Loren’s Apartment, 6:17 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
Alana had vanished hours ago, most likely to start whatever measures she’d decided on for this loop—leaving him alone to stew in his thoughts.
Once again, she’d asked him to stay out of the blast zone and wait it out—he told her outright that it wasn’t the first time she’d asked him to do that, and he hadn’t listened then either. He’d cut off the familiar debate before it could get too heated—at this point, he’d heard it several times already. The look she had given him had been worrying, sort of a narrowed-eyed squint that conveyed some unknown but likely dark purpose.
There were too many suspects and too many unknowns—he wasn’t an investigator, and he wasn’t trained to understand these types of people. He was so far in over his head that if it wasn’t for his ability to return, he would have died in the first loop without ever having known there was a conspiracy, to begin with.
It might have been better if he had.
Artisan, Fracture, and Complexity, the three most likely suspects, two heroes, and a villain—it said something about society that there were more heroes in the suspect group than villains, he was sure. It was unlikely, but still possible, that Fracture or Complexity could have caught Paragon unaware.
It led Loren to think that Artisan was the one responsible for Paragon’s death. Complexity or Fracture was in a much better position to set up the bombs under the sewers and the Hero HQ. Fracture had additional access to the latter building as well, seeing as he worked there.
Raindancer likewise would once again be helping Ascent escape and, in turn, Complexity—either knowing their goal or not. Dovetail would have killed Piston and Stalk by now and been in turn killed by Serpentine.
Aston might even be downstairs right now—which meant that Vapid would be investigating the building tomorrow, and Mongoose would be investigating it separately in regards to the messages she’d found on Mark’s phone after his death.
Actually—telling Wraith in advance may have changed that outcome already since she apparently pulled Mongoose in to investigate the reporters that may have spoken with Isometric.
In the loops in which Mark died, and Loren didn’t intervene in the argument between the landlord and Emma, she inevitably ended up getting kicked out—which meant she was likely already out in the parking lot sitting in the gutter. Loren moved to the window and leaned out enough to see—sure enough, there she was, sitting on the ground with her things around her.
Loren had no intention of letting her sit out there all night without helping, so he grabbed his keys and headed for the door. He made it halfway across the room before something hit him in the neck and he stumbled forwards in shock, spinning to face the window—but there wasn’t anybody there.
“I apologize for tranquilizing you after I said I wouldn’t,” Alana said quietly, holding her helmet and watching him from the bedroom.
“Alana…” Loren mumbled, everything already fading. “Why did you…”
Alana knelt down beside him and placed her hand on his shoulder gently. He grabbed for her hand, but his arm fell before he even got halfway there—She caught it in her own.
“You’ll be fine when you wake up, I promise. You’ll be very upset with me, I’m certain, but try to understand—” Alana said quietly before swallowing. “Please stay put, okay? I’m just trying to help.”
Loren couldn’t muster the energy to reply. Instead, he slid down to the floor. His last thoughts were that Emma was going to be stuck outside all night…
Loren forced himself to sit up on the bed, his mind feeling slow to respond and his body sluggish. There was a feeling that something was wrong, and he looked around himself—there was no lightbulb above him.
He wasn’t even in his room—his mind started to race, even through the fog.
The room he found himself in was completely unfamiliar—smooth grey walls and several doors. There was a table with a monitor, some model he had never seen before, and a swivel chair. He dragged his legs out of bed and onto the floor—not as cold as he imagined it would be.
He was a bit unsteady standing, but it cleared after a moment, and he checked the first door, a sense of unease building inside him. Toilet, shower, sink with a mirror. The other door led to a small kitchen containing a fully stocked fridge. At the other end of the room was a door—no door handle in sight with a countdown timer above it in large red numbers.
“5 hours, 38 minutes, and 49 seconds remaining.” Loren mumbled, “Until what?”
Where the hell had Alana taken him? How long had he been asleep?
Loren tried the door even without the handle, but it didn’t budge. He patted his pocket for his phone, but it had vanished entirely, he moved back to check the monitor in the other room.
The OS was completely different from the one he was used to, and he couldn’t locate a time anywhere. There was a single icon in the middle of the screen—he checked the drawers but no mouse or keyboard to use. A quick attempt revealed it was a touch interface, and he pressed the icon. The wall retracted smoothly, revealing a wall-sized monitor, the entire thing made up of camera feeds.
Setalite City, in all of its glory, observed from countless angles in perfect clarity.
Even with his brain still foggy, it all clicked—she’d locked him in this room to force him to sit out the events in the city. Forced him to stay out of the danger zone so that he could observe the endgame from the safety of this room.
It was the worst thing anyone had ever done for him.
In order to help him, she’d stolen his agency and forced him to work under a system built from her own morals instead of letting him decide with his own.
It was almost like he was a kid again, not allowed to make his own choices. Forced to play with kids he didn’t like, to go to a church when he didn’t believe, and to have every decision made for him with his own opinion discarded as unnecessary or of lesser value than their own.
“Alana…” Loren mumbled, feeling sick. “It was my choice.”
He groped for the pressure in his mind that coincided with the condition orb and activated it—white light washed over him, the fog cleared from his mind in an instant, with the sluggish feeling dissipating a moment later, leaving him feeling the best he had in what felt like forever.
The disgusting feeling of having someone dismiss his autonomy and act on him without consent remained, but he pushed the feelings away as best he could.
“Stay put and watch the city die along with everyone in it,” Loren said weakly.
He could try to escape, use the attack orb to decimate the door, force his way outside… he had no idea where he was though, could he even get back to the city within five hours? If he did, what could he do in that time to fix the situation? Phone in a bomb threat, and get as many people evacuated from the city? The bomber would hear about the evacuation and just set them off early…
He was caught in the web, with nothing left to do but wait out the timer.
“Drugged and abducted—Not exactly how I expected our first date to go, Alana, ” Loren said quietly, staring at the city. “You could have at least chosen a better movie.”
With half an hour left on the timer, the crowds in the city center grew larger, flooding the streets surrounding the Heroes Podium. There was a camera with an angle almost pointed directly where he would have been standing.
He zoomed in on the spot, pinching his fingers against the monitor. Chloe was standing about three meters away from where he had been—they had been that close, and they hadn’t even seen each other. She was standing right where one of the explosions was going to go off, and his stomach twisted. All it would take to warn her would be a phone call, a single text message—if only he had his fucking phone.
Loren gritted his teeth.
The stage area had far more heroes than he had seen from his position—they were both behind it and around it, along with the police force, they were keeping the crowds away from the stage. It wasn’t just the HQ heroes either—Sender and Wanderlust, both solo heroes, were present.
Vapid was also present, standing cross-armed and next to Artisan. He watched them talk to each other, wondering what they could possibly be saying. He zoomed right in on Artisan’s face just as the man pushed his sunglasses up his nose with a glint of light.
He wished he had some kind of evil detector power because the man looked like he always did in the pictures, calm and at ease, dressed well in his thin, black, tailored suit, dark hair falling around his ears and a half-mask surrounding and disrupting the lines of his upper face.
He didn’t look like the kind of person who would kill his teammates—then again, with her own half mask and her hood down, Vapid looked like a freckle-faced librarian girl—albeit one with glowing yellow eyes.
He moved on to the others that were standing near the two—Artisan was the only Peacekeeper that was present. There were quite a few heroes that he didn’t recognize in attendance as well—Loren zoomed in again with wide eyes.
Fracture was on the edge of the stage, speaking quietly with Tag. There was no absolutely no way he would be at the site of the explosions if he was the killer, his armor wasn’t going to save him from something like this. Loren wished the camera were closer to the stage, there was a sound feed, but it wasn’t picking up anything from that distance, just wind and the occasional shout.
He kept an eye on the man over the next ten minutes, but other than breaking off from Tag, he made no move to leave the vicinity. Tag linked up with a hero he hadn’t seen before, with short hair and a very androgynous face. Chloe was pretty much in the same location, and both Vapid and Artisan were still talking, perhaps a bit more heatedly as Paragon arrived, dropping down onto the stage to approach the podium.
The hero was big, dark-skinned, and with long black dreadlocks bound together in an elaborate knot rolling down his back. He wore a black skintight bodysuit, made from some kind of tightly weaved thread, and he faced the crowd with a wide, bright smile.
Loren’s leg bounced relentlessly as the tension grew, it wouldn’t be long now. It was far to late to stop it. All he could do was bear witness to their deaths and use the information he gained from it to make sure it never happened again.
He could almost imagine a small, person-sized gap in the crowd, the place he’d been standing—Paragon vanished in a spray of blood and viscera, and an orange glow lit up the far end of the crowd.
It erupted in fire and flame a moment later, throwing bodies upwards—the back end of the stage followed, lifting up in a wave, directly under Artisan and Vapid, before spreading outwards. Vapid blurred, and the two were gone before the stage shattered. Fracture was consumed next, completely disappearing into the mess, and both Tag and the short-haired hero vanished into thin air before it could reach them entirely.
The ground under the crowd’s feet flashed orange again, the entire area glowed, and then the people were torn to shreds. Chloe was launched upwards at an angle from the force of it, smashing into the front of a building before bouncing off and falling.
Loren watched her tumbled through the air, skin blistered and burning before she landed right next to the head of the alleyway he had once bled out in. For a moment, he was back there, lying on his back only a couple of meters away from her writhing body.
He remembered a woman screaming in agony—Loren skidded his chair back several feet, and everything he’d eaten in the last hour splattered on the floor between his feet. He gasped and vomited again before forcing himself to look back up at the monitor.
The enlarged camera feed blacked out for a moment before returning again, somehow surviving the explosion, but it was now much lower to the ground as if it had fallen, and it automatically minimized to the view of the hundred smaller perspectives of the city. More and more explosions were showing up on the monitors, starting at the city center and working outwards.
The hero HQ vanished, and the city was awash with smoke before a final explosion, much larger than the others and carrying a white shockwave that washed outwards, shattering windows and walls. The shockwave reached the edge of the city in an instant, growing weaker as it went. He saw his own apartment rocked from the force, dust spreading outwards, knocked free from the brickwork—yet it somehow remained standing.
Loren thought of Emma, had she left the area? She wouldn’t have still been in the parking lot an entire day later…
The original feed showed the destroyed podium from a new angle now, somehow still standing strong amongst the rubble, a testament to the strength of heroes that had lost their lives defending the innocent, and the disgusting irony that it had outlasted the heroes that had stood there today wasn’t lost on him.
What kind of monster could do something like this?
Loren thought he had the measure of the damage from the loop where he had died there and the one in which he had survived the earlier explosion—but it was somehow far worse seeing it like this, in its totality.
Tag and the hero that must have been Secluded reappeared amongst the remains dead, looking injured, horrified, and completely disorientated. Fracture was just gone, nothing remained of the man. Movement on one of the other cameras drew his attention. It was Vapid and Artisan standing on a roof of a mostly intact building staring out at the city.
They were too far away to hear, and both facing away from the camera, so he couldn’t see Vapid’s glowing eyes or either of their mouths—were they the ones who had done this? Were they happy it had happened?
“Turn around, bright eyes,” Loren said, furious, wanting nothing more than to see the fucking look in her eyes.
They didn’t—Vapid blurred, and once again, the pair were gone from sight. Leaving Loren to watch the shattered remains of Setalite City for several horrible minutes before a shadow passed over one of the cameras that had fallen, and then the perspective spun disorientingly before it steadied as it was placed on something.
Loren felt a spike of hope. Somebody had survived, right in the middle of it all.
“There we are!” A man’s voice said excitedly, the fingers of a hand drumming against the top of the camera, a single black dot on the pad of each fingertip. “Missing out on all of the fun down there, aren’t we, my little friend? Now, now, who might you belong to? Definitely not your standard fare—You don’t look like insoluble tech or anything Artisan might make, hah! You’re even still recording, lovely work, really!”
The man’s laugh switched mid-way through to a much more feminine one, the laughter bright and tinkling… Loren stared at the fingertips, now tipped with longer nails, painted red as they tapped rhythmically on the lens, leaving small smudges near the top of the frame.
How was—he? Her? How were they even alive so close to the explosion?
“My, my, my! That was such a thrill—I just about jumped out of my skin when all those bombs started going off! So much noise!” The woman giggled, sounding shocked, “The timing of it—they even managed to overshadow me! I almost can’t believe it, honestly.”
What was that supposed to mean? Loren watched as the woman picked the camera up again and panned it over the area—he stopped it with a good view of the destroyed podium.
“Right after I pull off the most shocking assassination of the century!” The voice was once again different, much sharper and masculine, “I’m kind of mad, now that I think about it—I guess I’ll have to hunt them down and scold them!”
The camera spun to face the holder, a man with angular features, dark hair, and a razor-sharp smile stared down into the lens, his iris were bright red. Loren watched at the man’s features slowly bled into a softer but still angular shape, and now a dark haired woman stared down at him, a sly smile on her now red, lipstick-covered lips.
The distinctive red eyes remained.
“It wasn’t you who stolen my thunder—was it my little peeping friend?” The woman gasped lightly, tilting her head slightly and closing a single red eye. “Naughty, naughty! I think it was!”
Loren knew who this was, there wasn’t a person in the world who wouldn’t after seeing the eyes—the camera was shaken and then placed against the woman’s ear, as if she might be able to hear him through it. Despite knowing it was all but impossible, he found himself holding his breath and refused to make a sound.
Eventually, she returned to looking into the lens and smiled, ironically.
“Ah well, at least someone will know it was me, I’ll just have to make the next couple count!” The woman laughed before dropping the camera carelessly. “I’ll be seeing you soon, little friend!”
The camera bounced and flipped over, now facing in her direction at a low angle—Loren watched her walk away. A portion of the conspiracy had been solved, and a missing piece of the puzzle was found. He had the name and the faces… of the one who had killed Paragon and threatened to do the same to the rest of the Peacekeepers.
Loren had finally found a legitimate target for the first time since this had all begun—he just wished it hadn’t been Deceitful, one of the seven members of Epilogue.