Once upon a time, Ryan and Jasmine had sat around a workshop and planned to make an armor capable of destroying Dynamis’ HQ.
That promise was now fulfilled.
“You have two hidden switchblades below the arms and laser turrets in the gauntlets,” Vulcan explained, as she helped Ryan put the power armor on. Darkling slithered in the background, waiting for the experiment to begin. “Since you intend to force your way inside the HQ, I added a nuclear-powered chest blaster.”
“The Chernobyl?” Ryan asked with enthusiasm, as his Genius sidekick reinforced the armor’s joints with a screwdriver.
“Yep. If the blast doesn’t kill them, cancer will,” Vulcan replied with a grin, as she grabbed the armor’s helmet. “What?”
He had heard it all before. “I want rocket launchers too.”
“No,” she said immediately.
“Aw, come on…”
“You sound like a child, and there isn’t enough space to fit more weapons. Also, the blast might throw you backwards if you aren’t anchored on the ground.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ryan replied, already imagining ways of abusing that feature. “Vulcan?”
“Yes, that’s my name.”
“Why the rabbit ears?” Ryan asked, pointed an armored finger at the helmet.
Using a design improved across multiple loops, Vulcan’s power armor was a technological marvel. An exoskeleton of lightweight, flexible alloy, it espoused Ryan’s form like a second skin. Its bright purple color made it impossible to ignore, just as the courier liked it. Its servos enhanced the wearer’s strength, yet the armor remained light enough not to impair his mobility. A reinforced backpack contained a miniature version of the Chronoradio, artificial brain included, which should allow the courier to transfer a mind across time. Unfortunately, even while working with Alchemo, Shortie hadn’t found a way to bring more than one person yet.
However, the armor’s strangest part was undoubtedly the helmet. Two long antennae rose from it, which combined with the orange lenses, made the helmet look like a robotic rabbit’s head. Ryan knew he had something of a hare theme going on, but this was too much. Too much.
“The antennae streamline your connection to the dimension which your power draws Violet Flux from,” Vulcan said with a shrug, as she put the helmet on Ryan’s head. “The armor’s artificial brain will gather data to help you better understand your power.”
Ryan glanced at the room around them, the bunker’s miniature particle collider. A chilling frost filled this conical chamber, the walls covered in weblike, biomechanical strands. Silver fluid flowed through them, and they hummed like a living entity’s veins; only a single blast door allowed someone to enter this facility.
Mechron’s technology had transcended flesh and metal to become something greater than both.
This was the place where the bunker’s AI summoned Darkling once. Perhaps the Alchemist had one such room in Antarctica, and used it to bring the Elixirs to the realm of men. Ryan really needed to dedicate a loop to locate and check up on that snowy base.
He had the feeling he would find many answers there.
Data appeared on the helmet’s lens after the courier put it on, the scene reminding him of that fateful loop where he accessed the Purple World. However, his current armor was a cut above the prototype. It included technology from various Geniuses, and components impossible to reproduce without Mechron’s matter replicator.
Ryan would have to conquer the bunker again to make a new suit. Something easier to say than do.
“Now we have to find a name for it,” the courier said. Ryan was sorely tempted to rename himself Plushie Master, but that might infuriate their long-eared overlords. “The Rabbinator?”
“That name sucks.”
“It’s not white, and you’re terrible at names,” Vulcan said, putting her hands on her waist as she found a name of her own. “How about… the Saturn Armor?”
“I thought the Augusti had exclusivity over Roman gods’ names?”
“I am an Olympian, you moron, and I say Saturn. Maybe you could even kick Augustus’ ass with it. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“You know Jupiter defeated Saturn, right?” Then again, Ryan was all about repeating lost battles until he won them. “How about Chronos instead?”
“This armor is my baby, so I name it. I name it Saturn.” She gave him a tap on the back of his head. “So, you’ll try the particle accelerator, and afterward it’s raiding time?”
“Yeah.” Livia had returned to her father, partly to make sure he wouldn’t get involved, and mostly so she would record the brain maps in a safe place. Ryan couldn’t afford to put her on the frontlines, since he needed her alive to transfer her mind across time.
Len took care of the children, using bathyspheres to send them away before things turned very messy. Alchemo had made a copy of his daughter’s mind, though he didn’t tell her why, and currently struggled to do the same with Sarin. The Genius theorized her memories were encoded in her molecular structure rather than neurons, and so made a record of it; Ryan needed to figure out a specialized solution for Sarin’s unique biology.
“You want to come?” Ryan asked Vulcan, almost eager.
“You bet I will,” she said with a grin. “Even if the bitch left them, I’ve got a bone to pick with the corpos.”
“It is time…” Darkling’s eerie voice caused Vulcan’s head to snap in his direction. “Open… the gate…”
“Damn it, I’m never getting used to it,” the Genius said, examining the Black Elixir. “I would love to study you in-depth.”
“I have been… studied... far longer than you can imagine…” the shoggoth replied, a hint of frustration in its voice. If it remembered all of Ryan’s loops, then he probably spent years trapped in a bottle. Perhaps even decades. “I have waited… long enough.”
“Well, I’ll keep the data then,” Vulcan said with a shrug, before exiting the room through the blast door and leaving the shoggoth alone with the courier.
“Are you… ready?” the Black Elixir asked Ryan.
“Sure, but I don’t see why you need me in the room,” the courier said. “The portal worked fine without me when Mechron’s machines trapped you in our dimension.”
“I will need… your help… to stabilize...” The alien entity seemed to struggle to find the right words in the human language. “You are connected… to the Purple World… the crossroad of all space and time… even other worlds…”
Ryan looked at his armored hands. “All of space and time, huh?”
“Distance… past, and future… are illusions. All is connected.”
So cryptically helpful. Vulcan’s voice echoed in the particle accelerator. “Ready to break the laws of physics?” she asked.
“Let’s make them cry,” Ryan replied.
Vulcan started the particle accelerator, the silver fluid pulsating with electricity. The walls rotated around Ryan and Darkling, faster and faster, until they started to blur. Gravity became lighter, the courier’s feet slowly getting off the ground.
Colored lightning coursed through the silver fluid, and surged all across the room. Bolts bounced off Ryan’s armor, or hit Darkling’s viscous surface. The electricity changed coloration in a strange pattern, from red to orange, from yellow to green, from blue to violet.
The lightning became blinding white for a brief instant, and then turned black as the darkest night. Instead of surging in all directions, the bolts concentrated on a single point at the center of the room, building up into a sphere. A dark spot no bigger than a thumb, a black hole in the very fabric of reality.
“Too small…” Darkling’s many eyes focusing on the sphere with hope and dread. “Open it…”
“How do I do that?” Ryan asked, having a hard time hearing the giant slime over the sound of thunder.
“You are the key… open the gate.”
Ryan glanced at the sphere, and in a moment of scientific curiosity, took it in his palms. His fingers trembled as he did so, an invisible force coursing through his flesh and bones.
When his armored hands touched the sphere, his whole body shuddered, the Elixir in his veins reacting to the eldritch power. His thumbs dug into the black hole, its surface shifting like water. Ryan felt an intense, primordial cold inside this miniature portal.
The courier activated his power, and time slowed down to a crawl. His armor kept providing data even as the universe turned purple and violet particles floated all around him. Black lightning coursed through the particle accelerator even in the frozen time, colliding with the Violet Flux particles.
The universe’s fabric tore itself apart under the strain of Ryan’s power, and his hold on the portal became firmer. The courier extended his arms, and the gate widened. The sphere slowly grew from a tennis ball’s size, to that of a soccer one.
Ryan noticed a figure appearing at the edge of his vision, Violet Flux taking the shape of a humanoid specter racing at him. Though the phantom seemed to run towards the courier, it advanced slowly, only a few centimeters per second. The closer it became, the sharper its features; the courier noticed a magician’s hat, the shape of a jacket.
This is me, Ryan realized. His other self in the Purple World, converging towards his timeline. Always trying to catch up to the present. The armor enhanced his power enough that he could observe how it worked in detail.
If the phantom caught up to Ryan, he would create a new save point.
“The moment is now…” Darkling said, its voice brimming with an all-too-human emotion: hope. “Do it… do it now.”
And with a final push, Ryan opened the gate to the Black World.
The portal transformed into a disk two meters in diameter, a rift in spacetime itself. Colored streams of light formed a halo at its edge, like a black hole’s event horizon; a gate to a world of infinite darkness.
Ryan gazed into this abyss for seconds that seemed to stretch on forever. The portal’s energies interfered with his power, preventing his other self from catching up. Time itself grew unstable, and it frightened the courier. The Black World existed beyond time itself, beyond reason.
And yet… it drew him in like a moth to a flame.
Ryan remembered how Geist and Bacchus both got a glimpse of higher dimensions, and yearned to contact them again; just as Mechron had grown obsessed with creating a portal towards his power's source, according to the bunker’s files. The courier never understood why, until now.
A divine power dwelt within each colored dimension, and beckoned humans to come closer.
Ryan glanced at Darkling, who impatiently slithered towards the portal. The time anomaly didn’t affect it in the slightest. “Where?”
“To the other side.” The sentient Elixir’s form shifted, its liquid floating in midair while leaving a pile of corroded human bones behind. “The Black Ultimate One will free your spirit... from this flesh-shaped shell. Your mind shall no longer be bound... by your gravity and molecules. I will show you places… places you can’t even imagine. You will become free... from causality’s torments.”
Ryan glanced at the purple phantom, getting closer by the second. “I will leave everyone behind if I do that.”
“But inside the Black World… nothing is forbidden. You could see her again.”
A person who could have existed yet never did. An impossibility that defied all laws of time and space. A woman who could only exist in an impossible place.
“No,” Ryan told himself. He had hope for the first time in centuries, and he needed to save New Rome from annihilation. He had made too many promises he couldn’t break. “No, I can’t…”
Her voice came out of the portal.
“I was a hero once.”
Ryan’s head snapped back at the abyss, and the impenetrable darkness beyond it. It spoke with another voice, the echo of someone long gone.
“God put us on Earth for a reason,” a man beckoned from the other side. “One day, you will realize the boulder isn’t your enemy. It’s your friend.”
“Simon?” Ryan asked, remembering a fateful conversation centuries past...
No, it wasn’t Simon. It was just an echo stirred up by the Black World, a lure to draw him in.
And yet… and yet, this dimension existed beyond time and space. Could something other than an echo remain on the other side? A remnant of canceled iterations?
“All that you have erased…” Darkling whispered. “You can make it exist again… a paradox.”
“Can’t you bring me in for the ride too?” Felix’s voice. “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.”
Ryan could bring them all back, if he crossed the threshold. Maybe find a Len with whom things went right, or some of the countless men and women he left in his dust. People he had loved and hated, known and remembered. Friends and loved ones who only existed in his memories now.
The abyss tempted the courier so sweetly. Something on the other side called him, begged him to leave that painful reality behind for a better one. One where he wouldn’t suffer anymore, and where his curse could finally end.
The courier’s eyes wandered to the phantom of his past, catching up to him. He thought of all the promises he made, all the people who trusted him. There were fewer than the billions he erased, but they were alive. He couldn’t abandon them, even for a chance at happiness.
Both the black and the purple pulled him in a different direction, and Ryan couldn’t decide.
So the abyss spoke again, sinking its claws into the courier’s mind.
“Even if I disappear… promise you won’t forget me.”
The courier followed Darkling into the Black World.
The warmth of Earth’s dimension vanished, replaced with an absolute, chilling cold. Yet it felt strangely comforting.
The Black World was darker than the darkest abyss, and yet Ryan could see things moving inside. Living equations that had gained a life of their own; an ouroboros devouring its own tail, never running out of mass; stillborn realities neither time nor depth held sway.
This eldritch realm had a pulsating heart, a great darkness of unfathomable size. A black hole that made the one at the center of the Milky Way look like a speck of dust. An entity whose mere attention could erase Ryan from existence, if it didn’t consciously hold back.
The Black Ultimate One.
It had sent the voices to communicate with Ryan, the way a human might attempt to mimic an ant’s language. The entity had heard the courier’s wish, and would grant it in its own way.
Darkling’s form changed, from that of a slime to… something else. Something that gave Ryan a headache when he looked at it. A sphere with triangular ends and recursive eyes, prismatic wings, and impossible geometries. An entity that couldn’t exist in Earth’s reality, and could now regain its true form.
This place changed Ryan too. His hands seemed to flicker in and out of existence, turning into eldritch darkness one moment, and back to normal the next.
The courier was a creature of physical laws, of molecules and organs. This place had no logic, no rules to constrain him. The Saturn armor maintained his form for now, a shell protecting his essence, but the blackness would consume it. Ryan would lose his physical form, forget the very concept of a shape and ascend into something more than human.
“Don’t go, Ryan.”
The voice was the courier’s own.
Ryan looked behind him, the portal nothing more than a lone star surrounded by the dark void of space. A figure of violet light had stopped running, and instead waited on the other side like an abandoned child.
“I cannot follow beyond this gate,” the purple phantom pleaded with Ryan’s own voice. “If you close the door… we will part ways forever.”
“You are my Elixir,” Ryan realized, his voice echoing all around him. “My save point.”
“I am your other half. The power slumbering within you.” The phantom extended a hand at Ryan, but couldn’t cross the portal. “If you ascend, you will no longer be human. You will become a denizen of this black realm, and you won’t return.”
“I don’t want to come back.” Ryan marked a short pause, a layer of ice growing on his armor from the cold. Darkling awaited at his side, silent as a tombstone. “I have come back too many times already.”
“I know,” the phantom said, apologetic. “And I am sorry for it. When we bonded, I looked deep inside of you. I tried to understand what you wanted, to fulfill your greatest wish.”
“Then why did you give me this power? Why do you keep reviving me, even when I die of old age?”
“Because I thought this power would make you happy, Ryan. That is what all Elixirs want for their humans. To help. Even if sometimes, we are not very good at it. You are so different from us…”
“If you want me to be happy, then stop bringing me back again and again!” Ryan snarled, unloading centuries of bitter despair. “Just let me rest!”
The phantom marked a pause, its voice brimming with genuine sadness. “I cannot, Ryan. I cannot stop you from returning. I cannot undo the wish you made when we bonded, nor change its parameters.”
“Then you know why I must go.” Ryan’s breath turned to ice, the darkness draining him of his warmth. The Black Ultimate One beckoned him to close the portal, and leave Earth forever. “It just… it just hurts. Even now… even now, I will leave people behind. Even with that technology and all this help… I will snuff countless lives out.”
Even with his godlike power, Ryan couldn’t save everyone.
“Death… death does not exist in the Purple World, which is why it fascinates the rabbit. It is innocent like a child, as I was once.” The phantom kept its hand extended, still hopeful its partner would come back to it. Back to the pain of immortality. “Humans die, yet they move on, even without your power. You wanted to return to the past, to change the present. This was the wish you made.”
The portal seemed to waver, the connection weakening.
“But you can move on now,” the specter argued. “You can stop looking to the past, and towards the future. Make new memories, and happier moments. You can grow old, have children. Find peace.”
Ryan sighed. “I feel old already.”
“But you won’t grow old alone anymore,” the Elixir argued. “You have never been alone, Ryan. I have always been with you, though you could not hear me. Every time you stumbled, I helped lift you up. When you entered the Purple World, it is I who begged the Ultimate One to help you. Because I care for you.”
Others cared for him. Len had fought at his side countless times, even after all Ryan cost her. Livia placed her trust in him, just as he took a gamble on her. He had befriended Felix, Fortuna, Jamie, and so many others. Sarin and other madmen had placed their hopes in him, of all people.
If Ryan left Earth behind, he condemned it. He would leave it to the Plushie, to Bloodstream, and Augustus to ravage. He would abandon Len to suffer, Livia to remain with her father, Felix to face his doom, and New Rome to burn.
But if he returned...
“I will never see them again if I go back,” Ryan said with a heavy heart. “All the people I left behind. If I can recreate their essence in this place, perhaps I can bring them through the portal…”
“If you use the Black to bring the dead back, they will suffer. Like your friend, they will be paradoxes in a universe unsuited for them. An existence of pure agony.” The specter shook its head, the portal slowly shrinking. “Let the dead rest, Ryan. Your place is with the living.”
Ryan glanced at Darkling, and at the colossal black hole. None moved to restrain the courier, and no past echo tempted him further.
The decision was his own.
He couldn’t stay.
His Elixir was right, he didn’t belong with the dead. His place was with Len, Livia, and all the people who placed their trust in him. Even if it hurt… even if it hurt, Ryan had to let the past go.
“I’m sorry, Darkling,” Ryan said, as he turned to the friendly shoggoth. “I can’t stay here.”
“I understand,” the entity replied, its voice bizarre and yet comprehensible.
“You’re not mad?”
“Black is paradox… freedom from all laws… the ability to say no to everything. Even to itself.” The eldritch horror marked a short pause. “When you are satisfied with what you achieved, and wish to end it all… I will wait for you here.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said, nodding at the creature. “Farewell, Darkling.”
“Goodbye… my friend.”
Ryan took a step, and although there was no ground to walk on, he crossed the distance with the portal in an instant. The Black World itself bent to his will, granting him his wish.
The courier crossed the gate before it closed, returning to the particle accelerator. “Welcome home,” his other self said.
The courier canceled his power before he and his other self could touch, before a new save point could form. Time resumed at once, and the portal collapsed into nothingness. The violet particles vanished, and the courier stood alone in the particle accelerator; the only witness of that strange contact with the beyond.
“Did it work?” Vulcan’s voice echoed in the room.
In response, Ryan activated his power and froze time. The world turned purple, and the violet specter appeared again at the edge of his vision.
“Can you speak?” the courier asked.
No answer. The specter kept moving in his doppelganger’s direction, but made no sound. Perhaps direct communication had only been possible due to the Black World’s interference. Ryan extended an armored hand at his double as if to reach for it, and immediately froze.
Black particles floated out of his body, alongside the violet ones.