In the end, all of Ryan’s loops started the same way.
By ramming his car into Ghoul’s back.
“You know, you have become a fixture in my life,” Ryan said as he exited his Plymouth and walked into Renesco’s bar. By now, this place had become a second home to the courier. He had grown almost paternally fond of the wall he kept crashing into. “I’ve had more dates with you than with Jasmine.”
Ghoul wriggled on the ground, trying to rise up again using the bar counter. The barman Renesco hid behind it, unsure how to react to Ryan’s unforgettable entrance. The courier happily waltzed through debris, wind entering the establishment through the hole in the wall.
“I thought my life was a black comedy, maybe a tragicomedy, but now I realize… it was a vampire romance all along.” Ryan loomed over Ghoul, hands behind his back. The Psycho was halfway back on his feet, while the other patrons dared not interfere. “Do your bones shine in sunlight?”
“What the hell are you talki—” Ghoul screamed as Ryan introduced the undead's knee to his boot, the Psycho collapsing on the ground. “You bastard!”
“All of this to say that I’m not stalking you,” the courier said, as he kicked his beloved again. “I mean, look at me. I’m handsome. Only ugly people stalk, that’s well known. If I hurt you, it’s out of love.”
His love of hurting Ghoul.
Darkling had said that the Black Ultimate One would remove it from causality and all future resets, and Ryan had wondered if it also applied to its previous hosts. However, the bag of bones had returned without any memory of the previous loop.
Which meant that Big Fat Adam lived again, plotting mischief.
“I’m calling Security!” the barman Renesco complained behind the bar counter, while the wounded Ghoul tried to crawl away from Ryan. The undead looked at the courier as if he were insane, which wounded his soft, sensible heart.
Ryan didn’t react well to rejection.
“I know your secret weakness, Ghoul,” Ryan said, as he opened his car’s backdoor. “A kryptonite you cannot hope to defend yourself against.”
A dirty street dog leaped out of the Plymouth Fury, her sparkling eyes lacking anything resembling intelligence; she was the bastard daughter of a mastiff and a greyhound, and inherited the ugliest parts of both. Her tongue stuck out, fleas happily moving on from her blackening fur to greener pastures. This plebeian creature lacked Eugène-Henry’s aristocratic flair but had a certain rustic charm, though her terrible stench made the bar’s patrons recoil.
“Her name is Henriette. I found her eating trash on my way to the bar, and I bought her loyalty with a ham.” Ryan always kept food in his car for situations like this. “Now, as a cat person, this may seem like a betrayal. And it is!”
Ryan petted his hellhound behind the ears, and she loved it very much. All dogs wanted affection. “I have no shame, no hesitation, no principles!”
“What do you want?” Ghoul asked, looking at Henriette with dread. The she-dog had noticed him, her eyes rising up as she gazed at his barebone legs with hunger.
The Psycho knew what was coming.
“Only your pain,” Ryan replied, pointing a finger at his prey. “Go, girl!”
Henriette leaped on Ghoul, and he couldn’t crawl away fast enough.
The dog brought her new master a beautiful femur a few seconds later, and she was very proud of it too.
Ghoul was only the first person on Ryan’s Christmas list. After the tense ending of the previous loop, the courier needed a moment of respite and catharsis before getting down to business.
Ryan’s next naughty child lived not so far from Jamie’s own house. The courier knocked on the door of a single-story bungalow, so perfect in its mundanity. Only the condemned windows indicated something wrong with the tenant.
The door soon opened, revealing a lean, gaunt man with snow white skin and raven hair. This pallid scarecrow remained in the darkness, fearing the sunlight that would certainly burn his unholy soul. Garish, colorful paint figments covered his dirty clothes. The black circles around his bloodshot, green eyes told Ryan he had just woken up.
Damn, not only was this man a hitman, but he was also a vampire!
“Richard Pinkman?” Ryan asked. “Night Terror?”
“Uh… yes?” The vampire squinted suspiciously at the courier. “Do we know each other?”
“I have something for you, though it’s a bit late.” Ryan wanted to make this delivery in the last loop, but never found the opportunity to do so. “The night is dark and full of terrors, huh?”
The man frowned, realizing that his visitor knew of his power and its limitations. The vampire’s hand moved to his back, perhaps looking for a gun; as if he could hurt the pure of heart. “What kind of delivery?”
Ryan punched him in the face so hard, that the man stumbled backward. His back hit something with a loud clatter, though the courier couldn’t see due to the darkness inside the house.
“Don’t make me live through my childhood traumas again,” Ryan warned the vicious telepath. The fact these nightmares became real afterward had left the courier bitter. “You can’t fathom how much money I spent on therapists.”
Night Terror didn’t answer, knocked out cold.
Ryan took a moment to check off his Christmas list, finding the next name to be Karen Ricci, alias the Vamp. After the vampire, the witch. Unfortunately, it was getting late, and the courier might not survive his plan for her. Luigi came afterward, but Ryan was too tired for a late-afternoon hockey match.
A princess waited for him.
Ryan reached the Deadland motel by nightfall, parking his car near the entrance. Henriette sat at his side, the bastard dog whining at her new master with shameful eyes. Though he favored cats and rabbits above all else, Ryan had learned how to handle dogs across loops. He knew that look.
“You want a litter box?”
Henriette yapped in response, her tongue sticking out of her mouth. She made a face only a dog lover could appreciate.
“Ghoul,” Ryan said, looking at the rearview mirror.
The lonely skull on the backseat looked back at the courier with fear. For a moment, Ryan almost felt pity for the murderous bag of bones. But then, he remembered his previous loop, and how Ghoul had encouraged his boss to turn the time-traveler into a Psycho.
Ryan removed his mask and hat, his terrible smile causing the undead to whine in stark, raving terror.
“Open your mouth.”
Bone Daddy’s screams of despair were music to Ryan’s ears, though they ended too soon. The Psycho had lost his courage with his spine.
Ryan left Henriette to her new chew toy, and walked towards the motel. He noticed light coming from Livia’s room, but no Killer Seven member was guarding the door. Odd.
Still, Ryan whistled as he opened the suite’s door, finding his former first lady waiting for him. The table was set, with delightful cookies and steaming coffee waiting for consumption.
Livia stood on the other side, her back turned against Ryan. She wore an elegant blue leather coat and long velvet gloves, a true femme fatale straight out of a detective noir movie. Her platinum hair flowed down like a silver waterfall.
“Hello, princess,” Ryan said as he closed the door behind him. “How was your first time-travel trip?”
Livia turned around, her blue eyes observing him with cold amusement. Her face reminded Ryan of her aunt Pluto's lovely deadliness. “Pretty good,” she said, her tone dangerous. “Though it will be the last.”
Ryan frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I am so sorry Ryan, but now that I remember everything, you have outlived your usefulness. I have all the intel I need to take over this city, and the only obstacle remaining…” She marked a short pause. “Is you.”
“I thought we were friends!” Ryan complained, his hand moving to his coat to draw a knife.
“And you believed me?” The courier froze, as Livia’s hands moved to her chair. Somehow, her every movement seemed effortlessly threatening. “Cancel is waiting outside, and her power is already at work. It’s over.”
Oh gods, this was Alchemo’s betrayal all over again! Ryan reflexively activated his power, and the world turned purple as he prepared to strike Livia.
Wait, how could his time-stop still work if Cancel was around the door?
Ryan looked at the frozen Livia, and noticed the smile she desperately tried to suppress.
She wouldn’t dare. She wouldn’t dare.
Ryan quickly opened the door when time resumed, and found no killer outside.
“You… you evil mastermind!” Ryan said while closing the gate behind him, the hidden knife back inside his trenchcoat. “You pranked me!”
Livia responded with a warm, delightful laughter. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, a sheepish grin on her face. “I know this is silly, but I always wanted to make a speech like this. I knew nobody else would take it seriously.”
Her last loop as Ryan’s sidekick had corrupted Livia.
He had created a monster.
“I apologize if I scared you. I didn’t know how you would react, which is why I did it.” Livia shyly joined her hands. “Can you forgive me, Ryan?”
“I could never blame someone with such an impeccable fashion sense,” Ryan said, sitting around the table. “But don’t try it again, princess, I could have killed you. I’m really sensitive about these things.”
Her joy instantly turned to horror. “Truly?” Livia asked while she sat as well. “What happened?”
“A few people went mad after I informed them of the truth,” Ryan admitted, warming his hands by touching his coffee cup. “Some tried to restrain me so I wouldn’t reload. Others went farther.”
“I…” And now Livia regretted her joke. Her hands moved to touch his own, and they felt warmer than the cup. “I’m sorry, Ryan. I didn’t wish to open up old wounds.”
“Nah, it’s alright. If anything, you’re helping them to heal.” At long last, Ryan had an ally that would help up across future loops. With Livia’s help, he could make his allies remember him. His friendships would survive the test of time. “I already retaliated anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Livia frowned, as she suddenly realized the cookies had vanished. “Did you eat them in the frozen time?”
“That was childish,” Livia said as she returned the smile, her hands moving back to her own coffee cup. “So, Ryan. How do we win?”
We. The word warmed Ryan’s heart like a campfire on a cold night.
Ryan shared with Livia the previous loop’s end. How he and Len confirmed that Dynamis kept a mutated Bloodstream prisoner inside their lab fortress, and how Len’s presence allowed it to escape. He told her of his allies’ last stand against Alphonse Manada, how Bloodstream destroyed New Rome, and how Augustus chose to attack Leo Hargraves rather than stop fighting.
The courier didn’t mention how he managed to hurt Lightning Butt though. His daughter might not react well, and Ryan himself didn’t fully understand what happened. He needed more time to figure that part out.
The more Livia listened, the deeper the frown on her face. “This is horrifying,” she said, sipping her coffee thoughtfully. “Seeing your stepfather in such a state…”
“I hate him.” Seeing Bloodstream devour his own daughter only reinforced Ryan’s poor opinion of him. “Death will be a mercy.”
“Can we even kill him? If he makes up Dynamis’ Knockoff Elixirs, then a part of him will remain within countless Genomes.”
“I have the formula for Dr. Tyrano’s vaccine. Unless Bloodstream’s core is in contact with Len’s blood, he won’t develop an immunity to it.” The monster didn’t do so either when Shortie’s fluids touched a Knockoff Elixir, perhaps because her father had very little control over his fragments while neutered by Dynamis.
“But it works through injections,” Livia pointed out. “Even with the best vaccination campaign, many will refuse to give up their powers. Especially since most paid a small fortune for them.”
“Yeah, and people smoke while thinking they’ll win the coin toss.” Ryan let out a shrug. “I have an idea in mind, but I want your opinion first. How much time do we have?”
“I ran simulations while listening to your tale,” Livia said, joining her fingers. “Now that I know what is inside Lab Sixty-Six, my visions are more accurate. The odds of this pandemic are low, but increase dramatically if Alphonse Manada takes over Dynamis. And he will, given time; it might take a year or ten, but the odds increase with time. It can happen even under Hector Manada’s chairmanship.”
The incompetent chairman didn’t worry the courier much. By now, he had realized that Atom Smasher was the real threat among his family. The strongest, the most determined.
Bloodstream would need to go whatever happened, but Livia’s prophecy reassured Ryan somewhat. “Out of all the disasters we must solve, this one is a long-term problem,” the courier said. “The two other calamities won't wait years.”
Livia scowled. “When will the Meta-Gang use Mechron’s satellite weapon?”
“Somewhere between May 12th and 18th.” Big Fat Adam used the weapon on the last date, but Ryan had seen him and Psypsy take over the bunker as early as May 12th. The malevolent sociopath had almost pulled the trigger when the Manada invaded his HQ in the Dynamis loop. “And if nothing is done, Leo Hargraves and the Carnival will arrive in New Rome within three weeks.”
“And my father will wage war on them,” Livia said sorrowfully. “Destroying New Rome.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan apologized. “Your father is not a nice man.”
“I know,” she said, looking away. “Do you have a paper sheet?”
A few seconds later, Livia scribbled a makeshift calendar on a paper sheet, planning the month of May. She added crosses on the 12th, 18th, and 28th—the rough date of Hargraves’ planned arrival, though Ryan never carried a loop this far.
“We must deal with Adam the Ogre first,” Livia stated the obvious as she examined the calendar. “We have four days to prepare an attack.”
“It will have to be done today in the final loop. The fatass is throwing people at the bunker’s defenses as we speak.” The memory of Hannifat Lecter threatening to eat a hostage still haunted the courier. “The longer we wait, the higher the kill count.”
“So this loop is not the final one even in the best case scenario?” Livia asked with a frown. “You want to assault the bunker the moment the next loop begins?”
“After I take out the trash first.” Much like during his suicide run, Ryan would demolish Ghoul, and then attack the bunker afterward. “If Adam and Psyshock can be neutralized, then I can subsume their minions. If we have a cure for the Psycho condition, it'll be even easier.”
“I can help with the assault, but I’m afraid my father will catch wind of the bunker if I call upon more help,” Livia said. “Fortuna would hold her tongue though. Would the three of us be enough to defeat the Meta-Gang?”
“I’m not sure.” Lucky Girl might make up for Darkling’s absence or the plushie’s inactivity, or maybe not. Shortie would probably help even without her memories, and perhaps Shroud too. “I need to perfect the memory transfer. The more people fighting with us the better.”
“Especially since we need you to manually transfer memories. If you perish early, then this complicates the next loop.” Livia crossed her arms. “Can you recreate the mind-transfer machine on your own?”
Ryan shook his head. Even with his considerable financial resources, the Genius device needed pieces difficult to make without a support network. “I will need more technological resources. Either the bunker, Vulcan, or Dynamis.”
“I can introduce you to Vulcan,” Livia argued. “I will not ask for the machine’s blueprints, if you are worried about that.”
“Will you do a new villain speech if I give it away?” Ryan teased her.
“I doubt it will surprise you again,” she mused, though her smile quickly faltered. “What about Mathias?”
“I can convince the Carnival to halt its assault on your family if I swear to play double agent, destroy the Bliss Factory, and sabotage your mob’s operations.“
Livia frowned in skepticism. “Will Ischia Island’s destruction prevent Hargraves from showing up?”
“I’m not sure. The Carnival wants to end your family’s criminal activities, and honestly, I can’t blame them for it.” If only a battle between the two organizations didn’t threaten to tear the city apart... “And then there’s Narcinia. Your father abducted her and murdered her parents.”
Livia looked at her coffee cup, losing herself in the steaming blackness. She had confirmed this story in the previous loop, and it shook her to the core. Perhaps she thought that while her father was ruthless, he only went after people who threatened him first. Only now did she see Lightning Butt’s true, hateful self.
“I still can’t forgive Hargraves for killing my mother,” Livia said. “What happened to Narcinia’s parents didn't make this a justified retaliation. However… I agree that Narcinia suffered a terrible injustice, and it is my duty to correct it.”
“The Carnival is pretty reasonable,” Ryan argued, having dealt with them extensively. “If they understand that you will inherit your father’s empire to better dismantle it, maybe they won’t poke the hornet’s nest. Returning Narcinia to them would show your goodwill.”
“Let me think about this,” Livia said. “I need more time to process simulations. A wrong move here could make my father overreact.”
What an understatement. She might as well have said the Titanic had a small ice problem.
“And finally, we must destroy what remains of your stepfather,” Livia changed the subject. “What was your idea?”
“A Carnival member, Dr. Stitch, is a Genius specialized in viruses and illnesses,” Ryan said. “Since he already studied Bloodstream, I believe he could create something from the vaccine.”
Livia’s head perked up in interest. “A Knockoff vaccine plague?”
“Something like that. I can also contact Tyrano, see if he can help as well. If the sample in Len’s body is neutralized, then Bloodstream cannot escape.” Ryan finished his coffee. “As you see, princess, all the pieces are there. We just need to find the right way to assemble them. The sequence that will save everyone.”
“Can we?” Livia asked with a frown. “Save everyone?”
“Yes.” Everyone who deserved to be saved, at least. “It’s not my first rodeo.”
Livia looked into his eyes, her face undecipherable. “How many resets did it take you to reach this moment?”
Ryan shrugged. “Dozens.”
“And you are not yet done.” Livia shook her head, her gaze full of compassion. “I was sincere when I told you we should find a way to ease your burden. I won’t have you martyr yourself on a cross for our sake.”
“Who else will?” Ryan asked back. “Someone has to do it. Millions of lives are at stake.”
“But the process doesn’t have to be painful, or lonely,” Livia argued. “I’m sure we can find a way to make your resets painless. I doubt I am the only one who cares for your well-being.”
The time-traveler looked away. Shortie cared too, but she was family. Even Alchemo had tried to set his foot down, to earn Ryan’s forgiveness.
“I made promises,” the courier said, thinking back of Jasmine, Bianca, and so many others. “Fulfilling them is all that matters.”
“Not if it means you sacrifice your own happiness for others.” Livia smiled. “A perfect ending for everyone includes you too, Ryan.”
If only she knew. Ryan’s mind wandered back to his first Perfect Run in Monaco, where he saved Simon and so many more from that hellish prison. Though he gave a happy ending to everyone else, the adventure left the courier with a bittersweet taste. He alone had remembered the moment they all shared together. His Perfect Runs afterward had left him with the same feeling.
But this time would be different. He hoped things would change this time around.
He wanted them to.
“I will try,” Ryan said. “Any suggestion on how to proceed?”
Livia answered with a nod. “Join my father’s organization, and tell the Carnival that you will act as their mole to buy time. I can introduce you to Vulcan so you may recreate your brain-transfer machine, and I will see how to deal with Narcinia. It will be easier to plan the raid on the Meta-Gang if we cooperate closely. Do you think you could turn some of the Psychos against Adam before we attack the bunker? What about Sarin?”
Ryan shook his head. “Sarin only attacks the harbor if Ghoul can back her up and Psyshock isn't neutralized, but I need to offer the bag of bones to appease the Carnival and that telepath has to go. I have no other means of contacting her for certain.”
“I am not certain that trusting the Carnival is the right step,” Livia admitted, slightly worried. “But I trust you, Ryan. If you feel this is the right way...”
“It’s the best option we have right now,” Ryan said, rising from his seat. “I need to meet with Len now.”
Both to arrange the memory transfer, and prepare for Psyshock’s inevitable raid on the orphanage.
“I have her brainmap, and others. We can arrange the transfer as soon as you have the machine operational.” Livia’s fingers fidgeted nervously. “You will stay at Jamie Cutter’s house this time around?”
“It’s probable,” Ryan replied. “That or Len’s place.”
“Maybe I will pay you a visit then,” the mafia princess said with a friendly grin. “It doesn’t feel right you’re always the one coming to visit me.”
Ryan chuckled. “You will need a diving suit if I’m moving in with Shortie.”
“I would prefer a drier place,” Livia mused. “See you soon, Ryan.”
“See you soon, Princess,” he said, as he closed the door behind him. Now… now he needed to convince an old friend to have her brain rewritten. A tall order.
The courier returned to his car, finding Henriette playfully licking a dejected skull. The light had left out Ghoul’s eyes, alongside all his hopes.
“Shortie,” Ryan said, as he put on the Chronoradio. “Shortie, I know you can hear me.”
The Chronoradio played a song from a time that never was.
“We need to talk,” the courier continued, letting out a sigh. “Your father is alive. Dynamis holds him prisoner in one of their labs.”
Her response came out of the radio seconds afterward.
“Meet me at the orphanage.”
Ryan had heard these words before, but never with that tone. Anger, and determination.
Dynamis would never know what hit them.