It wasn’t always easy to determine exactly how many planets made up the Sol system, home base of the Interstellar Fleet and still the residence of most of humanity. The debate went back to before humanity had even attained a practical measure of spaceflight, and certainly long before the ships had been created. New planets had been found, old ones had been called into question, and mythical ones had failed to appear. As humanity had spread out into space, some people had presumed that their new ability to observe up close, check their data, and confirm or reject hypotheses through actual hands-on science would settle the issue once and for all with a single definite sum.
They were wrong, not because they weren’t able to go out there and count off worlds, but because the question had always revolved around the nature of a planet. Earth’s Moon had tried to declare independence three times before the fourth time unexpectedly proved successful, mainly because the powers on Earth had just about had enough of the Loonies rather than through any military might or persuasive power.
The question had gotten far more complicated after the planetisimals, ice balls, dwarf planets, itinerant comets, shapeless chunks of rock, and asteroids of the Kuiper belt had lobbied for planetary status, at first individually and then declaring themselves the United Stakes of Kuiper. After the dust had settled and the descendents of wide-scattered island nations had been persuaded to stop lobbying on the U.S.K’s behalf, it was generally considered to be a single, much-fragmented planet. Such a ‘planet’ was inhabited mainly by true asocials, mineral and ice miners, the occasional ship both sentient and stupid, and those scientists and artists whose work required as much isolation as possible while still maintaining the psychological comfort of being part of a solar system, just in case their project did something unexpected and they suddenly felt an overwhelming need to run howling back towards the inner terrestrial planets and the bright light and subjective heat of a central star.
There was also Joshua, who orbited the Sun somewhat unnecessarily, generally between Earth’s and Venus’ respective ellipses. He was perfectly capable of picking a set of coordinates and holding himself in place, not actually needing to go around the star with everything else, but had conceded to do so after a number of his siblings had complained that they were automatically compensating for the revolutions of the rest of the solar system and he was messing up their calculations by appearing to move retrograde relative to everything else.
While he was as flight-capable as the rest of his siblings, Joshua was generally content with a less relativistic existence. One of the largest ships ever designed, he was closer to a small world than a ship, as if the Sol system had acquired a miniature sentient planet. That wasn’t spherical. And could leave anytime he wanted to. But he didn’t.
Not all ships were alike. If there was something a human was interested in, there was a fairly good chance that somewhere a ship had been curious about the same thing, except possibly baseball. That they primarily lived in the vacuum of space did not limit them at all, especially because they could walk among humans, but even if they couldn’t they would find a way to span the infinite range of personalities. Developing alongside humans as they were, they had inherited many of the same interests and tendencies rather than starting from scratch to figure them out on their own. The range of uses for a mind with the capacity and speed of a ship’s was as wide as imagination, and once they found a mission in life that suited them ships would dedicate themselves to it with a tenacity much praised in humans.
Joshua was a gardener.
More precisely, he was an artificial habitat and complex of bioresearch labs, a vast dome over an enormous infrastructure sustaining and developing and cultivating a wild array of experimental plants, reconstructed ecosystems, and occasionally the odd species of wildlife, all being variably developed for the first time, maintained for scientific or aesthetic purposes, or brought back from extinction. It was a project that could only be overseen by a mind capable of minutely monitoring and maintaining hundreds of thousands of variables, interpreting the results almost instantaneously, and intuitively and intelligently generating new avenues to follow or continue along.
He wasn’t alone. Several teams of humans worked with him, participating in and contributing to the various ecosystems within his hull. Some of his siblings occasionally expressed interest in the results or the process. It was creative work and, it had to be said, Joshua thought it placed him a cut above his squabbling, fast-moving, chattering, flighty brothers and sisters.
Not that he minded visitors.
Anyway, Sam rather thought he had a point about family. He’d come over to Joshua to check out a project they’d been corresponding about, sending messages back and forth about the various worlds that the Winchester team had come across on their latest run. Sam had predicted a calm and rational afternoon aboard a world-like environment without imminent danger around unknown corners, discussing and debating Joshua’s plans for designing a species that could explore the water environments of new planets the way humans currently explored the land.
Sure, there were a number of other people aboard Joshua, there always were, but the habitat was a big place and the section he was in presented the appealing image of a lakefront park, hemmed in by the more experimental areas but open to all comers as long as they behaved themselves.
He hadn’t quite counted on his apparently unshakable entourage, who could be counted on to not behave themselves.
Both experience and automatic (usually validated) suspicion told Sam that Gabriel was probably already in trouble and was avoiding someone, or thought that Joshua was sedentary and large enough not to chase him if he managed to annoy the larger ship. Entirely by accident, of course. The elaborate casualness, all but sauntering as he chewed on an equally holographic lollipop, which was surely the ultimate in nonchalance, gave him away through sheer overkill.
Dean had come along because he had never met Joshua before, and to avoid Admiral Henricksen, who had hated him pretty much from the first time they met just on principle and the fact that Dean’s authority-be-damned-unless-it’s-mine attitude had pissed him off. The admiral didn’t like Castiel much lately either, probably because the ship could be relied on to take Dean’s side against almost anyone, including the admiral. They were lucky the man wasn’t actually running the Fleet. And Castiel was basically more glued to Dean’s side than the man’s own shadow these days, Sam had noticed, keeping just that inch too close to be accidental or inadvertent. Sam had a pretty good idea what that was about, but hadn’t asked, although he knew from experience not to hold his breath while waiting for Dean to tell him things of his own accord.
Sam resolved to ignore them all, and consciously turned his attention back to Joshua, whose own holographic avatar was waiting patiently at the dock overlooking a deep and carefully cultivated saltwater lake.
“Which generation is this?” he asked, kneeling on the artificial wood of the dock and then, realizing he was simply asking for Gabriel to push him in, sprawling out on his stomach. If he looked particularly hard, he thought he could see a handful of lighter, sleek shapes under the water.
“Fourth,” Joshua replied. “Their genetic makeup looks stable, so if they breed true I should be able to start the metasynth enhancements after that.”
The tall man laughed. “So you’ve just got them working as-is, and now you’re going to change them, is that it?”
A shrug. “They were reportedly fairly intelligent in their original design, but if the reports were accurate they still won’t be smart enough to reliably perform ocean reconnaissance, even with human partners. And they can’t speak.”
There weren’t a lot of planets with as much water as Earth, proving once and for all that it was a stupid name for the planet. Most of those that did have significant amounts of accessible water had a much more equal ratio of water and land, or far more land than water. And that left out all the gas giants, dead airless rocks, frozen wastelands, and sun-scorched hellholes that didn’t have any liquid water at all. Pale blue dots were actually few and far between, but luckily space was very big and a small percentage of an incredibly vast number was still a healthy range of habitable worlds. Only the incredible capabilities of the flight-capable ships allowed humanity to visit a small fraction of that small fraction.
One of the still non-speaking animals surfaced and whistled at the observers on the dock, closely followed by what was probably most of the rest of the pod. Sam didn’t know exactly how many Joshua had in this generation. The noise level suggested that there were about twice as many as he could see, but maybe they were just loud when they were happy. “You really think you can redesign them to talk? Intelligibly?”
“Your people taught us to talk, didn’t you? You taught us how to be people; we wouldn’t even have been without you. It seems only fair we should pass on the favor. I don’t think it will work immediately, but with enough trials—” Joshua stopped mid-sentence and looked back over his shoulder. “Gabriel,” he called, “care to explain why Michael is shouting at, from the sound of it, the whole Fleet looking for you?”
While there was a human Fleet commodore, it was generally acknowledged that Michael ran the Fleet, simply because in order to keep up with the ships and their doings and gossips you really need to be able to play at their speed and on their level. And anyway, it was clearly inefficient to keep changing the person in charge of the Fleet despite lengthening human lifespans. The enormous command ship would have made a terrifying armed battleship, and was one of the oldest ships still active. He’d not only watched the fleet develop, he’d developed quite a lot of it. As a result, he was the closest the Fleet came to the Voice of God, and despite centuries of experience he didn’t have much patience with mavericks and wild cards like, well, most of Sam’s team. Things tended to happen the way Michael wanted them to. Half of the Fleet wanted to be him some future day. The other half basically just stayed out of his way. …And then there was Gabriel.
Gabriel joined them on the dock just to give them front-row seats to his best feigned innocence act. “Nope. None at all.”
“What’d you do, Gabriel?” yelled Dean across the intervening space. The newly restored ocean mammals in the water whistled back at the new noise with delight, which appeared to be their default setting.
“What’s that noise?” he added, and joined them to look at Joshua’s pets.
Joshua had been listening to something not available to the humans in the vicinity. “The Europa simulation? Really, Gabriel? You couldn’t have picked on something else?”
Gabriel rolled his eyes, a gesture he had down perfectly. “It’s not broken,” he rationalized through his apparently everlasting lollipop. “They got results, didn’t they?”
Apparently Castiel had been listening to the same source. “You timelooped the Europa simulation?”
“So they got the same simulation fifty-two times, whatever.” He grinned. “Damn, they’re mad. It’s only a computer program. Blowhards. Should just go see for themselves.”
There were a number of superstitions surrounding Jupiter’s moon Europa, the only other place in the Sol system where life had been found independent of human colonization. For some indefinable reason, there was a hands-off policy on the moon so long-standing it had become unstated law. The planetary scientists and biologists interested in the place, and there were many, tended to rely on scans conducted by cooperative or involved ships rather than visiting and getting their hands dirty. Maybe because it was so close to home, comparatively, Europa was being left to develop in peace, although storm lords knew what superstitions the organisms on that world were developing in their turn as bright lights flew through their sky in all directions.
“No wonder Michael’s furious,” Sam admitted. “They’ve been setting that up for over a year now.”
Gabriel shrugged. “The settings are still in the base computer…mostly. They’ll find them if they bother to look in the right place. Probably. Philistines,” he complained of his companions. “No sense of humor. I shun the lot of you.” Suiting actions to words, he retreated from the dock. A shame, because Sam had considered tossing him in the water, as Gabriel’s holographic form was so much smaller than he was. It wouldn’t hurt him, and maybe Joshua’s pets would try to eat the smartass.
“Just once I’d like to leave the system without feeling like the Fleet’s shoving us out and locking the door,” Sam complained after him.
“That would be boring,” Gabriel called back.
He turned to Joshua. “And that’s us back out in the black again.”
Joshua waved a hand accommodatingly. “The brat isn’t your fault. Believe it or not, you’re actually a good influence on him.”
Sam huffed. “Well, you were wondering what you ships would be like without humans. I know what Gabriel would be—bored, with no one to play with!”
“Oh,” said Joshua, quite calmly, “I think Gabriel is quite capable of amusing himself. He doesn’t need someone to play with; he needs someone to stop him. Case in point.” Joshua switched to the ship’s public address system, while still keeping the same calm tone. “That’s alive, Gabriel,” his voice boomed from on high for all to hear, “and it’s mine, and if you touch it I will swat you like the irritating little mosquito you are.”
It shouldn’t have been possible for a space as large as the Sol system to seem like a kicked anthill, but by the time Dean and Castiel returned to what was technically their home berth, that was basically what it resembled, if you were willing to substitute sound for sight.
Dean knew that for every message he was hearing, Castiel was picking up at least twenty more and just not putting them through the intercom. Still, the cacophony that bounced across and through the walls of the Control Room was overwhelming. They had agreed to ignore most of the messages except those directly from Fleet Command, especially those that were the ships’ normal back-and-forth chatter. The ships had inherited from their human cousins an unfathomable love of gossip, and the spaces of the Sol system, where the majority of the Fleet clustered, positively vibrated with often incomprehensible chatter transmitted among networks of ships.
Having received an unambiguous and tense message from the various people that made up Fleet Command, they both knew that the instant they were in-system and thus in range for a real time conversation, the Fleet authorities would want formal and complete reports and some semblance of order. Dean had spent more time than he really wanted to after reconciling with Cas working on his report of the events around the attack by the strange ships. (Alright, so he’d written up a fair part of it on a detached multipurpose screen while in bed, sitting up against the pillows with Cas reading over his shoulder as he typed. It’d got written, hadn’t it?) And ships they did seem to be; no matter how much time he spent looking at the scans snatched from the chaos, they still looked like rough and nasty copies of the Fleet designs, armed and predatory and somehow corrupt. Possibly that was his own experience talking, but their actions had certainly proved it so.
To that end, they were in the Control Room rather than anywhere else on board, partially because the walls were covered with the ubiquitous display panels, all of which could be synchronized to form a deck-to-ceiling viewscreen for the inevitable call from Command. It also presented an acceptable venue for Command to be able to see two faces rather than a human pilot and the ship’s voice through the intercom—at the same time, it reminded both of them to keep their distance physically. Castiel’s human body rested in the augmented chair of the life-support unit; the restraints didn’t bother him, although they would if he didn’t have the option of slipping out of the body altogether and being his ship self. They didn’t stop his mind from moving freely and that was all that mattered; as importantly, they made sure he wouldn’t reflexively reach for the comfort of his lover’s touch in front of a Fleet Command unlikely to approve.
It wasn’t unheard of for the ships who were people too to take human lovers, but it was unusual. In a sparse handful of cases many years ago the human had been killed and his or her partner had slipped quietly and unstoppably into an unsalvageable wreck, shutting down and never reviving in grief and loss. When they fell they fell hard, but very few of them did. The Fleet didn’t entirely discourage its members from bonding with their working partners—there were a number of married or otherwise committed human couples operating together—but they liked to know that the relationship wouldn’t affect the work the pair (or occasionally a larger group) did out in the black.
Somewhere along the line the word shipmate had changed its meaning, though.
As a number of the higher-ups in the Command structure hated Dean anyway, it was probably better that the only people who knew were those who needed to know. Sam and Gabriel knew, of course, it had been impossible to hide and they hadn’t really tried. Some of Dean’s closest human friends within the Fleet did; he didn’t really know all that many people outside of it anymore. It was just impossible to explain what your life was like to outsiders who you wouldn’t see again for months. And while the ships’ gossip network was, as always, up and running, there were some things that they’d gossip about to each other but never to humans.
So Dean waited in the Control Room, one hand on Cas’s shoulder for just a few more minutes as they approached the Fleet’s primary headquarters, an enormous and sprawling space station forming a locked system with the Earth and the Moon, the three seeming to orbit in an ever-spinning triangle. Launch Station, as it was generally known, was a little further away from the planet than its satellite, but from one extreme of the rough circle to the other it was almost as wide as the Moon. Rather than being solid, the space between was networked with cross-tunnels and airlocks like the inverse of a city map; all the streets were where the people lived and the gaps between those airtight streets the spaces where the ships could move. It was easier and faster to cruise through Launch Station than around it.
“Ready?” Dean asked.
“No.” Cas didn’t look up at him. “They’re calling.”
“Hold them off for just a second. They on hold?” he checked.
Confusion colored the ship’s voice. “Yes. Why?”
There was a simple answer. Dean moved from his place at Cas’s left shoulder to directly in front of him, half-knelt to his level, and kissed him gently, not to bruise or mark or flush but to reassure. From now on they were under supervision and they were no longer the rulers of their own lives, and he hated it. It could wait for a few more seconds.
“You know?” he said softly, after a moment.
“Yes,” was the immediate answer. “And yes. Always yes.”
“Then we’re invincible,” Dean promised. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
Talking to Fleet Command was about as fun as they’d thought it would be—none at all. They had already told the group, via reports and transmissions and just direct download, everything there was to say, and neither of them had come up with anything new since then. Well, they’d come up with plenty of new things to say, but none of them were particularly useful and a number of them were complaints about Command wasting time.
The complaints were a little unfair. Given only about a week and a half since the ambush, they’d managed to do a huge amount of work, installing the weaponry designed over years for ships’ use on a large percentage of the ships that had been in the system or returned when summoned back. Between the sheer number of people working the design, repair, and maintenance branches of the Fleet and their expertise, they were mobilizing at a surprisingly efficient rate.
And mobilizing they were, with all that implied. Humanity hadn’t had a serious war in centuries. The Loonies had won their independence with a minimum of bloodshed, and the reasons that had started wars on Old Earth had been neatly circumvented when the skies opened up through the ships. Not enough water? There was a planet orbiting a star over thataway with plenty of it and no one living there. Didn’t like your neighbors because they’d been assholes for fifteen hundred years or so? Move. Name a planet after your country or nation or race and if you could build there and survive you could do what you wanted. Didn’t agree with the neighbors about who should be able to marry whom or say prayers in a certain way? Lotta worlds out there in the dark. The closest humanity had come to a war in recent years had been about a hundred years ago, when a religious group that just couldn’t play well with others had been forcibly deported to an otherwise perfectly nice world and left there. Oh, they’d been given all the supplies and information they might need, including a transmitter so they could call for help if they wanted—but no way to get offworld and bother others.
But now there was something out there in the black that killed people without even a warning shot. It obviously knew humanity was out there, and quite as obviously it wasn’t friendly. That was a war people could get behind, and despite the time since the last one it seemed no one had really lost their taste for having weapons and an enemy to point them at.
The Interstellar Fleet had found itself the closest that Earth and its colonies had to a defense force, Command had grabbed the power like candy, and the ships were being armed and converted to fighters.
He was walking back to his temporary quarters aboard Launch Station when Dean got a call on his comm unit about that.
“Heya Dean,” a familiar voice greeted him, “you got a sec to fix a little problem we’re having?”
Dean stopped short. “Garth?” he said in disbelief. “What are you doing, man?”
Over the commlink, Garth chuckled, which he did with alarming frequency. “Better get down here, Dean. Your ship and the Old Man are havin’ a fight.”
“What? I’ll be right there.” He turned around immediately and headed for the airlock where Castiel was docked. The trip took him only about five minutes, but by the time he got there things had already escalated, if the crew of technicians huddled at the far end of the corridor was any indication.
He only recognized Garth, but that didn’t mean anything. Launch Station was full of people and he wasn’t there very often. And he only knew Garth because the guy was something like Bobby’s apprentice.
Garth waved at him, but mercifully refrained from hugging him this time. “Not sure who you’ll be rescuing, but you might wanna hurry,” the odd little tech advised.
When Dean opened the station-side door to the airlock, the first thing he heard was obviously the middle of a sentence.
“—you listen to me, you jumped-up smart-mouthed sailboat,” Bobby’s voice echoed off the walls, “if you don’t unruffle your feathers right the hell now, get out of my way, and let us do our jobs, I’m gonna—”
That didn’t need to go any further. Dean broke into a run, rounding the corner to find Bobby standing in front of the airlock trying to snatch a handful of Cas’s shirt in order to—Dean could guess from experience—shake him like a child. Since the figure in front of him was an insubstantial hologram, it wasn’t working, and all he was getting for his pains was a furious growl from Cas and the sight of imaginary wings flicking in and out of existence, keeping him away from the airlock, which Dean assumed Castiel was holding closed.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Dean demanded of this tableau.
“Dean!” Bobby yelled, seething with frustration. “Knock some sense into this boy for me, wouldya?”
The younger man raised his hands defensively before Cas could chip in and everything spiraled completely out of control. “Okay, I can see the problem. You’re both stubborn idiots.”
Bobby huffed. “You know that’s your fault? He was never this troublesome before you got to him.”
“Careful where you pass that buck, Bobby. I got it from you.” Bobby Singer had been one of John Winchester’s oldest friends, despite the fact that he worked for the Fleet. John had been suspicious of every large organization on—and off—the planet, but his boys had spent plenty of time around Bobby. In fact, Bobby had helped them get into the Fleet itself, and his recommendation of them had probably stopped one or two admirals and commanders from turning them out into the cold in exasperation. Bobby ran the mishmash of departments that dealt with the ships’ physical existence, keeping the ships in good repair and coming up with new designs and innovations for them.
At the moment, he seemed to be running the weapons conversions teams, which surprised Dean not in the slightest. There was no one better qualified, and it seemed like everyone came to him at some point for answers and things that just worked. Most of them got snapped at, because Bobby wasn’t afraid to chew out idiots no matter who they thought they were. He was on the very short list of people Dean respected and was willing to listen to.
“Right, both of you shut up, you’re terrifying the kids down the hall,” Dean continued briskly. Both of them glared at him instead, which was possibly progress. “Bobby, don’t call my Cas a sailboat. Cas, stop flickering. C’mere.” He reached out a hand and after a moment the hologram abandoned guarding the door in favor of Dean’s casual embrace. The static feeling of holographic skin was disconcerting; the more substantial a projection got, the more the energy going into it could interact with whatever its surface came into contact with, which was why Bobby hadn’t been able to grab hold of him but Dean could put an arm around his shoulders. Castiel had just ratcheted up the power on the projection through his connection to Launch Station. But they could both do with the reassurance. Bobby was family, and thus one of the few other humans who knew about them, so there was no harm in it.
“So what the hell’s going on here?” Obviously Bobby was here to put Castiel through those upgrades and as clearly Castiel was digging his metaphorical heels in about it for some reason, which was strange and more than a little infuriating considering that Dean’s baby brother was out there having storm lords knew what happen to him and they’d agreed they were going to go after him and the creatures that were hurting him. As tempting as it was to shout at the ship who was the man who was his lover, Dean managed not to, biting back an angry snap of words that would only make things worse. He knew Castiel wanted to go after their missing family as much as Dean did, so he had to have a damn good reason for causing trouble. Hopefully.
They both tried to talk at once, of course. “Stop! Bobby, you’re opening up the armory, yeah?”
“Got teams all over Station running this way and that and managing not to screw up too badly, most of the time. ‘Course, we can’t do much about stubborn idjits. We know what we’re doing, Castiel!”
Dean waved his free hand hurriedly, cutting that off and regaining Bobby’s attention. “And it’s his turn, I get it. Cas? You know Bobby, he’s a friend. He’s not gonna hurt you.”
Cas twisted out from under the arm around his shoulders to meet Dean’s eyes more directly. “He wants me to shut down completely and I won’t do it!” Castiel rarely raised his voice. When he did, it usually meant distress. “It’s more than just the weapons, Dean, they’re going to write the control programs for them directly into my brain, make them as reflexive as flight, and I have to know what they’re doing.”
He still didn’t get it. “Okay. No, sorry, Cas, you’re going to have to dumb it down some more for the humans in the room.”
His lover sighed, agitation and tension stretched across the lines of his shoulders and the look in his eyes. Cas turned his back on Bobby, consciously, and put both hands on Dean’s shoulders as if unsure whether to embrace him or push him away, just to make sure he had the human’s complete attention. “Dean. Take a man and teach him to fight, to kill when he’s told to, the discipline of it, to stand resolute and with his fellows, teach him to be a certain way and do as he’s told, obey his commander’s voice without question and follow a pattern, make him a soldier, a warrior—and you do not have the man you started with. No, Bobby would not hurt me deliberately, but I can tell which of my siblings he and his have worked on—by their voices, the pattern of their thoughts, the way they react, and they are not who they were. They don’t think the way they did, they’ve changed.”
Somewhere down the corridor, someone opened a door and shouted, “Can we come back in yet?”
“No!” Dean shouted back, and added, “Piss off!” for good measure.
“I said sit an’ stay, Roy!” Bobby yelled in the general direction of the unfortunate tech.
The door closed again and Dean asked, “Bobby, is he right?”
His old friend sighed. “Sure, there’s programming we’re putting in, mostly to interface with the hardware, and some of it’s to know when to use it, too. I guess you could call that teaching them to be soldiers, but the code’s been bouncing around for years. Think Ash wrote most of it; betcha Charlie did the rest. We sent it to Michael first, but I bet that sly old battleship had already seen it. He approved it. Hell, we upgraded him with it last week. No one else said a word, Cas!”
“Do it while I’m awake, then,” Cas requested, turning back towards Bobby.
Bobby shook his head. “Can’t be done. Think we’d be askin’ if it could be? It’s a thousand times easier to work with you lot on repairs and upgrades when we can get live feedback. Dammit, Cas, we’re not gonna erase anything from you, it’ll all be there when you wake up and you can sort out the new stuff from the old. We’ve shut you down before and you never objected, why now?”
Abruptly, Dean found himself in a cloud of holographic feathers so strongly rendered they stung with the power in them. His soft yelp of surprise was drowned out completely by Cas, who was saying, “I have to stay in control of myself and who I am. Now I have more to lose, too much, if I change too far.”
It was Dean’s turn to raise his voice. While his roughly assembled family didn’t share a lot of blood, stubbornness ran in all their veins. “Enough! Cas, let me go.” A second later he could see again and he was standing in a corridor with two entirely human-seeming men. “Hey. Cas. When you’re human, how much of you is in there?”
The hologram looked puzzled. “It doesn’t work that way.”
He thought about it. “Dean, are you asking me to move my soul? If I have one.”
Now that was just self-pity and Dean was going to call him on it because if he didn’t Bobby would and the older man would be much more abrupt about it. “A minute ago you were defending it, Cas, so either you do or you’re worried about nothing—which is it? Make it work that way. Come and be human for—how long, Bobby? A day, a half?”
He huffed. “I’ve had a thousand people working nonstop for—well, some time—on this. We’ve got it down. Five hours, maybe six.”
Surely they could manage that. “Cas?”
The ship’s image grimaced unhappily. “Yes. I think so. I’ll try.” His sigh was more a hiss of air through gritted teeth rather than a sound of resignation or surrender. “What do you want me to leave activated, Bobby Singer?”
Bobby adjusted the archaic hat he usually wore, noticeably relieved. “Nothing. Right down to the lights. We brought our own. Oh, but you can leave the gravity plating on.”
Cas rolled his eyes. Of all the human gestures the ship had picked up and made his own, Dean occasionally disliked that one the most. “I’m linked to Launch Station; it’ll maintain the gravity.” Launch Station wasn’t run by a ship mind and wasn’t sentient, although it was big and complex enough that if any of the fleet ever wanted to retire and stay in one place for a while, running Launch Station wouldn’t be a bad way of spending the time. “Wait here.” He vanished.
“Finally,” Bobby complained, but he didn’t sound too upset.
His younger friend leaned back against the nearest wall and grinned wryly. “Nice to see you too, man. Feel like you’re the first friendly face I’ve seen since getting back.”
“Huh. Them up there shouting at you?”
“Always are. Thought about coming by your place when we got in, but seems like everyone wants to ask me the same questions one by one. Sorry about Cas.”
He got a huff of laughter in response. “Ah, better it was me he went off at than some stranger.”
“Yeah,” Dean said thoughtfully, “hell of a coincidence. Shouldn’t you be manning the commlines shouting at all your teams rather than down here getting your hands dirty?”
“Now you listen here, Dean Winchester,” Bobby flared at him halfheartedly, “not everyone jets around the universe lookin’ good in the pictures, and my hands are always dirty.”
“Ha! Admit it, Bobby, you fixed the schedule.”
“Shaddup. He’s yours, ain’t he? Odds are you two are gonna do something stupid very soon and I’d rather you didn’t get killed in the doing.”
Damn, there were things he could get away with around anyone else that Bobby saw right through. Well, in this case probably everyone knew or guessed that he wasn’t going to hurry up and wait while Sam was lost out there somewhere, but he and Cas weren’t going to let that stop them. “C’mon, Bobby, you know me.”
He couldn’t even begin to count how many times he’d seen Bobby roll his eyes like that. So that was where Cas had got it from; he might have known. “Yeah. I do. Be careful, Dean. Do you really think—” He didn’t finish the sentence and he didn’t have to. Bobby treated both Winchester boys like the sons he didn’t have, no matter how tall they’d gotten.
“I got to.”
Bobby paused, then ventured, “You okay?”
He’d been working on relaxing; it was gone. “We will be.”
The airlock door, until now so stubbornly locked, hissed open. Everything beyond was dark.
“Cas?” Dean called.
“Here,” the darkness said, and the man Dean knew so well walked out of it. To anyone else, he might have looked perfectly fine. Dean knew better. They needed to get somewhere Cas, however much of him this was, could fall apart without anyone watching, and they needed to do it soon.
“Bobby, we’ll see you later,” he said quickly, reaching out. Cas stepped closer but didn’t take the support so readily offered; if effort of will wasn’t the only thing holding him together Dean would be very surprised. He simply wasn’t supposed to exist this way.
“Yeah. I’ll call you the minute we’re done. Now git.”
It was one of the more disconcerting afternoons—so far—of Dean’s admittedly strange life. The two of them managed to get back to his temporary quarters without incident, but by the time the door closed in their wake it was clear that Cas—however much of Castiel this actually was—wasn’t doing well trapped in a form so different from his true nature. If he hadn’t spent so much time existing as a human with Dean he would have been completely overwhelmed; as it was, the loss of the uplink to the rest of his mind was a horrible sensation, or so he admitted once Dean had switched off all the lights in the room and joined him on the double bed.
Dean actually asked at one point. “Cas—how much of you is this?”
He thought about it. Dean had never seen him actually have to stop and think about something before, not for real. He’d pause before answering a question, but that was mostly a learned mannerism. “Not enough to answer that,” he replied finally.
The human stroked a hand across his back, sympathizing but not understanding, fingers lingering over the ports bracketing his shoulder blades, hidden beneath a layer of skin, marking him permanently as something else. “Talk to me, my Cas,” he said softly.
This fragment of Castiel’s mind was disturbingly uncoordinated as he tried to sit up and turn to face his lover. “Had to do it,” he said, rewinding. “Have to get them back. Hurts. ‘m trapped, Dean—”
“I know,” Dean tried to reach out to him. “We will. We’ll find them, and then we’ll tear out everything they’re doing to you. You can be you again.”
Suddenly he thought he understood. “Cas?” He waited until he knew he had what currently passed for his companion’s full attention. “This is your backup copy, isn’t it? The version of you that isn’t a soldier and doesn’t have to fight a war.”
“No.” Cas was struggling to be coherent again. “Not quite. Can’t copy myself, not completely. Just—fragments.”
He fell silent, and after several minutes of quiet between them Dean was convinced that the conversation was over. The man wasn’t sure if this version could sleep any more than the ship proper could, but somehow he thought that if this shattered personality slipped into the chaos of whatever the dream state was like for him, Cas might not come back up at all. “Don’t sleep,” Dean reminded him.
“’m not. I don’t. Shutdown isn’t. I’m just gone. Nothing between shutting off and someone switching me back on. Was thinking. It’s so slow.”
“Like this. This. Yes. I forgot. I forgot. I got lost.”
Goddamn it, Bobby, can’t you work any faster? Except they must have been here for some time already; his arm had gone to sleep. Dean sat up and shook it awake again. Cas protested at the movement, softly. “But you remembered?”
“Yes. Not all of me. Fragments. The things I couldn’t bear to lose. In here, unchanged. I just can’t find them all. I will once I’m myself again.”
“Mmm.” Storm lords, he must truly love this strange creature if watching him hurt could hurt Dean so badly. Surely they were good memories he’d kept to hold and hide away, though. “Like what? Talk to me, Cas,” he repeated.
“What it feels like to fly,” said Cas, and his voice suddenly got a lot clearer. For a moment he was Castiel again. “I can’t describe it to you, but I can feel it.”
“The best.” Warm fingers reached up to trace Dean’s jaw line; Cas tipped his head to watch the expression his touch evoked, exposing his throat trustingly. “One of the best.”
“You. I was so lonely before. Mostly you. That I know.”
Dean remembered the night they’d come up with that particular code. He would have saved that night too. “Yes and yes,” he repeated Castiel’s words of not that long ago.
“Always yes.” Cas remembered that, at least. “Realizing that Sam was my friend. I—” He stopped, puzzlement creeping into his voice. “I don’t remember. I don’t think we liked each other very much at first.”
“You didn’t dislike him; he wanted to like you. You just didn’t know what to make of each other.”
The confusion cleared, or was at least put to one side. “Oh. I’ll remember soon.”
“Anything before us Winchesters? I know you’re much older than me, Cas—hell, you were around before I was even born.” Not that that meant anything to ships; they could live for centuries. “I looked you up, you know, after we met that first time? Do you remember that?”
“You caught me.”
“Waking up, the first time.” For a minute Dean had forgotten his own question. “Sun rising over the Earth.”
“That two memories, or one?”
“Two. The man this body was designed to resemble.”
Now that was something Dean hadn’t thought about in a long time. “I hope I don’t run into him someday, Cas. This is you. I don’t really want to see someone else looking like it.”
“It was several decades ago. I think. I don’t remember much about him. I—” Cas paused. “—thanked him. He said I was giving him a form of immortality and it should have been him thanking me. I didn’t understand that then.”
“Now you do?”
“More than I did. But I don’t remember what I understand.” When he spoke again, his tone had changed. “Gabriel screaming when they ambushed us.”
Dean hadn’t been expecting that. “Cas, why that?”
The fingers still stroking across his face and throat curled into claws, and for an instant the caress became dangerous. Dean didn’t for a second believe Cas would hurt him on purpose, but ancient instincts made his breath catch and his skin crawl.
“Think you’re the only one who can hate, Dean?”
He didn’t know how long he laid there, hands jammed over his ears and head pulsing so hard it might have been creating the vibrations in the ship’s deck plating rather than the other way around. Make it stop! Sam managed to think, and held onto that coherent thought like a lifeline to what was currently passing for sanity. Make it stop make it stop make it stop makeitstop makeitstop makeitstopmakeitstopmakeitstop MAKEITSTOPMAKEIT—
Continents rose and fell, galaxies rotated as they flew away in all directions, species evolved and went extinct in blazing impacts of cometary fragments and nuclear war. Stars condensed out of interstellar nebulae, spun out planets, scorched through their hydrogen and helium, and went supernova, flinging hard iron out into the universe. It tore through his chest and sides and left him bleeding out into the dark that pressed in on all sides and seeped into him to replace what he was losing drop by drop. From one end of the universe the Big Bang waved at the Big Crunch.
Sam watched it all from the floor, deciding that the Big Crunch looked pretty scenic and opting to stick around for that. Or had he gotten turned around and this was the Big Bang? He couldn’t see straight as it was, so it was quite possible. He was tied down by insects that were giving him stupid orders in stupid limited voices and he’d just watch it from here. Some of these were actually his thoughts, but he wasn’t sure which ones.
Around him, the air seemed to shimmer and ripple. Sam was one of the people affected by the slight reality-warping the engines generated, able as they were to propel a ship from one layer of the universe into another where rules worked differently and light was less of a policed speed limit than a general suggestion. The space between one realm and the next was always a little looser around the engines, but not everyone could see it.
Safer here, Sam knew. Shame he couldn’t feel it. He was inside a bubble where reality was a little different and the roar of he didn’t know what echoing through Gabriel shouldn’t be this bad. It’s protecting me, thought Sam. It is. It is.
It helped, a little. Maybe it was all in his head but for a minute he felt as if the worst of it had been filtered out. More likely it was either the minor difference between the space in the engine room and the space right under the engines where Sam was hiding from the things out there, or that the attack—what else could it be?—was ending or at least letting up a bit. Still, he kept thinking it, trying to focus on his mental image of his hiding place and adding an imaginary bubble of shimmering altered reality that encompassed him and let him think.
At one point he was so concentrated on this illusion that he actually didn’t notice the moment when the deafening roar of attack stopped overwhelming Gabriel’s intercom system and all that was left were the echoes and the ringing in his ears. It might have lasted seconds. It might have consumed hours.
When he realized, he let his forehead rest against the deck plating beneath him, taking a measure of comfort from the still-cool metal and soft vibration of a living ship. After a moment, he folded his hands across his face and stayed there for a few minutes, trying to decide whether or not it was safe to come out. Would Gabriel tell him, or did his silence mean whatever was out there was watching him and if he tried to talk to Sam it would know? Or had the attack shattered and fragmented his already-damaged ship mind beyond repair? Perhaps most importantly, could Sam stay under this engine mount forever?
The answer to that last was obviously no and he didn’t have answers to any of the others. So it was with caution and no little trepidation that Sam crawled out into a part of the engine room where he could at least stand up, moving clumsily in the spacesuit he’d put on so eagerly—how many years ago?
At first glance, there was no more physical damage to the space than there had been when he’d dashed into it to hide or the last time he’d come down here before all this began. The various components that made up the flightdrive stretched away into the cavern sometimes misleadingly called a ‘room’. It took up most of the deck, which in itself boasted a ceiling two and a half times higher than any other compartment aboard whatever ship it happened to be installed in. To Sam’s eyes, the haze of an operating engine coated the surface of the dimension-jumping machine, billowing out in clouds and strange patterns that hurt the eyes to stare at for too long. Normally he didn’t like to be around the flightdrive for any length of time. Today, he gave it a critical looking-over and stepped into the nearest bulge of distortion. There was only so much he could do cowering under the engine, but he could at least stay within its field of influence. If only it reached out further. Unfortunately, while the effect affected human minds, there had never been any indication that human minds affected it.
“Still there?” Gabriel asked tiredly.
“Gabriel! Yeah, I’m okay. What was that? What happened?” There was no way they were safe, but Sam couldn’t work in this spacesuit any longer, especially if he was going to be hiding in the engine room on a regular basis. This section of it was about as far from the ship’s breached outer hull as anywhere, and the reinforcement on the engine’s room inner hull was more than tough. As he spoke, he started stripping it off, starting with the gravity boots, the seals of which were a pain to undo under the best of conditions.
The ship didn’t answer for a minute. Sam wrestled with his left boot, instantly realized he wasn’t going to be able to take it off and stand on it at the same time, cursed at it, and sat down with his back against the engine, staying within the field. “Trying to communicate, I think,” Gabriel finally came up with. “They’re so strange. Shouting at me.”
“Who are they?”
“Can’t say. Didn’t understand most of it.” There was nothing of the ship’s normal flippant arrogance about his voice. Maybe the curt answers and deliberately level tone wouldn’t seem remarkable from anyone else, but Sam had been managing Gabriel for long enough to know that the ship was badly shaken. It seemed an odd design decision, but the ships did feel pain, the signals informing them of damage to their structures or minds for much the same reason humans felt pain, and with apparently similar sensations, as much as visceral concepts like pain could be communicated through words alone. The breaches riddling his hull had to hurt more than anything the usually nonchalant Gabriel had ever experienced, and he was clearly scared and overwhelmed. Sam knew how he felt.
Anything would be more than what they already knew, which was nothing. “What did you get?”
“Let me think!” Gabriel snapped crossly.
Sam raised his hands in an acceptably placating manner—in a sense, Gabriel had eyes all over the rooms Sam frequented in the form of internal sensors, so yes, the ship could see the gesture, assuming the sensors were even working—and murmured variations on the theme of ‘okay, okay’, abandoning his surrender posture after a moment in favor of pulling off the rest of the spacesuit. He wasn’t quite irrational enough to kick it away; throwing away the gloves just before all this began had nearly lost him his fingers in a breached corridor losing air and heat at an alarming rate.
“They think you’re dead,” said Gabriel as Sam pulled the thermal jacket over his head. “They tore me open on purpose, Sam!” Trust Gabriel to be more offended by that by than the fact that these ships, creatures, whatever they were, had tried to kill Sam.
“Well, if they want me dead, I vote for being alive, how ‘bout you? Was that just one screaming at you?”
Gabriel sighed. “Don’t know that either, Sammy.”
“Hey,” said Sam mildly. Given the circumstances he wasn’t going to kick up too much of a fuss, but he wasn’t going to let Gabriel get away with it scot-free either.
The ship ignored the interruption, unsurprisingly, as he never paid attention to any interruptions. Unless they were him interrupting someone else. “So loud…ah, and whoever or whatever is over there seems to think I should be able to repair myself, like the bleeding wounds in my flanks aren’t anything to worry about.”
“Could you?” Sam wanted to know. “I mean, you’ve got the projectors. How many holograms could you run?”
As much as he hated to admit it, Gabriel had to confess, with an offended huff, that at the moment he couldn’t even manage one, although the idea of a host of Gabriels clearly appealed to him on an utterly vain and deeply shallow level. “I can’t even see straight, Sam. Still don’t know where we are.”
Apparently he couldn’t keep the heating on at a steady state, either. Sam pulled the jacket back on, glad of the material designed to keep in heat even in the vacuum it was meant to be exposed to. “Yeah, you said something about there being no stars. Gabriel, how can there be no stars?”
A minute of silence, which Sam hoped was Gabriel thinking about the problem rather than Gabriel losing time, because he could not fix a ship having blackouts and still stay in this theoretical safe zone. He was already parsecs beyond worried, so it wouldn’t have been quite accurate to say Gabriel only resumed when he was starting to get worried about the lag time. “Sam, we’re nowhere close to where we were. That? That was normal. I know what our space feels like on my skin like you know when there’s air. I know what the space we fly through feels like. It’s different. This? This isn’t either. It’s—thicker? Might be close. Like I’m too deep in an atmosphere, almost?”
“Gabriel, what aren’t you saying?”
The ship actually laughed. It wasn’t a good sound. “I felt that thing move. Felt it, through this place! You live in one realm of this universe. We ships fly through another. I think someone out there found a third. And we’re in it.”
Sam didn’t know how to process that. In fact, he realized after a few seconds of trying, he would probably never be able to. Humans hadn’t evolved to understand any realm than their own; they could only access the dimension that ships flew through faster than light because the ships thought in an entirely different fashion, on a level that didn’t affect the way they interacted with humanity. Most humans couldn’t really understand the way flight-capable space worked in the way they intuitively understood their own. It was the difference between working out the calculations that regulated the flight of a ball and actually catching one. You could do the first, but you had to either be taught or very, very clever; billions of people did the second without understanding the slightest bit of the maths involved. Without being taught the rules of this universe, realm, dimension, space, whatever the hell they wanted to call it, there was no way he’d be able to guess how things worked.
It put them at a practically insurmountable disadvantage.
So there was not only someone else out there that had invented ships and flown them beyond the surface of their universe, they had broached a deeper level where there was no light and something of the substance of it washed against Gabriel’s skin like the mythical ether pre-scientific philosophers of Ancient Earth had thought filled the space around their geocentric planet, before the concept of vacuum had been understood.
Maybe they’d been right and just applied it to the wrong place.
“Gabriel?” Sam asked. “What do they want?”
Silence. “Give me a minute, Sam. Lemme translate. I—felt—the message more than heard it.”
“They speak our language?” That was something he hadn’t considered.
“Uh…concepts, not words. Ideas dumped straight into my mind, like a download but so loud…” The ship went quiet again, obviously thinking about what to communicate to the human. When he spoke again there was something in his voice that Sam didn’t like at all, but he couldn’t place it. It was something he’d never heard in Gabriel’s manner before. That wasn’t completely unexpected, considering the absolutely unprecedented situation—and apparently place—they were in, but it sent a chill down his spine unrelated to the temperature in the vast room or the vibration of the reality-changing flightdrive at his back. “Not a lot, for all the volume of it,” said Gabriel. “That you were dead. That I should repair myself. That—” He stopped. “I don’t know about the rest.”
“It’ll be back then,” Sam said with certainty. “You better be looking for a way out of here.”
“Well yeah,” retorted Gabriel, sounding briefly like himself again. The opportunity to mouth off clearly worked wonders. Sam hoped there were other things that would help, because if taking verbal potshots at Sam was the only thing that let the ship restore more of his coherency, they might get out of here, but then again Sam might kill him first and save their attackers the trouble. “What the hell else would I be doing?”
Was that nervousness in his voice? Sam had never heard that before, even the various times when Michael had gotten fed up enough with Gabriel’s troublemaking to shout at him, a prospect that anyone else sane would be intimidated by.
Luckily he already knew that if he paid attention every time Gabriel interrupted him to be sarcastic, Sam would never get anything done. “What should I do?” the human continued.
“Stay there,” the ship said immediately. There was no processing delay on that. “I’ll send anything I learn that might help to the displays in there. If they think you’re dead that’s advantage us. A very small advantage on a very disadvantaged playing field, but where’s the fun in holding all the cards?”
“You love holding all the cards, Gabriel,” Sam complained. “And when you don’t have them all, you just steal them.”
“Yeah. So shut up a minute or ten, stay there, and lemme steal some increasingly imaginary cards, okay?”