Strange New Worlds

Red Sky at Morning

sailors take warning

Dean had been hunted before. He knew, all too well, the feeling of knowing that there was something out there, that it could see you but you couldn’t see it. That you didn’t even know what it was, or what it was going to do to you, or when. The dread of it, sitting low in your chest and the back of your throat. Knowing that life was not an old movie and there wasn’t going to be a convenient change in the music so you could turn around at just the right moment to see…

He’d felt it on the planet he and Sam had dubbed Shadow, only a few weeks ago, and they’d ultimately come to no harm. But it had lurked in him the entire time he’d been there, trying to watch everything and knowing that the one thing he didn’t would be the one that got him, or worse, Sammy. He’d felt it the time the two of them had been attacked by velociraptoids and chased into a cave until the ships could rescue them. A few times, back on Earth or the original colonies or one of the bigger space stations the Fleet maintained, he’d been chased after by people who objected to various things about him, mostly his attitude towards jerks, idiots, and people who weren’t on the short list of people Dean actually liked. (It was usually the jerks and idiots chasing him.)

As a child, he’d felt it in his father’s paranoia, moving them from place to place, moving through crowds one day and holing up the next in the most isolated place John Winchester could find. Ultimately, he’d been grateful that they hadn’t lived on Old Earth, where isolated places could have only one person in ten square miles rather than only three hundred. It hadn’t been about the number of people around, though, it was about who they’d been.

Who they were now. Because now he was unfathomable distances, light-years, away from those roaring crowds and he was happier than he’d ever been in his life. Until now, when that crushing fear of being the hunted descended on him again—all on the behalf of a creature much more powerful than Dean was himself, who had just told him that his brothers were disappearing and no one knew why.

Lords of the storm, he had it bad.

Through a great effort of will, he managed to put together a question that wasn’t “What?” or “Are you sure?”, which were both questions Castiel didn’t understand very well, and also bypassed asking “What’s causing it?” or “How long has this been going on?”, both of which he’d already answered only a few seconds ago.

What he ultimately came up with, before Cas could pester him for a response or start wondering if he’d gone back to sleep—which he hadn’t—was “Does Fleet Command want us back?”

He could feel Cas relax slightly at his relatively calm answer, and was just congratulating himself on getting something right when he realized that no matter how reasoned his voice had been, his physical reflexes had betrayed him—he had Cas’s wrist in such a tight grip it might have bruised a human. The construct the ship’s mind inhabited (most convincingly) was built a lot tougher, but Dean still loosened his grip just a little bit. Okay, so he was protective of the people he cared about. So what?

“No,” Cas was saying, and it took a moment for Dean to jump back to the conversation they were having rather than his own possessive little panic attack. “Lacking any substantive data about the cause of these disappearances or any connection between them, the admirals wish only that we be aware of the incidents.”

Which was bloody useless. “So if we do get attacked by some monster giant space-going amoeba, what the hell are we supposed to do about it?” He reconsidered and corrected himself preemptively. “You supposed to do about it.”

The ships weren’t armed for the simple reason that they’d never had to be. As far as they knew, humanity and the ships that were their cousins were the only sentient, space-faring life out there, at least in this tiny timeframe of the universe. A couple of survey teams had reported finding animals with the potential, possibly, to develop into intelligent, tool-using species. Monkey-like animals had shown up on some worlds. One survey team had apparently encountered a planet inhabited by lupine variants that had been, according to the reports, far too clever for the human explorers’ liking.

There was simply no one for them to fight, and no other reason to arm them, even though the technology existed. Contrary to every science fiction movie ever, the average asteroid belt did not require shots from a laser to clear a path through. The visible part of the average asteroid belt, whenever they happened to pass through one while the ships cruised through the system, usually consisted of one rock, very far away.

No one to fight, and nothing that could harm a smart, fast, self-repairing, self-aware starship; until, apparently, now.

“Run,” Castiel replied dryly, undisturbed by the hand now closed tightly enough around his wrist that a human would be yelping about loss of circulation. “Run, and keep running, and report back. They believe that whatever the cause of these disappearances is will be incapable of successful pursuit—an assumption, but not an unwarranted one.” Even other starships could have trouble finding one of their brothers or sisters, if that sibling was in flight and keeping quiet. They could explain why to humans, but it involved maths. Basically, unless ships coordinated their flights or communicated with each other, each ship in flight was essentially in its own relatively safe little bubble of acceleration. “To that end, you’ve been ordered to install the emergency relay and overrides before we drop out of flight at our next destination.”

Dean forgot the exact serial number of that device, and Cas had seemed to realize that he’d probably actually misplaced its actual name, as well. He knew what they were suddenly talking about, though. It was one of the reasons the normally self-repairing ship actually needed him on board, although not one of the reasons he liked.

“I knew the techs back on Station should have done that before we took off,” he grumbled now. “That thing’s supposed to be wired right into your brain, Cas. Makes me nervous.” Humans didn’t do brain surgery on themselves, and neither did ships. The recursive nature of it bothered them almost as much as it would a human, and the effects of getting something wrong could only escalate.

There wasn’t really much light in the bedroom, as Dean had been nearly asleep and Castiel had been shifting his attention elsewhere and letting his avatar slip into a similar state, but Dean could still see those blue eyes blink at him. Mmm…Dean thought involuntarily, if that really counted as a thought. If that can wait until later…

“I trust you,” said Castiel.

…Well, now they definitely weren’t getting out of bed anytime soon.

For the sake of their human partners, the ships generally maintained a 24-hour day. As far as Sam was concerned, he was woken up far too early in that day for his liking.

“Sa-am,” a familiar and, at the moment, annoying voice warbled at him. “Wake up.”

“No,” Sam muttered, just on principle, and tried to go back to sleep. Jumping from sublight cruising to full flight never failed to give him a splitting headache, and the painkillers that dealt with it the best always sent him straight to sleep anyway. He’d held off taking them in what counted as ‘yesterday’ just long enough to get the news from Gabriel about the missing ships and crews and realize there was nothing he could do about it, and the delay had only made it worse. Today he fully intended to sleep through as much of it as possible, and the rest of his team could just keep themselves entertained.

Theoretically. And apparently not.

“How can you not be bored?” Gabriel wanted to know, from the entirely-too-close distance of sitting on the end of Sam’s bed. “You’re not doing anything.”

Participating in this conversation, Sam knew, would not help. On the other hand, ignoring him wouldn’t do any good either. He briefly considered kicking the hologram as an option, as he was right there, but the satisfaction of it wouldn’t last very long and Gabriel would almost definitely retaliate.

“I’m sleeping,” the younger Winchester pointed out. “Go talk to Cas.”

“My brother is ignoring me,” declared Gabriel, “something your brother probably has a lot to do with. Care to guess why?”

No, he did not. Sam loved his brother and Castiel was a friend but some things, in his opinion, were better without visual aids beyond Dean’s increasingly contented demeanor. And now he was awake. Damn it.

He said as much and, as he’d half expected, Gabriel vanished as soon as the minor entertainment of bugging Sam was used up. Briefly, he considered trying to go back to sleep, but decided against it because of the possibility of blue goop in the shower, randomly strobing lights, and/or phantom music playing at odd hours. On one long flight, Gabriel had replaced all his coffee with a strongly over-caffeinated version that tasted exactly the same and gotten a clearly unfair amount of enjoyment from Sam’s increasingly erratic behavior—not to mention Dean’s confusion when Sam had called him up to tell him in great detail about the patterns that apparently materialized on the inside of his eyelids after a madcap sprint up and down the nearby corridors.

But then, Sam had grown up with an older brother who’d been perfectly willing to consider him as a portable, ever-present source of potential entertainment. Gabriel would have to go a lot further to really test Sam’s tolerance for bored and mildly sadistic elder siblings, and Sam was fairly sure the ship would never actually hurt him. Annoy him, yes; confuse him deliberately, sure; let him wander through some of the less-used of the ship’s decks indefinitely, of course; but let him come to harm, no. It kept him on his toes and sometimes it was even funny—much later.

On the grounds that Gabriel was less likely to come to him for entertainment if Sam happened to be busy with actually assigned work, he settled in to read through the file on the disappearances, after making a cup of tea…just in case Gabriel had tampered with the coffee again. Besides, between Gabriel’s continually erratic search for loosely-defined entertainment and Cas and Dean’s increased absorption in each other rather than single-minded pursuit of their work, maybe he’d spot something in it none of the others would.

Stranger things had happened, and stranger things would probably continue to.

“Talk to me, Cas.”

Dean was flat on his back underneath a bank of some of the computer equipment, to give it its simplest name, that comprised the ship’s mind. Despite his awkward position, he could still see the ship’s current body tilt his head interrogatively.

“About what?”

“Doesn’t matter. Just keep it coming so I know I’m not hurting you by mucking about in here. You forget what you were saying or faint or start speaking in binary, at least I’ll know I did something wrong so I can stop and fix it.” He cast about for a subject and came on the obvious one. “I spent the morning reading all the instruction manuals for this. Tell me about the ships. Who’s missing?”

He would read through the file at some point—or, more likely, get the highlights from Sam, who was probably reading it all and checking the code for edits for good measure—but this was also the best way to reassure him that he wasn’t hurting his friend. It also gave him something else to focus on than the possibility of getting something wrong.

Anna,” recited Cas from his seat on the floor, where Dean could see him without having to crane his neck too far but where he couldn’t see into the hardware that partially housed his intellect and personality. “Duma. Hester. Inias. Remiel. Samael. Zachariah.”

Anna’s gone? Shit.” She’d been a friend. It wasn’t unusual for ships to wander about among humans through holographic or physical avatars, and he’d met Anna a couple of years ago when his team had called in at Dixie Colony for supplies and to offload several hefty crates of samples and scans for transport to interested parties. She—or at least the hologram she was projecting—had been a pretty cute redhead, and he’d been having a good time flirting with her before he’d realized she was a ship’s image and not a biological human. After he’d gotten over the surprise of not being able to tell, though, it hadn’t bothered him. Come to think of it, it was after that he’d started thinking of Cas a bit differently…

Dean didn’t know any of the others personally. Zachariah and Hester he had spoken to in passing, more because Castiel had been talking to them and Dean had been there than by any virtue of his own. “In that order?” All the time they were speaking, Dean was also working to connect the relay he couldn’t help thinking of as the panic button to Castiel’s involuntary reflexes, where it would be triggered in case of distress, downloading as much available information as could be compressed into a tightly-encoded, high-frequency, highly powered burst that would be transmitted to a network of relay beacons all the way back to Fleet headquarters faster than any ship could travel.

“No. Anna and Hester most recently; they were not in constant communication with the Fleet so unless one reappears or wreckage is discovered it is currently impossible to determine which disappeared first. Duma was, they believe, the first to go missing, followed by Remiel and Samael. Zachariah has been out of contact for nearly three months; Inias for two. Ships and crews sent to search for signs of what occurred have found no trace.”

“Pretty risky,” the human commented, “losing one ship and sending another to the same place not long after.”

Cas thought about this briefly, then offered, “If the cause was external, they must have been taken by surprise, or they would have sent a distress call. If it was internal, and a problem with their systems caused them to be unable to call for help, it would not affect a rescue party.” If he got an elbow underneath him and leaned to the side a bit, Dean could see the ship’s avatar frown slightly in thought. “That they did not would seem to suggest that whatever happened, it happened very quickly.”

Dean had to agree. “You and your siblings are fast.” The starships thought and reacted at a speed so far beyond anyone else that their reflexes were measured in several orders of magnitude smaller than the standards for humans. Something that happened so quickly that they couldn’t even transmit a message would have to happen unthinkably quickly.

They kept the conversation shifting, forcing Castiel to dig around in his memory and proving to Dean that nothing had been damaged, which was apparently a procedure that dated back to brain surgeries on humans back on Old Earth. It was a testament to how strange Dean’s life generally was, and how normal he considered it, that for him there was nothing surreal about trading jokes and riddles with a sentient starship, through the medium of a mostly human avatar, while doing some rewiring in that starship’s physical brain.

Eventually they worked their way around to Dean asking, “You know, I never got a straight answer, Cas—why the hell do you and your siblings all name yourselves after mythical characters?” And, as an aside, “Can you access this relay thing yet?”

Pause. When he looked, Dean could see Cas’s human body sitting absolutely still, legs crossed and hands resting on his knees, with his eyes closed—a pose he’d learned to interpret as the ship shifting his focus from his borrowed body to his true one. The clone would continue to live, in the most basic biological terms, and Castiel was still receiving sensory input from it, so he’d eventually bring his attention back to animating the human body if touched or he otherwise needed to, but for the moment the starship was primarily a starship again.

After another moment, the ship reported, “I have control,” which was disorienting as Dean was looking at the man he thought of as “Cas” and listening to the ship Castiel speak through the internal commsystem. “The emergency relay is online and all protocols are correct.”

“Good.” For lack of a better alternative, Dean slapped his palms down against the deck beneath him, hard enough to make the flats of his hands sting but also hard enough that the ship might be able to feel the vibrations. “I’ll pack up here, and if there’s nothing else we can do to prepare—” As he spoke, he was climbing out of the alcove he’d been wedged into, and had just come within reach of Cas’s body. “—you can wake up and we’ll take the rest of the day off, okay?” Dean took advantage of his movements and Castiel’s inattention to nudge the man off-balance with his feet, forcing Castiel to return his focus to the shape he inhabited and, not coincidentally, Dean.

The human got a glare for his troubles, and Cas got a smirk for his, and for a little while longer all was well with their world.

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