This game is crap. If you didn't think you could blast through forty levels of this half-asleep, running on reflexes and cheap stimulants and the promise of better work where it came from, you wouldn't be playing it at all. It's some ridiculous time of day - going outside would probably fry your ass to a crisp.
You often bring KK in on these, though you try not to have him over at times when you’re actually going to sleep, any more; that was stupid and embarrassing - but he always gets a thrill about games that aren’t available to the general public yet, and this one is so terrible you’d actually feel bad about getting his hopes up.
But here you are, eyes half-lidded, on the couch, barely pausing every so often to slurp down a canister of instant soup. You’re blowing through two-player mode, punching buttons with your hands on each controller as you support them on cushions of red and blue light, at twice the speed intended by whatever poor schlubs coded this thing.
And yes, the code is obviously work-for-hire: the scenery and controls practically came out of soup canisters themselves. This entire game is predicated on shitty leftovers. The graphics look like they had a bunch of hired art left over from Her Condescension’s Finest that they needed to use up. That one was little more than a creative propaganda vehicle about how awesome it is to subjugate the Empire’s enemies, and this one is the same, without the creativity. You’d worry about how careful you’ll have to be with your inevitable scathing review, except that you’re pretty sure you can write it without any hint of a political position - in fact, you might even be able to get away with faux patriotism, bemoaning the poor quality of what could otherwise be a great tribute to Alternian might bluh bluh etcetera.
Your thumbs whack buttons and you pound your way through another convoy, venturing ahead through pixellated debris to see whether the level boss is indeed a recolor of the last level boss, like you’re betting. Despite the sheer crappiness of the game, you find yourself slipping into a state of flow, pride in the ease with which you can chew up these cardboard enemies.
Then everything gives out from under you. No preamble, no warning. What was flat and pixellated expands suddenly into full color and sound and your head is full of noise, so many voices you at first can’t parse them -
The other ships are ungainly, buzzbeasty things, mismatched tangles of modules grouped precariously like a tower of wriggler's blocks, but flanked by great glimmering wings, expanses of azure geometry slicing miles across the silhouetted planet and angled toward its star. Dragonflies, shimmering marsh-jewels paper-thin and helpless, as pinpoint light flashes at the crux between wing and capsule and the pieces drift peacefully apart. The severed wing goes into a great arcing spin, milling gradually toward the dusty-coral haze that cocoons its planet's surface...
Coordinates strafe your thinkpan in focused clusters, precise to slivers of an arcsecond, calculations so swift that they skip conscious effort and flow straight into perception, so that you know exactly where the light will blossom next, can see its filigree rushing from a capsule painted with the faded olive-drab name of a nation to lace the entire cluster, the moment of static capillary glow, and then the engulfing, disintegrating flash - you see it all, from your skin and from the planet and from lightyears out past the distant heliopause - the strike is your vision, full seconds before the blast goes off.
And the voices. The life on the alien ship, foregrounded sharp and bright in your precognitive landscape, they'll go first and they chatter to you peaceably about energy gathering and basic research, about inchoate interstellar hopes. Voices from the planet would drown them in magnitude, teeming billions, but minutes still remain until the first coordinates on the surface are scheduled for use, and so the mass of the species is still a distant harmonic thrumming, onrushing but indistinct. Time is slow in this space, while the missiles arc. The calculations have seeped through you like sand through a glass and left you empty, an instrument on standby, a catchment for the voices of the doomed...
When you kill them, you will crunch in on yourself.
You will thrash, tear, mutilate inward with their pain, you will thrum, resonate, implode with their final breaths, with their brief screaming, and that psychosomatic pop as your eardrums rend front agonized noise that does not vibrate in your air, that sounds only inside your 'pan and your twisted reconstructed knotted-in nervous system and out there, on the satellite, across the ionized gulf of near-planet space. You will open yourself to it, memorize, solemnize, you and she agree on this, she could put you under during the killing and decrease the risk of sabotage, sure, but she wants it to be your teeth that sink in, wants you to feel the kill even though you are the Crosshairs and not the genocide pulling the trigger. And you do, every time. You will scream with the doomed, you will suffer out a memorial in the wires of this death-ship to the extinct and the subjugated, you -
You are too open. You are defenseless. You are not a vessel for voices, you are a fleetbeast dead center on the highway, you have no foreknowledge of what you are about to endure, you will be destroyed, insane. You are not yourself. You are so young.
You know who you are. You know who you are.
You have never disobeyed this way before, and the incapacitating feedback circuits, caught off guard, hardly have a chance to react. You are fast. You have something - someone - to protect.
(shrieks of pain and terror, somewhere in there a faint thought of who the fuck could code an easter egg like this that you already know doesn't make any sense and then)
You slam your senses shut, and as molten light rolls across the hazy planet's surface, everything goes dark.
Everything cuts out. Even your voices are a dim cacophony, as if they're coming from a pair of headphones that aren’t on your ears. But there are no headphones here, nothing, nothing but the dark -
and someone else
like you're seeing double in the mirror, thoughts echoed and twinned to your own have split away, out of unity and into something distinct that is you-and-not-you-
(An echoing feedback; you’re seeing yourself from outside yourself: how small he is, the thought formed with a sense of disbelief at how freely it is thought, how thin, unlined and fragile...)
And then you’re you again and looking at him and he’s looking at you, staring in some kind of uncomfortable wonder. His jaw works as if he doesn’t quite remember how to speak. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” he says and the words are rough, there’s a distance carved out around them, a flatness, absence of echoes, but the voice is familiar - it sounds more like your own voice than a recording does, lisp and all.
You're pretty sure you're shaking. The awareness of your body tunes in with an odd kind of lag, as if your movement here is relayed through a remote server, but it is relayed and your senses are cutting back in and
there's actually a face in your sight. Eyes like your own, not a mirror, the same and turned opposite you, facing...
Facing you, that's strange, you remember being overlaid with those features and now you're seeing them outside of you and just taking it all in is hard.
You remember things you can't, shouldn't remember, things which make the unmarred flesh of his face a nonsensical sight to behold, and none of that is real that's just you being crazy and imagining things but the thought loses its potency when the silhouette of his horns sketches a tiny movement in the air and you know viscerally that those horns are both larger than yours and cast from the same mold.
That's a detail you hadn't thought up consciously, hadn't thought of at all; and though your mind keeps trying to skew this into some understandable framework, mostly into one which writes off the whole thing as crazy, that’s where the framework breaks down.
"I," you say. Not it's okay because that glimpse of hell was never okay, could never be okay, not for anyone or any reason. Then the urgency hits, and you're scared, because at any moment this could break and you'll never know - "Who - who are you?" The question comes from an odd place, from that part of your mind still trying to parse the doubled-quadrupled sense of identity and silence the protest of but he's me, I'm him, trying to put a label on this so you could file it somewhere other than the mass of undifferentiated crazy.
His gaze flicks from your face down to the center of your chest - for a numb moment you think there must be yellow blood there, free-associate darkness and the hazy apparition of your not-mirror with death - but he doesn't flinch or act surprised, just scans your sign like he sees what he expected to see. You catch thought-splinters, a self-awareness of his military coat, the lines from shoulders to hips - you think you might know the answer to your own question, but it seems surreal, formed from dislocated fragments of thought and myth and memory-
He starts to speak, swallows, restarts, beginning with a different sound. "I am called the Psiioniic," he replies finally, slow and stiff, a more formal introduction than is usually offered to someone your age. "What is your name, visitor?" Like who isn't an issue for him - like there's something about you that he already knows. The title he tells you is oddly nonspecific, but it will do, it’s enough for now, it gives you something to hold to.
"Sollux Captor," you say automatically, lisping your own name so badly that you wince.
And then you stop wincing almost immediately because - even if he's not you, the Psiioniic speaks the same way and - you're probably going to have a whanging headache from standing here on this knife's edge of fragile understanding, from trying to split apart who is who and what is what and who's visiting whom, and you don't care, you would grasp at anything and he offers his hand (you can feel him thinking about it before he does it, feeling out each muscle, like he's just incarnated here from nowhere and doesn't quite know how his arm works) and you reach out and take hold, smaller thin fingers linked around larger, handshake paused and frozen in the sudden jolt and enormity of contact -
Tangled up in the part of him that brought you here you can hear him interpreting you, attaching words faster than you can open your mouth to protest them, far from home and in danger and mine alone to bear and so that he will never again have to see- there's a thin film swirling in toward your joined hands, red and blue and at first you think it might be something you created without knowing it.
But then, "I'm sorry," he repeats, and he flinches his hand out of yours as if you've burned him, and there's a word he's gathering his resources to speak, and as the bicolored film shimmers and begins to sheet over into a pane where your hands once were, you know almost before he even thinks it that the word is Goodbye - you feel him beginning to slip away.
A tiny part of you is relieved, knows that the ground will be more solid under your feet with him gone, but you override it, all the rest of you mustering in one enormous NO -
You catch at his hand and everything in you hangs onto that renewed grip, brutally casting aside the ways in which it is not physical, not caring if the act tears great gashes in the boundaries between parts of your mind that you've kept carefully separate before now, not caring if you break down the walls of sanity - you tug and pull and draw it into the real with everything you have, everything that is you and your will and your purpose.
You've acted in desperation before, used your psionics to catch a bad fall, and this is that but also something more and other than that and it's nothing like anything you've done before, your hand is like a magnet and it sings and burns with the energy and you can't, won't let go -
His severing wall rips at your hand, your sparks and claws furrow into his, and suddenly the shape of his thoughts twists, gives way, and you’re hanging onto a ship at war - bright, furious desperation, all ion cannons and targeting computers and the thoughts ring so loudly they slice into you even as he digs the divide into your skin like a blade: (good, good, give me scars to remember you by, once I have wiped you clean) -
and it’s fucking terrifying but you won’t let go, you won’t - the wall of energy between you bears down and bites, and you bleed onto the hull as you're dragged through darkness, yellow rivulets streaming down - you sink your fingers knuckle-deep into sheet metal, you drag and weigh and refuse to move -
- his wrist. Gray skin and - you blink, and everything snaps back to scale, you're clutching at skin again, not screaming metal, your claws sunk down to the fingerpads in the flesh of his palm and your knuckles bone-white with strain.
He's staring at the back of your hand, a single clean slice, thin and deep and welling yellow - staring, still as marble, like he's never seen blood before, and his hand doesn't curl around yours, but he is no longer pulling away. You hiss softly at the injury but you can’t afford to flinch. His psionic boundary hesitates for a moment, thins to a slick... and melts into darkness.
Your pulling has drawn him nearer; his mind resonates so close to yours that his slow return to himself creeps over your skin as he whispers, "How - " And his thoughts race over your nerves (I will mean nothing but pain to you) when he gives up and changes his question. "Why?"
Everything around you is bright with the haze and aurora of red and blue and your face is wet with hot tear-tracks and you must not, will not close your eyes, or let go of the pain, which flares and throbs in your hand like a clean and harsh light and relieves for a moment the terrible strain of uncertainty.
"You can't just - show me all that and then leave me here." Your voice wavers inanely as it leaves your throat, thready at the start of the sentence and breaking in the middle and almost shouting at the end.
Because even though you can't begin to analyze, can't begin to think of this as empirical or to see from here whether the code compiles, as long as you are standing here in this place-non-place you are certain for once. The dreams and uncanny knowledge, the flashes of pain and glimpses of transcendence: they come from him, your ancestor; they must. His voice and his face stitch together these fragments shored against your ruins, and the staggering epiphany of it fills an empty place in your mind that you've been trying to deny existed.
All the walls that hold you together by holding the separate pieces of you apart are torn and flapping in the wind now, and if you are wrong about this it will break you. Even though he's no longer fighting, no longer trying to sever the connection, you keep hanging on. Every muscle in your body trembles as if the exertion were physical.
But you know that it wasn't, at least not entirely, know it because there's been a shift in the nature of your link with him, feel it as clearly as you now see the dividing line between you. When you catch onto scraps of his thoughts - something has changed - although his preoccupations sometimes parallel yours, you can distinguish that you did not give rise to them. (sorting through the possibilities coherently enough to understand - can't get lucid here, a liminal place, this, I made a cliff's edge, built of a spike of terror, the too-close swirling together of identities, a refusal to look - what am I seeing, what has he done -)
Flashes of your visions, looping and snapping out of focus - the vertiginous tumbling glory of flight, his crushed-up dripping agonized body
- he is seeing his own past through your eyes, somehow you’ve left this unlocked, the perigees of horror and wonder and the protective structure your reeling mind spun around your visions. You don’t know why it’s desperately embarrassing, to know that he sees you seeing him makes you feel so exposed and -
- and you didn't just pull him closer, did you? You can't tell what parts of your mind you've drawn him into, can't control what he can and cannot see, just clutch at the part of his mind that is knotted up in thinking about you, turbulent and self-contradictory and awed by you in some way you feel no one has any right to be -
And then he’s speaking, consciously, to you. "What I have shown you doesn't have to be yours, Sollux," he says and it takes a moment to register the way he thinks and speaks your name at once, in layers, testing it gravely in his mind and on his tongue as if its mere vibration constitutes a promise. "It doesn't have to..." Mean so much, he almost says, and you're halfway to baring your teeth in a snarl before but that isn't even close to being true- "...dominate your future, or who you become. Please, if you only remember one thing when you wake up, I tried to tell you that you are not me."
In the back of your mind you know you're burning through your energy reserves, slight enough already from a morning of pretending that instant soups count as food, and you can't hold this much longer, you're shaking like a leaf as you clutch to your ancestor's hand and bleed on him and try to burn the memory of him into your mind. (There are places he could go with what I've given - forced on - him) - he’s been speaking with closely marshaled calm, but he's thinking about you jet-engine-loud - (Where the voices of the doomed are legion, and sing only of endings -) But you aren't having any of it, you're fading, you have to say it -
"Psiioniic--" Speaking is an effort, and you don't want to show how much is is, so it comes out sarcastic at first. "I know that, okay, I know, that's why this is important, don't go -” With some distant awareness you think you should be ashamed of the way that sounded, inane and babbling and whiny, but you'll beat yourself up over it later; there isn't the - right now you know that as soon as you pull back the slightest piece of your concentration, it'll all come crashing down. "Tell me - tell me everything -"
His voice buzzes and shimmers in your head, with an urgency to it that mirrors the urgency you feel, even though you can barely take it in. “If I owe you the truth,” he says, “then I also owe you time that right now you don’t have -”
And there was, there is, something important. Something vitally, vitally important that you have to tell him, a thought you've been wanting to speak, somehow, for perigees and perigees, and your ability to speak is breaking down - lisping is the least of your problems, your thinkpan is losing its hold on language. Forming the thought into words suddenly seems like writing a difficult program, a challenging hack that wasn't supposed to be possible. But as soon as you frame it that way it becomes more possible and the words start to take form.
They articulate and compile in slow motion. Language isn't usually this hard, it doesn't usually ache to make words, but then you're not usually pushing them through your near-empty psionic reserves and you have to tell him, because he's not you but he's enough of you that you know what he needs, the little of it that you can give him -
"You," the words come thickly, slowly, "Don't have to... be alone..." even as you flicker on the edge of consciousness, even as the image of his face starts to warp and flicker into static and your hand starts to go dead and nerveless in his.
>>Psiioniic: Lose contact.
His presence in your head strobes; his body fuzzes in and out of your vision like the signal from a broken sensor; and you almost miss what he's saying in the pauses between words, as you spin uselessly in your own head trying to work out exactly what it was that you just promised him. You don't have to be- no, that's him speaking, that's not you, that's him inside your mind and the ragged edges of his syllables -
Sollux Captor. Tiny and preternaturally powerful and your descendant, sharing in the pieces of you that brought you so close to overturning the world, the same powers and drives and genetic miscues that exalted you and turned against you. Who just recreated in a momentary blinding effort a mirror in your mind of the connection that had taken the reaching loneliness of your subconscious perigees to build in his.
"Don't go" - a binding, not a plea, even though his voice was pleading. And it hits you like a hand to the cheek, unsubtle, a sliced wire, a bypass. You're fading yourself, now that he has gone; this space needs the both of you or it collapses on itself, expels you, you can't stay. But you clutch raking fingers through the soft blue void left where his hand was, ionized and charged with annihilation, where the particles that made him up met with their opposites and, until one of you calls again, erased his image... as if that void could pull back into itself the choice he's made. There's a memory of his aching inside of you, a memory of the hollow inside the words, and twinned with that memory is the dull uncompromising knowledge that you tried to shield him from this, but did not do nearly all you could. So he thinks he can reach you.
You, failed rebel, killer, machine - you, snarl of wires and gnawed inside-out with your own death-itch - you, skeletal torsion, a mind purified and remade in the deaths of stars, who build your thoughts piece by piece of dying screams and last breaths - perhaps he isyou, and you were wrong. Perhaps he wants what you want. For he might as well pity the great yawning interstellar deeps - you will swallow him whole.
(Oh, but) - the kick-whine humming of the engines - (but you) - the slow cool of the weapons as you float clear of the ruins...
... (but you so want to save him.) Feedback. Feedback and pain.
>>Helmsman: Be punished.