“You don’t believe me?” Ryan asked Len, his feet dangling from the edge of the orphanage’s roof. The stars shone brightly in New Rome’s polluted skies, their light piercing through the darkness.
“How can I?” Len asked, holding her head with her hands. Her water rifle remained within reach of her hand. “Time-travel? Downloadable memories? This is… this is insane, Riri. Insane. And my father… you’re saying my father is alive, and that Dynamis… that Dynamis turned him into...”
Well, as alive as a virus could be. Wait, could Pluto kill Bloodstream for good if her power registered him? Food for thought.
Ryan raised a hand to comfort Len, but his old friend recoiled. Without her memories, all the trust he managed to build up between them had vanished; it would have hurt once, but not this time. With Livia’s help, forgetfulness would no longer be a curse, but a temporary obstacle.
If he could convince Len to accept the memory transfer procedure. Which considering her trust issues might prove difficult.
Perhaps Ryan should save a few seconds after he began a new loop? If he could only bring back a person at once, this would at least make the memory transfer permanent. They would only remember one loop, so it was an imperfect solution, but it was better than nothing.
“This… this is too much. Too much. I… I need time to process this.” Len joined her hands, hyperventilating. It took her a few minutes to recover, and Ryan waited patiently. “I need to see the tech in question, Riri. If it’s really mine… if it’s really mine, I will recognize it. All the other stuff, you could have invented or learned through other means, but...”
“Sure,” Ryan replied with a warm tone, trying to reassure her. “Anything you need.”
Len took a long deep breath. “Riri. What happened to me?” she asked with a soft, weak voice. “When we reached that lab, assuming I believe your tale… you said I died. But not how. How did I perish?”
“You really want to know?” Ryan asked with a sigh. “It will hurt, Shortie.”
“More than everything else you told me?” She struggled to hold back tears. “He killed me.”
“Yes,” Ryan admitted. She deserved to know the truth, no matter how horrifying. “There’s a piece of him in your blood. Some kind of sleeper agent or tracking device. When you approached your father—”
“I became him.” Warm tears rained down Len’s cheeks, while she pinched her nose not to sob.
Perhaps a part of her always knew it was a possibility, even if she refused to believe it.
She did believe Ryan. Even if the tale sounded outlandish, Shortie still thought her oldest friend wouldn’t lie to her. No matter how horrifying the tale.
“Len, there’s…” Ryan struggled to find the right words, so she wouldn’t panic. “If the blood sample inside you could transform you into a monster, maybe it can do something subtler?”
Len glared at him, her sadness transforming into anger. “You’re saying… you’re saying that my father influenced my thoughts. My feelings… that my feelings for him aren’t my own.”
“Maybe they are, or maybe not. But the doubt remains as long as you carry that infection.” The courier crossed his arms. “Len, we have to remove it. Not only for everyone else’s sake, but yours too.”
“How? It’s inside me, Riri. It’s in my blood like a cancer, and your vaccine won’t work on it.”
“I know a few Geniuses who could help.” He had already sent an email to Dr. Tyrano through the scalie’s secure channel, offering him to cooperate on Knockoff research… and asking for information about his secret ‘Monster Girl’ project, much to the courier’s shame. “One can even help you with your…”
“My depression?” Len frowned. “I’m… I’m not a problem to be solved.”
“No, no.” That was exactly why he had been opposed to interacting with her across many loops. If her experience didn’t carry through, then the courier would treat her less like a person and more like an equation. “It’s… if you want. After recovering your memories.”
“And if I don’t want your transfer?” Len wiped away the tears with her hand. “Will you repeat this conversation until I say yes?”
Ryan paused to consider the question, realizing that his entire plan hinged on Len accepting the memory transfer. If his amnesiac friend wouldn’t, then what could he do? Kidnap her and transfer the memories by force? Find a way to transfer the stored knowledge across time without the current Len’s consent?
“You would rather stay amnesiac?” the courier asked. “It’s not brainwashing. You will remember memories that you forgot, but it won’t erase yours.”
“But it will change me, and I don’t know how. You know, but...”
“You’re afraid of what you will learn,” Ryan guessed. Ignorance was bliss.
“Answer me, Riri.”
“I will respect your choice. Even if it hurts.” In the end, Ryan couldn’t force his decisions upon those he loved. “I can offer my hand, but you have to reach back too.”
Len raised her knees, holding them with her arms in a fetal position. Her expression was thoughtful, undecipherable.
“Psyshock will attack this place in two days,” Ryan reminded her, changing the subject. “We need to prepare for it.”
“This place is rotten,” Len said, glancing at New Rome’s bright neon lights. “The deeper I go, the stronger the stench. The flashy colors only hide the ugliness underneath.”
“I agree with you that most of the locals don’t have fashion sense, but there are quite a few locals overflowing with glamour.” Ryan should introduce Len to Wardrobe at one point. “Where did you go after we split up?”
“The Canary Islands,” Len admitted. “The sub’s autopilot tried to bring me to the USA, but an engine problem halfway redirected it to the closest island. I stayed a few months there before moving on.”
So the Laïka had honored its namesake. “Pretty nice place,” Ryan said. “I’m surprised they managed to establish an independent republic from Dynamis, considering how half of Spain has fallen under their control.”
Len’s head perked up in surprise. “You went there?”
“Yeah, I think it was…” Two hundred years ago? Ryan’s memory was a bit foggy, as his adventures in North Africa hadn’t been memorable. “A while ago. We must have missed each other.”
“It was… it was nice. The islanders are nice.”
“Will you return there?” Ryan asked, his old friend shaking her head.
“They still fight each other sometimes,” she said. “Wherever I went… there were always Genomes who wanted more. I couldn’t make a difference there, and I couldn’t make a difference in New Rome either.”
“You still can.”
“Even if we reveal how the Knockoffs are truly made of, Dynamis will continue to oppress people. If they could do something like that for a few more euros… then they’re capable of anything.” She shook her head. “And the Augusti destroy lives through drugs and blood money. I’ve seen the ruins of Malta below the sea, Riri. Augustus made an underwater tomb for thousands.”
She wasn’t wrong, but again she only saw the darkness and missed the stars. “I think these groups can change,” Ryan said, remembering his Il Migliore loop and his discussions with Livia. “If the right people are in charge.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“But you don’t believe me.” Ryan shrugged, rising up and walking on the roof. “It’s fine, I’ll change your mind.”
“You’re going?” Len bit her lower lip. “You can… you can stay, you know.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said from the bottom of his heart. “I still have another date though.”
He moved to the door separating the roof from the levels below, but his hand stopped on the handle. “Len, there’s something I never dared to ask you before, in any of our conversations.” Ryan peeked over his shoulder, Len still sitting on the roof’s edge. “That day, when I returned to our hideout… you and the sub were gone. Did you leave, or was it the autopilot?”
Len looked away, avoiding his gaze. “I waited for you and Dad until the last second, and when you didn’t return, I… I didn’t know what to do. I thought you were both dead, and I… I just let the Laïka carry me away.”
With her family gone, Len had lost all hope for a better life.
But she had waited for Ryan until the very end.
And so, he wouldn’t abandon her.
Ryan left Len to meditate on what he told her, crossing paths with Little Sarah in the stairs. She must have tried to eavesdrop, only to find the door firmly closed. “Hey, pintsize,” the courier waved a hand at this petulant child, delighting in teasing her. “Have you seen my dog? I’m taking her on a walk.”
“Wait until I hit puberty, jackass,” the child replied, crossing her arms while pouting. “Your doggie is playing with that lazy cat and your rabbit outside.”
Ryan’s hands hastily moved to his trenchcoat, searching his pockets.
Ryan rushed outside much to Sarah’s surprise, slamming the orphanage’s doors open.
He found Henriette ‘playing’ with Eugène-Henry in the yard. The courier had introduced his pets to each other, and the aristocratic cat dealt with the lowborn dog the same way a noble did with a peasant; by trying to ignore her entire existence. Still, Henriette proved too obstinate, or too stupid, to realize that. She kept licking and nuzzling the cat in an attempt to elicit a reaction, to no avail.
And the plushie sat on the steps, the button on its back switched on. The vile, long-eared demon glanced south of New Rome, perhaps dreaming of setting the city ablaze.
How? Ryan didn’t let it anywhere near the orphans! Who could have stolen it from him and switched the machine on?
The courier had assumed a Meta-Gang member accidentally switched it on during the last loop, mistaking it for something harmless. But now that he thought of it, the timing of the furred horror’s rescue was a bit too perfect.
“You could always activate,” Ryan guessed in horror. “You were just pretending.”
All this time.
All this time, the time-traveler thought he had bound the demon inside a pentagram, but it could always step over. Ryan’s illusion of control shattered, his fingers trembling with dread. For centuries… for centuries, he had lived at the mercy of a horror that he had called, but couldn’t put down.
The plushie looked at his maker with its big blue eyes, and then behind him; Ryan froze, as he heard Little Sarah had followed him outside. The courier’s heart skipped a beat, as he watched all his hopes for this loop go down the drain.
And then the abyss looked away.
The plushie ignored them both, and gazed at Mount Augustus. It didn’t enter cute mode, didn’t make a sound. No pre-recorded message answered Ryan’s words; neither a laser nor a switchblade shed blood all over the orphanage.
The plushie didn’t want to play.
“You aren’t going to kill anyone?” Ryan asked his dreaded creation. “Not even disembowel a Psycho or two?”
Ryan didn’t hear the whispers either. Alien voices followed in the plushie’s wake, but they had gone silent. The toy’s eldritch shadow, once so fearsome, had shrunk in size by half.
“You’re talking to a toy,” Little Sarah said. “I knew you were a druggie.”
Not even the promise of slaughter or the presence of preteens elicited a reaction. Instead, the plushie kept glaring at Mount Augustus with its big blue eyes; the menacing aura within them replaced with sourness. Ryan reached a terrible conclusion, the maddening truth clear for all to see.
By defeating the plushie so thoroughly, Lightning Butt had done the impossible.
He gave it depression.
Ryan knocked on Shroud’s door next. His visit was a bit earlier than usual, but he sweetened the deal with a free stuffed Ghoul. The Psycho had gone torpid, to the point Ryan wondered if his immortality gave in.
Though Ryan didn’t mention time travel, he told the translucent vigilante almost everything else. Both sat on opposing chairs for an hour inside Shroud’s hideout, the vigilante silent as a tomb. By the time his guest finished his tale, all windows had cracks and dawn rose on New Rome outside.
Mathias Martel only said one word.
“Pretty much,” Ryan said. “I’m pretty sure the Knockoffs also contain carcinogens, though I can’t prove it.”
Shroud joined his hands, meditating on what he had learned. “Do you have a hard proof that Bloodstream makes up the Knockoffs? We destroyed all our samples to prevent him from returning.”
“I have.” Len allowed Ryan to take a drop of blood for study, which he offered to the vigilante. “Put this in contact with a Dynamis Knockoff, and you will see. Keep a flamethrower nearby though.”
“I will need the vaccine data too,” Shroud said, as he carefully examined the blood in a syringe. Even now, Ryan half-expected it to burst out of its container. “If our Genius confirms what you said, then we will have to come to New Rome in force.”
“I would rather avoid that,” Ryan said. “Trust me, you will get a lot more than pigeon shit on your windshield if you do that, Matty.”
The glass manipulator’s armor seemed to shift, threatening to grow spikes. After a short moment of hesitation, he removed his helmet, revealing his true face. He approached Ryan’s head, gazing into his eyes with absolute, chilling seriousness.
“From what you’re telling me, Adam the Ogre—a man so terrible he was already eating people long before he gained superpowers—is within days of getting his hands on an orbital superweapon, and Dynamis infected thousands of people with the seeds of a global pandemic,” Mathias Martel said. “Both disasters are only possible because we failed to properly address them. Now, tell me Quicksave. How is this not a situation that deserves our full attention?”
“I told you, I can select whichever universe I want,” Ryan lied. “The sun will set on New Rome if Sunshine makes his way here. Lightning Butt will see to that. Countless innocents will die.”
“So you say,” the vigilante replied.
Ryan squinted at the hero. “How many times has your group fought Lightning Butt?”
Shroud clenched his fists. “Too many times.”
They had tried to bring him down for years, and failed. “Then you know Mob Zeus is a heartless bastard who only cares for power and revenge,” Ryan said. The memory of that madman striking Sunshine down as the world collapsed around them flashed vividly in the courier’s mind. “He’s a bitter old man dying of cancer. He has little left to lose, except for his daughter.”
“I know that.”
“Good. Now, imagine him near this city’s powder kegs. Do you think he will put aside his grievances against a greater threat, or make things worse for Leo just to spite him?”
Shroud’s silence was an answer in itself.
Ryan delivered the coup de grace. “You had a plan for New Rome, but it didn’t account for either Adam or Bloodstream. It didn’t survive contact with the enemy, so you’ve got to adapt.”
“Who do you serve, Quicksave?” Mathias asked, after pondering his words. “Which side are you on?”
“The realm!” Ryan put a hand on his chest. “And my own side.”
Mathias looked at him with a frown. “So you’re just trying to save your hide?”
“Didn’t anyone tell you I’m immortal?” Ryan shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t want this city to burn or the world to end, is that too much to ask? I have friends on both sides, and I want all of them to be happy. Isn’t that what you want too?”
“I want to save lives yes,” Shroud replied, hanging back in his chair. “But I want to save them permanently. We tried to deal with Bloodstream in the past, only for Dynamis to lie to us so they could exploit him for profit. We killed Mechron, but his weapons remain available to even worse villains. I don’t want to repeat everything in five years.”
Ryan examined him closely. “You knew something like this would happen with Bloodstream.” That was what he gathered from their brief interactions last loop.
The vigilante nodded. “My mother, Alice Martel, was once called Pythia.”
“The seer?” Ryan never met her, though she was part of the Carnival’s original line-up. She had left the group by the time they tracked Bloodstream down. “My condolences.”
“She still lives.” Shroud looked away in sadness. “She almost died fighting Mechron, but she’s recovering in Denmark with my father.”
“Recovering, as in rising from the dead?”
“Nidhogg and his men haven’t progressed that far yet,” Mr. Safelite replied. “Before she was wounded in action against Mechron, my mother provided a detailed report of future threats to the world. Though Augustus was ranked high, Bloodstream topped the list. He was expected to cause an extinction event in the case your sister died.”
So that was why the Carnival pursued that bloody headache so relentlessly. Unfortunately, all they did was delay the disaster and let Dynamis worsen it. Ryan shuddered upon remembering Len being absorbed into that eldritch horror.
The prophecy had come true.
But seers didn’t decide the march of time.
“It will still happen, unless we act,” the courier said. “But we can still change the future. We can end this nightmare once and for all, if we cooperate.”
“How?” Mathias asked, skeptical. “We aren’t powerful enough to destroy the bunker without Leo, Mr. Wave, and others at our back. Dynamis is corrupt, so we can’t rely on Il Migliore’s help either.”
“There are other heroes in Rome,” Ryan said. “Let me recruit a crack team of rogues and misfits! Who knows, maybe you will find love among them!”
Shroud didn’t put much trust in his wingmate. “Even if we somehow manage to prevail on our own, saving lives isn’t enough, Quicksave. Justice must be served. Augustus can’t keep poisoning people, and especially not continue to exploit the Costa’s daughter. He can’t get away with his crimes, and neither can the Manadas.”
“I know.” After watching Lightning Butt ravage New Rome in one loop and worsen its destruction in another, Ryan had sworn to bring the immortal emperor down. And maybe he was the only one capable of doing so. “But you can leave the Augusti to me. If you take care of the Bloodstream vaccine, my transparent friend, I swear I will destroy the Bliss Factory and return Julie Costa’s daughter to you. Blowing up stuff is my passion in life.”
“You can’t expect Leo and the others to wait things out.”
“There are other Mechron bases,” Ryan said, the vigilante’s eyes widening in alarm. “The bunker below the Junkyard is one of many, but I recorded their locations. Sunshine can hunt them down while we deal with the situation here in New Rome. With his legacy wiped out, we can finally exorcise Mechron’s ghost for good.”
With luck, the Mechron base could also cause the Bahamut to self-detonate, preventing anyone else from using the orbital laser ever again.
“And the Manadas?” Shroud asked. “Hector is mad, Fallout is madder, and Blackthorn lied to us.”
“Actually, though his fashion sense would tell otherwise, I believe our dear gardener is the cleanest of them.”
Ryan remembered Enrique complaining to his brother about lying to him at the end of the previous restart. Jasmine had also told the courier that the manager was supposed to manage Knockoff Elixirs’ production until he visited Lab Sixty-Six and left in disgust. He must have found his family’s dirty secret then.
Atom Smasher was too fanatical to back down, and his father too corrupt. Blackthorn though… Ryan had mistaken the gardener for a closet supervillain, but he had his heart in the right place.
Enrique was Livia’s counterpart in Dynamis. A well-meaning man trying to reform his organization from the inside, but too bound by familial love to take a hard stance. They both needed to inherit for New Rome to know peace.
Removing Hector Manada would be easy; Ryan only had to reveal his corruption and alliance with Hannifat Lecter.
Fallout wouldn’t give up power without a fight though.
“We can work with Greenhand to clean up the skeletons in his company’s closet,” Ryan said. “I think a part of him wants to take action, but he isn’t sure how. If you approach him with hard data about the danger his company’s miracle drug presents, he might turn his coat.”
“I will inform Leo and Stitch about your plan, but I can’t guarantee anything.” Shroud marked a short pause. “You said Psyshock will attack Rust Town’s orphanage on May 10th?”
“Yes, and we’ll counterattack immediately afterward.”
“The reason why the Carnival was so effective was because of my mother,” Shroud said. “Now I see why. After she fell ill, I tried to pick up the slack, but I cannot see the future. You can though, Quicksave. It’s almost unfair.”
“Trust me, I earned that knowledge.”
Mathias said nothing, examining Ryan carefully. His eyes wandered to the courier’s mask and hat, the vigilante’s face straining. He didn’t say a word for half a minute, as if trying to figure something out.
“Have you fallen for me?” Ryan asked. “Trust me, I get that all the time.”
“How far can you go back?”
The courier was thankful for the mask shielding his face. “Sorry?”
“It can’t all be visions of alternate timelines. You know too much, with too many vivid details. Even a powerful Blue like my mother would be hard-pressed to provide all the secrets you hand out like candies, and you’re a Violet. You know me.”
He was far too sharp for his own good.
“You don’t just freeze time,” Mathias guessed. “You control it. You’re a chronokinetic.”
Ryan’s first instinct was to deny the truth, to mislead.
Instead, he held his tongue and considered his next words.
For centuries, the courier kept his cards close to his chest. His misadventures with Alchemo and so many others had taught him caution. But at one point, that caution turned into paranoia, until he could trust no one. Trust was a two-way street, an open wound.
Ryan only found the strength to reach out for Jasmine when all was lost, and she wagered her life on his success. Livia was a case of bad luck, but they learned to trust each other. Bianca sacrificed his life for him. Even Alchemo had made an effort to make up for his mistakes.
Slowly, Ryan Romano had learned to open his heart.
Though he killed the time-traveler a few times before they got to know each other, Mathias Martel had his heart in the right place. He reminded Ryan of Felix, a young man burning with a strong desire to make things right. After interacting with him over so many loops, Ryan had grown to know the vigilante. Even to respect him.
Perhaps the courier gave away so much information because he subconsciously trusted the Carnival member already. He would have been far more careful about what he said with someone else. Ryan wanted the vigilante on his side, to be a trustworthy ally rather than a means to an end.
And so, he took a leap of faith.
“What if I were, hypothetically?”
“Then I would assume you can’t travel very far.” Mathias intertwined his fingers. “Do you know why we’re going all in on Augustus now? We have worked down my mother’s list of threats to the world. We’ve defeated Psychos, warlords, and monsters. But we could never beat him. And now… now we must.”
Ryan tensed up. “He’s going to do something.”
“At one point in the coming years, Augustus will attack Dynamis and try to take over Europe by force. He will go all-out. It will be Malta all over again, except that he won’t settle for anything but complete victory. And though it will cost many lives, he will get what he wants.”
Ryan remembered watching New Rome burn, torn apart by the Augusti and the Il Migliore-Dynamis alliance. The courier thought Sunshine’s presence started it, but in truth, it had only accelerated Lightning Butt’s timetable.
Tyrants didn’t go into quiet retirement.
When confronted with his inevitable death by cancer, Augustus would take a page from Big Fat Adam’s book. He would try to ensure Livia would rule unopposed once he was dead and buried, by destroying Dynamis, the Carnival, and anyone he could get his hands on in the little time he had left. Perhaps Lightning Butt thought he would go out in a blaze of glory, leaving his daughter as queen of the ashes.
Did Livia see it in her visions? Was it why she was so adamant about managing her father so he wouldn’t ‘overreact’?
“Since we can’t defeat Augustus directly, we decided to cripple the organization,” Mathias admitted. “Even if he’s all-powerful, he is only one man. He needs soldiers to carry out his will, drugs to fuel his war chest. If we do that, Quicksave, will it stop him?”
The vigilante’s tone was hesitant, begging. He wanted to hear a yes, a confirmation that his efforts hadn’t been for naught.
And Ryan couldn’t say yes.
The time-traveler had managed to affect Augustus in the previous loop, true, but his punch hurt the courier more than his foe. The ivory titan’s retaliation tossed Ryan through a building, and he then proceeded to survive Leo Hargraves going supernova. All of this happened after Lightning Butt trounced the plushie so hard that it sent the terrible monster into an existential crisis.
Sunshine could bring down Mechron, but not Augustus.
The plushie could destroy the world, but not Augustus. The extradimensional horror that haunted Ryan’s dreams for centuries couldn’t even scratch him. Darkling might have, but it had returned home.
Augustus was the most powerful creature on Earth short of the Ultimate Ones; and Ryan had no permanent solution to bring him down yet.
Only a hope.
“I may have a way,” Ryan said. “To put him down for good.”
“May,” Shroud repeated, dejected. “May.”
“May,” the time-traveler admitted. “I need more time. I won’t let him win, I swear it. Doesn’t matter how long it takes, what it will cost me. I won’t let him win.”
It didn’t reassure Mathias at all, but it broke him out of his despair. “That extinction event, Adam taking over the Bahamut… It happened before?”
Ryan hesitated, but then nodded slowly. Mathias Martel lowered his head, trembling with anger. At Dynamis, at the Meta-Gang, but at himself most of all.
“I’m trying to solve this, but I can’t do it alone,” Ryan admitted, both to the vigilante, and to himself. “So... are you in?”
Mathias snickered, a look of determination on his face. “Do you even need to ask?”
And so, Ryan recruited another Avenger to his cause.
Only one left. An independent hero unaffiliated with Dynamis, whose power and purity of heart was unmatched. Half a man, half a beast, and the best of both.
Ryan typed a number on his cellphone as he exited Shroud’s shack, listening to the sound of waves crashing on the shore. He didn’t have to wait long, as someone picked up before the courier could return to his Plymouth Fury.
“Yes?” The voice on the other end of the line
“Timmy?” Ryan replied, opening the door. Henriette yapped from the backseat, while Eugène-Henry napped and the plushie sulked.
“That is the Panda’s name!” Poor boy, he must have waited next to his phone for hours, desperately wishing for a call. “The Panda… the Panda can do anything. Even save cats up in trees!”
“That’s your lucky day, dear bear.”
Ryan smiled behind his mask.
“Tell me, have you considered joining a traveling circus?”