The opening creak of the door behind Dave alerts him to an intruder. He's too exhausted to acknowledge the newcomer, blank gaze fixed on a still Karkat in front of him, fingers gripping small dents into the rails on the bed. Whoever it is takes their time walking up to Dave, hands shoved deep into pockets. They sigh.
"Would it kill you to at least act upset?" Dave says, posture rigid and tense.
Sollux growls, his glasses flashing with the barest spike of psionic energy. "Don't you dare pull that on me, Thtrider. Don't pretend I didn't tell you. The voitheth never lie. I thaw thith coming hourht ago—we both did, tho don't give me your denial bullcrap."
Dave's head snaps around, eyes burning with anger for a split second, but the fury drains away as quickly as it rose. He slumps, fingers slipping off the bar. His fists clench.
Only one thing left to do.
The god leans down, closing his eyes, and locks his mouth to Karkat's. The troll's lips are sickeningly cold, bitter and ashy from the battlefield and crusted with dried blood, but the stillness of his nonexistent breath is what gives it away. Dave suppresses the urge to gag and lingers in the kiss, waiting for the requisite seconds to pass before he slowly straightens up and swallows, wiping the residual taste from his mouth with the back of a hand.
Sollux is aware how that particular admittedly unnerving mechanism of revival works, so it doesn't catch him particularly by surprise. The dubious effectiveness of the technique for an unconfirmed demi-player, though, he's not that sure about.
The two of them stand there for an awkward moment, staring at the dead body, waiting for a reaction that will never arrive.
"I just realized there's no way to tell if that worked," Dave says dully. He sinks down to the cold hospital floor slowly, crossing his legs under himself and burying his head in trembling hands. Lifting his shades, he rubs away the beginnings of tears pricking the corners of his eyes. "Fuck."
The goldblood curses loudly and turns to Dave, viciously booting him in the side. The human goes sprawling across the floor, grunting in pain, but he's rolling back to his feet in a second, fists instantly lifted in a defensive stance. Sollux hisses and stomps forward, eyes sparking with color.
"Thith ith your fault," he snarls. "He warned you! He warned you and you went ahead with it anyway, and we followed like imbeciles. What the fuck ith wrong with you? I hate you. I hate you and your thhit human pantheon. Why couldn't you have just left uth alone, you narthithhithtic doucebag?" The god twitches as if to throw a punch, but manages to hold himself back. Sollux continues, "Go on, hit me. You know you want to. That'th all you're good for, hitting thit with swordth and making a dithguthting maggoty methh of everything you touch. Might ath well kill me while you're at it, right?"
Dave sneers, Caledscrach flickering in and out of his hand. "Hey, asshole, don't forget who bailed you out of your own self-excavated shit creek back in the start. You'd be a chopped-up brain in a jar strung up in the Condesce's brigs right now if it weren't for me, you ungrateful bucketfuck. You're welcome."
"And look what that got uth!" Sollux scoffs, folding his arms. "My betht friend dead and all of uth wanted criminalth on both our thitty planetth! What a goddamn delight! Look at all thith unbridled gratitude I'm raining down on you! Thhould I thacrifithe a mountain bleatbeast to my new god ath well? Prothtate mythelf before your divine magnifithenthe?"
The human bristles. "No one's making you stay with me. If you're so eager to get fucked up the ear by the Empire's mindrape brainprobes, go ahead! Do you see anyone stopping you? Nobody gives a shit. Here, I'll lend you an electron microscope to check to be sure. Zilch. Nada. Not one molecule of shit, not a single carbon atom in the national shitvault allocated for your esteemed perusal."
"I get it," the troll laughs. "You don't care about anything except getting into KK'th pantth, huh? I'm jutht the rear appendix on the compound grub you can't wait to amputate when the opportunity prethenth ithelf. If only the pithblood wath the one thtabbed to death inthtead! How convenient would that be? Hell, I can tell when I'm not wanted. I thould just fly away up to the thun like the fucking piece of garbage I am and burn to death. You'd be ecthtatic over that, wouldn't you?"
Dave flinches. "Goddammit, that's not what I meant and you know it. Jesus, I can't deal with your self-loathing bull right now. Just... don't touch me and shut the fuck up."
"Likely to happen," Sollux spits, but he turns away, curling his fists and digging sharp nails into calloused palms. "We're fucked. This is all fucked."
He's already regretting throwing that first blow, and not just because he's got no hope of surviving past this week without Strider. No, it's his own hypocrisy that's needling him. Everything that happened is just as much the troll's own fault, isn't it? Same old story: too slow, too weak, too late. He had one job and still managed to spill the recuperacoon.
"Look, we can still salvage this."
Sollux whirls around, his face a rictus of fury and frustration. "KK's dead, Dave. We're jutht going to pretend nothing happened and keep going? How, even? We lotht all our leadth, and the other- do they even know about this?"
"I'll contact them once we're back linear," Dave says quietly. "Can't splinter the timeline more. We're already skirting the crash."
"Look at you!" he shouts. "Do you even care about what happened? No, I know you do, I thaw how dithguthtingly in love with him you were. How are you so calm?"
The god looks down.
"I'm working on... a plan. An idea. The bones of one, at least."
Sollux narrows his eyes apprehensively at the human. Dave walks over to the foot of Karkat's bed, keeping his eyes averted from the macabre sight. He reaches out, and with a limp snapping sound and a slurp of yellow, the cadaver slots into his sylladex.
"And it involves walking around with KK's dead carcathh? I have so much faith in your genius ideath after how that latht one ended up, let me tell you. You won't believe how ecthited I am right now to hear your next plan to get uth all killed. If it'th not going to bring him back-"
"If it works, it will."
Sollux pauses, diatribe derailed. He blinks mutely.
"Why the fuck wouldn't you lead with that?" he huffs. The troll's mind is racing at a hundred miles an hour now. "How? If you tell me you have a rethurrection thcroll thtashed in your thylladex and you waited this long to pipe up, I thwear to god, I'll thtrangle you with your own intethtineth."
"I don't know if it'll work," Dave clarifies. "But we have to get out of here first. I don't know if they've called the cops-"
"Gee, I wonder," Sollux scoffs. "After you bathically threatened thothe humanth with a giant thord and uthed your timestop powerth, what, five times?"
"-but the ginormous sinkhole we punched in the timeline is creeping closer and I don't want to find out what oblivion amid the horrorterrors we'll be consigned to for all of eternity if we retroactively intersect the crash," Dave finishes.
The troll scowls, saying, "They won't let uth jutht thtroll out the front door."
The god grimaces: Sollux is right. Wrangling the staff into an empty ward for the resuscitation already used up most of their goodwill from having honest-to-god superpowers, and the emphatic "if you don't get the fuck out right this instant I am going to stab something" earlier to clear the room emptied the last of it. They're not leaving without a confrontation.
He supposes they could trivially bust through the wall and fly away, but that might fuck up the utilities, and patients could be depending on those. On the other hand, the window... Before Dave can speak up Sollux is already one step ahead, telekinetically unscrewing metal bits from the frame until the entire panel pops out and slowly floats down to the now-empty cot.
"That works," the human remarks, peering through the hole.
"Let'th get out of here," the troll says irritably as he floats out the window. "You have a lot to explain."
turntechGodhead [TG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo.
TG: we fucked up
ectoBiologist [EB] RIGHT NOW responded to memo.
EB: what happened?
EB: you just dropped out on us all of a sudden.
twinArmageddons [TA] RIGHT NOW responded to memo.
TA: your deviilbea2t wa2nt there that2 what happened
TG: yeah then park security sodomized us with a rusty spoon
TG: and then karkat died
gardenGnostic [GG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo.
GG: what the hell????
GG: dave if this is a joke its not funny
EB: aw no
GG: please tell me youre not serious
TA: youd better beliieve iit
TA: becau2e iim blamiing all of you iincompetent 2hiithead2 for thii2
tentacleTherapist [TT] RIGHT NOW responded to memo.
TT: How did this happen?
TT: Have you tried kissing him yet?
TG: we got blown up by the imperial warship
TG: and yes
EB: wait do you mean the condesces battleship or just AN imperial warship?
TG: the second one
GG: NOBODY CARES
GG: can we get back to the part where KARKAT DIED
TG: were working on that
EB: working on that?
Timetables grind to a halt and two flying figures pop into existence over an office tower, quickly dropping the few feet down to the ledge of the inclined roof.
The city around them is unfamiliar to the eye. Neither of them are precisely sure where they are, apart from somewhere on the West Coast: after narrowly escaping a fiery death and weighing their options, they froze Karkat in time and flew in a straight line until the time travel blackout cleared, then popped back a few days to get medical attention for him. Now that that's resolved, albeit in the worst possible way imaginable, Dave supposes they'll have to put their emotional breakdowns on hold long enough to look up a map at some point.
"You really don't give a fuck if people thee at this point, do you?" Sollux grunts.
Dave captchalogues the twin machines. "Yeah, the cat's as out of the bag as it can be. I'd be surprised if it's not all over the news already. The Condesce's gonna be pissed, but then again we're-"
"Cut the crap and thtart get to the point," The troll cuts in, snapping his fingers irritably.
"Alright." Dave takes a deep breath. "So there's one thing we never figured out, you know? Why we're here. The four of us, John, Jade, Rose, me. We just died in our timeline and then poofed in here, no explanations, no nothing. A total mystery."
"What does thith have to do with KK?"
"I'm getting there," the human says, annoyed. "But fine. The Maid of Life, AKA Jane Crocker, AKA John's ectomom. Her power's-"
"Rethurrection," Sollux can't help but blurt. Dave did mention that in his recount of the previous timeline, just before the part where he died, but he'd filed it away as an unimportant detail.
"-yes. And not just on players, if I had to guess, since ghost Feferi could heal the Mayor and sprites bring back random dead shit just fine. There might be a time limit, but I upgraded my modus ages ago with stasis. It even stops in-game timers, so there's absolutely no reason it wouldn't work."
"But she'th not here. None of the Second are. You told uth yourthelf."
"Not yet," Dave says.
The psionic narrows his eyes, repeating, "Not yet?"
"Look, the thing about mysteries in paradox space is that the punchline is always the same. After some point the same thing rehashed over and over ad infinitum just gets predictable. The Ultimate Riddle? Ultimate Equine Cadaver is more like it. That shit's flayed to the bone, dude, we get it. It's not impressive anymore."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" says a confused Sollux.
"Closed time loops. Inevitability. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Frothy poetic jackassery masquerading as bargain bin philosophy, as Karkat put it. I'm saying that the obvious answer to 'why are we here' is 'no goddamn reason'. We brought ourselves here."
EB: are you going to mess with their session?
EB: is there a session? have we figured that out yet?
TG: jade said theres no evidence of sburb seeding its own code on alternia right
TG: here earthside i'm 90% sure there wasn't a reckoning at all at least not as we understand it
TG: so no the session theory is firmly relegated to the dross coffer by now id say
TG: but either way im assuming dream self is a no go on principle
TG: im going to try to bring him back the legit way
TT: Jane Crocker.
TT: Am I right? You intend to reproduce the vector of our arrival and pull a version of her into this universe, presumably closing our own loop at the same time.
TG: hey it makes sense
TG: theres the motivation the means
TG: and most importantly the classic incestuously self-causal aesthetic that paradox space obsessively fondles its genesis tadpoles to
GG: did you find out how to do that?
GG: transmaterialize things from the old universe i mean
TG: how not yet
TG: where yes
TG: ross perkins site
TG: its one of the bigger meteors they havent fully explored yet
EB: how do you know that?
TG: how else
Dave sits down on the ledge of the roof and deploys the turntop from his sylladex, clicking through folders as he speaks. "Did Karkat tell you about the term project we were doing for Archaeology?"
"Yeth, but I know fuck all about what you were actually doing," Sollux answers flatly.
"We were trying to pin down the center of all known Sburb sites," Dave explains, pulling up a map. "Some hypothetical origin point around which they were scattered at the time of incidence. Not just the spatial center, which there's already literature describing for some specific subclasses of sites, but also the geological reference frame to which that center stays invariant through Earth's tectonic history, which is trickier. But not impossible."
"Then you can project that forward and figure out where that thenter is right now," Sollux fills in, gears turning in his head. "So you're thuggethting..."
Dave scrolls through a series of images, each plotting a different slice of the Sburbian archaeological record in time.
"Why are chunks of our incipisphere in this world? Rose thought they might have come from a Reckoning, but everything I've studied, the entire body of the Sburbian archaeology in this world, all of it points to the contrary. So my theory is that we put them there. As I said, paradox space is predictable. Causality cant help itself but wind around the players, and holy shit that sounds more egotistical than Vriska Serket off her antipsychotics, but it's true. Important things like that never just happen by themselves."
He selects a scatter plot of every known Sburb site across the globe, corrected for tectonic drift and color-coded by type. If Sollux squints, he can make out a vaguely normal distribution centred somewhere east of the Gulf of Mexico.
"So we're going to go there and do some magic to pull the godth from the original alpha univerthe? And thomehow in the procethh we'll drag all thothe meteorth and crap together for the ride, into this univerthe, and back in time to theed the entire field of modern Thburbology."
"That's the idea," the god confirms. "It's a theory, at least. One I hope to God is true, because if not the plan's royally fucked."
Sollux leans back, trying to fit together the deluge of new information.
"How doeth Alternian Thburbology fit into thith, then?" he questions.
Dave scratches his head. "Uh, I've got no clue, actually. My best guess is that all that stuff about the Speaker is genuine historical fact? It is the Emissary to the Horrorterrors, so it's not that inconceivable for it to have some weird prophetic insight to other timelines."
"That'th incredibly reathhuring," Sollux grumbles, but he's starting to warm to the idea now. "Why didn't you tell uth all of thith earlier?"
TT: I have to warn you to manage your expectations.
TT: There's no guarantee that you'll be able to retrieve Jane, and as little guarantee that her powers work here, or on entities extrinsic to the game.
EB: rose, don't say stuff like that!
TT: Neither are we certain that the theory that we engineer our own arrivals is accurate: there are plenty of inscrutable forces in paradox space with the power and reach to accomplish equivalent feats, although to what end remains unclear.
TT: I know you care about Karkat; I do too. By all means, do whatever you need to bring him back, but the last thing we want is for you to get your hopes up only to have them dashed again. Grief can be extremely dangerous.
TG: said miss let me go challenge jack noir to a wandfight
TT: I know first-hand where that path leads.
TG: yeah ok word of wisdom taken
TG: but dont tell the trolls yet
TG: let us try and work this out first
TG: theyll flip their shit and nobody wants that
EB: is this going to be dangerous?
EB: i'm still not clear exactly what's supposed to be involved!
TA: when he 2aiid we got blown up by the iimperiial war2hiip two be clear he meant we blew up the iimperiial war2hiip and iit fell on u2.
TA: and now were wanted criimiinal2.
EB: you're fugitives?
GG: let us help!
GG: if you find bec first so we can come through
GG: you said he left the forest, so do you know where he is now?
GG: theres not much that can stop all of us together and im sure whatever we end up doing with the inter-universe stuff, witch of space powers will be important!
TG: yeah well
TG: im pretty sure bec is also at where were going
"It was only a hypothesis before," Dave admits. "The project was supposed to put it to the test, but the results were... dubious. Nothing journal-quality, and to be honest we unapologetically cherry-picked the hell out of that data. Then we got caught up in your whirling shitstorm of political intrigue and mutual assassination, and there wasn't much time to think about it. I just shelved the speculative cosmology and focused on, you know, not dying."
"And then thith happened," Sollux mutters.
"That too," the human affirms. "But this train isn't just running on wishful thinking and desperation. See, after we tripped that temporal landmine back there and collectively farted our brains out in an epic spray of timeline diarrhea, I've been pulling janitorial overtime on my alt-timeline memories. And I've picked a few nuggets out of the sludge that have been... let's just say unexpectedly illuminating."
"You can do that?"
Dave shrugs. "I'm not a Seer, but I am the Time guy. Plus, those shitty handysash badges come in handy at the stupidest times. The incredible ability to not get mindfucked by gratuitously convoluted time shenanigans sounds dumb, until aforementioned shenanigans dig up the gargantuan silicone tentadongs from Bilious Slick's basement and nonconsensual dildo-brain copulation starts looking a hell lot less hyperbolic."
Sollux grimaces at the conjured mental image. "Yeah, fine, and?"
"So in that hodgepodge of splinter events that never were, it turns out I'd been chatting up Lamort a lot more than you'd think."
"The troll that helped Karkat who we picked up on the way out," Dave reminds him. "She defected or something?"
"Oh," Sollux says, thinking back. "Her. The blueblood we lotht. I forgot her name. What happened to her anyway?"
He thinks she was the one that tossed Karkat out of the trees, but they never figured out where she went after that or what her deal was. Now he's starting to feel guilty that he didn't think about looking for her, but there were other things on their minds at the time between all the shit going down and... well, Karkat.
Dave winces. "Crushed by spaceship, maybe? She might have survived. I hope so, but it's not like we can go back to look for survivors. Anyway, she knew a few things, and my sick mind forensics managed to piece most of it together from the splinter-self massacre in my brain. All kinds of juicy shit about the Empire, about the Cult, about the Sufferer... but the jackpot is the scoop on Bec."
"You know where it ith," the troll realizes. "And..."
"Keep going. You're getting there."
Sollux swallows. "...it'th the same place. At the epicenter of the meteorth."
"Got it in one."
"What'th the connection?" he wonders out loud. "Do you use ith powerth to pull thtuff from the other univerthe? Or ath a power thource? Ith it a cointhidenthe jutht to bait you into going there?"
Dave spreads his arms helplessly. "Who the fuck knows? All of it is pretty much one big fat question mark at the moment, so don't expect me to have the answers to all the plot holes running amok. Work in progress, as I said."
"The Seer might be able to tell uth thomething," Sollux says. "Have you thtill not talked to them?"
"Maybe, but let's be real: I bet my cape we won't find out until we get there and there's a fancy wall timer smugly ticking down from 4:13 while we scramble around like decapitated chickens counting the seconds to cardiac failure. It's just how it is with Veil gizmos. I've got three years of experience irresponsibly poking suspicious buttons on an operational meteor, I know the drill."
TG: it all comes together as usual with sburb
TG: im telling you its written in the stars
TG: written in the clouds of skaia
GG: ok how do you know that now?
GG: and how did bec get there???
TG: we have an inside source
TG: as for how apparently they tried to get a bronzeblood to commune with him and he freaked out
TG: noped out of the state just like that
EB: wow, that's kind of really underwhelming?
EB: no nefarious plots or dark majyyks involved?
TA: iim 2orry our liive2 arent entertaiiniing enough for you
EB: no, i mean, it sounds like good news.
EB: that improves your chances of success, right?
GG: yeah! that means once you get bec we can be there
TT: When do you intend on putting this poorly-concocted resurrection plan into motion?
TG: im not literally kicking doors in and taking names as we type if thats what you mean
TG: i have the body timefrozen in my sylladex so theres technically no rush to get myself neck deep in more ancient rubbish just yet
TT: John and Jade may not be able to do much from where we are, but as a Seer of Light, my prognosticative powers are unbound by such things as mere distance. Send me everything you have and I will do my utmost to assist.
TT: I insist.
TG: im not arguing
TG: all hands on deck
TT: Because so long as I have anything to do with it, Karkat Vantas is not staying dead.
EB: yeah! i never got a chance to meet karkat in person.
EB: he can't go and die just like that!
GG: weve got your back dave and sollux!!!!
"That'th your plan. Go to the one thingular origin of everything wrong with thith planet and 'figure it out' when you get there."
"Pretty much," Dave says.
Sollux sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.
He doesn't have a choice, does he? It's not like he can let Karkat rot if there's even a slightest chance of getting his best friend back.
"Fuck it. Let'th do thith."
He rises to his feet, cracking his knuckles. "It'th going to work," he says quietly. Then, louder, "We're bringing him back. It has to work."
Dave joins him, folding away the turntop with a flick.