The Battleship Condescension is derelict when Karkat finally sets foot on it. He goes in two steps behind Meenah, sickles drawn and back straight, as Threshsecutioner-precise as he can make himself. Their boots clang on the metal floors and echo down the empty hallways. It'd be the opening of a horror flick, except that they've already scoured out the horrors. This is a wipe-up mission. Everyone else is regrouping on the meteor under the overdetermined mutual direction of the new Strider kid and Rose. They're all strategy and no tactics. Karkat was absolutely willing when Meenah'd proposed raiding the Empress's flagship for extra weaponry and whatever else they could carry off. It'd at least give him something useful to do with himself.
“We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing.”
-- George Orwell, 1984
What he's apparently doing with himself is playing bodyguard and being bulgeshrinkingly creeped out. The ship is worse than dead. It's rotting. There are huge rusted patches on the walls, places where the metal is thin and eaten away. He's getting the impression that if he jammed his elbow into the middle of one of them, he and Meenah would be breathing vacuum pretty gogdamned fast. It is actually less hospitable than the meteor, a state he wasn't sure was physically possible.
Meenah bounces her trident on her shoulder. "Hey, Grand Threshie," she says. "Let's head up a few tiers. This is all crew quarters, and I bet there're reely huge guns up by Nav & Comm."
She is way too cheerful, and Karkat is resigned to the fact that as long as she's going to treat him like her military attaché, he's going to act like he doesn't think she's probably nuts. He says, "What the hell. Nothing here but dust and, like. Space mites. Whatever's been eating the ship."
"Space mites," Meenah says, pressing her hand flat to an elevation-closet's palmscanner. It lights up bright fuchsia and pings like it is really fucking happy to see her. "Buoy, you krill me. C'mon."
One trip in the worst elevation-closet in paradox space later – the thing stalls three times, Karkat's sure the ship is going to kill the both of them by accident, talk about anticlimactic stupid-ass deaths – they end up in a dim passage that curves along the outer hull. It's a little less of a mess than the lower tiers, but not much. There's actual dust on the floors and the air is stale, low on oxygen.
Meenah gets five steps from the 'closet door and the walls light up at waist height the same color as the palmscanner, a running blink pattern of LEDs that looks like a blatant come-on. Meenah whoops. "Shell yes, toldja there was somefin good up here."
"I want at least a plasma cannon and some non-alchemized food," Karkat tells her.
She grins. He is never going to get used to seadweller teeth. "If we bring back food we are gonna be heroes." Then she takes off down the corridor, following the lights at an easy lope that Karkat's got to race to keep up with.
She beats him to Nav and Comm. When he bursts through the irised door, his aerating sacs burning a little from the awful air quality, she's standing shock-still, her head tilted upward. Her braids drag on the floor and pick up the dust. He looks where she's looking. Hanging from the ceiling in a limp arch is the body of an adult troll – or at least part of one, the middle part. It hasn't got legs and it hasn't got arms and most of the back of it is biotech, ship-stuff tentacles that look like eighty-thousand bulges got together and threw an electronic cannibalism party. They ate up the legs and the arms and half this guy's head, Karkat can barely see his horns. Double pair, like Sollux's. Fuck.
"Is he dead?"
Meenah points to the slow pulse of light that runs up into the coiled mess that used to be that guy's legs. "Nope," she says. "Not reely." She takes a hesitant step closer.
"What the asswrinkling hell does not really mean –"
"He's a helmsman, dead's kinda – "She touches the nearest bit of the thing with the points of her trident. The terrible air goes staticky. Karkat thinks all his hair is standing up around his horns. "Impermanent," Meenah finishes.
It stutters into motion like a backfiring murdercycle, a rush of red and blue sparks and tiny convulsive movements. Karkat watches it the whole time it takes to come back to life because he's stuck on red and blue and Sollux and ancestors and all the complete bullshit that he never, ever wanted to be true. After it starts breathing again it cranks open dried-out eyelids and looks down at them.
"Meenah," it says. It sounds like someone just ripped out its bloodpusher and danced on it, like being alive is the most heartbreaking thing in the world.
"Whoa," says Meenah. "He knows me!"
The helmsman peels its lips away from its fangs. Its psionic sparks race down Meenah's trident and wrap like a fist around her wrist. She yelps, and jerks backward. Karkat can smell charring flesh.
"Maybe we should, fuck. Get it down. If it's alive."
It turns its head at the sound of his voice and fixes its eyes on Karkat. They are glazed over with dull gold and slowly widen.
"Shell no," Meenah is saying. "You wanted a plasma cannon? This is so much betta than a plasma cannon, Grand Threshie, this guy's like eighteen plasma cannons squished together, we can bring back the whole ship now –"
"You can't be Vantas," says the helmsman, like it's hopeful and afraid to be. "Can you?"
Meenah shuts her mouth with an audible snap of fangs, and nudges Karkat in the ribs.
"I'm Karkat," says Karkat, confirming his status as an entire idiot who cannot say useful things.
"Karkat Vantas," Meenah says, helpfully.
The helmsman hisses through its teeth. "I thought you died," it says. The lights in the baseboard of the room begin to come up, a hot glow. "I've thought you were dead for so long. I'm so sorry."
"I'm not who you think I am," Karkat tries to explain. "Whoever you're thinking of, I'm not him. I never did any of whatever it is you think I did to you, so don't kill me and Meenah with your enormous wired-up brain or whatever other shit you're about to inflict –"
"How old are you?" the helmsman interrupts, wonderingly.
Meenah draws herself up to her whole height, which is an entire head-and-hornsbreadth more than Karkat's got. "Nine sweeps." Karkat knows she's lying, by a half-sweep at least.
The helmsman's breath catches in its lungs. Karkat can see how its chest expands in a hitch, unused to breathing. "You're not – you're descendants, how the fuck did you even pupate –"
"The usual way!" Karkat protests.
"How did she allow it – either of you –"
"Whale, I'm not even from this universe," Meenah says – the helmsman hitches again, a little convulsion – "and I guess Karkat here's just that awesome."
There is an awful little silence. Then the helmsman says, "Have you killed my Empress?"
"Yup," says Meenah. Karkat stares at her. She shrugs. "What, we totally did krill her. So I guess I'm your empress now. How did you know my ancestress, anyway?"
The helmsman hangs, a limp arc of flesh, and doesn't do anything at all.
"I don't think it likes that," Karkat says to Meenah, "I think you pissed it off –"
"Vantas," says the helmsman.
"Listen to me," it says.
It comes back to you in snatches. Glitch-replays, only four-d, the slop in the back of your thinkpan fizzing and guttering like an audiovisual grub on the fritz. Every channel's dead but this one, and this one's more hallucination than memory by now. Example: the Empress' eyes were never the twisting blind-white of an eleven-dimension starwarp, empty as the eyes of the dead.
You fucking wish.
Neither has she ever said, infinitely angry and kind, "The problem fucking is, Captor, that we have to learn to imagine that better world."
Yeah. That wasn't her at all. Most of the time you're pretty sure.
She comes to you in your cell, back when you had legs. Your claws are caked with dirt and your own pisscolored blood where it's dripped down from the cuffs rubbing your wrists raw. You've got the absurd misfortune of being too skinny for manacles and still having bones enough to not be able to pull free.
She looks at you. You aren't blind yet, so you pick up your head and you open your eyes and you fry her where she stands, burn her up in cherry-red and ice-blue, an endless exploding nova –
Replay. You pick up your head and you can't do a damned thing to her. She's older than shit, a sucking psychic weight like a hundred meters of water filling up this tiny dark cell and you are pinned in the depths of her. You couldn't hurt her if you tried. You try.
"You're a fool," says the Empress – this part you remember, even in the endless floating starshine that is your now, this part never fucking changes – "a fool and a half-hatched grub, and you'd like me to kill you."
"Get on with it," you say, which proves her point.
"Should I string you up next to your savior, then?" she asks you, like she's asking if you'd like extra grubsauce on your toast. "It'd be a waste of you, but then you've already decided to waste yourself on him."
You snarl at her.
"He came quietly, at the end," she says.
Imagine the better world. You never could quite figure out how. You know the answer and you ask anyway: "Is he dead."
This, too, you remember for sure – she smiles. Her teeth glitter like the pinpoints of stars you won't see for sweeps. "Not just yet," she says.
You think you know what hate feels like, then: hate's a scourging fire that'll blot you out. You hate her, and in hating her you hate the entire world, all Alternia that's spent every sweep of your life telling you that you're engine fuel, pissblood maddened scum. You hate her like hating her would save you, or save Vantas, an idea so gut-rottingly useless you can imagine him shouting at you for even coming up with it. You think you understand hate, and you are so terribly wrong.
She tells you, later, your Empress. She tells you in the dark and in the starfields: Don't dignify yourself, thinking you hate me! There's nothing in how you feel that's so personal as desire!
You dumb shit: if only she'd stayed right.
Meenah's dropped crosslegged onto the floor, her head tilted up toward the helmsman. Karkat can't relax that much. He paces, instead, a short arc of clanging bootfalls, and stuffs his hands into fists at his side. The helmsman's like a wiggler-story, some edutainment allegory about prison and rebellions with just enough quadrant drama to make it go down easier. A legend or a rumor or something else that shouldn't be real enough to talk.
"What's the betta world?" asks Meenah.
The helmsman says, "Ask Vantas, Meenah."
Karkat knows, and he's gut-deep frustrated and sufficiently horrified to be hyperventilating his aerating sacs, so he says it. "Your universe. Supposedly. Where everyone's peaceful and culling's being way too fucking nice –"
"Shell no," Meenah says, decisive. "Paradise it ain't."
"I know that," says Karkat. He looks the helmsman square in the face. Even mostly devoured by the ship, he's the oldest troll Karkat's ever seen in person. "How long did you believe in it?" he asks him.
The first worst thing is that it doesn't hurt.
The surgannihilators and biotacticians have had your kind under their sure hands a hundred times before. They peel you like your body's a grub-husk, something to be pupated out of, open up the channel of your spine and pull out all the branching nerves, handfuls of filaments that used to let you walk and talk. Each ganglion fiber is spread around you in a precisely labeled cloud, fractal patterns of yourself stretching out from what was once the base of your skull, the iliac bones of your lower spine, the center of your back like a mockery of ribs.
The ship is a writhe of cables, warm and pulsing – nutrients, electricity, nerve fibers just different enough from your own. Each one threads itself, matching you, and is secured with the careful guidance of the 'tacticians. Your legs and your arms, useless to you now with half your spine hanging out, are safely bundled together where the ship can get at them.
In time, you and the ship will grow together.
You were unconscious, of course: how could you not have been? But you remember it all the same. The film was playing when you woke up, opened sightless eyes on the inner landscape of your new home. You watched yourself die and be remade thirteen times before you figured out how to turn off the playback.
It doesn't hurt. It never did. Your traitor flesh, your perfectly bred engine-brain: they were made for this, and they betray you.
You forget yourself in the shell of the ship; think your skin alloy and plastic when you remember you have skin at all. Your eyes are thousandfold cameras, your guts a distant stammer of binary, zeroes and ones flickering life support, weapons control, navigation at the edge of your awareness. When you have been awake for thirty-seven hours, two minutes, and eighteen seconds, a drifting mote of consciousness inside the cathedral the ship has made of you, they give you engine control.
It is like someone blew up a rocket inside your skull, except you are the rocket. The hydrogen scoops on the side of the ship extend, a glittering hungry net. Every spark of power your mutant brain possesses bends toward them, sets them alight: you are a conflagration. It is better than any pailing you have ever gotten. Each atom is a needlepoint of perfect flame. You are aware, for the first time, of what remains of your body, grafted into the coils of the ship – you think you are screaming.
The starfields expand inside your mind. They are light and they go on forever. All you need to do is push.
Being the ship is easier than imagining Alternia, either a better version or the fucking broken mockery which is the one you've got. You pull newsfeeds; you learn what nausea feels like when your bilgesack is a dried-out disconnected pouch. You stop pulling newsfeeds. You know everything you need to know about the remains of your revolution: hunted down one by one and then ignored with precision by the grinding machine that's the propaganda arm of your Empress.
You go away. You follow orders, when the orders let you take the ship into the endless black and out of it again. The joy of it makes you sick.
You see the ends of the Empire, the places where it crawls outward, amoebic, and eats new planets alive. Inside your ship-skin you carry a legion of terrorformer commandos and civilization-killer Threshsecutioners; inside your ship-skin you carry also Her Condescension like a poison pearl.
When you realize which ship you are, you try to drown them all in vacuum.
The Empress has override codes. You ought to have known that, too.
For sweeps you are a vengeful ghost. This is not a grand use of your time. What you do is like banging a tune on the bars of your cell with a stick: toneless, childish, and annoying. You flicker the lights. You drop the temperature. You slide, code-first, into the public address system and add a point-two second reverb to every announcement, and play dead circuitry when the technicians try to reset to standard.
There is a sort of possible symbiosis you feel yourself approaching, in which you are annoying as fuck and everyone is forced to deal with you forever. As revenge goes, it is complete crap. You are utterly bored with you. You are bored of the spasmodic starsong which is what you remember all pleasure to be. You are bored worse of the cavernous black inside your wired-up thinkpan, the yawning bleak despair of an eternity alone. Like fuck Vantas would have lasted this long anyhow, even if he'd been a happy agriculterrorist instead of Vantas. He was always going to burn out even faster than you, mutant and overclocked and crazy with revolution, but you had thought you'd go right after.
Even in the cells, you thought you'd go right after, and blow something up on your way. Instead you're a wiggler's horror-story and a minor inconvenience. No one remembers your name, not on this ship and not anywhere in the Empire. You ought to have been an amateur abhorristorian, like the Disciple. Then you'd be dead and someone might notice.
She comes to you in your own hive, the electric swarm of your secret mind. You feel her first as a mental weight, a vast pressure that lacks the comprehension of refusal, and then as an entirely petulant question:
Are you shellacked or what, Helmsman, you've done nofin interesting in sweeps.
Your response is not eloquent. It is an ugly and satisfied realization that the Empress of All Alternia thinks in stupid puns. You ignore the shit out of her. You are a ship and you are alone in the dark with yourself, and you are going to stay like that.
She touches your cheek.
Waking to the flesh is a startling horror. You are one long scream of useless tissue, handless and footless, a blind sack of desiccate guts. Blindness wouldn't spare you from knowing her. Your Empress sucks up the psychic energy in the room and spits it out again tyrian-stained: she's a gogdamned beacon and you despise her, puns or not, flesh or not.
"For fuck's sake, Captor," she says, and you, pathetic thing that you are, are grateful, she knows your name, "you've reely let yourself go."
The noise you make is laughter by sufferance of unused vocal folds alone.
She pours water, drip by drip, down your throat. Her fingers touch your mouth. Then she goes away. It only occurs to you once she's gone that if she gave you water, she'll want you to talk next time.
She wants you to talk all of the next times.
To your horror, but not to your surprise, it gets easier. With a grim awareness that any chance you had at madness or oblivion is fucked, you begin to anticipate her.
"What'd she talk aboat," Meenah breathes. Her elbows are propped on her bony knees and her braids are curled behind her on the floor.
Karkat shoves her in the shoulderblade. "This isn't special storytime hour for nice genocidal wigglers," he mutters. "Jegus god."
"It totally is," Meenah protests. "He knew her, like reely knew –"
The helmsman rattles like a shaken bag of husktop parts instead of laughing. "Better than anyone alive or dead," he says.
No one who wasn't fictional has ever said anything like that where Karkat could hear it. It's so pale it's blinding-white, pale like moirails in Old Alternian epics, dying on the sand in front of an unsacked city. He feels like he's going to heave up the entire contents of his bilgesack.
"I thought you hated her," he says.
"I did," the helmsman tells them both. "But not enough."
"Space," you say. "There's a weight to it. I can feel it. The hollow places, low matter density, the hydrogen gets thin – "
She strokes your shoulder with her claws. She keeps them short; there's no affectation to them. They're sharp enough to kill and not long enough to get in the way, and she paints them gold, because she's the Condescension and she can. She doesn't cut you. She has never hurt you so directly.
She says, "We're between galactic arms." Dreamy, like she's leading you on. When her clawtips reach the place where you are the ship and not your body, the ropy excrescences that have eaten your hands and your forearms and crept past your frozen elbows, you shudder. She's like sparks. Flashfires. She talks to you mostly in the dark. She tells you nothing of consequence; you're both past the point where you hung on even the news of so many planets conquered, so many species stamped out. For a while she would tell you about alien artists and scientists and poets, and how she kept some of them like she keeps you, until they were nothing but slavish imitation trolls. For a while she would make you play her the loudest, trashiest dance remixes stored in the ship's entertainment databanks, shit centuries older than you.
Her atrocity is commonplace.
"Yeah," you say. "The stars – aren't. Out here. There's blank spots, and they pull."
"You gonna maroon us in dead space, Captor?"
"You gonna let me?"
She is tall enough to rub her cheek against your throat, like she's some kind of purrbeast. The rings in her earfins are icy cold against your flesh. "You'd be out here even if I'd never found you," she says. "Wandering in the deep."
"If you'd never found me," you say, "you'd be a rotting corpse." Even your tongue betrays you; you say it tenderly. You've almost stopped hoping you can goad her into killing you.
She picks up her head. Her eyes are tyrian all the way through, so many sweeps of accumulated iris pigmentation that it's bleeding out into the sclera.
"Rotting and deposed and buried on Alternia," you say.
Her Condescension smiles. It is the only thing that makes her look old. "No," she says. "Everything else dies."
She leaves you alone for three sweeps and a perigee.
Alone, and enfleshed. You scream yourself silent five times before the end of it.
"But she came back," Karkat says, despite himself.
"Yes," the Helmsman says.
It makes the kind of sense that's like watching a high-speed vehicular disaster. "Why?"
"Everything dies," says the Helmsman. "And the universe is very fucking big, Vantas."
You ride the edges of space. It is a vast endlessness. The empire rots behind you, an overgrown organism whose furthest limbs have gone anoxic. You carry the heart of it with you, and she conquers like conquering is an autonomic function, a waste byproduct like spent air. There are fewer planets. There are, at the corners of your shipsight vision, fewer stars to siphon hydrogen and propulsion from. You two move endlessly, a sharklike circling, jaws akimbo, starved.
There is nothing left of you. No memory and no history. You are a grainy collection of playbacks:
Your Empress sits under the arch of your flesh, crosslegged on the floor like a child. If you had hands you could touch the curves of her horns, impale yourself on their points. Her eyes are closed. She does not speak.
Your Empress sits under the arch of your flesh, crosslegged on the floor like a child. On Alternia, she says. Did you ever see the sea, Captor, did you –
Your Empress sits under the arch of your flesh, crosslegged on the floor like a child. You open your mouth and spear your tongue with your fangs. She looks up at you, her lips a vicious curve, says, you will never, ever leave me, not you, and you spit—
Your Empress sits under the arch of your flesh, crosslegged on the floor like a child. Everything dies, she says. Captor. She reaches up. She touches your ribs, where gills would be if you were her instead of you. She holds her hand still, as if she's waiting to feel you breathe. Captor. My name is Meenah.
You think: tenderness is the cruelest thing.
"What happened after that," Karkat asks. His voice seems too loud.
"Nothing," says the helmsman. He's gone still, not even a single bright psionic spark to show threat. He watches them. His patience makes Karkat feel like squirming. Meenah's got her chin in her hands, her long fingers lined up against the tines of her earfins. She doesn't move either.
Karkat drops down beside her, squatting on his heels. "What do we do," he says.
"What do you mean, what do we do?" she says.
"With –" Karkat makes a futile encompassing gesture with one hand. The helmsman hangs, limbless, and waits like he's never done anything else but wait. "With him. We can't just leave him here."
"What kinda Empress d'you think I am?" says Meenah, "Of course we're not gonna leave him."
It's at least a direction. Karkat likes directions, they mean that he can do something. It's a fucking idiotic direction. "Okay. Okay, this is so unbelievably dumb, I don't know what we're going to do with the million-sweep-old pale widow of the Condescension who by the way we have just gone to a shitload of trouble to execute with an enormous amount of prejudice but – okay. How the fuck do we get him down, then, I don't think he's actually got legs anymore."
Meenah exhales hard through her nose. The gills on her throat flare. "Hey Captor," she says. "You got legs?"
The lights dim and brighten. It's like the ship is stuttering. "No," says the helmsman.
Karkat sneaks a glance at him. He shouldn't have said any of the shit about pale widows. He doesn't even know if pale is the right quadrant. His knuckles ache from clenching his hands into fists. He asks the helmsman, "Is the ship operational?"
"It could be," he says.
"Well, there you go, Meenah," Karkat says. "You wanted eighteen fucking plasma cannons all stuck together. How about a whole battleship?" He feels like he's going to cry.
She gets to her feet. "You're my military advisor, Grand Threshie. You think we need it to krill the universe-eating demon?"
"What else are we going to do?"
"Krill it our ownselves," she says. She's got a hectic fuchsia flush under each cheekbone and she's bitten her lower lip, sometime when he wasn't looking. "Like we were gonna before."
"You know the odds on that and they fucking suck," Karkat says, and then he shuts himself up, presses the heel of his hand onto the bridge of his nose, hard. He feels like his mucus-drainage cavities are going to burst from internal pressure, and he'll spray snot and tears everywhere. He's the worst at this. "Helmsman. Captor, gogdamnit. What do you want?"
The helmsman says, "Now you sound like Vantas."
Meenah takes two steps forward. She's not as tall as the Condesce was. Her horns are only a headlength long, they wouldn't touch the helmsman's stomach for a half-hundred sweeps yet of steady growth. "I ain't her," she says. "But I could be."
Karkat's not sure which one of them she's talking to. "In my universe, maybe. If you got the chance."
"In this universe, I'm the only Empress we got anymore."
"This is not his better world," Karkat says. "That never existed."
"Fuck that noise, I ain't here for utopias," says Meenah. "I'm Empress. Every troll alive's my subject."
"You are very like her," says the helmsman. Meenah hisses a little, her teeth showing behind her lips.
"This isn't your fault," Karkat tries.
"Did I say it was, Grand Threshie? Not my fault. Just my responsibility." She lifts her trident again. "Do you miss her?" she asks the Helmsman.
"I wish I didn't," he says, very simply.
Karkat gulps at the dead air. "I'm so sorry," he says.
"Okay," says Meenah. "Okay–"
The trident goes through the helmsman's throat easily, a piercing tear like a lightning-strike. There is very little blood. What there is is mustard-yellow and slow. Karkat makes the noise the helmsman doesn't make, an awful wrenching sound that comes out of him without his help. His whole mouth tastes like static electricity.
The fuschia lights gutter and go out. It does not take long. Meenah stands there the whole time. Karkat can see that she's gone up on tiptoe, put one of her hands on the helmsman's hollow cheek. It is smeary with his blood.
After a while, Karkat has to go up to her, and put his arm around her shoulder, and make her turn around. "Come on," he says, as gently as he can. "I think we – I think we did what we were supposed to do here –"
She looks down at him. "Hey, Karkat," she says, like she's seeing him for the first time. "Let's go home." She sounds awful, but she isn't crying, which is kind of totally unfair.
The ship drifts. Karkat can feel it spin, under his feet, unmoored and empty. "Yeah," he says. "Let's go home."