I sat perched on the edge of a rickety stool as I lazily sipped at a glass of water in this ramshackle bar on the edge of Lowtown and the Outer Islands- just as I had for the past six days. My body was here, currently engaged in steadfastly ignoring the annoyingly persistent bartender, but my mind was elsewhere, spread across all the insects in my nearly seven block range as I scanned for mention of the Broadcast King's dealings in this criminal-ridden wreck of a slum. Or perhaps I should say the boy's body, as while I had been swapped to his dirty male body that still gnawed at my nerves with its dissonance, the boy had taken my beautiful combat model, probably gallivanting throughout Paragon with it at this very moment. For a moment I paused, chastising myself for letting the dissonance get to me, then focused instead on the matter at hand.
So far, I hadn't found anything, merely catching idle chatter about Verity and quickly dismissed gossip about a possible relationship with Christea Ronaveda, but to stake out Oracle Media Group directly would be idiocy of absolutely massive proportions. Even so, if I was going to do so, I needed to act fast, as in barely a day my Pith would be no longer able to offload the short-term memory loss side effect from my Ousting's memory wipe to my Vocation's puppets without visible Pith strain. Yet even as I finally began to muster up the bravado to take such a risk, I found the bartender had sidled up to strike a conversation.
He leaned across the bar, his boredom obvious in his demeanor as he idly nattered at me, "You know, you've been staying in my spare room and drinking at my bar for nearly a week, but I've probably only heard six words out you in that time. What's your deal?"
His name was Leo, and he was a mid-rank member of the Common Foundation, albeit a nonviolent one. Still, it made him a relatively acceptable target in case I had to Nudge him, which I might just have to judging by how quickly my meagre cache of prepared funds had drained. It also meant that I wasn't going to tell him anything halfway-important. I divided my focus by draining the mind energy of a few of my Lowtown bugs so that I could speak without abandoning the search, casually shrugging my shoulders as I grumbled out, "Should be pretty obvious from the shiny new ID, since I can't help but doubt that any parent would name their child #516125871-R. I'm an Epistocrat heir that got Ousted after their parent decided they weren't good enough."
Suddenly having felt the urge to bare my teeth at him, I spoke my last few words through an unintentional growl as real anger coursed through me. "Is that what you wanted to hear?" Did he think we were kin now, bound together by how the Epistocracy had screwed us both over? We were nothing alike! He rebelled out of some childish sensation of envy, for lacking the will to learn the power that others wielded seemingly effortlessly. I rebelled because I had people I love that couldn't be saved without rebellion!
Leo held his hands out in front of him, as if to ward away the trouble my sudden anger seemed to promise. "Look, I'm sorry, alright. I was just thinking I've seen people cast out like that, if not precisely in your situation, and most of them don't just sit around. They go out and do something, whether it be to get back what they had or make themselves a new life. Maybe that's what you should be doing? You could-"
Even as I was about to dismiss the thought, my insects picked up a mention of the Broadcast King by a rather less nonviolent mid-level member of Commonplace, having barely managed to catch as he lightly murmured, "...the Broadcast King. Boss wants tight opsec from everyone." Was the Broadcast King pulling a secret operation with terrorist elements of the Common Foundation? I needed to investigate. If this was what I thought it was, it could be exactly what I needed! Even as this ran through my mind, and I began to seed more bugs onto and around both the Commonplace member and the thugs surrounding him so I wouldn't lose the trail, I stood up, having moved from the stool so abruptly that Leo was forced to cut off his misinformed advice.
Deciding to throw him a bone, I called out to him as I strode outside, saying, "You know what, you're right, Leo. I think it is time to actually do something," even as casual indifference drips off my every word.
Now that I was seeing the likely terrorist and his goons with my own eyes, it seemed quite clear that if this went wrong and they were able to freely wail on me, it would go quite badly. Still, I felt eager to finally be doing something, and so as I approached his table through the smoke in this derelict dive bar and called out the name I had learned while listening to him, I couldn't help but feel a smile tugging at my lips.
"Joseph! So good to see you. I was wondering if we could have a... friendly chat about your commitment to the operational security of our organization. Don't worry, it won't take long. You can even bring along your helpers, since it seems they already know everything." It seemed obvious from the lecture I'd overheard him giving his subordinates that Joseph, underneath the tough guy façade, was deathly afraid of disappointing his superiors. I was certain this would get him out of the way of the curious crowds, and I was right.
"Come on, boys. Let's see what this little pissant wants!" Joseph bellowed, his tattooed hands trembling despite the bravado. As we headed outside, I moved my insects to more natural positioning, preparing to release them from my control. Once we had stepped outside, standing next to a large puddle from the latest storm, I increased the maximum quality of Pith my Vocation could puppet, constricting its range in exchange for gaining total control over the group of Green Hands. Even as it happened, my Pith had begun nearing the threshold over which it would show visible strain, and I was forced to quickly find the nearby abandoned building I had prepped with coils of spider silk.
Once the Green Hands had tied themselves up in a dark corner of the building, I finally lowered my Vocation's limit, and impassively watched as Joseph tried to tear free from the silk, but instead merely struggled impotently. "OK, if you want to keep doing that, you're free to. But in the meantime, let's get the formalities over with. How much resistance to Nudging do you and your men have?" I questioned, even as I pressed my Pith down on Joseph's decision-making and auditory processing centers to execute the aforementioned Whisper Vocation.
Joseph's mouth complied even as his body continued to struggle, stating, "I can resist about half of all given commands, and can actively choose which commands will affect me."
I frowned. Thinking out loud, my words carried through the air even as I mumbled, "And your men? Right, 50% ignored. I suppose you are a good leader, then, considering you chose to expose your weakness rather than theirs. Now, I don't particularly want to deal with that resistance of yours, so how about this: I leave your men alone, don't touch them even the slightest bit past what I've already done, and you tell me everything you know about Commonplace's deal with the Broadcast King. Deal?"
Joseph didn't look particularly pleased about it. He refused to speak anything beyond what he'd already said, probably a wise move considering that his lack of 'opsec' got him in this mess to begin with. Sadly, it was too little, too late, and I sighed as I settled in for a long night of repeated Nudging and lie identification. At least I wouldn't have to pay rent at the bar for tonight.
The moonlight shone through a hole in the abandoned building's patchy roof as I blearily awakened, establishing my Vocation even as I rejoiced at how a full 12 hours of rest had somewhat restored my projection stamina. No longer could I almost taste the ozone which would come if I used my Pith even a second more Instead, today felt as if I could use my Vocation as much as I wished, and it was wonderful.
Sadly, it didn't look like the rest of the building's occupants were in such good spirits, as most seemed to have tired themselves out straining at the silk all day. Joseph had been a harder nut to crack than expected, having managed to delay my completion of the interrogation all the way into morning. Still, the Green Hands weren't all bad. For instance, though having them tie themselves up rather than projecting into the silk had been merely a measure towards saving some mental energy, the comedic value of seeing them all exhausted by trying to undo their own efforts had paid the inconvenience off all on its own. It was almost as funny as my current comedic measuring stick, of Lorne's facial expression as he tried to puzzle through the contradiction between the mutual respect and petty hatred he held for me.
Since the ability to tell time by the sun and moon's position had been stolen by the memory wipe due to its Paragon origins, I was shortly unsure how much time we had until the 11:00 meeting with the Broadcast King I had learned of from Joseph. Alongside this fact, I had also learned that Afzal Kahlin was apparently not the richest Humdrum in the world, but rather merely one of its many wealthy projectors. My temporal disorientation continues as I pondered this over, until my bugs spotted a clock to land on. Judging by their positions while sitting on its hands, it was already 10:00! There was no time to waste.
I immediately shifted my Vocation for a higher threshold and lower range, exerting my control over the peripheries of the Green Hands' sleeping minds. I projected into the silk ropes as well, pulling them off and tying them around my waist as a pseudo-belt to be used in case of emergency. I puppeted the Green Hands out into the greater area of Elmidde's Outer Islands, guiding them as we slowly made our way to the meetup with the Broadcast King on Gestalt Island. On the way, I picked up a cheap audio recorder- the smaller and less complex it was, the less likely it was to register on projection senses as such an intricate device as a recorder.
As we loped through the streets, myself hidden at the group's back, I couldn't help but notice the innocent bystanders that a battle on Gestalt Island would endanger. Here, a poor Shenti family just trying to get by. There, a homeless Neke woman who, judging by her tattoos, was at least eighty years old, although she occupied a forty year old body. All of them hovered around the building where the Broadcast King and my group would be meeting. I still didn't know the Broadcast King's Vocation, Joseph having deflected all attempts at learning. For all I knew, he could be a physical projector whose projectiles would blow out the walls of our meeting place, pummeling these bystanders to death with rubble.
I'd just have to handle this fast enough that he wouldn't realize what had happened. Carefully, our group of fifteen, sixteen including myself, entered the abandoned Shenti temple, ducking into a near-windowless side room that Joseph had assured me they were planning on meeting in. I had also been told that Kahlin's people were going to guard the perimeter, but as I couldn't find them to subvert them, it seemed like subterfuge would be the name of the game. I puppeted Joseph into calling out, bellowing out an 'order' to his people about how they should be cautious as I curiously glanced at the relics of the religion Headmaster Tau had destroyed. "Sweep the interior for intruders, but stay inside the church! And don't split up! We don't want to spook Kahlin's people, but I won't trust this security unless we do it ourselves, and we need a united front."
For the next half-hour, I, alongside the rest of Joseph's 'subordinates', went through that church to an erased religion with a fine-tooth comb, but we found nothing inside except trash. A few minutes before Kahlin was supposed to arrive, we gathered in the side room beside the only exit. The member placed outside the door had seen the Broadcast King enter, but said nothing, merely filing in in what I hoped Kahlin will presume to be a mannerism from a well-disciplined terrorist cell. She'd seen the Broadcast King, but she'd also seen a four-person squad of ex-kuttas (Ilaquan special forces with a particular affinity for skill- and thought-stitching), escorting him through. Likely, the ex-kuttas had all thought-stitched themselves together such that anything one knew, the others did as well. It meant I couldn't just pick them off with my control one at a time- it would be all or nothing if it came down to combat.
Interrupting my pondering on how best to execute my double-cross, Kahlin himself confidently stalked past my guard. In that moment, his eyes studying each of my puppets with a steely mien, I would have given almost anything for my Stone Mask Vocation to have been unaffected by the memory wipe as I tried to muster my features into a reasonable facsimile of what I had seen from Joseph's subordinates. However it went, Afzal Kahlin didn't seem to react, and I felt such relief that I couldn't help but busy himself manipulating Joseph's tongue to sell the façade.
"Now, I am told you have a service you can offer us?"
The Broadcast King sneered in disgust at our group, impeccable hair bobbing as he imperiously lectured us with his declaration. "That would be correct, to a degree. Although I would argue that the powers of my Vocation and empire are of more value to our mutual interests than a mere service."
I made Joseph shrug, running with it even as my mind raced with the implications. How powerful was his Vocation to be of equal value with his media empire? What were the mutual interests between an insurgency and an exiled Ilaquan media mogul? Never mind. Now is not the time. Review the tapes later. "Fair enough. Now, I have been told to ask what you'll request in return."
The Broadcast King now mockingly mimicked Joseph's shrug as he drawled out his answer. "Isn't it obvious? Once I help you topple the government of this perpetually gloomy cesspit of a nation, you help me reclaim Ilaqua from the she-devil currently leading the Harmonious Flock. Now, would you like a demonstration?"
This is exactly what I needed to save the Ebbridge family. If I could get out of here with this recording, I'd still have almost a year to retrain for the Counteroust. But I can't get distracted now. I forced Joseph's hands tremble just as they had when I pretended to be his superior, with some of the other puppets and myself taking a supposedly involuntary half-step back. "We'll be fine, thanks."
Afzal Kahlin grinned sarcastically, obviously amused and happy at our supposed fear. "Suit yourselves," he threw out, before muttering at a lower volume, "Idiot Humdrums." I chose to have Joseph ignore that, letting Kahlin move on as he questioned, once again at a normal volume, "Do we have a deal?" I puppeted Joseph into nodding, then made him step forward and extend his hand for a handshake.
Kahlin took it, but something about Joseph's demeanor must have tripped him off, as while the handshake went on in what felt like slow motion I simultaneously felt a forceful mental pulse go through the minds of both myself and those I was controlling. Preparing to uncoil the silk around my waist, I silently panic as the Broadcast King yells out, "The whole group is being hijacked through unknown means! Take the one at the back alive- he's the only one unaffected by the hijacking."
As I uncoiled the prepared silk from my waist, the sound something rushing through the air suddenly filled the room as Kahlin's bodyguards retrieved the Green Hands' weaponry with metal projection, having snagged the recorder up as well on the mistaken impression that it, too, was a gun. As the other bodyguards do this, the bodyguard to Kahlin's left stepped in front of him, likely a Joiner based on how once the weaponry and recorder were guided to her, she crushed them into scrap with her bare hands.
As the ex-kuttas mowed down my puppets without leaving their client's side, my Pith shrieking with pain as every one of my puppets was carefully executed, the homeless Neke woman from earlier burst through the sole window in the room feet-first, her trajectory having carefully skirted the radius of my control while she plummeted down onto the presumable Joiner. She carried a wooden spear with a vine coiled around it, an orange rose blossom beside its tip, and even as I observed this she plunged it down into the face of the ex-kutta Joiner who it should have simply bounced off of. Instead, a thin gash in the Joiner's forehead bled bright red, and the ex-kutta instantly went unconscious even as the obviously fake homeless woman did the same to the other three with Joining-enhanced speed. The first two were unsuccessful in their attempts to avoid it, but the third was obviously a capable Joiner with enough warning from their thought-stitching to dodge, sweeping up Kahlin and the unconscious trio into her arms as she runs off rather than take this formidable foe on alone.
With everyone beside me or the Neke woman gone, I finally released my silk fully, floating it around me like I had seen Eliya's dad do with his steel darts in the vain hope she would be scared off. It doesn't look like that will be happening, however, as she lets out a peal of laughter, somehow delighted by this course of events. "Look, I get it, but right now we need to go before the other seven members of Steel Violet come back for revenge."
My stance didn't change, although if she was telling the truth, then she really was my only option. But that's exactly why I didn't trust her. Selfless saviors don't just swoop in when you get into trouble- if she wanted to help me, then she also wanted to use me, and I don't allow myself to be used for anyone except me and mine.
The Neke spearwoman sighed. "Look, I didn't want to do this, but the only way you cooperate requires discussing things that we can't talk about here, and which would take way too long anyway. You're coming with me."
During the speech, she had slowly pulled back her spear arm, and as she concluded her self-indulgent monologue the spear shot forward, the vine extending off of the wooden shaft until one of its thorns was close enough to lightly scratch me in the forehead. I fell asleep near-instantaneously, having managing only one thought as the silk which had been rushing forward to decapitate her falls to the ground- I really needed to get better at not getting knocked out during my fights.