Author's Notes: And so Alearustuck goes from being a single story to a series. I decided to start off with Mituna's story because this was one of the very clear points that CalicoJane had about the premise of the story. Out of a lot of the characters that are more peripheral to the core story, Mituna's has always been one I was more set on the background of. And so it was clearly the first stop to hit on my tour of the world. There may, or may not, be allusions to another Mituna centric story I once wrote in this fic, but that is completely in the eyes of the beholder.
Pain, he'd once heard, was a thing of flashing nerves and dancing neurons. A nerve stimulated in a way that indicates potential damage to the greater whole, sending a spark of electricity along a neural network of unimaginable complexity until it was all fed back into the processing center of the brain. There, pain was all just sparks, but somehow the body took that information in, interpreted it, and sent back a new set of sparks that told the body to react in a set way. Pain was nothing more than sparks dancing along the highways of the body, carrying information just like those sparks carried every other bit of input they found. Temperature, taste, scent, the ghosting brush of his matesprit's fingers across his arm in a way that made his body tremble. All of it just sparks and flashes of energy.
He'd been intrigued, of course, by the idea, but ultimately abandoned his research in that direction. It wasn't that there weren't some interesting things to be learned by studying the limitations and machinations of biology, but sometimes it made his thoughts go in weird directions. For instance when Latula would invite him over to spend time at her local skatestructure and he bailed he would lay on the ground for a moment as pain surged through him, trying to figure out how quickly his body reacted and just how much of the pain he felt was genuinely from the damage his body had suffered, and how much of it was his body warning him off of repeating the actions. At other times when he was with Kurloz he felt himself trying to calculate how much force it would take to stimulate his moirail's skin enough to be sensed by the nerves and sent along as little sparks of information.
For a time he actively tried to cast aside his infatuation with the idea of the nervous system, starting by turning to computers. The speed at which they processed their own neural-network equivalents was startling, if not miraculous. No troll brain could rival the computational power or reaction speed of a computer, and yet computers lacked the intuitive leaps and bounds possible for the troll mind. It was a paradox of superiority and inferiority all at once that captivated him for the half a sweep he spent without Latula because she had been dragged off on some project or another by an older troll who thought they knew what was best for her, who tried to make her their personal culling project. Of course even that interest had faded away as he looked elsewhere for amusement, and he didn't come back to his interest in computers, or in the troll neural structure, until Aranea channeled him a copy of some ancient computer program that Meenah had found wherever she had disappeared off to that needed repairing and patching. After that he hadn't had time for his flights of fancy as he delved into the world opened up to him by SGRUB.
No, that wasn't quite right. He hadn't had time to think about it until this moment, his body lifted in the air, his hands thrust out before him with his fingers bent into claws as he strove to master the ancient, terrible, surging force before him. Well, anything beyond surging was speculation, but the way the power fought against the gathered strength of his psionics. There was so much more about the force he was battling that he couldn't begin to fathom. No small part of that had to do with the fact that tearing even the slightest portion of his attention from his private little war to try and learn more about the void he struggled to close would have destroyed any chance he had to fight. His mind was a mass of flashing synapses, each bent more fully than ever before on the task of shaping and controlling the flow of his psionics.
The worst part is the way his whole head seemed to be searing with pain, an immediate, pressing kind of pain that a miniscule part of himself wondered if it felt so rushed because the sparks of his thoughts and senses had so little distance to travel. But that wasn't the kind of thought he could waste his time with. Again he tore his thoughts from the frivolous, flooding the straying parts of his mind with the purest waves of psionic energy he could grasp at with his already frayed attention span. Yet the tiny part protested once more, this time not grasping at the echoes of sparks, but forcing awareness of the pain to the forefront of his mind. No longer was it just the normal leaping, flitting, strangely compressing pain that came from using his psionics. This was new. This was searing, surging, scalding pain on the inside that made his mouth fall open in a silent scream. His body trembled from the feeling. No, not trembled; the full of his head was boiling, burning, tearing itself free of all its component parts.
Every instinct he possessed demanded he release the reins on the psionic energy pulsing from his outstretched hands. The energy was too much, it was overwhelming him, it was burning him from the inside out and his only hope was to let go. But no, it wasn't every instinct. It was every instinct but one, the same one that had originally declared the gash in space-time before him as an inescapable threat, told him to hold on. His fingers tensed further, tangling themselves into the raging flow of his power and refusing to let go.
Suddenly a burst of light. Not red or blue but the constant cascade of green and white on black. The pain in his head doubles, triples, quintuples. An already rapid fire storm of sparks whips into a torrent. Pain upon pain and his breath tastes of blood as he screams. Falling to his knees because his body refuses to hold itself up. Darkness before his eyes and the sound of feet on stone running for him. A loud crack-boom rends the air asunder. Breath is hard to catch; it burns his throat, scalds his head. His hands feel of stinging nettlethorns. The air smells of ozone.
He is smart. Infinitely smart. He knows that much, deep down, at the level of his bones. Never has he known anyone smarter than him. He can do all the big math problems in his head on his own. No. He could do all the big math problems on his own. Used to be able to. Now the numbers made his head all hurty and his eyes cry. It used to be that the numbers listened to him even as he listened to the numbers. Now he had to be satisfied when someone asked him a question he already knew the answer to.
Her voice is soft like cotton and clouds. When she speaks his head feels less jumbled. When her fingers touch his arm his pusher skips a beat, makes him feel like he does in that moment when the wheels of his skateboard first touch the ground after a hard trick. His head gets all swirly and perfect in those moments. She is happiness, she is warmth, she is always there when the others ask and ask and ask and make him want to cry. She gave him his helmet, to keep him from getting hurt when his feet stop doing what he tells them too and get tangled together and he falls.
"Mituna?" she repeats, and he looks up at her and smiles. Then, almost right away, he stops smiling. She's holding the sword again, and it's covered in the black-blue goop that comes from the little monsters that taunt and dance and hiss at them. He doesn't like the sword. It's as wide as his arm and both sides are hurty sharp. When she holds it she isn't who she is without it. Instead her eyes are hard, her jaw set, her glasses pushed all the way up so he can't see the pretty light of her eyes.
"Are you okay?"
Right, he remembers now. His arm hurts, and he holds it out toward her, watches as her face falls. It makes him look too and he sees the suit she gave him is torn all down the arm and yellow leaks from it, smeared with blue-black. The sword disappears in the air as she grabs at his arm.
"You need to tell me when this happens," she insists, voice soft like fluffbeasts. "I can't..."
"Don't be sad," he tries to say, but he hears how garbled it comes out. Latula told him why once, but he can't quite remember why. Something to do with how he got hurt back at the time he got hurt that he can't remember. When he had woken up he felt his tongue all pain-like, and now it always got in the way when he spoke. Worse than his teeth ever had.
"I'm not sad, Tuna. I'm worried about you."
He knows why. There is something sad in her eyes whenever she looks at him. The way he is now hurts her, every time she looks at him. Still she's always there, at his side, waiting. Watching. Hoping. She wants him to be better. Wants him to be able to do the math in his head and talk in sentences that make sense, and not fall down all the time. He knows because he has heard her at sleep times when she thought he was asleep. The way she cried and whispered to herself, and the frantic typing on her palmtop to whoever it was she was talking to. Once he heard her asking Aranea what it was like to lay on the slab and...
No, that wasn't a thought he wanted. It was one of the thoughts that brought him back to himself, for a brief moment. Brought back all the smart and determination and echoes of screaming pain in his head. For half a moment there was almost another Mituna in his head, one that insisted that her sleeping and then waking up in the cloak and hood like Aranea's was not worth it. She was a Knight, she couldn't fix what was wrong with him. Nothing could.
He wakes up to a face painted white and black. It's close, so close that there is a smudge of white on his visor. A familiar face that his first reaction to is recoiling in fear that he can't explain. Then he smiles, and his moirail withdraws and he can sit up. Kurloz's fingers flicker with shapes and signs that take him minutes to decipher. But he smiles and lets himself be pulled to his feet by the troll he trusts above them all.
So why is it that there is a part of his pan that flickers with reluctance?
There's a loud crack and he falls to his knees, screaming in rage and indignation. How could Cronus do such a thing? His skateboard. His precious skateboard. Latula had given him that. How could he do that?
It's hard to hold a viewing bubble together. Aranea had taught them all how to do it. A twist of the wrist just so, serious attention, and then you could see something. Concentration was something he wasn't very good at anymore. There are sparks and flashes in his pan of times when he had been able to hold his mind on one thing for hours at a time. Now all he can manage is a few minutes at a time. Sometimes Latula or Kurloz would help him, giving him sights of things far away in space and time. But they didn't want to show him things that were hard. Things that were painful. They didn't want to show him the other him.
He stumbled upon the other him by accident when he was playing with a viewing bubble. A troll who looked like him but bigger, older, stronger and more in control of his power. Power that Mituna didn't have any more. "The Psionic" the woman who was like Porrim called him. His power was unimaginable, but he never tried to hurt people with his power. No, he just protected someone he knew and trusted. At first Mituna hadn't understood why he wasn't allowed to watch. He didn't understand until the bad things happened.
Now whenever he looked in he saw the same thing. Not him hung from a mass of pink tentacles, unable to move, and with power radiating from his eyes, spilling from him like waves of pain. The not him was familiar to him. He too was broken, was strung up in his pain and not working. He was the ship he was captive in. His mind was numbers, only numbers. Dancing numbers, singing numbers, numbers on numbers and numbers. Mituna could barely hold them anymore.
They were echoes of each other, damaged and waiting to be healed. Or maybe, at least, freed. The only thing left of the Helmsman was the numbers, and they were one of the things Mituna had lost. Together they might make a whole troll, but he could not figure out how to connect them. So instead he watched when he was free. Watched every moment of unchanging pain and numbers, wishing he could understand them.
For some reason, it hurt when he watched the Vast Glub and saw the other him die.
"What do you think about these human things?"
He shrugs his shoulders and goes back to toying with the wheels on his newly remembered skateboard.
Damara's hand flashes out, reaching with sharp nails toward his neck. Latula's sword blocks her.
They have breath holding contests, him and Rufioh. It's fun to do because they can hold it for years and not lose because their bodies don't need it any more. They aren't really bodies.
Stop calling me stupid, he shouts in his head but not with his words. Stop it stop it stop it stop it he screams fruitlessly at Cronus's smug face. Doesn't he know? Can't he understand? Why does no one know what he did for them? What he gave up.
Except he doesn't know himself.
The club lashes out for his outstretched hand and the only thing he can do is try to catch it with the red-blue light and hold it. Doesn't Kurloz know he doesn't have the time for this? They are in danger here and now. He has to save them, and so long as his moirail stands in his way he can't achieve anything. He's not good enough. He never has been.
Pain. Searing, exploding pain accented by bursts of green-white light. But he can't give up. Better he die here, better he stop being him, than let that void have what it wants. Their lives depend on him, and he isn't going to fail. His whole life has been about the doom of this moment, and he will stand triumphant over it.
He tries to cast his psionics out as he flings his arms wide, but there is nothing. No sparks. No light. No power. Just a void in his head and his heart that he didn't understand and couldn't fill.
Latula's hand tightened on his as they stand before the open door. They aren't the last by any stretch of the imagination, but they aren't the first. Somewhere in the middle, because he was too scared to go, but too scared to stay. The pressure on his fingers says she is the same way. Scared and eager. They all are. This door isn't their own, they never had a chance to see their own. No one knew how this was going to play out, no one knew anything about how this was going to work. But the fingers on his are warm. Not just remembered warm but actually radiantly warm. Well, as warm as a tealblood's touch ever was.
It was strange, standing here in the line. They'd started as a rough mass, but now they were strung out behind the humans waiting their turns to step through the door and beyond into... Into whatever came next. Into a world they remembered together to build. But none of them knew just what came next. Where came next. If they would ever see each other again.
Mituna clutched at Latula's hand with as much strength as he could muster. He... Didn't know what else he could do.
He wakes with a scream on his lips, bile in the back of his throat, and his body shaking so bad it was like the earth itself was trembling around him. Then the scream isn't on his lips anymore, it's filling the air of the respiteblock as his hands come up to his head and claw savagely at his temples.
It's just random sparkings of neurons in his sleep, he tells himself as he claws. Random flashes of half remembered trolls he's seen on the street. Hundreds of little flashes. Hundreds of little lies made of pain and untruth and he's screaming and there is no amount of clawing that makes the sights and sounds and sparks go away. They keep coming, they won't stop coming, someone make them stop coming because they can't be true, they aren't true, that isn't right. He's not that poor, broken troll of his dreams. He can recite the famous G'tyburg Declaration by Abrahm Lincon backwards. The higher mathematical functions in his head come as naturally as breathing. And as for psionic powers, he's never even...
"Tuna?" a voice whispers in the darkness of the respiteblock, from his side on the slab, and then there is a hand on his arm, gentle and cool in the way that a tealblood's touch always is. "Tuna, please. You're screaming. Mituna!"
"It's not real. It's not real. It's not REAL!"
"Mituna!" she shouts again, then her arms are tangled with his, using her far superior strength to pull them from his head. To stop the clawing. Doesn't she understand? Can't she understand? That's the only way to get the memories out of his head.
No, they aren't memories. They can't be memories. He grew up easily in a small town called Devicke, moved out of there when his insane aptitude for mathematics, calculations, and computers earned him a place, at an unbelievably young age, at the prestigious MIEBT, the Masichu Institute of Electronic and Bio Technology. He met Latula there; well, not there but at a multi-college mixer. They had hit it off. She had taught him all the ways of skating and fun. She had never held a sword in her life. She had never saved him from anything but his own inability to focus on the fun of the world. She...
Her arms are pinning his to his sides, refusing to release him. She sways back and forth with him, her voice full of soft whispers. Still he's screaming, aching to claw at his head. Yet there's a new part now. He wants to scream at her, rail at her for risking their quadrant. She isn't supposed to soothe, she isn't supposed to hush and soften his rough edges. She's his matesprit and this isn't any of her business.
The swaying slowly stops as his body stops shaking, as his voice goes raw from the screaming and it is suddenly too painful to keep going. They go still together, and still his mind fights the stream of sparks and flashes and memories that aren't memories because they can't be memories because he's never remembered them before this. They aren't real, they aren't real, they will never be real and he just sits there, trembling, as Latula lets him go. He focuses his mind on that mantra. They aren't real. They will never be real. Aren't real. Never real.
"I'm going to call Kurloz," she tells him, her voice soft and what she thinks is soothing but is really frustrating. "You stay here, okay?"
Kurloz. His moirail. He can see the other troll in his mind, smiling at him softly, stroking his cheek. Holding him as they watch pale romcoms. Spending time together on his bed at MIEBT, talking about Latula, about Meulin, about their problems and loves and hopes and dreams and fears. Shopping together for a matespritship token for Latula. Sharing their secrets. Kurloz before him, standing between him and the terror of the rift flashing green and white and radiating an undeniable sense of doom. His moirail refusing to move aside as he fought for all their lives. His moirail lifting his clubs to stop him, to fight him. His moirail's eyes flashing purple as Meulin moves, raising her fists, and his own mind goes numbingly blank. His moirail kneeling before him, hands bound, Meenah's 2x3dent at his throat gleaming menacingly and all Mituna can feel is relief.
"No!" he shouts as Latula, already risen and across the room, puts her hands on the phone. His hand flings out before him, there is a surge of will, he doesn't want to see Kurloz, his mind is screaming that it isn't safe.
Blue-red energy surges out of him, past him, sparking from his mind, and it blasts into the phone. It slips from under Latula's hand, slides over the table, sails right on instead of falling and slams into the wall. It explodes in the anger of the blue-red power, and Mituna just stares at his arm. He knows Latula is looking back at him, turning to look at him with wide eyes. But Mituna, he just stares at his outstretched hand, watching the writhing mass of blue and red tendrils lapping at his skin, sending little sparks of energy up his arm. He knows what it is, and...
It wasn't a dream. They weren't dreams. They...
"Mituna..." Latula says, her voice soft and afraid. "What just..."
"He's a terrible person, Latula. What he did to Meulin... What he did to me..."
"Mituna, Kurloz would never do anything to Meulin," she assures him, her voice full of certainty. "What's gotten into you?"
"Have you... Ever woken up and realized you were un-you?" he asks, lowering his arm. A small pinching gesture with his mind and the psionic energy fades, just like the memories say it should. Said it would. They are still flashing through his mind. A tidal wave released from something, somehow. Just like that they are all rushing back in, trying to fill his mind with not merely years of memories, but eons. Memories he hadn't even been able to touch after his accident. Memories he hadn't wanted to look at when the Maid of Life had arisen him again. Memories that won't give him any choice now.
"You've been watching too much of that Avengers movie," Latula insists, moving back to his side and touching his shoulder. "Too much Hawkeye. Honestly, I pegged you as more of a Stark."
"No," he snaps, pulling away from her. "I just... I understand now. I remember. And it hurts. Everything in my head at once and there is too much. Too many memories. Eons, Latula. Don't you understand that? Eons of our lives that you can't even remember. Be thankful you don't... Eons where I was nothing more than a pan-fried fool. And..."
Her hand settles on his arm again. It's a familiar motion. She's done it hundreds of thousands of times. And, when he meets her eyes, he knows she doesn't know it. She doesn't know and doesn't understand that his whole world is a lie. His life is a lie. His memories are a lie. It hurts. Because everything before this isn't his life. Hasn't been his life. Will never be his life.
His life is somewhere out there in the void. A scared and broken troll who can barely remember how to count to five because he tried to live for everyone else. Because he nearly died for everyone else. Because of a hundred thousand sparks of power breaking his mind. Burning and charring and shredding his mind until there was nothing left but a troll he wouldn't recognize as himself. And yet a troll who had been him for longer than he had.
Who was he supposed to be when everything he thought he was wasn't even him. Just an echo. He was just an echo. The faint whisper of sparks along a neural network. A network already charged and ruined by those same sparks.