In a prime example of “Fleet Command doesn’t know squat!”, the supposedly Earth-like planet that the aforementioned Fleet Command’s scanners had supposedly picked up turned out to be a gas giant so close to its central star it was in danger of vaporizing in the next lucky—or unlucky—solar prominence. Which, from the look of the star, which was even more turbulent than most stars up close, couldn’t be very far away—another thing the preliminary data they’d been given had failed to mention. The ships backed off almost as soon as the readings from the star started coming in, taking themselves off behind the enormous, doomed gas giant, perhaps in the unspoken hope that, if the star should choose now to erupt, it would protect them from its stellar parent for the brief moments it would take them to take off into flight and away.
Or, as Dean put it, “That star burps and it’s gone.”
Reactions to the discovery ran the gauntlet from Sam’s “We should stay and watch that” to Gabriel’s offer to beam him down to the planet’s boiling non-surface anyway and Castiel’s rather pedantic observation that “If Earth-based sensory equipment could gather significant information about planetary composition there would be no need for us, Dean,” which was probably meant to be reassuring but just ended up marginally less sarcastic than Gabriel.
Much later, Dean would count his refusal to say “Whatever,” and stomp off to his rooms to lock the door and sulk as a display of maturity and reasonableness. It wasn’t that he minded spending another week or so in those rooms with Cas trying to find out if chocolate-saturated coffee in bed was a good idea (it wasn’t), or continuing his repairs to his shuttlecraft, or trading snarky comments and childhood memories with Sam over the commlink between the two ships, or conspiring with Gabriel to replace all of Sam’s socks with ones that were identical except for being at least two sizes too small, an easy task for a ship with precision control over a string of replicators that could produce anything from food to clothing to nine thousand rubber bouncy balls, an unspecified number of which had actually been gumballs, and who even knew what a gumball was anymore and how the hell had those ever gone out of style…or any other of the thousand other things he filled his life with when there wasn’t an Earth-like planet in sight.
It was just that he liked to be useful, that’s all. And it hadn’t helped that they’d spent an extra two days out in the middle of even more nowhere than usual. The two ships had abruptly dropped out of flight and cruised around in what felt like circles—or, as the boys had eventually called it, pussyfooted around—over, the ships had declared, nothing. They’d refused to explain anything about it. Their general demeanor, in response to increasingly frustrated shouting from their human companions, was much like that of a cat that has just fallen asleep on the back of a couch and then fallen off it. This, more than anything, ultimately persuaded the Winchesters that the two ships had thought they’d sensed something out there in the black and then discovered they’d been mistaken.
What actually happened after all that, with nothing to show for it and no sky in the near future, was that Dean said, “Write it off, then, and let’s head out.”
Inasmuch as this was a democracy—to wit, none at all—he was voted down.
“We’re here,” emerged the consensus. “We should at least take a look around.”
Way back in the early days of ship design, when those pioneers realized that if they were going to create these (at least theoretically) elegant, sentient minds they had better have something to put them in, the people who had designed the ships’ various structures had quickly found out two things. Firstly, the ships themselves didn’t mind letting people on board, as long as they knew who was there, and it had immediately become protocol to introduce yourself by name anytime someone came aboard a ship that they didn’t work closely with every day. Secondly, and almost as importantly, if you wanted to get humans aboard those ships at all, you’d have to design in some windows.
Never mind that there was frequently nothing to see except stars, because space was big and everything else was comparatively small, except for rare exceptions like the times when an entire fleet—or perhaps flock—of ships would fly around and amongst each other in patterns more intricate and precise than any human pilot could achieve. It didn’t matter that the ships needed holes in their hulls the same way humans needed flaps cut out of their skin. And it really wasn’t important that looking out of one of those windows in flight did funny things to the human mind, as a dimension of space that smart monkeys had never evolved to see tried to crawl into their brains by way of the optic nerve.
You designed windows, or you didn’t get humans on board for any length of time.
It was to one of these Dean went now, taking a break from his makeshift family to stare at the very sturdy wall that presented him with a panoramic view of the deceptive gas giant and its temperamental star beyond as the ships cruised away and into the system. It wasn’t really a window in that the material that coated the wall wasn’t transparent; it was closer to a very high-resolution screen. But it transmitted light almost directly from the sensors on the ship’s outer hull to the corresponding panel within, so the difference was purely technical. It was a window if he wanted it to be a window, and he did, so it was. They didn’t actually need him for this, so if he wanted to lie on this couch, placed in the designated lounge area several missions back for this very purpose, put his feet up on the armrest, and listen to old music, he could. He wasn’t sulking because the door wasn’t locked. In fact there wasn’t even a door. So there.
Castiel knew him well enough to give him almost an hour to himself, and Dean had worked his way through a good chunk of one of his favorite playlists before the ship’s avatar padded into the alcove and helped himself to his partner’s lap.
“Hi,” the human murmured at him, freeing the arm tucked behind his head to wrap it around his lover’s back. He struggled not to laugh when the music, which he’d had turned up to blaring, apparently lowered itself. What the hell. He’d had almost an hour of his favorite music and a stunning if unfriendly sky out the window and now the person he trusted and cared for as much as anyone in his entire life in his arms. Dean could live with Cas turning down his music.
“It worried us,” the man who was the ship said as if they’d been having this conversation all along. He sighed, which tickled the skin of the human’s throat and felt damn good. “A discontinuity. Nothing there. Or couldn’t see it. Not sure,” he concluded. “Better to go away, keep watch. Sent word.”
Dean sorted through all that relatively easily. “You sure you can’t read my mind, Cas?” he asked idly. He’d wondered, from time to time.
“I don’t have to.”
Wasn’t that true, the human thought idly. The only other person who could read Dean as accurately and easily as could this inhuman, more-than-human being was Sam, and he’d pretty much raised Sam.
He swept his hand up and down Cas’s spine in something between an “I know” and a “thank you” and something deeper and unspoken but known, and that was all they needed. Although the soft noise Cas made in response, somewhere between a sigh and a purr, was a pleasant bonus.
Accordingly, he decided not to make an issue of that he knew for a fact the piece of music that had just come on was not the one he’d put there. Although, be damned if he was going to let Cas get away with it completely. “You reprogramming my music now?”
Only experience let him see the laughter in blue eyes inches from his, turned an odd greenish gold by the light from the angry sun. “No.”
‘Not-letting-you-see-me-laugh’, on Cas, was a glance downward and away, which in this case put him sprawled back across Dean again, breathing against his collar and throat. Stifling a laugh of his own, the human followed the ship’s gaze out the window as the star receded into the distance.
“What do you see?” he asked suddenly.
Some of Castiel’s signals, the body language of his avatar, the tones he put into his voice, were difficult for strangers to read. Incomprehension, perhaps because a confusing sound of confusion would only make things worse, was clear.
“When you look at it. What does it look like to you?”
“Oh.” A pause, but Dean was fluent in Castiel’s silences and knew contemplation when he heard it, or didn’t hear it as the case may be. “With these eyes? Much as you see it. Light and motion, on the edges.” Fingers waved illustratively, briefly. “It’s filtered, or it would burn.”
“Not what I meant, and you know it.” He made the distinction reluctantly. “You. Try?”
This answer was much quieter. “It pulls at the space around it and all shifts. One day nothing will be its equal and there will be no more days. There are those of my brothers who will come here for this star. The fire, out of balance; it will draw them here, it is beautiful and dangerous.”
“But not you.”
“I have you.” Apparently sensing that this needed more description, Castiel added, “You cannot stay here, so I have no desire to.”
Beneath his spread palm, Dean could feel muscles flex in his companion’s back, as if he really were the angel he’d named himself after and was moving to spread wings to take them away. And that was why, he knew, the ships overwhelmingly mined the depths of human myth for the names of creatures of flight and power. Because they were the closest humanity had come.
“Sam’s calling you.”
Dean was tempted to ignore that, but knew that the way things worked amongst the four of them, that simple statement meant ‘Sam told Gabriel to call me and I’m telling you so he’ll stop’, meaning that even if he did choose not to listen, only one of them would have any peace and quiet. “Shoulda known it was too good to last,” he grumbled with no particular venom. “All right, I’m listening.”
Sam’s voice came through the ship’s intercom, but the programmable window kept its view of the space beyond even though it could transmit video images from ship to ship as well , leaving this space theirs for a little while longer.
“Hey, Dean, you remember we watched that movie a couple of weeks ago?” Synchronized but separate movie-watching. It worked, although it was hard to throw popcorn at Sam when he was on a different starship, and throwing popcorn at Sam was as much as half the fun if it was a really bad movie.
“The one with the asteroid belt you wouldn’t shut up about. That we never saw anything like that.”
“What about it?”
“Um…we’ve just found one. Gabriel thinks it used to be a planet very recently and that time bomb of a star pulled it apart.”
There was something very disturbing about watching Cas’s eyes go completely blank as he shifted his attention away to check Gabriel’s data, especially when those eyes were only two or three inches away. “Quite probable,” he concluded a second later. “High metal content, possibility of water ice, erratic debris trajectories.”
“Remind me again why we’re hanging around here?” Dean inquired of Cas and Sam via the ceiling simultaneously.
And, apparently, of Gabriel. “Dean, Dean, Dean,” the other starship scolded from his very safe distance away. “Drag your sense of adventure out of bed and do something you’re actually supposed to do with it, will ya?”
There was no possible reply to that that didn’t end badly, so Dean decided to try to ignore him. Didn’t quite succeed, though. “Cas, any way you can stop your brother from making cheesy remarks?”
“No,” was his simple answer. “No more than you can prevent yours.”
“So, none at all.”
“I don’t let you hear most of it.”
“Like you said,” Sam continued over the bickering, a little too earnestly, “this is very unusual. I think it merits a closer look.”
“Fine,” his brother shrugged, knowing he was missing something and knowing from the tone in Sam’s voice that he probably wasn’t going to like it when he found it. “We’ll swing by, take some pictures, and be on our way.”
A second’s delay, and then, “A closer look than that.”
And Dean was no longer missing something, and he did indeed not like it. “…Sam, why do I see spacesuits in my future?”
“’Cause mine’s already unpacked and I’d almost forgotten how many knots are in these boots?”
Good for Sam—Dean hadn’t forgotten anything about those things, least of all how little he liked putting them on. They were just fine once they were on and powered up and in the hard vacuum environment they were supposed to be in, it was just that putting them on in the first place and getting them off again was a, not to put it too pointedly, bitch.
“You’ve seriously got your heart set on a spacewalk? In a system that’s about to go off bang?”
That was hard to argue with, so Dean tried to pass the buck. “Cas? You gonna weigh in on this?”
“The star is not about to ‘go off bang’,” the ship corrected him, “at least, not in the few hours you and Sam would spend in the suits before they became uncomfortable. It is an unusual phenomenon that, lacking an immediate task elsewhere, does indeed bear observation.”
Keeping his eyes locked with Dean’s, the ship’s avatar paused and flicked those eyes upward towards the ceiling where the human always involuntarily located the intercom, inviting Dean to follow his gaze. A noise right at the threshold of hearing that he hadn’t been aware of being aware of suddenly stopped. The connection between the two pairs had been muted.
“When we arrived in this system, you were anticipating having a sky above your head again. This appears important to humans. I am sorry that you will have to wait to see one again, Dean, but this would be the biggest sky of all,” Cas told him softly. “You asked what I saw. This is my sky. And I’ll catch you, remember?”
That went back to the very first time the two of them had met, and something Dean was powerless to refuse.
He was going spacewalking.
And it was a hell of a sky!
There was something phenomenally strange, for the first few minutes, about having rocks float by above your head and realizing that they were actually chunks the size of mountains a few miles away. After that, it was simply phenomenal.
Almost as soon as humankind had invented spacesuits, they had set about improving them, because pretty much everything on a spacesuit could stand to be improved some. After several hundred years of nitpicking, complaining, trialing, redesigning, retesting, customizing, and updating, they weren’t bad. The power units that kept the environment inside the suit breathable and warm enough not to freeze the person wearing them had been miniaturized and integrated into the fabric. Combined with the adaptive, potentially armored smartsuits the boys usually wore underneath their more casual clothes on unexplored planets where flash floods, attack by territorial animals, hail, and encounters with gravity and rocks were all possible, they were almost not uncomfortable to wear. There was really nothing you could do about the need to carry an air tank with it, but its mass had been reduced and its filtering efficiency improved until it wasn’t too cumbersome. And rather than the antique helmets with a viewport only directly in front of the face, the modern helmets resembled nothing quite so much as a glass bubble.
Peripheral vision improved the wearers’ mood no end, it had turned out.
The boys had been transported down to one of the larger and more stable pieces of debris, meaning that the chunk of rock they were walking across was approximately the size of one of the Mars moons. It didn’t have the tunnel system, research outposts, and high-rise apartments that those moons currently had, but it did have a high enough ferrous metal content that their boots would magnetize to the surface, reducing the need for actual spacewalking. From ground level, it would be hard to tell that they weren’t on the surface of a rather more stable and intact world. The minute they looked up, however…well.
Although they’d begun this little expedition in the same area, Sam had been the one to crawl all over the asteroid, eagerly pointing out this feature and that inconsistency that suggested it had indeed been part of a planet not long ago. They hadn’t found any traces of organic material, though. It was only a brief survey, but it looked as if nothing living had been lost when this world was destroyed. Both their handheld scanners and the ships hovering above had found water ice, buried within other chunks of debris and creating miniature comets that occasionally collided with the more solid rocks, laminating their contents across the jagged, tortured surface and creating sudden and unreal snowstorms that engulfed the fragments in their paths.
Now that had been something to watch.
A few minutes ago, Sam had called in for a lift to another asteroid, apparently having run all over this one. He’d vanished in the mirage effect of the transporter as Gabriel whisked him away, but his brother could still hear him through the open general link, thinking aloud and pointing out things that he especially wanted recorded, which included, from the evidence, everything. Hey, he was happy, so what the hell.
As far as Dean was concerned, the best part about this field trip was that if he turned away from the dead rocks beneath his feet and looked up at the rocks above him, he could see both Gabriel and the ship Dean’s life depended on in more ways than one, from a perspective he rarely had the chance to appreciate.
Gabriel had followed Sam over to his new rock of the moment, keeping him in a safe transporter range just in case he got completely distracted and hit by an innocently drifting rock. The bigger starship was of an earlier design, and more obviously a constructed machine, but there was still a grace and flow to the ship’s lines that suggested movement and acceleration. Like most ships ultimately designed for speed and exploration, the shape basically followed the outline of an enhanced dart, with a needle-nosed forward section receding into the aft engines, suggesting a dart’s fletching to some degree and spread wings to another. Sharp angles and contrasts drew attention to the separate segments of the ship’s hull; clearly a machine, the design said, but equally clearly a very advanced one that could race your butt off and then come back to laugh at you.
Dean was idly wondering if he could
actually see Sam from here—so far he thought not—when the ambient light from
the angry star suddenly dimmed.
No need to panic. “Cas,” he said to the intercom, amused, “you’re in my light.”
In the airless silence of space, of course, there was no whoosh of air, but Dean filled in the sound in his own mind as the ship in question passed directly over his head. It felt unnervingly close, but that too was an illusion produced by the scale of the starship and Dean’s complete loss of perspective in this alien environment. He decided not to worry about it and settled for watching Castiel glide around the asteroid his human partner was technically exploring and loop around to return to where he’d been hovering figuratively over Dean’s shoulder. At least, from Dean’s point of view Castiel was over his shoulder. While their sensors worked accurately in any direction, the ships spoke much the same language as the biological humans did, and colloquial phrases like ‘watching your back’ affected their thinking just as much as anyone else’s.
Castiel was the same basic dart shape as was Gabriel, but the sleeker design and less pronounced angles of the smaller ship produced an almost organic effect, as one segment flowed into another and appeared to merge together. The different metals and alloys that had been used in their hulls made the older ship a more matte grey, while even in the light from this system’s sun Castiel’s hull remained silver. The ship had been designed to be more agile at slower speeds and faster to reach faster ones; that combined with the intuitive movements of a pilot that was the ship itself made it look not quite grown, but perhaps forged, like liquid metal that had been allowed to set in a shape of its own devising.
The only other times Dean generally got to see his ship like this was whenever they returned to Fleet Command’s Launch Station or any of the other varied Spacedocks that the Fleet maintained. And by then, the human was usually dragged away to report to someone or other about what his team had found, rationalize or explain actions they’d taken, or be informed of some change in the command structure or the rules that he generally didn’t bother to read in too much detail. Maybe on his way to one of those innumerable, tedious interviews, he’d pass a viewport and catch a glimpse of his ship flying freely out in the void or docked with the base, but it was always only in passing and he was almost always too busy resenting whatever stupid meeting he was being dragged to now to enjoy it. In much the same way, once he’d finally escaped the meeting or interview or conference or lecture, all he wanted to do was spend his free time interacting with new people, reconnecting with distant friends who might be likewise passing through, and generally taking advantage of having some downtime. Staring out the window at the untouchable version of someone he saw every day rarely got onto his mental to-do list.
“Hey, you,” Dean said now, watching his ship soar and enjoying the view.
He didn’t expect a reply, and he didn’t get one, but he knew he was being watched the same way.
The ship was watching him carefully, although not primarily for aesthetic reasons. Castiel was growing more and more uncomfortable with this star system as time went past and he thought about it. While the data they received from Fleet Command about what they could expect to find out here on the edges of known space were usually thin and frequently inaccurate in small ways, this system’s star was so far off what had been predicted that it was disturbing. Stars simply did not change this abruptly; while the data had a built-in time delay due to the speed of light that most of the universe still observed, the star should not have changed this much between its light reaching Earth and being analyzed and his team arriving here now. It was a puzzle.
He considered the possibility of human error. Perhaps the information on another star had been transposed with the coordinates of this one, and somewhere else there was a scientific team that had been sent to study a dying star currently very confused to find a healthy one in its place. While this was the most likely of the alternatives he and Gabriel had thought of between themselves, it did not completely satisfy him.
Adding to his concerns was the discontinuity the two ships had encountered on their way to this troubling system. He still did not know what it was. It was a blind spot. He did not even have the terms to describe it. It was as if the rules had been different in that one place, far off in the dark of interstellar space; they had both sensed it and been unwilling to approach.
It had been as if, he thought now, the dimension that ships travelled in flight through had impinged on this realm—if that dimension had been completely unlike itself, an unfriendly place quite opposite to the alternate spatial dimension of flight that Castiel and his siblings quite naturally inhabited.
The only good thing about it had been that it appeared to be completely isolated. It had been there, and it shouldn’t be. But in the time Castiel and Gabriel had spent watching it carefully and probing it as closely as they dared to, it hadn’t changed of its own accord, nor had it responded to the metaphorical prodding of the two starships.
Perhaps the two anomalies were related. It might be possible that the presence of the discontinuity had lensed the light from the star in some way, and presented a false image to observers light-years away. Knowing nothing for sure about the discontinuity, he did not know if that was a possibility. It was a possibility, he decided, that it was a possibility.
If Castiel had been properly human, rather than a ship that masqueraded as one with increasing frequency, he might have sighed and rested his head on his hands at this point. Speculation was clearly getting him nowhere, and Gabriel, when queried, had nothing to add. For once.
For lack of a better option, Castiel returned his attention to the transporter lock he was maintaining on Dean, anticipating his partner’s return in excess of his usual desire. The sooner they were reunited and they could leave, the better.
He didn’t have much longer to wait, although to a ship whose mind functioned at speeds far beyond a human’s, it felt like the metaphorical forever. This spacewalk had never been Dean’s interest in the first place, and the human soon signaled that he was ready to return.
Castiel snatched him back from the void with a distinct sense of relief.
Some of his impatience must have communicated itself to Gabriel as well, or perhaps the brothers simply worked more in unison than they knew, because only a minute or so later the other ship’s transporter caught Sam off the asteroid he’d eventually ended up on (nowhere near their original landing site) and the two pairs were preparing to jump into flight and leave to find a more hospitable system.
Much later, Castiel will be able to reconstruct most of what occurs next. At the moment, it will defy processing, simply happening too fast and lacking any immediate context or supporting information.
Fire—here in the dark where there should be none, as hot as the spitting jets from the sun in his wake, and the worse for the unexpected and incongruous nature of them.
Light and static, jamming his sensors and interfering with his perceptions of the space around him, a space too unusually crowded for Castiel to maneuver blindly. His senses range up and down the electromagnetic spectrum with a freedom that a human could not achieve without a fully-stocked laboratory and observatory, and without the need for translation into a limited spectrum of visible light and conversion into sound that the human would also require. In a moment too instantaneous for the ship to clearly understand, that spectrum is pared down to scattered and disjointed bands. Fragments from the x-ray spectrum and a handful of the visible wavelengths flash into his awareness, competing with a pulse of infrared and a single deep boom from the deepest ranges that lie below even radio waves. The rest is blank noise, meaningless and scattered.
Most of all it frightens, and it hurts, and Castiel’s first reaction is to take off running. He jumps blindly, a split-second’s dip into the alternate spatial dimension where flight occurs, and almost immediately back out. The jolt hurts almost as much as the attack—
(They’re under attack.)
(That’s not possible.)
—but he knew it would, he’s done it before, and he’s prepared for it. His ship body creates its own cacophony of interference as the materials are jammed up against their tolerances and rebel. But he’s built for agility, to dive and soar and turn on a thought; he knows belatedly, after the fact, that he can take the strain and the g-forces.
Somewhere deep inside his mind, distress triggers the emergency relay automatically. It cuts through the static from without and the fog of shock like a scream.
It starts him thinking again. He only has access to a fraction of his senses, but the ones that remain he can use.
His attacker must have missed its first strike, or the pain would be worse.
The two thoughts, and the acting on them, condense into a single fact:
It’s gone after Gabriel and Sam.
He gets only a glimpse of it, and it makes no sense. It’s twisted and warped, elements in impossible places and energy redirected to burn and baffle, enormous and predatory.
But it could almost be like him.
Energy from the thing that cannot be a ship lashes at Gabriel, snapping and snaring, and even through the discord in his mind Castiel can hear his brother’s scream, rage and fear and pain and defiance all mixed together and thrown at their attacker like a challenge.
He doesn’t know what he’s going to do about it, but it’s a cry that cannot be ignored. Castiel dives, banks suddenly, and screams in as if for an attack of his own, unarmed and reeling as he is, tearing acceleration straight from the fabric of space. Subconsciously, some part of his mind buried too deep to be affected is monitoring everything, and the closer he gets the more he’ll see, and if this thing is chasing him he’s already outrun it once and Gabriel can get away while it’s distracted.
Castiel doesn’t get that far. Some instinct tells him to jump, now! and he flickers away from his intended course as something else—the flash he gets looks rather like the first attacker, in that it is a distorted parody of his own ship form—screams through where Castiel would have been in that split second, would have been shrieking in the pain that now dominates Gabriel’s voice or blown to dust completely.
The ship pulls off another bone-wrenching turn to escape the thing pursuing him and runs.