Strange New Worlds

Phantom Traveler

Of course, once he’d actually materialized and had adjusted to the abrupt change in location, Dean was none too pleased to find himself neither in his rooms or at least the transporter room that contained all the monitoring equipment and the transport interface, but the boxed-off, isolated decontamination chamber. The walls were glowing a shade of dark green that was probably supposed to be neutral but that Dean hated unconditionally. (Either they didn’t come with a shuffle feature or Cas was just ignoring his repeated complaints about the color. He wasn’t quite sure.)

“The hell?” he demanded of said walls, roughly removing his VR goggles and dropping them on the floor. A couple of seconds ago he’d been happy and as comfortable as possible considering the environment, and now he was in one of his least favorite places aboard the starship. “I’m clean, Cas! I mean, I’m not clean clean, but I’m not sick!”

Belatedly, he added, “I’d know.” Most of the alien germs—rarely a good phrase—the human brothers picked up during their explorations fell into one of two categories: so alien they were completely harmless, or so ill-adapted to surviving in a human system that they worked too well and threatened to kill their new host. The latter generally led to pushing of panic buttons and being confined to sickbay for a week and a half by someone who literally controlled all the exits with his mind. And then there had been the sick. And that Sam had worried himself quite literally sick and fallen prey to the same bug despite the fact that his immune system had resisted slightly better. Bad day.

Gabriel is talking to Sam,” Cas reported through the ship’s internal intercom. “He says Sam’s breathing is too heavy and he is coughing. If there is a risk—”

“Sam’s halfway up a mountain,” interrupted Dean pointedly. “There’s less air up there and he’s been climbing around trying to get to funny rocks. And this is Gabriel we’re talking about here, right? The same Gabriel who talked the Admiral’s barge into screaming that its flightdrive was about to breach right in the middle of her big speech? The one that was being broadcast live to three or four billion people?”

The Admiral had not been happy, although almost everyone else had enjoyed the resulting chaos rather more than the speech, which had been heading into its thirtieth minute when the core breach alarm went off despite the efforts of the fifty engineers that it took to replace a starship’s mind on a dumb barge. “No one ever managed to prove that was him,” Castiel admitted, although it probably had been.

Despite his protests, Dean was going through the routine he’d gotten used to doing every time he got dumped into the damn Green Room, dumping his shredded outer clothes in one drawer to be recycled, folding the smartsuit more carefully and setting it aside to be cleaned, and reluctantly opening the tub of sticky blue goo he found in another drawer. It wasn’t as if he could get out, at least not without a laser cutter. And not only would he never do that, the cutter was in his bag. Which had been transported, he noticed as he put his hands into a wall alcove for the machine to take a blood sample, somewhere else. The sampler hurt slightly less than the thorns he’d been dodging down on the planet.

“He’s screwing with us, Cas. You get my sample bag?” he checked in order to stall for time while he thought of a new vampire joke. He’d learned very quickly that Cas knew all the ones Dean had cribbed out of books and movies, because most of those books and movies had been downloaded into his memory. While that meant Dean had only to ask for a movie or a playlist, it also meant Cas could recognize anything he felt like quoting. Although, to be fair, he didn’t always understand them.

“It’s in the lab. And I’m transporting up the caches you left based on the data you have added to your map. Why is one of them a dead animal, Dean?”

Oh yeah. That. He didn’t bother to ask which lab Cas meant. To his knowledge, there were at least five. “Because a herd of them nearly ran me over when I decided to take a walk in one of the few fields I could find, and when I shot one the rest ran away in other directions than straight over me. Which was kind of the point.”


“Except for the stampeding thing, it looks harmless. Flat teeth, no claws. Figured you might as well take a look at it, get something useful.”

More silence.

Okay, either Castiel really disapproved, or he’d stopped paying attention, which would be annoying either way, because he had just three other people to talk to on this outward bound mission and there was only so long he could watch old movies for the company. “Cas,” Dean continued, stifling the image of himself whining like a child for attention, “what the hell do you put in this stuff? It stinks. Are you listening to me?”

The intercom sparked back to life. Dean was getting tired of talking to the walls; he preferred a face to talk to even if it was just a holographic image. “I am listening to you, Dean. I am also beginning my analysis of the contents of your bag. I am calculating the chances of you letting me replace it, as it has gone beyond filthiness and become a sample in its own right. I am instructing your shuttlecraft to return from the surface; at its current velocity it will dock in approximately twenty-two minutes. I am preparing my report on the spatial environment of this star system and coordinating it with Gabriel’s observations and opinions. I am calculating our flight route to the next star system on our agenda. I am attempting to discover whether Sam is really ill or whether Gabriel is, as you suggest, making things up—”

“Okay, okay! I get it!” Holding his be-gooped hands in the air in surrender, Dean laughed. “You’re busy and I’m bugging you and I should shut up until I’m completely decontaminated and I can go wash off this stink in a proper shower.”

He mentally rewound a few seconds. “And don’t burn my bag.” Okay, so the dirt and the duct tape—an invention that had never been improved—were probably the only things holding it together. But until it fell apart of its own accord Dean was not going to consider anything else an argument for disposing of it. The ordinary clothes he’d been wearing planetside were one thing; they were made to be replaced. The bag he was currently using to carry little boxes of alien rocks and dirt and plant life around several solar systems had belonged to his dad and had a lot of memories—some good, some bad—associated with it.

“The probabilities were low,” Castiel admitted, keeping the grin on Dean’s face despite the blue decontamination goo, which still stank like hell and stuck to his hair despite being a brilliantly bioengineered contact antibiotic.

“Speaking of long odds, why don’t I just call Sam and ask him if he’s okay, and if he says Gabriel told him that you insisted on greenrooming us, then we know Gabriel’s just messing with us.”

Dean knew the starships talked to each other at a much faster rate than humans could, so the pause between suggestion and reply had to be something thrown in there to fit with what humans thought of as normal. “Gabriel appears to be keeping score, although of what I am not certain, and has awarded you an unspecified number of points.”

“You are so very much a younger brother, Cas. I understand that perfectly, and I bet I got some of those points taken off for actually getting covered in goo.” The starships affected certain aspects of humanity, and one of the things they consistently insisted on and managed to adopt pretty accurately was that all of them were metaphysically related, assigning age and standing by things like date of development, first launch, and ship model. Gabriel was older and of a different design than the slightly smaller Castiel, making him, in their terms, Cas’s elder brother.

“Perhaps you will explain it to me at some point. Although some of these readings suggest that the contact antibiotic may have been a necessary precaution.” To his delight, the previously sealed door clicked open.

The human waved a hand dismissively. “Tell me about it later, Cas.” And, a second later: “But if it means Sam has to get covered in goop, tell Gabriel about it right now. And since we’re not going anywhere until Baby’s back on board, I’m gonna go take a shower.”

He stopped, supposedly to retrieve his smartsuit from its technically ‘folded’ state on the floor, before he made it to the door. Dean knew Cas could follow him through the intercom, but if talking to a wall was annoying, talking to a wall that was following you was worse. He also pulled open another drawer—the walls were covered with them—to grab a basic robe to wear on the walk to his rooms. “I’ll see you once we’re in flight, yeah?”

What he meant was you’re going to spend the trip as a human person with ME, right? The ways that ships could interact with humans had become more advanced over time, from the goggles and the holograms right up to creating and assuming human avatars, but the more complex interfaces took up more of the ship’s attention. Dean knew from experience that Castiel preferred to keep his full attention on the transition between cruising at slower than light speeds and the jump into flight, now generally used to mean faster-than-light travel.

Personally, he was okay with that. One of the hardest things for him to overcome to get this job was that if he was in a vehicle, he wanted to be in control of it—not even remotely possible when the pilot of the ship was the ship. That was one of the reasons why he’d rebuilt Baby so that the pilot, generally Dean, rather than Castiel, had primary control. True, if there wasn’t a pilot Castiel could still fly the shuttlecraft remotely, but it was Dean’s shuttlecraft now rather than just another avatar Castiel could work through.

He just liked to know that the person in charge of a dangerous transition, whether it was between orbit and landfall, or cruising at sublight to flying beyond the speed of light, was actually focused on that task.

But once they were in flight, maintaining that flight was much less complicated, meaning that Dean usually spent the trip between planets with a physical companion.

“Yes, I’ll see you quite soon,” Castiel responded in kind.

Dean really should have remembered by now that Cas could be incredibly literal at times. But in this specific instance, he didn’t. So when he walked out the door of the Green Room, he turned to head down the corridor to his rooms and unexpectedly saw something in the corner of his eye.

This time he did jump, twisting around in surprise and almost dropping the pile of smart fabric that had abandoned all pretense of being folded in an orderly fashion.

Sure, Castiel was always ‘present’, but Dean had expected to be alone in the corridor, practically speaking.

What he hadn’t expected was for the holographic incarnation of his starship partner to be essentially waiting behind the door to ambush him. Effectively.

It was becoming a thing between the two of them. Dean did his absolute best to confuse Cas, and Castiel retaliated by finding new and inventive ways to keep him on his toes, falling back on an unpredictable basis on the old standby of just appearing out of thin air without fanfare. It was…fun.

Having gotten the reaction he’d wanted, Cas stayed for only a moment, memorizing the look on Dean’s face to save in an increasingly eclectic private file, before disappearing. They’d talk later, and they both had work to do.

Dean went off to his rooms laughing. Given the choice between Gabriel’s over-the-top pranks and Castiel’s much more subtle sense of humor, he’d stay right where he was any day. Stinky blue goop or not, it was good to be home.

The blue goop washed off easily enough, at least, and a few minutes later, dried and dressed, Dean was paging through various messages and bits of news that had turned up in his desk while he’d been down on that planet. Obviously the ships had gotten this system’s relay beacon set up and working, hopefully somewhere where it wouldn’t get sideswiped by a chunk of interplanetary ice and taken completely out of commission so that they’d have to run back and repair it. Again.

Most of it was unimportant, some of it was interesting. There were some messages from people he didn’t really want to hear from. Those got sent to the metaphorical round file. Some news from Earth that Dean scanned over looking for amusing things that caught his interest rather than actual news. At the moment he didn’t really care what politician had done what or which sports figure had been caught doing something amazingly stupid. As far as he was concerned a lot of so-called ‘news’ should have “Does anybody care?” added to the end of their headlines, although apparently people did.

He set aside a request for more information about a planet they’d been unsure about from an admiral less inclined to trying to make hour-long speeches. Dean definitely had more to say about that one, but he’d refrained from ranting about “there was definitely something out there trying to kill us!” in a formal report, at least in those exact words. But something had been trying to kill them and even though it had evaded him, Sam, and any and all scanners brought to bear, he’d still recommended sending another, more heavily armed, team if they had to go back at all. Probably someone thought he was overreacting.

There was a large new file that Castiel had tagged ‘data on other missing ships, read this Dean’ which Dean should probably have read, and he would have if Sam hadn’t chosen that moment to call.

“You got me gooped,” complained Sam right off the bat. He had probably called right after getting out of the shower, because his too-long hair was still dripping. He’d been evading haircuts for years and Dean was keeping a mental list of ways it was obviously inconvenient, just in case the opportunity arose next time they were around more people. But it would probably take a planet full of monkeys pulling on it to get Sam to consent to a haircut.

“I get gooped,” his brother declared at the moment, “you get gooped. Blame Gabriel.”

“That won’t get me very far,” Sam had to admit. “He’s kind of hard to goop in return.” Gabriel favored appearing as a hologram that went from solid to incorporeal at unpredictable moments, which he claimed was because people kept trying to stab him. Either Sam or Dean usually tried to point out that it had only happened once, and Gabriel had been completely egging the poor stupid guy on, and anyway he’d deserved it at that point. Dean had once asked if that meant they were allowed to stab him whenever he got annoying, which was often, since it wouldn’t actually hurt him. Unfortunately that had only served to reinforce Gabriel’s point.

The brothers trailed off into silence for a minute or so, neither feeling compelled to fill the space. It was one of the things that made them such a good team, out here in the middle of nowhere. Most people back on Earth and the earlier colonies (most of which were also full to bursting) lived their lives completely surrounded by other people, and being alone or with only two or three other people, far away from everyone else, was deeply terrifying to them. The rooms Dean considered ‘his’ and Sam’s corresponding rooms aboard his ship, if they were on Earth, would each hold at least two families sharing the space between them. As children, Dean and Sam had practically lived their entire lives within a hundred meters of each other. Despite that, the Winchesters were uniquely qualified to go out and deal with things no other humans ever had before because they didn’t mind the isolation, having only each other and Castiel and Gabriel to depend on and talk with, although the transmissions from Earth were good to get every so often. That was a rare trait among humanity these days.

“Did you get that thing from Admiral Harvelle?” asked Sam eventually.

“About Shadow?” It was what they’d called the planet where Dean had been sure there had been something stalking them. “Yeah, I saw it. Hope she really does want an unedited version, because that’s what she’s gonna get.”

“Okay, your call,” Sam chuckled. “I still didn’t see anything, and I’m going to tell her that—but I’ll also say I trust your judgment. And if they send people there and they get eaten by some monster, we get to say I told you so.”

Dean had to admit that “That would suck. Them not listening and getting people killed, not the saying I told you so.”

“Also, you’re still freaked about it, so you probably did see something and I just blinked at the wrong moment.”

“I am not still freaked! I was never freaked! I was just…wishing I’d had a bigger gun, that’s all.”

“Right…” The skepticism in his voice was designed to rile, and it was working. “Because you didn’t sit up all night worried that something was going to eat us, and then insist we stayed together so that it took us twice as long to finish—all right, all right!” Sam grinned at the look on his brother’s face. “One warning sign on Shadow, coming right up.”

In the background of Sam’s call, Dean heard Gabriel’s voice say “Hey, Sam, hold on tight!” half a second before Castiel cut into his side of the conversation with, “Your shuttle is back aboard and we’re ready for flight, Dean.”

Both brothers had, independently, asked for the warning almost as soon as they’d set out on their first mission as a team. The jump from normal cruising speed to faster-than-light travel was disorienting and stomach-twisting, and while the ships were designed to travel at those speeds, humans were not. As insulated from a totally alien environment as they were aboard those ships, it was a rare passenger who couldn’t feel the transition at all. They were the lucky ones. It hit some people so hard they couldn’t even stand.

Dean and Sam fell somewhere in the middle. They felt the jump, but only for a moment, and while it didn’t feel great it generally didn’t knock them over, either.

“In three, two, one,” the ships counted down together for the benefit of their respective passengers, and for a dizzying moment they accelerated from a region of space where the rules of physics worked one way into an adjacent layer where they worked in another, leaving Dean as always with the unshakable feeling that someone had just blown up a balloon inside his rib cage and then popped it.

“Ow,” Sam commented from the other side of the video link, pressing two fingers to the middle of his forehead in a useless gesture against a sudden violent headache. “Need painkillers. See you later, Dean.”

Dean switched off the screen with a “Later, Sammy,” grimacing in his turn as the effects of the transit ebbed away without chemical intervention. What he needed was a distraction. Forgetting all about the files still waiting unread in his desk’s memory, Dean tilted his chair back and said, “Cas, you there?”

A pause, and the ship replied, “No. Come find me,” which was all the invitation Dean needed to shuffle on the soft shoes he generally wore while on board and moving around outside his rooms, and head out the door to another section of the ship.

One of the first things that most people commented on when brought aboard a starship for the first time was how blank the corridors were. Personal rooms were customized, but no one ever took the time to paint all the corridors. The only intrusion upon white or plain-colored walls was generally the black bar of display panel that ran along eye level, purely for the benefit of any humans that happened to be walking by. Sooner or later someone usually told them that the ships didn’t care what color the walls were, and as a human did you really care what color your internal organs were, as long as they were healthy? And really that was one of the few reasons the ships needed standard-model humans around, to do maintenance and repairs that they couldn’t easily do. And the company. The company was absolutely essential.

By now Dean had all the routes to the places within the ship he usually went memorized. A certain number of right turns this way, a certain time walking that…as long as he knew where he was going his feet did most of the navigating for him. At the moment he was headed towards what he always thought of as the Control Room, because he persisted in thinking about some things completely backwards.

The door opened in front of him without Dean having to do anything at all, because Castiel was paying attention and knew where he was going. He stepped into a room almost covered in display panels, and with a structure somewhat resembling a chair occupying the one section of wall space that was not.

The chair was a life-support system, designed to maintain the health of a reconstructed, biomechanical clone. Although the man in the chair was almost completely human in appearance and origin, it was actually only a vessel for the ship’s mind when he chose to be as human as possible.

It was almost impossible to tell a clone from an ordinary human, at least without extensive observation. Sooner or later certain tells emerged, like that although they enjoyed the new input of tastes, they didn’t need to eat or drink. Upon even closer inspection, a particularly intrusive observer might notice the marks cutting just around and below the vessel’s shoulder blades, which looked like broad scars but were in fact ports that connected the body to the life-support system that maintained the body while the mind was elsewhere.

If you didn’t know all that, it would be easy to think the man in the chair was simply asleep, breathing softly but otherwise remaining absolutely still, due partly to the restraints that anchored his wrists and ankles to the arms and base of the support unit and wrapped across his chest. While most ships were very good at maintaining the stability of their internal environment, moderating the gravitational acceleration of sudden movements for whatever humans were on board, it wasn’t a perfect system. Despite predictions, hopes, and improved technology, there was still a place for the basic five-point seat belt aboard a ship that could maneuver through space with incredible agility and speed.

Even if you did know all that, it was also very easy to mentally reverse the true state of affairs, and come to believe that the man in the chair was controlling the ship, rather than the ship controlling the man.

Dean would freely admit that he had fallen into this trap a long time ago. He knew the truth of things, but some part of him would always consider this man—the one he could touch and see and drink obscenely over-sugared coffee with—the real Castiel. Despite everything. At least he knew he was doing it.

As he entered the room, the restraints clicked loose apparently on their own, a soft hiss just above the threshold of human hearing indicated that the links beneath his shoulder blades had disconnected, and Cas opened his eyes. “We’re in flight,” he reported. Reacting to Dean’s gesture, he reached out and allowed the taller man to pull him to his feet.

“Yes, I noticed,” Dean answered, not letting go of his hands. “Morning, Cas.”

After being alternatively ignored and told that the accuracy wasn’t the point, Cas had given up correcting this greeting, offered regardless of the relative time of day.

“I think Sam went to bed with a headache,” he continued.

Cas managed to get one hand free to place it on Dean’s chest interrogatively. “But you are—”

He got his answer, in a way, because Dean wrapped his free hand across the base of Cas’s neck and kissed him hard until they both needed to breathe again and Cas’s blue eyes had gone hazy and unfocused.

“Perhaps I should not finish that sentence,” he suggested finally.

Dean took it as a personal triumph that it had taken Cas that long to put that sentence together. “Mmm,” he agreed, and dipped into another kiss, tasting him slowly. “You taste different when you first wake up.”

Blue eyes blinked at him from a very short distance away, visibly confused. “According to my research, I did not believe that was meant to be a good thing.”

“Not bad,” Dean corrected himself hurriedly. “Just different. Like…I don’t know. Sparks. When I figure it out, I’ll tell you.”

Cas thought about it for a moment, visibly dismissed it as something he just didn’t understand yet, closed the hand still on his partner’s chest into a fist to drag the fabric away from his throat and shoulder, and suggested, “Research?”

Cas was warm and content and comfortable and he had often wondered if it was nice to be completely human and have the ability to be in just one place at a time. Because no matter how much of his attention was here, sprawled out and relaxed in Dean’s bed, in the dark, with him, there was always part of him that was Castiel and never stopped. That was enjoying the sensation of flying faster than light and keeping to the course he and Gabriel worked out earlier, and analyzing the results of the tests he was running earlier on the samples he’d transported aboard and the pathogens that had been in the blood sample he’d taken from Dean in the decontamination chamber that the Winchesters insisted on calling the Green Room, and checking through the files he’d downloaded from the working relay beacon they’d left behind in that system, and putting significant effort into ignoring Gabriel, who pretty much knew what was going on between his little brother and Dean and was trying out smart remarks and generally being smug, and…wait. Go back.

“Dean,” said Cas, not bothering to move because, well, he was comfortable.


“Wake up.”

There was a high probability that the sound Dean was making was intended to be “Why?”

“I tagged a file for your attention. You didn’t read it.”

There was a long, silent pause, and for a moment Cas entertained the idea that Dean had simply gone back to sleep. But eventually the human shifted into a position where he could look at Cas despite the darkness, which involved a bit of squirming around on both their parts, which was pleasant in itself.

“You’re going to tell me about this whether I like it or not, aren’t you?” Dean said, and Cas knew his voice and his nature well enough by now to accept the contradiction between the affection and irritation he could hear equally.

“In the past six months seven ships and their crews have gone missing, completely and without warning, too far apart for it to be of natural causes. Command does not know exactly what is causing these disappearances, but they currently have two working theories. Either the ships and crews have conspired to escape the Fleet’s control, or something or someone is hunting us down, Dean.”

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