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Wires and Stars: Initiation

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twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

TA: hey AA.
AA: s0llux. what's g0ing 0n?
TA: well a2iide from the weiird dream2 not much.

Even though you're typing, not speaking, there's a kind of tightness in your throat and you can only manage to ask super-casually:

TA: you gettiing anythiing liike that AA?
AA: like what?

You don't even know where to start, that's the problem, and that's why this was a stupid idea, that's why you shouldn't have said anything.

You must sit there for fifteen minutes composing and deleting lines:

liike the2e dream2 where youre a liiviing computer or 2omethiing

where everythiing hurt2 liike a miigraiine but wor2e except there2 al2o all thii2 complex calculatiion and movement goiing on
where your body ii2 not your body and iin2tead youre iin 2ome kiind of

(that one fails when you can't think of how to finish the sentence: in some kind of what?) where your word2 are all gone and 2pace goe2 on forever around you and youre 2creamiing

You finally settle on sending:

TA: where youre you but youre not you and everythiing ii2 fucked up

Because everything else about the dreams kind of defies comprehension or description. You're afraid she won't know what's going on. You're a little bit afraid that she will. But you're even more afraid that you'll describe it wrong and she'll misrecognize whatever the hell is happening to your head and then you'll be flayed open in front of her and even more alone.

AA: n0 i can't say i've had anything like that
AA: s0rry

 

TA: dont miind me, ii just woke up kiinda dii2oriiented

you say. Your bloodpusher sinks into your stomach, and you don't go out of your hive for days.

~~~

This is Karkat Vantas: Hemoanonymous, shouty, actually capable of beating you at video games once he gets used to your superior system performance.

He could learn to code, if he put his back into it. He doesn’t, though.

Damned if you can figure out what’s up with that kid.

He lives closer than Aradia, so you see him often enough. You met him in schoolfeeding. His attendance in the student chats was always incredibly diligent, an odd trait in the only troll you know whose attitude is as wildly irreverent as yours in most other ways, more so in some; but that’s why you managed to meet him. It was incredibly rare that you’d actually be there in person, so it took diligence to be on when you were on.

There were just so many more efficient ways of studying the information that dealing with tedious tapes and response chats was a downright ridiculous way to spend your time. And then there was the propaganda to filter out, and if you were going to sit through learning things you wanted to learn the real versions...

Solluxbot was one of your first coding projects; it would sit there making mostly-accurate responses on your husktop while you were across the room on another machine, hitting up the dark net for the truth behind whatever they were pretending to teach you.

And then every so often you’d wander in, disable the bot and ask an innocent-sounding question that might get some of the other students to look behind the facade. Good times.

That was how you wound up trolling Karkat Vantas, during one of the many units on the Imperial Service. This lesson was so thick with disinformation that you couldn’t tackle it singlehandedly and still sound innocent – so you were running two alt accounts so they couldn’t trace you, and for once had all eyes on the screen.

And at first you thought he was doing the same thing you were, because of how earnest his questions were. And then you realized that he was actually being that earnest, or at least, you thought so. This was kind of concerning.

You found him on Trollian and – as he’d say from one of his stupid movies – it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It took you an hour of trolling him before you realized that he was that earnest but he also wasn’t dumb. Like he got louder when he wasn’t sure what to believe. And you could respect that.

Sometimes you think his obsession with romcoms is more self-aware than it seems. They’re affectedly unrealistic, and everything always comes out all right. Why Karkat needs those two characteristics together, you don’t know, but even though you’d never say so, you can kind of respect that.

He’s been over to your place before, and you’ve been to his. But this is the first time you’ve kept the game marathon going until dawn. You realize the sun will be coming up soon, but shove it to the back of your mind; and when he asks if he can stay over, you decide you’d be an asshole to tell him no.

“What the hell. There’s enough recuperacoon for both of us. Make yourself comfortable.”

Later you won’t even begin to understand why you thought that was a good idea. Right now, out as soon as you hit the sopor...

 

–you are damaged, limping, trying to calculate but the numbers keep blurring, leaking out with blood and air – there's a piece chewed out of your side, and you can feel each individual nerve swaying, dangling, the edges of your lacerated lung - you count down five, four, three – hyperbolic space – two – like someone took a rod of glowing iron to a grid and molded it 'round, and the grid is full of numbers, and the numbers are stars – one, the calculations are still multiples faster than when you are awake, but not fast enough, and cold crunches into your bones like the icy teeth of the void, and a radiance like a planet-cleansing bomb sears through your eyelids, and some near-forgotten speck of you, no bigger than a cell, a neuron, buried in your center, something remembers pain and screams

 

–you wake to Karkat’s hands on your shoulders and he is shaking you so hard it’s making your head hurt. And shouting. That’s not so great for the head either.

“I’M TALKING TO YOU FUCKASS. THAT’S RIGHT, YOU, THOLLUCKTH CAPTOR, YOU HALLUCINATING PIECE OF WORK, GET BACK HERE, WHATEVER THE FUCK IT IS YOU’RE DOING–”

Reflexively you push him away, hands and psionics both at once, shoving him to the opposite wall of the ‘cupe. “Hey, hey, thtop it, KK, what the fuck–” Your voice is hoarse, like you’ve been screaming. You don’t remember screaming.

He has a strange expression on his face. “Fucking hell, Sollux, that’s what I’ve been asking you for the last however many minutes. WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT.”

“I, um, I get day terrors sometimes,” you say lamely. You wince, and try to assess the damage: head throbbing, elbow also feels bruised, like you smacked it into something, and you stand up in the ‘cupe and rub at it.

“In case you’re wondering,” he says, “you whacked me with your elbow and knocked the wind out of me. Why didn’t you WARN me about your day terrors, you little shit? I mean I know everyone gets them but yours are like supercharged and fucking ridiculous. Do you need to change out the sopor in this thing?” He’s shouting, his voice shaky and a little scratchy.

It registers, dimly, that the expression on his face is one of relief, and quite possibly you are a huge asshole. “I didn’t know I’d do that–”

“And then you fucking stared at me with your eyes wide open and babbled some shit about how you watched me die. Great way to make a friend feel comfortable. Best fucking sleepover ever. Were you hatched this creepy or did you learn it from a tutorial?”

You were going to be more apologetic than this, but that one hurt, and you don’t want to show it, so instead you snicker at him and say “Way to freak out, KK. I hope you didn’t shit the cupe, because if you did I’m sending you the cleaning bill.”

“Fuckass.”

You shower off and shove at each other a little and you keep watching him out of the corner of your eye and he’s ranting at you, on and off, but he hasn’t backed away. And he stays through breakfast even though even someone you didn’t scream at in your sleep would have every right to refuse the shitty instant meals you pretend are food.

It still stings to have him shout at you, but it feels good, too, in a weird way, to have someone calling you as crazy as you are. Like ripping the bandage off a cut to clean it and put a new one on. And you don’t feel guilty about being vicious back.

That is Karkat Vantas, and yes, you goddamn nooksucker, of course you’re still friends.

~~~

The shells of empty energy grubs litter your desk and your head is close to your keyboard; you’re typing with your eyes closed, but it doesn’t matter all that much. The structure of what you’re creating is in your head, not on your screen – otherwise you could sleep right now and it would still be there in the evening, right? Right. You’re used to running these races against time and sleep, and to doing it voluntarily, pushing yourself this far because you want to. You’re five and a half sweeps old, and a mustardblood at that. No one is going to pay you to genetically engineer bees that are more compatible with an obscure and apparently useless programming language.

Drones buzz around your hives, aimless and worried. You have two more hours to manipulate the genetic code of this crop of eggs before they break the wax seals of their honeycombs, either as healthy larvae with a complete extra chromosome written into their cells, or mutant or stillborn if you fuck up or run out of time. Just two hours, and either way you can sleep.

Your head drops; a horn taps against your screen and startles you awake. You’re getting desperate enough to reach back, yank at the dim remnants of your psionics, and zap yourself on the back of the neck. It’s dangerous and doesn’t work very well, but your eyes squint open involuntarily from the pain, your vision bleary and purplish. Something is wrong. Your powers felt something – you reach a tendril back, carefully, trying to feel and type at the same time, watching your code crawl across the screen like an alien alphabet. There’s… a cobweb attaching your chair to your upper back? Fuck, you’ve been coding for a long time – no, there’s another thread below it, too thick to be a cobweb, and then another. You fling your senses backward – the threads knit into a cable – but then your psionic reserves thrum with exhaustion and fizzle out. Fine. You reach back with your actual hands, twisting awkwardly because the thing restricts your movement. Yeah, it’s a cable. It connects your spine to the wall behind you.

Even now you’re aware that there’s something unnatural in your apathy, but the wire has been there for ages. It’s meant to be there. It’s meant to sustain you, to focus and transmit your power and intellect, like the other cables, the one fused to the base of your tailbone and the thicker one plugged into the back of your skull.


art by shai

You remember, relieved, that you don’t need your keyboard anymore – you can just visualize your code and bypass muscle altogether, transmute your intentions into light that sings through your connectors, back into the warm, wet wall and then forward through the loops that tie in to your husktop. The cords pass right in front of you, easily visible in the light from the screen and the dim violet pulse of the walls – why haven’t you noticed them before? Maybe because you haven’t bothered to open your eyes for a while...

You jerk awake so hard your shoulderblades hit the frame of your chair. That’s going to be a bruise. And – cable? Spine? Wall? Sollux, get it together, you’ve been awake so long you’re hallucinating.

Fuck this mess. No dreams can possibly be worse than this. All interest in continuing coding tonight drains out of you like a plug was pulled. (Bad choice of thoughts; the feeling of the connector in your spine flickers through your mind again and you wince. On some level, some part of you, you want all the information you can have; information is armor. But digging through backchannel internet forums for illegal documents about starship helmsmen, obsessively re-loading to find the horrible images and accounts before they’re taken down, is probably a bad idea, even though you can’t stop.) This batch of bees can go screw themselves with their mutated stingers. There will be other badass larvae another time. It’s not like the side gigs you’ve landed won’t pay for them.

To the ‘cupe with you. Even the obligatory stop at the load gaper makes your legs wobble and your mind drift, and you just barely care enough to take your clothes off before collapsing into the warm sopor. Now you can sleep...

...Well, the other half of you can sleep. Your right half will needle with pain, your red eye will flicker on and shade your computer block’s diffuse purple a few degrees warmer. A catheter in your neck will release adrenaline. You’re only allowed to be fully awake when you – she needs the full range of your skills then – and she wants you to fully experience every – every one, billions… you’re waking up now.

The flood of chemicals leaves you grasping at homeostasis, what’s left of your muscles twitching, one spasming too hard and letting go with a snap that you hear refracted back at you, microseconds later, through your wires, dulled by the room’s ropey tissue walls into a thump. You’re being force-fed an endless audio stream of this room, your own sick corporeal sounds, the sighing of your machinery. You’re absorbing an endless feed of everything, all the time, but right now she must want you to feel this or you wouldn’t be here.

And you do feel. They’re drawing down your painkillers. What do they want from you? She – who is she? – cascading winglike hair, luscious sanguine flowers with complex swirling petals – you writhe, and the floor heaves and gasps, and lines flicker onto the screen across the room from you, words your sight has been too clouded with floating gray burrs to read for sweeps. There’s a tightening under your useless eyes; something outside of you is pulling at your tear ducts, like it’s curious, like it’s trying to see if they still work. They don’t, they shut off around the same time you had to push a needle down a vein in your neck and into your own bloodpusher, thread tiny replacement parts down past your collarbones, titanium and cartilage, and stop the beat for one pulse, two, kill yourself off for just enough time to upgrade yet another part of you that was dying. Jolt yourself, jump your heart, live again.

A snicking, like a lens falling into place, and the scene changes. They've overridden your eyes, and you prepare to scan the – no. No, the scene hasn't changed... it's the angle. You're looking in, at this room, not outside at a (target) destination. Unclouded by your body's crumpling corneas you see your prison walls, coruscating in time with your stent-steadied pulse, sighing in tune with your breath: pure violet and dripping hot ichor, cording and coiling from their silvery tips at the seams of the screen in great arcs to sink into the welcoming mesh they've made of your calves and forearms, your shoulders and the length of your back. Near-engulfed in vivid purple, the gray skin that's left – chest, thighs, face beneath the goggles – reads like a carved gargoyle, knotted and worn away, a grimy cameo in amethyst.

And that (oh fuck oh god what happened to me I ) that is what remains of your body, unsurprising and unchanged, as if the millennia had given up and abandoned you for dead. For centuries you watched yourself retch every time they played this camera trick. Now you're either desensitized to it or dripped full of anti-emetics. You know what they want before the equipment drops from the ceiling - what she wants, because there is no rational use for this, nothing but (pain and senseless renewal) art, and that is her signature. The goggles pull away from your face, wires drawing loose from forehead and cheekbones to claw, glistening, at the air. You flick at your power and, unflinching, draw the tiny hollow needle in. Cut by delicate cut, you are making this repair, and she has made certain you will feel every moment of it.

There is no rational use in forcing the eyes in your body to see again.

~~~

You’re not sure how long you’ve been senselessly screaming by the time you wake up, only that your throat hurts and you... You were wrong about the dreams not being worse. Very wrong. You can’t, won’t return to that place. Your bloodpusher is pounding like shitty techno music and your eyes are wide open. Too much. Too far...

You didn’t even bother to shut off your husktop when you went down. You dimly remember typing those lines, here and not-here at the same time, and some of them are even coherent - though you’ll have to do something with them next time, as this batch of larvae is a wash. Except in the middle there’s this burst of... you must have drooped forward and hit the keyboard, it’s an incoherent bunch of junk.

Just in case the junk turns out to be something useful you clip it out and drop it in a file. Then you open five projects at once and set to work on them. You’re not going to sleep again. Nope. No way. Not happening. It becomes superstitiously, vitally important not to go to sleep; as if the world will end when you finally do. (In some part of you, you know it won’t. You don’t know why you know that, not yet.)

You load everything at once, music and code parsers and sound and light. You troll everyone you know, and some people you don’t, with whatever you can think of to type.

It’s maybe the second day or so when something clicks over, like a switch flipping, and you feel like you couldn’t sleep if you tried. The shit you’re sending your friends goes from grumbling to exuberantly creative to absolutely primo, through-the-fucking-roof meaningless hoofbeastshit. You brag about how badass you are until even you almost can’t see the desperation underneath.

But it's not the kind of giddy, spin-dizzy high mood you've been in before. It's as if you're overclocked past a hard limit, and you didn't know it could get bad like this. You're used to going through a manic jag and laughing it off, maybe regretting something later in a kind of mental hangover, but you didn't take seriously the idea that there could be anything really wrong with you in this state.

You’re not sure how many days pass. However many it takes for AA to come all the way out here from her rural hive. You don’t remember letting her into the apartment. Did you give her a key of her own at some point, maybe?

It doesn’t seem important. The storms of mental energy you ride are turning on you with whiplash force, and you find yourself sitting there trying to tell AA about the plan you're making for your next computing rig, and it's torture. You can't talk as fast as you're thinking, not remotely. By the time you've said one sentence, your 'pan has leapt over the next several, and you find yourself blurting out something as close as possible to what you're thinking now, skipping the intervening steps. AA looks up at you in total bewilderment, and the frustration boils up in you and you shout at her for being stupid.

She looks back at you, surprisingly calm. Concerned, you think vaguely, from the way her brows draw together. Your thinkpan runs an entire script in which you are tired of her meddling, another in which you are desperately sorry, and is launching into one where you really need to actually show her the equipment so that she will understand it properly and she can learn about apiculture networking and love it forever by the time she speaks. "I was going to make myself a cup of tea," she says. "If you like – oh, I'll just make you one too. You can thank me later."

Another thousand sweeps pass, everything around you in unbearable slow motion. You are down on your hands and knees swapping out a honeycomb and making shorthand notes about how you expect it to improve graphical performance and she's back with the tea. It is hot and tastes of fruit and bitter spices and it feels good going down your throat. You set it aside, distractedly, because you were working on a thing, and she brings it back in front of you. You drink some more, because it's in front of you. The world begins to speed up to a vaguely normal pace.

You don't notice that until you notice that you're flickering in and out of wakefulness, that there are dead moments in between sentences, in between movements–

points of light, a three-plus dimensional field of coordinates, the beginning and the end of an exact arc, plotted planned compiled perfectly the mainframe stirs with life and information and if you alter the placement just so, the vibrations from the insects' dances will carry across the chamber perfectly, exactly the length of the harmonic you press your energies outward, across the whole skin of the ship, a dancing wavefront, and feel a moment of pride in how perfectly you cancel the resonant strain that would shake you to pieces and a bee wanders across your hand as you brace for the jump

–and you back away from the mainframe because you seriously do not want to damage this thing.

"AA," you realize. "What did you–"

She catches you as you slump.

She’s very strong but very short and your limbs stick out awkwardly but you can’t struggle against this drugged lassitude; and then you’re in your recuperacoon, and the hazy repetitive thoughts of your constant work fade out.

A blindness dream again. Or -

You dream that you are being warped, that you’re far too close to something so vast that it sucks at your skin, that you’re straining your power to the very dizzying bottom of your reserves to wrench yourself free. In this distorted ripple-space, the loose soil at the edge of an infinite grave, the fabric of time elongates along with your body, and for the first time your frenzied polyphonic dream-thoughts slow enough for your conscious mind to parse them. No, not blindness: you are merely dedicating the majority of your awareness to senses that are not sight: the impulsive force of your psionics, the tensile strain on your skin. You open your eyes. Dream-space wavers; light falls screaming past you into the abyss. You look down on your body kicking for freedom. Your engines. Your sleek straining biometal hull. Your–

–no. No. In an implosion of bewildered anger you propel yourself up, up, past the event horizon, spinning uncontrolled and safe. You wake up with your mouth full of sopor, trying to scream. You choke and gasp and you are alive. You are not a goddamned ship, they don’t have you yet, you are alive. But there is something itching at a corner of your dream-memory, something bitter at the back of your tongue that isn’t slime. Just as you’d been waking up, you’d felt it – just barely the first upwelling murmurs of it, but still there’s a chill in your marrow and your tongue curls back on itself – a nameless, ancient, inconsolable fury. You lived. And you had wanted so much, for centuries, for eons, with an immensity of desire that made a mockery of the love and ambition of planets and races, a need inexorable as gravity…

In your dream, you had so longed to die.

You drift under, again. Later a fresh smell reaches your nose and you wake, or half-wake, to hunger and soft melodic humming. Something is still wrong; you can’t quite move normally and your eyes won’t open all the way. You grunt and hear Aradia’s voice: “Oh - Sollux - just a minute! I think I figured out food shopping in the city! And then I made some rootcakes -”

This is pretty much more use than your kitchen has ever seen. “AA?” you call out, weakly. You still can’t seem to speak coherently.

She comes over to the recuperacoon with a plate of food and spoons it into your mouth. Her rootcakes are soft and delicate and full of sweet spices and easy to swallow. You don’t have to get up, which is good, because you don’t think you could.

“Are you angry?” she asks, in between feeding you bites.

“No,” you manage. You might be angry at her some other time, but right now you feel...drained, flattened but strangely light, like debris thrown about by a storm, and there’s no anger and no fire in you. Later there will be time for thoughts like that wasn’t nice and other thoughts like sometimes being a good moirail is a different thing from being nice but right now there’s just sopor slime around you and food going down your throat, the needs of the body, returning with a vengeance like a cheesy action movie villain.

“Energy grub?” you ask hopefully, already knowing the answer.

AA shakes her head firmly. “You need another day to be out cold.” She sets the empty plate of food down and reaches into the ‘cupe to squeeze your hand; your floating fingers find hers awkwardly. “I need to feed my lusus. Promise not to try to get up before you’ve slept again.”


art by reverse-mermaid

Usually you won’t take that kind of talk from anyone, but it’s not a difficult promise to make. Half of you hasn’t even quite surfaced from sleep in the first place and you feel your eyes trying to close, your mind trying to drift, even as she presses a slow kiss to the top of your head. Her fingers twined in yours are the last thing you feel before you’re out, again, and you drift this time, and there are some of those moments of strangeness slipping in but you also dream some normal dreams this time, it’s almost a relief - tooth and claw, blood and guts, but going on twelve hours immersed in sopor the teeth of even these visions are blunted and they make you almost nostalgic with their banality. It’s been so long you’ve almost forgotten what ordinary day terrors are like.

You wake again to a migraine coming on, but you wander over to your husktop and troll her while you can still stand up.

TA: thank2
TA: ♢