They caught him in the aftermath of the attack, dragging him out from under the pile of rubble where he had been tactically concealing himself- not cowering, he didn’t ever fucking cower, not even from a starship-sized monster that was barrelling through buildings like the architecture had killed its lusus and pissed on the corpse. Not that it should have surprised him. He’d chosen the coastal town specifically because of the attacks, because in a place that was already mercilessly fucked to the Otherside and back he’d thought nobody would notice one more ragged figure with sweet fuck all to trade trying to barter for the basic grubshitting necessities of life.
Past Him was a pan-damaged idiot for not realizing that the pitiless fates would embrace this shining golden turd of an opportunity to fuck with him yet again. When the Othersider had lumbered out of the ocean, roaring and dripping water and virulent blue acid, everyone had run for cover. For all normal and respectable citizens that meant a public shelter but after the last disastrous encounter with one of those hellholes he had known better. Heading towards the Othersider had been terrifying, but no more so than every other insane risk he took in the name of continued survival, and he’d actually started to feel moderately safe once he was behind it and out of the immediate path of its rampage. Finding a pile of rubble he could burrow into had been a bonus, an extra guarantee against being crushed into pulp by a giant horror-terror or burned to a crisp when the sun rose. He’d started to doze when the sound outside had changed from “rampage” to “fight”. He was under no illusions about who was being saved here- if they gave a shit about the lowbloods on the coast, they’d stop the damn things out in the ocean- but just knowing that there was a Jaeger on the scene made him feel safer.
And then the next thing he knew, Imperial Drones were pulling the roof of his temporary shelter, looking for Mother-Grub-knows-what and finding one small, malnourished, barely-adult mutant whose time avoiding the cull lists had finally run out.
* * *
Karkat woke up suddenly, switching from asleep to awake before anything could interfere by, say, killing him. The squeakbeast that had come carelessly close to his cartilage nub managed to just barely dodge his clumsy grab and he cursed as it vanished into a crack in the wall. Scrabbling after it, he was brought up short by a sharp tug on his ankle.
“Ah, I see you’re finally awake.”
Too late for the thought to be of any actual use, it occurred to him that maybe he should have pretended to be unconscious. Instead Karkat shuffled back into a crouch, fingers prodding at the shackle keeping him chained to the wall while his eyes scanned his surroundings. It didn't take long; he was in a cell, dark and damp and, thanks to his abject failure to undergo anything resembling a growth spurt, humiliatingly spacious. The entire front wall consisted of a heavy metal grille and in the dim light that was filtering in from the corridor, he could just make out a roughly troll-shaped blob huddled at the back of another cell opposite.
“Not that I meant to imply you were in any way being wilfully idle just now,” the stranger added. His voice was smooth and oddly deep, although Karkat’s own voice had dropped a few registers as he got closer to and passed conscription age. He guessed this guy had to be at least his age or older, which meant he shouldn't be on Alternia any more than Karkat should.
Unless you're not on Alternia any more, and isn't that a comforting thought? Karkat shifted, wondering if there was any position in which the shackle wouldn't chafe his leg.
His fellow prisoner still hadn't stopped talking. “There are many biological and psychological reasons why you might require more sleep than is average for a person of your age and it would be deeply insensitive of me to assume that the length of your dormancy was a matter of personal choice rather than the influence of external factors- not that such a personal choice would be cause for censure, either. Naturally, I have no desire to impose my personal world-view onto whatever lifestyle choices you may or may not be making, unless those choices would involve the exercise of unchecked privilege which we must all of course strive to-”
Pressing a hand to his aching head, Karkat growled at the other inmate. “Shut the fuck up,” he snapped.
For a few blessed moments, there was silence, and then to Karkat’s utter dismay the stranger proved that he simply could not keep his wordhole taped shut. “I’m sorry, that was thoughtless of me. I should have realized that you might be suffering from some pain following your ordeal, although in my defence I was not aware-“
“By all the unhallowed acid-spewing bulges on the Otherside, will you stop fucking talking!” Karkat yelled. “I was half-dead even before I dragged my sorry ass into what turned out to be Monster Attack Central, and being forcibly drone-napped from my happy little life of dodging Cull Squads and Eldritch Abominations has not put me any closer to a frame of mind where I want to get lectured by some petty fucking highblood deserter on the fine points of how to be a complete nooklicking asshole!”
“Actually, I’m not a highblood-“
“Oh, well that makes everything just fine and dandy, then! I’ve been caught draft-dodging and breathing while a mutant, so literally red-handed that I might as well have dived head-first into a vat of bleatbeast blood and swum around a bit, and once they get done figuring out how to make it as slow and painful as possible I’m going to be culled for the unspeakable crime of being hatched in the first place, and my stomach is trying to crawl up my backbone and my head is being split open by a thousand angry stingbugs that have apparently been nesting in my skull and you want to give me a fucking monologue in that shit-eating holier-than-thou accent of yours on the finer points of everything that is wrong with me, which is to say me in my entirety, but that’s all just fucking piss in the wind and I can forget about it because, hallelujah and praise the Mother Grub, you’re not a highblood!”
He broke off, chest heaving too hard for breath. Water dripped, a small plink echoing in the air.
“If it helps at all, I think there's a good chance they won't cull you,” said the stranger, once the silence had really had time to draw out and become awkward. His voice, Karkat noted through the dull throbbing of his head, was at least a little softer. Not that it became any less annoying for it. “Of course, I wouldn't want to give a false assurance of safety given that they are probably debating the relative merits of their available options right now, but based on my current working knowledge of the situation I would say there is probably a greater than even likelihood that they want you alive.”
Letting out a huff of breath, Karkat slumped back and leaned his back against the cell wall. Moisture immediately soaked through several layers of the ragged clothes he was wearing and he muttered a curse, rubbing a hand across his face. “I'm an off-spectrum hemotype mutant,” he said quietly, too tired to put any force into the words. “I only survived this long by getting the fuck out of my hive when they came looking and moving ahead of the drones. Clearly someone had enough of a lapse of good sense to prevent them from culling me immediately, but that's not going to last.” He reached out and grabbed the chain shackling him to the wall, shaking it a little. “Unless you're hiding a bundle of keys in that oversized noise-flap of yours, I'm dead.” He dropped the chain and scowled at the distant figure. “You could at least leave me to regret my existence in peace, fuckass.”
“Ahem, well, much as I would like to respect your wishes, I'm afraid I will have to violate some of your personal boundaries a little as there are some extremely pertinent facts which I don't believe you've been appraised of.”
Karkat was about to demand to know what kind of facts, precisely, would make any kind of difference to his situation now, when his fellow prisoner shifted. A chain clanked in the cell opposite as the shadowy figure scooted forwards until he was crouching in the light from the corridor. Then he lifted his head.
Even through two sets of grille doors Karkat could see him clearly enough. His first reaction was to yelp and try to jump back, which didn't work so well when he was already pressed against a wall.
His second reaction was to stare. It was- actually, it was nothing like looking in a mirror, because although the face staring back at him was undeniably his own every last little detail was different. Like how the hair looked like a tame style ruined by a stay in a cell, rather than Karkat's own recalcitrant squeakbeast nest. Or how the face was rounder and fuller, with fewer hunger-filed planes and sharp angles. Looking closely, he thought the stranger might be older than him too; not by much, but it showed.
The eyes, though, were the same. They glinted at him through the grille, shining in the shitty prison light with a bright red colour that shouldn't have been possible once, let alone twice.
Karkat opened his mouth and made a dry little peeping noise.
“Yes, I know,” said the stranger, who from the way his eyes were narrowed was studying Karkat as intently as Karkat was staring at him. “I do apologize for putting you through a shock like this. I hadn't intended to deceive you, per se, but given that my own emotional reaction when they brought you down here was rather strong- by which I do not mean to suggest that I am distressed by your existence, nor place on you any expectations of obligation or social bonding that you might not be comfortable with, especially given the fact that you have clearly been engaged in a solitary existence for some time, which I am also not going to pass judgement on given your clearly deprived circumstances in wigglerhood-”
“Name,” rasped Karkat.
The stranger halted mid-flow. “I beg your pardon?”
Karkat swallowed, then stabbed a finger into his upper thorax. “Me. Karkat.” He jabbed the finger at his double. “What the fuck is your name?”
“Oh, Kankri,” said the other prisoner. He shrugged. “Kankri Vantas, although I should hardly have to tell you that. Unless you favour a different filial appellation, in which case you can let me know and I will endeavour to remember your preferred means of address. In fact...” he sighed and shook his head. “I apologize. With all these distractions I completely forgot to ask you if you had any triggers I should avoid mentioning in the course of our conversations. Not that distraction is any excuse, but if there are any topics or phrases that would distress you then you should let me know now so that I can avoid them. Are you familiar with the concept? It's no trouble if you're not, I can explain quite easily, and there's no call to be embarrassed by a lack of knowledge on the matter so long as you are prepared to educate yourself when the opportunity arises. Now usually when I'm listing triggers I prefer to start with anything that- did you hear that?”
A sarcastic reply died on Karkat's lips as Kankri fell silent and he heard the sound of footsteps coming closer. By unspoken agreement both of them pulled back into their cells, huddling as far into the corners as their shackles would let them. Karkat rested his palms against the walls, revulsion to the damp slime forgotten as his attention narrowed to a single focus. His lips moved as he tried to count how many people were coming, but with the odd echoes it was hard to tell. More than three, but he couldn’t be certain beyond that.
When they finally came close enough to see, there were five of them. They all wore black jumpsuits whose only markings were a sigil patch on one shoulder and a series of bars that had to be a rank insignia on the other. Most of them had two bars, but the guy in front had three bars and a teal symbol- obviously in charge. Karkat frowned, not recognizing the uniform. Not that his knowledge was exactly up-to-date or even reliable to start with; he was at least smart enough to know that a diet of schlocky martial romance films was hardly going to give him a thorough schoolfeeding in every aspect of the military.
They opened Kankri's cell first. The other mutant was on his feet before they even reached him, hunched over defensively and holy fucking grubfondlers he was still talking.
“...again register a complaint regarding my treatment and the unnecessary violations to my person that I am subjected to under your care, such as it is, and make an appeal to your better nature as fellow trolls and, indeed, sophont beings to beawareofthenaturalrightsandDIGNITYOFYOURFELL- MMPH!”
The guard who had tied the gag on took a step back to admire his handiwork, and the one holding Kankri's head dropped it with a shove that sent the captive mutant reeling forwards a step or two. Seeing the furious but silent glare Kankri directed at them, Karkat wasn't sure whether to cheer or pray that the floor swallowed him up. He watched as stiffly, and with every inch of him radiating fury, Kankri held his hands out to be restrained. The guard who had shoved him snickered, then dragged the hands behind Kankri’s back before cuffing them together. Kankri made some muffled noises until he was silenced with a slap to the head, and as soon as they released the shackle around his leg he let himself be led out of the cell into the corridor. Two of the guards stayed with him, a hand on each shoulder, while the leader walked over and unlocked Karkat's cell. Karkat stayed huddled in the corner, eyes tracking the head guard as he approached. The man stopped a few feet away and looked down at his belt to retrieve a pair of cuffs.
In one mad dive, Karkat had knocked him to the ground and was scrabbling for the keys. His claws scraped against them but then he was hauled back by an arm around his neck; he bit, teeth sinking through heavy cloth and into tender flesh despite their pathetic blunt tips. The owner of the arm yelled in pain as blood flooded his mouth, and before she could try anything else Karkat threw his head back and heard a satisfying crunch of cartilage. The guard staggered away from him and he lunged forward again; this time, his hand closed around the keys before both his arms were grabbed and hauled in different directions. Karkat screamed in wordless rage and used his captors as anchors to kick out with both legs, landing a clumsy blow on the head guard as he stood up then thudding painfully to the ground as the pair holding his arms staggered inwards under his weight. Dragging his arms back out of their grasp and not giving a single shit about the strips of cloth and skin he left in their claws, Karkat bolted for the open door before he was even upright.
A heavy weight slammed into him from behind, sending him sprawling and slamming his cartilage nub into the cold metal panels of the floor. Before Karkat could get purchase or wiggle free, a sharp jab hit him just behind the left horn, and on the heels of the pain a wave of calm rolled out of his skull and through the rest of him. Karkat slumped as his various appendages underwent a transformation into soggy noodles. His thinkpan fizzed and dissolved into happy mush soup, and when they hauled him up and started dragging him around like a sack of tuber-roots he couldn’t even put together the necessary thoughts to be upset about it, let alone fight back.
The submission daze wore off gradually; by the time Karkat noticed that his hands were cuffed and that he too was gagged, they were just stepping out of an elevator and into a corridor that, while still dull metal, was at least mostly dry and properly lit. Still muzzy, Karkat blinked and looked over at Kankri; the other mutant gave him a look that he had seen dozens of times in the last sweep. It was the you’re disgusting, semi-feral, and so far beneath me it’s not even worth taking the time to berate you for it look. Coming from a fellow aberration against the natural order of trollkind, it was surprisingly hurtful. Karkat glared at him as best as he could manage then looked away.
There wasn’t much to see in the corridor, just solid metal doors that only opened to admit more black-jumpsuit wearing guards- or soldiers, or what-the-fuck-evers because Karkat’s head was spinning and he sure as shit didn’t know any more. Some of them watched curiously as the two prisoners were led past them down the concourse; Karkat glared back at anyone who stared at him until they hurried away. It wasn’t until they reached a larger metal door at the end of the hall that he realized they’d all been staring at him, not Kankri. He didn’t have time to work out what that might mean before the door was opened, and he was shoved through after his double into a sparsely-furnished office. From behind a utilitarian desk that was piled high with workpads and dominated by a top-of-the-line husktop, a seadweller with one fin and a face that looked like half of it had been attacked by a box of angry knives looked up.
“Sit them down,” she said, and the guards obediently hauled a couple of basic chairs out of the corners of the room and dropped Karkat and Kankri onto them. Karkat squirmed, trying and failing to find a comfortable way to sit. The chairs were obviously designed as some form of subtle torture device, he decided; given the way the seadweller’s lip was curling as she looked at them, he was willing to bet she cared for their comfort only slightly less than she wanted to cut off her other fin and eat it.
A wave of her hand dismissed three of the five guards, including one who was sporting a swollen and bleeding cartilage nub. Karkat watched them go with a vague sense of achievement, before being brought sharply back into the present by the sound of the seadweller’s chair scraping across the floor. He watched wide-eyed as she walked around the desk, and tried to flinch back when she bent down to study him. A strong hand grasped the back of his neck and stopped him from pulling away. Karkat proceeded to get a much closer view of her milky eye and fishbait scar than he would ever have wanted.
“Another talker?” she asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.
“Biter, sir,” said the guard behind Karkat. He thought it might be the teal-blooded leader. “He nearly got out of the cell before we caught him.”
The seadweller straightened, eyes narrowing at the unseen man. “Careless of you.”
“We contained the situation,” said the head guard, and Karkat was certain that he only heard a faint trace of fear in the words. If it had been him, he wouldn’t have admitted failure at all, but the seadweller didn’t seem to mind overly much. She walked back over to her desk and turned to lean against it, still studying the pair of them. The hand gripping Karkat’s neck let go, but he didn’t make the mistake of thinking his warden was in any way relaxing.
“My title is Commander Wavescar and you should know that personally, I find you both utterly repulsive,” said the seadweller, so suddenly that Karkat almost got whiplash snapping his attention back to her. ““Under any other circumstances, any other command I have had in my hundreds of sweeps of service, I would happily give the order and see the pair of you culled like the misbegotten freaks you are.” Her good eye flickered from Karkat to Kankri and back again. “That said, this is not any other command, nor are these any other circumstances. We are at war with an enemy unlike any we have ever faced, a foe that strikes directly at the heart of our homeworld and the continued existence of our species.” She scowled, the scar twisting the expression into something every bit as frightening as a subjugglator's mask. “Every army we have sent against it has died, every weapon we have used on it has failed, and every other weapon we dare not use because it would seal our own destruction. The Othersider attacks are growing stronger and more frequent by the perigee; our first, last and only line of defence against them are the Jaegers.”
Karkat jumped a little as her head swivelled to face him directly. “You were found in the aftermath of an Othersider attack, so I assume you have at least seen a Jaeger before.” Not waiting for him to nod assent, she continued. “What you do not know, because it is one of many facts we do not publicize about the Jaegers, is how we select the pilots.” Noting Karkat’s expression of surprise, she snorted. “Yes, I said pilots; regardless of what wild rumours are running around the coastal cities these days, the Jaegers are not robots or drones. They are controlled by living minds; not by means of a standard interface or a Helm rig, but through a method called the Drift. And the Drift, Vantas, has very specific requirements of a pilot. Regardless of what the Empire or I myself might prefer, it does not care about hemostatus, or combat prowess, or physical deficiencies. Cull orders, social clout and criminal record are all irrelevant.”
Pushing off from the desk, Commander Wavescar stepped over to stand in front of his chair again and leaned down, her hands leaning on the armrests. Karkat forced himself to remain still and meet her glare, ignoring the cold sweat that was prickling down his back.
“What the Drift wants, and what it is my duty to provide, are pilots who can synchronize,” Commander Wavescar said, her voice quiet and razor-edged. “Pairs, Vantas, with sufficient similarity and connective capability that I can hook their minds together, put them in a Conn Pod, and expect to get more than two pan-dead piles of carrion in an obscenely expensive coffin. Despite sweeps of extremely thorough experimentation there is still only one indicator of Drift compatibility, and it is so unbelievably rare that anyone who meets the criteria is, by decree of Her Imperious Condescension, too valuable to cull.”
As she stepped back, Karkat risked a glance across at Kankri. The other mutant was staring straight ahead, looking mutinous but also considerably calmer than Karkat felt. His head was spinning with the tail end of the submission daze and the fact that Jaegers had pilots and that from what Wavescar was saying it really, really sounded like…
“Congratulations,” said the Commander, practically spitting the word out and breaking across Karkat’s thoughts. “You two are now Jaeger pilots. Your training will begin tomorrow at oh-one-hundred sharp, and I suggest that along with your good fortune you take some time to contemplate all the things I can do should you cross me that do not impede your ability to control a Jaeger in the slightest.”
Before her words even had the first conceptual ghost of an idea of a chance of settling in, she looked up towards the guards waiting by the door. Waving a hand impatiently, she gave one final order.
“Get them out of my sight.”