"Why are you here?"
You're seated in a featureless gray room behind a droidfab metal table, hands cuffed in front. The person interrogating you is a troll, a rare adult male jadeblood with short, curled horns and a discolored streak in his right iris. Which you know because he's been staring you down for five minutes already.
"Where's Dave?" you retort.
You don't know if they chose a troll to put you at ease or the opposite. Leveraging your species' social instincts as an intimidation tactic? Or were the trolls just that eager to call dibs on their own?
He purses his lips in displeasure. "You are referring to the human that broke in a while ago?"
"What do you think, genius?"
You wince at your own words. What the fuck are you doing? Don't mouth off at the interrogator! That's just asking to get yourself culled, as if you're not in deep enough shit already. You have no idea how much they're allowed to do to you, and you don't want to find out. He doesn't look angry at your lip, though, only mildly irritated.
Crossing his arms, he says, "If you answer our questions satisfactorily we will consider taking you to him."
You take a deep breath. "How about this: you let me see him, and then I'll tell you everything you want."
You have no negotiating power in this room, both of you know it, but you need to stall. Project confidence. Who knows? If you're uncooperative enough they might tap Dave for information instead, and once your resident god is back in the running you're all set. All you have to do is not get killed in the process.
"You will answer our questions, and after that we can discuss further arrangements," he repeats, inspecting a black-painted nail.
Silence stretches on. You eye the camera in the corner. This is Earth government land, so there are limits to the degrees of bodily harm he can inflict, right?
"The first guardian. What do you want with it?"
You refuse to react.
"How did you know it was here?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Your guy shot at me without provocation," you point out. "You turds kidnapped me. I have rights, you assholes! If I wanted to be abducted off the streets and locked up in a dark room for fabricated crimes I didn't commit I'd have moved to a Formic smuggler den instead of this waterlogged dirtball! Let me go right now, or... or I'll..."
You trail off as the jadeblood's eyes darken. That may have been a mistake. The outburst has left you breathing heavily, mostly due to the incipient terror inching down your spine rather than any real respiratory fatigue, and as you curse your impulsive nerves, all you can think is this is it. I'm going to die.
The troll slams his hands onto the table, rattling your cuffs. "Look, Vantas." You knew they're aware who you are, but you flinch at the sound of your name anyway. "Imperial High Command is very interested in you. As the situation stands, your capture will be reported in our division's upcoming perigee report and you will be transferred over to Imperial Investigation once we receive the order. The humans will throw up a fuss, no doubt, but the Empire will not be denied. They will stop complaining once they see the anonymous donation their foundation will be receiving for your heads."
Your stomach does a flip. Shit. They are official Empire, then. If you get lost in the system before Dave wakes up, you have no clue when you'll get found, if ever.
"Are portentous allusions to my inevitable demise supposed to make me talk?" you snort, doing your best to conceal your apprehension. "Whoop de doo, I'm fucking dead already, so might as well do my best to accelerate my brakeless tumble-slide into the gaping waste chute of Her Imperious Condescension, am I right?"
You've already dug your grave. Might as well keep going and hope you pop out the other side.
The jadeblood fixed a silencing eye on you and continues, "But my team runs an academic operation. I have no interest the Condesce's politics—that is what got me assigned to this dump in the first place. What we are interested in is information. If you make yourself useful, we may be able to reach an... arrangement."
"By which you mean you'll put my think pan through a psychic blender and then hang me out to dry anyway once you're done," you state flatly.
The troll's isn't even trying to hide the derision in his green eyes as he leans in towards you. "You get to live slightly longer. Is that not enough? And we do have the power to make your stay marginally more comfortable if you cooperate. Visitation rights, let us say. Besides, the humans get squeamish about torture, but we have other ways to disincentivize certain behaviors. It has been a while since Sarcel has had a chance to practice his craft."
You shudder in revulsion at his leer. As much as you want to shove this "offer" up his ass, you can't say it's not tempting, if only to stave off your imminent deportation and buy time.
"What do you say?"
He takes your silence as tacit acceptance, and smiles.
"Let us start with something simple. Your human friend with the sword. What is he? We have not detected cybernetic enhancements, but the speed and strength he demonstrated far exceeded ordinary human bounds. Genetic engineering? Performance enhancers?"
The problem is that while you have a wealth of information pertaining to the first guardian, to Sburbology, to Dave, all of which you know for certain a disillusioned academic would be dying to learn, you can't actually tell him any of it. Putting aside the sheer unbelievability of most of it, there's the fact that letting that knowledge fall into enemy hands would be stupidity of the highest caliber. They'll never let you or Sollux get near Dave or Bec once they know what they are.
"Let me see Dave and I'll talk," you repeat. "Please. I just need to know he's okay, I..."
Yeah, angling for sympathy isn't going to work on this guy. The intensity of the scathing look he's shooting you is enough to make you shirk back in your seat.
"You do not make demands," he growls, a dangerous tremor to his voice, and oh shit, that's not a good sound he's making. You've seen enough highbloods snap to know what it means.
He raises his hand and you try to lean back, but it's in vain. The force of the blow snaps your head to the side and smashes your jaw against the steel back of the chair. You loll, dazed. Your mouth tastes of blood. Something warm trickles from the corner of your mouth. When you gingerly lift yourself to look at the jadeblood his head is cocked, gaze trained on the too-vibrant red dripping down your chin. You can see the revulsion warring with macabre fascination in his eyes.
What he does not look is surprised.
Your head is still swimming too much to make any sense of that fact.
"You do not make demands," he reiterates, collecting himself primly. "You have no power. You have no rights. The humans will not offer you a legislacerator because right now this place does not exist. You do not exist, are presumed missing, and will stay so. Now let me ask you again: what do you know?"
You spit a glob of saliva and blood onto the table. "I know you're a soulless bastard. I know I'm not going to say a single word to you or anyone in this godforsaken ditch until I see my friend alive and breathing."
The troll stands there, chest rising and falling slowly, just looking at you with thinly concealed contempt.
"Suit yourself," he hisses. For a moment you brace yourself, thinking he's going to strike you again, but the jadeblood simply turns and stalks towards the door.
He's just going to leave? "Wait, please—"
"Enjoy being vivisected by the biomassacrers, mutant. I think I have a report to write."
"Fuck you!" you yell, knowing very well it's a bad idea, but you don't have much left to lose. "Fine, snitch to your boss, what do I care? That's all you'll ever be, you demented shit-screaming tortoise. Tthis is it for your miserable career, do you hear me? Dusting rocks at a primitive dump waiting for a magic dog to show up and get you your big break, but guess what? Even the mutt is done with your pus-oozing musclebeast crotch masquerading as—"
The remarkably calm click of the door closing shut cuts you off, leaving you breathing heavily alone in an empty room.
"Hey," you hear someone say from outside your cell. "Whatcha doing?"
You open your eyes and remove the finger from your wrist, looking up to find a young-looking human man outside your cell. He's looking in at you through the bars with an expression of neutral curiosity. Huh, you didn't even notice the guard change. How long has he been standing there? The man's leaning against the bars of the opposite cell, not apparently hostile, but you've learned not to judge potential enemies by their cover.
Sighing, you slump against the solid wall behind your back. You've been sitting cross-legged on the floor of your cell, since in their magnanimous hospitality your hosts didn't perceive the necessity to outfit you with any furniture.
"Trying to unlock my latent superpowers," you answer honestly.
He chuckles. You sigh. It was a long shot anyway—you're not a real player, and Karkat never got any special innate powers apart from game-dispensed fraymotifs anyway, so you don't think half an hour of meditation in a jail cell will get you further than years in the game did for him.
"So what's your deal?" He gestures around. "They built a whole new wing for you. Must be important."
It turns out research bases don't typically have prisoner holding cells, so they booted up a few carpenter droids to speedprint a block. That's the only reason you're not more annoyed at the lack of seating arrangements: you think your clothes might be dirtier than the freshly extruded flooring and walls you're rubbing them all over. You can even still feel the warmth from the construction forges tickling your skin when you touch the ground.
"We're interstellar fugitives. Boo. Fear me," you mutter dully. "Got caught plotting a break-in, what did you think?"
The guy pushes off his side of the corridor and walks closer to your bars. "Word is you're getting extradited. What'd you do to piss off your Empress?"
"Are you supposed to be chatting up your prisoners?" you snort.
"Dude, I'm bored. They didn't let me bring my book—distraction from the job, bluh—so I'm resorting to extreme measures. What are they going to do, fire me for fraternizing with violent criminals?" He grins.
Oh troll Jesus, it's another one of them.
"Do you know where the other troll is? The goldblood that got caught with me?"
If you have to be pestered by a moron who's pathologically incapable of knowing when to shut up, and it can't even be the one you're smooching, you might as well get something out of it.
"Ooh. I don't know if I'm allowed to tell you. Who's he anyway? Your boyfriend?"
Oh, great. So you're stuck with an asshole opsec-illiterate enough to strike up an inane conversation with the captive, but not so stupid as to reveal anything legitimately useful. You level an unimpressed glare at the human.
He nods, unperturbed. "Wait, let me guess, that would be the human boy that came in earlier, right?"
You stare at the human, not bothering to hide your incredulity. Is this that good-cop-bad-cop thing you hear so much about? First they lure your guard down with a classic smack-and-threaten routine, then lunge in for the kill with invasive personal questions precisely calibrated to irritate you to death? You're not even going to glorify that question with an answer.
"Aw man, I knew it. What's a spy flick without a good romance subplot? Sweet. Red or black? Pale?" He wiggles his eyebrows in an outrageously unprofessional manner.
Fuck, are you that transparent? You bury your head between your knees and elucidate the deformed lovechild of a yell and moan of suffering. This is hell. You are literally in the designated afterlife for the damned right now, doomed to languish forever in eternal psychological torment. This is your punishment for every one of Nepeta's ships you've verbally annihilated.
"What the fuck do you know about quadrants?" you hiss.
No, stop, you're supposed to be denying it, dammit.
He snorts. "Come on, it's not that hard to understand. I think they're kinda cool, actually."
"Tell that to the rest of your intellectually stunted species," you growl. "Every time the topic of troll romance is broached, even at just the slightest suggestion of there existing more than just the one depressingly limited relationship archetype in the entire goddamn universe, your sparing human intellects seem to immediately find a way to assume the most ingratiating posture of surrender imaginable."
"Dude, tell me about it."
"Don't get me started on the ignoramuses that base their entire understanding of the quadrant system on shitty pop science blogs, cultivate infestations of ignorant misconceptions in their addled think pans like carnivorous mold on sweeps-stale grubloaf, and then proceed to argue between equally asinine interpretations on the Internet when just a trivial Google search would instantly put an end to to their incestuous shitstorm of rampant idiocy."
"Then there's the fetishization of kismesissitude on certain parts of the human web that will not be named to rationalize all kinds of harmful abuse perpetrated in flushed relationships among all species, and how that backlashes on the entire concept of black romance, and by extension troll society itself. Then you have the audacity to blame your species' rape fantasies on the aliens like we're the dimorphic K-strategists!"
"Uh, you seem really-"
"Not to mention the unhealthy overemphasis of pale codependency in your fictionalizations and how humans yet again appropriate the idea to justify their own neuroses while somehow simultaneously ignoring both its biological pacifying function and the emotional essence of the romance-"
"Holy mother of god, chill out, dude!"
You suddenly realize that you're on your feet and shouting.
The human's backed off from the bars of your cell, hands raised in surrender. Despite that he's smiling faintly, apparently amused by your outburst. You feel a flush of embarrassment rise inside you, but you shove it down and maintain your facade of righteous anger.
"Sorry," you mutter grudgingly. Shit. You're more rattled than you thought if you've regressed to proselytizing at strangers. "I'm stressed."
His grin widens, but it's not cruel or mocking, and you think that might be even more disconcerting. You guess he's found the distraction he was looking for. Little caged troll ranting about romance: what a fucking riot. Ugh.
Then, as you glare at his infuriatingly cheerful face, you're struck by a brilliant new plan:
You are going to entertain this motherfucker, befriend the acrid pity juices out of his joy bladders, until... well, he probably won't let you out of the cell, but you might tease some more information out of him. Or at least get him to slip you some food. You need something, anything, dammit. A crack in this fortress you can exploit.
"So... what quadrant?" he asks.
You groan. After all that, he still wants to talk about your love life? You have to suppress the urge to tell him to fuck out of your business. You need to make a good impression. Just keep it curt, don't devolve into moaning about your relationship woes again, and you'll be fine.
"None," you admit. "He's just my boyfriend. It's vaguely red, but we're making it up as we go. It's... working. Somewhat."
He whistles. "Woah. How'd you meet? Industrial espionage school? Swordfighting class?"
"College." He opens his mouth and you cut him off, adding, "Ordinary human college, not murder ninja college or who knows what atrocity against the institution of education was going to exit your mouth."
The human blinks. "Uh, how old are you?"
It's obvious what he's actually trying to ask. "All three of us are freshmen. We're skipping school to invade your military base, yes."
"So you just met a few months ago and you've already decided to join up to blow up a forest and break into a top-secret research facility?"
A snort makes its way out of your nose. "When you put it like that..."
"You are legitimately a YA novel protagonist," he muses, raising an eyebrow. "Does that make me the bad guy? I don't wanna be the bad guy. Hang on, you still haven't answered my first question. What'd you do to piss the Empire off? The trolls won't tell anyone, though to be fair I'm not sure most of them they know either. The whole thing's just incredibly dodgy."
You bite your lip. You don't know how he'd respond to the Heiress thing, and you definitely don't want to explain your ancestor, especially since you're not all that clear on the details of either yourself. Besides, as uncharacteristically amiable your guard is, he could be a reverse plant to fish for information, and you don't want to reveal more than is absolutely necessary.
Thankfully, you have a ready-made excuse that from the earlier interrogation the Empire goons already know about.
Steeling yourself, you bring your thumb to your mouth, clamp it between a pair of sharp incisors, and bite down just hard enough to prick through the skin. You don't stop quick enough and punch deeper than you intended, but you wince through the pain and hold the finger out.
Brilliant red blood wells from the tip as you squeeze the surrounding pad.
The look on his face shifts from confusion to realization to horror in the span of seconds.
"From that expression, I trust I don't have to give another patronizing lecture on what that means," you say drily. He nods slowly. Mutant rights are one of the hot button alien issues on Earth, especially with the ambiguous political situation between the Empire and the UN.
"That's messed up, man. They'd kill you just for that?" There's a genuine sympathy in his words that's mildly off-putting coming from your jailer, but that means that it's working. You can work with this.
You decide to feed him another crumb. "The last known troll to have this mutation..."
"The Signless," he blurts out. You blink, surprised. "I read about it on the web," he clarifies. "Some obscure troll blogs talk about it, but I always thought it was a conspiracy theory, you know? No one ever has any evidence for it, so..."
What the fuck? You only learned about the Sufferer when Dave told you about your bizarre cross-scratch ancestry, but apparently it's been up there floating around in the Earth Internet this entire time? Did Sollux know? He'd tell you if he did, right?
"But apparently he's real, then? Do you think you're his descendant?" the human asks excitedly. How is he more hyped about your ancestral legacy than you yourself? The guy's not even trying keeping his voice down. There are no cameras in here since speedprinting doesn't do wiring or plumbing, but someone could walk in on this highly illegal conversation at any time.
"How the pungent whipping fuck would I know?" you grumble. You do in reality, of course, but only because of ectobiological shenanigans, not anything you can cite authoritatively. "All that matters is highbloods are superstitious, and as long as there's a chance..."
You're not even entirely lying. The succession thing was likely the inciting factor, of course, but since you found out about your ancestry you've been suspecting that your blood also contributed to the capture order. After Feferi botched her assassination and drew attention to your name, the Empire would have tracked down your Earth immigration paperwork and seen the blood spectrograph Immigration Services took. The troll interrogator's lack of reaction only confirms that they have you on file as a mutant.
"That sucks ass," he says, once again massively understating the obvious. "So they're going to ship you off and..."
"If I'm lucky, I get a grotesque public execution. If I'm unlucky, I get the same grotesque public execution but dragged out as long and painfully as physiologically possible."
"Fuck," he mumbles. "Sorry, man. That's not right. You seem like a cool kid. Even if you did threaten to cut off Mason's fingers."
"I wouldn't really have cut off his fingers," you defend. "I mean, most trolls would do it without blinking an eye, that's why it's a credible threat, but I wouldn't. I'm not the most representative sample of my species, if you haven't noticed."
He emits a restrained chuckle. You're not sure if he believes you.
"Why'd you come here?" he asks after a pause, grasping for something less depressing. "How does that relate to that whole... Sufferer thing? How did you know to come here?"
Good. Step one, convince him of your innocent victimhood, complete. Now all you have to do is fill in the plot holes, which is harder than it sounds, even if this guy isn't the sharpest tool in the machinery closet. Time to deploy your carefully concocted cover story for "your planet's first guardian was a friend's pet dog slash sprite co-fusee in a past life". You choose your words carefully.
"I said we were college students, right?" You wait for his nod, and continue. "Me and Dave study Sburbology."
He snorts. "Of course."
"We were working with a professor on a research project to triangulate the location of the first guardian based on Sburbian archaeology and data she requested off the Palassian servers."
"No way," he breathes. Ah, he's catching your gist.
"Hey, you can read the paper yourself when it comes out in January. She was going to try and put some field expeditions together, but I suppose you guys beat her to the chase." You smile weakly. "Long story short, we picked the closest of the four top predictions and hauled ass when a troll tried to kidnap me from my dorm building."
"But would you come looking in the first place?"
"There are legends," you say with a sigh. "Obviously not on Earth, since you needed literal extraterrestrials to inform you you've been sharing the planet with an omnipotent immortal beast for all of recorded human history, but on other planets there's always legends about people finding them and being granted... I suppose you'd call them boons? Rewards, wishes, advice..."
His eyes widen. You're making all of this up, of course—everyone knows first guardians don't do anything but fuck around and blow up alien invaders if they feel like it—but he seems to be buying it. "So you wanted to ask it for help?"
You shrug, praying that his suspension of disbelief holds. "First guardians are documented to teleport, so even sticking strictly to their empirically proven capabilities, it would at the very least be able to dump us on the other side of the globe and lose us the assassins."
"Damn," he mutters.
You can see him being pulled into the flow of your narrative against his better instincts, much faster than you expected for someone supposed to be keeping you under lock and key. Perhaps it's your blood, unfalsifiable proof of your inheritance to anyone who's heard the legend, or maybe it's Blood for once, the subtle Aspect-encoded knack for bringing people together finally showing itself.
Or he's just astonishingly gullible? It's hard to tell, not being on the receiving end. Either way, you're pretty sure you lucked out here.
The funniest thing about all of this is that the truth is even more insane than this action movie plot you fabricated from thin air.
"Well, sorry to disappoint you, dude. The dog doesn't listen to anyone, and we're not sure it even understands English, though the trolls say it's supposed to? And it's not even here anym- wait shit I shouldn't have said that."
And also that's incredibly bad news holy shit fuck fuck fuckity fuck what are you going to do. If he's telling the truth then you'll have to track Bec down yourselves, probably hidden in some secure bunker or the Alaskan wilderness or something, and that's only if you get out of here in the first place. Everything's not just set back, the entire plan is fucked.
Concealing your internal panic—you still have a human to bring around with your mediocre acting skills and messianic reputation—you exhale tiredly and say, "What does it matter now? We're all captured. I'm going to be tortured to death. Sollux gets to be a sentient ship engine for the rest of his extensible biological lifespan. Dave will... something will happen to him. Goddammit, I shouldn't have dragged them into this. This is my fault."
Channeling miserable despondence comes easy to you. These are all real thoughts that have graced your mind in one form or another, after all. Very little of what you're saying is outright untrue, just... embellished. Reframed.
"Your friends must really love you," he says quietly.
Your breath hitches.
"Yeah," you whisper. "They do."
More than he could ever imagine. You're not just talking about Dave or Sollux either: the bonds of your stillborn pantheon have outlived universes, spanned the void between worlds, survived death and tragedy in countless more lives than one. You'd be dead three times over if not for every last of those nook sniffing imbeciles, horsecock fuckers and all.
Which is why it's imperative that you get the hell out of this death trap before it comes snapping shut around you.
You give him a minute to wallow before you speak again.
"I don't suppose I could convince you to... just... unlatch the door, and go to the washroom for a minute?" you ask, letting a sliver of fragile hope slip into your voice.
The human gapes, gears turning for several seconds in his head. You see his laryngeal cartilage bob up and down as he tries to formulate a response. "I... god, I..."
You look down, not trusting yourself to not say the wrong thing and fuck this up.
"I can't do that. You wouldn't get past the rim without being shot to pieces anyway, and... I'm sorry. You don't deserve any of this, but they'd kill me, and this is... Oh my god, I'm a terrible person. Fuck. I can't. I'm sorry. I..."
"It's okay," you interrupt, feeling a pinch of shame for guilt-tripping the poor guy like this. "I'd do the same in your position. It's a whole fucking lot to ask."
You can't say you're not disappointed, but you didn't really expect that to work anyway. The way the human refused gives you a hint to how amenable to suggestion he is, though, and now that he's turned you down once you've gained an ounce of leverage. He hasn't fallen back to suspicion, which is what's important.
What throws you off is what he says next.
"But..." he hesitates. "My shift ends in twenty minutes. Temtos is up after me, and she... I'll call her and ask if she can come in and start early."
You're produce an sound of confusion. "What the fuck is that going to do?"
"Just-" he looks around surreptitiously. "-when she comes by, show her what you showed me, alright?"
Show what? Your blood? Is this person a troll? That didn't sound like a human name. He's typing on his phone now; you can hear the faint blings of the incoming messages from whoever he's talking with.
"What are you blabbering about?" you growl.
"Gimme a second," he mutters as he continues his digital conversation. You walk up to the bars and crane your neck, not like it's possible to see his screen from five meters away and the wrong angle. "Alright, she's agreed. Fuck, I'd better appreciate this? She'd better appreciate this. I am so fired."
Is this "Temtos" a sympathizer? What can she do that he can't? What kind of sloppy operation do they have running here where you can just text message someone to take your shift without clearing it with your superiors?
He puts the device away and looks back up, vibrating with tension. "Talk to her when she gets here," he says simply. With that thoroughly unhelpful statement the human turns and scuttles off, fleeing down the corridor like his commanding officer is about to pop out of the ceiling with a machine gun and mow him down for conspiracy.
Is he leaving?
"Wait!" you shout, lurching forward and pressing your face against the bars. He ignores you without breaking stride. "Don't you have to guard me until she gets here?"
He stumbles and stops.
For a few moments he's just standing there, frozen awkwardly mid-step.
Finally the man pivots and slowly makes his way back towards your cell, the mortified blush on his face coming in view as he approaches. He mumbles something inaudible as he shuffles back to his spot against the wall and, after a second of hesitation, pulls out his phone.
Jesus fucking Christ.
You bury your face in your hands and sigh deeply.