Chapter 1: Here's How it Goes
The last thing you remember is light dazzling your eyes from behind closed lids and relentless sound, a thousand indignant alarms shrieking warnings that barely registered in your overloaded pan. When you wake, everything is dark and silent. You are cold and damp and every inch of you hurts, and for a few bleary seconds you can't remember what your name is or where you are, only that there is an intense, nameless hope making your chest ache--
You see the pilot and it all rushes back.
You have no idea what condition the rest of the ship is in after that firefuck lightshow, but the column, absurdly, is still intact. Your closest friend hangs there, limp as a puppet with all its joints knocked out of place, chin to chest. Your stomach drops. Nothing is flashing, not even emergency lights. Nothing is on.
“Psiioniic.” You're rushing over before you can remember getting to your feet. You cup his face in your hands and your chest seizes up at how heavy his head is as you tilt it back, how still. “Come on, man, wake up. Wake up.”
It didn't work.
He's more than gone. You've seen dead trolls before, you've blessed them and buried them and no one ever knew that you never got used to the absence of breath, of pulse. The idea that your lungs, your bloodpusher, all the nerves and muscles and tendons that worked inside you and made you move and breathe and feel without you ever knowing about it, could all just shut down and stop working was baffling. You never liked to think about it.
This is worse.
There is simply nothing there. He is empty. Erased. Unplugged. Whatever was left of him is more than beyond reach—it never was.
It's absurd. There is a strange sinking feeling in your gut as you stare into his blank goggles and think, but he was just here.
You never were good with computers.
Your knees hit the floor before you realize your legs have gone out from under you. You're sobbing, and there's this dumbfounded, absurd voice gibbering in the back of your head that still thinks if you can just turn him back on and he'll come back; he couldn't have slipped through your fingers that easily. You hate yourself for even thinking that when you're surrounded by cracked computer screens and buttons that won't work no matter what you scream at them.
You stare up at his slack body, and you can imagine him mocking you as clearly as if he'd actually spoken. “Okay, thure, push the button fifty more timeth, maybe it'll change itth mind.”
The longer he doesn't move, the more you grow accustomed to his chest not moving with his breath, the more it sinks in. You failed. The pressure of that thought is overwhelming; you can't breathe. And yet, even as you quake and scream and pound the slimy metal grating again and again until your knuckles are a smear of gore, there's a tired, cynical part of you that whispers did you honestly think it would happen any other way?
You need dirt beneath your feet. You need dry night air and dust and an open sky. If you stay in this room another second you're quite certain that what's left of your sanity will simply evaporate, rising up and out of you and dissolving.
The sound the door makes when you kick it open scares the shit out of you, but it's better than listening to nothing but the unhinged, involuntary sounds coming out of you. The corridors are dark and still and you wish you would have thought to conjure up a flashlight before you left your bubble. You're not sure if you even remember what door it was that led outside.
It's not long before you start to feel turned around. You don't remember it taking this long. The corridors were never this twisted. On a whim, you start trying every hatchway you come across in hope that you might find something that looks faimilar, but the few that open only reveal demolished rooms piled high with dead tentacles. Somehow seeing them in a rotting, unmoving heap is worse than when they used to writhe. Your gorge rises and you fight the urge to punch something again.
“NNNGGH. Goddamn it. God fucking damn it, I WANT OUT.”
You turn around to go back the way you came and plow directly into a wall that was never there before.
“... Oh shit.”
From what little you've learned, this could mean that his is still active in spite of the Psiioniic being... offline, leaving you trapped inside and doomed to wander the randomly changing bowels of his dead ship for the rest of your unnatural afterlife.
Or it could mean that some scrap of him is still here somehow.
You brace your back against the wall, fist your hands in your hair, and let yourself slide down it. Burying your face in your knees, you take deep breaths until your bloodpusher stops pounding and allow yourself to hope.
Chapter 2: I pushed a note under your door
You wake without remembering ever falling asleep. You are in a room you've never seen before, empty save for a window and a foam sleeping pad. It smells aggressively sanitized and is only slightly softer than the floor.
You remember walking until your legs buckled, taking turns at random and watching old hallways vanish and new ones form ahead of you. There was no sense of being guided, no impression that anywhere you headed would be an improvement from where you currently were, but it beat sitting cornered against the wall until grief and guilt and self-accusations drove you crazy.
And now you're here, trying to parse together exactly where here is and how you got there.
You sit up and startle as the lights flicker on.
You bust up laughing. It sounds alarmingly like you broke something in your chest, but once you start it just keeps rolling out of you. You sag against the wall and cackle until you can't breathe, and you're aware you're making deep, wrenching sobs at the same time, and the sounds of your little meltdown are harsh and explosive and echo in this tiny, empty room that he fucking grew around you, all slapdash and unsure, beige floors and beige walls with thin, living tendrils of biowire climbing them like ivy.
He's here. He's here. It's over.
You'd leap up and run to him if you had any power of movement aside from your cramping stomach muscles forcing deeply unhinged sounds past your lips. Gradually, gradually, your breath stops coming sharp and fast and you focus on catching your breath, sucking in gulps of air between wheezing bouts of laughter while you clutch at the wall like a drowning person.
You blurt a scream and nearly jump out of your skin.
“Holy fucking shit--”
There is a pause. You lie there, clutching your chest, and flinch again when the voice returns. You can't be sure, but it almost sounds sheepish.
“Wel-come, guest. We hope you slept satis-factor-ily.” The voice comes from everywhere and sounds radically different from any alarm or announcement you've heard so far. Metallic, male, the pitch a jumble of unpredictable tones the words speeding up and slowing down at random.
“The cur-rent time is 23:34 at 5/5/309805-five?-five?-five?-five?-five?-five?-”
You grimace and hold up your hands to stop. “Fuck, okay, stop, stop, it's fine, TA, I don't need to know--”
“Five?-five?-five please make use of the ablut-ion cham-ber.”
You snort and crack a grin. “Hah. You trying to tell me I stink, you skinny bastard?”
You probably do stink. You don't care. You're giddy and lightheaded and Psiioniic sounds like a fucking speak-and-spell but he's awake and talking to you and every word he says has you grinning with vicious glee.
“Please make use of the ablut-ion cham-ber. Please eat-the-food. Once you've re-freshed your-self please report to the bridge. Thank you. Glory-Glory-Glory-Gl-Fuck-the-Emp-ire.”
You spend a few moments sputtering at that before you notice there's a tray next to your bed that wasn't there a few seconds earlier. It is full of shitty space food you've only read about, freeze-dried shrinkwrapped noodle and protein packets with dehydrated grubsauce and a gooshy packet of some kind of drinkable gel.
You scope out the preparation directions and find they're in complete gibberish. You open the shiny wrapping and try some anyway, a small, solid block of something that's probably some form of starch and has the flavor and texture of packing material. You discover the gel tastes exactly like hangover mouth.
“Bluh. Well. That was delightful, TA. I'm a real goddamn spaceman now. The first thing I'm doing after I hug the everloving fuck out of you is teaching you how to cook.”
You check out the new room that appeared while you were dining. It's the most bizarre thing you've ever seen. The towels are made of the same dense foam as your bed and are fused to the wall where they hang. The sink has no mirror or faucet. The load gaper is simply a hole, and you laugh a bit nervously peering into it even as you have the strangest urge to drop something in just to see if you can hear it hit bottom.
The trap is just large enough to hold you. Dangling from the door is an exact replica of your current clothes. Inside, there are little pots what you're guessing are supposed to be shampoo and soap and bath oils, but the containers are made from the same material as the wall and the lids are fused closed.
The water works. You shed your clothes, step inside, and adjust the temperature as hot as you can stand. Your knuckles are an unholy mess, the scabs cracked open and oozing. You try willing them away, like you did with your ribs, and feel a stab of relief as they begin to close. Good. Good. That still works.
It's the best bath you've had in recent memory. You're grinning and your chest aches, and you realize it's because you are showering in his vague memory of what an ablution trap is and he doesn't know you don't need to eat or breathe or take a shit. He is caring for you in the only way he knows how and it's the sweetest thing you've ever seen.
Chapter 3: I hear the clockwork in your core
The corridors have the same hesitant, half-done feel to them feel to them that your room does. Gone are the harsh fluorescent lights, the naked pipes, the metal flooring. The din of ship noises you've grown used to are quieter now, muted, and you feel the throb of faraway engines thrumming up through your bare feet. You can sense the questioning uncertainty with every new detail (Thith ith carpet, right? Am I doing the lightth right?)The result is something softer, almost homey, all of it in blank, soothing shades of cream and beige. Even the biowire lining the walls and ceiling seem less horrific and almost natural, like veins.
You're just beginning to remember you have no idea where you are, let alone where the bridge is, when you stumble upon it.
And nearly fall flat on your ass, because the bridge is essentially a bubble and for a horrifying, vertigo inducing second you thought you stepped into the vastness of space. It's all you can do to keep your weak knees from collapsing as you stare up and up and up and holy shit you've never seen stars like this in your life--
You turn to stare at the Psiioniic, and this time your legs do give out. He's still bound up in the wires, he's dripping yellow down his chin from a bitten tongue, but he's moving and breathing, and just seeing him holding himself up on his own accord while he frowns and tilts his head at you is enough to render you speechless.
“You're here. You're here. I wathn't dreaming that part.” He doesn't seem to notice his tongue. His voice is soft and hoarse and hearing that unmistakable lisp has you close to tears again. “... Are you hurt.”
You give your head a violent shake to clear it. “Uh. No. Uh. Give me a second.”
“I didn't dream you.”
“I certainly fucking hope not.” You take a few deep breaths before struggling to your feet and crossing the platform in front of the column. Now that you're not reeling quite so much, you're aware that this room feels smaller than the one that previously housed him. Intimate. His. “... Uh. You're bleeding. You know you can fix that, right?”
You show him your knuckles where the skin has healed over into shiny slightly darker patches of grey. “Yeah, just think it away. Uh. What do you remember?”
“Waking up here, quiet. You weren't here.”
“I know. I'm sorry.”
“But you're here.”
“Could you come clother?”
“You bet your ass I will.”
He makes a small choked sound as you put your arms around him, and the way he sags into you and buries his face against the side of your head completely shatters what's left of your composure. You feel his breath hitch and all at once you're both bawling like wrigglers.
He's like hugging a skeleton. His goggles dig into your scalp. You can feel every strangled sob that wrenches through him and he's babbling into your neck, and you hold on, being silent and solid and there, until he's limp and trembling and all cried out.
“You have me.” you whisper into his hair, feeling the sharp angles of his shoulders and every knob of his spine under your hands.
“You have me too.”
That almost starts you going again and you cling hard for a few more seconds before drawing back. He's grinning hideously, his teeth stained yellow. You wipe the blood off his chin with the cuff of your sleeve.
“I think my tongue ith better. Look.”
He displays his tongue and you blurt a laugh. “Yeah, you're good. You don't have to be trapped in this thing either, you know. You can come out, it won't kill you.”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
“I'm not going to.”
Your jaw drops open. “What? Why the hell not?!”
“I don't want to.”
Your blood pressure is rising. “WHAT.” He winces, his shoulders hunching up to his ears, and you instantly feel terrible. “Shit, shit, I'm sorry, it's just. You don't have to do this. You don't have to live this part, TA, you can have your body back.”
“Thith ith my body--”
“No, right now you are a column, you monumental idiot.”
“No, no. Thith. Thith ithn't bad.”
You gape at him and he only shakes his head gently.
“There'th no thythtem thurveillance. No deterrent thubroutineth. No Condethe. Jutht me.” He makes a thin, victorious smile. “I can do whatever I want.”
Chapter 4: Things come to blows
With his help, you're able to find the area your two universes merge. Stepping off a humming, living ship onto dusty earth and grass and sky isn't any less weird than the last time you did it.
The first thing you do is hug a fucking apple tree. You press your face against the rough bark, wrap your hands around the bases of thin, twisty branches and listen to the wind stirring the leaves. You cling to it like it's a long lost flushcrush for what feels like an absurd amount of time, your mind quieting by degrees, waves of cautious relief rolling through you as you breathe air that isn't sterilized and enjoy the unobtrusive comfort of crickets chirping.
Eventually you conjure up food—real food—a water jug, eating knives, plates, bowls, soap, washcloths, blankets. With effort, you're able to remember the kind of coffee the Psiioniic drank as well as the glass coffee press he used. This time you have the presence of mind to make a satchel to carry it all in.
The look he gives you when you return to the bridge with it is priceless.
“Is-all-that-for-me? Tell me that is not all for me.”
The weird choppy metallic voice is back. You huff, absurdly reminded of all those times you'd sit together in the evenings and Psiioniic would text you while sitting on the same pile of pillows.
“Wait until you see what's inside before you say that.” you say, and gesture at where you assume the PA system is. “Why're you back to this again?”
“Us-ing my meat to talk. Feels-feels-feels-feels strange.”
You frown. “Nothing hurts, does it? Remember, you can fix that.”
“No-thing hurts. Just my tongue. Feels. All-these-teeth-in-my-head.”
“It's a lot to get used to again. But you really should talk, Psii.”
“My voice-box buzzzzzzzzzzes.”
“It's supposed to.”
You offer to clean him up, and he lets you. Balancing on the railing near his column and half leaning on him, you are close enough to be able to see his eyes squinting gingerly from behind transparent lenses as you hold a bowl of water in one hand and dab gently at his face with the other. You wipe away blood and dried tears and drying slime from the thin tendrils wrapped around his horns and head. You find a few healing abrasions here and there, a small cut just under the red lens, and yellow fingertip shaped bruises from where you'd held his head still when you kissed him.
Fuck. You manage not to grimace at the memory in spite of the stabbing sensation it causes in your gut, but it's a very near thing. Something in how your expression goes still makes him take notice anyway. He bumps his forehead against yours.
Now that it's in your head, it won't leave. What a great time for your noses to be almost touching. And yet, you don't want to draw back. You really wish he'd come out of that pillar because he's breathing and warm and holding himself so trustingly still for you and you want him to put his arms around you with an urgency that borders on desperate.
“Hey. Thankth.” he whispers.
The edge of a rasp you hear makes your chest tighten and you have to pause to hug him after all. He tilts his head into yours, like before, and you think if this hurts any more wonderfully you're going to explode.
You take in a deep breath and let it out slowly while you draw back and finish up. His collarbones are appallingly skinny. “No, it's good.” You frown at his suit. “I can't do much about your clothes, but you can imagine up another suit that isn't completely foul.”
He speaks slowly, concentrating, trying to remember where to put his tongue to form the words. “Jutht think about it?”
There is a brief moment where reality bends a bit and between one breath and the next the Psiioniic is wearing a clean copy of his old suit. His brows furrow briefly as he considers something, and then the black and mustard pattern flickers into red and blue.
“Oh god. Dolorosa would be appalled.”
“Ehehehe. Mm. I mith her.”
Oh god that laugh. “I do too.”
“Have you ever theen her?”
The fragile hope in his voice makes your chest hurt. “No. I've only ever found you. But I figure they must be out there somewhere.”
You see his eyes widen. “May-be. Maybe I could find-them. Is it possibletomovedreambubbles? Do you think I could-drive-one?”
Your heart sinks a little at the relapse, but you can't blame him. Out of nowhere, the mental image enters your head of him pacing, gesticulating wildly while off on some meandering train of thought.
You turn the question over in your head. It's not an idea you've ever considered. You shrug. “I honestly don't know. It's worth trying. But not right now. Right now I'm going to stuff your face.”
That makes both his brows shoot up and he blurts a strangled sound. “Oh god-god-god-god no, I re-mem-ber those giant co-ma inducing dinners you would make us.”
It's a strange feeling, being sassed via the PA system, hearing his distinct humor filtered and interpreted through discordant, raucous thought to speech software. You feel inexplicably as though they were sharing an in-joke.
“And don't think I've for-got-ten that incident at that back-wa-ter South River Temple. You had to feed EV-RY-ONE and Dol-or-osa near-ly wrung-wrung-wrung your neck.”
You're cackling before he's even finished. He's making wheezing, hiccuping sounds with you even while the automated voice natters on.
“It was dim solstice, it was their beach, and they were fucking poor! How do you even remember that.”
“Hooooow-how-how-how-how-how could I forget?! I bet they ev-en re-mem-ber.”
“Fucking hell. Well, I don't care, my cooking can live on in infamy, I'm still feeding you because you are a skeleton and that's final.”
His brows furrow upward as he shakes his head. “I'll throw up. My di-gest-ive sac can't. Can't. Can't. Fuck.”
You bark a laugh. Hearing the computer cuss will never get old.
“Do I ev-en have one any-more?”
“It doesn't matter.” You step down and begin rummaging through your bag. You bring out an apple and a knife and you glance up. His mouth has dropped open, his eyes locked on the fruit like you're about to use it to propose marriage. Your lips quirk. “We're dead. Eating, breathing, shitting, we don't really need all of that. It doesn't mean there's anything stopping us, though.”
He tilts his head. “And sleep-ing?”
You begin peeling the apple while you think that one over. He can smell it, you can see him trembling in suppressed excitement, his eyes locked on your hands.
“I guess not. I get ambushed with the urge to sleep, but I don't think we really need it, it's just something I haven't learned to let go of yet.” You cut the apple into slices and pop one into your mouth. His breath catches at the sound of it crunching. “So do you want this or not?”
“YES.” The word is laced with a bit of feedback. You wince.
“Then fucking say it.”
He strains against his bioware. “Hell yeth.”
You give him one. He gnashes it into a grainy pulp, gasping and blurting little incoherent sounds. The speakers are making random, manic nonsense vowels at the same time. You wait for him to swallow, and his expression tells you that swallowing feels deeply unsettling. You give him another, then another.
“There's more in the bag. I also brought nuts and figs and grubloaf for later. I can make whatever you want, I just have to go into my bubble to do it.”
“Fuck. Fuck. CG you're amathing.” Then he bursts into more of those wheezing cackles, grinning hugely. “Thith ith all tho dithgusthingly pale.”
Your face is aching, you're smiling so hard. “Isn't it?”
You feed him another slice and flinch as he nips your fingertips. “Fuck! Watch the teeth, dumbass, my hands aren't a part of this course.”
“They're amathing. Look at them. Maybe I want to thteal them.”
You roll your eyes. “You have your own hands.”
You pause. At least you hope he has his own hands.
“I don't remember handth. Can I thee yourth?”
“... Uh. You're seeing them, TA. See?” You waggle your fingers.
“No, no, like thith--”
And it takes everything in you not to yelp as suddenly your hands are being enveloped in wet, slender tendrils. There is a clatter, and you realize you dropped the knife. You freeze up and forget to breathe, but the Psiioniic doesn't notice. He peers at your hands like they're a new puzzle, head tilted as his bioware writhes over your palms, twining around your fingers like little vines.
He bends your fingers gently. You try to breathe and repeat to yourself that they're him, they're him, he's just looking.
Your stomach drops as more crawl down your wrists, and you jerk as they start to wind their way into the burned out rings there.
“OKAY, okay that's enough stop it, fucking stop it--”
The Psiioniic gasps, startled, and you feel all of them twitch. His eyes lock on yours and turn stricken the second he sees your face. The tendrils slither back as though you'd burned them as the PA system booms to life, the words raining down on you and punctuated with bursts of heavy static.
“I-I-I-I-sorry-so-sorry assault is a direct violation of protocol oh GOD OW OW OW--”
“Oh fuck me--” you snarl and grip his shoulders and try to ignore how he jerks as if jabbed with something sharp, his spine arching. “No, no, no, we're not doing this. This stops right fucking now. I said stop it.”
"MAKE. IT STOP. CG. CG CG CG CG no-no-no-no-no-noooo-oo-o--”
“LISTEN GODDAMN IT.”
There is a hanging pause in the cacophony of guilty babble over the speakers and he looks at you, tense, waiting for the next spasm to rip through him.
“Stop.” You pap his chest and leave your hand pressed there, fingers spread wide, your eyes locked on his. “This is you, Psii, you said so yourself. Stop. It's fine. I'm fine.”
You put your arms around him and let him burrow close as much as he can. “Oh shoosh, you dick, shut up, you're ridiculous. Now come on, turn off the spanking program and talk to me.”
“I should have thaid. I'm thorry, I didn't think--”
“No, no. It's okay. Just... warn me next time.”
He nods. Gradually the bridge quiets down and you're left holding a limp, shaking troll.
“It'th eathier being in the thircuitth.” he whispers. “Out here my thoughth are tho fatht and my tongue can't keep up and that never would have happened, your writht--”
You let your hands drift down his back. “It's no harm done. Now let it go.”
He breathes out a long, ragged sigh and nods.
“It only feels hard because you're not used to it. Give it time. Trust me.” You draw back to look at him and see him understanding. You thumb the tears away. “Now let's stop this bullshit before we turn into something out of a pale sitcom.”
He snorts. “Y-yeah.”
“Want some grubloaf?”
Chapter 5: Time strips the gears
You spend the majority of your time in TA's bubble while he learns the limits of what he can and can't do.
You tell him everything you know. You were never a good writer or speaker, you could never twist words into glorious tools etched in righteous fire—that was more the Disciple's area—but once you know how to do something, you're good at teaching others how.
You do your best to reintroduce him to things, what he wants, what he misses. You learn it's mostly food. He is in love with tastes and textures of all sorts. Apples. Behemoth steaks. Chocolate dipped centipedes. Bacon. Gumbos. Stews. Spicy fried grasshoppers. More apples. You discover you don't like grubcakes the way you used to; after he inhales his, you try one too and wonder how the fuck you didn't rot your fangs clean out of your jaw mainlining that sugarcrusted shit when you were younger.
At first he can only conjure shadows of things, transparent glimpses of objects that fade from reality the second he stops focusing on them. Slowly, he manages to conjure memories and make them stick—his first success cracks your bloodpusher unexpectedly. One minute you're sitting crosslegged on the floor, trying and failing not to stare at his squirming bioware while he concentrates, and the next you're holding a box of honeysticks he used to swipe from Dolorosa's tea supplies.
His resulting giddy conniption fit blew out all the lights in the room, but you were too busy hugging him to care.
You help him remember recupracoons, ablution traps, and food prep blocks, and in return you get a bittersweet reminder of just what a stickler for specifics he is. He is hungry for structure and details in a way that has you awash in memories of how he used to pore over his portable honeycomb system: carefully siphoning off the mind honey, attaching and reattaching wires, and guiding the bees to shape the comb in different ways to maximize performance.
He worked his fingers to the bone, handling impossibly delicate structures without so much as a tremor, ignoring stings, all single-minded concentration and endless patience … until something would interrupt him and he flipped a table with his brain, anyway.
Sometimes you find yourself staring at the top half of the pillar and try to imagine those hands somewhere inside there.
* * * *
Once he gets it, it's hard to make him stop. He is a quick learner with absolutely no regard for any weakness his meat shows, and he tires easily.
This frustrates the living hell out of him. You can sympathize—if you were a torso inside a bunch of crawling wires with nothing better to do than alter your surroundings, you would be impatient too. You don't want to make him stop; this work is all he has. The frustrated grumbling and sighs he makes when you insist he take a break fucking kills you every time, but it only takes one stress induced migraine to cement in his pan just how necessary rest is.
You end up dimming the lights down low and doing your best to distract him with scalp massages and garlic salted grubcorn while some terrorcomedy grubvid plays in the background. You entertain the hope that he's engrossed by it, but that hope sinks when he heaves a heavy sigh.
“I hate it back here.” he mutters. “I can hear mythelf, CG, it'th awful. How do you deal with it all the time?? I can hear my bloodpusher. I can hear my breath. I can hear my tongue. I can hear mythelf thwallow. I can hear myself squidging around. It'th diguthting.”
“You've been awake a grand total of three nights. You still have a lot to get used to.”
“I have no life like thith. I can't make thingth how I want them.”
“You don't get it, I know you're trying to help, but I don't mith dirt or grath or any of that shit--”
You snort. “You wouldn't think that if you actually saw dirt and grass.” His shoulders hunch and you pap his lips lightly before he can grumble. “Shoosh. Don't be rash, now. Your skull aches like fuck and you're miserable, of course you don't want to be here. Give it--”
“Time. Ugh.” He rolls his eyes so hard his head lolls with it. “You're alwayth telling me to give it time.” he mutters against your fingers. “I already gave it time. Do you know how long three dayth feelth to me in realtime? Everything ith tho thlow out here.”
You wonder how long 1300 sweeps would feel.
You are rapidly approaching that hopeless point where you no longer know how to respond. You forgot how exhausting lobbying back and forth like this was, how harsh he could be with himself. If you let on for even a second that you're flagging, he'll simply stop trying. You remember downswings that lasted for months when he was alive; you don't want to know what one might be like when he's mostly machine and has nothing but time.
You project a velvety reassurance into your voice that you don't feel. “It won't always be.”
He grunts a tired, noncommittal noise as he sinks against you again, and you shut your eyes in relief.