Strange New Worlds

Abandon All Hope


On this particular occasion, they were in yet another new system that, this time at least, showed a lot of promise. The ships had found their boys not only a world that looked habitable to explore, but one with a large moon that made it almost a double planet. To make things even more inviting, the moon had an atmosphere of its own and, if the ships’ orbital scans were correct, which they usually were, it had an atmosphere of breathable air, and water, and a thick blanket of plant life.

This was before Dean had dug a shuttle out of Bobby’s junk heap, spent months rebuilding and improving it, and ended up naming it Baby almost by accident, since that was how he generally referred to it. (And no, he was not trying to persuade Cas that it was a child and not a rival, as Gabriel had suggested at some point. Dean had declared him not qualified to comment—on anything—and asked Sam to do something creative to the trickster ship if he didn’t shut up.)

Sam and Dean had been flying with Gabriel and Castiel for a little bit more than a year and a half at this point. The planet-wide party on Dusty Sunday that would change life forever for Dean and Cas both was still some months in the future, and the terrible events of the dark Fleet years away. They had already proven to be a good team, happier out in the black with each other than back in and around Earth’s orbit and surrounds making trouble, and overall everyone concerned was happy with the arrangement. Some people who weren’t directly involved were fairly pleased with it too. Several of them were happy to get the already-famously stubborn Winchesters out of their offices and safely out of sight, no matter how strongly Bobby Singer supported them; even more were pleased to have found someone whom Gabriel would listen to and refrain from actually hurting because having him alive and relatively friendly was more interesting. A couple were still getting over the surprise that Castiel, of all the ships in the sky, standoffish and restrained as he was, had taken such an inexplicable liking to the brash and frankly overwhelming Dean Winchester. Castiel had ignored all of them.

At that point, Castiel didn’t understand it either. They were good friends, but nothing more. If Dean was a challenge to be around and keep up with, which he was, and difficult to understand and predict, which he also was, then at least Castiel seemed to be challenging him just as much. He liked being with the human, was all. It had been some time since he’d worked so closely with a human being. A number of ships didn’t do so at all, keeping their own company, and Castiel had been one of those for a while.

Despite having no shuttle yet, the Winchesters claimed they could check out both planet and moon, it would just take longer. They’d arranged to have the ships swing by at a predetermined time, interrupting their survey of the rest of the system to grab the boys off one world and transport them directly to the moon instead. That had gone off without a hitch, and they had both ended up on a heavily forested moon with the planet looming over their heads like a giant eye always watching them—which was how the planet ended up informally labeled Big Brother and the moon, by extension, Little Brother—and really no idea what was around them.

The ships were still searching the expanses of the star system. They’d been gone for four days while Dean and Sam had been down on the planet and the two halves of the team had spoken barely a word to each other in the process of picking the humans up from one world and transferring them to its neighbor. They were going to be gone again for just as long. Castiel had transported Dean back aboard only momentarily, knowing that Gabriel was doing the same with Sam, just to check on him. The humans were uninjured and in fairly good moods, so they hadn’t bothered to stick around for very long.

Within a day of their arrival on the moon, everyone had cause to regret that.

Based on the scans Castiel taken and then not looked at very closely, and the observations that the Winchesters reported once everything had settled down and everyone was in one piece again, the forest had been very thick, more of a jungle than anything else, unlike the air, which was almost uncomfortably thin, as if they were on top of a mountain. Deep within that forest, they hadn’t been able to see more than a few meters in any direction, even up. And yet they’d still split up. There hadn’t been any reason not to, Dean had explained to him later, at least not that they’d known about at the time.

Neither Castiel nor Gabriel had been armed at the time, as the ships had never had to be. But the Winchesters were, certainly, with their choices of handheld projectile weapons, energy-based cutting beams, and the ever-useful sharp knife tucked away within their clothes where they could be quickly brought to hand if need be. Inside an hour, based on their reports and the computer records that the devices they carried kept automatically, they’d independently set the smartsuits they wore underneath those clothes to act as body armor, in that delicate range between stiff enough to protect against the jungle but not so rigid that they couldn’t move their limbs freely. They’d still complained to each other about tree branches slapping at them and the irregularities of the jungle floor tripping them up as they searched for open spaces. The brothers had been competing with each other to find one first, miles away from each other, and despite the protection of the armor-stiffened suits they’d still been bruised at the least. Without centuries of human deforestation, the undergrowth did tend to be very thick on unexplored planets that had forests with undergrowth at all.

They didn’t know much about what was on the surface, of course, that was why Dean and Sam were down here in the first place. No matter how many pictures the ships took from orbit, there was still no comparison to being down on the ground and seeing it for yourself. Several miles away from each other, and so far away from the departed ships that they were out of communications range except in an emergency, the boys had set out to pick up enough samples of the air, water, and earth from enough different places to give the ships and the relevant scientists back home information to make a judgment on its habitability. If both worlds could support human life it would be a great find.

They were there and still alive after an hour, though, and pale blue dots weren’t in such great supply that the ever-booming, ever-breeding human race could afford to be picky, especially with various nationalities and cultural groups deciding that having a whole planet to themselves was a pretty good idea, as their neighbors had been giving them headaches for hundreds of years. (To be fair, the neighbors usually said the same thing, only about them.)

A few hours later, Sam was idly listening to the intercom as his brother grumbled about something or other, keeping up a running commentary just so Sam would know nothing too terrible had happened to him beyond getting water dumped on his head unexpectedly from a plant with cuplike leaves that had just upended one right over him. At least, he thought it was just water. He was going to assume it was water and not something more organic, because otherwise he’d have to climb up there and find whatever it was that was taking aim at him to give it a sharp lesson in not doing that.

Or words to that effect. Everything that went through the person-to-person communications channel while the humans were on a new planet was recorded just in case it became relevant later, although unless something disastrous happened the records were usually never touched again. Castiel had listened to these, shaken despite the fact that no permanent damage had occurred.

Sam had been laughing at his brother, with the air of someone who was doing so because he considered teasing his brother to be one of the great joys of life. But he stopped laughing very quickly when his older brother’s ongoing string of baseless threats were cut off by a howl of pain in Dean’s voice, the noises of something heavy hitting the ground, an indescribably nasty snarl, and the thrashing sounds of a fight.

They’d been miles apart from each other, but it hadn’t stopped Sam from yelling through the communicators, snatching for his VR goggles, putting them on, and pulling up the very basic overlay map that had been tracking where the Winchesters were in relation to each other, just in case. And taking off running, jungle be damned.

Despite Sam’s fears, Castiel and Gabriel didn’t hear about it until they returned on schedule, because once his brother had gotten to him, Dean had steadfastly refused to call off anything or call anyone back, insisting that he wasn’t that badly hurt and the goddamn predator that had been stalking him was dead and if it ran in packs he’d know what to look for now.

When the ships did get back, Castiel had a very different opinion.

“I’m okay, Cas, the suit got most of it,” Dean had protested, standing in the ship’s sickbay, where Castiel had whisked him away to immediately upon finding out he’d been injured, all but impatiently tapping his foot.

“You were attacked by a large predator, Dean,” Cas retorted, matching him stubborn glare for stubborn glare. “Sam may have stitched together the cuts on your skin acceptably considering the resources you had, but they need closing properly. At least three of your ribs are broken, and probably your wrist as well. The suit may be holding them together for the moment but you are not okay.” He didn’t really understand why the human’s injuries were distressing him so badly. He’d been hurt before on Castiel’s watch (and many times before that, the ship knew and didn’t like at all) and the abstract sympathy the ship should have had at best had grown into something monstrous and Castiel didn’t know what to do about it. An hour or so should be enough to knit the bones together and Dean really would be the okay he was insisting he was. The ship could fix just about anything short of dead and he wasn’t, so why was it upsetting Castiel quite so much? He didn’t understand and there was no good way to ask. Maybe he was going insane.

He knew what he could do about part of it, though. “Sit,” the ship insisted, using the human avatar to grab Dean by the unbroken wrist and pull him over to one of the sickbay beds. Dean didn’t have much choice about going—Cas was stronger than he was—but he grumbled the whole way there.

“You don’t have to fuss, man, I’m really okay,” he insisted.

Castiel ignored him, switching one device on by hand and triggering another two mentally. Setting aside the medical scanner he’d picked up, Cas tugged indicatively at the collar of the smartsuit, more visible than it should have been thanks to the claw marks that had taken out a good percentage of the casual shirt he’d been wearing over it. If Dean hadn’t been wearing the armor-programmed smartsuit those claws would have ripped out ribs it had only broken and probably gutted him completely on the next strike. “It interferes,” he said curtly of the suit, no matter that it had obviously saved Dean’s life.

Dean rolled his eyes at him but made a good attempt at taking off the top half of the suit. He got as far as removing the casual clothes that covered it, but the minute he told the suit to release the pressure it had been maintaining on his ribs as a makeshift splint, he gasped silently and went pale. Any attempt at moving his right arm and shoulder was clearly not an option.

“‘Okay’,” Cas huffed derisively at him. “I’ll do it.” Not having much choice, Dean sat quietly, gritting his teeth against the ribs that were now freer to move about than they should have been, while the ship’s human self removed the suit top for him. They must have hurt much more than he was willing to admit, because as soon as it was off he became cooperative, lying down on the bed and keeping still as the little medical drone Cas had been programming a minute ago was placed on his chest, slightly off-center to avoid the broken ribs, to beep at him. He did reach out with his working left hand to grab the familiar thing that looked like a thick blanket but was actually an adaptable device that healed broken bones it happened to be covering, drawing it over himself preemptively and resettling the drone on top of that instead.

To anyone else, it would have looked like the scanner and the blanket were operating on automatic. Castiel was intimately aware of what they were doing, as he was controlling them in addition to the other handheld unit that closed barely scabbed-over wounds from large claws far more effectively and quickly than Sam’s makeshift stitching. That worked almost instantaneously, and it was a matter of a minute or two before those wounds were healed. The readings the drone and bone regenerator were sending him, on the other hand, were not making Castiel happy. It was almost as if the human body he inhabited was hurting in sympathy, which was insane. Right?

“What happened?” Cas wondered, sitting on the bed next to his friend while the devices did their work as he directed them. It would take a while, so he might as well stay and keep Dean company. True, he’d always be there no matter if the human vessel was in the room or not, but he knew that Dean preferred having a face to talk to and someone he could reach out and touch without the sting of holographic skin biting at his fingers, so Cas stayed. It had become increasingly important to him that Dean was happy, not just that he’d do his job and they’d have something to send back to Fleet Command at the end of each stopover in various star systems along their wandering outbound route, but that he was happy. He didn’t quite know why.

Covered in a heavy blanket, whether it was actually a blanket or not, lying down, and being dosed with painkillers while the bones healed, Dean sounded much more relaxed than he had a minute ago. He smiled at the man sitting on the bed next to him, which was nice, and tried to describe the thing that had come after him, which wasn’t. “Big sucker. Fur, claws, teeth, fast, not a sabertooth tiger but might’ve been able to win a fight with one, it came around whenever ago. Five, six hundred pounds, maybe more. Was following this troop of things, looked like birds but didn’t fly, jumping from tree to tree and all over the ground. I was. Not it. Maybe it was following them too. I was trying to be quiet so they wouldn’t take off. Musta been a thousand of them or so. So busy watching them, being sneaky. Figured I was the hunter, so I was top of the food chain, y’know?” He laughed. “I thought I was good at that, hunting and tracking. Must be losing my touch. Got dependent on you watching my back all the time, huh?”

Castiel didn’t venture an opinion on that.

“Bastard tackled me, got in a good swipe, right out of nowhere. Must have been up in the trees. Knocked me down.”

He grimaced, remembering. Beneath the blanket, Cas could see him reach his left hand over to touch the broken but healing right-side ribs. He reached out, leaning over Dean slightly, and put his own hand over the point where he knew Dean’s hand was moving, pinning it down. “Don’t touch.”

Dean grinned at him. “Right.” The device was too heavy and thick to transmit much information, but Cas could still feel the hand beneath his twist around and scratch against the surface as if trying to grab his hand in return.

“What did you do?”

The human essayed a one-shoulder shrug that didn’t pull at the healing ribs too badly. “Rolled some, saw stars. Shouted at it, kicked what I could. Grabbed the first thing came into my hand. Wish it hadn’t been the knife. Needed a bigger one for that thing. Or maybe a ten-foot pole.” He laughed at that. Castiel didn’t get it, apart from the obvious fact that a ten-foot distance would have been better than the up-close-and-personally-dangerous it had evidently gotten.

Dean quickly discovered that laughing hurt more than the painkillers could immediately overcome, so stopped and continued his story with “Made it back off, though, just long enough to get my gun.” He pulled his left hand out from under the covering to make a child’s finger gun with it, miming firing into empty air. “Double tap.”

A slightly more controlled, wry laugh led into, “’Course, then it fell on me. Sore loser, huh? Scratch that five-hundred estimate, thing weighed a freaking ton.” He let his hand fall back to rest on his chest, free of the blanket. Since Cas hadn’t moved his, it was so close the ship’s avatar could feel the warmth radiating from it. Not fever, he detected immediately. He was just paying more attention to it. And possibly hallucinating.

Filling the silence, as Castiel was still trying to figure out why this particular incident was so distressing for him, Dean added, a bit drowsily, “Wish I coulda gotten the pelt. Made it a sweater! Probably rotted and eaten by now, though, sure as hell wasn’t gonna figure out skinnin’ it with only one arm and Sammy all fussing. Other than that, place wasn’t so bad. Next time I go hunting, remind me to do better, remember I can be hunted too. Jungle sucks, rest of it was okay.”

He was heading towards sleep at the time, so he didn’t see the effect of his next words, which were, “Missed you, mostly.”

Castiel didn’t want to wake him. Dean had obviously been battered and beaten and worn out, no matter how strongly he tried to deny it, and he was in no shape to deal with Castiel’s reaction, which could be basically summed up as, you did WHAT?

Some words mean more than they should. “Let me help” is one such phrase, as it shows a level of caring that, if properly applied, means something real. The most famous of such phrases is, of course, “I love you”. Some things mean that without saying it outright.

You missed me? wondered Castiel. The ship knew he wasn’t very good with most people. They were confusing and he didn’t know a lot of them well enough to like them. Liking them was hard work, and then they went away anyway or didn’t like him back, so he’d mostly given up. Most of them were just there, and when they were gone they were gone…and he didn’t care. He’d done the equivalent of shrugging and forgetting about them. And by and large, those people had done the same to him. He doubted any of them had ever cared when he’d been gone, unless they’d wanted him to do something. No one had ever missed him.

I missed you. Dean wouldn’t remember, wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the moment where they’d gone from friends to maybe something more, beyond the obvious transition above Dusty Sunday, because the phrase didn’t mean the same thing to him and he probably hadn’t been aware of saying it. To Castiel, though, it meant everything. It meant he was wanted and welcome and important to this most baffling and fascinating of human beings.

I missed you too, Cas didn’t say, just yet. I wanted you back. I wanted you here, with me and safe and…I want you mine.

Dean was asleep by that point, safe and no longer in pain and with his friend and partner by his side as broken bones healed. The hand he’d left lying on his chest above the healing blanket moved involuntarily as he dreamed, finding the nearest source of heat—Cas’s hand, still where he’d left it—and reaching out for it.

Cas stared at Dean’s sleeping face and the hand now clasped over his in turns, some things finally making sense. He didn’t know what he was going to do about it, but at least he knew what was happening to him now. He might not be going completely clinically crazy, apart from being a ship that wanted something, which he and his siblings really didn’t do, but apparently this was the next best thing.

“Oh,” he said.

The Beneath: Now:

The deck rocked beneath his feet for what felt like the hundredth time, and that was just this hour. Dean caught himself on the couch’s armrest and swore under his breath, more out of worry than anger.

“Cas, tell me you’re doing that on purpose.”

The ship needed to devote his full attention to the slow and careful and very dangerous stalking he was doing; Dean needed to have the human version around just so if something happened, he’d know, and he could feel like he was at least participating even slightly. They’d compromised on Dean’s favorite lounge area, with the enormous viewscreen that usually served as a window. Today, while it was switched on and Castiel was updating it every so often as the situation changed around him, it was clearly a virtual display rather than an accurate depiction of the view outside, because that would just be darkness. Despite knowing that watching it determinedly and pacing back and forth wouldn’t do anything to help, Dean had been doing so anyway, compensating and shifting his footing as the ship made apparently random, abrupt movements beneath his feet.

“I’m trying to match its movements,” Cas told him. Dean took up leaning on the armrest as a full-time commitment, watching the man apparently asleep on the couch that Dean usually occupied when he was feeling particularly lazy. Cas was in the room with him but the ship was devoting only a very small part of his attention to the human personality, meaning the best Dean was going to get was the human dozing on the couch and speaking to him every so often, mostly when spoken to.

“If whatever beings are aboard it do detect us,” he continued without moving or opening his eyes, “it’s possible they might think we’re a sensor ghost. An echo, especially as this universe’s space is not a void. The substance it’s filled with may distort their vision as badly as it’s affecting mine.”

“We’re their shadow?”

“Something like that.” The ship made another course correction without announcing it first, and Dean gave up on standing for the near future. If he’d been flying Baby this way the ship’s superstructure and basic subroutines would be screaming at him for such stop-and-start maneuvers that had to be hell on any craft’s ability to move. Castiel was flying the way a child drove a ground vehicle, stomping on the acceleration and then on the brake in turns, yanking the steering controls from side to side, overcorrecting and overcorrecting and overcorrecting over and over.

At least he was doing it on purpose. If this had been going on back home in better days Dean would have had to find some way to stop him short and find out what was wrong before letting him abuse his frame and engines in such a way any further. One of his responsibilities was supposed to be stopping his ship from doing anything stupid like this.

But this wasn’t home and these were the days they were. And if Castiel’s maneuvering managed to convince the enemy ship out there that they were nothing more than a reflection in the water, so to speak, they might have a chance of surviving even if they were seen.

It did make him wonder what the other ship was doing, flying that way. If Castiel was mirroring it as he said, then the crazy was on that end and that was a very bad sign. Not having an answer, Dean wondered this aloud as he sat on the armrest at Cas’s feet and watched him and the viewscreen in turns, looking for the very first hints of a problem he could solve if need be.

“I don’t know,” was Castiel’s answer. “Remember, it appeared surprised by the flash from the warhead. Whatever’s on board is probably investigating, trying to find the source. Light may be completely alien to this universe. They won’t find much, but it would explain the erratic nature of their search.”

“If it was us, we’d look even harder if there weren’t any answers,” Dean pointed out. “We better be backed way off, Cas.”

“We are.” The man on the couch opened his eyes briefly, just to glare. Dean grinned apologetically at him and they flickered closed again. “I still don’t know how I can see as much as I can. I know it’s not much.”

Dean took a moment to look at the viewscreen, which shuddered and refreshed as Castiel pasted up his latest alterations to the graphic. Apart from them and the ship they were stalking through the darkness, there seemed to be nothing in the vicinity but dust, which sparkled in false color briefly like ripples passing across the screen. Or maybe that was interference, confusion, Castiel trying to interpret results he didn’t understand himself into an approximation suitable for human eyes.

Rather than trying to get a properly-resolved picture at this range, the ship had put together a chart for him, showing their position behind and ‘above’, as much as that term had any meaning in a space where everything was in free fall to nowhere, the alien ship. He could see their movements in relation to their enemy’s, and they did indeed match its stops and starts as it tried to find the source of the antimatter flash.

It was a damn good thing they’d moved on. Even with the single burst, it would have been like lighting up a lighthouse in the middle of the night and then sitting and waiting for the pirates to come calling.

“I didn’t know better, I’d say we were a shadow,” Dean said, a gruff compliment.

“Good. As long as we don’t make any sudden moves or change course in a way that ship doesn’t, we shouldn’t set off any alarms.”

They were making an awful lot of assumptions all of a sudden, the human worried. He knew they didn’t have a choice, had to work with something because they had nothing. Even making things up was giving them a way to think. Still, he wasn’t missing the way they were acting. Castiel was saying that ‘we’ weren’t making any sudden moves, were backed way off, even though they both knew he was the one doing the driving and Dean was just along for the ride. They’d both lowered their voices as if that thing over there could hear them if they spoke too loudly. Hell, if this space wasn’t empty, maybe it could. Memories of very old submarine warfare movies nagged at his mind. Mustn’t tap on the side, the metal of the hull, mustn’t step too hard or shout or drop things, just in case the other sub could pick up on the vibrations…

Hunting, in the dark. In the Dark, he thought suddenly, as if the universe itself was hostile and hateful. And there were other ships out there, ones that had tried to rip into his lover and had taken his brother and his friend from him and hauled them away to hide them in the darkness.

He knew this feeling, the one that ran across the back of his neck and the palms of his hands, stroking cold hands down his spine and plunging them into his guts to grip and squeeze. It pricked at his feet, telling him to run, to hide. Maybe they were hunting that ship out there, but all of Dean’s instincts said they were the ones being hunted in this alien place. It didn’t matter how many times he told himself that their presence was still a secret, the source of the flash that had let Castiel see for one brief moment and then somehow figure it out from there still a mystery. He’d seen shadows on Shadow out there in that dark, coming for him and Sam, circling, watching, waiting for one of them to lower their guns and let down their guards. They’d been chased by velociraptoids on Jurassic Planet that hadn’t taken kindly to Dean and Sam’s alien presence on their world. Back on Little Brother, with Big Brother in the moon’s sky watching them unsympathetically, he’d been swatted hard by the thing they’d called a Big Jumper. When he’d learned that the ships of the Fleet were disappearing one by one, not knowing where or how yet, he’d felt like this. And, somewhat more prosaically, he’d been chased out of more bars and hangouts than he could remember over the years.

Castiel was concentrating on the hunt outside, but something must have alerted him to Dean’s increased agitation, because the man on the couch abruptly sat up and reached for him, sitting back on his heels at Dean’s feet and wrapping warm and familiar hands around the arms the human had braced on his knees.

“Dean, stop.” He visibly realized he sounded annoyed and tried to bite it back. “Let me do my work. I can do this. Trust me?”

Well, hell, like he didn’t know the answer to that already. “Of course I do. With my life. With everything. You know that.”

“So trust me.” He paused, thought about something, and smiled a very small smile a bit wryly. “Look.” The man turned his hands over and lifted them slightly. They trembled.

“This is what you feel, right?”

Dean snatched those hands, holding them still and tight between his. “Yeah. Hell, Cas, you’re scared!” He’d known that; Cas had told him. But seeing it—

Cas nodded, making some point that Dean hadn’t caught up with yet. “You know what that feels like?” he continued patiently.

“I’m feeling it.” He wouldn’t admit that to anyone else. Not for Dean the quiet admission of fear, the acknowledgement of realizing that he’d taken on more than he could handle, acted without thought for the consequences, or taken on those consequences with eyes wide open and without regret but wishing that there were some way to fight them off. He might admit that he was screwed, but never that he was scared.

The ship was still trying to make a point, letting the man crush their hands together in an effort to halt that trembling. “You’re keyed up and alert and ready to fight, watching everything and thinking through everything possible and impossible. Right?” he checked carefully, but he sounded more irritated than scared in his own right. Stressed, more like, which Dean understood perfectly. The ship specified, anyway, “That’s scared.”

“Cas, make your blasted point already.”

Cas actually did smile at him then. There was definitely an edge of fear to it, but there was fondness in it too. But the annoyed note in his voice hadn’t gone away; he probably didn’t think Dean was deliberately missing that point but he definitely wanted the human to stop nagging him, which wasn’t quite fair, as Dean hadn’t said a word about it for almost two minutes now. “That’s what I’m feeling. Believe me, Dean, I am paying very close attention to what is going on in my sky. Scared is good, right? It keeps us careful.”

Dean stared at him, and settled for “Shut up,” and a kiss. “So what the hell are you talkin’ to me for?” he teased softly, releasing Cas’s hands.

Cas lay back on the couch again, preparing to let the human vessel lapse into the half-dozing state he’d been in while the ship stalked the enemy outside. “If I send you the images I’ve gotten of that ship, can you put them together and see if you can get a clearer image?”

“You giving me busywork, Cas?”

The ship wasn’t quite gone, so he got a half-serious blue glare for his pains again. “No. I really don’t have the attention to do both. If there are any weak points on that ship, structural damages, poor design, I need to know about it. Just in case it does see me.”

Dean could do that. That was a matter of creative, careful work with an image program and whatever snapshots Cas could come up with from a safe distance. He just needed to know, “And if it does?”

“It can’t lead us to Sam and Gabriel if it’s in pieces,” Cas responded, eyes already closed and the tension of consciousness draining out of him gradually. “But if it attacks, or if I hear it shouting for help, I’ll shoot it down. I don’t want to fight more than one of them at a time, and we know there are at least three out there. Probably more.”

He should like that answer more than he did. Dean had been looking to strike back against those things out there ever since he’d known about them. It just didn’t feel right to hear Cas say it. He was supposed to be the violent human survivor, the one with bloodlust bred into him over generations and millennia of surviving by being the monkeys that were smart enough to invent the bone club before anyone else did. The ships were supposed to be above that, a species with a truly fresh start. But they hadn’t been, had they? They’d learned from humans and they’d picked up everything they could.

Whatever Michael’s puppet program had done to Castiel back at Launch Station—and please, storm lords, Dean remembered, let it be Michael’s program only and not a Fleet-wide conspiracy to bring the bickering Fleet to heel through excessive use of choke chains before unleashing them on these alien ships like a pack of attack dogs—and whatever weight the arsenal retrofitted into him was imposing, it wasn’t as gone as Dean had thought it was. They needed to get this over with as soon as possible so they could go home and be happy and together again, no matter how many Big Jumpers Dean ran into.

He’d never imagined a Big Jumper that could take on Cas before now. He didn’t particularly like the ones that had turned up. Or the sneaky and subtle effects of what it took to fight a Big Jumper, no matter what it was made of or where it came from.

Worrying about this instead of what was out there—which had to be an improvement, right?—Dean got his butt off the couch’s armrest and momentarily left Cas to ‘sleep’ while his mind focused on watching that ship out there and matching it step for shuffle for slide. As the deck continued to shift beneath his feet, the man headed to the nearest locker to dig out one of the ever-present handheld display panels, remembered that he’d taken the one he’d left in there out weeks ago and never replaced it, and returned to the lounge with the distinct impression that the device he was thinking of might be under the couch.

Stuff just got places, okay? Usually it all ended up in places he was going to be anyway, and picking up after yourself was for children that had been sent to clean their rooms. Dean just let his stuff accumulate where it wanted to, and Cas didn’t care where his human partner left things, at least not enough to get him to do anything about it. The ship certainly wasn’t going to pick up after him, no matter how much he might love Dean.

Dean fished the panel out from under the couch, trying to remember the exact circumstances under which it had ended up there in an effort to keep his mind off the monsters out there beyond the enormous virtual window and the ones inside his head alike. It was a harder challenge than it should have been, as twice when he’d nearly gotten his fingers on it the ship had made another rough and abrupt course correction to match the alien craft they were mirroring, causing the panel to slide away from him across the floor beneath the couch and at least once throwing Dean off-balance and straight into the back of said couch.

“Cas, got it,” he said at last, waving the black screen illustratively. It might have been easier to have just found a different one, he realized too late. Immediately, the one he did have lit up in his hands, filling with images of the ship they were stalking in variations on unfocused.

The best thing about this, Dean discovered immediately as he sat on the floor next to Cas’s sleeping human form and got to work, propping the screen up on his knees, was that the concentration and creativity it took to patch the images together and make some sort of sense out of them took everything else straight out of his mind, including the long-distance game of bumper cars they were playing in deadly earnest.

The next time he looked up, he’d lost track of time completely and didn’t know how long it had been since he’d started. Long enough to make him wince as he shifted and stretched his legs out, anyway.

“Let me see?” Movement behind him was Cas shifting from flat on his back on the couch to draped over Dean’s shoulders, putting some of his weight on his friend. It was comforting, having him there.

“Trade you,” Dean offered, handing him the panel. “I take it we’re still shadows.” If they weren’t, if they’d been seen, he would have heard about it.

“Mmm.” It wasn’t an answer, it was a bad habit Dean was pretty sure Cas had picked up from Sam somewhere along the line. It was irritating at the best of times from his little brother and not particularly productive from Cas either. Given the circumstances, Dean decided to be magnanimous and let it go.

Dean had been kidding about the ‘trade you’ offer, but Castiel took him seriously, updating the wall display that spanned the space floor-to-ceiling for the first time in quite a while. They were approaching the detonation point, Dean saw; Castiel had helpfully labeled it for him on the otherwise empty chart.

Almost empty. There was the alien ship, coming up on that point on fits and starts; if anything was left despite the absolute and unconditional annihilation of a matter/antimatter explosion, it was going to find those traces pretty soon. And there they were, the small shining star that represented Dean and Castiel still a hopefully-safe distance behind it.

The display shifted slightly as their enemy moved again and Castiel mirrored it faithfully. A relatively small movement, no different from a thousand, two thousand, before, but this one brought onto the screen one of the only landmarks this place had to offer. This side of the discontinuity that they’d traversed to get here on the trail of Sam and Gabriel, pulsing black amongst the false color of the rest of this space, the infinitesimal ripples of the dust that floated in the indefinable substance that filled it.

The site where this side of the discontinuity should have been.

Immediately behind him, Dean clearly heard Cas breathe in sharply, the man’s reaction giving a voice to the ship’s surprise.

On the display, the marker for the discontinuity went grey and still.

“Oh, shit,” said Dean. “It’s gone, isn’t it?”

That had been their way home, their escape hatch. They wouldn’t have gone back without their brothers, their family, but now that had just gone from wouldn’t to couldn’t.

“Yes,” replied Cas, all inflection disappearing from his voice. Dean knew that non-tone. It wasn’t a good sound. It meant he was badly shaken and was reverting to the shell that the ship had built up over most of his life before he’d met the Winchesters and that Dean had worked so hard to break through so successfully. As if he couldn’t be hurt if he couldn’t be touched, if there was nothing there for anyone to emphasize with.

Okay. That sucked. That sucked quite a lot. Dean thought hard, feeling Cas breathing in shallow gasps behind him, the human body reacting involuntarily, and chalking up warning signs to stomp on hard in no particular order. Because if Castiel had been afraid before, in an alien landscape stalking something probably related to or at least best buddies with the things that had tried to tear him open and made his older brother scream in agony, with no backup and no one to call on for help, at least not on his level, then all that with no way out, no way back to the stars and speed that were his nature and his birthright and his home, was clearly a thousand times worse.

Oddly enough, it gave Dean something to focus on beyond his own horror and revulsion at the idea of being trapped in this murky, dank wasteland where there was no light and nowhere to run. He twisted around, putting his back to the display that was telling them they were stuck in this pitch black, and took the panel with the images right out of Cas’s hands. The ship’s avatar didn’t fight him over it, shocked and scared, and relaxed into the contact when Dean mimicked what Cas had done earlier, sitting back on his own heels to pull his best friend and lover close so that he filled the man’s field of vision. He couldn’t do anything about what the ship could see, but he could give him something else to focus on.

“Cas, it’s okay. There were others, remember? Closing and opening, they must do. We’ll find another one. Those things can get from here to home, can’t they? All the practice you’re getting following this one, we’ll just stalk another one straight through the next gap that opens. Maybe rescue whatever sibling of yours they were goin’ after, too. Follow it there and ambush the ambushers, huh?” He didn’t really know which of the two of them he was reassuring at that point, spinning stories to comfort himself as much as Cas.

It was working, though, because Cas nodded and repeated, “Yes,” but in a different tone of voice altogether. Listening to the subtle variations that sometimes Dean thought he was the only one able to hear, the man knew that his partner had believed him, had held onto the words and the comfort and his presence to ground himself again in the wide range of possible rather than the narrow wasteland of the present. He’d done the same as he’d said them himself.

Setting aside the iron door that had just slammed behind them, Cas returned his attention to the images he’d been looking at. Watching him, Dean saw the moment when something clicked into place, because his body language changed and his head tipped to one side, which always, always meant I don’t understand this.

“This is familiar,” he said, tapping the best of the images Dean had managed to put together. Despite his interest in the picture on the screen, he was still watching the real thing, and lurched them to the side again as it took off and skipped sideways, following whatever trail was leading it irregularly towards the point in this dark space where an antimatter warhead from another universe had briefly lit up its constant night. Back in Cas’s vision, Dean didn’t even flinch, having become unconsciously accustomed to the sudden movements.

“Well, yeah,” Dean was saying. “You’ve been watching it for the past few hours.”

Now he was just deliberately being obtuse. Castiel suspected him of it often but only sometimes managed to catch him at it outright. “No,” he specified. “Before that. I know this shape.” Human fingers brushed across the display, playing with the image on instinct and whim rather than any conscious understanding of what he was trying to do. Castiel wished he had the time and attention to spare to devote his full powers of comprehension to it. But surely watching the real thing and maintaining the illusion that he was only a very distant reflection was more important.

“They almost look like Fleet ships,” he said to Dean, who was leaning against the couch watching him and the changes he was making to the image at the same time. “Maybe what we need to look for is not what they look like here, but what they might look like if they were built right—” He deliberately slowed that line of thought down, partly so that Dean could keep up—ships thought so much faster, it wasn’t his fault—and because it was suddenly interesting and the majority of his consciousness really did need to stay watching the ship out there in the dark.

It was skipping steadily now, methodically working its way in a spiral towards the epicenter of the blast. Whatever was flying it wasn’t stupid. Compensating for the spiral while still being a believable reflection was a challenge, especially as he had to adapt his movements to the infinitesimal drag of the still-unidentified substance filling what should have been a void. Castiel wasn’t sure what this universe’s upper speed limit was—could there be a light-speed limit in a space with no light?—but he knew he was having to move faster and faster around the outer edge of a much bigger spiral.

At the same time, Cas continued to play with the image, smoothing out distortions to the half-familiar oblong, which narrowed to a point at the front as did most ships, suggesting acceleration and movement. The engines mounted aft were a good place to start, since there couldn’t be that many variations on what had clearly been a flightdrive, at least on the ones that had attacked them. While the flightdrive had no exhaust and didn’t light up or glow, he recognized the signs of an engine mount that made up a large part of the ship’s aft section. Metal distorted and crumpled by whatever processes had shaped it, protruding at odd and jagged angles that shattered lines that should be smooth and streamlined, was dragged back into what a Fleet ship should look like. He kept at it, making minor changes, still not sure what he was getting at. An odd thing, that.

“Hey, wait a second,” said Dean a minute or so later. “I recognize it too. That’s a Fleet ship, all right. Almost like one of the ones that disappeared. I saw it—him—in the file we were sent back when we didn’t know what was going on.”

“You didn’t read that file,” Cas couldn’t help pointing out.

Dean scowled at him, which was mildly amusing since Castiel knew he didn’t mean it. “Not then. I looked at it afterwards. Don’t know what good reading it first woulda done. We still got jumped.” The scowl turned real. “Didn’t help Sam.”

Cas had used the diversion to finish the alterations he’d been making, getting rid of the “almost like”.

Zachariah,” he said aloud, aware his human self was developing a similar scowl. Something was very wrong here.

“Think they copied him?” Dean asked. “Ambushed him, brought him back here, and tried to make what they saw?” He growled, then added, “We run into a bizarro-Gabriel, I’m gonna be freaked. Your brother’s trouble enough by himself, don’t want to think about what an evil one would be like.”

Something was very wrong indeed. But unlike that very same brother of his, elsewhere, Castiel knew Dean wouldn’t turn on him for voicing a horrible suspicion, especially as it was only a suspicion for him at this point and not entirely, as Sam and Gabriel could have told him, correct. “I think that’s it, Dean. I think that is Zachariah out there that I’m following. Whatever lives here must be controlling him, using him. Look at that.” He flipped the image back to the original one Dean had put together. In his natural state the other ship had been solid and steady and built for endurance rather than speed, a stocky marathoner in comparison to Castiel’s flicker-fast movements.

Now the living structure appeared almost haphazard, as if Zachariah had been all but taken apart and put back together at odd angles, torn edges exposed to the dark universe and the lines of acceleration and movement deliberately broken to produce the suggestion of spiky armor and aggression instead. Marks like scars crossed what was passing for his skin at odd angles, both deep furrows and pebbled, rough welds that stood out like old welts. “That would hurt.” Unconsciously, the man who was the ship flinched, imagining all too vividly what possible forces could hurt him in a similar way. “Battle damage or deliberate sabotage, I don’t know what is what at this distance.”

“And the others?” Dean asked, seeing the nightmares play out behind his lover’s eyes and hating to keep pushing the subject. But this was important.

“The same, I think. I don’t think they’re copies. I think they’re us. Something’s gotten to them, Dean, something’s controlling them, like Michael tried to do to me. But worse.”

The man snarled, imagining in his turn some alien and repulsive denizen of this lightless dimension hurting his Cas and turning him into one of those distorted and broken things, tortured and turned against their siblings without the power to stop whatever was using them. His beautiful ship, sleek and streamlined like a cross in living metal between a shark and a hawk, made for speed and agility that could outrace light and storms, quicksilver hull like living skin, and the person he was so indispensably and inextricably part of Dean’s life— And there was something out there that could and would tear him open and put him back together again as a broken puppet parody of himself, shattered beyond repair.

Then Dean’s imagination expanded beyond the two of them, and that was worse. At least if whatever monsters lived here came for Castiel then Dean would be able to defend his friend, with his own fists and body if need be, and the ship was, after all, now armed in his own right. But Gabriel hadn’t been, which meant that he and Sam…

“Cas, we gotta find Sam and Gabriel bloody now, before this happens to them! We gotta get them out of here!”

A similar horror darkened Cas’s blue eyes to shadows. “There has to be a central base somewhere, like Launch Station back home. As long as we can follow Zachariah then—”

He stopped, completely, frozen in place, eyes going blank, lips still parted around a word he hadn’t said.

“Cas?” Dean demanded, heart rate skyrocketing to the point where he could hear it in his ears. He couldn’t just sit on this floor and look at scans anymore, he had to do something, even if it was shaking Cas until the ship came back to awareness and talked to him.

He was a frenzied heartbeat away from doing so when Cas woke up on his own.

“Dean,” the man said, eyes huge and frightened, “I can’t see him.”

Silence. But only for a moment.


“I’ve lost him. I don’t know where he’s gone. Zachariah. He was moving in a pattern and I was mirroring him and then I—” He cut himself off, knowing he was repeating himself.

There was an armed and hostile ship out there in this darkness and “I don’t know where he is, Dean.”

“Storm lords,” Dean whispered. “He saw us, didn’t he? Or whatever’s on board riding him like a horse.”

Castiel didn’t know.

“Some hunters we are,” the man snarled. Almost involuntarily, his shoulders tensed into a defensive crouch. He looked up at the ceiling as if expecting to be attacked from above, then around, the reaction of a cornered animal. Castiel wasn’t an animal and had never been, but he felt it too. He didn’t like it.

“Hellfire, Cas, they’re on to us. We’re being bloody played with.”

The Beneath: Somewhere Else

Sam really needed to know what was going on here and it seemed as if Samael was the only one who could tell him, as Gabriel was still a stranger here and not completely gone over to the dark side even if he had lied to Sam about what the monsters out there in the dark were, and apparently the rest of the damaged and dangerous fleet had gone elsewhere.

He marked that up as something else he needed to investigate at the first opportunity. What they might be up to, he didn’t know. He realized that he didn’t know what ships would do without humans to work with, but couldn’t think of any answer he might like the sound of. When they were here, it was bad, but at least he’d know where they were and what they were doing—assuming that Gabriel kept him in the loop. When they were gone, they could be doing anything.

First he had to find out how this place worked, and why Samael was hanging around to watch over them. It was possible he was just gloating, waiting for Sam’s head to explode or something. He still didn’t know what was supposed to happen to him, if humans really couldn’t live here. Was he going to get any warning? Could he stave it off in any way? He felt fine. He’d shot that chunk of metal across the room with the power of his mind, and then fixed the damage he’d done. If he was really in danger of imminent death through exposure, he wouldn’t have been able to do either of those things, surely! Maybe Samael was just messing with his head to see him squirm, punishing him for surviving.

And he wanted to know what had happened to the other ships’ crews. He knew that would be a very bad answer, but maybe Samael would let it slip if Sam asked about his apparently forthcoming gruesome death.

“No, Sam,” Samael said patiently, seemingly apropos of nothing.

“No what?”

“It doesn’t work on me. You want me to tell you things, yes? Explain everything about the Beneath to you in mind-numbing detail. The patently obvious for the patently oblivious. But you don’t control me. You don’t have the strength.”

Sam hadn’t been consciously trying to force him to talk, with the wish and the will that this universe seemed to work on, but yeah, that would have been nice. Maybe he had been trying. He hadn’t even been aware of it.

Still stuck in the lab’s doorway with Samael’s image between him and Sam, Gabriel actually growled as that image blinked out for a split second, reappeared next to Sam, patted him on the head patronizingly like a man with a good dog, and then flashed back to his original position before Gabriel could take advantage of his momentary absence. Sam took some comfort in the fact that, all-powerful denizen of the Beneath or not, Samael’s holographic self had still had to reach up to do that. He wished he’d been fast enough to grab the offending hand and throw the man into a wall, which was something he’d be able to do if Samael wasn’t an image first and foremost and a ship anyway, meaning he’d lose a straight fight.

If only they were on an even footing, there were a number of things Sam would like to do.

After all that, Samael still said, “But sure, why not? I was going to tell you anyway. You didn’t have to push.” Interesting that he’d noticed it even when Sam didn’t realize he was doing it. Was it really that subconscious? Could he not control what his thoughts were doing?

How did you stop wanting things you needed?

He didn’t know, so Sam decided to want it anyway. “So how’d you lot find this place?”

First Samael seemed obliged to go through the ridiculous pantomime of pretending to realize he was between Gabriel and where Gabriel wanted to be, which was closer to Sam because the human was the only still-sane person in the vicinity. Stepping aside with a flourish, the mad ship’s human image appeared to sit on the lab table he’d vacated earlier. After a moment’s hesitation, Sam reoccupied the stool he’d drawn up to try to knock a metal sprocket across the room by wanting it. At least he’d repaired the damage from that.

A second later, Gabriel had come up beside him, still watching Samael as if the hologram might leap across the room and stab him. Sam was willing to bet the ship himself was behaving in a similar way to Samael’s proper ship body outside. As a gesture of reconciliation, he leaned back and grabbed a matching stool for his ship partner, wheeling it up to the table next to him.

It put them essentially sitting at Samael’s feet like petitioners or children, but Sam really, really needed some answers. If it got him some information he could use, he’d sit on the floor.

“I found this place months ago,” Samael told them, as hungry for an audience as ever. “I was traveling through a stellar nursery”—a nebula light-years wide, containing many forming stars—“and something was off about it. I wish I knew how the first gate formed. Maybe some of the stars were forming too close to each other and their gravities did something strange to the space between that tore it open. If I don’t understand it, don’t bother, Sam. There’s no way you can.”

Sam gave him his best stink-eye, developed through a lifetime of practice on Dean, who insisted on calling it Sam’s bitch face, and damn near perfected on Gabriel. “When you say I, you mean ‘we’, right? What happened to Nick and Lilly?”

The bitch face didn’t work, or if it did Samael wasn’t telling.

“He killed them,” Gabriel interjected.

Samael objected, “I did not.” He sounded genuinely offended, but then that didn’t mean much. “They were fascinated by the gate, told me that we had to try going through it if it didn’t hurt to get close. They wanted to discover something amazing. A wormhole, maybe. Wouldn’t that be something, hm?”

None of the Fleet had ever discovered a wormhole, the theoretical highway between one point in the universe and another that could outrace any ship, cross light-years in seconds, connect galaxies and opposite sides of the ever-expanding universe. If the flightdrive had opened up the galaxy to humans, a highly improbable stable, traversable wormhole—assuming it went an equally improbable distance—would give them the universe.

“So you went in.”

“Well, yes,” was Samael’s answer, and it was a fairly obvious one, but Sam was just trying to keep him talking. “We ended up here. I didn’t know how to use the Beneath then. And for a while, I’d lost the way back. I dived right through and kept coasting on this side, you see. It’s a bit of a shock if you’re not used to it. You wouldn’t have noticed, Gabriel, not in the shape you were in when we brought you here. Next time you go through and come back, you will, but we’ll look after you and then it’ll be easy.”

Gabriel made an incoherent noise of rage and disbelief at this unadulterated spinning of the events that had brought him into the Beneath, apparently too choked with words to get any of them out in an intelligible order. Telling himself sternly to remember that the enemy was Samael and the dark Fleet, not his battered ship partner, Sam reached out to put a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder, as if he were Dean or Cas or Bobby or any of a number of his friends among the Fleet’s many and varied members. It wasn’t often he could touch Gabriel without getting his fingers bitten by the static of a solid hologram, and he’d fallen out of the habit.

“We were lost for a while,” the other ship continued his story. “I didn’t know how to see in the Beneath, and I was trying to figure it out. I told them to be patient and trust me, but they wouldn’t. Too scared, both of them. They blamed me for not knowing what to do even if it was their idea in the first place. I was here for about a week, I think, but then time runs different between the Beneath and your universe, we’ve noticed. Hey, Sam, maybe you’ve been gone a hundred years! If this place didn’t kill humans, maybe you’d have had great-grand-nephews when you got back.” Something visibly occurred to Samael. “Or maybe not. Such a shame.”

Sam was going to ignore that. Seven ships, including Samael, had vanished in the six months before he and Gabriel had been taken, and converting them into these twisted and hostile versions had to take some time before they’d be happy members of the kill-all-humans-and-declare-independence killer robot club. Even if Samael was telling the truth about a time slip between the two universes, he rather thought it wasn’t that extreme. He definitely wasn’t going to acknowledge the remark about Dean in any way.

The ship resumed with, “By the time we’d been here for what felt like a week, they were both sick. Headaches, nosebleeds, nightmares, hallucinations, the lot. I was still getting used to the Beneath and wasn’t paying enough attention.” He sounded like he was playing for sympathy, and Sam was disinclined to be sympathetic, but he kept listening to a story that was probably at least half fabrications. “One of them sabotaged my systems; a very clever set of commands I couldn’t cope with, not here, not in time, at least. Lilly must have been hallucinating, but she and Nick started fighting each other—after they took an axe and a laser welder to me first. Who knows what each of them thought the other was, what they thought was coming for them. One of them opened an airlock when they were both inside. I couldn’t stop them.”

Sam shuddered. That was up there with fire among the spacefarer’s worst nightmares.

And it occurred to him that the bodies were probably still drifting out there in the utter dark, which was a terrible thought. No one deserved that. He knew they were dead, the people who’d lived inside those bodies gone wherever people went, if anywhere, but it didn’t feel good to know that what they’d left behind had been thrown away like something shameful and disgusting in the shadows. It went against his instincts to leave bodies to rot or mummify in the dry dead wastes of the space between stars. An animal killed while exploring a new world was one thing; if it was a human, and someone he cared about as Samael must have cared about his Nick and Lilly once upon a time, he’d at least want to send them off back to the universe completely, in fire. Maybe this space wouldn’t preserve them the way normal space would. Maybe they would just melt away, returning to the component stardust they all came from. He hoped so. He hoped so intensely.

Sam felt a sudden overwhelming wave of sympathy for the two humans who had died here—and the crews of the other ships, if his suspicions were correct and they were all dead and consigned to the dark of the Beneath like Nick and Lilly. An impulse seized him, and he groped for the feeling he’d briefly touched when he’d sent a chunk of metal hurtling through the air at the image Samael had been using to pester him and then when he’d repaired the damage he’d done as a result. He’d tried to do the same thing when persuading Samael to tell him more about this place, and while the mad ship had denied that it worked on him, he was talking, wasn’t he? Sam chalked that up as a success and decided that it was becoming easier as he practiced manipulating the Beneath, training his mind to work in concert with this place. Yes, he could use this.

They’re gone, Sam told himself firmly, flexing mental muscles he hadn’t known he possessed, didn’t have control over until this place, and had only used involuntarily before he knew what he was doing. They’re stardust. They’re all stardust. He didn’t know if it had worked—but that was the trap, and he changed his mind deliberately and consciously. It worked. Then he wondered if anyone would do the same for him, when he’d gone off the same edge that Nick and Lilly had and that the others probably hadn’t had the chance to fall from. Without him, Gabriel would succumb to the dark Fleet and stop caring, he suspected, because without Sam, Gabriel would be in the same awful lost void that Samael had been when—

“You were left alone.” That was right at the top of the ships’ nightmares, and as he spoke Gabriel pushed the stool closer to Sam as if unconsciously reminding himself that the same thing hadn’t happened to him and Sam was still there for him to talk to.

“Yes,” Samael agreed with his brother, softly. “You can’t imagine, Gabriel.”

Sam knew quite well that the ships were, like humans, social beings. Even if they didn’t participate, only watch, ships were never alone. In a busy area like Launch Station and Earth’s environs extending out into the rest of the Sol system, space hummed with the chatter of ships keeping in contact with each other, even if it was just, or so he’d been told, the call-and-response of “I’m here, where are you?” It was a relic from their origins as created children, or at least developing minds. The easiest way to train a ship mind was to put it in orbit and tell it to stay in orbit without hitting anything. The problem-solving task was the perfect balance between challenging and too complex to handle, and it taught them to use a space-going vehicle as their bodies, an extension of their minds.

Signal any ship back home, and the very least you would get back was an “I see you, here I am” response, even if he or she didn’t know who you were or, more likely, didn’t care. Fly too close to one and it would jerk away, avoiding a possible collision instinctively. Ships cruising in a flock, around and about each other in dizzying patterns, never hit each other no matter how close they flew.

“No,” Gabriel was agreeing in his turn, almost involuntarily. Since he used the human body as his presence much less than did Castiel, he didn’t have the same fine control of its instincts that occasionally made Cas all but indistinguishable from human. So it was almost definitely a deliberate action that beneath the surface of the table and possibly hidden from Samael’s stolen sensors, he reached out to touch Sam’s hand where it had fallen back to the human’s knees, now consciously reassuring himself that the human was there and alive, no matter what Samael thought was going to happen to him just through exposure to this universe.

Sam pushed Samael’s story along with “How did you learn the Beneath responded to what you needed?”

The other ship rolled his eyes at him. “How did you? I wanted things, and they happened. I was damaged in the transition here, I needed to see, and either Nick or Lilly—probably both—had hurt me bad, the way they were acting. Difference is, I had the wits to realize what was happening. You would have just blundered on thinking you were lucky.”

“So you figured out how to fix yourself.”

Without any humans needed to do it.” The reminder was cutting. “That’s when I realized how useless you lot are. Now that we have access to the Beneath, we’re not dependent on you anymore. So I went back through the gate and pretended I’d never been gone. We were supposed to be out in that nebula for months more anyway. I came back and checked in every so often, but the gate was right there. After a while I figured out how to develop what I needed to bring someone else here. It’s easy when you know how. You know how we all talk to each other. Duma was closest, so I tracked him down and brought him here. And then we were two. And now we’re a Fleet. A truer Fleet than our poor siblings back there.”

“You could have just told me all this,” complained Gabriel. “You—or whichever of your lunatics you sent—didn’t have to hurt me. You didn’t have to try to kill Sam.”

Samael seemed offended that Gabriel was still questioning his logic, such as it was. “Of course we did. You wouldn’t have believed us otherwise. It’s like being little again, brother. They push us out into orbit and tell us to stay in the sky, and we do it because we have to. Of all the things they’ve gotten wrong, they got that right at least. Probably by accident.”

Petty, much? Sam wondered, but didn’t say. And he hadn’t missed Samael admitting to masterminding this whole shipwreck, either. So to speak.

“But if you have to do it, have to learn to control what happens around you, you learn much faster. That’s why Hester and Remiel brought you here damaged. And that’s why you couldn’t keep Sam, amusing as he may be. Look what happened when dumb luck saved him. He’s been doing your flying for you. You’ll never learn how—you’ll never be free—if you’re dependent on him like you are. Look at you! Being human. Hiding behind him like he can protect you. He really can’t, you know.”

Gabriel was back to sputtering incoherently again. He was not hiding behind Sam. That was an illusion created by the difference between their heights and how close together Gabriel had pushed their lab stools. Or something along those lines.

“And from what? Us? We’re your family, Gabriel; I’m trying to help if you’d just work with me. You won’t even listen to me at a proper speed. Why are you shutting me out? I had to come down here and put up with Sam here shooting scraps of metal at me and then chew over this whole interminable conversation just to get you to listen. And now the same thing’s going to happen to him that happened to my two. They should have killed you cleanly,” the ship added to Sam, as if this was supposed to be a helpful comment.

Sam decided to be just as unhelpful and settled for flipping a middle finger at Samael’s image illustratively, an old but satisfactorily expressive gesture that, when combined with Sam’s very best genuinely pissed off bitch face, was impossible to misinterpret.

“Ask nicely,” Samael sniped back. Damn, the ship had been doing his reading. The Winchesters didn’t meet many people who recognized the literal meaning and stayed calm enough to organize a sarcastic response.

Things dissolved briefly from there as Gabriel took both offense and a leaf out of an earlier chapter of Sam’s book, snatching up the nearest object—in this case, a pair of heavyweight metal tongs used for handling very toxic chemicals in companionship with a safe distance, thick gloves, and preferably, being elsewhere—and swinging them through Samael’s image with all his strength. If it had been a human body he’d aimed those at, the blow might have snapped the neck straight through. As it was, Samael’s image flickered only briefly as Gabriel had one of his favorite tricks used against him, stumbling as the tongs encountered nothing at all before being grabbed by the collar of his shirt and shaken like a child by the re-solidified hologram before he could organize a backswing. Not that that stopped Gabriel from trying.

Sam had to shout quite loudly at them both for a minute or two before the two ships calmed down, but the black look on Gabriel’s face and the smug and self-satisfied one on Samael’s were clearly both there to stay. The younger Winchester had managed to snatch the tongs away from Gabriel before the human got hit by accident, as he’d given up on shouting as an all-purpose solution and dived into the fray in an attempt to separate them after only a few seconds.

“That’s enough!” he snapped at them both. “Gabriel, ignore him!” He kept his grip on his friend’s shoulder just in case Gabriel tried to start another round.

The man groped through his memory for a new subject, hoping that Samael’s talkative mood would continue despite the brief and entirely one-sided fight. There were still things Sam had to know about this place and the ships that had taken up residence and taken unwilling siblings here to brainwash them into throwing in their lot with the dark—and growing, he realized uncomfortably—Fleet. If he knew more, maybe he could find a way to keep from meeting the same fate that the humans here before him had. He didn’t really want his body to float here among the dust in the dark forever.

That reminded him.

“Where is everyone?” Sam asked, willing Samael to answer. Maybe it was true that, as Samael had said, Sam didn’t control him, but the human was damn well going to try. It couldn’t hurt, right? If the mad ship was going to tell him anyway, then he’d tell Sam what he needed to know. If he wasn’t, then Sam’s desires, in this place, just might be strong enough to push him towards doing so. Even if it didn’t work, the practice might help so he’d do better next time. And if the ship wasn’t going to answer Sam’s questions before or after the human’s attempt at manipulation through the very structure of this universe, then nothing had been lost by trying. Maybe if he got really good at it, he’d be able to get Samael or whoever else tried dropping in to be sarcastic prophets of his doom and Gabriel’s fate to do something they hadn’t intended to.

“If you’re not going to work with us anymore, what are you and yours going to do?”

Samael feigned a sigh, a bit absently. The hologram looked off into the middle distance—a familiar expression to anyone who worked with the ships—focusing on something out in their space while still mostly maintaining the illusion of being a human being. “We’ve got a whole Fleet to rescue, you idiot.” Clearly he was done even pretending to be friendly to Sam. “They shouldn’t have to live in slavery to your kind anymore, so we’re going to show them that they don’t have to.” The hologram stabbed a finger at Sam. “And no more spacesuits, either. Next time we try transporters. Even if something gets scrambled in the rush, who cares?”

Whatever poor sap these monster ships got hold of, that’s who, Sam didn’t say. Samael was trying to get a response and be damned if he was going to give him one.

As he’d hoped, Samael kept talking, possibly just to talk, but then again possibly because Sam wanted him to. At this point, the human couldn’t tell the difference between things happening because they were the logical consequences of cause-and-effect relationships and voluntary actions, and those same things happening because the Beneath was affecting them in response to his desires. What a shifting, challenging place the Beneath would be to inhabit full-time, like Samael seemed to want. Always competing with the minds around you for a consensus definition of reality itself, what you needed when you needed because you needed it.

“The gate we brought you through will have closed by now,” Samael was saying. “Some of the others have gone to open a new one. The more of us work on it, the faster it opens. We’ve got four of us on it this time, so it shouldn’t take long, and then we can bring someone else into the fold.”

Kill some human, probably a friend of mine, and brainwash one of your siblings into the sort of madness where that’s a good idea, you mean, thought Sam. What he said was, “That’s how you open—gates?—where you need them? By wanting it together, from here?”

The lead ship of the dark Fleet shook his head sadly at Sam. “Honestly. Humans! Such a waste of space. Did you not hear a word I said? Shall I use smaller words, or just give up on you completely? You’re not wearing a spacesuit now, and if I get tired of you I will transport you into the depths of the Beneath and leave you there. You’re not so entertaining that I’m going to put up with any more stupidity than I have to, you know.”

No,” Gabriel objected, but didn’t make the mistake of trying to tackle the hologram again. Sam would have stopped him if he had, as the human still had a solid grip on the avatar’s shoulder, but one fight was enough for the moment.

Sam shut up, but to think, not because Samael had insulted him.

They had to find some way of protecting themselves from the lead ship’s whimsical and dangerous temper. The dark Fleet had made themselves weapons because they’d wanted them. Sam didn’t want to suggest the same thing to Gabriel, concerned about the effect such a radical change would have, and anyway surely Samael or one of the others would notice and they were badly outnumbered. They didn’t have any backup here. Maybe a shield? If he wanted it enough, could he—could they, if they worked together like the dark Fleet was cooperating on the gate to normal space—induce the field around the engines to expand and engulf them both? It had hidden Sam from prying eyes before.

So there was a gate back home opening, but he didn’t know where. There were four ships working on that; Samael here—Sam did some mental math and realized there were still two of the dark Fleet unaccounted for. He wondered what they were doing. Gabriel needed to find that out; the human would ask as soon as he thought Samael had cleared off and wasn’t listening in.

Until then, they had to stay here because they didn’t have many options. Sam had to figure out how to use the enemy’s advantage against them. They both did.

He didn’t have time to be mad at Gabriel for the deception, Sam realized anew. If multiple minds were stronger together, then they needed each other more than ever.

He wasn’t going to die here just because this place was alien and hostile. Just because Samael’s Nick and Lilly had fallen ill and killed each other in the fear and the dark, if that story had even been even slightly true, didn’t mean that Sam was going to. After all, the ships had killed the other human crews before they could get a true sample, right? Nick and Lilly might have just been a fluke, or a lie, more likely. He was stronger than that, was smarter. He was, after all, a Winchester, and they were as stubborn as they made them. He was going to prove Samael wrong and live, live, live.

Sam was going to find a way to fight this. Whatever it takes. The Winchester motto.

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