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You're Messed Up

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You don't even open the box, at first.

The packaging's nothing special, not at all like the bombastic imagery plastered all over graphics sheaves. Brown paper, a little worn, a little grimy, tied up with fraying string. It could be anything.

Heh. Be. God, everything's funny when you're flying this high.

There are no manuals for you to pore over, which is how you'd normally spend a little anticipatory time. But you already know this thing's history, which is about as much as anyone can find out from down here. How it came to Alternia as a skeezy solicitation from some adult to an onplanet paramour. How it's bounced from kid to kid since, leaving a trail of death and disappointment in its wake. It's changed hands with bewildering rapidity this last perigee, none of its holders able to master it, some unable even to withstand it, which you (and everybody else not in the line of likely succession) had been just waiting to have happen again. And now it has-- and now, pulled from the wreckage of some other psionic's exploded hive, it's yours.

Not a single troll, out of every subadult who's tried, has been able to unlock even one iota of its copy-protected pedigree. But you-- you are Sollux motherfucking Captor, and you haven't met a system you couldn't crack yet.

You can't keep your eyes off it, as you strip out your hiveframes and set everything you own to hibernate, sweeping the little bodies into tidy piles for later bagging and freezing. You get maybe a little more covered in mind honey than you usually do, but you haven't got any cuts or abrasions-- one perk of no quadrants yet and staying mostly at home-- so you fail to even give two shits about your chemically-saturated clothing.

It won't disguise your scent completely, but it might make the root-access procedure a little less stressful for your prize. The smell would be bothersome if you were planning on leaving your hive anytime in the next perigee, but you aren't; in fact you have planned, meticulously, for the opposite. You're still not sure how you managed not to jinx yourself talking KK's ear off about it, let alone laying in all this food, but here you are, and here-- here it is.

Reverently, you lift the little box. Every other bee in the block is tucked away, every trace of their presence expunged from the hiveframe scaffolding. Every door you own is flung wide, every single corner and cranny of your space left invitingly open for colonization-- you don't care how inconvenient of a location this thing chooses to set up shop; you are just going to troll up and fucking deal with it, and then take loads of self-aggrandizing pictures to send to KK until you've goaded him into-- you're not sure what. You're not actually sure how you feel about KK, either. Anyway, it's not important.

The perfect environment you set up in the old apiary is more of a totem at any rate, like buying a meowbeast toys in order to ensure that it at least plays with the box. Fuck, you're nearly giddy enough to play with the box, you think, as you carefully unpick the string and slice open the thick, soft paper with delicate psionic knives in place of your filed-down claws.

You notice the smell first-- dusty, acrid. Flowers and bile. It's angry, you think with pride. It's mad as hell and you're going to tame it anyway.

The second you lift the lid, its fuzzy little legs are scrabbling at the opening. It wrenches itself free and you're ready to snatch it right out of the air if it flies for your face-- it doesn't. Before you can swap from defense to offense it's rocketed away with the richest, deepest buzz you've ever heard from a beenary organism, disappearing immediately into the furthest recesses of your hive.

For a given value of "disappeared," anyway. You're not going to have any trouble keeping track of something making resonant engine-noises like that as it flies, you think, grinning enough to get in your own way trying to summon up eye-lasers. You atomize the little box, eventually-- though the dissolving-flowers haze of alarm pheromones still hangs in the air; there goes any likelihood of it setting up shop in this place-- and set off at once after the distant, discordant purring of those enormous wings.

-

You move slowly and quietly through your hive, listening to the buzzing as it shifts from room to room. You'd check for its location on your security system, if you hadn't had to disable that, too. One step, two. You swivel your head, ears twitching-- there; you think you've got it. By the sudden swell of noise you think it's just gotten into your laundering block, probably through the vents you've left open. You freeze where you are, struggling to keep still. Shhh, shhh--

The buzzing cuts out. You wait there two full minutes, and then two more, trying not to slip up and start snickering. Change of plans-- you'll root it later, after letting it associate your smell in there with safety for a good long while. And all your nasty stayed-up-three-days-straight-planning-this clothing is in there, too; you'd only just cleaned up. It's probably better that you don't try your hand at cracking it right now, you think, experimentally clenching a fist and feeling the fine tremble. Admin status would allow you to soothe it directly, but staking out a tiny room in the dark is so much less stressful than its continuing to blunder around your hive you... might as well take a nap while you wait.

You don't feel impaired, and you know yourself well enough to be certain you have at least the rest of this night to keep functioning past redline. But you make mistakes, like this, you remind yourself. You go blind to the weirdest things, skip over the weirdest whole concepts, and it only gets worse the more careful you try to be. Eat, you think. Sleep. Make it yours in the evening.

The decision to take a break so you can tackle this fully-charged later comes more easily to you than it ever has before. So this is what it's like, to have something to genuinely look forward to waking up to. No wonder other people get so much shit done, if this is how they always feel about going to 'coon and then getting up in the evening.

You tiptoe away instead of floating, unwilling to gamble on proprietary military hardware's degree of sensitivity to psi. You hurry back to your respiteblock and scoop up one handful each of red and blue sopor, which you proceed to slop messily behind your ears. The excess trickles down the back of your neck and into your shirt, mellowing and relaxing wherever it clings. You sneak your way to the nutritionblock humming quiet dubstep to yourself, shoulder muscles twinging as they loosen and unwind. You drop the bass and shudder at the cold as you rummage in your thermal hull for a chunky health drink (advertised as containing 6 strawberries, 2/3 peach, 1/4 mango, and 1/2 grub in every bottle), kicking the door closed and taking long, pulpy swallows as the hull's engine grumbles to life behind you.

By the time you make it to the ablutionblock and start bee-proofing the space you're working with your eyes half-lidded, enfolded in a sense of deep and abiding security. Heavy-duty grate secured over the crawlspace vent, check. Door shut and locked and--a moment of exertion--welded around the edges, check. Drains and waterpipes plugged, check-- at length you find yourself curled up in the trap, yawning, as comfortable as you've ever been in your own bifurcated recuperacoon.

The last vestiges of mania intrude on your peace only distantly. Not even the dark daytime howling that swells to fill the space between your ears can touch your sleepy smile. You drift off with a sigh, feeling your plans slip one by one through your mental fingers and away. Oblivion claims you.

Later, you'll swear you remember hearing buzzing. There's no way you could have, though. Not when you didn't hear the falling grate.

-

You wake up with something big and heavy pressing painfully into your face. What the fuck, you think, and toss it off yourself on instinct, swearing as it unpeels from the indentations it's left on your forehead and cheek. What the actual fuck, you think, picking up the vent grate with your mind and staring at it. The sense of having made a grave mistake while manic is slowly but surely seizing your hammering 'pusher, making it buck and thump in your thorax.

The little metal ends have all been burnt through, the steel beaded and melted like solder. Steel doesn't do that, unless you go at it with-- psionics. But there's no way you did this in your sleep. Fuck, how could you have even stayed asleep through-- someone has been in your hive. Someone, with psi, has been or is still in your hive.

Think, Captor. You're alive; they don't want you. They want--

You're on your feet in a flash, and rebounding off the sealed door in another one. You stagger back, dizzily, showering sparks, then rip it from its frame with a snarl of despair and rocket out into--

Your completely undisturbed hive. You skip like a stone through room after room, dashing and bounding in defiance of local g, but there's nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing, room after room of nothing moved or altered even slightly. Wait, what's that-- you hear buzzing, deep, nearly subaudible, and your head snaps around. It's still here--!

You burst into the nutritionblock onto a noisily laboring thermal hull, and a scene of total carnage.

No way. No way, you think.

"No way," you whisper to yourself, feet scuffing through drifts of legs and wings and little clear plastic bags like fallen leaves. Every last bee you'd frozen-- thousands of caegars' worth, sweeps of scrimping and saving-- has been reduced to, to.

To the inedible bits, you realize, crouching and picking up one of the tiny, perfect legs now strewn across your floor. You regard it morosely for a moment, then stand and close the thermal hull with a wave of your hand. The list of people who would like to fuck with you is long; the list of people who care enough about your unhappiness to mutilate each and every one of your bees like this is still sadly nonexistent. (You're working on it.)

But then two wild suppositions click into place, as you twiddle the fragile remnant, and then two more. IF no one has been in or out since you locked up, THEN...; IF the undeniable presence of psionic defacement not your own, THEN...: the bee you set loose has psi powers. Fuck, IF this bee destroyed the grate, THEN an ambiguously murderous organism with specifications unknown has had unrestricted access to you while you slept--

Oh, double fuck. IF your ablutionblock wasn't psionic-bee-proof, THEN: neither is the rest of your hive, and it's long fucking gone.

Rationally, you know that giving in to madness and despair right now is a bad idea. Only one thing holds you back from the precipice: you haven't checked its last known location, yet. Okay, you agree silently with yourself. First I will go check the laundering block. Then I will drop where I stand and never move again.

On the way there, you wonder dimly why it had taken out the entire grating instead of burning a hole for itself. You wonder how the fuck you didn't wake up when the grate fell on your head. These worries seem to belong to some other person, though, someone with more energy than the bare minimum required to keep putting one foot in front of the other. By the time you reach the laundering block, you don't care about anything but how much it's going to hurt when you walk through that open door and confirm that your last living internet-enabled device has left for good.

You walk through that open door. You turn right around and walk out again.

That sure was your very last, very large bee, bristling at you aggressively from the dirty clothes piled on top of the hygieneification unit. Okay, you think, back pressed against the wall. Okay. You were possibly unprepared for this eventuality. You admit that. But you're a cool guy, and you're going to keep your cool. Cool. Yeah. You've got this.

"I got this," you agree. You take a deep, calming breath. Steadiness sweeps through you, swift, thorough, and... strange. You have never been more grateful for the dissociation that sometimes hits you after coming off a high. For once, you use your position of disconnected clarity to do something other than kick fruitlessly at the walls of your own mind and wallow in how much you suck.

You watch yourself walk into the room again. The supernatural calmness swells to an almost unbearable intensity, a great ringing silence where your emotions used to be. But you are used to functioning deadened like this, and spectate idly from the sidelines as the bee and you face down. It holds its ground, thrumming its wings with increasing vigor as you approach. The moment you detect its pattern shifting from threat to flight, you pin it coolly with your mind and float it to your hand.

It is very, very fuzzy. It seems fairly unhappy, too, but you'll fix that. You have plans for this thing, and you'll be the one unhappy later if you don't see them through.

It's too bad, you think, indifferently. This is a really good opportunity to be happy, and here your unreliable neurophysiology is, totally wasting it. Or maybe it's the bee, you think, floating the both of you towards your respiteblock and your tools. Some sort of rudimentary mind control could explain the nonsensical pattern behind its unluckier holders' deaths. You feel no urge to pack it back up in a box, though, or not yet, anyway. Even like this you're averse to cessation, an object in motion content to stay that way. If you find yourself turning aside from the path to your workbench, you'll just--

Ah, never mind, here you are. You watch yourself wipe down your work area and lay out your tools in neat order. Not a box to be seen, and nothing to make one with. You'll be fine, you think, unscrewing the bee clamp as wide as it will go and gently pinning your subject, finessing the pressure to compensate for the fuzz. It barely fits, but its chassis is well enough immobilized. You connect the first wire, and the whole world slams back into sudden focus.

You spring back from the table with an incredibly uncool screech, zombified chill deserting you all at once and electric horror surging in its place. You want to leap out the nearest window and sprint away into the sky and never stop, you want to gibber and run around in frantic circles, you want to tear right out of your own skin. The fucking thing had been in your mind! Your mind!

And the only thing keeping it from you now is a single, hair-thin wire applied to a contact point. You spring back to the table even more desperately and grab for the fixative, applying more than you ever did even when you were first learning. When the psionic ground is well and truly adhered, you take a moment to brace yourself, hanging your head over the uselessly struggling insect and trying not to hyperventilate. You're safe, you're safe. You--

Why the fuck did you open the box? Why the fuck did you go to sleep? No, you know why, you can remember; the train of logic had been entirely your own. You talked yourself into it, it hadn't made you do a single thing. It had just changed how you felt, and you'd followed your hijacked feelings without a second thought and gone on your merry way--

Pride. Self-doubt. Lassitude. Safety. Fear. And-- and silence.

You're not going to scratch your fucking nose around this thing from now on without thinking twice.

-

You stop. You think. You think again. Tools on the table, bee in the clamp. Nothing in your hands to drop, no wires along your planned trajectory to snag. You reach up, very deliberately, and scratch your nose. Ah, hell yes-- that had been itching for ages, and you'd been doing uninterruptibly delicate work and second-guessing yourself the entire time about whether it was really you that was itching or some sort of fatal flaw in the ground cable.

Nope, you think, running another visual inspection. All twenty-seven contact points, external and internal, properly hooked up to your properly-configured control board, ready and waiting to output to your ready and waiting display. It all feels right but that doesn't mean anything; it all checks out properly, though, and that you trust.

The struggle reflex took a long time to extinguish, but the bee rests quietly now, suspended in the clamp and draped around with looping wires. You set your fingers to the little levers and dials serving each of the twenty-seven contact points, and reach inside the panel with your mind to trip the power circuit. Color you paranoid, but you're unwilling to move your hands or distract yourself any more than you have to, right now.

Twenty-seven columns of recorded signal amplitudes flicker to life on the screen. For a while you just let it all scroll past, familiarizing yourself with the baseline, trying to tease out a hint of the underlying wave forms on intuition alone. You stop. You think. You think again.

You send your first signal, and the screen lights up with all the patterns of its struggles.

-

Your eyes flick from column to column as you work. Your fingers knot in a complex, twenty-seven-step dance. And your mind works most frenetically of all: tracking patterns, building associations, constructing inferences--

-

It's not like anything you've seen, but it's the same sort of problem. You can do this, you think, fiercely and before you can properly stop yourself.

Optimism is a difficult thing to choke back. You manage it.

-

You're doing it. Holy shit, you're really doing it. You have its pattern generators, now-- mastication, locomotion, respiration, flight; these are the obvious ones, your first and most spectacular eureka moments.

But something's not quite right.

-

It's incredibly frustrating and impossible to pin down. You're not making any headway on its code, no closer to accessing its BeeOS than you were when it was dealing you thousands of credits of property damage while you were asleep in your trap. You knew you could only work backwards so far via brute-force analog signal spoofing, but--

You've found every autonomic function, every reflex arc, accessed everywhere and everything innervated. But the whole promise of this single bee was inducing it to lay clones, or at the very least outcrossing it to something you can edit. But no matter what variation you try, you just can't find any sort of reproductive apparatus. There's only a fuckoff huge stinger, instead, which you would fume about being pointless if the pun wouldn't cause you to spontaneously punch your own face.

You run through your list of discovered command signals once more, from the top. The head swivels, the legs twitch and grip at nothing, the stinger lances out to full extrusion--

Finding all the physiological buttons and then pressing them has taught you everything it's going to. If this morph is nonfunctional, maybe you'll need to hormonally reinduce pupation to get it into a breeding form-- but that's nothing you can even start on until you've gotten access to the BeeOS.

It's time to take what you've learned and use it to start unpicking its mind.

-

It takes you all of two minutes to conclude there is no BeeOS and that the whole thing is written entirely in implement code.

-

You have it bootable in twenty.

-

TA: hey kk.
CG: OH GOD, NOT THIS AGAIN.
TA: gue22 what iim talkiing two you on riight now.
CG: NO.
TA: GUE22!
CG: NO, I WON'T!
CG: HEY, HERE'S A FUN TEAMBUILDING EXCERCISE: HOW ABOUT *YOU* GUESS WHICH FINGERS *I'M* HOLDING UP, AND THEN CHOKE TO DEATH ON YOUR OWN FROTHINGLY ADENOIDAL SNIGGERING WHEN YOU CONCLUDE I AM INDEED BRANDISHING TWO OF THEM.
CG: SORT OF RIGIDLY JUTTING OUT, ALL IRATE AND AGGRESSIVE AND SHIT.
TA: admiit iit, kk, you ju2t wii2h you could rever2e-engiineer a workiing compiiler from a bee leg, 2ome judiiciou2ly appliied kiinematiic analy2ii2, and an ANALOG 2quiiggle.
CG: I AM INTENSELY JEALOUS OF YOUR TIME SPENT FONDLING INSECT FEET, YES, SOLLUX, THIS IS EXACTLY THE CORRECT CONCLUSION FOR YOU TO BE DRAWING HERE.
CG: SO
CG: ARE YOU DEAD YET?
TA: nah ii have thii2 iin the bag.
TA: 2o iin the bag, kk, you dont even know.
CG: REMIND ME WHICH OF US WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HAVING PREMONITIONS OF DOOM, AGAIN?
TA: oh my god you are 2uch a wet 2nuggleplane how do you even 2tand your2elf.
CG: WH
CG: HEY

-

Eheheheh. It's even odds he'll come back later and apologize, too. For now you terminate the bare-bones running process you wrote to troll him with, and return your attention to the completely impenetrable thicket of the rest of the thing's native code.

No troll could possibly have written this. You are morbidly certain the tangle is as much a product of evolution as the genetic code it overlays. You've heard they have megacore rigs out in space that do nothing but proliferative optimization of components like these. Primo code and a biological base goes in one end of the mysterious black box, things you are slavering to learn more about happen, and then an entirely new, flawlessly adapted custom organism like this one pops out the other side.

You think it again, and savor it this time. You're up against an Imperial megacore.

-

Annnnnd losing.

-

NO, WAIT.

-

"Testing," you say, and watch the system monitors you've written surge with fresh activity. You apply a complex pattern with all ten fingers to your control board--

"Ack Captor," it replies.

-

You can't find where it keeps its psi at all. Its abilities are called upon throughout its coding, but your own rudimentary ability to parse what's happening in this foreign language stops being reliable much past basic math. You can't find where it keeps its account data, either. You know you're registered because it responds to you now, driving your devices and running your code willingly enough, but you're not entirely certain what you've been registered as. For all you know you're a Guest account with pretensions of grandeur, and everything you've worked to implement will be wiped next hibernation cycle.

You think you've found the code that governs reproduction? But it's totally opaque. There's nothing here you recognize at all, except the stuff in charge of fundamental survival functions, like comparing current metabolic state against a setpoint before allowing initiation of a reproductive cycle. All of the options for which are likewise incomprehensible to you, but you think-- you are really pretty sure-- that you've found the one for swarm cloning, by dint of ferreting out the only class not predicated on the pheromones of other bees. It asks you to reconfirm your identity for some reason before finalizing these changes, and, after a long moment of deliberation, you do.

You lean back and rub your gritty eyes. Well, that's one step forward you have possibly taken tonight, if your changes persist. And it looks like the minimum prerequisites for this cycle are already met! The only ones you can resolve into sensible strings are basic bee things, but there's a whole slew of other factors that you can't get to return to you as anything but gibberish. You see your "Captor" string in here a bunch of times now, too, but all you currently care about is how the associated indicators are all well within tolerances. So it needs user confirmation for each cycle, which is a little weird and not something you've previously come across, but fine. Whatever. So it isn't set and forget like your old bees were. All that matters, you decide, is that your presence is apparently necessary.

And, well, here you are: hungry, and thirsty, and exhausted. System monitors report that so is the bee. You don't have to think twice about this decision-- it stays where it is until you're absolutely certain you have verbal root access. One more night and day, you think, two at the outset, and you'll look back on all this shit and wonder how you ever couldn't read it.

"Logoff Captor," you tell it over your shoulder, as you leave. You'll bring it something back.

-

You inhale every edible thing that you come across and drink straight from the tap in the nutritionblock sink. You only belatedly realize you should have rinsed your hands first, and you can feel trace amounts of dissolved mind honey burning in the back of your throat on your first couple of ill-advised swallows. Yeck, oh well. It won't do much more than mildly impair you at this concentration anyway, and you're done with coding for now.

It reminds you to bring the bee some mind honey back. You manage this at a meander, somewhat under the influence yourself. The plan you had to then go take ablutions falls through at once in favor of finger-feeding your prize, which you find yourself feeling intensely benevolent towards as soon as you lay eyes on it.

It slices the tip of your finger off after a little while, of course, with an arc of psi from mandible to mandible. It doesn't quite cauterize the wound enough to keep you from bleeding profusely. You heave a very long-sufferingly put-upon sigh and go away to wash your hands and take appropriate safety measures. You're probably going to freak out about this later, you admit to yourself glumly as you rinse yellow honey and greenish-yellow blood from your hand. Even that little bit of mind honey must have left you susceptible to its influence, despite the wiring, and so you took a sort of dumb risk-- but, you rally, I'm fine! The sopor will keep you from losing the rest of the digit, and fingertips grow back. You're fine.

"No, you just feel fine about it," you conclude morosely, at odds with your current moonlit relaxation. Did you get enough calories into the bee to keep it on cycle schedule? You think back carefully, trying to keep your face set in its accustomed unenthusiastic lines. Yes, you decide, even though you feel woeful about leaving it there overday.

You drag your thoughts away from the bee-- which is completely fine, you know this, you did the math on the system monitors yourself-- and yourself to your recuperacoon, tossing and turning restlessly until you sink into unhappy slumber.

-

You wake up clear-headed and too irritated at your past self to freak out, mostly because you'd expected you would, and, well, fuck you anyway. "And now who do I sound like," you groan into your hands, one of which is sore and a little swollen. Your finger has scabbed over thickly and resiliently from the quick application of sopor, and the stubby end aches only dimly.

You take ablutions-- it doesn't really make you reek of mind honey any less-- and bring the bee some more. You feed it with a spoon, this time, and then have several small accidents while fiddling with the ground cable to make certain the contact isn't fouled beneath all the excess fixative. You grimly withstand each new surge of emotion as you adjust the wire, telling yourself your eyes are only watering from glue fumes.

It's not as bad as you thought it might be, now that you know the influence is external. And it cuts out instantly when the wire is configured right, which really helps you keep what's yours and what isn't straight. You decide to redo it completely, since you are fairly certain you did foul it in your initial panic. You scrub the contact point clean without incident and reapply a sane amount of fixative, mutely enduring the full-body chills of shame, flushes of anger, and bouts of nauseating fear. Once you get used to functioning past it it's just sort of annoying. By this point you've decoupled your thoughts from your fluctuating feelings almost entirely, supposing yourself to be a little like a balloon getting yanked on by the string. No matter what direction it pulls you, your knowledge of which way is "up" isn't something it can actually take away.

You have literally just finished thinking this when the first surge of arousal hits, and you double over with a ragged gasp onto the table.

"Oh, hell no," you wheeze, even as you press down heavily with your cheek and start up a rough purring low in your throat. You snuggle forward and push back hard against the seat of your chair, seeing stars; the purring drops precipitously down into your thorax. You have to get the wire-- it takes a supreme effort of will to unwrap an arm from hugging yourself and reach for it. Your pulse thunders deafeningly in your ears, and the closer your hand gets to the bee clamp the worse it all becomes. By the time you can get the shaking tips of your remaining fingers to brush the wire, it's hammering you right in the nook, your bulge is writhing in your jeans, and your whole body is shaking with each beat of your bloodpusher.

Your face is still pressed hard into the table. You are wide-mouthed and drooling. The cool curve of the wire is meaningless to you, utterly swamped by more pressing sensations. You-- you have to-- you have to perform the final alignment--

Yeah, so your other hand is totally down your pants right now. Your internal overseer is still telling itself that you're mentally present, but when your other hand plunges down to join the first one, even your internal narration admits that you're out of control. You can't even think thii2 2uck2 properly, it all feels too good.

You unstick your cheek from the puddle and slouch back, hiking up a leg for better access and narrowly missing the bee clamp and its prisoner. You stare at it uncomprehendingly as four of your fingers make quick circles around the slippery outsides of your nook and your other three stroke lightly up and down the underside of your bulge, evading its attempts to bind and wring them. Because of course you still have enough presence of mind and dexterity for this, you think, bitterly-- fine, exultantly, fuck your life, yes, fuck, yes--

You hate being exposed. You've never done anything like this anywhere but the privacy of your own ablutionblock, and something in you more fragile than you knew is whimpering in pain. You want to get somewhere dark and safe, not right here out in the middle of the room; you want the white noise of running water, not these too-loud, too-private sounds--

You cup yourself as hot fluid spills over your fingers and into your jeans, sag bonelessly through your release, clench hard through an aftershock, go lax again; are gripped by another, strong enough to force an embarrassing mewl from your throat. The wetness spreads. Your sense of relief evaporates. You make a wild grab for your bulge, but you're too late to catch more than the last slackening inch of it as it retreats. You hiss helplessly at the bolt of aversive sensation, knead fitfully at your sheath and hiss harder, toss your horns and snap viciously at the air.

Everything is horrible and cooling rapidly and not enough. Your hands are wet, sticky, and still trapped in your sodden jeans. You shove your fingers down further, to inner thighs gone moist and tacky with genetic material, and dig in your useless claws with every ounce of force that you can muster. Which isn't much, in this state, but it's enough for the misery to reach a breaking point. You can actually feel your pupils constrict as your problem-solving abilities all roar back online at once. IF the effects are even slightly proximity-dependent-- you hang on grimly through another aftershock-- THEN-- you wrench to the side, unsteadily, hampered by the worst case of jelly legs you have ever experienced.

Your chair tips over as you go, and your foot sweeps across the table.

For one wonderful instant, everything is silenced so completely your 'pusher actually trips over itself with an unpleasant double-thump. Your moment of clarity is spent in hitting the floor and rolling away. Through one of your flailing revolutions, you catch sight of the bee where it dangles off the edge of the table by its wires. Time slows to a crawl as you freeze. Oh, no, you think.

"Oh nnhhnnnnh," you manage, as your whole body goes limp and you flop belly-down onto the carpet. The sudden surge of riotous buzzing does not, unfortunately, drown out your voice. If its chassis were still pinned properly by the clamp, it wouldn't be able to move its wings at all. Your panic transmutes unhelpfully to frantic little motions of your hips. Some of those wires are hooked up inside, to delicate structures and processing organs; you can't see what's going on, you don't know which of the attachments are bearing all that weight.

Your hands are still down your stupid fucking pants and your bloodpusher is pounding. Get up, you think furiously. Get up, get up! You can't just leave it, fuck, it'll do itself an injury. Let alone the stress--

Sollux: Get up! ==>

You cannot get up. You are coming again.

The unseen buzzing stops, stutters, redoubles. Worst-case scenarios flick through your mind one after another, components cracking or bending or slowly pulling free beyond repair. This is the most terrible thing to have happened yet, you think, squeezing your thighs together and rocking. Please, please just let it get loose without hurting itself too badly, and then let it get far enough away from you to stop feeling so threatened--

You are moaning, loudly, but the muted thump its body makes as it hits the carpet cuts straight through your haze. Is it okay? Is it still capable of function? If it dies just out of sight, when you could have saved it if only you could move, you are going to flip so many goddamn tables when you can stand again. You are going to break into your neighbors' and keep on flipping once you run out.

zzt. zzzb. zz-zz-zZz-zzZZzz-zzZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzz--

It's up, it's up, it's flying, you think giddily, unable to relax any further but sending the signals anyway just to feel them bounce. Now if it'll just go off somewhere private to expire from shock, you can pull off your heroic rescue once it gets too weak to fight.

zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZP.

Shitslurpingfuck it's on the back of your neck. Oh no no NO NO NOT THE

OW.

It stings you deeply enough to grate against bone. You entirely fail to black out despite really, really wanting to. It draws back, or swivels-- you can't tell, and don't know which would be worse; your imagination attempts to overlay them both-- then jabs again, probingly. You're still relaxed, is the thing, limbs loose and sickeningly unresponsive. Let's play a game, you think. Are you paralyzed because it's still fucking with your thinkpan, or are you paralyzed because of the three-inch-long stinger lodged in your nape, pumping venom?

At least you don't feel turned on any more, thank fuck. Though that does mean that you are probably just regular paralyzed. You don't know whether or not you can feel the rest of your body; you are a little bit preoccupied with the blazing agony. Of defeat, among other things. You wish you could close your eyes, one of which is touching the floor still open, glasses gone too askew to afford you much protection. It's not so bad; at least like this you can't look around and make the situation worsen.

The bee crawls slowly and haltingly into your limited field of view, trailing wires and leaking insulating fluid. You didn't feel it detach but it doesn't surprise you; that whole area feels burnt out, charred to cinders. You can't see the stinger, which only confirms what you already suspected: it's left it behind in your neck, along with associated venom glands and most of its plumbing. No one can fix this, not even you. It's going to die before your eyes, if it can't make it any farther, presumably in distress very similar to your own. And you are not going to be able to do a thing about it.

It winds down like clockwork, with one last trembling flip of its wings that sends bitter floral pheromones down your chitinous windtube on your next slow, even inhale. It's come to a halt facing slightly away from you. From this angle, even with your eyes unfocused, you have a front-row seat to the ragged hole in the end of its abdomen where--wait, what, what the hell.

There is no hole. There's nothing missing. The stinger is retracted, that's all, the apparatus as whole as the night you first started messing with it. Then what's that throbbing in your neck? You reach up and pat around for it blindly before you realize what you're doing, and then lose all ability to realize things at all. Because--

"Ahhh fuck," you choke out. It itches, it itches so bad, and scratching feels so good, bright and clear and overwhelming. You rise to your knees, scrubbing at the swollen lump two-handed until tears stand out in your eyes. This, you wish would never stop. You could do this forever; you want to, and for a small eternity of pure, unadulterated bliss you want nothing else, and never have. Until, at the edges of your perception, just ever so slightly, the pleasure begins to wear thin. No, you think, in mounting desperation. No.

No, wait. You were doing something.

Fuck! The bee. Fuck, is it even a bee? No, agh, agh you can't think-- you bear down nine-clawed and raking, as hard as you can, until blood or worse slicks your fingers and your thoughts of "Ow, ow no, okay time to stop now" are coming through in crisp high-definition.

You yank your hands away, panting, then scoop the...thing up in your shaking, bloodstained fingers. You need to get the wires out and the access panels closed as soon as possible, before-- yes, the ventral hatch is twisted sadly, and none of the others are much better. As gently as you can, you pluck out the last wires and smooth the flaps shut. The worst ones, already inflamed, close with some reluctance. But they do; you made it in time.

The bee is neither limp nor stiffening, another good sign, just pliant and still. Shit, you called it a bee again. At this point you are pretty sure it isn't, though you can't say why, if for no other reason than refusal to have been bested to this degree by any breed of Apis. With your luck it'll be based on some sort of hunting wasp, and have just gotten done laying an egg in your neck or some shit.

You keep a thumb pressed delicately to the torn ventral panel as you stagger to your feet and cross to the hiveframes. You hadn't noticed anything ruined inside; the attachment points on the chassis seem to have taken the brunt of the fall. You drizzle some mind honey onto the irritated, leaking seams for its antibiotic properties and stumble back to the workbench, where the state your chair's in brings exactly how clammy and gross your pants are back into sudden focus. Wonderful, you think, laying the sticky little thing down on its back and not sitting down. You switch your thumb for your stubby finger on the ventral hatch, soft and clawless, and the legs kick a little and curl loosely around it.

You reach for your apipuncture needles with your mind, and-- they don't come. Fuck, whatever. You yank the drawer out by hand, unable to remember the last time you'd even had to do that, and fumble around for the sterile cylinder. You pull it apart and manipulate the little flagged pins one-handed. Bee or no bee, the dual-core design is similar to what you're used to; you suspect it may even be completely cross-compatible, and you trust your ability to disable its extraneous functions from the outside with or without your psi. The fine implements slide in until their label-ribboned ends are flush with the chassis. You shut off the wireless first, then bluefang, moving one by one down the list of energy-draining subsystems until even its eye-lights are offline and it's flagged all over with little spots of color.

The legs seize hard at the first breach, then gradually relax as you keep working. You get dug into sixfold once or twice when it's either unavoidable that you cross a nerve cluster, or you must run afoul of one a standard bee wouldn't have. About halfway through you feel a startling electric tickle on your hand; while you were craning around for the perfect angles, distracted, you'd swivelled enough to come into range of its jaws. You jerk away as carefully as you are able, no harm done-- to either of you, you realize in relief, checking on the ventral hatch you'd managed to keep steady pressure on.

But your bloodpusher sinks, as you finish up and decide to dab the well-coagulated hatch with an antiinflammatory. It had sliced right through flesh and bone, last time, and now it only has the strength to give you a little tingle? Shit. You gather it up-- it just fits in your palm-- and try to take what's left of your finger back. It holds on, of course, reflexively, but you wiggle free, and when you set it down in the emergency incubator you have to use both hands to uncurl all of its legs and set them to the towel inside. But it shuffles and hooks in, after, antennae wagging with a little interest before going quiet again.

You close it in and peer through the window, raising the temperature and CO2 concentration to mimic that found in the heart of a running hive. Its abdomen ripples a bit more deeply, but not so quickly as to indicate respiratory distress. You let out a long breath of your own, scratching absently at the back of your neck. That"¦ still feels better than it has any right to. When you surface from your reverie, you've picked off all your scabs and your fingers are fresh-coated yellow again, over the old stuff that's flaking. Oh, great, and now your open wounds are burning from the honey-- that feels nice, actually, astringently good like it's getting at the itching--

You need to take ablutions. Now. You leave the thick haze of alarm pheromones in your respiteblock behind, growing dizzier and dizzier as you go before collapsing weakly to the floor. You aren't even halfway to the ablutionblock, which would have at least had some symmetry. Thiit, you think, only realizing you said it aloud when you remember you neither think with a lisp nor fuck up that particular phoneme. You notice that your tongue is currently stuck out and aching; you must have bitten yourself when you fell.

The taste of your own blood is the last thing that you remember.

-

You wake with a crick in your neck, bleary and drymouthed, already scrambling unsteadily to your feet. Sleep without sopor takes you that way; you generally come to full awareness mid-lunge for an imaginary foe. You've lost more than a few monitors like that, though your chair both rolls and spins and thus is fairly safe to fall asleep in. But this is the hallway. Why are you in the hallway?

Oh. Right. You stand uncertainly for a moment, swaying, then point yourself unerringly for the ablutionblock. Sweet nubslurping fuck but you are absolutely disgusting. You reek, you have a splitting headache, and your pants are actually stuck to you at your crotch and thighs. And that's not even getting into the state of your nook and bilateral symmetricity crease right now. But you don't even bother adjusting your gait, because... fuck it. This is bad enough without waddling around.

You'll drink first, you decide, because the thirst currently gripping your throat is worse than any you've ever felt, and then you'll piss, and then you'll take ablutions, and then you'll check on how your own personal daymare is doing. You misstep on the way into the ablutionblock, grabbing onto the sink and leaning heavily. The convalescent blend in the feeder bottle should need topping off, you think, awkwardly clawing at the taps. If it hasn't died outright, you'll need to start on synthesizing the necessary additives, which will be a difficult and delicate process without bees to just command to do it for you. Then you'll eat.

But for now you'll drink, finally, fuck yes and fuck cups, this is what hands are for--

You are not drinking with your hands. You have crammed your whole head into the basin and are licking and chewing futilely at the stream of water. Uh, all right. You'll need to purse your lips and suck if you want to-- you purse your lips and suck, too hard, getting mostly air. No, argh, not like that, like-- that. Like that. What the hell's wrong with you, you think, taking long, uncomfortable swallows. The lukewarm tapwater is the best you've ever tasted, though, and you put the thought on hold in favor of drinking until you feel pleasantly ill. Okay, now you'll untwist from your weird-ass hunch-- you straighten-- and you'll turn off the water-- you turn away from the sink-- and you'll.

You'll step into the ablution trap, fully-clothed, and look up at the open vent, water still running behind you into the sink.

Ah yes, you think, reaching up as high as you can and patting at the tile. Mind control. The tips of your fingers are still a good handspan short of the vent, and you go up on tiptoes, marvelling at how determined your brain is to pretend the whole thing is your idea. The seamless self-deception would tell you some things about where it's stuck its frond into your motor pathways, but you haven't refreshed yourself on anything neurologically upstream of apipuncture in ages. Your fingers just brush the ledge, and despite yourself you visualize the little hop you'd need to take to-- You hop. Your fingers hook on, but you aren't the strongest troll in the world, and you're already preparing to slide back down again when you realize that, no. No, you are making this happen.

"Shitfuck," you gasp, as your legs come up and brace, putting an incredible amount of strain on your fingers. This feels like the dumbest thing you've ever done, but this isn't you, you're not doing it. You feel an awful, sick fear rising at the thought-- or maybe it's just falling you're afraid of. Your fingers spasm, and, yes, okay, you are somewhat afraid of falling. You keep trying to do something sensible with your legs, slip down gracefully, lift with your psionics, but either your body isn't listening or your signals just aren't getting through. By the time your fingers begin to slip for real, you've been set up for a terrible fall.

The grip on you doesn't falter for an instant, not even when you finally lose yours. You have a very clear snapshot of your hands, held before your face like you're still holding on, before gravity dashes you against the floor of the trap. You go down ass-first, of course. The impact jars up the whole length of your vertebral chute, the thump as your thinkpan hits drowned out by the astounding pain in your terminus. But something pushes insistently to the forefront of your mind, even dizzy with pain and disorientation. What's that funny feeling on your neck, you think. What's that buzzing.

Your choices: to process the realization through normal channels, or to disengage completely as an act of self-preservation. You fail to disengage. Instead you flip entirely off the handle, because you have a bug on you. You have a bug pressed between the back of your neck and the floor of the trap, and it is buzzing and writhing against your skin. You remember, very clearly, what happened the last time you had this bug on you, right in that very same place--

One moment you are crumbling under wave after wave of anxiety demanding you flail and slap at it for all you're worth, and in the next you are simply no longer afraid. The chills still wrack you, the flight response still loosens your limbs and bowels, but flung into neutral like this you regain the presence of mind to hold back from actually messing yourself. Looks like those muscles are still under control, at least. Good, because your pride is still present and accounted for, even if your fear is currently experiencing a system outage.

You hope its intervention means it doesn't appreciate your panic any more than you do. This feels much better, actually, and you manage to hang on to your composure even as its influence begins to fade. Okay. Your situation is thus: you are currently on your back and rocking from side to side, being piloted by an insect that does not seem to know how to roll over in an enclosed space. Your clothes are-- no, scratch that, it does know, or maybe you unconsciously imagined getting up.

You straighten the rest of the way, rattled and aching. And then, unbelievably, you head for the vent again. "You have got to be fucking kidding me," you hiss, bouncing up and down on the balls of your feet. You jump and get a better grip this time, wondering whether its nasty upgrade to direct control involved the sting it gave you. And, if it's clinging in that exact spot for a reason, whether any of the same principles apply as for contact points-- You slip again, having gotten only slightly further than before. You don't fall as badly this time, and bruise your hip instead of your goddamn fucking terminus.

Your bladder twinges at the impact, and you leak a few drops despite yourself. Now you are officially sick of this thing's shit. You had actually tried, just now, and it had moved you in the sensible way you'd thought at it, but this is simply not possible without your psionics: the wall is too smooth, the vent is too high, and your hands are only going to get weaker with every failed attempt. You get to your feet again, growling, feeling an odd flutter in your diaphragm as it presumably tries to make you stop. Fuck that in every leaking orifice it's got; you ramp up to an eloquent snarl, and will yourself as hard as you can to turn around and turn on the water.

You feel air move across the backs of your ears as it uncertainly fans its wings. Yes, fuck yes, it's-- it's snuffed out your emotions again. Nice try, you think, serenely, and swap over from thinking hard to thinking as quickly as possible. You start with trying to type and stick with it when you mentally add spinning in your chair and a second keyboard and begin to sway drunkenly on your feet. If you can just fall over on your own terms and stay there, its tiny metabolism will be no sweat for you to wait out. You're halfway through a recapitulation of this one Stage 4 bullet hell boss when it tries cranking your libido to eleven again, and you howl in incandescent frustration.

Three tremendous thumping noises echo from below.

You shut up instantly, because that was your downstairs neighbor banging on their ceiling and you are an idiot. It takes the opportunity to drag you another step, and when you try to wrest control away all you can think about is fucking. You take another step. The first time this happened the arousal had been purely physical, as quadrantless as yawning. But you are already angry, and even though this is really, really not the time to be having black feelings you find yourself having them anyway. Stage 4, Stage 4, think about Stage 4--

You think about your neighbor, listening with bated breath for any excuse to escalate to pistolkind. About how you are physically in the trap, and still being kept from the ablutions you're basically gagging for. Your bladder cramps with deep, visceral pain and then you're thinking about that too, with equal parts urgency and despair. And a certain sort of burning resentment licks at you like fire, and your bulge firms inexorably in your sheath despite-- okay, who are you even kidding, fine, because of everything. No, you think desperately, you hate this! Yes, your body replies agreeably. You really, really do.

Hands on the wall again, panting, you glare up at the vent from beneath lowered brows. No. No, you won't. You are going to turn around, jump around, fucking spin around three hundred and sixty degrees and moonwalk-- that last one does it. Your fingers twitch, and so do your legs, and so do the legs on the back of your neck. Slipped gears catch, somewhere deep in your thinkpan, and you shove back hard and whirl.

Only to go knock-kneed immediately and stagger to a halt, victory draining out of you-- okay bad mental image, bad mental image-- if you swear out loud you'll acknowledge that it's happening, if you even breathe it'll only get worse. You clamp down in complete silence, even your eyes closing, and somehow, against all odds, it's enough. You dare a shaky exhale, heel of your hand pressed down hard against yourself. Well, that's nice; you can move your hands again. Judging by the frantic activity on the back of your neck, your scabs are being nibbled off-- at least the idea of that happening still disgusts you, even if the sensation is really awkwardly like being regular nibbled-- and you are wasting your chance at getting free standing here straining not to piss yourself, while simultaneously fantasizing extensively about it.

Your bulge is sheathed now only by the pressure of your hand, your nook pulsing wetly behind it. Everything between your waist and knees is on fire with need, even your pitch instincts in on it, now, whispering to you that the time for fighting is through. Fuck that, you think, and also: two targets, and go for the second one hot on the heels of the first.

The nerves in your hand just barely have time to report the feel of thick fur and delicate wings before a jolt of electric pain sends that entire arm numbly offline. But your other attack gets through, and you fall to your knees with your good hand locked around the water dial, wrenching it to "ablutionate." Fuck you fuck you fuck you, you think, as the thin trickle that had snuck out when you'd lunged swells to an unrepentant stream. You slump forward limply, hanging from your grip on the dial as the perforated pressurization fitting hisses and spits and finally rains down clear, clean water onto your shoulders and bowed head. Now all of you is getting wet, you think despairingly, shuddering hard as your bulge slides out in one long, luxuriant push. If only you hadn't gone black about it, losing wouldn't be so good; if only this hadn't happened in the trap, you wouldn't come so quickly, so easily, and with so little shame. Twice, you think dully. The first while you were slumping down and squirming through the initial rush. The second just now, emptied out and aching.

You think you'll just. Stay here for a while.

The little sensations swell to fill your awareness. The pins and needles in your dead arm, the slackness in your other, which you are resting your forehead against. The hollow, sated relief still curled caressingly all through the deepest parts of you. The cold water percolating down through your clothing, slowly but surely replacing your heat. The low, rumbling purring that had better not be you-- which, thank fuck, turns out to be the steady revving of wings.

You try to sit up and find that you can't. And then you try everything you can think of, on your ass in the trap, down an arm and most of your dignity, wrapped in a lassitude not entirely your own. Nothing you try to push past its block so much as changes the pitch of its rumbling wings. Your window of free action has passed, and it still has the better of you.

The back of your neck feels slick and raw, the water stinging where it drips down from your hair. Maybe if you stayed in here an hour or so the thinned-out skin would saturate enough to slough off and foul the contact. But, you think, clambering awkwardly to your feet, you have neither the will nor the way left to throw a proper tantrum right now. Whatever. Falling from this height a couple dozen times will wear you out before it kills you; not how you'd preferred to play this, but shit happens. You just wish you could figure out some way to get out of your heavy, reeking clothing. At least it's all been rinsed into a more generalized grossness now--

You step out of the running trap, streaming, and rub your good arm down your front. And then you do it again, and again, and then you pluck at your collar and bite at it, and only then, finally, do you allow yourself to believe. Please, you think. Please listen. The bug is apparently done with listening, and continues its attempts to groom your shirt off. You keep trying, undeterred. No, not like that, this way, and pants unbutton so--

You stop and cock your head. Like... this... you think, as clearly and pedantically as you are able, and, miraculously, begin to work your arms into your shirt, one with a little more difficulty than the other. The lag between each motion and the next is perceptible, not at all like the previous, seamless override. You're pretty sure it's crunching serious numbers now, scrutinizing the implications of your actions instead of just cherrypicking likely-looking thoughts to execute. Data in support of this conclusion: the long, long pause when it comes time to pull your shirt off over it and your head.

It's only one bug, with no swarm to back it up on the multithreading, and already warming uncomfortably against your skin. The buzzing is getting labored now, peak airflow unable to keep up with the demand for cooling. It's in no fit state to be stress-tested with this degree of processing load, and here it is having to-- you're certain of it now-- run all these extra self-defense calculations, to make sure you're not recommending anything that is secretly going to squish it.

Yeah, like hell. With the security system you'll base off a whole swarm of these, you won't have to worry about hive invasion ever again. Even once you get a kismesis interested in breaking in, with a detain-and-maintain protocol like this left running you'll be able to leave for as long as you like... And so, feeling a stab of covetous sympathy, you add a new layer to your attempts to help it out: your best-guess physics simulation of your shirt. Hopefully it can copy off of you as a starting point instead of simulating all the variables itself, because with the contacts so fresh and its control so tight you aren't actually bothering to make this a clever ploy--

The wings settle, and you draw your shirt smoothly over your head in the silence, neatly clearing your passenger. Hot air blasts down your back as it immediately surges to full throttle again, and you sway on your feet as your shirt splats wetly to the floor. In catching yourself you realize, suddenly, that you caught yourself. It must be overheated from the overload, and dropping everything it can in compensation-- but before you can try anything you're spun unceremoniously around to grab onto the sink again and lean there. After a moment of staring at your hands and receiving no further input, you try to tug them free. And can't. Your fingers are locked tight.

But, it turns out, nothing else is. You pick up one foot and then the other, flex your knees and elbows, and are a hairs-breadth away from thinking seriously about twisting free when the little ember of heat against the back of your neck and the gale-force fanning both intensify. Okay, okay! You think, backing off at once.

"Don't melt anything on my account, god," you say, quite normally, into the running sink. "Oh shit, I thaid that jutht now--" Wow, you weren't playing around when you bit your tongue earlier. You regard the rushing water for a moment, then crane down to turn off the tap with a few bonks of a major horn. The bug is jostled, but unperturbed; by the ache, its hooked feet probably broke the skin a while ago. Sighing about that, but mostly about not being able to turn the trap off too, you raise your head and look into the mirror.

Hah, now you go doubled horns, doubled ears, doubled wings; at least it looks nice, even if it has been a huge pain in the ass so far. What the hell is it even still calculating, you think, wincing as the waste heat ramps up again to the point of pain. You don't even want to know what temperatures it's reaching inside that furry chassis. You hope it's figuring out pants, and start in on that as helpfully as you are able, running through the sequence forwards and backwards while you wait. But it's taking forever and you're still just standing here, what even is its deal? You are thoroughly sick of your own features by the time you stop twitching impatiently and stand up straight. And matter-of-factly undo your fly, shove your pants down, and step free, complete with the absolute minimum of hopping around.

Oh. That wait had been buffering, you think, stepping back into the running trap just as smoothly. You groom yourself beneath the cool water in quick, insectile motions, and when you step out again, dripping, you can't even bring yourself to care about not turning it off behind you. You're so glad to be clean you even hold off on being intractable, and your steps as you leave the ablutionblock are measured and sure. It feels so strongly as if you're just on autopilot that, without anything in particular to rail against, you feel almost normal.

Except for not having paused for a towel. Except for the weight on the back of your neck, and the buzzing. Except for how, when you reach for the thought, you have no idea where you're going. This would probably freak you out more if you hadn't just had a huge knock-down drag out fight with the thing and channelled all your fear into aggression. You know you're not actually helpless, which is the only thing anyone with any sense stays afraid of. You're just...biding your time.

And honestly you're pretty much over everything but the stinger at this point. Which you don't think is even a weapon, really; the control is the weapon, that follows the sting. And it hadn't stung you again, not even when you'd been winning. You decide to take this as strong argument for it having been a one-time setup sort of deal. Yeah.

So. You're basically fine, considering the worst it can do has now merely been upgraded from "escape" to "walk you outside, then escape, leaving you naked and temporarily paralyzed in the street." These are risks you can manage and are willing to take. Besides, you're like 70% certain that you got enough of an account hacked in with your control board yesternight that, once it's finished securing you as per whatever nonlethal security protocol this is, it'll drop back into Ready mode and ask you what to do with yourself.

Fuck if this whole posession business isn't getting in the way of some prime coding time, though. You can already feel ideas for the compiler boiling just beneath the surface of your thinkpan. This feeling is the only reason you bother sleeping at all, and here you are striding into the laundering block with way better posture than anything that could ever happen in a laundering block could ever call for, and no way to write anything down.

Are you...going to climb into the dirty clothespile? No, you are going to sweep it off the hygeinification unit onto the floor. Are you...going to climb up onto the unit? Yes, you are going to hoist yourself onto the unit and stand. Are you... going to climb into the laundering block vent from here? Yes. Yes, you are going to hitch yourself in headfirst, and begin to kick and wriggle.

"Again with thith? Really?" you bitch echoingly down the vent. You'd designed your whole hivetier with an eye for dust control, so even this far along your projected growth curve you still fit, just barely. You grunt and undulate and finally get yourself in, creeping forwards briskly and relentlessly even as your muscles begin to burn. There's just enough space for you to wallow along on elbows and knees, not comfortably, and your skin catches here and there on rivets and seams as you press onwards, heedlessly acquiring bruises and scrapes. It's dumb and it hurts and it doesn't have to, you want to float through here properly, you want it to decide you're far enough in and that you're neutralized already, because you are, holy shit you are so done with this, can you just rest--

Your familiarity with the ducts only makes you more annoyed with them. This space is such a tedious chore to clean, and for each new length you wriggle you have a memory of some past irritation. "Logon Captor," you try, several times, to no avail. Nothing. Dealing with an active threat isn't the sort of process you can interrupt on half of a hacked-in admin's status. Now you're crawling along the hall... now you're over your nutritionblock...

You are panting and overheated and so obviously heading for the ablutionblock that you want to blow up the entire hivestem before you can make it there. The only light is that of your own eyes, and the air is still and close; you block up just enough of the duct to make it stuffy with your exertions. If it were hotter there would be cool airflow here, but you figure it's just your luck for it to be a beautiful night outside. You claw your way past a hard corner and, finally, flop or are flopped with a whuff of breath onto your sweaty belly.

There is dim light here, and it is vaguely damp. Now that you've stopped moving you can hear the running trap. If you could raise your head to look, you would see the open rectangle of the ablutionblock vent a body's-length further along.

"Logon Captor," you snarl into the metal beneath your cheek. The bug does not respond. "Logon fucking Captor!"

Now that it's done with you it should acknowledge, damn it. Instead you feel diffuse pain and a sort of-- tugging-- that you fail to parse as claws unpicking from your flesh until they are all free. "Thtandby," you try, as it begins to circle in place. Holy fucking shit it better not sting you again. "All thythtemth. Systhte--fuck. Systems. Standby all systemth now!"

It begins to crawl ticklingly down your vertebral chute. God fucking damn it, these commands shouldn't be failing silently, you'd finagled at least that much of an account yesternight. You refuse to accept the lock-out, and set your mind racing back through the steps you've taken for probable cause. Fuck, fuck, it should answer, you hadn't pin-silenced its speakers-- but, you recall, you had in fact told it to mute, when the laggy barrage of error messages had gotten too annoying. "Reenable mechanomagnetic resonance module intensity forty now," you try, and when it chirrups in response you feel a thrill of relief not even your self-deprecation can overpower.

God, you are so fucking dumb sometimes. Whatever. There's about a million things you'd like to try with your needles right now, but besides being unable to, you are extra unable to at the moment, as the bug has progressed to that place between your shoulderblades where you can't grab.

"Standby all nonessential systems now," you enunciate, deciding to play nice, or at least with an eye to avoiding any more of those ludicrous error monologues.

"Nonessential systems standing by," it replies, and then turns your entire world upside down and shakes it.

It's more whole-body impact than pain. Every muscle in your back twists and shivers as horror swells-- is it stinging you? Is it stinging you?!-- but a strange, missing-signal static is fading in where more detailed pain ought to be. Warmth. And a deep tingle, shivering out along all your limbs annnnnd you just got paralyzed again, didn't you.

The second you realize that the heat in your arms and legs is fading away to total nothingness you start snickering silently and can't stop. You've been reduced to a hyperintelligent torso with a through-the-roof psi rating, on some total idiot's leash! Precocious, lmao. You are so adding "I've been piloted by insects smarter than this person" to your repertoire of adult barbs, even if your Career Prospects Determinaterror fails to sell you on helming. Fucking amazing. Whatever.

You're still breathing, lightly, with the cadence of your mirth. You stop breathing, start again, take a deep one, bounce successfully up and down on your stomach a little and also succeed in sneering in discomfort, when you manage to lift your head. You can feel the bug on your back, still, slowly creeping. You know too much about all the things it might be doing to hazard any guesses now, and finish up testing each and every wall of your new cage instead. Okay. So. Appendicular anatomy's a loss, but you can still twitch your ears and can-- still waggle your eyebrows, and-- and-- your tongue is thick in your mouth like a dead thing.

You work your jaw, numbly at first, then with increasing desperation. The bug pauses ominously halfway down your vertebral chute, just where your thoracic struts end. You don't know whether real panic will trigger emotional override or, or worse, but dwelling on it won't help, just, shit, fuck, your verbal access-- you have to be able to speak!-- you focus your whole being on speech, and it resumes its crawl. Your skin crawls with it, beginning to prickle with cold sweat.

"hhggkkey," you manage. "Hhhokay. Oh. Kay. I. Can. thpeak. Thhhhh. Thhhhfuck, who careth. Log on--"

"You are already logged in. Would you like to switch active users?" Its voice from behind you is soft and distant, echoes of it hushing back from the depths of the vent.

No you fucking wouldn't, you want to "Open terminal!"

"Open terminal as Captor?"

"Yeth, fuck, yessth. Full-- full permissions."

"An account is requesting root user level access. Allow?"

"Yes!"

"Access granted. Current directory:" and then it chirrups, brightly, a single note of system punctuation.

You don't think twice: "Help," you choke, snuffling back congestion and blinking hard with your inner eyelids.

"Welcome to the contextual help menu," it replies. "For a list of processes held at checkpoint and awaiting administrative confirmation, speak the words 'list of processes awaiting administrative confirmation.' There is one process currently awaiting administrative confirmation. For a list of currently-running processes, speak the words 'list of currently-running processes'--"

Every cell in your body rebels at having to sit here and listen to this shit instead of skim it at proper speed. "List of currently-running processeth," you snap, and it clickers and chirrs, then:

"There are no currently-running processes."

"HOOFBEATHTSHIT," you howl, because fuck if it isn't still moving around on you with intensely fucking creepy amounts of purpose, and you dash your horns against the metal wall. The whole vent rings like a bell, and you whip yourself from side to side in white-hot fury. At length you subside, head throbbing dully, and resentfully contemplate squishing it against the roof. You discard the idea immediately--even as the bug pauses again in the dip of your lower back--because oh right, you're a fucking torso, and haven't got the leverage to do anything it couldn't avoid.

Anyway, unprogrammed bee death tends to result in explosions. You are supremely uninterested in finding out what kind of blast radius this thing would leave.

"Help," you sigh, and close your eyes, and settle in to listen.