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Strange New Worlds

By Leletha

Drama / Scifi



It was because of people, of course. People and their insatiable tendency to make more people, to make people better, to do newer and crazier and more incredible things, to goddamn boldly go. And that big little problem of too many people and not enough nearby space would have been a big enormous problem…if it hadn’t been for the starships.

A few hundred years ago, someone tackling the old chestnut of AI had defied all conventional knowledge and decided to just keep piling processors and information and memory on top of each other and discovered that while you couldn’t build a mind from scratch, you could damn well grow one from slush. Give a fledgling artificial intelligence enough information, enough space, the ability to make choices, and a goal, and what eventually emerged was a mind. There had been screaming about the rise of the machines, and that there were enough people making more little copies of themselves that they didn’t need computers doing it too, but then two things had happened.

Firstly, at the time the work had been done in orbit, so it was only a very short step to setting those minds to piloting small ships. When it comes to making choices and having a goal to meet, nothing presents a challenge like orbital mechanics in a space practically filled with satellites and space junk. They bypassed the ‘killer robot’ stage so beloved of largely crap science fiction and were ships practically from the word go.

Secondly, the computer minds had gotten together with some innovative humans and invented not a doomsday device to wipe out the humans or turn them into batteries, but the flightdrive, as it rapidly came to be called as everyone tried to talk about the ‘faster-than-light-drive’ as quickly as possible. The technology that crossed light-years almost as quickly as crossing the ocean. Not as easily, though. It still needed a hell of a lot of processing power…

Which was basically how the colonization of the universe by humans was made possible by a fleet of ships with essentially human minds. And definitely human personalities. The starships were legally people, and anyone who spent any time with them knew it. They spanned the range of human personality and behavior; they just happened to have the bodies of ships the size of your average office block. And it hadn’t been long before VR goggles became standard issue for anyone who worked with a starship, so that you could at least talk to a face. It turned out that voices from the walls of the ship on which your life depended freaked people out. It was probably a deep-seated prejudice from the early days of mass media, or something.

Solid holograms hadn’t been far behind, making it fairly impossible to know whether the person you were talking to had his brain in his body or in orbit a few miles above his head. Almost everyone had shut up about the starships then, although there were always people who screamed just for the sake of screaming.

And then there were the avatars, artificially grown human bodies with processor/interface brains. If the holograms could pass for human…the avatars were indistinguishable.

They could have easily left humans behind, but when you came right down to it they really were people, and they considered humans their own kind, especially once the holograms and the avatars became available.

It had become fairly standard to send out a mixed team of humans and ships to scout for potentially habitable planets. Starships ran themselves, mostly, but like a human trying to do surgery in his own chest cavity, it wasn’t a good idea to go completely solo. A basic survey team, therefore, was generally composed of two human-ship pairs. They’d jump to a new system, scan the planet from orbit (if it was even there—sometimes it wasn’t), and if the place looked habitable, transport down the human crew for a closer look.

Rather than just hanging around in orbit, especially after an incident with a new colony’s very near miss by an errant asteroid, the ships would then explore the star system for potential hazards or interesting phenomena, return to retrieve their respective humans, and then take off for the next target.

They had a lot of ground to cover.

This planet, at least, was hot and sticky and full, mainly, of trees. Personally, Dean wouldn’t want to live here, but it had air and water, currently incarnated in ‘about-to-rain’. If the powers that be decided to send people here, they could clear some space, wear shorts, and carry umbrellas. Then again, maybe he’d just gotten used to a ship that didn’t mind tailoring the temperature to his whims and didn’t like mud. Tough luck, Cas, Dean thought, remembering at the last second that the commlink was open and Sam was listening in. Otherwise he might have said it aloud just out of habit. If you don’t get back soon, I’m gonna be tracking whole new kinds of alien dirt all over you.

“We should call this one Mudball,” Dean grumbled, mostly to himself but at least indirectly at his brother. They were about fifty miles apart at the time, but Sam did have to listen. As the people who could actually operate the transporter were unknown distances away, it was a safety thing. There wasn’t much they could do to help at that distance, but at least they’d know that help was needed. Besides, they both carried long-range emergency beacons that, if pressed, would summon two very clever ships very quickly. On a previous mission, the boys had been transported down without a problem, but a day later they’d been attacked and chased into a really small and damp cave by some seriously unfriendly reptiles. Make that a lot of seriously unfriendly reptiles.

The cavalry had come tearing back in a hurry, and it was lucky for the velociraptoids that the two scout ships weren’t armed, although the rescued but rattled boys had lobbied for beaming down armed explosives.

“We called that other one Mudball,” retorted Sam patiently. “Three weeks ago? You fell in that river.”

Dean had not needed reminding of that. It had been a long fall and a sticky, smelly landing cushioned only by his adaptive smartsuit. To make matters worse, he’d had to call Sam to come and get him, and he hated to let anyone else fly his pet project of a shuttle anywhere, much less to rescue him from a ravine. He’d gotten mud all over the interior of Baby, which he’d spent weeks of this mission repairing and detailing. And until he smelled a lot better, all he’d seen or heard of Cas was his voice through the walls. Dean had gotten used to having him physically present when the human was aboard and they were in flight, and had missed his a-little-bit-well-okay-a-lot-more-than-a-friend.

“I’m forgetting about that,” he announced. “It didn’t happen, okay?”

Sam’s laugh was not reassuring. There were probably pictures. Damn. “You know they’re just going to rename it anyway, right? Doesn’t matter what we write on the maps. Even if it’s ‘Dean Falls In’ River.”

He decided to ignore that. “Yeah, yeah. Almost done up there? They’ll be back any minute. I hope.” Unconsciously, Dean reached up to resettle the modified VR goggles that he and Sam both wore, or at least carried, any time they left their ships. When the two starships were actually in range, they would be able to project information, scans, and images onto the surface of the goggles, providing a convenient overlay or allowing them to insert avatars into the images their human partners saw. It took getting used to, especially when the person you were talking to vanished when you took off the goggles to wipe sweat out of your eyes. To name just one example.

At the moment, Dean wasn’t wearing them because, without his ship’s input, they’d just be average goggles. And it was too hot for goggles, and although they were waterproof they wouldn’t help much in the impending rain.

“Give me five more minutes, okay? I can see a rock face that’s an unusual color and I want to take a few more samples, just to be sure. It’s not really threatening to rain here yet.”

Really, they weren’t in a rush—couldn’t go anywhere until the ships decided they’d checked the hell out of the local environment, as long as you took ‘local’ to mean ‘anywhere in this star system’. “You have fun with that, Sammy,” Dean said dismissively, and turned the volume on the interface way down, enough that he’d hear a scream but not a casual remark, not bothered by the fact that the only other person on the planet was fifty miles away and halfway up a mountainside.

Slinging his battered sample bags over his shoulder, and remembering just in time that one of the cases inside shouldn’t be shaken too sharply, Dean started hiking back towards the campsite where they’d variously landed the shuttle or beamed down, five days ago. Sure, he didn’t have to go back—it wasn’t as if Cas wouldn’t be able to find him anywhere on the planet—but there was a vague chance he’d be able to get back to Baby before the rain started, and anyway Dean was sick of portable camping rations. Unless there were some enormous predators on this planet that five days’ worth of surface scans and two days of orbital scans before that hadn’t turned up, their coolers would still be there, stowed safely aboard Dean’s refurbished shuttlecraft, which the brothers tended to use instead of a more conventional tent whenever they landed on an unexplored world.

Granted, if there were some meat-eaters that size, he probably should be heading in the other direction. Then again, if some big galoot had savaged Dean’s pet shuttle, it was probably the predator that should head for the hills. Whatever. He was walking this way and that was that.

Sam had said five minutes, he rationalized as he negotiated his way around the latest batch of the bajillion trees on this world, but Dean knew that tone in his brother’s voice, and it would probably be anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour before Sam remembered to check in. And given the choice between sitting and waiting, or covering some ground, Dean would take the active option any day.

Did mean struggling through ten miles of forest and undergrowth, though. Without the smartsuit, which he’d programmed to act like body armor as protection from the environment, Dean would have been a torn and bloody mess hours ago. As it was, his planetside clothes were a shining (or shredded) example of what the thing was saving his skin from. Every single branch within a hundred yards seemed determined to catch on his shoulders or snarl itself against his ankles, and they all had thorns. Any settlers who moved here had better bring some bloody chainsaws.

But then again, most people couldn’t afford to be picky. Not with there being so many of them, and not enough worlds. This not-Mudball had air a man could breathe without wearing a filter mask, and the biggest four-legged hunter the team had managed to find wasn’t mean enough to scare your average horse. There might still prove to be something nasty in the dirt and the water, but so far, so good, he guessed.

He hadn’t expected to be here, or anywhere off Earth at all. Except that their father’s death had thrown both brothers into disarray, and the Fleet groups that trained offworld survey teams were looking in particular for pairs that could work well together in relative isolation and unpredictable situations…and Sam and Dean had been inseparable growing up, as much as they grated on each other sometimes…okay, often. Sam more than qualified—Sam was, his older brother had to admit whenever Sam wasn’t listening, quite brilliant, and Dean? Well, Dean could fix anything and survive anywhere.

This worked, for all of them. The brothers would spend a fair amount of time working together on whatever new rock was on the agenda today, and by the time the survey was over they’d be ready to go back to video calls only for a week or so. Until Castiel and Gabriel found them a new rock to explore. Rinse. Repeat.

But really—they did a good job and no one on their team had been killed and all in all it was damn good work. Despite the heat. And the stickiness in the air that told him that in about five minutes it was going to positively piss down. And that he’d spent almost a week of messy, sweaty days wearing the same smartsuit and with only Sam’s voice on the other end of the commlink for company. Collecting dirt. By now, Dean was really looking forward to a shower, once Cas turned up…

That train of thought went off downhill, and didn’t come back for a few minutes, until Dean’s comm unit went ping in his ear, stopping him quite literally short.

“About time,” he said to it, and slipped the VR goggles over his eyes, tapping the touchpad on the side to reactivate them.

The goggles sparked to life, and for a moment, nothing changed. And then a familiar figure appeared to materialize out of nowhere.

“Hello, Dean,” said Castiel. The human knew the sound was being transmitted from orbit, but his eyes and ears told him it was coming from the man who wasn’t really in the clearing. “Anything to report?”

“I’m not dead. Good enough for me.”

Dean had thought of Castiel as a ship only for about a week and a half, because unlike some starships (not to name any names, especially as none of those named names were Gabriel) Castiel was distinctly standoffish with people he didn’t know. Then Dean had actually started talking to Castiel’s favorite VR image, and that perception had gone out the airlock never to return. After three weeks working together he was far more likely to think of Cas-the-human than Castiel-the-ship. Some ships, he knew, preferred the distance of VR only when interacting with their human counterparts.

It was possible to be a really good team without getting any closer than that. No matter whether you were talking to a voice from the walls or a humanoid avatar, you were still talking to the same person.

Not Dean and Castiel. Despite Dean’s habit of trying to confuse Castiel whenever possible, they got on…well, more than well. It was generally accepted that if a starship bothered to project and maintain a solid hologram just to talk with you, you were liked. When Dean was aboard, Castiel put most of his attention on being the human avatar his partner insisted on referring to as ‘Cas’ and consciously trying to baffle. And teaching to do other things.

It hadn’t worked this time. For his pains, Dean got only the half-second’s pause that he always thought of as Cas rolling his eyes and a “I would have been most displeased if it were otherwise.”

Oh well, there would be other opportunities, and more of them once Dean got back aboard. Unfortunately, there was a limited distance over which the transporter could work. “You back in orbit yet or just calling ahead? ‘Cause it’s about to rain and I’d like to not get wet until I can do it with my clothes off.”

The problem with Cas’s VR image, Dean immediately decided, was that it didn’t have any reflexes or movements that Cas didn’t consciously put in there, and therefore didn’t blush. Apart from the problem with him not really being there, that is. Ah, for missed opportunities.

As it was, Castiel’s favorite projection gestured skyward.  “Look up.”

Dean obediently turned to face in the indicated direction, angling the goggles towards the clouds. Thanks to the VR capabilities, the clouds appeared to scroll away, revealing the image of a clear but blue-greenish sky for his perusal.

The smartsuit Dean was wearing under his clothes was computer-controlled and programmable. A handheld interface could turn it selectively into armor, or change the color to camouflage its wearer, but there was a limit to how specifically it could be controlled…at least, for the hand unit.

Focused as he was on the image of the bright sky, Dean almost jumped as the smartsuit flexed and tightened so precisely he could feel Cas’s hand on his shoulder, as if the man waiting aboard the ship that was the man had transported down exclusively to lean his weight against his companion’s back and then wrap one arm around his waist. The only thing missing was breath against his skin—and the all-too-present illusion breaker of knowing that if he turned around, there would be no one there. Instead, he went with it, watching the VR of the sky and two silver sparks, one of which glowed softly as if to say here I am.

“So…I’m ready to come home,” Dean said after a moment, storing the memory away to be savored later.

“Beam me up, Cas.”

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