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"Thought you said you could pack in two days," Bro says as he slides a shoebox of photos off the closet shelf that you haven't been able to reach since April and tosses it to you.
You grunt and carefully squeeze it into one of the many cardboard boxes littering your room. "Yeah, yeah, give the dude with fucked up legs a break for underestimating his first big move."
Since when the fuck did you have this much Stuff in the first place? It always seemed like a pretty modest collection when it was sitting pretty on shelves or in your closet. Now that you're shoving it into boxes on a deadline, it's repopulating faster than Mormons.
Bro holds one of your carcasses-inna-jar to the light. "Why do you have so much dead shit?"
"It's cool and I like it." You smack his leg with the back of your hand and he takes the hint, passing the preserved corpse to you. "I don't have to explain myself to the man with a vaguely sexual puppet collection," you mutter, dropping the jar into a stray sock before you press it into the last empty corner of the latest box.
"Touche," Bro says, reaching up to clear off the rest of your closet shelf.
You rip off a new piece of packing tape and press it over the top of the box until the flaps are sealed in place, then glance around in search of a box that hasn't been filled to bursting. There's so much shit on the ground that it's a hassle and a half to maneuver your wheels. "Do we got more boxes?" You've gone through two rolls of tape already, but this is the first time you've run low on other mandatory supplies.
"I don't fucking know. Maybe." Bro sighs and drops the latest loot on top of an already sealed box. "Fuck it. Go get some sleep."
"Man, we aren't even close to done." You don't know how you aren't even close to done. Maybe your closet is a wormhole to the tchotchke dimension.
"So I'll keep boxing shit up after you leave and mail it along in a week or two. Big deal." He nods at the pair of suitcases you've lined up for the flight. "You can make do with that, right?"
You frown. Clothes, toothbrush, camera... You're well-packed for a two-week vacation, except this vacation has no end date. "Well, yeah, but it's kinda a jackass move to pass my chores onto you."
"I owe you this and then some, kid," Bro says quietly. He catches you by your armpits and lifts you out of your wheelchair, hoisting you over the boxes that block your route to bed. "Don't make me explain to Roxy why you're dead on your feet tomorrow." He lowers you onto the mattress and pulls a blanket over you in what you guess might qualify as "tucking in," if it weren't so mechanical.
You grunt and settle against your pillow. "A'right, fine, but only 'cos you asked so nicely."
He places a hand against your temple in one of his robotic-yet-humanizing attempts at affection that's fast becoming familiar. You slide your hand over his. You'll still have a little time tomorrow before Mom takes you to the airport in the afternoon, but you already know that's going to be so frantic and rushed that neither of you will have any nerves left for something this sincere. This is your real good-bye.
You should probably be getting a case of cold feet right about now, but you invested in some nice metaphorical slippers this past month and you're immune to the chilly temperature. Besides, you miss Mom and Rose, and you haven't had a chance to miss Bro yet. You can feel wistful for your lost Texan home after you've actually left it.
Also, phones exist.
You keep expecting him to reach his limit of physical contact and flashstep the hell out of here, but Bro sits with you in awkward dead silence. Under normal circumstances, a douchebag watching you sleep would keep you wide awake for at least an hour, but it's been a longass day and you nod off before the heat of his hand can grow too uncomfortable.
It's okay, though. Your dreams are more than happy to fill the discomfort quota instead. It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it.
Motherfuckin' cockbite of a nightmare rerun. You'd know the start of this episode anywhere: Everything's dark, you're a sprite again, and Dave is lounging on the ground like an anti-social emo teen.
Whatever. Just whatever. The important part is that a dream with Dave has never yet involved puppets that stare into your soul.
You still sigh. "Cool, more cryptic messages from beyond the grave. Let's get this shit started, then." You wait for a return quip, but Dave doesn't say anything. He just raises his head, training his shades on you. You shift back. "What are you staring at?"
"You fucking did it," he says in awe. He gets to his feet. "It's actually happening."
"Wow, right on time with those cryptic messages." You tap an imaginary watch on your wrist. "They should give you a raise for punctuality."
He snorts. "Hey, it's not like being straightforward with you was gonna get us anywhere. I could say, hey, bro, stop hating on yourself, but would that actually happen? No, that shit only develops organically no matter what wisdom your dead self drops on you, so I figured we were both stuck like this forever, because what are the chances you could stop being a mopey bastard, right?"
You give him a dull stare. He can't see it through your shades, but he's made this expression often enough he probably knows what you're going for. "You were waiting on me to stop angsting."
"Yeah, pretty much the story of my boringass afterlife recently." He reaches out and shoves his palm against your forehead. You expect to wake with a start, but the dream doesn't end. Dave just pushes you backwards a few inches. "That memorial was actually sincere, wasn't it?"
You float back just out of his reach. "What? No. The Sbahj tribute was hella ironic."
"Skaia calls bullshit, or else I still wouldn't be able to touch you." He gestures at your ghost tail. "C'mon, man, I'm the one who has to explain this ghost shit? You're the game guide."
You frown, mentally pawing through your fountain of knowledge, but Skaia neglected to infuse you with information regarding ghosts, dreambubbles, or post-game bullshit; it's irrelevant for guiding a player through a successful session. "Sprites aren't privy to what happens to dead jerkoffs in the dreambubbles after the game ends."
"What, so you assumed we clog up the game's afterlife system forever? That's inefficient as fuck."
"Sburb's a sack of flaming crap that's never been above inefficient design and we both know it," you say with a shrug.
He snorts. "Point, but Skaia still isn't about all that extraneous data floating around from assholes like me. Let me swap our roles of mentor-mentee and give you a hint here, 'cos a dude learns a lot stuck in this existence." He waves at the empty landscape around you. "As soon as the game ended, it took out a broom and duster to tackle some long overdue spring cleaning. No one said this was a dreambubble, dude."
You rest your hand over your face in a slo-mo facepalm like you're going for world record slowest facepalm ever.
You assumed this was a dreambubble because you're asleep and Dave's dead, but Sburb's over. The rules binding the medium and everything surrounding it don't apply anymore in the post-game. The knowledge you retained as a sprite is irrelevant, because the game mechanics have all stopped running. Dave could probably stab you through the heart and do no damage, because what's going to remove your hit points or even acknowledge you're in a strife?
Given that dreambubbles are stocked with warped memories, not sheer darkness, you should have caught a hint earlier. This is video game limbo. This is Sburb in-between its "on" and "off" state. The scenery just hasn't fucking rendered, because why would that code even fire? The game isn't in session and there are no players here, just a ghost and a game construct.
Just the two of you, without even another ghostly survivor around. Weren't there like a hundred Daves here in your first dream?
You swallow. "Where are the other ghosts?"
Dave cocks his head as if he knows your question is basic, but he humors you anyway. "They're all gone, man. They returned to their alpha selves, like a blood transfusion of the soul."
Your mind grinds to a halt. Your timeline's John is with John. Every timeline's John is with John. "Wait." You hold a hand to your head. "Wait, wait, wait. All the doomed Johns merged with alpha John?" you say, receiving a nod in answer. "And the dude doesn't even know it?"
Dave shrugs. "What can I say? We both know this game likes its unnecessary symbolism. Everyone gets their souls stitched back together, even if no one notices the new blood in their veins."
He hasn't acknowledge the obvious, leaving the dirty work to you. You bite your tongue before finally saying it aloud. "But not us." You're the elephant in the room. It's you.
"Nah," he says. "You and I have been like incompatible blood types. Until you developed the matching antigens through the power of friendship and maturity, anyway, 'cos metaphorical blood can totally do that." He cups his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe I should be using an ectoplasma transfusion for the analogy?"
You study him with a frown. "Incompatibility" doesn't address the damn question that you don't entirely want answered. "Is this shit happening because I'm a sprite or because I'm not the alpha?"
He actually hesitates, as if he doesn't relish tearing down your fragile feelings. "The game isn't programmed for a scenario where a doomed player is the last one standing," he says slowly. "We got the non-standard game over when Sburb had no fucking clue how to process your survival and my death."
So your mere existence triggered a programming error. "Yeah, fucking typical," you mutter.
He nudges you. "Hey, no big deal. I rounded up the other dead Daves in the meantime and survived data deletion long enough for you to get your act together. We're cool."
You open your mouth to make some snotty retort, close it, and frown. "The game's out to delete you?"
"Well, it's gotta close the curtain on our session someday." He runs a finger across his throat. "Figure my data's on the chopping block sooner or later."
You cross your arms to prevent fidgeting. Not that you're opposed to the cancellation of these ongoing dreams, but you're not a big enough douche to wish that level of unemployment on another douchebag. "What do we do to stop that?"
He gives you his best smug grin. "Well, you broke the curse on us, prince charming, so we're basically done here." He steps closer. "Unless you're hankering to bask some more in the irony that I'm the one laying down the game walkthrough on you, let's secure the happy ending."
You lean your head back. "This better not be another fucking kiss mechanic."
He laughs. "Nah, the transfusion's painless and barely embarrassing at all." He taps you as if he's tagging you out of the ring. "See?"
Your body flickers and you jerk back on instinct, raising your hands. The color fades from your arms and you lower your gaze just in time to catch your ghost tail melting away. Your mouth goes dry. You're disappearing.
"Wait." You fight for your voice.
This is just like the first time you saw Dave's ghost, when he absorbed the other leftover doomed Daves, except they seemed cool with bowing out. You should probably be cool with it too.
"Dude, don't." You aren't cool with it. You don't even care that you're a spare. You close your eyes and clench your fists. "I'm not fucking vanishing here!"
Dave snorts. "Holy shit, dude, we really are a goddamn drama queen." He punches you lightly in the shoulder to catch your attention.
You meet his gaze and you can actually see through his shades. They're turning transparent and, when you take half a second to pay some goddamn attention, you notice the rest of him is following suit. He's disappearing, while the orange on your skin is just changing to white.
"Hey," he says with a cocky coolkid grin, "take care of our friends for me, okay?"
"Dave?" You reach to him, but your hand goes through his shoulder.
With one final nod, he vanishes like smoke.
You're gonna puke. As soon as you can remember how to work your throat and breathe again, you're going to fucking vomit. At the same time, a warmth grows in the pit of your chest, expanding to the edge of your body in a steady wave that calms your churning stomach and pumps air into your lungs.
As the heat cools to your regular body temperature, your newly returned legs give out and you crumple to the ground. Because of course you do.
You fumble for your sylladex, but even if you could find it, you don't keep a wheelchair in your inventory. In retrospect, that might be a massive oversight -- how about a little forethought, like at least a pair of crutches if you can't be assed to throw your wheelchair in and out of your sylladex all day?
The ground is warm beneath your hand, yet solid like marble, and you'd swear there are lines running along the dark surface. You trace your finger over it, making a perfect square.
Sburb's graphics break through the darkness in a belated loading sequence. A black and white checkerboard spreads all the way to the horizon, which lights into a proper blue sky, as the draw distance expands.
Your breath catches and you raise your head to confirm there's a golden planet drifting overhead, slipping in and out of view between clouds. You've been in Skaia's damn domain the whole damn time.
It's not so different from the sight you shared with Jadesprite over three years ago, except for the lack of fiery meteors raining upon you. This time you aren't bleeding from multiple wounds, but you're also immobile (unless you feel like crawling); you win some, you lose some.
Images dance over the clouds like television, only you have no remote and you're stuck on the carapacian reality show channel. You catch a glimpse of that Mayor guy the alpha Dave was so fond of, cheerfully overseeing the reconstruction of a war-torn Prospit building, before the image changes to carapacians on Derse likewise clearing out the game's destruction.
Hey, whoa, that's new and not like anything Jade ever relayed from the clouds. Instead of a prophetic image, one of the clouds features goddamn text. You're too late to read the whole thing before it fades, but you get the gist of it:
The one-man credit is quickly replaced by a huge list of names prefaced with "music by." You definitely don't have a chance in hell of reading them all.
You fall onto your back laughing. You unlocked the goddamn credits.
Dave's lingering ghost was a clog in Sburb's machinery, like the sticky shit holding the gears in stasis on LOHAC, that held the game back from blaring its triumphant finale. Everyone else left the game early and now you get a front row seat to the boringass credits scene, complete with a little clip show of the game's residents living their lives in the aftermath of the final boss.
Your laughter calms and you stare at the sky directly above you. The cloud with the credits floats overhead, as if it knows you're ignoring its very important artistic acknowledgements. It will never cease to amaze you how many assholes it takes to build a game, yet there's only a handful of programmers listed. The artists and animators, though... Their lists go on for what feels like five minutes.
You space off most of it. Maybe that's rude, but you turn the Xbox off if the only other option is sitting through unskippable credits, so why change your attitude now? You don't have the brain power to read that many contextless names, let alone retain them.
The credits are already down to the "special thanks" section, which is always near the end.
You don't know what happens once the credits run out of names to display. Your inside game knowledge from spritedom is distant and foggy now, if you ever knew to begin with. It's hard to give a shit. Nothing even feels real after watching "yourself" die. Again.
As the last credit fades from the clouds, the game world fades away with it. It's less "blackness" like before and more of a "nothing," like an abyss your eyeballs can't fully comprehend. Ten large white words hang in the empty air above you where a cloud used to float.
AND SPECIAL THANKS TO YOU, THE PLAYER, FOR JOINING US
The text flickers into nothing, replaced a second later with one final message:
WINNERS DON'T USE DRUGS
The game ends.
* * *
Your name is Dave Strider-Lalonde. It's a warm November night, the city lights are flashing through your window, and you've just woken from what might be loosely classified as a "nightmare."
You sit up, your bedsheet slipping down to your lap, and raise your hands to study them. The ghostly white skin isn't as reassuring as it used to be compared to your old orange glow. You're still you, right?
Are your memories different? Can you twitch your fingers at will? Do you have lingering emotions or flashbacks that don't belong to you?
You catch your breath. Calm down, idiot, there's got to be some kind of Dave test to make sure you're the right iteration of Dave. Question one: Do you have giantass wings?
You're failing this test already.
You shake your head and press a palm between your eyes. Wake up. Jesus. Of course you don't have wings anymore. You haven't had them in over half a goddamn year. The only difference between now and two hours ago is that you merged with all the other Daves ever in your sleep. No big deal.
Yes big deal. You don't want to be some other douchebag, even if that douchebag is the alpha Dave. He's him and you're you and you're both cool but separate people, right? Right.
Why does it gotta still be dark out? Hysteria loves the darkness, while logic just cowers in the corner and cries for its mother.
You fumble for your phone and cringe in the brightness of its backlight.
Two thirty-five in the morning. Everyone's probably offline, or they should be, but you sign into Pesterchum anyway on the off-chance that Rose or Dirk are playing delinquent. If anyone can smack you over the head with cold, reassuring logic regarding multiple selves, it's one of them.
Only John's bright blue username sits in the "online" section of your chumlist. That's probably worse than nothing, but the dilemma of whether to settle for his words of "wisdom" or not stops short when he messages you first.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
EB: i'm on strict orders from rose to tell you to go the fuck to bed.
TG: yeah i tried an affair with a good nights sleep but it didnt work out so now were seeing other people
EB: no excuses!
EB: to bed with you, strider!
TG: ok but be gentle <3
EB: don't think you can distract me with your inappropriate humor!
EB: you have a huge freaking day tomorrow and it's like two in the morning down there!
TG: who are you to tell me when my bedtime is
TG: you got goddamn school in the morning and youre up past midnight
EB: yeah, but we're taking shifts because rose knew you'd stay up too late if we didn't keep an eye on you.
EB: jade's tagging me out in half an hour, so go the fuck to sleep so she doesn't scold me for letting you stay up.
TG: too late im already settled in for the long haul
TG: its time to open tv tropes
EB: you close that informative yet addictive web page this instant!
EB: are you being a wuss about moving to new york?
TG: hell no
EB: is it the airport? i found a web site on disability rights for airport security bull shit, if you want to look it over.
TG: dude no
EB: then why are you being so stubborn about sleeping like a normal person?
TG: because i already tried it and shit got freaky in my unconscious
EB: you had a nightmare?
TG: probably not
EB: everybody has nightmares, man. it's not a big deal.
TG: not like this one they dont
EB: you sure? was it about going to school without any pants on?
EB: was a monster chasing you?
TG: still no
EB: were you a troll and you got infected with a killer video game glitch that made you attack your friends until you imploded the universe?
TG: what the fuck kind of oddly specific nightmare is that
EB: shrug. it's probably pretty common.
TG: no it really fucking isnt
EB: so, that wasn't what you dreamed about?
TG: dude no listen i think i just merged with dave
EB: ok, there are like fifty ways that sentence makes 90% less sense than most of your sentences.
EB: i mean first of all, you ARE dave.
TG: dont play dumb you know i meant alpha dave
EB: alpha dave's dead, dave.
TG: well yeah but
TG: look ok context
TG: this ghost dave has been intruding on my sleep pretty regularly since the game ended right
TG: i assumed it was just my subconscious being a dick to me but tonight he said
TG: and implied he was the real deal ghost of alpha dave and that we shouldve merged ages ago
TG: and then he disappeared
TG: im realizing how delusional i probably sound as i type this
EB: yeah, you need to lay off the frito pie before bed.
TG: dreams are kind of a big deal in sburb we all know that
EB: none of the rest of us have seen a dream bubble since the game ended, though. just regular dreams.
TG: it wasnt even a dreambubble
TG: it was just
TG: sburb limbo
TG: where all the dead daves go to party
TG: until they decided i looked like a better venue and backflipped out of sburb and into my brain
TG: like your doomed selves already did when the game ended
EB: dave, are you high on insomnia?
TG: i wish
TG: a lack of sobriety would cut down on the post dream tension
EB: why are you so tense in the first place?
EB: it wasn't that bad of a nightmare, was it? it seemed pretty tame to me.
TG: unless it was real in which case it was actually pretty bad
TG: because i just became one with a bunch of other daves and we have no idea what the side effects are
TG: i mean i dont think i have any of their memories which makes sense if its true that all players go through this but
TG: what if its more insidious than that
EB: shoosh, strider.
EB: you sound like a paranoid loon.
TG: i have good goddamn reason to be a paranoid loon when the stakes are this high john
TG: i dont want to stop being me
EB: good thing that is not a thing that stopped being true!
TG: but how can we even know for sure
TG: for all we know im secretly zombie dave over here
TG: ironic raaaaaaps
TG: fuck davespriiiite i rule this body now
EB: oh my god, dude.
EB: if you were actually possessed right now, do you think you'd give a shit about it?
EB: that seems like a huge waste of time. if i was a ghost with a new body, i would not worry at all about being possessed. i would get on with my new life, paranoia-free, because i wouldn't give a shit whether my host was happy.
EB: it's only when you're chill about being possessed that you're likely to actually be possessed.
TG: am a goddamn IDIOT apparently
EB: well, i don't know if that delayed epiphany calls for capitalization...
TG: but its so fucking obvious if i was really dave i wouldnt have even signed online i would have just been like hey sweet ive got a body again time to glug some aj
TG: jesus im stupid
EB: or that's what you get for having an identity crisis at two-thirty in the god damn morning.
EB: now what?
TG: no its just holy shit
TG: do you get what this means
TG: i overwrote the alpha
EB: oh. yeah, i guess you did.
TG: i dont know how to feel about that
EB: happy, i guess?
EB: i dunno. i'd be pretty disappointed if my best friend stopped being himself because he accidentally merged with some other dude.
TG: even if that other dude was the alpha dave
EB: well, that'd be better than if you merged with anyone else, but...
EB: no offense to him, but he is not the dave i know all that well!
EB: i'm sure he's a cool dave and we'd be friends. i just don't want to lose my dave if at all possible!
TG: thanks for that
TG: wait that sounds sarcastic doesnt it
TG: that was actual sincere strider gratitude
TG: comes with a certificate of authenticity and everything
TG: you should get it in the mail within five business days
EB: i'll believe you without a certificate, dave.
TG: ok good post office rates are absurd
TG: also uh
TG: thanks for walking me down from my mountain of crazy there john
EB: what are friends for?
TG: laughing at each other as we take turns tossing around the idiot ball apparently
TG: but seriously though
TG: for the third time
TG: for everything mostly
EB: well, i think i have a lot to make up for.
EB: if that means staying up late to make sure you don't get spooked by nightmares, i'm ok with that!
EB: you'd do the same for me, right?
TG: pretty sure ive done that
EB: now it's my duty as your best friend to once more remind you: go the fuck to bed.
TG: i love you too jerkass
EB: aw. :)
EB: but c'mon, strider. big day, remember?
TG: aright fine ive poured my heart out enough for one night
TG: talk to you again when im in new york egbert
EB: hell yeah!
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] --
You fall back against your pillow with a sigh. Wow, you really need to work on not being such a superstitious asshole. What next? Are you gonna question if a perfectly fine bottle of apple juice is secretly urine?
You fall into a dreamless sleep. No dreambubbles, no game, no ghosts, just pure unconsciousness.
An ear-piercing screech startles you awake.
A crow sits on your window sill, tilting its head this way and that as the sun peeks over the horizon behind it. It ruffles its wings before cawing at you again.
You blearily stare at it. The fuck is with your bedroom attracting avian assholes? You half-heartedly toss your pillow at it, missing it by three feet, but the movement startles the crow enough that it hops about and takes to the sky where it goddamn belongs.
You slump against your pillowless mattress, watching the bird's silhouette grow distant out the window.
Even without a full night's rest, a weight feels like it's lifted off your chest, as if some asshole came and took some of the load off you, even on an unconscious level... As if it's Dave's little way of saying hey. His final hey before he's gone for good.
He is gone. You're his gravestone and his burial plot, which sounds kinda hardcore actually, but you can't be him when you have your own life.
You turn onto your back and stare at the ceiling.
"Sup, Dave," you whisper. "Welcome home."
There's no answer, obviously, but you don't care; talking to yourself is underrated. And if Dave is lingering somewhere deep in your unconscious, the same way your six-year-old self still lives in your mind without being you anymore, the least you can do is say hi.
"Shit's kinda different around here." You shift to survey your box-covered bedroom. "We use a wheelchair now and I retired Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Also, we have a mom. It's awesome. We..." You hesitate and take a deep breath. "I'm not gonna try to be you anymore. But I guess you knew that." You smile. "You were a pretty chill dude like that."
Even if you're not him, you can make him proud. Just fuckin' watch.
"Hey." You raise an arm straight in the air, your hand curled into a fist that will never receive its rightful bump. "Rest in peace, bro."