He’s kneeling awkwardly on a ledge almost a mile into the cave beneath the moon’s surface. There’s water dripping down the opposite wall. Unfortunately the wall is on the other side of a chasm just too wide to span with an easy reach and while it must have a bottom—he can hear the irregular drips hitting it—the echoes make it almost impossible to tell how far away that ground is and how many rocky projections would come between him and it on the way down.
They need the water. There are fifteen of them who think they can survive on their own, light-years away from help beyond those you brought with you to begin with. Fifteen young men and women, escorted out to this moon that’s kept as it is and as it has been for this very purpose. They’re almost definitely being monitored. The more experienced Fleet people who recruited them probably wouldn’t let them die of their inexperience.
Brave people, probably crazy, but not stupid with it. The Fleet attracts a type. They quickly figure out that if there’s a competition going, it’s between them and the people testing them, not each other. Even in a society where people can’t blow their nose or yawn without a thousand people noticing, the lesson of interdependence still feels new.
They had flocked to each other, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, family ties and connections, bonds of loyalty and needs. They’d all, at some point, stood at the windows of the barge that was carrying them—a stupid thing, a machine controlled by humans—and looked out at the stars and the creatures that lived among those stars yet were their cousins.
The ships out the window, darting around the barge and each other, were nothing like the familiar contraption beneath the humans’ feet. They’d followed for the fun of it, like dolphins in the seas of Old Earth, to see what there was to see, and for the interest, because they might see the people who went down again someday, if those people came up still looking to see them.
They were beautiful, and alien, and untouchable, and once the fifteen were transported down to the surface the ships receded from their thoughts, too far away to matter.
This is a dream, Dean thinks, in the dream, with surprising clarity. I know it’s a dream, because this already happened. This is the day I met Cas for the first time.
In a moment, the torch that he drained the battery from to light the fire last night will go out unexpectedly, not dimming gracefully through flutters that can be jolted back to life by slapping the casing but blacking out completely. He’ll freeze, surprised and disoriented. The unreal loudness of the water and his breathing, both irregular in the moon’s thin air that hadn’t gotten any denser underground like he had expected, will echo off the rocks, interfering with each other and creating what will seem like an overwhelming cacophony of sound.
He’ll turn to reach for the torch in the hopes that it can be shaken back into life. As he turns, balanced on the edge, the heel of his foot will knock against the cave wall. He’ll hear something break and he’ll jerk away reflexively, in the darkness, on the edge.
He’ll fall, into the dark and the depths, with the teeth of the earth waiting for him.
(The moment will stay with him forever, ambushing him as he drifts into sleep or floats out of it, knocking him awake between one calm heartbeat and the next agitated one.)
He’ll only fall for a second before the vertigo of gravity’s triumph over matter is replaced with that of technology’s triumph over gravity and he’s transported away and into orbit.
“That was stupid,” an unfamiliar but not unpleasant rasp will tell him, as he throws an arm over his eyes, blinded by the sudden light that replaces the cave’s darkness.
“Screw you. But nice catch,” Dean will reply amicably. “Who’m I talking to?”
In the cave, in the past, the light goes out. He turns. He falls.
Fear and imagination paint the gap receding above him in colors he can’t see. He’s falling and it’s wrong.
This isn’t what happened.
This can’t be a dream. I never fall. Castiel caught me. Cas always catches me, even in my dreams.
The darkness is almost tangible. It has a texture, grey and thick, pushing on his eyes and his brain until he can’t see or think. He struggles to fly and he struggles to breathe and he triumphs at neither.
He fights it. I didn’t fall!
It wasn’t until the g-force lessened that Dean managed to pull himself out of the blackout tunnel and back to what passed for full awareness, and almost as soon as he got there he wished he hadn’t. His body ached and his mind was reeling, struggling to comprehend itself and nowhere near catching up to what had just happened.
He could remember transporting back aboard from Sam’s little spacewalking field trip. He clearly remembered taking off the helmet, snapping open airtight seals and resisting the urge to toss the vaguely spherical spacesuit component away onto the floor. His rooms aboard ship looked a lot like that when he was in the middle of something, things dropped where they’d fallen until almost everything he owned was strewn around his rooms and he had to clean it all up just to find anything.
There wasn’t much past that. Everything had lurched without warning, knocking Dean to the floor. He’d been about to yell, more out of concern than anger, when everything had gone away, roughly.
He could vaguely recall darkness that felt like the lights in the corridor going out rather than the lights in his brain doing the same thing. Damage, then, not unconsciousness.
And movement, as if Castiel had been moving so fast and so unpredictably that the systems that were supposed to compensate for the ship’s actual acceleration hadn’t been able to keep up, much less predict what he was going to do next and take steps. That was bad, because while there were automatic backup systems that should do that, Castiel could also control the inertial dampers with an offhand thought. That he hadn’t… At the moment Dean was still far too disoriented to think any further than that. Actually, most of his thoughts after regaining consciousness had consisted of strong feelings of confusion and distress rather than full sentences.
Now he was glad he’d taken off the helmet before everything had gone to hell. Throwing up in a sealed helmet had never been a good thing. At one time, it could have been fatal, and drowning in your own vomit was up there with the nastier ways to die. The suit had a built-in computer and could probably compensate, but it still wasn’t something anyone would want to put to the test. Same held for the smartsuit worn almost as a second skin, which had probably saved his internal organs from being jelly in the face of far-too-high g-forces that had smashed the human into the deck and tried to grind him into whatever space happened to be immediately below by way of the miniscule spaces between the atoms of the ceiling.
On balance, Dean decided, he was just going to stay here and black out again. He wasn’t going to put any effort into it; he’d just lie on his back and not bother to focus on the lights above him. Either they were flickering or his brain was running on a time-share. Judging by the fact that his ears thought they were underwater, the normal my-chest-is-a-popped-balloon feeling of jumping to flight had been magnified into my-rib-cage-just-exploded, and the ceiling was shifting back and forth in a slow and sickening sway, it was probably his brain.
Then again, maybe the lights were flickering because Cas was in the way and moving around, which made one of them. Huh. That was probably it.
“Dean?” the human heard as if from very far away. “Can you hear me? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Dean, wake up!” He might have missed something before and after that, because Cas was really unduly distressed. He should probably do something about that.
“Hey,” Dean thought he said, reaching up to calm his friend. He’d been aiming to reach out and pull his companion down into a hug, which seemed like a good idea at the moment and at least it would make him hold still for a few seconds. That was the plan, but either his hand missed entirely or the man he thought he was talking to was actually a hologram, because his fingers went straight through. “S’okay,” he added, baselessly. Didn’t matter. Cas was clearly upset and in some ways looking after Cas was a lot like looking after Sam when they were both younger. Whatever the actual problem was, it came second to the immediate issue of an unhappy brother, or, in this case, lover. And in any case if things were that bad it would probably help to have two reasonable people dealing with it rather than one reasonable person trying to deal with the problem and a distressed companion all at once.
Mmm. Yes. Hologram. Because Cas didn’t actually have wings, at least not the mostly-human version he was used to. The hologram had a certain amount of leeway to change things, though. Mostly he didn’t. But the ships, in general, really did think of themselves as the closest anyone had actually come to angels, and with their flight capabilities… They’re not showing off, someone—he forgot exactly who—had told the various trainees in one of the many, many discussions about the ships and their capabilities and quirks, it’s usually a stress indicator. A desire to escape, or remind someone that they’re more powerful than they appear. It looks amazing, but it’s a bad sign.
Dean’s priorities were a little skewed at the moment, though, so his first reaction—and the one that made it to his mouth—was actually: “Cas. Hot damn. Look a’ you.”
Forgetting that he’d already tried to touch the image and failed, the human pushed himself up on one elbow to reach for his friend and did not—he later insisted—completely and totally faint. He blacked out, he corrected a bit sheepishly much later, because of the after-effects of intense gravitational forces applied to a human body designed to work at one G and no more.
That would be much later, long after he woke up properly and quite some time after he learned what had just happened. To all of them, but mostly to Sam.
The next time Dean opened his eyes, he was in the ship’s sickbay, there was a fist-sized medical drone unit perched on his chest monitoring him and purring, and he went from unconscious to upright and shouting inside a second.
Castiel had left his human avatar ‘dozing’ on one of the sickbay’s other beds, and did a creditable imitation of jerking awake as Dean’s roar of “Castiel! REPORT!” echoed around the room and the medical scanner clattered to the floor, its programmed purr cutting off to be replaced by an anguished beeping as the very limited little robot complained to the ship proper.
The ship shut it up with a thought, watching Dean anxiously. His human eyes told him that the man was very awake and getting progressively more agitated as he waited impatiently for a reply to his somewhat vague query. His far more accurate internal sensors made him wish that the little drone had been allowed to complete its work. Theoretically, if Dean was feeling healthy enough to shout that loud at him, there shouldn’t be any significant damage remaining, but Castiel knew from experience that Dean would take injuries that would put most humans down and keep on going, ignoring his body’s demands and his mind’s caution and stubbornly persisting in whatever it was he was doing.
There was still no perceptible delay in between the human’s demand for more—any—information and the ship’s reply.
“We were attacked,” he said briefly, because he had been reviewing all the available information while Dean slept off the g-forces and Castiel still knew little more than he did to begin with. “I do not know what they were. I saw two. I can provide you with the scans and the shiplog if you wish.”
“Screw the shiplog,” Dean growled. “If I wanted to read shiplogs I’d be sitting on some base or cruising a barge around.” He’d adopted the slightly derogatory word the faster-than-light ships used for any non-sentient ship regardless of its shape or flight capabilities. “You tell me. What did you see?”
Gabriel would have laughed at him for putting off the inevitable, then offered suggestions for leading Dean in circles, because the longer Dean spends going over what the attack looked like and not looking directly at the visual records the longer it will take him to ask what happened to the other ship and his brother, not to mention where they are now. And that was a conversation that Castiel did not want to have, because he knew Dean would not like the answers and Castiel was always happier when his human partner was too.
“They were almost like me,” he said cautiously, now. “Possibly a similar design to begin with, in that we all look somewhat alike, but changed, as if they were melted and reformed. There were at least two,” he added, “and they were armed.” Staying seated on the sickbay bed was really remarkably difficult, the ship noted absently. He was shaken and unhappy and was willing to admit to himself that he had gotten addicted to the simple but utterly complex sensations of being a human being held by someone he loved.
This will break you, whispered some cynical part of his mind, that had been lonely for so long and had yet to fully accept that being otherwise would do other than cause him more pain than he could bear. Castiel ignored it as he had been doing for over a year and a half now. I chose knowing the consequences.
“Show me. You hurt?” Dean was asking. “I heard—” He paused as if trying to remember what he had heard. Metal tearing, relays blowing out? The screams of a living structure under the strain of acceleration.
Castiel thought about it before Dean could finish his sentence. “Nothing I cannot repair.” But I’m scared. A mental nudge of the nearest ever-present display panels set into the walls brought up the readings he’d gotten of the two—enemies, he decided—consolidated into a pair of stand-alone images. Don’t let him ask just yet.
As he’d hoped, the mechanical mystery of the almost-but-not-quite ships was enough to catch Dean’s attention. “Look at that,” he exclaimed. The images followed his touch as he flipped and rotated them past the blank spots which Castiel had simply not gotten an angle on for an image. “That’s almost—but twisted…Melted, huh? Not far from.” He tapped one and it zoomed in to fill most of the space obediently. “Might be able to smooth that out into a Fleet design, sure. A bad copy, you think? We’ve never found anyone capable of doing that. Anyone at all, really. It’s just us and you out here. What happened to these scans, Cas?”
A question he could answer. “They were emitting some form of interference as soon as they appeared. These were the frequencies I could access.”
The human was completely focused on the problem in front of him as if it were a planetary survey with some unexpected challenges—but wasn’t that all of them?—or a rogue fault in his pet shuttlecraft that refused to be ironed out or even confine itself to one system. It was an image Castiel found comforting; familiar and reassuring. “They were flight-capable?”
“From the abruptness of their arrival and these energy readings—” The appropriate scans opened in a new window and blinked for Dean’s attention. “—I would assume so.”
“Damn.” He looked up from his scrutiny of the images on the panel and held Cas’s gaze, returning the intensely focused stare so often directed at him. “Good flying, Cas.”
The instant of shallow, silly flattery was cut off as quickly as it came as Dean continued, “Sam must be up to his neck in this. What’s he come up with?”
Silence from the other bed. Castiel knew almost all of the colorful terms humans liked to use in stressful situations, ‘almost’ because they were always inventing illogical combinations and applications. Until now, he had never felt it necessary to use any of them beyond the mild expletives that the Winchesters and many other humans of his acquaintance used to punctuate and accentuate their speech. Now he wished he’d paid more attention.
“I do not know,” Cas said in a very small voice. Suddenly and most unusually, he couldn’t meet Dean’s eyes.
Suddenly the room was singing with tension and Castiel was deeply regretting staying here as a human. He wished he could disappear and not have to know that Dean was staring at him in disbelief that was quickly becoming a mix of explosive anger and developing horror.
“Castiel,” Dean growled, “where’s my brother?”
“I do not know,” Cas repeated, feeling his shoulders draw in involuntarily. Interesting, the reflexes that came programmed into a human body. He would be more interested if he didn’t have to feel them and know why. “Gabriel was hurt, ensnared by what I believe to be a form of energy weapon unlike any I have seen designs for before. I heard him cry out. I saw our attacker strike at him. I do not know what happened after that.”
And there was the snap from simmering disbelief to anger. “You ran! Do you even know if they’re alive?”
It was unfair, and it gave Cas the impulse he needed to look his partner in the eye again. “What should I have done, Dean? Shout at them? Set a collision course and destroy us all? There were two of them, and they were armed. You know I am not. We have never had to be. If I had stayed the other would have turned the same weapon on me. It tried. It missed. Yes, I ran.” Now might be a good time to be slightly more conciliatory, he decided, hearing his own voice drop further into an aggressive snarl. “And no, I do not know. But we are still relatively close and I would have felt Gabriel’s destruction. If he is alive, he will look after Sam. As I would protect you.”
Dean fumed helplessly, paced briefly around the small room, looked for something to lash out at, aimed a kick at the now-deactivated medical drone, missed, and changed tack. “So I assume we’re going after them. How much of a lead do they have?”
Silence was overrated.
It was also doomed.
“Castiel.” A growl. “Where. Are. We.”
“En route back to Earth,” Castiel admitted, and they were back to not making eye contact and it felt fundamentally wrong. “About a week and a half’s trip at full speed.” Most of their outbound travel time was taken up by the time spent in star systems and exploring various planets, and they hadn’t been in any great rush. A week and a half of full-throttle flight would be exhausting but doable, and it would get them back to Earth and Fleet Command in a fraction of the time it had taken them to get away.
“Turn the hell around right now, Cas!” Dean roared. A few quick steps brought him right up to where Cas was still sitting on the sickbay bed, not having moved throughout the increasingly heated argument. Basic human body language, intimidation through stance and size; he was a little taller than Castiel’s human form as it was but their respective positions gave him the chance to loom significantly. It didn’t work on a ship.
Dean’s eyes smoldered, and not in a good way. Sacrificing the height advantage that wasn’t working anyway, he braced his hands on either side of Cas’s hips and leaned down until they were nose to nose and breathing each other’s air. “Explain this ‘no’.” It was low and dark and dangerous and it hurt.
“I have orders, Dean! One of us has to pay attention to them.” Or they’ll separate us, he did not say, and you might survive that, you are human and resilient, but it would destroy me. “These things have destroyed or taken seven—eight now—of my siblings and I cannot fight them alone. We have to return to Earth. We are returning to Earth. But we are not abandoning your brother, Dean. Or mine.”
And just like that, the eyes a breath away from his own were gone and Dean was storming away out the door, which opened automatically before Castiel could think clearly enough to hold it closed and stop his human partner from walking away from him, anger, frustration, and fear all too clear in the set of his shoulders and the harsh sounds of boots hitting deck plating.
He was on his feet not even a heartbeat later, all his instincts to follow Dean, to be with him and protect him and explain, working overtime.
“No.” It was cold as the void and even more unfriendly, because the void between stars was Castiel’s home and it had never been as unwelcoming to him as that single syllable. “Don’t you dare.”
The door didn’t slam—it wasn’t programmed or designed to—but it might as well have closed hard enough to echo and caught reaching fingers in the doorjamb into the bargain for the effect it had on Cas, who shied away and stared at the door unseeing, unconsciously tracking the human’s progress through the corridors between the sickbay and his rooms while most of the rest of his mind howled in distress at the rejection on top of the attack that had turned his world upside down, hurt upon hurt.
Told you so, said a very cynical and remarkably unfairly smug part of Castiel’s mind.
If anything, Sam’s return to consciousness was more agonizing than his brother’s had been, already light-years away. His head hurt so badly that he was seeing lights flashing where no lights should be, especially as some of them appeared to be on the inside of his skull and others seemed to be coming from inside other points beneath his skin.
They were a most unhelpful form of illumination; that they didn’t actually illuminate anything led him to conclude, along a rather rusty train of thought, that they weren’t real. That should have been a relief, but as they were apparently the only light sources currently working it would have been nice if they hadn’t been imaginary.
“Gabriel,” he called out. At least, that had been the idea. What actually came out was closer to “grrrrmph” than an intelligible name.
Sam didn’t get an answer anyway. There were some automated alarms very far away adding to his headache, which had approached migraine status, proposed, been accepted, and gone on a whirlwind honeymoon escorted by a marching band to one of those planets that had imported the custom of running through the streets being pursued by large and angry animals.
He struggled to wet his lips, realized that what he’d thought was spit tasted an awful lot like blood, and managed to think better of scrubbing a sleeve across his mouth to get rid of it, as he remembered in time he was still wearing the spacesuit he’d transported aboard in. Grimacing, he spat out most of it, discovering in the process a gash across the inside of his cheek that was probably the major contributor to the mess.
Still, it made it a little easier to call out “Gabriel!” again. This time it came out as a word, but his surroundings stayed dark and the tinny sound of sirens didn’t shut off and no sardonic ship’s voice answered him. Sam was Gabriel’s major source of entertainment most of the time. He never failed to respond to a call just in case it might be amusing in some way.
Licking at the cut still bleeding into his mouth and instantly regretting it, Sam managed to sit up and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyeballs in a futile attempt to squish the headache away. It never worked, but the habit was hard to break. As he let his hands fall, though, he realized that there was something wrong he wasn’t noticing. Apart from the everything? he supplied Gabriel’s comment for himself.
Lords, it was cold.
Cold, and the alarms were getting fainter all the time, not because they were dying down, he thought suddenly, every spacegoer’s nightmare coming to life and painting itself across his agonized brain, but because the air was running out.
Somewhere there was a hull breach. Something had torn Gabriel open and even if the ship had survived it Sam wasn’t going to for long.
It was truly amazing how irrelevant a migraine seemed in the face of death by asphyxiation and vacuum exposure. Suddenly Sam was wide awake and thinking with the focus of imminent death.
Suit helmet. He couldn’t see a thing and something had hit them hard and was that rubble he’d just jammed his hand into the edge of? Ouch. Not important. Helmet. Helmet. Where was it?
He was never going to find the gloves he’d taken off almost before he’d removed the helmet what felt like a year ago. His smartsuit could compensate if he told it to. He should probably do that. He was really thinking in bits, wasn’t he?
The smartsuit was programmed to do gloves. It might also seal up the jagged hole in the side of his hand, too. Sam paused in his frantic, blind helmet search for a moment to tap the insides of his wrists with the opposing hands and draw a line from wrist to palm with his fingers. Obeying the built-in cue, the suit stretched itself and reshaped around his hands, held momentarily still to make the suit’s job easier, to create makeshift gloves. After a moment, the sensors built into the fabric detected the cut and tightened around it in a bandage, sealing off the wound.
As soon as he had felt the pressure apply to the newest of his cuts and contusions, Sam had resumed his search, sweeping his hands around the deck plating and over debris that hadn’t been there when the lights were on. He was imagining that the air was that thin, he told himself sternly, not daring to say it out loud lest the sound betray how thin the ship’s internal atmosphere had actually become. But the gloves had been a very good idea. If the chill on his nose and cheeks and what little air was getting into his lungs was any indication, his fingers would have been nicely on their way to frozen by now.
When he finally bumped into the suit helmet it felt like the best thing that had happened all week. As he sought out the reference points on its surface that would tell him by touch alone which way the helmet was facing and what connections needed to be made for it to work properly, he resolved to thank the instructor back in Sol system that had insisted that the trainee cadets had learned to assemble, disassemble, and repair things blindfolded, hungry, tired, dizzy, and, in one colorful case, nauseous with one of the nastier flu bugs that had continued to adapt just ahead of human medicine.
It clicked into place and connected with the suit’s computer and the ship’s atmosphere must have been even thinner than Sam had realized if the heady effects that proper oxygen levels had on him were any indication. And since space was a big, dark place, the helmet had lights built in, which he activated almost before his head had stopped spinning with the rush of air.
There were his gloves, buried under charred metal and a bundle of fiber-optic cable that might have been in use to power one of the stupider systems linked to the ship’s brain or might have been used to tie something in place. It was hard to tell at this point and in its condition. Although some of those lights he’d been seeing might have been the cable rather than his migraine. Whether that was a good sign or not, Sam wasn’t exactly sure.
He rescued the gloves and put them on despite their battered state, then used the suit’s comm system to call “Gabriel!” again. Still no response, and fear for his friend’s life bit into him. What had happened? Where were they? And, another worrying thought dawned, had the same thing happened to Dean and Castiel? It must have, or they would be here, talking to him and trying to raise Gabriel.
That phrase had bad connotations, he thought. He should stop thinking.
Right after he found a working display panel, though. If the ship’s mind was knocked out or unresponsive Sam could access some of the systems directly and send commands that would be obeyed reflexively. If Gabriel was conscious he’d be able to block them and then scream at Sam for trying to hack into his brain but that was a security measure. You couldn’t hack a starship as long as it was alive and well, for security reasons, but for emergency reasons a sufficiently talented pilot/shipboard explorer and technician could do so, and Sam could hack rings around almost anyone who wasn’t a ship to begin with. Maybe he could find where the hull breach was and set up some countermeasures so things like tools and Sam didn’t get dragged out into space. (Unlikely once the pressure equalized, but he’d like to get out of this suit eventually, having already spent a couple of hours in it actively jaunting around a debris field.)
Maybe he could wake up Gabriel directly and they’d make repairs and find Dean and Castiel and this wouldn’t be the probably fatal disaster it was shaping up to be.
Maybe he’d electrocute himself by accident and it would turn out to be a dream induced by Gabriel playing strange music and episodes of very old television shows right below his threshold of hearing while he was trying to sleep.
Anything was possible. Shame the outcomes he didn’t like the look of looked most likely.
“Okay, Sam,” he said aloud to himself for lack of anyone else to talk to. Usually there was an open commlink in this suit so the confined sound of his own voice would have startled him if he hadn’t run out of surprise for the day. “Priorities. Hull integrity. Air. Lords, I hope Gabriel’s just knocked out. Eyes and ears. Where the hell are we, what hit us, and is it coming back?”
Yeah. That was a plan.
Damn, but his head hurt.