MODERN CANNIBALS

PART I: CITY OF CLOUDS

Chapter 1: Something's Wrong with Max!

When Z. Coulter (don't ask what the Z. stands for) got home from school, the Faerie Endless teaser had been live two hours. Two! What even was her life that she dwelled in abject ignorance while the internet teemed with rumors, hoaxes, fan art, flame wars—and why waste time listing it? She replayed the video five, six, seventy times, ingrained it frame-by-frame into her eyelids, scoured translations, parsed message boards, posted theories and scowled as they sank beneath a deluge of dumber theories ("Am I the only one who saw Calofisteri at 1:37?" No dipshit), mashed the refresh button, fell into apoplexy, rolled on the floor, upended her backpack, shredded her notebooks, gnawed her shoelaces and retched. The Faerie Endless website crashed due to traffic, the video no longer loaded.

She ricocheted into the hallway. Delirium and the lesser lords of Hell crept inside her flayed mind, she sang in tongues to the cobwebs. Her brother somewhere said: "Shut your bonobo mouth."

She tumbled into the living room, where the sports game played. "The colossus rises from its centurial slumber." Her arms, possessed by vengeful spirits, undulated. "Apocalypse approaches!"

"What a precious child," said her stepdad. "Do your homework."

Her mother's voice wafted from another room: "Yes honey, your homework is good."

Troglodytes—Infidels! Who were these golems scraping their knuckles across the tile? Senseless to the manna that dribbled down their befuddled pates. Like seriously? Maybe a teensy tiny itty bitty display of interest in the biggest event of the year?

Her stepdad, in a plot to ruin her social life, had the day prior confiscated her phone, so she took to the streets. At the end of a nearby culdesac, flanked by a vista of cloudy peaks, waited the house of Max Roddlevan. Max must be on the fritz, his encyclopedic poindexter brain had catalogued the entire Faerie Endless canon, he knew every infinitesimal factoid for each the franchise's twelve installments plus 90s anime OVA plus Shirou Katsumata's designer notes plus Z. expected he had already alchemized a theory from the teaser's tin bucket of images so she barreled through his front door and spilled into the foyer and scrambled for the stairway and then a television said—

"I ain't here to make friends."

She skidded to her knees. She clamped her heaving mouth.

"He think he know me—he don't know me."

Undeniable: Max's mother, definitely home, definitely in the living room, definitely watching mindless mom TV. Did she hear Z. open the door? No rustle of movement—Perhaps she lay in wait. Z. crawled toward the corridor that connected the TV room to the stairs. The light deadened save television effervescence that changed in incomprehensible patterns. To reach the stairs—and Max's room—she'd have to bolt past the couch where Mrs. Roddlevan surely seethed. (Three bounds to the base of the stairs, four bounds up the stairs, seven bounds total, at a rate of maths per second... The average human blinked in the span of one-sixtieth of a second—was Mrs. R an average human or an average reptilian?)

"For one of you, your journey ends today." The TV played a dramatic note and all calculations spiraled into oblivion, the moment of heightened tension served her lone window before inevitable commercial break so she compressed her seven-bound estimate into a frantic five, reached the top of the stairs, and rolled into the wall of portraits that chronicled Max's development from infant to young man. Before Mrs. Roddlevan ascended from her primordial ooze to harangue her with some stay-away-from-my-son junk, Z. skittered into Max's room and slammed the door.

"Cripes Max your mom nearly cooked me in a stew."

Max's room, like the living room, was dark save the dance of a screen's light—his computer, nestled in a corner opposite her. Max sat with his forehead against it.

"Time for the facts, Max." She stepped forward, her foot crunched a thing. "You saw Jolly's outfit right?"

Max failed to turn around or acknowledge her or do anything except peer into his screen. A vague halo enveloped his head. He skipped school that day (who blamed him), but maybe he was actually sick? A debilitating paralysis from the eyebrows down? Dammit if Max died who would she eat lunch with? She waded through the debris of his room—papers swirled everywhere—and seized his shoulders. She poked her head next to his and looked at his screen. Words, words, words, in the worst font too. Lines upon lines of snoozeworthy text on a plain gray background. No Faerie Endless trailer, no discussion forums, no information wiki.

"What's this junk?"

Max turned with a jolt. "Oh." He blinked, coughed. "Uh, what are you doing...?"

"What am I doing!" Z. knelt beside him and tapped her lower lip with a finger. "Have you not heard there's kinda this thing about a certain role-playing game called Faerie Endless?"

A pendulous pause. Max's gaunt face nearly translucent in the computer's luminosity. His agape mouth snapped shut and his eyes narrowed. "That's cool, I guess... I don't really play that game."

"Ha? Yeah you do?"

He faced the screen, clicked the mouse, and expelled air. "Z., that game panders to twenty-something men who enjoy ogling girls in short skirts. It provides no real value when you consider things... holistically."

What prank was this? What bizarro dimension? She groped for a rebuttal while he clicked through more pages. He suddenly cared the girls wore short skirts? Well DUH, it's a fantasy realm women have certain forms of apparel that differ from what you might expect in a realistic environment come on Max that's super basic. Those words in that exact order whizzed through her brain and made perfect sense and Max would have no recourse but to concede to her logic and yet when she opened her mouth none of those words emerged. She said:

"What?"

A pause, and she rearranged her thoughts.

"Really Max, it looks sick, let's check the trailer right now." She reached for the mouse but his hand nudged her away. The screen had changed.

It showed an image of an eye, perfect and round and peering back at the Max and Z. who peered at it. The screen began to zoom toward the pupil, slowly, the whites vanishing, then the red iris. Details came into focus, features along the pupil's surface, until it stopped being a pupil and became a bubble instead.

"What's this?" said Z. "A new story or what?"

"Something like that." In the bubble floated a—a whatchacallit, sea unicorn. Narwhal.

"What's it called?"

"Uh..." His voice tapered into nothingness.

The screen turned dark. Silhouettes flashed across it—shapes with tentacles, wicked smiles. They whirred faster and faster, a pulsating vortex opened behind them, it flickered frenetic red-and-white, Z.'s eyes felt weird, epileptic, she averted her gaze.

"Come on Max, talk to me."

Max's hands curled around his keyboard as his immutable gaze locked to his monitor. The room seethed with strobe light, she blocked herself from it by hiding behind him. She poked him, with each poke his eyes squinted, his upper lip curled, like maybe he would break into a laugh, the charade would collapse. "Come on Max, come on come on come on come—"

His finger jabbed the keyboard and the screen stopped, the vortex stood still—it was the red eye that turned into a bubble. "Can you not see I'm trying to watch? Why are you even here? Who let you in?"

"Uh. The door was unlocked?"

"Normal people don't walk into other peoples' houses, unlocked or not."

"Well now that I'm here—"

He cut her off with a trenchant sigh. "That is not how it works. I'm sorry you don't understand."

No, she didn't understand, and it pissed her off when she didn't understand and asked for an explanation and people only sighed and said she didn't understand. To block hateful thoughts she said: "What's the eye-bubble story, Max? Tell me."

If he sighed again she decided to pummel his face, but instead he propped his head on a hand and fiddled with the mouse. "You wouldn't enjoy it."

"Try me, asshole."

Max's chair swiveled to face her. She stepped back to avoid his legs and bumped against his wobbly bookshelf. "It's called," he said, "Homestuck. By Andrew Hussie. It's a story about some friends who play a game."

"That's it?"

"Obviously that's not it," said Max. "Augh, no matter how I explain you won't understand."

"Is it good? That's all you gotta say. If it's good I'll trust you and read it myself and then we can talk."

Max gave a sad shake of his head, as though what she described were impossible, simply infeasible, an affront to basic human reasoning skills, because as everyone knew Z. Coulter was too doltish for enlightened entertainment.

"Z. Could you please... leave me alone? I don't feel like talking to you right now."

Oh.

Not even don't feel like talking, don't feel like talking to you. Alright, Z. understood. Z. could take a hint. Z. knew when she wasn't wanted.

"Right. Sorry, Max."

If the new story was somehow better than the old stories (skeptical, based on his description), why was he not ballistic right now to ensnare her in his world? Because she couldn't understand. Because Max inhabited a higher echelon of high school achievement than Z. Advanced Placement everything, Honors everything else. Inevitable salutatorian, eventual Ivy League. This Homestuck thing, whatever it was, she couldn't understand. Like when he toted that Odysseus book for a month but could only describe it in terms of its "unsurpassable impact on English-language literature" and its "status in the canon," whatever the hell a canon meant when he used it.

"Well uh guess I shouldn't bother you anymore?" With the question mark appended last-second to leave a hook for him to grab her, envelop her in his new discovery, but he didn't even hear her, his face drew closer to the computer monitor, the vortex pulsed again. Z. backtracked ponderously, in case he turned, in case he said something, even goodbye, see you later, whatever. He didn't.

As she walked toward the door she noticed on his bed a mound of stuff, which as she drew closer transmogrified into papers, lots of them, mostly ripped. She snatched one that drifted in midair and squinted to read the minuscule typeface. She glanced at his bookshelf. It was empty except a few stray, overturned tomes.

"Max. Are these your—?"

But Max so solidly and rigidly failed to acknowledge her that she gave up midsentence and left.


Note: I normally start new accounts for new stories, but after some people messaged me about Fargo and asked to read more of my stuff, I thought I might use this account again. This story is a little different than my last, but it also has a few similarities, so I hope fans of Fargo will check out this one. I'm trying some new things, so any feedback (good or bad) is much appreciated.

Additionally, the chapters in this story so far are generally shorter than those in Fargo, so I'll compensate by updating more frequently. You can follow my Twitter at IMBavitz for more information on the update schedule, as well as any future projects I might post on different sites. Speaking of which, I'll also post this story on AO3, which is where a lot of the Homestuck kool kats hang out. So if you prefer to read stuff on that site, keep an eye out.