Chapter 21

Interrogation Room, 3:12 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

Loren stared at Wraith’s face before frowning in confusion.

“I totally thought you were a robot dude—but you’re actually a lady,” Loren said strangely, studying her closely. “You’ve tricked me, and my entire life is a lie.”

“Yes,” Wraith said calmly. “It is a deception known to only a few.”

“Oh wow,” Loren blinked. “You still sound like a robot.”

Wrath tapped one of the fingers on her left hand, against her hip, once.

“My voice scrambler is currently off,” Wraith said, visibly frowning.

“No—I mean, the way you put together sentences is very uh, robotic,” Loren said awkwardly, flapping his hand to hopefully lead some kind of emphasis to it, though he knew not what. “I thought that would be part of the entire intimidation act.”

“This is simply how I talk,” Wraith said, eyes narrowing to slits.

Loren could tell she was annoyed because her face didn’t hide it at all—her eyebrows were almost vertical, given how scrunched up her face currently was, it was starting to make a lot of sense why she didn’t show her face.

Seriously, it just gave it all away.

“Are you mad that I noticed?” Loren said curiously, unable to stop himself from poking the sleeping bear. “About your voice being like a robot, I mean.”

Wraith’s cheeks were starting to hint at a red color, and her eyes had narrowed to slits as she strained to keep her face still.

“No,” Wraith lied, voice remarkably level considering her expression, “I am not mad at your observation.”

Her voice and face were seemingly at war with each other, and it was hilarious.

“Oh, okay,” Loren said, amused. “Well, why’d you show me your face again? I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re cute and all—”

“I am revealing my identity to you,” Wraith said calmly, but with a sense of urgency. “Because you will be able to use this information to acquire my help in the future.”

“What’s the best way to use this absolutely precious information?” Loren teased, struggling to keep himself from smiling. “Are you sure you’re alright? You’re looking a little flushed.”

Wraith quickly put her helmet back on with a hiss of displaced vapor, hiding her now completely flushed face from view.

“O-oh,” Loren managed to get out, lip twitching badly, “Have you gone into hiding?”

Wraith spun around to face the other way, placing her hands behind her back.

“Wildcard,” Wraith said calmly, but he couldn’t unsee her face, almost superimposed on the back of her helmet. “I will give you my name and a number with which you will be able to contact me discretely. You can use these tools to establish communication between us; I will prepare a coded phrase for you to use, which you will be required to repeat to me. Do you understand so far, or would you like me to repeat anything?”

“Phone number, identity, coded phrase, I’m following,” Loren asked, smiling. “Can you take your helmet back off? I want to see your face again.”

“No,” Wraith said calmly, still facing away from him. “There is no need.”

“Are you still blushing?” Loren laughed, unable to help himself. “Why are you embarrassed?”

Wraith spun around again and folded her arms over her armored chest, the claws clinking on her arm.

“I do not blush.” Wraith insisted. “Wait here, I have several things I must attend to; I will return soon with the coded phrase and a number.”

Loren had a shit-eating grin on his face at this point, unable to stop himself.

“What’s your name anyway?” Loren laughed, “Mines Loren Parker.”

Wraith stopped in the hallway for a moment.

“Alana Paige.” Wraith said calmly, “Do not leave this building until I return, or you will be regarded as an enemy.”

“Sure thing,” Loren agreed, watching her stride away from him.

He waited until the doors of the elevator were closing, and he was sure that she was watching his face before winking at her—the door closed, but he could have sworn he saw her shoulder twitch.

Loren sat back against the table in thought—Wraith had believed him incredibly quickly and proceeded to show him her face—How had she been able to so quickly determine that he was trustworthy of something like that? Alana was definitely a strange lady, but she was also far, far smarter than he was. Even a brief conversation with her was enough to see that—Had he given away some kind of contextual clue to her that she’d seen?

It was possible that she just had some kind of way to tell if he was lying, and since he wasn’t, he was cleared?

There was a tiny little thought in the back of his mind that suggested that she took it all so calmly because she was actually the one behind it—but it just didn’t fit, given how upset she had been in the loop where she had put her fist through his face.

“No,” Loren said firmly. “I’m being paranoid.”

It didn’t make sense, she wouldn’t have shown him her face if that was the case because he would be taking that information with him to the next loop, and she would forget that he knew it. It wasn’t at all practical to do some stupid twisty bullshit like that. Loren wondered if she had this place under surveillance—of course, if it was him, he would have; it was an interrogation room, she likely had cameras and recording devices hidden everywhere.

“Damn, who knew she was such a cutie?” Loren said, scratching his chin.

He didn’t even have his phone on him when he left his apartment, but he had a feeling that he wouldn’t have had any signal down here anyway. Loren wondered what time it was; it was hard to keep track down here—Maybe an hour at most—either way, it gave him plenty of time to think.

This wasn’t the plan he’d been thinking off for this reset before he last died—the intention had been to wait it out again while mitigating Mongoose’s ability to find Emma. He was supposed to let Mark die and steal his phone afterward—all for the sake of trying to reach Thursday again.

This was a massive step forward for him—all because he’d made the snap decision to try and save Mark this time. It felt like the first time his impulsivity had actually accomplished something tangible in his favor. If this actually worked out, he would be able to call on Wraith’s assistance in the future loops.

That was a non-trivial advantage he’d gained, but it wasn’t the only thing he’d accomplished this time. Before this morning, he hadn’t known who the assassins were—with only the name Orient to go off of, he’d failed to find a single mention of them anywhere. Cinematic—a group of mercenaries, or villains, or something—he hadn’t been able to look them up yet, but still.

They were trying to complete a kill contract that someone had put out on every single hero and villain in the city—Maybe even further than that, given what happens in Arrot City in a couple of hour’s time.

That meant the bomber might have been trying to complete the contract as well—just in a far more efficient way by taking all of the HQ Heroes out at once—there had to be a couple of hundred heroes in the Saltwall branch alone.

The question remained; who set the contract? Why did they want to kill all of the capes? What was the point—was it a government or military attempt to retake control from those untouchables who walked amongst them?

If it was one or both of those entities, they’d have to keep on killing every single cape that gained powers—an impossible task because nobody even understood the mechanism by which people got them in the first place.

There had been theories proposed, but none had ever succeeded in explaining why. Sometimes, during moments where people were in danger, or just scared, angry, or any other of the thousands of permutations—they would just gain powers, and that was it.

Some people got them when they were about to die; others simply died.

Loren would have put his own awakening down to frustration—nightmares, poor sleeping habits, and the sound of neighbors who didn’t give two shits about the fact that they weren’t the only people in the building.

Emma was particularly bad for that last one—some nights it was movies playing way too loud, other nights, it was singing at the top of her lungs, and sometimes she brought home companions—it wasn’t just Mark either, sometimes it was girls, sometimes it was guys.

All of it culminating in a night where Loren was tired, pissed off, and shit out of patience—he’d have to thank her one of these days because now that he had something, he couldn’t even consider going back to being that normal guy.

Hell, if he hadn’t gotten his powers that day, he would have died a couple of days later permanently. Emma Young had actually saved his life by being the most annoying neighbor he’d ever had, the irony.

His distracted musings were cut short when Wraith returned the door to the elevator was silent, the motion of it opening being what had actually alerted him.

Wraith looked much the same as she had before, and as much as he studied her armor with his new knowledge, he couldn’t at all see a hint that she was a woman. Her walk gave nothing away; the amour was perfectly contoured for a man, wide-shouldered, mechanical segments all hinting at a muscular form beneath it.

He’d never have guessed that one.

“Wildcard,” Wraith said calmly.

“What are we doing about Arrot City?” Loren asked before anything else, “The explosion there is only a couple of hours off—”

“Four hours, twenty minutes,” Wraith corrected simply, “There is nothing that can be done in that time without the mastermind responding by setting of the devices here in retaliation.”

Loren gritted his teeth and sat back on the table, it was frustratingly beyond belief that now he finally had her on his side, but she just gave up on all of them immediately?

He’d been fighting with his decision to stay the course and let them all die, and each time he thought about it, he was finding it harder to stick with. Loren had started to build up an image in his mind of her solving all of his issues with a few genius moves.

Instead they were just giving up?

“So we just let all those people die?” Loren said, frowning, “I’m not cool with that—”

“Wildcard,” Wraith said levelly, “They will die this time, but they will not die every time.”

“Sacrificing them now to give ourselves a couple of days to prepare isn’t exactly a moral choice I’m happy with making, but I’ve set myself on that course,” Loren said stubbornly. “Aren’t you a hero? How are you going to let them all die?”

“With the existence of your power,” Wraith said evenly, “The gameboard is much larger than a single round; with enough preparation, you will save them, but one cannot win this game with only a single match.”

“Lose the battle, but win the war is fine when it’s a game,” Loren argued, “This isn’t one; these are real people.”

All of his frustrations were coming out now, the arguments he’d had fought with inside his own head.

“Real people that will not remember any of the harm that has befallen them,” Wraith spoke slowly, trying to make him understand.

“If you torture someone for twenty-four hours,” Loren said suddenly, staring at the black glass over her eyes. “and then proceed to wipe their memory of the event, is it okay?”

“Neither you nor I are the ones torturing them,” Wraith said carefully, “Your analogy is flawed.”

Loren bared his teeth for a moment. The sidestep was obvious—there was no way she thought this way, okay.

“Take your helmet off,” Loren said quietly.

Wraith didn’t move for a long time before reaching up and removing her helmet once more—Loren met her eyes.

“If you let someone be tortured for twenty-four hours while knowing you could have done something to stop it,” Loren said steadily, studying her face. “Then let them get memory wiped, ready for round two—is this okay?”

Wraith’s answer was written on her face.

“Didn’t think so,” Loren said clearly. “I’m stumbling my way through this mess, and this isn’t something I enjoy doing—I thought….I was hoping you would talk me out of it, not encourage me.”

“You don’t understand,” Alana said quietly. “You’re not thinking far enough ahead.”

“Explain it to me then,” Loren said, frowning.

Alana circled him before placing her helmet down on the table and taking a seat in the other chair. Loren slipped off the table and took the seat opposite her.

“For clarification,” Alana said quietly, watching him. “You’re arguing that those people in Arrot City experiencing pain and death, even if it is later erased and forgotten—is a bad outcome.”

A… strange way of putting it, but essentially it was his argument if reduced to its base components. He’d never had someone actually take the time to try and understand his side of an argument before; this was a novel experience.

“Yes,” Loren said easily.

“The people of Arrot City dying is a bad outcome,” Alana repeated quietly, “Wildcard—”

“Sorry,” Loren interrupted, “Can you just use my name?”

“Loren, a thought experiment,” Alana said without issue, “If all the people of Arrot City dying is rated as a negative outcome equivalent to fifty points, out of one-thousand; what value would you give them dying twice in a row?”

Loren sat back in his chair, giving the question a serious amount of thought—His initial thought was that 50/1000 was a ludicrously low rating for how bad a situation everyone dying was—but that was an emotional response that didn’t help here. His second thought was that if the bad outcome was 50, then the obvious answer was 100/1000.

The problem was, she was far too smart to go about making his own argument for him—if every death they underwent increased that bad outcome value, then it was obvious that they should try and avoid increasing the rating, right?

He couldn’t see her angle, and her face only showed an intense curiosity to his answer.

“If a single event is fifty, then two in a row is a hundred,” Loren said simply, choosing the easy answer despite knowing he was somehow falling into her trap. “That’s an argument for my point, by the way; increasing the value is obviously a bad thing that we should be trying to stop.”

“It’s not—what if in your continued failed attempts to save them, it takes you five-hundred tries to stop the Arrot City bombing,” Alana said quietly, watching him. “What score would you give that?”

Loren flinched at the harsh wording and turned away from her as he realized what she was getting at—Five hundred bumbling attempts at saving them, all ending in their repeated deaths versus spending the time better.

By not coming up with a proper solution, he would be letting the people of Arrot City get tortured five hundred times instead of just a hundred—Overall it would have a ‘higher negative value.’

“I apologize for my poor wording,” Alana said quietly, chewing on her lip. “I should—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Loren brushed it off; it was only words. “You’re right—I got the message; I should be spending my time better.”

There was some useful advice to extract from her point of view, as much as it had felt like a punch to the gut.

“I wasn’t chastising you,” Alana said quietly, glancing away.

“You were,” Loren said, amused, “It’s fine though I know what I’m like after all—I make a lot of impulsive decisions based on the information I have in the moment, Alana. It works for me in other parts of my life; it’s what finally got me here in this loop.”

Loren folded his hands behind his head and leaned back into his chair.

“Well, what’s the plan then?” Loren said, smiling lopsidedly, “You’re obviously the smarter one here—I guess that makes me the pretty one, or maybe I’m just the funny one, and you’re both smart and pretty?”

Her face was growing flushed at his teasing again, but this time she made no move to put the helmet back on.

“Moving on,” Alana said calmly, quickly producing a familiar black rectangle from absolutely nowhere and sliding it across the table. “The number we spoke of is inside; it is a simple one to memorize; please do so as soon as possible.”

“Did you steal my phone from my apartment?” Loren said incredulously. “—How’d you even get into my phone to put anything in it?”

“I…was aware that you did not have it on your person, so I retrieved it for you,” Wraith said slowly. “I apologize; in an effort to hasten the task at hand, I took the liberty of unlocking it myself and entering the number.”

He just shook his head before checking the phone for the number—It was easy to remember, but the contact was listed under ‘WAP.’ Loren stared at it for a long time before looking up at her face; she just stared back curiously.

“Uh,” Loren said eloquently, “What do these letters stand for?”

“Wraith, Alana Paige.” Alana said, frowning, “Was the identifier not obvious enough?”

How could such a badass hero be so sheltered?

“Do you even know what ‘WAP’ stands for?” Loren said, baffled.

“I was unaware it was an abbreviation for anything,” Alana said frowning, “Is it a problem?”

“No, no, that’s great,” Loren said, laughing, “You know—I don’t think I’ve even had a woman put her number in my phone under a name like that—that’s super flattering, really.”

“What exactly does it mean?” Alana said slowly, looking nervous.

Hours later, Loren entered his apartment, clicking the light on during the process.

Not informing anybody about Arrot City was not sitting well with him, despite the fact that he understood why they shouldn’t.

Wraith was going to be investigating the bombs and keeping him updated on any insights she could uncover. He was informed that the best course of action was indeed to see through the outcome of this loop and to remain at his apartment until Thursday.

His main task was to recite and write down both the phone number and the coded phrase as often as possible in order to be able to recall it from memory in the next loop. He found one of his many art binders and tossed it on the bed with his pens, made a coffee, and sat down in front of his book.

Writing the same thing a million times wasn’t fun, but it was completely necessary. After almost an hour of what had to be the most dedicated focus he’d ever spent on improving his handwriting, he found himself sketching out a picture and reciting the coded phrase under his breath.

Loren smirked down at the picture, burning it into his mind, the moment when he told her exactly what the abbreviation she had used meant—Alana Paige, wide-eyed, with both hands on her bright red cheeks, stared back at him, expression mortified.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 21

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