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9681 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
You grit your teeth, and breathe shallowly through them. This really isn't where you wanted to be.
Well. It is.
You just didn't want to be in the captain's chair while the bloodstains from its last occupant were still wet.

The transmission continues to replay, although the countdown accompanying it (in arabic numerals, not alternian - how thoughtful. Just like the transmission being in english) is only going one way.
"-remnants of human forces in this system have not surrendered and ej8cted power cores 8y that time, I will drop a world-eater onto your colony." There are a few seconds of silence, then the broadcast replays. "Yes, peons, I am Marquise Vriska Serket of the Alternian Empire, commander of the fleet-"

"Sir. Com-. Captain. We can't just let them do this." Liau at Weapons. Lieutenant, JG. Bordering on frantic.

"It could be a bluff! We don't know what's left of the planetary defense network, or if she can really do it! And why would they want a ruined world anyway?" Brodie, ECM/ECCM. Ensign. Babbling.

"She can. She will. And it will not even double her own personal death toll." Zahhak, Engineering. Lieutenant Commander (Coalition Forces Alternian Cooperative Department, Earthfleet-attached). Massively baritone. Entirely serious.

Him, you pay attention to. "Equius, do you know specs on what she's packing?"

The deep rumble from the chest of the only troll in the Command/Control Center (and the entire fleet, for that matter) is as much as he'll complain about your informality on the battlefield. "No. Serket enjoys doomsday devices as a hobby. Her collection is given poetic names, or 'awesome' ones, that do not reflect their technical abilities. This could be one of dozens."

There are six hundred and twelve seconds left on the ultimatum's timer. Barely enough time for a lightspeed signal to reach the Alternian battleship looming over Newhome from your hiding place in Nuevo Dia's (formerly HD 85512) Kuiper Belt.

The Cáo Cāo, Saladin, and Simón Bolívar are out here too, but as the sole surviving battlecruiser from Fifth Fleet, the destroyer captains are waiting for orders from the Daniel Inouye - and from you, John Egbert, Commander (Acting Captain).

You have three impossible options. You can't let Serket kill the six thousand people on that colony. You can't surrender without giving it your all. And you can't order people to kill themselves like your nascent third plan is going to require.
You take a deep breath, two. Five hundred ninety seven seconds. This is not the ideal time for a therapeutic breakthrough about Gliese 581 e. But it's going to have to be the third option.

You will not be trapped by your past.

"Mr. Zahhak, are your FTL/core modifications intact?"
Your voice is steady, even if one hand threatens to crush your armrest and other is bundled into a tight fist.

"Yes. Their shielding is exceptionally strong."

"Ensign Mekonen. Radio transmission to fleet, as follows. This is Captain Egbert. At 21:30:45 local, all ships engage FTL for a microjump to these coordinates." You rapidly feed in a set of numbers, placing the destroyers in close proximity behind Serket's flagship, and the Inouye between it and Newhome.

Equius speaks. "There is a high chance that at least one of the destroyers will impact with another vessel if they use these coordinates."

"Nothing about our attempted interdiction jump maybe dropping us right into Serket's ship in a burst of mutual radioactive annihilation?"

He rumbles. "My refinements will work."

You hesitate a moment more, watching two countdowns. 457 seconds to Vriska's ultimatum. 110 seconds until your ordered FTL jumps. You know Equius sees no problems with sacrificing people under your command to achieve your objectives.
You know his objection is really meant to remind you that you have usually been disgusted with the very idea.

But you can't let that hold you back any longer. There's a worm burrowing through your chest, hollowing it out until you feel like you'll collapse with the next breath you draw - but you have to do it anyway.
You have to not be the hero.
Because you have to get other people killed for the sake of your plan.

"All ships. Priority after jump is focusing weapon fire on the Alternian flagship. Initiate only whatever repairs are necessary to maintain weapons range and function."

Being in command is hard. It's hard, and the only person who understands is on the other side of your guns.
Your second timer hits 10.
"Initiate jump. Gunnery and repair crews standby for immediate battle."

4,612 Hours in the Past
"Admiral." You snap off a crisp salute - it'd be even more perfectly regulation if you did it with your left hand, but that in itself is non-regulation, so you have to settle for using your flesh-and-blood arm.

"At ease, Ensign. And don't you have something else to say?"

Your grin and the admiral's are pretty much perfectly matched as you walk around her desk and lean down to embrace her. "Hi, Nanna!"

"It's good to see you, John. You look much better than last time as well."

You take the seat opposite her and flex your left arm slowly, looking it over with your left eye. "Thanks! Equius designed some really, really useful prosthetics, but I'm sure glad the Coalition had some human models he could mix designs with."

"Not too disappointed you don't look like a robotic killing machine, dear?"

You laugh. "I can always rip my skin off if I need to expose the metal bones and muscles, I guess! It'd only hurt a liiiiiiiitle less than losing them did."

Your grandmother, Earthfleet 3-Star Admiral Jane Crocker, former American Confederation commando, one of the only living humans to have fought in a interplanetary war (Baker's Rebellion, specifically, the impetus that broke up the Terran Dominion into the five Earth Zones and 15 colonies of the Human Coalition), smiles indulgently. Her desk interface chimes with an incoming message.

"Is that work? Should I-" You gesture to the doorway.

She sighs and shakes her head. "No, it's just a letter of resignation from your friend Zahhak. The fifth in sixty hours. I expect he'll send his fifth apologetic retraction in a few hours."

"Huh. I should talk to him!"

"That would be a good idea, John. On to nicer matters. How has your leave been?"

"Well... kind of disappointing! Jade and Dad are busy at the Oppenheimer Complex all the time, and I guess they don't give fresh ensigns top-secret clearance, huh?" You laugh a little. "And well, um. I kind of had to ask you, Nanna. Where are Dave, Karkat, and Rose?"

"I'm afraid there's some things I can't tell you, John. Some of them are beyond your pay grade. Some of them are beyond my pay grade! Your friends Dave and Karkat were doing well, the last I had heard. As much as that means in a time like this." She shakes her head a little sadly, then lets out a quiet laugh. "Of course I'm sure they're fine, dear. I can tell you that both Director English and the charming Captain Dirk Strider are involved in helping them."

"Thanks!! Knowing somebody's got their back really helps." You drum your fingers on your armrest and smile. "For single-guardian genetic experiments, we have a really great extended family!"

"I quite agree, John," Nanna says, beaming. "I have never failed to be proud of you, most especially in these trying times!"

"Aw, thanks, Nanna." You hope you don't blush too much when you add, "And what about Rose?"

"Hee hee hee. Well, I can't give away the lovely Ms. Lalonde's location or work but I can give you this." She tilts her head, and a Solnet address pings into your inbox. It really helped getting used to being a cyborg when you remembered your Nanna was packed full of military-grade cybernetic enhancements, most of which have been coming out of a long dormancy.

The 100-hour alert for the John Fremont's departure chimes in your head.
"I'd better get going, Nanna! Still got some packing to do, and I have to talk to Equius, and-"

"Don't worry, John." She smiles indulgently, and you absent-mindedly wonder when she's going to pull the cookies out of the oven. "I still remember how it gets during wartime. Dismissed, Ensign Egbert."

 

You ping Equius on the way across Ring 1, but he doesn't answer. You hurl yourself up the transit tube at around 12 km/h (maybe slightly a wee bit 200% of regulation maximum speed), using your profile to guide yourself down a straight as per training instructions, then using the airjets in your arms to spin and zip around the startled people in your straight path (none of whom are officers, fortunately).
Being a cyborg is awesome. So awesome you opted for a couple of enhancements when you were getting your replacements. You didn't cut off the rest of your face for a full dermal plating or anything, but it wasn't too hard on a guy your size for the surgeons to replace some muscles in your right arm with synthetics, and give you an airjet and maglock to match the ones in your left.
You drop out on Ring 7, and hike over to the Alternian Cooperative Department (established all of four months ago, with a grand total of one office, two quarters, six human personnel, and two trolls, one of whom is apparently somewhere entirely too classified for you to know).
Ooh, you bet he's gone back undercover into Alternian territory to recruit more troll dissidents and rebels.
Oh dang, you probably guessed that perfectly. You wonder if you have to get a brain wipe to remove the classified info from your head.
Obviously Earthfleet has brain wipes, the reason nobody says anything about them is because everyone who knows about them has been brain wiped!
Oh, right, you were doing something.
You walk into the ACD office, wave at the bored lieutenant manning the desk, and tap Equius's door chime.

"You may speak."

"Lieutenant Zahhak, request permission to enter."

"Granted, Lieutenant Egbert."

You slide the door aside and step in. "You know, I'm not actually a lieutenant yet, Equius." Navigating his quarters involves a lot of very careful footwork. Parts from numerous humanoid (trollanoid?) robots litter the floor. "I only get my full commission when I go on-duty on the Fremont."

"Oh bother. My apologies. I am still getting used to the intricacies of movement within your human hierarchy."

You toss yourself into the pile of robotic parts and snicker. "Military hierarchy, Equius. We don't have a normal hierarchy."

"I still find that... perverse. How do you know who to obey and who to command?" He dabs at his forehead with a small towel.

"I guess it depends on you personally. Mostly we don't do a lot of either! Or at least we don't try to. Hmmm..." You drum your heels on the deck and think. "I think we have a million little hierarchies, ones we've made ourselves. Cliques, clubs, unions, governments. The important part is that we only have to be part of them if we want to."

"That seems... dreadfully impossible. How can you have anything but chaos if people are allowed to deny their place in society?"

You shrug. Man this is fun! It's just like hanging around debating the precise elements that define "human" with Dave in your dorm at 3 AM. Minus the weed. "Well, there's a lot of value to belonging to most of these groups, and we're a social species. Nobody really abandons everything."

The loud clank of the wrench dropping from his hand to his desk almost makes you jump. "I have. I discarded my only values, John. I cannot embrace your... chaos. It is not my way."

"You have your honor. Your friends. And we've got some kinda vague bond of mutual respect going on?"

"I... find you to be... surprisingly intelligent, Egbert. And courageous. Yes, I respect you."

"Great! So can you tell me why you keep trying to quit Earthfleet?"

Equius stiffens at his desk, then turns around and coughs. "I have been… reviewing your documentaries and the history of your spaceships, John. And I will not be the "Worf"."

You are not going to laugh. You are not going to laugh. You are also not going to try to explain things to Equius because there is always a chance he'll develop a sense of humor at some point and holy shit best prank ever. "Equius. I promise you right now, just like I promised Karkat I'd keep him safe from Intelligence, I will not let you get Worfed, dude."

He leans over his desk and nods slowly. "I would accept that. Aherm. Forgive my doubt."

You jump up and sling an arm around his shoulders. He is totally startled you can do that. "C'mon, Lieutenant, let's go do the traditional pre-mission sendoff."

Equius stands up, and you pull back to give him room. You two are some big buggers anyway. "What is that?"

"Poisoning ourselves until it feels good! We call it getting plastered."

"… oh bother. I may require instruction on the concept."

Chapter Text

5338 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
The John Fremont is a Dragon-class battlecruiser, second generation of Earthfleet ships. It left the Mare Tranquillitatis shipyards barely 300 hours ago, and everything on it is state-of-the-art. Well, except for the things that became outdated during construction and were too expensive to replace. And the things a battlecruiser doesn't really need, like low-profile energy concealment. And-
Okay, you're getting off track here. Dragon class ships, of which the Fremont is the fourth, are escort fleet leaders, interdictors, and strike cruisers. At least, that's the theory. They're fast in sublight and have massive inertial displacers to let them accelerate faster without requiring the crew to be strapped down in pods or become jelly. They're heavily armored, although it's ablative armor, which means they're not going to do well in a drawn-out battle of attrition. And their weapons are giant near-light guided missiles, light speed energy fields, and extremely high-velocity railguns for close range.
In short, they are the Dave Strider of battlecruisers - long, quick bastards with a hell of a punch, but they don't have skulls made of steel or anything. Which is cool. You can't fight like Dave in person, but you can do it on this ship!

Well. You can command the fighting. Some of it. Specifically the mass driver and field projector crews. Because that's you, John Egbert, Lieutenant, Gunnery. You may not be picking the targets but you will damned well make sure they get hit, b'gods!
You wonder why naval terms make you feel inherently silly. Probably just the contrast to the absolutely clinical, mathematical way everything was arranged and described in the ISS. Possibly the idea of war is still sinking in. Gliese 581 e may have had the start, but it wasn't really a battle. Not much more than a skirmish, really one where you nearly killed your friends with your stupid faux-heroics.

"Uh, Lieutenant?"

Spaced out again. Heh.

"Load high-velocity rounds in turrets 2 and 5, armor piercing in 1 and 6, and shaped charge in 3 and 4, with a 60:40 stocking of specialized ammunition at each magazine room. The profiles on most Alternian battleships are reflective at the point, but they lose effectiveness on the flanks. Most importantly, their systems are fundamentally centralized, and hitting the connecting struts with any amount of penetrating force is a good way to disable entire wings."

Your gunnery crew slows down their work and stares at you almost in unison

"I have a degree in Complex Systems Analysis, months of experience with Alternian ships from the inside, and over a year of continuous service on starships, you know!" Among the muttered apologies and sounds of people getting back to work, you wonder why nobody ever takes you seriously!

Hehe. It makes a great set-up for a comedic reversal, though. Put another point in the competent goofball column. You whistle while you walk back to your quarters, then throw yourself into your hammock, which you brought in another fit of amusement at the whole naval theme, but is actually quite comfortable, at least for a while.

You feel cold, suddenly, a chill that sweeps down from your left. You shudder, then wonder if you're getting a premonition from your war wound. Hang on, though, can you really experience ghost nerve sensations when you have artificial nerves entirely replacing the missing organic ones? Okay, maybe if you focus really hard on not feeling through your existing left arm, then you'll be able to pick up the ghost sensations-

[PERSONAL COMMUNICATION LINK ESTABLISHED]
[ENCRYPTION PROTOCOL ACTIVE. LATENCY 3132 ms]

RL: Hello, John.
JE: rose! oh wow i totally did not expect to hear from you! i'm kind of in the middle of trying to figure out whether i have ghostly premonitions from my missing arm now though, so-
JE: oh wait a sec maybe this was it! my arm grows cold when i am about to be messaged by close friends!
JE: okay that sounds stupid even to me.
JE: how are you? i'm sorry i couldn't see you during my leave. jade says hi.

RL: I'm glad you're maintaining your usual level of energy.
JE: rose did you know i'm a cyborg now?
RL: It had not escaped my notice, John.
JE: i'm just saying this to give you context.
JE: hell yes i am full of energy because i am a cyborg gun commander!!!!

RL: Believe me, I'm very pleased you've been able to fulfill your never-abandoned childhood dreams.
JE: you abandon dreams when they're stupid, rose. being a cyborg is never stupid.
RL: I will leave the point unargued. Is Lieutenant Zahhak settling in well?
JE: bam! gotcha rose! i knew it!
RL: Knew what, exactly?
JE: that you're in intel with a security clearance a kilometer wide! i mean why wouldn't they take you, you're kind of a freaking psychological genius. ooh, rose, have you invented the field of xenopsychology yet?
RL: If I had, it would be mostly speculative, as our current pool of available subjects of study and interview is down to zero from a previous two.
RL: As it so happens, however, that isn't the nature of my work. Nor am I working with the Coalition's Intelligence department.
RL: Currently, at any rate.
RL: My more immediate projects have to do with another of my degrees.

JE: oh c'mon rose, don't make me guess, you must have like eleven of those by now.
RL: Thirteen, actually. The ones I am currently using the most have to do with liminal states and quantum fluctuations. But please, don't spread that around.
JE: don't worry about me, rose, i'm as zipped-lips as they come! you guys can put the memory-erasers back in the closet.
RL: The Coalition doesn't possess any kind of memory-erasure technology as far as I'm aware, John.
JE: exactly!!
JE: oh man where was i. equius is fine. i guess even if we have any bigots on the fremont they don't want to mess with the guy who's a hundred and fifty kilos.

RL: You haven't gained that much weight, I hope. I'm given to believe the anabolic steroids required for that much growth would react poorly with your enhancements.
JE: rose! i meant equius jeez. why would i need to deter guys from harassing him? i'm about as big as you compared to him!
JE: uh no offense.
JE: size is by no means an appropriate measure of capability or character, and brute physical strength isn't anything to put on a pedestal!

RL: Your concern for my feelings is touching, John. Rest assured I suffer no pangs of jealousy for your stature. And that I do not value you for mere physical strength either.
RL: I simply find it unlikely you would not immediately spring to his defense should he be harassed. I place a higher probability on your good character, honest emotions, and sterling reputation assisting Zahhak's integration than any physical threat posed by either of you, however.

JE: ugh
RL: This is a problem?
JE: no!
JE: yes.
JE: maybe?
JE: i just don't want everyone to keep making a big deal out of gliese 581 e!

RL: You and Dave managed some truly spectacular feats, including recruiting our only Alternian defectors thus far. And with him necessarily out of the picture, Coalition Communications has rather hyped your part in those events for propaganda purposes
RL: Not that they especially needed to, cyborg hero.

You write and delete at least five responses to that, sending none of them.

RL: Is something wrong, John?
JE: i'm not a hero rose
JE: heroes get people killed

This time the delay is on her end. Wait, the delay is 3 seconds?? Is Rose somewhere else on the Third Fleet?? The only other way you'd have latency that low would be if... you were getting to use the ansible relay on the Samuel Morse! And you're pretty damn certain that is top top priority, like admiral-coordinating-fleet-movement priority. How the hell did you tap into this? You could get court marti-
Oh duh, it was an inbound message.
Rose has ansible priority for personal communications??
And you thought you were doing pretty alright for yourself. Damn.
Oh hey Rose got back to you while you were puzzling things out.

RL: What if we need heroes, John?
JE: heroes are made-up rose
JE: you can't always do the impossible
JE: and if you think you can what happens when you fail?

RL: That's a rather easy question to answer, John. We get back up and try again.
RL: That is, in my opinion, the very essence of the human condition.
RL: We will always try again.

You lie there without a message from either of you for several minutes. You think about words, yours and hers, and the ideas you're trying to pass each other wrapped up in your semi-shared perception of their meanings, and then your mind and training take over, and you start seeing the webs of social interaction and communication, the networks of norms and culture and technology that link and orient groups, the twenty billion human points of light in the darkness of space.
And then, without trying to, you see a cluster of those lights dim, see black and red signals of emptiness and pain shoot out to their connections, spread through the networks, turn everything in their wake to sorrow and fear and hate.
You thump when your back hits the ground, legs still tangled in the gnarled mess of the hammock.

"Do you need a towel?"

You crane your head up. Equius would be the perfect model of military poise in your doorway if he wasn't constantly fidgeting in nervousness.
You push yourself up on your left elbow, and wipe your forehead with your right palm. You're almost soaked in sweat. "I. Uh. Yes. Thanks, Equius."

"You don't normally perspire this much." He says, handing down the absorbent sheet he always carries.

"… bad dreams." You stand up, but lean on the counter to steady yourself.

"I didn't think humans needed soporifics to avoid sleeping terrors."

"We- I don't. Normally. Just something that got away from me."

Equius coughs into his hand. "I have had a taxing shift. Would you… care to destroy some robotics to relax?"

You force back every twitch your face wants to make, actively wrestling your muscles away from a manic grin. Okay, just gotta channel your Inner Dave. "Yeah. That sounds fine."

_

Robots don't have feelings, friends, families. That helps you relax.
You're calm by the time you slump sideways in the hammock in your quarters and violently remember that you're not going to be leading robots. Or fighting them.
The hammock shifts around. You're glad this thing has good weight tolerances, it must be holding two-fifty kilos now.
Equius looks over at you, then adjusts his lenses. "Traditionally we would use a pile. Ehm. This is not a true pale solicitation, of course." He waits a minute, while you say nothing. "This material is pleasant." Another pause. "Bother. I… excuse my impertinence, John. I have been crude."

You slug his shoulder. "Just wait a sec, okay. 'm still processing."

He does, and you almost snicker when you peek a look. Zahhak sits in the hammock, back straight, his boots still solid on the floor, hands on his knees.

"Okay. This is a, a feelings jam, right?"

"… drat. Yes. I do not wish to betray Nepeta but she has in the past suggested that bereft of her moirallegiance, I must seek advice from others."

You pull yourself up a bit and nod at him. "'s alright dude. We're both here for each other on a strictly temporary basis. Otherwise we'd just have Dave challenging you to a duel and your girl clawing my head off and seriously, who needs another Hamlet?"

"This is extremely confusing."

"I'm explaining it bad! Just… you can come to me if you need to talk, and I'll come to you. Deal?"

"Yes. I can work with that arrangement."

You stretch out in the hammock, wondering if you should have booze or pot or just some entactogenics to ease things, then figure that you should probably be sober for your alien buddy anyway. "So how's Engineering duty?"

"Challenging at first, but I believe I've oriented myself to your systems…"

You keep the feelings jam rolling without checking your messages until several long hours later.

RL: I hope you are not required to be a hero, John. Or to make decisions that cost human lives.
RL: But I remain entirely confident in your good nature, good judgement, and good luck.

[COMMUNICATION LINK DISCONNECTED]

Chapter Text

5515 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities


Fremont Shipwide Broadcast:General Quarters. General Quarters..
Fleet Broadcast: Third Fleet will be transiting to 55 Cancri in 12 minutes. All ships prepare for action. Auxiliaries will exit 75 AU from the primary star. Primary fleet elements will exit 35 AU from the primary star, missile boats and emergency vessels 45 AU out. The enemy has occupied our colony on K'inich for 220 days. Third Fleet's mission is to take it back. Fleet Captain Túpac Amaru out.

You could be a ball of nerves. You have every reason to be. This is your first space battle except for being shot down into atmosphere while trying to dodge two lousy missiles. You're going to be providing close air support, and knowing your luck you're going to be boots-on-the-ground at some point. And you know what happens to Alternian conquests.

You're not nervous. You're not angry. You're not really stoic and emotionless either, though.
You're just kind of ready for this all to start.

You're Command/Control Center material now, John boy, with your own console in the C3, in the very same room as Captain Túpac Amaru. You look over to your right and left - Equius at Engines, Lieutenant Nejem at Damage Control, and behind you, Lt. Commander Walters integrating everything you three feed her at Systems Control.
Earth's fucking finest are here. Plus a friend from distant places. He looks good in the uniform. The badge is the Coalition double helix per bend with a variation of the Karkat-designed Free Alternia badge - for the Coalition Alternian Cooperative, a fan of colors in a gradient feeding into a central grey circle. It might not be pure equality, it might not be total unity, but even Equius will admit that wearing it makes him feel… solidarity.

You monitor the sensors, hooked into your console. Immediate readings from visual light, radio, the whole EM spectrum. Of course, they're immediate readings of the system as it was (35 AUs is how many light-seconds... oh hey your console auto-converts them. Good to know) 4.85 hours ago.
Not much help. Your foot thumps rapidly while you wait for Central Data Processing to pass on the readings from the active sensors - namely, whatever FTL-capable probes managed to make transit into the inner system, then transit back to the fleet, without getting shredded by enemy fire or transposed with a solid object by jump errors.

Update.

The inner system is… empty? The probe data is scattered, but most of the hits are from .9-1.2 AU out from 55-Cancri A, and only 450-600 seconds old. And nothing's there.

Well, the planet's there, the super-earth terrestrial orbiting far closer to its star than Mercury, still big enough to hold its own atmosphere despite the heat output from the slightly-darker-than-Sol 55-Cancri A. No wonder they named the colony K'iniche. Great sun god indeed.
Said colony is the problem. No enemy ships - and no EM transmissions of human or even Alternian origin. No Yax K'uk Mo Station with its orbital tether and string of habitats floating in the atmosphere.

Blinking screen. You slide the scan results aside, and see a comm. You're needed in a virtuality.
Okay, you can do this. You note Equius adjusting his lenses, then a slackness to his mouth as he integrates.
Your left eye rotates horizontally ninety degrees, and the new contacts for your optical nerve touch and orient. You're a little dizzy, seeing the real world with one eye and the virtuality meeting with the other, but heck, what's a little discomfort in the pursuit of SCIENCE?
… you think you might've inherited too much of Director English's contribution to your genetic mix, because this is probably a terrible idea and you should be the one talking Jade out of it, not the one doing it.

The virtuality places you at a table whose dimensions IRL would put it larger than any room on the Fremont except maybe the power core room. There is a lot of brass here, and pretty much every captain in Third Fleet has a handful of subordinates in the meeting just behind them. You realize at the same time that you and Equius are the only Fremont crew to advise Captain Túpac Amaru, and that you're also the youngest and lowest-ranked person in this entire meeting.
Oh boy.
Fleet Captain Ricardo Túpac Amaru is only about 1.6 meters and can't be more than 70 kilos, but nobody remembers that until after they've left his presence. The absolute certainty behind his words, the raw scrutiny in his eyes, the swift purpose to his movements - he dominates any conversation he's in by the simple expedient of being there.



"This is a command meeting of the Third Fleet at Operation Hour 347. It will last ten minutes. I will hear all input but ultimate authority remains in my hands. Begin."

"Could our probes be malfunctioning?" Captain Weiss, Gustavus Adolphus Magnus, point defense destroyer. Clinical.


"No chance. Same readings from 17 survivors." Captain Saito, Shaka kaSenzangakhona, ECM/ECCM destroyer. Precise, formal. "Those are the correct results from our sensors."


"There is ambiguity in your statement, Captain Saito. Please clarify." Captain Túpac Amaru.


"It is strictly possible that there is a device or system providing false data to our drones. Such a system would have to be projecting time-synchronized data, and cover an area that not a single one of our probes would have penetrated."


"The Alternian Empire does not have this technology." Equius. Deferential, but assured.


"It does not have it, or you haven't encountered it, Lieutenant?" Captain Ndebele, Lü Bu, high-armament battlecruiser. Skeptical.


"It does not and would not. My information "security clearance" was dictated by my caste, and thus close to the maximum. Additionally, technological stealth is ideologically incompatible with the Empire's strengths and values." Not a single cracked syllable or apology. Equius takes well to being in a chain of command.


"Yes. The supposed psychic powers." Captain Ndebele. Additional skepticism.


"Those "powers" are entirely real, Captain. If Lieutenant Zahhak says the Empire would ignore stealth technology in favor of individual psychic capability, he is telling the truth." Oh shit. That was you. Being entirely too passionate in rebuking a superior officer.


"Time limitations." Fleet Captain Túpac Amaru interjects precisely and calmly before there can be a rebuttal. "Assume probe results are accurate and not due to masking."


"They've destroyed the station, the habitats, and the colony, and moved on." Captain Jackson, Caesar Augustus, missile destroyer. Blunt and almost snarling. "What? Face facts, people."


Equius is rigidly still. You guess the next person to talk has to be… shit.


"Entirely possible, Captain. The Alternian Empire has been expanding by conquest for over six thousand years, and Her Imperial Condescension has been the immortal vanguard of this conquest the entire time." You raise a hand to forestall objections. "The Condesce's immortality, or at least ability to extend her own lifespan, is ingrained everywhere in Alternian culture. I won't present any judgement as to whether she truly possesses this capability, or is "simply" extraordinarily good at rewriting the history of her entire species to imply it. There are four important points here." You raise a finger. "One. Rather than blooming in every direction, Alternian conquests have followed a meandering path forged by the Imperial Condescension flagship. This explains why they haven't encountered humanity before despite our relative proximity." Second finger. "Two, the majority of Alternian forces are engaged either occupying conquests or threatening and counteracting each other." Third finger. "We are the only species with interstellar capabilities the Alternian Empire has ever encountered or attacked." A single, precise breath, then the fourth finger. "Species conquered by the Empire are enslaved if deemed sufficiently useful and subservient, or exterminated and replaced by an Alternian colony if not." You realize you should have said five points, then add the unpleasant conclusion anyway. "Given that the Imperial Condescension was unaware of the rest of humanity when it attacked K'inich, our apparent physical frailty compared to Alternians, and the shared history of insurrection among all humankind in occupied territories, the odds are high for extermination." You think your voice cracked on that last word. Dammit, John, be professional for once! You can't even hold back your emotional response for one briefing?


"Understood, Lieutenant. You are Third Fleet's primary Alternian sociological and psychological expert." The Fleet Captain stares down the other commanders. "Our worst case scenario has been established. We will proceed by it. All due effort will be made to avoid assaulting the planet until the absence of survivors has been confirmed. I take ultimate responsibility for whatever occurs. Third Fleet's point elements will advance on K'iniche at sublight to 0.05 AU, with line elements following to 0.2 AU, and specialty elements taking full spread formation. Auxiliaries will remain at current locations. This briefing is concluded."

Well! You're slightly dizzy from multiprocessing visuals, but the experiment pretty much worked. Aside from the part where you basically lectured a captain in a hostile tone. But hey, look on the bright side. It might be a trap that kills you all, and then this will never go on your record!

You glance over at Equius, whose poise is flawless except for the part where he's rubbing his absorbent sheet over his forehead like he wants to peel the skin off.

"You all right, buddy?"

"Bother. I did not wish to concern you, John. I am… worried about the condition of your colony. And the Fleet Captain's reaction to it."

You decide that needs a reassuring shoulder thump, and step over to do so. "Listen, Túpac Amaru is the best damn captain we could have, and he's got fleet command. He's got your back, don't worry."

"Thank you, John." He nods once, adjusts his lenses, and the absorbent sheet goes back in his pocket.

You think maybe you could use one yourself now.

 

5158 hours after the attack on K'iniche colony
The fleet has arrived at the Fleet Captain's designated coordinates.
No enemy action.


Fremont Shipwide Broadcast: Assault Ships 1, 3, 7, and 9 will launch for K'inich colony landing coordinates. Shipboard personnel prepare for action. Captain Túpac Amaru out.

All weapon status is in the green. At least, all of yours. Missiles are Lieutenant Forrest's responsibility over at ECM/ECCM, for some reason.
No targets.
"Equius."

"Yes?"

"What the fuck is down there?"

"Professional language, please, John. What do you mean?"

"If they killed everyone, there should be an Empire settlement taking advantage of our infrastructure and putting out its own EM signals. If there are humans colonists left alive… the only way they wouldn't be broadcasting is if they didn't know we were here or didn't have the ability to do so."

"Or if they were coerced?"

"That's possible… but K'inich had 150,000 people. There'd have to be someone crazy, desperate, or brave enough to broadcast despite the consequences, if anyone was alive."

"John. I… fudge. My apologies. I do not mean to bring offense, but…"

You turn and grab his hand, gripping it in a firm Buddy Grip. "Equius, as a fellow soldier and your temporary moirail replacement, I'm not gonna get pissed, okay?"

"I- thank you. If the colonists have lived until now, and if the occupation forces were astute enough observers, they would have discovered your species' cultural weakness. Your families."

You close your eyes for just a moment, but it doesn't help. You still see the vast network of humanity, the extinguishing of a single population spreading darkness and blood throughout the species.

"You think they'd use them as hostages."

"If the commander of the occupying forces understood the strength of your bonds? Yes. Without a doubt."

You don't have to make the decision. That's the Fleet Captain's job. You don't have to decide which of your people you save and which you kill. You do have to decide whether to tell him.
A career military man (if that even exists, your species has had a military for all of 0.6 years now) would do it instantly, that's how it works.
You? You need to punish yourself. You need to take responsibility for deaths you cause, and better directly than indirectly. You need to think this over.

You need to trust.

"Commlink to Captain, urgent priority."

Within thirty seconds, he's responded. "Lieutenant?"

"Sir, I've conferred with Lt. Zahhak. We believe that an intelligent enemy commander may be keeping human survivors from communicating with us by using family ties as threats."

"What is the probability of their being human survivors, Lieutenant? Your assessment of likely genocide seemed sound."

"I'm not sure, sir. It's difficult to second-guess an absolute dictatorship, but if the Condesce discovered our real numbers and capabilities before ordering a massacre, they might be occupying our colony instead. The alternative would be troll settlers, but they'd be sending up EM emissions."

"What about the station and atmospheric habitats, Lieutenant?"

"I don't know, sir. It's possible they were dismantled for occupation purposes, or to study them."

"Probabilities, Lieutenant: are our people alive down there?"

"Forty percent, sir." You don't know where that number came from, but it feels right. Balancing everything, trying to judge and assess… it fits the other system that won't leave your mind, a curled snake of tyrian purple whose every segment flexes with spines.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Your assessment will be considered."

"Yessir. Gunnery is fully ready. Egbert out."

 

"CONTACT!"

You toss every single sensor scan up on your console. Big IR spike, huge gamma ray burst, and the visual, all a mere two seconds old.

A dozen ships half the size of Earthfleet destroyers ripping up from atmosphere, at acceleration that should be hurting bad if they don't have compensators. They're long thin things with massive engines at the back and swooping prows, like jet bikes with eagle's heads.

"Cavalreapers," you and Equius say simultaneously. You bark out an order to your gunnery crews. "Switch AP with Prox/Ex in 1 and 6, ASAP!"

They're already escaping the atmosphere when the comm system blares the alert.


Close contact warning. Close contact warning.
Enemy ships identified as Cavalreaper vessels designed for ramming and boarding. Fleet prepare for personnel combat. Fleet Captain out.

Personal Comm: "Lt. Egbert, see that as few of those touch our hull as is possible."

"Yessir." You spin your targeting matrices, tracking probable courses and sending orders to spray the target areas with as many rounds as we can. The field turrets you're saving. They're more accurate at range than the mass drivers, true, but the Cavalreapers are maneuverable, and popping out turrets when they get in point blank range is going to be one mean surprise.

"Shit shit, Cavalreapers are… help me out here Equius."

"Mostly mud- brown-blooded psychics with great beast packs. Their commanders will be higher blooded and stronger."

"Not as strong as you, though."

"No." That was really hesitant for Equius. Oh. Duh.

You lean over and clap him on the shoulder. "I promised, dude. Won't let you get Worfed."

Your data updates as the Cavalreaper ships get closer. The kinetic storm of proximity-explosive rounds hammers their hulls, but they have enough frontal armor to weather that. Man, if only you had the damn missile controls you would whip up one wicked trick. Oh well. The shaped charge rounds don't give a damn about the reflective lines of the Cavalreapers, and you see atmosphere venting on 2- 3- 4 of them. Then BAM, one of the Prox/Ex rounds slips in through a charge-torn hull, and the fore of that Cavalreaper turns into a gnarled wreck from the inside-out.

Fire from the rest of the fleet is taking effect, but these bastards are fast, and the Fremont is the point ship for the entire formation. You still have three intact Cavalreaper ships all ready to tear into you.

Surprise time. You manual-target the field turrets (Luke. Use the Force), going for the center of mass - you know most of the boarders are going to be directly behind the head armor, but you're not trying to take them out directly.
Hits and...
Effect! The visuals would blind you if your console didn't have an auto-cap limit. You got one of the bastards right in the power core, and the second jinked enough that you hit the maneuvering engines. He's going to be lucky to side-scrape you.

That leaves one and you are
out
of
time.


Pulsing inertial compensators. Obtain a firm grip.

You maglock your boots, turn your suit helmet on, and grab your longarm, a plasma projector that is going to be entirely worth the problems hauling its bulky ass around has caused.
Equius does the same, although he's sticking to the high-energy laser emitters in the suit gauntlets. And his fists.
You full intend to club the crap out of any troll that tries to close with you. Jade made you this gun, and she knows you. It is really, really, really fucking sturdy.

Impact.

Chapter Text

The Dragon-class is built along a central axis, a fat octagonal column capped at the front by a wide reflective diamond-shaped shield of armor and expendable sensors. The column grows in width towards its back, and is attached at the rear half to a sextet of back-sloping wings, on which the missile launchers are spread, and which are capped by your railguns, with the power core buried in the column near the main engine, and the inertial compensators interlaced between the wings. The field turrets are spread among the front half of the column, with the foremost set into the shield.
The surviving Cavalreaper ship's head punches right through the middle of your shield and slams into the column at a close angle.
The ship shudders, but everyone you can see is maglocked to the deck or strapped into a chair. The C3 is almost exactly in the middle of the ship, and what sensors you have left are telling you the Cavalreapers stopped a fair hundred meters short of you.
You're a good officer and a responsible guy, dammit, so you snap out orders to your gunnery crews before abandoning your post. "Fire at will, targets of opportunity. Limit potentially reflective friendly-fire to 10% risk at most. Fight to survive, lockout gun controls before abandoning stations."
You slide the plasma projector off your back, a fat, tall, rounded gun with a curving overbite that Jade said she made to match your buck teeth. Considering your gene-sibling (78% similarity) got the same dental features, you took that good-naturedly. Right. This bastard's going to roast anything organic that gets in its way, but it won't dump enough heat to ruin the decks or hull. You'll just try really hard not to hit sensistive electronics.
You nod at Equius, whose suit is the same monochrome pattern as yours, save for a bright blue right shoulder.

JE: let's stick together, see if we can't spearhead our way to their hull. between you and me i think we can figure out a way to get them to shove off.
EZ: =--- Agreed. It ill behooves us to let them deploy more forces to our ship.

You're both experienced spacefarers, which means your natural turn of speed as Big Motherfuckers is multiplied by being in a microgravity environment with numerous handholds and push-off points.
You gather Ensign Hassan (Damage Control), Lieutenant J.G. Watkins (Sensors), and three crewmen from Systems Maintenance you don't know into your network/squad along the way, before your first engagement.

There's still atmosphere in this area, so your first alert is the baying of the hounds freakishly humanlike moans and wails of the hatebeasts.

EZ: =--- They will strike low with heavy head armor. Aim for the rear or underside.

They are upon you. Between dogs and lizards, with whitish-grey skin a few shades lighter than trolls, scaled and sporting a monster skull protrusion that would make decapitation a major difficulty.
You fry the first one's face off.
This does not actually stop it. Blinded by exploding eyeballs and scent-deprived, it continues loping forward more or less straight, crashing into you just when you get a second shot off that burns away most of the muscle on its left shoulder.
You jam your gun sideways into its maw, squirming to keep it there, and jab up with your left hand.
Okay, so it looks human. And the nervous system is almost an exact duplicate with the ability to turn signals off. But your new arm's interior isn't meat, and it's covered in something that shares some properties of human skin and has some others entirely different.
That's the long explanation.
The short explanation is you are a fucking cyborg and you dig your hand into this animal's gut and rip out its vascular pumping organ.
You kick it aside and reassess. Five of six beasts down, Watkins firing his wrist-lasers haphazardly as he tries to get its teeth out of his arm, two crewman bleeding out. Two of the other kills are Equius's, and he drops the broken-necked bodies, then rips the last off Watkins (taking a good bit of Watkins' shoulder with it), and snaps its spine over his knee.

EZ: =--- Their handlers will be in close pro%imity.
JE: take cover, suppressing fire!
Watkins: Sir, I don't think I can make it.
JE: pull back with the crewmen, watkins! tag right through hydroponics and go for medbay 4!
Watkins: Best of hunting, sir.

You're set up behind walls and furniture and a single deck plate you and Equius managed to pull up between you when the Cavalreapers arrive.

Trolls are conquerers. They have been for thousands upon thousands of years. They are physically strong, psychically gifted, bloodthirsty, and every single one of them is a trained warrior who has killed before.

Humans are conquerers. You have been for thousands upon thousands of years - too busy conquering each other to worry about the stars. You're not even exceptionally physically capable by the standards of your own planet, and you lack any kind of psychic ability. All you have from millions of years of evolution are nicely flexible tool-using hands, and nicely flexible concept-grasping minds. And every single person on this ship is a trained soldier, very very used to coordinating actions, and trained to redirect every scrap of empathy they might have for their opponents to their squadmates.

It is brief, and ugly. The six Cavalreapers have shoulder-mounted longarms that seem to double as lances and fire a high-power microwave beam. They split up, picking their own targets for better glory. You and Equius get two each due to size.
Your plasma projector keeps Hassan and Crewman Mankiller's duelists suppressed behind cover, and the quartet pressing you and Equius barely have time for surprise before your flankers are hitting them from behind. Equius jams his fist through one helmet, then fires the laser. You vault your cover, firing from the hip as you do so, and slag the leg armor on one of the suppressed enemies. The other pops up, and his lance blast goes clean through Mankiller's gut. Hassan gets close enough to empty his automatic shotgun into the Cavalreaper's chest at point blank, shredding armor along with flesh, stirring up a blood metal storm in the micro-g.
The two Cavalreapers who thought they were engaging you have spun around now, but they're right between you and Equius. You fire twice, he fires three times, and they go down without a single splash on each other.

You slap medipatches on Mankiller and tell her to lie there until she feels strong enough to fall back.

JE: next up, best guess?
EZ: =--- The Squadjudicator. B100b100d, probabl-

That's when the next section's bulkhead goes flying across the room, clipping Hassan and knocking him down.

No offense to Equius, and Karkat, who are both your friends and obvious have the right to call themselves whatever their own cultural name for themselves is.
That is a fucking TROLL.
Easily wider than tall, with a massive head lowslung between two even more massive shoulders, horns curving down and jutting out like tusks, and oh, did you mention he's four meters tall and covered in black spiked armor?

EZ: =--- What ABOMINATION is this grotes%uery?
JE: dunno
JE: let's kill it

Before either of you can raise a weapon, the troll giant (Mental Rose: Redundant to the original mythos, John.) is a blur, and then everything is.
You piece things back together. Head dizzy. Faceplate holed. Back aching. Cold wall. Jesus H. Fucking Christ, he threw you ten meters with one punch.
God damn you know the big:slow idea is bullshit but how the fuck was this thing moving that fast? You could barely track it with your bionic eye.
It's just fucking standing there now… facing Equius… oh shit. Equius, who used electrostimulus nerve therapy to work on his restraint until he wasn't breaking everything he touched, then spent week with a machine Doc Harley built himself, basically a goddamn trash compactor for a weight machine - and at the end of a month and a half he broke that too. Equius, who is probably the flat-out most physically dangerous guy you know, including Dave. Everything logical in you says he should be able to take this mutant troll down. Everything genre savvy (shut up mental Rose reality can to be categorized into dramatic genres) in you says otherwise.

There is a blur and a wind through the holes in your faceplate, from this thing's damn air displacement.
And Equius hits the wall harder than you, with three deep punctures in his chestplate leaking blue blood.

The gigantic troll turns back to you and lowers his horn-tusk-things.

You have two warring thoughts occupying your entire mind right now. One: I'm going to fucking die. Two: Oh my god I am such a shitty friend I let him get Worfed.

A roar louder than any music you have ever heard Dave play, a primal sound of outrage at the same volume that steering a damaged ship through planetary atmosphere produced.

Equius slams into the brute, eyes practically glowing, wraps his arms around its waist, and jumps. Its skull slams into the deck plating above you, and the skull dents first. With the titan off-balance and the microgravity slowly pulling them down, he ascends its form. Standing on its chest, he grabs the collar of its armor with one hand to stay attached, and starts punching with the other.
"YOU."
WHAM.
"WILL."
CRUNCH.
"NOT."
SKRRRNCH.
"HURT."
SPLCH.
"MY."
SQUELCH.
"SERVICE."
SPLORCH.
"RECORD!"
SNAP.

You cannot hope to beat Equius Zahhak in a professionalism-off. He is simply the most professional there is.

You let your automated systems pump you full of the happy pain relief drugs, slap some clear repair paste on your faceplate, and walk over to your indigo-drenched companion. One look at Hassan tells you he isn't getting back up, and you mutter a quiet commendation for his service to humanity.

JE: is this a problem for you equius?
JE: are you feeling regretful for the projexecutioner on gliese?
JE: because,
JE: you shouldn't.
JE: i mean not for blood reasons.

EZ: =--- No.
EZ: =--- No, John, I do not regret either of the indigo lives I have ended.
EZ: =--- I have simply conc100ded I do not care about b100d color any mare.
EZ: =--- Mutants can be noble, like Vantas.
EZ: =--- And now I see highb100ds can be frea% in body as well as mind.
EZ: =--- Can be made frea%.
EZ: =--- We were not created unpo100ted.
EZ: =--- We were just given a different taint.
EZ: =--- John.
EZ: =--- Is it sane to wish to find the creator of my species.
EZ: =--- And annihilate him?

JE: probably. he's gotta be a real fucker. ours too.
JE: it gets hard to do when "he" is a million-year process of genetic selection for environment-specific beneficial traits, as well as random mutation.

EZ: =--- Disi100sioning. I will saddle for destroying this Cavalreaper vessel.
JE: damn straight. let's go kick some ass!

In one sense, the fighting is precise. You're always recording half your vision, always using every single skill and tool you have, always running through your training and modifying what you have to as you fight deathbeasts, brownblood beastmasters, yellowblood psionics, jadeblood skirmisher, blueblood heavy gunners and swordsmasters.
In another sense, it all blurs together. Someone that isn't John Egbert, father's son, Nanna's favorite, vid-junkie, space explorer, wanna-be hero.
Someone willing to push the emotional impact back where John is, to wipe brown and yellow and blue and jade off his armor without thinking about what it is.

That someone retreats, and John comes back out, when you and Equius come to a sharp-beaked prow jammed through several decks.

JE: we need force. significant force to overcome inertia. the surviving turrets got his engines, they have an angle on the power core but i want to hold off on that until we are really really far away.
EZ: =--- A perple%ing difficulty. At least... 130 kilotonnes?
JE: dammit, left my nukes in my other suit. thoughts?
EZ: =--- Um. Darn.
JE: equius?
EZ: =--- I have devised a method for turning the power systems in these suits into a critical mass. E%tremely theoretically of course.
JE: dude don't be embarrassed by that. i don't know a single engineer that doesn't spend most of their time figuring out how to blow things up.
JE: got a better idea for source material though.

You look at the gathered bodies behind you and you are working on a fucking project goddamit you are not going to have any emotional response to them.

JE: start grabbing lances.

Getting in isn't as easy as just talking about it, of course. But you know what the Cavalreaper shipboard defense systems are? Robotic turrets.
You and Equius smash and shoot the everloving fuck out of them completely guilt-free. You're running on a little buzz by the time Equius stops you, in what looks to be empty crew quarters. You toss the man-sized pile of power cores - from Cavalreaper lances, fallen Earthfleet trooper armor, even nonessential independent-powered systems you passed on your way through the Fremont (mostly testing chambers and weapon labs).

EZ: =--- Now we need a catalyst.
JE: done and done.

You flip your comm open. "Lieutenant Egbert to gunnery, do I have a functional field turret with line-of-fire to my current location."
"Affirm that sir, Turret 11 has a lock. Should take 6-7 seconds to bore through the armor, though."
"Good. Start firing right here in… 120 seconds."

JE: race you?

 

You're actually two decks away from the hull breach of the Cavalreaper ship when the turret gets through the armor, having both put your size and micrograv skills to work again, achieving even faster acceleration and average velocity through corridors that everyone's already been killed in.
You can still feel the detonation. You check external sensors - yup, there's the majority of the Cavalreaper ship drifting away, and right past it are the assault shuttles crammed with Earthfleet ground troops, who really need better engines if they don't want to miss half the fights.

"Lieutenant Egbert. Is that your nuclear explosion 700 meters off my ship?"

"Yes, Captain. Lieutenant Zahhak was more instrumental in the idea and execution than I was; however."

"Then I would like to praise both your skills. Lieutenant Nejem is in the infirmary, and Lt. Commander Walters is dead. Lieutenant Zahhak, you are field promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Systems Control. I want all available effort on damage control, once the ship is certified clear."

"Understood, Captain," Equius rumbles. "I will begin inspection of damage at the fore while participating in ship clearing."

"Volunteer to assist him, sir."

"Denied, Lieutenant. You are breveted to Commander for the duration of this mission. XO Wu is dead. You are now second-in-command of the Fremont."

No no NO NO DON'T MAKE ME DO THIS"Sir! Yes, sir!"

"Mr. Egbert, sensors/comm report no contact from survivors on the Gustavus Adolphus Magnus, which was hit broadside by a Cavalreaper ship. Direct gunnery to detonate the Magnus's core."

FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK.

You're just following ord- oh fuck off that hasn't been accepted for 400 years.

He's right. A PD destroyer has a crew of about 220. Against 350 Cavalreapers, over a thousand hatebeasts, those giant brutes of commanders, and, god forbid, one of those nightmare indigo mutants?

They're already dead. You're just doing your duty. It's an unconscionable risk to let the Alternians take the ship.

Just fucking do it, Egbert!

Head Dave is right. "All turrets fire on these coordinates on the Gustavus Adolphus Magnus and these coordinates on the Cavalreaper engaged with it," you broadcast on all the gunnery frequencies, spilling out your best-guess numbers.
The field emitter turrets get their payload there first, and you can see venting core hydrogen before the mass driver rounds arrive… including two Special Order shots: Class C7: Nuclear Fusion Round.

Then, the white light, and…

 

The C3 feels almost empty. Ensigns and junior lieutenants man the functional, necessary consoles. Third Fleet has lost two destroyers, bringing you down from 9 to 7, 14 total ships including the auxiliaries. And it still sits in front of you.

K'inich.

"Captain on deck!"

"At ease, Commander Egbert. Status?"

"Repairs are completed to battle-ready standards," Equius reports. "Armor resilience is likely to be 10-15% degraded at repaired areas."

"93% of our turrets and missile launchers are functional. Crew casualties were 35 deaths, 88 wounded, 36 of whom have returned to active duty," you read off your display.

"Take us into orbit. Prepare the assault shuttles again. This time, we will not be delayed by their attack." Every time the Fleet Captain speaks, you swear you feel thirteen and 1.5 meters again.

You stare at the display like it's going to change, or go away. No luck.

K'inich awaits.

Chapter Text

"First wave assault shuttles from Fremont, Lü Bu, and Cha-O-Ha are away." You've been at the Executive Officer's station for two hours now and you are… not even remotely overwhelmed. You can handle this. You're not underwhelmed, either, it's complex enough to focus on. You're just sort of… whelmed? Is that a word? You should look up what the hell it means if it is.

"Good. XO, I want you on the second wave of shuttles. You're one of our best troopers and the most qualified person I have to figure out what's happened on that planet. Lieutenant Lebronski will have 2IC duties until your return." Fleet Captain Túpac Amaru is on the Samuel Morse, ensuring his report to Earthfleet Offensive Command has as few possible leaks as he can.

"Captain, Lt. Commander Zahhak-"

"Is a miracle worker with mechanics, and I want no other officer in charge of my repair crews for the ret of my service." The humor in the Captain's voice is a rare treat. "In addition, I would prefer not to prosecute anyone for assaulting a superior officer, if K'inich is as bad as we feared, and the troops are looking for anyone with grey skin to take it out on."

Dammit, you shoulda picked up on that one. "Affirmative, sir. I'll scout the colony and relay reports."

"You'll do a little more than that, Commander. Once you're on the ground, you have commanding authority over all of Third Fleet's troops."

What What. "What. Sir."

"I have seen every log from your mission on Gliese 581, Commander Egbert. You are an exceptional small unit tactician and an inspiring leader in the absolute worst of circumstances."

Why can't people ever bring up the stuff you're horrified of but can deal with? You could definitely stand to have your Nanna tell Earthfleet Stellar Command about the time you lit your pants on fire while trying to cook, at age sixteen. You would so very much rather have that than hear one more word about Gliese 581. "Sir, 1300 troops aren't exactly a small unit…"

"That's why you have subordinates, Commander. Delegate. And listen to your sergeant major. Enlisted troops get mystic training when they get that high."

"I, uh. Understood, sir. Keep a lantern burning for us."

"You'll be back, Commander. If nothing else, the Offcom War Board will drag you out of your grave to determine if you deserve my field promotion."

With that thought in mind, you start running. Equius pings you a question, gets a brief overview, you dump everything relevant to Lebronski, and hurl yourself off the top deck of the shuttle bay. Landing is easy in microgravity when you're trained for it, and when your legs have the tensile strength of cast iron.

A couple of the troops loading up give you startled glances, but even a ship as big as the Fremont can't leave a blue-eyes cyborg giant anonymous for long, and you get salutes or weary, respectful nods from most of them.

You go for the two stealth shuttles (Low Profile Atmospheric Strike Craft. Yeah thanks Head - wait, shit. That was Head Commander John Egbert. Why do you have a Head Commander John Egbert already? You very much do not need this). They're skinny and sharp and sneaky, although since they made the first run without hostile contact you guess there is not all too much to be sneaky about. Most importantly, they're fast.

If you have to command a damn army, you're going to do it as soon as you possibly can.
You duck into the cockpit as soon as you can press through the other advance troops - who, in the second wave, are primarily snipers and techies. You don't bother strapping in, just maglock your boots and gloves to the deck and pilots' chairs. "Hey guys. Chu, nice work patching up the section eight maneuvering thrusters. Cranston, I'm sorry about Bambang. I know you guys are close, and he's one of the best gunner's mates I've ever seen. I hope he pulls through."

Earthfleet is a unified and singular military force. There is no army, no navy, no air/space force, and definitely no marines. Fleet gets around the issue of trolls loving personnel battle, and the occasional legitimate need to fight them sentient-to-sentient instead of with orbital bombardments, by overcrewing every ship and crosstraining every crewmember. The Fremont can take anywhere from 40-60% casualties, depending on the luck of the living, without losing any substantial efficiency. If the right people are still around, it can operate at around 80% effectiveness with 80% casualties. The smaller ships tend to have wider variance in their casualty:functionality ratios, but every single ship in Earthfleet is set up like this. Trolls may be warriors, but you wonder how ready they are for the two billion educated, trained, disciplined human soldiers now under Earthfleet command.

The most fortunate part of Earthfleet's decidedly untraditional org chart is that you're quite likely to know however many of the Fremont's 3500 personnel are down on K'inich through your regular duties (Oh hey, you're the XO, you can actually check the numbers now. Send network request… 612. You guys are providing the lion's share of the boots on the ground, either because you're the flagship, or… let's send another network request… Jesus. Casualty rates on the other two battlecruisers… yikes). Well. Hopefully your crewmembers down there are the ones who know you as a competent jokester, and not just as a joke.

The flight down is brief, and if the LPASCs didn't travel at just a few km/h under the speed of sound in whatever medium they're in, you'd be in a screaming, booming meteor from hell (from the outside, anyway. It's pretty comfortable and quiet in here). You get your first personal look at K'inich, though

A deep atmosphere, swirling with gaseous clouds even in the stratosphere, streaking upwards and out as they take in 55 Cancri A's output and heat up enough to have their motion counteract K'inich's gravity. The planetary winds that sweep these escaping gasses around towards the dark side, where they sink back into the atmosphere, gives the planetary gas image a teardrop shape. Eventually you burst through, and see the land.

Billions of years of rapid, chaotic tectonic movement in K'inich's younger eras resulted in an everpresent landscape pattern - patches of flatland penned in by the hundreds of criss-crossing jagged mountain ranges. The flatland soil has erratic drainage, and most of the low-altitude areas are swampy at best. The dense, humid inner atmosphere has grown thick, gnarled rain forests across a massive stretch of altitudes, with some of the native plants digging in dozens of kilometers above the seafloor. These are the areas settled by K'inich's colonists, towns whose sprawl resembles those of old Earth townships, only tilted a good 45 degrees.l

The LPASC cuts velocity and hovers over LZ Beta. The remains of the landing platforms of Copán, the planetary capital. And the remains of most of Copán around it, which, to your destruction-trained eye, look to have been flattened, then burned. "Log note: looks like we found where the Cavalreapers took off from. I- I hope there wasn't anyone inside at- at-. Strike last statement." You're really glad nobody outside your helmet heard that.

The second wave of Third Fleet's forces is deploying in Copán's intact zones, going door-to-door. You hope you stressed enough on your descent broadcast that human survivors are far, far more likely than troll ambushers. You're well aware any crewmember from a ship that just got boarded is going to be quicker on the trigger than they should in a civilian environment.


"Egbert to K'inich Ground Forces, anything to report?"

"Bodies, Commander." Lieutenant Taybors, Fremont sensors/comms tech. Steady, but a hint of past shakiness in her voice. "Thirty two, all adults (thank the stars). All dead by stabbing, or microwave beams. Stacked in a pile 500 meters below the town hall."

"Standard for troll culture. They don't bury their own dead. Force Three, what's the tech looking like?"

"Stripped down, sir. Every door we've passed has had its access panel removed or destroyed, and is forced open." Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Armistead, Cha-O-Ha. Analytical, deep in thought. "Interior electronics are erratically intact. Refrigeration units dismantled in some cases, cooking units in others. No comm sets intact. A few destroyed, most missing. Entertainment systems have been universally intact and functional thusfar - albeit, unpowered. Lighting systems also unpowered."

"Looks like the primary power source was transmitted solar conversion on Yax K'uk Mo. Force Six, I want you to detour to the Auxiliary Power Plant for Copán and Bàak'. Zephyr, Squall, Gale, and Typhoon, divert to transport." You look over the city again from the cockpit of your LPASC, the Gust. "Force Nine, you're with me. We're going to check the undercity maintenance and sewers. Boots on, boys and girls."

The moderate about of griping is really pretty relaxing. You mean, no soldier armed with a gun that's accurate out to a couple kilometers is ever going to be happy going into an enclosed space looking for members of a muscle-bound species that loves stabbing things. And really, you'd be more concerned if there were no complaints, they're soldiers. Not that anyone's voicing any of them to you, but wow, Commander gets you access to just about any kind of data whatsoever associated with anyone under your command. You could read peoples' private logs if you felt like it. You're not going to, owing to rudeness, respect for privacy, and having incredibly more important things to do right now, but you do remind yourself to be circumspect in your own future logs.

"Contact!" The flagged keyword gives you picture and sound from a Crewmember Lingani. Aside from his voice, the external audio pickup is giving you a confused array of shouts and cries, and the video is a blur of moving humans - and a motionless armored figure, maybe short enough to just be a tall human, except for the massive cranial protrusions worthy of a Texas longhorn, which Lingani is aiming his rifle directly between.

"HOLD FIRE. DIRECT ORDER FROM COMMANDING OFFICER, HOLD FIRE," you roar into your mic, and slam into motion. K'inich is a whopping 1.4 g, but if there was ever a time to be a giant guy with jogger's legs in a power-assist suit, it's now.

You make it on-scene in 128 seconds. When you get there, Lingani's grip isn't trembling, but your command feedback from his suit tells you that's only because it's holding him steady. The Alternian hasn't moved, and the civilians have picked their own places to freeze - two women and a man, each holding an infant, and a dozen toddlers and kids grabbing onto the troll's legs.

God, this is so textbook script-writing social-context obvious. You grab Lingani's gun yourself and push it down, then pull off your helmet. 

The adults just seem to deflate when they see a human face, the tension dripping away. "We have survivors, three adults, fifteen minors. Medteam two to my coordinates," you comm out loud, to reassure everyone. Then you take a step towards the troll.

This elicits a shrieking and wailing from the children which is mostly incoherent, but you mash it together into something resembling "Don' hurt Tavwos!"

The mechanical voice from the troll's helm says a slow, thickly-accented, "No… to shoot?"

«Hello,» you say calmly in your best Alternian. «Name, rank, and I don't suppose you get serial numbers do you? And please remove your helmet.»

«I, uh, don't know what you mean about that. I'm T-Tavros Nitram. Cavalreaper. I uh, I'm not a Brigadefiler anymore though, I think.» He peels back his helm, the weird organic film-kind that the Alternians use, revealing a seriously volume of hair in a sort of psychobilly mohawk, and eyes brown from iris to edge.

Well now. That's a high rank for a troll who isn't going down fighting, a high rank for a brown-blood to ever earn, and a high rank for him to somehow lose without being culled.

«Commander John Egbert, Earthfleet. How did you get thrown down the metaphorical runged climbing device, Brigadefiler?»

«I didn't want to do it, so I told my command not to. But only uh, about half of them listened, and only, um, half of those agreed to take the humans to safe places.»

«Didn't want to do what?» He glances down, to where your hand rests casually on the pommel of the sidearm maglocked to your hip. You chose your tone to elicit that exact reaction. He looks like a giant ball of nerves, but even so he's dancing around this too much.

«Our orders were, to um, stop the swamp fighters, by er, keeping the grublings and matesprits locked up.» Your and Equius's theory was right. Oh god you hope it wasn't as right as you think it is…

«Locked up where?»

He swallows loudly, and you think about pity, and then you think about command. About what you're willing to order and what you're willing to obey. You turn on the light in your left eye socket. You don't activate any of the focusing mechanisms, so it's just a nebulous unnatural glow surrounding your eye. Nitram cringes. «U-under the ship engines.»

You rip his fucking throat out, crunching the pathetically soft organic flesh in your grip, kick his body to the ground, send out a general order to shoot any Alternian on sight, with thermal weapons, and to send you the video of every single one of them burning like-

"What's he saying, Commander?" Lingani has his gun lowered, but not put away. You cross-reference his personnel file. His brother-in-law's sister lived on K'inich.

"He's saying he ordered everyone under his command to save every human they could." You hear the incoming medical shuttles. "Get the civilians out to the shuttles. Gently."

"I can't just leave you alone with him, sir!"

You laugh. You just can't help it. "Crewmember, my college boyfriend would eat this guy for supper, and I was kicking his ass before becoming a cyborg. I have killed more trolls hand-to-hand than anyone my security clearance lets me know about. If I have to take him down, I will be more relaxed knowing I don't have to worry about bumping into you." That gets Lingani out of your way without any more objections. From you, anyway. A couple of the younger kids won't be pried off the troll until you promise you won't hurt him.

"Broadcast, Force Nine, relay, all Forces. Rules of Engagement for this operation have changed. Do not assault or demand surrender from unarmed Alternians who make no hostile moves. I will deal with every one we find myself." You turn back to the confused/fearful ex-Brigadefiler. «How many of them?»

«A-all of them in this megablock.» Copán had a population of 73,000.

«And how many humans did you take to safe places?»

«I-I don't, sixty Cavalreapers, ten or fifteen humans each? But, uh, there was an indigo trying to stop us. He killed, a few of my warriors, and, um, many humans. Five hundred left, maybe? Mostly wrigglers and larvae.»

«The indigo. Where?»

«I, uh, the fliers, and I can commune with beasts,» he trails off. You index. Bolon Dzacab - lightning-axes, flying pseudoreptilians with bioelectric capabilities. Oh, and they're eight to ten meters long. Okay, you can see some of those killing an indigo-blood.

«Why? Earning this rank, with your blood? Can't have been easy. Why throw it away for human wrigglers?» Your words are cold because doubt has to come before trust, cynicism before hope.

He hangs his head, and his response is quiet. «I don't like killing. I didn't want to kill anyone. That's why they didn't listen to me. I-I'm weak.»

You take a step forward and force his head up by the horn. You try to do it nicely, but you're not familiar enough for a chin-nudge, and you need this guy to look you in the eye. «Earthfleet recognizes two kinds of trolls. The enemy, the Empire. And Free Alternia. Our allies in trying to fix this whole fucking mess without seeing anyone's species subjugated or eradicated. As far as I'm concerned, you're already in the second group.»

«I, um, thank you, but I don't think I can, stop the Alternian Empire, I'll just die, later instead of sooner.» You blink, a little confused, before you see what he's getting at.

«That won't be an issue. I need you and every other friendly troll I can find, except maybe Karkat, to keep your species safe. I hope you're good at convincing people you're harmless.»

«I could maybe, do that, yeah. Did you say Karkat? He's alive?»

You tilt your head towards the maintenance hatch, think for a moment, then slip out your thermal pistol (High Intensity LASER projector. Yeah, yeah, Head Commander You) and cut horn-holes in it. «The one and only. It's going to take a while to find everyone, contact the resistance, and bring you all up to the fleet. Let me fill you in on what the Condesce's brought down on you…»

Chapter Text

Your knowledge of movie scripts tells you every story has a main cast of maybe 10-20, and everyone else is just a side character Complex Systems Analysis tells you that social networks link people closer than they would expect, so it's not a huge surprise.

Still, when the first reactions of the meeting between the second and third members of Free Alternia are bending over to examine the external leg support struts with a grumbled «What have you been doing to my work this time, Nitram?» and a brown-flushed face mumbling «Uh, hi, Equius, I heard you were, uh, dead,», you're looking at a 1 on the Bacon Scale of Separation, which is pretty damn rare.

«Given that nobody's even thinking the words traitor, coward, or lowblood, I think this is going well!» you decide, arms crossed but smiling. «Plus I get to skip introductions, and I'm terrible with those.»

Equius taps a finger against the leg struts that Tavros said compensate for a childhood accident, then stands up. «I am… glad you chose to rebel, Nitram. I would have been very, excuse me, frightfully upset had you been on the assault ship.»

«Um, w-why's that, Equius?» You think Tavros might kind of have a habit of asking questions he already knows the answers to. Equius's exosuit gauntlets broke some time during your shipboard fighting, and his knuckles are still stained slightly brown and blue with blood.

«He's been trying to avoid killing friends or letting them die,» you answer anyway. «Guilt overwhelms his antiperspirant.»

«That isn't a very good joke, Commander,» Equius comments, wiping off his hands with his absorbent sheet. He gets most of the grease, but only a little of the dried blood. "What is the situation on K'inich?" That flawlessness always surprises you a little, but you guess learning how to pronounce English and how to pronounce Mayan languages can't really be all that different as an alien.

You also figure he switched to English for a reason. "Bad. You were right about the hostages. And they killed about 40% of the colony's population with the engine heat when they launched against us. Around 20,000 people are still missing - a few entire villages to the last person, and I think it's likely they were taken elsewhere in the Empire for… I don't need to say, do I."

"No." The multitool in his hand snaps in half, causing Tavros to jump.

"Compared to what you've told me about the usual invasions, it was almost light. Someone's alive at least. But the survivors - mostly guerrilla fighters and isolated micro-villagers - lost a lot of kin. Most of the hostages were children or elders. There were around a thousand executions to try and quell insurrection even before we arrived. Bottom line, about 65,000 survivors. About 15,000 children dead."

"And Nitram?"

You let out a long, weary sigh you only feel comfortable doing in front of Equius (and the guy who doesn't understand the language you're speaking). "He's a pretty- no, he's unusually so for a human, but he has to be freakishly timid for a troll, right?"

"That is how I remember him. If he was a Brigadefiler of the Cavalreapers - and for that matter, survived this long without being culled - he must have overcome it upon occasion. Bl- blastedly surprising."

"Fuckin' perfect. Oh don't give me that look, soldiers gotta swear, it's mandatory on signing."

"Officers do not. And you are a very highly-ranked officer now, John, behave appropriately."

"Alright, alright, you win. I'm still going to swear like a longshoreman in combat, though."

"I don't know your cultural term, but that would be appropriate given the cirfumstances. In any case, why is Nitram's timidity perfect?"

"Because a shy - no, not cowardly, we'll spin it - a shy low-caste troll who risked his life, his station, and everything to save children? That's a story that has a chance of fighting back the calls for bloody vengeance of the planet-wrecking kind that this massacre is going to provoke."

"You intend to keep him here?"

"God no, I want him in the safest damn place the ACD can find in near-Earth while they teach him English, then I want him on every broadcast I can worm out of Human Coalition Communications, giving interviews and talking about what he did and why - and why sixty of his men who aren't the slightest bit timid or pacifistic listened to him." You grab your temporary moirail by the shoulders and try to keep from shouting, which you think you almost were at the end of that speech. "Equius, the two of you - and Karkat - are the absolute perfect symbols we need to make Free Alternia a reality. You're a War Hero. You took on dozens of trolls of your own caste, war-mutants the hemospectrum would've told you to lie down and die for, and blew a nuclear hole in an Alternian ship, to defend your ship, and your captain. Nitram is a Peace Hero. He disobeyed orders to save children - and I don't think you fully understand how important children are to us this because it is really strongly linked to our genetic reproductive strategy - and he had a gaggle of kids clinging to him to protect him. I saved that pic and I'm going to get friends to put it in every single news piece about K'inich I can manage. Tavros is nonthreatening, he has the kind of bravery the civilians are okay with seeing." You shrug apologetically. "Your bravery is unquestionable, but it's not something the non-combatants will understand or appreciate." You give your pal your most optimistic grin. "Pretty sure every single person in Earthfleet, up to and including Stellar Command, is going to be impressed by you, though. So. You show the military that trolls can be valuable, integrated allies. You promote more Free Alternians in Earthfleet. Tavros shows the civvies that trolls can be awkward, empathetic, kind, "just like us". He keeps you guys from being seen as one-dimensional monsters. And Karkat is the Revolutionary Hero. He reminds us that your government isn't your people, that we've had our own sinister leaders, and that you have a will to be yourselves, and even immortal dictators can produce great rebels." You offer a faintly sarcastic grin. "We'll leave out the hated mutant part in that spin."

Equius thinks about this. He thinks about it long enough that you get Tavros settled with the refugees on the med-transport Benjamin Franklin Pierce and sort out seven of the fifty five of Tavros's Cavalreapers to accompany him. A good thirty five of the others are willing to sign up with the Free Alternia forces seconded to Earthfleet, especially once you give them the impression that Equius will be in charge (which, technically, he will, as the highest-ranked Free Alternian officer, it's just that the charter he and Karkat wrote requires Free Alternian troopers to follow the normal chain of command wherever they're posted.).

The remaining fourteen become your first Alternian prisoners of war, and you wonder how long it's going to take before HCI decides vivisection is an acceptable and useful information-gathering technique and you wonder how long it's going to take before HCI decides vivisection is an acceptable and useful information-gathering technique.

You're not going to lie to yourself about what your species can do.

Equius finally finishes thinking and starts talking after you've handled the million important bureaucratic details that swamp a fleet flagship's executive officer, and you're both lying in your hammock. "John. You are extraordinarily concerned about restraining humans in the war against the Empire. More concerned about that than the actual war, I think."

"Complex Systems Analysis. You've heard me mention I majored in that, right?"

"You have said. The point?"

"It's something fuckin' else. It's a method, above all else, a method that takes years and goddamn hundreds of case studies to work out. It's something so universally useable and complex it practically seems like magic. It is, really simply, the process of seeing how things work. How anything works, that's big enough, and known enough."

"John. You have spoken at depth with two trolls, and we have both had relatively similar experiences in the grand scheme of things. That is not much to know about us."

"It doesn't matter. I refine everything as I learn something new. Each battle. Each fight. Each face. There are little details, and a thousand of those add up to a big one. And what I see…"

Red. Some of the lights flicker into darkness, many of them even. But what remains is red, and it rises as the wave of blood. It hammers upon the tyrian serpent, and even when the serpent curls in to strike from every angle, the red wave has no mercy, no patience. It races across until there is nothing left - and then it turns to steel grey, a long, long fence from the center out.

"Genocide. Fascism. You have to… we industrialized war, Equius. Your people still fight it as warriors. And we gave it up. Our last great war was ninety years ago, our last planetary war two hundred and fifty. And now? Less than a year since the Condesce took K'inich, and look at what we have. Battlecruisers, armadas, legions. Engineers, scientists, tacticians, building bigger and better weapons every day." You pull in on yourself, grab your knees and tremble. "I don't want to be a species of monsters any more than you do, Equius."

It is a rare, rare experience, little more than memory, for you to be wrapped in the arms of someone larger than you. You lean your head against his chest and tremble.

"Then we will not fucking allow it to happen, John." You jerk your head up, startled, to see the deep blue flush across his cheeks. "I- excuse me."

You grab his hand before he can reach for his absorbent sheet. "No, Equius, that was just right. Propriety is a game, you know. And sometimes the dice come up for profanity."

"Your metaphor is perplexing," he says, and you think you hear something in that tone you haven't heard before: he gets the joke.

He gets the joke. You lean against your alien buddy and for as many minutes as you can hold onto it, you feel hope, for everyone.

 

5612 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities


Third Fleet will jump for Sol in one hour. Fremont, Lü Bu, and Dowding will serve as rearguard. Unauthorized communication to HCC regarding the events at K'inich will be regarded as an act of negligent treason and prosecuted accordingly. Upon arrival at Sol, Third Fleet will receive stand-down orders and leave notices will be sent out. This is Fleet Captain Túpac Amaru. You have all served with courage, intelligence, and loyalty. This duty will not be forgotten."

You think you have come to a decision. You think fighting a pitched space battle, killing your way through an insane life-or-death gauntlet of giant murder aliens that belonged in a video game, witnessing the results of a massacre of 40,000 people, and then having the prospect of going home and having leave mean even more and even more dangerous work is officially the worst fucking thing ever.

You're having a hard time not grinding the micro-g maneuvering bar you're leaning on into a crumpled wreck while you watch the fleet form up. How much more can you possibly have to take care of on your own, because you're the only one who can set things right?

[PERSONAL COMMUNICATION LINK ESTABLISHED]
[ENCRYPTION PROTOCOL C/N/E ACTIVE. LATENCY 1311 ms]

RL: John, do you know a "Feferi Peixes"?
JE: …
JE: yes, from debriefings.
JE: until the condesce kills her,
JE: she's the heir to the imperial throne of alternia.
JE: why???

RL: Hm. That makes certain statements much more likely to be accurate.
RL: Oh. Because I've been having some very interesting conversations with her.

Goddamit John, when are you going to learn not to have thoughts like that? You can be so genre-blind sometimes.

Chapter Text

Progression VII: Phase Mutation
6012 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities

You flip through the newsfeeds over and over and over. There are dozens - all run by HCC, all providing opinions somewhere along the spectrum of gung-ho to "we must ask important questions, but after our species has been saved from annihilation."
You'll give them this much, not a single station has been allowed to slip anything speciesist about the Human Coalition-Free Alternia Accords past the censors. At least the powers-that-be don't hate anything with grey skin.

You probably shouldn't be quite so cynical about the government of the entire human species (and now, two fleets and one free colony of trolls) when two of the thirty-two governing members of Stellar Command are, genetically speaking, the closest people you have to grandparents.
And you suppose Nanna and Director English remember war. Their war broke up Earth's last oppressive regime, nearly a century ago.

Fuck it. That's not why you're mad anyway. You're mad because nobody - click - anywhere - click - on any channel - click - is saying the two names together - click - you want to hear.
One name, yes. One face, on every cast, despite the fact that all three trolls - the Veil Defense Fleet Admiral and both "Grand Admirals" (you laughed when you heard the Alternian original with the English translation. Yeah, "Grand Leadespoilers" probably wouldn't go over as well with the public.) - are older and higher caste (well duh, they'd have to be).
To the Coalition, Karkat Vantas is Free Alternia.

Karkat Vantas. Karkat. Vantas. Maybe Tavros Nitram is with him, maybe Equius Zahhak. He's done a lot of interviews.

But nobody will tell what happened to Dave Strider. You already know. You think they told you the moment Rose thought you were ready to hear it, which wasn't too long after Karkat and Free Alternia made contact with Earthfleet. But nobody else knows. Not a single goddamn one of the eighteen billion human civilians knows about Dave Strider. Who was a fucking hero. Who was a good friend. Who was too goddamn good at his job.

You down another shot. You really need a depressant in your system, faster.

Door chime. No, no fucking door chime! Whoever the fuck it is that cares enough about you to come here can fuck off! You're not ready for any fucking further staged of coping! And then they buzz your implant.

KV: FUCKNUTS. OPEN YOUR DAMN NOOK-LICKING DOOR OR I WILL GET "SWEATS" TO KNOCK IT DOWN.
KV: OR TAVROS. JESUS SUFFERER CAN YOU IMAGINE? MAYBE HE COULD RAM IT, NO HIS HORNS WOULD GET STUCK IN THE WALL AROUND IT.
KV: OKAY OKAY I GOT THIS, WE'RE GOING TO GO TO A HABITAT PRESERVE, WE'LL BE BACK ONCE TAV BORROWS A RHINO.

God fucking dammit. Drunk Karkat you will open your door for.

You peel yourself out of your hammock, dislodging an couple empty bottles of what might have been vodka and might have been floor cleaner. You walk over to the door (what? You can hold your liquor, you're fucking huge! God, you wish you were really drunk, drunk enough to avoid what's staring you in the face.)

Well, now what's staring you in the face is a ruddy-cheeked troll with his arms comically draped around two considerably taller trolls.

"Signless Christ, John, you never fucking came to see me!" Karkat detaches himself from Equius and Tavros and slips past you, giving you a friendly (by troll standards), bruising (by human standards) thump on the chest (or that location on an unaugmented human).

"I was in recovery."

"Yeah, I heard," he says, already in your hammock and waving around bottles to see what hasn't evaporated.

You shrug and nod Tavros and Equius in. Good thing you're planetside. Your home in the Seattle Arcology can hold three giants, your quarters on Gagarin Station (awaiting next posting), not so much.

You tune back in to Radio Karkat. "-already have enough replaced from wounds you didn't choose to make. Getting cut open again on purpose? It's fucked up."

"There wasn't any cutting involved." You take the couch, and Equius immediately joins you with a polite nod. Tavros goes to rummage in the fridge. "It's Rose's new stuff. Classified - fuck, you probably know, don't you. Hey, what's everyone's clearance?"

"I am a gogdamn HCI Senior Agent, I10, can you believe that? Gotta have someone integrating human tech and troll agents. I got to read my own personnel file, the full thing. You know what those training assholes said about me?"

Everyone's used to talking over Karkat anyway. "I'm Veil Defense Fleet Command XO, so I think that's level M7?" Tavros Nitram, Summoner Reborn, is a different thing from Tavros Nitram, ex-Cavalreaper. There's the wings, for one thing. From Equius's semi-reluctant explanation, Tav is apparently the descendant of a slightly more glorious mutant than Karkat - albeit one who met an end at the same hand. And something about K'inich finally triggered him. Well. It ain't hard to straighten up, stop stuttering, and try to be a hero when you have wings and a legacy, you guess. You're glad, though. He did his part as the harmless troll. Now he's the noble one. Protector of the innocent, defender of the weak. Maybe they'd call him the Troll John Egbert. You know, maybe. If his hands were ever as stained as yours.

"Earthfleet Development Clearance R12," Equius rumbles. He coughs when you open your eyes and lean back in thematic shock. "It was decided by an act of Stelcom that I was involved in founding enough classified level ten or above research projects to merit it."

"Okay. It's this." You pull your shirt up, revealing to Equius, Karkat, and a staring-from-the-kitchen Tavros the bright pink lines of immune system confusion around the armor plating growing on your skin. "It's a Derse Laboratory byproduct. Directed symbiotic organism growth."

"Yeah, can I mention how thrilled I am that Rose has decided to consult with the fucking horrorterrors for just about every project in the new generation of technology? Clearly nothing can go wrong here."

You shrug. "I've never seen one of them. The tech works well enough." Enough John surfaces from the melancholy to add, "For biomech growths from a sci-fi zombie movie, anyway."

"Appearances are not as important as results," Equius offers. Of course, then you have to rebut, and that turns into "explaining the concept of Public Relations to Equius", which takes all three of you and all night.

And you don't think about Dave for just a little while longer.

 

You're actually managing to not think about Dave entirely by the time you're on the shuttle to Mare Tranquillitatis. You're more concerned with the fact that you have a posting on a ship you didn't even know was in development.

RL: Bureacracy, I'm afraid. It was a prototype, thus it didn't officially have a class, thus it didn't have a name, just the label "Construction Manifest #1025", so forth and so on. It's not as if it could've been hidden from you intentionally.

Probably not. You have SC15 clearance. One step below a Stellar Command delegate, and two steps above most fleet admirals. For whatever reason, possibly involving nepotism. (Dumbass, you were debriefed on K'inich and what it meant for the war by fucking StelCom as the best possible analyst for the situation, you fucking earned that clearance. You're not just some chump to them, John, you're a damn hero now. You hate that your imagination is strong enough to actually hear Dave telling you that.)

JE: okay rose. so what's special about this prototype?
RL: Zero-point energy.
JE: that's a pretty weak prank, rose.
RL: That would be because it isn't one, John.
JE: a perpetual motion machine. you are telling me this ship has unlimited energy by breaking empirically demonstrated quantum theory laws of thermodynamic systems.
RL: Yes, and no. It withdraws the energy without altering the thermodynamic system's zero point by exchanging it.
JE: exchanging for what.
RL: An equal amount of energy in The Furthest Ring.
JE: …
JE: yeah, okay.

RL: "Yeah, okay"?
JE: rose, i'm a cyborg built with alien design and technology who just got a symbiotic organism grafted to him.
JE: if you want to tell me the drive on this ship works by bargaining away our universe to satan on a molecular scale, i'll take that at face value.

RL: Milton's Satan, perhaps. The analogy lacks somewhat of its sting when the trade is with a dimension, not its denizens. The Horrorterrors reluctantly accepted this technology only after I assured them that their reality would not be too badly impacted.
JE: okay. sure. i haven't met the guys, i'm sure their squamous pseudopods have a nice firm handshake and you can look them in the ten billion eyes and see honesty.
RL: You aren't really disturbed by their alien nature, John. Or even by their reputation laid down by fiction authors and pseudoscientific mystics from a more ignorant time.
JE: rose. no psychoanalysis, okay? i'll shut up about your ship.
RL: Your ship. Well, yours as Executive Officer. Captain Libera will receive command.

That could be worse. Mika Libera won the battle at Achenar with simple tactical genius, none of your crazy-ass stunts and heroism. You need a check on your impulses, and your commanding officer is a fine person to do that.

JE: alright. i know you didn't just want to sell me on your magic power generator, and i know you didn't just want to try to be therapeutic at me, so what else is there?
RL: I felt as your friend I owed it to you to provide an overview of the ship from the lead designer, that person being myself. The zero-point energy core is endemic to the overall design of the Prometheus-class prototype.
JE: meaning you used other derse laboratories tech in it.
RL: Yes. The weaponry, the experimental dispersal fields, and the drive.
JE: how, exactly, are the engines affected by horrorterror-derived or negotiated - okay that's too long and silly, i'm naming it dersetech - dersetech?
RL: They are a new form of faster-than-light travel.
JE: knew it. let me guess. envelope to my forehead, psychic finger wiggle - it moves the ship dimensionally in order to shortcut the natural laws of our reality even more than the doohan drive already does.
RL: You know, John, your uncanny ability to find archives with centuries-old digital material and then recode them into a viewable format will never cease to amaze me. On a slightly less astonishing note, your prognostication is correct.
JE: alright. anything else?
RL: Yes, although I am hardly the official channels, you'll be taking the test flight of the Ring Drive within 100 hours of your arrival.
JE: rose.
RL: John?
JE: how testy is this test flight?
RL: It's not the first. Our one-person test ship has undertaken multiple jumps successfully. This is simply the first time a battlecruiser-size Ring Drive will be used.
JE: and let me guess: it's also the first time anyone besides the test pilots - all of whom i'm guessing were you - will be exposed to the drive's side-effects.
RL: Side effects will be minimal.
JE: okay. you know what, i can't keep this up. being cynical and depressed takes way too much energy. if you say it works, i believe you, because you are brilliant, thorough, scrupulously empirical, and most of all my friend.
RL: I'm glad to hear you're feeling better. Captain Libera will be arriving in 36 hours. Lieutenant Commander Zahhak has already been examining my drive design for some time now.
JE: hee hee.
RL: I beg your pardon?
JE: you get so jealous when he alters your designs. do i see a little rivalry-based flirtation going on here?
RL: I'm a little too preoccupied with work to be xenocurious at the moment, John. Zahhak is competent and I'm sure whatever reasons he has to tamper with my machines make perfect sense in his mind.
JE: you realize he's gonna notice. equius might not generally be good with people but trolls have that whole blackrom quadrant, and he's had enough human exposure to get a hint that there are a lot more ways to be involved with someone than their quaint little punnett square of romance.
RL: John, I'm not particularly intending to pursue Lt. Commander Zahhak, and I rather doubt he is after my genetic material, as they like to style it.
JE: fine, rose. i'm just saying if i have to deal with him mumbling "human romance certainly is weird" awkwardly during a feelings jam i will know who to blame!
RL: Duly noted. I will probably be busy with last-minute calibrations and unforeseen emergencies for the next hundred hours, since this is how project launches always seem to go. I will definitely have time to see you when you return from the test jump, however. I look forward to it.
JE: me too, rose. is jade-
JH: ill be here!! you have no idea how hard you are going to get clobbered the minute you step off that shuttle!! im gonna crack your plating with raw hug power and then rose will have to grow you a new one. heh that sounded dirty as hell >:B
RL: This was a private transmission, Jade.
JH: big deal!!! if you really wanted privacy maybe you shouldn't have left me in the room with dirk! he's great at hacking into anything "for ironic purposes", just the-. um.
JE: yeah. um. i'll be glad to see you, jade. we can all three of us talk about "yeah. um." when i get back with this ship and you and i can physically drag rose out of the lab, okay?
JH: deal!!! evil gene-twin powers activate >:B
JE: you said it >:B
RL: Oh lord.

Jade makes good on her promise, although even with Crocker-Egbert-English-Harley genes she's not exactly strong enough to break your bio-armor. You're kind of glad about that. Regular-strength hug works fine for you.
You both meet up with Equius, which is to say you grab him by the uniform hook and drag him out of the engines, hands still stained with a black-but-not-exactly-black fluid. After he cleans up and apologizes profusely for his appearance, which Jade casually brushes off, which causes him to apologize more, which she then reassures him is "fine, relax, not even a problem" - anyway, after you step in to block the reinforcing cycle of formal deference and informal Jadeness, you head to the food court, get some deliciously unhealthy meals (mmm, Mare Tranquillitatis finally got a chupaqueso stand), and start really talking.

"Jade. I haven't gotten two words out of Rose about the Furthest Ring that don't involve technology. What was Feferi doing there?"

Equius nearly chokes on his vat-grown 500g steak. You thump him with your left arm, and that dislodges the shredded meat enough for him to wheeze and turn blue in the face (which is of course a good sign. Hehe. Alien biology). "The Heiress?"

"Yeah. Rose asked me who she was, said they'd spoken, and didn't bring it up again. And that was about sixty seconds after your return from the Furthest Ring. But I didn't see anything about this conversation mentioned in the experiment logs, Jade."

Your gene-sister looks guilty for a moment. "It was Rose's project, I wasn't going to make her look bad or anything!"

"Hey, it's cool! I know Rose, she just loves her secrets. Sometimes we have to decide whether she should be keeping them, though. What did Feferi say?" Your repeated casual use of royalty's first name forces Equius to grab his absorbent sheet.

"Mostly riddles and weirdness. She said the horrorterrors had been waiting for us. I really hope she meant as a species or that would be creeeeeepy. And she said the trolls hadn't used the horrorterrors' power because they were afraid of them, but "SHE" knew about the Furthest Ring's properties and might start using them if we kept winning."

"The Condesce," you say flatly, and Equius almost chokes on his towel. You pinch your forehead. "We've just started an extradimensional arms race."

Jade looks guilty, so you end up going to the test range to let off some steam shooting robotic drones with experimental guns - or in Equius's case, politely waiting until everyone is finished, then vaulting the divider, leaping up to grab a drone 8 meters in the air, and punching it into oblivion on the way down. Jade is suitably impressed, although the combination hug and enthusiasm forces the absorbent sheet out again.

Later you sit in your hammock, and he joins you.

"Your sopor masks are a very effective and useful technology. But last cycle I did not wear mine."

You tilt your head and raise an eyebrow.

"It is hard to describe our dayterrors. Hard to remember them afterwards. But I have consulted Dr. Lalonde's reports and the zoologically dubious tomes she used. I believe our dreams to be a glimpse into the Furthest Ring." He means Rose, of course, who you never think of as "Dr. Lalonde." Her mother may have fewer doctorates but she did get hers first. And used several of them to create you and Rose and the forty-six other genetic experiment kids. So credit where credit is due.

"So what does that mean?"

"That the Heiress was, of course, correct. Her Imperial Condescension must know of the Furthest Ring. And I cannot imagine her failing to exploit it once Earthfleet has revealed technology based upon it."

"That doesn't give us much of a margin."

"No. It does not. The… potency of these technologies, this power source. I know why Her Imperial Condescension would not have used them."

"Too strong. She likes her infighting to keep the power groups under control, not to eradicate your species."

He nods.

You're silent for a while. "We just have to stop it fast. Before both sides are using Dersetech en masse."

"We?"

"You. Me. Karkat. Rose. Tavros. Dad. Everyone we can trust to want to keep both our peoples alive and still end this stupid fucking war."

He's silent for a while. Then he nods.

 

Captain Libera is positively thrilled to have you as XO. She's a tall woman, although not quite to Jade's stature, with a calm, confident demeanor. She meets you at the airlock of the Daniel Inouye and walks with you to the C3, then to the briefing room just off it. "First impressions, Commander Egbert?"

"This ship is a generation ahead of anything in Earthfleet service right now, and I mean human generation, not design iteration. At least twenty years of dedicated wartime research. But I don't think the crew is fully aware of it."

"You trust the specs?"

"Absolutely. Give it the usual tolerances of random entropy and crew mistakes, I think we'll see a minimum of 85% of theoretical performance."

"Then I'll assume you're correct. Our shakedown flight will take us to LY Aurigae."

You have to consult your implant's data drive for that. "Two thousand light years, Captain?"

"Which, XO, should take thirty objective hours round-trip, and between two and a hundred hours subjectively, according to the details I've received on the Ring Drive." She raises an eyebrow. "Which you actually have a higher security clearance on than I do."

You open your mouth to defuse the situation, but she simply nods. "I don't have a problem with that, Commander. Just tell me when you're going to be acting on behalf of your Stelcom patrons."

"Yes, sir. Crew will be ready for departure in three hours. Do you want our destination announced?"

"Why not? Let's get some hopes up."

 

You flick over your crew reports again. Lt. Tane is a little tighter on the gunnery crews than you would be for a shakedown cruise to a star more than a thousand light years away, but you don't really have to micromanage now. Equius's section reports are of course flawless. He rides his people as hard as himself (you bite your lip to keep from laughing as soon as you think that line), so he's probably shouldering through access crawlspaces to do last-minute system checks as usual. All the new Dersetech is green, or at least it thinks it is.

Of course, crew management isn't your priority duty at the moment. The Executive Officer on an Earthfleet ship has about 17 things to do at any given moment, not the least of which is deciding what he or she should be personally doing, and what can be tossed to one of the cross-trained redundant crewmembers.
Right now, you think navigation and piloting should probably be yours. You relinquish Systems Control and Central Data Analysis to lieutenants and use the weirdest-to-date Dersetech on the ship: the sylladex. You listened to Rose's explanation of how the ship's computers can instantaneously store and retrieve objects in an intersecting reality, you're just honest enough to admit you understood maybe 3% of it. Whatever. You can live with it, even if it's weird.

You retrieve the interface gloves from sylladex, and try not to tremble when they materialize directly (and perfectly) onto your arms. Triggering your eye implant to display sensor amalgamations forwarded by the CDA lieutenant, you move the Inouye out.

"We are at designated ring-shift coordinates, Captain."

"Initiate shift, Commander."

 

External sensors don't work here, and the ship is hardwired to close all visual ports in the Furthest Ring. The manual says something about dangerous frequencies. Your SC15 clearance says something else entirely.

So it's a blind, isolated trip of unknown duration - assuming the tech works and you actually return to your own reality.

By the third ship-day, six crewmembers have been sedated, while another twenty-six are receiving significant medication.

Equius tells you that he feels no different from normal, and you, reluctantly but compelled by the power of feelings jam, admit to having heard the voices - and to having them make sense.

Which isn't to say they're simply words you can understand. They're intact, sensible, polite sentences. Queries about your interests. Pondering about the reasons humans believe in good and evil. Inquiries about Rose's schedule and her next visit.

Some of them are off. Sometimes they ask you how life is in the communal gene-kid home, or about your college classes, or tell you to make up with Vriska, it's a pointless fight anyway, and you two are really a great couple on your own merits, not just as a cross-species celebrity couple.

Sometimes they're even more bizarre. They ask you if the Tumor is ready, tell you God Tier is only the beginning, suggest you alchemitize a more powerful hammer before you make the Scratch.

They don't bother you. Not really. The questions for you-you, Commander John Egbert - they're things a casual friend would ask, or a distant relative. The ones lost in time, the questions and suggestions for other realities, other John Egberts - well, so what? That the voices echo and anti-echo, seeming to cancel themselves out, that you're never really sure if they're speaking English or if your mind is just making it that. That too, is just… weird.

You like weird. You always liked weird.

 

Eighty-one hours after entry, the Inouye shifts back into realspace. You take the CDA feed and sort it yourself. "Class O9.5 eclipsing binary star at 38 AU. Lieutenant Johns?"

The CDA officer nods. "Simulated star charts compared with received visible lights put that baby at 15000:1 odds of being LY Aurigae."

"The Ring Drive operated successfully," Equius states, a little unnecessarily, but adds, "Power draw and particle emissions were within 0.8% of specifications. Flawless." He dabs at his chin with his absorbent sheet, and you remind yourself to leave some lewd centerfolds from Power System Schematics Annual on his bed later. Gotta keep the gambit up.

"Alright, Commander. Take us home."

"Yes, sir." You adjust the drive coordinates, get the green from Equius, and hit-
it-

 

This isn't the same. The darkness, the nothingness outside, maybe. But inside something is wrong. You see no people. Shadows walk and pace the ship, sometimes clustering around you, sometimes fleeing.

You decide not to go insane just yet, but that the instinctual desire to get an exosuit and go out the fore airlock is probably sane.

"The Furthest Ring is essentially a null-space. In terms we can understand, every location in that dimension is the same, which is infinite."
Well, that was illuminating, Rose. Glad you could simplify it for me.

You think you understand that a little better now. You're not outside the ship; you're distinct from it while in the same infinite place. It exists and you exist, but you don't have any scale or relevance to each other.

The same is true of the beings in the darkness, of the darkness, from who it was pulled. They are infinite, more than infinite, a tesseract of being.

The same is true of the two individuals. Until one of them IMPOSES.

You occupy a space. The null envelops you, and you have neither light nor physical surroundings, but you occupy a space and so do they, and you thus have a relation. You alter that relative state, and approach.

You put your hands on his shoulders. He doesn't look up, but he nods at your touch.

You make yourself say it.

"Dave?"

Chapter Text

6228 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
You clean cobwebs out of your eyes (well. Eye.) and yawn. Another day, another emptiness of nonexistence in the realm beyond reality. You roll off your bunk (top, of course, even if you actually had the other bed removed and replaced with a storage drive containing the Complete Human Media Collection, 20th-23rd century) and hit the deck. Which is definitely weird, because you have maybe 0.3g in normalspace, and this has to be 1.0 exactly. Like, Seattle gravity.

You are imposing your own Earth-based preconceptions of physics on the null-space. Right, Rose. Thanks. Still creepy.

You wonder if you could impose your own Earth-based preconceptions of breakfast. Ration pills are tasty and satisfying and all, but getting leave back home, in your own house, with a functional stove… yeah, you admit it, you were kind of getting spoiled on baking there.

Shoulda allotted some of your personal space to a refrigeration unit and stocked up on croissants, raisin bread, oh man, and some focaccia.

Dammit you are craving baked goods so badly now and they're not even in the same universe as you! It's the family curse, your fatal weakness.

Well, no helping it. You are definitely exercising Family Time privileges and dragging Nanna and Dad out of Stelcom and ProspiTech as soon as you're on your next leave though. Damn the war, Egberts must BAKE!

Yeah. Okay. Maybe this place is slightly getting to you.

 

"Remind me, again, why we're going to this system - what is it again, Pyxis Mu?"

Equius looks up from your table in the officers' mess, where pages of engine diagram printouts are spread to cover almost everything. You pop a ration cube into your mouth and chew it as long as you can just to give yourself something to do.

"You are asking rhetorically, because you wish to voice your negative opinions on the mission objectives. However, you have already enumerated your objections and the Captain declined them. Your inability to release your concern is hampering your mental stability. You should release it, and focus yourself on work to relax." He stresses the word "should" in the way that means if you were a troll and we were true moirails I would force you to do this. I suggest you keep it in mind.

"You know, Equius, if you keep forcing me to be a better person…"

"Yes?"

"I don't actually have any good objections, I just started the sentence thinking I'd find one. You're right." You look down at the table. "How's the drive analysis going? Insane from trying to analyze the incorporation of eldritch paradigms into scientific engineering yet?"

"No." He adjusts his lenses slightly. They're new - you got 'em for him last leave, custom design, ridiculously high quality - and they're already showing slight cracks at the edges.

"Just "no"?"

"Correct." He waits in silence for a few more moments before silently admitting he understands you want elaboration. You swear the 'getting Equius to admit he understands social mores' part of this semi-moirallegiance is harder than the 'keep him from killing people he shouldn't' part. "With the exception of some talented and… excuse me, eccentric, individuals such as the young Doctor Lalonde, your species has not had contact with the Horrorterrors. I am quite familiar with their touch from the dayterrors, and I have been building a resistance by lowering my sopor dosage. Thus, the only concern is whether I am awake or dreaming. A fact I can-" He smacks himself in the left shoulder with his right fist. "-easily determine." It leaves a bruise. His upper arm is coated in them, and his left hand seems a little limp. You know, you don't think someone can actually build up a resistance to the raw sanity-destroying power of this place… otherwise wouldn't the entire troll species have become immune to it by now? Yeah, maybe you better get your buddy back on his normal mask dosage. Preferably via trickery.

That means a set-up, which means… distraction time! "So, you knew the troll Dave's dating?"

"Ms. Megido… I, erm, yes." Whoa. That's the first cobalt blush you've seen on his face in months. Here you thought you'd burned through all the awkwardness Equius had to offer already. "She, er, forced me to make Nitram's leg braces when he was injured."

"Forced you. Isn't she a, what was Dave's name for them, oh yeah, carnelian-blood?"

"That is a poetic name. Very human. Yes, she is. But she is also a very powerful psychic. And things were fuc- freakishly different. On Alternia." Out comes the absorbent sheet, and he needs it.

"The whole Lord of the Flies thing?" He blankfaces that. Bluh, right, your courses on Earth culture haven't exactly covered secondary school assigned reading. "No adults," you clarify.

"Yes. We - our cohort. It was unusual, probably, that we spanned the hemospectrum, one of each caste. Oh. Except Vantas. But we were friends. Of a sort."

You know you're making him nervous. He doesn't exactly have hard tells! (You kind of had to steer the guy away from more than a few poker games on previous postings). But you know he needs to be harassed into admitting things sometimes. And you think you're getting pretty adept at that! "How'd Tavros fuck up his legs?" He raises an eyebrow at your language, to which you respond, "Wardroom, off-duty, swearing mandatory."

"Serket."

"That was…?"

"Vriska Serket. She was my neighbor. Cerulean-blooded, but a psychic as well. Her particular talent was mind-reading. And controlling those below her. I believe she had a persistent… caliginous fixation on Nitram. He never reciprocated. He was an exceptionally timid troll then."

"Doesn't sound like anyone we know now," you comment with a grin.

"His mutation has bolstered his confidence, definitely. Though not his bloodthirst. The lower castes lack the inherent drive towards it." He dabs his forehead again.

"You ever wonder if that's tied to the hemovirals?" And sore point hit, no more dancing around the issue. Stelcom took an 11-hour session debating whether to release the information both Drs. Lalonde discovered on Fleming Station, a session barred entirely to everyone outside it except four semi-kin from the same genetic experiment who all managed to stumble on level 15 clearance - Intel for Dave, Research for Jade, Stelcom Agent for you and Rose - and one mutant troll only packing an I10, but specially called on to testify due to being the best damn expert of how his people would react. (Karkat's personal reaction to learning he'd live about as long as a human, and you had plenty of tech to make that as long as a longevity-dosed human - easily two, two and a half centuries with current tech - was astonishingly subdued: "It fucking figures."). When they did finally decide to release it, HCC was overwhelmed with discussions and debates.
The Veil was overwhelmed with riots. Tavros managed to settle that down with words alone (Karkat was both stunned and angrily proud), but a good tenth of Earthfleet's interstellar shipping has been the counterviral and telomerase shipments to the Veil.

Equius has used an amount of social finesse you didn't think he had to dodge around the issue, getting away from any discussion of the intentional bio-engineering of his species without providing a single comment.

Yeah, you don't think you can let him keep doing that. Not good for the guy.

He pauses, hands very, very still on the drive schematics. "It is. Probable."

"So. Mad, ashamed, or confused?"

"Conflicted. Some design implies considerable design, especially of this nature."

"Or it could be the result of ancient warfare, social development, or a dozen other things. You don't know how much history the Condesce has erased."

"These are also possible. Regardless." He clenches his fists, ripping some of the schematics. "I have done deeds that sat poorly with me. For the sake of supposed order and birthright."

"How long are you going to force yourself to atone for that, buddy?" You can do blunt. You're good at cheerfully blunt. "You think there's a lot of trolls on the Veil cursing your name, or you think there's a lot of crewmen who served on the Fremont, Teleos Ring, the Sun Tzu, and the dozen other places where your engines, your repairs, and your fists saved lives, that'd buy you a drink?"

He doesn't really have a response. You give him a friendly slug on the arm (right arm!). "You were telling me about your youth."

"Yes. Serket." You put a hand on his fists until he loosens them. "She killed her defeated opponents in exercises by feeding them to her spider lusus. She was obsessed with Nitram, however. She arranged for him to be isolated from his partner," sheet wipe, "Ms. Megido. And then Serket threw him off a cliff with her mind. To force him to be stronger. As she told me. Repeatedly. At length." He adjusts his lenses. "I believe the younger Dr. Lalonde would find her to be a perfectly unhealthy case study."

"Sounds pretty trollish to me, though."

"Her behavior was acceptable in the greater Empire, but. As I said, things were… different. On Alternia. Our friends did not take her actions well."

"Aradia made you fix Tavros," you nod. "So what did they do about her?"

"Little." He pauses. "No. Little that I noticed. I think they were more, er, subtle than I though they should have been. Vantas in particular. He is much more subtle than he appears."

"No kidding. He'd pretty much have to."

"He prevented it from reoccurring. Nitram and Serket, to my knowledge, never again met alone on Alternia."

"Hey, wait. Dave told me something about his kismesis, Terezi."

"Yes. She was Vriska's partner in the exercises. She felt Vriska had betrayed justice."

You grin, but keep it small. "You know your lip keeps twitching in disdain when you say exercises?"

"It was a. Game. Hiding truth behind a guise of rules and play." Angry Equius. Damn.

"Truth?"

"The bloodthirst. The hemocaste system. There are no rules in real life except for what is imposed on you."

Bingo. "The hypocrisy pisses you off, huh, buddy?"

"Yes." He's about to make fists again, so you grab his wrist. "We were betrayed."

"Empires have no reason to be loyal," you agree. "That's why you joined up with us, isn't it?"

"I suppose it must be. But mainly, I have stayed loyal to this fleet because of you, John." He offers a tentative fist, to which you provide the most sincere of bunps.

The ship rumbles. "As much as I want to think we caused that with SHEER AWESOME, I think we're going to drop back into realspace."

"Likely. Oh bug-. Oh bother." He looks down at his shredded schematics.

You slap his shoulder and grab his hand to drag him up. "Don't worry, buddy. We're jumping into an Imperial fleet rally point. There's gonna be plenty for you to deal with."

 

6490 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
Yeah. You can understand why you'd be reflecting back on that discussion now.

You glare into the darkness, even though every instinct is screaming at you to never let the three trolls around the bonfire see your back. Especially, especially Vriska Serket no matter how much you want to relax around her. Equius, Dave, Rose, and Karkat aren't even arguing in your head, it's just four variations on 'leaving her alive means your death'.

Fuck it. She's - they're - in your camp because you let them in, because you won't force even Vriska Serket (especially Vriska Serket) to be out there in the dark. And when push comes to shove, you're still the cyborg commando.

And the one with the gun.

Chapter Text

6236 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilties
"GO! GO! GO!"


Warning. Section seal in ten seconds. Decompression imminent. Evacuate. Five seconds.

You grab a gunner's mate still staggering by the collar and belt and bodily hurl him through the shuttlecraft port, then dive after. You're still the only one who can stand, so you slam the panel and watch through the hatch as your tiny craft hurls itself away from the Daniel Inouye.

Jesus fuck, you can really see the damage from here. The entire left dorsal wing is gone or going. Atmosphere venting everywhere, thankfully dousing the fires quickly at least, but you see the specs that must be dozens of suited people, and worse, part-suited people and suited part-people. You look away as a magazine detonates, and look back just in time to see the main drive sequence begin. We did it, they're going to make it! in your head becomes "Oh, FUCK," out your mouth as the Inouye disappears without you, the last ship in the fleet to retreat.

Okay. Trying not to panic.

"That's a little hard when the fucking BATTLESHIP CONDESCENSION is out there with DERSETECH!"

Fortunately, none of the survivors in the shuttle are conscious enough to hear you shouting at yourself.
Doubly fortunate (count your minor victories, John, you're going to need the energy), you had your interface gloves de-sylladexed before diving into this craft, so you don't have to try and squirm through the writhing or (hopefully just) unconscious mess of people now floating in the zero-g shuttle's hold. 

System synch, manual steering, power emissions to minimum, and pulse. The inertialess drive transposes you with nearby space, and you hope nobody on the Alternian side is looking too closely for human survivors. That at least seems likely. You did kind of trash their fleet here.

Right up until Her Imperial Condescension's flagship blinked into realspace with Fifth Fleet caught right between it and the surviving Alternian battleships. The dispersal field was working against their fire - Fifth Fleet was outnumbered about 17:1, and the Inouye had been darting in and out of their formation without more than superficial damage - and then they'd gotten lucky and two torpedos had made it through at the same time. Equius scrambled a team to get the power lines back up while the ship switched to alternate routing, and you ran for the Aft Missile Battery in the hopes of keeping any of your nightmarishly potent extradimensional warheads from detonating. That was right before SHE showed up. You'd almost gotten the entire battery jettisoned when the repair crew dropped, clutching at their heads and wailing, or locking up rigidly, or spasming and twitching with random motor control.

You? Your subdermal armor screamed.

Literally.

It resonated with a tremoring bass line that jumped in frequency steadily.

And that was when she fired. You saw the beam, a jagged thing that followed the damage it pre-inflicted, the exact same kind of field gun your turrets equip, and then you had a lot more to worry about than the unexploded cluster bombs dumped by that torpedo. You hit the section separation for the missile battery.

And now you're here.

Passive scan… maybe ten to twelve intact Alternian battleships. And…

Okay. Luck likes you today. The Battleship Condescension just left. You don't care what dumbass reason they have for not assisting their fleet, you're just glad they're gone. And the still-twitching survivors in your craft are beginning to regain muscle control and OH FUCK DESTROYER.

The little bastard must've been running dead, or playing it, but he's on you now. Must've been a fucking visual ident by how close he is. And as small as a destroyer might be compared to a battlecruiser, it can swat this shuttle like a fly.

Well. This is a Dersetech shuttle. So maybe it's more like trying to kill an angry weasel before you (the weasel in this scenario, obviously) can rip his throat out.

Only there are still way too many battleships, this fucker isn't FTL-capable, and you really don't need this kind of heat!

So you ram him. Engines to full, inertial compensator on overdrive, and - transit.

Red flashing, allll over your vision. Goddamn ship damage hurts when you're interfaced. Fuck. Your engines aren't responding. Passive scan… caught in a gravity well. That rogue planet they were withdrawing to, a good 10 LY out from Pyxis Mu. Well, at least you'll have company - the destroyer's falling near you. Looks like you took out most of their sensor/comm package, though. No outgoing transmissions or incoming fire. With any luck the rest of the fleet will just think they hit a leftover missile.

And the place is already partying, because at least a dozen battleships you'd taken out in the past four hours of fighting (well, four hours in-system. You went through a lot of "microjump, fire, microjump, re-arm/repair/reform," with the triple-R part taking up most of your time) have already crashed here, most of them scattered over - you take a quick look to verify this rogue has continents - yeah, scattered over a continent.

Well. You've done this song and dance before. You start whistling as you move around the shuttle, helping the crewmembers coming back to their senses and assessing, applying first aid, and strapping in the ones that are out. Four crew up and active, six unconscious, and one dead. Could be worse. Dave could be here to tell you how ironic this is. And then you'd have to argue about what actually constitutes irony and what's just coincidence or improbability, and whether or not a concept as fundamental as irony can really be changed by a shift in popular vocabulary, for the ENTIRE way down. Dave does not like losing arguments.

Oh! And this time you're crash-landing on a planet with hostile aliens, you know who they are and both you and your ship have guns. Really, this is pratically a beneficial situation.

 

You have to learn to stop tempting fate. Seriously, dude. Seriously. Lady Luck has major indecision issues.

 

6248 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
You lost one crewmember on the way down, or on impact. Physically alive, but completely catatonic. Psychic shock. Had to be. Either the Condesce herself or someone else on that flagship was potent enough to hit you en-masse from that distance… freaky. Very freaky.

That left you with Crewmembers Mitchellson, Nakamura, Chang, Breton, and Marcos, Ensigns Xiao, Ghali, Rama, and Preston, and Lieutenant Gunnarson when you hit the ground. You made your way over to Lt. Han's body and checked her implant, then got a flash-bag around her and hit it. The thumb-sized canister of her compressed ashes felt a lot heavier than its mass. You checked out Ensign Haley, flashed a light around his eyes a couple times with no response, and settled for putting him in the cockpit, with rations and a sidearm, and setting it to lock from the inside after you left.

"Grab armored exosuits and long guns from the locker, form up in two columns. Chang, Marcos, Rama, Xiao, you're with me. Everyone else with Gunnarson. Helmet displays on infrared, visible light is going to be scarce. Keep your eyes peeled for Alternian survivors and be ready to retreat from melee and lay down covering fire." You checked your plasma projector, still packing the same function and punch as it was at K'inich. Dersetech is still at a very bulky phase in its development, with the sole leader in microsizing being a (storage limited) personal sylladex. "We're going to scout a defensible location and fortify. Stock up on medkits, rations, and entertainment, we're probably in this for the long haul."

You had no idea how wrong you were.

Within an hour, you'd been split up. Within two, you'd lost contact with Gunnarson's column in a way that left no doubts what's happened to them. Xiao was picked off by one of the giant two-headed ones. Chang and Rama died, and Marcos picked up a sucking chest wound that polyflesh couldn't keep from cancerously growing, giving you covering fire on the worst, one of the little ones that are threats entirely out of proportion to their size, the ones with a billion tentacles and a horrible beaked maw that are TOTALLY NOT FUCKING NIGHTMARISHLY FAMILIAR OR ANYTHING. The four additional corpse canisters, and the five that you can't get, threaten to drag you down.

You found out something in the last fight though, they hate the hell out of the visible EM spectrum. And this is despite the local wood - the endless entangling (possibly fungal?) growths subsisting on an unknown energy source that coat almost every single square meter - being extraordinarily flammable.

"Log: Chron, current time. I am now the only survivor of the Inouye's lost repair crew. The local - related species? Unlikely, they have the same base with layered templates. Most likely a - um, different form, that'd be… - heteromorphic species. They're all jet black, vaguely humanoid. Danger level varies based on overlaid template or templates, of which I've seen maybe… twelve different types? Crab claws, lion manes and fangs, two heads, spider legs, and of course FUCKING HORRORTERRORS." You pause to consider that you just shouted at an inanimate recording that probably nobody but you will ever hear.

Meh. You're allowed a little insanity by now. "I am forced to conclude I have not in fact survived, and am simply a ghostly fragment of myself condemned to forever suffer in this nightmare. If 20th century actors Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray can be cloned, please get them to put my tortured soul to rest."

Movement outside your palisade (a very fancy name for a very crude ring of outward-facing sharpened wooden stakes around your fire). You cut log recording and scan, switching your robotic eye to the IR spectrum.

Yeah. Humans don't come that cold while you're still moving. Neither do these freaky carapaced motherfuckers.

Well. Not the first trolls you've seen down here. First live ones, though. Audio-boosted ears pick up a faint whisper over the sound of their boots: «-come on, fussyfangs, not too much further.»

You flip your plasma projector up with your right arm and aim at the larger, cooler troll supporting the other, probably wounded one. «I have you covered. Come into the light.»

You're not sure if they didn't actually see you, if they didn't make out any more of you than your profile, if your accent gave you away or (reflecting later on) if she just would've done this to anyone.

The taller troll raises her right hand to her temple and you have time to think, fuck, psychic before your subdermal armor suddenly kicks under your skin, and your aim is bumped.

The plasma projectile clips her hair, a lot closer to her head than you were aiming, but it still hits the stalking centaur-like carapace beast behind them. «Idiot broken think-pan mindbender!» you shout, ducking to the side and firing again. This type is pretty heavy, and strong as hell. «Get the fuck in here!»

They actually manage to move without trying anything else stupid, and you take down the carapace with another burst shot. You click the intensity down before spinning back to these survivors. You will shoot them if you have to. You'd rather not kill them; information extraction and possible subversion aside, you don't like being the sole survivor of anything.

You will if you have to. Okay, that needs repeating to reinforce it. You will if you have to.

She's lying the wounded troll down when you return to the fire, but she straightens when she sees you, and tosses her hair disdainfully. It's a gesture slightly ruined by the burnt unevenness of one side, but it still comes close to stopping you.

You will shoot if you have to. You will shoot her if you have to.

You meet her eyes, azure to cerulean, and you stare back just as hard, even if your pupils are outnumbered 4:1.

«Yes, I'm human. And yes, I speak Alternian, and I'm still alive here, in this.» You make a V with your right hand pointing at your undershirt and uniform leggings. You discarded your exoarmor when one of the clawed ones took it out like butter (No GODDAMIT head Dave a crab claw cutting something "like butter" is not actually ironic, the butter isn't what you use to cut crab claws- okay just going to nip this in the bud and get back to being sane enough to deal with a troll highblood. Fortunately you argue with yourself very quickly, so she probably hasn't noticed.) and your uniform jacket when you started melting in this volcanic pit's heat. You wonder if your subdermal armor shows enough, and if she knows enough about human anatomy to even pick it out as weird. Oh, right. You narrow your eyes. «And no, you didn't succeed at controlling me. You only almost made me hit you. Now. Identify yourselves.»

Huh, cerulean with a mind kick, wouldn't it be weird if this was- «Vriska Serket, Stellacrimator Shipleader of the Engine of Unending Despair

You check her uniform - yeah, three skulls on the collar, junior shipleader. «That wouldn't happen to be the destroyer I took out, would it?»

Her eyes flare. «You.»

Hehehehe. Awesome! Total harassment fodder. You shrug, though you don't let it move your plasma projector. «Fair's fair, I wouldn't be here if you hadn't spotted me and forced my hand, Shipleader. And your friend?»

She actually jerks her head and startles, coming out of her ready-to-leap stance, then looks down ashamed. «Is dying. And she's a Meditangler.»

"Pfft, you guys are made of stronger stuff than that," you mutter to yourself in English, walking to the other side of the stricken - jadeblood? Yeah, looks jade - and dropping to a crouch to look at her, projector in one hand but not pointed anywhere terribly threatening. Gut shot - no, probably stabbed, huh? "Pff. Even Tavros could make it through this. Well, if he had our tech." You dig into the medpack at your hip with one hand, but your eyes are rolled up in their sockets to watch her expression. Her lips sure as fuck curl back at a certain name. But she doesn't say anything, and when you look back up at her after setting the last of your polyflesh to Alternian and applying it to the wound, she pulls the knuckle she was biting out of her mouth and crosses her arms.

«You'll be better off if you surrender now, human. I could take personal leniency on you.»

«You could, but you wouldn't.» Seriously? Don't try to bluff a trickster, spider. «Naw, how 'bout we leave all the questions about prisoners out there with certain death, and in here we worry about staying alive.» You take a seat leaning against some of your stakes, and set down your gun. She pauses before mirroring you, eyes glancing over to the jadeblood. «She'll live.»

Her scowl suggests you shouldn't expect gratitude any time soon.

That's okay. Frankly, sometimes you feel over-appreciated at home. You're just one guy! Sometimes you pull off something wild, but it's not like you're the sole perpetrator of all these victories HCC loves to broadcast! You have a lot of help, and really, people need to see how phenomenal they can be, not just you!

Yikes. Maybe you should let Rose analyze you. You're kind of wound up about some of this, and you're not even a nervous wreck who lost his oldest friend any more!

«How do you know about Tavros?» She's glaring at you with that wild seven-pupil left eye, like she can see through you. Two can play at that game. You illuminate your left eye, an azure halo surrounding it, and she flinches - not much, but from a hostile blueblood that's practically as much of a reaction as you got from Tavros back on K'inich, and he was feeling guilty about a massacre he'd done his best to prevent. You wonder what's stalking Serket's conscience. Oh duh, maybe what she's asking about.

«Ex-Brigadespoiler Tavros Nitram, Fleet Second for Free Alternia? Tavros Nitram, the Summoner Reborn? I don't imagine there's a human alive that doesn't know about his heroism or his courage.» Wow. It is really easy to get under Serket's skin. «He holds his liquor better than Karkat or Equius too.»

Hah! Got her! From glaring to confused in one sentence. «Who are you, human????????»

Hmmm. Fuck it, you can't imagine she won't turn on you, based on what you've heard about her. Might as well give her a reason to keep you alive. «Commander John Egbert. That's the equivalent of a junior Shipleader, by the by. I know your intelligence agency is a little behind. I'm nobody special. Just Tavros's savior, Karkat's vegeance, and Equius's moirail.»

A weight slams into you from behind, and as you feel the claws digging into your back, the mass pushing your face towards the flame, you really have to wonder:

Why, exactly, did you forget about the horrific beasts out there in your haste to show off for the murderous alien girl?

Chapter Text

Against all expectations, your spine has not yet been ripped out. A clawed hand curls into your neck, but while it's sharp enough to draw blood, it's no carapace's stubby fist.

"EQUIUS IS MY MOIRAIL! MINE!" Oh. Okay. It's just the angry troll you've been quadrant-cheating on for about eight months.

"Hi," you choke out. "Nepeta… Leijon, right? I know a couple guys that'll be really, really happy to hear you're alive if you can avoid tearing my throat out long enough for me to tell them."

That gets the claws drawn back a shade, which is enough for you to - twist - and she hits the ground on her feet, but so do you. Nobody ever expects the big guy to be nimble, it really helps. Plus your cyborg arm is double-jointed!

The plasma projector is in your hands faster than anyone can move, but it doesn't seem to be all too necessary, because everyone's mostly just shocked.

"Vriskers? Kanaya?"

"Aren't you dead? I swear you were dead, Tavros was supposed to be dead, Equius was supposed to be dead, Karkat was - okay, I hoped he was dead but that little bulge-licker couldn't oblige of course."

"I think we can agree everyone here is alive, and I know Tavros, Karkat, and Equius are, seeing as they're on our side."

"Your side?" Okay, that segues nicely into politely asking about the fact that she seems to be wearing carapace-hide armor.

"Yeah. The Alternian Empire is officially at war with the Human Coalition and Free Alternia. You've been out of contact for a while, I imagine."

"Free Alternia," Vriska sneers. You just give her a cheerful grin. Okay, you'll go over how long Karkat's admirer has been on this planet later.

Nepeta is crouched in a pre-pounce position, but she's not facing you directly, and she kind of looks relaxed in that pose, so you keep your cool. "Free Alternia?"

"Rebel scum," Vriska growls.

"The oppressed and enraged fighting back," you reply in an equal snarl. Alternian is a good language for growling in. Like Space German, hehe. "We have a good third of your childhood cohort already, you know. Senior Agent Vantas. Fleet Second Nitram. Lieutenant Commander Zahhak. Special Agent Megido. And, you know, the Horrorterrors."

Nepeta latches on to the important parts of that. "Karkitty and Equius are part of Free Alternia?"

"They more or less founded it when we helped each other out of a tight spot, so yeah. Big guys on our side of the war these days."

"Then I am too."

Serket doesn't really pay attention to Leijon's defection. Her hands are curled into tight fists and have been since you mentioned another name. "Megido. That rustblood hasn't died yet?"

"Oh, nah, we fixed that."

"Fixed?" Nepeta furrows her brow.

"Oh yeah. Your whole blood-caste lifespan? That's faked. Done with a virus. We removed it. It's been pretty useful actually, reverse-engineering it is pushing our own longevity and vitality studies along at a great pace."

Nepeta seems shocked, but thoughtful. Vriska gives exactly the response you weren't expecting. That is to say, one you've heard before: "Hahahaha! Fucking figures!" After unintentionally echoing Karkat, she throws her hands up and leans back on the stake. "I always knew that was bullshit anyway."

"Eq did mumble something about you being entirely too caliginous for Tavros considering his caste," you comment gamely, eyes patient.

"He would, the sweaty-" Vriska actually stops herself, glancing over at Nepeta. The gauntlets of the smaller troll's armor have long jagged claws jutting out from them - they are basically the hollowed-out hands of one of the lion-carapaces, after all. You admit the - what was her caste - oliveblood? - is walking around in a pretty damn good deterrent for anyone who's dealt with the wildlife here.

"Why was Equius telling you all this?" Nepeta demands, angry suspicion bubbling up. Okay yeah now you are also a bit intimidated. Even if she is one of the shortest trolls you've seen, that is one angry face.

"Temporary moirallegiance. He said you'd told him to get one to keep him calm if you were ever out of contact." C'mon, Egbert, Dave's always telling you that you're way too sincere, let the sincerity shine through, she can totally have Equius back, you'll just go back to being regular friends and kind of his boss.

Huh. That kinda hurts. Yeah, you can see why they call this a romance. You're not… exactly… heartbroken but you're kinda bummed.

"Okay," she says slowly, drawing it out with a kind-of-growl. "Where is he?"

"He's the Engineering command on the Daniel Inouye, flagship of Fifth Fleet."

"You're awfully generous with information. If all humans are this bad at keeping secrets our intelligence network is absolutely pathetic," Vriska comments, frowning.

You grin. "I'm sharing what I think I should. You don't exactly seem like the most fervent zealot of the Empire, Serket."

"I'm not. But I despise failures." Her fangs bite into her black lips even when they're shut. Man, how come trolls even get cooler overbites? And why can't you stop staring at her?

Work the angles, John. Play the tune. Well, you heard the cryptic head Dave. "What's the point of doing if you don't succeed?" you suggest.

She nods vigorously, and points one clawed finger at you. "You get that, human? Good."

"Rest assured, Shipleader, as long as I'm around you'll always have someone on the other side that knows the rules of the game." You lean forward a bit and grin sharply. For some reason you test the edge of your incisor with your tongue. Reminding yourself that these teeth were made to chew flesh as well as grain, maybe. You ARE the baddest monkey on this whole damn rock. And it's because you're a smart predator. "Because it is a game, isn't it? Everyone else thinks they know how it's played, but at any time you can just-" You snap your fingers, left hand, and do it with just enough of the skin peeled back to make a spark. "- change the rules."

Her eyes narrow. Oh yes. Ohhhh yessss you love this part. The when the fuck did this clown become cunning???? part. "Commander Egbert, huh?"

"Yeah. I'm in the directory, you can call any time." You pick up your plasma projector and stand. "I'm going hunting. If you're still here when I get back, Serket, we should discuss where we're going next."

Nepeta springs up from her crouch and follows you into the darkness. "We're gonna talk now!" she hisses, and you just nod.

Yeah. You kind of owe her this.

 

You go to infrared the moment you leave the fire's edge, and let yourself be backlit by its warmth. Leijon is warmer than Serket or her friend, but still a good chunk colder than you. "You've been here pretty much since Equius lost track of you, huh?"

"Mmr. Yeh. Long time." You tie together why you knew that - her words are focused but a little slurred, carefully formed by a mouth that's gotten out of the habit of talking to people.

You nod and move on, keeping quiet with well-placed steps. It's not the fastest you've ever moved, definitely, but she doesn't seem inclined to leave you behind.

Er. You think. She's quieter than you, and without turning to get her in your infrared, you just have to trust that she's here. "Made you sharp," you comment.

"Was sharp. Made me razor," she responds in a hissed whisper. Her voice is suddenly rough and nervous when she asks "How's Karkitty?"

You very strenuously keep from snickering at the nickname, and it takes you a couple moments to answer. "Healthy. Successful. Occasionally bloody. No matesprit."

"Oh." Strenuously neutral.

"He's black as hell for Terezi," you add.

"Mmr. Her and Vriskers-"

"Yeah, I heard. I think Shipleader Serket might be disappointed next time she looks up Pyrope. Hate for the successful rebel beats out hate for the schemer I guess." You try not to sound too pleased at the prospect of an opening in Vriska's caliginous quadrant.

Oh shit. Is that what you've been doing?

And he who hunts trolls should be wary lest he become one: for when you get into the spidertroll's head, she gets into yours. -John Locke, British Philosopher.

Oh hey there's Leijon staring at you. Very. Very. Intently. "Um. What's… up?"

"What are you?? Seen a lot of aliens in service but they're weird. You're… a small pink hornless troll!"

"Small?" You raise an eyebrow. "Okay, compared to Equius I guess I am. I dunno, really. Serendipity, I guess. We get along well enough when we're not at war. I know Dave and Aradia are flushed as hell."

"Arghhhh!" She's… frustrated? Not exactly angry… "You do quadrants too! Tracking this is gonna be so impossible!"

"… tracking what, exactly?"

"The shipping!"

You suddenly understand absolutely nothing. "Um. The what?"

"Oh." She seems to… deflate, and even if she's wearing the shells of the nightmare beasts that've killed every other human you came here with, you suddenly can't see her as anything other than a short, skinny, (what's that word Dave's always using for you? Oh, right) adorkable girl. She fidgets nervously with her hands, the claws rattling softly. "I like tracking relationships okay! And speculating about them! And maybe occasionally writing stories about them even if they don't fully exist yet."

You let the part of you that is hollering oh my god perfect face for peace better than Tavros even contemplate troll-friendly media strategies in the back of your head, and push the good-old friendleader instincts to the front. You grin widely. "Sounds fun! You'll have to tell me about them. Maybe I can give you some insight into who's been up to what. I gotta warn you though, we get your quadrants because they're easy compared to our stuff. Wait until I explain a polyamorous on-off friends-with-benefits and a child-raising dominance-switch long-term partnership with a stress-relief peer casual sex chaser."

Her eyes go wide as hell and then she bursts into an eager sharp-fanged grin, and you know what, you think you can stand to lose Eq's exclusive moirallegiance to her. Man, you just can't get mad at Nepeta. Who woulda thought the ferocious Alternians had actual innocents? Er. Innocents covered in blood? Oh duh, that's why you're cool with her, she reminds you of family! You have definitely got to introduce her to Jade. Although if you add caffeine the experiment may have to occur in a containment field to preserve other lives.

And Jade and Rose claim social science isn't real science! Feh. You'll show them.

Then she stills and drops into a crouch. Your plasma projector is instantly up and ready (thanks left-arm cybernetics!) "It's one of the horrorterror ones! Hide!" she hisses, barely above a breath.

You grin, and this is the ugly grin, the trickster grin. Coyote's grin (Best. Mythic figure. Ever.) "Nah," you purr back. "That sounds like just what I'm looking for."

[Biometric parameter: lower surface body temperature to 15 degrees. Cybernetic parameter: direct weapon interface with visual tracking. Automatic fire on target lock of 75% or better. Biometric parameter: overcharge production of adenosine triphosphate by 30% for two minutes.]
Well, there's your stealth, accuracy, and physical buffs right there, Egbert. Better pull the boss before they wear off and Dave starts complaining you need better taste in games as well as music, vids, books, art, and the all-important recognition of irony. Well, forget him, the Cyborg Commando realsim game was the most immersive experience of verisimilitude ever, it said so on the box and- holy crap Egbert stop defending your shitty childhood tastes and MURDER THIS FUCKING HELLBEAST. "Yessir, mental Karkat," you mutter, and lock your eye on.

Murdertherapy time.

 

You come back to your palisade with a pile of tentacles and beak, bloodily severed from the carapace-thing (all of which have perfectly red hemoglobin-based blood. That kind of unnerves you after fighting trolls for so long. On the other hand, these things don't have a language or appear to have any kind of society, so, you know, no dying pleas or curses. That's refreshing!), dangling over your right shoulder. Your left arm is still covered in the flesh-ripping puckers from its tentacles. That just uncovers the gleam of the alloy underneath, of course.

You see Vriska's friend is sitting up and conscious, and interrupt her examination of the polyflesh coating her mid-torso by crouching on the opposite side of her from Vriska and just casually meeting her gaze.

She's having a hard time deciding who to be focusing on, you or the tiny troll in the carapace shells. "Nepeta. I had thought you were dead. I am glad I was wrong."

Leijon springs, landing on the jade's chest with a giant hug. "Kanaya! Karkat and Equius are alive too!"

"I knew Karkat lived," she says slowly. Yeah, there's some internal tension there. "I am pleased to hear Equius is a survivor as well. What is the situation with…?" She trails off, trying to discretely indicate you.

"As far as I'm concerned we're all on the same team until we get off this rock," you interject in your best Alternian. That startles her. You think. Geez, this troll has a poker face to match Rose's (note to Scientist John: introduce her to Rose to serve as control group for Jade/Nepeta). Well, chalk up neglects to tell her friends important information on Vriska's list of venal sins.

"That's a joke," said spidertroll says with an exaggerated eyeroll.

"Naw, I prefer physical comedy. This is a game, Serket." You chose that moment to drop your trophy onto the dirt. "And I never join a game I'm not intending to win."

You meet her gaze for a long time in silence, broken only by Nepeta's quiet delighted snicker and a mumbled, "Ohmygog so black."

Chapter Text

The main thing to remember about heroism is that it's not really about ideas. It's about people. Some are willing to die for nations, or freedoms, or equality. But the ones who will give up everything and do the impossible - heroes - usually do it for the people they care about.

6610 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
You keep moving. You always keep moving. After a day or two any camp is enough to draw the attention of more carapaces than you want to handle, and so you press on.

You start off with no real goal besides survival. That vacancy doesn't survive long in the face of Vriska's ambition and your friendleadership. The two of you put your heads together during one rest period (without a star or any kind of modulation to the light, neither diurnal human or nocturnal troll have any natural sleep cycles, so you just shift around, switching off watch on a two on/two off and moving when everyone has enough energy to run), and by the time Nepeta and Kanaya are awake, you have an idea.

It takes a couple days, some attempts to climb the slick-barked native trees and craggy hills to get a good view, and questioning until Nepeta's recovering social skills get too flustered and she can't say anything more, but by the time you've been on the planet about 350 hours, you and Kanaya have constructed a model of carapace habitation, migration, and density that you consider accurate enough to work with.

The jade-blood is a fascinating troll to work with. Her style is very similar to Equius's - far more practical than most of the professional humans you work with and are related to, who tend towards creating and developing theoretical models. But despite being, in essence, a medical engineer, one whose profession required her to know how trolls and medicines worked, but not necessarily too much of why, she also displays a desire to understand your technology. You pass over your entire medkit after the polyflesh has stimulated her controlled cellular growth enough to repair the gaping hole in her torso that Vriska brought her in with. That's the last of the polyflesh, which is probably a good thing. You're alright with letting a troll of questionable loyalties check out your diagnostic and first aid equipment, but letting her reverse-engineer or duplicate your unskilled-use physical-injury-panacea would probably be bad for the war. For whatever reason you don't have any real problems answering her questions about human medicine, when you can. You're pretty happy when she expresses dismay at all the cullings your tech could have prevented, the most rebellious statement you've had from the reserved troll yet.

All four of you examine the results of your zoology/hunting/complex system analysis work, projected from a wrist-comp you took as useable salvage off Crewmember Marcos and passed on to Serket after a few dozen hours of giving her the opportunity to backstab you and seeing her decline.

"It's obvious where we should go." Vriska taps the center of the projection, a large darkened - the largest mountain anywhere nearby, and one that is almost entirely marked with black and grey No Sightings/Unable to Explore - No Remote Sightings by Nepeta's reports.

The short troll lets out a little hiss and shakes her head. "Can't fly, Vriskers." She drags two fingers down the massive stream of multicolored dots flowing from the north, which parts and continues around either side of the mountain. All of those are confirmed sightings, many of which are the deadlier types of carapace, including multi-templated Horrorterror/other bastards - something even you don't want to fight one of, let alone multiples. They seem to be constantly migrating around this mountain, in large groups, for whatever reason. You wonder if it's related to why they don't approach it.

"That looks like an impossible obstacle, huh?" Nepeta nods sharply, but your words were for someone else. Vriska's gaze meets yours, and you think you mirror the cunning gleam in her eyes.

"Impossible? Sounds fun."

"It looks difficult to achieve, but it would be a safe haven until we are rescued if we could manage it, Nepeta," Kanaya offers. She likes to mediate. A lot. It kind of overlaps with your friendleadership, just like Vriska's mind-control-and/or-just-boss-people-around habits overlap with other parts, but you've gotten fairly decent at deflecting them both.

You reach over and scratch the back of Nepeta's head, between her horns. It's a ridiculously familiar gesture but you've been doing stuff like this (or having her do stuff like this, like falling asleep lying across your chest) all week.

So, yeah. Basically the moment you stopped pale-cheating with Equius, you started pale-cheating on him.

John Egbert, you homewrecker.

It does calm her down, though. And goes a long way towards explaining why moirallegiances exist to begin with. You wonder what both of them were like before they had each other. They must have been monsters.

Wearily, the feral troll nods her consent and leans against your shoulder. You've got plenty of coagulants left in the first aid kit (and built into your biometric control symbiotic system), but you're really, really glad you had several spare sopor masks in your personal sylladex (Equius tends to rip his after a few nights, and his sylladex is packed with tools and parts). It helps both moirallegiances get along a lot better, and everybody's scrapes and bruises are inflicted by the terrain and carapaces alone. You gently pull Nepeta's mask up from her neck to fit over her nose and mouth, and she settles again. Kanaya is a little less demonstrative, but her shoulder leans against Vriska's.

Cobalt and azure eyes meet across the small circle of Fort Kickass (named by a joint Egbert-Serket venture), your first fort without a central bonfire, lit by dozens of pitch-soaked torches lining the outer wood walls and spiked palisade. "So, Shipleader. Planning competition, or shall we cooperate?" You give it your best sarcastic sneer. Vriska is ridiculously vulnerable to reverse psychology.

Or maybe she was just waiting till she had you figured out. She grins, and her sharp blue tongue rolls over her fangs. "Cooperation sounds excellent, Commander. I can't wait to hear your ideas."

Fatal hormone error, please reboot your Egbert. Okay. Well. This just means the game is going to get fun.

6617 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
"This is going to need every single spark of energy, genius, and balls-out luck I've got," you murmur to yourself. You may weigh about as much as Vriska, but you're proportionally the lightest. That, childhood practice, and your built-in airjets made you the best one to climb up and take your first look at your impassible obstacle.

Plan C: "Fuck it and keep running," is looking kind of appealing right now.

You drop down, jets to full to cushion your landing. "Okay. Our worst estimates were correct. There's no way we can get across the migration trail without being in full view of at least two packs."

Nepeta growls, but it's worried, not bloodthirsty. Her clawed gauntlets twitch over her hands. Kanaya's grip tightens on her bonesaw (which seemed a little excessive to you, even as a troll medical implement, until you learned the cutting edge could collapse from its current 70cm double-sided length, down to a 3 cm single-edged saw, and could switch to an alternating saw mode that wouldn't damage soft tissue nearly as much). Vriska grips the impromptu glaive you managed to weld together from some shuttlecraft salvage that had been riding in your sylladex for a while. You have your projector in your right arm. It's less accurate, but you want the left for anything that manages to close. "We go on three. Stick close, remember the plan and your parts. Your count, Vriska."

"One." You drop to a starter's crouch with everyone else, ready to run as fast as your bulk will let you. You ready an ATP production overcharge but don't trigger it. The plan gets FUBAR if all your enhancements put you ahead of your team.

"Two." Plasma projector to ready, full power, 0.5 second delay on friendly acquisition. You're aware you may need to shoot through someone to hit an enemy. Your conscience and guilt are screaming at you in a never-ending terror at the idea, but you remain aware of the possibility.

"Three!" You snap forward, taking point and clearing it by dumping a ten-shot plasma burst in the direction of the closest carapace pack without any concern for accuracy. This one is mostly low-threat templates, although they're mostly double or triple-templated. A two-mouthed cat-crab-clawed carapace goes down under a second burst, aimed during a momentary pause, and a giant two-headed centauric carapace races you. Vriska, already in position as your flanker, teaches it why polearms beat cavalry, striking with professional speed and accuracy to hamstring its forelegs, sending the beast crashing into the hot mud. You can't spare a look back, but while you hear grunts and ripping noises behind you, the only cries are the gurgling wails dying carapaces make.

Just like that, the first visible pack is gone, and you're a third of the way across the trail.

The next north pack has spotted you, though. You toss your projector to your left arm in a casual motion, drop to one knee, and let your team pass you. "Config C," you say, because it's faster than saying "Generator to 175%, containment field to 130%, focusing to 190%, single shot," every time you want to snipe. You let your left eye do the lock-on, synch coordination, and fire. The snap-shot burns up a slight layer of the faux-flesh on your left hand and shoulder as the gun dumps heat, but the plasma projectile, an elongated near-beam, rips the Horrorterror/tiny winged bull templated carapace right between the horntacles, and it drops. "Vriska, part two!" you shout as you shuffle the gun back and turn on your ATP boost, running to catch up to your fireteam.

Serket takes her turn to stop and turn, putting both hands to her forehead and narrowing her gaze. You stop beside her, gun and arm ready in case-

Your subdermal plate kicks, but only mildly. You're resistant, and you're just on the side of the blast zone. The majority of the chasing pack drops, neural damage making them spasm and flail. You snap off a couple vaguely-aimed shots to harass or wound the survivors, and then you both bolt at the same moment.

You see Nepeta and Kanaya running twenty meters ahead of you on the infrared - then abruptly the visual spectrum blooms with a sickly neon green from above. You crane your neck up, but only in time to see the green trail left behind by its plummet. The landing is like an explosion, and you and Vriska don't waste a moment gaping in horror for your moirails. You just put on more speed. The smoke clears, although green fire leaks across the earth. Kanaya is down, staggered but trying to rise. Nepeta looks uninjured, claws crossed in a defensive stance against the - thing.

It could kind of be a carapace. Not that it truly resembles them, carved from a green energy that arcs with flickering hues, but it is almost humanoid, with strange templates on it. Its form seems ragged and half torn, draped with tattered strips of the same substance - what could be the remains of clothing, or horrific peeled flesh. Long wings that look more stylized than aerodynamic spread from its back, and it holds a sword of its own substance in one clawed hand. The profile of its head is canine and vicious.

In a blur, it strikes. Nepeta moves with blurring speed to block the sword, but that sinks back into the thing's arm even faster, and jagged claws get through her guard, tearing three lines of blood across her face. She howls and stumbles back.

You flip up your plasma projector to both hands and spit a burst at the creature, which only slows you enough for Vriska to get a meter or so ahead of you.

In more of a flicker than an actual turn, it's facing you, and the blade is out again, catching the blade of her glaive - and holding it. The strike craft scrap Serket's weapon was forged from was layered in a Dersetech solution…

But she can't hold it for long. With highly disproportionate force, its skinny arm flings her back. Vriska tumbles all wrong in the air, but manages to beat the odds and land on her feet, unhurt.

Your gun is back to one hand, and you raise it to fire, not even waiting for the silent slayer to take the bait, spinning, catching the sword in your gun, dropping it and dodging around the explosion, grabbing the creature's left arm and - 

[Cybernetic function: empowered torque engaged. Leverage optimizing. Hand: Cru-]

The sword is suddenly jabbed through your arm, and sparks fly along its length.

[-Move Item to Sylladex]

The accidental command starts to trigger, the purple-black sylladex outline stretching around the creature's arm and up-

With its sharp snout open it lets out an unreal keening and the world pulses with green light. It vanishes - minus an arm. The sylladex field sweeps over the arm and deems it incompatible, then vanishes. The arm falls to the ground, and starts to sublimate - leaving behind a growing pool of green flame, which rapidly traces sap lines back towards the very, very flammable vegetation.

You throw yourself through the flames, hearing the loud detonation of your broken and discarded plasma projector behind you. You make it to Nepeta just as you see Vriska, caught up and ducking around the moving flame. "C'mon, buddy, we're not out of the hot zone just yet," you offer as what might be your most literal encouragement speech yet.

The four of you scramble upwards, racing the green flame up the jagged rocks. "Up there!" Vriska shouts. You glance. A bright white light is shimmering at the absolute peak of the mountain. It's unlike anything you've seen before on this planet.

So you run.

 

You are starting to really, really like caves. You might have to look into getting a bachelor's in speleology when the war's over. You figure you owe it to caves for saving your ass so damn much. This one, for instance, has enough inner passages to let you get nice and deep into the mountain and escape the green flame.

"Doesn't look like stopping soon," Nepeta comments from your perch on an upper shelf in the entry cavern. You have to agree.

"Well, the tunnels look pretty extensive. I bet we can find our way up through the interior, to a higher cave or maybe the top." You note Vriska's glare and tilt your head. "Yeah? What?"

"You are almost pathetically optimistic. Actually forget almost, that is pathetic."

You grin. "It's only optimism when I'm wrong, Serket. Feel free to crow at me when that day comes."

She scowls a moment longer, then switches to a sharp grin and far-too-intent eyes. Hah. You don't have my number just yet, spidertroll. The game is still in the air.

These tunnels are interesting. And by interesting, you quickly decide you mean "what the fuck?"

They circle around, gradually rising, convincing you that you're on the right path and making Vriska scowl and hope you trip. You won't, because having radar transmission/reception built into your arm and eye works wonders, yet another totally fantastic part of being a cyborg.

But the tunnel rise isn't uniform. At points they dip drastically, though never impassably or precipitously. And then you start getting into humid passages, and come to a half-swamped place, where the tunnel touches a flooded cavern. You get strange radar pings at the distant edge of the water, off something that sure as hell isn't the surrounding rock. Infrared shows nothing. Vriska is on edge, all eight pupils locked on the water's surface. You pass through that cavern quickly.

Only to come to another point where a perpendicular intersection with a similar cavern has flooded the tunnel entirely. You're still there, arguing about the best way to cross what pings as at least a hundred meters of water (with a hissing, almost-clawing Nepeta coming down firmly on the side of turn the fuck around not getting wet, and only kept from going on a claw rampage against Vriska for the "just toss her in" suggestion by a constant gentle horn-scratch), when your radar picks up movement.

You all watch in dead-silent, flat-lipped confusion/shock/terror as the massive coil rolls across the water, seeming to find a home beneath your tunnel, anchoring itself as a bridge to the distant entrance of another tunnel, high up on the opposite wall. You don't really feel like you have to check it with radar to know this is very definitely not rock, no matter how still it seems now.

Stone has never moved that fluidly.

You hesitate in long silence. "Fuck it," Vriska declares, and scrambles up. The coil remains in place. She starts walking, and what can you do but follow?

At the other side the tunnel the coil circles around the passage before entering the rock. You voice the opinion floating around: "Let's just keep moving and let the weird shit take care of itself."

You're maybe a half-hour along the tunnels after that when you see a light through a long crack in the upper wall. Clustering around it, your team looks into a massive ovoid chamber, its bulk somewhere far above you. In its center, far above you, is the same light you saw coming from the mountain's peak, source hidden from view by the stone strut it rests on.

Somehow, you know that light isn't something simple, like a bioluminescent fungi or a radioactive drive component from one of the Alternian wrecks. You just understand that it's valuable, even to technologically adept species like yours. You risk a glance sideways, and see the same glint in Vriska's eye.

Well. You'll deal with the treasure (you don't know when you decided to call it that, but you're certain it's a true name) when you get there.

More hiking, more slogging through darkened tunnels, and then - a dead end. By the time you stop, but before you can start discussing your options, the barrier begins to move. You flick on your eye's illuminator, see glimmering forest-green scales turned teal in your blue light. The end of the coil disappears so fast you catch only a faint glimpse of what looked like a ridged tail.

You proceed on, silently. There are more cracks, more glimpses of this massive chamber you're circling. And with more light and heightened imagination perception, you can see giant serpentine columns overlapping around the edges of the central chamber.

You're starting to get edgy. You probably should have left "edgy" behind before the green energy demon attacked. Wow. What kind of advice is that? You would swear you don't have any voices in your head that are so boring. Besides, that was just strife. Aggressing. Battle. This is Weird Shit.

Giant snake monsters that are apparently friendly and lights that are treasure when you can't trust half your team, that's disturbing.

The hair is up on your neck, angry simian instincts doing little practical but edging you towards a binary fight or flight response. You can see Vriska biting her lip in anticipation, so hard that a drop of cerulean spills down her chin, but as soon as she notices you looking, her expression turns to steel.

You come to a wide part of the tunnel, where multiple coils overlap and run across the length of the walls, some a deep green, others a bright blue. They pull back as you enter, wrapping around each other and spreading across the walls, ground, and ceiling like massive vines. The back of your head itches. You can feel your left hand responding to half-formed neural signals, clenching to a fist and unclenching. You look straight ahead. You know the moment you turn to Serket it'll start. You know she hasn't stabbed you in the back, but suddenly there's something to win, and she won't be too restrained to fight you face to face. A sudden wind fills the tunnel, running up and rushing around you all. You start to turn, see disheveled long black hair-

That's when the crack sounds, and the air breaks open. The sickly green light is unmistakable, and when you meet Vriska's eyes there is mutual understanding.

You run.

Even as the demon pulls itself through space, the massive ever-present, strangely helpful denizen (denizens?) of the mountain strike. Coils snap out and lash at the demon while you run. At the narrowing of the tunnel you risk a glance back. Lengths of severed coil are twitching and dying from the sword in the demon's one remaining hand, bleeding a disturbingly human red. You keep running.

More coils move aside, form bridges, and block the path behind you. They ensnare the demon, attack it, force it to fight through them instead of folding space again to come upon you.

You take the offered advantage. You keep running.

And then you run out of tunnel. You pause a moment to correct your course, making sure you stay on the stone walkway that extends into the chamber you've glimpsed before. Your eyes flicker around, trying to take in detail as fast as you can. The walkway leads to a circular platform in the center of the chamber, and another walkway continues up on the other side. In the middle of the platform is the glow. A perfect sphere, a swirling orb of white cloudy light spun about by internal winds. Through the haze you can make out a geometric shape, a monstrously complex three-dimensional epitrochoid, and you know treasure was the right word. Just looking at this thing speaks to you of - of knowledge, and natural order, and- too many things to consider, and you've got too much danger behind you to fight over it. As you reach the edge of the platform, you turn back to face the demon. In doing so you glance up, follow the green coils to their origination - and see. No. It's just… patterns in the rock. Your imagination running wild again. But it looks like a human torso, gigantic, with gnarled wings of bone stretched round the chamber, and a massive head, features strange and elongated as if it were just a mask. You flick your eyes the other way, see the blue coils are just one coil, rolling and overlapping, serpentine right up until it reaches an opposing head, one that you can tell for all its strangeness is meant to be the female to the other face's male.

You wish so badly you had time to figure this out. It is just dripping with hints of adventure and mystery. But. You face the tunnel you came from, where the green light of the demon, flaring and bursting as it strikes, is getting closer. "GO! I'll hold it as long as I can, just run!"

A shoulder touches yours. You look over to see Vriska taking her stand next to you. "Don't be so surprised, it makes you look like a dork. These are impossible odds. I just have to beat them. And my moirail's back there too. So let's buy the kitty and Fussyfangs some time."

You just nod.

The demon comes. Cuts streak it, leaking an unstable, hissing green flame. You raise your left hand and flex. It roars, and you stagger in the force of the vibration. You tense yourself, ready for its leap, wheeling about as it arcs over you, wings crackling and-

What? Where the fuck did it-

Oh. You just manage to touch the perfectly smooth stab through your chest before the demon withdraws its blade. You feel the blood on your left hand sensors, feel your autonomic systems attempting to compensate and failing, your link severed where it stabbed through your spine. You see red lines, fractal things that seem to go on for miles, ripping from the wound across your body.

You fall to your knees.

The last thing you see as you tumble forward and fall into darkness is the light. The last thing you feel is strong grey arms grabbing you. The last thing you hear is a wordless howl of rage - and loss.

Chapter Text

Light. Light everywhere. And wind. Surrounding, enveloping, consuming and considering.
And rejecting.

You feel dead cells regrowing, cancerous assault being unwoven, the light and wind pulling you together in a grand resurrection.

"I don't have time for this."

You push yourself off the ground, left armed. You can feel something still growing in you, pulling you back together, but as the light fades, the spirograph shape breaking in two with the loss of its shell, half sinking into you and spreading apart, you see the demon confused - but not that confused.

You can't wait. You're just going to half to fight him part-cyborg, part-zombie. (Inner Child John be quiet and go sit down. It is ferocity time)

"Like hell," you growl slowly with a mouth that only just seems to work, "am I going to die and come back. Just to lose. To whatever the hell you are."

The demon flickers. You spin and punch, left fist tearing through - blank air.

The sword impales Vriska to the ground. The demon twists it. Stained blue and red, it withdraws the blade.

And you have a moment to wonder where the other half of the pattern went before the demon is upon you. Flickering and blinking with every moment, it strikes from a thousand directions and you. Meet. Every. One. You feel the air rushing about as it teleports, sense each motion in time to move with the winds that rise up around the chamber, that circle you in particular, caress you, beg your attention and indulgence - and commands. You feel an interface, as natural as the nerves controlling your left arm, and you make the demon dance. Blades of breath swoop at it, over and over, repeated waves that thrash its defenses.

Then it gets just the barest moment of rest as you shift positions to strike better, and vanishes. It comes in too close behind you and stabs - tearing a hole straight through your shirt.

"Not even on your luckiest night," Vriska laughs, standing. Light covers her wound, but you see an echo around her, a golden sun, an orange field. You identify this as an illusion, as some crossed neurons providing symbolism, but you're fucked if you can explain why. "And this night, and this human, are mine." She leaps forward, slashing out with the long blade, and the demon's dodge hits your wind coming the other way. Flaring with solid white light, the glaive cuts into the demon, spilling more fire.

You throw the wind, wrap the demon in bonds of the roaring breath of this world, and she stabs - piercing its chest.

The demon vanishes, leaving green flame trickling off her blade.

You match gazes. Neither of you says a word. You step forward, glance down. Your skin is intact where you were stabbed. Wish you could say the same for your shirt.

Wordlessly, you both turn and walk towards the other exit from this chamber. You spare a single glance for the chamber's titanic denizens - but they too are gone, and not so much as a coil is still visible.

You come upon Nepeta and Kanaya, arguing about whether to go back or head out, at the edge of a cave face. The moment they hear you coming, Leijon leaps at you, and you think for a moment okay, THIS hug might crack my subdermal before she lets you go. Kanaya places her hands on Vriska's shoulders and inspects her for wounds, which Serket allows with a disdainful roll of her eyes.

"What happened??"

"It's gone. For a while, at least." You mention nothing else that happened in the chamber. Vriska does not add anything. "So! Let's get some air. I need to breathe in something fresh."

 

You take maybe ten minutes to get up to the mountain peak from this very high-up cave, following something close to a path. You cluster around the center spire, and all four of you just sit there for a while.

Until the world trembles, and the darkened sky is lit black.

You see the glimmering, glossy black hull of an Earthfleet Prometheus-class battlecruiser, and you send a comm pulse. «Egbert to Inouye. What took you?»

«Only the doubts of fools, Commander.» Nepeta's eyes go wide at the deep rumble of Equius's english. «I see three Alternians with you. Ident as friendlies?»

«I think at least one of them would be pretty damn pissed if you didn't.» You can see the strike craft coming in to land now and grin, then stand up and offer Leijon a hand. "C'mon. Ride's here."

 

6624 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities

The Inouye crewmembers on the strike craft, who've only seen post-shakedown Equius, are treated to the rare sight of your resident genius giant dropping his jaw, losing control and crushing a hatch lever in his hand, and stuttering his way through sentences, all due to the presence of one tiny troll. You grin, and don't let on your immense relief that you haven't destroyed their relationship. Good John. Best temporary Moirail.

Serket and Maryam get a warm reception from the crew and Captain Liberia on the basis of Showing Up With John Egbert. Even if they avoid the issue of Free Alternia entirely.

The ship gets underway, heading out for a couple hours at sublight - the rogue planet is all kinds of fucked up in relation to the Furthest Ring, which let Equius find you to begin with, but means sane no more insane than usual jumps will have to get away from it.

6226 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
Vriska Serket is extraordinarily quiet as she approaches the airlock. This is about a thirty minute margin where she can be sure nobody's going to be in this particular corridor, watching this particular shuttlecraft. She taps a nine-digit sequence into the lock - which buzzes slightly. Vriska looks around rapidly, but no alarm sounds. She keeps the slim knife in her hand, though.

"I changed the lockout on the shuttles about ten minutes ago." You step out from the corner concealing an access hatch. "Try 775651493."

She stares you down. Finally she manages "Really????????"

You shrug. "I'll be a little hurt if I don't get a reason why, but." You step up to her. Hands down, unarmed, but neither of you think that'll stop a fight if either of you wants one. "Security monitors here will be off for…" You check your internal chron. "26 minutes."

"Did you set this up?" Her fangs don't look too happy. Face. You meant her face. Not staring at those mandibles. Honest.

"If I thought you couldn't get off this ship on your own I wouldn't have a hair of respect for you, Serket. I set this up so we'd have a little time to talk before you left, that's all."

"Talk about what?"

"Like I said, why you're leaving wouldn't hurt."

She smiles and my that's a deadly-looking mouth. "Because you're here, John. And I can't stand winning an easy game."

"That was about what I had guessed. Are we still-?"

She laughs, but it's only partly mocking. You think. "New to black relationships, human?"

You shrug. "There's not much room for casual dating on the battlefield. I've tried, but usually I just get a DIE HUMAN."

"Keep working on the jokes," she says, and leans in.

You're bleeding in several places on your lip and on your neck where she used her claws and it is totally worth it. Also you're pretty sure she grabbed your ass. "This it? See you around, sailor, my heart burns with rage only for you?"

"We're going to meet again. You're not going to let anyone else kill you." That's halfway between a proclamation and a demand, her teeth still splashed with red and only a couple centimeters from your face. "Even if this war comes down to you and me and nobody else alive in the entire universe."

You really only have one response for that. "Yeah." Then you go in for the kiss, and hold her arm in a strong enough grip that she loses circulation for a bit. You pull back just a little, just enough that you can still feel her breath on you. "We're never going to mention it, are we?"

"Talk about our weaknesses? What kind of kismeses would we be? If you're looking to quadrant swap you need to become a lot more pathetic, quickly, John."

"I'm not quite that fast. Alright, Vriska. I'll keep an eye out for your light."

"And maybe I'll feel your wind." With one last kiss she leaves you, ducking through the hatch.

"You too, Kanaya?"

The troll medic's cheeks are flushed a little green when she steps out. "I'm sorry I was intruding on a private moment."

You shrug. "I'm more concerned I misread you."

"I apologize. You are a very persuasive person, but these rebels cannot guarantee the preservation of my species. And."

"You don't want to abandon your moirail." She nods. "I hope you can keep her alive, for both our sakes." You grin, and nod as she ducks in too.

You walk off as you hear the shuttle launch, whistling casually. Good thing Vriska took the bait. You only had time to strip the Dersetech from four of the Inouye's shuttles.

6278 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities
You've been leaning over the display in the empty briefing room for god knows how long now. Staring at the lights of Earth and the seventeen colonies in the Human Coalition.

Three of those lights are dark. You have been staring at those lights for a considerable time now. 250 million deaths. Three habitable planets rendered into waste with the same nightmarish technology you thought you had a monopoly on. You pathetic, naive child.

This is only the beginning.

You see red in your mind. You see hate and pain and bigotry rage across humanity. You see mutual annihilation, the scattering of meager survivors to wherever they can barely survive, collapsing until there is nothing save the mass graves of two entire species.

You feel an arm over your shoulders, and another under them.

Equius and Nepeta hold onto you until you unlock your robotic hand from the display. You're pretty sure you'd collapse if they didn't.

You don't have to say anything. You just walk back to your room and lie in your hammock. After a few moments there's a heavy weight at the end. After a few more, there's a slightly less heavy weight sitting on your legs. Still pretty heavy though. "Ow."

"Sorry!" There's a lot of confused shuffling until you find a position that fits you all and lets you feel sufficiently numb, leaning against Equius's shoulder with Nepeta leaning on your pulled-up calves.

You almost want to ask questions, but you think that would ruin it. You just shut your terror down.

It's not hopeless. It's never hopeless.

 

9681 hours after first Terran-Alternian hostilities

90 seconds on the timer for your synchronized flash-jump, skipping the Inouye off the edge of the Furthest Ring to relocate without time distortion, and hoping Equius's latest not-Fleet-approved mods will cancel out the spatial distortion. You key your subvocal implant, then route a message through a personal-sized ansible communicator - one left behind in an abandoned Earthfleet shuttle in the middle of a rogue planet's orbit long after it had passed. "Delay transmission until five seconds before jump: Hi, Vris. You know I could wait this out. Count on your better nature stopping you. But you also know I wouldn't let you down. I'll take you out for dinner before the POW camp, okay?"

10 seconds.
"Initiate jump. Gunnery and repair crews standby for immediate battle."

And you're very, very glad nobody can see your hard-edged smile.