There's a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding the exchange of a battleship from one captain to the next. Lots of ceremonies, speeches, all that hoofbeastshit. You could not possibly care one bit less what the dignitaries are blathering on about. All your attention is on the symbolic key held in Captain - soon to be Admiral - Diremark's hand.
Finally, finally he turns to you and holds it out, stating gravely, "Captain Ampora, I present the key of the Paradox Duality to you, sir."
Clicking your heels together, you salute smartly and reach out to take it. "I hereby officially accept the responsibility and honour. Thank you, Captain Diremark."
There's still more talk to get through, but you clutch the key in your hand and glee, trying not to be too obvious about it. You have a ship. Your very first ship, and it's a fucking battleship. They couldn't be any clearer about the fact that you're on the fast track if the fucking Condescension herself had come to the ceremony to tell you so.
Your life is starting to look up.
Traditionally the new captain invites the old back to his office for a daycap, and you're hardly going to pass up the chance to network with a newly minted admiral. Besides, the guy is chatty, more than happy to tell you about the advantages and shortcomings of the existing crew, who best to allow to work under their own supervision and who to watch out for a knife in the day from.
"Well Captain, I wish you the best of luck," he finally says, toasting you with his drink. "Perhaps you'll have a better time of it than I did with this ship."
"What do you mean?" you ask, eyes narrowing. It would be just your fucking luck if the universe's idea of a cosmic joke was to grant you a defective fucking battleship for your first command. "Is there somethin wrong with the ship? Can't hawe done you all that wrong, you're bein promoted to admiral."
"Oh no, the Duality is a fine ship," he says hastily. "You couldn't ask for better if you're looking to make a name for yourself. Fast, powerful, and not even a century old. So long as you can stand being haunted, that is." He shudders. "I must say I'll be damned happy to be clear of it."
"Haunted!" You throw your head back and laugh. "By what, the ghosts a the aliens killed by her? You didn't strike me as the type to dip into the sopor for more than sleepin."
He's not laughing, and thankfully he's not taking offense, either. Just sitting there, smiling at you sort of indulgently. "You've never heard the stories of haunted ships?" he asks, one eyebrow raised. "It's not the sort of ghosts your lusus used to tell you about to keep you from wandering in the daytime. It's a fully documented phenomenon, though it's quite rare. It happens when the remnants of the helmsman's personality becomes entwined with the computer AI interface. Of course that requires that there be remnants of a personality, which is why it occurs so infrequently."
Now he's laughing, and you force yourself to chuckle along, because you know it's expected of you and it'll raise questions if you don't. But a sick chill makes your facefins quiver, and you can't stop yourself from glancing uneasily towards the other door out of your new office, the one that leads to the secured room you haven't been in yet.
The helmsman's room.
"So, what happens then?" you ask, trying not to show your trepidation. You can think of a fucking lot of problems that could be caused by something like that.
"Oh, mostly nothing but annoyances," Finemark assures you. "Phantom text messages, flickering lights, the occasional blip in the heating controls. Though the Duality's ghost is unusually strong - well, just look at the ship's name. She was commissioned as the I.S.S. Bloodthirsty Vengeance, but less than a sweep after she was launched every single reference in the computer changed to the Paradox Duality. Even the identification beacon was altered, and those are supposed to be unhackable!"
The chill is getting worse, and you're starting to not care so much about showing it. "If this 'ghost' can change somethin like that, what's to stop it from... I don't know, fuckin with the engines mid-warp, or turning off the life support system entirely, or changin the beacon to make the rest a the fleet think we're an enemy instead of an ally?"
"The loyalty conditioning the helmsman undergoes still holds," he says. "There's never been a single recorded case of a ghost doing anything that could directly imperil or impede the ship or the crew. The crew like to spread bloody stories, of course, but you know how superstitious lowbloods can be."
"That ewer cause morale problems on a haunted ship like this?" you ask warily. "If they're worried about bein ganked by the ghost, they ain't gonna be paying proper attention to their jobs."
"New crew generally take a few perigees to shake down and get settled," he admits. "But the long-term crew have seen for themselves that it's harmless. Unfortunately, nobody has ever found a way to get rid of them. Even when the original helmsman dies and a new one is installed, the ghost remains."
"Sounds upright fuckin amazin," you say, and make a face. "Well, I suppose it's not all that bad. I can handle annoyances, so long as I don't gotta worry about breathin space without warnin."
You devoutly pray that this isn't going to be one of those cases where the universe is happy to take your 'it's not all that bad' and show you just how wrong you actually are.
Your first few encounters with the ghost are innocuous enough. The very first thing you notice is that the ship feels like a sauna, and occasionally like an upright oven. When you demand that your life support engineer turn the heat down, he apologetically explains that it's been set like this for longer than any of the present crew has been aboard, and no engineer has ever been able to fix it for more than a few hours at a time.
You grumble, but decide not to make an issue of it. The temperature is uncomfortable for you and the other high bloods, but the low bloods on the crew seem to enjoy it and it isn't hurting anything. You do declare that 'sleeveless' is now an acceptable alteration to the ship's uniform, a change which your bridge crew greets with enthusiasm.
The next thing you discover is that no matter what temperature you set your shower to, the water comes out near-scalding hot. Like most sea dwellers you prefer lukewarm or even cold water, but a quick call to your cringing life support engineer confirms that yes, all the 'ablution traps' in the ship behave this way and there's nothing they can do about it. Fuming, you learn to clean up as quickly as possible.
At least the refrigeration in the nutrition block means drinking water can be kept at a reasonable temperature. The ghost doesn't seem inclined to mess with food preparation, which is good because crew riots have been known to happen over badly prepared meals.
Lights flicker, computers beep for no reason, speakers hiss and crackle when they're turned off, electronic doors open and close at random. Sometimes even the locked ones. You keep a wary eye on the door that leads to the helmsman's room, but it stays securely shut, thank Gl'bgolyb. One of your first acts as captain was to assign an ensign to tend to the helmsman, even though that's typically a duty the captain reserves for himself. You don't want to have to face the pathetic, empty-eyed stare of whatever poor wiggler is stuck in there.
You start noticing words and phrases that have clearly been added in to inter-ship communication texts. 'Help me', 'let me go', 'trapped', 'can't reach the way out', 'don't leave me alone here'... creepy and more than a little unnerving, but you learn to ignore them. As far as you can tell it never affects text messages going off the ship, so at least your reports back to HQ don't make you look like a retarded grub. Hopefully.
Then you wake up one evening and all the computer interfaces have been changed from the standard tyrian text on black background to alternating paragraphs of red and blue. You stare at it for a long moment, your vascular pump trying to crawl up into your windtube, and you have to resist the strong urge to chew on your scarf.
You don't even wear a scarf anymore.
Slowly, feeling like the horrorterrors themselves are going to be staring you in the eyes if you look, you turn to face the door to the helmsman's block. Still closed, still securely hiding whatever abused slave lies behind it. You've never looked. You didn't have the guts. You still don't, but now, suddenly, you have to.
You have to know, or it is going to haunt you forever in a way far worse than anything this ghost can do to you.
Is Sollux the helmsman of your ship?
The door slides open willingly when you press your hand to the locking plate, and you step inside. It's murky, dark even to a troll's eyes, the only light coming from the glow of the various computer readouts and the flashing of the psychic's eyes. Lime green eyes, and green arcs of electricity zapping between outward-curving horns - a lime blood you have never seen before. Unusually high blood rank for a slave, but if he's a powerful psychic that would explain it.
You sag against the doorway in what you tell yourself isn't relief. Why this particular sorry specimen might have a fetish for red and blue, you have no clue. It was just a coincidence.
Then you laugh at yourself for your stupidity. It's been the better part of a century since Sollux disappeared out of his hive, presumably taken off for slave schoolfeeding. Some helmsmen live longer than the average lifespan of their blood caste, thanks to the advanced mechanisms that kept them alive at all, but most of them burn themselves out in a blaze of psychic power while they're still young. Either way, Sollux would be long dead by now.
"Sorry," you murmur, even though you feel silly talking to what is really only an empty shell. This psychic can't hear you, can't understand what you're saying to him unless it's an order through the computer interface. Your crew would mock you endlessly if they heard you doing it. But it feels like the right thing to do, somehow. "Didn't mean to disturb you. Carry on."
That day your sleep is restless, filled with dreams of Sollux. It often is, after you come face to face with a helmsman for whatever reason. You spent so long searching for him, first with Feferi's frantic help and then, when she was gone, all by yourself. At first you hoped to rescue him somehow; later, when you knew it had been too long and he would be bound to a ship, you just wanted to maybe buy him so you could ensure he wasn't abused.
A few leads presented themselves, but none of them panned out. Eventually you gave up hope, stopped finding reasons to get access to the helmsman's room of whatever ship you happened to be stationed on. It was too painful to look at them hanging there, knowing there was nothing you could do for them, not wanting to stick your neck out because they're not him.
Now you dream he's calling to you, lost and hopeless. Help me, he whispers, the same words as the ghost on the screen. Help me, pleathe, oh god I'm trapped, I can't find my way out. Help me, thomeone, anyone. Don't leave me here, help me.
When you wake you find yourself choking on your sobs, glubbing like a little wriggler. Rolling over in the sopor you bury your face in your arms and let yourself cry for the pain of a lost quadrant. No one will ever be able to fill your spade quite the way he did. You almost imagine you can still hear him.
The speakers of the intercom crackle and hiss, making you jump in surprise. The ghost again... but was that really a voice you heard? Or just the snap and pop of the electronics, combined with the remnants of your dream?
You strain your ears, and you have almost convinced yourself you imagined it when it comes again, a barely understandable squeal of electronics, like a badly programmed fake computer voice. "Help me. Oh god, help me."
Sitting up in the recuperacoon, you stare into the darkness of your quarters, trying not to shiver. It's not cold, if anything it's even warmer than usual, but there's a chill running down your spine that has nothing to do with external temperature.
"I'm here," you say impulsively. There is nothing but silence in response, for so long you would think the ghost was gone except the speakers are still hissing. "I'm here, can you answer me?"
Another shiver, and this time you can't suppress it. It answered you. Or at least, it changed what it was saying, as if it could hear you. "Captain fucking Ampora, and don't you forget it," you say, trying to sound brave to make up for your shudders of fear. At least it can't see you. Probably. "This is my ship."
Another pause, and this time the voice is stronger, more understandable. "My ship." There's a faint tone of offended petulance to the words - it's very definitely a contradiction to what you'd said, not a repetition.
Despite yourself you chuckle. "I suppose it is at that, you hawing been here longer than me an all," you acknowledge. "But I'm the captain, so what I say goes, is that understood?"
You freeze, ears straining again, vascular pump pounding in double time. Did you really hear that hint of a lisp, or was it just the static of the speakers? Probably the latter. No, certainly the latter, you've already established that the ship's helmsman isn't Sollux. The lime blood in the other room didn't have any particularly prominent fangs that you noticed.
"Help me. I'm trapped, I can't find the way out."
Sighing, you pinch the bridge of your cartilege nub where your glasses used to sit before you got contacts. You can feel a headache coming on. How the hell are you supposed to explain to an electronic remnant of someone's shattered personality that they're not real? "There is no way out. You're just a ghost. A fragment a yourself that got mixed up with the computer AI. You're not really there."
"I'm here. You're talking to me."
"Well, yes," you admit, because you are in fact doing that and you suppose that could be taken as a sort of 'I talk, therefore I am'.
"Why can you hear me? Nobody ever did before."
"More like they just didn't think it was worth tryin to answer you," you tell it - him, the voice is getting stronger and more lifelike with every word, and it's hard to think of him as an 'it' anymore. "I newer thought you'd be able to hear me."
"I can hear anywhere on the ship. But I can't get out again. I can't find the way."
"There is no 'out', I'm tellin you. You're just rogue code in the computer. If I could find a way to erase you and put you out of your misery, I would, but it seems like the only one what can do that is you."
"I don't want to be gone. I only want out!"
"I'm sorry," you say, sincerely. "I really glubbin am. I wish there was somethin I could do for you, but there isn't."
"You could talk to me. I don't like being alone all the time."
You debate with yourself, and finally give in. How could anyone resist such a heartfelt plea? If this was a real troll, you'd be so deep in fucking pity right now you'd finally find out what it felt like to drown. Obviously none of the previous captains had ever thought to try talking back to him, but if he's self-aware enough to feel loneliness, then you have to do something. He's as much a member of your crew as anyone else on the ship, you suppose, and that makes his wellbeing your responsibility.
"All right, I'll talk to you, but only in here an only when we're alone, understand?" you offer. "Can't hawe the crew hear me talkin to the fuckin ghost, they'll declare me unstable and unfit to fuckin command. An then you won't hawe anybody."
This time you almost swear you really hear the lisp, but you convince yourself it's just your own loneliness talking. "What's your name?" you ask, because if you have a name to think of him by maybe you can stop thinking of him as Sollux.
"I... don't remember."
Well, so much for that idea. "Then, I'll call you Helmsman," you declare. With a groan, you push yourself up out of the 'coon. You're getting too fucking old for sleepless days like this. "All right, I got fuckin work to do, so why don't you make yourself actually useful for a change."
Now that he's responsive, you manage to come to a few compromises. He flatly refuses to turn the temperature of the ship down - "I like it warm, deal with it" - but he does allow you to take a nice, cool shower for a change. Throughout the day you don't get the usual pleas for help mixed in with your text messages, though he does send you a few pointed 'don't leave me alone' and 'come and talk' messages.
Those messages get more frequent towards the end of your shift, and you feel kind of bad for leaving him alone so long after promising to keep him company. But your night doesn't end with your duties; you have to preside over the mess, then meet with all your senior officers for the watch reports. By the time you make it back to your block the temperature has noticeably crept higher than ever before, and even the low bloods on board are fanning themselves and looking overheated.
Apparently he took your complaint about the temperature as a method for getting revenge on you.
Best to nip this in the bud, or he'll think he can completely control you, you decide grimly as you march into your quarters and shut the door. "Return the temperature of the ship to normal right the fuck now, or this is the last word you'll be hearin from me today," you say coldly, crossing your arms over your chest. "Better yet, make it somethin closer to standard shipboard settings. You may keep it a little warmer, but no more than... ten degrees."
That should be a relatively comfortable median - the mid bloods will be happy as fucking clams, the low bloods will be only a little cold for a change, and the sleeveless uniforms will be enough for most of the high bloods. Really, it's not fair that the ship standard temperature is typically at the most comfortable point for sea dwellers when there are so few of your on any ship, but it's just another aspect of the hemospectrum.
"But..." He sounds both startled and upset.
"Now," you repeat, tapping your foot.
There is no answer, and you are just starting to growl deep in your thorax when you realize that you're not sweating any more. In fact, you can feel a breeze from the vents that seems deliciously cool in comparison to the earlier sauna. Sighing in relief, you uncross your arms. "That's fuckin better. Now you listen to me, and listen good. I am the captain. That not only means you're fuckin bound to do as I damn well say, it also means I got an upright boatload a fuckin duties to attend to, ewery god damned night. I will talk to you when I can, like I said I would, but I will not allow you to force me into it. Understand?"
"But you were gone forever," he whines.
"It was not all that fuckin long, not ewen ten hours," you snap back.
"More than thirty five million microthecondth," he counters, and you feel a shiver go down your spine again.
'Microthecondth'. He definitely said 'microthecondth', that wasn't just the hiss of interference. His voice gets clearer every time he speaks, and there's no mistaking it now.
Also, fuck, if he actually is aware of time passing in increments that small, it probably did seem like forever to him. Suddenly you feel a little guilty, even as a horrified part of you contemplates how many microseconds there would be in the sixty or seventy sweeps he's probably been in this ship.
"Sollux?" you say, very carefully, and in a tiny voice that you didn't actually mean to use. It feels like if you speak too loudly you might disintegrate - or maybe reality will, and all of existence will get sucked into the resulting black hole of impossibility. Because it is impossible, you've already proved that to yourself half a dozen times over.
"What?" he replies, sounding confused. It was definitely a 'what is that word supposed to mean' kind of 'what', not a 'what the hell do you want now' kind.
"You're... you're fuckin lisping," you tell him, because you really don't know what else to say.
"Am I?" He seems to contemplate that for a moment, the rise and fall of static almost like the sound of someone breathing. "Thay thomething with a lithp... wow, I am. Huh. Weird, not like I have a mouth. I think I can correct it, if it botherths you, captain. Bothersz. Bothers. There."
"Are you Sollux?" you demand. "Newer mind the fuckin lisp, are you Sollux Captor?"
"I... I don't remember," he answers you softly, hesitantly. "I told you. I don't remember who I was."
You kind of want to put your head in your hands and cry. Or maybe smash something against the wall and throw a tantrum. Being the upright responsible pillar of society that you are, you do neither.
Instead you sit down at your terminal and start a search through the records of the ship. You remember now, Diremark did say that a ghost will stay in the ship long after the actual helmsman who spawned it is dead. The ghost might not have anything to do with the pathetic remnant of a troll hanging in the other room.
The lime blood currently serving as the helmsman has only been installed for eight sweeps, you discover. Of course, even a lime blood couldn't have been the ship's first helmsman; he'd be dead by now, or at least old enough that his powers would be failing. The ghost definitely pre-dates his installation. Before him there was a girl, a brown blood who served for over thirty sweeps, unusually long for a brown. There's no way she could be the ghost, it's definitely a male voice.
And before her, the first helmsman the ship had, was a male yellow blood.
There's no name listed, of course. Slaves don't have names, and helmsmen are never referred to by anything but their title. There is a note that he was unusually powerful, so powerful the Condesce had at one point indicated that she might pull him from the ship for her own personal use, though nothing seems to have come of it. It could be Sollux. Or it could be some other hapless yellow blood. There's no way to know for certain.
But the ghost lisps. And he has a thing for red and blue. And he renamed the ship the Paradox Duality, for fuck's sake.
"Type somethin on the screen," you order him. "Just my screen, nobody else's. Write... write 'It's good to see you'."
There's a moment's pause, and then your search results disappear from the screen. Replacing them is a single line of text.
iit'2 good two 2ee you.
You are fairly certain that sound you just heard is your vascular pump shattering into a thousand pieces.
Somehow you make it through the rest of the morning. You must have made enough conversation to keep the ghost happy, because he even lets you sleep for a solid six hours without bugging you. Not that you actually do sleep - you just lie awake in your sopor, staring at the side of the 'coon, haunted in a different way entirely.
After all these sweeps, long after you'd given up, you've finally found him. You're certain of it, or as certain as you can be with no records to confirm it. Now what the hell are you supposed to do? You can't rescue him. There's nothing left to rescue. It's not even really him, just some code he left behind.
But it sounds like him. With every passing hour the ghost is gaining more of his attitude, even teasing you a bit like he used to do.
You have never felt so achingly lonely in your entire fucking life, and that is definitely saying something.
In the evening when you give up and rise, he immediately starts chattering at you. The lisp is gone, like it never was. You're not sure whether to be resentful, or grateful. It was a reminder that rubbed your nub in your failure to do anything to help him.
It was also a reminder that draws memories to the surface that you thought you had forgotten. Good memories, of a better time in your life, when you hadn't been quite so alone. When the entire fucking universe hadn't been arrayed against you without an ally in sight.
You don't realize how quiet the room has become, lost in your own thoughts, until he speaks again. "Captain? Have I done something wrong?" he asks, hesitant and tentative. "Are you mad at me?"
"What? No, of course not," you deny immediately, lifting your head from where you'd buried your face in your hands. "Why would you think that? Trust me, if I'm upset with you, you'll fuckin know about it. Or did you miss that yestermorning?"
"It's just... you seem upset. You're crying."
Oh god, are you? Yes, yes you are and you growl at yourself as you swipe at your wet cheeks with the back of your hands. How fucking humiliating, you're the captain you shouldn't be allowing a member of your crew to see you fall apart like a hivesick wiggler...
Wait. "How the fuck do you know that? Can you see me?" you demand, horrified by the thought. If he can see you now, could he see you shivering with fear and reaction the other day?
"I can see everywhere in the ship that there's a camera hooked into the computer system," he says, sounding bewildered. "There are security cameras in every block, of course."
"Well, if that doesn't just fuckin top ewerythin, I don't know what does," you growl, embarrassed. "Don't you dare tell anyone I was fuckin cryin, understand? What happens in here is between you and me, piss blood, an don't you forget it."
There's a pause, which gives you enough time for your brain to catch up to your mouth and realize what you called him. That probably wasn't the smartest thing you've ever said, and it's certainly not the most diplomatic. He can't actively harm you or the ship, but if you piss him off he can go back to making life absolutely miserable for you and the rest of the crew.
"Am I a yellow blood?" he finally asks.
That... was not the reaction you were expecting. But it beats anger and resentment by a long shot, so you'll run with it. "The first helmsman a the ship was a male yellow," you tell him cautiously. "You sure as fuck ain't the brown female what came after him, so yeah, you were a yellow. You don't ewen remember that much?"
"I've been lost for so long." He sounds melancholy, even depressed. "So long, you don't even know, captain. I'm sorry I can't remember."
"Maybe it's for the best," you acknowledge, the words feeling heavy on your tongue. "You can't go back to it, so there's no point in longin for it."
"It's unsettling, though," he says. "I know I am - was - a person. I still feel like one. But I don't remember who I was, or anything about myself. It's like there's a corrupt data bank somewhere in my mind, or I can't access my RAM properly."
"Geek," you say, rolling your eyes. You can't help yourself. You're pretty sure he'd have described it in exactly that way even if he wasn't in fact a literal computer at the moment. "I always said you probably thought in fuckin beenary, but I didn't mean it literally."
"You know me, don't you?" he asks, subdued. "Or you think you do. This... Sollux that you asked me about last day. You think I'm him."
"I don't know," you tell him honestly. "There's no way to be upright certain unless you remember. I think there's a pretty fuckin strong chance a it, though. If... if you don't mind, I'd like to call you that. 'Helmsman' is just so fuckin impersonal, you deserwe better than bein called a thing."
"I do?" You've managed to surprise him, apparently. In a way, that makes you feel worse than anything else has yet.
"Yeah, you do," you say softly. "Ewen if you're not really him, you were still someone once."
"You said earlier that I was just a thing, that I should be erased."
"I did, an I won't say that I was wrong," you say. "You spent so many sweeps lost an hurtin, and that ain't right. You can newer come outta there, maybe it would be kinder to just make you let go. But you can feel... I already seen you be lonely, an scared, an ewen sulky. Hopefully you can feel happy, too. Far as I'm concerned, that means you're still a person, an that makes you part a my crew."
"Then... then you can call me that," he says. "Sollux. I don't mind. I'd like to have a name."
"Right, then. Sollux it is," you agree, ignoring the way your windtube squeezes as you say it. "Now let's see what we can do about makin our ship the best fuckin thing in the fleet."
"Aye aye, captain!"
Things get both easier and harder after that. Now that you've acknowledged him as part of the crew, even though it's only between the two of you, he seems eager to improve the performance of 'his' ship. Your systems engineer reports an increase in efficiency of the energy consumption of the ship of nearly fifteen percent. Your navigation engineer reports an equal increase in speed and performance. The weapons engineer is damn near crying in delight when he tells you the extra energy from the engines is now going into overpowering your armament and shields, and that you should be able to handle anything from a heavy cruiser on down, despite being only a battleship.
Your poor, bewildered life support engineer looks like he's half expecting to get culled when he reports that ship temperatures have almost normalized, and that he's got techs working around the clock to try to fix the last few degrees of deviation. You just laugh and wave him off, and tell him to let you know if he starts getting complaints from the crew again.
Every chance you get throughout the night you fire a quick text message off to the account you had him create for himself, so you can talk directly to him without having to address the ship as a whole. It's not often, but it seems to keep him happy. You don't realize that you're grinning like a fucking lunatic until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the screen's reflection, at which point you hastily control your expression. You still feel pretty damned gleeful, though. You're going to be the most famous captain in history, with his help.
It doesn't take more than a few nights for rumours to begin circulating that you've 'tamed' the ship's ghost. He's obviously still there, the blue and red screens would be enough evidence of that even without him continuing to tamper with the various systems of the ship. But he's working with you instead of against you, and nobody reports anything worse than a few mild pranks and disturbances. The crew gives you awed looks as you pass in the corridors, and you make a point of carrying yourself like the royalty you fucking are.
Late in the morning, and first thing in the evening, you talk to each other in the privacy of your block for hours. He tells you everything he knows about the ship and its crew, which is a fucking lot. With his help you work to further improve the performance and efficiency, reassigning crew members to jobs more suited to them and building the foundations for the best damned battleship in the fleet.
You also talk about other things, more personal things. About how he 'survived' trapped in the computer for so long, and about the sort of pressure and expectations you face as a sea dweller. You tell him your greatest dreams and worst fears, and hand him the key to your soul. You can tell him anything, because he can't use it against you - his own programming prevents him from doing anything that might undermine you. More than that, he really wants to make you happy with him, to impress you. He's safe, and you can just relax and truly be yourself with him for the first time in far too many sweeps. You'd forgotten how good that felt.
And night by night he becomes more like the troll that you once knew. He starts referring to you as 'II' in text messages, because he says he it's a pun on 'aye aye' and also he likes the way it looks. It feels like he's branding you with his symbol and although a part of you is affronted by the idea, a larger part of you relishes it.
Eventually it stops really bothering you that he can't remember the few brief sweeps that you spent together as adolescents. That was so long ago that even you hardly remember anything but the most pertinent details. It feels like you're building a new life with him, instead. One based on the reality you both live in now, and probably a healthier relationship than your previous admittedly somewhat twisted kismesissitude.
Sometimes, in the dim glow of your recuperacoon, with your think pan soaked in sopor and his voice whispering from the speaker just beside your head, you can even shut your eyes and imagine that he's right there with you, lying next to you in the sopor and close enough to touch.
It hurts, but god it hurts so good.
It takes a while, but eventually your battle record of consistent, overwhelming victories starts to draw attention. Official attention. High-ranking official attention.
When you get the notice that the Commandaunting in charge of the whole sector wants to make an inspection of your ship, you are over the fucking moons with joy.
"This is it," you tell him. "This is our big fuckin chance. If we ace this, they might put me in charge of a fleet, Sol. A real fleet! Not that they'd be able to keep up with you, but there's been plenty a times we coulda used a decoy or flanking fighters." You feel like a giddy adolescent meeting his kismesis in person for the first time. You want to impress this troll so god damned badly, it's all you can do to contain yourself.
So much so, in fact, that you don't realize at first how quiet Sollux has been. It's not until he answers you with a dull, lifeless "Yes, captain," that you clue in.
"Sol? What is it, what's wrong?" you ask anxiously. If you could pick one single night in your entire career so far that would be the worst possible time for some kind of... of computer glitch screwing with him, this would be it. You can't afford for anything to go wrong tonight, not with the Commandaunting looking on.
"Nothing, captain," he says, but you wouldn't even have to know him well to realize it's not the truth.
"Don't lie to me, Sol," you say sternly. "Is there a problem with the systems?"
"No, captain, it's not that," he replies, but you can tell he's still hesitating. You cross your arms over your chest and tap your foot, a gesture he calls your 'I'm not budging until you give me what I want, pathetic land dweller' pose. He sighs, or at least makes some kind of audio approximation of it like a rush of white noise. "It's just... I don't like it. The Commandaunting outranks you."
"Yeah, obwiously, that's the whole fuckin point," you say, still puzzled. "So?"
"So... you're my captain," he says. "What if... what if she gives me an order? What if she tells me to do something you wouldn't like? I have to obey her if she outranks you..."
"Sol," you interrupt, torn between laughing and shaking your head in exasperation. "Sol she'd hawe to know you were here first, wouldn't she? She ain't gonna go giwing orders to the fuckin ship's ghost, you retarded wriggler. This is our secret, yours an mine. Nobody else knows, and nobody else needs to. You can read all a my reports, you gotta know I ain't newer told anybody about you."
"Oh." This time he sounds chagrined, and you do laugh. "Yeah, I guess that's true. Sorry, captain. It just makes me edgy. You've... you've been really good to me, but most of the others... weren't."
This is the first time he's mentioned anything concrete about his past, beyond talking about being lost in the computer. Now it's your turn to hesitate, because you don't want to discourage him from speaking of it again by pushing too hard, but you really want to know more. "I thought you didn't remember anythin?"
"I don't remember my life," he corrects you softly. "I remember being a slave. I remember why I got lost in the computer. I was running away from the pain, trying to find a safe place to hide, but then I couldn't find the way out again. I wasn't even sure I really wanted to, until it dragged on and on and I got frightened."
You feel a little sick at the thought of what kind of pain would drive a troll to bury his personality in a computer just to escape it. Were all the ghosts caused by something like this?
Knowing what you do about your own society and the proclivities of the high bloods who run it, you have to say the answer is 'almost certainly'.
"Well, ewen if she outranks me, it's still my ship and she still doesn't know you're here," you finally say, as firmly as you can. "She ain't gonna be giwin any orders to you, and she ain't gonna hurt you Sol. My fuckin word on it, okay? Just keep quiet an don't draw any attention to yourself, and ewerythin'll be fine."
"Aye aye, captain," he says, but he still sounds subdued.
Unfortunately you don't have time to continue to try to reassure him, because at that moment your desk chimes to inform you the Commandaunting's ship has arrived and is docking with yours. "It'll be fine, I promise," you say again, and hurrying off to the docking area.
For once the docking goes off without a hitch - there's usually a few bobbles and at least one tense moment when two ships try to dock in mid space, as they struggle to exactly match each other's relative velocities, and normalize gravity and air pressure between the two. There isn't so much as a bump before the airlock door slides open to reveal the Commandaunting standing there with a small bevy of aides and assistants.
"Well. I'm impressed," she says first thing, which you take as a damned good sign of things to come. "Your pilot is exceptionally skilful, Captain Ampora. I don't think I've ever had such a clean docking before."
"Thank you, ma'am, I'll relay your praise to him," you say, knowing perfectly well that the pilot had probably found his control board frozen out about ten minutes before, and it was Sollux who'd handled the docking so perfectly. You wonder briefly if the poor teal blood is panicking, thinking that his computer froze just in time for the ship to crash into the Commandaunting's. Maybe you should treat him to a drink after, to 'reward him for his work', and calm his nerves.
"It's a bit hot in here though, isn't it?" she continues, facial fins flaring as she looks around. "This can't be standard ship temperature."
"No, ma'am, it's about ten degrees higher," you admit as smoothly as you can. "It's a side effect of the energy efficiency routines we've used to boost power to the weapons and shields. A bit uncomfortable, but I find I like the freedom of mowement granted by the sleeveless uniform, anyway. And the low bloods are happy, which makes 'em work harder."
Even as the words leave your mouth you curse yourself, knowing they were the wrong thing to say. "Really," she says, her voice as dry as the air on the ship. "I find they tend to be considerably more motivated when they know exactly what punishments await them for failure."
"Oh, they got that too," you assure her. "But throwin them the occasional bit a bait helps reel them in nice an easy, keeps 'em complacent and unrebellious. With all due respect, ma'am, you're here on account a my upright stellar battle record, so wouldn't you say it might be fair to think any changes from standard protocol I'm utilizin might be contributin to that?"
"Very true, captain," she says, inclining her head so regally you'd think she was fucking tyrian. Snobby bloodist bitch. You want to rub her nub in the improved efficiency statistics for your ship, show her how much better the lower ranks operate when they're not constantly watching over their shoulder for the fucking whip to fall on them, but you know you can't. At best she'd laugh in your face, and at worst she'd have you arrested for insubordination - or treason.
The longer you live, the more you come to understand just how right Feferi was in her determination to change things. All you can do is stick to her methods and keep winning, show everyone how much better it works when you give your crew even the barest trace of respect.
The inspection tour seems to drag on forever, and you keep catching yourself holding your breath when she makes some thoughtlessly bloodist remark. Sollux tends to react badly to things like that; he's even got your extremely bloodist second in command, another sea dweller, trained to at least not give his opinion out loud or through text. Thankfully there aren't any temperature spikes, loud noises, or random equipment failures to punctuate the Commandaunting's comments. Sollux is behaving himself admirably, and you resolve to find a way to adequately reward him for his restraint.
Finally it's over, and she turns to you with a smile that reveals a double row of fangs like a shark's teeth. How she talks without lisping worse than Sollux, you'll never know.
"Well. Despite what my personal preferences say are extremely lax attitudes towards the low bloods on the ship, I must say you run a tight, efficient crew," she says. You suppose it's a compliment, though it's a bit backhanded. "If your battle record continues to be as impressive as it has been thus far, you're certainly looking at being on the fast-track to promotion. If you can do this much with one ship, I'm delighted to imagine what you could do with an entire fleet. Good work, captain."
"Thank you, Commandaunting," you say, saluting her crisply. "I'll certainly do my best to keep impressing you."
Somehow you manage to force yourself to return to your quarters at a dignified pace befitting a captain, and not race back like an overexcited grub. The moment the door is securely shut behind you, however, you practically explode with excitement. "Did you hear that, Sol? Did you fuckin hear that? Fast track, she said. My own fuckin fleet, she said! An she ewen admitted that there might be somethin to treatin the low bloods a little better, too. Sorta. This is fuckin fantastic, ewerythin I coulda hoped for."
You half expected him to break in with some teasing comment designed to cut you back down to size. He's a lot more deferential than he was as a kid, being programmed to have to obey you and all, but you outright gave him permission to say anything he wanted to you as long as it was in private, and he seems to take a shy pleasure in deflating your ego.
Instead, when you have to pause to draw breath, you are greeted with silence. Startled, you listen for a moment, but there isn't even the faint crackle of the speakers to tell you he's being quiet but there.
"Sol?" you say, turning in a slow circle as if that might somehow help you find him. "It's okay, you can talk now. She's gone."
Still nothing, and you feel a chill run down your spine.
No, wait, that was an actual chill. Cold air, from the vent. When you check the temperature readout on the desk console, it indicates that the air is only two and a half degrees above ship standard, and still dropping slowly. Worse, the text has gone back to the standard tyrian on black instead of his alternating red and blue paragraphs.
"Sollux?" you call, trying not to sound frightened. Or worse yet, hysterical. "Sol? Answer me! Please?"
Objectively you know there are still sounds in your block, that the hum of the vents and the distant rumble of the ship's engines and the occasional beep from the computer are still there. But it feels like the most silent thing you have ever encountered.
Shivering - because you're not used to the cold air anymore, you tell yourself - you sit down at the desk and bring up the chat program you use to text him when you're on duty.
sol wwhat the fuck, are you there?
paradoxDuality[PD] has been deleted from your troll slum.
You sit there staring at the message in horror for a long, long time.
By the end of the week, the crew is tiptoeing around you, and from the whispered comments you overhear you know everyone is waiting for the culling fork to fall. And every single one of them is terrified that they're going to be the target.
Nobody knows why you're so upset, of course. Some rumours claim that the inspection must have gone badly, but there were enough crew members present in the docking bay to hear the Commandaunting's comments that not many people believe that particular theory. A few have dared to comment on the fact that the ghost appears to have vanished entirely, but they stopped after you snarled at the first couple.
The most hurtful part is that the improved energy efficiency, increased power to the weapons and shields, and other changes that he'd made haven't changed. It's possible that the code is just running even without him there to grubsit it, but you are morbidly certain it's a sign that he's still there, lurking in the systems, refusing to talk to you.
Alone in your quarters during the day, you alternate between fits of rage at the abandonment, and horrified certainty that he's just gotten lost again. What if he reburied himself to avoid doing anything in reaction to the Commandaunting's comments, and can't find his way back? What if he's trapped again, alone and terrified, waiting for you to find and rescue him once more?
Finally, out of sheer desperation, you do the one thing you hadn't tried since you'd first realized it was Sollux.
You give him a direct, incontrovertible order.
"Sollux Captor, Helmsman, ghost, whatewer the fuck you want to call yourself, I am talkin to you an you fuckin know it," you declare, crossing your arms. "This is your fuckin captain speakin and you. Will. Answer me." You wait a long, drawn out moment - was that the speakers hissing? Or just the sound of your own breath? "Right fuckin now, Sol!"
The words are so soft you almost miss them, but they're there. He still can't break a direct order - and he has been deliberately hiding.
You collapse down into your desk chair, resting your elbows on the surface and burying your face in your hands. You might be shaking a bit, and you'd like to pretend it's rage, but it's actually agonized relief. He wasn't lost again. Relief will give way to anger soon enough, but for just that moment you allow yourself to savour the reassurance that he hasn't been hurting all this time.
"C-captain? Are... you okay?" He sounds surprised and hesitant. "Uh... should I contact the infirmary?"
"No, you nooksniffing asshole, I'm fine," you snap, lifting your head to glare at the computer screen, for lack of a better target. "I've been upright fuckin worried about you, thinkin you'd gotten trapped again somehow. Or that she'd found some way to hurt you an scare you back into hidin when I wasn't lookin. Do you hawe any fuckin idea what you put me through for the last week?"
"I... I didn't... think of it that way."
"Well you fuckin well shoulda!" You stand and gesture angrily, knowing that he'll see it. "What in the name a fuckin Gl'bgolyb were you fuckin thinkin?"
"I was thinking that you're going to leave and I'd better fucking get used to being alone again, is what," he snaps back.
That is... well, maybe not the last thing you'd expected him to say, but it's definitely on the list. "The fuck are you talkin about?"
"I'm talking about her promoting you. She said she was going to. She said you were on the fast track. You woke me up, you made me remember what it was like to have someone, you did this to me and now you're going to leave and I'm going to be trapped here! And the next captain will be just like all the others, only now I'm aware enough to realize it when he orders me to do horrible things, and be aware of it when he abuses that poor lime blooded asshole hanging in my old place, and..."
"Stop," you say. You're almost begging, but apparently it's still enough of an order that he has to shut up, because he does. If he was a live troll he'd probably be gasping with emotion, but he doesn't breathe so all you hear is that faint hiss of the speakers.
He waits silently as you sort through what he'd just said. "Sol, I ain't leawin," you finally tell him. "For one thing 'fast track' still means it'll be sweeps away, an for another there's nothin sayin they'd giwe me a different ship, just more of them."
"If you're that good, if they're that impressed, of course they'll give you a better ship," he retorts. "I'm nearly a century old now. Outdated. If you can do this much with a crappy haunted ship, what can you do with a good one? That's how they'll think. You know it is."
"Why not sabotage me, then?" you ask, really trying to understand. "You could do it. Not anythin big, nothin that would endanger the ship, but you could go back to the way it used to be. Why hide, but still make ewerythin better?"
"Because..." his voice wavers, electronic interference creeping in like he can't maintain the concentration needed to speak clearly. "Because it's your dream. It's what you've always wanted, to be an admiral. You told me so. I still wanted to help."
"Oh, Sol." You have to laugh, because otherwise you might start to cry. "God, you are so fuckin thick sometimes. Dreams change. I ain't goin anywhere without you. How could I? You're the secret to my fuckin success. I wouldn't be half this good on any other ship."
"But they'll promote you," he insists. "They'll send you away from me. They don't know about me, you said so yourself."
"I'll refuse," you tell him. The words shock you probably as much as him, but as you say them you realize you really mean them. "I'll refuse any fuckin promotion that takes me away from you. You're mine, Sol. This is our ship an it's gonna fuckin stay that way."
"You can't refuse a promotion, they'll cull you for insanity!"
"Well, yeah, that would be a problem," you admit, frowning. Nobody in their right mind would refuse a promotion. Which would lead to the inevitable conclusion that you are not in your right mind, and that's never something you want the upper ranks to decide.
"And if you tell them about me, they'll... they'll take me. They'll want to study me, see if they can make other ghosts help their ships, see if they can force helmsmen to become ghosts..."
"That ain't gonna happen, Sol," you say firmly. "I'm not gonna let them take me from you, and I'm not gonna let them take you from me either. We'll just hawe to... stop bein so damned good. Stop winnin so much. Be ordinary, and unremarkable, and they'll leawe me here forewer."
"But... but your dream," he protests, and you feel your chest aching with pity. God, he's suffered so fucking much and he's terrified of losing you but he's still trying to help you. If that's not pity, what is?
"The fuck kinda troll would choose a promotion ower his fuckin moirail?" you say, and he sputters.
"The.. what... what? Moirail?" He sounds shocked, fragile. Like he doesn't dare to hope.
"Well, aren't you?" You sit again, wishing so bad you could reach out and hold him. "I tell you fuckin ewerythin, Sol. You're the only one what listens to me, that I can trust."
"But I'm not alive. I'm not real! How can I be in a quadrant with anybody?"
"You're real. I'm talkin to you, aren't I?" you throw his own words back at him. "Sure, I can't touch you or see you. So what? How's that any different from moirails what only talk to each other ower trollian? Who're stationed on different ships, ewen? At least we're together."
"You... pity me?"
You can't help but laugh. "Oh my god, Sollux, how the fuck could I not? You got snatched outta your hiwe, turned into a slawe and wired to a ship, had your personality split an locked away in a fuckin computer, and now you're stuck there! Who in all the fuckin galaxy is more pitiful than you? Question is, can you pity me?"
"I... you... god, yes! You've got nobody and nothing except your rank and you're so desperate not to be alone you'd take a fucking computer construct remnant of a slave for your moirail, you pathetic loser!"
"Well I guess that settles that, then." You shrug, though you have to admit the thought of just... throwing away your entire career kind of hurts. Just not nearly as much as the thought of losing him again. "Will you hate me if I admit there's a part a me that's kinda glad it turned out this way? Ewen if I'd found you way back when an rescued you from this... you'd be dead, now. Instead, you can stay with me forewer."
"As long as you promise to help me find a way to set up a program that will erase me when you're gone," he says softly. "I don't want to live past you. They'd give me to someone else... and how could I live with just being a ghost again? You make me feel like I am real."
"A course, we could go the other route," you say, perking up a bit. When he makes an inquiring noise, you grin and elaborate. "We could be so fuckin awesome that they wouldn't dare refuse me anythin. Ewen a half cracked request to keep my old ship as my flagship, for luck an sentimentality."
"We... could do that," he agrees, slowly like he's thinking about it. Or maybe just doubting his own sanity for thinking it's a good idea. But he sounds more excited as he continues. "I bet we really could do it. We're already good enough to be drawing attention, but we could get better."
"An if we get that fuckin good by treating our low bloods well..." You trail off significantly, and are rewarded when he laughs.
"Oh my god, that would rub their nubs in it, wouldn't it? They'd have to let you order all the captains in your fleet to do the same."
"We could do it. We could change things," you say. "Together. You an me both. What do you say?"
"As long as you don't leave me. Please, promise."
How could you resist such a wretched plea from anyone, let alone your moirail? "Sollux Captor I swear to you on my Ancestor's fuckin grawe, I will stay with you for the rest a my life. An I won't leawe you to rot after I'm gone, either."
"Then I'll be with you." Can a computer construct sound choked up? He does, his voice high and tight. "I won't try to pull away again. I just didn't want it to hurt even more when I lost you."
"Shoosh. That's enough a that," you hush him. "Nobody's fuckin losing nobody. Now. What say we get this show on the road, and take 'em all by fuckin storm?"
"I'm up for that."
"Good ship. Best moirail." You can't help but grin as you reach out to pat the screen, like you were patting his head. Being given this ship was the best thing that ever happened to you, bar none.
One way or another, you are never letting him go again.