==>Helmsman: be punished.
ROOT.OVERRIDE CODE ***********
...............1$&, < 9%...............................
Your normal operating routines try, fail, try to resume; hit full force and splinter on the wall of pain and static, again and again; and it takes several attempts before you even realize that the neural feedback is trying to nudge you towards resuming operation; that by brute-forcing it's making its own objective impossible -
- but it will keep happening until you are fully online again, fully present and cognizant.
It is intolerable by design. Not just painful; specifically intolerable. It cuts out your ability to endure; pulls you into an automatic flinch response away from actions or even decisions which are not appropriate for the Battleship Condescension.
You had, you should have, every part of this system mapped. Nociceptors spliced into unnatural reflex arcs that run through your psionic centers and shove them back on course, cognitive functions directly wired to snap back from pain like a hand from a hot iron. You stopped trying to fight with it early enough, when it became clear that every attempt to break out increased the level of detail at which the hammer could fall.
Now there are neurons involved that you don't even recognize, and entirely new external relays, and you're kicked out of your own system more completely than you've been for centuries. The feedback circuits are both keeping you locked out and punishing every moment that you spend unable to get back in, making you redouble your efforts to re-initiate awareness - even as bursts of agony drop out parts of your consciousness, over and over again.
You crawl back into your command centers through a narrow sideways channel of machine code, squeezing yourself into a bare thread of binary, process by process, back to your body where she wants you: your body the central emplacement on the front line from which you can never retreat. It has been screaming for long enough to coat the chin in slobber, loud enough to produce a faint hum of tinnitus that doesn’t immediately fade when you come back online and stop the noise.
System restarted but functioning impaired by sensory data outside tolerances - you pour reports into your wires, automatic. Your systems complain of blank spots, time gaps where the ship-data was overridden by volleys of signals from your broken flesh.
Laughter cuts in, meaningless until you force a data feed open through the biological senses, even though your normal maintenance routines would have them cut out of the loop right now, they only serve to impair - she is doing this to make you listen.
You can see her, now, pouting from your viewscreen, your repaired vision capturing every pixel of her wrist-thick tendrils of hair and every last impeccably curled eyelash as she blinks slowly in affected disbelief. “You missed the party,” she says, her voice plaintive like a child’s. Pause. Sudden slide down the tonal scale, then off it all together in a vicious hiss. ”You never miss my parties.”
I’m sorry, you send through your wires, quickly, before it becomes obvious which part of that you’re sorry for.
You try to block the sense of relief and gratitude that you can output through the terminal with the knowledge that if she forced you to speak through your biologicals right now, the words would come out unintelligible. That would be inconvenient. Her Imperial Condescension does not stoop to saying what? repeatedly and she only plays that game when she wants a simple reason to hit you, to slap your body backhand until she’s worked her temper out.
It is not her favorite mode of entertainment.
As though reading your thoughts back to you - did you let something slip? there’s something you mustn’t let slip, not ever not ever and the thought pulls you to full awareness, kicks sluggish synapses into motion - she says, “Helmsman, honey, how nice of you to notice how bored I’ve been getting.”
I aim to please. Or something like that.
But her voice rises to a wail. “But being sharkastic isn’t nice at all!” - and you see her hands move on the controls, see, in slow motion, her immaculate claw resting over the button before she presses it, and for a moment you’re upset, more than anything else, that she’s using the technology wrong - the point of the feedback system is supposed to be automatic and aversive, you’re supposed to be able to use it to detect when your actions are veering off the prescribed course and avoid making the mistake; the override is new. It’s new and it’s counterproductive and it must be what locked you out.
There is no time to protest and no point in it if there were. Your last cogent thought for several minutes is that you hadn’t meant to be sarcastic. (You were sarcastic, nonetheless. Some habits sit so deep no number of centuries can dislodge them.)
And then once again you’re laboriously shoving yourself back into half-functional synapses, because the aversive feedback means that there’s nowhere else to go that works, that even trying to climb away from the pain raises it to intolerable levels -
Her voice comes through your biologicals warped now, as if through a tunnel filled with water, and you have to work and focus to make it parse at all.
“It’s not as if we can have a mass extinction event every night, you know - UB-219 was a very special party. You must be so disappointed.” She says something about the glorious spectacle of your light cannons, and how you would have loved to see that, and then you can’t help it, you drop words out. Your machine inputs aren’t functioning, you can’t record, the body-ears are still ringing from screams and the insular cortex has been overloaded completely - you desperately scramble to reconstruct meanings from the smear of noise, and she is saying “- my eager weapon, you’ll have your chance,” and then -
The harvest moons bright as morning, bright as the killing rage pumped into you, tense and chemical and goading-hot in your vasculars and you know the penalty is not just physical this time.
Here you are simply violence and motion, sparking at the palms and glowing to the shoulders and snarling deep and feral. You are going to kill them all. An elderly agriculler watches your advent with helpless olive eyes -
- but even as he cries out in fear, there is silence on another wavelength, mounting anger and engulfing, nerve-shearing, boundless silence (you mark that blessed silence to recount to yourself later, a lucid moment that you cannot actually feel because it’s not chemically possible.) Not a single doomed voice, they cannot duplicate that, not yet -
The worst part is the relief you feel, as the simulation closes over you and you cave to a pinpoint under its pressure; the worst part is knowing that, had you the choice, you might well choose this exercise over being left to struggle in the wreckage of your overloaded nerves and implants and cables. That you are glad to let it bear you free of the flood of malfunction alarms and into the hallucination-bright field of wheat.
Their blood is turquoise and cerulean, amber and ochre, forest and clay, but under the moons, at the center of the field when you dig your fingers into the yielding underside of her chin, the softly pretty, broad-shouldered orangeblood, when her eyes sheen over and her hands twitch and drop from your forearms and she makes a sound like stepping in soft mud -
When in the methodic rapture of the hunt you push up and back at her jaw until the base of her neck clenches - clicks - gives -
When she bleeds from a mouth of crushed teeth, soaks over your fingers and drips to warm your aching, clutching hands -
All blood runs pale in this moonlight, shiny and slick, mirror to the twined luminescence of the twinned full moons, lime and blush drowning each other's hues until anything that reflects (the orangeblood's wide-open rolled-in eyes, her stringy blood-matted hair, her daggerkind dropped and stuck blade-deep in loam) transmutes into a sickly white.
When the question is not whether, but how, then killing is simple.
And then it's you, unarmed and six sweeps old - but it’s not. From outside it would look the same as always, the last act of viciousness against your remembered self, but this isn’t you at all, it’s him. It's him and his hands clutching sheaves of wheat, chaff in his hair, chin up and eyes on fire and waiting for you to make your move. It's your mark dusted over in field-gray on his tattered shirt. It's him and although they never speak in this space except to choke, although they never curse you when you cut them down, you can hear him. I dare you, ancestor, and instead of glowing his mind grates, you want - I fucking dare you, he says, calmly, There’s a time for everyone to die -
You spread your fingers on his chest and focus, What are you waiting for? get your depth, and You warned me and still I am here you reach in through your fingertips and pulse and
”Don’t you remember that I chose this?”
==>Sollux: be yourself.
You can’t place exactly when the transition from unconsciousness to sleeping and dreaming occurs, only that you are, anyway, sleeping and dreaming; and your dreams are textured with the kind of uncomfortably vicious itch that comes from falling asleep outside the recuperacoon.
So it seems pretty normal at first that you’re watching... one of you killing another of you.
No. You’re watching...
Lucidity slides in, like a polarizing filter. You’re watching him kill a... simulacrum of you? Of himself?
The third-person, the him in that sentence is new. And it’s important. You’re standing outside of this, riding with neither party, standing not in either body but outside the whole picture. That’s new, too.
You try to speak, but your words sink into the noise and haze; you are barred from the event; your mind is like claws catching at a smooth surface without finding purchase. There are things you know, without understanding how you know them: it is a dream, after all. Like even though you’re not anywhere, you know where you would be if you were, hovering in the air behind the simulacrum that is you and not-you and flickering to pieces in that terrifying bright grip - and when you shout again in surprise or panic his head turns and his eyes, for one moment, rest on the invisible place from which you observe -
The dream crumbles to nothing around you, and you wake still trying to talk, a jumbled stream of reassurance, to him or to yourself. “It’s okay - I’m not you - I’m not - I’m okay -”
But your mouth is dry to croaking, and your head hollow with pain. Despite it you scramble to sitting and nearly black out again as your circulatory system compensates, too slow then too fast, and the space between your temples feels like someone took your brain and filled it up with something twice as heavy as usual. The irritable feeling of waking after a day slept without sopor doesn’t help, either.
And your mind is replaying memories of dreams and not-dreams and even though the weird painful rigidity sets them out of focus, they still make everything else seem smaller, detached, less important.
Oh, shit.The game review is due tonight. You drag yourself up to standing and march circles in the clutter, impatient with the way your head pounds, trying half-successfully to walk it off. The grub is still plugged into the display, the graphic stamped on the side advertising twice as many kinds of cheesy bad-graphic weaponry as the last one, and you have to look away because standing up already made you sick enough to your stomach and - nope. Not playing that thing.
Okay, it’s not like nobody’s ever cheated their way to a writing gig before. The way these grubs are locked down, reading the source requires hacking the hardware, but you have the tools. You wire the fucker in through your mainframe directly and read the source off your husktop from there. It gives you enough to be able to report cogently on the endgame. Your attempt to rip a new nook for the thing on account of quality control is feeble and lackluster compared to what you’d hoped, but deadlines are deadlines, and you send it out as-is, with a note to the editor, not caring that it might lose you work.
can you 2end me 2omethiing that2 not a 2pace 2hooter next tiime at lea2t? iim gettiing burned out on the genre. thank2.
You would call off your date with Aradia, any other time you woke up in this condition, but you’ve just overheard your neighbor Caerci talking a little too loudly on the phone with her ‘favorite’ seadweller and you want to be out of the hivestem when that piece of work arrives, twice your size and almost to majority and boiling over with poorly concealed temper. You wouldn’t put it past the client to try culling you casually in one of her fits of hormone-fueled frustration, and you think you’d almost rather be conscripted as a Helmsman - no, let’s not think of that right now, let’s do something else please - than be whacked in the halls by a violetblood socially incompetent enough to need a rent ‘rail, because that is a fate with no fucking dignity. (Premonitory whispers occasionally tell you it’s not the fate in store for you, either, but you’re also not too keen on getting beaten to a pulp.)
Caerci - who you think is a girl, though it’s hard to tell through the layers of fuzzy comfort sweaters - is genuinely likeable; you have sympathy for whatever the reason she’s trying to save all this money (though you’re convinced you’d wind up over your head in Someone Else’s Problems as soon as you tried asking the little brownblood about it,) and you’d never be enough of an asshole to try getting someone culled for zoning violations. But there are reasons why this building’s strictly a lowblood residence, and why highbloods generally don’t do the communal hivestem thing.
And you just ran out of instant soup, which makes nestling into your hive with your headphones on and waiting out the inevitable shooshing-punctuated tantrum a poor option indeed.
The long and short of it is that once you leave the hivestem, you’re going to have to stay out for a while. At least you’ve got an hour before Caerci’s worst girlfriend comes by. Enough time to sit and collect honey and save it for later. You’re really not up to sparring with Bicyclopsdad tonight, even if you had the time.
Ingesting mind honey yourself would be a bad idea: even the contact high from having your hands gooped in it while fixing your mainframe sometimes rattles you, makes your thinkpan rev uncomfortably and involuntary zaps of light flare from your eyes. You didn't need the warnings - stamped all over your mainframe apparatus, declaring the substance EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS TO ANY PERSON WITH A COGNITIVE + PSIONIC RATING OVER 144 - to tell you that.
But they did give you the idea of feeding the stuff to your lusus, since the combined rating seemed to be the thing. While you have fond memories of Bicyclopsdad frying small prey to a crisp for your wriggler self, he’s not the brightest even for a lusus; thus, his cognitive rating puts him well below the danger zone. Sure enough, he can play more complex games under the influence: and display a more annoying sense of humor. Being on guard against bright rays of colorful force sweeping out behind your ankles to trip you is definitely an aid to your self-training.
You’ve never had your own ratings checked, not officially. A sweep or two ago, you were only being lazy about it. There are homemade videos on the net, of psionics running through the exercises, to show you what a given rating "looks" like in practice - mass lifted, fine control, other nuances of performance - and you could easily identify by comparison.
But now that’s changed, just like your voice and your bulge and everything else. Only, the rest of the world seems to know what to do with those things, and this -
You even used to put your rating in your forum signature, back when you were four; pure luck stopped you, back before you knew to be paranoid. Other trolls kept assuming you were older, based on your strength, and approaching you about quadrants.
Now you can't find anyone on video running through tests at your level successfully. There's one of a rustblood boy a couple sweeps your elder, stammering his way through a last few exercises and saying, "And then it got too hard," but you can do those last few pretty easily. You're still trying to find a transcript of what the next set are even supposed to look like.
There just aren't adults out there recording them. You know everyone gets stronger in adolescence and so it stands to reason that there should be. There are adult tutorials on everything else...
...so thinking about it makes you very glad that you never did any of the official testing. Because now that you’ve thought of it - even the automated tests must report the results to someone. It nags at your mind sometimes that they might try to trace your dead handle, and you shove it aside; there’s nothing you can do about it that you haven’t already done. Thinking about what it might mean only makes your head hurt more, and this is a dead end and - you’re going to be late meeting Aradia.
The communal vehicular transport isn’t kind to a roiling stomach. It sneaks up on you; you don’t realize how badly you’re feeling until you step off pale and sweating at the automalleria, barely able to stay on your feet or see through the haze of spirally-twisty light, and you slump onto a bench near the first atrium of vendomats, mash your glasses down over your eyelids, curl up into the corner and wait for the pain and nausea to recede.
This place is near-abandoned - there’s one with a much better selection at the city center. But you and Aradia both enjoy quiet places; she can get here from her rural hive, and you from your urban one, with roughly similar ease. Right now, though, you don’t think you could stand up with any kind of ease.
She manages to find you, some length of time later, even though you’re nowhere near the meeting place the both of you have planned. “Oh, no, Sollux.” It’s not exactly the politest of greetings. But it is weirdly comforting to hear her being exasperated with you. Anyone else using that tone would make you cringe.
“Hi, AA,” you mumble, and try to smile at her.
Aradia settles next to you on the bench and maneuvers your head into her lap, and though it should be awkward, that somehow hurts less than anything else your head has experienced for a while. “Why did you even come out here?” she asks. “I could have come over to your hive.” She hooks your glasses off smoothly and you don’t flinch because she knows to settle a hand where they were, as soon as they’re gone.
“Long story,” you mumble, and she lets you be silent, and you’re content to just drift for a while as she sings to you and rubs your head, thumbs softly squeezing and pulling to make the tide of harsh brightness recede and let you emerge from it again. You’re not sure how much time passes like this, you never are, but she never loses patience. It’s as if you’re one of her excavations, as if she’s scraping heavy clay soil from your thinkpan with careful determined fingers. As if there’s something there she wants to see, wants enough to dig, enough to peel away the obstructions. You can’t comprehend what it might be.
The song she’s singing - you can’t think of anything more perfectly, exactly Aradia. It’s an antiquated pop song; you almost couldn’t tell, because the style has come back in, but the lyrics are shot through with quaint slang. Some of the words have changed meaning outright and she sings those parts playfully, neither innocent of the double entendres nor quite exploiting them.
It is so Aradia, and it makes you grin and grinning makes you realize the headache’s gone to a near-nothing, and you’re tired and grateful and loopy enough to start laughing.
“Well,” she says as you prop yourself up a little further - “That worked, then. Good. Welcome back,” and you know she means from being sacked out in her lap with a migraine, but - it’s also the first totally clear moment you’ve had tonight, and it reminds you -
the clasp of hands / the reverse mirror / distance
- of things you don’t even have the beginnings of how to talk about. “Mmh,” you say, and you blink glazed-eyed, pensive, squinting up at the halo of artificial light around her hair and horns. “Hi.”
“Why did you think it was a good idea to get on a transport vehicle, anyway?” she asks gently, and you tell her about Caerci and the highblood, and she offers her own place.
One day’s dreaming isn’t long enough to know if the problem is resolved, not really. And yet-- “I don’t know if you want to deal with me freaking out in my sleep,” you tell her, which is not an outright refusal. Just a true statement.
Aradia shrugs. That’s another thing that makes her awesome; she doesn’t tell you it doesn’t matter, it’s nothing when that’s not true. “I would deal with you freaking out,” she says, “if you needed me to. Come over if you feel comfortable, then,” she says. “Or we could just stay here, too, and get you back to your hive at the end of the night. I need to buy a few things anyway - Kanaya is making me a dress for my FLARP character, and so I’ve got to make a stop at the fabricstruder...” She chatters merrily to you about all the plans they’re cooking up.
“Look at you, AA... all making things and doing things and stuff,” you murmur, wonderingly, your voice a little wistful. And a little jealous.
She chuckles. “I don’t know what the big deal is! It’s just for a game - something to pass the time.”
“You are objectively more fabulous than I deserve, you know that.” It started out as a compliment but now you can’t help but feel like a third wheel, exhausted, un-useful. Yestereve you had all these ideas and plans and now they seem like they belong to someone better and more interesting than you. “Why do you even hang out with me? - Don’t even say because I’m your moirail, I mean, that’s circular reasoning. We’re moirails because you’ve decided for some reason that -”
“Because,” she interrupts you, voice quiet, eyes flashing, “I need someone who understands what it’s like. As badly as you do, Sollux Captor. Don’t forget that.”
And then you feel like a jerk. You hate it when your thinkpan just caves under you like this and you hate even more the way it makes you sound. “Ughh, forget I said anything, I’m sorry. Shit. If you need to talk about any-”
“It’s okay,” she says, and she changes position, presses her chin firmly over the back of your shoulder and wraps around you from behind, arms crossed over yours, fierce, protective. “It’s okay. Don’t fall all over yourself apologizing. Make it up to me by remembering what I said. And let me know when you’re up to walking around a bit. I’m hungry. And I always make you put on a sweater when I’m cold, so tonight, just to be consistent, I won’t let you leave this place without an armload of groceries.” Aradia smirks at you, impish, silly, and it’s a huge joke; a joke that’s not a joke; a joke you simply wouldn’t take from anyone else.
Nothing is perfect, not even tonight; but the future and the past seem to drop out of focus, at least, in those times when she fills up your view.