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A Boy

 

Before I charged into those all-too-familiar circumstances, though, I needed to tie up the loose ends from my unaffiliated work. Well, really, just one loose end- Leo the bar owner- considering that Joseph alongside his crew had been murdered by the group of mercenaries Kahlin had hired. But that particular age-old solution wouldn't work for Leo. The annoying bartender was a peaceful member of Commonplace, who I had originally discovered not through the affiliation of not trhough hearing him spout anti-projector drivel or making shadowy deals like I had with Joseph, but by looking under the bar with my bugs and finding Common Foundation pamphlets. Leo being unexpectedly murdered would be much more suspicious to the Common Foundation leadership than Joseph's death, as Leo was hardly involving himself in illegal deals like the one I had infiltrated. And besides which, despite all of the annoyance he had given me over the week I had stayed with him, at the very least he meant well: he didn't deserve to die merely to cover my tracks. Instead, I'd have to rely on the world's most basic Whisper vocation- lying.

 

I slouched my back as I returned to the bar, walking through the half-open door in a manner I could only hope Leo would perceive as despondent.

 

He did, having perked up at my return before picking up on what I had made all-too-obvious to him, then solemnly returning to his current task of drying off the newly cleaned, yet still filthy serving glasses that were placed onto the bar. "I take it that the whole 'doing something' plan didn't pan out?"

 

I grumbled back at him, internally starting to perk up at how, since he believed the lie,  I wouldn't have to Nudge him and make him forget I existed. "Not particularly."

 

Leo moved on to the next glass, the one he had been drying having become mildly less filthy. As he started drying the next one, I noted that the cloth he was using to dry was considerably filthier than before. He likely wasn't going to make much progress on that front anytime soon. "Mind if I ask which idea the 'doing something' would have helped with? You know, the whole get back your old life or start a new life thing we were talking about."

 

If I were to answer honestly, the answer would be quite simple, but as the whole point of returning was to throw off his suspicions should his superiors ask about me, I decided to muddy the waters a bit. "Honestly, it's be a bit of both. I'm a person who likes their options, their ability to choose. If I'd pulled it this off, I'd be flush enough with cash to choose whatever future I wanted. But I didn't, so that's that." There, that should do it. Now, even if the Green Hands did interrogate Leo, they'd assume I'd already been working for someone rather than being recruited after.

 

Of course, now that everything was going just right, it seemed just my luck that only a few moments later, all my efforts went to ruin. Leo paused in his cleaning, his interest somehow piqued by my casual lies. "Eh, I guess. Still, you don't seem like the type of person to just sit around when you've got a job to do. If you had work to do, you'd never have stopped by here- not that I'm objecting, mind you. If you want me to drop it, I will. But what made sitting around here so important to your plan?"

 

I didn't need the guilt from Nudging Leo on my conscience, and I certainly didn't want it, but at this point it seemed inevitable, and while I had decided to just rip the bandage off quickly, rather than make it too stretched-out and painful, I couldn't help but delay by preoccupying myself with planning for the future.

 

I decided I would head to the portion of southern Lowtown where Gage lived after this unpleasantness was over with. The Rose Titan had said I could stay with Gage, and while I could have just continued living with Leo now that I was passing the point of no return (and quite honestly, that was the better choice, since at any point someone could Nudge him again to release him from my commands), I just didn't want to. The pain of constantly repeatedly hijacking the mind of a mostly innocent man like this would be unbearable. And besides, I didn't trust Gage. I needed to stay with her if I was going to properly monitor her with my Vocation like the Rose Titan had suggested.

 

"'Scuse me, but are you ok? You seemed to zone out there, and not the way you usually do." Leo had gone back to cleaning out the glasses now, as while he was too nosy for his own good, he also seemed to quite like mutlitasking as he indulged that nosiness. Rather like me, in a sense. I decided to stop stalling.

 

Leo had pulled me back into the present, and unfortunately, I was forced to respond by brainwashing him into compliance. I reached into Leo's Pith, put pressure on the relevant nerve centers, and went to work with my questions.

"Set the glass and rag down, and remain quiet unless it's to answer my questions. How much Nudging resistance do you have?"

 

Leo's eyes seemed to scream at me, piercing my heart with guilt even as my Pith continued to exert its pressure. "None. I'm trying to escape, to get free and run away, but nothing's happening!" The guilt only increased, as Leo's face had contorted into an expression of fear that even in the depths of my annoyance, I would never wish on him. At least my Vocation wasn't on right now, even in its reduced form- that always seemed to frighten those who were unused to it, and often even those who were used to it, but didn't consider me a friend (probably the main reason I tolerated Lorne, even despite his problems).

 

Then, I did what I could now admit was my purpose in coming here, even if I'd lied to myself  before about it being my last resort. "Very well, then. I compel you to forget that I ever existed, forget that someone ever Nudged you, and come up with the most reasonable possible excuses for discrepancies between what you do remember and reality."

 

As I slowly walked out, I couldn't help but watch in disturbed fascination as Leo's face slowly went blank. I'd practiced on volunteers and criminals at Paragon before, but this was my first time taking away someone's free will without having the moral high ground to comfort me. Even as I thought this, his face had resumed its usual expressiveness, and as I left, the door swayed with my departure. Just as I stepped out onto the street, I swore I could hear him mutter under his breath, "Huh. That's weird. Must be the wind- it's a bit odd today."

 

I walked through the Shenti slums on the way to Anabelle Gage's home as I pondered something of utmost importance- my name. My old name was still affected by the memory wipe, and while I'd tried to avoid replacing it so long as I could, right now I needed a pseudonym. If Gage learned about my name while a student at Paragon, she could easily look into me and discover the full extent of my motivations and affiliations- and therefore ascertain my lack of loyalty. But when it came down to it, there weren't many options I could think of that wouldn't be traced back to me.

 

Quite honestly, when it came down to it, I'd neglected many things in favor of focusing on my family and Paragon- a circle of mere acquaintances among them. I didn't exactly have a wide range of names to draw from, and what ones I could think of were so obviously Epistocrat that all Gage would be able to think about was that she had an Ousted noble on her team. One glance at the recent Ousting records while at Paragon and Gage wouldd realize I'd thrown mine. I mean, it's hardly like I'd be able to sandbag our missions like I had the Oust. If I did that, I'd be dead. And, worst case, if she let my name slip at Paragon, then my family's plausible deniability would be dead in the water so long as I chose a name that was connected to me. I mean, for instance, say I chose Weston. It was my parents' the name my parents had planned on giving me if I was a boy. I might as well shout 'this is the Ebbridge heir in a male body!'.

 

But there was one source nobody but me could draw from. My memories of my first life were foggier than my father's glasses after a long, cold day, but they still did have their value. Even so, there was only one name I could remember from them even on the good days like today, the name of the propagator of the longest conflict that my first life had ever experienced- Jack Slash. I remembered him, him and what I presumed was a dual Physical-Whisper Vocation that he convinced everyone was limited to a term that, while I couldn't quite remember it, I assumed was then the equivalent to declaring something merely a Physical Vocation. He'd created an army of monsters, forced me to the lowest moral depths I could remember sinking to, and done it all for his own amusement. And by the end of it, he'd created the apocalypse that I had been attempting to stop when I sunk to those depths, forcing me into action until I made a decision that even my reincarnated mind couldn't recall.

 

But it was the only name I had. So I calmed myself from the spiral of panicked memories I had been experiencing, taking deep breaths in through my new body's pimply nose, and breathing out through its all-too-chapped lips. After a minute of that, I quietly rehearsed the name under my breath, the words slipping off my tongue easier every time.

 

"I am Jack Slash."

 

"I am Jack Slash."

 

"I am Jack Slash."

 

As I said it, I could feel myself internally wincing at how I was mimicking his uncannily happy demeanor. But the pain of remembering those hurtful memories diminished every time (although it never entirely disappeared) until finally, I thought I had it.

 

"My name is Jack Slash. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Gage. I've been sent by one Isaac Brin, in the hopes that you'll choose to let me aid you." rolled off my tongue, quick and smooth, as that horrid man's hint of a smirk played around my mouth. It was quite obviously a pseudonym, but it was one with no connection to me, and one both bold and subtle enough that my illustrious leader would be hesitant to press me about it. All that remained now was finding her to make my introductions. I activated my Vocation, finding that while in my distraction, I had wandered off course, all that remained between me and my destination was a mere two blocks of tangled streets and alleyways.

 

Once I had arrived (having narrowly dodged two muggers, three drug dealers, and one particularly violent beggar who had been practically begging for that sting), I consulted the file still tucked under my left arm, checking the address listed against what I could see. It was a plain grey building, with solid concrete walls and no visible windows. From what I could tell, it did indeed match the file, with the disingenuous business title of Silver Palace Sleepbox & Depot and the 178 West Vanora Street address. Honestly, either the person who had founded this place had no clue of the implications of juxtaposing those two businesses, or they were the type of creep who gloried in stuff like that. Either way, I was unsurprised to find that their business practices had resulted in the majority of the pods being devoid of life. I certainly wouldn't have to be staying in the same cramped room as Gage, so that was definitely good news.

 

Regardless, I did have to meet my bodysnatching boss, so checking the file again, I noted the pod my bugs had identified as being her current home (Sleeping Pod 151) was, in fact, filled with a body matching the file's descriptionI buzzed the corresponding button in the entry way to the 'Silver Palace', Brin's card outstretched in my other hand, still clad in the dirty street clothes the boy had been wearing a week ago when he Ousted me. As the body from Sleeping Pod 151 limped through the halls, I grew steadily more annoyed, impatiently waiting for Gage to finally get to the door.

 

Finally, the door swung open, and I handed her the card as I delivered my prepared line. "My name is Jack Slash. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Gage. I've been sent by one Isaac Brin, in the hopes that you'll choose to let me aid you." Then, almost dropping my mask of abhorrent origin in shock, I truly took in her body. It was a male body, one with broad shoulders, a square jaw, and stocky features. Perhaps it had possessed a modicum of attractiveness in its prime, but as it was, I could only barely avoid staring. I took in the clumpy grey hair, the bulging grey veins on its upper body which seemed ready to hemorrhage, and a muscle tone with such variance and warping that the part of me which had learned to care for my combat model recoiled in horror.

 

Well, I thought, even as Anabelle Gage froze up into a defensive stance that suggested Brin, in a shining example of both maintaining separation from your black ops operatives and being an absolute prick, hadn't told her I was coming. At least I won't be sleeping with this boss.