Chapter 1: Year One
The process of reclaiming Earth truly began with the stars.
But this was not without buildup. After more than three years of loneliness, uncertainty, and suffering, the completion of SBURB ushered in a month’s worth of grueling work. This new universe was theirs, true. But the years had not been kind to Earth. Centuries of tyrannical rule by the Condesce had submerged most of the continents beneath the ocean, with only the tips of the mountains remaining above water. It was after a night of delirious celebration atop one of those peaks that the realization set in: they had a lot of work ahead of them.
It was Jade who first set the plans in motion. While the powers bestowed by the game were enough to begin the terraforming of Earth, it would still not be an easy task. Jade began by forcibly slowing the movement of the atoms at the poles, forcing them to leak heat and adopt a solid form. Dave and Aradia sped up the process, forcing thousands of years of glaciation to occur over the span of days. John began pulling the atmosphere back into formation and the wind currents shifted, adjusting to a rapidly receding ocean. Finally, as land began to return, Jane’s powers seeded the soil, preparing for the green of life to return along with it.
By the time the kids had finished, they returned to find the first buildings of Cantown, raised according to the Mayor’s designs. A handsome town hall, carved from gleaming white marble summoned by Roxy. A street of tall, cylindrical apartments, which every human and troll with able hands had helped the carapaces erect. A grand and imposing post office, which PM had personally planned.
But this was just the basis. Part of truly reclaiming the Earth would come with naming. And after a month of work, the survivors began to name the stars.
John looked into the unfamiliar night sky, the bonfire greedily lapping up the dry wood Roxy had appearified. “What about that one,” he suggested, pointing to a line of stars in the southern sky. “That one kinda looks the Big Dipper.”
Karkat, a look of profound confusion added to his normal snarl, whipped his head around to face John. “The what ?” the troll barked, pencil lifting away from makeshift paper.
“Ursa Major,” Rose chimed in from behind Karkat. “The Great Bear. A very bright constellation from the previous universe.”
“Also,” said Dave, leaning in from John’s left, “kinda looks like a spoon. I mean, if a kid drew me that and told me it was a spoon, I’d believe him, as opposed to the whole ‘bear’ thing. Lot easier to remember.”
Karkat’s expression was one of baffled frustration. “You had a constellation named after a spoon ?” he asked.
John shrugged. “I mean, we’ve found constellations for the rest of us,” he suggested. “Why not find a spoon for Jane?”
Jane, sitting across the fire, chuckled. “Thanks, John, but I’ll need to pass. The Batterwitch kind of ruined most cooking utensils for me as symbols; I’ll find something else.”
John leaned back, the discussion continuing around him. Their first choices had been symbols; those of the survivors, and those of their absent friends. It was a small selfishness that they had agreed upon, so that they could mark this world as their own. After what they had done, what they had gone through? A constellation was a reasonable reward for their survival.
The trolls had each used their own symbols, and found places for the symbols of their absent friends. Karkat, furiously recording the constellations they decided upon. Aradia, whispering to her blind matesprit Sollux, trying to give him a picture of the night sky he could appreciate. Kanaya, quietly sitting besides Rose, seemingly content to sleepily lean upon her. Terezi, intently sniffing skywards, attempting to pick up the scents of the heavens. Vriska, her mood having improved immensely since the bonfire had begun to provide warmth. The seventh of their number remained locked in his fridge in the town hall, as it had been unanimously agreed that he should not yet be let out.
As for the rest of them… well, the decision process was more complicated. John, his friends, and their alternate universe counterparts were all alive and well. Calliope, the remaining carapaces, sprites, and consorts had also made it through. They were all playing along, trying to find some way to mark the stars as their own.
And then, there was Dad. Well, technically, Mr. Crocker. He remembered John as his father, rather than his son. But in just about every other way, it was Dad. Same neatly-ironed dress shirt and khakis, inexplicably clean after several months in a Dersite prison and another month of hard labour building Cantown. Same pipe, filled with some of his carefully-rationed tobacco. Same serene expression, directed skywards as he sat next to Jane, who he remembered as his daughter.
He had not yet picked a constellation.
“Hey, D… Mr. Crocker!” John called out. “What about you? I don’t think you’ve picked one yet.”
Mr. Crocker turned towards John, exhaling a puff of smoke as he did. These past few months had been immensely strange for him, but this had been the metaphorical icing on the cake. This young man - John - who bore a striking resemblance to his late father, apparently remembered him as his father in the world he had come from. It didn’t help that in John’s universe, his beloved daughter Jane was his mother, as verified by the sky-blue spectre which John referred to as ‘Nanasprite’.
But, as he said, these had been a strange few months. He could live with this last oddity.
Mr. Crocker grinned. “John,” he replied, “I’m an old man; I’ve barely adjusted to the fact that I don’t recognize the sky anymore. Ask me once I’ve settled down, and I might be able to give you an answer.”
John returned the smile with a laugh. Yeah, that was about the answer he was expecting. It may have been an alternate universe Dad, but… well. It was Dad, all the same.
It was then that a sharply pointed finger jabbed into John’s shoulder. Not enough to cause pain, but certainly enough for John to whirl around behind him. Calliope’s green, skeletal figure gazed down upon him with a grin that, under any other circumstances, would be deeply disturbing.
Of course, those were not those circumstances.
Calliope beckoned to John, a silent request of can we talk privately? John nodded, standing up to leave his friends to consider new constellations on their own terms.
Mr. Crocker silently watched the two of them leave.
Beyond the light of the bonfire, the night sky was a tapestry of stars, stretching out across a world only just beginning to come alive again. While Jane’s magic was powerful, so far only grass covered the land, blowing in the wind like waves on an ocean. So the two of them walked until the bonfire was distant, a piercing aura of golden light radiating out into an otherwise pitch-black world.
When the voices of their friends became indistinguishable, Calliope stopped. John had grown quite fond of the skeletal being since he had first met her, her enthusiasm for this bold new world endearing her to him. For a being who had only known the solitude all cherubs are born into, something as simple as a face-to-face conversation was something to revel in.
Calliope turned to face John. “So,” she said, her voice echoing with a peculiar metallic twang endemic to her species. “I guess I wanted to ask about something.”
John shifted; only a particular set of questions were the sort of thing you brought a person out of earshot to ask. “What’s up?” he inquired, attempting to look as nonchalant as possible. He was not particularly good at faking nonchalance.
Calliope grinned. “Relax,” she replied, “I just didn’t want this to be discussed in front of the whole group.”
John raised an eyebrow. “Okay… what are we talking about, then?”
And suddenly, it made sense. John exhaled.
“I figured it would be worth discussing.”
John nodded. “All right. Let’s discuss it, then.”
He knelt to the ground, shifting to his back to look up at the stars. Calliope followed suit. A minute of silent contemplation followed.
It was Calliope who broke it. “I know that I can only be part of who she wants.”
John turned to face her. “And which part is that?”
A sigh from Calliope. “I… my species isn’t programmed like yours is. Sensuality is an act of aggression for cherubs, reserved for domination and rivalry. And… well, I don’t feel that way towards Roxy. Hatefully, I mean.”
John cocked his head. “...is this a sex thing? Calliope, are you giving me permission to have sex with Roxy?”
That elicited a chuckle. “Well…” Calliope replied with a sharp-toothed grin, “...sex is a part of it. I can’t really assist her in that field, and you can, so… yeah. That’s your department, John.”
John laughed along with her. She was an odd creature, but beneath her green, boney exterior lay something deeply familiar. Something very human.
“But,” Calliope said, her voice growing quiet, “that’s not the main reason why I’m concerned.”
Calliope turned to face John, a kind of tenderness in her eyes. “John, we both know that Roxy loves both of us. And… well, I guess I want to make sure that there’s no issue here.”
John raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, I love her,” Calliope continued, “and I know you love her too. And I want to make sure that we can both be there for her.”
Another minute of silence. This time, John broke it. “Well, societal norms no longer exist, so by extension, neither does monogamy.”
It was Calliope’s turn to look confused. John laughed. “That’s a yes,” he replied.
Calliope smiled. “Thank you. I mean, I guess that’s one way of putting it. When there are no social norms to break, jealousy does not make a lot of sense.”
The two of them returned to laying upon the grass. Above them, the sky turned, its pace unceasing. The moon, full and brilliant in the sky, shone down on the landscape.
“Besides,” Calliope suddenly stated, “I don’t know when I’m going to die.”
Those were not words John expected to hear. He turned towards Calliope, a little bit alarmed. “Die?” he asked, confused and concerned. “What do you mean?”
“I have no reference for my biology,” she began. “Cherubs can live for a long time, but I’m… well, I’m not normal. I never matured properly. I have no idea what that means for me. And that worries me.”
Her voice took a somber edge. “We don’t know how God Tier affects aging in humans, but whatever happens, I’m willing to bet that Roxy and you will go through the same process. I don’t have that luxury. I might die next year, and you’ll be the only one who can take care of her. I might live for another thousand years, and only the two of you will be able to really grow old together. I honestly don’t know.”
Silence. The wind whistled through the grass, and the cool night air felt oppressively heavy.
Calliope turned to face John. “I need you to be there for her if I can’t.”
The gears in John’s mind turned, considering Calliope’s words.
At last, he turned to her, a seriousness in his eyes. “I will. You have my word.”
Calliope nodded. She turned back towards the heavens.
The stars continued in their path across the sky.
Seated on the edge of the bonfire’s glow, Mr. Crocker faced the direction John and his skeleton friend had walked. He slowly drew smoke from his pipe, savouring the burn and never taking his eyes off the horizon.
He turned. Jane was standing behind him, looking concerned. “You’re staring,” she observed.
Mr. Crocker exhaled, a pillow of smoke following his breath. He patted the ground beside him; a request to sit. Jane took it.
“How much do you know about John?” he asked, his eyes returning to the horizon.
Jane tilted her head, trying to see what had attracted her father’s attention. “Well… I’m not sure where to begin. I mean, we spoke when we were working on the terraforming, but I don’t know what to tell you.”
Mr. Crocker nodded. “You know that he remembers me as his father?”
Jane nodded. “Do you want to know what he remembers about you?”
He turned to Jane, edges of his mouth moving upwards. “I don’t know much about him. I hope I’m close enough to what he remembers about his father, but I still worry.”
“Worry? Dad, John’s a good guy. You don’t need to worry about him.”
“It’s not him I’m worried about.”
Mr. Crocker sighed. And Jane Crocker understood.
She turned her whole body to face him. “Well, shucks,” she said, a grin spreading on her face. “What do want to know?”
Her father took another puff of his pipe. “As much as you can tell me.”
Chapter 2: Year Two
Jane’s father had baked one of the largest cakes that Jane had ever set eyes on. Six layers tall, decorated in blocks of black-and-white alongside bars of gold and purple. This had been a team effort. Jane had assisted eagerly; John, despite his negative experiences with baked goods, lent a hand as well. Rose and Kanaya had helped line the cake with delicate floral designs, laying icing with the same delicate precision as one uses to sew. And Terezi, tongue-deep in the icing bowl, had pronounced the colours to be delicious.
It was a magnificent cake, for a magnificent occasion.
About a year into his term, the Mayor had realized that he had never actually been elected to public office. Thus, about a month ago, the first Cantown General Election was called by the Mayor, who would proceed to win it by a landslide. After all, when faced with a man that charming, how could you not vote for him?
Cantown’s first year had been rocky. It eventually occurred to the inhabitants that farming would be necessary for this town to exist, leading to the hasty construction of fields. Unfortunately, nobody exactly knew how to farm; the remainder of the summer was spent learning. Summer passed into autumn, autumn into winter. For the carapaces and those humans used to more tropical climes, this was their first snowfall. It was only about an hour after that first snowfall that this universe experienced its first snowball fight.
Canned goods and the promise of a better harvest next year kept Cantown alive through the winter, which passed into spring. Spring, in turn, would pass into summer.
And as summer was truly beginning, the newly elected Mayor of Cantown asked the town’s Parcel Mistress for her hand in marriage.
It was guaranteed from the beginning that Cantown’s first marriage would be an event to remember, and the entire town planned for it. Every able hand went to work preparing the site, cooking the feast, and setting up every aspect of this marvelous occasion.
Which brought Jane to the cake. A monstrous piece of cooking, built from a combination of the little flour they had managed to grind from the wheat harvest and any ingredients that could be improvised. It was decorated to suit the symbolic and literal union of Prospit and Derse which defined the marriage, which defined Cantown. Her father beamed at the result, smiling wide at a cake about as tall as Jane and ready to present to the bride and groom. A cake whose magnitude matched that of the wedding it was baked for.
It was presented as the reception, easily the most interesting part of the whole ceremony, began. Karkat and Dave’s prepared speech to the Mayor ended with the two of them sobbing, reiterating what a great guy he was through the tears. John and Jade’s speech for PM was substantially more composed; the previous year had been enough time for any hard feelings Jade had about getting punched in the face to heal.
And now, as the party was in full swing, Jane was enjoying herself more than she had since SBURB began.
She was arm-in-arm with Dirk in the centre of town hall, which had been converted into a ballroom for the sake of the festivities. Despite being a man with no interest in courting women, Dirk most certainly knew how to dance with them, and had readily volunteered as Jane’s dance partner after Dave had retreated to the Mayor’s table to sob. As a band of salamanders played a makeshift waltz, the room’s couples had joined the newlyweds in dancing. Rose and Kanaya, moving with practiced grace; Calliope and Roxy making an awkward, giggling attempt at dancing as John attempted to console Dave; Sollux, growing used to his blindness, leading Aradia across the floor with both caution and tenderness. And then there was Jane, keeping pace with Dirk’s feet as best as she could, grinning ear-to-ear all the while.
It was a good day.
As the waltz drew to a close, Jane and Dirk returned to their table. There, Jake English listened with fascination as a robed salamander calling themselves “the Viceroy” held court on one of many plans for the town’s future. Joining them were a few of the Viceroy’s devotees (dressed in their finest robes for the wedding) and Ms. Paint, taking a break from assisting Jane’s father at the bar. A motley collection, but they made for good company.
The Viceroy gave a welcoming nod at her approach. Seeing this, Jake turned and beamed, straightening in his chair. “Ah! Enjoyed yourself, I hope,” he stated, adjusting his glasses as he did so. “I would have joined you, but alas, I’ve no skill for dancing, and the Viceroy is a very wise salamander.”
It was unclear whether he was addressing Jane or Dirk, but perhaps it didn’t matter. Jake may have been handsome, but familiarity had proven that he made up for his good looks in immaturity. The past year had helped to quiet her previous feelings towards him, and what a relief that was.
“Well, I’d agree with the latter statement,” Jane concurred, “and I’ll take your word for the former. What exactly has the Viceroy been pontificating upon?”
The Viceroy began burbling a reply: a library. A collection of what remains of the worlds which fell in the game, some way for later generations to return to that legacy and learn from it. According to their plans, it would be five stories tall, and built from polished black stone; the Viceroy’s disciples began nodding their heads in reverent agreement. The Viceroy’s designs for the library were not modest by any means, but then again, this was a necromancer Jane was listening to. Necromancers are not a group known for their restraint.
Despite the outlandish proposal, Jane found herself nodding along in agreement. “A fascinating idea; I like the sound of it,” she exclaimed. This seemed to please the Viceroy immensely.
“I’d certainly kick in a little something,” Dirk cut in. “I do still have a vaguely shameful amount of pre-apocalyptic human pop culture in my possession. A library is as good a cause as any to donate it to. Fair warning: a more-than-insignificant portion of that material contains human dicks and the usage thereof as a prominent theme, so I’d watch out for that.”
Jake grew a little flushed at Dirk’s description, but the Viceroy seemed to find the idea quite amusing. They gave out a bubbling laugh, and Jane laughed with them.
“Well… uh…” Jake stammered, chuckling nervously, “...how about you, Jane? Perhaps you have something to offer?”
Jane thought for a moment. Her box set of Parks and Rec would be a good offering; to deny the people of the future the gift of Ron Swanson would be inhumane. Plus, she had enough novels about hard-boiled gumshoes to entertain a generation’s worth of readers. She had already burnt just about everything even vaguely related to Crockercorp, but perhaps she could make a collection of recipes from memory…
It was then that Ms. Paint suggested that someone should write a book of history.
Jane turned to the Prospitian, leaning forward with a gleam of interest in her eyes. Ms. Paint was grinning excitably, looking around the table for a reaction.
“History?” Jake asked, intrigued.
Ms. Paint began her pitch. Future generations should know about the events that led to where they are today from the people who lived through it. Something to tell them about how all of these diverse peoples ended up here, and the trials that their ancestors went through. After all, they will eventually ask where they came from. Perhaps it would be better to give them an accurate answer.
The table fell silent for a minute. Jane was almost cursing herself for not thinking of that. Someone could tell that story, could ensure that the people of the future knew the truth.
“Ma’am,” Jane finally replied, “that’s a brilliant idea.”
Ms. Paint blushed as Dirk and Jake nodded their heads in agreement. The Viceroy burbled their approval, stating they would personally work alongside the author to create such a tome.
“I nominate Janey.”
Jane spun around to find Roxy, closer than Jane anticipated she would be able to stealthily reach. Both of her partners were currently tending to Dave and Karkat’s overflowing emotions (and wounded pride); a rare occurrence, seeing as at least one of them seemed to always be by her side. A wry smile was on Roxy’s lips, and her violently pink eyes seemed to be hunting for a reaction.
Jane was not prepared to gracefully give one. “I… what?” she replied, despite her full understanding of Roxy’s words.
“To write this book,” Roxy said. “I was listening to you guys, and I think it’s a good idea for Janey to write this thing. She’s been through all the crap that we have, and I’d say she’s probably the most artic… good with words. So I say that it should be her.”
This was not how Jane had expected this wedding to go. “Me? Shucks, I’m flattered, but what about Dirk? He knows his way around language better than just about all of us.”
“Nah, she’s right,” Dirk interjected. “You remember life before SBURB; my ass was stuck in the middle of the post-apocalyptic ocean. Roxy’s in the same boat as me, and Jake - no offense, dude - lived on an island. You can tell people how the world was , before the Batterwitch turned it to shit. You’ve got the words and the experience.”
Experience. That was not a word that Jane had considered before, but… well, Dirk was right. A small bud of pride grew within her; maybe she could tell this story.
Jane straightened up, glancing around the table. “Well,” she began, “would anyone like to contest this nomination?”
No heads moved.
The Viceroy stood. With an authoritative blub , they called for a vote in favour.
Everyone seated at the table raised a hand.
Jane grinned. “Well, I’ll be darned. If you all like the idea… yes. I’ll write it.”
The Viceroy grinned. Their followers assortedly blubbed and nakked their approval, and Jane had honestly not felt this proud in a very long time.
But amidst the congratulations, Ms. Paint slipped away from the table. A plate, carrying a slice of the magnificent wedding cake, was in her hand.
She had a delivery to make.
Jack Noir was bored out of his fucking skull, and that incessant noise coming from upstairs wasn’t improving matters. What the fuck kind of ceremony is a ‘wedding’, anyhow? The little shithead calling himself “the Mayor” - a carapace who Jack distinctly remembered disemboweling - apparently got flushed for the bitch who had cut off Jack’s goddamn arm , so the two of them decided to waste everyone’s time for a few hours.
And here he was, without a sharp object in sight.
A makeshift prison had been constructed beneath town hall, almost entirely to contain him. Not kill him, like a decent fucking person might do. No, they’d contain him, stick him in this fucking cage for as long as they deemed necessary. And they had the stones to pretend to be humane about it. Three square meals a day, a fresh change of clothes every week, and the opportunity to request books. These fucking Prospitians and their neutered Dersite allies were so infuriatingly soft .
But the worst part was the ban on sharp objects. No knives, bones, or even carvable pieces of wood were allowed in his cell. That was goddamn torture. He’d gladly cut off a toe for a steak, just so that he could stick a knife in it after sticking said knife in the poor son of a bitch who brought it to him.
I mean, was this their sense of justice? He’d killed enough people to bathe in blood, and here they were, stuffing him behind some bars? Because that was fucking justice, apparently. There wasn’t a whole lot he really regretted, but the sickening pretension of their mercy was enough to put the taste of bile on his tongue. He could see that Prospitian bitch right now, looking like she was so high and goddamn mighty, like she wasn’t taking her own sick pleasure in seeing him get locked up. What he wouldn’t give to pin that bitch down and make her be honest, to hear her spit out how much she loathed him, to make her squirm and…
He shook the vision from his head. No point in dwelling on caliginous feelings now; reciprocation was not coming in the near future. But the fire in his belly refused to subside. More than anything in this whole fucked-up universe, he wanted to live . Not just subsist.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs pulled him out of his self-pity. The guards were all up at the party; was she coming down to visit him? Sweet fucking relief. That dame was the only person on this goddamn planet who showed any kind of decency, and she was a looker to match. God, he loved that woman. If these bars weren’t in the way, he’d take her by the waist and show her just how…
It wasn’t her. Unfortunately. But the woman walking towards his cell wasn’t a guard, either.
She was one of those trolls, but not one of the ones he’d stabbed a few years back. Long hair, glasses, that crazy eye; she was ‘Vriska’, right? But that wasn’t the important question. Why the hell was this broad down here, anyway? He did like the look of that cerulean dress on her, certainly, but he was taken, so there was no point in…
She was handing him a knife. She sure knew how to get to a man’s heart.
Sure, it was a plastic knife, accompanied by a fork and a slice of cake. But it was a knife, being handed to him by a smirking troll. If Jack wasn’t taken, he would’ve leaned against the bars and kissed her right now.
“Brought you a gift,” Vriska said, as Jack hurriedly snatched up the utensils and cake. “There’s nothing much up there, so I figured I could find someone to talk to down here. Hope you don’t mind.”
In between mouthfuls of cake, Jack expressed that he didn’t care all that much. Vriska chuckled. “All right. Good to know.”
She leaned against the far wall. Jack eyed her cautiously. Whatever game this dame was playing, she’d earned enough of his gratitude that he’d play along.
“I don’t really get the point of this whole ‘wedding’ business,” Vriska stated, attempting to look dismissive. “It’s some human thing that the Mayor picked up on the meteor. I mean, if a species only has one kind of romance, then it kiiiiiiiind of makes sense. But really? Is this worth flipping shit over?”
Jack shrugged. It wasn’t his place to question the mating habits of weird, fleshy aliens. He just wished they’d lay off the goddamn music.
That elicited another laugh from Vriska. “Maybe. Can you imagine what their sex must look like? With no exoskeleton or anything?”
That elicited a shudder from Jack.
“My thoughts exactly. Humans are weird.”
A minute of silence. Jack, having devoured the cake with furious gusto, began sharpening the plastic knife.
“But it makes me wonder,” Vriska resumed, her voice quieter than usual. “Why the hell are the other trolls so into this?”
Jack looked up to see… was she sad ? What the hell was she thinking about?
“I mean, they’re upstairs, having a grand old time with this whole ‘wedding’ business, and I just can’t get into it. It’s this saccharine display of flushed feelings, and while I can understand why Vantas is so into this, the others… well. It’s beyond me. Then again, Maryam is just whipped for Rose, and Vantas and Dave are one shouting match away from tearing each other’s clothes off, so maybe it’s just because I’m not a fan of meat skin.”
Another minute of silence. Vriska was staring at her feet, and Jack was staring at Vriska. He vaguely remembered the names she brought up, but it was her posturing that really got his attention.
Finally, she broke the silence. “Is it wrong that I’m going to miss Alternia?”
Jack realized with a silent oh shit that the troll was opening up to him. God knows why she’d do something like that, but he proceeded to try and look as interested as possible.
“I mean, back there, I was the queen bitch of the planet. People feared me, people respected me. I was a badass troll-killer and FLARPer, no equals to be found. And… I can’t be that anymore. There aren’t any enemies on this planet. Nobody to fight, nobody to kill. They don’t need leaders, they need farmers .”
Vriska slid down the wall into a seated position. “But I had to kill my friends to get there. I had to feed kids to my fucking lusus to survive, so I could barely make friends in the first place. And even those, I… I failed them. I thought I was being strong, that this was just making them hard enough to survive. But here we are, surviving, and everything I taught them is useless now. Everything that helped me survive on that cesspit of a planet is useless here, and I’m alone.”
Survive. Jack felt that word, deep in his gullet. Everything she had done. Everything HE had done, and now he was just surviving.
Jack stood up, gripping the bars, and he said five words:
I know how you feel.
And now, it was Jack’s time to start talking. About what he’d done, about what he wished he’d done, about how the bars of this prison were digging into his mind. About the blood on his hands, and how he didn’t regret what he’d done so much he regretted just how pointless it all was. About how three years of running from the only person in the universe who could match him ended because he couldn’t bring himself to harm some stupid fucking child . His words dripped with venom and pulsed with anger, and his throat felt raw bringing them up. But he spoke, because he needed to speak.
Vriska’s face was dispassionate as he spoke, but he could see her listening. He knew she despised him. But she listened. In his moment of greatest weakness, no less.
After he spoke, the prison hallway was deafeningly silent. Even the music of the wedding seemed distant. His gut felt like it had been scrubbed with steel wool, his arm gripped the bars in impotent rage.
And then, Vriska smiled. A bitter smile, one used for making a joke you know no one is going to laugh at. “Thanks,” she said, her voice low and raw. And Jack felt like she meant it.
It was at this moment that Ms. Paint descended the stairs, and Jack felt like his heart was going to stop.
Seeing the look of surprise and confusion on her face, Jack desperately tried to think of something to say, but Vriska beat him to it. “Hey, Ms. Paint,” she said, her voice surprisingly relaxed. “Don’t worry; I haven’t done anything to your matesprit, and he hasn’t done anything to me. I just needed someone to talk to, that’s all.”
She stood up, walking over to Ms. Paint and shaking the hand of the confused carapace. “Never really did get the point of a wedding. If you and Jack ever decide to get hitched, don’t feel pressured to invite me, okay?”
She grinned as she walked away, leaving Ms. Paint looking between Vriska and Jack, utterly baffled. When the troll climbed the stairs, Ms. Paint finally approached the bars of Jack’s cell.
She was holding a slice of cake.
Jack looked into her eyes. A year ago, when the Parcel Mistress has taken his arm and stripped his powers, Ms. Paint had been there, bandaging his wound. She seemed to recognize him; he’d never seen her before is his life. But as he was laying on the dirt, bleeding out and dizzy, he had thought to himself: this woman was the most beautiful person he’d seen in his entire life.
And as Jack now looked at her through the bars, he felt much the same way.
She asked him if something was wrong, looking both concerned and confused. He chuckled and replied: not a damn thing. His remaining arm reaching out of the bars, he grabbed Ms. Paint by the waist and pulled her in for a kiss. Her surprise quickly faded as she reciprocated, the cake forgotten in her hands.
For the first time in more than a year, Jack Noir truly felt alive.
Chapter 3: Year Two, Part Two
Vriska had not expected to see someone at the door. The morning sun had been shrouded by grey clouds and snowfall, leaving Cantown to begin the day under a blanket of white. It was on this kind of day that most people would elect to stay inside if they had to, curling up by the fire and letting the day sort itself out. Cantown was a work in progress, a society made through improv; lazy days like this kind of happened, whether you wanted them to or not.
But Vriska did not necessarily have that luxury. After that fiasco of a harvest last year, she’d concluded that agriculture is a sucker’s game, and elected to tend bar at the newly-constructed tavern. Even as her workers were most likely taking it easy, there was always the chance someone might step in from the cold, hankering for a mug of something warm and alcoholic. But this was far too early in the day for any of that, so who the hell…
Vriska had definitely not expected to see Jane Crocker standing in the doorway.
The human was dressed in an astonishingly fluffy jacket, and just about every other part of her was solidly dressed for winter. Closing the door as she stepped in, Jane waved to Vriska, the edges of a grin visible over her thick scarf. “Hello there, Serket,” Jane beamed, approach the bar with determined strides. “Mighty cold day outside, isn’t it?”
Vriska raised an eyebrow. “Yeah… can I help you?” she asked, eyeing Jane with confusion and curiosity.
“Well, yes you can, but I don’t want to buy anything.”
Jane unzipped her jacket to remove a book and pencil. “If it’s not too much to ask, could I ask you a couple of questions?”
Vriska turned to the clock. 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Eh, she had plenty of time to kill; why not throw the human a bone?
“All right, Crocker. What’s do you want to know?”
Jane nodded, flipping the book open to a page only labelled ‘VRISKA SERKET’.
“Tell me about Alternia.”
Wow. That’s one way to begin. “That is a very broad question,” Vriska replied. “What about Alternia, exactly?”
“Your experience of it. I need as many perspectives as possible to write this thing.”
Huh. Never expected Crocker to be the research project type. Then again, she is related to Egbert, so the dorkiness may well be hereditary.
“Alright,” Vriska nodded. “Let me tell you about Alternia: it was a cesspool.”
Jane looked vaguely surprised at that descriptor; Vriska took her silence as leave to continue. “A stunning revelation, I know. Who would have thought that the homeworld of a species ruled by fish and evil clowns would be such a sack of shit? I don’t know if there was ever a point when that wasn’t true, but it had been true when I lived there, it had been true when my ancestor lived there, and I’m willing to bet that it was true the day a tyrian blood first took the throne.”
Vriska began polishing a glass. “Granted, that is all hindsight. You humans are damn lucky to have had Earth; you were allowed to be soft on that planet. No one ever questioned Alternia when Alternia was all we knew.”
Jane straightened, her face seemingly trying to decide between confusion and annoyance. “Soft? Serket, now what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” Vriska replied, her words tinged with anger, “that walking around in daylight on Earth isn’t likely to kill you, be that by wildlife or radiation. That you’re raised by members of your own kind, rather than by monsters who can only barely comprehend your needs and may well threaten to eat you. That on Earth, knowing how to kill anyone you meet isn’t a particularly useful skill. That is what it means, Jane.”
The room was suddenly very quiet.
Jane was not particularly familiar with the troll who stood in front of her, seeing as the two had only first become acquainted shortly before SBURB was won. Of course, that had been more than enough time to form an impression. Tactical, confident, coldly charismatic; she had not seemed like the kind of woman Jane would want to make an enemy of.
But that was not the woman Jane was currently faced with. There was that same cold, but it bore less in common with the howling winds outside and more in common with a glacier. The same force lay behind her words, the same iron strength of will in her posture. But if the Vriska who Jane had met was the proverbial unstoppable force, the one Jane currently spoke to was an immovable object.
“Why do you care, anyway?” Vriska stated, breaking the silence.
Jane stopped writing. “Serket,” she warily began, “if you’re not interested, you can just…”
“I’m curious,” Vriska said, cutting Jane off. “What exactly has you so interested in Alternia?”
Her words danced up Jane’s spine like spider legs. This was more of the woman she was familiar with.
“History,” Jane said, with no intention of being cowed by the troll. “I’m collecting a history of the sessions, and I need information.”
An honest look of surprise from Vriska. “History?”
Jane gave a brisk nod. “Indeed. After all, future generations are going to ask how they came to be here. I figure it’s worth composing an accurate answer. So I need information.”
Vriska nodded, looking no less confused. “And you came to me?”
“Multiple perspectives, Serket. You may well be able to tell me something that others cannot.”
Silence. Vriska placed the glass down, exhaling as she did. “Then I have nothing more to tell you.”
Now it was Jane’s turn for surprise. “...pardon?” she asked, looking at Vriska as if trying to solve a puzzle.
“Alternia was a sack of shit. I don’t intend to glorify it for whatever wrigglers will be seeing this project of yours, and I hope you have no intention of doing so either. It’s gone, the Condesce is gone, all those stories are gone. And good riddance for it.”
Vriska picked up another glass to polish, gripping it with a frozen anger. Jane was beginning to fear she’d touched a nerve.
“Well,” Jane said, “if you change your mind, you’re welcome to stop by and help me out.”
Vriska gave a slow nod. “I’ll consider it,” she muttered, making it quite clear she intended to do no such thing.
Jane took the initiative and began zipping up again for the weather. As she turned to leave, she looked at Vriska, intently polishing the glass. There was… something there, besides the icy glare. Something not entirely hostile, something raw, something that shirked from Jane’s eyes.
“The same offer applies if you just want to talk,” Jane said, her words spoken with caution.
“Please leave,” Vriska uttered. It was not a request, and Jane did not need to be told twice.
Jane left. The tavern was silent. The wind continued to blow.
By evening, the storm had abated. As Vriska had predicted, the evening brought some measure of activity in the tavern, continuing into the night. But the bar would eventually close. An hour past midnight, Vriska had closed up the tavern, and she had begun her walk.
The full moon hung in the night sky, heavy and fat, like a drop of milk in an ocean of ink. The clouds had dispersed, and the wilderness surrounding Cantown was still and silent, except for the crunch of snow beneath Vriska’s boots. Only the moon served to illuminate the forest, casting all the world in a film of pale silver.
Vriska could be alone out here.
True, she had taken up more of a solitary existence since the game ended. Her days were marked by necessary communication, be it to her customers or her staff, rather than to her former companions. True, her meetings with Jack Noir were a way to socialize, but Jack Noir was a despicable being. She spoke with him only because he could empathize, because there was something about the two of them that resonated. Otherwise, she was mostly alone.
But even then, she had eyes watching her. Evaluating, postulating, speculating. There was no solitude in that gaze, no freedom. Out here, beyond the lights of Cantown, she could truly be free from that. Truly alone.
It was shameful, really. Only a monster would listen to her weakness, because they both knew forgiveness would not come easily. When SBURB had drawn to a close, some part of Vriska had hoped for that kind of forgiveness. But her allies did not forget. They knew what she had done to try and get them this far, and… well. Weakness is not an option for trolls. Weakness gets you culled.
Vriska refused to be weak.
What exactly was the point of history? She’d read her ancestor’s journal near religiously only a few sweeps ago, but now, it gathered dust. After all, what exactly had Mindfang accomplished? Killed a legislacerator. Taken lives, taken slaves. Fought against an admiral, worked with an executioner too cowardly to take an olive blood’s life. Stood with a rebel, died for his cause, and helped ensure that every adult troll was exiled from Alternia.
A pointless life, taken as a whole. And the life Vriska had modelled her own after. The longer Vriska had considered the journal, the more that the whole affair felt pointless.
What a shit inheritance.
Vriska arrived at the shores of a frozen lake. In the moonlight, the ice glinted like steel, ready to spill your blood if you make one false step. It was there that she chose to sit, selecting a flat outcropping which had supported her whenever she’d walked here.
In many ways, she envied the others. They either had plans, or were willing to make it up as they went along. But Vriska’s strength had been anchored to cruel Alternia. Her soul had been smelted in the wrathful, dying sun, in the great spider upon whom she had depended, in the rainbow of blood that she’d cut across the land. It had been shaped by legends of a great ancestor, by the competition of trolls just as cruel and unyielding as herself, and by the seductive promise of freedom. Not freedom to act, but freedom from fear, a strength ensuring that you will never be at anyone’s mercy ever again.
That strength was her pride. That strength had carried the trolls through their session, and it had supported their whole group when things fell apart. She wasn’t just a survivor; she was a winner .
And now, the anchor chain had snapped. SBURB had ended. Alternia was gone. Her strength was now useless, but weakness was not an option. And with her history barren, Vriska Serket had nothing to hold to.
And Crocker… Crocker had brought all of that up again. As hard as Vriska had committed herself to her work, as hard as she had kept all of that weakness down, it only took a few questions to dredge all of that up again.
The eyes were still on her back, even when no one was looking.
It was then that something caught her eye.
Troll eyes are superior to human eyes in the dark, and Vriska’s vision eightfold was superior to that of other trolls in just about every circumstance. It was through this that Vriska could pick out a few shapes slinking through the darkness of the woods, all seeming to approach her position.
A strange menagerie of creatures had followed them to the new universe. A handful of Alternian lusii, a great number of beasts which called the Medium home, and a smattering of Earth animals. She was largely unfamiliar with this last category, but she had heard about these creatures from the humans. Each bore a passing resemblance to Harley’s guardian in shape, but were much larger in size, moved in silence, and seemed to hold a far more violent intent.
A name came to Vriska’s mind: wolf.
And she grinned.
The wolves were drawing nearer, and clearly seemed to think of her as prey. She drew her sword from her fetch modus, unused in almost a year, and felt the grip slide into her hand. She was out of practice, sure. But this was a chance to spill blood.
Vriska Serket would not run.
In a few seconds, the wolves were upon her, their snarls finally visible. The beasts lunged, and Vriska’s muscle memory kicked in, ducking her out of the way of their jaws. And so, the dance began. She weaved her way through the wolves, but it was no easy fight. There were half a dozen at the very least, and while they had not expected their prey to fight back, the wolves fought as a team. One even managed to sink its teeth into her arm, but it was the first to die as Vriska impaled it upon her sword.
Dodge, slash, duck, chop. A bloody rhythm playing as Vriska fought the pack, like a conductor leading an orchestra. Adrenaline filled her blood, a grin filled her face, and she knew that this was the best she had felt since arriving on this miserable fucking planet.
These beasts would see it. She was Vriska goddamn Serket. She had been forged in Alternia, and Alternia tolerated no weakness in its children. Anything that crossed her, anything that challenged her, would die knowing their mistake. She laughed with the bitter satisfaction implied by the words ‘I told you so’, with the delirious joy of a wriggler, with…
A crack echoed through the clearing like a clap of thunder. The battle ground to a screeching halt.
Vriska stopped, sword raised, ragged breaths filling her lungs. The wolves were surrounding her, but something was keeping them away, keeping them snarling without making any attempt to attack.
Another crack . The pack ran off, whimpering as they did.
Vriska looked down.
Caught in the heat of the battle, Vriska had maneuvered herself into the middle of the frozen lake. Cracks were forming beneath her.
Suddenly, Vriska was very aware of her own heartbeat.
She froze in place, trying to make sure no other cracks formed. Her heart pounded in her chest, blood pumped through her body. In the silence of the moonlit night, every sound that came from the ice echoed in her mind like a prophecy.
And then, a voice cried out.
Vriska turned. Jade Harley, dressed in her full hunting regalia, was standing at the edge of the lake.
“Vriska, what the hell are you doing out here?” Jade called, seemingly not sure whether to be irritated or worried. “I heard the sound of fighting, so I came over here, but…”
“Harley,” Vriska replied, trying (and failing) to sound calm, “right now, I’m in a bit of a bind.”
Jade noticed the cracking sound, and her eyes grew wide.
“Some help would be appreciated!” Vriska yelled through gritted teeth. “Now, preferably!”
Jade nodded. “R-right. Okay, s-so, I need you to lay down. Spread out your weight.”
Vriska did as she was told. The ice was bitterly cold.
Jade kneeled down, feverishly nodding in Vriska’s direction. “Good!” she called. “Now drag yourself towards me!”
Vriska tightened her grip on the sword. The ice was slippery, and it took her fingers no small amount of work to get a grip. But she did. Inch by agonizing inch, Vriska dragged herself towards Jade, the ice feeling ready to cave at any moment. Time passed, but Vriska had no idea how much; it could have been a minute, or it could have been a month.
When Vriska began to near the shore, Jade gave a nervous smile. “You’re almost there, keep-”
The ice broke behind Vriska, and she slipped in.
The cold hit Vriska like a bolt of lightning, and it took all of her focus to not go under. Panic flashed through her mind as her heart struggled to pump blood, every part of her screaming with fear. She couldn’t die like this, she wasn’t going to go like this, oh god, someone help me , I’m…
A hand grasped her arm, the grip filled with terrified strength. With a firm pull, Vriska slid out of the water.
Jade dragged Vriska to the shore, then pulled off her own hide jacket to wrap around Vriska’s shivering form. The troll’s face was paralyzed with fear, and Jade’s heart felt the same way. There wasn’t much time.
Jade pulled Vriska onto her back, running as fast as she could towards Cantown.
Vriska awoke under a pile of blankets.
Groggily, she pulled herself to a seated position. What the hell had happened last night? She remembered wolves, and Harley, and ice, and cold, and…
She shook her head. First, she would need to get a grip on her surroundings.
A pillow and numerous blankets joined her on a couch, a cloth bandage was wrapped around her arm, and a bathrobe she did not recognize was wrapped around her body.
The couch was along one wall of what appeared to be a wooden cabin. The light of the late morning sun streamed through open windows, illuminating a… well, strangely decorated interior. Flowers filled pots hung from the ceiling, but a gun rack was clearly visible on the far wall. The furniture was wood-carved and rustic-looking, the paintings on the walls in gaudy neon colours.
And in a doorway leading to a side room, Jade Harley stood. Tall and athletic, she looked down at Vriska with a face halfway concerned and halfway just about everything else.
“Good morning,” she said. “How do you feel?”
The memories were slowly returning to Vriska. Fighting the wolves, falling through the ice… she stood, finding her legs a bit shakier than she expected. “Fine,” she said, not really caring if Jade heard her.
“I’ll make some breakfast,” Jade said, walking over to the stove. “Sit. I wouldn’t expect you to be totally okay after what happened last night.”
Vriska took a seat at the kitchen table. Jade had taken a job as a hunter and trapper for Cantown, seeing as she was the best with a gun out of all of them, and had become quite proficient with meats. Fittingly, after a few minutes of cooking, Vriska was presented with a cup of coffee and a plate of sausage hash, made with sausage that Jade had prepared herself. After a murmured “thanks”, Vriska dove into the plate, feeling as if she hadn’t eaten in a week. Jade watched her do so, concern colouring her face.
“What the hell were you doing out there last night?” Jade asked, a forkful of hash hovering over her plate.
Vriska swallowed a mouthful, hard. “I was walking,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee. She had no idea how humans discovered this stuff, but it was one of the smarter ideas their species had produced.
Jade looked at Vriska over her glasses. “Walking? I find you in the middle of a frozen lake, sword covered in wolf’s blood, because you went walking ?”
Vriska sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jade’s expression shifted from concerned to irritated. “Well, you’re in my house, eating my food, so I’d say that you should answer my damn questions.”
Vriska could not argue with that logic. She put her fork down, looking Jade in the eye. “I was out by the edge of the lake, I saw the wolves, and they were going to attack me. I figured, ‘hey, why not’, and I fight them. I go onto the ice by accident, and that’s where you found me.”
Jade placed both her palms on her face. “You fought a wolf pack?”
Vriska nodded. She didn’t care enough to contest Jade’s exasperation.
A minute of silence. Then, Jade spoke, her voice full of anger:
“Vriska, what the fuck is going on?”
Vriska stopped, mid-sip of coffee.
“You’ve changed over this past year, and not in a good way. You barely speak to anyone, you’re very rarely out at anything, and now, I find you in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, fighting goddamn wolves . What the hell happened?”
Vriska set down the cup and sighed. “I needed to be alone, okay?”
“My ‘alone time’ usually doesn’t invite picking fights with wild animals and running onto frozen lakes,” Jade retorted, seething. “Don’t you recognize how stupid that was?”
Vriska looked Jade in the eyes. The troll’s usual ice was gone.
“Maybe I just don’t care.”
The words, muttered like steam escapes from a kettle, caught Jade off guard. “You… what?”
“I said, I don’t care. ”
Vriska’s voice was full of fire instead.
“You’re lucky , Harley. You’ve got an opportunity here to make something of yourself. But what the hell do I have, huh? Everything I am is useless here, and everyone knows it. I fought those wolves because that’s who I am. I survive . It’s been a year since I’ve felt like I have any fucking purpose , and I felt it when I was fighting. That’s why I fought them.”
Vriska was standing now. Her hands gripped the table, knuckles white with rage. “ I don’t have anything left, Harley . Everything I was died when the game ended, when Alternia fell, and that’s never coming back. So where the fuck do I go? Exactly what the hell do I do? So no, I don’t fucking care . I don’t care if I die, because frankly, what the hell else am I supposed to do? WHAT DO I DO WITH NO GODDAMN FUTURE?”
The cabin was silent. Vriska stood, her entire body shaking with rage, her face contorted into a snarl. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she stood, and though her face was flushed cerulean with shame, she did nothing to hide it.
Jade simply sat, looking as if she had been slapped.
After a minute of silence, Vriska sat down again. She kept her face low as she returned to the sausage, trying to hold back the tears which had begun to flow.
Vriska finished her breakfast in silence. Jade only stared at her.
Vriska looked up. Jade had a solemn look in her eyes.
“I didn’t realize that things had been so rough for you,” Jade said.
Vriska grunted. More silence. The two of them sat at the table, looking for the right words to say.
“You know,” Jade eventually blurted out, “I could always use some help around here.”
Vriska raised an eyebrow.
“Hunting and stuff, I mean. I’d be a whole lot better at my job if I had someone around to help me, and… well. You’ve certainly proven your skills, and… well, you could stay here for a few days while I show you the ropes.”
Vriska glared at Jade. She wasn’t fond of pity by any means, but this had not been the reaction she had expected.
“Hell,” Jade continued, “even if you just need a place to stay, you’re welcome to crash here for a while.”
Vriska thought for a moment, then smiled.
Alternia was gone. She could afford to be weak.
“Thanks,” Vriska said. “I appreciate it.”
Jade smiled, and took another sip of her coffee.
About a week after Jane had first asked Vriska for assistance, PM had delivered a package to Jane’s doorstep.
The package was unlabelled, aside from Jane’s address, but it was bulkier than anything she’d received before. PM said it had come from Jade’s cabin, but its contents were a mystery.
But when Jane opened it, she understood.
It was a book, about the size of a small journal. A post-it note on the front labelled it “APOLOGY”, and on the inside, the following was written in Cerulean handwriting:
An A8ridged History of Alternia
Written 8y Vriska Serket
Chapter 4: Year Three
Despite all of her experiences, the ability of small things to unhinge otherwise brilliant plans never ceased to amaze Terezi.
Cantown’s third attempt at a harvest had, of the most part, gone well. People were finally getting used to growing their own food, and the weather had largely been cooperative over the summer. The vast grain fields and orchards which surrounded Cantown were fertile, and they were joined by greenhouses full of fruits and cellars stuffed with enough preserved fish and game to feed a sizeable army. It was looking like the hard work of the townsfolk was finally beginning to pay off.
Then, as the harvest approached, rains came. Out of place and powerful, the rains would have been enough to reduce fields to muddy wastelands. Thankfully, John had used his wind powers to drive away the worst of the rain, keeping the city contained in a pocket of clear skies. But swift action was still necessary. The past week had put the town into a fever pitch, desperately harvesting as much as they could before the rains could wash their work away.
And now, the streets were empty. When the frantic harvest had ended, Egbert had allowed the rains to come, and tonight, they poured. Most of Cantown’s residents were fast asleep, sheltered from the pouring rain and the cold air of early autumn.
But not all of them were.
Terezi walked the empty streets, her cane tapping the road in front of her, the rain painting a sonic picture of the town. She had come to memorize the path to town hall by this point; as chief of police, she needed to be ready to speak with the Mayor about criminal apprehension at a moment’s notice.
But it was not by the Mayor’s command that she was out in the middle of the night, heading towards town hall. If it had, she’d be wearing her uniform, a badge of personal honour. No, Terezi was out because of a note that had been pinned to her door, requesting that she should be in the town hall that night, that she was needed for important business.
A note written on candy-red paper, in blueberry ink.
Terezi was not exactly proud of how the first two years had unfolded in regards to her moirail. Between the work of setting up law and order in Cantown and some… assumptions made on Terezi’s part, she had done a less than ideal job helping out Vriska. Terezi had never really assumed Vriska had ever needed any help; there were many things that Vriska was in short supply of, but confidence and self-assuredness were not among them. Imagine Terezi’s surprise, then, when a furious Jade had approached her last winter, telling her to “get the fuck up and start acting like a goddamn moirail”.
One explanation of Vriska’s existential crisis later, Terezi had rushed over, driven by shame and worry. The rest of the day had been spent in a truly monumental feelings jam, as Terezi tried to help unload two years of Vriska’s mental and emotional baggage. As it turned out, Vriska had needed someone far more than Terezi had realized, far more than Terezi had ever though she had needed Vriska.
But then again, that’s what moirails are for, are they not? Alternia tolerated no weakness from any of her children, but every creature is born with some kind of weakness. So the children of Alternia found each other, and carried each other’s burdens. After all, it’s far easier to be strong when there exists a place where you can afford to be weak.
So Terezi walked with purpose on this rainy autumn night. Her moirail needed her, after all.
She turned the corner onto Main Street, the buildings of commerce and governance closed for the night. This rain may have helped her hearing, but it also wreaked havoc on her sense of smell, clogging her nose with brown and grey scents. Her hand firmly gripped the cane, her ears on alert for the sounds of any danger. This was a night for danger, a night for ambushes and for shadowy affairs under the clouds and thunder.
In other words, Terezi’s kind of night.
“Hey!” a familiar voice called out. Karkat. By the sound of his voice, he was standing outside the entrance to town hall. “Good to see you finally showed up.”
This was unexpected. “Karkat?” Terezi replied, raising an eyebrow in confusion. “What are you doing here?”
“I got stuck with watching the door. In a more cosmic sense, Vriska finally got an idea that didn’t make me want to punch a fucking wall in frustration, so I’ve decided to help.”
The sound of a door opening. “I’d also prefer it if I didn’t need to stand in the fucking rain any longer,” Karkat said, his voice sounding both irritated and… worried ? “Come on, let’s go.”
Terezi smelled fish, and not in the outside world. Karkles was usually reliable, and for all of his anger, he had rarely been cruel to anyone who didn’t kind of deserve it. But the sound of worry in his voice was not doing anything to put her at ease. If Vriska had gotten in over her head again… Terezi quietly braced herself for whatever was coming.
Terezi walked towards Karkat, in through the open door of town hall. Out of the rain, a wave of scents washed over her: paper and white marble, wooden tables and metal ornamentation. She’d never been in town hall when it was this empty; the smallest sounds echoed against the marble and filled the open spaces.
“Come on,” Karkat said, “the others are downstairs.”
Terezi followed, the path they were taking leading down into the archives. The shelves were largely empty, but they had been built to accommodate new data years into the future, so they would not remain empty for long. Past the shelves, the scents of ‘the others’ awaited her: Aradia’s burgundy, Sollux’s mustard, Kanaya’s coniferous green, the mix of candy red and sweat which defined Arquiussprite (whatever the hell he was doing here), and, thankfully, Vriska’s cerulean.
“Terezi,” Vriska called out, “glad you could make it.”
“Well,” Terezi shrugged, “you send me an ominous note telling me to be here tonight, have Karkat watch the door in a foreboding manner, and tell me nothing about what exactly is going on. I’d be offended if you though I wasn’t going to show up.”
Vriska chuckled at that. Terezi grinned, taking it as leave to continue. “So,” Terezi inquired, “what exactly have you invited me here for?”
A moment of quiet. That was not a good sign.
“A plan,” Sollux eventually said, breaking the silence. “ A thtupid plan. But frankly, the alternativeth are thtupider, tho it workth.”
“Exactly,” Vriska stated. “I’ll admit, it’s not my most palatable plan. But I’ve considered the options, and this is the easiest way to ensure things don’t go to shit. So it’s kind of the best plan, all things considered.”
Terezi cocked her head, intrigued. “I’ll be the judge of that,” Terezi replied. “What exactly is this plan?”
Karkat walked past the other trolls. Terezi heard the sound of a lock clicking, a door opening. “Well,” he said, “see for yourself.”
This was not doing anything to set her at ease. Tightening the grip on her cane, Terezi walked forward, into the now-opened doorway. She smelled a large box, white criss-crossed with bands of iron grey.
The fridge. Gamzee’s fridge.
It took a moment for Terezi to process what exactly this meant. But eventually, she did. And when she did, she turned around, looking at the others, a look of disgust usually reserved for someone who told an off-colour joke at a formal occasion on her face.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Terezi said, exasperated.
“Like I thaid,” Sollux shrugged, “it’th a thtupid plan.”
“BUT,” Vriska interjected, “it’s not like we have any other options.”
“I can think of one right now,” Terezi snapped. What the hell was Vriska playing at? “We leave him down here and forget about him.”
“That’s not an option,” Vriska replied. “Those chains will not hold forever, whether it’s rust or accident that breaks them. And as we’ve already seen, Gamzee is damn near impossible to kill. So we’ve got a nigh-unkillable clown locked in a box under city hall who is gonna escape one day, and we don’t know what he’s gonna be like after years in the fridge. We can’t avoid this, so I say we do this on our own terms.”
Terezi glared at her moirail. If she was trying to play leader again… “And what happens if Gamzee jumps out of that box and tries to kill us all?”
“That’s why we’re all here.”
It was Karkat who spoke this time. “As much as I want to disembowel myself for saying this,” he sighed, “I agree with Vriska. Together, we actually stand a chance of beating him down if he tries anything, and we’re in a position to speak as… friends … if he’s willing to talk.”
“Plus,” Arquiussprite cut in, “that’s why I’m here. Dude tries to act up, I smack that motherfucker back in the fridge, we fill that crap with concrete, and I toss his clown ass in the middle of the ocean.”
Terezi was silent for a moment, intensely considering their words. There was a modicum of sense to their arguments, but the idea of freeing Gamzee left a foul taste on her tongue. That troll held an unfortunate combination of mental illness, violent impulses, and zealotry, and the caliginous feelings Terezi knew he held towards her had given her plenty of exposure to his most vile aspects. Even worse, had Vriska not provided a level-headed shoulder to lean on, Terezi knew she may well have reciprocated.
As a group, containing him could be possible. But that didn’t change the bitter truth.
Of all the people Terezi had met in her life, Gamzee Makara was the only one who ever truly scared her.
“And what happens if he doesn’t,” Terezi eventually asked. “Attempt murder, I mean. What happens then?”
Vriska shrugged. “We improvise.”
Terezi gave her a glare composed equally of concern and frustration. Even as Vriska was adjusting to this new world, there was a recklessness to her actions fuelled by desperation. You don’t improvise in the face of a violent unkillable clown unless you have a death wish, and Terezi was internally praying that that wasn’t the case.
“All right,” Terezi sighed, “I’ll help you. But only because someone needs to be there in the event of everything going wrong.”
Vriska grinned, placing a hand on Terezi’s shoulder. “Good to hear,” she said, her voice… was that tenderness Terezi heard? Whatever it was, it quickly vanished as Vriska turned to the rest of the trolls. “Everyone’s here. Let’s get this business started.”
And so, business was started. Arquiussprite was able to lift the fridge with very little effort, and the trolls followed, leaving city hall for the rain-drenched streets. They walked silently, unable to speak through the air of unease. In the darkness and the rain, the group of them were indistinguishable from a funeral procession, the fridge serving as Gamzee’s wretched coffin.
The silent march eventually reached the edges of Cantown. Arquiussprite set the fridge down with a thud , and the trolls surrounded it. One by one, weapons were drawn. Terezi brought her cane up, ready to thrust with deadly force. Karkat’s grip on his sickle tightened. Kanaya raised her lipstick, fingers twisting the cap in preparation. Sparks of blue and red crackled around Sollux’s eyes as his psionics charged, and Aradia took a stance of concentration, ready to make use of time powers if necessary. And, of course, Vriska, hands on her sword. Thankfully, she looked just as worried as everyone else.
Arquiussprite grabbed the chains wrapping the fridge. With a single grunt of effort and a pull, the metal snapped, ringing out like the thunder in the sky. Nothing but the fridge bound Gamzee now.
Karkat crept forwards, reaching for the door of the fridge. Seconds slowed to minutes as he grasped the handle. Finally, with a burst of energy, he pulled the fridge open.
No sound, at first. The rain continued to obscure Terezi’s sense of smell, blocking any chance she had of seeing the inside of the fridge. In the distance, thunder rumbled like a great drum.
Then, a few words were said. Weak, quiet, and rough as sandpaper.
“...what the fuck?”
It was Gamzee’s voice.
Terezi couldn’t see the troll in the fridge, but Karkat could. After years without food, Gamzee was emaciated to the point where he looked skeletal. The lanky troll was folded into the fridge with his legs against his forehead, his eyes blinking as rain poured down onto his motionless body. Karkat could have taken him for a corpse, if it hadn’t been for that slow movement of the face.
“Gamzee…” Karkat breathed, his face turning from fearful anticipation to genuine confusion.
Terezi approached, along with the other trolls. The emaciated troll’s eyes glanced up and down, left and right, hazy and dull.
“Ain’t never rained in these dreams before,” Gamzee wheezed, the raindrops continuing to pelt him. “But it sure is nice.”
Gamzee spotted Terezi, and her blood felt thick as molasses in her veins. Those same eyes, that same smile that she had learned to despise. But they were so weak, and so out of place on such a frail being.
“Hey, motherfucker,” Gamzee murmured to her, his smile clearly showing his gleaming mandibles, “why can’t I move my legs?”
Before Terezi could offer an indignant reply, Karkat cut in. “You haven’t used them in two years,” he barked, seemingly no happier about the comment than Terezi. “Have you been comatose this whole time?”
Gamzee took this news quite well, chuckling to himself as best as his lungs would allow. “So it’s this kind of dream, eh? Well, I’ve had weirder shit happen.”
The trolls looked at one another, not entirely sure what to say. Gamzee believing himself to be dreaming was not a situation they had anticipated.
“Gamzee,” Terezi eventually asked, “how long have you been dreaming?”
“Eh, I don’t know. Long motherfucking time. Just rolling with it at this point. What’d you say, bro? Two years? I’ll believe it.”
More silence, but this time, it was Gamzee himself who broke it. “Uh, could you guys help a motherfucker out? The rain’s starting to pool in the fridge, and I’m kinda stuck.”
All eyes turned to Vriska; this was her plan, this was her call. Vriska, meanwhile, was staring down at Gamzee. He was right; the rain would drown him if they didn’t do something. But there was no guarantee of his truthfulness. It could be a ruse to draw them in close before going in for the kill, leaping for their throats as soon as he could reach them. Sure, the troll was typically much more direct in his violence, his incredible strength and near-invincibility making up for his… limited tactical aptitude. But who knows how two years lying comatose in a fridge had changed him, if he had changed at all?
But after a period of silence, it was not Vriska’s voice who gave an order.
“All right, Gamzee,” Karkat stated, turning to the other trolls. “All of you, keep your weapons up.”
Karkat approached the fridge. Vriska reached out a hand, but Terezi caught it, giving Vriska a look of silent communication: he can handle this.
The apprehension in the air matching the rain for strength, Karkat grabbed Gamzee’s shoulders. Gamzee did not move.
Karkat pulled up Gamzee’s torso, laying him with his shoulders on the lip of the fridge to keep his head out of the rain. Gamzee’s limbs limply slid into position like those of a marionette, and Gamzee sighed.
“Thanks, bro,” Gamzee muttered, his head leaning on his shoulders. “Awful nice of you.”
The tension was released. At the very least, it did not appear like Gamzee planned to kill them immediately.
Vriska stepped forward, sheathing her sword as she did. “So,” she began, “I guess we can begin with the good news.”
Gamzee raised an eyebrow. “Fuckin’ sweet. What’s happening, motherfucker?”
“Well… SGRUB is over. We won.”
Gamzee’s face scrunched up as he attempted to process that news. “Really? We won?”
“Then…” Gamzee continued, “where the fuck are we?”
“Earth,” Karkat cut in, earning him an indignant look from Vriska. “The planet the humans inhabited. We brought it to the new universe, and we’ve got a home here now.”
Another look of confusion from Gamzee, his eyes moving as if looking a certain way would aid his memory. “Humans,” Gamzee eventually stated. “I think I remember them. Fleshy motherfuckers.”
Before Vriska could say anything, Terezi tapped her on the shoulder. She gave a motion of, can we talk ? Vriska nodded, leaving Karkat to explain the situation to Gamzee as she joined with the other trolls.
“Tho,” Sollux began, “I will be the firtht to admit that I did not thee that coming.”
“He’s behaving as he did before he became sober,” Kanaya mused, her hand on her chin. “Then again, I cannot imagine one would be particularly clear-headed after a coma.”
“If push comes to shove,” Aradia cut in, “he could be re-contained relatively easily. He can barely keep himself upright, so until he regains use of his muscles, we can shove him back in the fridge if he’s still violent.”
“As much as I would like to speculate,” Terezi muttered to the other trolls, “that’s not helping us right now. We need a plan for what happens next, now that the clown’s out of the fridge.”
She turned to Vriska, her face filled with a mixture of frustration and contempt. “And since this was your plan,” Terezi continued, “that burden falls to you.”
It may not have been the kindest assessment, Terezi mused, but hey, it would be good for Vriska. This decision would not be consequence-free, even if it was the most logical choice. If Terezi could stop Vriska from doing something stupid, she knew she could spare her moirail a lot of regret.
Vriska seemed to have taken the hint. She was quiet for a few minutes, gazing downwards in thought.
Eventually, she spoke. “Who says we need to stop containing him?”
Terezi sighed, relieved. Good choice.
“Like you said,” Vriska elaborated, pointing to Aradia, “he’s basically immobile at this point. There are a lot of variables to this scenario, but we can ensure he causes as little damage as possible if he turns violent. We can hold him somewhere until we know enough to make a hard decision, somewhere we can contain him again before he hurts someone.”
“We put him under hive arrest,” Terezi added. “Give him a place to stay where we can keep a watch on him.”
The other trolls nodded in agreement. “Perhaps,” Kanaya offered, “we could begin moving him back to the city?”
“I’ll carry him,” Arquiussprite offered, despite no one asking. The sprite promptly floated off in the direction of the fridge, and the other trolls followed. Except, of course, for Terezi and Vriska.
Vriska sighed. “Hey,” she said, “thanks. For coming out here, I mean. I needed someone to help me make sure I didn’t do something I’d regret.”
Terezi chuckled. “To be fair,” she replied, “this was still a stupid idea. But you made the best of it. That was mostly because of me, but still.”
Vriska grinned, a wave of relief sweeping off of her.
“But,” Terezi cut in, “we still need to find someone to watch him. Someone who isn’t afraid to regularly be close to a possibly bloodthirsty clown.”
Vriska shrugged. “I think I know a guy with the credentials.”
Terezi smiled. She didn’t need her sense of smell to know that Vriska was honestly feeling happy. They were in the middle of a torrential downpour, they may have just released a mass murderer back into the world, and Vriska was happy.
This was most certainly Terezi’s kind of night.
There were a few things that Jack Noir could expect to see when he woke up in the morning. But Vriska Serket was not one of them.
Jack sat upright in his bed. He liked to consider himself “friendly” with the troll, but the smile she was giving him was not exactly putting him at ease.
This unease was only intensified when the Parcel Mistress stepped into view, a significantly less smiley look on her face. The morning sun cast the two of them in stark golden light.
He asked what they wanted, barking out his words.
“We’ve come to give you some good news,” Vriska said. “The Parcel Mistress, the Mayor, and I have been discussing your current state, and we’ve come to a conclusion.”
Jack raised an eyebrow, silently asking them to continue. Of course, he did not like where this was going.
“Your sentence will be… relaxed.”
That was not what Jack had expected. There was a minute of silence as he waited for one of them to start laughing, to say they were playing a joke. But while Vriska’s face certainly suggested amusement, the Parcel Mistress was not laughing when she added a few more words:
She went on to explain that they would be moving him from prison to house arrest, but that he would need to share his home with someone. Jack would be taking care of this guy for as long as he was needed, specifically because they needed someone violent enough to keep this guy in line if he flips his shit.
All the while, Jack’s grin was widening. When they gave their permission to stab the guy if push came to shove, he broke out laughing. He didn’t know what their game was, but the look on that bitch’s face was worth every second he’d spent in this fucking cell, to say nothing of the offer they were making. Jack accepted the offer on the spot, consciously looking as obsequious as possible in the hopes that it would get under that Prospitian bitch’s skin just a little more.
Vriska smiled. “Good to know. Perhaps I should introduce you to your new companion.”
She turned to the left and nodded. The sound of squeaking metal preceded the entrance of the Mayor, pushing a wheelchair containing another troll. The troll was horrifically emaciated and near motionless, but he grinned as he was pulled up to face Jack.
“Jack,” Vriska said, “this is Gamzee. Your new roommate.”
The troll - Gamzee - nodded weakly at Jack. “Hey, motherfucker. Nice to see you.”
Jack merely smiled in return, expressing his own happiness in encountering Gamzee. Sure, he was still imprisoned, and he’d be tied to the needs of this troll. But he was getting out of this cell. After two years, the knowledge of how much the Parcel Mistress loathed doing this and the promise of some small bit of freedom felt as good as sliding a knife between ribs.
This was most certainly Jack Noir’s kind of day.
Chapter 5: Year Five
Despite his father’s suggestions, John had decided to not become a baker. His hatred of sweets that developed prior to SBURB had not subsided, meaning John had neither the talent nor inclination for baking. So, instead of joining Jane and her father in providing the people of Cantown with their daily bread, he forged his own path, in a very literal fashion.
John was well-suited for the life of a blacksmith, it turned out. His bizarre strength (which he shared with both Jane and Mr. Crocker) and his skill with a hammer already gave him something of an advantage, and his powers over wind allowed him to feed or choke a fire at will. So he took up the job, building the tools that allowed Cantown to function.
And at the beginning of their fifth year in the new universe, John was looking the part. Walking the path towards adulthood, he was not tall, but his frame was solid and well-muscled. He had his father’s broad hands, though the forge had made them rough and calloused. But he still kept his youthful face, marked only by the slightest angularity and a dusting of facial hair that might grow into a beard if John was so inclined.
In other words, Roxy was extremely pleased with her choice in men.
The thought had come to her as she had watched John deal with the day’s final order. The Viceroy’s grand scheme for a town library had spiralled into something even grander over the years, but they’d finally decided upon an appropriately monumental design. Cantown University would be a magnificent institution of learning, accommodating education, research, and a library large enough to make any bibliophile salivate. Both the Mayor and his wife adored the plans, though the Parcel Mistress was far more realistic about its construction. Her optimistic estimates said it would take 10 years to build the university; her realistic estimates put it far longer.
Needless to say, the Viceroy had wasted no time.
“I’m just saying,” John said, addressing the Viceroy, “there’s no harm in a little bit of caution. It’ll cost you far more to under-prepare than it will to over-prepare, and I’m not good at working in a hurry.”
The two were seated at a table, blueprints and inventories scattered before them. “Besides,” John continued, “worst-case scenario with what I’m proposing? You end up with too many materials. And that’s not much of a problem; they can be used for something else, and that saves you some money on that project.”
Her matesprit was not a particularly smart man; she had been standing in the doorway of the forge for about ten minutes, silently watching John and the Viceroy discuss their trade. Then again, Roxy had not chosen him for his intellect.
Finally, Roxy coughed. That brought John out of his discussion. He looked up, noticing Roxy smirking at him, and put on a face of surprise. “Oh! Hey, Roxy!” John stammered, “I, er… I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Just wanted to see what was keeping you out so late,” Roxy said, walking over to the table.
John turned to the window. It seemed like he had only now realized that the sun was on the horizon. “Oh, shit,” he muttered. “I, uh… sorry, I was really wrapped up in this whole thing. Viceroy, think about what I said, we’ll finish this up in the morning.”
The Viceroy gave an understanding blub , gathering up the papers and leaving as John removed his smith’s apron. “How long have you guys been waiting?” John asked, sheepishly looking at Roxy.
Roxy shrugged. “Don’t worry ‘bout it. Calli was still making dinner when I left, and I haven’t been here too long, so…”
John sighed with relief. “I’m sorry. This was a really big order, and I guess I lost track of the time.”
No, Roxy had not chosen John for his intellect. But more than just strong and handsome, he was dedicated, he was cheerful, and he was compassionate. It was only his commitment to his work that had kept him away from home this evening.
Yes, Roxy had chosen well.
Their home was only a few blocks away from Main Street; a small building, but not a cramped one, and with a minimalistic style that reminded all three of its inhabitants of their old home. The streets were beginning to clear as Roxy and John walked there; late March was still chilly enough that after a long day of work, indoors was preferable to out. The sun was barely hanging over the horizon when Roxy returned, opening the door to the smell of cooking.
Calliope, tasting of spoonful of the soup currently cooking on the stove, was Roxy’s other good choice. An unorthodox choice, yes, but a good one. Calliope’s green, androgynous body may have resembled a cross between a skeleton and a lizard, and she may have come from a species that associates sex with hatred, but Roxy had known Calliope long before she had known those facts. She was a cherub, yes, but a cherub with the heart of an old, loyal dog and the soul of a poet.
It was the perfect way to return home: the man Roxy loved by her side, the woman she loved waiting for her. But there was a problem.
As Calliope waved the two of them in, promising warm bowls of soup, Roxy was reminded of a small piece of information that she had learned that morning. She had spoken with one of the town’s doctors - a friendly crocodile who was reasonably competent in regard to human biology - and had brought up a mysterious sickness she’d been having over the past two weeks. Turns out, the sickness wasn’t all that mysterious. But it did warrant attention.
Dinner was eaten normally. John’s report of the day ended with an enthusiastic description of the Viceroy’s plans, especially on the part John’s work would play in bringing said plans to fruition. Calliope responded with her own tales of helping Rose and Kanaya plan out a curriculum for the Cantown school board, to be used when such a thing existed. Their back-and-forth played out between mouthfuls of soup, Roxy watching silently.
We need to talk about this , Roxy thought to herself, steeling her nerves. It needs to be done, and now is as good a time as any . She put on a smile; she didn’t need her matesprits to worry about her any more than she worried about herself.
“Hey,” Roxy began, “could we talk about something?”
John and Calliope both turned to face Roxy. “Sure,” John replied, preparing another spoonful of soup. “What about?”
Roxy exhaled. The proverbial million-boonbuck question.
“Would you like to have kids?”
Evidently, neither of her matesprits expected that question. Calliope appeared vaguely alarmed, while John’s face was scrunched up with contemplation. Not exactly the reactions Roxy had hoped for, but to be fair…
“That’s… that’s one hell of a question, Roxy,” John eventually said, placing his spoon down.
Roxy shrugged. “I just figured that it’s worth bringing up,” she said, praying they were buying her smile. “I mean, I don’t have any doubt that you guys would make good parents and stuff. But, y’know, it’s a big deal, so it’s worth asking.”
Of course, Roxy couldn’t help but question her own ability.
While she had been brought up by the carapaces, Roxy’s own mother had done a respectable job of trying to be there for her, despite having been dead for centuries before Roxy’s meteor landed on the Earth. Among the relics to be expected of her fame, she had left behind a kind of inheritance for Roxy: her lab, her literature, assorted mementos and bric-a-brac, and a collection of disks.
The disks contained videos of her mother. Hours of video, almost all of it addressed to a daughter she would never know. Life advice, lessons about the sciences, little snippets of trivia about a world she knew would soon come to an end. In the face of oblivion, this small act of motherhood had been a scream of defiance, a rebellion against death itself.
Calliope seemed torn between being flattered and being worried. “W-well,” she stated, her cheeks turning a lighter shade of green, “I appreciate the sentiment, though I cannot comment on its accuracy. My species does not really have parents, so I would not know what makes a good one.”
As a child, Roxy had idolized her mother. She seemed like a being of pure grace and wisdom and love, one who cared enough to make tapes for a child she would never be able to meet. But ideals are a corrupting force, and Roxy now realized that over the years, her mother had become less of a person and more of a symbol. Someone perfect. Someone immortal. Someone utterly inhuman.
“I mean, do you want to have kids?” John asked, addressing Roxy. “I mean, no kids are going to be happening unless you really want it.”
God yes . She didn’t say it out loud, but the answer resonated within her mind. Ectobiology could be used to make as many humans as they needed, but she wanted to be what her mother could not. She wanted to be there for her own child, to be able to teach them and guide them more than a bunch of discs could.
But then, there was Rose.
In Rose’s universe, Roxy had been Rose’s mother, and had been there for her daughter. But things had not gone according to plan. Through some combination of disconnect and teenage rebellion, Rose had ended up resenting her mother, and that Roxy had tried in vain to show Rose that she was loved. Rose had eventually understood her mother’s love, but it was far too late.
Rose was Roxy’s sister, and one of her best friends. In some ways, Roxy had hoped that meeting Rose would help tear down that pedestal, to confront her mother as a human being. But that had backfired. Sure, Rose was more human than Roxy’s idealized mother was, but that just took all of the beauty of that symbol and made it flesh, made it real .
Two pairs of eyes made Roxy afraid. The first were the imagined eyes of her mother, the eyes she felt on her back when, after more than four years of sobriety, Roxy found herself craving liquor. Even as she knew that this was biology, rather than weakness; even as she knew that you never stopped being an addict; even as she knew that she had two people who loved her more than anything, who would hold her tight whenever the void beckoned. The eyes remained at her back, and Roxy had feared that if she was to turn around, she would see her mother, eyes full of disappointment at her daughter.
The second pair belonged to Rose. Even as Rose tried to treat Roxy like a sister, Roxy knew that Rose saw a bit of her own mother, saw all of that love that she would never be able to repay. Above all, Rose’s inheritance had been regret.
It occurred to Roxy that her smile had slipped. A good minute of silence had passed, and John’s face had shifted from intrigued to concerned.
“Look,” she finally said, not bothering to continue her facade, “I do, okay? I do want kids. I guess I’m just… afraid.”
John nodded. He may not have been the smartest man alive, but he had his own kind of emotional intelligence, and Roxy knew he understood.
Calliope nervously spoke up. “So… just to make sure we’re all on the same page… we’re all okay with this?”
Both Roxy and John nodded.
“And none of us feel remotely prepared for it?”
The nodding continued.
Calliope exhaled, hard. A minute of palpable silence followed her words.
And then, John chuckled. It was a quiet laugh, but it was a genuine laugh. Now it was Roxy’s turn to be surprised.
“Then again,” he said, a weak smile crossing his lips, “will we ever be?”
John took Roxy’s hands in his own. “Roxy,” he continued, “I love you. And if you want kids, I’m okay with that! We’ve got our friends to help us, and if they want to have kids of their own, we can help them. We won’t be alone.”
“John’s right,” Calliope exclaimed, placing a clawed hand on Roxy’s shoulder. “None of us are prepared, but we’re unprepared together. It’s a story as old as time itself.”
Roxy realized that she was crying. Looking at the two of them, Roxy couldn’t help but smile. But this was not a presentational smile.
Indeed, Roxy had chosen well.
It was then that she stood up, saying what had need to be said all day.
“Roxy’s pregnant? ” Dirk asked, more surprised than John had seen in a very long while.
Ever since Roxy’s announcement, Cantown had been abuzz with excitement and concern. The first human being to be born on the planet was going to be news, obviously, but the idea had still taken just about everyone by surprise. As such, over the past few days, a steady stream of John, Roxy, and Calliope’s friends had stopped by, offering various different reactions to the news.
The trolls, generally speaking, had approached the subject with a mixture of congratulatory excitement and morbid fascination. After all, troll and human reproduction involved very different processes; the idea that baby humans grew inside of humans with nooks was both novel and vaguely horrifying to the trolls. Strangely enough, Karkat alone seemed relatively unperturbed by this idea; then again, Karkat was one of Jade’s matesprits, so John suspected the topic would have been introduced to him before. Instead, Karkat had simply pulled John aside to offer his blessing and affirm that John was the only human that Karkat believed could be trusted with a wriggler.
Their human friends had been a bit more varied in their reactions. Jane had rushed over with enough baked goods to feed a small army and crushing tight hugs, nearly crying tears of joy as she excitedly stated just how happy she was for the three of them. It was clear that Jake had no idea how to respond to this news, but he had still arrived to offer flustered congratulations. Dave and Jade had arrived together; Dave had very quickly lost his cool and had started sobbing into John’s shoulder, while Jade had followed up her congratulations and offer of support with a promise to personally castrate John if he, quote unquote, “fucked this up”.
Rose had chosen to speak with Roxy alone, and John could understand why. Between the two of them, the Lalondes had enough baggage about their mothers to fill an airplane, so the fact that Roxy was going to be a mother herself demanded some conversation. It had been an hour before Rose walked down the stairs with Roxy, and while she had tried to hide it, John knew that both of them had shed some tears. Rose had simply walked up to John, smiled, and said, “you’ll do great.”
And then, there was Dirk. John and Dirk were not particularly close friends, but they held a quiet, mutual respect for one another. Dirk was the kind of guy Dave’s bro should have been, and Dirk seemed to think of John as basically being “Jane as a dude”, so they got along well enough.
Thus, it was only a bit of a surprise when Dirk walked in on John’s work, asking about Roxy’s pregnancy in a far more surprised tone of voice than John had ever really heard from the guy.
John had lowered his hammer, looking up at Dirk standing in the doorframe. “Uh…” John began, entirely unsure what to make of Dirk’s intrusion, “...yeah. You’ve heard correctly.”
“And you’re -”
“The father, yes,” John finished Dirk’s sentence.
That seemed to calm Dirk down somewhat, but he was still bizarrely agitated. John fully placed his hammer down. “Is there something wrong?” John asked, cocking his head to the side.
Dirk sat down at the table. John quickly joined him.
“I… I guess it’s just weird, you know?” Dirk explained. “I mean, she’s been my friend for years, and the idea of her having a kid …”
John smirked. “I know what you mean. I can certainly work with this, and I’m willing to be a dad, but this is going to take a lot of adjustment.”
Dirk sighed. Silence followed; nothing needed to be said.
Then, Dirk spoke up.
“Don’t disappoint her.”
John cocked his head again; those were not words he had expected to hear. “Excuse me?” John replied.
Dirk exhaled again. “Look,” he began, “I’ve known Roxy for a very long time, and I know that she had something of a crush on me for a long time.”
John raised an eyebrow. “You? No offense, dude, but I thought she’d had feelings for Jake.”
“Bro, all of us wanted to fuck Jake at some point in time. In other news, water is wet. That’s not the point.”
John nodded, giving a silent signal to continue.
“You’ve got to understand,” Dirk continued, “for a long time, I was the only person she could afford to have fantasies about. Sure, we had Jane and Jake, but they were far in the past. So her affections ended up falling onto me.”
Dirk leaned back in his chair, though nothing in his posture suggested relaxation. “I honestly felt like shit when I really started to realize that. I mean, we’re talking about literally the last two human beings on the planet, and the wheel of sexualities decides to make me gay. It seemed like a cruel joke on Roxy, y’know?”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is…” Dirk said, adjusting his glasses, “well, you’re the guy I couldn’t be.”
Dirk leaned forward again, close enough to look John in the eyes. “I will help you guys as much as I possibly can. But I need you to promise me that you’re going to do better for her than I could have. It’s what she deserves.”
John was silent; it was that kind of promise that Calliope had made John swear years ago. Eventually, he firmly nodded.
“I promise, Dirk. I’ll be good to her.”
That seemed to relax Dirk. He exhaled, then smiled.
“Well, it’s been nice talking,” Dirk stated, standing up from his chair, “but I’ve got to go offer my congratulations to the woman herself.”
John nodded, standing up and walking over to the anvil. With a quick gust of air, he stoked the forge again, and picked up his hammer. Dirk was a good guy, even if he wasn’t a close friend; he’d be a huge help when the spit really hit the fan.
Then, John heard Dirk’s voice, coming from the entrance.
“Mr. Crocker. Good to see you.”
Oh fuck .
John had tried to tell his father the good news shortly after Roxy had told him, but Jane had told John that Dad wanted to talk about this on his own terms. Well, those terms appeared to be right now.
John’s father was at the beginning of middle aged, but he wore it well. His dark hair had become salt-and-pepper, a few more wrinkles had accumulated on his face, and he’d shrunk about half an inch. But he still stood tall in the doorway, as upright as ever. His face was damn near unreadable.
John put down the hammer. “Hey dad,” John said, preparing himself for whatever his father had to say.
His father nodded. “John,” he stated, matter-of-factly. “I think we both know why I’m here, so I’d prefer not to beat around the bush about it.”
The frankness was a good sign, John thought.
“The word around town is that I’m going to be a grandfather,” Mr. Crocker continued. “When I first heard, I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t even sure if it was true until Jane told me herself.”
John sighed. “Dad, Roxy really wants this. Calliope wants this. I want this. We wouldn’t be keeping the baby if we didn’t all want this.”
“I know, I know. But it’s worth asking what about it you want.”
John raised an eyebrow. Mr. Crocker walked over to the table, sitting at one of the chairs. John, once again, sat across from him.
“John,” Mr. Crocker began, “I want to be clear: I’m not disappointed in you, or angry. I’m honestly proud that you’ve decided to accept the consequences, and I can see that you really do love Roxy.”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’,” John replied.
Mr. Crocker nodded. “I do not doubt that you mean every word of your commitment, and you may well be dedicated enough to handle the work of raising a child. But I fear you do not understand what you’re getting into.”
John shrugged. “Well, I know that this is going to be a lot of work. Like, second job levels of work. Also, expensive.”
Mr. Crocker gave a quick chuckle. “John, the entire village is ready to help you three. Myself included. This is about so much more than the work.”
There was a silence. Mr. Crocker pulled out his pipe, placing a bit of tobacco into the bowl. John watched, confused, as Mr. Crocker lit the pipe. “...I’m not sure I follow,” John eventually said.
Mr. Crocker took a long drag, slowly releasing the smoke through his nostrils after a moment.
“John,” he eventually said, “any creative act gives some amount of power to the creator. The same is true when one becomes a parent, and to a terrifying degree. Regardless of our choices, our children will come to model themselves in our image, whether through imitation or rejection. Inevitably, everything we do will one day be theirs to inherit.”
“The reason you work where you do is because of the version of me you remember from your own universe. His own actions gave you a hatred of sweets, so you chose not to become a baker. The man he was helped shape the man you are.”
There was another silence. Mr. Crocker took another drag of the pipe. John was beginning to understand.
“Wow,” John murmured. “Yeah, that’s heavy stuff.”
Mr. Crocker put his hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m not saying this to scare you. Whatever ways alternate universe me might have failed, I’d say he succeeded in raising a morally upright man. You’re honest, you’re dedicated, and you’re compassionate; frankly, there are few better qualities in a father. Nor will every one of your child’s failings be a result of your actions; our children are their own people, with their own wills. But your choices matter. We leave a legacy for our children to inherit, whether we like it or not. That’s what parenthood means, John.”
John stared for a moment. The air in the forge was as heavy as iron, and his father’s gaze was similarly metallic.
Then, John smiled.
“Frankly, dad, the man I remember wasn’t too different from you. If I took after you at all, then I think I can carry that weight.”
Now, it was his father’s turn to smile.
“In that case,” he said, blowing out his pipe and tucking back in his pocket, “perhaps we should speak with… do you think Roxy and Calliope would object if I called them my daughters-in-law?”
John laughed. “I think you’d need to ask them yourself, dad.”
His father shrugged. “Even more reason to visit.”
The two of them, as it would turn out, didn’t mind at all.
Chapter 6: Year Five, Part Two
Karkat didn’t think his request was unreasonable. Hell, it was entirely goddamn reasonable. How exactly could he be expected to understand all the intricacies of an alien culture when most of its remaining inhabitants had not inhabited that culture since they were children? Shit, Karkat knew he personally couldn’t be taken as an authoritative source on troll culture. End of the day, when all these aliens were asking about the ways of troll society, most of what Karkat could do was point at alien societies and say, “you see that shit? Not that.”
And yet, this adult human male who John and Jane evidently saw as a kind of lusus was responding to Karkat’s question with a befuddled look. It was not a condescending one, thankfully, but it suggested an utter lack of understanding as to why Karkat might ask a perfectly legitimate question.
“...I’m not sure I follow, Karkat,” Mr. Crocker stated, looking at him over an armful of bread loaves. Karkat had entered the bakery early in the morning, prior to it being open to the general public; Mr. Crocker was gathering the previous night’s baking for today’s customers.
Karkat, leaning on the counter, was concealing his deep frustration. He didn’t want to get angry at the human; yelling would make this whole request far more difficult. But it was not easy.
“I suppose you know little of troll culture,” Karkat sighed, “so perhaps an explanation is in order. Have you heard of ‘lusii’?”
Mr. Crocker nodded as he placed down the bread, grabbing bags for packaging. “I’m vaguely familiar. Frankly, I find the notion that trolls would let animals raise their children to be mildly absurd - no offense - but I’ve encountered a variety of absurd things ever since I’ve arrived here, so… continue.”
Karkat huffed. “They’re not animals, Mr. Crocker. I’m not entirely sure how fucking stupid you think we are, but if we had all decided to leave our wrigglers in the care of the goddamn nut creatures and cholerbears, it would have been entirely reasonable for every member of the entire troll species to simultaneously choke to death on their own ventilation sacs as a result of sheer idiocy.”
Before Mr. Crocker could respond to this statement, Karkat continued. “They’re genetically engineered from Mother Grub DNA, commissioned by the first tyrian empress thousands of sweeps ago. Lusii are sub-troll in intellect, but they have enough capacity for reason to obtain food, care for the basic needs of a young troll, and understand simple commands. You could leave a wriggler in their care and it wouldn’t really fuck up their minds, in other words. And with adult trolls freed from the responsibility of actually taking care of wrigglers, it was possible to throw more bodies into the endless meat grinder of galactic conquest that was the Alternian Empire.”
Mr Crocker nodded, bagging a loaf of bread as he did. “Alternia doesn’t sound like a particularly pleasant place.”
“Yeah, kind of a shithole,” Karkat shrugged. “I miss it, but it was a shithole. But that’s not why I’m here.”
Karkat straightened. “I’m asking you this because we’ve decided to drop the whole lusii thing for the foreseeable future.”
Mr. Crocker raised an eyebrow. His face was beginning to take on a look of curiosity.
“Like I said,” Karkat continued, “a lusus was usually sufficient to avoid screwing up a wriggler. But that demands that a lusus be competent, like mine was. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Vriska, whose lusus tried to eat her, and who only managed to avoid getting eaten by feeding other kids to it. One childhood later, you end up with a huge bitch who has an existential crisis when she stops needing to kill people.”
“Or what about Gamzee? His lusus was never actually around to, y’know, raise him. Don’t know if a good lusus could have prevented him from turning into the creepy douchecanoe of a murderclown he became, but it could have at least stopped him from eating his fucking sopor, whatever that’s worth. So, we’ve decided that when wrigglers are happening, we’re going to handle it pre-tyrian style and raise the little shits ourselves.”
A look of sudden understanding from Mr. Crocker. “But it’s been thousands of years since that’s been done,” Mr. Crocker stated, nodding, “and…”
“And you’re the only one with any kind of experience on the matter of raising an infant,” Karkat cut in, finishing Mr. Crocker’s sentence. “Thus, while it feels so deeply weird to ask this, I need you to teach me.”
Mr. Crocker chuckled. Karkat felt himself bristle before he realized that this was not a condescending kind of laugh. “That’s a tall order, Karkat,” Mr. Crocker said, bagging the final loaf. “It’s not something that can really be taught like any other kind of skill. I mean, humans learn from watching our own parents. I learned from watching my father, and I can only hope that John and Jane are learning as they watch me.”
Karkat scowled. Not an objectionable answer, but not the one he wanted to hear. “Is this a ‘family’ kind of thing? Y’know, for something so central to human culture, I’d thought you humans would have developed a better way of explaining this shit.”
‘Family’. After so many sweeps among humans, Karkat still struggled with the intricacies of the concept. Every time he thought he understood it, a new bit of information would come along and upend his understanding in the same way one upends a table that a group of people you hate are seated around. It’s based off of genetics, only it’s not. It’s based in a particular set of relations, only it’s not. The anathema of ‘incest’ prevailed across all human cultures, and this apparently has to do with genetics, except it doesn’t, because it still holds true of unrelated ‘family’ members, and doesn’t apply to one’s matesprit, despite them technically being part of the ‘family’. Humans could complain about the quadrants as much as they liked, but the quadrants actually followed a consistent and understandable set of rules.
There was only one thing Karkat knew for sure about this concept: humans seek out family like trolls seek out quadrants, and in both cases, their society could not exist without it.
That same look of confusion was back on Mr. Crocker’s face. “Well…” he began, “yes, it is. But this demonstrates my point. While I appreciate your faith in my abilities, I’m not sure that this is something I can really teach. I’d happily offer my advice once you have a… you refer to your children as ‘wrigglers’? Once you have a wriggler of your own, but that’s about as much as I can offer.”
Mr. Crocker chuckled. “Why do you ask, anyway? Is this an emergency query, or…”
“ Fuck no,” Karkat snapped. “Accidental reproduction isn’t a thing for trolls, and thank God for that. It’ll be a long damn time before the Matriorb gets hatched. It was just… well, it was brought up yesterday.”
Mr. Crocker nodded, understanding.
The day before, Karkat had attended a strange human pair-bonding ritual known as a ‘wedding’. The idea made a little bit of sense; given the fact that humans only had one quadrant, you’d expect that matespritship would be such a big fucking deal. Hell, it made enough sense for the Mayor to pick up the idea. But this was a much quieter affair than the great celebration the town had enjoyed almost two sweeps ago; according to human custom, an unmarried couple who find themselves with a pregnancy are expected to be married prior to the end of the wriggler’s incubation, so this whole affair was largely a formality.
But it was here that the reality of the situation really sank in. Roxy Lalonde was going to be a mother (the word for the human unfortunate enough to get saddled with incubation duty). Calliope was going to be a mother as well, in spirit instead of biology. John Egbert was going to be a father. The future of the human species was unfolding before their very eyes, and the significance of the moment was not lost on those in attendance.
As the wedding had ended, Karkat had found himself whisked aside by Kanaya, inviting him to “join her in discussing pressing matters”. It had been clear that none of the trolls wanted to have this conversation, but frankly, it wasn’t a conversation they could exactly avoid. Especially not Karkat. Echidna had commanded that he be spared specifically so that he could lead the next generation of trolls, to guide them away from the savagery of Alternia and prevent them from becoming, as Echidna herself had put it, “lost”.
It was the task Karkat had shared with his ancestor, and Karkat wasn’t entirely sure which one of them had the harder job. The Signless was certainly pitting himself against an ancient tyrant, the entire seadweller nobility, and an army of sociopathic clowns in his quest for righteousness, and Karkat was grateful he faced no such opposition. But the Signless was a reformer and a revolutionary, a man who sought to change the world; Karkat was to start again from scratch.
Karkat was finally beginning to understand what it must feel like to be a god.
Not in the feeble way he had once thought of himself the god of the human universe. He had certainly instigated its creation, but was that really divinity? If a troll believed themselves entitled to the wriggler born of their genetic material simply because of their involvement in the wriggler’s creation, they would be seen as delusional. Why is it any different for a universe?
No, this was very different. Karkat did not know how much Echidna really believed that the future of the species rested in his claws; he was quite certain his allies would object to any monopolization of power. But even the thought of shared power sent shivers through his exoskeleton. His words would echo and ripple. His ideas and lessons would be wielded as tools in sweeps beyond knowledge, and he could imagine that they would serve to feed the hungry and slaughter the innocent equally well. Would a day come when a new Condescension would rise, her tyranny heralded by flags bearing the holy chains of the Signless?
“If it’s any comfort,” Mr. Crocker said, snapping Karkat out of thought, “humans are only marginally better at this. We’ve been improvising parenthood for more than ten thousand years, and frankly, we could have turned out far worse.”
Karkat sighed. “So you won’t help me?”
“ Can’t , Karkat. There’s only so much that I can do, especially because I’m not a troll.”
And suddenly, a switch was flipped in Karkat’s mind.
Karkat stood silent for a moment, his eyes growing wide with realization. Mr. Crocker simply returned his gaze with an incredulous expression, not entirely sure what to think.
“Mr. Crocker,” Karkat said, his voice suddenly full of energy, “you’ve been a big help, but I really need to go get something done.”
With that, the troll dashed out the door, leaving the bakery silent once again.
Mr. Crocker could only shake his head, not sure whether amusement or confusion was the proper response to the situation.
John has very odd taste in friends .
Jade awoke to the smell of bacon. It was her first sign that something was not entirely right.
Ever since she’d taken on a little bit of Becquerel upon going god tier, Jade had become bizarrely fond of meat. Her enjoyment of other foods had not lessened one bit, but the smell of meat was enough to draw her attention from anywhere, and she had not remembered it tasting so stupidly delicious before.
Thus, the fact that she could smell bacon cooking in the cabin while she was still in bed immediately set off alarm signals in the more rational part of her brain. It wasn’t exactly likely that either Dave or Karkat were stupid enough to try and do that stealthily in her own house, so she was left with three possibilities: one/both of them wanted to do something special, one/both of them had something to apologize for, or one/both of them wanted to ask a favour.
As she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, she was silently praying for it to be the first.
A few minutes later, Jade was dressed, following the smell of bacon, and entering the kitchen. Karkat was there, wearing an apron and attending a skillet. He turned as Jade entered, looking way more cheerful than usual. “Morning, Jade,” Karkat beamed, pushing around the bacon and grinning.
Jade internally sighed. Fuck. It’s one of the other two.
“Karkat,” Jade replied, “what the hell are you doing?”
“Well,” Karkat said, “I was just feeling in the mood for some bacon this morning, y’know? A bit of a treat and all that? And I thought about how much you love bacon, and I decided that I’d come over and share it.”
Yep. Definitely one of the other two. Jade was not going to complain about bacon, but she was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Thanks, babe,” Jade yawned, “I appreciate it.”
A few minutes later, and after some input from Jade, Karkat presented a pair of plates, each with bacon and eggs. Archetypically breakfasty. Jade chowed down on her bacon, split between savouring it and trying to puzzle out Karkat’s intentions.
“So, Jade,” Karkat eventually said, “I’ve been doing some thinking.”
Option number three, then. Jade looked at Karkat, still trying to look cheerful while his fingers tapped nervously. Neither of her partners were particularly good at deceiving people. It only required a bit of skillful prodding to pull apart Dave’s practiced nonchalance, and Karkat’s feelings seemed to seep into just about everything he did.
“What about?” Jade inquired, leaning forward.
Karkat swallowed, hard. “Well,” he replied, “I was thinking that, well, maybe it’s necessary to have some discussions about our plans going forward.”
For fuck’s sake. Was he really trying to have this conversation? Dave had pointedly avoided talking with Jade on any topic which might be remotely related to kids after yesterday’s wedding, so his feelings on the matter were extremely clear; this would make any possibility of children remote, considering… well, biology. If this whole situation with Roxy had awakened something in Karkat…
“I mean, I don’t want to put any pressure on you or anything, but I thought it was worth asking, so…”
Jade braced herself for what he was going to say.
The sentence had been spoken as a word. A deafening silence prevailed for several agonizing seconds afterwards. Karkat, his nervousness clearly visible. Jade, glaring at Karkat as if a second head was emerging on his shoulders.
“...what,” Jade said. Her tone was not questioning, but her intent most certainly was.
“Nothing,” Karkat replied, busying himself with the bacon still on his plate.
“No,” Jade said, “I heard you perfectly well. I just want to make sure that you said what I heard you say.”
Karkat’s false smile dropped. He exhaled, his body drooping. “Jade,” he asked, slowly this time, “do you think it would be possible to bring the Dream Bubbles into this universe? Fully, I mean.”
Well, at least Karkat didn’t want a kid. That was a relief.
“The Dream Bubbles,” Jade stated, echoing Karkat’s words. “Fully into this universe.”
Jade raised an eyebrow. “Why? I mean, I think I could manage it, but… why?”
Karkat leaned back. “Because I need some advice from people who are no longer alive,” he replied, “so that I don’t do something stupid.”
Jade snorted. “You’ve been pretty willing to make stupid decisions before, babe. What makes this so different?”
Karkat scowled. “Very funny. But in all seriousness, I had never realized the full consequences of what I was doing until long after the deed was done, and my own asinine attempts to retroactively stop that shit usually only served to ensure that it happened. This time, I’ve been given a chance to actually observe just how much potential there is to ruin everything. And I do mean everything. So I’ll ingest my fucking pride and find someone who can actually help me.”
Everything? Jade knew that Karkat had a penchant for the melodramatic, but… well, he did seem very serious. “And you can’t get help from the living?” Jade inquired. “Only the dead?”
“So… what exactly has such monumental potential for failure?”
Karkat leaned forward, sighing as he did.
“The job Echidna gave me.”
Oh . Jade suddenly understood.
While Jade had described Karkat in a great many ways over the eight years she had known him, she would never have described him as “prideful”. Ambitious? Absolutely. Judgemental? Without a doubt. But for all his eagerness to call for blood and thunder and his irritable nature, Karkat had always saved his most potent anger for self-examination. When such a grand task is placed before a man so easily gripped by guilt, could you seriously expect anything other than anxiety from him?
Jade certainly did not doubt his abilities. From what she heard, he was a competent leader during the trolls’ session, and in the years since then, he had grown as a person. He was as irritable as ever, but three years on the meteor had taught him compassion and empathy. Karkat had walked into the new universe as a man with a near-instinctual desire to help others, and skills at motivating and organizing to match. But if that guilt paralyzed him, prevented him from taking the role of leader? The trolls would be doomed
“You need an advisor,” Jade said.
Karkat gave a quick nod. “Along with everyone else, I mean. Don’t get me wrong: I trust your judgement. Hell, if I’m interested in not fucking this up, I’ll need to listen to you guys. But there’s some advice that I just can’t get here. I need to speak with trolls long dead, the kind of people who can show me what’s worth rebuilding in the first place.”
Jade nodded. “So you need me to get the Dream Bubbles,” she concluded.
“I know it’s going to be difficult,” Karkat said. “But I only ask because I have faith in your power. I’m going to need your help on every step of this journey, Jade; if I try to do this alone, I’m going to fail.”
A moment of silence. Then, Jade placed her hands on Karkat’s.
“To be honest,” she said, “I was kind of worried that you wanted a kid.”
It took Karkat a moment to register her words. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Karkat replied indignantly, “really? Why does everyone seem to think that the knowledge of Lalonde’s pregnancy will suddenly give me a thirst for lusus duty?”
Jade laughed. Maybe she didn’t want a kid now. But if the day ever arrived where she truly wanted to be a mother, there were few people she’d want beside her more than Karkat.
Jade was extremely pleased with her choice in men.
Somewhere out in the Furthest Ring, the slumbering Horrorterrors breathed little pieces of existence into being. Bubbles of energy and power, released as the leviathans dreamed and sent drifting out into the infinite, catching the souls of the dead and of dreamers gone astray.
A few of the Dream Bubbles began to shift.
Pulled by the curvature of spacetime, the bubbles strayed from their course, like iridescent drops spiralling into unending void. But they were being guided. Somewhere, out in the infinite, a frog was beckoning them.
It was a young frog, but healthy, a universe almost guaranteed to spawn many many others over its lifespan. A universe full of young planets, ready to bear life and civilizations… and one very old planet, smuggled into this new reality by refugees fleeing destruction. A universe born in the death throes of the Green Sun, a universe that would both create a being of unholy power and destroy him, though not necessarily in that order.
In other words, a universe ripe with potential.
The Dream Bubbles were pulled towards the frog, dancing around its form like a shining necklace. They slipped through its porous skin, and in doing so, they pulled upon other bubbles. Now, the dreaming and the dead of this young universe would stand together, linked outside of time itself.
On the young worlds of this universe, those that would one day breed life, these Dream Bubbles would change everything. Any race that could dream could walk among the dead, speaking to the ancestors and knowing that death was not a true ending. For some, this knowledge would bring salvation. For others, it would ensure destruction.
And for that old, alien world, home to refugees and vagabonds and all who have no other home to claim?
The Dream Bubbles offered redemption.
Chapter 7: Year Five, Part Three
“Shut the fuck up and listen for one second, you hollow-skulled disappointment of a dancestor. I know you’ve got some sermon prepared that you’re just itching to spring on someone, but I am neither interested in listening, nor compelled to. The only reason I’m stooping low enough to be found in your general vicinity is because there is a minuscule chance you might actually be able to answer my question. So let me make this clear: if you do not offer a response that is relevant to my question the moment you open your mouth again, I will follow the screaming instincts in my thinkpan and abscond as fast as possible, regardless of whatever deluge of idiocy spills out of your mandibles. If you have any common fucking decency outside of your own self-important drivel and don’t want me to raise my hand like a verminister and backhand you across your smug face, please tell me: where the fuck is the Signless? ”
Somehow, that seemed to have done the trick. Sure, Kankri was looking indignant enough to start dropping hashtags, but his mandibles opened and closed without actually producing any words. Karkat was busy awaiting an answer, praying that this venture would actually bear fruit.
After a full minute of silence, Kankri exhaled. “While your usage of potentially triggering language is highly objectionable,” Kankri replied, “my options appear to be limited.”
Karkat sighed with relief. For once in his afterlife, Kankri had decided to be helpful.
It had taken some time for Karkat - and Cantown as a whole, for that matter - to readjust to the Dream Bubbles. After more than two sweeps of hazy, unthinking dreams, they suddenly found themselves dreaming lucidly, surrounded by the spirits of the dead and the bizarre geography of the afterlife.
But returning to the bubbles was like riding a two wheel device: impossible to forget, though remembering may result in several nasty failures. Thus, after a few difficult nights of relearning and a few difficult days of helping Jade recover from the strain of recovering the bubbles, Karkat found himself in what may well have been a ruined Prospit woven from memory, interrogating one of many possible Kankris. Thankfully, Karkat had found himself a helpful one.
“I will admit, I was intrigued by the possibility of meeting my biological double,” Kankri began, “especially given the information I learned from your associates. But the nature of the Dream Bubbles makes such a goal… difficult.”
“Memory shapes the geography of the Dream Bubbles,” Kankri continued. “The landscape is constructed by the beings who inhabit it, and similar memories tend to draw minds together. The dead are attracted to those they knew in life, in other words. The fewer connections two souls possess, the more difficult it is for them to find each other.”
“But it isn’t impossible, strictly speaking. After all, Aranea was able to find all of you, and I’ve been able to speak with many souls that I never knew the names of when I first awoke in the Dream Bubbles. Not so many now, for some reason.”
Gee, I wonder why other souls are suddenly so fucking hesitant to talk , Karkat thought to himself. He did refrain from saying it, though.
“As far as I can tell,” Kankri continued, “it’s possible to navigate by seeking out similar experiences, points of indirect connection to the soul you want to contact. This was how I attempted to locate the Signless before, though I was ultimately unsuccessful; perhaps you would be better equipped to seek him out, considering your mutual planet of origin.”
“So, in simple terms,” Karkat cut in, “if I want to find the Signless, I need to find places where we’re similar, and follow the trail.”
Kankri shrugged. “A rough approximation. But before you seek him out, perhaps we could discuss how to avoid causing him any offe-”
Karkat was already gone, vanished into the Dream Bubbles. Kankri scowled.
What a sorry excuse for a dancestor , he thought.
The cold winds of midnight passed across the plains, grass rippling like waves over an ocean. Karkat gazed over this new venue, a mental leap away from Kankri’s lecturing. He couldn’t say he recognized the land itself. But he recognized the silhouette of those distant mountains. He recognized the twin moons hovering in the sky. He recognized the pattern of stars, a mosaic of lights that, until four sweeps ago, was the only pattern of stars Karkat knew.
Alternia. A fragmented memory of Alternia.
Karkat took a deep breath. It was a fiction, woven from the minds of the countless billions destroyed by SGRUB, but it was convincing.
He began to walk, considering Kankri’s words. Indirect connection . Karkat had never paid much heed to the idea of ancestors, and he had never bought the legend of his own supposed ancestor. But he was desperate, and he might be able to find some points of overlap. Maybe it was bullshit; if that was true, he could live with it, go find another source of advice. But if it wasn’t…
Where could he begin? The legends of the Signless were a tale soaked in blood and suffering that Karkat was not sure he could equal. Or even mirror. How could he find common ground with a centuries-dead martyr, aside from the candy-red sludge that ran through both their veins?
Movement, off in the distance. Someone was running.
Karkat could not see details about the runner, but he could spot their silhouette. They appeared to be wearing a flowing cloak, their body obscured beneath the fabric as they rushed across the plain. A figment of the memories which created the bubbles, merely mimicking troll form and intelligence? Or maybe…
Karkat didn’t waste time considering the matter. Whether from instinct or from some half-formed notion of a plan, Karkat followed suit.
He gave chase after the figure, keeping pace but never catching up. Karkat was sure he couldn’t move this fast in real life, but dream logic is strange like that. Had the figure noticed him? Was this the renewal of an old memory, or the reaction to something within the dream itself? Either way, the chase continued, passing over the grasslands with the wind at Karkat’s back.
Then, suddenly, the runner stopped. Karkat did not.
He rapidly caught up with the cloaked figure, which sat down upon a boulder embedded in the plains. The cloak still obscured their features, but Karkat now saw that the figure held a bundle of cloth, gripping it gently with claws that shivered with fear.
A cry came from the bundle. The cry of a wriggler. Karkat stopped, and memories that were not his own flooded over him.
An attendant of the Mother Grub walks over to the meteor, her curiosity stoked by the sound of a crying wriggler. She peers into the crater. Lo and behold, a wriggler, mandibles wide, wailing for aid. Its flesh is candy red.
She takes the wriggler to the others. Panic grips the attendants. Their stay on Alternia was only because the Empress demanded it, needed the chosen few to manage the lusii and the hatching of new trolls. If a mutant - a redblood, at that - was discovered among the latest hatchings, it could mean the ruin of them all. Perhaps they should destroy the grub, give it mercy from the suffering that surely awaits it.
The Mother Grub stops them. The wriggler may be important some day, she explains. It was not the job of the attendants to decide who lives and who dies; only the trials a grub is put through could answer that question. And if the wriggler should survive, their duty comes before fear.
The wriggler survives. A single lusii, a strange breed preserved out of tradition, steps forward, offering to care for the poor creature. The wriggler is given the ceremonial gifts: machines to help them construct a hive, fabric bearing their sign - a cursed mark, dyed grey in some feeble attempt to lessen its heretical nature - and a certificate bearing the sounds that the lusii first uttered with the wriggler in its claws:
Karkat Vantas .
The figure lifted their hood. A jadeblood woman, with the ash-grey exoskeleton of adulthood. Her face was the spitting image of Kanaya’s. She looked down at the crying bundle, a soft smile tinged with worry crossing her face. “Oh, my dear child,” she murmured, gently rocking the wriggler in her arms. “I cannot promise that I can protect you. But you… well. A troll with no ancestor is without precedent.”
The jadeblood touched the wriggler’s face, gently tracing a finger across it. “I cannot return to the Mother Grub. I suppose that my only choice is to help you. For whatever my promise is worth, I swear to watch over you. My poor, signless child.”
Karkat reached out. Was she a fragment or a ghost? Either way, she could help him, give him a bit of guidance, take him into her embrace…
The scene faded, and Karkat shifted. He had the scent.
Panic, as two memories shifted into one.
A young man dressed in the robes of a beggar was backed into a shadowed corner. He looked remarkably like Kankri, but much younger, maybe only 6 sweeps old. His face was consumed by terror, his right hand was hastily wrapped in his robes.
At the same time, Karkat felt himself step into his own memories. It had not been Jack Noir’s knife that had frightened him so; it was the candy-red blood that now dripped from the wound in his side. Karkat felt himself desperately trying to stem the flow, seeing nowhere to run on the black crags of stone that composed the Land of Pulse and Haze. Everywhere he turned, red.
Another young man - a mustardblood - gazed down at the frightened beggar. Glasses obscured his eyes, but Karkat could see he was alarmed. Did he just see what he thought he saw?
“It’s disgusting, I know,” Karkat could hear his younger self saying, voice full of desperation. “But I didn’t fucking choose it, okay? Please, the others can’t know, I’m fucking begging you…”
The young man experiences a moment of understanding. The carapace doesn’t know what this kid’s so worked up about. The mustardblood removes his glasses to reveal his eyes: one as red as injured flesh, the other as blue as noble blood. The carapace cuts open his hand, and a trickle of candy-red blood runs out.
A moment of shock, a moment of connection. Fellow mutants, beings who understand his pain. A bloodied handshake seals the bond. Two friendships are forged.
The scene shifted, and Karkat moved with it.
Three figures, their doppelgangers, and the tangled weave of fate.
A young man, resembling Kankri in both age and face, but Alternia has taken its toll. Ragged and worn, but still standing proud; bent, but unbroken. Anger hardens him, but he has not lost track of the man he was meant to be. He stands above a crowd; he will not hide any longer. When he speaks, he speaks of prophecy and other worlds, of a way of life that does not demand misery, of a unified species. Everything he says is heresy, but the crowd, filled with trolls of every hue of blood, is enchanted.
A child, who Karkat knew he used to be. Condemned by biology, but his rage demands that he struggle against fate, that he strive to succeed in spite of his blood. He will find freedom from fear, and no one will stand in his way. He stands in front of a team; he will not shirk his duty. He stands as a leader, weaving grand schemes and speaking with grand ambition, preparing his soldiers to fight a monstrous king. Perhaps his team does not respect him, but they can admire his drive, and so they listen.
A young woman of olive blood stands amongst the crowd, gazing up at the preacher. When his sermon finishes, some will take his words as dreamy idealism. Others will think of him as a heretic, if an entertaining one. But she hears gospel being written before her, and she knows that her destiny will lay in his hands. By the end of the day, she will have joined his crusade. By the end of the sweep, the two of them will share a love which defies any quadrant.
A girl of olive blood stands amongst her friends, gazing up at the boy who calls himself their leader. When his speech finishes, some will take his words as aggressive bluster. Others will think of him as a buffoon, if an entertaining one. But she hangs upon his every word, and she hopes fate will bring him into her hands. By the end of the day, all his plans will be undone by a force none of them predicted. By the end of the next, she will die for one love and leave the other unrequited.
A tealblood woman, the unyielding harbinger of justice. She will never know the redblooded martyr whose heresy would kindle a revolution, but she would know his words. His makeshift sign - the red-hot chains which scorched his flesh black as he died - hangs around her neck, tucked away to avoid the punishment such heresy brings. She will have her own part to play, and the heretic will never know how she admires him.
A tealblood girl, the unyielding harbinger of justice. She knows the redblood who stands before her whose rage drives his ambition, and she has heard his words many times before. His grey sign conceals his blood, both strange and somewhat beautiful, but even then, there is something admirable about his choice to wear it openly. Her part and his will weave together, but the girl will never reciprocate the mutant boy’s adoration for her.
Words spoken that cannot be unsaid. Choices made. Fates sealed.
A mutant stands defiant in front of his greatest foe. He does not expect to be victorious, but he must fight regardless. This being is the symbol of all that binds him, the nexus of all his world’s suffering. In one story, they are a tyrant, impossibly ancient and powerful, with all of the most powerful members of the species bent around their finger. In another, they are a monster, an impossible demon beyond time and space bent on nothing less than the destruction of all. It is irrelevant. If he is to die a martyr, the mutant will face his death without fear.
The echoes of pain ripple throughout the cosmos. In one story, all his agony and rage will break and flow forth as one final sermon, a burst of holy fire that will pierce the hearts of all who hear it and rend the stars themselves. In another, horror wells up inside of him as he realizes the truly dire nature of his mistake, a sickness which haunts all those around him and poisons the the stars themselves. His work, for all its good intentions, may yet lead to further destruction, a burden to be carried by those yet unborn.
He falters. These are not all his memories, but they blend together as if they are the thoughts of one man.
No. There are two men here.
One still uses his childhood name: Karkat Vantas.
The other carries on a title that echoes through legend:
A shoreline. The night was nearing its end, but in the Dream Bubbles, the sun need not be feared. In a realm woven from memories, the night will fade perpetually, always approaching the fearful sunrise but never truly reaching it. Instead, the rosy horizon coming just before the dawn lasts forever, untouched by the ravages of time.
Two men were standing upon the beach. They gazed at one another, far more surprised than either one had been in a long time.
The man who stood before Karkat looked like he had walked through hell. His rough, calloused hands were linked to horrifically burned wrists, the exoskeleton itself scorched black. His body, slim but built of wiry muscle, was covered in scars of varying ages. He still bore a resemblance to Kankri, but it was hidden deep beneath the ravages of Alternia, beneath sweeps of struggle and anger and a desperate attempt to make the world a better place.
The Signless finally spoke. “You look like I once did,” he murmured, his astonishment still shining through in spite of his hushed tones.
Karkat realized his mandibles were slack. He closed them, straightening as he did so. “Well,” Karkat replied, “that’s to be expected, given the circumstances.”
The Signless nodded, clearly lacking any idea of what was going on. “Those circumstances being…?” he asked.
Karkat exhaled. This needed a delicate approach. “This may come as a shock,” Karkat said, “but… I am quite sure you’re my ancestor.”
A minute of silence. The Signless appeared trapped between calling bullshit and flipping his shit.
“...holy shit,” the Signless eventually breathed. He sat down, still staring at Karkat. “If you’re shitting me, this is not funny.”
“To be honest,” Karkat replied, shrugging, “I’m still processing the fact that you actually exist.”
More silence. The two men stared at one another, waiting for the other one to make a move.
“Your eyes,” the Signless eventually said, motioning to Karkat. “You don’t have white eyes.”
Karkat nodded, hesitantly. “Well, yeah. I mean, I’m still alive and stuff.”
The Signless cocked his head. “Then… why are you here?”
“These are Dream Bubbles,” Karkat explained. “It’s not just the dead who end up here. The living wind up here too, when we sleep.”
The Signless nodded. He understood, but he still had no idea what the fuck was going on.
“Karkat,” the Signless whispered, turning his head towards the far horizon. “I heard your name before. Your name is Karkat, isn’t it?”
Karkat nodded. The Signless sighed.
“Karkat,” the Signless said, “I’m sorry.”
Those were not the words Karkat had expected him to say.
“You have my blood,” the Signless continued before Karkat could reply, “and that’s a curse in and of itself. And your sign… is that what my followers chose? I mean, good people followed me, and I respected their judgement, but was their first choice for a symbol really a fucking torture device? For fuck’s sake. You’re marked from birth. And if there’s any weight to the idea that we mirror our ancestors’ lives, you’ve probably gone through hell, all thanks to my own choices.”
The Signless completely shifted to face the horizon. His empty white eyes welled up with red tears, his face hollow with grief. “If I’ve condemned you to all of that… fuck. Fuck, fuck, FUCK! I’m sorry, Karkat. I am so fucking sorry.”
More silence. The Signless, face full of guilt, was avoiding Karkat’s eyes. Karkat, meanwhile, was looking dumbstruck at the man who sat before him. This was the man who had stood defiant against a tyrant, who had shown no fear when he preached heresy that could get him culled, who still screamed with rage as he died, bent but never broken. And yet, the thought that his actions had caused an innocent to suffer had reduced the Signless to tears of shame.
Perhaps they had more in common than Karkat initially thought.
Karkat stepped closer to the Signless, sitting next to his ancestor. “For what it’s worth,” Karkat said, “you kind of won, in the end.”
The Signless looked up, a hesitant curiosity on his face. “I… what?”
“In the long run,” Karkat explained. “A metric shitload of stuff has happened since you died. Fucking lakes of rainbow, spilled in the fight over your words. But in the world outside? For the first time in thousands of sweeps, it looks like the trolls may be free. And that’s why I’m here. The universe decided I needed to follow in your footsteps, but I can’t help our people by myself. I need your help, Signless. I need you to teach me.”
The Signless looked at Karkat for a long moment. Then, tears began to well once more, but they were accompanied by a soft smile from the Signless. In one fluid motion, he leaned over and embraced Karkat, somewhere between laughing and crying.
“Thank you,” the Signless sobbed, his voice muffled by Karkat’s shoulder. “Thank you so much.”
Karkat had no idea how to respond. He gingerly embraced the Signless in return.
After a moment, the Signless pulled out of the hug, his cheeks still wet with tears but a grin spread over his face. “I suppose my work is yet unfinished. Karkat, it is my honour to teach you. The trolls will never be so lost again, I swear it.”
The Signless then shrugged, a bit sheepishly. “Though I suppose I had better get caught up on what’s happened. I’m a few centuries out of the loop, so I think you had better teach me before I can teach you.”
At that, Karkat finally broke into a grin. “My pleasure,” he replied.
Yes, indeed. The Dream Bubbles would offer redemption for both of them.