Send us a blindfold, send us a blade
Tell the survivors, help is on the way
I was a blind fool, never complained
All the survivors, singing in the rain
I was the one with the world at my feet
Got us a battle, leave it up to me
You’re on a technicolor desert planet when the two Imperial culling bots catch up to you. Originally there had been four Imperial culling bots, a small herd of cavalreapers, a legislacerator (your mind trips over it still; wants to say a fellow legislacerator), and at least three subjugglators. You had given the cavalreapers the slip three worlds ago, and the legislacerator had been judged and found wanting shortly after. You had tricked two of the culling bots into the ocean and severed the head of one of the juggalos from its body. You didn’t precisely know where the other two (or more) juggalos had gone. Perhaps they had become lost, or had simply given up and gone home. Juggalos could be skittish beasts, and it seemed too much to hope that they had been beset by the ping pong ball sized mosquitos of the jungle swamp you had unhappily trawled through a perigee before. You didn’t know but at any rate they were no longer following you.
You feel—not a disappointment, but a weightlessness. So these are the grainy particulars of an empire’s fury at your back. You wouldn’t say it was the Empire’s finest. Well, you had once been the Empire’s finest. And so: what remained after the faltering of blood and bone. Metal only.
You’d led the culling bots this far into the desert on a little flylift you picked up from a curb in the city three miles out, where it had been set out for trash collection. Technically scavenging from a municipal street being serviced by the Alternian Empire was illegal, and you could quote the section of Alternia’s penal code that said so. Back in the legislacerator’s academy you had liked the irony of petty crimes. Of being able to weigh someone’s scales with high treason, murder of a troll more than three but less than five blood ranks above one’s own, and then grand littering (defined as occurring between the hours of noon and 3, and consisting of over a pound of materials, any of which containing unneutralized biological waste). Even the slightest infraction signified a lack of respect for the rule of law.
At the current juncture you would say only that you knew why the flylift had been sentenced to the processing centers. Your first order of business had been getting out of the city before the cullbots descended upon you and made some no doubt excessive scene, and you’d only just completed this task when the flylift stopped abruptly and you’d had to leap out to escape tumbling into the desert horns first.
You turn neatly to face the two metal monstrosities hurtling towards you, and draw the sword from your cane. It rests easily in your hand.
Imperial cullbots are designed almost to resemble an adult troll, but a wriggler’s nightmare idea of an adult troll. They’re as tall an indigo blood at several hundred sweeps, but with a curved, jointed vertebra that shone a naked silver. Their main instrument of destruction are their long arm-like appendages that ended in blades. They are jointed in too many places and rotate in strange, untrollish angles. Every time you look at them, you attempt to map their joints to joints as they would have appeared on your own arm.
Really, cullbots weren’t so hard to deal with. They were inexhaustible and relentless, and could fly at high speeds both planetside and through space. They resembled trolls but fought and moved in an unnatural mockery of the way trolls did. But they weren’t particularly versatile in terms of weaponry, and lacked even a wriggler’s cunning. You had dispatched the other two by making them fall into deep water through a series of specific evasive maneuvers, which worked firstly because they were robots and secondly because they were the robots meant to cull land-dwellers, so they sunk in any water deeper than 10 feet. Saved by violetblooded arrogance. It wasn’t the first time.
The cullbots should have been the least of your worries. But in your haste to escape the rest of your entourage, and in the difficulty of being a fugitive of the state, you had somehow been ended up in a two on one battle on open ground in the middle of a desert. You would have cursed yourself if you’d had the time to spare.
They circle you, perfect in their unison, razor lined chassis glittering in the sunset light. There are mountains and hills of sand as far as the eye can see or the nose could smell, and beautifully distinct layers where the minerals made different colors. It’s dazzlingly lush, and so dry it makes your whole throat ache with it. This is the moment you would have made some dramatic declaration, had your opponents been able to hear it. Empress forbid anyone ever say Terezi Pyrope did something performatively.
No point waiting. You leap towards one of the cullbots as it circles before you. It sweeps one heavy limb down towards your skull; at the last minute you jab your sword in and use it to help springboard yourself behind the bot, so that you are no longer between the two of them. You back up just a foot and use the first bot as cover from the second. They are both very large and trying to get at you and sometimes they almost get each other instead, which is good and better than being crushed into the sand, no matter how delicious it is.
You keep low and alternate between darting in to hack at the nearer cullbot’s feet (which is frustratingly slow work), and baiting the other bot into hitting the nearer one. Finally, the nearer cullbot (if this goes on any longer you will have to give them names), begins to limp, tripped up by your cuts. Its changes in direction, already slowed by its weight and momentum, grow beats more sluggish.
The opening comes to you like a vision: the way your body will have to twist, just how long you will have to feint. So you are ready for the glancing blow to your arm that nonetheless takes your breath away. Your chest hurts. You had been bruised there already, a weeks old hurt that had taken on the color of the sea and which is wet now with blood.
But it works. The nearer cullbot had taken a full swipe from the other, and is falling even as you think: “I am very tired.” Now it is only you and the remaining cullbot. There isn’t much art to the way you fight it now, only reflex, the rhythm of returning blow for blow, the keenness of your sword. Its fallen sibling lies between you on the shifting sand; you think the delicate terrain gives you an edge. After what seems like a long time, the cullbot stumbles onto a knee. A coursing violence rises in you, as you frantically cut bits and pieces of it away. The final piece of metal falls softly into the sand.
It is dark then, and the second moon is rising in the sky. You rest heavily on your sword-cane and catalogue your injuries: scrapes mostly, an arm which is perhaps broken, a long slice on your leg and another on your torso from which you are losing a lot of blood. You will need to stem that soon. You take some long sniffs to get your bearings. And then a shift on the wind, and a bright blueberry scent you have not smelled for three sweeps and change, barring nightdreams and daymares. That first moment, before doubt sets in, you are bone-deep in your certainty. Just an edge of color, and then the shock of recognition: Vriska. Vriska, your sister still.
You turn. You hardly believe it, but the scent is still there, clearer now. It seems very much unreal, like a joke is being played on you by fate or by your own mind. So you take it in for a moment: Vriska at eleven sweeps. The harsh, jagged edges of her dark hair, the stained and patched over cut of her jacket. You try to read the lines of her, like you might have at three sweeps, before you had maimed one another. But Vriska at three sweeps had never made this expression, or else you had never learned it.
“Vriska,” you say.
“Terezi,” says Vriska. And then: “Holy shit.”
You wait, as seems the easiest option. Vriska doesn’t disappoint you.
“That was cool. With the cullbots—I caught the last bit only, I wasn’t just standing here for ten minutes waiting for you to lose, or something. Not that you would lose, but you look kind of hurt. Are you, uh. . . okay?” Vriska seems to visibly cut herself off. “I mean, how did being a bigshot legislacerator end you up on a backwater planet dealing the Empire’s justice onto cullbots?”
You stand there for a moment, processing. You must be losing your touch, you think. Finally, you say, “There is no justice within the Empire. And there is no justice without it.”
Then the blood loss catches up to you and you faint dead away.
Penny for your thoughts
I’m saving up to buy them all
I’m saving up to buy a boat
Big enough to sail us home
—Oh My Love, To Kill a King
You catch Terezi and then curse. You feel your coat begin to dampen with her blood, and you curse some more just for the sake of it, lay Terezi down, and start ripping strips off your shirt to staunch the wounds. Your ship is only a hundred feet or so away and you consider how best to carry Terezi back.
The last time you had seen Terezi, shortly before Conscription, you had gone to her hive to talk to her. For once your brashness hadn’t been enough to carry you up the path to the Terezi’s tree to knock on her door, so you had gone out to where dragonmom was instead. You had only meant to clear your head and idle a bit, but it was there that Terezi had found you.
So you had made your offers there, and then you had argued in the moonlight under the shadows of the trees and the ancient scales, the pearlescent shine of a dragon’s egg weighed against the creaking old skull of the beast it would never become. “You and me and an unmarked ship and the universe,” you had said. You had considered for a while if it should be some kind of quadrant proposition, but if it was it was of a kind you had never heard of before. In the end it was only this: that it was Terezi. That this was all you wanted. “I know we ended things on the wrong foot, before”, you had said, gesturing vaguely to indicate what you meant by “wrong foot”. “But it’s been sweeps. You don’t know what can happen.”
“But I know you,” Terezi’d said. Your breath had caught a little still, when she said the words. “Not knowing you has never been my problem! Quite the contrary, really.”
“So what’s the problem then?”
“I don’t want to go with you. That’s all.”
“Come on,” you’d said lowly. “Tru-”
Terezi interrupted, steadily and without pause. “Perhaps someday you will have my trust again” she had said, not a concession at all. She turned to leave.
“And what then?” you'd said, not knowing of what she’d asked but wanting more anyways, wanting some purchase and finding only Terezi’s voice, as level as the outstretched sea, the bone straightness of her spine.
Terezi paused. “And you’ll always have once lost it,” she said, gentle enough to insult, and turned away.
You had stayed in the clearing a little longer, kicking over the rocks of your childhood, and then you had gone away as well. You left Terezi’s wrigglerhood hive for the last time. Later still, you had left Alternia on your salvaged spacecraft, had seen moons and faraway planets, had picked up crewmates and lost crewmates. And then you had seen the glitter of clashing metal in technicolor desert sands and stopped your ship—drawn to the fire—and Terezi had appeared as if from a mirage, vicious and bent in the growing light.
I swear it happens better
When it happens again
—How Dare You, Thao & Mirah
The coon is too warm and your bones hurt. Like an unfolding of time, you could be three sweeps again, during one of the dozen or so occasions when you had gotten hurt on FLARP campaigns based out of Vriska’s hive and Vriska had let you use her coon. Well, she hadn’t said anything, but she would push you there, stumbling. The first time the heat had still been set blueblood-cold and you had woken up clammy and shivering. Ever after Vriska had turned the dial up too high, out of care or habit or spite. In recent sweeps you had despaired of ever recalling your pre-Conscription days without being drawn into the tired old flow of psychodrama.
“What did you bring me here for?” you ask, when you stir for some minutes to find Vriska’s face floating above you.
“I wasn’t going to leave you to bleed out in the desert!” Vriska says, and you slip under again, go back to being warm and achey; safe, victorious.
As soon as you wake again there is Vriska, standing before you impatiently with a bowl of soup you suspected she made herself, as it is suspiciously both watery and gray. She hands the bowl to you wordlessly and you go in for a hesitant sip.
Raising the bowl to your lips hurts your right arm, which feels fractured. You grit your teeth to avoid wincing and switch to holding the bowl in your right hand and picking up the spoon in your left. As you take a second sip a little broth slops into the recuperacoon, which suits you fine because you really can’t say anything to recommend the soup other than that you are very hungry and recently lost a lot of fluids in the form of blood, so you probably need it.
“So. . .” says Vriska. You can hear the eight vowels.
“I’m on the lam,” you say testily. Vriska just stands there watching you take another tremulous sip of soup; her eyebrow twitched in irritation as more of it spills over. You spill some more on purpose. “Are you proud? Or smug?”
“When you put it like that it’s like you’re following in my foosteps or something”, Vriska says.
“Is that what you think?” you say acidly. "That I should have skipped the whole runaround of lacerator academy and acquiring employable skills; I’m like you now, and all that ever separated us was the Alternian law?” At Conscription you had believed in justice as a shining impermeable pattern, and now you believe the Empire has never known a shining thing it couldn’t corrupt. “You’ve never believed in anything except whatever was necessary for you to continue believing in yourself,” you tell Vriska.
She snatches the soup out of your hands. “So it’s the rebellion, is it? Of course. What’s wrong with believing in myself? I’m all I’ve ever had. I remember when I thought I had you, too, but clearly not.”
You, two minutes into talking to Vriska and three minutes into consciousness, decide to start taking in your current state. You’re down to torn underclothing and some relatively competent bandaging you suppose Vriska must have done. The rest of your clothing seems to be in a miserable pile by the door; you notice your shades there as well. You’re feeling a little high on camp tonight, you decide, and then you figure that considering your situation this really might as well happen. So you blink at her, wide-eyed, and tell her, “I’m sorry I haven’t always blindly condoned your actions, Vriska. But then, I haven’t always been blind.”
Inexplicably, Vriska scoops up some more soup and presses it against your lips. You bite down on the metal, and you remain in standstill scowling at each other for a long moment. It’s impossible to tell who gives first, Vriska lowering her eyes and smoothing over her mouth or you, swallowing the soup and releasing the spoon.
“What do you want, Terezi? If it’s a job, well, from what I saw of your fight no one would say no to those employable skills.”
“I want—” and all the fight goes out of you. What’s Vriska going to do, report you? With her record she’d be hurting herself more. “If you could take me to the cultist headquarters.”
Vriska only sighs histrionically. “Not you too,” she says.
“First Jade and Rose and now you. The revolution keeps poaching my people,” she says. “They should rename themselves that! The Federation of Stealing From Vriska Serket.”
“What kind of an acronym is that?”
“It’s better that no one’s able to say it. Then maybe people would stop joining, out of confusion, and I’d be freed.”
“Or maybe people would be drawn by the unspeakable mystique, and you would never again know peace. If you’ve ever known it.”
“Anyways. They’ve told you where they are, haven’t they?”
“Why haven’t you gotten them to pick you up? Sollux and Karkat and Nepeta have always been your set, anyways, not mine. I’m sure they’d love to add one more white sheep to the fold, especially if it’s you. What were you even going to do if I hadn’t shown up?”
“I’ve made it this far and picked off the entirety of my entourage by myself. I would have managed something,” you say dryly. That much is easy. You don’t currently want to think too hard about talking or not talking to your friends, so you acknowledge that desire and don’t. “It would have been bad manners to turn up at the revolution needing to be rescued, you know.”
“But it’s not bad manners to show up and make me do it? Have you even talked to them?”
“That’s my business. Will you take me or not?”
“The base moves according to an algorithm, doesn’t it? I never had a head for that kind of thing.” Vriska says, as snottily as someone could say they were bad at something. “Well, I won’t take you.”
“Maybe you’ve never had a head,” you mimick in a startling rendition of the same snotty voice. You snicker. You’d missed—you don’t know. Laughing at anyone who might laugh back. The slippery sort of mind games played for stakes more intangible than anything approaching a battle formation, and more rare. You hurtle into your next line easily, almost polite. “Have you considered that the problem with the tenure of your shipmates lies not with the Rebellion but with you yourself?”
“Not staying because I wouldn’t help you go?”
“Not that I should be surprised.”
Vriska’s mouth twists. “So you think I wouldn’t help you.”
“I wouldn’t be wrong, would I?”
“It’s not anything like that. I can’t.”
“Finally admitting there’s something you can’t do? That’s a new one.”
Vriska only shakes her head. “My ship can’t. My warp chip is busted. Can’t make any precision jumps, and I might not know the exact position of the base but I know it’s far from here. Hate to say it, but you’re stuck with me.”
You rewind, dredge back up the mad dash you’ve been making of late between systems, the miserable desert planet you’d had your latest fight in. “We’re in the Eretinaeus sector now, aren’t we?”
“Yeah. Miserable place.”
You don’t say anything for a long moment. You take stock of where you are, of yourself and of Vriska. And then you say, “Well then, you’ll be glad to know I have a plan to get us out.”
And you said you understood
But promises are not that good
In this improper marriage
Love and justice found miscarriage
At the only embassy
With an office for the damage
—Little Cup, Thao & Mirah
Terezi had, as you had since discovered, entered your ship with a bug containing several thousand files of high level security information she had stolen when she fled her post. She had her trusty dragon cane, which she’d still been holding when she’d collapsed. She had herself. She had, you suppose, you. She only sort of had the clothes off her back, as they’d been ripped to shreds. She seemed to think it was enough.
She’d plugged the bug in to look up the schematics for how to disable the security on your model of ship—that is, the military frigate of fifteen sweeps past. Then for fun she’d overidden the security on your actual ship and used her newfound abilities to mess with the lights and lock you in closets.
As for the dragon cane, it startles you still to unlock yourself from closets and look around corners and find it lying there, cherry red and propped on the edges of tables. And then, no more than a few feet away, Terezi hunched over diagrams or deep in thought. It is very like when you were FLARP partners and would stay over at each other’s hives for days on end, and it is not like that at all. What comes back easily is the bright, warm feeling of Terezi being on your side; this girl who could destroy hulking robot monstrosities with only her blade and dismantle whole armies with only her tongue and mind.
She’d looked up schematics for you to study as well, and you were. Or you should and would be, but for now you tilt your head at sudden odd angles to spot the moment Terezi succeeds at something and grins, like the flash of moonlight on a blade.
You think of the first time Jade had smiled at you. It must have been before you were crewmates, when you’d still been on the run on that awful swamp planet Jade had seemed too at home with. She had shot four ships out of the sky and then turned, jubilant. Her teeth had been neat white rectangles. You had thought if you could have cracked one of her bones and sucked the marrow out there would be nothing there but milk and honey.
When Terezi grins, if it is honey, it is the honey that stings a scraped tongue or drowns unsuspecting insects. She’d settled down to make her plans, and you flitted around to watch. She’d rifled through your wardrobifier and now is wearing what she’d deemed the least objectionable of Vriska’s clothing, as all her own had been ruined.
You haven’t quite figured out what exactly qualified clothing as objectionable in Terezi’s eyes, as her ensemble is mildly put, “tacky”. She had found a slinky black sequin top you had probably gone clubbing in sweeps ago, and she’d mined every last bit of red fabric you hadn’t known you’d had and is wearing all of it at once. Sometimes when you look over she’s licking the oversugared tea you made her out of the cup without picking it up. You think you could watch her until the both of you flew into a star.
Sometime in the afternoon you find the door to Rose and Jade’s old room ajar. When you go in Terezi’s there, holding up one of Rose’s terribly purple balls of yarn. “What’s this?” Terezi asks. You feel an old heat rise. Rose had looked for balls of yarn every time you’d gone somewhere that conceivably would have had it. You suppose she must have left this one.
“Where did you find it?”
“Under this strangely shaped piece of furniture,” she says, gesturing at the bed.
“Why were you even looking down th—you know, nevermind.” Suddenly, you have a vague memory of Jade angrily chucking this particular ball of yarn at you while yelling. “It’s just leftovers.”
“Your previous shipmates, who left for the Rebellion,” Terezi says factually. Then she tilts her chin towards you in a new angle. “I’ve seen this sort of apparatus before. A sleeping receptacle, for the human species, if I am not mistaken.”
“They call them beds,” you grumble.
“How close exactly were you to these humans exactly?” asks Terezi. Her voice is feather light, correctly ironic, but she takes you in with some curiosity.
“Humans don’t have quadrants.”
“Well, that’s neither here nor there,” Terezi says lazily. She lines up three loops of yarn all careful like and drapes them over her horns. She waves a hand with her next words, like she can dissipate all your bullshit on a whim. “More pertinently, how exactly did it end?”
You scratch the back of your head. “A fight, of course.”
But Terezi is still surveying you with that little bit of newness, so the words are dragged out of you despite yourself. “I mean, they sort of said they wanted me to go with them. But we’d been fighting before then anyways. It wasn’t working. I was too, you know—myself.”
“I do know,” Terezi says, wry. A beat. “Do you blame them?”
“No,” you say shortly. “I mean, of course they wanted to join the rebellion. They’re smart and resourceful and being a human isn’t a great lot right now, generally. I want to say running on my crew is a good lot, but it’s not really even.” You sigh. “They’re probably better off this way. I dropped them off with Karkles and he seemed happy about it, in his shouty way, the last I saw.”
When Terezi smiles, it is not quite in the direction of fondness, but she seems almost kind. “I thought I would have to offer congratulations to your old shipmates, for their skill or fortuitousness at having successfully escaped your grasp. But I suppose it won’t be necessary after all.”
Somewhere in the last few minutes there had been a little too much give. You are taken suddenly by that old need, to wound and to make bleed. “What about you, though? Would you say you’ve successfully escaped my grasp? And why haven’t I seen Karkat’s boring blocks of gray text disapproving of me yet?”
Terezi bristles, as intended. “I haven’t spoken to Karkat,” she says crisply. And then, “But bold of you to assume I’d have anything to say about you, if I had.” She pivots smoothly, leaving the yarn on the bed and you feeling worse than before.
You stop seeing Terezi around corners for a couple hours. But she turns up around sunup. When you explain that there’s only one recuperacoon on your ship, having sold the other sometime when you and Jade and Rose had gotten into some sort of sticky situation and it didn’t seem you’d ever need an extra recuperacoon, Terezi doesn’t say anything. “I mean, you can take it,” you said. “I can take some slime and sleep on the floor. It’s what I did last night. Or we could share.”
Terezi’s shoulder goes as still as a dead troll’s blade. Well, you’ve nicked blades off dead trolls plenty often in your time. Later, when you are curled up back to back in the slime, it is as you remembered; the touch of warmth.
I was a hero early in the morning
I ain’t no hero in the night
I am my father’s son
And I’ll build a house inside of you
—You Are a Runner And I Am My Father’s Son, Wolf Parade
You arrive in the orbit of the planet that is your destination a week later. You wake early that night and jab Vriska in the ribs with the boniest part of your elbow to wake her too. Then you clamber out of the cupe for a quick rinse and, throwing on the nearest clean looking item of Vriska’s clothing (this takes longer to find than you’d think), you stroll casually into her ridiculous little galley kitchen.
The first time you had done this, you had been basically disgusted and it had really enlightened you as to how Vriska could have made such an impressively terrible soup. You have since rearranged her cheap and blood-spattered (?) spice rack into a civilized sorting method, i.e. most to least delicious. Now you can fry up slices of her suspicious canned meats with peace of mind.
Vriska comes in when you’re basically done making breakfast, so you turn with pan in hand to portion out bits of hash. You wince a little for the moment the weight is resting on your right hand, and Vriska looks like she’s about to comment something dumb, like “Are you okay,” or worse, “Maybe we should wait a bit before executing your amazing and flawless plan.” This is ridiculous, because as she knows herself, you hadn’t even been that hurt to begin with; your arm might not be able to take much pressure but your fingers are working fine, and you’re wounds hadn’t been so serious. It had been the blood loss that made you collapse, and the nice and the not-so-nice thing about blood is that it reproduces itself. So you set down the pan, tweak her nose real quick and say, “Don’t.” She shuts her mouth. For your part, you pick up the pan again and determinedly finish plating up breakfast.
You eat breakfast. It’s not even very awkward anymore, which is disappointing in its way. Then you put the plates in the sink and decide to leave them for after your dangerous mission. Perhaps you will die and then not have to do them. You tell Vriska this and she laughs.
Then—loathe as you are to do this—you go to scrounge up some clothing more practical than the vivid ensembles of Vriska’s clothing you have been wearing of late. Well, they were practical in its own way. Vriska wordlessly picks through the eight different locations on her ship she has piles of weapons and hands you some knives. You aren’t supposed to be fighting anyone if things go well, but as you are a reasonable troll you take the knives that are offered to you. Then Vriska gets on her own gear and you watch her hide lots more knives all over her person.
Unbidden then you remember the first troll you ever delivered to Vriska for execution. It hadn’t been a sudden thing. She’d cried awful ugly tears over dumb unrelated things for a while, and then—dry eyed! She’d told you about the impending weight of murder. And because you were Terezi Pyrope, you had said many words with the intent of comfort but none of them quite mentioned that you would not have seen her miserable for the world. Instead, you learned to divide a murder into many small boxes and check all of them with a thing called precedent. You had wanted to turn Vriska to the side of righteousness, had wanted all deaths to be useful deaths.
This was not enough for Vriska, in the end. In the end perhaps it was not enough for you either. Your first victim’s name had been Ameya. You can recall her blood color, that code for one’s place in things. You can recall her crime; also, too, a code for one’s place in things. You can recall the moment after you had finished tying her up and Vriska had told you it was over, that you should leave and that she would take her back to her hive now.
You see the Abtholen from the air as discrete patches of light, amorphous seas of darkness. The planet, a sub-sector capital, contains lots of flat plateaus where most all the developments are as in the valleys incredible winds will periodically arise. As such specific plateaus have been taken over by interplanetary docking stations bridged to other plateaus. As Vriska slows to landing speed, you do lazy spins in the big spongy shotgun chair beside her. She parks near a set of stairs leading down into the fallow ground below the plateau, right on a line, but not as if she’d made a mistake. Just like she hadn’t really considered the effort of doing it right.
You disembark. Perhaps it would be more humorous if you were pretending to be casual and failing badly, but the fact of the matter is that you are both pretending to be casual and succeeding very well; you’re sure Vriska’s annoyance and being thrown off by Abtholen’s light gravity must be real. You came here once before, for a week during training. You note the sections of the parking lot as you pass—the neat row of employee-of-the-month spots. The hulking black and red monstrosity of a ship breaking up the employee of the month spots, where some military asshole had probably bullied her way in even though she definitely wasn’t assigned to be there. The dingy holiday shuttle ships, the swankier and more expensive holiday shuttle ships.
Finally you reach the area you remembered existing, a lot of slightly dated military ships. You smell Vriska tense behind you when she spots her own model, and you alter your course as naturally as you can to head towards it. She’s at your back still when you near the ship and begin to disable the security, which feels natural, you realize suddenly. You’re glad to have her there. You feel again the same shock of recognition you’d felt the moment you’d first noticed her, but you push the feeling away and focus.
Marianne, let the ghosts sleep tonight
Marianne, let the ghosts sleep
Just shut your eyes and burn the past
—The Start of Something, Voxtrot
You pass quickly through the sterile air of the not-quite-your-ship to the mechanical room. You pry open the right panel and spy the warp chip, a golden egg within the metal flesh. You remember scraped knees you’d had as a wriggler that had looked like this, like so much connective tissue. It was true what you’d always said, that you had worked as hard as anyone. You hadn’t survived for nothing; you’d practiced this past week until the patterns were buried in your fingertips.
Terezi had promised you near ten minutes of disabled security. You resolve to finish in eight.
Finally, after a colorless span of time, you loose the chip, like prying free a beating heart. You hold it in your hand, this gateway to planets. Then you run towards where Terezi is, at the head of the ship, and make your way out.
Before you were in possession of contraband, in the form of intent. Now you are in possession of contraband, in the form of metal. This somewhat heightens the stakes.
You both start powerwalking, still as casually as you can; you’re rounding the employee-of-the-month row again when the klaxons start blaring. This is where a less experienced fugitive might have started panicking. You would merely call yourself concerned, and also worried. You catch rustling at the edge of your hearing. A guard?
“Do you trust me?” says Terezi.
“What kind of a question is that,” you tell her. You’re running now, the side of the plateau on your right.
But when Terezi says “We’re jumping”, you jump without thinking, a whole leaping bound off the cliff face. The gravity is so light that, at the bottom of the hundred foot drop, you are only a little jarred. Terezi barely seems disoriented, and she starts headlong running along shape of the sheer plateau cliff. You follow her; she must be heading for the stairs on the other side that will lead you back up to your ship. You seem to have lost whoever had almost caught up to you. You’re almost certain no one saw you, so once you’re back in your own ship you should be in the clear.
When you’re almost there the wind picks up. The valley basin has been swept so clean nothing moves as it comes. Anything that could be blown away has been blown away already, and the edges of plateau are worn smooth, all the jagged edges defeated long ago. Every sharp thing broken. Every broken thing bent.
You can’t move for animal panic for a moment; your hair catches and billows and strangles. And then Terezi’s grabs your hand, dragging you in one purposeful direction and then another. Not a minute later she makes a sudden right, and the wind begins to taper. Another several winding turns and the wind stops all at once, even though you can still hear it.
Darkness. You can’t see a thing—not your hand in front of your face, not Terezi’s hand in yours.
I don't need the world to see
That I’ve been the best I can be, but
I don't think I could stand to be
Where you don't see me
—Francis Forever, Mitski
They waited in the dark.
“We’re in tunnels under the plateau,” you say informatively. Then there is nothing more to say and you take some deep sniffs. It comes in snatches: damp dirt, the banded red sedimentary rock formations, the sweat on both your brows. Vriska’s eyes are sstill open, even though surely she can’t see anything. Her pupils are very wide. You let go of her hand.
Enough time passes for you to catch your breath. Outside the wind is still howling.
“What did you mean,” Vriska says suddenly. “When you said there wasn’t any justice in the Empire, or justice without?”
“I want to join the rebellion, Vriska.”
“Clearly I don’t think there’s justice in the Empire. And I used to think I could deal justice, but what are laws without anything backing them? I’m just a troll. My principles are mine alone.”
“What if there isn’t?” said Vriska. “I’ve never known anything about laws, or about what the right thing to do was. But once upon a time you told me I could be good.”
“Ironic of me then.” And then, a little after, you say, “I’d been thinking about it lately. When you came to me before Conscription and wanted to run away. Once upon a time.” The rhythm of it lies strangely in your throat.
“Do you. . . regret it?” Vriska seems almost but not quite incredulous. Surprised, perhaps. She tilts her head. You sense the shape of the change.
“How couldn’t I,” you ask, “when I did and witnessed so much harm? But how can I regret it when it’s bringing me into the fold penitent and full of state secrets? And how could I talk to Sollux, and Karkat, and Kanaya, and all of them, like this?”
Vriska is strangely quiet, but only for a moment. “Well, were you unhappy?”
“Yes,” you say dully. “I suppose I was unhappy. Although I was also very competent.”
“Sometimes,” Vriska tells you. “Things can be bad for you because they make you feel bad, and that’s that.” And then she asks, a little pleading, “So what was it then, if not justice? What you dealt on me, back then?”
“Responsibility,” you say. And then softer, unfamiliar words, by way of explanation. “I loved you.”
“Whatever it was,” says Vriska. “Whatever you are. Write it into being. The Rebellion’s justice. Make it true and it will be true. You’ve been justice to me for all this time, however the fuck long its been. Come on. If you can do it for me you can do it for anyone.” She closes her eyes, finally.
If you can do it for me you can do it for anyone, she’d said. As if she didn’t know that it had started with her, for you. “Oh,” you mutter, not really knowing what you’re going on about anymore. And then: “So will you come with me?”
“I’ll vouch for you,” you tell her.
“They’d probably still be scared I’d bite them in the back,” Vriska says with a whine.
“But you couldn’t,” you say dryly. “You’re only as toothless as an open wound.”
“A wound can have teeth”, Vriska says, indignant, after a moment. “A punch to the jaw has teeth.”
“A gut wound”, you say distractedly. The way she holds herself when not even she herself can see is a little looser. “A fleshy one. Nothing but intestines and stomach acid.” Then you brush the back of your hand searchingly against Vriska’s cheek, knuckles first; kiss her.
Honey, you're familiar like my mirror years ago
Idealism sits in prison, chivalry fell on its sword
Innocence died screaming, honey, ask me I should know
I slithered here from Eden just to sit outside your door
—From Eden, Hozier
Terezi does not kiss you as you might have imagined it at three sweeps. It had been a formless sort of wanting then; you had not known the sharp and painful edges that lay between you. She is very gentle now and you are very gentle and you are both aware you are people who can be hurt.
You still can’t see her. You had felt only, first, the little brush against your cheek that had seemed to know what it was looking for, and then a moment later a breath that couldn’t be her, but of course couldn’t be anyone but her. Then the kiss, and then she had pulled away.
“So?” Terezi says. “Coming?” She doesn’t sound at all breathless. She sounds so full of breath she has to be doing it on purpose.
“How can I?” you say, unduly bitter. “Whatever you’ve done, well, you know who I am.”
“Don’t be a coward,” she says. You hear the clatter of her cane to the ground and then you feel the sharp tip of Terezi’s sword against the hollow of your throat. It wavers a bit and then slips down to your chest. “Aradia,” she says. She taps her sword as she says it, like the Empress bestowing the touch of life. Sollux. Tavros. All those dead trolls on Alternia. Do you remember the first one?”
She’d been a slight bronze blooded girl with wide eyes and a nervous habit of pulling on her curling mass of dark hair. You had used your fledgling mind control to put her to sleep before rolling her to your mother’s door. She had been a bloodless crime, until she hadn’t been. Or perhaps it was the other way around: she had kept all of her blood until it was in your mother’s widening maw. But by the time the soft flesh of her viscera had scattered in uneven globules, she was quite dead and could possess or lose nothing. Your mother had been not yet large enough to crunch easily and cleanly through the boneheaded thickness of the average three-sweep old Alternian skull, though then again she would ever be a messy eater.
You remember the way she’d looked for those drowned seconds you’d fought to lay her to rest; her gaze had found yours even as your hand had come up to your temple and you had concentrated, red-faced and bug-eyed and without pretense. The strength had gone out of her softly, the furrow smoothing from her lovely face, and by the time she’d slumped to her feet it hardly seemed as if she could have been surprised at all.
“Yes,” you say. You chin goes down a little. Not quite a bowed head.
“So many burdens,” says Terezi. “If I have to carry mine then you have to carry yours. It’s not work that’s going to get done by zipping aimlessly around the universe. Even if you’re going to be zipping a lot further now.”
“There’ll never be any justice for me but you,” you tell her desperately again.
“Maybe for now,” she says. “But in a little while, maybe we can find you something better. Are you coming, or not?”
You think again of that time before Conscription. You had known then, that all you’d ever wanted was Terezi and wherever she would take you. “I guess I have to,” you tell her. She finally drops the point of her sword.
“That’s good.” She sounds a little breathless now. “The wind’s stopped,” she says.
But you wait a moment longer together in the dark before she takes your hand again, and leads you away.