Chapter 23

Emma’s Apartment, 6:39 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

“What do you know about this Insoluble thing?” Loren asked curiously sometime later. “I need some information on it.”

The sudden off-topic question dragged Emma out of her funk for a moment.

“It’s a website run by an organization of the same name,” Emma said honestly, “It’s like a black market for capes; you can hire for jobs, mercenaries, assassins, more specific work that only someone with a specific power can provide—there are heaps of healers on there, and biokinetics that focuses on cosmetics as well—permanent changing eye colors and stuff like that. Um—bounties, contracts, information sellers and buyers, drugs, pretty much everything you can think of that’s illegal or legal is on there.”

Loren mulled over that for a while; the fact that such a thing was allowed to exist at all said something about the organization behind it. How did they keep it secure? How did they stop capes from following the money trails? How did the website even stay online—

“It’s obviously not legal then,” Loren frowned, “How come it hasn’t been taken down yet?”

“It’s been up for over a decade now, and thousands of attempts have been made to get rid of it,” Emma admitted, “There’s an entire section on the website that details each of them. Nobody can find where the servers are, and the website just doesn’t go down—most people think it’s a power of some kind.”

“What’s the address?” Loren asked, “I need to look into some things.”

“I’ll need my phone back,” Emma smirked, holding her hand out.

“Oh well, I can always solve that one in another loop—” Loren sighed.

Emma looked shocked.

“Hey!” Emma cried, “That’s not fair!”

He snatched the phone out of the air and held it out, smiling. Emma snagged it, but he didn’t let go, raising an eyebrow at her.

“I won’t do anything,” Emma sighed, “Promise.”

Loren let it go, and she messed with it for a minute, frowning down at the screen before nodding and looking down at his pocket. Loren glanced down at where his phone was and tugged it out when it vibrated.

A strange, black prompt was sitting in the middle of the screen—obviously not part of the OS on his phone. He hadn’t downloaded anything either, so somehow she had referred his phone to the website or something.

“How did you do that?” Loren frowned, reading the prompt.

‘Welcome to Insoluble.’ A yes prompt with no option to cancel sat waiting, and he pressed it a moment later.

“It’s in the main menu,” Emma said smugly.

A black app bloomed into existence on his phone, with a simple sidebar. The top left had a shaded grey ‘Sell’ option and a green ‘Buy’ icon. The sidebar opened into a list of categories of services offered.

“How long since you’ve been on here?” Loren asked curiously, clicking through the options.

“Uh.” Emma said unsurely, scratching at her ear, “Six months? I don’t really need it for anything.”

Loren found the active contracts list and navigated through it until he found the one that was causing so much trouble.

“Hunt; Hero or Villain, ten million per elimination, no limit. Location: Everywhere. Duration: Evergold Festival. Monday, 21st of February, to Monday, 28th of February,” Loren said clearly, reading the listing. “Forty-seven contracts filled already.”

Emma rushed to quickly open her own phone again, opening the app and finding the listing herself.

“Holy shit—” Emma said, shocked, “Forty-seven—four-hundred and seventy million in one day!? Who the fuck has this kind of money?”

That meant it was just as unusual as he had assumed; it was also somewhat comforting that Emma hadn’t actually known about it. Whoever had placed this contract and was paying for it—who exactly were they trying to kill? If it was Paragon they were after, surely four-hundred and seventy million would have been enough to tempt some heavy hitters to at least try for assassination on him specifically.

They’d diluted the real ‘target’ underneath every other hero and villain with a target on their back.

“Are you tempted?” Loren asked directly, studying her face.

“Fuck no!” Emma squawked, “I’m not a killer—I don’t care how much they are paying!”

Loren shook his head, amused.

“You are the goodest bad guy I know,” Loren praised, “Who is a good girl? You are!”

“Loren!” Emma cried indignantly, punching him in the arm. “I’m not a dog!”

“Ouch,” Loren laughed, “Hit me any harder, and you might have accidentally made ten million.”

“Hmph!” Emma huffed, crossing her arms. “I doubt anybody even knows you exist—I might get ten dollars at best.”

“Whoa!” Loren squawked, offended. “That’s just mean.”

Emma smirked, and he narrowed his eyes at her, sending one of his arms over her head and into the bedroom behind her. He slid the closet open and yoinked her costume straight out of it.

“Oh, I’m taking your costume with me too,” Loren said cheekily, nabbing her phone while she was distracted by the sound of the closet.

“Hey!” Emma said indignantly, holding onto his collar so he couldn’t escape. “Why do you want my costume as well?”

Loren held the costume out of reach with one of his phantom limbs and slowly pried her off his collar with another.

“I’m being careful,” Loren said easily, “If by some strange twist of fate Mongoose does figure out about you somehow—maybe Mark grows a conscience overnight and spills the beans to her—she won’t find your costume if she checks your apartment when you’re not home.”

“She better not come near my place, or I’m going to—” Emma spat angrily, and her lightbulb abruptly shorted out. “Ugh. I hate this—fine, take the costume.”

“It’s only for a couple of days,” Loren reminded apologetically, “Sorry, I know this sucks, but even the smallest thing could spiral this all out of control—I probably shouldn’t have told you anything this time.”

There was a second reason—he still had her phone, and it was possible that she would go after Mark or even Mongoose in some kind of run of revenge, and hopefully taking her costume would stop that.

“I’m glad you did,” Emma mumbled. “All the arguments, the breakups and—Ugh, I shouldn’t have called him last night, he only ever wanted to hang out when he was pissed off anyway…”

Loren patted her on the shoulder and moved towards the door.

“So you’re going now—and you’re gone,” Emma sighed, as he quickly shut the door behind him. “I just wish I knew all of this shit before last night, fuck you, Mark.”

Loren leaned against the outside of the door, listening for a moment.

“What am I supposed to do without my phone? I’m bored already…” Emma’s voice was pure suffering before she suddenly cracked. “Loren! I’ve changed my mind. I want my phone back! I know you’re still out there—I can feel you.”

Yikes—Loren ran.

Loren’s Apartment, 11:39 AM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

Emma had been going stir crazy without her phone—he could tell because the apartments channeled the sound of her frustrations straight down into his own apartment. She’d been pacing a lot this morning, and he’d heard both the sounds of several things being thrown around in anger, along with a very enthusiastic… uh—solo performance—that had ended with his alarm clock activating before shorting out right at the finale.

If he ever managed to escape this loop and buy his own place, Loren vowed to line all of his walls, floors, and ceilings with soundproofing.

Loren had also become aware that something else had changed in the loop already—he was still listed as a player, he had just received a message from the company organizing the Evergold Crescendo tournament—It had been canceled due to an unknown threat sent to the CEO.

A lot of people had turned up to the tournament as both spectators and players in the other loops, and this might have been an attempt to keep as many people out of the blast radius of central as possible.

A quick check online showed that this had pissed off just about every person involved in the game, and the company had assured that the tournament would be held in a couple of weeks instead. They were also very quick to refund the tickets to avoid any further backlash. Loren kind of felt bad for Chloe’s team—they were going to be robbed of their victory here.

The news about the tournament was quickly overtaken by another breaking story.

“This morning we spoke of how Dovetail, a member of the Setalite City Hero HQ, had engaged the well-known villain Serpentine in the downtown area this morning—we have since learned that this was just the beginning of a much more horrific tale,” The reporter said urgently, “Dovetail was later found dead in the sewers as you all know—this isn’t the focus of the tale, however.”

Loren went to listen, wondering what else could have happened.

“Isometric, A member of The Crew—The only other survivor, as you will soon see—has come forward and spoken to me in private—she has provided some very chilling video footage that was recorded this morning at exactly 3:37 AM,” The reporter said seriously, “Measures have been taken to blur the actions depicted in the video, as they are too graphic to show uncensored, I will be narrating the events as they are shown.”

What the hell was this? It hadn’t happened before—the story had never progressed beyond the fact that Dovetail had been found dead and that Serpentine was the killer. Why hadn’t Isometric shown this footage before? Had she been killed in the other loops by Dovetail—

The video took center stage on the report, and the reporter cleared his voice

“As you can see by the security footage, two figures are seen sleeping, as a third figure enters the first room.” The reporter said solemnly. The video paused at the perfect moment to showcase the figure standing in a beam of light from the window. “Dovetail has entered what I am told is the hidden base of The Crew. I’ve been informed that Serpentine is not present at the base at this time, and Isometric is at another location, working remotely.”

Loren studied the rooms depicted from the three camera angles. It was a particular long building, almost like several shipping containers connected to one another, with two floors shown. Stalk unmistakable from his bright green hair was obviously one of the two figures in bed, which meant that the taller figure in the other room was Piston.

“I’m going to warn you all now, this is a very disturbing scene. Please ensure no children are present.” The reporter said hesitantly before waiting a moment to restart the footage. “Dovetail enters both of the rooms, one after another, and kills both occupants in their beds. The iconic aura that Dovetail is known for shows the use of his power during these acts. He proceeds to take several pictures of the bodies before leaving the premises.”

Dovetail was brightly lit in the footage, but the two blurs in the beds weren’t distinguishable even as they struggled silently before falling still.

“How can we trust these—heroes?” The reported demanded angrily, “Dovetail, a well-liked member of the Hero HQ, is capable of this? It doesn’t matter that they are villains—executing people in their beds is far beyond the scope of their jobs! What comes next? Silencing those who protest against them? Killing civilians to ensure their reputations are upheld? Where does something like this even end?”

The reporter was genuinely upset, and Loren couldn’t help but agree with him—only now Loren knew the real reason Dovetail had done it. Those two minutes of horrific footage was the result of the contract, and the hero had clearly been tempted by the ten million dollar reward.

“Isometric, twenty years old, which you all know as a villain, came to me this morning crying and in fear of her life. She has gone three years as a criminal, and not once has she killed or participated in a violent crime,” The reporter said passionately, “The same cannot be said for the other three, of course, I’m not here to argue that—but a career criminal has less blood on her hands then an esteemed hero? This isn’t right, and it calls into question the legitimacy of every other hero—do they condone these actions? Do they participate in it behind closed doors? Have we placed our trust in the hands of cold-blooded killers who are willing to dispense justice without the just hand of the law?”

The reporter looked off-screen for a moment and cover his microphone before snapping something at whoever was speaking. He looked furious but took a moment to fix his ruffled shirt collar and removed his hand from the microphone.

“We will be continuing to cover this tragedy of justice as more information is revealed, and we have several reporters posted up at the Hero HQ for a live interview,” The reporter said cooly, “But first, a break to thank our generous sponsors.”

Loren slumped back into his chair, mind reeling—Serpentine had been telling the truth after all. Dovetail had gone and killed two sleeping villains in cold blood, and it led more credit to Aston for killing him in self-defense.

This contract was tearing apart the city—he needed to find whoever placed it.

Loren gritted his teeth as the live interview with Tag and Fracture suddenly devolved into screaming and chaos. The reporter valiantly tried to keep the camera centered on the fighting, but the attacker was moving too fast for more than a few glimpses.

“Fuck,” Loren said in frustration as everything started to go wrong again.

He wanted more than anything to go downtown and try to help, but he’d been ordered to stay out of the city—This hadn’t happened before, so something he had changed by talking to Wraith or fighting Cinematic had triggered whoever this was to act.

The cameraman got to the opposite side of the street and watched the front of the building from behind a car. The reporter joined him a moment later, speaking urgently.

“Crescent is attacking the Hero HQ!” The reporter said quickly, “The other members of Ascent were apprehended several days ago—is she attempting a breakout? This could be a response to the revelation of heroes killing villains while they are defenseless!”

They speculated from in front of the building for several minutes, and Loren waited with bated breath for the building to explode, but nothing happened. After several long minutes, the front half of the building was shattered, and several figures tore out of the HQ.

Loren recognized several of them; Complexity, Liquid, Outlast, and Sluggish; all the previously captured members of Ascent were all there, but Crescent hadn’t reappeared yet. Serpentine was there as well, along with plenty of others amongst them, some he recognized, and lots more that he didn’t.

Beat, and Arret were all in the crowd of figures, with the former being almost entirely covered in blood, but he didn’t look injured as they jogged past in the complete opposite direction as all of the others.

Loren closed his eyes and made a rough mental map of the area, and tried to figure out where they could be going—if they kept on going straight, it would end up in the suburbs.

He watched as they disappeared from the camera and clenched his hands together into a tightly knuckled fist. Loren could see no sign of the heroes, and not even Wraith had made an appearance. He dragged his phone out of his pocket and called the number that she’d given him, but it just rang out.

Was this Wraith allowing a breakout attempt—emptying the Hero HQ ahead of time, of both heroes and villains so nobody died in the explosions? Or was she actually fighting Crescent seriously right now and unable to help the other heroes stop the escape?

Should he listen to Wraith’s direction to stay out of everything in order to get past the explosions, or should he be attempting to help her?

“Fuck!” Loren hissed.

He didn’t know—his intuition was pushing him towards the idea that something had gone wrong once again and that he should be helping—but he’d promised not to get involved for the sake of increasing his chances of seeing something later in the loop that might help unravel things faster.

He stood up, heading for the window. He hovered at the threshold, trying to figure out why exactly he shouldn’t get involved at this point—people were getting hurt again, and now a bunch of villains had just escaped into the city.

There wasn’t going to be any backlash from the bomber if he went after Beat and Arret, right?

The bombs hadn’t been set off for some reason despite all the chaos at the HQ. Was it a response to Loren specifically going there?

Judging by the direction they had chosen, Beat and Arret would be heading outside of the city center. Vapid’s touch, supposedly twenty-four-hour duration judging by what Beat had indicated, would have run its course by now.

It was possible that they’d allowed Vapid to touch the prisoners again to refresh its duration and stop Orient from teleporting them out of the cells—His invisible appendages were writhing in the air as he tried to figure out what he should be doing.

“Goddammit, Wraith, pick up the fucking phone.” Loren groaned, rubbing his face in frustration. “Fine, looks like I’m winging it.”

He’d never been one for following orders anyway.