Chapter 56

Loren’s Apartment, 9:22 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd​, 2022.

“A point in space?” Alana said, interested. “Was there anything within range to help discover where it was?”

“I’m not sure that it was an actual physical place,” Loren admitted. “Or that it corresponds with a location in the real world—it might, but I couldn’t see anything to make it obvious either way.”

Alana continued to loom in the corner, armor glinting.

“What made you choose this power in particular?” Alana said calmly.

He hesitated for a moment, wondering.

“It reminded me of a previous power I’d had,” Loren decided. “But it ended up being different.”

“You could tell enough about it to determine it was similar,” Alana said, frowning. “But not enough to understand what it did?”

Loren leaned back on his chair and scratched the back of his head. How was he supposed to explain what was nothing more than a bunch of unrelated feelings?

“It was nothing more than a bunch of unrelated feelings,” Loren said firmly.

Nailed it.

“Loren,” Alana said reproachfully. “You can do better.”

“What are you, my heavily armored tutor?” Loren mumbled, “Look, each star seemed to correspond with its own power, and they felt distinct enough that I actually picked out a couple of my previous powers.”

Loren took a breath, thinking about how to describe the inner working of the stars that lived somewhere deep inside him.

“Each star was made up of a number of… impressions or aspects. Some of them had repeating elements, like the feeling of Fire, Heat, and growth; I encountered more than a few stars like that.” Loren said slowly. “This power felt like motion, experience, and continuation. I can kind of see how it fits now; I see movements, I convert it into a learned experience and store it.”

“That is remarkably interesting,” Alana said eventually, “You said it was familiar to a previous power?”

“Not in the same way I’m describing now—the other power I actually used, so the feelings I’m attributing to it may have been different from whatever its actual expression was as one of those stars,” Loren said hastily, “Does that make sense? It’s more like I felt those two aspects, Motion, and Experience, and It reminded me of the time I was an unstoppable fighting god who could move as fast as Vapid.”

Alana was quiet after that.

“It’s easy to underestimate just how much you’ve been through,” Alana said eventually, “To hear that you were once on that level is startling. I imagine many other attempts, with different powers held similarities.”

“Yeah,” Loren admitted. “I’ve been strong and weak, but most of the time, it’s somewhere in between—learning to use all of these powers is… it’s fun; I won’t lie about that. It feels like a new puzzle built specifically to challenge me. The real problem is that I’m always mismatched and underprepared for the opposition I end up facing—it’s like a house of cards, I destroy one of the legs, and then I have to contend with a bunch of villains that come tumbling down to kill me.”

“Losing the useful powers to unexpected attacks must be painful at the time,” Alana murmured.

“Painful about sums it up,” Loren said honestly, thinking to all of the times he’d lost those powers. “Usually, the entire experience is painful; losing the powers is just another hit in the chain. “

It was hard for him to appreciate the fun of flying through the air or moving fast enough that the normal laws start to warp around him when his friends were lying in pieces on the ground.

“It usually takes months of experimentation, or even years in edge cases for people to gain a full understanding of their abilities,” Alana said eventually, “The fact that you’re able to discover the main uses within minutes and hours is completely unnatural.”

“Ouch,” Loren said dryly, “Maybe everyone else just sucks? Were you one of those? How long did it take you to figure out your—hold on, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you exactly what your power is.”

Alana shifted slightly, perhaps in surprise. Loren raised his eyebrows high in expectation.

“I’m a rather unique case, in that my power is entirely passive in nature and requires no real training,” Alana said slowly, “It also functions in a way that took me a while to discover its exact specifications. In its most basic form, it is a supernatural intelligence enhancement.”

Pretty much what he had assumed.

“So you’re super smart?” Loren said curiously. “Seems pretty straightforward; if that’s the basic form, what’s beyond that?”

Alana shook her head—potentially endangering her galaxy brain in the process, how reckless.

“As a base, it is a combination of enhanced memory retention, creativity, problem-solving, pattern recognition, bandwidth and the other elements which contribute to ‘intelligence,” Alana said dryly, “Beyond that, the more time I spend in an unbroken period while focusing on an individual data point, problem, or theme, I begin to experience an acceleration in that area in a multitude of ways that is harder to discern, but much more potent.”

Loren thought about that for a moment.

“So as long as you hyperfocus on something, you get continually better at it,” Loren said, his interest piqued. “That’s kind of awesome.”

“I lose the ‘hyperfocus’ benefits after I switch objectives,” Alana clarified, shifting again.

“Yeah,” Loren nodded; he’d been following along. “It’s still awesome. I thought you had the power to lock yourself away in a suit of armor for a while there.”

“That isn’t a power,” Alana let out a burst of static that might have been a huff. “My armor is a result of years of repeated work in specific areas, countless breakthroughs, and combining it all into a single piece of multi-use equipment. Before I became Wraith, I was just a… it doesn’t really matter, I suppose.”

Alana trailed off, shaking her head again.

“Before you became Wraith?” Loren pressed. “I want to know—you can’t just bait me like this.”

Alana moved from the corner to look out the window.

“I wasn’t trying to bait you, Loren.” Alana murmured, “I was a student in robotics and engineering, but I dropped out long before I finished.”

“Were you bad at studying?” Loren joked, “It’s hard to imagine you struggling with coursework—too many parties? Boyfriends? Girlfriends? Was this before you had your powers?”

Alana looked over her shoulder at him quickly before turning back to the window.

“I awakened just before I dropped out,” Alana said, a bit offbeat. “I didn’t struggle with the coursework either; I had something of an affinity for technology, even before. I was struggling with the people I had to interact with on a daily basis, and eventually, I didn’t want to deal with it anymore, so I dropped out.”

Loren winced. Her response had been vague enough that he could clearly see that she didn’t want to talk about the specifics. He tried to picture a much younger Alana, interacting with others in a school setting without her armor or her power.

She was already awkward and did things that were bizarre—like finding herself getting uncomfortable close to study another’s expression at times. She also occasionally said strange things, blunt and rude comments that came off pretty insulting, but it didn’t seem like her intention.

Loren remembered how she had referred to the people who were being killed within Setalite City as ‘units.’ It just seemed like she sometimes failed to understand how others might receive her messages at times and failed to deliver them with the appropriate packaging.

What would she have been like without her powers? Would her struggles with communication have been far more prevalent? Would she have had even more problems picking upon which of her comments came off badly? Loren had noted that she was always very quick to apologize for a mistake when it was brought up, and he could imagine a younger, unpowered Alana having had lots of practice.

“I never really sought out higher education—I could have, I suppose, but I wasn’t in the right mind to do it,” Loren admitted. “I think if I could go back—ironic, I know—I would push myself to get an art degree of some kind.”

While there had been plenty of education and trade systems in place to help those within the facility, university-level studies had been something a bit harder to obtain, and they had costs that weren’t subsidized; with no real earning potential, you had to get your family to pay for it.

Loren had been a spiteful mess at that point—he’d had no intention of going to the man who refused to grant him his freedom and begging for help. Unable to leave on his own will, and the timer to his inevitable freedom moving all too slowly. He’d refused almost all of the things offered, except the internal art programs that let him do the one thing that had kept him going in there.

“If it was anyone but you, I would advise you that nothing was stopping you from going and getting that degree now,” Alana said ironically. “A time loop is probably reason enough to put it off for now.”

Loren rolled his eyes.

“Do you ever regret not weathering the bullshit?” Loren wondered.

“Sometimes,” Alana admitted, “But my current circumstances would neither benefit nor change if I had. The Hero HQ program has no requirement for a degree or high learning—if I was one of the support staff, that might have changed.”

“What is your job in the HQ structure?” Loren wondered. “It feels like a million years ago at this point, but I sought you out originally because you weren’t in on—whatever this is.”

Loren avoided mentioning the fact that she’d proven that by murdering him in revenge.

“I am the team leader for the first Rapid-Response team,” Alana said, turning around to stare at him. “Your lack of knowledge about this is startling—how many loops have you sought my help prior to this?”

Uh oh.

“I never needed to know before!” Loren flushed before attempting to defend himself. “I was a little bit busy trying not to get killed every ten minutes, so sorry if I missed some of the details. I’m not keeping count either way, but I’ll say a dozen or more.”

Alana crossed her arms, the metal clanking.

“You didn’t ask me any of this in a dozen loops?” Alana said, taken aback. “I’m not sure if I should be offended by the lack of interest or impressed by the show of trust given how little you know about me.”

Loren decided to abandon ship before he took on any more water.

“Listen,” Loren said quickly, “I asked you to come here to help me learn Kungfu, not to blast me about my complete lack of thoughtfulness.”

“You asked me to send my greatest warrior,” Alana said dryly. “You should have been more specific as to what exactly you wanted. I fit the role of a warrior in the context of the situation you alluded to, but if you wish for a person to observe as they perform martial arts—The HQ has better and less busy people available.”

Loren opened his mouth and then shut it again.

“Well shit,” Loren said, embarrassed, “Sorry, Alana. I should have taken this more seriously—can you bully someone into helping me? Even though I’m a dumbass?”

“I’ve been helping you for a long time already in spite of it, haven’t I?” Alana said without pause, and he couldn’t almost imagine the smug smile hiding beneath her helmet.

The absolute audacity.

Alana left him within a room in the Setalite City HQ, adorned with a padded floor—obviously for some kind of physical training or practice. He’d sprawled out on the mat, flat on his back and enjoying the material that was so cool to the touch.

With nothing to do but think, Loren had fallen back into his thoughts—he hadn’t mentioned it to Alana, but he was holding out a secret hope.

The aspects of the power he’d chosen had reminded him of one of the others, but it hadn’t been the true reason he’d picked it. Motion and experience were interesting to consider on their own.

From the more literal; experiencing motion; understanding direction, momentum, and acceleration. The gamified; Moving generates experience which could be spent somehow. Or even the esoteric; Moving towards someone creates a connection with them, allow you to experience their thoughts.

He had no proof that those powers existed, but his imagination was robust enough that he could think of them with relative ease give the two aspects.

The real reason he’d chosen this power was continuation—you could consider it in many ways; a connection that remained intact, long-term storage, short-term storage, immortality, longevity, time manipulation, generating an effect as long as an action continued.

Loren was hoping for something a bit more permanent—he knew that at least some powers could pass through loops intact. He’d spent quite a few loops under the influence of the geas he’d set upon himself after all.

The very first moment he’d felt this one, he’d experienced a spark of insight—what if this power was like the geas—what if whatever it did passed through the loops with him.

What if it continued to exist even after a reset?

Loren was drawn out of his thoughts as the door finally opened, and Mongoose stepped into the room. He had to tilt his head back to see her properly from his position on the floor—the hero wore her customary white bodysuit and matching mask.

She wasn’t exactly tall, but she was a few inches off six feet—as with the other times he’d seen, her muscular appearance was what drew his eye. The thin material that made up her costume showed off that Mongoose was in incredible shape, the kind of shape that took years of dedicated, unyielding effort to attain.

Loren had spent plenty of time in gyms, and he’d seen many people of varying levels of fitness, but Mongoose had one of the single most defined set of muscles he’d ever seen. Most of the other times, he’d interacted with the woman he’d spent either running, fighting, or without a moment to spare on her actual appearance.

“Damn,” Loren complained, actually finding himself jealous. “You’re giving me muscular envy—leave some gains for the rest of us, would you?”

“First in, first-served,” Mongoose smirked. “You look like you’ve been half-assing it—no one to blame but yourself, noodle arms.”

Noodle arms!?

“I am going to take extreme pleasure in stealing your hard-earned kungfu,” Loren said seriously, scrambling to his feet. “It will take me mere seconds to learn what you’ve dedicated your life to—you’re resentment shall only fuel my growth.”

“You suck.” Mongoose said, annoyed, “I don’t practice Kungfu—I’m trained in boxing and Taekwondo.”

“What’s the difference between Taekwondo and boxing?” Loren said with faux curiosity. “One kicks peoples, the other punches?”

Mongoose stared at him for several long seconds, completely taken aback. Loren wanted her to know exactly the type of person who was going to yoink her skills.

“I hate you,” Mongoose said eventually, “I hate you so much.”

Loren grinned.

“That’s the spirit,” Loren laughed, “I can feel myself getting stronger already!”

He found a place to get comfortable at the edge of the mat and took up a position to watch her. Mongoose muttered darkly to herself as she began to do some warm-up stretches—Loren burned the routine into his mind, wondering if there would be any problems with learning her movements with their differences in height. He only had a couple of inches on her, but it might be enough to change something.

When Mongoose began striking the air and chaining together punches, he found himself genuinely appreciative of her skill. He wasn’t exactly person trained to identify it, but everything she did looked sharp and completely natural.

He was reminded of how lucky he’d been during the incident in Wraith’s office—she’d needed to cross the entire room to get into range after he’d frozen time, entirely unable to use everything she’d burned into her body through years of training.

There had been the other loop as well, the one with Emma, Vapid, and Mongoose all trying to destroy each other in the stairwell. It was kind of interesting how little her Martial Arts could be utilized in most of the fights he’d seen her in—it wasn’t like you could exchange a series of counters and feints when you were falling through the air, chasing after someone and avoiding electricity.

It was probably an even bigger problem than that as well—without knowing the effects of your opponent’s power, getting into close range could be a death sentence. The same could probably be said for the upper-tier melee combatants, though, as long as their durability was high enough.

If Emma had stopped and attempted to engage Mongoose in a fistfight on level ground—

“Hey, Mongoose,” Loren said slowly. “Wraith told you about the loops yet? You’re not the leak, are you?”

“Yes, I know about the loops; no, I’m not the leak,” Mongoose said, exasperated. “I’ve been cleared of suspicion apparently—Tag is the only hero still currently under investigation. Although, from what I’ve heard, we have a highly suspicious janitor.”

“Mathew Kline is the Janitor—Did you know you backhanded me once?” Loren said pointedly, “Blam! Straight across the face, sent me flipping across a room, totally uncalled for by the way.”

Mongoose actually stopped beating the shit out of what she was probably envisioning as an invisible Loren.

“Really?” Mongoose said, startled. “Why would I do that—well, I know why I would want to—”

“Hilarious,” Loren pouted, “Still stealing all of your martial arts, by the way, don’t forget about that part. You must be pissed off at all times, expressly for my amusement.”

Mongoose went back to running through a sequence of complicated moves that Loren burned into the tracery of deep inside him. It was a process that only required observing, and it left his eyes free to trace the form-fitting nature of her bodysuit.

“Dickhead.” Mongoose snorted, “Why did I hit you?”

Getting Mark into trouble for failing to notify anyone about his choice to open up his relationship was always funny, but throwing Emma in the line of fire wasn’t—she hadn’t done anything wrong.

“I absolutely want to tell you the reason,” Loren admitted slowly. “But I’m going to need someone else to be present when I do, someone who can stop you from messing up my loop. Trust me; I’ve seen it all before—time traveler remember?”

“What could you possibly tell me that would make me want to mess up the time loop?” Mongoose said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, you won’t want to mess it up,” Loren said honestly, “You just won’t care when you start a fight in the middle of the HQ.”

Another one down, enjoy!

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