It’s the twelfth bilunar perigee of the sixth dark season’s equinox of the eighth sweep of your life, and you’re probably having the worst week ever. Which is quite a feat, since your life so far has been one spectacular fuckup after another.
Your wriggling day is in three days, and while you normally celebrate this event with the apathy it deserves, this particular sweep is different. That’s because it will be your eighth sweep, and it happens to coincide with the arrival of the imperial drones. This is a milestone that every troll looks forward to with a heady combination of excitement and terror. For most trolls, when they reach their eighth sweep, they become adults.
When you reach your eighth sweep, you will die.
Actually, this is not entirely true. You have no intention of dying in three days. You have been planning your escape for quite some time. When the imperial drones come, you will be long gone. They can’t cull what they can’t catch. You’re born to run. You have a need for speed. You, uh. Hope to at least last a week in the grublands before you get eaten by ravenous hordes of the undead.
Your husktop chimes with a new message, distracting you from your apathetic attempt at sorting through your movies. Ugh, what do these fuckers want from you.
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
GC: H4V3NT YOU L3FT Y3T?
CG: I'M TOUCHED
CG: I'M SO GLAD TO SEE HOW MUCH YOU CARE.
GC: >:[ TH3 1MP3R14L DRON3S W1LL B3 H3R3 1N THR33 D4YS. TH3YLL B3 LOOK1NG FOR RUNN3RS.
CG: I HAVE A LOT TO DO, OKAY.
GC: YOU H4V3 LOTS OF 1RONS 1N TH3 F1R3? >:]
CG: OF COURSE I DO.
CG: I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL.
CG: ANYWAY SOLLUX IS THE ONE WHO’S TAKING HIS SWEET FUCKING TIME ABOUT IT.
CG: IT’S ALMOST LIKE THE NOOKSNIFFER WANTS TO END UP ON THE WRONG END OF A CULLING FORK.
CG: I’D HAVE LEFT A WEEK AGO IF IT WEREN’T FOR HIM.
GC: YOU M34N H3 D1DNT T3LL YOU? H3H3H3H3H3
CG: TELL ME WHAT?
GC: H3S NOT GO1NG W1TH YOU!
GC: H3 GOT 4 B3TT3R OFF3R! H3H3H3H3
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased trolling gallowsCalibrator [GC] --
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA] --
CG: WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS ABOUT.
CG: TELL ME THAT TEREZI IS JUST BEING AN UTTER BULGEWIPE.
TA: oh my god.
TA: ii only ju2t told her two fucking 2econds ago.
CG: WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME FIRST?
CG: DID IT NOT OCCUR TO YOU THAT MAYBE I WAS A SLIGHTLY HIGHER PRIORITY, SINCE I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU FOR A FUCKING WEEK?
CG: I COULD BE HALFWAY THROUGH THE GRUBLANDS BY NOW.
TA: waiitiing for me? dont be 2tupiid. you were the one whiiniing about haviing two pack.
TA: liike iit2 really that iimportant that you not leave behiind any of your preciou2 moviie2.
CG: SHUT THE FUCK UP.
CG: DON’T CHANGE THE SUBJECT.
CG: WHY AREN’T YOU GOING?
TA: logii2tiically iit work2 better thii2 way.
TA: ii cant giive you a new iidentiity iif ii dont have acce22 two the computer2.
CG: AND YOU THINK YOU’LL HAVE BETTER ACCESS WHEN SOME BLUEBLOOD USES YOU TO FLY HIS SHIP UNTIL GRUBSAUCE DRIBBLES OUT YOUR EARS.
CG: GREAT FUCKING IDEA.
TA: iim not goiing two be a shiip.
TA: certaiinly not ju2t for your benefiit.
TA: ff2 going two take care of iit.
CG: TAKE CARE OF IT.
TA: 2he2 goiing two be the next conde2ce.
TA: iif 2he want2 me a2 her per2onal 2lave, theyll liisten two her.
CG: HER PERSONAL SLAVE.
CG: WHAT THE FUCK.
CG: YOU ACTUALLY AGREED TO THAT.
TA: iit2 the be2t optiion.
CG: NO IT'S FUCKING NOT.
CG: RUNNING AWAY WITH ME IS THE BEST FUCKING OPTION.
TA: runniing away wiith you.
TA: 2pendiing week2 avoiiding monster2 iin the grubland2.
TA: then tryiing two get iinto the ciity wiithout any 2ort of paper2.
TA: and no hope of fakiing any wiithout acce22 to the iimperiial databa2e.
TA: my way ii2 better.
CG: THE REAL CONDESCE’S PEOPLE WILL BE TRYING TO ASSASSINATE FEF ANY CHANCE THEY GET.
CG: ONCE YOU’RE IN THE SYSTEM AS A SLAVE, YOU’LL BE STUCK.
TA: have a liittle faiith iin me.
TA: ii know what iim doiing.
-- twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased trolling twinArmageddons [TA] --
Sollux is probably right, but it’s not like you’d ever admit it. You irritably close the Trollian window and get up from your desk again. Your hive is an utter wreck. You’ve been going through everything you own, trying to decide what you can take with you and what has to stay behind. You manage to get Gamzee to promise to take your whole box set of Troll Grey’s Anatomy, and Terezi has the top twenty five DVDs you didn’t think you could live without. You gave up on your encryption modus sweeps ago, and right now you just have a basic array modus, which is really fucking boring and you’re kind of embarrassed to talk about it but you can’t be fucking around with complicated modi when you’re out in the grublands. You’ve packed and unpacked your sylladex two dozen times so far. You’ll probably take it all out again tonight just to make sure everything’s right.
No, less than that. If you’re going to be honest, you probably only have a day. The imperial drones will be here in three days to start processing all the trolls who reached eight sweeps since their last visit. Everyone knows that there are trolls who try to run, and the culling drones will be out surrounding the area probably a day or two early to make sure no one gets through. If you want to avoid them entirely, it’s best if you leave tonight.
There’s a noise down the hall. It’s the familiar scrape of exoskeleton on plaster. Your lusus is making his slow rounds. You know this pattern by heart. You can’t really communicate with your lusus through anything more sophisticated than body language and miming, but over the sweeps you’ve learned each other’s habits. You don’t strife nearly as much as you used to.
And right there is the reason why you probably won’t be leaving tonight.
Lusi don’t usually survive the loss of their troll charges. Adult trolls don’t usually take their lusi with them when they leave the grublands. Either they’re left to fend for themselves and maybe find a new wiggler to raise, or else they go crazy with grief and get culled by the drones. And if you run—when you run—the drones will put your lusus down. You don’t know if your lusus understands that. You don’t have any way of telling him.
He appears in the doorway, his legs tapping the floor as he moves past. His pale compound eye swivels to follow you for a moment before he passes the doorway and disappears from sight. You are so consumed with guilt that for a moment you just stand there and listen to him move to the end of the hall.
Someone is trolling you.
-- adiosToreador [AT] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
AT: eQUIUS HAS A REALLY BIG HIVE,
AT: yOU SHOULD VISIT,
CG: KIND OF RUNNING OUT OF TIME HERE TAV.
CG: I HAVE SO MANY IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO.
AT: vRISKA IS HERE,
CG: OH WELL IN THAT CASE.
CG: SIGN ME UP.
CG: PSYCHO SPIDERBITCH IS LIKE CATNIP FOR ME.
CG: JUST MENTION HER NAME AND I'M THERE.
CG: I'M LIKE EQUIUS UNROLLING A FRESH CANVAS FULL OF MUSCLEBEAST ASS.
AT: sWEATY AND UNCOMFORTABLE?
CG: FUCKING DRENCHED.
AT: uMMM, oKAY, i GET THAT YOU’RE BEING SARCASTIC,
AT: sINCE THAT’S YOUR THING,
AT: bUT, uMM, iT WOULD BE COOL IF YOU WERE HERE,
AT: sINCE WE MAY NEVER SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN,
CG: YOU TOO, HUH.
CG: “HAVEN’T YOU LEFT YET?”
CG: “WHEN ARE YOU LEAVING?”
CG: “LET’S TAKE BETS ON HOW SOON KARKAT GETS EATEN BY AN UNDEAD MUSCLEBEAST”
CG: I’M JUST SO LUCKY TO HAVE FRIENDS LIKE YOU.
AT: tHAT’S, nOT REALLY WHAT i MEANT,
AT: i MEAN, i GUESS IT SORT OF IS,
AT: wHAT i MEANT WAS JUST THAT i WANTED TO SEE YOU,
AT: bEFORE YOUR TRIP,
CG: DON'T TAKE THIS THE WRONG WAY.
CG: OR YOU KNOW WHAT, KNOCK YOURSELF OUT AND DO.
CG: BUT IF I EVER HAVE TO WATCH EQUIUS CUT YOU IN HALF TO FIT YOU WITH ROBOT LEGS
CG: I MAY HAVE TO GOUGE OUT MY EYEBALLS WITH MY OWN CLAWS.
AT: i DON’T THINK IT’LL BE THAT BAD,
AT: i MEAN, eQUIUS KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING,
AT: mORE OR LESS,
CG: AND OBVIOUSLY HE’S DOING THIS FAVOR FOR A LOWBLOOD OUT OF THE KINDNESS OF HIS HEART.
AT: aRADIA ASKED HIM TO,
AT: bUT i DON’T THINK HE’S THAT BAD,
AT: i MEAN HE IS, bUT,
AT: hE’S NOT,
AT: yOU KNOW?
CG: EITHER YOU’RE GETTING FLUSHED FOR HIM OR YOU’RE SPENDING TOO MUCH TIME TALKING TO GAMZEE.
AT: tHE LATTER i THINK,
AT: iT SORT OF MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE TO THINK ABOUT eQUIUS LIKE THAT,
CG: YEAH ACTUALLY THAT THOUGHT MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE TOO.
AT: i GUESS THIS IS GOODBYE,
AT: aND GOOD LUCK,
CG: SOLLUX ISN’T COMING WITH ME.
AT: yEAH, hE TOLD ME,
CG: WHEN DID HE TELL YOU?
AT: hALF AN HOUR AGO,
AT: rIGHT AFTER HE TOLD vRISKA,
CG: THAT FUCKING BULGEREEK.
CG: IF I GET CULLED BY THE IMPERIAL DRONES
CG: OR EATEN BY THE RAVENOUS UNDEAD
CG: OR GET CAUGHT OUT IN SUNLIGHT AND SUCCUMB TO HIDEOUS BURNS
CG: OR, YOU KNOW, BASICALLY IF ANY OF THE BILLION THINGS THAT CAN GO WRONG DO GO WRONG ON THIS TRIP THROUGH THE GRUBLANDS
CG: WE CAN TRACE IT RIGHT BACK HERE TO THAT FUCKASS DECIDING TO INFORM EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD ABOUT HIS PLANS BEFORE HE BOTHERED TALKING TO ME.
CG: I AM FUCKING DONE WITH HIM PROFESSIONALLY.
AT: yOU KNOW,
AT: hE’S DOING THIS TO SAVE YOUR LIFE,
CG: LET’S JUST HOPE I DON’T DIE BEFORE HE GETS THE CHANCE.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased trolling adiosToreador [AT] --
-- adiosToreador [AT] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
You have a map. Actually it’s cobbled together from a bunch of old FLARPing maps that Tavros and Terezi gave you. You have never played those games for girls but you have to admit the maps are kind of useful, since they have notes about where you can avoid being ambushed by enemies. Sure, it’s meant to be used by FLARPers, but FLARPers have to avoid the real world dangers just as much as you will. That’s what makes extreme role playing so dangerous. And so stupid.
The air in your respiteblock is cold against your skin. You’ve been fucking around with packing and unpacking for at least four hours now. You slot your movies back onto the shelf, a ridiculously futile gesture. When you flee, your hive will be looted by your neighbors, who frankly don’t have the impeccable taste in movies that you do. Your husktop will probably be the first to go, since you can’t really take that with you. At least you have your palmhusk, which should keep you connected to everyone as you make your solitary way through the grublands. Not that they can actually come and help if you need it.
Everything your neighbors don’t take will be left to rot, until your hive gets razed to make room for a new one. Putting things away is not doing anyone any favors, especially you, but it does give you something to do with your hands, and if you don’t have something to do, you’re going to have to face the fact that it’s time to leave.
Of course, now that you’ve had that thought, you have to face that fact. Fuck this shit. You can’t keep wasting your time.
Downstairs, your lusus is grumbling to himself. You can hear him as you descend the stairs, and pity lurches in your chitinous windhole again. You find him in the culinary block. Just outside the door, you equip your sickle, then step through.
“I’m going,” you say, even though you know that your lusus doesn’t understand you. You rest a hand on his carapace. The exoskeleton is cool and smooth and hard under your fingers. His eye swivels toward you, black and shiny. You keep your other hand with the sickle behind your back so he doesn’t see it.
“I won’t see you again,” you said, fighting really hard to keep your voice from trembling. Your lusus senses that you’re upset. He shifts his heavy bulk toward you, and one massive claw scrapes the floor. He bumps against you and you step back. Tears spill stupidly down your cheeks.
“The imperial drones are coming, and they’ll cull you. If you fight them, it’ll be bad.” You’ve lost the battle of keeping your voice even. “You shouldn’t fight them. But I know you will anyway. You’re a lot like me in that way.”
Your lusus rumbles. You stroke your fingers over his exoskeleton again and then abruptly step away and go to the thermal hull. You take out all of the roe cubes.
“Are you hungry?” you ask. You toss him one. He catches it in his maxillae, which ripple and move the roe cube up to his mandibles. You barely give him time to finish that one before you toss him another, and then you take all of the roe cubes out of the thermal hull and put them on the table within his reach.
Your lusus eagerly descends on the pile of roe cubes. You watch, your sickle in your hand. He’s not paying attention to you. He’s happy and he’s distracted and this is your chance. This is so much more merciful than the culling drones will ever be.
You hesitate, feeling sick, and then you unequip your sickle and throw your arms around your lusus, pressing your cheek against his carapace. He shifts, startled, and a hind pereiopod wraps around your leg in a gesture of affection.
“When they come for you, run,” you say against his back. “Just run.”
You stay for a moment longer and then peel yourself away, wiping at your face. You pat him on the carapace. He goes back to his interrupted feast.
You take one final look through your sylladex and square your shoulders. This is it. You're doing it.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling terminallyCapricious [TC] --
CG: THIS IS IT.
CG: I'M OUT.
CG: I'LL SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased trolling terminallyCapricious [TC] --
You’re making it happen.
-- terminallyCapricious [TC] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
TC: dOn’T gO yEt.
TC: ChAnGe Of PlAnS.
TC: sTiLl ThErE mY bRoThEr?