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Identity Crisis:Part Two


by debbie1188

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     You mean you're devotedslothminion!?"

      No matter how he tried, Smaug just couldn't process this bit of information. Ted, the infamous devotedslothminion, was Lichen? How could this be? She'd been lying to everyone this whole time? But the depth of the deception! She'd seemed genuinely scared when she met Sloth at that party for Team Virtupets. She'd relied on Smaug for emotional support, or so he thought! When all that time she was secretly a minion? To think he stood up for her in front of the others! But who could fake being that terrified? The amount of intelligence and effort she must have put into her cover. He simply could not believe what he was seeing.

      "Smaug," said Lichen, her voice wobbling slightly with tension. "This is your little brother, DrSlothWannabe. Crazy, this is Smaug_of_Erebor, your big brother."

      The wild-eyed Moehog walked up to the startled Hissi. Smaug's first instinct was to back away, but he felt Lichen's hand at his back. If the gesture was supposed to comfort him, it wasn't working.

      "Have we met?" said Crazy, scanning Smaug's facial features with an invasive stare. "You used to be green, didn't you."

      "I – I don't think we have. Unless..." Smaug tried to think back. Lichen had bought that camouflage paintbrush shortly after his first ever trip to the Neolodge. They had met a young Moehog there near the end of their stay, noteworthy in that he seemed rather more interested than the average Neopet in hearing them talk about their owner. "You were Abe?"

      Crazy raised an eyebrow towards Lichen. "Told you, Ted."

      "Well I never," she said, running a hand through her hair. "I thought it was an odd coincidence."

      "Lichen, I don't understand," said Smaug. "You've been working for Sloth all this time?"

      "Er, Crazy, fetch me a seat would you?" requested Lichen in what Smaug reckoned was a stall attempt.

      "Fetch your own seat!" Crazy retorted. "I'm not your servant!"

      "Oh, that's right," she replied in a falsely sweet tone. "I forgot you had no manners."

      "Manners?" he cried in outrage. "I'll show you manners!"

      "He's a little slow," mouthed Lichen as Crazy ran off towards the nearest chair. Smaug watched in astonishment as he picked it up and carried it delicately over, placing it directly behind Lichen.

      "Your seat, Madam," he said with a little bow.

      "Good job," she said, sitting down. She patted the Moehog on the head, earning herself a glare. "Now Smaug, come here." The Hissi did as he was told. "I've wanted to tell you this since the day of your birth. Crazy, you've not heard this story either, so both of you listen closely. You can ask questions once I'm finished, but please don't interrupt me while I'm talking. Okay?"

      Smaug nodded. Crazy begrudgingly said "Fine," and sat down roughly.

      Lichen began by setting the scene:

      A young teenager, disillusioned with TNT and with society in general, returns to Neopia after a bout of ill health only to find that her Neoquest save has been deleted. Again.

      "It's okay," her Ixi had said. "We can start again from scratch, just like we did before."

      "No," she had replied. "We were almost finished. I can't face starting again."

      So she abandons the realm of RPGs and turns instead to puzzles and card games for her entertainment. And she wins. Cheat!, Go! Go! Go!, Snow Wars; no match for her intelligent brain, so well accustomed to intense introspection and self-analysis – skills easily transferred to analysis of the puzzles in front of her.

      With this newfound success, she feels she has found her niche within Neopian society. She may still resent TNT and the way they run things, but the self-esteem she gains from the games she plays outweigh any discontent with the laws and restrictions in place.

      And then she begins to read about the history of Neopia – events that she had neglected to pay attention to at the time, when she had felt far less invested in Neopian culture and society. In particular, details of the war between Meridell and Darigan – and later Kass. She had known that Meridell had been attacked by Darigan's forces, but knew little of the motivation behind the attack. She is shocked to learn of the original theft, and that Darigan was acting to free a curse on his people.

      "Yet he is still in the Book of Evil," she thinks to herself. But it wasn't like TNT to take sides, was it?

      She continues her reading. A startling number of these major events involve Dr. Sloth. She had read about him in the Book of Evil when she was a child. Not much was said about him other than the typical "insane evil scientist blah blah blah mutant Grundos blah blah do anything to destroy Neopia blah STAY FAR AWAY" spiel. She hadn't been particularly scared at the time – probably because there were other more present threats like the Pant Devil about.

      One of the events in particular sticks in her mind. A rogue program called Neopet v.2 had trapped some children in a lift on the Space Station and forced them to play with it while they slowly ran out of oxygen. TNT had frantically contacted Dr. Sloth, the creator of the program, and pleaded with him for help. Far from simply laughing at TNT's foolishness and allowing the children to perish - which is what she would have thought likely for an insane, evil genius - he gave them a series of clues so they could shut down the program themselves.

      At the time, her perception of the crisis was that Sloth had created a malicious program that had trapped some innocent children in a lift with a limited supply of oxygen, and that the Doctor had refused to help, leaving the Neopian populace to try and figure out how to disable the program on their own. While that information was true, from a certain perspective, her own viewpoint now begins to change. If his actions were misrepresented in that case, it could have happened elsewhere. What if, like Lord Darigan, Dr. Sloth wasn't as evil as everybody said he was?

      She keeps her observations mostly to herself. One of her Neopets in particular is extremely anti-Sloth, and wouldn't react happily to this line of thought. The other she thinks would be likely to question her judgement, especially after the length of time she had spent apart from them. She had learned a little of science in that time, however, enough to tentatively refer to herself as a scientist. And when she reads of "The Return of Dr. Sloth", she notices some inconsistencies with earlier reports of Sloth's character – specifically his intelligence. The scientific explanation of Kreludite and Kreludium also seems rather vague and incomplete, as if it had been written by someone with only a basic knowledge of nuclear chemistry. It also happens to contradict practically everything she knows about the smelting process.

      She begins to wonder to what extent the reports she is reading are true. All of them are from members of the Resistance, so of course there would be some bias – but how much? Moreover, she can find no explanation for the current lack of purple Grundos on Kreludor. She puts it out of her mind for now. No point stirring controversy – not if she wants to continue being rewarded simply for playing games.

      As her success against Neopets and computer-based opponents continues, she begins to desire a greater challenge, and switches to playing against fellow humans. She finds she has a knack for Kacheekers, and enrols in the monthly tournament. There in the foyer, she meets a brown Grundo who seems unusually intelligent for his species. The two get to talking – about science, about puzzles, about technology – and she is surprised to have found someone with such similar interests under such random circumstances.

      The conversation inevitably takes a turn towards Virtupets; the company practically dominates the market for technology and gadgets, and is really the only place for a scientist to find work (unless you don't mind taking orders from an insane Scorchio who lives on a secret island in the middle of the ocean). When the Grundo asks her opinion of Dr. Frank Sloth, she admits that she is in two minds. On one hand, he's tried to invade Neopia countless times; on the other, there seem to be large discrepancies in the reports of his alleged atrocities, and she no longer trusts TNT's description of events.

      To her surprise, the Grundo is of a similar opinion. He mentions Lord Darigan, whose intentions in the war with Meridell have often been misrepresented. Perhaps Sloth's intentions have been to help Neopia, rather than harm it. After all, if he wanted to destroy the planet, he could just blow it up. He clearly has enough firepower. And why else would Sloth spend so much time developing ways to make Neopets stronger, only to give the potions away for free?

      Having enjoyed their conversation, the two express a desire to meet again at some point. The teenager asks who Grundo's owner is, so that they can keep in contact, but he says he has no human owner. She is surprised, but untroubled, as he says he will track her down by her account name.

      It was such an odd experience that she mentions it to her pets, sharing the Grundo's theory of Sloth's benevolence, withholding her own opinion. As she expects, her two pets dismiss the concept as ludicrous. The older of the two voices concern that this Grundo may be more than he appears, indeed might be some agent of Sloth's, and advises she break off the friendship at the next opportunity. The Ixi has a point. She agrees with him, that it indeed seemed rather suspicious, and promises to end their relationship the next time she sees him.

      But by the time he does turn up again, she is more intrigued than suspicious, and feels she ought not to dismiss him without knowing his real background. The conversation is a little more personal this time. The teenager tells of her childhood roaming, and her longstanding resentment towards TNT's regime. She talks of her Neopets – the constant companionship of her Ixi through all these years, and the recent adoption of a Bori from the pound. The Grundo is more vague about his background – giving details that point neither towards nor away from her Ixi's hypothesis.

      Near the end of the conversation, she confesses that her pets have raised concerns and asked her not to see him again. He expresses sadness, but acceptance. After all, he is a stranger with no credentials to verify his authenticity. Feeling empathetic towards him, and reluctant to lose such an engaging conversation partner – especially since she has no one else apart from her pets – she proposes that they continue meeting, but she keep it secret from her pets. This seems to cheer the Grundo up, and he leaves in a positive mood.

      The third time they meet, the conversation turns back to politics. The Grundo mentions something the teenager has never given much thought – the Faeries and their supposed virtues. If the Faeries truly are as benevolent and powerful as TNT say, he says, then why do they do so little to help Neopia? The teenager voices her agreement. Yet the Grundo continues; what if the Faeries and TNT are not as concerned with the well being of Neopians as they would lead us to believe? What if the information campaigns against the likes of Dr. Sloth were part of a bigger conspiracy to keep us under their control?

      The teenager is shocked. She may not have the highest opinion of TNT or the Faeries, but the idea that they've been manipulating the Neopian people all this time is something she never would have believed. Yet what the Grundo is saying makes far too much sense. And as their discussion continues, the signs become more and more obvious, and she begins to wonder why the possibility hasn't crossed her mind before.

      So what of Dr. Sloth, then - supposedly the greatest enemy of the Faeries? If TNT's information is false, and the Faeries are not as good as they seem, it might explain why they wish to discredit him so much. But this raises a question. What if Sloth is innocent? What if he really is trying to help Neopia - to liberate them from a corrupt and manipulative government?

      It makes you wonder how evil Sloth really is, she says, but one would have to know him before they could make that judgement. However, in a seemingly random change of subject, the Grundo asks her if she still wants to work as a scientist. It takes a moment for the teenager to appreciate the full implications of the question. Is this Grundo suggesting what she thinks he's suggesting?

      Before she replies, the Grundo says that he will give her some time to think it over. He gives her a time and place to meet him next. If she wants to find the answers to her questions, she should meet him there.

      Before he leaves, she asks him what will happen if she doesn't turn up. In that case, he says, they will leave her alone.

      They.

      So he hasn't been working alone.

     To be continued…

 
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