Loren’s Apartment, 2:22 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
Loren opened his eyes and rolled out of bed, avoiding the spray of glass.
Like every other day, he swiped his phone up, delivered the code phrase to Alana, and tacked on a few extras informative pieces of the things he’d picked up since the last update, including the fact that when they’d disarmed the bombs in Arrot using the same methods in Setalite.
Now for the big stuff.
“Something more?” Alana said, unshakeable despite the mountainous burden he’d dumped on her.
“I have it on good authority that the entirety of Epilogue is in Setalite City, not just Taker and Deceitful.” Loren said seriously, “Reset, Lecture, and Monstrous are all confirmed to be here on Thursday; Tiamat and The Researcher are the only ones not accounted for, but it was implied they are here as well.”
Alana was silent for a long while.
“Included in the code phrase was a rationalization that my other self had come to,” Alana said quietly, “Structured, and read in a way that explains that the series of events that occur over the course of your loop is the work of several unaffiliated organizations and individual actors.”
Loren frowned—this was the first time that she’d had taken issue with the code phrase.
“Yeah,” Loren said slowly before rattling off each of the threats. “The Insoluble Contract. Epilogue. Cinematic. Unknown Setalite City and Arrot City bomber who used Artisans designs. Dovetail? Crescent too, I suppose, but she’s just trying to free her team.”
“The Insoluble contract spurs Dovetail and Cinematic to action, and their actions can be considered downstream from it,” Alana said quietly, addressing each one. “Deceitful and Taker have an in-place method, one that is guaranteed to kill Paragon without your interference—it had also been there for an unknown length of time. The bomber in both cities is using designs stolen from Artisan’s private databanks.”
In turn, Loren nodded to each one, making sure it all added up—he wasn’t sure what her issue was.
“Yes to all of that,” Loren confirmed over the phone as each point seemed to be solid. “Deceitful had no idea about the bombs either and almost dies when they go off.”
There was a moment of silence over the line, and he felt his concern growing.
“My alters are wrong,” Alana murmured, almost inaudible. “It’s too much.”
“How?” Loren frowned. “I’m not seeing it, Alana.”
“Think, Loren,” Alana insisted, in a sharp burst of noise, and he heard her emphasize the point by audibly tapping herself on the helmet with an armored finer. “Why is all of Epilogue here? Why are Cinematic all in the city? Why are so many heroes and villains appearing all at once? Why are there so many things happening at once?”
Loren’s mind started spitting everything he knew out as he tried to reach whatever understanding she had come to.
“I don’t know—each of them has their own reasons, right? Deceitful was here to kill Paragon. Taker was here because she was helping her do it.” Loren said carefully, thinking. “Mara was here because she wanted to watch the trains….”
Loren trailed off; that was pretty weak, wasn’t it? Had she come all the way to Setalite City with the sole purpose to watch the train? Why had she chosen this week to do it? The real answer was he didn’t know why she had chosen it, but he was guessing that the implication here was that she there was a secondary reason for her presence—he just didn’t know what it was.
“Monstrous, Reset, and Lecture at least are here for an unknown reason; they will attack if Taker and Deceitful are captured,” Loren murmured into the phone.
There was another pause.
“Cinematic. Epilogue. Insoluble. All individual actors and organizations chasing their own goals and acting on opportunities presented to them—but what if it was more than that that Loren.” Alana said slowly, “What if the Evergold Festival was a production, and the Insoluble contract was just the invitation that brought in the actors?”
He imagined a stage with all of the known ‘actors’ up there, taking a bow as the curtain closed. Even as the audience lay dead in their seats, killed during the performance—there was no clapping.
“It’s all interconnected, Loren. The Insoluble contract and the Evergold Festival combine to create the first layer of this mess,” Alana said seriously, “The festival is designed to bring everyday people into the larger cities en masse, while the contract is designed to bring the heroes and villains in—as seekers of opportunity.”
Loren ran that thought over in his mind.
The heroes were coming in from everywhere, while the villains would come seeking wealth. People like Dovetail would exist, sprinkled amongst them—heroes turned by the call of greed.
“With the influx of people to the city, the celebration of heroes, and the culture we have—all of the capes would be able to use their civilian identities to blend in,” Loren spoke slowly, remembering pulling Emma through a crowd, dressed in full costume with no one the wiser. “Either to hide from those who were hunting or to seek out targets in turn.”
Alana waited just long enough for him to realize she expected more.
“As long while the festival is still occurring, none of them would look out of place.” Loren said finally, “It was all a trap from the beginning.”
Loren couldn’t believe how obvious it was in hindsight; they’d misconfigured the pieces of the puzzle. Derived the wrong conclusion from the correct pieces—they’d known about the contract from right at the start, but it had seemed so abstracted from the other attacks.
It had become a backdrop to the horrors that were happening because it was an abstraction—you couldn’t feel the visceral hate for a contract, not in the same way that you could for the actual monsters who cut down the people you cared about, right in front of you.
“The explosives are the second layer, set in the two cities most notable for celebrating the Evergold Festival, and as a result the two with the largest populations during this time of the year.” Alana pushed on, voice peeling back the layers. “They are spread out through the city for maximum coverage, in all of the areas with the largest congregation of people. Loren… I made a mistake in attempting to narrow down the individual targets the bomber was going after, to try and categorize who each actor was going after and what motivations drove each of them. I should have been thinking about the larger picture.”
They’d spent time narrowing down the targets of each, come to the conclusion that the bomb under the heroes podium had been there to target the heroes in attendance, not the civilians in the crowd. They’d been asking which group the killer was targeting, heroes or civilians—but it was the wrong question entirely because they weren’t targeting one or the other.
It wasn’t an assassination aimed at the heroes or a bomb to terrorize the crowd; it was a massacre.
“They weren’t targeting the heroes at the podium or the civilians in the crowd,” Loren said in understanding. “They were just trying to kill as many people as possible.”
Why? What was the point of so much senseless death? Naomi’s goal came to mind, to destroy the society that uplifted heroes to a higher status. He could have understood if it had been her—but she hadn’t even known about the bombs; she’d been in the crowd completely unaware, Naomi had almost died there.
“Yes. Heroes, villains, and civilians,” Alana said seriously. “The real goal here for the bomber is overall numbers and not the individual strength or value of each unit like I had first assumed.”
Each unit—Loren shook his head at the word. They weren’t attempting to wipe out those with powers so much as they were attempting to wipe out people. Why? How did all of it tie together? Who was the person directing the actors? Who was the one who’d written the script?
“Deceitful and Taker are here for Paragon, but even without their involvement and with the bomb deactivated, he still goes crazy and then melts into a pile of goo,” Loren said quietly, staring at the window. “Somebody we don’t know about has already done something to him obviously—but….”
Loren remembered the man standing on the side of the construct and looking every bit the hero he was supposed to be. He had the calming aura, he had the unquestionable presence, and he had the unyielding strength—but he also remembered exactly what would become of him when the clock struck twelve.
Paragon would begin demanding answers; He would grow violent, and his body would be wracked with pain; he’d lash out at his comrades—at anyone or anything near him. He’d demanded to know why he was still here. It was like he had known the nano bomb was inside him, and he’d expected the bomb to go off.
Loren kicked the table in frustration, sending it skidding across the kitchen floor, completely unable to make sense of everything.
“Paragon knew about the nano bomb inside of him; why would he be waiting for it to explode? Why would he be upset that it didn’t go off?” Loren murmured, clenching his hands together. “Why wouldn’t he just tell someone about it?”
Had the man wanted to die? Were they interfering with the world’s strongest man and his attempt to punch out early? Was he being controlled by someone? What was the answer here?
“The person flying around wearing his face and using his powers most likely isn’t even Paragon anymore. It might not even be a person at this point; it could be nothing more than a homunculus wearing his body, using his powers, and working with stolen memories. An amalgamation of parts that were simply carrying out its orders.” Alana said seriously, “Its death date is carved in stone, the flesh set to expire—and it’s looking forward to it because when left without a purpose, it breaks down entirely.”
“The Nano bomb was never a real threat here,” Loren said quietly. “Because the real Paragon is already long gone.”
He’d never had a chance to save the man in the first place—Loren just hadn’t realized it until now. All of that hope had been worthless in the end. Even if he succeeded in saving every person in the city, if he prevented all of the horrors and stopped the forces arrayed against them, no matter how well Loren performed, Paragon would never make it out of the loop with him.
The greatest hero in the world had died before the game had even started.
“We can’t do anything to save Paragon; we don’t have any idea when he was swapped with the fake. Refocus your thoughts; the Insoluble contract is the key here, Loren.” Alana said seriously. “Whoever placed it brought all of this together; they drew in the capes and timed it with the festival to bring more civilians. They are most likely responsible for setting the bombs as well—we need to find out who’s name is behind it.”
Loren wished he could just take things in stride as she did—Alana was just built different.
“Isn’t that impossible?” Loren muttered, “I remember asking about it before—you told me people have tried to shut Insoluble down in the past. It just comes back every time, right?”
“Yes, and officially they are still attempting to shut it down, but unofficially, it’s being left alone,” Alana said seriously. “It’s a completely unbiased source of information, as far as anyone can tell. Insoluble does a lot of things, but primarily it collects and sells data on everyone. Civilians, celebrities,heroes, villains, politicians,soldiers, bounty hunters, demons, and everything else.”
“That’s pretty messed up,” Loren said, frowning. “I don’t think the general public would accept something like that—”
“Loren. It’s the way things are; for good or ill, the choice was made by someone far further up the food chain than us,” Alana said simply, directing his attention past the moral argument entirely. “What is important right now is that the system exists and any information that has been traded or sold to them already exists.”
The fact that his personal history was most likely out there for anyone with the application, money to spend, and a passing curiosity was horrible. This was obviously where Alana had been getting her information on him.
“Can we find a way to break into it?” Loren murmured before shaking his head and sitting up straight.
“I will begin preparations immediately, although this entire discussion is indicative of a grave need for an updated code phrase.” Alana said quietly, “If you could speak with me before you reset, I’ll be able to speed up the investigation into Insoluble by passing along any breakthroughs.”
“Thank you, Alana,” Loren said quietly.
“I’ll have a new code for you before the end of the day.”Alana promised, “Have you discovered your secondary power yet?”
“I’m about to find out,” Loren admitted. “Wish me luck.”
Motion, Continuation, and Experience translated into… absolutely nothing Loren could identify.
He’d spent hours doing all manner of things he could think of to generate some kind of response only to be met with a brick wall of nothing. He gave up on his failed attempt at standing on his hands before trying for a risky cartwheel in the space between his bed and the wall and managed to put his heel through the plaster instead.
“Shit.” Loren yelped, yanking his foot out of the wall.
He scrambled up to his feet, eyeing the crack in his wall with wary eyes; he’d remembered them being far easier to do than that.
There was no feeling inside him anywhere to indicated a body part, or a well of energy or anything. No strange sensations, no enhanced strength—Motion, motion, motion. He windmilled his arms around, attempting to generate some kind of arcane force, but nothing happened. Loren dropped down and did a few pushups, but again, nothing happened, and he soon reached his limit of ideas.
He’d been at this for long enough that the sun was coming up, and he’d achieved nothing—to think he could have picked what was most likely the ability to generate ice, cause a snowstorm or spawn an army of snowmen—Ice, cold, and many had been the impression of that last one.
He was starting to think he’d gotten a power he couldn’t use—maybe that’s why it was an automated process, to begin with? Then again, the entire loop he’d gone through as a kid had been ill-matched powers and pain.
Maybe it was learning as it went? It could explain why he was getting more useful abilities now that he was older. A bird passed by the window, illuminated in the early morning light, vanishing before he’d fully registered its passing, and he finally felt something flicker inside of him.
Loren stared down at his hands.
“I have the power to see birds!” Loren said ironically. “Slightly better than nothing, I guess.”
Loren moved over to the window and looked around—he felt the same faint tracery deep within him as he spotted a jogger pass by. The complex pattern grew brighter the longer he watched her, and he then realized what was happening as the exact movements, down to a truly disturbing level, were ferried into his mind.
Without a shadow of a doubt, he knew that he could mimic the exact way she had been running.
“I’m learning her movements,” Loren murmured. “Or it’s some kind of visual understanding of motion, but it only works on other people or animals.”
He watched her until she passed out of sight, and the tracery vanished, his connection to the motion now gone. Loren turned and headed over to his computer and opened up a browser tab, searching for a specific video.
Loren found it, studied the person on screen; he felt the tracery lit up again, and this time he could better tell what it was doing—he’d long since known how to run, on an intrinsic level he didn’t need to be taught.
This new information burned the gymnast’s perfect form into his mind, and he strode back to his bedroom with a confident stride that had never belonged to him. He planted his hands on the ground and then flipped back to his feet in a perfectly smooth motion that left him level with the hole in the wall.
“Huh,” Loren said quietly. “Motion and Experience—is the storage mechanism what is tied to the Continuation aspect? If it wasn’t there, would I keep having to relearn it? Or…”
Another hour of testing had shown him that was exactly what the power did.
It took in everything about physical motion; it allowed him to understand it, on a level that transcended the conscious level. It was stored, somewhere in his mind, in the same place that told him how to move his tongue and to raise his arm or draw in breath without thought.
He was teaching himself how to perform all sorts of things that he couldn’t have possibly done before without the aid of power. The only thing he’d ever felt that surpassed this level of understanding had been the loop where he’d been so fast and so adept at combat that he’d fought off Vapid without her touching him.
As long as he could witness the movements, he could perform them. It didn’t allow him to do anything truly superhuman because his muscles were only as strong as they normally were—but the gap between his cartwheel and the gymnast had been so vast it may as well have been.
Lucky for him, he’d always kept himself in relatively good shape—he felt an abrupt surge in guilt caught him unaware as he realized it had been over a month since he had last gone to the gym. He wouldn’t get anything out of it during the loop, but it still felt like he was cheating.
It worked on people, animals, videos, and even video games—that last one was almost completely useless to him. He didn’t have a single martial arts game on hand, but he did have an old platformer—and he had since discovered that double jumping was impossible to perform in real life despite having copied the motion.
He watched several instructional videos on mixed martial arts—grappling was a confusing mess even if he understood how to do the moves, he had the experience, but he lacked the experience, you know?
All in all, it was one of the weakest powers he’d gotten so far, but there was a sense of giddiness at finally having an answer—hours of work had paid off, kind of. He found his phone and dialed a number.
“Alana,” Loren said solemnly, holding the phone to his ear.
“I’m afraid I haven’t made any significant progress on the code phrase, Loren,” Alana said simply. “Has something come up?”
Had something come up?
“I need to test myself in glorious combat.” Loren insisted, hamming it up. “Send me your greatest fighting man—I wish to crush them beneath my mighty heel.”
There was a beat of silence.
“What?” Alana said blankly, “I imagine you have figured out your current power? What does it do—”
“No time for such silly nonsense, fair maiden,” Loren said, grinning, “Ask my bedroom wall if you must—it attempted to stop my advance and was found wanting. Send me a warrior at once!”
There was a silence that lingered a moment too long and conveyed a lot.
“I was just considering taking a break,” Alana said pointedly, robotic voice reverberating. “I think I can spare a moment of my time to assist you.”
Loren started to sweat a little bit—maybe that fair maiden comment was a bit much?
“Um,” Loren said quickly, dropping the theatrics. “That was a joke, by the way—Alana? Alana?”
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