho let out these words like bullets, like a heavy secret she finally found the courage to get off her chest.
“The first time… the first time I gained my powers, the wind dispersed me,” she admitted. “I… I didn’t know how my power worked very well, so it took me months to pull myself together. Months to find a container I didn’t rust on contact. So no, you don’t understand what it is to be me. To feel nothing, to see people have sex and eat food and sleep and just watch!”
By now she was screaming.
“You can’t understand being separated from the world outside by this cloth prison. You can’t understand being afraid of any blade around you, in case one breaches the one thing keeping you in one piece! I’ve spent years like this!”
“And you spent those years hanging out with Adam and letting him sow misery wherever he went,” Ryan replied, his tone icy. “I’ve watched you stand by his side after he burnt all of New Rome to cinders. Did you stand by his side when he force-fed Helen an Elixir? Would you have let him turn me into a Psycho, if I couldn’t turn back time?”
“I…” To her credit, Hazmat Girl faltered a little at his words, but not enough to take responsibility. “I had no choice! Nobody else would help, and when I was in, he wouldn’t let me go!”
Ryan didn’t buy that excuse. “You always have a choice, even if some will cost you more than others.” He knew that from experience. “You just weren’t brave enough to take a stand. And unlike Frank, Mongrel, or Acid Rain, you can’t claim insanity. You’re entirely lucid.”
The courier felt some sympathy for her situation, and he owed her one for helping him so far, but it didn’t even begin to make up for her actions. He would cure her, but he wouldn’t forget.
“Sarin, we are working on a solution,” Livia promised, her tone soft and diplomatic. “We have gone further than what Adam the Ogre ever promised you. But we need more time.”
“It’s always more time,” she said, skeptical. “Adam said that too. Next time’s the charm.”
“I promised that I would cure you, and I will,” Ryan swore. “But you have seen the corpses outside, the people Ghoul killed before I could stop him. This timeline is spiraling towards greater destruction.”
“But we’re alive!” Sarin protested. “Helen, Mongrel, Frank… you can cure us, if you keep going. But you’re going to run! You gave us all hope, and you’re to throw us all away! Who gives you the right to let us all die so you can get a new chance, huh?”
“Who gave it to you?” Ryan argued. “I have some compassion for your airheadedness, but don’t push me. I didn’t ask for this power, but I made the best of it. I can achieve an outcome where everyone is happy, you included.”
“Not me. Another me. If you follow through with your promise and don’t forget us. You hold all the freaking cards!”
“If that’s what you fear, we could copy your memories,” Livia suggested, hopeful. “I can store as many brainmaps as needed.”
“I have air for a head,” Sarin pointed out. “What brain can you copy? If you die now, I die too!”
“Then why are you threatening me?” Ryan pointed out. “What do you think it will achieve?”
The Psycho froze in place.
“You haven’t thought that far,” Livia said. “Because you are not thinking straight, Sarin. Lower your gauntlets, and let us talk it out.”
The Psycho didn’t listen. “I’m sick of words,” she said, pointing both her gauntlets at Ryan. “You’re all talk and no action, like Adam. Cure me now, or I’ll kill you.”
“I will come back,” the courier replied. The words sounded bitter in his mouth.
“But you won’t bring anyone else back. No more transfers. Your amphibian girlfriend, she’s not going back either. If I die, she dies too.”
Ryan tensed up, but Livia reacted quicker. “All you will do is ruin your chances of ever being cured,” she said. “Because you won’t stop him, and he will remember. Has he abused your trust so far?”
“Trust? That’s what I should do, trust?” Sarin trembled. “Why?”
Ryan broke his silence. “Because that’s all you have left!”
The Psycho opened fire.
A blast of compressed air hit the wall behind Ryan, passing within an inch of his head and forcing a hole into the thick steel. He didn’t flinch, nor did he move.
Sarin collapsed to her knees, hitting the ground twice with her fists. She had raised her white flag. “I… I just don’t want to die… I want to live...”
“Sarin, you will live,” Ryan said, his tone softening a little. “I swear, by the end of it, you will have a happy ending.”
“My name is not Sarin, you jerk…” she hissed, her voice full of bitterness. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want to be Sarin! I don’t want to be that! I can’t stand it, and I want my life back!”
Ryan hesitated for a moment, before kneeling next to her and putting a hand on her shoulder. He felt nothing inside the hazmat suit, except compressed air. “I swear I will cure you all,” he said. “But you’re not the only person on my Christmas list. Your turn will come, even if I have to repeat the same month for years, but you shall wait for it.”
She didn’t push him away, which he took for a good sign.
Alchemo, who had watched things unfold without a word, finally found his tongue again. Or vocal device, in his case. “Meatbag, is that… is that why you left us without a word?” he asked. “Because of what I did?”
Ryan shrugged. “I couldn’t stand the sight of you anymore after that. And once this loop is done, I hope I won’t see you again. I’ll consider your favor settled, and you won’t hear from me.”
The Genius looked down at the cold hard floor, and then up. “No, Ryan.”
“No,” Alchemo repeated, ignoring the courier’s glare. “That was another me having a moment of weakness. I am not the person he was. We were one once, but we developed differently.”
“You are who you are on your worst day,” Ryan replied. “It revealed what you are, deep inside.”
“I am who I am on my best days too, meatbag. And every day of my life.” The cyborg shook his head. “I am a cynical old man who had to make a robot daughter, because he drove everyone else away. There, I said it. I was angry when you left, and it hurt the Doll. But… It made me question myself. Made me try to do better.”
“Better for you,” the courier accused him.
“No,” the Genius replied calmly. “Not just for me. For the Doll too. She wanted to help others, so I did. I can help you, and that gaseous girl. Maybe she doesn’t have a brain, but she can form memories. I can figure it out, make a copy of her mind. Do the same for me, and others.”
“I don’t trust you,” Ryan replied. “And the more people who know about my power, the greater the danger.”
“Yet you expect us to trust you unconditionally!” Alchemo snarled back.
“Ryan,” Livia said, putting a hand on the courier’s shoulder. “You didn’t trust me either once.”
“Trust is earned,” Ryan countered.
“Then let me copy the Doll’s memories and take them with you,” Alchemo said. “You may not like me, meatbag, but she loved you… much to my annoyance. If we never meet again, my daughter will never find closure. You’ll just leave a gaping hole.”
“Whether you like it or not, you have people who care for and rely on you, Ryan,” Livia said, glancing at a despairing Sarin. “You don’t have to leave them all behind. I can understand the risks, but… is it worth driving into the sunset without looking back, again and again?”
Right in the gut.
Ryan looked at Sarin, and his mind wandered back in time. Back when he drove away from Monaco after freeing its prisoners. How he left behind people with whom he had shared a lifetime, never to take it back. He remembered Spain, France, Italy, all the places he visited, all the communities he helped but never stayed with.
The courier could do the same with Rome, achieving his Perfect Run with Len and leaving the place afterward. No one would know but Livia. He could begin again, as he had always done. He had fun hanging out with Felix, the Panda, Wardrobe, Vulcan, and many others, but his eternal life would go on without them.
But now… now Ryan could bring others with him. He could make bonds transcending time. Make connections that wouldn’t break, that could go wrong, that he couldn’t take back. And it terrified him.
However… Ryan remembered his time with Jasmine, and how he had made the decision to trust and tell her everything. He had taken a gamble then, because he realized something important. He couldn’t do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. If Ryan wanted a change in his life, it had to begin with him. Even if it meant taking a risk.
The courier sighed. “I won’t take everyone. Too many people know already.”
He didn’t want a repeat of his capture by Adam and Psyshock.
“I will record the memories of the people you vet first,” Livia reassured him. “My father wants me back, but I have the feeling now is the best time to make back-ups of everyone. We are approaching a point of no return soon.”
Yes. Once Dynamis and the Carnival mobilized, things would become extraordinarily more difficult.
But it would feel nice to have other people having his back.
Alchemo took Sarin with him, to try and figure out how to record her memories. Ryan didn’t know if it was possible, even if he hoped for it.
This situation, no, this entire loop, was a giant leap into the unknown.
“It could have gone better,” the courier said, as he faced the door to Shortie’s room along with Livia.
“Believe me, Ryan, it went far better than it could have. Though I couldn't predict your interactions with her, I’ve seen Sarin opening fire on me and Alchemo. Someone would have died.” Livia joined her hands together. “I do not understand why you didn’t jump at the opportunity to carry more people with you.”
“You can’t fathom the number of people I left behind. What’s one or two more?” Ryan looked away. “Why did you insist we bring them?”
“Because you are a good man, Ryan.”
The courier glanced at the mafia princess, and she smiled at him. A warm, lovely grin.
“Others with your power would not have gone as far as you did to make people’s lives better,” Livia said, her smile turning sadder. “And… I can tell it brings you great unhappiness. Every relationship you had was not a source of joy, but an open wound, a burden. Even now, you fear making connections you can’t take back. You’re not afraid of death, but you’re afraid of other people.”
Ryan remembered his philosophical discussions with Simon, back when they were trapped in Monaco. “Sartre said that hell is other people.”
“He was wrong, I think. Hell is loneliness.” Livia shook her head. “I think only the two of us can understand that well.”
Ryan glanced at the door. “Len is facing her own special kind of hell right now,” he admitted. “And I don’t know how to bring her out of it.”
His precognitive friend remained silent for a few seconds, looking for the right words. “When I was young, my father used to take my mother and me to Sicily,” she said, her tone somber. “He would drive through the hillsides and valleys on the island, and for hours we did nothing but watch the scenery. These… these were simple pleasures, but we were happy.”
Ryan listened in silence.
“Every time I see what my father has become…” Livia marked a short pause. “Or what he has always been, I remember these moments. I always wish we could go back to them. I think your friend feels the same.”
“But there are some things you can’t go back to, even with all the powers in the world,” Ryan said. “I checked.”
“No,” Livia admitted with a sigh. “But you can try to make new, happier memories. With the right people.”
The courier looked at this young woman wise beyond her years, and at the sadness in her gaze. “So can you, Livia.”
She didn’t seem convinced. “You have a second chance at happiness with people who love and trust you. In my case…”
“You have people who love and trust you,” Ryan reassured her. “That’s why you’re even here. Didn’t we have fun together?”
Her cheeks turned a little pinkish. “Yes, we did.”
“Then let’s make new happy memories of our own,” the courier said, smiling behind his mask. “Thank you, Livia. For everything.”
She chuckled. “You told my previous self that she wasn’t alone, and I will repeat these words to you. You are not alone, Ryan. Not anymore.”
Neither was she.
Ryan knocked on the door, and it opened by itself. He walked inside while Livia remained behind, her expression undecipherable.
He found Len sitting on a bed, her knees pulled towards her chest, and her hands around her legs. Her water rifle remained within arm’s reach, as if she might need it anytime. Perhaps Shortie expected Bloodstream to barge into the room anytime, as he did back in her childhood. The sight broke Ryan’s heart.
Len had never moved on.
“Shortie,” he said while sitting at her side. She didn’t move, even as he put an arm around her shoulder. “It’s almost time. I’m about to open the gate for Darkling to return home, and then…”
“I don’t know what I will do when we meet him,” she admitted, her voice muffled by her knees.
“Me neither,” Ryan admitted, his gaze distant. “But you were right. It’s the only way to get closure.”
“Do you think there’s… that there’s a chance to cure him? Make him human again?”
“I don’t know.” Tyrano might have modified him to make the Knockoff Elixirs. “Maybe he’s already dead, and they’re harvesting the corpse.”
Len didn’t answer a word at that, perhaps having already rehearsed the possibility in her mind. The slime in the experimental chamber hadn’t said a word, nor shown any sign of sentience. Perhaps Dynamis didn’t even keep Bloodstream in custody, but created something else with whatever DNA the Psycho had left behind.
They wouldn’t know until they had broken into Lab Sixty-Six, and Len couldn’t do that while sitting on a bed all day. She grabbed her water rifle, her expression turning determined.
“Let’s go,” Len said.