Loren’s Apartment, Setalite City, 6:32 AM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
“So the bomb inside Paragon is disabled?” Loren wondered, rubbing at his face tiredly.
He placed the phone on speaker and set about making coffee.
“Yes,” Alana replied simply. “The remote we found on Naomi’s body had a very simple software design, and I have been able to modify it. For now, the bomb inside Paragon is set to a permanently inactive state, and if another remote does exist is will find that its connection is blocked.”
Loren poured the water into his mug and let it fall back onto its platform with a click.
“Alright, Paragon will survive the speech then,” Loren mumbled, “But everyone else will still die.”
“I have taken the liberty of contacting Paragon,” Alana said easily, “With the remote as undeniable proof, they are currently working on a solution for the bombs.”
“They,” Loren said, frowning. “As in Artisan? I know that it was Naomi that was responsible for Paragon’s death… but we should still try and figure out how she went about getting the bomb into him, to begin with, and whether or not Artisan actually checked Paragon over.”
Loren couldn’t help but feel suspicious of the man. He had escaped the blast with Vapid’s help while all the others had died.
“Yes, I am also extremely interested in how Naomi managed to insert the bomb into Paragon without being detected,” Alana said gently. “Although it is beginning to seem like Artisan is completely unrelated to Paragon’s death.”
“He could still be responsible for the other bombs,” Loren said, frowning. “Complexity and Fracture both died in the explosion while he escaped unharmed.”
“I will acknowledge that he is currently the most likely suspect,” Alana said easily. “The primary question in Artisan’s case is one of motive.”
“You don’t think he’s the kind of person who would go after the money?” Loren prompted.
“No,” Alana said simply. “I have seen some of the things he has created. I doubt that man wants for any type of material wealth.”
Loren tried to understand that abstract statement for a moment. At a certain level of technological creativity and proficiency, you could probably solve most problems with ease. Or sell off a few of his inventions to keep the money coming in at least.
“Fine,” Loren sighed, feeling like he was once again being left without a target for his anger. “What would he go after?”
Alana was quiet for a long while, and he set about making himself breakfast while he waited. He was just biting down on a piece of sliced apple when she spoke up once more.
“I do not have enough personal experience with him to make an accurate guess at what motivates him,” Alana admitted, “This kind of widespread disaster runs completely counter to his entire publically known history.”
“He’s a hero who stops these kinds of things,” Loren sighed, “It really doesn’t make sense that he would be the one trying to do it.”
“If I were to step into the realm of unjustified speculation for a moment,” Alana said hesitantly, “Perhaps he set up this scenario in order to be the one to solve it.”
Loren frowned at that.
“The public see’s the Peacekeepers swoop in afterward to pick up the pieces,” Loren said slowly, “Once more solidifying themselves at the top of the hero world—seems pretty farfetched.”
“I thought so as well,” Alana mumbled, sounding a bit miffed. “I do not like being unable to come up with an answer.”
Loren shook his head, amused.
“Naomi and Taker are both dead. Paragon is safe for now. The Peacekeepers are working to solve the bomb threat,” Loren summarised, “What happened with Isometric and Ogre?”
“Ogre is currently at a meeting with three healers, hired from Insoluble as per your request,” Alana said easily, “Isometric has reported her findings and has been moved from the Hero HQ to a place outside the city until the bomb threat is dealt with.”
“Has Cinematic attempted to locate Isometric?” Loren wondered.
“No, though that is likely due to a lack of knowledge on who took her,” Alana said simply. “I left no trace of my presence, so they have most likely aimed themselves at a different target.”
Both Gradient and Dovetail were already dead, so that left him with making sure Chloe didn’t go to the speech and get exploded and figuring out where Emma got to. He’d missed the opportunity to give her a place to stay, and he hadn’t seen her since that first day.
“What do you think will happen with the speech or the HQ?” Loren wondered. “Are they going to shut it down? Ward people off in advance?”
He checked the clock—just over five hours until it took place.
“At present, I am not aware of what the Peacekeepers are currently doing in regards to this issue,” Alana admitted, “I’ve been assured that it’s under control, but anything we do will most likely interfere with their solution.”
“Okay,” Loren sighed, “I’ll wait it out. How long will it take you to fix your armor?”
“At least a week until it’s back online,” Alana said sadly. “The helmet was completely destroyed, that will be the most time-consuming piece to replace. It won’t be combat-ready for weeks.”
“No spares lying about?” Loren wondered.
“Unfortunately not,” Alana said evenly, “I’ve had to fix damage before, which isn’t new, but the extent of damage this time was by far the worst. I will be addressing this issue in the near future—provided you remind me to in the next loop. ”
“I’ll make a note of it,” Loren said easily.
Loren’s Apartment, Setalite City, 11:32 AM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
Loren slipped out of the window and scaled the fire escape, heading for the rooftop. He’d spoken to Alana three times since this morning, and each time he’d been given enough information to assure him that things were still going to plan. He just wished he’d been a part of that plan.
Waiting for things to go wrong was never something he was comfortable with, and he’d ended up spending most of the day waiting for the rest of Epilogue to come crashing through his window in a bid for revenge.
Lucky for him, that hadn’t happened.
Loren dropped down to sit at the edge of the rooftop and folded his arms on the railing. His eyes flickered over the city center and all of the buildings that scraped at the sky. This would be a proof of concept in a way—that under the right circumstances, and with the right participants ready, the city might survive.
It was also possible that if he could convince them earlier in the loop about the danger, then they would have several days to accomplish what they were trying to do in just twelve hours. Paragon apparently met with Wraith around the same time that Mark was killed. Maybe he could gate crash that meeting and speak to the man in person. He’d need to find out where that crime scene was first, something he could ask Alana when they next spoke.
Finding a solution for another of the big three problems in the city would go a long way to escaping this endless week: Paragon’s death, the bombs under the city, and the Insoluble contract—each one needed to be resolved.
They had a method of attacking Naomi on Wednesday, using her remote to disable the bomb and, in turn, saving Paragon from death by explosive. The Peacekeepers were working towards solving the cities bomb threat, so if this panned out, he could consider that handled.
That left problem number three, the Insoluble contract, and all of the villains it attracted to the city—namely Cinematic since they were going after a whole host of targets in very little time.
There wasn’t enough time at the beginning of the loop to do anything about the contract itself before Cinematic started attacking. Anything he came up with would have to take place after they tried assassinating Gradient, which meant he would need to make sure the man was saved first.
His phone beeped, and he glanced down to it in surprise—he’d lost track of time again. The bright white lettering on his home screen stared back at him.
It was now 12:00 PM.
Loren stared out at the city, amazed—they’d actually managed to do it somehow. He’d attempted to stop this so many times, and they had managed to solve it within twelve hours without a single casualty. This was the difference between a team of highly trained superheroes and a rookie who just kept on running headfirst into problems widely outside of his skillset.
His phone vibrated, and he answered it.
“I’ve been watching them remotely; they’ve disabled the defenses and each of the bombs,” Alana said quietly. “There’s something wrong with Paragon—he is growing increasingly agitated as time progresses.”
“Is someone provoking him?” Loren said, frowning. “Who’s with him?”
“Empress, Seeker, and Untold are attempting to calm him down,” Alana said distractedly, “Neither Alleviate nor Trendsetter are with the group. Artisan is still investigating the bombs.”
“How are you viewing them?” Loren wondered.
“Micro-drone,” Alana said easily, “Stealth and sound dampening functionality. Paragon seems to be confused now and disorientated—he’s holding his head.”
“Could it be the bomb inside him?” Loren hesitated. “Is it affecting him somehow?”
“It is completely inactive at present,” Alana said calmly, “We do not know the composition or the location of the bomb. It’s entirely possible that the material used in its creation is having an adverse effect on him.”
“Like led poisoning or something?” Loren said, “Can we warn them about it?”
“They are already aware of both the bomb and its current state,” Alana said simply. “They’ve also taken custody of the remote. All I have at my disposal is a monitor that displays its current inactive status.”
There was a rumble in the distance, and Loren turned back towards the city with a sinking feeling growing in him.
“Alana?” Loren said quietly.
“Paragon is compromised,” Alana said seriously. “He is fighting the rest of the Peacekeepers.”
A figure surged upwards into the sky above the city, trailing debris behind him. The man that could only be Paragon screamed and the sound washed over the city, setting windows rattling in their frames. Loren could feel it brushing past him even from this distance.
Two additional figures appeared in the air across from him, standing on thin air—Seeker and Untold, judging by the height and costumes.
“This isn’t going to end well, is it?” Loren said quietly. “Are the others alive?”
“Empress and Artisan are working to remove the bombs entirely,” Alana said calmly. “They are unhurt at present.”
Loren watched the figures, one of which continued to writhe in the air. They must have been standing on a telekinetic platform, courtesy of Seeker because, as far as he knew, Untold was incapable of flying.
Paragon suddenly moved, crashing into Untold and sending them tumbling through the air. Seeker reappeared above them, and they smashed into an invisible wall of force, stopping them from hitting one of the many buildings.
“Can they even beat him?” Loren wondered.
The barrier shattered in the air as Paragon kicked off it. The shards of the invisible force glinted as they dissolved. Untold was left to fall through the air, but she stuck her hand out and dug a groove down the building’s exterior before finding her footing.
“Untold has been able to match him on occasion, but only during friendly demonstrations,” Alana said quietly. “He most likely isn’t operating at full capacity at present, though, so they might very well be able to take him down.”
Seeker’s absurdly thin form appeared near Paragon once more and spun twice before his arm lashed out. Paragon was sent tumbling across the sky from the invisible attack before he flipped twice and slashed his arms out, catching himself in mid-air. He was much closer to Loren now and out of the center of the city.
Likely their plan included removing him from such a high population area before trying to contain him. Untold was sprinting across open air as Seeker flew unassisted beside her, creating an invisible pathway.
Paragon screamed again, hands fisted in his hair—it wasn’t anger, Loren realized as he braced himself again the force of the man’s voice. He sounded confused and anguished—like he was having trouble understanding what was happening around him.
His head snapped up as Untold came within range of his aura, and he flashed forward, fist raised. Loren’s eyes tingled, and Paragon missed completely—Untold crashed into him, and the shockwave sent Loren sliding across the rooftop.
Loren found himself wedged in the corner of the rooftop as the two engaged in a furious melee—he held his arm up to block some of the wind pressure and focused his power on Paragon again.
The man seemed to lose control of his flight for a second, and Untold’s fist crashed into his face. The angle was bad, and the transparent pane of force that flickered into existence did nothing to stop Paragon as he was slammed through it and through a building.
“Loren,” Alana said worriedly. “Are they fighting near you?”
“Yes,” Loren managed, pulling himself up to his feet with the help of the railing. “Not much I can do about it.”
The sounds of terror below reached him as people fled the buildings surrounding the impact.
“Julian, please.” Untold cried out. “This isn’t like you!”
The collapsed building fell apart further as Paragon climbed out of the mess, covered in dust and debris.
“We can fix this,” Seeker added seriously. “Just let us help you, friend.”
Loren swallowed at the pain in their voices but moved to the railing to get eyes on them.
“Julian!” Untold tried again.
“I’m not him!” Paragon screamed, “Don’t call me by his name! This is—why am I still here?!”
“You’re confused, Julian.” Seeker said gently, barely audible from a distance.
A chunk of concrete, moving invisibly fast, smashed into a translucent barrier surrounding Seeker and scattered into the air behind him, but the man didn’t move.
“It’s wrong. This is all wrong.” Paragon said anguished, “I failed. How did I fail? Why am I still here!?”
Loren couldn’t even begin to understand what the man was going through. How did he fail?
“Where are you supposed to be?” Seeker said calmly.
“Don’t feed his delusions!” Untold cried out, sounding just as anguished as the man on the ground. “Oh god—what’s happening to him?”
Loren wasn’t able to see it from his angle, but there was something large and pale white on his left side.
“I was supposed to be gone!” Paragon screamed. “I shouldn’t be here!”
Once more, Loren was sent tumbling backward from the force—and half of his apartment building vanished, the cause of which he couldn’t identify. Seeker appeared in front of Loren with his hand held up, and that same translucent barrier solidified.
Paragon crashed into it.
For a moment, he was perched on all fours on the other side of the barrier, watching them. Loren stared at him—the entire left side of his body was malformed and pale white, melting and swelling at odd intervals. Wind pressure washed over them, and Paragon was sent spinning away from another attack from Untold.
The barrier came down, and Untold landed on the roof next to Seeker.
“He’s getting weaker,” Untold said, crying. “Whatever’s happening to him—he’s losing his power.”
A cry of pain and terror washed over them, and Untold gripped the front of her bodysuit, distraught.
“ALICEEEEE!” Paragon cried out, voice warping into an inhuman noise.
Loren brought himself to look over the edge.
A white lump of roiling flesh and singular black muscular arm sticking out to one side—even the man’s face was gone now. The arm slowly deformed into the mass, and the lump burst on one side. A thick pink sludge began to slosh out onto the road.
Amidst the mess was a tiny, seamless, silver orb.
Hero HQ, Setalite City, 3:32 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
He sat in the corner of the waiting room; Alana had been inside for almost an hour now. Loren knew he would be called in eventually to explain his own circumstances to them. He found it hard to focus on that, though—the sight of Paragon melting into a screaming puddle of flesh had been all he could think about. Untold had broken down on the rooftop after that, and even Seeker had seemed shaken.
Loren added one more horrific death to his growing list of things he’d wished he had never seen.
They’d met all the necessary criteria to save the man from the bomb; they’d stopped Naomi, they’d taken her remote and used it to shut off the bomb—and all of it was worthless because he still died, to something that nobody seemed to know the cause. Loren wondered if it was always going to end this way—they found a way past the horrors and then stumbled straight into the next one only to start all over again.
Julian, the real name of the man they called Paragon and a person with friends and loved ones—and yet that same name had sent the hero into a rage.
It made no sense…
He looked like Paragon, and he had the man’s abilities—those weren’t fake, he’d witnessed them firsthand today, and he’d also witnessed them in the hands of Deceitful. He must have had his memories as well, or else how could he have functioned amongst the other heroes? He’d spoken to Alana on Tuesday morning and presumably, other Peacekeepers when Alana had revealed the bombs all the way up until he’d started to lose control in the sewers.
If he had all of those components, memories, body, and power—how was it that he wasn’t who he appeared?