Chapter 27

Loren’s Apartment, Setalite City, 2:39 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

“That’s quite the accusation,” Dovetail laughed lightly, “I have to admit, I’m hurt—”

“Boo, fucking, hoo,” Loren snapped. “Get out of my apartment, neither of you have my permission to be here—this is a home invasion.”

“We are both here on the authority of the Setalite City Hero HQ,” Dovetail said clearly, “We are simply investigating a report of violence—”

“Oh! You mean when Mark Turner,” Loren interrupted with faux cheer, “Broke into my home and attacked me? Or how about when he came back five minutes later, dressed as Gradient? Sure, he’s right next to you buddy, take him away!”

Mark crossed his arms.

“I’m afraid that’s not the events that have been reported,” Dovetail said smiling, “You see, revealing an HQ Heroes identity is a criminal offense—”

“I’m too busy to listen to the bullshit you’ve made up to pin on me murderer,” Loren interrupted, “Get the fuck out of here.”

Dovetail twitched minutely at the accusation and slowly turned to his teammate before shrugging.

“Hey, I tried?” Dovetail said lightly, “Looks like we’re doing it the hard way—You are under arrest and will be accompanying us to the Setalite City Hero HQ. I implore you to come willingly. We are authorized to and will be using force if you fail to comply.”

Loren could see the almost translucent energy that started to crawl over the man’s shoulders, seemingly dripping upwards into the air. It washed down to cover the rest of his body and lifted his hair up into the air in defiance of gravity.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Loren said clearly. “And I will use force to defend myself from a killer like you.”

The man’s smile vanished again, and then Loren didn’t have any time left to think—Dovetail was fast, at least as fast as Mongoose, and hit at least as strong as Gradient. The first hit sent him tumbling backward into the bedroom, and before he had even got up from his knees, the man’s foot crashed into his mouth, lifting him off the ground and straight into the ceiling.

Loren fell downwards onto all fours on the floor of his bedroom, debris raining down on him. There was no pain, and the core of energy inside him grew with each impact. He staggered to his feet, and then Gradient kicked his left leg out from underneath him, around the same time that Dovetail struck him in the face, flipping him over twice and back into the floor.

He rolled this time, bracing himself as he came to his feet, and when Gradient hit him from the side, he held his ground against the man’s clearly restrained strength—Dovetail hit him about three times as hard.

Loren smashed into the wall of his apartment and out the other side, sending a shower of bricks and drywall into the dark alleyway below. He spun uncontrollably in the air and then slammed into the ground with a crack, shattering the surrounding pavement.

He stared up at the hole in his apartment wall from flat on his back as Dovetail and Gradient came to stand at the edge of the hole, looking down at him. He slowly got to his feet, watching them, still completely unharmed from the battle.

Loren got a tight hold of the energy inside him for the first time, braced himself, and then leap upwards. The ground shattered beneath him, sending shards of concrete in every direction. He crashed into Dovetail an instant later, sending them back into the room in a heap.

This time he managed to stay on top, and he struck downwards at the man, hitting him across the face twice before Gradient got his arm under his chin from behind and cranked it. He immediately felt the blood flow to his head slow and scrabbled for purchase on the man’s arm as Dovetail snagged his wrist from below him.

Loren struck the man beneath him twice more with his free hand, breaking Dovetail’s nose in the process, before everything started to fade out.

The high tech cell hummed as he sat up with a grunt—as far as Loren could tell, it was the same one Wraith had put him in when he’d been captured by her. It must have been for those who were detained and whose powers were still mostly unknown. The core in his chest was empty of that energy that had grown inside of him, but tapping his knuckle on the unyielding floor was enough to add a small charge to it—he still had access to his power.

“Fuck this,” Loren groaned, flopping back onto the floor.

He’d lost it finally, the stress of all of it had finally reached a critical mass and exploded. What a waste, now he was once again stuck in a cell.

Cinematic was a force to be reckoned with—without the element of surprise, they were capable of insane levels of coordination. How had they even known to drive in front of that truck? Loren hadn’t even known where he was going until he’d landed on the roof of the truck. Somehow they had known what he was going to do and started driving on the road in advance, or at the very least teleported the car onto the highway.

How could they have known that?

Hadn’t Beat said that his teammate would come up with a plan to break everyone out—Was it likely that this was a result of Storyboard planning out his and Chloe’s assassination? If it was, to defeat them in each loop, he would need to beat them on the first try or avoid revealing himself to them in any way to avoid retaliation.

The other option was to go after Storyboard directly, take the mastermind out of the equation, which would allow him a bit more room to maneuver. Finding out where their base was located would be the first issue he needed to solve for that to happen. Chloe hadn’t deserved what they’d done to her, and he’d practically let it happen by hesitating when everything had disappeared—He should have just fled as soon as he’d seen the automatons.

Letting Arret go had doomed him—a single moment of weakness where he’d let her go, and it had ended with the loop once more crushing him under its inevitability. The loop was most likely failed long before that since Wraith had been killed.

Trying to pinpoint exactly where it had started to go off the rails was a nightmare. Beat had been the one to kill Wraith, but he wouldn’t have been able to escape his cell if it hadn’t been for Crescents attack on the HQ—but the reason she attacked the HQ, to begin with, was predicated on something else entirely.

Loren had speculated that the reason she had was because of the breaking news report that heroes were killing villains in their beds—or at least that Dovetail, one of the more popular ones, had done so.

So how did he even stop that? Isometric had been the one to take the story to the reporter, but she had only done it in the last loop, even though Dovetail most likely killed her teammates in every single loop.

Why was the last one different?

The obvious answer was that Isometric was one of Dovetail’s targets, and the man had managed to get her in the other loops but not in that one. The less obvious answer was that she was one of Cinematic’s targets.

He’d disrupted their flow last time. They’d needed to call in reinforcements after Loren had saved Gradient, pulling both Beat and Arret off of whatever job they’d been on. Archetype had asked Beat about whether or not the others had any luck with their targets—Animate had been angry to get pulled away from whichever his job had been.

It was entirely possible that either Beat and Arret, or Aperture and Animate had gone after Isometric.

They seemed to work in pairs—Screener and Cutaway. Beat and Arret. The others he wasn’t so sure, but it could have been Animate and the person in the car who’d deployed the sensory deprivation—most likely Aperture. Storyboard and Orient could have been another pair as well. Archetype seemed to be a lone wolf, judging by the conversation he’d overheard.

Loren threaded his hands into his hair in frustration, it was all so complicated. The real problem was that there wasn’t a better timeline—If he saved Gradient and somehow managed to survive Cinematic’s attack, then Crescent would still attack, releasing all of the prisoners.

If Loren didn’t help, Gradient would die. Isometric would die. Crescent would never attack to free the rest of Ascent early.

In both timelines, Archetype would be hunting down Chloe as well. She was apparently safe—at least until Thursday as long as the tournament was happening. He’d have to tell Wraith not to cancel the tournament, that would get Archetype off Chloe’s back—The door across from the cell opened, dragging Loren out of his frustrated musings.

“I’m not saying shit to you,” Loren said darkly, “I’ll talk to Wraith and nobody else.”

“Sorry, friend!” Dovetail said pleasantly, “You don’t get much choice in here—I’d like to ask you some questions—”

“Why go after Stalk and Piston specifically?” Loren interjected.

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” Dovetail said, maintaining his pleasant demeanor. “I haven’t gone after either of them.”

The fact that he was still alive told him that much, so Gradients call for reinforcements had interrupted his plan to kill the members of The Crew this morning.

“How about Isometric?” Loren said pointedly. “Were you going to kill her as well?”

Dovetail tilted his head fractionally, almost as if he was confused.

“I have no intention of going after any members of The Crew.” Dovetail repeated, “Why were you destroying that apartment this morning?”

Loren doubted he would get anything out of this man—what he wouldn’t give for a lie detector power right now.

“It’s my apartment,” Loren said easily, “It’s none of your business. Why did Mark break into my home and attack me with superpowers? Why did he return a couple of minutes after he attacked me dressed as Gradient?”

Dovetail blew a burst of air out of his nose before crossing his arms.

“When did you first find yourself with powers?” Dovetail said with forced calm.

Fuck it, Loren wasn’t going to listen to this asshole.

“When did you first decide to betray all your hero friends for a shot at ten million dollars?” Loren returned. “Seems pretty strange. Were you always a greedy fuck, or did you just wake up today and discard all of your morals on a whim?”

Loren felt a pang of shame as he realized how much he was projecting his own self-hatred for what he had done to Beat at the man. Dovetail seemed to be reaching the end of his patience as well.

“Listen, do you understand your situation? You’re in a high-security cell. You fought two heroes,” Dovetail snapped, “Do you think now is the time to make up delusional stories?”

“What was your plan anyway?” Loren said clearly, “Sneak into their hideout while they were asleep, strangle Stalk to death? Piston would have been a bit more of a problem. Maybe you’d slit her throat first so she would be too panicked to land a shot?”

Dovetail had gone completely silent at this point, fists clenched at his side in a white-knuckled grip.

“How long have you known where the hideout was?” Loren continued relentlessly, “Were you just going to come back to work the next day—Hi Gradient! Hi Mongoose! Look at my new Rolex. Where did I get it? I just drove down to the jewelers in my new Lambo!”

“Shut the fuck up.” Dovetail hissed under his breath, stepping closer to the cell bars.

“Where’d you get the money for that?” Loren said, voice pitched high and feigning surprise, “What? A Nigerian prince contacted you asking for help with his inheritance? That almost never happens—so lucky!”

Translucent energy flickered into existence along the man’s shoulders before vanishing as the door opened again, and Dovetail took a deep breath before letting it out slowly. Wraith strode over to stand next to him.

“I’ll take it from here, Dovetail,” Wraith said without inflection.

Dovetail spun around and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him in his hasty departure. Loren felt a flicker of satisfaction cut through him at seeing the man leave in such a huff.

“Loren Parker,” Wraith said evenly, studying him like an insect. “You already knew of Gradients civilian identity before the events that occurred tonight. Who have you revealed this information to?”

“Let’s see if I can remember this correctly.” Loren cleared his throat, thinking over the code.

“As far as I can tell, two things changed last time,” Loren admitted, “You got the Crescendo tournament canceled, and Isometric managed to get the story of what happened to The Crew into a reporter’s hands.”

Wraith had moved him into her office, still in handcuffs. She had locked down her office entirely, guaranteeing that nobody would be able to listen in on their conversation.

“What stopped Isometric from releasing this story before?” Wraith said steadily. “Was she killed prior to speaking out?”

“It’s only a guess, but I think so,” Loren said, frowning. “It was either Dovetail or one of the members of Cinematic.”

“You’ve indicated that Dovetail has died in almost every loop while attempting to kill Serpentine,” Wraith said simply, “The video footage you described showed that neither Serpentine nor Isometric were at the hideout during the event. Where did Dovetail first locate Serpentine?”

“No idea,” Loren sighed.

Wraith was still for a moment.

“It’s likely that Isometric saw the murders and informed Serpentine about the events at the hideout.” Wraith theorized, “We have long speculated that she has access to a power that allows her to view things remotely. The limits or strength of her power is unknown.”

Loren just nodded.

“It is unlikely that Dovetail was able to locate her if she was not at the hideout at the time of the murder,” Wraith said calmly, “If Isometric dies this time, it will confirm that theory, Dovetail remains under careful watch, so we will be able to exclude him as a suspect of Isometric’s murder if it still occurs.”

That really rubbed him the wrong way, but he managed to keep himself from objecting.

“If that is the case, then Cinematic, or someone unrelated, is most likely responsible for her death.” Wraith nodded, “Describe to me the events of the battle between the Hero HQ and Cinematic.”

Loren spent several minutes relating everything from the truck arriving to handing off Beat and Arret to her. He mentioned Archetype’s likely location and how neither Aperture nor Animate made an appearance.

He hadn’t yet mentioned the prison break out or the events of that clusterfuck.

“From a strategic standpoint, Aperture and Animate are most likely the ones sent after Isometric simply because they would be capable of handling that alone.” Wraith pointed out, “Beat and Arret are a team more suited to assassinating dangerous or high durability targets, thus are wasted against a non-combatant such as Isometric. I noticed you didn’t mention Archetype.”

“He was going after Outplayed on his own,” Loren explained, “I helped her fight them off.”

“Them?” Wraith said intently.

Loren sighed.

“Crescent attacks the HQ, and while you’re fighting her, Beat kills you with a sneak attack,” Loren said evenly, ripping the bandaid off. “I tracked Beat and Arret down just as they joined the fight against Outplayed.”

“I see,” Wraith said simply. “Crescent attacks the HQ because of the report that Isometric made, attempting to save her teammates from a potentially similar fate to what occurred to Piston and Stalk.”

Every conversation he had with her made him feel like he was playing catchup, even when Loren was the one with all of the information.

“Cinematic came after us again,” Loren said, remembering the fight. “It was so clean, we never had a chance again them.”

“Storyboard’s work,” Wraith said simply. “His power gifts him an intensely enhanced intelligence focused on planning, manipulation and decision making, it has allowed him to create impossibly complicated plans—he is weakest, but not ineffective when improvising.”

“The second he knew I existed we got destroyed,” Loren admitted. “Before that, I was handling them pretty well—the power I had was strong though, so it might have been that.”

Wraith watched him for a moment.

“Storyboard wouldn’t have known that you had access to a power given that you only obtained it minutes before their plan was set to start, that is why you were able to fight them and derail their plan,” Wraith said evenly. “If you are to disrupt them in the future, the start of the loop is when you will be most effective.”

“Alana… Is that what I should be doing?” Loren sighed, “I don’t always have a useful power. I’ve had maybe three powers so far that would have given me a decent chance again them—the others I would have been killed within the first few seconds, or I wouldn’t have been able to save Gradient in the first place.”

“Loren, you must decide for yourself how you wish to proceed,” Wraith said quietly after a moment. “It’s not the optimal course to take given your situation, but if you honestly cannot bring yourself to stay away from the city, even while the threat of the bombs is still present…”

Wraith had left that subject mostly alone after he’d explained it at the beginning. It looked like it had finally come back around to the main topic.

“I can’t just not do anything,” Loren groaned into his hands, “I feel like I’m falling apart—I’ve seen Mark die so many times already, and every time I learn the name of someone else I could have saved from the bombs, or from anything else—Paragon, Isometric, Piston, Stalk, Outplayed—the list just keeps on getting bigger!”

Loren took a moment to calm himself down. The chain linking the handcuffs tinkled as he pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes, hoping to muffle the sting, but it was mostly ineffective.

“Every time one of them dies, It just hits me again,” Loren mumbled, “It’s getting to me… last time after Beat told me what he’d done…”

“You killed him,” Wraith said quietly.

“I killed him,” Loren agreed.

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