The conquest of Mechron’s mainframe could be summed up in one sentence.
They came, they saw, they lucked out.
“That’s painful to watch,” Bianca said, as Ryan played a movie montage in the recreational area. He had set up a large screen TV near the bar, allowing Sarin, Eugène-Henry, and the orphaned children to watch ‘The Adventures of Lucky Girl’ in high definition. Shroud also talked to Fortuna away from the group, or rather at her; the Augusti scowled while petting a cleaned up Henriette between the ears, and spoke one word for ten of her boyfriend’s.
As Ryan had expected, the living lucky charm had tremendously helped in accessing the bunker’s mainframe. The time-traveler’s presidential coalition had raided it as soon as Alchemo and his daughter arrived, with cameras catching everything. In the end, Ryan compiled the best bits for posterity.
And what a collection it was! From laser guns blowing up in robots’ faces, to friendly fire and the ceiling miraculously collapsing, this movie had it all; the children couldn’t stop laughing.
“And now this is the best part,” Ryan said, zooming at his favorite scene. Two one-eyed robots threatened Fortuna with a cannon weapon larger than they were inside a metal hall, the distance between the machines and the Genome no more than five meters. “This is a Gauss Railgun. Mechron invented them to destroy aircrafts and battleships.”
The scene unfolded in slow motion, an electromagnetically-accelerated 300 mm round surging through the air at a helpless Fortuna.
Mechron’s robots had used a weapon meant for battleships on a human being.
And they missed.
The projectile had curved in the air, and pierced the wall behind Fortuna. Although the impact threw metal splinters in all directions, they miraculously avoided Lucky Girl and turned her attackers to scraps. It had been the high point of Fortuna’s luck streak.
Afterward, though, Mechron’s robots had figured out that one, her power only affected events within a short range—less than a ten meters radius, from what the courier had gathered so far—and two, couldn’t negate other Genomes’ powers. True, it could alter probabilities to make bullets miss, but it couldn’t prevent Atom Cat’s explosions for example.
Ryan figured that Fortuna’s power was the opposite of Pluto, altering this reality’s causality to work in her favor instead of cursing a foe; with the keyword being this reality. Lucky Girl’s divine protection couldn’t interfere with powers from other Colored Worlds, only with their indirect consequences. Long-distance abilities could harm her.
So instead of using submachine guns and normal weapons, the robots sent the telekinetic machine that splattered the Reptilian during Ryan’s first presidential mandate. The creature would have crushed Fortuna into mincemeat from a safe distance had the courier and the Panda not intervened. And as it turned out, Mechron’s bunker had more than one of such machines to throw at invaders.
Though Ryan’s group included heavy hitters such as Livia, Shroud, the Panda, and other allies, it had been a close call in the end.
“This is disgusting,” Sarin said at the scene. “Just disgusting. I’m afraid of scissors, and that girl… she just gets everything handed to her.” She turned to face Fortuna. “How does it feel to have it all so easy?”
“Oh?” Fortuna raised her reddened eyes in confusion. She clearly hadn’t slept in a while. “It’s nice.”
“Fortuna—” her boyfriend tried to speak.
“Don’t say a word to me,” Fortuna’s rebuke made Shroud flinch, which Ryan found very, very wrong. She had been in a foul mood even before the raid, but he had yet to see her truly angry. Henriette licked her hand, as the young woman petted the dog behind the ears. “At least you care…”
It seemed that Fortuna not only gave the cold shoulder to her ‘one true love,’ but also transferred her affection to Henriette instead. She had cleaned the dirty dog and more or less adopted her.
Ryan was tempted to question Livia about this, but his girlfriend had left to return to her father after providing Alchemo with the brain-maps. The Genius had accepted Ryan’s story of time-travel after analyzing his own memory map, and eagerly proceeded to operate on his daughter and Len both. He had said he could even improve the process further, though the courier didn’t see how.
“Could I see you for a minute?” Ryan gestured at Shroud, before grabbing Eugène-Henry. “No invisibility please.”
The vigilante followed with a condemned man’s enthusiasm, as Ryan led him into his bunker bedroom. “So, your luck has run out?” he asked his transparent friend, with Eugène-Henry resting in the courier’s arms.
“We’re having a bad time.”
No kidding, a blind man could see it. “Thankfully, I have a long experience as a relationship counselor,” Ryan said. “In the end, it’s all about mommy issues, you’ll see. Was your mother a blue-eyed blonde too, like your girlfriend?”
The vigilante marked a short pause, before reluctantly answering, “Yes.”
“See, in the end, it’s always about sleeping with your mother.”
“But they’re nothing alike personality-wise.”
“You tried to find the right balance between familiarity and newness, but we can explore the Freudian undertones later.” Ryan introduced his favorite windshield to his bedroom. There was a small hole in the wall where the plushie had opened fire with the gravity gun. The inactive rabbit in question sat on a desk, surrounded by half-empty alcohol bottles and antidepressants; Ryan thought the sight would help with the counseling session. “Take the cat, and lay down on the bed.”
Shroud sounded highly skeptical of Ryan’s credentials. “Why the cat?”
“It’s an integral part of the healing process,” Ryan said before all but shoving Eugène-Henry in his ally’s arms. Shroud looked at the furball, who meowed in response, and couldn’t resist. He laid down on the bed, the cat taking over his chest while Ryan sat on a nearby chair. “So, about that relationship.”
“She…” Shroud marked a short pause while Ryan remained silent. Nobody could resist trying to fill an embarrassing silence. “Promise me you will not crack a joke.”
“No more than three,” Ryan haggled.
“I hate you.” The patient sighed. “Fortuna and I had a date.”
“She invited me to her apartment. To show me her statue collection.”
“She wanted to sculpt you like her French boys?” A worrying thought crossed Ryan’s mind. “Wait, are you naked beneath your glass costume? Would that mean you are technically flashing my cat right now?”
Shroud marked a short pause, Eugène-Henry sleeping peacefully on his chest. “I wear clothes beneath my costume.”
Ryan sighed. “Disappointing.”
“In any case, Fortuna, how to say this…?”
“She needed a plumber, so you played Super Mario Party?” Ryan asked. “Did you get past the tutorial?”
“No, no, I…” The vigilante’s embarrassment told Ryan that he had nailed it. “We kissed but, when she started removing my clothes, I… I couldn’t. I mean, yes, I was attracted to her, but… not like this.”
“Not by lying?” the courier asked, sympathetic. There was a joke to make here, but he had enough respect for the couple to hold his tongue. Still, Shroud was okay with assassinating people, but not lying to the girl he was sleeping with? Where was the logic in that?
“I…” Mr. Safelite let out a sigh. “I confessed.”
“No, of course not,” Shroud replied angrily. “That would have been unprofessional.”
“Transparency is key to a successful relationship.”
“I’m sure this cleared things up about where we stood,” the vigilante deadpanned. “I told her that I came to New Rome to strike at the Augusti syndicate, and that… that I was always around to accidentally protect her from dangers because I caused them in the first place.”
Ryan couldn’t fault Fortuna for giving her boyfriend the cold shoulder, after learning he had attempted to assassinate her and others. “She hasn’t blown the whistle on you, though?”
“I told her that I thought she was a merciless killer like her teammates, before seeing her in action changed my mind, and that I put a halt to the sabotage campaign,” Shroud replied. “She started defending the Augusti, and when I listed all the people her father Mars had murdered over his career, she denied everything and told me to storm off. I almost did, but the door and curtains wouldn’t open. In the end, I slept on the couch, and she has given me the cold shoulder ever since.”
“If her power is still trying to set up romantic situations, then this ship hasn’t sunk yet.”
“Shouldn’t it?” Shroud asked with a sigh. “I mean, I’m starting to grow fond of her, against my better judgement, but she’s in complete denial about her organization’s true nature. I should have pushed her away more firmly and focused on the missio—”
“Stop right here, Sasuke, you’re parking in a no-emo zone,” Ryan interrupted him. “If you go on about how you should have ‘dedicated your heart to darkness’ or ‘put the mission above everything’ I’m kicking you off of this team.”
“But what if she tells her parents?” Shroud snapped back. “What if she blows the whistle about this place, about us? I’m not even sure why she hasn’t already.”
“Because her brother told her similar things when he left, and it’s eating away at her.” Ryan suspected that deep down, Fortuna had some doubts about her parents’ true nature and that of her associates; but it would take a shock like Pluto ordering a hit on her brother to wake her up. “Did you tell her the truth about her sister?”
“No. Maybe I should.”
“Too much, too soon,” Ryan said. “I’ll consult Livia.” Lucky Girl would react better to the truth if it came from her best friend’s mouth.
The vigilante sighed in defeat. “I should take the hint and break it off. Her power has a shorter range than mine, it can’t force us to spend time together if I stay away. I knew that from the start, and I shouldn’t have let it progress this far.”
“Livia and I threatened each other the first time we had a heartfelt conversation, and I think we are building something solid now,” Ryan replied with a shrug. “Give Fortuna time to digest the truth and this relationship another chance. Her guardian angel wouldn’t work so hard to keep you two together if it didn’t feel you would make a good couple. And I don’t think you would have stayed with that walking rabbit's foot if a part of you didn’t like her.”
Shroud scoffed, Eugène-Henry snoring on his chest. “I like her, Quicksave, but not enough to let her parents get away with their crimes.”
“There was a loop where she understood their true nature,” Ryan said, though he had no wish to repeat that one. The sight of Fortuna bleeding to death in her brother’s arms still haunted him. “Maybe she will get it this time around too. It’s too early to choose yet my translucent friend. Once things are clearer, you can decide for yourself whether you want to pursue her or call it off.”
Shroud petted the cat. “You aren’t half bad as a therapist.”
“Do you want to talk about your daddy issues while we’re at it? I’m on a streak lately.”
Getting his feelings off his chest made Shroud relax, so the two Genomes left Eugène-Henry to sleep and moved to the laboratories below. By the time they reached the infirmary, Alchemo had finished Len’s memory transfer. The communist genius was talking with the Doll, while Alchemo and the Panda conversed with Stitch.
The Carnival’s Genius had arrived roughly at the same time as Braindead and his daughter, to remove the Bloodstream strain inside Len and work on a vaccine. With access to Mechron’s database and laboratories, Ryan had put Dr. Tyrano and Stitch in contact, and the two had hit it off well from what he had heard. Of course, the Carnival doctor hadn’t been happy to work with someone responsible for infecting New Rome with a sleeping bloody plague, but decided to make the most of the situation.
“Three Geniuses and a half in one room,” Ryan said as he and Shroud joined the group. “You should form a Think Tank.”
“Am I the half, Sifu?” The Panda asked.
“Truthfully, you might become a de facto Genius in time,” Stitch replied, scribbling notes in a journal. Ryan had learned the plague doctor usually preferred to work on paper rather than computers, for reasons the courier couldn’t explain. “Since our science can be replicated.”
In the span of two days, Ryan’s pandawan had learned the equivalent of two Doctorates in medical science and chemistry, five Masters’ degrees, and eight languages; including Chinese, Basque, Inuit, and even the Braille writing system. Though he was no true Genius, he could serve as a very effective lab assistant.
“Are you alright, Shortie?” Ryan asked his old friend.
“I’m… I’m fine.” Len scratched her head. “It’s… strange. I remember some days happening in two different ways, rather than one. I am not sure which of them is the correct one. Is that always the case for you?”
Yes, but usually with thousands of variations instead of one. Sometimes the time-traveler forgot which one he validated for his Perfect Run. “Was that what you meant about improving the memory transfer?” Ryan asked Alchemo.
“Yes, memories coexisting rather than a straight override,” the Genius shrugged. “I struggle to find a workaround for your pet Psycho Sarin though. I work best with nerves, not gaseous molecules.”
Shroud crossed his arms, appraising Alchemo closely. “According to Quicksave, you are a brain Genius,” he said, his voice hesitant. Ryan could tell he had been through many false hopes, and thus remained cautious. “Could you heal a woman with severe brain damage?”
“That depends,” Alchemo said, ever the opportunist. “How much is she worth?”
The Doll pinched the Genius’ metal arm. “Dad, we spoke about this before.”
“Ugh, you will be the death of me,” Braindead complained, but gave in quickly. He could never say no to his daughter. “I can treat dementia, Alzheimer's, all sorts of brain damage. Give me that woman’s medical data, and I shall see what I can do.”
Shroud bowed in deep gratitude. “You have my most sincere thanks.”
“Don’t thank me, thank my naive daughter and her bleeding heart.”
The Doll smiled in response. “Dad, one day you will understand that helping others is a reward in itself.”
“Can you eat happiness?” Alchemo replied with a cranky tone. “Or sell it?”
“I would be interested in cooperating with you in the long-term,” Stitch said. “We Geniuses have extensive knowledge, but only in a narrow field. I believe we could achieve greater things together than separately. We complete parts of a larger sequence.”
Indeed, Ryan had had the same idea with Nora. He could already see the synergies she would form with Shortie to develop underwater cities. “About cooperation, how is our vaccination campaign going?” the courier asked, Len looking away.
“I already created a formula based on the information you and this… strange scaled doctor provided,” Stitch answered, showing Ryan his notes. “Once distributed in the population through airborne means, it should spread through New Rome in days and Europe in weeks.”
Good. “And Bliss?”
“I have studied your proposed cure, and I believe I could develop a viral version, yes. A nervous system suppressant alongside endorphin blockers would prevent the physiological and psychological addiction.”
“Nothing revolutionary,” Alchemo complained, slightly jealous Ryan had achieved something in his domain of expertise. “I could make something similar.”
“Even solve the fertility issues?” Ryan deadpanned.
“Pff, if you ask me it’s an improvement.”
“But so long as the Augusti possess a superlab, they can make new Bliss strains,” Shroud pointed out grimly. “A cure will cripple their business in the short-term, but not forever.”
Indeed, Lightning Butt and Bacchus had the resources to create new drugs, given time. Ryan doubted the superlab’s destruction would stop them either. The loss of Bliss would be a heavy blow to the Augusti’s crime empire, but not a fatal one. They needed to take out the key figures in the criminal syndicate, to clear the way for Livia to reform it.
The courier quickly noticed Len’s unease, and changed the subject. “Shortie, can I talk to you for a second?”
His best friend answered with a short nod, and they walked away to a more private room. The same one where Big Fat Adam had once interrogated Ryan, in fact. “How do you feel?” the time-traveler asked, before adding with more hesitation. “About your father.”
“I feel the same,” she answered grimly. “Nothing’s changed.”
As Ryan had worried. He would have hoped that whatever bloodstain her father left in Len’s body had brainwashed her, forcing his daughter to love him. It would have made everything so much easier. “Since you have the memories of both this loop and the previous one, then you understand what happened.”
“He killed me.” Len didn’t cry, though her voice was bitter and sad. “Ryan, you’ve seen him. Is there… is there any hope for him?”
“I don’t think so,” Ryan admitted. “He’s closer to a virus than a man now, and I don’t think he’s even self-aware anymore. Killing him would be mercy.”
“I…” She took a long, deep breath. “That day, the reason I didn’t run away with you was… because there was a chance he could improve. No matter how slim. If...”
Len struggled to articulate her thoughts, and Ryan waited patiently.
“If… I can only agree to do this if my father… my real father is already dead, truly dead.” Len crossed her arms and looked down at the cold steel floor. “If there is still a chance we can cure him, bring the human out…”
There wasn’t any, but Ryan knew Len needed more time to accept it. She hadn’t witnessed her father’s state personally, as her memory map had been recorded before the Dynamis raid.
“Shortie, a long, long time ago, I made a decision for the both of us, and I’ve paid the price ever since,” the courier declared. “You know where I stand as far as your father is concerned, but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. This time… this time, we’ll make the decision together.”
“Not now, Riri,” she said upon raising her eyes, her face pleading. “Not now. I… I need more time. It’s too big a decision to make now.”
“I understand,” he replied. “We can delay the Dynamis raid for later. We’ll use this loop to test the vaccine, gather information, and find a cure for the Psycho condition.”
“So what’s the plan? This place won’t stay hidden forever, Riri. Someone will talk.”
“After we deal with the Bliss Factory, we’ll have to skip town to avoid Lightning Butt’s retaliations. We’ll blow up the bunker on our way out, and move to the one place where we could find the cure for the Psycho condition. Its source.”
With the bunker’s mainframe under their control, Ryan could also now recreate the Saturn armor, and finally get to the bottom of his new ability.
Len nodded. “Antarctica.”
“We’ll make a stop near Monaco on the way,” Ryan said with a grin. “There are people there that I haven’t visited in a while. It would make for a nice holiday.”
A smile appeared at the edge of Len’s lip, but it was soon drowned by sadness.
“I… I heard you talk with Livia through the chronoradio.” Len bit her lower lip. “You’re dating her.”
It was more of a statement than a question.
“She’s… she’s good for me. I can’t explain it.” Ryan scratched the back of his neck. “Like, she confiscated all the combat drugs I kept in my car. When I said I only used them for suicide runs, she replied ‘yes, that’s the problem. It reinforces your belief that you throw your life away, and that’s not good for your mental health.’”
“She’s… she’s not wrong.”
“Yeah, it made sense in hindsight,” Ryan replied. “At one point in time, I didn’t care about dying. It was part of the fun, but now… now I do mind.”
Ryan didn’t want to die anymore. He wanted to spend lifetimes with Livia, with Len, with the friends he had made along the way. Short, adrenaline-rushed loops were fun, but they were like drug injections. They only served to dull the pain.
They were a crutch, and wouldn’t help him heal.
Eventually, Len nodded to herself. “She’s… she’s good for you, I agree. I can see that. She’s helping you get better, like you do with me.”
“But you would have preferred something else.”
“I… I said things couldn’t go back to how they were, so… so I can’t fault you for moving on. It’s… we’re family now, and… you deserve someone who makes you happy.”
“You’ll find someone too,” Ryan said. “The world is full of wonderful people. Maybe I’m not the right person for you anymore, but somewhere, there is one that fits the bill.”
“Perhaps,” she replied, and for once she sounded cautiously optimistic. “It’s… I’ve lived in the past for so long, because… because I was scared.”
Scared of being hurt again.
“But seeing you happier, and not just with Livia… it gets me thinking.” Len smiled. “Maybe there’s hope for the world, and me too. I should look forward, not backward.”
It was time for both of them to move on.