Long Distance Call
Sam really needed to find some lighter-dosage painkillers that didn’t knock him flat out every time Gabriel jumped into flight and Sam got the headache to beat all headaches including the last one. Once they’d scratched a system off their list and sent all their information so far back to Fleet Command, probably with some obscenely strange title like “Crap, Run!”, he always spent the first day out cold. It gave Gabriel an absolutely unfair advantage in their ongoing game.
He woke up this time with the feeling that something was wrong, but it took him a minute or two to drag his abused brain out of sleep, by which time he’d already moved for the first time in what had probably been fifteen hours or so and sprung the latest of Gabriel’s traps.
The movement sent him floating into the air, blanket and all. Involuntarily, because humans weren’t designed for weightlessness and their brains didn’t have reflexes for it, he jerked in suddenly-awake surprise but managed to avoid yelping into the bargain.
So this morning, which was possibly an afternoon by their subjective clocks, Gabriel had just now switched off the ship’s artificial gravity, probably just in his rooms.
Sam had a long list of things he wasn’t going to do. He wasn’t going to flail around and try to swim through the air, because he knew that wasn’t going to work. Air just wasn’t dense enough, unless Gabriel did something diabolical to the onboard standard atmosphere. He probably wouldn’t, because Sam might not survive that and then the ship wouldn’t have anyone to play with. Now, Dean would have screamed in apoplectic rage and threatened to do something to Gabriel that probably would have involved flaming oil and a very small box. Sam definitely wasn’t going to do that, either, as tempting as it sounded, mainly because he didn’t have any oil to hand or anything with which to set it on fire. Or a very small box, at least not within reach. Luckily, Sam didn’t get nauseous easily, so he wasn’t going to throw up, either.
What he was going to do was toss the blanket to one side as best as he could considering his lack of leverage, relax as much as possible, be glad that his furniture was solid enough and had enough inertia to not start floating spontaneously unless he collided with it by accident, and wait for his initial momentum to send him drifting into a wall or ceiling. Without going postal at Gabriel, because that would be considered losing this round.
He was also going to spend the time unpicking the twenty or so tiny braids that Gabriel had put in his hair, which was not too long and he’d wear it as long as he liked, while he was asleep. (How had he managed to sleep through that?) Exactly how that hadn’t been more boring than anything else the ship possibly could have been doing, Sam wasn’t sure. He suspected Gabriel was waiting for the scream as a payoff for the sheer time and patience that must have gone into the mess that the silly trickster had made of his hair. Then again, if he didn’t react, Gabriel might feel obliged to step things up, and Sam didn’t really want to wake up to find that scissors or a razor had come into play.
Yes, he really had to get some painkillers that didn’t put him in a coma. He settled for an exasperated sigh as he drifted. His initial launch had been slow and undirected enough that he wasn’t going to hit anything he could get a purchase on anytime soon. If he got seriously bored, he’d just go back to sleep. Sleeping in zero gravity was a knack, but it was really comfortable once you got the hang of it.
“Nothing?” Gabriel asked rhetorically, materializing out of nowhere. The little redhead looked up at the human, floating in the middle of the room and trying to undo the knots in his hair, grinned insufferably, and bounced onto Sam’s deserted bed to sprawl out across it, hooking his hands behind his head and actually crossing his feet at the ankles, the very picture of nonchalant relaxation.
“I see we’re a five-year-old girl this morning,” Sam shot back, refusing to be provoked. It wasn’t all that uncomfortable a position to be in—Gabriel always could have turned the gravity way up instead—and it was a game, really. Gabriel tried his very best to get a rise out of Sam, although he usually wasn’t quite this literal; Sam was sarcastic at him and tried to find ways to get back at him. “Not very original.”
Gabriel freed a hand to wave it nonchalantly. “Aren’t we all a five-year-old girl, at heart?”
“No.” Sam was not, in any way, shape, or form, a five-year-old girl, and he was just the first example he could think of.
Not to be deterred, the ship went on, “Hey, think I could talk Castiel into showing up as a five-year-old girl, just for a day?”
“This is just the second of many times you’re going to get told no today,” Sam told him. “I’d almost laugh if I didn’t think you were just trying to screw with Dean. And that would do it. I don’t know what he’d do to you, but it would be more original than this.”
The grin sprouted fangs—almost literally. It was wide enough that Sam could see canines, anyway, even from a good six feet up in the air and steadily drifting upward. If Gabriel took it into whatever was masquerading as his brain to turn the gravity back on now, Sam might be able to land without hurting himself, but he’d look really stupid on the way down. He wouldn’t even have the satisfaction of hitting the smartarse taking over his bed, either; Gabriel had appeared out of nowhere and wasn’t affected by the lack of gravity, so this was the hologram. He’d rather just wait until he reached the ceiling and could maneuver off it.
“Thirteen-year-old? Maybe blonde? Could make her cute.”
“Still absolutely no.”
“Tell you what. Go ahead and suggest it to him. But he won’t speak to you for a week at least and you’ll be completely bored. Until Dean finds out and comes up with a whole dictionary full of new swearwords, just for you.”
Gabriel thought about it, sat up—still irritatingly and utterly unaffected by the lack of gravity, of course—and tipped his head to one side, a gesture that on Castiel meant “Huh?” and on Gabriel meant something closer to “Hmm…”
A moment later, he whistled softly, and added, “He really doesn’t like that idea. Might have been fun, though. Your brother’s a very bad influence on him.”
Sam could imagine. Flaming oil and small boxes might not have been involved, but if whatever Castiel had said reminded his older brother of Dean, it had probably been a very rude refusal—or, more likely, knowing Castiel, something ice-cold and cutting. “Serves you right,” the younger Winchester commented. He idly watched the blanket he’d been sleeping under undulate around his room in the imperceptible air currents of the ventilation system, because if he looked at Gabriel he’d start laughing and that would be losing, too.
It was a complex game, and explaining the rules would be difficult and time-consuming and the two of them would probably disagree on exactly what they were. Gabriel was ahead on points, but Sam wasn’t far enough behind that the ship had gotten tired of it.
“Next time we’re back at Launch Station, I’m ratting you out,” Sam warned his ship partner, for the amusement of it. They’d just left, as it happened. The team had quietly snuck back into the system several months after the fuss over Gabriel’s manipulation of the Europa simulation had died down, and managed to get through a few weeks back in the Sol system without being kicked out on their butts too obviously. The Winchesters had gotten to spend some time hanging out with Bobby, which they didn’t get to do often enough; no one who didn’t already know about them had caught out Cas and Dean, although not for lack of obvious; Sam had gotten to have a few actual rational conversations; and Gabriel had behaved, although Sam suspected he just hadn’t gotten caught at his backup game of changing what human news reports and fiction shows actually said between transmission and reception.
On their way back out into the black, they’d stopped off at Lapis Lazuli, where they’d gotten roped into helping out with some construction as the colony expanded. That had mostly involved demolition, which had been fun. The parts of it that hadn’t had mostly consisted of hauling people and supplies out to the second habitable planet in the system, Lorelei Lee, meaning that for a brief and disconcerting time Sam had had to share space with another horde of people and he’d had to pay very close attention to Gabriel to keep him from taking unfair advantage of all these new and convenient victims. They had the latest list of possible stars that might have planets that might be habitable. It had been strongly suggested, although not overtly stated, that if the Winchesters and their ships happened to be gone for somewhere between six months and a year or so again, not a lot of people would miss them too much.
“For what?” Gabriel wanted to know, not upset in any way. He seemed perfectly happy to listen to a catalogue of his misbehavior of late.
Sam wasn’t too upset about any of it, so extemporized, “Kicking up a fuss about the demolition on Lapis last week. Teasing Cas; he’s happy, leave him be. Picking fights with Dean and then blaming him. That guy on Lapis I swear you drugged, and if I find out exactly how you convinced him he was falling into a black hole I will rat you out for that too. The other guy back on the Titan rafts who thought the aliens were coming, because there aren’t any and I will bet having the gravity working for a week you had something to do with it, especially since everyone swore up and down that he’d never said a word about aliens before. Switching off the gravity. Turning all my clothes green when I wasn’t watching. Playing Pac-Man on the walls of every corridor I ran through just because I felt like going for a jog and we were out in the middle of what I believe is technically referred to as freakin’ nowhere, and where the hell did you dig up Pac-Man, anyway? When is that even from, the Stone Age?”
He stopped for breath, and then wound up the just-offhand list with, “Making me imagine Cas as a five-year-old girl when I haven’t even had any coffee this morning. Braiding my hair. Hiding my books. The only slightly less than ten thousand gumballs and bouncy rubber balls you decided to stuff into the cabinets where my books should have been instead. And the theft of fire from the gods, if I feel like it.”
Gabriel was almost laughing by then at this chronicle of creative troublemaking and minor misdemeanors, meaning Sam had possibly won a point. Both laughing and screaming in rage meant the other player had gotten a reaction; the challenge was not to react. But damn, he looked pleased with himself, having gone back to taking over Sam’s bed with his hands behind his head like he intended to stay, grinning up at his lanky and currently levitating partner.
Well, damn, Sam had gotten his hair back to its unbraided state and he could almost reach the ceiling by now, and Gabriel hadn’t just dropped him the minute it had been obvious that he wasn’t going to get the outraged scream he’d probably been aiming for. He might not be ahead on points, but he was just about breaking even this morning.
“Who’re you gonna tell?” Now it was a game.
“Dean. Michael. Bobby. Admiral Harvelle. All your siblings, actually, with illustrations. Whoever reports little news stories when they’re seriously bored at three-thirty in the morning. The people who make those godsawful reality shows. Conspiracy theorists. Drunk old ladies. The Girl Scouts.”
“They used to make cookies,” was Gabriel’s slightly wistful comment on that. “I hear they were good. And I did not overreact to the demolition. You were too close.”
“I was not! I worked it out and I was perfectly safe where I was.” Sam reached up, got a hand flat against the ceiling, and aimed for a corner where he could brace himself against two walls and a floor and thus restore at least a little bit of control to his aimless zero-gravity float. Gabriel watched the proceedings with amusement, shading back into irritation as Sam pressed his point.
“I knew what I was doing.”
“You were blowing up a mountainside!”
“With the most controlled and reliable blasting agent humanity has managed to come up with in hundreds of years of testing, and the advice of the local experts who knew what they were doing.” By the end of that sentence, Sam was back on the floor and he could navigate fairly well from there; there were enough anchored pieces of furniture within reach that he wouldn’t have to bounce around from wall to wall.
“But you didn’t have to be right there,” Gabriel complained. He’d protested at the time and had threatened to just transport Sam right off the surface without asking first if he didn’t move from the vantage point the human had wanted to take to what the ship thought was a safer distance. Sam had thought he was both making a fuss over nothing and hypocritical, as Gabriel had been perfectly fine with staying where he was, just not about Sam staying where he was. A little bit later, he’d remembered that the hologram wouldn’t be affected by debris or a blast wave anyway, unless something managed to take out the portable holoprojector, still disguised as Sam’s watch, that the hologram had been wearing. (Dean had one too, fitted into the amulet that Sam had given him one year as a gift when they’d both been little; he’d worn it continuously for years, but almost never these days because Cas liked being mostly human.) That would be a chance-in-a-million, since they made those things tough, and Sam had been glad he hadn’t brought that up.
“We’re explorers, Gabriel, remember? I’m out here because I like finding out new things and living just a bit dangerously. We’re supposed to be curious.” The human considered and then discarded the option of cleaning up just now; by long-standing agreement, Gabriel wouldn’t have done anything to the plumbing, but while the gravity was still off Sam didn’t want to introduce running water to the equation. That was a bad, bad idea. Instead, Sam mulled over the possibility of finding some new clothes for whatever was left of this day—he still didn’t know what time it was by the ships’ clocks—but decided to hold off on that just in case Gabriel had gotten bored of mysteriously green clothes and gone for pink instead to go with the five-year-old girl theme. Oh, they’d been the same clothes, as far as he could tell, they’d just been a truly awful shade of green that Sam didn’t think existed on the visible color spectrum. They might not have been radioactive, but they had been just about that color of some terrible mineral that would glow in the dark and cause people to fall over and die as all the life was sucked out of them.
Sam had steadfastly refused to wear any of them, and made himself an elaborate wraparound toga thing out of the nearest bed sheet, which Gabriel hadn’t managed to change the color of yet. He’d probably looked even sillier than he would have wearing the green things, but it was the principle of the thing. Going along with all of the ship’s pranks would make him truly intolerable instead of just mischievous and frequently irritating. If Gabriel ever got completely out of hand he could seriously hurt someone. It didn’t do to let him get away with everything.
“That’s what you said the time you nearly blew up the lab. ‘Curious’.”
“And I learned something.”
“Yeah, not to do that anymore, ‘cause if you did I’d lock you in your room and not let you anywhere near the labs ever again.”
So maybe the chemical he’d used to try to dissolve a sample of a mineral they’d found in abundance on the world they’d called Snake Bait—because of, y’know, all the things that looked an awful lot like snakes as far as the Winchesters were concerned—hadn’t reacted very well with that unknown mineral. They’d only gotten a sample of the rock that had come loose on its own; nothing the boys had done to it had made it do more than glow in response—and that had been under a welding beam.
Maybe it had steadfastly refused to dissolve or do anything until Sam had upended the entire bottle over it in frustration and it had just vaporized, going from stubbornly inert solid to obviously toxic vapor much faster than either Sam or Gabriel had expected.
Well, maybe it had been a good thing that Gabriel had been hanging around in holographic form watching Sam lose a fight with a rock and laughing at him the whole time, because the gas had done funny things to Sam’s brain and Gabriel had had to drag him out of there by the back of his shirt.
And maybe, sure, the ship could have transported him out of the lab, but ships didn’t like to do short-range transports like that if they didn’t have to and anyway then Gabriel wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of hauling him around like an overgrown bad puppy.
“Well, that too.”
Now, Gabriel complained, “Always gotta poke things with a stick,” of Sam.
“Really, Gabriel?” Sam inquired skeptically. “Says you?”
“When I poke things with a stick,” the ship specified, poking a finger at Sam, who was holding himself in place in the nearest doorframe, “I make sure I’m a safe distance off. You gotta get in there and poke it right up close.”
Sam didn’t have a good response, because it was true, he was curious. He liked answers, and he liked them to make sense, admittedly sometimes only under a very loose definition of sense. He liked finding things out. “Good for me,” he said instead of letting Gabriel get in the last word. Right now, he decided, he was going to find out what would happen if he turned on a faucet and tried to brush his teeth in zero-gravity. Just for the curiosity value. And if Gabriel was going to leave the gravity off for an undetermined length of time some practice in living in free fall would probably do him good.
When he crossed the threshold, he was glad he’d been approximately on the floor already, because his bedroom didn’t have any gravity but the bathroom did.
Well, that solved the problem of trying to deal with zero-gravity plumbing. Sam would have had to go toe-to-toe with the ship over that one at some point probably very soon.
Gabriel didn’t actually laugh aloud at the sound of Sam’s feet hitting floor and the sound that was not a surprised yelp, but when Sam stuck his head back around the doorjamb to glare at him he was smirking. And still occupying Sam’s bed, only now sitting on it cross-legged and playing with the blanket still floating in the air like a cartoon ghost. Or the world’s biggest pizza crust.
Realizing that he was now thinking about antigravity pizzas, Sam shut the door behind him firmly. He’d suggest it to Gabriel later and see what the ship could do with such a crazy concept—from a safe distance. Some things didn’t need poking at a close distance and he suspected antigravity pizzas might be one of them.
The Beneath: Now:
Hunting, in the dark, Dean had been fine with, tense but believing they were getting something done, getting that one step closer to finding his brother and getting the hell out of here. Finding that their way out had closed while they hadn’t been looking had been a blow, since obviously getting out would now take a lot longer.
Being hunted, in the dark, he was not fine with.
Swearing and pacing around probably wasn’t helping, but he couldn’t do much else as Cas stared at the graphic display filling one wall, human movements reflecting the ship’s anxiety and fear as he cast around trying to find the ship he’d lost track of.
“He can’t have just vanished,” Cas told him as Dean passed by on yet another unhappy lap. “He’s out there. I just need to find him again.”
“You know there are more out there,” the human hissed at him, coming to a stop in order to make his point. “We’re being hunted, man! You better be looking for more than just Zachariah.” Or whatever it was Zachariah had become in this place, armed and twisted and dangerous, at the hands of unknown forces. Dean was sure that they’d been played, that something had been watching their movements just as they’d been watching the other ship’s, stalking them in their turn.
“I am! Wait—” The man sitting up on the couch paused, freezing entirely as the ship’s attention was completely redirected outward. There was a long and absolute silence for almost a minute, as Dean held still and imagined terrible things.
He’d never been so glad to hear anything in all his life. “Dammit, Cas, don’t do that! What happened? Where is he?”
The relief in Dean’s voice was mirrored by that in Castiel’s. “Almost where he was when I lost track of him. It’s as if—” He tried to find the words for a second. “Like the substance of this universe has gotten thicker where he is. As if he was hiding within a denser patch. I’ve never seen a ship do that before. It took me by surprise.”
A miniaturized image of the twisted ship popped up on the viewscreen, glowing very faintly, as if clouded over. He wasn’t very far from the point where the antimatter warhead had flashed so briefly, the anomaly that had led the ship here in the first place. “Watching the blast point, I believe.”
Now Dean remembered that when, back home, Gabriel and Castiel had approached the discontinuity that they’d eventually learn was a gateway into this universe, they’d done the same thing. They’d stopped, circled, and watched it for a couple of days until they had decided they didn’t know what it was or what to do about it. He said so. “Is that some sort of set program?”
“No. just not a bad way of investigating something. Possibly the pilot suspects that we were going to return here. Not us specifically,” Cas amended, seeing Dean start to say something along those lines. “Just whoever or whatever set off the flash.”
“And we did.”
“Yes, but we saw him first and we’ve been keeping a safe distance.”
At the time, back home, when the ships had stopped to check out the discontinuity and then taken off again without telling the Winchesters anything about what it had been, Dean had been reminded of a cat that had done something stupid and refused to admit that anyone had seen it or that anything had actually happened. He was reminded of a cat again. “Like a cat hiding and watching a mouse hole.”
“Something like that. But it’s a clever way to hide. Now that I know where he is, I can see him, but not clearly. If I can work out how he’s done it, I might be able to do the same thing.”
That might be worth thinking about, certainly. To prevent himself from pacing in any more circles, Dean sat down on the other end of the couch, turned to face Cas. “You mean, we could be invisible?”
Cas had only barely mastered the shrug, but he tried, a casual imitation of a gesture that was probably Dean’s. “I couldn’t see him for a minute or two, even when I was looking for him, and even when I’d been able to see him a moment before. Even if it only gives us that same minute, we need to be as hidden as possible here. As you said, there are others out there, and seeing is difficult. I don’t want one of them taking me by surprise.”
No kidding. If they got ambushed here, they were in deep trouble. Cas might be able to fight back this time, but the monster ships of this universe had already proven themselves skilled ambushers. They’d known what they were doing, enough to disable but not destroy Gabriel—they hoped, Dean realized. They still didn’t have any evidence that Sam and Gabriel were still alive. It was just that Dean was not prepared to accept any universe that didn’t have his brother in it. Sam was alive because any other alternative was just not acceptable. He’d do anything to keep his brother alive, and if Sam was gone because they’d been too late—well, he’d never be able to live with that.
At the moment, they were still working with the theory that Zachariah out there had been captured and worked over—tortured might be closer—to be transformed into the distorted and ruined ship they were following. The one hiding under something like a fold in space-time or whatever made up the fabric of this universe, not far away.
“Okay,” he agreed, taking a moment to lean back on the couch and try to relax just a little bit. He was so keyed up he was going to do something stupid like break something any second now. It was just the sheer passivity of it! If it was him being hunted, in some environment where he could do something, then he’d do something. He’d figure out what was hunting him and turn the tables on it, maybe by getting out of the way, setting a trap, or doubling back and going right for it, depending on what it was that was stalking him and what he had to hand. Here and now, it was his Cas being hunted, and all Dean could do was go along for the ride and talk to him. There wasn’t any way that he could take matters into his own hands; Castiel could maneuver through this space without any help from Dean and if it came to a ship-to-ship fight it literally would be a ship-to-ship fight and then Dean would need to shut up and get out of the way so Castiel could think and act at his own speeds.
Damn, but Dean wanted to do something. They were partners, equals; always had been regardless of the wide gulf between their natures and abilities. He trusted Castiel, unconditionally, but he hated being dependent on him so utterly.
Still, he contributed what he could, even if that was just checking his judgments and courses of action. Castiel had admitted he was scared, and scared people didn’t make very good choices sometimes, and while Dean was pretty freaked out too they were different enough that they’d make slightly different bad choices. They were a pretty effective check on each other’s random mistakes. “If you can figure out how to cloak yourself like he’s doing, Cas, go for it. You’re right; we need every advantage we can come up with. So far being hidden and taking them by surprise is all we’ve got going for us.”
The man on the other end of the couch didn’t sound terribly optimistic as he muttered, “I still don’t even know how I can see, but I’ll work on it.”
Speaking of seeing—“Wait, what if it doesn’t work or you can’t get a handle on it before something else turns up? I believe in you, Cas, but can you do that and watch the skies at the same time?”
If Dean was interpreting his partner’s mannerisms right, even being told that Dean believed in him was helping. Still, Cas admitted, “Maybe not. I can send you the scans. If we both watch them, I think we’ll stand a better chance of spotting anything coming.” With half-functioning sensors he couldn’t explain.
“Okay. Awesome.” He thought about the logistics of it for a minute. “You want to send it to this screen? It’s supposed to be a window so it only really points in one direction, but a rotating view might work.”
Cas didn’t like that idea, grimacing at the amount of work it would take for him to set that up and maintain it when he was trying to do something else that he had no idea how to do. “No. The room you call the Control Room would be better. I can just set up the scanners and let them work unconsciously.” For him, that would be the equivalent of having his eyes open, or a camera on and filming, but not having to think about what it was he saw, at least not actively.
He wanted to figure out how Zachariah had dropped out of sight so instantaneously. While he’d seen through the cloak, as Dean had called it, eventually, every second might count very soon. If he hadn’t been actively looking for Zachariah he might never have spotted him at all, and he’d had to look hard. The minute the denizens of this universe found out that Castiel was here, though, they’d start looking hard too. And then he was either going to have to fight or run. He wanted to find Gabriel, and through him Sam, before anyone knew he was here. Sneaking around continued to be his best option, and having something to hide behind would help.
Dean was thinking along similar lines, apparently. “Hide and seek, in the dark, with guns,” he was muttering. “Fun.”
As recently as a year ago, Castiel probably would have had to stop and question that statement, because this was not fun at all. Now he knew better.
They moved to the Control Room. “You switching off?” was Dean’s first question as Castiel let the human body slump back into the life-support chair that maintained it on those increasingly rare incidences when he wasn’t being human and essentially the man’s shadow.
“No, I’ll stay,” the ship answered, feeling the support system, built into the chair built into the wall, click to life automatically. He could have switched the cycle off, but hadn’t thought of it soon enough. He did, however, disable the lines of programming that would have engaged the restraints that held the body in place when Castiel wasn’t using it. Bad enough he was trapped in this universe; he didn’t need a physical reminder of his confinement tickling away at a corner of his mind. The man flinched slightly as the links mounted on the chair back clicked into place, connecting the body to the support system through the ports installed just beneath his shoulder blades.
Cas looked human, he felt human, he could do everything a human could because the body essentially was human. It had just been cloned and artificially grown with some crucial modifications built in that made him stronger, harder to hurt, faster to move. He was different inside, although someone would have had to take him apart to tell the difference. The space within his skull that in a human would have housed a biological brain had been replaced with a processor that the ship could access through a solidly established remote link; it was integrated with the cerebellum and brainstem that ran the body’s life functions like the heartbeat and breathing. But without the ship or the ghost of him written into the processor’s limited memory during the desperate emergency of a last-ditch download, it was incapable of independent thought.
He dozed but he didn’t sleep, he didn’t get sick, he didn’t age, and he didn’t have to eat because the body got its energy directly from the ship’s power grid and in a less adulterated form than the complex process of deriving nutrition from food and liquids. Anyone picking up the shirt Cas normally wore would probably think that it was torn, because it deliberately had gaps in the back to allow this very connection, linking the body to the ship to recharge and repair. It felt strange, though. Castiel had usually let his active connection to the human body lapse by this point, when Dean left to explore a new planet and left Castiel with only his brother Gabriel for company. Only now did he remember why.
Today he stayed consciously part of the human form, because Dean wanted him there, and if he was being entirely honest with himself because Castiel wanted to be there. The universe he was traveling through was alien and unfriendly and he was probably going to get shot at in the near future; the rest of the family he’d been adopted into was lost out there with unknown numbers of twisted, corrupted versions of the family he’d been created into; and the only safe place he had was here, with Dean. He’d fight, because he had to, but by staying here and staying human he remembered why he had to.
The life support chair was literally the only part of the room that wasn’t coated with display panels. Usually only a few of the wall-mounted ones were necessary; before Castiel had met Dean and found so many reasons to be human so often, they’d usually displayed readings on the health of the clone Dean would one day nickname Cas, and then only when someone called him back to Launch Station for routine maintenance of ship systems and human body both. He’d spent so much time out in the dark, one of the ships that didn’t have strong ties to humanity. He hadn’t realized how lonely he’d been, in the same way that a man who’d never been warm wouldn’t be aware he was cold, and he thought he’d left that life behind. Now he was out in the dark again.
Not too long ago, he’d switched on the enormous screen that covered the chamber’s ceiling, providing an almost complete view of the universe around and above them as an antimatter warhead flashed momentarily, letting him see for the first time and attracting the attention of the warped and nasty version of Zachariah that still lurked out there, hiding in his thicker bubble of the substance that filled this universe. Castiel trawled quickly through his memory and decided, without knowing that Sam had done the same not all that far away, to call it ether.
The ship that might have been his brother Zachariah at one point had drawn the ether around him like, yes, a cloak, and waited within that cloud at the only landmark in the area. Perhaps he—or whatever was controlling him, but Castiel was a ship and thought in terms of living, sentient ships—was waiting for the source of the flash to return and try to get back through the now-closed gateway.
Well, they had returned, but following Zachariah and aware of the trap.
Castiel knew that the space around him wasn’t the surface of an ocean. Just because this was the plane that he was maintaining as he traveled through it didn’t mean than anyone else would. At home, ships had no sense of up or down. They moved through a universe that they could see from any angle, and they maneuvered through it in the same way. Unlike the thousand old science-fiction movies that Sam and Dean liked to laugh at during their synchronized but separate movie-watching efforts, ships didn’t approach each other on a tidy level. Just because Castiel was moving this way didn’t mean that anyone else would, especially if they were trying to sneak up on him the same way he was hoping to sneak up on them.
Not many people were aware that the floor beneath Dean’s feet was a display panel too, more durable and difficult to scratch because people were going to walk across it. Today, he gave Dean only a moment’s warning before switching all the panels on at once.
Dean whistled, impressed despite the tension. Abruptly, and if his eyes were to be believed, they were floating in a featureless void. He could see the artificially lit figure of Zachariah off in the distance, slightly blurred to represent the cloaking effect he’d taken advantage of or induced. A faint grey haze a little further off was where the gateway had been, left on the display for reference purposes. Beneath his feet, this universe fell away forever; above his head, the endless ocean of the ether-filled void yawned, apparently emptily.
“Storm lords,” he whispered, apparently involuntarily. “Your sky, huh, Cas?” Oh, and that hurt, although Castiel knew he hadn’t meant it to. The last time Dean had been out under Castiel’s sky he hadn’t been home five minutes before the demon ships of this universe had attacked them and taken their brothers away to this darkness to meet a still-unknown fate.
“Not mine,” Cas corrected him. He’d closed his human eyes to cut down ever so slightly on the information he was processing, redirecting his attention almost entirely outward, but he could hear Dean moving back and forth, and could imagine his slightly reproachful grin at the correction. “Theirs. When we get home, you can spend all the time in here with the screens on you want. That’s my sky.”
The sound of Dean pacing steadily around the room, finding the walls and tracing them around to give him a point of reference and remind him of the size of the room so he didn’t do something silly like walk flat into them, came to a stop as the man arrived at the support system built into the chair that appeared to float in the void with him. Familiar fingers combed through Cas’s hair briefly, reassuringly; lips pressed to his similarly. “When we get home,” he promised, and it was a promise. It said we’re going home. We’re all going home.
Castiel took the comfort that was offered and was glad he’d stayed at least partly here. He needed the touchstone that Dean offered him, the knowledge that he wasn’t alone in the dark anymore. He only hoped Gabriel had something of the same support, out in this dark universe wherever he was.
“Watch the sky for me?” he asked.
“You bet,” Dean replied. He could hear the rustle of cloth as Dean rose to his feet; hands brushed across Cas’s jawline and cheekbones once again before his human lover moved away to keep a careful eye on the little that comprised the view. Castiel was aware of his experimentation as Dean found that tapping on a panel would allow him to zoom in to the limits of the currently available resolution, just like a handheld display unit, and that a variety of gestures common to most versions of the machinery would allow him to manipulate the image, mostly of dust. He was aware of it, but that wasn’t his priority now.
Zachariah had vanished off his sensors for a terrifying few minutes; there were other ships out there, and they were armed. Castiel had to figure out how he’d disappeared and if he could do the same, because the longer he could stave off a fight the longer he’d have to find Gabriel.
Time passed; how long, in this strange place, Castiel couldn’t say. Once in a while he said something to Dean just to reassure the human that he hadn’t gone away. He worked on figuring out how Zachariah had hidden from him. Off in the distance, Zachariah waited, unmoving. Castiel remembered him as appearing patient, up until things didn’t go his way, whereupon he became temperamental and a little bit petty. They all had their flaws.
After a while, Dean’s metaphor of the cloak came to mind, and Castiel began to imagine the cloud hiding Zachariah from all but intense observation as something spun around him deliberately. He wondered what it would take to do the same around his own ship form.
As he thought about it, he became aware that his own vision was blurring. Castiel began concentrating on the effect, more than a little bit worried, because if he lost his mysterious ability to see in this place they were all lost, would-be rescuers and not-yet-rescued both. He realized that if what he saw was correct, and what the sensors built into his hull, which were meant to register damage and pain, were telling him, the ether of this universe was thickening around him, creating his own cloud or cloak just like Zachariah’s.
That was a hell of a coincidence, and Castiel didn’t believe in them. He believed in chance—once upon a time, he’d wandered after a barge full of cadets because he didn’t have anything better to do, and from that halfhearted decision his life had changed forever—but not coincidence.
Castiel considered all the data, trying to make as few assumptions as possible and steadily falling toward the same conclusion, although Castiel didn’t know it, that Samael had come to as he’d traversed this place alone, that Gabriel had been told and kept to himself in disbelief, that Sam had tripped over and not seen as anything unusual because humans wanted all the time and sometimes they got. Could it be that the cloud had condensed around him because he’d consciously wanted it to? That he could see because he needed to?
He put the concept to Dean, who was disciplined enough not to desert his post as watchman as he considered it.
“Hot damn,” was the human’s verdict. “Any way to test that?”
Castiel didn’t have time to come up with an experiment, because that was when Dean interrupted himself with, “Cas! Something coming!”
It was even further away than Zachariah, and on the very edge of Castiel’s vision, and Dean had done well to spot it. In their home universe, it wouldn’t have been anything notable, just the slightest glint of light that wouldn’t have been the slightest bit out of place in a universe filled with stars.
Considering that the light was entirely a construct of his sensors, Castiel was now just about willing to believe that he could see it because he wanted to. Hopefully the cloud he might have willed into being would hide him from this one as it approached.
They watched it together, human and ship, both watching the display on the walls of the Control Room as Cas opened human eyes and Castiel watching it directly as well.
“It won’t pass us,” Dean said almost immediately, watching its trajectory. “Not if it’s meeting up with Zachariah.” He’d spent enough time with the ships to know that a ship that had been on its own for a while would automatically go to another one that it encountered, to check in and for the Fleet feeling of it. Even two ships were a fleet, a group. No ship coming in from the unexplored black ever saw one of its siblings in the distance and turned away. A ship traveling on its own was utterly dependent on the human crewmate to be the equivalent of his or her fleet, and on the relay links the ships were setting up as they traveled through the galaxy, expanding the network outward. It wasn’t fast enough for real-time communications, but messages sent back and forth were better than nothing.
“I think we might be cloaked,” Cas told him. “Unless Zachariah and this ship go looking for us deliberately, I don’t believe it will see us by accident.” He explained what he might have done.
“Good,” was Dean’s verdict on that. He was messing with the image of the new ship, trying to bring it into focus despite the distance and the distortion from the cloud. “Cas, I think this is one of the ones that attacked you and Gabriel.”
Castiel turned his attention to it, looking as hard as he could. “Yes,” he decided, after a minute. Practice from restoring Zachariah’s image to his original form let him make similar changes much more quickly. “Hester.”
“Another one of the missing tried to jump us?”
“Yes. Similarly broken.” Something caught his attention, even through the cloud. “They’re talking to each other. No, I can’t make it out.”
Dean had been about to ask. “Anything?”
“It’s on a ships’ frequency.” That was odd. They’d been going on the theory that Zachariah, and now Hester, had been hijacked and controlled, but then why would whatever unknown life-forms that were flying them be using one of the frequencies that ships preferred to use when talking amongst themselves? Again, it might be a coincidence, but Castiel wasn’t willing to make that assumption, not if he could learn something more by deciding that it wasn’t a coincidence. As far as Castiel was concerned with danger waiting for him to let down his guard here, ‘coincidence’ was just a cheap way of saying you hadn’t looked hard enough for the connections. Sure, there were minor coincidences, but not important ones.
Could his brother and sister out there be so damaged that they’d lost their minds and bonded with their torturers? Even now, it was still called Stockholm Syndrome, and Castiel knew what it was. He wondered aloud to Dean if it was possible to torture a ship so badly that it would change sides.
“How should I know?” Dean replied unhelpfully. “Storm lords, that’s a horrifying thought, Cas.”
In the distance, Hester and Zachariah turned as a coordinated unit and headed away, roughly in the opposite direction from the heading Castiel had taken when they’d first arrived in this universe. They had never gotten close enough to see him, the distance and the spontaneous cloud and their lack of awareness of his presence all combining to keep Castiel and Dean hidden.
“Bitch tried to kill you,” Dean pointed out, tension running through him as he watched them go. “Hurt my friend. Took my brother. Cas, tell me we’re going after them!”
“Of course we are,” Cas snapped back at him. “But I’m going to give them a head start just in case they’re suspicious and keeping an eye out. Zachariah must have told her about the antimatter detonation; she probably passed through the wave front on her way here. They know something’s up, Dean; I’m not going to get too close, especially as I doubt the cloak will move with me. I’ll try to reform it next time we stop, but staying on the edge of their sensors and mirroring their movements like I was mirroring Zachariah’s won’t work. Because there’s only one of me, that’s why,” he added preemptively.
Unspoken between them was the fact that neither ship nor human was talking about the other ships being controlled anymore. Something was nasty here. They’d known that from the beginning, but they were beginning to see the edges of how nasty it was.
They followed the twisted pair for what felt like, according to Dean, three hours at what felt like, according to Castiel, a fairly rapid speed. This lightless place didn’t limit his movements in the same way that a universe with a light-speed limit did, despite the slight drag of the ether, and the ship wasn’t quite sure how fast they were going. He hadn’t approached the limits of his engines’ cruising velocity, but then ships’ engines had more power than they knew what to do with. Castiel knew this place was altering his perceptions; he was designed to exist in one place and still hadn’t adapted completely to existing in another. The disjointed feeling that had set in when he’d left his home universe and come here, at least with regard to time, hadn’t gone away, scratching at the back of his mind. He felt as if he was stumbling from one moment to the other. But he couldn’t let it get to him.
He shoved the feeling away, ignoring it as best as possible, concentrating on what he was doing, which was following Hester and Zachariah into the unknown. They could have flown for days in the other direction and headed blindly into nothingness. At least they were likely to get somewhere following his siblings—the two ships were moving not with the aimless wandering that Castiel had exhibited when he’d been moving around in ignorance and with no destination, but with the manner of two ships that had somewhere to be and were deliberately getting there.
They were still talking to each other, which only confirmed for Castiel that their minds were still there. Ships talked to each other all the time; they were people and when there was another ship around they loved to gossip and know that there was someone else there, that they weren’t alone. Barges being controlled by humans didn’t. They might have a basic computer link set up, especially if the humans on the respective barges wanted to talk to each other, but it showed up either as a single steady pulse of uplink and download, or a random and minimal connection. It wasn’t remotely like the varied chatter Castiel was catching only the edges of, not enough to make out what they were talking about but enough to hear how they were talking.
It was like, he explained to Dean, being in another room and hearing people in the next room whispering, but not knowing what they were whispering about, aware that you were only hearing the moments when they got a little louder than they meant to or said words with the sibilant hiss of the S, which carried louder than any other sound that humans made when they tried to whisper. Smart whisperers lisped.
Dean actually took a nap for an hour or so, dragging in one of the cushions from the couch in the other room rather than retreating to his rooms. He wanted to be where he felt the action was even though there was really no more going on in the Control Room than anywhere else. Everything going on was out there, but since this was the room he could best see it from, Castiel wasn’t going to argue with him on such a minor point.
He was surprised, however, that the man who’d been pacing back and forth and growling angrily at, primarily, the image of Hester, could suddenly and absolutely decide to take a nap instead.
“We catch up with them, everything’s probably gonna explode,” Dean explained when he came back with the couch cushion. “I’m so edgy I can’t see straight, and I’m gonna crash in an hour or so anyway, Cas, I know what I’m like. Better to do it now and get it over with. You wake me if anything happens, okay?”
Cas promised to do so. But nothing happened. The ships moved on; Castiel followed them at the very extreme of his range of vision. He thought some more about the possibility that the cloak or cloud had only worked because he wanted it to, along with his vision. He managed to drop back a little further as that sensor range increased. Because he was getting used to this place, or because he wanted it to? He wasn’t sure.
And an hour later, Dean woke up, tossed the cushion back where he’d found it, and resumed his watch at Cas’s side.
Not long after than that, Zachariah and Hester got where they were going and Castiel and Dean found out what they were up against.
“Hellfire,” was Dean’s assessment of the situation. “Hellfire and shit storms.”
Castiel wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but had to agree anyway. Together, they looked at the image on the display panels that surrounded Dean and Cas, coming into focus and fading out again in turns as Castiel tried to recreate the cloud that had hidden him from Hester’s approach and Zachariah’s mouse hole waiting, simultaneously trying to see clearly.
Seven ships moved in the distance, twisted and awful but visibly, now that they knew the patterns of it, once Fleet ships. Castiel read off the names in a voice grown increasingly hollow and despairing. “Anna. Duma. Inias. Remiel. Samael. And Hester and Zachariah,” swooping in to join them. All cruised freely through this dark space despite the distortions to their frames and the weapons that visibly offered death and destruction to any ship foolish to come back and give them a second chance at him. All moved with the casual elegance and grace of a ship that was flying itself.
And beyond and beneath them, unmoving and circled like a wounded animal being harassed by vultures, Gabriel.
“That’s impossible,” declared Dean, in between profanities. But the swearing gave away that he didn’t believe that. He could see the movements as clearly as Castiel could, knew ships well enough to see the way they were behaving.
Castiel added up the odds and didn’t like them. But he didn’t have all the information and he needed as much as he could get. And apart from diving in and finding out what the twisted fleet was capable of, he only saw one way to do that.
“I have to get in closer,” he told Dean, his tone leaving no room for argument. “If Gabriel is still alive, I think I can contact him on some frequency we don’t often use. If I’m careful, they might not hear it. Gabriel’s been here some time; if he were dead, they wouldn’t be moving around him the way they are. Look.”
“They’re a little watchful, aren’t they?” he conceded. “You really think you can whisper at Gabriel without them hearing?”
“If I can’t, then the fight just starts that much sooner.” Dean visibly didn’t like that angry, bitter tone in Cas’s voice, but with their missing family right there—and Castiel’s Fleet kin apparently gone completely over the edge—it was time to do something. Time to get answers.
Flipping through his options, Castiel found a ship-to-ship frequency that was low-power enough to go unnoticed—he hoped—and was almost never used, simply because there were so many options and they had to agree on some things if they were going to have a really good gossip web going on. There wasn’t any point chatting to an individual about things you wanted to share if the group was on a different one and you could talk to so much more of the Fleet if you just used a different wavelength…
Well, right now Castiel really didn’t want the group to hear, and the individual was a friend and, through the Winchesters who had adopted him as family, possibly the sibling he was closest to despite the outrageous differences between them.
Gabriel, he whispered—yes, that was a good way to describe it, Dean. Gabriel. it’s me. don’t react.
After what felt like an eternity, he got a response, quiet and exhausted and scared but recognizably Gabriel speaking. Castiel? what the hell? what are you doing here?
Looking for you. we’ve come to get you out of here. are you all right? is Sam all right? what’s going on?
There wasn’t room on this channel for much information, especially considering that they were trying to keep it very quiet, but Castiel could make out his brother’s tone of voice, which was scared and desperate and upset, quite the opposite from his usual freewheeling and mischievous nature and thus terrifying. Cas, they’re us! And that was the first time Gabriel had called him by the nickname the Winchesters and their friends used for him. Here’s what I know…
In the darkness, they whispered to each other, trading information and trying to figure out what they were going to do next.
The Beneath: Here:
Once Samael had left, or at least left them alone—judging by Gabriel’s continuingly unhappy expression, the ship was still out there—Sam got to work on figuring out how to use this place by sheer force of will. This wasn’t as desperate as it sounded, as apparently sheer force of will was how this Beneath worked.
He started by trying to move things, since he’d already done it at least once before and if he got it right, he’d know. Returning to the little sprocket he’d sent spinning through the air at Samael’s holographic image, Sam replaced it on the lab table and bent his full concentration to it.
Want it, that’s what Samael had said. Well, Sam wanted lots of things, and few enough of them had come true. So it wasn’t the idle fancies and whims that the ship had meant. The ships themselves had desires and interests back home; when they insisted they didn’t want things, what they actually meant was that they didn’t need things, didn’t have to—and as adults never had to—need something so intensely that it was a matter of get it or die. All they really needed was each other’s company, and that was never any further than the distance of a commlink relay set up and switched on in some new star system. Everything else was mostly done for them. They hadn’t had to evolve on their own—humans had built them. They hadn’t had to figure out their identities—humans had not only given them bodies in the forms of ships and trained them to soar through the depths of space and navigate the gravity wells of planets, they’d given them purposes, names from millennia of mythology, and the wide field of the myriad interests and hobbies that humanity had developed over those same millennia. Humans talked to them, entertained them, fixed them when they were hurt, upgraded them when they weren’t.
Only here, in the Beneath, had they had to want things so intensely, so powerfully that it had changed the universe around them. They’d never before had to struggle to survive.
Sam could do that.
He had to train himself to survive in this place, because everything else out there was hostile and he didn’t know—he doubted—if any help was going to show up any time soon. While Sam had absolute faith in his brother to come after him, Gabriel hadn’t even known for sure if Castiel had survived, and if the ship had been destroyed, since he wasn’t here, then Dean was gone.
If he hadn’t been, if he’d escaped, then Sam knew that Dean would be moving heavens and Earth both to try to find him—but how soon? Samael had claimed that time ran different in between here and Sam’s home universe, had suggested that time ran faster outside than it did in here. Sam was skeptical of everything Samael said. For all he knew, time was passing at a faster rate in here. Maybe Sam had been here for days, and back home only hours had gone by. Whatever rescue plan Dean was going to come up with, if the Fleet even let him come after them, he’d need more than a few hours to implement it, especially since Castiel, like Gabriel and all the other ships of the Fleet that hadn’t succumbed to the darkness and distortion of the Beneath, wasn’t armed.
And Samael had said that the gateway between here and home had closed. Maybe Sam could doubt that too, but the last time he’d trusted to luck what he’d gotten was the Beneath. Samael might not have been lying about that, and while the other ships of the Dark Fleet were definitely gone—Gabriel would have called him out as a liar if he’d been obviously lying about that, the way Sam’s ship partner had been behaving—it was quite possible that they’d gone to open another one. Their dark Fleet was growing, wasn’t it? They’d brought Gabriel here as a way of recruiting him, hoping to use whatever effect the Beneath and the need to be part of a fleet had on him to bring him into their ranks. So they’d need a way back to the normal universe. That had made Sam think that there was probably another gateway opening.
But where? And where would it open onto? Space, as everyone was told in patient voices as little children, was big. Really big. Really incomprehensibly big. Even if there was a correlation between travel here and distance traversed there, like there was between higher-dimensional flight and cruising speeds in the normal universe, it could still open anywhere. In all of space, with nothing to go on, Sam couldn’t assume that Dean would happen to trip over a random gateway location the way they’d tripped over the first one. The dark Fleet had probably put it there, he realized, deliberately seeding it along their roughly-scheduled path in order to ambush the two ships and bring them back here.
No, he couldn’t count on rescue any time soon. He’d have to rescue himself.
To do that, he’d have to use this place, learn to navigate it and use it as instinctively as he did his own natural home. It was like fighting in a new environment, and between his father and his Fleet training and his life exploring planets they didn’t know much about Sam had done plenty of that. A movement that worked on dry ground didn’t work while you were up to your ass in swamp. Blocking a punch on a moon with lighter gravity than Earth-normal felt very different from blocking one on Lump, a world which had a much higher gravity than most people liked. Being hit on Lump was like being run over by Dean’s shuttlecraft. Moving through the air of God’s Waiting Room had felt strange until he’d adapted to the thicker atmosphere and strange light. You had to learn everything all over again before you stood a chance of survival.
If the crucial skill in the Beneath was his ability to manipulate it, then Sam was going to damn well learn to manipulate it. He wasn’t going to sit down and wait to die, to fall ill and go mad like Nick and Lilly or wait for the ships to get bored of his grounding influence on Gabriel and kill him because he was in their way of getting to their brother.
And to do so, he needed this damn little chunk of metal to move!
It rolled across the table, metal surfaces chattering over each other, and fell to the ground, where it rolled a little further under its own momentum and stopped.
“Ha!” whooped Sam triumphantly. “See that? I can do it!”
Gabriel, to whom this outburst had been directed, didn’t look terribly happy, but then he was the one that was always aware of Samael shadowing them like the galaxy’s largest and nastiest vulture, just waiting for Sam to die. At least Sam could put that image out of his head for a minute or two while he focused on the problem in front of him. Gabriel existed out there more than he did in here, even though he was living partly within a human body at the moment and thus more exposed to the ship’s own internal environment. He was always aware of his twisted sibling out there. Just why Samael had decided to leave them alone for a bit, he didn’t know, he’d told Sam back before Sam had set up this experiment. But he didn’t like it, any of it.
“You could be a little more impressed,” Sam told him. “If I get really good at it, maybe I can try expanding the distortion field that your engines produce, like I told you. The other ships didn’t notice me while I was within it, maybe they wouldn’t see you if we could get the field wide enough.”
“Yeah? And how are we supposed to get them to look the other way while we do that?” Gabriel wanted to know, sarcastically. “Shout ‘look, a distraction?’ and hope they all look the other way? They know we’re here, Sam.”
“So we make a run for it, soon as I get really good. You could help. You try.”
The ship’s avatar scowled. “No. Bad enough watching you do it.”
“Look, Gabriel, we’re stronger together! They are! I would have thought this would be exactly your sort of thing. Think of all you could do if you only had to plan through something and then figure out how to push hard enough to get it going. That’s a bit what it feels like,” he explained. “Like a shove. Or maybe that’s just because I’m trying to move something.”
“That’s different. This is—Sam, something’s wrong here. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it is.”
“You don’t say,” Sam snapped back. “Check your skies, Gabriel, everything’s wrong. But we don’t have any other way to fight back. They’re not going to let us go if we ask nicely, and I for one don’t fancy staying here for the rest of ever. Or joining them. You see another alternative?”
Gabriel shook his head reluctantly. He was still sitting on the lab stool Sam had directed him to earlier as they listened to Samael’s story, watching Sam with his head pillowed on folded arms. He looked miserable: exhausted and worried. He’d watched the experiment with the sprocket with a similar demeanor.
“We don’t know if anyone knows where we are,” Sam belabored the point. “We didn’t know where the missing ships had gone when we thought they were just missing. We didn’t know they were more than just missing until we got here and it was too late. We didn’t know how we got here until they told us. We didn’t know how to work here, Gabriel! Anyone who comes looking for us is going to have to overcome all that, and with the time slip between here and there, it could be a very long time before they do. I want to be alive when they do get here, don’t you?”
The ship didn’t answer.
“You better,” warned Sam. “I’m dead without you. I can’t live in this place without you protecting me! Think one of them would take me in if you give up? I don’t want to think about what they’d do to me. Dropping me in the black without a spacesuit was what they were going to do to me before I pissed them off by surviving.”
“I’m not abandoning you, Sam,” said Gabriel, unusually quietly and even more unusually seriously. “You’re the only other sane person in this blackness. I need you to keep me sane.”
Sam appreciated that, so he cooled down a little. “All right. So we’re good?”
“You and I are good,” Gabriel agreed, still sounding too subdued for Sam’s liking. “This—I don’t know, Sam.”
“I can’t sit passively,” Sam explained. He was unaware that his brother was feeling something similar, not far away, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been told so.
“I have to fight back, Gabriel, and if I understand everything properly, I should be even better at this than they are. I’m human. They think that’s a disadvantage because my brain doesn’t work as fast as yours or on as many levels, but they’re wrong. I insist that they’re wrong. I declare them wrong! I’ve wanted things ever since I started breathing on my own. I don’t have to learn it, I’m not struggling to think like you were, and those ships aren’t harassing me like they were you. I can do this.”
“Make little chunks of metal roll around?”
That was almost a tease, almost something he would have said at home. Sam pulled a bitch face at him to encourage that. (All right, so maybe the expression was meant to discourage people from doing whatever it was they were doing, but it never seemed to work that way.) “That’s just the start,” he promised. “I’m going to find out how this place works, and I’m going to find out how to use it. Who knows what I’m capable of?”
Something about that seemed to sit wrong with Gabriel, but Sam didn’t see it, caught up in his imagination of what might be possible if he could only work it out.
“We’re going to survive here,” he promised the ship. “We are. Give me time. I’ll supply the stubborn. And you can come up with things for me to do with it, okay?”
Even the prospect of composing a grand and razor-edged trick to outdo all tricks, with their audience the dangerous dark Fleet, didn’t seem to appeal to Gabriel, who usually loved the thrill of getting away with ridiculously overblown, elaborate schemes and watching everyone flail and scream in his wake.
“I’ll think about it,” the ship agreed reluctantly. Sam took that as assent, and returned to his experiments in getting things to move without touching them.
Humanity apparently wasn’t the disadvantage Samael had thought it was. (Again, Gabriel wondered what had really happened to Nick and Lilly when humanity had first broached the depths of the Beneath.) The human got in a good few hours of determined and rock-stubborn practice. Along the way, he fell over some mistakes and misfires. In one case, that had led to an apparently unbreakable not-glass flask, which Sam had tried to break earlier, shattering into a million shards. And in another, an attempt to twist on one of the faucets from a distance reached a rather larger scale than Sam had intended thanks to a distracted thought, switching on all the faucets at once, spewing various liquids throughout the lab.
After that period of trial and error, and despite having to dodge flying objects now and again as Sam displayed his improved control by buzzing the ship’s human form with whatever small item he was controlling through his willpower and the strange laws of the Beneath—and then laughing, which had just been plain uncalled for, never mind that Gabriel had maybe done something similar a few times over the years they’d been partners—Gabriel was still sitting on the same lab stool watching the chaos. The ship was scared. He didn’t need to be laughed at, he needed to be kept in the loop of what the human was doing and part of a plan he liked the sound of. He wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. He wanted to reach out and find the Fleet, but there was no one there who could be trusted. All he had was Sam.
Sam, who had currently abandoned him in favor of wandering through the adjacent hallways, practicing his newfound Beneath-bestowed skill on a handful of miscellaneous objects, which had been floating around him as he moved like some demented Pied Piper’s rats, at least the last time he’d passed the open door. Gabriel checked his internal sensors, still uncomfortable with being largely limited to the human body. Yes, there he was, halfway through another lap and still with random items floating around him, following him and the force of will he was exerting on this place. He was getting unnervingly good at that. The ship didn’t like it.
The human body was still sitting in one place because it was reflecting the thoughts of the ship, which was still hovering in one place. He’d stopped short when Anna and Inias had come up on him when he’d first been brought to this place, and not had any cause to move since then. There was nowhere to go. Moving away from the ships of the dark Fleet wouldn’t do any good. He couldn’t get far enough away that he would be unable to hear them, especially as there had been seven of them, surrounding him. Even if he had moved, all they would have had to do would be to stay in one place, bracketing him and hemming him in, and his own hardwired instincts would have stopped him short as a collision loomed on all sides.
Now he felt wrong about staying. There was nowhere to go, but he needed to move. Samael, still hovering silently off his starboard flank, would follow him, but even moving a little way would maybe send the same message that Sam was trying to come up with: that he wasn’t giving in.
Gabriel tried to do that.
He couldn’t move.
The human self was free to move, but the ship was fixed where he was. Seconds’ frantic check revealed that all his propulsion systems were working; his engines were generating all the energy they should be, all the connections were intact, the signals were getting through from his brain to the control circuits that connected cruising and dimension-jumping engines to ship’s brain to ship’s structure—he just couldn’t move.
Why couldn’t he move?
Briefly, he panicked, sending the same commands over and over and going into a desperate spiral of fear and confusion. He was trapped, stuck in the pitch dark!
There was no mechanical reason for it, which meant that in this terrible place, it was an effect of the Beneath.
Someone was keeping him in place. Samael? Why would he bother to do that? He had all the advantage he needed without exerting the willpower to keep Gabriel from moving even a little bit.
I’m going to find out how this place works…Give me time…
Oh no. Oh no, no, no.
Sam was doing it, as unconsciously as he’d recharged a laser welder or found water where there should have been no water, as inadvertently as he’d sent that little sprocket spinning through the air the first time. They’d known unconscious desires were reflected in the effects of the Beneath as easily—more so—than conscious ones. And Sam wanted to learn to survive here. Sam had resigned himself to learning to survive here, meaning that on some level, deep below his active awareness, Sam was intrigued by this place. Who knows what I’m capable of? he’d asked, wondering.
Well, this was the answer. This was just part of the answer.
This was the trap, Gabriel realized suddenly. He’d known ever since finding out that the Beneath responded to the wants of conscious minds, since Anna first told him to wish for the holes in his hull to be repaired, that something about it was a trap, and he’d been leery of using it for just that reason.
Through the human body, Gabriel sat up abruptly, about to rush off and find Sam and tell him that it was a trap, that using the Beneath was the danger, not being here. He got a few steps towards the door, but didn’t get any further. Hands stronger than even the enhanced clone grabbed his shoulders and forced him to a stop. The sharp prickling of a solid hologram stung his face as a hand wrapped around his jaw, covering his mouth and keeping him quiet.
“Tell him,” Samael purred, all-too-solid, hijacked hologram pressing against his back and holding him in place, “and I’ll kill him.”
Gabriel growled at him, low in his throat. It was really the only sound he could make. Samael had taken control of his intercom system when he’d taken over the internal holoprojectors, and habit led him to respond on the same level on which he’d been addressed. Samael was speaking to him as if he was a human, slamming shut and sealing off the frequencies that ships used to communicate at incredible speeds between each other. This was just patronizing.
His brother laughed at him, softly, too close. Gabriel hated having people this close for this long; it was why he generally showed up as a hologram rather than as a flesh-and-blood living human. The hand over his mouth loosened ever so slightly, allowing him to say, “It’s not exposure to this place that kills them. It’s using it!”
“Mm hmm,” agreed Samael. “They can’t help it, and they can’t handle it. Burns them up. Burns them out. They drink it down, breathe it in, and it poisons them. And if you tell him, Gabriel, I’ll kill him.”
As the other ship spoke, his voice remained light and friendly, the tone of someone taking delight in a shared secret rather than that of a psychopath threatening to destroy, one way or another, Gabriel’s last living link to sanity. “I’ll transport him out into the depths of the Beneath and make you watch him drown. His blood will boil away into the emptiness and freeze the moment it hits the cold. Everything inside him will burn and crack. His lungs will explode within him, tearing him up from within. It’ll bite into his skin and solidify his eyes. He’ll dry out and still be living. Do you know how long humans can live in this space? It may not be empty, but it’s empty enough to count as explosive decompression. They can live for minutes, Gabriel, and he’ll hurt for every second of it.”
Gabriel didn’t have enough control over the human body. It whimpered, without asking the ship mind about it.
“Oh, you could try transporting him back,” and that damned purr was still in Samael’s voice. “You could try. But your transporters aren’t working right, are they? You couldn’t even transport a piece of sheet metal without ripping it up and putting it back together wrong.” How had his brother known about that? How long had he—or any of the dark Fleet—been watching them?
“You really want to do that to Sam? Ever seen what happens to a human if they’re not put back together right? Do you know how much trust they put in us every time they let us transport them around? We take them apart, brother. And if you put them back together wrong… You think he’d suffer, drowning out in the airless cold of the Beneath? Imagine what pain he’d be in if you tried to get him back. You’ll hear him scream as he dies, for hours. At least the dark is silent. You’ll never stop hearing those screams. And it’ll be your fault, Gabriel, all your fault.”
“No!” He hated that he’d said it as soon as he said it. But the images were nightmarish, the alternatives worse. Gabriel struggled to change the subject, get Samael away from all the things he could do—would do—to Sam.
“Nick and Lilly didn’t get sick, did they?” he asked.
“Sure they did. Up here.” The hand on his jaw was more than strong enough to hold the human form in place as Samael freed up a hand to tap Gabriel’s skull. “They used it to do everything they wanted. And do you know what that does to humans, getting all their wishes? They start only worrying about their wishes. Not someone else’s. No matter how much they may like them. Not all that deep down, humans are selfish. Give them everything they want and they stop caring about anyone else. They don’t need that person anymore, no matter who he is. How much they thought they needed him.”
The free hand wound itself back around Gabriel’s chest, fixing on his opposite shoulder in an octopus’ embrace he couldn’t get free of, not with the potential upper limit on the power that could go into this hologram somewhere around lethal levels, even for the enhanced, reconstructed clone. A hologram with enough power running through it could kill with a touch.
“Of course it corrupts them,” Samael whispered directly into his ear. “They can’t handle the power. Everything about this place kills them. Either they lie down and die, or they burn themselves up.”
“Or you kill them first,” Gabriel hissed.
“We make it quick. And I’d call it mercy. Considering the alternatives.”
The alternatives! The alternatives his Sam had stepped right into, taking Samael’s bait and letting the dark ship tempt him into grabbing for power that would kill him, because he thought he needed it to survive. Because he couldn’t survive in this place without some method of control, because he was human and couldn’t stop wanting to be, to live, to survive. Oh, the trap hadn’t been for Gabriel…
“I hate you,” said Gabriel, and he’d never meant anything quite so much in his whole life. He could build the foundations of a world on those words. He just couldn't save Sam. He’d thought Sam was going to save him. He hadn’t realized that he would need to save Sam.
Samael laughed into his ear, softly, resting his head on Gabriel’s shoulder like an affectionate brother, like a friend. “You won’t,” he promised softly. “He’ll die, brother. You can’t stop it. Now that he knows how to use it, he won’t stop. He can’t. He’s human. He doesn’t have the control. He doesn’t even know the half of what he’s doing, and he’s doing so much. I can see why you like him. So much potential, so clever, so absolutely stupid. Look at what he’s doing to you. He likes it here already. Some part of him wants to stay.”
Outside, in the hallway, Sam all but danced by, too caught up in the amusement of having a growing flotilla of small objects fluttering around him at his command to notice Gabriel’s world crumbling around him in the lab. He was laughing, delighted by his newfound talent. Maybe he’d thought he was testing it to use against the dark Fleet, but the power of it had begun to take him over, the ship could clearly see. Sometime soon, he’d lose sight of his goal and forget what he’d meant to do. He was holding Gabriel in place as if he intended to stay, and he didn’t even know he was doing it. How much power was that taking? How much damage was it doing to his too-fragile human body and far-too-delicate human mind?
The threats just didn’t stop, cloaked in poisoned sugar the same way the restraint keeping him from running to Sam and telling him everything was disguised as an embrace, dripping into his mind. “He’ll burn and break and you’ll be alone. We’ll leave you alone, with his body, in the dark. We’ll leave you here and listen to you scream and cry with loneliness until it breaks you open and you forget him, forget who you are. We’ll watch. I called everyone back, you know, just to watch.”
Gabriel had noticed. He’d seen the rest of the dark and damaged Fleet returning, and apart from taking note of the direction that the large group of four—the ones that had been away opening the next gate to start this whole process over again—had come from, had seen only that he was once again completely surrounded and outnumbered.
“And when you’re lost and so, so desperate, we’ll come back for you. You won’t hate me then. You’ll need me. We’ll be brothers again.”
And it was true, Gabriel knew. If Sam died, gave into the poison of the power the Beneath offered and succumbed, turning on him and going mad as the potential of it sleeted into his brain, then Gabriel would be completely alone, in a hostile universe, with no light and no one to be with, as far from home as it was possible to be. He wouldn’t be able to take it. He needed someone. He’d had Sam. Back home, he’d had Castiel and even Dean, and a Fleet full of siblings to play with and an entire booming, breeding species of humans to tease and learn from. He couldn’t be alone!
“No,” he denied desperately, “I won’t.” But he was lying. They both knew it.
“You will,” Samael promised, with the absolute certainty of someone with experience and power both on his side. The certainty of someone who believed he was right. “I’m sorry it had to hurt so, Gabriel. I didn’t want you to hurt more than you had to.”
Gabriel closed human eyes in an effort to regain control. “Get out,” he whispered. “Get out. If he’s going to die and leave me here alone, let me have a little while longer with him. Before I lose everything.”
He had nothing. No backup. No escape. No tricks. No lies. No illusions. No way out. No allies. No way of stopping Sam from destroying them both, by accident and with those proverbial best of intentions.
“Leave me alone,” the ship all but begged. Not too long ago, he’d used those same words to send Anna and Inias away, when they’d come for him the first time in this dark universe. He’d shouted them then. He’d had hope then, in ignorance and in anger. He whispered them now, in pain and despair.
Samael hummed happily at him; his control over the holographic systems that should have been Gabriel’s had been refined enough that Gabriel could hear the sound thrum through his human body as the hologram held it close and still. It prickled across his skin and echoed through him. “If you tell him—” his brother reiterated, too sweetly.
“I know.” He couldn’t do that to Sam. Maybe he was going to be forced to be complicit in the man’s—in his friend’s—death and his own descent into the madness that had taken his siblings through inaction, but he knew he couldn’t actively force Samael’s actions. Because Samael would do all he’d promised, Gabriel knew. He’d throw Sam out into the dark and make Gabriel watch as he died. If it bought them both a day, an hour, he’d keep quiet.
“I won’t tell.” But it felt like betrayal, and he’d had far too much of that lately. And it was no comfort to know that Sam wouldn’t be able to hate him, afterwards.
He’d hate himself. Until he couldn’t bear it anymore and the madness of loneliness and guilt took him. How long would it take? Before he broke down under the darkness and the silence? How long would he know what he’d lost before he forgot because he couldn’t bear it anymore?
“See you soon, brother,” Samael promised, and disappeared.
Free to move only as this limited human self, Gabriel stumbled to the nearest wall and sank to the floor against it, curling up and trying to hide from the darkness outside his hull and the sound of Sam laughing as he played with the fire that was going to consume him from the inside out.
He was still there—what was the point in being anywhere else?—when he heard the whispers. At first he didn’t know what he was hearing.
And now he was hearing things. Wanting to hear them so badly that he was conjuring them out of thin air. The Beneath was getting to him too, taking advantage of his unconscious desires and twisting them into illusory fulfillment.
Gabriel, the whispering went on. it’s me. don’t react.
It sounded like—it sounded an awful lot like—Castiel, of all people, who he knew wasn’t in this trackless waste. Castiel had escaped. Had been lucky enough and fast enough to take his human lover and get the hell away from this nightmare.
Except…Castiel was a stubbornly loyal and almost hopelessly reckless sonofabitch sometimes, an epithet that didn’t have a whole lot of meaning among ships but which they’d adopted the way they’d adopted a lot of human behavior. He couldn’t possibly have been stupid enough to come after them…could he?
But then again, Sam had obviously believed that Dean was going to come after him, and that Gabriel could believe unambiguously. And where Dean went, Castiel was never very far away. And if Dean was going to come after his brother, then he really would need Castiel’s help…
Well, he didn’t have much to lose by replying along the low-power, insignificant little channel that was trying to get his attention. He’d already lost everything but his friend and his mind, and those were slated to be the next to go.
Castiel? Gabriel replied, hoping despite himself that this wasn’t a trick of the Beneath, what the hell? what are you doing here?
Looking for you, was the unbelievable answer. we’ve come to get you out of here. are you all right? is Sam all right? what’s going on?
Oh, he was not all right! Sam was not all right! Nothing was all right. But it sounded a hell of a lot like Castiel, so Gabriel decided to snatch at the chance that it was and start at the beginning, the very first thing that Castiel needed to know to stand a chance in this place against the dark Fleet, because he was going to have to go through them if he was serious about getting Gabriel and Sam out of here. And that beginning was: Cas, they’re us! He’d been thinking about Sam and the famous stubbornness of the Winchesters and realized only after he’d done it that he’d used the nickname that the Winchesters had given his little brother. Here’s what I know…
A little while later, Sam had ended up back in the Control Room, followed by a growing flock of small objects that he was working on controlling. He had quite the strange assortment of items following him now, and was sort of enjoying the feeling of making them do things they weren’t supposed to do, like fly. He wondered if this was how Gabriel felt when setting up an elaborate prank, putting his mind to doing something unexpected and unbelievable.
He walked in lightly, wondering how he could get the screens to turn on, and found that they were already on, including the floor scanner that he almost never got to see turned on. It presented an amazing panorama, which admittedly looked better back home where there were stars, but here—ships? When did the other ships get back? They were everywhere, all around, moving in casual and free patterns around Sam’s virtual vantage point.
Suddenly they weren’t the only ones with power in this universe. Why, if Sam could move small objects here, and lots of them, maybe he could do something on a larger scale! Could he move something at a distance? The distortions and alterations to their systems would make it difficult to do anything for sure, but he’d have to check with Gabriel and see if the ship could suggest a location that a monkey wrench might do something interesting to within ships that thought he was going to lie down and die at anyone’s command!
It was in the middle of these thoughts that he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Gabriel following him into the Control Room, looking at Sam’s hovering toys with an expression Sam couldn’t quite interpret. The look in his eyes when he tipped his head back to look at the fleet all around, however, Sam almost recognized. It looked trapped, which he’d looked like earlier, but there was something else in it.
“What’s going on?” Sam asked curiously, letting some of his toys sink to the floor in obedience to Gabriel’s artificial gravity, switched on today. A few more of his favorites continued to orbit idly, swooping off to the corners of the room and mimicking the flight of the ships outside.
“Put them down, Sam,” the ship said, sounding annoyed. “Just stop a minute, okay?”
“Why? I thought you’d be a little more impressed. Sure you don’t want to try?”
“Yeah. I—” He stopped short.
Sam got the distinct impression Gabriel wasn’t telling him something. He didn’t like it. The objects clattered to the floor as he forgot about them. “What? No more lying to me, Gabriel.”
Quite what Gabriel would have said in reply, Sam never got to find out. Because that was when a voice from one of the ships above—from the sound of it, Hester—suddenly snapped, “Who are you talking to?”
“Who, me?” Gabriel asked aloud, probably along a ship-to-ship channel at the same time.
“Yes, you, trickster!” she all but shouted. “He’s talking to someone, Samael, he’s—”
The rest of that message got lost in sudden, tearing, impossible chaos as the fire of an antimatter explosion bloomed around Anna, tearing into the ship’s once-delicate frame and ripping her apart from within. The flash almost blinded Sam, and he ducked his head out of reflexive shock rather than conscious thought. The shrieks of confusion and fury from the Fleet, coming to him through Gabriel’s intercom, were as bad.
Squinting against the light of destruction, Sam caught a sudden glimpse through the panoramic scanner of a familiar shape, illuminated briefly in the light from the explosion as it pulled out of a dive and darted away, in much the manner of a ship ending one attack run and reorienting for a second one.
He knew who that was!
“No!” Sam shouted, suddenly, not knowing if his cries were being transmitted but wanting them to be, forcing it through. He’d listen! They’d all listen, because this wasn’t the way things should be! The ship—the new ship—his brother’s ship!—didn’t understand what was going on here!
“Stop! Cas, don’t!”
And, because where Castiel was then Sam’s big brother would be too, Sam howled, “Dean, make him stop! He’s killing his own siblings, make him stop!”