Loren’s Apartment, 10:25 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
He sat on the edge of his bed, testing his new ability and doing his best to pretend the world around him didn’t exist.
Each orb was about the size of a tennis ball, perfectly smooth and made from an unknown hard white material that glowed with a very faint white light. Much like the majority of powers he had received so far, this ability was connected to his mind, three separate pressures, each with a different feeling associated with it.
Loren tugged on the mental connection with the orb that seemed to be associated with protection—instantly, it projected a large, circular forcefield made from translucent white energy over him. He reached out and touched the barrier and found it unmoving.
The second orb, the one associated with condition? The state of a thing… It was a complicated feeling, but he pulled on it— targeting himself—and the protective shield vanished. A white glow washed over him, and the stinging pain on his shoulder where the glass had cut him earlier vanished—Loren checked, and only unbroken skin remained.
Only one orb could be used at a time, one protected the target, one improved the condition of the target, and the last one was most likely dealt with offense, given that its association was with ‘force.’ It was a strange power, but not much more than the others he’d had already had.
The orbs were a problem that Loren had no solution to—they were impossible to ignore for one, and nothing he’d tried had allowed him to hide them. This hadn’t really happened since the loop with the multiple arms—thankfully, there wasn’t any body dysmorphia packaged in with this power. If he went outside, he would be immediately revealing his nature to everyone around him.
Given how a lot of his encounters with both the heroes and villains of the city had gone so far, he knew how that would go. All of them were on a razor’s edge right now, aware of the contract and that anyone might take a moment of weakness to take them out. Anyone he approached in person would see his power as an active threat—a manifestation of his power in preparation to attack.
Loren picked up his phone and dialed a number he’d spent far too long attempting to memorize. The call was picked up immediately, but nothing was said from the other side. He repeated the coded phrase and then waited.
“So we are on the precipice of an attack from several different factions. Dovetail has organized and carried out a murder and is possibly already dead. Isometric is in possession of footage of the event. Crescent is preparing a breakout for Ascent,” Wraith said slowly, the connection rendering her digital voice crystal clear. “You were completely unable to determine if Fracture was involved?”
“Yeah,” Loren said quietly, ear to the phone. “I died before that panned out. You also suspected Raindancer was leaking information to her brother and—”
“Complexity.” Wraith said thoughtfully, “He is the next obvious suspect—what actions did he take in the previous loop?”
“None—as far as I was aware, Complexity was still locked in a cell when the building flooded,” Loren mumbled, “He most likely died along with everyone else in the cells.”
It still could have been Complexity, being locked in the cell didn’t preclude him from setting the bombs in the first place.
“Raindancer wouldn’t have taken such drastic actions if her life wasn’t in active danger,” Wraith said evenly, “The situation must have been very dire—who else participated in the battle?”
“The Crew was apparently one of the targets of Cinematic,” Loren said quietly. “Both of those teams are what kicked off the fight, I’m not sure who else participated, but the entire thing started a block away from the Hero HQ.”
“How did you come by that information if you died before exiting the building,” Wraith pressed. “Furthermore, how did you escape from your cell?”
“Sparklite broke in to help me,” Loren said, watching the orbs continue to twist around him, “But I could have easily escaped on my own if I knew something was actually happening.”
“I see—” Wraith said before cutting herself off, “One moment, please.”
Loren fell back onto his bed, staring up at the orbs above him—he reached out to touch one of them, and it stopped its movements to accommodate him. The orb sat in his hand, unmoving and glowing faintly, while the two others continued in their endless orbit.
“The nature of this time-loop and your proximity to the scene of Gradient’s death suggests that you had knowledge of it,” Wraith said evenly, touching on the issue he’d been hoping she had missed. “Is there a reason you allowed him to die without doing anything to alert him to the attack?”
There was something about that sentence that felt off, but it was swallowed by the fury that burst forth.
“Try being murdered a dozen times trying to fucking save him, and then you can come say that to me—” Loren snapped before he could stop himself.
Wraith was silent for a long moment in the face of his anger, and he pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration and guilt.
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t fair.” Loren said quietly, “I’m not dealing with this very well. I only have a few minutes to try and talk to Mark before Cinematic shows up—my interference very frequently ends with me dying, and it’s not exactly easy to keep charging straight into that…”
Loren trailed off, wondering if he’d already alienated one of his greatest allies in this situation.
“I apologize for how accusatory that may have sounded,” Wraith said quietly, “I have an unfortunate tendency to speak without considering the effect my words may have on others. Let’s move on—you’ve indicated that you could have ‘easily broken free’ of your confinement in the previous loop. What exactly is your power?”
“I have a primary and secondary power, the primary part is the time-loop,” Loren said slowly, “The secondary power changes every single reset—they are usually pretty strange, but this time I have one that I can’t hide.”
“Interesting,” Wraith declared quietly, “What is the function of the spheres?”
Loren felt a pang of unease at the question—he hadn’t mentioned them at all, which meant that she was watching him right now. He thought back on the conversation—hadn’t she said ‘your proximity to the scene’ earlier?
“That is super creepy,” Loren said warily, “How did you even find out where I lived—I haven’t even told you my name yet!”
“I traced the location of the call,” Wraith said simply. “The spheres, Loren?”
Loren found his eye twitching as she dropped his name.
“One provides a shield, one improves the condition of something, and one attacks,” Loren said slowly, “Haven’t used the last one yet—didn’t want to explode my room if it ended up being stronger than I thought.”
“They are completely resistant to my scans,” Wraith said with interest. “Do you know what materials they are made from?”
“Of course I don’t! I don’t even know what the inside of my toaster looks like—why the hell would I know what’s in these things?” Loren demanded before reaching out and sliding the window up. “If you’re already here, you may as well come inside and have a look.”
Wraith dropped silently onto the fire escape, and Loren stepped away from the window as she entered. There was a moment of tense silence between them before he took the phone away from his ear and hung up.
“Last time you were here, you tranquilized me,” Loren said seriously. “Let’s not do that again, okay?”
“Proximity doesn’t help,” Wraith muttered, “It is completely incapable of penetrating the surface of the spheres—I’ve never seen something like this before.”
“Uh. Alana?” Loren said warily, “You heard me, right?”
“I have no intention of tranquilizing you,” Wraith mumbled, holding her hand up, palm forward facing the spheres. “Remain still.”
A series of minuscule black spikes emerged, and several targeted lines of colored light erupted from the tips and fizzled out on the spheres. Loren blinked to clear his eyes of the colors before holding his hand in front of his eyes.
“No visible damage to the structure,” Wraith said, impressed, “Fascinating—perhaps a higher intensity?”
Loren crossed his arms in front of him.
“Absolutely no high-intensity lasers in my apartment,” Loren said firmly, “No helmets either.”
Wraith continued her investigation as she touched the bottom of her helmet.
“So it’s true, I have already revealed my identity to you then,” Wraith said distractedly, still watching the spheres with a look of naked curiosity on her face. “This situation is very unusual.”
“Yeah,” Loren admitted.
Loren couldn’t help studying her in return and once more marveling at just how different she was without the helmet.
Loren managed to move the discussion from his bedroom and into the kitchen. He prepared tea under her intense scrutiny eye and a coffee for himself.
Alana took a sip of her tea and then gave a strained grimace.
“Thank you for the tea,” Alana said solemnly, “It is lovely.”
Loren felt his left eyelid twitch furiously, the tiny muscle there throbbing in time with his annoyance.
What the hell was wrong with his tea—why would she think that was a believable lie either!?
He let it slide for now because there was a far more pressing issue in front of him—he’d honestly been waiting for the chair beneath her to shatter under the weight since she sat down—and the rising sense of suspense to just how long it was going to last was creeping upon him.
“How is it that the weight of your armor isn’t breaking my chair?” Loren managed with a strained laugh, eyelid still twitching.
“I have locked it in a seated position, there is no weight currently being applied to the chair,” Alana said seriously before wincing again as she tasted her tea once more. “R-really good…”
“Shut up, you damn liar!” Loren cried in anguish, “You clearly hate it, stop drinking it!”
Alana quickly placed the cup down in relief, and he scrunched his face up in an attempt to deal with the shame of his apparently crappy tea—she cleared her throat.
“You were correct—Dovetail’s body was found in the sewers, and Serpentine has been quietly captured thanks to the assistance of Vapid. Tag, Mongoose, and Secluded are currently investigating each of the reporters that may have met with Isometric.” Alana summarised, studying him.
“When did you have time to do that,” Loren said, frowning, “I thought you came straight here?”
“I contacted each of them while you were listing off the events earlier,” Alana said evenly.
Loren shook his head. He doubted there was someone more suitable for something like this—while he had access to her galaxy-brain, he might as well ask—
“Alana, do you know where Paragon currently is or how I can get into contact with him?” Loren said seriously.
“He approached me this morning in regards to the threat on the Peacekeepers,” Alana said, frowning, “Before I arrived here, I sent a missive to him about the implanted explosive device—he has assured me that no such thing currently exists.”
Bullshit—or maybe not, could it be possible for someone to put the bomb in him on the day of the speech? That was the question that stood out to him the most—who could have actually had the ability to implant such a thing in the man in the first place?
It was Paragon, for fuck sake—it wasn’t like someone could have overpowered the man, surely?
“Say that he does have a bomb in him right now,” Loren said slowly, “How would someone have gotten it there in the first place?”
“A battle against Paragon has never been a quiet task,” Alana said thoughtfully, “It would have been noticed—and while there are many who could be considered a ‘match’ for him, I couldn’t think of a single one who would be able to forcibly do so without being noticed—The obvious conclusion is that whoever would attempt such a thing would do so while his guard is completely down.”
‘Invulnerable’ was something of a misnomer amongst those with powers, there were very few individuals who were actually ‘invulnerable to taking damage’—Chloe was one of them, although it stretched only as far as physical damage.
The term had been watered down to include those individuals with levels of durability that far exceeded the ability to hurt them with anything short of an equally powerful being. As a counterpoint, there were those with powers that bypassed both types of durability, although it was a characteristic of their power and not a factor of the opponent’s degree of invulnerability.
Beat was one, and Cutaway was another.
Paragon was of that latter type—effectively, his level of durability exceeded everyone around him by such a degree that the difference was academic, and it was only discovered on one of the very few occasions that he had been injured.
Threadbreaker—one of the members of the Pantheon, was the one responsible for the discovery—in what was supposed to be a friendly demonstration to the public, it instead ended up with Paragon’s arm being broken—completely shocking most of the world in the process.
Loren shook his head as he pulled himself back to the present—she’d told Paragon about the bomb inside of him.
“Did he check to see if it was there?” Loren pressed, he knew exactly what he had seen that day there was definitely something inside of him or would be soon. “Did you check to see if he had something inside him?”
Wraith’s face took on a look of uncertainty, not something he had seen before, and his stomach dropped.
“No, if you recall, I did not know of its existence at the time, and I did not have a reason to perform an invasive scan of him during our discussion this morning. Paragon was only at the scene of the crime for several minutes before leaving the city once again.” Alana said seriously, “As for who would be responsible for such a check, I would hazard a guess that it would be Artisan and Alleviate who would oversee such a thing.”
Both of them were members of the Peacekeepers—Artisan, one of the founding members and thought to be one of the smartest people alive would have definitely found something if he had checked—The man had almost singlehandedly brought them into a technological singularity. Alleviate was a world-renowned biokinetic, she would have been there to fix him up if something went wrong.
“There are several implications that are asserted with your continued line of questioning. One of them relies on a series of non-optimal decisions made by Paragon,” Alana said, watching him intently. “In which he is confident there was no chance for someone to have implanted such a device without his knowledge, he ignores the warning that I’ve sent him, he doesn’t report it to his teammates, and in turn dies a gruesome death.”
Loren nodded uncomfortably, banishing the image of gore the words drew forth from his mind.
That was one of the things he’d thought of, but the idea that the world’s premier hero would make an informed choice to ignore something like this…
It wasn’t outright impossible, but if this time-loop had taught him anything, it was that how the heroes chose to sell themselves to the public very rarely matched with the actual reality of their personalities. It was entirely possible that Paragon was as prone to making the same mistakes as the rest of them…
The same type of mistake that Loren’s own father had made.
There was a very common issue that existed amongst men in society, particularly in those who were younger and more reckless, but it wasn’t entirely specific to them—they tended to go out of their way to avoid going to doctors, hospitals, and medical checkups.
The reasoning behind why this was the case was far less concrete—it was suggested that one of the reasons was related to being unwilling to take time off work, or the exorbitant cost of the healthcare system, while some were just unwilling to go out of their way for something minor that would improve on its own given enough time, should they just ignore it.
Often characterized in media for comedic effect, when in reality, the seemingly pervasive mindset of avoiding crucial medical checkups most likely contributed to far more suffering and death than were outright trackable.
Loren’s father had always scoffed at the idea of taking time off work for what was ‘just the pains of getting older’, and in the end, it had brought about his death as he was diagnosed far too late to save his life…
A literal bomb inside you probably carried a little more urgency than frequent stomach pains, but if Paragon didn’t even consider that something like this could have happened without his knowledge, he might very well ignore it. Alternative to that, Paragon might raise his guard in preparation to fight off a future threat that sought to implant a bomb in him without actually checking if it had already happened without his knowledge.
A chain of events that was far less insidious than the other possibility.
“The second implication is that those who Paragon would trust implicitly to perform this kind of checkup are the very ones who are responsible for placing it there in the first place,” Alana said, looking completely unsettled. “In which case, they would simply lie about its presence during the checkup, and the events of the Evergold Festival would unfold in the way you have described.”
Loren studied the distressed expression that had overtaken her face.
“Artisan has both the ability to create something like this and has more access to Paragon than any other person in the world.” Loren said quietly, “The thing that makes it fall apart is the fact that it’s not the kind of thing a hero would do for no reason—what possible motive would Artisan have to do something as horrific as this?”
For perhaps the first time since he’d met her, Loren had found a question that Alana didn’t have an answer for.