Chapter 1: The Mess You Left
Karkat Vantas growled, smearing a fist full of sopor slime across his face, as if doing so would urge it to sink in deeper. He rolled, nestling further into the warm nest of his recuperacoon, its soothing glow ebbing away at his mounting frustration but doing nothing to let him actually sleep. He'd always been a light sleeper, but the gifts of increased age, paranoia, and status had turned that quirk into a full blown dysfunction.
He'd been curled up in his respiteblock for hours already, and no amount of meditation or counting bubbles in the sopor slime had left him any closer to legitimate rest. Insomnia was an unrelenting bitch.
But it was an unrelenting bitch that was about to save his life.
His eyes blinked open groggily, reacting to the sound of something shifting. His eyes widened as he saw it - something sharp and metal glinted in the darkness in front of him. It was a scythe, and its tip was just brushing his neck, poised to slit his throat.
He knew exactly what was about to happen, and the only suitable reaction he could muster was unfettered rage.
"Oh, fuck no," he roared, impulsively grabbing at the blade. He lurched back, clawing at the weapon like the cornered animal he was in the cramped space of his recuperacoon, doing anything he could to keep that fucking blade from slashing him open. He refused to be murdered while he was half naked and covered in slime.
Whoever was holding the scythe pushed back with equal force, and its edge grazed his collar bone. With that he'd had enough, and rammed his shoulder into the side of the recuperacoon, sending the whole arrangement sprawling onto its side - with any luck, his assailant included.
Green slime spilled out across his respiteblock, coating its metal floor and overwhelming the paperwork he'd unwisely left lying around. His living space was drab and utilitarian, but nothing he wasn't used to. He briefly cursed the fact that this station had set him so far apart from the rest of the living quarters. No wonder no one had heard him yelling yet - except the theoretical guards that really should have been waiting outside. They had completely dropped the ball.
The scythe withdrew from his sight as he squirmed out into the open, but not before he reached back and snatched the sickle he'd kept hidden in a cranny of his coon ever since he'd been promoted and the paranoia had set in. He clawed his way out, snarling, just in time to narrowly avoid his assassin's scythe from slicing open his face.
"You're fucking kidding yourself if you think it'd be that easy!" Karkat shouted, deflecting the blow with his own weapon, and swinging blindly. He could see his attacker now: a black clothed figure in the dark, darting through shadows while brandishing their weapon. It was a blade mounted on a long pole that had a break in its middle, connected by a steel chord. Though suitably unorthodox, it looked like something a Threshecutioner would carry.
If he had been less distracted with staying alive, it might have looked familiar.
He charged the figure, deciding that taking the offensive suited him better, and unloaded the same kind of indiscriminate fury that had gotten him through Sgrub all those sweeps ago. Metal clashed, and despite his ability to hit much harder than his assailant, Karkat was being out-maneuvered. In one simultaneous action each of their blades sunk into flesh. His opponent's sunk in deeper.
Red and turquoise blood decorated the walls and floor, mingling with sickly green.
Karkat gasped, too stunned by the sudden gash across his chest to move. Candy red blood seeped through his fingers, running down his bare abdomen and speckling the floor. His enemy utilized that moment of weakness, and moments later the thick chord of the scythe had found its way around his neck. He choked, dropping to his knees, a bloodied hand grasping at his throat. Even as he was being suffocated, he was reluctant to drop his weapon. Something about it was bothering him.
Turquoise blood dripped down its edge. Turquoise like text he'd seen so many times before. Familiar like the compartmentalized pole of the scythe. Like the way she moved in the dark so easily, like she didn't even need to-
"Terezi," he rasped, feeling the realization sink in. "You...bitch."
For a moment, the tension at his throat relaxed. That was all he needed.
Ramming his elbow into her gut, he wrenched the chord away from his neck. He twisted around, grasping, finding cloth between his fingers, then an arm. Forgetting about his weapons, he fought for any grip on her he could get, to keep her from running away as he felt her begin to retreat. "Don't-" he started.
He lost his grip as a foot planted itself against his chest, right over the open wound. He howled, and was kicked to the floor in a puddle of slime and blood. She grabbed her fallen weapon from the floor. He glared up at her, panting. She went for the door.
"Don't!" he shouted again, reaching after her as she fled. "Don't you run away from me! Fuck!"
The door slammed behind her, leaving behind a trail of blue. Then he was alone in his quarters, bleeding. Nothing else moved around him. No guards. No alarms. Typical. He sighed in exhaustion, pressing a blood covered hand to his forehead.
Black romance sucked.
Chapter 2: Black and Red
He kicked open the door to the medical bay, leaving a trail of crimson behind him.
"Fix this," he barked to the startled medical staff, indicating the seeping wounds across his chest and neck. There were only two on duty at that time of day, but their shock at the colour of the fluids running down his body was enough to distract them from whatever they were doing with the medical equipment across the room. Yeah, yeah, stare at the blood, he thought. Never gets old, does it?
"C-Captain Vantas," the female to the right stammered. "What happened? Where are your clothes?"
He glanced down at himself and realized he was still only wearing the shorts he'd gone to sleep with. Also, that he was still covered in sopor slime. Goddamnit.
"Do I-" he started, but stumbled before he could finish, falling against the frame of the doorway and smearing big gobs of cherry blood across the spartan white walls. God, if he had been in this situation when he was younger, he would have shot himself. "Do I look like I'm in the mood to have a conversation?" he snarled, but there was no force behind it. He was too damn tired, and probably on the verge of passing out from blood loss.
In retrospect, he probably shouldn't have stayed to clean up Terezi's blood before coming to get patched up. But he didn't have a choice, did he? Not unless he wanted someone else to see the blood first. Not if it meant that they'd figure out who had done this to him and...
And what? Why was he protecting that psycho bitch again? What the hell was even going on? This was bullshit. This entire thing was bullshit.
"Complete bullshit," Karkat muttered to himself, sinking down to one knee. Next thing he knew, the medical officers were grabbing at his arms and trying to pull him onto the examination table. He dropped his sickle, only then realizing he had been clutching it the entire time.
When he started tuning into what was happening around him again, they were already slopping some kind of purple gunk all over his chest. It stung, tingled, and smelt awful but it wasn't the first time he'd seen its use. "Ugh," he groaned.
"Sir, we need you to explain what happened," the elder of the medical officers prompted. At least, Karkat figured she must have been older because she wasn't shitting her pants at the sight of him to quite the same degree.
"Fuck if I know," he drawled, but the increasingly irritated look on the officer's face prompted him to at least try giving a decent answer. He didn't like the idea of the person wielding the medical utensils being pissed off. Maybe when he was more inclined to have a shouting match with someone, but not right now. "Assassin, probably."
There was nothing uncommon about that answer for a person of any rank, and the medical officer hardly even raised an eyebrow. Just every day stuff, assassinations. Just another lump of fecal matter in the shit storm that was his day to day life.
There was one thing that was off, though.
"Wasn't there anyone guarding your respiteblock?" the officer asked after a moment. Once again the gears in his head began to turn over that subject, though at this point they were filled with so many metaphorical wrenches he could hardly get past the thought 'no, because they're assholes, is why.'
"You tell me," he finally said, noticing that while he'd been receiving treatment the on-duty patrol had shown up at the door, complete with black uniforms. "About time," he growled.
"We'll need a full report," the elder medical officer said to the patrol.
The head of the squad began prattling off something about how there was a 'lack of coordination' and 'a momentary oversight' but Karkat didn't even want to hear it.
"I just think it's funny," he said loudly, talking right over their explanation, "that you're gone just long enough for me to get a midday visitor playing doctor with my major blood vessels, but then you're here with a well thought out explanation the moment I survive the experience."
They looked at each other like they weren't sure what to say to that.
"Sir, what did the assailant look like?" one of them tried, stepping forward. "They will likely still be on the ship, and we can pursue them."
"Black clothes," Karkat started, knowing that was ambiguous to the point of uselessness since the whole fleet's uniforms were black. "I..." His mind turned with indecision, his gaze dropping to the floor. "I didn't catch their face."
After a few more uselessly probing questions, the squad left him to rest. He took the resting slab in the back corner of the room. With open wounds like that, he wouldn't be able to use a recuperacoon - not that he would have wanted to anyway.
He rested there in silence for the rest of the night, wishing for the days when he thought he hated himself more than anyone else ever could.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA] --
CG: ENCRYPT THIS RIGHT NOW.
CG: GODDAMNIT SOLLUX IT IS NOT A DIFFICULT CONCEPT.
CG: I'M ABOUT TO SAY SOMETHING PRIVATE SO I'M ASKING FOR SOME FUCKING PRIVACY.
TA: eheheh well ok.
TA: it'2 funny that you thiink that ii ever have conver2atiion2 that aren't encrypted.
CG: WELL SCALE THAT SHIT UP TO ELEVEN THEN.
CG: I SAY WITHOUT HYPERBOLE THAT THIS IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.
TA: fiine kk ii wiill iindulge thii2 2udden and cryptiic reque2t.
TA: iif iit wiill make you 2leep better at niight.
CG: ARE YOU DONE?
TA: ii was done two second2 after you a2ked.
CG: OKAY THEN.
CG: SO TEREZI TRIED TO MURDER ME IN MY SLEEP.
TA: ok well...
TA: do you mean liiterally or fiiguratiively.
CG: AND WITH GUSTO.
CG: WHEN SLITTING MY THROAT DIDN'T WORK SHE TRIED TO STRANGLE ME TO DEATH INSTEAD.
CG: IT WAS ALL VERY THOROUGH.
CG: YOU CAN UNDERSTAND WHY I BROUGHT THIS TO YOU FOR YOUR JUDICIOUS CONSIDERATION.
CG: GIVEN THAT YOU'RE OUR AUSPISTICE.
TA: 2o you mu2t be pretty exciited about thii2 huh.
CG: WHY THE SHIT STAINED FUCK WOULD I BE EXCITED ABOUT THIS.
TA: ii don't know.
TA: ii2n't a murder attempt like the piinnacle of the black rom experiience.
TA: we're talkiing about the hiighe2t tiiers of the black rom echeladder.
TA: "2ultry throat 2liicer."
CG: FIRSTLY, SHUT THE FUCK UP.
CG: SECONDLY, YEAH, SURE, MAYBE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE FUCKING MORONS.
CG: THIS SHIT IS UNHEALTHY.
CG: THERE'S NO RIVALRY IF YOUR KISMESIS IS BLEEDING OUT ON THE FLOOR.
TA: wa2 iit really that bad?
CG: SHE WASN'T FUCKING AROUND.
TA: ii can try talkiing to her.
TA: the problem ii2 that iit2 gettiing two iinten2e for you?
CG: I DON'T KNOW.
CG: IT'S JUST
CG: A CHANGE OF PACE.
CG: BUT IF SHE WANTS TO PLAY HARDBALL I WILL FUCKING MAN UP TO IT.
CG: LET THERE BE NO DOUBT ABOUT MY ABILITY TO PLAY BALL IN A BRUTAL MANNER.
CG: WE'RE TALKING CINDER BLOCKS HERE
CG: THROWN AROUND LIKE CHITTON BALLS.
CG: I CAN HANDLE THIS.
TA: kk...are you doiing alriight?
CG: IT'S FINE.
TA: keep iin miind that iif you're lyiing to me about thii2 you are ba2iically beiing a fuckiing moron.
TA: and makiing your reque2t for me to au2pii2tiice you two completely poiintle22.
TA: and, iin fact, really amaziingly iinconveniient and unplea2ant for me.
TA: thank you very much.
CG: GOD, WILL YOU STOP IT?
CG: SO I'M KIND OF NERVOUS.
CG: IT'S NOT EVEN A BIG DEAL.
CG: THIS IS MY FIRST PROPER CALIGINOUS RELATIONSHIP AND I THINK I HAVE THE RIGHT TO GET COLD FEET ONCE IN A WHILE.
TA: fiir2t caliigiinou2 relatiion2hiip that2 been goiing on for 2weep2 now.
CG: IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS OK.
TA: ii know kk ii wa2 there.
TA: ii've 2een every twii2t and turn of thii2 traiinwreck.
TA: you've ba2iically turned 2wappiin quadrants into an art form.
TA: a gallery fiilled wiith 2hiity hemo-painted ma2terpiiece2.
TA: you don't even know iif you want me pale or a2hen.
CG: FUCKING SHIT ASS GODDAMNIT.
CG: I'M SORRY, ALRIGHT?
CG: I THOUGHT WHEN SHE CAME BACK IF WE HAD A GOOD AUSPISTICE MAYBE THINGS WOULD GO A BIT SMOOTHER.
CG: AND YOU'RE
CG: WELL YOU KNOW BOTH OF US.
TA: yeah okay.
TA: but you better get 2omeone el2e 2oon.
TA: before ii fiind my pale leaniing2 el2ewhere.
CG: FUCK, I CAN'T BELIEVE IT.
CG: IT'S BEEN TWO MISERABLE WEEKS AND YOU'RE BREAKING UP WITH ME ALREADY?
TA: jegus kk ii'm not breakiing up wiith you ii'm giving you an ultiimatum.
TA: maybe you forgot but ii need a moiiraiil.
TA: danger two 2ociiety and all that.
CG: DON'T FUCKING SAY 'JEGUS'.
CG: I KNOW WHERE TEREZI GOT THAT FROM AND I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT.
CG: THAT'S AN ORDER.
TA: yeah whatever kk.
TA: iim not even close to beiing iin your diiviisiion.
CG: OKAY FINE LOOK
CG: I'LL FIND SOMEONE ELSE SOON.
CG: I MEAN THAT.
TA: yeah fiine.
CG: SO WHERE ARE YOU NOW ANYWAY.
CG: I LOST TRACK OF COMMAND'S ENDLESS JUGGLING ROUTINE.
TA: almo2t done iin tech.
TA: they're 2endiing me back to speciial op2 tomorrow.
CG: IS THERE SOME KIND OF MISSION COMING UP?
TA: riight ii need to go.
TA: i've got a compliicated 2et up here and thii2 ii2 fuckiing wiith my concentratiion.
CG: DON'T TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS.
CG: BLACK ROM SHENANIGANS OR NOT, IF COMMAND FINDS OUT ABOUT THIS THEY'LL EXECUTE HER FOR SURE.
TA: wa2n't goiing two you dumba22.
-- twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
Karkat was just pulling on his uniform's jacket as his shuttle landed on the flagship's docking port. He grumbled with dissatisfaction as the shuttle landed in a particularly rough manner. The gel applied the night before had sealed his wounds, but that didn't keep any excess jostling from making it sting like a bitch.
He stumbled out of the gate as it opened, getting his bearing on the gigantic and mostly foreign spaceship. The roof of the docking port was a kind of transparent green bubble - on the other side was a vast cacophony of stars, planets, and the core unit of the Alternian fleet. He stared up at them for a moment, contemplating his place in the overall ranks. The fleet was huge; more like a mobile civilization than anything else. There were thousands of ships, and compared the sizes of the ones surrounding the Empress' flagship, the one he captained looked like a freshly hatched grub.
The docking bay was busy that day, with a number of shuttles and larger cargo ships coming in and out, dropping off supplies and passengers. He locked his shuttle behind him, inwardly dreading the briefing he was heading to. His role in these things was controversial at best, and the further away he was from that reality, the more comfortable he was.
He funnelled himself into one of the access hallways along with the other new arrivals, and was quickly swept up in the pedestrian traffic of the flagship. It was fairly quiet as he walked - none of the others trolls said much, so there was little to listen to besides the constant sounds of moving bodies. Despite the flagship's enormous size, no one was allowed on board that wasn't a VIT or at least properly sanctioned.
Bizarrely enough, he probably actually fit into the first category. Which really shouldn't have been a surprise. He'd once been one of the twelve most important trolls in the universe.
Since the reset, though...well, a lot of that had changed.
He took a few more uniformly colored but eclecticly structured hallways, and eventually found the appropriate shoot to go up to his designated briefing room. Well, time to get this over with.
He was one of the last to come in, not that it really mattered. The other Captains were seated around the circular table in the center of the room, looking aggressively disinterested in each other. That was fine as far as Karkat was concerned - but naturally, the moment he entered a few baleful glares were cast in his direction. He rolled his eyes back at them, taking his seat as far away from the others as he could.
Almost all order were given in person. Indirect messengers were only trusted as far as they were within range of a firearm.
He must have been at least a sweep younger than everyone else in the room, which probably had something to do with the hateful looks he was being given. The ships they all commanded were small but important, just like his - they were all hosting elite troops of Threshecutioners. Karkat had been working as a Threshecutioner himself not too long before. Until he was put in charge of a whole ship of them, anyway.
And really, that had been when all the bullshit started.
Finally the Admiral entered, and they all stood up to greet her. She had the same black hair that all trolls did, but cropped military short. Her horns arced back over her head and curled down beneath her ears - a display that made him self consciously touch his own longer-than-before but still-ultimately-nubby set.
She put down the folders with their assignments in them without so much as a word. One thing he liked about these meetings is that they weren't really about pointless preamble. Much unlike a younger version of himself.
"See that these objectives are completed before the end of the week," she finally said. Already, people were giving their halting little salutes and dismissing themselves before Karkat even got around to opening his.
As he did his eyes went wide. "The fuck?" he blurted.
The Admiral shot him a cutting glare. "Is there a problem, Captain Vantas?" The tone her voice was about as comforting as the sound of someone sharpening a machete.
He coughed, composing himself.
"I just want to know. Why this planet?" He swallowed. "In particular." A couple of the other captains had paused in the doorway, watching the conflict with interest. Questioning orders was usually not a thing that people did.
"Are you illiterate, Vantas?"
"Then read the Goddamn folder and I'm sure you'll be fully informed." The Admiral bore her fangs, snarling. "Now get out of my sight."
Karkat needed no more reason to excuse himself then that. He hit the hallways back towards the shoot at a brisk walk, staring down at the folder in disbelief, ruefully shaking his head. This had to be some kind of mistake.
"Her Imperial Condescension" was in for one hell of a talking to.
Chapter 3: Our Work Is Never Over
Sollux Captor floated at the center of the battle ship's main engine room, elbow-deep in the biological technology of its core power source. Tools of various sizes and shapes, along with a plethora of computer mainframe components, hung in air around him. They were suspended in the same red and blue glow as his body, effortlessly carried by the force of his mind.
With one final pull, he wrenched the faulty wiring out of the core, but not before it brought a splatter of red and blue slime with it. He made a face as it coated his arms, but it was nothing new. He was already soaked coated head-to-foot in the stuff anyway. It was harmless, out of context.
With a fraction of a thought, he directed a pair of sheers towards his hand, and began snipping the wires apart and then laboriously twisting them back together. Only this time, in the right order. It was really ridiculous the kinds of things he got called in to fix. If he'd been the one to build these ships in the first place, none of these problems would be happening.
CG: DON'T TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS.
CG: BLACK ROM SHENANIGANS OR NOT, IF COMMAND FINDS OUT ABOUT THIS THEY'LL EXECUTE HER FOR SURE.
TA: wa2n't goiing two you dumba22.
-- twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
The words still hung in his vision like a shroud, and despite having told Karkat that he was too busy to keep talking, he was mostly feeling too overwhelmed. Yeah, typical that he would agree to be an auspistice, and then two weeks later one of his charges would almost be killed by the other. Not to mention the fact that even the would-be murderer stood a good chance of bring executed for that very same crime. How shitty of a job was he doing, anyway? Failure to this degree was kind of extreme, even for him. They were going to die because of-
No, stop it, he reminded himself, shaking those thoughts away. You're trying. That's the best you can do. Get over it.
He bit his lip with an oversized fang, still deep in thought as his hands went on autopilot, reassembling the core's system like it was second nature. Which it basically was, at that point.
Keep trying. Talk to Terezi. Don't freak out.
He began stuffing the wires back inside of the membrane, accompanied by the usual symphony of squelching noises. As he finished, the membrane was already starting to heal over. He summoned the laptop he had hardwired straight to the network, absently tapping a few codes into the computer without even looking at the keyboard. The lights in the engine began pulsing again.
Not yet, anyways.
Floating back into the expanse between the core and the outer walls of the engine room, Sollux moved the laptop in front of him and began typing. At the same time, he was scanning his Trollian list on the computer built into his glasses, searching for Terezi's trolltag. Still offline, he noticed.
She had to be somewhere in the fleet, but if she had any brains she would be lying low after what she'd just done. Black romance inflamed passions or not, the whole thing seemed just a bit too stupid for her. Wasn't she supposed to be crafty about these things?
Like, really, he'd always thought that if Terezi decided to murder Karkat she would actually succeed.
He compiled the code he'd been working on and activated it, the wires connecting the computer to the mainframe blazing with a sudden flash of red and blue. Inside the engine's membrane, things began turning and moving again, power nodes pulsing and exhaust chambers expanding and releasing. As it all came back online, he could feel the machinery really start to purr again. He wiped his brow with a satisfied sigh.
Since the moment Sollux had first joined the fleet, none of Command had known what to do with him. With seemingly equal ability to create and destroy, according to Feferi there had been many heated debates over where he was best utilized: on the front line, in the engine room, or destroying alien technology with his viruses. In the end, as it so often was with troll society, they never did end up deciding.
So, instead they just shifted him between jobs whenever they felt like it. He was currently on tech duty, recoding the mainframes of the battle ships' cores to haul one hundred and fifty percent more ass then they had previously. He'd finished early - this was the last ship in the fleet he'd been assigned to deal with at the moment. Tech jobs were easily his favourite assignments to receive. He usually left them with a feeling of contentment rather than the frustration his other work seemed to inspire.
Not that coding out enemy ships' dooms with ATH was particularly strenuous, but the longer he spent doing it the more pointless the whole exercise felt. The same went for his work with special operations. So often it was just a matter of them blowing in to an objective, destroying everything, and then leaving - except for the rare occasion when an enemy race would have equally powerful psionics, in which case things would turn into even more of a fuck fest.
It'd been a long time since that had happened, though, and these days he felt increasingly restless more than anything. There was exactly one thing worth being in special ops for, and she wasn't even-
"Hey, Sollux," she said behind him, and it startled him enough that the several dozen piece of equipment he had been hovering around himself all dropped simultaneously.
"Shit!" he cried, both out of surprise and terror at the concept of all of those materials hitting the floor of the engine room and getting destroyed. He was halfway through refocusing his psionic energies to catch them when it turned out he wouldn't need to.
He heard the snapping of fingers, and the equipment re-suspended itself, only this time in an aura of ghostly white. It levitated gently back into place.
Unable to keep himself from grinning, Sollux spun around to greet her.
"Aradia!" he said.
She hung in the air above him, wild black hair swirling in the ambient glow. She was tall now - taller than him, anyway - thin, but built with a subtle strength that you'd have to be a fool to ever want to see in action. Her gray skin was smooth and lightly flushed with her dark red blood, yellow eyes alight with life and curiosity. It still took his breath away sometimes, seeing her like this. Warm, alive, and whole - like she had been for the last four sweeps.
"Heh, you should be more careful," she said, smiling back. "This stuff looks expensive."
"It is," he replied. "Most of it isn't mine, though." He blinked, shaking off the last of the surprise. "I wasn't expecting you yet - did you come early?"
"Command said they wanted you back at special ops today instead of tomorrow." She shrugged, but he could see the touch of skepticism in her eyes. They were both jaded enough with Commands' decisions that it was easy to doubt even the simplest order's intentions. "I volunteered to come pick you up."
"Oh, uh." He looked away, scratching the back of his head. "Cool. I was just finishing up here, actually." He gestured at the wires connection his laptop to the mainframe, and they disconnected themselves, wrapping up into neat little bundles. The engine was still thrumming away smoothly, and he considered his work done.
He pressed the button on his headset, connecting directly to the ship's command deck.
"Sollux Captor here," he said into it. "I've finished up in the engine room. You're good to go. Captor out." He tuned back out of the channel before the captain could say anything back. He didn't imagine they had anything to say that he really needed to hear.
He looked back up at Aradia. "Hey, let's get the hell out of here."
"Sure," she said, and together they floated towards the exit, tugging Sollux's wealth of equipment behind them. Once they were back up on the mezzanine, they dropped it all onto a pile, and Solux began withdrawing the few choice pieces of technology that were his.
Aradia was fidgeting, a clear sign that something was on her mind. Sollux looked over at her, furrowing his brow.
"Have fun with Serket?" he guessed.
"Hardly," Aradia growled through her fangs. "As much as I wanted to come see you, getting away from her had about as much to do with it."
Sollux frowned, that comment reminding him of his current predicament. He looked away, busying himself with bundling up his computer. "You should look into getting an auspistice. Before things get crazy again."
"Oh, please," she said, shaking her head, "I wouldn't even dignify her by making her think that she's worth that amount of my time. The last thing I want to do is encourage her."
He sighed, staring at the floor. It didn't take Aradia long to catch on.
"...How are things with Karkat and Terezi?" she asked.
"Man. I can't say too much because I promised I wouldn't, but not well. At all. I think I kind of suck at this auspistice thing pretty hard core. Nothing I'm doing is working." He growled with frustration. "I don't even know what I'm doing wrong!"
"Oh, Sollux," Aradia sighed, coming over and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "You're probably not doing anything wrong. Sometimes what other people do is just outside of your control...even if you are their auspistice."
They started walking towards the exit together as she continued. "If they're going to fight, they're going to fight. And you can't always be there to pull them apart, okay?"
"Yeah, I know...but it's serious this time. Way worse than before."
Aradia frowned, but the note of determination in her voice didn't change. "I guess you'll just have to keep trying. I believe in you, Sollux. I've seen you pull through much worse before."
Sollux blushed yellow, looking away. "Yeah, well...okay. Thank you for saying so."
They stepped into the shoot together, heading down to the docking bay. Before they set it to go, though, Sollux laughed.
"Eheh, well, at least I'm not your and Serket's auspistice. I'd be even worse at that."
She smiled faintly. "How do you figure?"
"If you told me you were going to murder Serket I'd probably just tell you to go for it."
"Haha, well...fair enough."
-- twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling gallowsCalibrator [GC] --
TA: ok tz we need two talk.
GC: WH4T3V3R 4BOUT >:?
TA: about what happened wiith you and kk
TA: iin hii2 re2piiteblock la2t niight.
GC: H4H4H4H4 OH MY GOD SOLLUX!
GC: WH4T3V3R TH1S 1S, YOU M4K3 1T SOUND SO SC4ND3LOUS. >;]
TA: ok fiir2stly that'2 not even what ii meant.
TA: 2econdly iit'2 not scandelou2, iit'2 2tupiid.
TA: he 2ay2 you almo2t kiilled hiim.
GC: 1 DO NOT 3V3N KNOW WH4T YOU'R3 T4LK1NG 4BOUT.
GC: WH4T3V3R V4NT4S H4S B33N B4BBL1NG TO YOU, H3 MUST B3 M1ST4K3N.
GC: 1 W4SN'T 3V3N ON H1S DUMB L1TTL3 SH1P L4ST N1GHT.
TA: you weren't?
TA: don't you, you know, LIIVE THERE NOW??
GC: BUT 1 W4S OUT L4ST NIGHT, 4S 4 M4TT3R OF F4CT.
TA: oh yeah 2ure, wouldn't that be awfully conveniient.
GC: 1T'S TRUE!
TA: prove iit!
GC: SOLLUX, YOU 4R3 B31NG SUCH A GRUB 4BOUT TH1S, S3R1OUSLY. >:[
GC: 1F YOU W4NT PROOF, T4LK TO COMM4ND.
GC: THEY'LL CONF1RM MY STORY.
TA: what? command??
GC: NOW 1F YOU'LL 3XCUS3 M3, 1 H4V3 TH1NGS TO DO.
GC: TH1NGS TH4T 4REN'T BE1NG G1V3N THE TH1RD D3GR33 BY MY SUPPOS3DLY 1MP4RT14L 4USP1ST1C3. >:[
TA: tz, ii2 thii2 a liie.
TA: ii'm a2kiing becau2e thii2 2ound2 kiind of beliievable.
TA: but ii know you're good at lyiing to people.
TA: 2o ii'm ju2t goiing to a2k thii2 once.
TA: plea2e don't liie to me about thii2.
TA: iit'2 not liike ii would even turn you iin or 2omethiing liike that.
TA: ii ju2t want to mediiate thiings.
TA: and ii need your help two do that.
GC: WHY WOULD 1 3V3R L13 TO YOU?
GC: 4NYW4YS 1 4M L34V1NG NOW.
GC: BY3! >;]
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] ceased trolling twinArmageddons [TA] --
He did end up checking with Command as soon as he and Aradia arrived back at special ops. Her claims checked out - according to them, Terezi Pyrope had been on special orders from Command. Special orders that apparently had her far away from Karkat's ship.
Sollux still didn't know what to think, but as it turned out he wasn't given much time to dwell on it. Mere minutes after they had boarded, him and Aradia were already being shuffled off to the briefing room for an explanation of their next objective. Aradia claimed it was the first she had heard of it, and that when they'd sent her to collect him they'd given little indication as to why.
While they weren't the only psionics among their race, Sollux and Aradia raw power and, well, infamy had given them high rank even among the special ops. That's why it was no surprise when they discovered the only other troll waiting for them in the briefing room was the third and final member to their so-called 'squad.'
"Uuuuuuuugh," Vriska Serket groaned, her legs resting luxuriously up on the briefing room's circular table. She had the same arrogance to her look that she'd always had, her mutant eight pupiled eye gazing out from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. The only difference on the outside was that she'd grown taller and longer, athletic muscles giving shape to her grey skin. "What took you morons so long? I've been waiting forever!"
"Don't care," was all Sollux felt the need to say, seating himself at the opposite side of the table. Aradia took a bit longer.
"Vriska," she said through clenched fangs. Vriska grinned back, her eyes positively black with malice.
"Aradia, how good to see you again," she snarled. "It's been so long. Hours, even."
Sollux took Aradia's hand and dragged her into the seat beside him. She put up a token resistance, but fell out of her aggravated stance naturally. It was noted that if they two of them continued to constantly put on such displays of aggression, the squad would never get anything done.
The tension in the room wasn't forced to last for long. Admiral Xannox entered only minutes after they'd all gotten together. He was a large, unusually stoic troll with a bulky set of horns and a clean uniform. They were used to him by this point, and didn't react much as he entered. He was almost always the one who gave them briefings for new missions.
"What is it this time?" Vriska asked, putting on the usual display of indifference that belied her actual excitement at the prospect of new 'games.' Admiral Xannox smirked slightly, throwing down a folder. Vriska and Aradia went to grab it at the same time. Vriska tried to slap Aradia away from it, but the latter settled for simply levitated it off the table and into her hands.
No one regarded the scuffle as anything worth paying attention to.
Aradia opened the folder, and Vriska settled for coming around to peer at it over her shoulder. Sollux leaned over, pulling down his glasses in mild curiosity as he skimmed the first page. There were varying amounts of delay in their reactions, but all of them eventually came as some manner of shock, surprise, or anger.
"This objective won't be acted on until the end of the week, but for now Command has asked that your examine this information and work out tactics," Xannox explained. "You'll be sent ahead of the front line to establish yourself as a preemptive strike. More detailed instructions will be issued closer to the attack."
"Huh?" was all Sollux could say, too distracted by what he was reading to express himself properly. Vriska did them the favour of saying what everyone was thinking.
"What is this crap?" she exclaimed. "Why are we going to...ahh...a shitty planet like this? It's a stupid planet and we shouldn't go there!"
"If you have objections, you'll have to take them up with Command," Xannox said, shrugging. "Until then, I recommend you follow instructions." With the ominous implication in those words, he turned and left them to it.
"The fuck?" Sollux finally managed, looking up at the others. They all exchanged looks of confusion and frustration.
"This..." Aradia said. "This doesn't feel right. Something is off."
Vriska snarled, turning and leaving without another word. Sollux put his head in his hands wearily.
"I need to talk to Feferi," he said.
Chapter 4: The Games We Play
Vriska opened her door, and Terezi was outside.
"Can we talk?" she asked.
It was the tone that got her. It wasn't 'let's talk' or even 'we need to talk'. It was simply 'can we talk?' A question, not a demand. Maybe even a plea. Vriska gave her the once over skeptically. Terezi was wearing the black tanktop and cargo pants that represented the fleet's leisure uniform, only her Threshecutioner's jacket was pulled loosely around her shoulders. She looked tired.
Vriska considered herself a pretty cold bitch, but there were some temptations even she couldn't resist. Glancing down the hallway as if checking to be sure that no one was watching, she pulled open the door of her respiteblock for her age-old frenemy.
"Get in here," she said, and that was all that was needed.
Terezi entered with less bounce in her step than Vriska was accustomed to observing, drudging more than walking over to the couch. Vriska shut the door behind them, and followed after the Pyrope with crossed arms. Oh God, whatever the story was here, it had better be good.
"So what is your deal, exactly...?" she asked as Terezi settled gingerly down on the couch.
"Something's come up," Terezi said, "that I think you need to hear about." She paused there, and if Vriska didn't know better she would have thought it was purely for dramatic effect.
"So...what is it?" she snapped, having none of it. Terezi laughed humorlessly.
"Did you happen to get any new orders today?" she asked.
Vriska's insides instantly went cold. She narrowed her eyes dangerously. "Explain."
"Heheh, I thought so," Terezi replied, leaning back. "I can see you're about as impressed as I was. Which is not very."
"What are they even thinking?" Vriska growled, throwing her hands in the air. "It's a useless rock in space! Not to mention completely primitive. A battle with them will be over in about eight seconds flat. Hell, I bet me and the Ketchup and Mustard Squad could go in there and devastate the whole planet single handedly. Or at least until one of them wets themselves and starts crying. And even then we'd be schooling the whole civilization to such a completely ridiculous degree that even I'd feel a little bit guilty."
"You're holding back, Vriska," Terezi drawled. "Why don't you let loose and tell me how you really feel."
"Shut up! Point being, the stupid monkies won't even know what's coming. It'll be a thankless bloodbath, is what it'll be." She dropped down onto the arm of the couch, fury suddenly transmuted to an almost childlike frown. "And for negligible loot, too."
"But we know the loot isn't really what it's about in this situation, don't we? You and I." Terezi attempted a grin, but it came across more as a bearing of fangs.
"Yes, we do!" Vriska continued, not losing an ounce of momentum. At least, until she realized that she wasn't sure what motive Terezi was specifically alluding to. But, damn it! She didn't want to sound like she knew anything less about the situation. That'd just be embarrassing. "But, what were you thinking the motive was specifically? I wanna make sure you know as much as you think you do."
"Oh, of course." She batted her hand, not missing a beat. "I'll run this by you and let you tell me what you think. What is on that planet that has special relevance to exactly twelve of us and no one else?"
"Well duh! But why would Command care about that? And why would Peixes go after them? I thought she was on our side."
"I'm-" Terezi began, but stopped halfway through like something was distracting her. She shifted around, wincing, like there was an itch she couldn't scratch. "I'm not so sure about that anymore, Vriska. Something here stinks. Want to help me find it?"
Vriska scowled, looking Terezi over again.
"Um, yeah, sure - but why the hell do you keep moving around like that? It's like you've got a gut worm up your ass." Bending over the arm of the couch, she grabbed the bottom of Terezi's tank top and yanked it upwards.
"Whoa, Vriska!" Terezi yelped, choking out a laugh. "Slow down!"
"What is this?" Vriska kept the shirt held up, pointing at the poorly applied wrapping of bandages she's just found. Turquoise blood seeped through the white, in a pattern that covered most of the other troll's side. "What's with the back alley first aid job? What were you even doing?"
"Nothing! Just got into a little scuffle is all."
"Well, you can at least wrap it up right! Geez, do I have to do everything for you?" Storming away from the couch in indignation, Vriska went to grab the standard issue first aid kit from the drawer beside her recuperacoon. She was already opening it as she came back, shaking her head and tsking in irritation. "All that time in Thresher school and you didn't even learn how to wrap up a hole in your gut?"
"We're really more about making holes than fixing them."
Terezi obeyed without much further complaint as Vriska went to work patching her up. She even held her shirt in place as Vriska slathered on a layer of purple sealing gel and bound it up as neatly as possible. The wound underneath looked like it must have been done with a bladed weapon - a long, thin line of crusted blue-green blood. Another Threshecutioner?
As she worked, Vriska put a half-hearted effort into probing Terezi's mind. As usually, she was unable to dig much deeper than the distant surface. There was no even touching the thoughts of Terezi Pyrope. But while it was impossible to get specifics, there was something strange there. Whatever was turning around in Pyrope's head, it was something fiercely intense...and focused. Sharper than anything she'd every felt in someone's head before.
While mostly just adding another piece of confusion to the whole encounter, it did make Vriska think. Maybe things were as serious as Terezi was making them out to be.
"There," she said when she was finished, finally leaning away. "See how much better that is?"
"Thanks Vriska," Terezi said quietly, looking down. Of course, Terezi rarely actually looked at someone when she was talking, because of the fact that all of that sensory input went in through her noise. But there was something about the look on her face that was driving Vriska absolutely wild inside. What was that? Exhaustion? Dejection? What?
"ARG!" Vriska cried, hurling herself onto her feet. "I swear you do this just to torture me! First you start ignoring all of our blatant black chemistry for that stupid mutant and now you come crawling back like this? Looking for pity or something? I don't even know what you're doing! You're like the queen of mixed signals, Pyrope! It's like you've got all the signals in a mixing bowl, and you're whipping them up something terrible!"
Terezi pulled herself to her feet in front of her, suddenly way too close for comfort. She held a single finger to Vriska's lips, hushing her gently.
"Don't tell me to be quiet," Vriska started defensively. "It's my respiteblock and I'm talking here-"
Instead of a finger, this time Terezi used her lips.
Vriska's first reaction was surprise, where all her muscles went tense, caught between impulses to escape and pursue. But as Terezi wrapped her arms around her waist and pull her in closer, all thoughts of leaving were swiftly replaced with frustrated lust and delicious, delicious outrage.
Just as she was really getting into it, Terezi pulled away, bringing up a small printed card between them.
"Check out these coordinates," she said. "You'll find some answers."
"I...what...I don't want your stupid card, Terezi!" Yet someone she found it in her hand as Terezi pulled away, slipping on her jacket and getting ready to leave.
"If you want to help stop this 'thankless bloodbath' from happening, you really do."
"None of these things you're saying are making any sense! Why would Feferi Peixes want to attack Earth?"
Terezi stopped at the doorway, hesitating. She turned around. "Look into the coordinates. Ask for 'June'. You'll figure it out." She winked. "I believe in you."
"Whatever! Fine! I'll think about it, and take my damn time while I'm at it!"
"Sure, but you should hurry," Terezi added as she left. "According to orders, the alpha strike against Earth is happening two days from now."
"Yeah?" Vriska shouted as the door closed in her face. "Well maybe you should stop being such a Goddamn tease!"
Chapter 5: Heavy Is the Crown
-- twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling cuttlefishCuller [CC] --
TA: hey ff 2orry iif thii2 ii2 2udden or awkward or whatever.
TA: but ii have 2ome very 2eriiou2 que2tiions pertaiiniing two recent objectiive2.
TA: and theiir qualiity of beiing complete bull2hiit.
CC: It's been a w)(ale!
TA: a what.
TA: oh, waiit.
TA: it'2 ju2t there'2 been all thii2 2hiit goiing on and
TA: you know.
CC: Glub. Yea)(. 38(
CC: But, umm.
CC: W)(at were you going to ask about in specific?
TA: uh well.
TA: mo2tly thii2 whole iinvadiing earth thiing.
CC: Rig)(t. 38(
TA: ok 2ee here ii wa2 hopiing that you were goiing to 2ay that that wa2n't even a thiing.
TA: and that the re2t of command wa2 2omehow miistaken.
TA: becau2e you hadn't actually ordered u2 two de2troy the human'2 planet.
TA: 2tupiid me for beiing an optiimii2t about that.
CC: But I didn't order it!
CC: I mean, I guess I did, but...
CC: O)( Sollux, it's so COMPLICAT----ED!
TA: ff how ii2 that even a thiing that can be compliicated.
TA: diid you order iit or diidn't you?
CC: I didn't order it, but I t)(ink I may )(ave approved it.
TA: what do you mean, you "thiink"?
CC: I'm sorry, but I don't really remember!
CC: I know I must )(ave given my approval because it's on the paperwork.
CC: And now t)(at I've looked at it again I feel I must )(ave seen it before...
CC: But I'm not the one w)(o devises all the plans!
CC: T)(ere are strategists for t)(at.
TA: well un-approve iit.
TA: we can't do thii2.
CC: I really want to, but I'm not sure I can!
CC: Sollux, I can't quite get a )(ook in it, but I t)(ink t)(ere is somet)(ing really wrong )(ere.
TA: what kiind of thiing?
CC: Well, t)(ings )(ave been tense.
CC: Not everyone is )(appy wit)( t)(e stuff I've been trying to do.
CC: And since I don't )(ave Gl'bgolyb around to protect me anymore...
CC: It's been stressful lately.
TA: you have u2.
TA: me and aa.
TA: and kk doiing whatever iit ii2 he'2 doiing for you. and the other2.
TA: and that purple a22hole iif you really want to 2crape the bottom of the barrel.
CC: I know, and -Eridan's been doing everyt)(ing he can.
CC: And so )(ave you.
CC: But...All this...
CC: Being -Empress...
CC: T)(ings just aren't )(ow I thoug)(t t)(ey were at all.
TA: yeah, well.
TA: tell me about iit.
CC: Sollux, please, just come and see me and I'll explain everyt)(ing.
CC: You )(ave to trust me.
CC: If I don't play t)(is just rig)(t we could all be in a lot of danger.
TA: why don't you tell kk about iit.
TA: he'2 already comiing two talk two you twoday ii2n't he.
CC: )(e is.
CC: But I would like it if you would come too.
TA: ii don't know.
CC: Please, Sollux?
TA: ii wiill thiink about iit.
TA: but for now ii have to iinve2tiigate somethiing.
TA: iit'2 iimportant.
CC: Glub. Alrig)(t I guess.
TA: one more thiing.
CC: W)(at is it?
TA: wa2 tz on 2ome kiind of 2peciial order2 from you la2t niight?
CC: Terezi?? No, w)(y would s)(e be?
TA: ii don't know.
TA: 2omethiing2 up wiith her and ii'm tryiing to fiigure iit out.
TA: 2he 2ay2 2he wa2 doiing 2omethiing on 2peciial order2 but ii don't beliieve iit.
TA: iit 2mell2 fi2hy.
CC: ...Fis)(y? 38)
TA: ii 2hould go.
TA: plea2e, wiill you look iinto that?
CC: ...Yea)(, ok. I'll do my best.
-- twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling cuttlefishCuller [CC] --
CC: Glub glub sig)(.
Feferi Peixes scoured the battle plans again and again, but they refused to start making any more sense. Her best guess was that it had all been an oversight - that in a wave of other decisions and problems, this had somehow slipped by.
She kept finding herself staring at the picture, in particular. Earth. How had she let this happen?
Then again, it wasn't like she had ever actually seen their planet before; except maybe for a few seconds, right at the end. Besides that, the only time she'd heard of Earth was through the vague musings of the humans themselves, and maybe a few things she'd glimpsed while watching their lives. On the outside, to the Empress of a vast space faring army, it looked like just another planet with a few special resources to add to the shopping list.
It wasn't until Karkat had started screaming at her over Trollian that she'd realized her mistake.
She decided to forgo withstanding any more walls of angry grey text, and instead asked him to meet her in person. Actually being in the throne room tended to remind him that he was, indeed, talking to the Empress and not the Heir Apparent he had known sweeps before. She had never thought that was a distinction she would want to be made, but these days she understood it was what they were all relying on.
As she'd said to Sollux, being the Empress was complicated.
The first thing she'd learned as Empress was that an intergalactic empire was not run by one person. If anything, it was a exercise in the art of delegation. In a fleet with battleships numbering in the thousands and generally at least half a dozen wars happening at any given moment, the Empress' duty was often just to approve things and handle major political decisions. Since war had never been her area of expertise or interest, her approval of battle plans usually amounted to reading it over and ensuring that the method of attack was as reasonable and humane as possible.
The strategists and the rest of the Imperial Command handled the rest, planning out the specifics and relaying them to the fleet. Given that, it wasn't hard to believe that the conquering a primitive civilization that hadn't even managed intergalactic travel wouldn't be considered particularly noteworthy. Except for the fact that her human friends happened to live on it, which was not something the rest of Command would be sympathetic to in the slightest.
The second thing she'd learned was that reputation and popularity was everything. Her childhood had been somewhat misleading, in that regard. She'd come to understand that, given the colour of her blood, she was the chosen leader of her people and that that distinction would be universally respected. That wasn't precisely true.
Her blood colour was instrumental to her position primarily because most of her people were blood-obsessed hemo-fascists. So, as one could imagine, when the highblooded Empress began preaching blood equality and anti-war sentiments, that loyalty was one of the first things to go. It seemed that the Empresses of the past had been forced to fight tooth and nail to maintain position, by arranging everything from assassinations to gathering private militia to enforce their reign. If she were to persevere without Gl'bgolyb's help she would be no exception.
Millennia of blood thirst and hemo-culling was not going to end over night, and she was learning the hard way that what she was really short on was time.
And that with the higher ups watching her so closely, she couldn't afford to make any more mistakes.
The throne room could have been considered minimalist if it hadn't been for the elaborate system of fountains and waterfalls running through it. Filled with blue hues a the constant sound of running water, it did a good job of making a sea-dweller feel at home. The plans were laid out on a table in front of her. Eridan worked in a nearby corner, keeping a cautious eye over the proceedings.
She heard someone's presence being announced at the doorway, and Eridan rushed to her side. Ahab's Crosshairs were nestled in his arms as usual, pointing warily towards the door.
"Announcing Chancellor Poseid Neptun," one of the guards shouted, and the Chancellor entered with the ease of someone that had been in and out of the throne room thousands of times in their life. He was an impressively tall troll - thin but sturdy, with muscles built from years of military training. He wore the same black uniform as the admirals, only with the garnishes of blue and purple that only the highest of ranks dare carry. He was a sea-dweller like her an Eridan, with flush purple blood and horns that curved ornately back across his skull.
He waved at Eridan as he entered, smiling thinly.
"At ease, Ampora. I'm not here to attack your queen."
"Hmph," was all Eridan said in response, shifting the rifle into a slightly less aggressive position. In many ways Eridan was still the same boy she had known sweeps ago, yet at times she could hardly recognize him. Gone were the overly theatrical clothes he used to wear, replaced with the more practical military uniform, with only a few purple adornments to represent his position.
"Your Majesty," Poseid said, inclining his head to Feferi. She shuffled the papers she's been sifting through into a pile, pretending she didn't have much interest in them.
"Chancellor," she replied, resisting the urge to add in other pleasantries.
"I'm told by one Captain Vantas outside that he's here to dispute one of your rulings. Given his...temperament, I thought it would be wise to be sure this is a meeting you actually intended to have."
"Karkat...?" she mouthed, before realizing what must have been happening outside. It took all she had to resist a facepalm. Glub it, Karkat!
"Oh, yes, I did. It was a meeting arranged personally by me. So, uh...if security is holding him back, you should probably let him in."
The throne rooms doors flew open. It was one of the guards. "Chancellor Neptun-" they began. Down the hallway, Feferi could hear someone swearing loudly.
"It's fine," Poseid said, shaking his head in annoyance. "The Empress has agreed to the meeting. Let him in."
The guard nodded and departed. There was terse conversation just out of earshot, and moments later the familiar stomping of Karkat's boots. The guard stepped up to announce his arrival.
"Announcing Captain Karkat Van-"
"About fucking time!" Karkat snarled right over top of him, pushing through the double doors with a shameless amount of aggression. Feferi could practically see the bile rising in the Chancellor's throat. She sank down on her throne, trying to keep herself from flushing magenta in embarrassment. "I hadn't known that bullshit was an endless fucking resource around here-"
"Captain Vantas," the Chancellor Poseid snapped. "Be silent or remove yourself from the Empress' presence."
Karkat swung around to face him, his finger pointed and mouth open to continue ranting, but Feferi interjected.
"Karkat! I mean...Captain Vantas, please." She swallowed. "You're in the royal throne room, and you will compose yourself."
Her tone seemed to throw some water on his fire, and he settled from grumbling instead. "My apologies, Your Magnificence."
"May I enquire as to what ruling in specific is being questioned here?" the Chancellor asked, choosing to disregard Karkat's presence.
"Ah..." Feferi began, struggling for a diplomatic answer.
"It's actually something private," Karkat said for her. "So, if you don't mind..." He nodded towards the door.
Poseid just scowled.
"Chancellor, he did ask for a private meeting, and I plan on entertaining him," Feferi said. "We should be done shortly."
Poseid's glare at Karkat intensified as he bowed, turning to dismiss himself. "As you wish, Empress." It wasn't until he had fully exited through the enormous double doors that Karkat spoke again.
"Two. Fucking. Hours," he said. "That's how long they had me running around for."
Eridan rolled his eyes, slipping away towards the outer wall of the chamber and then hustling towards the doorway with his rifle in hand. Karkat raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't comment.
"They...what?" Feferi asked. "Why?"
"First they claimed I hadn't made an appointment, and when I finally pounded that concept into their skulls they said you were busy. And as much as I like playing musical chairs with your asshole guards, I have this crazy little thing called 'stuff to do.'"
As he was speaking, Eridan was searching every corner of the room, looking around with the vigilance and paranoia of a crazed war veteran. Despite putting a token effort into staying focused, Karkat's eyes kept flickering over to him.
"So, basically," he said, managing to look away. "What I'm saying is that your staff is retarded. And speaking of retarded, what the hell is Ampora doing?"
Feferi sighed, waving off the question. "Just ignore it. Anyway, I'm sorry about all this, Karkat, but please try not to aggravate the Chancellor. He's been at the right hand of the throne since we were grubs. He's a valuable resource."
Karkat didn't have much to say to that, settling for a noncommittal grunt. Eridan finally made his way back to her side, lifting his rifle into a neutral position.
"All clear," he said.
"Thanks, Eridan," Feferi sighed, collecting herself. She wasn't looking forward to this, but it was better now than never. "I guess I have something to answer for, don't I?"
"Oh yes. Damn right you do," Karkat snapped, as if only just remembering how angry he was. "How the hell, out of all the planets in this Godawful universe, did you manage to pick the only - literally the only - one that was off limits?"
"I didn't pick it," Feferi said, pressing her fingers to the bridge of her nose. It felt like the hundredth time she'd explained it that day. "Someone else in the Imperial Command selected it, and I didn't notice until-"
"Oh, well, fuck me! No biggie then, if the problem here is utter negligence-"
"Not to mention the fact that they've somehow managed to put everyone who gives a fraction of a shit on the job-"
"I thought you were supposed to be the Empress, not Command's overworked and underpaid secretary. If this kind of bullshit flies, why did we even bother getting you into-"
"Karkat, please!" Feferi shouted. The words echoed throughout the throne room in a moment of stunned silence. A single magenta tear fell down her cheek.
Eridan growled through his fangs, leaping down the steps and jabbing the end of Ahab'd Crosshairs into Karkat's chest. "Kar, you better back off Fef right now or I'm gunna melt those nubby ass horns right off your skull."
Karkat reacted to the jab with discomfort that far outmatched the gesture, stumbling back a few feet with his hand pressed over his heart. Eridan looked ready to pursue, until Feferi stood and spoke.
"Eridan, stop it."
He frowned, but did as he was asked, moving back to the side of the throne. Karkat stayed where he was, catching his breath. She could practically hear his fangs grinding against each other as he stared at the ground, unable to bring himself to look at her.
"What do you expect us to do?" he asked. "We can't...we can't just..." His hand pressed to his forehead. "Fuck."
"There's something going on," she said quietly. "This wasn't a mistake. I didn't choose Earth, but someone else did. And I think they did it because they knew we would react exactly like we are right now."
Karkat looked up at her, eyes widening. "You mean...?"
"I think someone's trying to overthrow the throne, and that this attack against Earth is part of their plan to do it."
"Well fuck, then, call it off!"
There was something about the hopeless simplicity of that statement that finally got it through his head. He looked back at the door warily, as if suddenly expecting sniper fire.
"You can't," he repeated, still working out what that meant. She braced herself for what she was about to say.
"I'm a shark without fangs, Karkat," she said, the truth of the words resounding as they were finally being said out loud. "I don't know when it started, but this attack on my position as Empress has been going on for a while - even if we're just seeing the big effects now. Command's loyalty to me is slipping. I'm pretty sure at least half of my staff are traitorous. At this rate, my hold over the empire could fall apart any day now."
There was a loaded silence.
"Why are you just telling me this now?" he asked through clenched teeth.
She shrugged. "There was nothing you could have done about it."
"So, this how it's going to be?" he finally said. "We're going to let Earth burn?"
She took a moment just to breathe - finding her grounding, finding her strength. Her fingers clenched the arm of the the throne. She could feel Eridan beside her, and the weight of Karkat's expectations down below. The memory of old friends lingered in the back of her mind.
"No," she said. "Because we're not giving up without a fight."
"Fuckin' right!" Eridan replied. Karkat sounded less reassured.
"When is this shit going to stop, Feferi?" Karkat asked. She looked at him questioningly, and was surprised to see how sincere he looked. "I mean, I can't remember a damn thing that you or any of us has done in the last four sweeps that hasn't had to do with this buttfuckery, and it's not showing any sign of slowing down. Is there some kind of end goal in mind, or can I expect to be pulled around on strings forever?"
"Karkat, I never-"
"Oh, come on. You've been using me as a pawn in your psycho political mind games since day one, and you haven't even been all that subtle about it. I hate to burst your hideous squid-glubbed bubble, but as much as I love to play your candy-blooded poster boy, I'm kind of a repulsive asshole." He glowered for extra effect. "In case you hadn't noticed."
"Heh…maybe. But it's kept you safe so far, hasn't it?"
He scowled, though she knew the resentment wasn't directed at her. "There is nothing even remotely safe about this situation." He crossed his arms. "So, what are we going to do?"
"Loss of popularity is dangerous," she began carefully, "but only if there's someone with enough clout to do something about it. If we can figure out who's been doing this and get rid of them, then I can probably muster enough support to put an end to things."
Eridan nodded in agreement. "Eliminate the bogeys and get some people we can fuckin' trust in charge. If there's any even left. Maybe make an example of the ones we catch."
"Wow. And, according to orders, we have about two days to do it," Karkat said. "Fantastic. It's like the Reckoning all over again."
Chapter 6: Compromises
Stripping off his uniform's jacket, Karkat loaded himself into his shuttle's pilot's seat and got ready to leave. He was tired. Tired from his injuries, tired from talking too long about increasingly hopeless problems, and tired from the new weight of responsibility bearing down on his shoulders. It had only been a day, and he was already sick of thinking about it.
Sick of thinking about them and how close he was to breaking his unspoken promise.
The shuttle rattled into motion, lifting off of the docking bay floor and gliding towards the exit. He leaned back in his seat, his piloting lazy - distracted. He slid into the vast vacuum of space, as insignificant amongst the rest of the fleet as a bee buzzing around a hive.
It had been four sweeps since they rebuilt the universe, and he still had days when he wished they hadn't bothered.
Remembering it all stirred up old frustrations. Twelve young trolls, robbed of their final reward of the ultimate freedom and a chance to start fresh. Four young humans, infuriatingly ignorant and doomed from the start. Somehow over the hours and eventual days, they had come together. They'd become friends. Confidants. Sometimes even flushed.
In the end they pulled through. They conquered the trial Skaia had laid out before them, and they were finally given their wish. Happy ending, right? Hardly. The problem with wishes were that a few misplaced intentions could drag you right back to the fucking start.
The engine of the shuttled stalled, startling Karkat away from his thoughts. He hissed, fiddling with controls, slamming the acceleration, and swearing out loud. Nothing. Stars and nebulas shone in the distance, behind a net of battleships and other instruments of war.
"You fucking piece of shit," he snarled, tapping in a command on the computer. It froze, displaying a familiar error message. It would have to be rebooted. "Goddamnit!" When a few more flips of switches didn't solve the problem, it was all that he could put up with. With a yell of frustration, he smashed his fist against the steering wheel. Hard. Repeatedly. Forgetting why he'd even started.
The hilarious part of the story was how, after all that, they had ended up here again. After learning all kinds of lessons about friendship and teamwork, they'd been thrust back into a society where such practices were not only irrelevant, but discouraged. Where the civilization-wide pass time was conquering planets just like the one their new friends had departed to. Where the blood he thought he'd finally gotten used to was, once again, an abomination.
Karkat groaned, nursing his now-throbbing hand, and giving up. Let the shuttle float. Let it go wherever it wanted. For the moment, he just didn't care.
For most, the shift went by unnoticed. Alternia was simply born again, in another universe, like there'd never been a Reckoning at all. However, some had sensed the difference. Some knew the whole story. It made them nervous - aggressive - to know that the reason they existed was standing right in front of them.
There was something deeply poetic about all of it. Living in the universe they had created, yet forced to fight every day of their life for the right to even exist.
Karkat brought his legs up onto the pilot's seat with him, resting his head on he's knees. He wondered what Sollux and Aradia would say when he brought them the news. How Terezi would feel, if she even cared about this kind of thing anymore.
Two orphaned races. Three journeys completed. One universe, ready to be built. They knew what their options were. Compromises were made.
But from the moment he last saw John, Jade, Dave, and Rose he had been sure he would never see them or their stupid planet again. Surely, in a place as unlimited as an entire universe, two planets could coexist without ever contacting each other - without ever having to think about each other again. Like with so many other things in his life, he'd been wrong.
That reality firmly in mind, Karkat sat back and waited for the engine to reboot, watching the stars flicker in the vastness of space.
Chapter 7: Considerably Worse
-- twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
TA: 2o yeah tz 2ay2 2he diidn't do iit.
CG: WHAT THE FUCK.
TA: apparently 2he wa2 off doiing 2omethiing for command at the tiime.
TA: even a2k them, they'll confiirm iit.
CG: WELL FUCK, COULD THAT "SOMETHING" HAVE BEEN EXCITEDLY STABBING ME TO DEATH?
CG: BECAUSE WOW THAT STORY IS BULLSHIT FROM TOP TO FUCKING BOTTOM.
TA: well, ok, ii thought 2o two.
TA: but the locatiion and everythiing wa2 wrong.
TA: 2o iif the record2 are riight 2he couldn't have been on your 2hiip la2t niight.
CG: YOUR POINT BEING?
TA: kk are you completely 2ure that iit was tz?
CG: THE HELL?
TA: ii meant iit.
TA: are you 100% 2ure?
CG: HAHAHA HOLY FUCKING GOD YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.
TA: well ii'm not, 2o 2uck on iit!
TA: get off the fuckiing rage traiin for a 2econd and try u2iing your braiin.
TA: are you 2ure? diid you 2ee her face?
CG: YES I
CG: WELL NO I DIDN'T.
CG: BUT I AM SURE BECAUSE I SAW HER BLOOD COLOR AND FOR A FEW OTHER REASONS THAT ARE PRIVATE AND I'D RATHER NOT GET INTO RIGHT NOW.
TA: wow kk here'2 a protiip for free:
TA: tz ii2 not the only turquoii2e blood iin the galaxy.
TA: more new2 at eleven.
CG: OK, FUCK YOU. SERIOUSLY.
CG: I KNOW WHAT I SAW AND IT WAS TEREZI FUCKING PYROPE
CG: IN MY RESPITEBLOCK WITH A SCYTHE.
CG: WHAT POSSIBLE REASON COULD I HAVE FOR MAKING THIS UP?
TA: look ii'm a2kiing becau2e ii know iit'2 hard for you two be objectiive on the 2ubject
TA: and that maybe that could get iin the way of lookiing at thii2 rea2onably becau2e hone2tly you are kiind of ob2e22ed.
CG: WHOA WHOA WHOA FUCKING WHOAH.
CG: WHAT DO YOU MEAN OBSESSED
CG: I AM NOT OBSESSED.
TA: what ii mean ii2 that iit'2 not my job two be your per2onal "fuck off" pa22enger piidgeon
TA: or two run around tormentiing tz for your conveniience.
TA: my job ii2 two analy2e both 2iide2 and two mediiate at my own dis2cretiion
TA: whiich doe2 NOT mean iignoriing your walk-iin clo2et of hang up2 becau2e you deciide to throw a fiit about iit.
TA: what ii mean ii2 you 2hould be 2hutting up and cooperatiing wiith me iin2tead of ba2kiing iin thii2 priima donna bull2hiit
TA: when ii need two fiigure thii2 out 2o ii can keep you two from fuckiing offiing each other.
TA: iin other word2
TA: II'M YOUR AU2PI2TIICE BIITCH DEAL WIITH IIT.
CG: OH MY FUCK, WHY DID I BRING THIS UPON MYSELF.
CG: WHY DID I PLACE MR MOODSWING SEIZURE BEAMS IN CHARGE OF MY EMOTIONAL WELLBEING.
CG: ONCE AGAIN I AM DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR MY OWN GREATEST MISFORTUNES.
TA: oh 2hut iit would you and stop beiing 2uch a grub!
TA: do you have any iidea what thii2 mean2?
CG: THAT MY INTERPERSONAL JUDGMENT IS LACKING?
TA: no iit mean2 command miight've ordered her two kiill you YOU FUCKIING IIDIIOT!
TA: GOD do ii have to wriite 2ome kiind of walkthrough for you?
TA: "don't fuckiing diie for obliiviiou2 moron2"?
TA: ii'm worriied, you a22hole!
CG: ARE YOU BEING SERIOUS ABOUT THIS.
TA: no ii'm jokiing hahaha hiilariiou2 iisn't iit
TA: ye2 ii'm beiing fuckiing 2eriiou2.
CG: WELL IF MY DAY HADN'T BEEN RUINED ALREADY THAT WOULD HAVE FUCKING DONE IT.
CG: BUT HOW THE HELL WOULD THAT EVEN HAPPEN? ISN'T FEFERI SUPPOSED TO BE IN CHARGE?
TA: ii don't even know anymore.
TA: ii already talked two her twoday and 2he 2ounded pretty 2tre22ed out.
TA: whatever ii2 up, there ii2 confu2iion iin command.
TA: ii a2ked ff about tz already and 2he 2aiid 2he would look iinto iit.
TA: 2he 2aiid there wa2 more two tell me iif ii came and 2aw her but ii told her two tell you 2iince you would be there 2oon anyway.
CG: WELL SHIT DON'T TROUBLE YOURSELF ON MY ACCOUNT.
CG: WHY DON'T YOU JUST COME ALONG WE CAN MAKE IT A FIELD TRIP FOR THE WHOLE CLASS.
TA: fuck off kk.
CG: IT'S MOMENTS LIKE THIS THAT MAKE ME WONDER WHERE YOU GET OFF RAGGING ON ME FOR MY ROM PROBLEMS.
TA: ff ii2 not a rom problem.
TA: there ii2 no rom.
TA: there ii2 no problem.
TA: now iif you don't miind ii'm goiing two go do 2omethiing that ii2 le22 fru2tratiing than haviing thii2 conver2atiion
TA: liike maybe eatiing gla22 or talkiing to 2erket.
CG: GODDAMNIT SOLLUX YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GET ALL SHITTY ABOUT THIS.
CG: I JUST. UGH.
CG: TEREZI MURDERING ME FOR BLACK ROM JOLLIES WOULD BE ONE THING.
CG: BUT KILLING ME BECAUSE SOMEONE ORDERED HER TO?
TA: yeah well.
TA: ii gue22 we'll 2ee.
CG: I'M GOING TO COME OVER THERE TO DISCUSS THIS EARTH BUSINESS WITH YOU AND ARADIA IN A COUPLE HOURS.
CG: AND I GUESS LET YOU IN ON WHATEVER INSIDER DETAILS I'M PRIVILEGED WITH.
CG: I CAN'T IMAGINE THIS MISERY PARADE LASTING MUCH LONGER THAN THAT.
TA: fiine ok.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased trolling twinArmageddons [TA] --
Death cries and pain. Red and blue blood intermingled. Magenta and purple splattered across the throne room floor. Someone screaming his name, but all he sees is yellow. A feminine voice, laughing.
Sollux's head was overwhelmed with psychic noise, rising in a sharp crescendo as he struggled towards consciousness. It was too much. It was always too much. Every time he had one it felt like the pressure might kill him, and every time it didn't he still felt surprised.
He finally broke through to the surface, waking with a start. Blinking wearily and clutching at his head as the pain slowly began to leave, he struggled with the intense disorientation that came with waking up from a precognitive vision. Where was he? His respiteblock maybe? What was he covered in? Why the floor was above his head and the roof below his feet? Why was all his stuff upside down?
It took about as long for him to realize that he was the one upside down as it did for him to fall face first into his recuperacoon.
"Augh!" he cried, getting a mouth full of sopor slime as he found the upper half of his body submerged in glowing red ooze. His psionic powers activated reflexively, to keep him from drowning if nothing else, but the way he had fallen in had left his legs sticking awkwardly out of the top. The moment he started thrashing around was the moment he knocked the whole thing over.
Red and blue slime splashed everywhere, and Sollux came up coughing and spitting, trying to avoid swallowing any of it. After a hectic few seconds, he was satisfied that he wasn't going to ingest enough for it to do anything. Then it was just a matter of grumbling bitterly, going to get some water, and pondering what exactly he'd been dreaming about before he woke up.
The subject matter was thoroughly unsurprising - he really only ever dreamed of the same kinds of things - it was the faces involved that was troubling.
With a flick of his wrist, his recuperacoon flipped right side up, and the sopor slime now littering the floor began funnelling itself into the appropriate holes. Well, 'funnelling itself' in the sense that he was compelling it to with psionic powers, but at ten sweeps old exercises like this were so well practiced they were almost subconscious. Unfortunately, in the transition from the coon to the floor, the red and blue slop had mostly transmuted to purple slop, but he would deal with that tomorrow.
He'd been sleep-floating again, an occurrence that had alarmingly become more common with age instead of less. Sometimes his powers would simply activate in his sleep, usually surrounding one of his visions or a period of particular stress in his life. Tonight probably qualified as both.
The effects were usually innocuous enough - some variant of levitating himself or nearby objects. They were persistent, though, and rarely desisted after a single episode. He would need to go bother Aradia for something if he was going to have any chance of sleeping again that night without getting another face full of slime.
Not thinking it necessary to put on anything more than the shorts he was already wearing, Sollux existed into the dorm hallway, only to hear something that instantly made him regret that decision.
"Yeah? Well maybe you should stop being such a Goddamn tease!" Vriska shouted from somewhere down the hall, a sound briskly followed by a slammed door. There were footsteps. Whoever had just been in Vriska's room was coming in his direction.
He did the only thing he could think of and slunk back behind his door, holding it open just enough that he could see who was going to pass. If Vriska was yelling at them about being a tease, curiosity alone demanded that figure out who it was. What he wasn't expecting to see was the red bespectacled woman he had been stewing about all day.
"TZ...?" he breathed as she passed. What the hell was she doing on their ship in the middle of the night, talking to Vriska of all things?
She didn't notice him, her nose apparently focused on other things, and he felt the sudden compulsion to follow her. She'd been so elusive in the last while, he couldn't shake the feeling that it'd be one of his last opportunities to see what she was doing. He rubbed his feet against the floor, trying to shed any left over traces of his sopor slime, and slipped into the hallway after her.
Terezi turned right up ahead, in the direction Sollux recognized as the docking bay. There was something off about the way she was walking. It was ginger and unbalanced, like she was favouring one side. Despite his attempts at being stealthy, he could see that she was growing increasingly agitated, as if sensing that someone was following her. But it wasn't until he out rightly slipped on the puddle of slime around his feet and was forced to catch himself with the bright purple glow of his powers that she actually spotted him.
He was frozen in midair, with his arms spread out in exaggerated mid-flail, as she turned towards him, sniffing the air with sudden intensity. The expression on her face was uncertain.
"Sollux?" she said suddenly, just figuring it out. The uncertainty began to melt away, leaving behind smug satisfaction at having caught him. "Is that yoooou?" she called, grinning now. "Or does the delicious scent of wild berry smoothie deceive me?"
He frowned, something about the levity in her tone annoying him, and rearranged his body to be hovering in a more dignified position. "Yeah, hi."
"Now, is there a particular reason you've been stalking me?" she asked. "Or can I assume a general lack of respect for privacy?"
"Ugh. TZ, what are you even doing here?" he asked, drifting in her direction. "Don't you have urgent orders from Command you should be following?" She picked up on the skepticism in his tone, and just laughed.
"Nope! I finished that all up. Now I've got a clear schedule from now till the next time I need an alibi to prove that I didn't try to murder your boyfriend." She grinned cheerily, and turned to keep walking.
"He...what? I...I didn't even...TZ!" he snapped, managing to tear himself away from that swiftly derailing train of thought. He flew around to block her path. "Look, forget KK for a second. I just want to talk."
"Yeah. I, uh...I was having a dream about you just now."
"Pff hahahaha!" she said, waving him off. "Oh Sollux, that is so adorable. I wouldn't tell Aradia that if I were you, though. She might get jealous."
"No, okay, you know what?" he said. "No. You're trying to distract me by making me feel awkward, and it isn't going to work." The confidence in her expression flicked for a moment, but refused to give way. "This conversation is basically just confirming everything I've been wondering about you lately. TZ, would you just tell me what the hell is going on?"
"What I don't get is why you assume you know enough about what I'm doing to keep trying to stage these interventions at every available opportunity. Have you considered the idea that maybe there is nothing wrong with me, and that maybe you're just being a paranoid spaz?"
"No. I'm not." He gestured to her side. "You're not fooling me. I saw the way you're walking. You're injured, and if it'd happened during regular Thresher business then why would you feel the need to lie about it now?"
She actually snarled at him, which caught him off guard. "Maybe it's because I am getting pretty tired of all your nagging lately, and think maybe you should mind your own business."
"It is my business, TZ. You were there too when we decided on this-"
"Well, so much for 'forget about Khaaaykhaaay for a thecond,'" she said, making sure to emphasize her mockery of his speech impediment. "That lasted for the whole half a minute I expected it to."
"Why are you being so difficult?" he snapped.
"Because you are probably the least emotionally stable person imaginable to be doing this, you're too obsessed with Karkat to be neutral, and even if I needed an auspistice I sure as hell wouldn't pick you! You get that?" She was grinning again, but there was no humor behind it. "You're a shitty auspistice, Sollux! And if gutter-blood wants someone to keep me from getting him, he should man up and do it himself."
At first there were no words. Sollux felt paralyzed as she spoke - breathless as her words cut deeper than they ever should have. Until the words finally came, that is, and then they just wouldn't stop.
"Gutter-blood? Seriously?" he snarled. "Fine! You know what? Fine! I don't need this. You know, TZ, there really is something wrong with you. You've always been intense about this, but I never remembered you being such a bitch." The glow around him intensified as he felt himself lifting further off the floor. "So, hey, get this. You know that dream I mentioned? It was one of the prophetic ones. And you know what else? It wasn't looking so good in terms of you staying alive!"
He swallowed, his voice shaking with anger. She stared at him, her expression unreadable.
"So, maybe..." he continued, speaking very carefully now. "Maybe you should watch yourself before you get into trouble. I'm out."
With that he turned and flew down the hallway away from her. Somewhere behind him, he thought he heard her call out his name. "Sollux...?"
He didn't stop. He couldn't deal with that right now. He just couldn't.
Moments later he found himself hovering in front of Vriska's door, still too filled with with frustration to think rationally. He landed, and thumped on the door as loud as he could. If Terezi wouldn't talk to him, then maybe-
The door swung open, revealing a very irritated looking Vriska, her cheeks flush with cerulean.
"Vriska," he said. "What was Terezi doing here just now?"
Her eyes narrowed into slits, complimented by a fierce set of bared fangs.
"Fuck off, Captor," she hissed, "before I make you slap yourself silly." She slammed the door in his face.
"Fuck!" he yelled at no one in particular, punching the wall behind him. He was in the mood to do more, until Aradia's voice cautiously called out to him from down the hall.
"Sollux?" she asked. She was peeking out from her respiteblock, hair and face soaked through with sopor slime. Shit, he must have woken her up. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine," he mumbled, instantly deflating as he began walking to her doorway. He rubbed his arm awkwardly. "I'd actually been planning on coming to talk to you before, uh...I got distracted."
"I noticed," she said, picking a bit of slime out of her ear. "I heard you yelling down the hallway."
"Don't be. Is everything alright?"
"No. Not really," he admitted. "I think Terezi broke up with me. I am so fucking awful at this."
She sighed, wiping some wet hair out of her face. "No, you're not. Give me a few minutes to clean up and we can talk, if you think it'd help."
Sollux's mouth was hanging open to reply when the familiar sound of stomping boots distracted him. Karkat Vantas was plowing his way down the hall - a total of six hours later than he had originally indicated he would show up. It'd gotten so late, the two of them had stopped trying to wait up for him and had just gone to sleep. It looked like whatever had delayed him had done a good job of pissing him off, too.
"Oh, great, you're awake," he grumbled, approaching them. "Saves me some trouble."
"KK, what happened?"
"Well, if it puts it into perspective for you, things are now considerably worse than before. But this is not hallway fucking conversation. We need to go somewhere else, and we need to go there now."
Sollux and Aradia blinked wearily at each other, both in various states of sopor-covered undress. Karkat only seemed to notice their condition a few moment later, wrinkling his nose.
"But for fuck's sake, take a shower first, would you?" He was already striding off down the hallway before either of them could reply. "I'll find somewhere to go over this that isn't crawling with parasites."
'Considerably worse than before.' Oh, this was going to be good.
Chapter 8: Friends and Enemies
As Karkat finished his recitations of the day's events, the room was filled with a heavy silence.
"You're right," Aradia said after a moment. "That is a lot worse than we had previously thought."
"God," Sollux mumbled, staring at the floor. "No wonder she wouldn't tell me over Trollian. Why didn't I listen to her? I'm such an insensitive pri-"
"No," Karkat said, cutting that thought right off at the pass. "There will be no self pitying or 'Oh God, oh God why didn't I see it sooner?' styled regrets. Why? Because we don't have time for it right now. We've officially got less than forty eight hours to deal with this and that means we get cracking immediately."
After Sollux and Aradia had taken a moment to groom themselves into looking a bit less disgraceful, the three of them had eventually found an unoccupied and reasonably private location within the ship. It was basically just a storage room, but after Sollux had swept the area for bugs and Aradia had used her freaky mind powers to search for nearby presences, Karkat was convinced that it was safe enough that they could at least cover the basic concepts without fear. Much fear, anyway.
He'd taken a characteristically long time to explain his experiences, and during the tale Aradia had somehow ended up on top of a particularly high stack of crates while Sollux hovered somewhere between the roof and a nearby walkway. For fuck's sake. When they were younger, they at least seemed capable of pretending to be normal people, but the older the two psychics got the more that sense of normalcy seemed to slip away from them. At this point, sitting down in a way that didn't somehow involve floating around the room seemed to cause them apparently unbearable anxiety - or at the very least, a bad case of the fidgets.
But as annoying as it was to have everyone in a room but him casually flying around in a glow of rainbow sparkles, he had some sense of when to pick his battles on the subject. Karkat, for one, kept himself firmly planted on the ground.
"The first thing we're going to do is see who we can call on for help, and most importantly, to compile a full list of suspects that could be responsible for this garbage," he went on, looking up at them. "If Feferi is going to avoid being dethroned, and if the rest of us are going to avoid being mercilessly culled by our terrible new overlords - whoever they may be - then we need to make a move before they do. That said - what have you got for us, Aradia?"
"I got in contact with Nepeta," she said, furrowing her brow. "Her and Equius are still on-planet fighting the Xedites, and it doesn't sound like there's anyway they could get here in less than a week. They're on their way, but I doubt it will do us any good at this point. Tavros confirmed that Gamzee is still an Overseer on Cirrus Eight which is also definitely too far away from our current position, so no luck there." She scratched her head. "Not that I'm sure he would know what to do with himself, anyway."
Intergalactic domination didn't rely on forward momentum alone. For every inch the Alternian army moved forward, that meant another inch they would need to defend. The typical structure was that older trolls would stay behind to oversee and maintain conquered planets as the younger blood pushed ahead, but it didn't always work that way.
In Gamzee's case, his disposition had made him less than ideal for frontline combat. Luckily for him, his blood colour made him a candidate for an Overseer - may God have mercy on all those miserable aliens under his jurisdiction.
"Kanaya said she'll be back at base in a couple hours, so I've arranged to talk to her then," Karkat said, crossing his arms. "Feferi and Eridan are on the flagship. We're obviously here." He paused, then glanced at Aradia. "How much did you tell Tavros?"
"Not much," she shrugged. "I didn't know there was much to say until just now."
"Good. Keep that up. Tavros hears nothing about this until we know exactly what we're doing."
"Because he's a Goddamn liability is why," Karkat said. "He couldn't keep this under his hat any more than he could those ridiculously oversized horns of his. Especially now that he and Serket are officially waxing pale for each other."
There was an awkward pause as Aradia frowned uncertainly. "You know, Terezi and Vriska are still-"
"Terezi and Vriska are cut as far as I'm concerned, for idiotically bad behaviour," Karkat snapped. "I don't plan on talking to them about this, and neither should you."
"TZ was on our ship talking to Vriska tonight, KK." Sollux's tone was hesitant as he drifted down to Karkat's vertical level, as if unsure that was something he should have said. Karkat grit his teeth, the idea conjuring the expected amount of hot fury in his blood. He felt his fists clench.
"Whatever," he growled, voice wavering. "I hope they have a great time being fucking sociopaths together."
"It's not just that," Sollux continued, still treading carefully. "KK, I think there's something wrong with her. TZ, I mean." He bit his lip, looking for the right words. "This isn't like her."
"Damn fucking right there's something wrong with her!" Karkat shouted at him. "And don't fucking kid yourself, this is exactly what she's like. So, she decided she wants to take a more direct approach to killing me this time. So what? It's not like she hasn't tried before. Who cares if she's doing it for some kind of crooked political agenda this time? It really ceases to make a Goddamn difference to me-"
"The first time was an accident."
Those words stopped Karkat cold, even as the fire in his chest intensified. "What did you say?"
"The first time, when the Empress found us…" Sollux repeated slowly. "TZ didn't mean to do what she did."
"FUCK YOU!" Karkat roared, his whole frame jerking aggressively in Sollux's direction. "FUCK YOU, 'SHE DIDN'T MEAN TO'!" Sollux flinched at the verbal explosion, but said nothing. "It's exactly what she meant to do! It's exactly what she wanted! I'm not fucking stupid!"
"She tried to help us afterwards!" Sollux said, raising his own voice to match.
"So she lost her nerve! I don't give a Goddamn shit, Sollux! Do you really think that changes anything?" Karkat took another challenging step towards him. "She wasn't the one rotting in a Goddamn cell because of her little 'accident'!"
Up on the pile of crates, Aradia sighed. The walls around them began to buzz with a subtle white glow.
"KK, stop it," Sollux said.
"Go fuck yourself!"
"KK, calm the hell down!"
"I said fuck off!"
Karkat swung wildly - punching, shoving, he wasn't even sure anymore - but wasn't given the satisfaction. Sollux's hand clamped around wrist, igniting with a familiar flash of red and blue. Karkat's knees hit the floor with a wrenching force, and he found it suddenly very difficult to move. He yelled something so incomprehensible, even he wasn't sure what he was trying to say.
"Sollux," Aradia warned, but didn't move to intercept.
"Fucking hell, KK," Sollux said, not letting up on the pressure. "We get it, okay? We all remember what happened. But it's over now." Karkat stopped fighting it, and moments later the tension relaxed. His breath was staggered as he struggled to catch it. "Everybody did what they could. And really...It couldn't have lasted forever, even if she hadn't...well, we were just lucky that Fefe was there to..." Sollux sighed, rubbing his forehead, wordless. The red and blue aura dissipated. "We were all pretty lucky."
Karkat didn't bother getting off the floor, settling for leaning his back against one of the nearby crates. He could still feel that sweep old anger knotted up and buried away in his chest, but he was too tired to keep living it. "Yeah whatever."
"Are you okay?" Aradia asked, stepping off the crates and gracefully floating down to meet them on the floor.
"Fuck it," was all Karkat muttered in response, as Sollux moved away awkwardly. She rubbed the bridge of her nose.
"What Sollux meant, I think," she said, "is that given everything we've learned today, even if Terezi has similar motives in relation to you there's still a pretty good chance that it's all wrapped up in the same political situation. Especially if Command is actively covering her. You'd be a prime target if they're trying to get rid of Feferi, Karkat. Which means that Terezi could be our number one lead."
"Oh, God, someone kill me now," he replied, burying his face in his hands.
Aradia cracked a tiny smile. "That'd be pretty counter productive at this point. But if we can find out who Terezi is working for, then we've got a good shot at figuring out who's trying to take the throne."
"Maybe it's the old Empress," Sollux said suddenly, and both Aradia and Karkat twisted around to look at him. He shrugged. "Well, I mean it would really be the most obvious thing. Kind of stupidly obvious, really. Weren't we just talking about her?"
Karkat felt distinctively sick to his stomach.
"I...I guess it's possible," Aradia said. "It'd be hard for an Empress to make a power play after being overthrown like she was, though. Who would support her?"
"I don't know, but to be honest I had one of my visions and some of it was kind of...reminiscent."
"Let me guess," Karkat drawled. "Did it involve everybody dying?"
Sollux looked like he was about to deny that claim, but then couldn't. "Well...yes."
"How fresh." Karkat got to his feet, dusting off his pants. "Well, if Queenie Bitchfangs is involved, then I guess we're dialling up the urgency meter up to alpha red. Play time is over, wrigglers."
"We still don't know for sure," Aradia said. "And attacking her before we know what's happening would be a really bad idea right now. But if we can tie what Terezi is doing to her...well, then we're definitely on to something."
"Right," Karkat confirmed. "We stalk the blind bitch, find out why she's commiserating with Serket-" Sollux's eyebrows went up, apparently surprised that he'd been listening to that part, "-see if it connect to Empress the Former and we put an end to this before it puts and end to us. Sounds great. Let's move."
"TZ left here about an hour ago," Sollux said. "Any idea where she would go?"
"Well, if she knows what's good for her she'll be returning to my ship sooner or later," Karkat said, moving to clear out. He was back into full 'follow me bitches' swing, already pretending that the recent moping on the floor incident hadn't happened. "She's supposed to be under my command, remember?" He paused as they approached the door, looking around in confusion. "Why the fuck are the walls glowing?"
Aradia snapped her fingers and the effect released, the colouring fading back to normal. "I was trying to make a sound barrier. The screaming wasn't really fitting into my version of the 'secret war council' ideal."
Karkat groaned, grinding his palm into his face. "For fuck's...okay, let's never talk about this again." He put his hand on the door handle, paused, and thought better of that statement. "Well except the plan part, obviously, we need to...Goddamnit, let's just go."
"Yes sir," was all she said, smiling.
Chapter 9: Clubbed to Death
"So, have any idea if Serket has been trying to betray us lately?" Karkat asked, catching Kanaya offguard. He was about to laugh at the stunned look on her face, when that same element surprise caused her hand to jerk so hard it tore the last stitch she had sewn right out of his chest.
"What," she asked, staring at him.
"Ow, fuck!" he cried. He slapped his hand over the damaged area, hoping to ward her off from doing further damage. Kanaya blinked, glancing down at the stitching tool in her hand, only now realizing that she's snapped the length of biothread she'd been working with. "Watch it!" he snarled.
Kanaya raised her eyebrows, moving to reload the stitcher with materials from the nearby trolley without missing another beat. "I'd advise broaching uncomfortable topics with a bit more caution, if you would like my medical attention to remain flawless."
They were in his respiteblock which, while perhaps not the ideal location to received treatment, was definitely preferable in terms of privacy. As far as Karkat was concerned that was first priority, considering the fact that he'd spent the first thirty two stitches - in between curses and grunts - explaining what he understood of 'the plot thus far.'
Location wasn't a big deal for Kanaya's style of work, anyway. Over the years, he had seen the unflinching nerves of steel that had once been used to amputated the legs from Tavros's sleeping body be honed into the unshakably steady technique of an Alternian medical professional. Of course, while she did her time in the ship's medical bay during slow periods, her real calling was on the battlefield as a combat medic.
Emphasis on the combat.
Freshly back from on-planet duties, she had been taking in the news of Feferi's potential dethroning with the same level head she handled almost everything with - everything but her own relationship problems, that was. He guessed that torn stitch was his own damn fault for prodding that bullseye of a soft spot.
"Honestly," Kanaya added moments later, "I don't see why you didn't have this stitched up properly in the first place. Sealing gel works fine for emergencies, but given the circumstances a more complete treatment would have been appropriate."
"I wasn't in the mood." The reality was that Kanaya was one of the few doctors he could stand being fondled by for long enough to get the job done. If one of those idiots had tried to put the stitcher to him the other night he probably would have punched them unconscious about five minutes in. "Anyway, you never answered my question."
"Why are you treating me as if I'm an expert on the subject?" she replied, finishing her reloading of the stitcher and starting where she'd left off. "She's not my moirail." Karkat, having now learned from experience, decided to ignore the unspoken 'anymore' on the end of that sentence.
"Yeah. Sure. But I know how much she likes to flap her fangs in your direction anyway. I thought something useful might've fallen out for once." His tone was lower as he added, "like what her deal with Terezi is."
"Ahh," Kanaya said, in a tone that was so full of understanding that it set Karkat's teeth on edge.
"What? What the fuck is 'ahhh'? It's not like I made some kind of revolutionary statement there. There had been nothing said to give you such a rapturous fucking sigh of enlightenment. I am asking you because I think Vriska is trying to get us all killed."
Kanaya just smirked, and ignored his question. "Well, I suppose since she felt the need to tell me this despite my harsh words advising against it, there's no reason for me to keep it secret. As far as I know, their relationship has nothing to do with political betrayals. I believe Vriska is simply feeling scorned by Terezi's lack of commitment in their black flirtations."
"What?" That comment made his blood boil more than it should have. "Well fuck. Duh, she's not flirting with her. Terezi already has a kismesis, hello?" He paused. "Okay, well, she's probably flirting, but in a way that is dangerous, insincere and to be avoided. Though I'm not surprised that Vriska wouldn't understand that. Oh shit, Vriska Serket ruins a relationship due to overwhelming ignorance, stop the fucking presses!"
Kanaya smiled faintly, shaking her head as she worked. "Karkat, from the looks of things," she said as she finished up the last of the stitches, "her flirtations with you are not precisely safe either."
"I'd say this has passed 'flirting,' Kanaya. She tried to murder me."
"Here I thought you would be flattered that Terezi is apparently willing to indirectly betray us all just for the sake of taking a shot at you."
Karkat grit his teeth, exhaling slowly. "Why is it that all of you seem to think I'm such a suicidal masochist? Sollux said the same fucking thing when I told him."
Kanaya finished cleaning the wound and pulled away, frowning. What had previously been an expression of gentle mockery had transmuted to sympathy, and the lack of explanation for it was making Karkat wish Vriska wasn't the only one that could pick people's brains apart. He gave her a questioning look, eyebrows furrowing with an increasing amount of agitation as she stayed silent. "What?" he demanded.
"Do you want my honest opinion?" she finally asked, crossing her arms. "If you're going to get angry and ignore me, please just say 'no' and save us both the trouble."
While unable to guarantee himself that what she was going to say wouldn't just send him spiralling in a frothing rage, there was no way he could turn down a challenge like that. It was a chance to prove could handle uncomfortable information in a calm and rational manner just like anyone else.
"Would you just spit it out already?"
Kanaya took a deep breath. "I think that Terezi's continued interest is more important to you than the quadrant it takes place in. However, I also think the current state of your relationship is not your ideal, and, in fact, makes you much more uncomfortable than you're willing to admit. I think this has been true since far before your encounter with her the other day."
"The fuck?" he blurted, before reigning himself back. Think. Breathe. Don't let it get to you. "I…what? Are you saying you don't think I'm actually black for her? That's…that's retarded. I have more reason to hate her than anyone. Just being in the same room as her makes me want to stab myself!"
She broke eye contact. "Grief and hate are not the same emotion, Karkat."
"You know how this works," she said. "When a concupiscent pair ceases to match, it's not uncommon for one side to flip in order to accommodate the other. But that doesn't mean it will be pleasant or stable."
His mouth was already open to retort, but nothing would come out. What did he counter with? Why was it so hard to tell her that she was wrong?
"I hate her," was all he said, staring at the floor. Kanaya sat down next to him. He was expecting her to contradict him, but she didn't.
"When Vriska…" she began tentatively. The second time she tried, it was stronger. "When Vriska snubbed my more…flushed affections, there was a time when I hated her. I think I thought that if I blamed her, that if I hated her enough, that at least there could still be something. Even if it wasn't what I had originally wanted."
Karkat said nothing. He was frustrated. He was always frustrated - but once again it had lost its bite. He didn't want to argue the point with her, and she didn't seem to either. She made no effort to explain her story's connection to him, or to fight over who was right, or to tell him he was lying to himself. Instead they just sat in silence, watching the minutes pass by, until she finally spoke.
"One thing at a time though, right?" Her hand was on his knee. "I believe we have some work to do."
"So, you're in?"
"Did you really have to ask?" she said, and started putting away her tools.
Their words were brief as they got ready to leave. He replaced his shirt and uniform jacket over a fresh set of bandages. Kanaya said she would dig into her sources to see if she could figure anything out, and to see if the treatment of Terezi's injury had been logged on any of the medical servers. She would be on call if any of them needed help. Karkat mumbled a gruff thanks, and they parted ways.
Sollux was waiting for him in the computer lab.
"How did it go?" he asked, looking up from whatever he was wildly typing into the computer. His fingers notably didn't stop moving as he did so.
"She's in. She'll be ready for orders as soon as we have a strategy, which is the tragically missing component of this arrangement so far. Where's Aradia?"
"Back in the shuttle. She said that if we were only going to be here for a while that someone should stay with it. In case...you know." He gesture to what appeared to be everything but themselves, and oddly enough Karkat understood the sentiment. He would have liked to believe they were safe on his own ship, but obviously that wasn't the case.
Sollux finished up whatever it was he was doing, and the two of them of them began heading back towards the docking bay. It was in the lower portion of the ship, which tended to be the more inactive one, so the only other trolls they encountered were threschecutioners going to and coming from their shuttles. They walked in silence, both obviously busy thinking about something important. At least, until they were interrupted.
"Well, well, well," someone purred from down the hall, and Karkat recognized her insufferable smugness almost instantly. "What do we have here?" He looked up, scowling, his heart already pounding. Oh fuck. Not now. Please not now.
"Candy, candy red," she said. "I can smell it straight through your skin." There was Terezi, about twenty feet down, striding towards them like she owned the place. She was dressed in a sleeveless shirt and army fatigues, her cane tapping uselessly at her side. Sollux froze in place, but the only way Karkat could react was to charge ahead.
"Pyrope," he snapped, cashing in on an authoritative tone reflective of his position. "Where have you been?"
She grinned something vicious, all malice and fangs, and took a bee line towards him. "None of your business, Vantas. I do what I want in my leisure hours."
"TZ, watch it," Sollux said tensely, but it didn't do any good. She was on full invasion-of-privacy mode before either of them could blink. She swept up to Karkat, pressing as close as she could without actually touching. Refusing to back down, Karkat held his position. She breathed in deep, sighing with satisfaction.
"Then again, you've been very nosy lately," she added. "Why don't you stop sending your friends to fight your battles and face me head on?"
Karkat snorted bitterly. "You have no idea what you're doing, do you? You are seriously too fucked in the head to even realize what's going on."
"Something's going on?" Her shit-eating smirk implied to him that she was being facetious.
"Fuck, you are unbelievable. You're going to destroy everything we all worked for sweeps to accomplish, and you don't even give a shit."
"Well, from the looks of it, 'all we worked to accomplish' isn't worth a hell of a lot, now is it?"
"Fuck, TZ," Sollux growled from behind them. "Since when are you-" She held out a hand to silence him.
"Hold that thought, Sollux, because I don't want to hear it. This doesn't concern you." He opened his mouth to speak again, and she continued even more forcefully, "Would you just fuck off for once?"
"That's it," Karkat snarled, pushing Terezi away from him. "I have had it up to here with your fucking bullshit, Terezi. You're delusional. A Goddamn mental patient. You're fucking up all over the place, and you're the only one who doesn't realize what a mess you are."
For the first time in ages, Terezi's smirk was gone. There was no more teasing or laughing. The only thing left was anger.
She planted her hand hard against Karkat's chest, right over his freshly stitched wound, and slammed him back against the wall.
"Shit!" he yelled as she kept on pushing to hold him in place.
"You have it backwards," she hissed. "I'm the only one who realizes a lot of things. I realize what you are Feferi are doing. I realize how you're lying to all the others. I realize what you deserve."
Something occurred to Karkat as she spoke. He really had no idea what she was talking about.
"Terezi, stop it!" Sollux shouted from somewhere Karkat wasn't entirely cognizant of. At his side, he balled his hand into a fist. He proceeded to dig his knuckles as far as he could into her side, right where he remember stabbing a certain midday assassin. Her whole body convulsed in agony, and she fell back, releasing him.
"Like you thought you could fool anyone," he growled, just as she came lunging back, bringing a hand full of claws straight across his face. Four streaks of too-bright red lit up across his cheek, but he was already at the point of no return. He didn't even pause to flinch before striking back with his own nails, shedding teal blood down her shoulder and chest.
He was almost certain Sollux was screaming something at them - probably for them to stop what they were doing - but Karkat didn't even hear it anymore. He struck again, this time with a fist, but was caught off guard when she grabbed him by the horn, dragging him down to her level.
She drug her tongue across his cheek, lapping up trails of spilt cherry blood. Then she used that momentum to throw him to the floor, licking her lips as she did.
It was after that moment that all sense of reason was lost.
Karkat vaguely remember tackling her to the floor and falling in a mess of curses and claws, the two of them kicking and punching and screaming at each other in a pile. Time was indeterminate, but it couldn't have been longer than a several seconds. Sollux wouldn't have allowed it.
They were wrenched apart by a blast of intangible energy and left hanging in the air, meters apart. In between then was Sollux, eyes blazing, holding them captive in auras of red and blue.
Sollux was panting, apparently hoarse from yelling, his arms extended as he focused on keeping them in place. "UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE!" he gasped.
"Put. Me. Down," Karkat demanded, similarly breathless. He struggled uselessly against Sollux's hold, suspended in a glow of red, while Terezi finally gave up trying to fight against a similar cloaking of blue.
"No," Sollux snapped, glaring at him, his patience completely gone. "Shut up. Sit the fuck down!" He threw his hands down and they both collapsed to the floor, bloody and beaten from their strife. "You two are completely out of control! What am I even seeing here?"
"You would not understand," Terezi grumbled, surprising calm considering what she's just been doing.
"You're right! I don't understand! I don't understand any of this!" Sollux went on. "I don't even know what I'm supposed to say. It's like you've gone completely insane. What the hell happened to you?"
"Wish I could tell you, Sollux," she muttered.
"Why don't you?"
Having lost her glasses in the fight, Karkat could see her glare at him with those pure red eyes of her's, filled with a level of hate even he was unaccustomed to dealing with. "Guilty by association, I'm afraid."
"You are so full of shit," Karkat spat back.
"Think we could talk without all this verbal sniping bullshit?" Sollux asked. "We're all in danger here. What is it going to take for you two to get that through your heads?" He looked back to Terezi again, almost pleading. "Could you maybe try talking to me?"
"No," she said simply, picking up her cane and getting to her feet. "I'm out of here. If you don't want him hurt, Sollux, you better keep him out of my range. That's my promise to you."
Neither Karkat or Sollux had the energy left to pursue her. As she left, Karkat sank back to the floor, breathing slowly. It wasn't until Sollux came to his side and pulled him up by the shoulder that he got to his feet.
"Idiot," Sollux muttered.
Karkat just grunted, wiping some for the blood off of his face and nails. Eventually, something occurred to him.
"Come on," he said, storming in the direction of the docking bay.
"What are you going to do?" Sollux asked as he moved. Karkat scowled.
"So, she just came from the docking bay, huh? I've got an idea."
Chapter 10: Invasions of Privacy
Karkat found himself hiding behind Terezi's shuttle not too much later, doing his best to wait patiently as Sollux hacked apart its security system. Across from them, Aradia wandered the docking bay aimlessly, keeping an eye out for Terezi's inevitable return. It would have been easy to assume that since she'd just arrived it would be at least a few hours before she came back to claim her shuttle, but Karkat knew better.
Nothing about this situation had gone right for him thus far, and he wasn't counting on that changing any time soon.
Sollux's hacking set up was something complicated involving multicoloured wires strung into the ship's power source and not one, but two computers. As usual, despite his keen interest in the subject, Karkat was finding it completely impossible to grok what Sollux was actually doing.
When they were all a lot younger and just entering the fleet, it had been easy to become frustrated toiling in the shadows of his freakishly talented friends. Eventually, though, he'd realized that in terms of the political hierarchy, that very weakness was a strength. Sollux was powerful, aggravatingly so, but all that meant was that he was crucially useful as a tool. There was no reason to ever give him enough rank to actually have any political sway. Why would Command want to do that when they could just boss him around from the top?
It was for reasons like that that Sollux had never been given anything besides a superficial promotion, and probably wouldn't see one for the rest of his military career. It didn't help that he was also painfully aware of that fact.
"Are you done yet?" Karkat prompted, the timeline bearing down on him.
Sollux didn't say anything, and instead just raised one of his hands with his fingers extended. Thinking he was being silenced, Karkat began sputtering out something indignant, but Sollux just calmly folded in his thumb, followed by his index finger a moment later. Karkat rolled his eyes, finally realizing what he was doing.
"A countdown. Wow. Very dramatic," Karkat groaned.
Sollux did nothing but smirk in response, and when he finally folded down his pinky the shuttle's door opened with a pop and hiss. He hastily began packing away his tools, removing the wires, and getting ready to move inside.
"Bam. Done," he said, looking towards the docking bay entrance for any sign of Terezi. Aradia noticed his glance, and shook her head. Satisfied with that, Sollux slipped into the cockpit.
"Yeah?" Karkat replied, following suit. "Well, I'll give you your congratulatory ass pats later. You haven't done the important part yet."
Terezi's shuttle appeared to be more or less standard issue, with a cockpit that comfortably seated about three - more if one was alright with squishing. To the front of the ship was the dashboard and viewscreen, and to the back there was a bit of empty floor space followed by doorway that usually led to a storage area or small resting quarters. Sollux immediately went for the controls, the numerous wires from his computer hooking themselves into the system with the guidance of his psionics.
Most larger ships came with a few free-use shuttles that any resident could use to move between locations, but most trolls that could afford it opted to purchase and maintain their own vessels. This one was definitely Terezi's personal shuttle - the most obvious evidence being that she had apparently been living out of it for a while. The floor was littered with various artifacts of her day to day routine, a mess which seemed to thicken towards the back of the ship.
As Sollux began working on bugging the control panel, Karkat moved towards the back room.
"What are you doing?" Sollux asked, casting him a suspicious glance as he typed.
"Searching the place for evidence. Is that a problem?"
"Depends. Don't mess anything up, okay? She can't know we were in here."
"Oh right, I forgot that since I am apparently Grade A retarded that I need to be schooled on the ways of basic investigation. Thanks a lot buddy, you really saved my ass there."
Sollux shrugged. "Just saying you need to be ready for a huge fucking 'I told you so' if you mess this up."
Karkat scowled at him. "And I'm just saying 'fuck you, Sollux, I don't give a shit.' I know what I'm doing."
Apparently satisfied with that, he waved him off. "Okay, have fun."
Things seemed oddly quiet as he entered her temporary quarters, shutting the door behind him. The area was small, so it didn't take much to make it seem crowded. The resting slab took up most of the floor space, the other corner stocked with a few non-descript storage crates. Besides that, it was mostly just used clothing and a few sketchbooks in varying states of use.
He started idly flipping through one, which was predictably marred with the usual abhorrent colour choices, and the wildly scrawled images that looked abstract even though they probably weren't supposed to be. He tossed it back down onto the resting slab. They were just stupid drawings, who cared?
He focused on the storage crates next, but there wasn't anything of relevance inside. Some extra side arms, rations, threshecutioners equipment - over all, a vastly disappointing snooping experience. Then again, he wasn't surprised. Terezi was too damn wily to leave anything she considered truly private out in the open.
Only putting a half hearted effort into rifling through the clothes on the floor, Karkat eventually settled for sinking down onto the resting slab in frustration. Typical. He went through all the trouble of breaking into her shuttle, and there's nothing around to make it worth his while. Well, aside from what Sollux was doing up front, anyway.
He leaned back against the wall, thinking over his options. Some kind of secret compartment, maybe? If he was Terezi Pyrope, where would he put his stupid shit?
He closed his eyes, musing on that thought, and until that moment that he noticed something. Something in that corner smelt, and it smelt like...cherry?
He looked under the resting slab again, this time giving the far wall a bit more scrutiny. It looked like one side of the wall panel had been pulled open before. He hooked his claws around the edge, and gave it a pull. It popped out like it seemed like it would, revealing a hidden cubby hole.
The compartment was empty, besides a lone metal box and a bright red cherry scented air freshener. The latter must have been what he was smelling. He pushed it aside, going for the box. It was wide, but not particularly heavy - kind of like a small briefcase. He pulled it out from beneath the slab and sat down with it on his lap. There was no lock on it, so he went ahead and cracked it open.
The contents was a stale stack of drawings, of an origin that he recognized immediately. His teeth clenched in disgust as he felt himself become suddenly furious.
He'd know that pork-chop mouthed, jpeg artifacted bullshit anywhere.
They were series of comics and drawings - some of which were nearly pornographic - and all of which were done by that shit headed Dave Strider, back in his glory days of ruining Karkat's life over the goddamn internet. Of course she'd still have them, wouldn't she? After all these fucking sweeps, of course she would.
Maybe it was left over teenage frustrations, maybe it rage from what she'd tried to do to him, maybe it was the sting of the wounds her claws had left mere minutes previous, but Karkat found himself tearing the drawings to shreds without a second thought. Strips of paper fell to the floor around his feet as he cursed venomously under his breath.
When he was finished with the ones he'd been holding, he began clawing through the rest of them looking for a new target. It was stupid. It was immature. In that moment, though, he couldn't be further away from caring. If a few scraps of paper were all Terezi had to lose in this situation, then so be it.
His pace stopped, however, as he noticed a change in the subject of matter of the drawings. It was no longer Strider's work, but her own. They were traditionally drawn, and from the looks of the style probably done sometime during their session. The gold and blue colour choices were unmistakable. They were drawings of Prospit.
His life on Prospit had been brief - maybe half a minute long in total, which included the agony of being burnt to death by someone he'd considered his blood brother. But, despite his assurances that he had no interest in the place to begin with, there was a sense of longing that had never quite left him. It felt like he'd missed something...something really important.
He flipped through the pages more slowly now, looking them over in a state of bemusement. He hadn't know she'd spent so much time drawing about that stuff.
His heart skipped a beat as he came to one of the last drawings.
It was the same backdrop as the others, smears of gold and Skaian blue, but there was something different about it. He'd occasionally seen her draw herself or some of the Prospitians in the previous art, but this one had two trolls drawn into it instead of one, both done up in golden royal attire. The artwork was messy, almost unintelligible, but he could tell that the first one was Terezi.
And that the one flying along beside her was him.
"KK?" Sollux called through the door. Karkat looked up from the drawing, startled. "KK, I need you out here right now. And be quiet about it."
"Shit," he hissed, just then realizing the mess he had made. He began stuffing both the torn and whole artwork back into the box. Sure, she'd find out someone had wrecked her stuff eventually. As long as it wasn't in the next twenty four hours, though, it wouldn't matter. It wouldn't-
He paused, finding the picture of him and Terezi on Prospit in his hands again. After a moment of hesitation, he folded that one back into quarters and slid it into his pocket, pushing the rest back into the hidden compartment. Making sure it was closed just as it had been before, Karkat went out to see what the hell was going on with Sollux.
He came out asking that very question, but Sollux shushed him immediately, gesture out through the viewscreen windows. His computers - and the rapidly gestating egg of his parasite virus - were still sprawled out beneath the dashboard. Karkat hunkered down beside him, looking out the window.
Aradia and Terezi were standing together at the docking bay entrance, apparently having some kind of conversation. Terezi's stance was aloof, but as the unheard dialogue went on her guard seemed to drop. Aradia was smiling in that sympathetically encouraging way she did so often, and soon enough Terezi appeared to be gushing about some kind of emotional issue in something that resembled an sincere manner.
Karkat gave Sollux a questioning look, who shrugged in return. One thing was clear - they were officially out of time.
"Well, is it done yet?" Karkat hissed.
"Just about. I think Aradia is buying us some time."
"It won't be enough if we don't get out of here right now." Karkat looked out the window again, only to witness Terezi and Aradia having a very soulful hug on the other side of the docking bay. "Oh, what the FUCK?"
"They'll hear you, you idiot!" Sollux snapped, shoving him under the dashboard with a psionically enforced thrust.
"I swear to God, if you don't stop smacking me around with your fucking psycho powers I am going to seriously flip the fuck out-" Karkat was beginning to rant, when he noticed the parasite virus finally freeing itself of its egg. "It's hatching!" he alerted. "What are you waiting for?"
"Okay." Sollux dove down for it, picking up the little creature and feeding it into wires of the control panel. It scuttled away on its many legs, presumably going to bury itself away somewhere it wouldn't be seen. Karkat looked out of the window again, only for Aradia to catch his eye. Even as she and Terezi were still embracing, she noticed him through the window, and gave him a forceful nod.
A forceful nod which clearly communicated 'you two need to get out of the fucking shuttle right now.'
Sollux closed the panels he had opened and started gathering up his supplies. Karkat helped, giving one last hesitant took towards Terezi's temporary respite block. Moments later they slid out of the shuttle's gate, shutting it behind them as quietly as possible. Just as Terezi was disengaging from conversation with Aradia, the two of them escaped, hiding behind another vessel a few lots down.
Terezi went straight for her shuttle and got in. Moments later it powered up, going through standard launch procedures and heading for the air lock. Aradia met up with them shortly after.
"Did you get it in?" she asked Sollux. He pulled out a handheld computer and tapped in a few codes. It beeped, and he nodded.
"It's in. I've got her on the radar now. Wherever she goes, we'll be able to follow her."
"What the hell was all that sap over there about, Aradia?" Karkat snapped. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but Terezi is the enemy. Please tell me that was just a distraction."
Aradia frowned at him. "She's not, and it wasn't. We don't really know what's happening with her right now, and cutting her out of our lives isn't going to help anything until we do. She didn't tell me much, but she's upset. And knowing that is better than nothing." She paused. "But that doesn't mean we don't need to be cautious around her right now. Let's see where she's going."
Sollux gave him a look as if to say 'See? She agrees with me' and followed her towards the shuttle.
Karkat grumbled a few profanities before finally shouting after them, "I'm the one with the keys, you know? You're not going anywhere without these!" He'd barely finished speaking when the keys in his hand lit up with with a glow of blue and red and wrenched themselves free of his grasp, flying straight into Sollux's clutches.
"Sollux, you shit-fanged asshole, I am going to give you the ass kicking of a lifetime!"
They exited the airlock shortly after Terezi, keeping a safe distance as Sollux tracked her coordinates. After some messing around with the engine controls, Sollux proclaimed that he'd cloaked the ship. When asked how, he began rambling out and explanation filled with words that no one in the shuttle but him understood.
"Think you could take it down a notch and give an explanation that makes sense?" Karkat suggested.
Sollux rolled his eyes. "I scattered the energy signature so that it doesn't look like a ship on other people's radar. It really only works on things that are shuttle sized. It means Terezi won't see us. Want to go over the ABCs now?"
Despite the conspiratorial nature of the trip, as it turned out, tracking someone's shuttle was boring. Sollux's beacon kept on blinking, and they kept on following it, and eventually the path veered away from what would have been considered and average routine of flight. Terezi was speeding up - heading towards the outer rim of the fleet. That meant less observers, but it also meant less safety. The outer rim was where someone in a shuttle had the best chance of getting attacked.
"This isn't looking promising," Sollux commented, looking over the most recent set of coordinates. "She's basically going completely off of the hive grid. The only thing out here is enemy scouts."
Or something worse, Karkat realized, seeing a much larger blip than Terezi's shuttle appear on the radar. "Oh, fuck no."
The "hive grid" was the formation of the Alternian fleet, and what enabled trolls to reliable navigate their own ships when moving around the marching order. Going outside of it meant going out of the army's protection, which only two types of people would risk: criminals, or exiles.
And they all knew one very persistent exile who had a personal interest in each of their destructions.
"Shit," Sollux mumbled. "I was right."
Terezi was docked on the personal battle cruiser of the one and only former Empress of the Alternian Empire.
"So fucking stupid," Karkat found himself muttering as he brought the shuttle to a standard glide alongside the cruiser. "I can't fucking believe this."
"Got it in one, huh?" Aradia said, not sounding very pleased with them being right.
"Now what?" Sollux asked, nervously running a hand through his hair.
"We wait," Karkat said, forcing a degree of certainty into his voice that he wasn't sure he had at the moment. "We see what we can see. We tell Feferi what we know. We work from there."
That statement lead into a silence that stretched into the minutes, until Aradia finally put it best.
"Terezi, what are you thinking?" she asked, putting a hand to her face.
Eventually Sollux began fiddling around with the computers again, trying to get a better read on the cruiser, but was having trouble getting in to any system that mattered. Things seemed to be going smoothly though, until he looked up to the viewscreen in shock.
"Oh fuck," he said. That was never something one wanted to hear from Sollux while he was hacking.
"What did you do?" Karkat snapped.
"I didn't do anything! But...the cruiser just put their blasters online."
"What? I thought they couldn't see us!" Karkat looked back at Sollux in a mixture of fury and terror. "They can't see us, right?"
"I-I didn't think they could!" Sollux sputtered.
And that was when the Empress's cruiser opened fire.