Chapter 46

Hero HQ, Setalite City, 4:12 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.

Artisan was currently outlining how he went about disabling the bombs to Wraith, and Loren already knew that it was going to end up with an even longer code phrase that he needed to remember.

Something had been bothering him for a while now, but he hadn’t been able to put the finger on what exactly it was. So much had been happening that things had been falling out of focus; he stared at the darkened window for a long while before it finally clicked.

He was still in the Hero HQ.

“What happened to the bomb in the generator room?” Loren said, frowning.

Artisan was the one to answer, breaking off his discussion with Alana.

“Unlike the ones located in the sewers, we were unable to gain physical access to it without risk, so we displaced the device and a five by five cube of concrete around it into space.” Artisan said, sighing, “It detonated on arrival, and we were unable to study its design as a result.”

“It’s interesting to note that the Peacekeepers were not at all subtle about what they were doing when they arrived here,” Alana said calmly, “and yet the device was not detonated in advance.”

Loren ran that thought over in his mind for a long while, trying to figure out why that would be the case. Almost every time the bomb was made known to the HQ people, it went off prematurely—why was this time different?

“Why is that interesting?” Untold said, frowning.

It was easy to forget that despite the sheer presence each of these individuals had, that they had almost no knowledge of the situation. All the small details he had internalized over countless loops were new information to this group.

Alana at least had the benefit of him explaining everything early in each loop.

“Because the HQ bomber has someone within the building feeding them information,” Loren said, pinching his nose. “They usually set it off early if anyone finds out. The expected outcome of the Peacekeepers showing up to disarm a bomb should have been all of the explosives getting set off early. Obviously, that didn’t happen, so I’m curious as to what caused that change.”

Untold sat back in her chair, and a thoughtful silence came over the group as they picked through the problem. He couldn’t help but notice that Alana had an almost excited gleam in her eye as she watched everyone think it through.

Loren raised an eyebrow at her when she looked his way, and she pulled her mask up slightly to cover more of her nose. Her body language belonged to someone who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

“Maybe they were scared off because it was the Peacekeepers that rocked up?” Mongoose offered. “Trying anything with this lot here is just asking to get caught. It really doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t just blow it up anyway, though.”

Secluded hummed in agreement.

“The person responsible for informing our killer would have needed to leave the premises first to ensure they weren’t caught up in the blast radius.” Seeker said thoughtfully, “Perhaps they couldn’t find the right time to leave the building and thus never reported it? Checking the security footage for anyone attempting to leave when we arrived could hold an answer.”

That was a great idea, but it was one that he was sure Alana had already checked, and he was proven right a moment later when she spoke up.

“I haven’t had time to properly search through all of the footage,” Alana admitted, her lack of suit crippling her productivity. “My brief inspection showed five people total that left the building in some capacity. All of which left through the front doors in an effort to keep the crowd that was forming away from the entrance. The sudden appearance of the Peacekeepers drew as much attention from the public as one might expect.”

Five people who’d left the building, it was possible that one of them attempted to sneak away.

“I was one of the five who went outside,” Secluded admitted suddenly, drawing gazes from everyone at the table. “May as well be upfront about it.”

Loren considered the woman for a moment. If she hadn’t admitted her own presence there, it would have been suspicious, but it also didn’t make her less suspicious because she admitted to something they would have seen eventually.

“Secluded, Tag, Raindancer, and two support staff members—one of our receptionists and the other a janitor,” Alana confirmed evenly, “This isn’t the first time a crowd has formed outside, and it’s not the first time we’ve had people step outside to attempt to calm them down or keep them away from the doors—it’s actually quite common.”

Stepping outside wasn’t enough on its own; if one of the five made an attempt to leave the area, then there would be a path forward.

“Did you notice any of them attempt to leave?” Loren said, addressing Secluded.

“No,” Secluded offered, “Mathew received a phone call and stepped away for a moment. He never left the sidewalk, though.”

“Who is Mathew?” Untold wondered.

“Mathew Kline.” Alana said, closing her eyes for a moment, “Age 31 began working with us three years ago, job history was—Fitness Instructor, Furniture Removalist and then Janitor, in that order. No criminal history, and a public active social media presence.”

“That’s super creepy,” Mongoose said pointedly, “I always thought you were reading that stuff off a screen in your helmet.”

Alana crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at the other woman but didn’t respond.

“Isn’t Janitor a step down from Fitness Instructor?” Loren wondered, unsure of the pay grades for each, “I thought you needed to go to school for fitness stuff as well? It seems strange to just up and switch down to a lower-paying job like that after you’ve put in so much effort.”

“It’s not at all uncommon for the average person to switch careers multiple times during their lifetimes, and sometimes that requires a pay cut.” Artisan said easily, “Perhaps he grew sick of the constant body maintenance?”

“Mathew still keeps himself in great form,” Secluded said vaguely. “So I doubt that’s the reason.”

“I wonder how you would know that?” Empress said, amused.

Secluded avoided meeting anyone’s eyes, doing her best to look bored.

“If Mathew didn’t leave the sidewalk, then isn’t it unlikely that he is the culprit?” Seeker said calmly, “Although, having said that, I now realize that the phone call could have been attempted communication to the bomber, and they simply decided not to set them off early for unknown reasons.”

Loren nodded at the man’s comment; that’s what he had thought as well.

“The Peacekeeper’s presence at the building took the bomber by surprise, and as a result, they chose not to go through with it,” Alana said evenly, laying out the facts. “The question becomes, why would the bomber draw the line at causing harm to the Peacekeepers.”

“Fear of vengeance?” Untold suggested, rubbing at her eyes. “I know I’m feeling pretty vengeful right now.”

Seeker reached out a long thin arm and patted her gently on the shoulder. Untold placed her own hand over it, accepting the comforting gesture for what it was.

“An attack of this magnitude would have likely drawn our eyes regardless,” Artisan said clearly, “Loren, during your repeated investigations, have you discovered anything about the Arrot City bombing?”

Loren thought about that for a moment before shaking his head.

“I assumed it was the same person who orchestrated the bombing here,” Loren said slowly, “But apart from that, I haven’t learned anything that you wouldn’t have seen on the news. It’s too far for me to get to easily without a movement power, and I haven’t gotten many of them.”

“You have a unique perspective, and you may have more unconscious data points that might not seem relevant, so I’d like you to tell me your gut feeling,” Seeker said solemnly, “Do you believe the sewer bombing was perpetrated by Epilogue?”

His immediate gut feeling was a no—it didn’t feel right that Epilogue would go about it like this. He had no evidence towards that theory, but that’s how it felt.

“I’ve already talked this out with Wraith, but my gut feeling is a no,” Loren said quietly, “Deceitful had no idea about the other bombs and almost gets caught in it if I make no changes—I don’t know for sure, but I think she’s somewhere in the crowd at the Hero’s Podium and as far as I can tell, her sole goal was to kill Paragon. The bomber is someone else entirely.”

The table creaked as Untold fought not to break another chunk off at the name of her teammate, and Seeker withdrew his hand before her grip grew too tight.

“I see,” Seeker said thoughtfully.

They were all quiet after that, absorbing the information and trying to find anything they had missed out on discussing.

Hero HQ Rooftop, Setalite City, 9:12 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.

He’d gone upstairs to get some fresh air, at least that’s what he’d told them. Artisan had been working with Wraith to develop a better method to disable the bombs at the beginning of each loop.

It had started off far above his level of understanding and just continued on higher after that. Seeker and Untold seemed to be following along, or at least pretending to, but everyone else had been left behind.

There wasn’t any point to him being there for it, once they had condensed it down to a code he could take back with him, he would pass it along to Alana, and she would get in contact with the Peacekeepers at the beginning of the next loop.

Loren folded his hands behind his head and stared up at the stars.

Today heralded the absolute best outcome of any loop so far—with the bombs disabled and Deceitful denied Paragon’s abilities, they had somehow managed to cut the number of people that had died down by half.

There wasn’t a sense of satisfaction or pride that he had managed to find this path. Just a lingering sense of failure as he thought about those who hadn’t made it through unscathed, he wasn’t omniscient, and there might have been others that had died out of sight as well.

Paragon, Gradient, Piston, Stalk, Kallin Dale, Evelyn Miller.

There had been other deaths as well, Dovetail and Naomi being the most tangible. Naomi might have been considered a victim once upon a time, and if someone had stepped in early enough, she might have been saved… but he doubted there was anyone who could pull her from her hate as she was now. Killers they both were, but their deaths weren’t needed to solve this.

He glanced over his shoulder as the door opened—Untold stepped out of the staircase and onto the rooftop, spotting him and making her way over.

“Time to go back in?” Loren wondered, studying her costume for a long moment.

The number of commissions he’d received involving this woman was obscene, but seeing her in person revealed that she was just another person. It was probably the puffy eyes that were pulling most of the mystique out of it but still.

“No,” Untold said quietly, sitting in the middle of the roof. “I just needed a break.”

Loren nodded and returned to watching the stars. He wanted to ask several questions, but he didn’t want to end up like the table in the conference room—she’d come up here for a reason, so he’d just have to wait.

They sat in silence for several long minutes before she spoke up.

“Fine,” Untold sighed, glancing over at him. “How long have you been doing this?”

Had she been waiting for him to speak first? Huh.

“The loop?” Loren asked for clarification and got a nod in return. “This last week feels like an eternity, but it can’t have been much more than a month. I think because of the speed that everything is happening, it just skewers my perspective.”

“Does he die in every loop?” Untold mumbled, sounding lost.

“Every single one,” Loren confirmed, not bothering to sugar coat it, “He’s never made it past the speech.”

Untold layed back on the roof, and they fell silent again. Loren decided that if she didn’t lose it at that, he would be pretty safe to ask.

“Who’s Alice?” Loren said eventually, recalling the name Paragon had screamed at the end.

He had a pretty good idea, but he wanted to make sure.

“It’s my name,” Untold said quietly.

“Were you and Julian married?” Loren asked hesitantly.

Untold turned her head so she could see him and gave him a look of long-suffering.

“That stupid rumor,” Untold said, annoyed, “Julian wasn’t married despite what the papers liked to say—and we weren’t together either; I’m not really his type if you know what I mean.”

“Oh,” Loren said sheepishly, “I guess I was reading too much into it—sorry.”

There was a much more awkward silence following his nosiness before she spoke again.

“We weren’t together, but I’ve known him for a long time—he’s the reason I even got my powers in the first place,” Untold said quietly. “You’ll bring him back?”

He’d misread their relationship; it was more a friendship, or a one-sided longing, perhaps, built from years of interaction.

“I’ll figure out how to stop him from dying,” Loren corrected before sighing. “Eventually, anyway. It seems like this is just getting more complicated. Every time I figure something out, a new problem arises.”

“Sounds like a metaphor for living,” Untold murmured. “Any of those problems something you need my help with?”

Loren wondered about having one of the Peacekeepers on call to deal with threats—it would make Cinematic and Epilogue easier to deal with.

“There’s a bunch of problems I’d like to throw a Peacekeeper at and then run away from,” Loren admitted, “How do I call you in if I need to?”

Quiet Room, Hero HQ, 11:52 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.

Loren kicked his shoes off and sat on the edge of the futon, staring around strangely—he hadn’t even known that these kinds of rooms existed in the first place. He reached out and pulled the curtain shut in the cubicle he was in and flopped back onto the mattress. Apparently, it was an increasingly common thing for workplaces to have a quiet room for employees to use when they needed a break.

The Peacekeepers had vanished curtesy of Seekers ability to teleport long distances. Loren, however, had been encouraged by the group to stay inside the building—for his own safety, something that rankled him. They’d left him with the new code phrase to memorize, so that was something he could do to pass the time at least.

Three things stuck out to him from the day’s discussions.

The first was the Janitor, Mathew Kline, who had drawn everyone’s attention and the possibility that he might be the leak. People did tend to overlook cleaners when they were going about their job. He’d actually seen the man in question, the red hair distinctive enough that he’d noticed him. Alana and the other heroes were supposedly keeping an eye on the man, although Loren imagined he would have left the building by now, replaced by another shift.

The second thing he’d noticed was that neither Trendsetter nor Alleviate had made an appearance despite the severity of the situation. That was the thing his mind kept on turning towards, their leader and the friend had been killed today. The meeting here was in part organized to discuss that very event, and yet they hadn’t shown up—none of the others had even mentioned them.

Loren wondered if Alleviate could have saved Paragon if she had been present. Her ability to bring people back from just about anything was well known, but the state the man had been in at the end had been gruesome. Trendsetter had a less situationally useful power given his nature as an illusionist, but still, his absence was noted.

The last thing was the bomb that had been inside Paragon. One of the repeated points of discussion between Artisan and Wraith had been whether or not the bomb had been responsible for the wild disfigurement and transformation that Paragon had undergone.

The preliminary tests that they had run showed that it was entirely made from nanomachines that had assembled themselves after they had already entered the man’s body. Its primary function seemed to be an exotic energy emitter, although more tests were needed to discover what the energy actually did.

Loren could imagine several ways to get tiny invisible machines inside of someone without their notice—poisoning others had been a method that was used for thousands of years, after all—The sound of a door creaking open had him up, and with his back against the cubicle wall in seconds.

His eyes tingled in preparation, and he strained his ears to hear anything from the person who had just entered the room. Nobody should have been coming in here, or so he had been assured, and his mind jumped from threat to threat in a rush of adrenaline.

The door clicked shut, and he prepared himself to act.

He jumped in alarm when three knocks sounded on the outside of his cubicle. The level of stealth was insane. He couldn’t even hear their footsteps—

“Loren?” Alana said quietly from the other side of the curtain. “Are you awake?”

Oh my god, Alana.” Loren breathed in relief, sagging against the wall. “I thought you were fucking Vapid coming to fill out her damn quota for the loop.”

“Ah.” Alana said quickly, “I apologize for frightening you. I should have perhaps announced myself sooner.”

Loren yanked the curtain open, exasperated—no wonder he hadn’t heard any footsteps, she still wasn’t wearing any shoes. Alana stepped inside the cubicle and shut the curtain slowly behind her, leaving them standing a few feet away from each other in the darkness.

“Your eyes are glowing,” Alana said quietly.

Loren listened to the sound of her coat hitting the floor and swallowed.