Wraith’s Office, Hero HQ, Setalite City, 2:57 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
Loren felt a chill rush up his spine and found himself becoming hyperaware of his surroundings.
Alana had told them about the bombs—that would inevitably end with them exploding, which meant it was only a matter of time—
“I told exactly one person,” Wraith said calmly.
That didn’t soothe him at all.
“Why?” Loren demanded. “I told you it always ends with us all dying.”
Wraith nodded, seemingly untouched by his frustration.
“Besides myself, there is one other Setalite HQ hero that possesses both the access to the HQ sublevels and the power necessary to create the explosives on-site,” Wraith explained simply, “I want to eliminate him as a suspect as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is to inform him of the situation.”
Loren couldn’t even right now—why the hell would she tell someone that she suspected them? If it was the killer, they would just set the bombs off early, everybody here would die, and then he’d reset—he gritted his teeth as he realized her aim.
“You told him so that if the bombs go off early this loop, you know he’s the one responsible,” Loren said frustrated, “Wraith, you’re playing with lives, everyone here could die because you want to game the loop for quicker answers—they are living breathing people.”
Wraith just watched him, offering nothing.
Loren sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose—they weren’t going to agree on methods. It was already done, and there was no way to take action back, they could only move forward.
“Who was the hero?” Loren said eventually, moving past it.
Too many heroes came through here to remember each of them, but he might have heard of whoever it was.
“Fracture,” Wraith said easily.
Loren blinked, the guy with the futuristic-looking gun and the sticky string shots—he smashed a pot plant on him in that one loop.
“I kind of thought he was a background character,” Loren said frowning, “What’s his power?”
Wraith hesitated before answering, and he realized quickly he was pushing into private and possibly classified information.
“It’s a form of cognitive enhancement that functions within three instances in his mind,” Wraith said slowly, “The first instance records the structure of anything he comes into physical contact with. The second instance converts that raw data into a useable blueprint. The third instance allows him to make mental refinements, variations or upgrades to the stored blueprints.”
Learning new blueprints, upgrading them, unlocking new tech—How interesting—Loren could almost see a comparison between Fracture’s power and a lot of sci-fi and base-building games. Given enough time to work his way up, the guy could potentially make some amazing things.
“Does he make the tech himself afterward?” Loren said, impressed despite himself.
“He does,” Wraith confirmed simply. “Creating new technology is not a simple or easy process, and more often than not requires even more specialized tools to be designed first.”
It was clear she was talking from experience.
“So he could have spent a while creating and upgrading bombs?” Loren noted, refocusing them. “Does he have a good motive to do it?”
“He has no motive, as far as I am aware. He may have one, but I do not know what it could be.” Wraith admitted without shame, “There is at best a fifteen-percent chance that he is the bomber, and that is almost entirely built upon the nature of his power. There is even less of a chance that he is leaking the information to the real bomber.”
Loren nodded in understanding—like she had indicated earlier, she wanted to eliminate the most obvious suspect first before moving on. If everything went poorly, he would return the next time with the information, and she would readjust her aim towards a new suspect.
“If he ends up not being either of those,” Loren prompted, “Who has the highest percent chance of being the leak?”
Wraith was silent for several long moments before answering.
“Raindancer currently has a very high chance of being the leak,” Wraith said carefully.
Raindancer? That was the hero who put out the fire that Emma started at the Wrightway building. Loren couldn’t remember ever seeing her in person—and he had only seen a blurry image of her during the news report.
“Why Raindancer?” Loren asked, frowning.
“I’m afraid I can’t reveal the reason without jeopardizing her secret identity,” Wraith said firmly. “Rest assured, I will be investigating her after we have cleared Fracture.”
“We have one final thing to discuss,” Wraith said evenly, “Storyboard will most likely be in the process of organizing a new attack now that Gradient has managed to avoid Cinematic’s trap.”
Loren almost flinched at the sudden change of topic. His mind shying away from the memory of Chloe in pieces on the truck and the sword resting against his chest. Their plan had been so complicated, they seemingly knew exactly how he would act before he did.
That kind of thing…. How was he supposed to fight back?
“He knew my moves before I had even decided on what I was doing…” Loren said, swallowing. “Can you even counter a plan that Storyboard comes up with?”
“He is not infallible,” Wraith said gently, the robotic voice shredding any benefit he could receive from the tone. “His greatest strength is in understanding people and their reactions to outside influence. He always sets the scene in advance and lures you into the trap afterward—there are several ways to avoid this as long as you know that a trap is likely coming.”
Loren listened intently.
“Any element that Storyboard lacks knowledge of will work as an additional level of disruption to his plans. Your existence and your own power at the start of each loop are the biggest of those elements—but it is also far from the only one.” Wraith said evenly, “Taking actions that are completely out of character will likewise assist in the disruption of his plans.”
Things that Cinematic didn’t know about, huh? Loren remembered the device Wraith had used that absorbed Beat’s energy during his capture, it had rendered him harmless. That would likely be something they couldn’t have seen coming.
They also shouldn’t know that Loren actually existed at this point unless they witnessed the fight against Dovetail and Gradient, but he had no way of knowing if they had or not.
At best, his appearance during whatever attempt on Gradient that they made would help derail their plans. At worst, they had seen him, and he would probably die again. He doubted his power this time would be enough to keep him alive.
Loren knew that his current power let him absorb all kinetic energy and funnel it into strengthening his body. The more force gathered, the more durable he became, and the stronger he grew—none of that would matter against Cutaway’s blade or Beats strange invulnerability. Even Arret could just stare at him until he died from asphyxiation.
If he visualized it like a match-up in Crescendo—he would exist as a bruiser, hard to hurt, and grew stronger the longer the fight lasted. He simply wasn’t mobile enough or versatile enough to go up against numerous assassins who seemingly ignored durability and worked together seamlessly.
“You’ve given me much to think on, Loren,” Wraith said quietly, “I have much to do and very little time to do it, this is where we part ways once more.”
Loren nodded, the words brought to mind what Chloe had said in the previous loop—when he reset, was he leaving her and the rest of the city to suffer alone? Was it an alternate timeline or a reset of the current one…
After he left the building, would he ever see this Alana Paige again?
“My counterpart advised you to stay out of the city,” Wraith said quietly, “I am once more asking for your support. If you do not wish to leave the city, please ensure that you stay out of the central business district until the threat has been resolved.”
Resolved—Half the city being wiped out in an explosion wasn’t a resolution he was comfortable with.
“I’ll stay away,” Loren lied.
They watched each other over the desk, and if Wraith had a way of detecting lies, she didn’t call him on it, the moment ended.
“It sounds like you’re letting me go.” Loren prompted before the silence could grow awkward again.
“Not quite yet, you will need to fill out quite a bit of paperwork first,” Wraith said steadily, “Including some legal forms that concern the nature of your status as a powered individual and your civilian identity.”
Oh god no.
“This is so I don’t try and sue the Hero HQ for this morning, isn’t it?” Loren said, in a tone of longsuffering.
He was stuck in a fucking time loop—was she really going to make him fill out some boring paperwork? Wraith cleared her digitized throat and placed the first form in front of him, deliberately not answering his question.
“It’s standard protocol,” Wraith insisted nonplussed. “It will make it easier to explain your sudden freedom to my superiors.”
“You suck,” Loren sighed.
“Freedom at last,” Loren said brightly, closing his eyes and basking in the late afternoon sun.
He rubbed his wrists, glad to be out of the cuffs. Loren hadn’t caught sight of Mongoose, Dovetail, or Gradient on his way out, but he had seen Tag and Fracture from a distance talking away at each other in full costume and looking upset. They had stopped talking when he passed, so he’d been unable to catch the subject of the discussion, leaving him with an endless curiosity—damn secret memes.
No sign of Raindancer, who was now right on top of his list of people to speak with.
“Outta the way dumbfuck,” A tall brown-haired bearded man grunted in annoyance, budging him out of the way.
He scoffed at the contact and jammed his hands into his pockets, watching as the angry man stomp up to the intersection and turn the corner out of sight—the man’s eyes hadn’t left the Hero HQ the entire time. Loren shook his head and stepped off the curb, quickly cutting across the road and into an alleyway.
Loren gathered the kinetic energy from each step, and it started to build in his chest, vitalizing the core there. Loren jumped, and the energy gave him the strength to plant a foot onto the top of the dumpster.
He pushed down and leaped, grabbing onto the drainage pipe attached to the wall. He pulled himself upwards with ease, his strength now more than equal to the task. He scuttled onto the roof and chose his next target, sprinting towards the edge and jumping—he cleared the gap easily, managing to keep his footing on the next rooftop.
The feeling of growing strength was addictive, washing over him and granting him confidence. The street stretched out below him, the gap much larger than the others, but he sped up— the core in his chest growing with every moment, before kicking off the ledge.
The road appeared under him as he arced through the sky—Loren smiled into the wind, and a moment later, he landed in a stumbling run on the opposite rooftop. He sprinted for the next roof and pushed off the ledge—and something crashed into him from the side, dragging him off course and down into the alleyway.
Loren gagged against the tight grip the arm had around his neck and then crashed into the ground with a crack. The familiar person came to a stop several meters away, watching him with her arms crossed.
Loren scrambled to his feet unharmed and energized.
“Oh, come on,” Loren said angrily, “What the hell do you want?”
“Answers,” Vapid said, smiling. “I witnessed your little scuffle this morning—those were some very damaging accusations you were making about Dovetail, it’s… piqued my interest.”
“What has it got to do with you?” Loren said, annoyed. “Why do you even care?”
“Because I’ve been investigating them for months,” Vapid smiled, “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard talk of misconduct, one might even call it corruption.”
It was hilarious that someone with such a brutal reputation and one of the people who had fought him until he killed himself was one to talk about things like misconduct.
“You’ve already heard what I know,” Loren said, frowning and tapping the ground to halt his power drop. “Dovetail was planning on taking the Insoluble contract, his targets were all four members of The Crew. He’s being questioned by the other heroes, or so Wraith tells me—I’ve got something else that s far juicier you can go after if you’re up for it.”
Vapid tilted her head at the offer.
“I’m listening.” Vapid drawled.
“Cinematic is currently targeting heroes in Setalite City,” Loren said easily. “Gradient was the first target, but it was interrupted by them coming in to arrest me. As far as I can tell, their targets are—Gradient, Isometric, and Outplayed. If there are others, I don’t know who.”
Vapid raised an eyebrow at the information.
“How exactly would you know which targets an international criminal organization was going after?” Vapid said bemused.
“A precog told me,” Loren lied, unwilling to explain the loop again.
“It’s certainly interesting intel—but it’s also completely unusable.” Vapid said idly, “Gradient is in the Hero HQ and thus unreachable, The location of The Crew’s hideout is currently unknown, and it is currently unknown which city Outplayed even lives in.”
Outplayed was known for targeting multiple cities, likely for this exact reason. Loren knew where Serpentine lived, and the man was unlikely to be caught because Dovetail hadn’t been killed.
“How about this,” Loren said slowly, “I’ll tell you where the leader of The Crew lives, and once you follow him back to his hideout, you tell me its location.”
“Why would I bother telling you afterward?” Vapid smirked, “I would already have what I wanted at that point—you’d be useless to me.”
Wow—what a dick.
“Fuck you then,” Loren said incredulously. “Good luck finding anything without my help.”
Vapid laughed, and he realized that at some point she’d extended her baton—he hadn’t even seen her move. The baton tapped dangerously against her thigh, making sure its presence was noticed before she spoke.
“I think you’ll tell me anyway,” Vapid said, smiling. “I can be pretty persuasive.”
Loren narrowed his eyes at the unspoken threat. His power would prevent that from happening, but he doubted he’d be able to follow her movements at all—as long as he protected himself from being choked out…
“Your little stick doesn’t scare me,” Loren scoffed. “You are going to catch these hands, lady—”
The little stick turned his face to the side, and he stumbled backward, unharmed but off-balance—he’d been right, he couldn’t even see her move. He spun back to where she was standing innocently in the middle of the alley.
“I’ve donkey punched hookers that hit harder than you,” Loren said meanly. “If that’s all you’ve got, you may as well go home.”
The insult was taken from the opponent of his very first Crescendo match, long before he knew what he was doing—the sheer strangeness of the phrase had stuck with him. Vapid eyes narrowed, and she tilted her head back to look down her nose at him, gold eyes flashing under her hood.
“Is that right?” Vapid said, smiling flatly. “I wouldn’t want you to be bored during our time together—I suppose I’ll have to try a bit harder.”
Once again, he didn’t even see her move, but as Loren dragged himself out of the crumbling brick wall, he found her directly in front of him. He reached out towards her, and something hit him in the chest—he was buried completely in the wall now, his head actually sticking through into a dark room.
“I’m getting bored!” Loren called, “Are you even trying—”
He was dragged out of the wall by his foot, thrown across the alleyway and into a dumpster, cratering the side badly enough that it burst inwards. Vapid was frowning at him, from her place by the hole in the wall.
He tumbled through the air, uncontrollably spinning—He caught sight of something concrete below him, and then he was suddenly sent downwards as another impact crashed into him from above. He wiped the dust off his face as he stood up, climbing out of the crater.
It was a large construction site, the frame of what might one day become a towering monstrosity, but for now, metal beams reached upwards towards the sky. Vapid was already standing on top of one of the metal beams, watching him with golden eyes set in a shadowed face.
That kind of hit would have easily killed anyone else.
“Don’t tell me you’re done already?” Loren said darkly. “Are you going to hide up there forever?”
He slid backward suddenly as she vanished, digging two trenches in the ground before smashing back first into the concrete barrier and sending it ricocheting away from him. Loren sprinted forward out of the mess heading straight towards her.
He reached for her face, and once again, he was sent tumbling backward. The core in his chest was practically singing now—he was so flush with the energy and the sheer amount of adrenaline that suffused his body was intoxicating.
Vapid’s next attack only staggered him, and her immediate follow-up crashed into his neck with a crack, and she failed to retrieve her leg from where it was now pinned between his shoulder and cheek.
“My turn, huh?” Loren said lightly, wrapping his fingers around her ankle.
He felt what had to be half a dozen impacts on his chest and face before her baton suddenly shattered on his cheek, shattering into a cloud of metal debris. Loren dragged her off the ground by her leg, spun, and then smashed her into the concrete as hard as he could.
A dust cloud washed over the area from the impact, and he felt another dozen strikes on his arm as she tried to break his grip to no avail. He lifted her again, and another impact rocked the area as he brought her back down—he could hear sirens in the distance after the third impact shattered most of the construction site, and by the fourth, she’d stopped fighting back, almost entirely wracked with coughing fits.
Vapid’s costume was in tatters now, the hood completely gone, and her eyes were unfocused as she tried weakly to break his grip on her arm. She didn’t look anything like he expected now that he could see her fully uncovered face. Freckles, hair pulled into a messy braid that ran down her shoulder, and a nose piercing, the golden glow had vanished from her eyes as well, a simple brown replacing them.
Loren dropped her leg and grasped at his face with his hand, feeling not at all like himself. Why wasn’t he upset? Where were all of the thoughts that usually ran rampant in his head, pulling him in every direction?
The core in his chest started falling, and he fought with himself not to halt it. This power was dangerous—he hadn’t realized it before, but it was messing with his mind. He could feel the core now, in a different way than he had before. It was singing to him, it wanted more, to keep gathering energy endlessly until even the world broke under him and nothing was left…
The sirens drew closer, and when they arrived on the scene, they found Loren sitting next to the defeated Vapid, with his head in his hands.