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string theory (the lonely island remix)

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The old tower has been abandoned for a very long time. When you are little, you keep to the ground floor and spend much of your time outside. The silence indoors isn’t the same as the silence outside, and the thick shadows draped across every corner and recess have a menacing quality to them, at least to your one-and-a-half-sweep old pan. You crept up the stairs to the second floor just once. Cool drafts brushed past your ankles like meowbeasts, making you jump, and you kept hearing weird noises, distant clanks and groans and creaks. When you finally reached a door you’d opened it and peered in a room that was so dark it was like a solid wall. Tentatively, you edged inside, getting the sense of a rather large space before flicking on your lightgrub.  Immediately you were confronted by the horrifying, frozen visage of some alien creature, rearing up much too close out of the gloom. You’d actually screamed and immediately absconded, leaping down the stairs two at a time to fling yourself onto your lusus. He’d licked the tears off your cheeks, and that made you giggle.

The world outside is much more interesting than your creepy old hive anyway. There are the moons, one pink and one green, looming large in the sky like succulent fruits ripe for the picking. There is the forest, in whose dark tangled depths your lusus teaches you to walk quietly and move quickly, always in pursuit of the prey. You spend entire nights in there exploring, climbing trees and swimming in freshwater pools, getting lost and found and lost again. There is the lagoon, waters salty-warm against your skin and teeming with life. In the late after-midnights, when the moons are beginning to dip down toward the horizon and you’ve finished watching your schoolfeeds, you’ll go down to the beach and swim out to the old wrecked galleon and dive for shellfish, plucking them from the dim, hidden spaces in the reef. Sometimes your lusus joins you, and you’ll cling to his fur as he swims down to snap at the glittery finbeasts as they dart in and among the coral. Afterward the two of you will sit on the beach and howl at the setting moons in farewell before cracking open the day’s catch on the rocks and slurping up their innards with greedy abandon. You are wild, ferocious, using your claws and fangs to hunt and kill your meals, just like your lusus. Your hair is long and matted. You feel no need for clothes. Your prongs and nubs are callused and impervious to all but the sharpest of rocks. You don’t speak, except for growls and barks and howls. You are halfway feral and utterly content. You do not know fear. In your young and light-filled mind you are fear, you and your lusus, ruling the island with an iron fist.

You turn two, and you learn how to read. Everything changes.

You never knew what the purpose of those paper-filled things on the shelves were, filled with neat rows of small, spiky, incomprehensible pictures. Sometimes you would take one down and scribble nonsense inside it with chalk and crayon, humming happily to yourself. Now you know that they are books, and that they can contain all sorts of things. You blaze through your schoolfeeds with a strange and new intensity, having never been too keen on them before but now burning with an insatiable desire. There are no wiggler picture books in your hive, so you take down tomes at random from the shelves and struggle through them, frowning. You have to squint to read the words and you don’t even understand what they’re saying half the time, things about particle physics and oscillation and transportalizers. But you are possessed of an internet connection and a fiendish case of stubbornness and finally manage to finish reading one of them, at which point you run outside and howl in victory.

“I did it!” you cry when your lusus appears in a flash of green light and a crackle of ozone, drawn by the noise. “I read a book!” And you tackle him into a hug. The two of you play-wrestle in the dirt for a little while before you eventually submit, laughing, as he covers your face in licks before disappearing again. You stay where you are, sprawled on your back, watching a cloud stretch across the sky with bleary eyes, still smiling.

The vision sneaks up on you.

You don’t even realize you’re dreaming until the clouds fade to black and then explode again in a burst of color, green and jarringly bright. It’s strange and wrong and your breath catches, and then something collides hard with your shoulder and you’re almost knocked to the ground. When you look around for what hit you, your mind blanks and your throat constricts in horror. You’re in the middle of a mob of adults, their fangs frighteningly long and their voices raised in yells and shrieks of anger. Before you can do so much as scream for your lusus, the scene abruptly changes. Suddenly you’re hanging suspended in deep space, watching starships destroy each other in spectacular, silent bursts of light, and then you’re in a ruined hive, staring wide-eyed as a young troll weeps and cradles his dying friend and muted explosions make the walls shiver ominously. Tears jump to your eyes and you reach forward, unsure what you’re going to do, but then you blink and you’re on your back again, staring up at the purple sky and the hanging moons.

You don’t understand what just happened. All you can do is lie there and stare blankly at the sky, which blurs into a limey-purple mess as the tears slip down your cheeks.

 

***

 

You dream.

The future spins like a galaxy in the deep wells of you, spiraling, infinite, nonsensical. Strings of every color encircle your prongs so you can keep it all straight in your mind. You dream of could-bes, maybes, impossibilities. You dream of a princess and her moirail climbing lithe and supple from the waves to sprawl in the shadow of an old wrecked sailing ship. You dream of a dead city cloaked in green, of leaving your lovely, lonely island in a rush of fear and bittersweet exhilaration. You dream of a rustblooded boy. He’s got tall, curving horns and featherbeast bones and his name is Deivin Sridar. He will be the first troll you ever talk to and you can’t wait to meet him.

You dream that you are a little older and a drone has just sunk its awful sharp claws into your chest just because of your blood, your traitorous lime-colored blood. Yellow-green. Your schoolfeeds on the hemospectrum don’t mention a color like that. The internet doesn’t mention a color like that. What is mentioned, though, is what to do to off-spectrum trolls like you, and that is to cull them. Kill them. Grind them up into so much bloody nothing, all because of what slides through their veins. After you make this discovery you curl up in a corner and shiver, cold fear making your heart pound painfully fast. You understand with awful clarity why your lusus raised you here, far, far away from other trolls. You should not exist! Are you a mutant? An aberration? How did you even make it out of the brooding caverns? The questions swirl around and around your head until you can’t take it anymore and you run outside with a shriek.

The answers come from an unexpected source: your tower.

Your hive rears up on a spire of rock a half-mile or so away from the base of the mountain. It’s tall and pale and covered with climbing ivy. It’s been abandoned for a long time. You are older and bolder. You decide that it’s time to explore the rest of your hive, for real this time.

When you climb the stairs again, your legs don’t shake. The door opens silently. Again, the darkness. Again, the sense of vastness. This time, however, your hand quests against the wall and is rewarded with a button, which you push. Overhead lights flicker slowly to life, revealing not just the beast which frightened you so long ago, but other, more fantastic, terrifying creatures. Aliens all, from the look of them, crouched frozen and snarling and coated in a thick layer of dust. Heads line the walls on either side, going up and up and up to a cavernous ceiling. Even though they’re dead they still intimidate you, but you are determined and so you bare your fangs and hiss right back before bolting forward as fast as your legs can take you.

Your tower has so many rooms. Oodles and oodles of them, big rooms and small rooms, rooms filled with ancient computers whose conductor slime has long since dried, rooms stuffed with dormant robots with dead red eyes that seem to follow you, rooms brimming with books, oh so many books on every subject under the moons. There is a room comprised of nothing but rows and rows of microscopes and filing cabinets, and another is like a small armory. Every available surface is covered in weapons: guns, swords, throwing stars, sickles, and other things whose names you do not know. It is here that you accidently install the riflekind abstrata and pick up your first weapon, something small and sleek-looking. Higher and higher you climb in the tower, until you reach a bright and airy atrium. Once upon a time it was a greenhouse, but the plants have grown wild and the windows are cracked. In the center of the room is a small round pad with a strange, fractal design inscribed upon it. Curious, you step up and stand on it –

– and find yourself in a narrow, circular room. There are stairs spiraling up, and a rusted metal box. Shivering, you step off the platform, and after a few moments hesitantly climb up the stairs. They end in a wooden trapdoor, which makes a loud groaning noise when you push at it. You clamber up and then stop, surprised and enchanted by what you see.

It’s a respiteblock. Light slants in through two windows, creating a bright, peaceful sort of ambiance. Against the left wall, right beneath the window, is a real, actual recuperacoon. It’s dusty and old, but it is a far more preferable alternative to the hollowed-out thermal hull you sink into every night. Beneath the other window is a desk. It’s still piled high with papers and gadgets. The owner himself is slumped atop them, nothing more than a collection of black bones draped in rags. Hesitantly, you approach. The forehead is pressed into the wood. What could’ve been a pen sits a little way away from the remnants of the hand. He was obviously in the middle of writing something when he just…keeled over and died. Reverently, you touch the skull. He must have been very old.

Bone by bone, you throw the skeleton out the window. Based on the view, it seems you’re inside the smaller globe, near the top of the tower. Somehow, that circle thing managed to teleport you all the way up here from the atrium.

You smile. It will make moving much easier!

Once you’re settled into your new respiteblock, you curl up in the recuperacoon as the sun rises. In your hands is a journal.

The troll who lived here was an old blueblooded scienterrorist by the name of Jaaked Enlish, known to the world as the Examiner. The tower was originally a research station, built to study the island’s unique flora and fauna. Its isolation also made it the perfect place to conduct top-secret Imperial experiments. You stay up late into the day reading until you can’t hold your eyes open anymore. You dream, then, of a room deep underground, a small room containing filing cabinets, all filled with something dreadfully important. But before you can find out what that is you’re blinking open your eyes beneath the sopor.

After breakfast, you descend into the basement.

You’re not afraid. In your vision there was nothing to harm you, just dark and quiet. You can’t help but be unsettled, though. Something happened here, something horrible. You can feel it in the air, in the way the hairs on the back of your neck prickle ever so slightly. You swallow. The stairs end in a heavy steel door. It opens with a groan. You shiver, and your rifle materializes from your sylladex. You feel better with it in your hands. You push the button on the wall. The lights flicker on sluggishly in one bright line, leading the way down the tunnel.

You’ve never been here before, but you know where to go. Left, then right, then left again, and again. The hallway is lined with doors, all of them closed, none of them your objective. They are not labeled. You’re not sure if you want to know what’s behind them. Eventually the tunnel stops. The rock opens up into a cavernous room, nearly pitch-dark and fathomless, the opposite end lost in gloom. The path continues as a rickety-looking metal catwalk. You pause at the edge. Below you, long, neat rows of cylindrical tanks stretch into infinity, metallic and opaque. Each has a control box that glows with an eerie red light, made small with distance. You shudder and tighten your grip on your rifle. This place gives you the creeps. You wish your lusus was here with you. But you’re older, and don’t need him so much anymore, and so you lift your chin and push your too-big glasses up your nose and hurry forward.

You walk for what feels like hours. Eventually, the catwalk ends, becoming a tunnel through the rock once again. You’re getting closer to your goal. You speed up to a trot, your breath huffing between your teeth. At last, you come upon a door, much like the others. You know this one’s it, though. It opens under your touch and you slip inside.

It’s a small, dark room, lined with terminals. One wall is entirely glass, letting the occupants observe what seems to be an operating room. A pile of bones is still on the table. You shudder and continue, passing more doors and more awful operating rooms. None of them have bones. At last, you reach your destination, a door at the end of the hall. You shoulder it open with a soft creak. And there, just like in your dream, the filing cabinets, rows and rows of them, containing vital information.

You open a drawer at random, frowning, and begin perusing the files.

At first, you’re confused. A lot of these reports seem to be just statistics and numbers. Then you reach the case files. Sick horror blooms in the pit of your stomach. One after another after another; you can’t believe it, you won’t believe it, but the evidence is staring you blankly, coldly, irrefutably in the oculars with no room for anything else. There are diagrams. There are photographs. You feel bile rising up your protein chute.

You now know why Enlish was called the Examiner.

 

***

 

There’s a cut on your forearm. It’s long, and deep enough that it will leave a scar. Yellow-green lymph oozes from it, dripping warm and sticky down your skin. You got it while diving in the reef. You weren’t paying attention, and it was only the sharp bite of salt on flesh that made you turn and see the blood billowing out into the waves. That had made you panic, and you’d inhaled a mouthful of seawater and would have drowned if not for the timely intervention of your lusus. Now you stand in the ablution block and dab at it with a fabric patch soaked in alcohol. The pain makes tears, watery lime-colored tears, run down your cheeks, but you don’t cry out, just hiss in a low, quiet sort of way.

There used to be many, many others like you, with blood like yours and dreams like yours. They’re all dead now, though. Clairvoyance was considered too dangerous an ability to be allowed to propagate, and the Empress culled all of those who had lime-colored blood pumping through their biscuit. But before she killed them, a few of those gifted with the sight were sent here, to be cut open and examined to find out just how that ability worked. How it could be harnessed. It couldn’t be, apparently.

You are the last one of your kind. You mop up the blood on your arm and the tears pour faster and faster down your cheeks.

 

***

 

-- temporizedGuillotine [ TG ] began trolling gangreneGemma [ GG ] at ??:??:?? --

 

TG: (wow okay/so first of all)
GG: deivin!!!!
TG: (wh/at)
TG: (how the fuck/do you know my name)
TG: (we have been talking all of/TWO SECONDS)
TG: (ive never met/you before)
TG: (what kind of/bullshit is this)
GG: oops D:
GG: i um
GG: im sorry :(
GG: i dont know how i know your name
GG: i just know that i do
GG: and that i have been looking forward to meeting you for a very long time!!
TG: (well/uh)
TG: (th/ats)
TG: (kinda freaky/if im being honest)
GG: D: noooo please dont go
TG: (n/ah)
TG: (takes more than that/to scare me off)
TG: (so you can see/the future then huh)
GG: yes!
GG: well
GG: i wouldnt call it seeing exactly
GG: more like
GG: knowing
GG: or dreaming
TG: (your thing sounds kinda like/the reverse of my thing tbh)
GG: really?? :o
GG: what’s your “thing?”
TG: (damn girl/at least buy me dinner first)
GG: oh hush :p
TG: (i can see the histories/of everything i touch)
TG: (ie/the past)
TG: (the older the object/the more powerful the feedback)
TG: (it is the best/rare rustblood power)
TG: (none of those other chumps/even come close to my badassery)
TG: (im like/a janiterminator)
TG: (and they/are the dirt)
TG: (all sitting there impudently/on my immaculate floor)
TG: (like they were/fucking invited)
TG: (i sweep the board/with those fuckers)
GG: swoooooon
GG: ooh mr sridar
GG: youre soooooo cooool :p
TG: (wow/okay)
TG: (this is/unfair)
TG: (you know/my name)
TG: (but i dont/know yours)
GG: hmmmmmm
GG: well i suppose it wouldn’t hurt
GG: my name is jadael haalie!
TG: (ja/dael)
TG: (jadael bo badael/to the h adael ladeal)
TG: (shit that/was fucking stupid)
GG: hehehehe
GG: youre silly :)
TG: (say that/to my face)
TG: (i am the/epitome of cool yo)
TG: (and the epitome of cool/just doesnt do silly)
TG: (you/dig)
TG: (oh which/reminds me)
TG: (that thing which prompted me/to contact you in the first place)
TG: (how are you/that good)
TG: (at/archeradicators 3)
TG: (is that/all you play)
TG: (can you use/your ability to win)
TG: (because if so thats cheating which/is hella unfair to the rest of us ordinary trolls)
TG: (were just tryna get by/put some food in our stomachs)
GG: hehehehe
GG: no i dont quite know about games
GG: i just really like archeradicators 3: the cullening!
TG: (this is/so unfair)

 

***

 

You’ve been dreaming more and more about the future lately. There are so many reminders on your prongs, a dizzying array of colors that’s gotten to the point where it sometimes baffles you. You’ve even found yourself writing down bits and pieces of your knowledge on the walls and ceiling of your block, but it’s all horribly disorganized and even with your reminders you’re beginning to lose track. That’s very bad, because your dreams have been hinting that something big is coming – something that will shake Alternia to its core and turn everything you know upside down. The crucial moment is coming, and soon, but what it is you don’t know and can’t figure out, much to your unending frustration. So you sit and wait and dream of trolls you don’t know and trolls you do. You dream of Deivin, grown up now, shades still perched on his fine-boned face, blood flying in multicolored arcs around him.

To pass the time, you tinker.

You raised yourself on science books as much as schoolfeeds. You start by disassembling your battered husktop and reassembling it with parts scrounged from around the tower. It runs much faster, to your delight. Then you begin messing with the robot room. You take bots apart and put them back together. You turn one on and spend fifteen minutes running all over the tower and laughing as it chases you. It’s ended by your lusus, who appears like he does, growling and sparking. You don’t even get to cry “down, boy!” before he swallows the robot up in a field of stars and you’re left blinking on the landing. You come up with the beginnings of a system, a machine that’s better than your reminders, a great glittering dome of threads that maps your visions against the stars themselves.

And then, one night, when you’re putting the finishing touches on something you’ve dubbed the cookalizer, the vision you’ve been waiting for, the final piece of the puzzle, sweeps over you in one dazzling burst. There is a six-sweep old troll with messy hair and tired eyes and the nubbiest horns you’ve ever seen, and as he sleeps in his recuperacoon the drones come, three of them, zooming out of a dazzling sunlit sky to crash through the roof of his hive and kill him. He is a central piece of this revolution and without him none of it would happen – and so –

You warn him. He doesn’t believe you. You bicker and argue and waste valuable time until finally, finally, he abruptly gives in, because he sees three specks growing larger and larger on the horizon as the dawn breaks.

It’s like this event is a catalyst. A night or so later, two young sea trolls climb ashore on the beach of your island. You know exactly who they are; you’ve dreamed about them. The girl has long hair and laughing eyes and she points towards your tower with an air of excitement. When he sees them, your lusus growls. You know that they will come here, and that when they do you will be long gone. You’ve already gathered up all your favorite books and belongings in preparation.

It's a bittersweet farewell. This island is all you have ever known, and you will miss it, miss the feel of bright moonlight on your skin and diving for shellfish and hunting in the forest. You will miss your garden, and all the books, and the gadgets. Your prongs are coated in reminders. There is no room for one more. You take one last look around your respite block and then grab your lusus’s fur.

“Okay,” you say softly. “I’m ready.”

You go.