“Sorry, I can’t do that.”
Ryan scratched Eugène-Henry’s back while watching Dr. Tyrano on his computer screen. The A-bomb laid on the desk, right next to the late Fat Adam’s gravity cannon. “You’re saying no to unlimited fundings, resources, and safety from the monster you keep bottled up in your lab when he inevitably breaks out? Because you know he will.”
“I don’t know how you managed to learn that much about my work,” Tyrano admitted, a little disturbed. “But I am contractually bound to Dynamis for the next two hundred years. I can’t even leave the building without a heavy escort.”
“Two hundred years?” Were there other time-travelers running around in Italy? “Is that even legal?”
“In New Rome, it is.”
Ryan massaged his temples, at his wit’s end. “Think, Tyrano, think! You’re using an unstable product to turn people you know into timebombs! What will you have after everyone has turned into a Bloodstream clone?”
Dr. Tyrano remained silent for a moment, but Ryan guessed his answer before he even spoke.
“Dinosaurs,” the scalie answered. “I’d still have dinosaurs.”
That made Ryan think more than it should.
Still, the fact Tyrano wouldn’t leave the Dynamis HQ nor agree to sabotage the Knockoff supply dashed a few of the courier’s hopes. Even if the Carnival developed a vaccine plague to cure New Rome’s population, they would have to assault Lab Sixty-Six again to finish off Bloodstream for good.
Still, Ryan didn’t give up on the saurian Genius.
“What if I told you we have access to a completely safe Knockoff variant, so strong it even works with robots?” The courier tempted him. “That we have not one, but two Genomes with multiple powers and no-side effects to study? That we possess a wealth of research and information on Elixirs… and a lab capable of creating life from scratch?”
Then he delivered the coup de grace.
Tyrano’s slitted eyes expanded like a frog’s, to Ryan’s shock. The courier wondered if it was what passed for arousal for humanoid dinosaurs. To hook him further, the courier forwarded the Genius a sample of his Elixir research, including a bio-scan of Mongrel.
“We’re working on a cure for the Psycho condition,” Ryan said. “Though you’re contractually obligated to work with Dynamis, certainly you can sacrifice some of your precious time for it. Who knows, maybe you could make a Green Knockoff capable of granting your dearest, cold-blooded wish.”
The Genius barely took a glance at the data before raising his white flag. “Where do I sign?”
“First…” Ryan scratched Eugène-Henry behind the ears. “You must give me access to that folder.”
“Oh, that one?” Dr. Tyrano seemed strangely embarrassed about it. “It’s something of a side-project, and early results weren’t promising. But it will change the world, you’ll see!”
“I’ll keep an open mind,” Ryan said, as he received an email called ‘Monster Girl Project.’ He opened the video file within.
The courier instantly regretted it, as an abomination came into view.
The screams and moans that came out of this… this thing startled Ryan so much, that he almost fell from his chair. His terrified cat leaped out of his lap to take over the nearby bed.
“Oh God… oh God…” Ryan covered his mouth, though he couldn’t tell if it was in horror or terrible awe at the man’s demented genius. There were things that could still surprise him after eight centuries of time-traveling. “Why?!”
“A creative spur!” Tyrano explained, as if it made up for this crime against nature. “I couldn’t do that to a reptile!”
“Why a mink?!” Ryan asked, closing the video feed when he couldn’t take the abomination’s screams anymore. “Is… is that thing still alive?”
“No, no, it died, unfortunately,” Tyrano reassured him. “But I have a spare.”
Ryan resisted the urge to throw up, and stopped the video call feed. He would have nightmares for years to come. Even the most depraved Sonic the Hedgehog fans didn’t go as far as Dr. Scalie did.
The courier took a moment to gather his breath, only to suddenly hold it. Two long ears rose from the side of the desk, a monster rising from the depths of Hell.
“No,” Ryan said with false panic.
The plushie looked at his maker, then at the A-bomb, and finally back at his maker. Meanwhile, Eugène-Henry ignored them all to vanish beneath the bedsheets, considering the matter beneath his kingly notice.
“No!” Ryan forbade the plushie.
And for the first time since this loop began, the furred fiend answered.
“I will always be your friend!”
This plushie hastily pushed the A-bomb’s button with a loud ‘click.’
The plushie hit it again, and again, and again in quick succession, growing more and more frustrated. Its eyes turned red as it glared angrily at Ryan.
“It’s a prop,” the courier replied with a grin. “I gave the real one to Vulcan.”
He had bribed his favorite dwarf Genius with so much technology, that she didn’t even ask him to ruin Star Studios this time. Vulcan insisted that Ryan become her assistant instead, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The courier was more than willing to help her, but only in short bursts. Though Ryan could now interact with Vulcan without feeling stabbed in the gut every time she opened her mouth, the shadow of his Jasmine remained ever-present. The courier also intended to use this loop to deal with the Bliss Factory and Narcinia, and so would rather stay a contractor working for multiple branches of the Augusti’s organization.
The plushie’s eyes turned blue in disappointment, so Ryan tossed it the gravity cannon. “Here, if you want to work your way up the suicide chain,” he said. “Aim for the heart though. There’s a chance you might live if you go for the head. I know from experience.”
The eldritch horror examined the cannon curiously, though the weapon was ten times larger than it was. “Please don’t kill anyone else!” Ryan pleaded as he left the fiend to its experiments, rising from his seat to move to his door.
“So?” Shroud asked, having waited for him in the next corridor. He had managed to repair his glass mask, though Ryan wondered why he bothered to hide his true face anymore.
“He won’t help sabotage the tomato juice factory,” Ryan replied with disappointment. “He fears his bosses’ wrath more than ours.”
If the courier was on a Meta run, he might have changed that, but Ryan would have his plate full with the Augusti for now.
One day had passed since the bunker raid, though Ryan spent last night at the harbor helping Jamie protect drug supplies. Luigi hadn’t shown up this time, probably at Livia’s urging, but Jamie still invited Ryan to stay at his house all the same. That guy was so nice, he made the courier want to adopt him.
Ryan spent the day in Mechron’s bunker, settling things here. He had contacted Alchemo, who should make his way to New Rome by the next day and help take over the bunker’s mainframe. With Dr. Stitch and Tyrano’s long-distance assistance, the courier would have the best medical team in the world to figure out a cure for the Psycho condition.
The night, he would dedicate to Livia.
“Then we will need to clean up Dynamis’ upper echelons,” Mathias said. “We planned to wait for Hector Manada to retire, but we can hasten his departure all the same.”
“I’ve seen Hector Manada fall many times.” Ryan said with a shrug. “His children might be willing to switch to a safer, better product than one capable of causing a pandemic.”
“Fallout won’t follow,” Mathias said. “Enrique might, once we provide him with the necessary data to show the destruction Bloodstream could unleash; and especially if his family lied to him. But Alphonse is another beast entirely. He won’t surrender Bloodstream, even for a better alternative.”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Ryan asked with a frown. “He’s a red, a commie infiltrator. He wants to turn everyone into a Genome, maybe even for free.”
The vigilante remained skeptical. “Think about it. Fallout not only controls the Knockoff supply, but with Tyrano’s cure, he can also remove powers at will. That’s not the case with Mechron’s variants, if I understand correctly.“
Ryan pondered Shroud’s point, and had to admit that he might be right on the money. Atom Smasher planned to make everyone a Genome so people like Augustus couldn’t monopolize power, but he didn’t wish to coexist with other organizations. Neither did he hesitate to lie to his close allies, so that Dynamis could develop a monopoly on Knockoff Elixirs.
If Dynamis could both give superpowers and take them away, then it could become a true superpower. People would be kept in line by the fear of losing their Knockoff Genome abilities, and the Manada would monopolize the market.
“Fallout cares less about his Knockoffs’ potential side-effects than the societal control they grant his organization,” Shroud said. “If he was truly the hero he believes himself to be, he wouldn’t have created something so dangerous in the first place. In the end, Alphonse Manada only believes in his vision. He won’t deviate from his chosen path unless forced to.”
“I can stop time,” Ryan said, remembering Bianca running off to sacrifice herself. “I will stop him.”
“Can you?” Shroud asked, doubtful. “Among the most dangerous Genomes operating in Italy, he comes a close third behind Augustus and Leo.”
“I can, with this base’s resources.”
“This place will have to go, Ryan,” Shroud insisted. “Maybe there is something here that could defeat Fallout, or even Augustus, true. But the risk of dangerous weapons spreading to the public is too great. Even distributing Mechron’s Knockoff formula doesn’t strike me as a good idea. It might weaken the position of Genome warlords, but our post-war society is too fragile to survive ten million people with flamethrowers for arms.”
“You’re preaching to a convert,” Ryan replied. “But I will only destroy this place after it helps solve the current crisis.”
Shroudy Matty crossed his arms. “Do you truly believe Psychos can be cured?”
“You don’t, my transparent friend?”
“No,” the vigilante replied, before adding, “but if there is a chance it works… if there is even the slightest chance it works, I can’t stop you from trying. It would help too many lives.”
“For your mom, one of the Genomes I called is specialized in brains.” Shroud’s head perked up at Ryan’s words. “He can even cure mental illnesses, Alzheimer’s, and even a Psycho’s brain tumors. He could help you too.”
Ryan couldn’t see Looking Glass’ face behind his mask, though the vigilante turned his head sideways, thoughtful. “Why do you think the Alchemist distributed these Elixirs in the first place?”
To turn us into interdimensional squids, Ryan thought. “I dunno, improve the human condition?”
“I think so too, and yet we used them to ravage the world.” Shroud shook his head. “When I hear all the positive things Geniuses can make, I can’t help but wonder why Mechron built weapons rather than medical supplies. Not even superpowers could change human nature.”
“Take it from someone who knows,” Ryan replied. “There will always be rotten apples like Late Adam, but most people I’ve met only need the right circumstances to turn their lives around. Anyone can choose right over wrong. Even a spoiled, self-obsessed brat with a busted power.”
Shroud chuckled. “Do you know that she sculpts in her spare time?”
She must have shown her boyfriend her gallery yesterday night. “Pretty neat, huh?”
“She’s good at it,” Mathias continued, his tone warm. “I thought she relied on her own luck to do everything, but she hides artistic sensibilities that appeal to me as a game designer. I can’t quite explain it. And she won half a million euros in lottery winnings this morning, but instead of sitting on it, she wants to distribute it to Rust Town’s orphans.”
My, was he speaking fondly of Fortuna? Yesterday’s battle had greatly helped to turn his opinion of her around.
“She’s a golden retriever,” Ryan summed it up. “Loud, no respect for personal space, but surprisingly warm and loyal underneath.”
“Worse. She’s a much better person than I thought.”
The courier put his hands behind his head. “Will you be transparent with her on your next date?”
“Will you turn back time to make your own go well?” Mathias deadpanned with a joke of his own, before answering. “I think I will clear things up with her, but… not as long as she’s working as a hitman for Augustus. That’s a dealbreaker.”
“Unlike other members of her group, she isn’t in it for the killing,” Ryan said. “She wants to protect Livia first and foremost. It’s almost romantic.”
“Is that why you’re dating her?” Shroud’s voice turned from amused to serious. “To turn Augustus’ daughter around?”
“I asked her out because I wanted to,” Ryan replied. He really had a thing for Blue Genomes shorter than himself.
“Giving her access to this place is dangerous, Ryan. What if she changes her mind and informs Augustus?”
“She has earned my trust and helped me when I needed it,” the courier replied. “I want to return the favor.”
Her father would wreck up the world for her sake, if he didn’t. She didn’t deserve to have her sire’s crimes on her conscience.
“Mark my words, Ryan, you can’t save everyone.” Shroud marked a short pause. “Especially from themselves.”
And yet, he had to try.
“After Alchemo comes here, we’ll use your rabbit foot of a girlfriend to access the mainframe,” Ryan said, changing the subject. “You can confirm what I said about the other Mechron bases then, and we will unlock the self-destruct mechanism.”
“I will have to inform Leo about you, you understand that?” Shroud asked. “Even if you turn back time again, I can’t keep that to myself.”
“Even for my cute, beautiful eyes?”
“Not even for them,” the Carnival member replied with a chuckle. “Is there a way for you to carry others through time? I suppose it is only mental, since there aren’t twenty of you running around.”
Sharp guy. “I have a procedure to transfer information directly into your brain, though your past self will have to submit to it.”
“He won’t,” Shroud said, shaking his head. “I know myself. I am too paranoid to let anyone alter my brain, even if you earn my trust beforehand. I’m not sure I would even accept such a procedure at Leo’s urging, and I respect him more than anyone.”
Ryan had expected as much. The only people he imagined would go through with the memory transfer unconditionally were Alchemo, who understood the technology; and Sarin, who had nothing left to lose. Even Len had remained on the fence so far. “I’m trying to improve a system that could bypass that extra step, but nothing’s confirmed yet.”
“I don’t like it,” he admitted. “You hold all the cards, and all I can do is go along.”
“Well, I also trusted you enough to share my greatest secret too, Safelite,” Ryan pointed out. “I can count on one hand those who know my true, phenomenal cosmic power.”
“I wonder what adventures we went through for you to do so.”
“We defeated the Meta-Gang together once, though Lightning Butt destroyed the city after you recruited Atom Cat.”
“Good to know,” Shroud replied dryly, though he didn’t like it. Neither did Ryan, since Atom Kitten would clearly be much happier with the Carnival than with Dynamis. “A shame. I was interested in Felix Veran. He has a great deal of potential as a hero, and a courageous heart.”
“As much as the Panda?”
Shroud scoffed. “Come with me and see for yourself.”
The vigilante led Ryan into the bunker’s atrium, where they found the transformed Panda folding paper sheets under Len’s watch. Sarin was playing pool near a pile of books, including Discours de la méthode: Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, by René Descartes.
“Look, Sifu!” The Panda exquisitely folded the paper sheet in the shape of a mantis so fast that Ryan could barely see his paws move. The construct joined four others, representing a monkey, a tiger, a crane, and a snake. “Tada!”
“Nice superpower,” Sarin snickered. “Can you unlock Rubik Cubes too?”
“One of my teammates, Origami, can turn herself into paper sharp enough to slice throats,” Shroud replied dryly. “She could even slice through your suit.”
“You’re salty, aren’t you?” The Psycho taunted him, while focusing on her game.
“Earn my trust first, turncoat, and then we’ll talk.” Though he tolerated Sarin, the vigilante mistrusted her as much as Ryan did in the early days of his presidency. “If you sell us out as you did your previous employer, I will slay you myself.”
“I told your hat pal, if you truly can cure me, then you’ve got nothing to fear from me.” Sarin hit an 8-ball with her pool stick. “Don’t make me wait too long.”
The courier ignored them to focus on his bear disciple. Even Ryan couldn’t fold paper that fast, even though he had mastered the skill years ago. “I thought you were a martial arts Genius?” he asked his pandawan. “Or does your brilliance extend to all eastern disciplines?”
“No, that’s not it,” Len said while shaking her head. “I ran tests. It… it took him minutes to pick up origami, and he… he learned French five pages into Descartes’ book.”
“The more I read, the more it made sense,” the Panda said.
“I think... I think he can learn almost any skill at an accelerated pace,” Len theorized. “Pick up a new language quickly, gain new skills by learning them through osmosis…”
Ryan knew it took on average ten thousand hours to master a skill, but clearly bears only needed half of one. “But how did enhanced learning help make you fly, my young pandawan?”
“That was so weird, Sifu. My vision went all blue, and then I remembered watching Bruce Lee’s flying kick in the Green Hornet.” And to illustrate his point, the Panda mimicked a few kung-fu moves with his paws. “Then I could do it too!”
“You learned one of Bruce Lee’s moves, by remembering it?”
“Yes!” The manbear nodded. “That’s how I learned martial arts, but I was never this good before!”
In half an hour, the Panda had mastered kung-fu, origami, and Descartes.
Ryan dreaded to imagine what he could achieve in a week. His pandawan probably couldn’t learn what a normal human couldn’t, but anything else was fair game. Arithmetic, philosophy, martial arts… perhaps even Genius technology, if given time to observe it. Bruce Lee’s moves were made for humans, and yet the Panda’s second power allowed him to adapt them to his beastly body proportions.
His arrogant young disciple had ascended to shatter the heavens.
Speaking of power, Ryan needed to run tests on his own after he created the new iteration of the Saturn Armor. He would also add a few improvements to deal with Alphonse Manada, such as switching the chest-blaster with the gravity cannon. He had the feeling it would help deal with the nuclear disaster, maybe even Lightning Butt too.
“Well, I should go prepare for my date,” Ryan said. Livia asked him to pick her up at nine, and to be on time. For once, the courier didn’t dare to be fashionably late.
“Good luck, Sifu!” The Panda cheered him up. “I knew the tension was palpable!”
Len, though, seemed a lot less enthusiastic. “Riri, umm… can I… can I talk to you alone for a second?
Ryan nodded, his adoptive sister leading him outside, to the corridor overseeing the hangars. Henriette was playing with the children near the submarine, the dog delighting at having company. The group brought much levity to an otherwise claustrophobic, lifeless place.
Len glanced through the corridor’s window, her arms folded. “You and her…”
“It’s hard to explain,” Ryan admitted.
The Genius held her breath. “In the past loops, did… did my other self know?”
“Well… I kinda told you how I felt, and we decided to stay family afterward.”
Len’s gaze saddened, as she glanced at the Mechron-made submarine floating in the bunker’s water access. “We… we could reach the United States with it,” she said. “Cross the Atlantic Sea.”
“Even I can’t turn back time that far,” Ryan said sadly. “Trust me, I tried. I tried many times.”
“I know, I…” Len bit her lower lips, and didn’t finish her sentence.
Ryan didn’t need her to do so, to guess what she didn’t dare to say. That part of her wondered how their relationship could have ended. They had left each other in tears, and though they had started picking up the pieces, some of them had been forever lost to the sea.
“We could leave this place,” she said, though with hesitation. “After we… after we deal with Dad.”
“I can’t do that, Shortie. Not anymore.” If she had asked when he first arrived in New Rome, Ryan wouldn’t have hesitated. But now… now the time-traveler had too many people to fight for. He couldn’t leave them behind in the dust.
“She will be fine,” Len protested. “She’s… she’s his daughter. Let them tear apart New Rome, if they want that rotten place so much.”
“So I should let her father kill people for her sake?” Ryan asked, and instantly regretted it. Len flinched as if she had been slapped. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t want her to end up like me,” the Genius guessed, avoiding his gaze.
Ryan glanced at the Mechron submarine. “Do you think we could reach Antarctica with that thing?”
She frowned, not understanding what he wanted to say. “Yes, of course.”
“There’s so many mysteries to uncover around the world, so many wonderful places to explore, Shortie,” Ryan said. “Things that make life worth living. Don’t bury yourself under the sea, please. Even whales rise up to take a breath of fresh air sometimes.”
“I just don’t know what to make of everything,” Len admitted. “The Carnival… they killed my father, but if what you’ve said is true…”
“You will let the Carnival operate on you?” he asked her. “Remove your father’s blood tracker?”
“It’s… it’s the last part I have left of him.”
Ryan put his hands in his pocket, choosing his words carefully. His thoughts turned to his discussion with his own Elixir, when he briefly crossed the Black World portal. “Someone told me once that you have to let the dead rest. By trying to keep the dead alive, we only make everyone suffer. Nobody can move on.”
Len wouldn’t answer, her face as blank as a death mask. Ryan’s hand reached for her shoulder, but she avoided his touch. Too soon. Still, he accepted it, hoping his words would prevail.
“Shortie, you’re family,” he said. “That will never change. Not even whatever happens with Livia, if anything happens between us, will change that. You will always stay my best friend, my sister, my most important person in the world.”
“I…” She bit her lower lip. “I… I don’t know what to answer.”
“Then don’t say anything,” Ryan answered with a smile. “What I mean to say is that you’re not alone, and you never have been. You don’t need a ghost to carry on. The children love you, and whenever you trip, I will be there to help you rise back up.”
Ryan and Len fell into a comfortable silence, just as a black sphere phased through the hanger and collapsed into nothingness. It miraculously didn’t harm anyone, though the courier should probably check up on his bedroom before leaving.
“Now, I hope I didn’t give you diabetes,” Ryan joked.
And to his surprise, she chuckled and relaxed. It seemed his wit had broken through her shell. “Riri, about your memory machine…”
“You will try it on? Recover your other self’s memories?” She answered his question with a nod. “What made you change your mind?”
“Even after what happened between us… you offered me your hand.” The shadow of a smile appeared on her face. “It’s time… it’s time I do the same for you.”