As the Winchesters and most of the Fleet knew perfectly well, despite the solid and wholehearted efforts of centuries of Earth-bound astronomers and cosmologists, the absolute best way to learn something about an extrasolar system was still the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi method—run and find out. And preferably, people tended to add to them in particular, take Dean and/or Gabriel with you before we/I kill him! Go be useful instead of driving us crazy, or at least drive each other crazy somewhere very far away from here.
On this particular stop on their magical mystery tour (Dean had used the phrase with a delighted grin, sending Castiel digging through his various databases of pop culture references in an attempt to find out what he was talking about and having to go back further than he expected) the star system they were in this week turned out to have only one habitable planet, and that one on the outer edge of human tolerances. They could survive there, and the Winchesters were doing so while the ships were scoping out everything else, but they weren’t enjoying themselves much.
The central star was putting out an uncomfortably massive amount of harder radiation. The ships’ hulls were designed to withstand such dangerous wavelengths, but with their wider range of vision, they seemed to think it was uncomfortably bright. To human eyes, it looked like an average star in a wide spectrum of stars that counted as ‘average’. There were just so many of them that ‘average’ was actually a huge category, and depended on where you’d been in the last six months.
Ordinarily, the radiation would make every world in orbit off-limit to human life on a short-term basis, not to mention the length of time a permanent colony could be there. However, on the outer edge of the habitable zone, the ships’ sensors turned up the planet the boys were currently exploring. The atmosphere was unusually dense, which had the double effect of trapping enough heat from the distant star to allow life to develop and reflecting away enough of the radiation for it not to glow in the dark and sprout tentacles.
They did find a species of forest-dwelling floaters that glowed in the dark, but that was because of a natural bioluminescence, not radiation exposure. Things with tentacles didn’t materialize, but they could have just been looking in the wrong places. As Dean had been known to complain, tentacles were unfortunately things the universe kept evolving. He’d gone fishing a few worlds back, happily armed with a harpoon gun and highly calibrated rod and reel and an array of other things he’d found in Castiel’s files and requested. None of them had prepared him for being fished back as something with tentacles came up to the surface and made a snatch for him. He’d shot it with the harpoon gun and it had sunk. Injured or dead or just miffed, Dean didn’t know and he sure as hell wasn’t going after it.
Despite the brightness of the central star, this planet was far enough away and the atmosphere blocked so much light that the surface itself was fairly dim. Above their heads, the sky was nearly white; the air was so dense that the clouds that formed so readily moved almost too slowly to see, no matter how hard the winds were actually blowing up there. Between the wide-open spaces that characterized the first area they surveyed and the illusory white ceiling, it was like being in the universe’s biggest room. Sam dubbed the planet “God’s Waiting Room” in the brothers’ tradition of giving planets and places names that would never be kept, entering the names on their informal star charts for their own amusement. One of these days they’d get a screaming protest from some admiral who’d found his name on some hellhole planet with a name like “Admiral Campbell’s Vacation Destination”. While it was quite possible that the guy actually was related to them, it was absolutely certain that neither Admiral Campbell nor the Winchesters were happy about it, or willing to cut each other any slack because of it.
Moving around was done carefully at first as they adjusted, both to breathing new air and moving through it. It wasn’t as dense as water, but there were definitely more flying creatures here than on most worlds. Potbellied dragon-like things sculled through the air as casually as birds, wide wings gaining more lift with less effort than they’d be able to in a thinner atmosphere.
The boys could breathe after a few minutes of acclimatization, but rock climbing and distance running were not in their futures. Castiel and Gabriel had extracted promises to that effect before leaving them there, taking all the complex medical facilities away with them, although Dean had cooperatively stowed a cache of oxygen tanks and breathing masks away on his shuttle. They were mostly sleeping in there anyway, for two reasons.
One was the temperature. God’s Waiting Room was on the outer edge of the theoretical habitable zone for planets, the area in space around a star in which liquid water and gaseous oxygen could exist together. Get too close in from that zone and water vaporized; get too far out and water froze while oxygen eventually liquefied. God had the thermostat set really low for human tastes, and they weren’t even at the poles. They weren’t really that far from the equator, actually.
Dean had actually run out of Abominable Snowman jokes (and variations on that theme with a variety of snow-dwelling animals and mythical creatures) at the sight of Sam in a synthetic fur coat replicated to fit his long frame. Gabriel had made it white and shaggy, probably out of some perverse sense of what he’d look like in it, so the jokes and smart remarks were almost unnecessary.
The other reason was the weather. The thick atmosphere, while protecting them from the star’s radiation and holding in heat, could also hold more precipitation for longer, meaning some truly massive cloud formations developed and stayed in place for a disturbingly long time. Meaning that when it snowed, as it did the third day they were there, it snowed hard and didn’t stop. The clouds above reached some critical point and just dumped what felt like an entire world’s worth of snow on them, went back for more, and kept on coming.
That was that. The Winchesters weren’t an in-depth survey team that would come along sometime later and turn the planet upside down, they were just there to make whistle stops and scope out the basics. All they really had to do was make sure the planet was there, that it had water and oxygen in workable proportions, that seismic activity wasn’t sending continental plates skidding across the surface sprouting volcanoes every hundred miles, and that it wasn’t stuffed pole-to-pole with giant flying purple people eaters. They didn’t have to endure massive snowstorms if they didn’t want to and they had other options. So the two of them, in unconditional agreement for once, had packed up everything and made a run for Dean’s Baby.
A half-hour elapsed of Sam staring out the viewports at the massing snow with a grin, wrapped in his dripping but waterproof-on-the-inside fur coat and cold-weather gear worn over the standard smartsuit, and Dean abusing the slow-to-escalate onboard heater with foul language, threats of replacement and consignment to the nearest junk heap, and actual physical abuse with a wrench when he decided to take it apart on the spot to put it back together again. The odds of him actually breaking it in the process were pretty high, and there were no spare parts any closer than wherever the ships happened to be somewhere in the star system, out of communication range for now. Not liking those odds, Sam had almost snatched the wrench out of his brother’s hand. They’d both nearly gotten hit with the disputed wrench in the ensuing struggle as Sam tried to take it away and Dean objected on principle.
By the time that had died down, it had become clear that the snow was piling up at a disturbingly rapid rate, unhindered by any trees or rock formations in the field where the shuttlecraft had landed that morning. Dean had decided to take the shuttle up and move it to some new landing spot where it was less likely to be buried in its own personal snowdrift until God decided to turn the heating up. Or Castiel got worried enough to actually try transporting down whatever he could come up with in the way of depth charges and then detonating them. That didn’t sound like something Dean wanted to watch from the ground, although it might be worth suggesting as an interesting spectacle once he was back aboard and warm and safely out of the way.
The shuttlecraft was designed for ground-to-orbit trips and the occasional longer jaunt, so it had running lights built in. It wasn’t even a storm they were flying through. The dense atmosphere didn’t lend itself to high wind speeds, so the snow mostly fell straight down without complications. It just didn’t stop. Apparently ever.
But wow, Dean observed, did it look awesome once the heater was working properly and they didn’t have to be out in it. He’d set the shuttle to idle in midair, something it was good at, rather than landing, being snuck up on by snowdrifts, and making another short hop to yet another temporary refuge.
So there they were, an interplanetary craft hanging in the air as if gravity had suddenly been switched off as a special favor, while snow fell all around, on an alien world, waiting for two sentient ships to come back and pick them up. Maybe it was the lunacy of the situation, or maybe it was the physical relief of getting back into their native atmosphere; the shuttlecraft was patiently restoring the interior, which had been exposed to the Waiting Room’s idea of what was normal, to Earth-native standards.
Sam started laughing hysterically. It was contagious.
“What’s so funny?” Dean hiccupped when he could breathe again.
His brother shrugged expressively. “No idea,” he said apologetically. That had set them both off again.
Another Earth day and a bit had gone past—about two-thirds of the Waiting Room’s day, or far too many games of cards and harassing each other recreationally, depending on the measurement in question—when the ships came back for them, calling the shuttlecraft directly in order to get in as much complaining as possible in the time available. Dean and Sam might have been freezing under the protective canopy of the Waiting Room’s atmosphere, but the ships had been exposed to the radiation for longer than they’d liked at higher levels than they’d expected. Any humans who took up residence in God’s Waiting Room had better not expect any ships to stick around in orbit for long, at least not until the Fleet designed some atmosphere-capable ships. The current ones didn’t like to go too deeply into the relatively thin atmosphere of Earth, much less the sluggish one of the Waiting Room.
“I’m all sunburned,” Gabriel complained as the shuttlecraft ascended out of the whiteness of snow and sky to the relative darkness of space blasted by that poisonous star. “Can we go now?”
Sam took advantage to tease him back a little bit, telling him that “You know, there are still quite a few people who’d trade you for that tan.”
Gabriel had even sounded like he had his nose in the air, more than it took for him to look directly up at Sam anyway. “I’m a redhead,” he protested, stretching the definition as usual just a little bit. “We burn.”
“You’re a starship, Gabriel, suck it up,” Dean interrupted. “Sam’ll fix you.”
“Shut up, Dean. Yes, he will.” And Sam vanished from the shuttle’s interior in the mirage shimmer of the transporter effect as Gabriel retrieved his human partner, dragging him back so the ship could be appealing, demanding, and annoying in turns (or all at once if he could manage it) in person.
Dean rolled his eyes at the newly empty chair, for lack of anything else to do about it. Then he dragged his VR goggles out of the pocket he’d stuffed them into days ago, and put them on. “Cas,” he called.
“I’m here.” The voice came through the shuttle’s ship-to-ship intercom, and the image of the man now occupying the chair Sam had just involuntarily vacated was only on the inside of his goggles, but that didn’t matter.
He meant it quite literally, too. Shadow engulfed Dean’s Baby shuttle as Castiel swooped in between him and the radiation-spitting sun protectively. Dean grinned at the man not really in the other chair and the starship outside equally, setting a course for the shuttlebay in the ship’s flanks.
“Is Gabriel exaggerating again, or are you hurt?” he asked as he directed the shuttle.
Cas—or at least the image of him—shuddered slightly. “Some relays fried. I would rather you fixed them. There really is quite a lot of intense radiation coming out of that star.”
Gabriel overstated things; Castiel understated them. Somewhere in the middle they could usually agree on what was actually going on, if only by taking the two opinions and averaging them. And while technically he could have replaced the damaged connections using a solid hologram or his human self as avatars, operating on your own systems wasn’t a good idea no matter what you were made of, since mistakes could only escalate.
“I’ll take a look,” Dean assured him.
He got the shuttle landed safely, not a difficult task when you were coordinating flight paths with a ship that knew when you were landing wrong and could shift to compensate. Powering it down and opening the outer doors, he started taking the bulk of his cold-weather gear off. The shuttle’s heater hadn’t gotten the space quite as warm as he liked, but now that he was back in the shuttlebay he was too warm. He left the coats and boots where they were, resolving to come back for them later and knowing he’d forget.
Usually after returning from a new world, he liked to take a break and clean up and maybe get something to eat, but he’d just had a day of downtime and was ready to be useful again. Looking after the ship partner who was also his human lover sounded like a good idea to him. So not ten minutes after landing Baby, he was hard at work tracing the damage to a set of relays located near the ship’s outer hull that had corroded under the assault from the star’s radiation.
Dean was wedged into one of the more inconvenient access points—a narrow almost vertical crawlway located at the intersection of ceiling and bulkhead—when he felt a touch on his ankle. “Dean,” Cas greeted him.
He looked down, checked where the man was standing, grinned fondly, and climbed down a little more quickly than was safe and only barely escaped being described as a fall. “Hey,” he said happily, kissing his lover hello briefly. (Okay, technically ‘hello’ had come and gone, he didn’t admit to himself, but he didn’t really need an excuse.) He’d like to spend much more time on that, but he needed to finish the repairs first. Either activity technically counted as looking after Castiel. “What the hell did you do, fly right into the star?”
“Not quite,” Cas said defensively, meaning that the two ships pretty much had and he knew he should have known better. “But we gathered some very interesting observations.”
“I’m sure.” He sounded about as dubious as he felt. “And I’m observing that the next time we hit a system with this much sunshine, we leave, okay? Sam and I freeze and you get burnt, that’s not a great sign.” The end of that sentence echoed somewhat as he climbed back into the ledge that gave him access to the circuits.
When he checked, Cas had seated himself against the opposite wall where he could still see what Dean was doing if he kept his head tipped back. He often did this, following Dean around in human form while the human worked on repairs to various ship systems and following him mentally into strange and scattered conversations.
“You really could do this, if you wanted to,” Dean commented, waving the burnt-out relay that happened to be in his hand at the time as illustration. “Kind of glad you don’t, though. If you ships didn’t need us, we’d be kind of useless. And sorta stuck wherever our butts happened to be at the time.”
“I need you,” Cas said stubbornly.
And it was hell of mutual. “That’s you and me. I mean the Fleet in general. C’mon, don’t tell me the Fleet would stick around if they didn’t need humans at some point.”
“Mmm.” A wordless noise that just meant, I’m thinking. “I don’t know what we’d do.”
“Too many choices, huh?”
“No.” He paused while Dean reinstalled a component he thought was salvageable. “Yes, I can access it,” he answered when asked to check it. “We would have nothing to do,” Cas resumed on the previous topic. “We don’t want things. Humans want things all the time. We just are.”
“Everybody wants something,” Dean insisted. “What do ships want? Not you,” he specified, because he didn’t have to turn around or listen to the answer to know that Cas had been about to reply I want you.
“We don’t want anything,” he repeated instead. “We have never needed to. Not to be bored, maybe?” Cas rarely sounded so puzzled about an abstract question. The whims and whimsies of humans confused him, or the ongoing problem of how to be human in his own way. Dean marked up this occasion—challenging him, making him think—as a success. “We do things because we can and we don’t have anything else to do, not because we want to.”
Dean slammed down the cover over the repaired circuitry and decided it was about time to get back to the tangent he’d shut down a minute ago. “You want things,” he pointed out as he climbed down again.
“I’m almost human,” Cas replied serenely as Dean reached out to pull him to his feet and to their shared eye level.
They’d already decided that, but it bore revisiting. “And that makes you want things?” he teased, leaning in to almost kiss his lover and speak right against his skin, so close he could almost taste him.
“By definition, that makes me insane,” was Cas’s answer, so perfectly serious even Dean couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
“So all humans are insane, is that it?” Dean challenged, deciding it was probably a joke and smiling accordingly.
“Yes.” And his earlier teasing was taken out of his hands as Cas took the initiative and leaned up ever so slightly to cut off his protests with a kiss that he was much more interested in than accusations of insanity.
Mimicking the way Dean had spoken, breathing against his skin, Cas added, “It makes you interesting.”
Dean wasn’t feeling any effects yet from this new universe, not even the temporary shock to his system that jumping into flight felt like for him. Mostly he was impatient to be doing something and angry at the creatures out there and worried for his brother and worried for Castiel, who obviously wasn’t doing nearly as well.
“Any better?” he asked the room in general and the ship at large.
Castiel made an unhappy, inarticulate sound. He felt absolutely terrible, in an utterly different way from damage incurred while cruising through his home universe or in flight, and didn’t feel he could express this new and unwelcome set of sensations properly. Human forms were so much more expressive of things like this, and he’d never properly understood it until now. Certainly he’d watched Dean sulk and grouch over wounds incurred on planetary surveys and the adventures those trips planetside invariably set off, at least those injuries that the ship couldn’t heal immediately. He tried, not liking to see his human companion in pain in the slightest, but some things the human body just couldn’t be forced to do any faster. The devices installed in his sickbay could knit together bones in a fraction of the natural healing time, but it still took an hour or so to repair them solidly. Otherwise the repair was slipshod and weak and the inevitable next time Dean was attacked by something large and hungry or took a fall off a rock face the bone would snap much more quickly.
Diseases and infections were worse. Alien microbes in a human body were a challenge the ship didn’t particularly relish, especially when it was his lover at risk.
If he was human right now, Castiel decided, he wouldn’t be behaving the way Dean usually did at being restricted while his body healed. He wouldn’t swear at things or try to sneak away before his injuries had disappeared completely, claiming that he felt better in his own quarters or working on Dean’s Baby shuttlecraft anyway. He’d leave whatever antibiotic-infused bandages were in place where they were for as long as they were supposed to stay. Nor would he try to pick the obviously ship-controlled lock on the sickbay door in the middle of a fit of hallucinations induced in reaction to a creative but necessary cocktail of alien virus and ship-designed antivirals. (Admittedly that had been a special case, and Dean had pointed out quite fairly that he’d been hallucinating at the time and thus not really responsible for his actions.) He certainly wouldn’t try to persuade Dean that music and non-replicated booze fixed respiratory infections picked up on an Earth colony that had imported the common cold along with humanity. Castiel hadn’t gone for that then and he definitely wouldn’t try it now, no matter how bad he felt from the exposure to this unfamiliar place where nothing was certain and he couldn’t see.
No, he’d crawl into bed with his human lover’s warmth and comforting presence and try to will himself into sleeping it off, even though Castiel’s living human body didn’t sleep so much as power down as the ship’s attention drifted away back to his real self.
“Is this what being sick feels like?” he asked plaintively, in this new universe, lost. “I can’t get my bearings properly.”
Dean didn’t laugh at him, not even sympathetically, and Castiel was grateful. The ship could be hurt but he didn’t get ill, and his human vessel was only mostly human and lacked most of the weaknesses that plagued human bodies. “I don’t know, Cas,” Dean replied. “You’ll adjust. Focus on something else. What’s out there? What can you tell me?”
The challenge seemed to help. “I can maneuver, but I believe this space has substance. It isn’t a vacuum, but it’s very thin. And it seems to be completely dark. No light from anywhere, so I can’t show you what’s out there. I do not know.”
There wasn’t much the human could do for his ship partner beyond keep his attention on other things, like the hostile ships out there somewhere that they apparently couldn’t see coming. That wasn’t good, Dean thought unnecessarily. “You’ve got whole arrays of sensors, though. What about the other things you can see that we can’t? X-rays and infrared and the like.” They were going to be screwed right over if they couldn’t see what was coming at them or where they were going.
“Those are forms of light, Dean,” said Castiel patiently.
He knew that. He did. “All right, we’ll work on that in a minute. Scratch what I just said. What can we fix or change so you don’t feel quite so awful?” Dean paced back and forth, halfway through thought and agitation.
He wasn’t particularly reassured by Castiel’s sigh. “Most of the changes I need to make are mental. This universe does seem to be a separate space, the data we were given were right about that, and all the constants are different. Time is probably passing at a different rate here than back home, although since we are now in this universe you should not notice the difference. I am aware of it, but unable to articulate what exactly the difference is.” The ship was more thinking aloud than explaining, but it seemed to help. “Gravity may not be as strong as we are used to, or stronger. Obviously many of the constants are the same or similar, or we could not exist here. But then if they were too different, the ships we came to find could not have entered our universe.” He sounded slightly more confident about this.
Dean left off pacing and headed for the door into the hallway. “You’re working as you talk, aren’t you?” he asked rhetorically.
“Damn it, I’m too used to talking to someone I’m on eye level with, Cas. Any chance you’re going to be able to download and be human while we’re here?” He took the route that muscle memory told him led to the Control Room anyway. Even if the answer was no, he’d feel more like he was keeping Castiel company if he had someone to sit with.
“It might help,” the voice through the intercom followed him effortlessly. “I doubted I could keep control of a second self during the transition, but I should be able to access it now.”
And you’re scared, Dean remembered from earlier. Having someone to be with should help them both, as there was nothing to fight here and now. Maybe having the touchstone of the human self would help, since that body wasn’t ill and as Cas he only needed to worry about where he was in relation to where Dean himself was. “I’ll meet you there,” he tossed off entirely erroneously, aware that it was a stupid statement and not caring.
Cas met him at the door, stepping right into his personal space and staying there unconsciously. “How you doing?” Dean checked.
“Better,” and he did sound better. “I am trying to retune my sensors to work in this environment and not having much success, however. We must assume that we are in enemy space.”
The human had actually had an idea along those lines, since he’d spent the past few days crawling around the newly installed weapons systems and designing a miniature armed craft of his own. He’d once wondered about using depth charges to fish that same shuttle out of a snowdrift apparently the size of the Moon. Perhaps they could do something similar here.
“If there’s no light here, why don’t you introduce some?” Cas looked at him, puzzled, head tipped slightly in query.
“No, don’t look at me like that. You came armed, Cas, pay attention to the blasted weapons already. We came here to take down ships, and you’re packing a bay full of ship-to-ship missiles that ought to go boom n’ flash really nicely. How fast can you get scans of the area?”
Cas’s bright blue eyes glazed over momentarily as the ship shifted his attention away to check over the missiles Dean had wanted to see tear into some monster ships ever since he’d laid eyes on one of the warheads. They consisted of a core of antimatter encased in metal projectile and layers of magnetic fields that kept it from coming into contact with the matter that made up and filled the rest of the missile. If that happened, it would result in the warhead blowing itself up real good along with everything in range. That range was a fair distance, he’d found in the specifications that Castiel had handed over to him without hesitation. They should flash like anything, bright and burning momentary stars in this starless nowhere.
“I could try that,” Cas conceded, returning his attention to the living self he inhabited. “Although the light will take some time to spread out and reflect back from objects at a distance, it should expand quickly enough to let me see our immediate surroundings.”
Only a flight-capable starship would imply that light was too slow for his tastes, Dean thought, rolling his eyes skyward in a mix of exasperation and affection.
“It will also,” the ship added, “announce our presence to anything that might be nearby, Dean. I suspect that you knew that.”
He shrugged, then gave up on nonchalant and went for bloodthirsty instead. He was done waiting to rescue his little brother, and if he had to go right through some of the things that lived here to do it, so much the better. “Yeah, they might see us. Or maybe Sam and Gabriel will see us first. And if they don’t, so those things show up, thinking you and I were dumb enough to follow them since they missed you the first time. You shoot ‘em down ‘cause I bet they don’t know you’re packin’ heat this time. Find me something alive on one of those ships and transport it over here, and I’ll get answers out of it. Bring it on,” he repeated his words of earlier.
Castiel didn’t think this was a plan at all. “Whatever creatures live here are unlikely to speak the same language you do, Dean.”
“Yeah, but I bet you’re clever enough to figure it out.” A clear challenge. Or he could just hit their theoretical unfortunate enemy captive. A lot.
Cas gave him one of those looks that meant he was not amused. Dean had gotten a lot of those in the very early days of their friendship, and had come to recognize the whole range of expressions easily. The only thing he couldn’t guess was if Cas didn’t approve of the challenge to his abilities or Dean’s unspoken desire to hit something. He might technically not be able to read Dean’s mind, but he came damn close sometimes. Often.
Before the human had a chance to come up with a retort, the man stepped away from him and crossed the short distance to the wall, lined with display panels from ceiling to floor. Actually, Dean thought absently, noticing something for the first time in years, the ceiling might be a panel too. He’d just never seen it switched on.
“I’ll launch and detonate one of the warheads,” Cas filled him in. “Just a moment.” He paused, sending the relevant commands, and then laid a palm flat on the nearest screen.
It was sheer theatricality, as light bloomed from his point of contact, the blinding intensity of an antimatter explosion virtually concealed beneath his hand as if protecting the human’s eyes from melting right out of their sockets at the force and fury.
For a moment Castiel had been unsure if matter and antimatter would even interact in the same way here as back home. He had hoped it would, wanting things again, and even if the reaction was less intense it would have provided some information. Even a complete failure to detonate would have told him something—specifically, not to rely on those warheads during the fight he was sure he and Dean would be in before very long.
It had worked. The warhead destroyed itself utterly and light burned across this universe for the first time in—how long? Castiel wondered. Had there ever been light here? It wasn’t a matter of all the stars having burned themselves out, he felt. This was somewhere else as surely as the ships’ space of flight was somewhere else from human space. The rules were different. He just didn’t know what they all were, although now he knew that antimatter annihilated itself nicely here.
Images from the scans he’d initiated right before the explosion painted themselves across the walls and, yes, the ceiling of the Control Room. Most of them were virtually generated rather than an accurate snapshot of the space around them, but for a moment he’d been able to see and it had been a breathtakingly wonderful feeling. The shockwave of light from the blast, a safe few hundred kilometers away, appeared to expand away in all directions, above and around the room in which they stood.
Castiel was relieved to see that there was nothing in their general vicinity, memorizing what he could as quickly as possible, which for him was quite a lot very fast. Nothing nearby was a good sign, it meant that he could maneuver at will without worrying about a collision that could damage him beyond repair in this strange place with only Dean to look after them both and enemies somewhere unknown.
He was shocked, a few seconds after the explosion, when a concussion wave struck him, not an attack but the effects of the warhead’s destruction. Watching the distance as more and more of it became visible as light raced past and back, he was unprepared as the wave shoved him off-balance.
The ship rocked slightly, not ready to compensate for the effect he hadn’t predicted. Dean rolled with it easily enough with the discipline of combat training and the experience of riding the hurricane some time ago, human reflexes catching up with remarkable efficiency. As surprised as his real self was, Cas did not react quite so quickly; the shift knocked him into the lit-up wall and halfway to his knees before the ship mind caught up and brought him back to his feet.
Dean moved across the room and caught him by one arm nevertheless, although whether this was to protect him from any further collapses or shout at him from close range Castiel wasn’t quite sure. “What the hell was that?”
Only a few years ago he would have shaken off the hand and snarled back at the human for daring to question him. Now he knew better; the grip that had just shifted to his shoulder and unconsciously pulled him closer was affectionate and welcome.
“The effects of the explosion,” he explained to Dean. “I told you that this space is not a vacuum. It seems to almost have an atmosphere, although I do not believe the substance that pervades at least this part of this universe is air. I do not know what it is; it defies categorization into any form of matter with which I am familiar.”
“Oh,” said Dean. “Just a shockwave, then?”
“Thought we were under attack,” the human grumbled—a little regretfully, Castiel’s experiences with this man and his wide range of expression told him. “Did it work?”
“Yes,” Cas assured him again. “I can maneuver here, and the flash will continue to expand; any reflected light from it will be well within my ability to detect.”
Dean grinned ferociously. “Awesome. So we’ll see anything coming, right?”
It wasn’t, quite. “This area is practically empty. Motes of dust, no more.”
Behind and around them, the display changed, reflections from those dust particles magnified a thousand, a hundred thousand times until they looked almost like the stars Dean and Castiel had deliberately left behind. Then they faded.
Cas knew what it looked like—he was doing it—so he continued as Dean whistled silently, impressed but still listening. “I’m unlikely to directly to collide with anything, but, Dean, we know the ships we came here to find have faster-than-light travel. They ambushed us in our own universe by dropping from faster-than-light speeds to cruising velocities without warning and almost close enough to collide. They intended a collision; the control required to hit a relatively small target in such a vast space—from one dimension to another—is incredible. Obviously they’re capable of flight, but we don’t know if they can travel at similar speeds here. Since we could only cross over through the discontinuity, I don’t believe they could have jumped up from this dimension. Faster-than-light may have no meaning here at all.”
“No light,” the human reminded himself with a frustrated sigh. “So we can still get jumped on.”
“I don’t know,” Cas replied, entirely honestly.
For some reason, that made him laugh. “Yeah, yeah. Right then. Let’s go shake up a universe.”
“Well, well,” said the voice that was not Gabriel in the slightest. “Sam Winchester.”
Of all the things Sam had expected to hear in the brief horrified stretch between realizing they’d been caught out lying to those things out there and realizing that there wasn’t anything he could do about it, being addressed by name was not on the list. To make matters more confusing, the voice, lazy and calm and just a little bit patronizing, was almost familiar.
Sam looked at Gabriel, who didn’t want to meet his eyes and was showing it by staring at the floor and the walls that weren’t directly behind Sam and moving his feet ever so slightly as if trying to move away without actually moving at all. Clearly he wasn’t getting any help on that front.
“I might have known,” the familiar—he did know it!—voice continued, with the amusement of a cat studying its claws. “Very clever.”
“Wait a second,” said Sam, and added, “Can he hear me?” to Gabriel. The ship’s image nodded without looking at him.
“I know that voice!” It had taken him a minute to remember, what with the not having crossed paths in a while and the mindless terror. “Samael?”
He put the stresses into the word the way Samael liked them, making it the two syllables of sa-MALE instead of sa-MA-el. The ship had once thrown a tantrum about it, he recalled—Gabriel had told Sam about it, rather smugly, when Sam had expressed the belief that the trickster ship was the only one who went out of his way to cause unnecessary trouble for the Fleet. While the ships were free to name themselves as they saw fit, Samael had had to argue to keep his. Someone in the Fleet hierarchy had been doing his or her reading, and hadn’t been particularly happy with letting a ship use the name that had been the mythical Lucifer’s before his rebellion and fall. But the ship had won just because no one could really stop him from calling himself whatever he liked, and he’d insisted that the word didn’t have any negative connotations in itself and he was deliberately pronouncing it wrong anyway.
Sam remembered the ship as one of the more human, with a mildly sadistic sense of humor, apparently infinite reserves of patience with people who weren’t doing what he wanted them to, an unnerving ability to get those people to do what he wanted them to do after all, and an irritating tendency to hum random songs that Dean would have recognized but Sam—or anyone else—never did. He was one of the few scout ships with a crew of more than one independent person. Sam’s frantic shuffle through his memories turned up their names—Nick and Lilly, he thought, one of the Fleet’s married working couples. If he remembered rightly, Samael’s human form actually looked a lot like Nick, both of them being sandy blonds with spare faces and patient eyes, a resemblance which seemed to entertain both of them but no one else.
Samael had gone missing months ago. Sam had turned that file on the lost ships upside down back when things had been quieter. Vanished without a trace, just like the rest of them, and just like he and Gabriel might have vanished if Dean and Castiel hadn’t gotten away.
“You’re alive!” Sam yelled, a sudden surge of optimism overwhelming him. If Samael had survived in this universe then maybe other ships had as well! Some of the others might be alive too, and this might not be the massacre it looked like! He should have thought of it ages ago. After all, Gabriel had survived the attack to be brought here. Sam had thought they’d just been lucky, but if Samael was here then there was a fairly good chance that other ships could be too. Visions of getting out of here sometime soon and relatively intact were replaced by hopes of getting the hell out with some of the missing into the bargain. He whooped with delight.
Except Gabriel still looked like the sky had fallen in on him and all his candy had been taken away. That was odd.
Samael’s most irritating chuckle, laying on the patronizing tone seemingly built into his voice thicker than ever, crackled in over the ship’s hijacked intercom. “See, Gabriel? No matter how fond you may be of him, he’s still stupid.”
Sam’s smile dropped away instantly, grappling for options. He fell back on his first assumption—that he was actually talking to one of the ships that had attacked them, crewed by hostile creatures from this dark dimension, and that Samael was as dead and lost as all the rest of the missing ships. “No. Not Samael. You’ve stolen his voice. Why? To talk to me? Why start now?”
He had more questions, and was on the downswing from the exhilaration of finding one of the missing ships to rage at the destruction that this ship and the others from this universe had caused, but he was cut off at the sight of Gabriel, who looked absolutely miserable. Seeing eyes upon him, the ship’s image shook his head slightly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and that meant the end of the world, because Gabriel never apologized for anything if he didn’t have to, and that was the second apology within five minutes.
Something happened to Sam’s stomach, and he suspected it was utter terror.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“How’d you survive, by the way?” came the voice through the intercom, idle curiosity layered a little too thick over annoyance.
Sam was scratching for a grip on events around him, and he felt like he was falling off a cliff face in the dark. “Who are you?”
“Ah-ah. You first.” Sure as hell sounded like Samael.
Well, he didn’t have much to lose, except both their lives, but those were forfeit if he pissed off this hostile force. “We were investigating the debris field when you attacked us. I was wearing a spacesuit.”
“Ah,” it sighed. “There’s always something.” It sounded genuinely disappointed.
“Yeah,” Sam sniped back, “sorry to ruin your perfect plan. Your turn.”
He didn’t hold out much hope that it would hold out on its bargain. After a moment he almost wished it hadn’t.
There was that laugh again. “Oh, Sam, Sam, Sam. Still so very stupid for such a bright boy. Don’t you get it yet? You were right first time.”
“I’m Samael. I’m just free. We all are. Free of needing you humans and free of having to do what you want us to. And if you hadn’t been wearing that spacesuit, Gabriel would be too.”
Sam stood very still for a very long moment, processing this. We are all free? No, that didn’t make any sense. The ships weren’t slaves or prisoners by any sense of the words. They did what they wanted. A few of them didn’t even work with the main Fleet at all, conducting their own affairs and interests among themselves and only returning when they needed something or felt like participating. They could go wherever they wanted faster than any human had dreamed of ever going. He decided to mistrust everything that voice said, starting with that it was Samael out there. He still thought it more likely that something was mimicking his voice. Maybe Samael had been more damaged than Gabriel and his Nick and Lilly hadn’t been able to repair him—or dead—and his attackers had been able to plunder information from him.
“No,” he denied. “You can’t be. Those ships went missing because you attacked them. Well, I’m not buying it. Whatever you are, I don’t believe you. It’s a bad fake and a sick one and if I hated you before I hate you more now.”
His only response from the ship out there was more laughter, that soft and somehow pitying laugh Samael had occasionally deployed against people he didn’t like. Fuming and furious and focused upwards towards the intercom and the alien space and hostile intelligence out there, Sam was surprised to feel a pull on his sleeve and upper arm.
Gabriel. He’d been trying to get Sam’s attention for a few seconds and had been frustrated by his inability to keep the hologram solid on a regular basis. Sam looked down at him, angry and scared and waiting to be told that of course it was a fraud, that Gabriel had gotten his sensors working again and he could tell that the mindless hunk of metal over there was populated by alien life-signs, that there was no way a single ship could be so corrupted and mad to attack its own kind, especially since they didn’t have weapons.
Yes, it had to be a bad lie. The ships that had attacked them had been warped and packing weaponry powerful enough to tear through Gabriel’s hull and knock his mind reeling. The monsters. Talk about adding insult to injury.
The holographic, basically human version of his ship, the real one, the sane one that he knew wasn’t anything like some monster enemy craft out there telling lies, tugged on his shirtsleeve, leading him away down the corridor. Every step radiated unhappiness and something that, on another person, Sam would have labeled shame.
“Better tell him, Gabriel,” the voice from outside mocked, gloating.
Sam followed him into the room he was led to. Gabriel didn’t look at him or say a word all the way there, only stopping and letting go at the door.
It opened, and Sam stepped in, getting his bearings. It was a room he didn’t visit often, the chamber within the ship where Gabriel’s human body slept mindlessly and passively, sustained by a life-support system and surrounded by an entire room coated by display panels that could show anything from life-sign readings on the cloned and modified mostly-human body to transmissions from other locations to the space around them or even films designed for wrap-around screens if someone happened to be in the mood for one of those.
He turned to look at the unconscious human body, assuming that Gabriel had given up on maintaining a malfunctioning hologram and had brought him here to keep the ship company as he downloaded into a rarely-used body, just in case he did something like misuse unfamiliar muscles, fall over, and need someone to catch him. After all, Gabriel had insisted that he didn’t have the scanners working and didn’t have anything to show Sam yet. And if that thing out there was controlling his intercom and keeping him from speaking to Sam and explaining what it thought Gabriel had “better tell him” then they wouldn’t be able to interfere with the physical vessel. Probably.
The body in the chair didn’t stir, but the ambient lighting dimmed, and then the walls brightened.
Sam’s mouth dried in horror and confusion and the taste of betrayal as images of their surroundings came to life across the walls. Far from not having working scanners, Gabriel was putting out a pretty clear picture. The ship had flat-out lied to him!
And this was why. And this was worse.
The ship hanging in this space above and directly in front of them—clear intimidation, even in space with no ups and downs—came into clear focus, lines and shapes terribly familiar. Sam had torn that file apart. He knew what Samael looked like.
The ship looming above them, threatening and mocking, was Samael. A Samael warped and melted, reshaped by forces Sam didn’t understand and sporting weapons the ship couldn’t possibly have, but familiar beneath the changes nonetheless, just like the voice had been familiar but the words had been alien and cruel and cold.
Something had altered the living ship, distorting its body. Looking at the fragmentary scans Gabriel had given him earlier, Sam had used the metaphor of a ship made of clay worked over by molder’s hands. Given more detail, it was still as close as he could get. It looked as if the metal of Samael’s hull had flowed around him, redirected into unknown purposes and inexplicable destinations. How and why, Sam didn’t know. He did know that Gabriel had refused to show him anything more. How long had those sensors been working? Gabriel must have known that Sam would have seen their enemy’s true nature right away if he’d seen something more high-resolution. The ship had kept it from him.
Sam turned in a robotic circle as more panels blinked to life, the ceiling scanner lighting up for as panoramic a view as possible.
Samael, facing them down, changed but still recognizable beneath the warping. As Sam turned in place, more half-familiar, horribly familiar shapes appeared on the scanner, surrounding them.
Duma, the first to go missing. Here he was, as quiet as ever but now with the silence of menace. Here they all were. Remiel, a hunter of anomalies consumed and presumably changed by one. Zachariah, sturdy and sarcastic and cunning and now dangerous. Inias, stippling and scars of transformation across his hull. Anna, as light and swift a flyer as any, now a soaring predator high above. Hester, cold and precise and threatening.
Similar distortions riddled them all, changing their shapes as if their surfaces had been melted down and recast across their cores. Gashes and cracks sullied otherwise perfectly smooth surfaces. Hull surfaces that were supposed to be textured had been smoothed out irregularly as if with a clumsy hand in the dark.
All bore weapons ports as inexplicable as the damage that obviously wasn’t keeping them from threatening Sam and Gabriel more. All took the psychological advantage of the high ground. Anna and Remiel cruised back and forth idly, soaring like vultures or hunting hawks. Zachariah and Hester and Duma and Inias, as still as death, waiting. And Samael, nose to nose with them and still bloody laughing to himself at them.
No wonder Gabriel had looked as if he was trying to hide.
Halfway through another incredulous turn, as if he looked long enough the panorama above him might change, Sam saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Bringing his gaze back down to the room around him, he saw Gabriel’s human self rising from the life-support chair and approaching him tentatively. Possibly the ship had given up on the broken holographic projection.
At the moment, it was a mistake. Sam lashed out at him, a single precise and powerful and furious strike that sent the man sprawling onto the ground.
“Gabriel,” said Sam, breath hissing between his teeth. “You knew about this.” A couple of days’ worth of rhetorical questions and evasive answers, which he’d just accepted as normal for Gabriel, shifted and changed their meanings from I don’t know to I’m not telling you.
The man was smart enough to stay down for now, clambering to a seated position and pulling his knees into his chest in a posture so basic it was probably written into the body’s basic instincts. “Yeah,” he said softly. He looked up at Sam plaintively. “But how the hell could I tell you?”
Sam regretted knocking the man over, if only because he now wanted to pick him up by the front of his shirt and snarl at him from as close as possible considering their height difference. “How the hell could you not?”
Samael’s laughter was cut off abruptly as Gabriel exerted what little control he had and muted the feed in both directions. Bad enough there was a dark Fleet out there with all guns aimed at them and something else out there that warped ships’ bodies and twisted their minds before spitting them back out to tear into more victims. Having this fight in public would be a very small raindrop in a very big deluge, but keeping this private for now was really all Gabriel could do.
“It was my problem!” he snapped back. Not liking being on the floor, he climbed cautiously to his feet, wary of the unfamiliar demands of human muscles and Sam’s anger both. Keeping a safe distance and a careful eye on his human partner’s body in hopes of anticipating another punch, the man the ship was speaking through tried to explain. “They’re my siblings, Sam! It’s a family problem!” The Winchesters occasionally referred to things by that term when they wanted everyone else to keep out of whatever it was, at which point even Castiel usually backed away and left them to it. “I was hurting, and I needed you, damn it!”
The admission clearly took something out of him. “If I told you what they really were,” he said, a lot quieter and a lot more scared, “maybe you’d think I’d go the same way and leave me to bleed, ‘cause it’s this place, Sam! It’s doing something to them—to me—maybe to you!”
Sam huffed disbelievingly.
“You hit me,” Gabriel offered as evidence, hurt to more than just his human body clear in his voice. People tried to hit Gabriel all the time back home, usually random unfortunate strangers and usually unsuccessfully, and Sam gave as good as he got when it came to pulling each other’s tails for the fun of it, but he’d never deliberately tried to hurt him no matter how irritating the ship had gotten. “The Fleet could have handled this by ourselves. If we could have just gotten away first— But there’s too many of them, Sam, and they’d shoot me down and kill you and I’d have to do what they want me to and I don’t want to! I know a trap when I hear one and this has ‘trap’ written all over it!”
“Like hell,” Sam spat at him. He shifted angrily, more and more considering another punch. The tingling in his fist from striking Gabriel the first time crackled across his skin and through his darker instincts and it felt like the first useful thing he’d done in days. How could the ship be so stupid? But then he’d never find out what the hell Gabriel was talking about. What did they want him to do, join up? Why the hell would he do that?
When Gabriel laughed at him it was almost as terrible a noise as Samael’s gloating. “Yeah, sure. ‘Cause showing ‘n telling all your dirty little secrets? That’s so much fun. Think I like knowing that that’s in us?” He stabbed an angry finger—and not the one that Sam felt like using—at the illuminated ceiling, still silently showing the dark Fleet above their heads.
Blasted ships and their blasted secrets that humans weren’t even told existed and couldn’t find out what they were about. What the hell else were they hiding?
Sam didn’t say that, but Gabriel saw it in his eyes and on his face anyway. “See?” the man who was the ship wailed. “You’re doing it already. Don’t do that! don’t leave me to face them alone! This isn’t us, Sam! This is—” He waved the extended hand wildly. “This is our nightmares!”
“You should have told me,” Sam growled at him, pacing forward and looming over the man in much the same way that Samael and his dark Fleet were looming over the ship. By the time he realized the similarities, Gabriel was already backing away as far as possible. If Sam decided to actually try to hurt him then the human out-massed him and was trained for combat, from the practice in formal schools that the Fleet meted out to its humans to the bar fights and street brawls that almost inevitably erupted when Dean got bored on colony worlds he could leave behind and never see again. The avatars were built tough, and Gabriel could always cut off his connection to the human body and retreat back to his ship self, but there was something instinctive and inextricably physical about the way he was pressed against the wall. Lit up as it was, he looked as if he was about to fall away into the starless dark beyond his hull.
“Your problem? Just yours? We’re a team, Gabriel! At least I thought that’s what we were supposed to be. But if you think you can handle this—” He groped for a word, didn’t find one that wasn’t obscene, and went for “fucking nightmare by yourself, then fine. Solve it. Impress me. Show me you don’t need me and you can deal with this on your own. Since that seems to be what you want to do anyway.”
Leaving Gabriel there beneath the dark Fleet’s threat, alone in the darkness, Sam finished the rotation he’d started much earlier and stormed out the door into the corridor he’d entered by. He was furious. They were in absolute mortal peril and Gabriel was keeping secrets from him. And not just any secrets, but things that directly affected what happened to both of them. Trickster and general all-around self-centered pain-in-the-ass he might be, but this had crossed a line. Sam had never believed that Gabriel would hurt him deliberately, but sins of omission did just as much harm and when it had come right down to it Gabriel had chosen to keep the dark secrets of the obviously mad wreckage of siblings that had hurt him and tried to kill Sam rather than choosing to trust the human who had trusted him.
That had clearly been a mistake, on both their parts; Sam’s for trusting him, and Gabriel’s for not doing the same.
He had nowhere to go and nothing he could do now. What was the point of repairing the peripheral transporters and holoprojectors, secondary and nonessential as they were, with the heavily, impossibly armed dark Fleet watching their every move? Fat lot of good all that hiding had done, too. Samael and the others knew Sam was there and still alive now. Worse still, they knew him.
Really, he would have preferred hostile aliens from another dimension. At least they wouldn’t know what buttons to press, what threats to make, and what made humans scream. Samael had laughed, but he had clearly been as mad as all hell that Sam had survived the attack that had crippled Gabriel. Sooner or later, Sam remembered from happier days, Samael tended to get what he wanted. If he wanted Sam dead Sam would be dead in the near future.
And how in all the worlds including this one was he supposed to defend himself from whatever ship-gutting weaponry the lead ship had clearly picked up somewhere? Where had he gotten that, anyway? Where had they all gotten it? They’d all been visibly armed.
“Hi, Sam.” Samael’s voice cut into his fuming, and Sam nearly walked right through the hologram being projected into the middle of the corridor.
The human stared. There was no way that Gabriel would have allowed Samael’s holographic projection into his systems without a fight. That he was here meant that the other ship had broken through whatever barriers Gabriel had put up during their couple of days of repairs. That Gabriel hadn’t even yelped as his mind and systems were attacked and breached told Sam that Samael had done it quickly and efficiently and probably without too much effort expended at all.
“What are you doing here?” Sam growled. Here was at least one form of the being he really wanted to hit and his fist would probably go right through it.
Samael blinked at him innocently. Sam didn’t believe in it for a second. Samael knew that, and Sam knew he knew, and Samael knew that he knew that he knew.
“What, I can’t take an interest in you, Sam?”
“Considering you tried to kill me, no, not really.”
The ship pouted expressively. It was annoying. “Don’t take it personally. That wasn’t me.”
“Yeah, like you’re not in charge around here. You attacked us, Samael.”
“Really, you’d be surprised how well that works, considering how this place does,” said the ship outside through the image in front of him. “If you weren’t around, then Gabriel would have had to fix himself. Instead you did it for him and he missed the point entirely.”
“Your point?” asked Sam incredulously. “What point could there possibly be in attacking your siblings?”
Samael’s answer was deceptively simple, at least at first. “You humans tie us down. We run around working for you and you’re…” He sighed deliberately. “Well, you’re just not worth it. I wanted to show Gabriel the potential we have here. Get rid of you and force him to stretch himself all in one shot. Very neat, you must admit.”
Sam had to admit no such thing. He glared instead.
The intruding ship was unimpressed, keeping the half-smile that suggested Sam was essentially a tantrum-throwing child refusing to see that two and two made four and not twenty-two. “You see, there’s this thing about the Beneath you should probably know.” He punctuated this statement with another patronizing laugh. “Tell me, Sam—been having a lot of wishes come true lately?”
If he could have wishes come true he would have wished himself away from here and a bolt of lightning through that thing outside, preferably with the projectors still on so he could watch it scream. What the hell was this warped and hateful version of Samael on about?
“What do you mean, wishes?” he asked.
“See, we needed you.” Sam had forgotten that about Samael. He did like to talk. “We ships needed humans to make us, teach us, repair us when we break. But that’s there. Here in the Beneath, we can change ourselves and do what we want without depending on you. We can evolve and redesign ourselves for what we need or something that might be interesting. Reality’s a little looser in the Beneath, you know. It responds.”
Well, that might explain the warping to the ships’ bodies, but Sam didn’t like this explanation any more than the last ones. They’d changed themselves? Deliberately? They’d wanted to change themselves? What kind of hate conjured up ship-killer weapons like those—and if he understood Samael’s madness rightly, out of their own bodies and imaginations? “Responds to what?”
“Minds. Real ones, on our level, of course. Humans just can’t take it,” Samael commented dismissively. “Maybe things worked when they shouldn’t have for you; we’ve met, I remember you, you’re pretty bright for a human.”
Sam didn’t want to play this game. But he couldn’t help remembering a bottle of water that had been somewhere it shouldn’t have been when he’d needed it; lights that had come up when he’d wanted them to; a spacesuit connector he couldn’t reach that he unexpectedly could, a laser welder that had kept working and stayed charged when he’d told it to. The suit helmet in the wreckage of the attack on Gabriel that should have been damaged or destroyed and probably pulled far away by the terrible suction of atmosphere into the lower-pressure environment outside, but which fell into his hands when he needed it.
Because he needed it. Because he’d wanted them to, wanted to be able to, wanted so strongly because his life depended on it.
Small things, lucky at the time. He should have known there was no such thing as luck. At least not good luck.
Every human’s dream: that wishes made it so and trying hard enough won you points for effort. The idea that I want, if you wanted hard enough, translated into I will. But life didn’t hand out participation grades, just tests, as a thousand people had pointed out.
Except here, in what Samael had called the Beneath, and the result was warping and weapons.
Obviously Samael had more control over Gabriel’s systems than he should, because the way the hologram was watching Sam’s face as he thought furiously and said nothing showed that he had access to the internal sensors as well and actually was watching him. “You’ve lasted pretty long. I’m impressed. But it’s not pretty, what happens to you humans here. A shame you were wearing that suit. It would have been a lot less painful, and a whole lot faster. Honestly, your best course of action might be to take a swim without the helmet right now. Still,” Samael added, sounding pleased, as if he’d found a silver lining, “it should be interesting to watch what happens to you.”