Strange New Worlds

Appointment in Samarra


Sam was looking for his brother but he wasn’t in a hurry and he wasn’t trying very hard, either. It might have been more accurate to say that he was wandering through random areas of Launch Station with the vague intention of talking to Dean if he ran into him, since they hadn’t seen or talked to each other for nearly four days (an unfathomably long time by Winchester standards). Still, if something catastrophically bad had happened to him, someone would have told Sam by now, and he probably would have heard the shouting. So he was making a broad circle of the places Dean was most likely to be. Gabriel was in the process of being unrepentant for sabotaging the Europa simulation—something he had down to an art, both the sabotage and the lack of repentance—so their team had some downtime.

Eventually, and rather inevitably when he thought about it, he ended up at the practical end of Bobby’s domain: the multi-level, wide ranging, mistakenly-named shop floor, where things got designed, made, tested to their limits, remade, improved upon, and occasionally just plain broken. The place seemed to have only two settings—ghost town and complete chaos.

When it was in ghost town mode, it was a labyrinth of metal and materials in various shapes and stages of formation or destruction, restoration or damage; shelving and storage reaching sometimes all the way up to the ceiling, which was almost fifty meters high. Some of the components, materials, and tools stored towards the top had to be retrieved by transporter. Every footstep echoed a thousand times over until it sounded as if an invisible army followed in the visitor’s wake. Whatever lighting was left on created a shifting illusion of shadows that seemed to move with whoever was walking there.

Industrial-sized power tools, often of indeterminate function due to their size and likely immersion beneath a heap of projects and materials, gave the distinct impression of only waiting until your back was turned before they sneakily turned on to maul the unwary. The ship components, machines, and half-finished or completed projects left standing on the shop floor were worse, as they were usually unfamiliar in shape and often completely out of context. Depending on your mood, it was either a walk through a nightmare or the greatest hiding place on or above any world.

When Bobby’s shop floor was in use, it traded the illusion of danger for the fact of it.

Anything that had been left out and idle was probably now being carried from place to place, occasionally without a clear destination. Machines that had only threatened to whirr to life and destroy things now whirred nonstop, roared deafeningly, screamed at pitches unfriendly to human ears, and were fed some of the things being toted around, most of which made louder noises as they were chewed up and spat out in different forms. Metal roared into motion in one corner to cut into softer materials, and flowed in liquid fire in another to be reformed down the line as precisely calibrated pieces of machinery or specially designed tools for a particularly ingenious build. Laser devices performed even more intense precision work, from handheld tools to power-sapping things that needed almost everything else in the shop turned off or at least down to function.

People shouted at each other or chatted through their personal communicators, generally worn on or in the ear so that they could better use both hands to do their work. Periodically the shopwide public address system would boom out and declare something. Every so often it was hijacked by someone who thought it would be amusing to tease his or her coworkers in front of the couple of hundred or more people in range of the speakers, use a remote control he or she had designed to make the intercom play music from a hopefully safe and anonymous distance, make personal announcements, or try to rope everyone in the vicinity into singing “Happy Birthday” to some poor victim who happened to be a year older that day. Once Sam had been there when one of Bobby’s techs had used it to propose to her longtime sweetheart; the applause had actually been louder than the noise from the speakers.

Bobby generally managed to make himself heard above it all, partly because if your boss was yelling in such a dangerous environment you listened in case it was you doing something incredibly stupid and thus at risk of losing body parts and spending the next week in one of the station’s sickbays. There were several close by the shop ‘floor’—more like a very technically indoor field—for that very reason. The other reason everyone stopped to listen when Bobby started shouting was that if you looked around and it wasn’t you being yelled at, it was worth it to shut up and pay attention because it was likely to be hilarious as someone else ended up on the sharp end of the man’s attention. Despite Bobby’s griping, which seemed to be a hobby more than anything else, he was clearly in his element.

Effective soundproofing, a safe distance, and the less-than-amenable vacuum of space managed to keep them from bothering the rest of the enormous orbiting habitat, command post, and crossroads to the universe that was Launch Station.

Today the place was in full cry, and Sam knew better than to try to walk through it. He stayed by the door watching for a while until someone noticed him, recognized him as Bobby’s unmistakable very tall friend with the too-long hair in the jacket with patches that denoted him as a reconnaissance and exploration ship’s human partner in addition to those that identified him as Fleet personnel, and pointed him in the general direction of their boss’ last known location, adding a ‘looking for Bobby’ message to the cacophony bouncing around every available surface.

He survived the trip across the shop floor, eventually being directed to where Bobby was supervising the laser etching of an engine component that Sam knew was absolutely vital to the ability of the ship it was installed on to bring itself and its human crew back out of flight. Accordingly, he didn’t interrupt. It was an interesting spectacle anyway and he wasn’t, after all, in any rush.

“Lookin’ for that brother of yours?” were the first words out of Bobby’s mouth. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Try the junkyard.”

It was clearly too much of a madhouse around the shop to stay and chat, so Sam headed for an adjacent section of Bobby’s territory. While the shop floor was where things came to be used and made anew, the extensive cargo bay generally referred to as the junkyard was where things went to disappear. There was no semblance of order to the broken, outdated, incomprehensible, partial, or abandoned items that filled the bay and created towering and definitely unsafe heaps of assorted rubbish. It wasn’t quite as big, but it was definitely less crowded. Bobby’s crews threw things in here when they couldn’t fix them or didn’t know what they were and couldn’t turn them into anything else. They were very good at what they did, and there were a lot of them, so only a small percentage of the devices that made their way onto the floor ended up in the junkyard.

Some of it was theoretically salvageable. More of it would end up melted down for scrap metal.

“Hey, Dean, you in here?” Sam called once the door closed behind him and the sheer din of the shop floor had faded away a bit. His voice echoed, splintering off all the metal and bouncing off the distant back wall.

Somewhere in amidst all of it, Dean whooped, “Sammy! Come look at this!”

Aided by the occasional helpful “No, this way!” and “Over here!” and “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”, Sam managed to find his brother amidst the rubble spread out all over the floor. Some of it Dean had put there, he noticed, in the course of excavating…a shuttle?

“I have to have this,” Dean announced, grinning widely despite the grease smeared across his face and hair, hefty bruise developing on his left forearm, and scratches up and down his hands. “Look at this pretty baby, Sam! I will trade Bobby anything he wants, however many hours of grunt labor he needs me to fill in. See the—”

Sam tuned out most of the rest of his brother’s exaltation of the features of the old-model ground-to-orbit shuttlecraft as he managed to make all of its traits sound like virtues despite the modifications made since to similar designs expressly for the purpose of getting rid of some of those traits. It still had most of a black paint job, didn’t have any gaping holes in its hull, and might be capable of an interplanetary trip at cruising speeds as long as you didn’t try to make it do that more than once, all points in its favor. Also, even though Sam couldn’t see all of it due to the debris still burying the lower third or so of its hull, it clearly out-massed anything else it cared to try running down. The minutia of its engine function and historical pedigree didn’t thrill him quite the way that Dean seemed to be enjoying, but it was nice to see his brother so happy.

After a few minutes of effusive shuttlecraft-directed praise from Dean and the occasional ‘uh huh’ from Sam, the older Winchester brother wound up with “…so it would be a cryin’ shame to melt her down for scrap, right? No way Bobby would do that to this beauty, but he doesn’t have time to fix her, so think he’ll let me have it?”

His brother shrugged, grinning not at the many doubtless fine points of the shuttle but at Dean’s enthusiasm and a point he felt he simply had to make. “I think if you can get it out of here he’ll be impressed enough to let you take it the rest of the way.”

Dean punched at the air in triumph. “Great! Lemme just get my toolkit—” Half-muffled and with his upper half concealed beyond the shuttle’s hatch, his voice was still audible as “and I’ll go make nice ‘till he gives it to me.”

Now that was a perfect opportunity if Sam ever saw one. “Not terribly fair on Cas, is it, though? You being in love with this ship too.”

A series of clangs was probably the result of Dean dropping a wrench or other solid metal object unexpectedly; the rest were undoubtedly him trying to scramble around to gape at his younger brother. Whether his face was reddening because of anger, an impending flush, or just the effect of climbing around with his feet higher than his head Sam wasn’t sure, but in any case he’d gotten the result he’d been aiming for.

“I’m not having this conversation,” Dean declared after a few seconds of abortive spluttering that hadn’t quite made it to coherent speech.

Laughing at him might be temporarily amusing but it wouldn’t help any, so Sam made the mature decision not to. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know,” he pointed out. “You’re so damn in love it’s unbelievable.”

“Bitch,” said Dean from within the refuge of the black shuttle. Unsurprisingly, that was completely clear.

Sam ventured onto the mountain of discarded, broken rubble to deploy one of the expressions Dean always referred to as a bitch face. If he’d wanted Sam to stop doing it, he shouldn’t have kept letting it work. “And even if I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d still be able to see how happy you are. Jerk.”

“Shut up.” That was a little more muffled, as though his brother had his hands over his face.

“Besides, Cas is a terrible liar.”

“…True,” Dean admitted. And, after a few seconds, “Who knows?”

“Me,” Sam said, “obviously. Gabriel, because he’s not stupid and delights in watching other people so he knows what buttons to press.” Sam had noticed a change between his brother and Castiel sometime after, hmm…somewhere around planetfall on Dusty Sunday, although he’d been on the far side of tipsy when he’d gotten back to orbit from the ongoing party and hadn’t paid that much attention to anything for a while afterwards. Gabriel had actually mentioned it to his human counterpart with his typical tact and diplomacy. Sam wisely decided not to repeat Gabriel’s careful broaching of the subject (“Hey, Sammy, you know your brother’s screwing mine, yeah?”) to Dean. Ever.

“Bobby probably suspects something’s up but he might not know the details yet. Um…” Sam racked his memory for friends who knew them well enough. “Admiral Harvelle will find out ‘cause she’s clever like that. The woman sees everything.” And not only did absolutely no one ever screw with Ellen Harvelle, she made her own opinions independent of the idiotic comments of others, meaning that as long as Dean and Castiel did their jobs she wouldn’t care what they did on their own time out in the black. Even better, she was something like their direct supervisor so she’d control whether some official action was taken.

“You telling me Gabriel hasn’t blabbed to the whole fleet?” asked Dean skeptically, clambering out of the depths of his prospective shuttlecraft in order to give Sam his best corresponding skeptical look. “Like hell.”

Sam brushed off the skeptical look through long practice. “I think this might be one of the things they’ll talk about to each other but never, ever tell a human. I have no idea what the rest of their secret subjects are, but I bet this is probably one. I’ll also bet that half the fleet’s going to tease Castiel about you, but it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the way he acts around you. He’ll ignore them ‘cause you matter more.”

His brother looked everywhere but at Sam, trying to hide the look on his face without retreating back into the shuttlecraft like some grease-smeared love-struck grinning jack-in-the-box.

“Did you deliberately spring this on me now?” he finally settled on.

Sam shrugged. “You handed me an opening on a plate, Dean. If the situation was reversed, you’d have gone right at it too and never let up.”

That actually made him laugh. “Yeah, I woulda. Okay, that’s my limit of awkward mushiness for the day. Probably the week. Quite possibly the whole year. Let’s go wrangle a shuttlecraft outta Bobby.” He managed to get all the way out of his new toy and headed for the passageway that led to the main shop floor, calling back over his shoulder, “And I’m not—what you said.”

Sam decided that Dean was probably referring to the phrase so damn in love, considered the options, and rendered his professional brotherly opinion as, “Bullshit.”


When Castiel had agreed to shut down so that Bobby Singer and his tech crews could arm him, he’d downloaded a shadow of his personality and the memories he most prized into his human avatar and then—nothing. Only the complete blank of shutdown, without dreams or the sensation of time having passed, and the sharp disjoint of coming back to consciousness at the command of someone else. It was profoundly disorienting, to say the least.

Helpless, to say the worst. In that condition he couldn’t restart his mind, his self. He was gone. Human sleepers could wake themselves up in response to external stimuli or internal distress, and they could dream. For a ship, shutdown state was closer to being kept in a chemically induced medical coma, except that if whoever was administering the drugs stopped doing so the patient would eventually wake if he or she wasn’t extensively damaged. If no one woke Castiel he’d never wake up again. He wouldn’t even notice he was gone.

Some of his sensors told him that Bobby Singer was talking to him. He’d deal with that in a minute. Bobby would be happy to talk until then, and probably wouldn’t even notice the delay, although the man was uncomfortably perceptive at the most inconvenient times.

Part of his attention turned to checking over the software and coding that had been put into his mind, ready to use when necessary. Weapons specifications, operating protocols, rules and recommendations for working with a fleet. Orders to stay put and wait, which he intended to ignore primarily because he remembered intending to ignore them before this. A chain of command, unspecific about the schedule of implementation, unsurprisingly with Michael right at the top, which was nothing new.

All of it with corresponding devices retrofitted into his superstructure, horrible and unfamiliar and then instinctive as the programs wrote themselves into his active memory.

He was missing time and he wanted it back. Most of Castiel’s attention was on reestablishing the link to the avatar, and getting that time—and the memories that mattered to him more than anything else—back. As he was, he knew that he wanted those memories back and knew basically what they were, but he couldn’t feel them. His devotion to the Winchesters was there but hollow, without a foundation to rest upon; the passion and delight he took in Dean in particular a shell of what he knew it was meant to be. His resolve to defy the orders given him was still there because he knew that the plan had been to ignore them, but he couldn’t feel why it was so important.

The connection was always there. He reached along it, reestablishing the active link and instantly becoming that person as the fragment was reintegrated into the whole.

Memories both old and new flooded back into him, those that made up who he was deep within and those created as the man had suffered through the handful of hours between download, disconnect, and reconnection.

The dizziness of lying in the dark without properly knowing where he was, feeling Launch Station rotate beneath him and knowing he couldn’t possibly be feeling it. Uncertainty, distressing and bone-deep. Lost, knowing things without knowing how he knew them or what they meant.

The taste of fear and growing panic in the back of his throat, overwhelming and poisonous.

Familiar hands across his shoulder blades, the small of his back, the nape of his neck. Fingers combing through his hair, too gently. Dean, holding him not to keep him from flying but keeping that center. Oh. Not lost after all. The absolute truth, for once, of the thought of yes, this is me.

Soft words in the darkness in a voice he knew and loved and needed so intensely. Need without context, without knowledge, nothing more or less than the inescapable pull of gravity and the possessiveness of an animal. This one is mine and I his and if I should lose you, my love, who am I?

The man lying in Dean’s lap twisted involuntarily as his memories were absorbed and the full force of the ship’s mind took control, two temporarily broken-apart aspects of the same person becoming one again. By the time Dean had reacted, crying out “Cas?” in concern and distress, it was over and Castiel was back.

“It’s all right, Dean,” he said softly, through the person who was him again. Physical sensations flowed in, a lower priority than the memories but still important; a drug to which he had become accustomed, probably too much so. The man sighed, tipping his head back against his lover’s chest. Dean’s heart was going far too fast. Castiel could hear it echoing through his skull. “It’s me.”

“Dammit, Cas!” Dean snapped, an all-purpose reaction so familiar Cas couldn’t help but smile very slightly. “You were practically raving for a few minutes there, and then—! Don’t do that again!”

“Given the choice, I would rather not.” Castiel accessed the most recent memories that patchily filled in the missing time. Somewhere along the line he should really get around to answering Bobby, except he hadn’t been listening to the last few seconds in favor of paying attention to Dean.

(Aboard the ship proper, Bobby was told, distractedly, “I’m talking to Dean, Bobby. One minute.” Bobby wasn’t really all that surprised.)

“I don’t really know what you were talking about towards the end,” Dean was still saying. “Think you were trying to tell me what it felt like to fly with a fleet, although there was something about bumblebees in there, so that might not have been it at all. I was just trying to keep you talking.”

Castiel had found the mental recording. Dean had done very well indeed to get that much out of all around and see me see you leap and soar like atoms. They don’t bounce, Dean. Like bees. Glance and brush but can’t touch, so close. Like all of us. Just you just you. And the brush of fingers between and across his lover’s hands, dwelling on the tiny details of the scars Dean had incurred over the years and Castiel hadn’t been able to heal completely.

“I think that is what I meant,” he said reflectively, and then fondly, “You always understand me.”

“Most of the time you make sense. Or I know you’re trying to make sense and I just don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m guessing Bobby and his minions are done with you?”

In fact, they were all gone, except for Bobby, who was— “Yes, they—stop that,” he accidentally said in both places.

“Huh?” said Dean, who was clearly ready to challenge Castiel’s assertion that the human always understood him.

“How else am I supposed to get your attention you’re too busy talkin’ to your boyfriend over there?” Bobby snapped back at him, swiping the wrench he’d used to knock an echoing pattern through Castiel’s hull through the air, obviously threatening to hit him again if need be. It didn’t hurt, but the feeling was uninvited and unwelcome.

“Not you. Bobby is growling at me,” Cas told Dean, and simultaneously snapped back at Bobby, “Do not do that. What do you want?” It didn’t bother him to be holding two conversations at once; the ship was perfectly capable of multitasking to a much higher degree. It was very rare indeed that he consciously felt overloaded, simply because most of the things he did weren’t terribly complicated, at least for him. The initial attack by the unknown ships that had taken Gabriel and Sam had been overwhelming and terrifying, all but incomprehensible at first and then unbelievable. Conversations with humans he didn’t know well were often confusing because learning the pattern of each person’s thoughts and speech and trying to compensate for their innate unpredictability also required more of his attention. Castiel was not really willing to admit that he often didn’t try very hard; Dean would generally know how to translate the important things for him and anything unimportant didn’t need to be understood.

On the other hand, talking to and living with Dean usually got what was essentially his full attention because those actions were so important to him, and some stimuli were so intense that he genuinely couldn’t consciously concentrate on anything else, because the human body he inhabited so often was as sensitive as any other.

“I’m tellin’ you we’ve done a fantastic job in record time and you’re welcome,” Bobby said sarcastically. He was good at that, Castiel noted. Not for the first time. “I was also warning you that Ellen’s lookin’ for the two of you and she’s probably gonna find you before you can avoid her. Don’t try, you hear me? She’ll just be mad when she does track you two down. Anyway, I told her where you were.”

“I will tell Dean,” Castiel told him. And, as soon as he’d promised to, did so.

“What’s she want?” Dean wanted to know. Castiel didn’t think it was an unreasonable question. Bobby disagreed when it was relayed to him.

“She’s your boss. I know neither of you get the concept, but you’re lucky it’s her, so whatever she wants, listen to the woman, got me?”

“Dean says yes sir. But I do not believe he meant it.”

Bobby laughed, so he must have misunderstood something. Dean would explain it to him, as it didn’t require either of them moving.

Still, the prospect of their boss showing up sometime soon was enough to get them out of bed, at least. While they both had all their clothes on and Cas had been in no shape to do anything more than be held, it didn’t look terribly professional to be found sprawled across a bed together in the dark.

By the time Ellen Harvelle arrived at Dean’s rooms, the man in question was innocently eating whatever meal of the day this was. He’d lost track of the time of day, especially as time of day on Launch Station was more a matter of consensus than observable reality. While Cas didn’t need to eat, he was sitting in the chair across from Dean’s, occasionally snatching off the plate fragments that caught his interest and might take the taste of panic away. It was an old habit of his and Dean had long since stopped bothering telling him to stop, especially as he didn’t actually mind. It was as close as they ever came to sharing a meal together and he’d grown to rather enjoy it over the years.

The knock at the door was more of a two-second warning than a request for admittance. As one of the admirals of the Fleet stationed at Launch Station, Ellen had the right to go wherever she wanted without warning. The computer passkey wrapped around her left wrist in disguise as a bracelet let her in without having to wait for either Dean or Cas to open the door or tell the non-sentient station computer to do the same.

“Admiral,” Cas greeted her quietly, glad to have all his memories back in place and telling him that the woman was on what Dean would probably label as ‘our side’.

“Hi,” Dean added much less formally, but in more overtly friendly tone. “Care to join me?”

“Whatever I want, don’t get it for me,” she commented wryly. “You’re just a stop on my way to a meeting and they’ll growl if I smell like spirits. Coffee, then.”

He fetched her coffee and the various things she’d need to flavor it to taste. She didn’t bother, eyeing them both over the top of the mug with a gaze that suggested it saw everything.

They both tried to look innocent, doubtless a confession in itself.

“Thought so,” she said, a shade smugly. “What are the odds you two are going to sit still and wait for everyone else to move?”

Castiel wasn’t very good at rhetorical questions, so he let Dean answer that one, with, as it happened, “That depends. How fast are they moving?”

She rolled her eyes, a gesture clearly as contagious as the still-common cold around here. “Not fast enough for you, I’ll wager. Don’t bother, Dean!”

He’d opened his mouth to contradict her. He closed it again. As a child, he’d been Mom to Sam more than he’d actually had one of his own, and being mommed was always unfamiliar and disturbing. Ellen was good at it. Her Jo was out with the Fleet somewhere aboard one of the ships that hadn’t gone missing, although they’d likely been called back by now.

“Here,” she said, pulling a datapad out of her jacket pocket and sliding it across the table to Dean. “You’ll need this.”

He picked it up, looked over the first few pages, didn’t understand a word of it, and handed it to Cas, who paged through it with much more interest. “What is it?”

“Our scans of the discontinuity Gabriel and I encountered two days before the attack,” Cas answered for her.

“No, it’s not, Castiel. Pay attention.” She took it back from him, ran it back to the first screen, and pointed to the time-and-date stamp.

He looked puzzled, tipping his head to one side to stare at her with the maximum amount of bafflement. “These scans are nearly six months old.” A little more than a month into their slowly developing friendship, Dean had told him that if he kept up the absolute precision of a ship that could calculate beyond the second how long ago something was, the human would take some unspecified revenge. By that point, Castiel had already figured out that he meant it, and that he would have come up with something insane, creative, and unpleasant. Probably.

“And from coordinates a couple thousand light-years away from where you were when you ran over yours,” Ellen added. She passed the datapad back; Cas tore into it with the fervor and haste of a being used to taking in data at a much faster rate than reading. The admiral rubbed her eyes tiredly and drank more coffee. “Remiel sent us these shortly before he vanished. It was mixed in with months’ worth of observations and data and no one thought it was important until now. He’d gone looking for anomalies and had found plenty of them so there was nothing to distinguish this—discontinuity, you were calling it—from anything else.”

Dean interrupted. “Wait, wait, wait. Are you tellin’ me that other ships encountered this thing or whatever it is? Right before they went missing?”

“No, I’m telling you that one ship did, and he was looking for things like this. And we sent a ship out there to check on the area he vanished from, once we figured out he was gone, which took a while. Remiel never bothered to keep in touch on a regular basis.”

She seemed to become aware of the past tense she was using and the effect the unconscious choice was having on Dean, whose baby brother was probably in a similar situation, and continued, “And Balthazar didn’t find anything like it, so we assumed the data was scrambled, especially when others looked it over and they managed to decode almost everything else he sent back to us. All strange and very interesting, but we could explain them. There wasn’t a connection with that until your team ran into it too. Now it’s the only thing we can find in common. Hell, maybe the others saw it too, but we never heard anything more from them.”

“This makes no sense,” Cas complained, still reading. “These readings are completely contradictory.”

She grinned at him without much humor. “That’s what I just said, Cas.” Most of Dean’s friends had picked up the nickname. For Dean’s benefit, she explained, “I don’t have the degree in higher spatial mathematics or whatever needed to understand it myself, but I’m told it looks like the space he just called a ‘discontinuity’ really is discontinuous, from the rest of space. Maybe even the rest of our universe. Light doesn’t travel through it in the same way. Time might not work the same way in that space. Hell, space probably doesn’t even work the same way ours does. Assuming we’re reading it the right way, and we’ve got some clever people working on it, most of ‘em ships.”

Unsurprisingly, Dean seized on only part of that. “Time? You mean, if that’s where those ships came from and if that’s where Sam and Gabriel have gone, time could be runnin’ different for them?”

Cas still wasn’t happy with the data he’d been given. “Too many conditionals,” he warned Dean.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” his partner brushed it off. “Ellen?” For all she was an Admiral within the Fleet, Ellen didn’t insist too strongly on formality between her and the teams she supervised, possibly because she kept being given the mavericks and hard cases. Possibly she kept being given the hard cases because she put up with them. Maybe the other admirals just fired all the ones they ended up with.

“Something like that,” she agreed with the man, “although whether it’s running faster or slower for them I can’t say. No one can say, or it’d be on that.” Her gesture at the datapad was unnecessary and perfunctory.

It wasn’t great news, but at least it was news. “So you do think Sam and Gabriel are in there!”

She sighed. “Wish I could tell you for sure. But Castiel says they weren’t destroyed, right Cas?”

Castiel had been reassuring Dean on this point for days now, but he repeated, “I would have known.”

“And they were gone when he looked, so—”

That he hadn’t mentioned. “Cas?” Dean said. “You did what?”

“You were still unconscious,” the ship’s avatar pointed out. “And then you were upset with me. And then we were returning here.”

“You went back and looked for them?”

“I stopped and scanned for them,” he corrected. “I didn’t go back.”

Oh. Still. And Dean said so.

Ellen let them be—for a few seconds. “A-hem,” she broke in. “Look, everything we know is on that datapad, and there’s a lot on there for all we can’t say very much. Take it with you.”

“Take—” Dean started.

“Right, like you’re not planning to take off and find your brother. Like hell, Dean Winchester.”

She was right and there wasn’t much point in denying it. Did everyone know?

“I don’t know what that thing, place, whatever, is,” she told both of them. “Go find out, grab Sam while you’re there, and come back and tell me about it. You can even bring that insufferable trickster Gabriel with you if you want, although I would understand completely if you left him out in the black. There’s a lot going on, so if you go now you might get a few hours head start—at best. So go now.” She pulled another datapad out of another pocket but kept hold of it, switching the screen on. “You haven’t been here long enough to resupply but I happen to know there’s a cache of not-quite-basic supplies here.” Cas tilted his head to look at the screen, and nodded. “Fetch,” she told him, earning herself a baffled and slightly offended look in return.

Dean shoveled the remains of his meal into the food replicator and didn’t stop to watch it disappear. “Thank you,” he said determinedly. “We owe you, Ellen.”

Cas wasn’t very free with touch with anyone who wasn’t Dean, so when he reached out to brush his fingers across the back of her hand in thanks, Dean, at least, understood how sincerely he meant it. Apparently Ellen did too.

“That’s actually you, isn’t it?” she said to him, a little ambiguously. She glanced over at Dean, who had moved from clearing the table to grabbing his Fleet jacket off the back of a chair where he’d thrown it and the bag he’d inherited from his dad out from under the bed where he’d kicked it. (The duct tape keeping it in one piece had survived yet another round of such abuse but could probably do with another layer at some point.) Ellen refrained from commenting, putting her on a very short list of people with such self-control.

“Good luck, you two,” she settled for, rising from her chair and heading for the door. “Try not to get killed, all right? I gotta have someone around to turn Henricksen that special shade of puce only you can invoke, Dean.”

Departing Launch Station was easy. It all fell apart from there.

Everything Ellen and her crews had stashed away for them was where she’d told them it was, and Castiel transported it aboard without a problem. They’d dig through it on the way out and figure out what exactly she’d found, but for the moment they needed to leave. Now. And it was about time, Dean added.

Disoriented and fragmented, sprawled helplessly in his lap in the dark, Cas had told Dean that the sensation of being in flight was one of the best feelings he’d ever experienced. Not knowing what that felt like, Dean would have said that the action of doing something, not turning and running and waiting for others to tell them what to do but taking action and running towards a problem, not away, was somewhere on the list.

Running back to Launch Station and Earth, he had felt as if there were something deep in his gut clawing at him, desperate to get out and fight and hunt down the creatures that had taken, had hurt his little brother. Some barbed-wire bond between the two of them, perhaps. Some monster all his own that only woke up angry.

Whatever it was, Dean felt as if every sense he possessed was humming in angry, hungry sympathy with the faint but familiar vibrations of Castiel accelerating away from the busy neighborhood of Launch Station so they could jump into flight and head back to the battlefield, on their own time. This was their family gone missing, and doing something about it felt good.

Despite how populated the area around Launch Station felt, especially with Earth and the Moon looming just off to their respective sides, he knew it was an advantage. If they were going to sneak away quietly (or at least get away quietly; it didn’t really matter how many ships and other people saw them go, especially if they decided to follow. Backup might be nice at some point, and as for intercepting them, Dean knew his Castiel could outfly anything else in the black) then the more stuff in the sky the better. Between the chatter of ships and the interference from satellites both natural and artificial, they were just one more light in the sky among many.

“Ready when you are,” Dean said softly. They were back in the Control Room, just where they’d been when they’d arrived in-system, Castiel’s human body back in the life-support chair, Dean at his side.

“One moment,” his partner replied in a similar tone. The man in the chair was essentially unconscious; the voice was the ship himself and came from the intercom system. Dean didn’t need to be here, but he preferred the apparent proximity.

A moment passed while a scanner turned in another direction or one of Castiel’s siblings finished saying something to him. And then—

“Ready,” said Castiel. Dean braced himself for the transition to flight, hearing power build around him and crackle through the ship’s frame.

The split-second sensation of movement, of launch from one level to another, built to critical levels as massive engines roared, and then—

They went nowhere, and Castiel screamed.

Power ricocheted through him, frustrated and furious, as the whiplash of an aborted jump to flight cracked across Castiel’s mind and body, an instantaneous transition from launch to crash. It hurt, and it was impossible, and it was happening, and it felt as though he’d been slapped down into the surface of a planet by something impossibly powerful, its gravity crushing him.

Castiel was only distantly aware of crying out in pain. He was too preoccupied with the fist that had clenched itself around his mind and heart. New subroutines cut into his thoughts, aborting the launch and tripping traps that bit into him and pinned him down, punishing disobedience and his defiance of the orders planted in his mind to stay with the fleet in an organized manner and obey—

Michael’s voice roared through him, almost physical in its force and fury.

THINK YOU CAN LIE TO ME, CASTIEL? Michael demanded, transmitting across the distance. Castiel didn’t even know where his oldest brother was; it felt as if the command ship—his commander, the knowledge written straight into his brain said, obey him!—was right there. THINK YOU CAN RUN?

Programming installed in all innocence kicked in, triggered by Michael’s command. Intricate and brilliant, precisely calibrated. Castiel didn’t want to believe that humans could have, would have done this, but he didn’t want to believe that his siblings—no, that Michael—would have done it either. Somewhere, Michael had complete control, so perfect it was if that fist was flexing around him, relaxing its grip in places and letting the power leak out to scorch him before gripping tightly again, a hunter digging in its claws to draw as much blood as possible.

RETURN, Michael demanded. OBEY!

No, no, no! Castiel didn’t think, as much as he could think, he’d managed to communicate that. It was an unheard and mute defiance at best, and Michael wasn’t exactly taking no for an answer.

WE WILL TAKE HIM FROM YOU, his older brother threatened. It wasn’t even a threat. It was a promise. What Michael wanted, Michael got. YOU WERE MEANT TO CONTROL HIM. YOU FAILED.

On some level, Castiel had always known that the elements in the Fleet that had put him and Dean together had meant his personality and Dean’s to cancel each other out, taming a man who had already, even in training, been more trouble than he might actually be worth. Only the sheer potential the Winchesters held had kept them from being sent back to the masses of grounded humanity rather than being turned loose on the universe with the wings of ships to carry them. Castiel had rescued Dean, that first time deep beneath the surface of a moon, because something about the man had called to him. Whether it was something familiar or something attractively different, he hadn’t known at the time; hadn’t really understood what had been behind the impulse to reach out and snatch him as he fell.

The Fleet had seen possibility in it and when Castiel had stayed interested in the brash cadet they’d been kept together. They liked to balance people in just such a fashion, as it worked so well; Sam’s patience and intelligence was a check on Gabriel for much the same reasons. Castiel was meant to tame Dean; if Dean had managed to draw out the standoffish Castiel the Fleet would have considered it a fringe benefit.

He did not need to be reminded of it like this.

YOU HAVE LET HIM CORRUPT YOU, Michael roared, the enormous ship’s will tightening around him. STAND DOWN OR I WILL TAKE HIM AWAY FROM YOU. DEFY ME AND YOU ARE LOST.

Castiel had to obey. Involuntarily, he could feel the engines that propelled him through space and into flight powering down, commanded by the programming written into him rather than his own conscious mind. Corrupted he was, Michael was all too right about that, but not by Dean, never by him.

Somewhere on the edge of his awareness, he knew that Dean was crouched by the chair that held his human vessel, wavering between focusing on the man convulsing and crying out in an unbroken, breathless, impossible keen of pain and confusion that matched the sound shrieking through the intercom system and helplessly at the ceiling of the room around him, knowing it was the ship and not the man who was hurting.

Seconds passed, agonizingly, as Dean shouted, “Cas! Cas, what’s happening? We’re stalled!” Of course, of course, he knew the feeling of it, could hear engines whining up towards and down from their yet-untested full power in dizzying and damaged ricochets. The command ship was holding him in place with force of will and treachery and a voice he had to obey, using the trapped power from the engines to hurt him, to chain him down.

Michael was stronger than him, overwhelmingly so, and the commands were part of him now. Castiel could no more defy him than Dean could stop breathing. They’d both hurt themselves trying, and involuntary control would take over.

A thought drifted past amidst the hurt and betrayal, and Castiel slipped loose of Michael’s grip for a split-second to grab for it. Consciously, he had to listen to his older brother’s voice. He had only the barest chance, hanging on trust and devotion.

“Cas, what’s going on?” Dean was still shouting, too slowly. “What can I do?”

You can listen, my love, thought Castiel desperately, on the edge of Michael’s ongoing tirade and the ship’s death grip on his heart. He cut off his own screams, letting some of Michael’s voice through the intercom, slowed down and filtered for Dean’s benefit. You can understand. You always do. Please— Metaphorically, he took advantage of a tiny gap in Michael’s control to speak through his human self. He couldn’t manage much. Just a tiny clue, so insignificant and disguised that Michael might let it pass.

“Don’t ask,” he managed to whisper as the man Dean called Cas, who shared his bed and ate off his plate and loved him, beneath the ship’s terrible cries and Michael’s furious roar, hoping desperately, praying to anyone who would listen, their creator, Dean’s storm lords, anyone at all, that Dean would understand. You always understand me, he’d said. “Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask don’t ask—” He wasn’t sure if he was putting the emphasis in the right place to send the message he wanted to, if he was saying what he meant to say. He didn’t even know if the syllables were coming out in the right order. It was all he could manage as it was, the best he could do.

The corruption, the commands, were forcing him to obey. Power redirected from the engines humming downwards to shutdown to lash through his body and mind like a whip, like chains. No, no! You don’t control me, I won’t let you! We won’t let you! Dean—

Castiel wasn’t there with him, not watching as he almost always was, so he didn’t see the moment when Dean understood. But he felt the effect of that understanding, because the man he loved leapt to his feet from where he’d been crouching at the human vessel’s side to listen, and shouted—

Castiel! Listen to me! Take off! Jump now! Listen to my voice, not his! Obey me!” Desperation, and there was the edge of a sob bitten back in it, because his next words were all but unforgiveable. Castiel forgave him instantly, but if he failed, would Dean understand?

“If you love me, Castiel!”

Dean’s voice cut into him, into the core of his self and his memories, set aside and protected, uncorrupted and his, untouchable and fundamental, as Michael’s grip flayed his resistance away, through the layers of his mind.

Instinct and need and love took over, that diamond core tearing through his older brother’s control.

Flight and freedom, and it hurt.

Castiel fled. He could feel his engines singing through him properly again, power and energy running through their accustomed channels, but he didn’t want to. Too recent, too fresh.

He set their course and held a furious and frightened speed away, locked the settings, and then fled even that.

It was to his human self he fled to most of all, the vulnerable but unmarked body over his true one, to be held and loved and understood.

Darkness unknown before them; darkness too familiar behind. And Dean’s arms around him, strong and solid and his, as he howled in fury and betrayal.

Somewhere Else:

As far as Sam was concerned, he’d been where he was for less than a day. He might have lost some time in between being yanked out of his own universe and into this one, which had knocked him unconscious and in agony both, and certainly Gabriel had been losing time now and again, almost imperceptible except to someone familiar with the ship’s rhythm of bait and rejoinder mixed in with actual information and communication, but they both would have estimated the time since they’d seen real stars at twenty-four Earth hours or less.

The ship had managed to send him the fragmentary images he’d gotten while they were still in their home space, and Sam was curled up within his theoretically safe bubble of engine-generated space distortion looking them over and occasionally making comments. Whether they were actually meant to be informative or just a way to listen to the sound of his own voice as he thought aloud didn’t matter much to Sam, and when Gabriel was listening it was a victory just to get a response, any response.

“Where could they have come from?” he was wondering now. Gabriel’s scans were understandably even more distorted than those his little brother Castiel had managed to get and show to Dean, light-years away and completely out of sync with them. Nevertheless, Sam had almost immediately spotted the similarities, in amidst the static and the interference and the panic, between his familiar Fleet and the ships that had attacked Gabriel. “There’s no one else out here,” continued Sam aloud. “Just you and us. Humanity. Earth’s children. That’s both of us, you know.” Sometimes the usually smart-mouthed ship answered. More often he didn’t, testing Sam’s capacity for worry even further.

There were just too many things to panic about all at once. For the moment, he was concentrating on the ones he stood a chance of doing something about. If Dean and Castiel weren’t here then there was nothing he could do, Sam kept telling himself in the middle of unrelated thoughts. He trusted them to look after themselves and each other. His big brother was a fighter and a survivor and Castiel was just as stubborn, matching Dean push for shove. He’d have to trust them now.

“No one out there,” Gabriel corrected him unexpectedly. “We’ve no clue what’s in here.”

Gabriel had been drifting out of contact, and whether he was losing time, trying to repair himself like their enemies seemed to think he should be doing, or listening in on whatever messages he might be sent or could eavesdrop on, Sam didn’t know. He wasn’t about to pass up the chance for a conversation, though. “They might not even live here,” Sam tossed out, hoping to engage Gabriel’s attention long enough to keep him focused. “They could just travel through here. How could there be a speed of light to limit a ship in a realm with no light?”

He got huffed at, a sound Gabriel sometimes made when he thought Sam (or, more often, Dean) was being particularly and probably deliberately stupid. “We’re not moving, Sam. And the one that shouted at me came to a stop. I felt it.”

“Okay.” Sam had never let a complete contradiction stop him and he wasn’t about to start now. “So they might have been developed here. Then why would they look like our Fleet? Sort of,” he amended, looking back over the scans. Dean would have agreed with his assessment of ‘melted’. “It’s like someone took a lot of pictures of us—well, you and your siblings—”

Gabriel muttered something about the insanity and sheer ugliness of the idea of human-shaped starships anyway, but Sam didn’t bother listening.

“—and then made them wrong anyway. Added a lot of weapons, at least I assume these are weapons ports based on what they did to you, and then—” Sam thought it over, trying to come up with a metaphor. “If I was going to design a ship, I’d start with something I could push around and reshape. Clay, maybe. These look like someone modeled them in clay, squashed them in random directions for a bit, and decided to make them in full scale like that after all. But why would anyone do that?”

The ship didn’t reply, although that could have been just because Gabriel didn’t have an answer for him and was tired of finding new and improved ways to say “I don’t know.” Maybe he was tired of Sam’s speculations.

“We don’t have any answers, do we?” Sam asked rhetorically. “Or a lot of options.” Without knowing more about what kind of being was aboard those ships or what forces and impulses were controlling them, they couldn’t even guess when one might come back and shout demands at Gabriel again.

He resolved to find one of the few options they did have and take it. After a minute, he called, “Gabriel? Pay attention to me for a minute.”

“Needy brat,” Gabriel grumbled halfheartedly. “What?”

“Whoever or whatever spoke to you thought you could repair yourself, right?”

“Yeah. So?”

Oh, to be doing something—anything—rather than sit by this engine and glare at screens. And if he did something else for a while maybe he’d have an idea while his conscious mind worked on something else and let his subconscious mind chew things over in peace. “So I assume we’re—or you are, since they don’t know I’m alive—going to be a good little prisoner while we get our bearings. Are we being watched right now?”

The ship was following his train of thought, if a bit belatedly. “I’ll look. If that’s the right word in a space with no light. You want to fake the repairs.”

“Right. Well, they’ll be real repairs, if probably a bit slipshod, and if they think you’re doing as you’re told then that’s just a bonus. I said you needed me to fix you up. Idiot.”

“Next time I’ll let you stand on the edge of empty space and get spotted by psychotic enemy ships,” retorted Gabriel, mostly insincerely.

Sam was already ignoring him. He’d activated the air compressor built into his spacesuit almost as soon as he’d climbed out of it, telling it to refill its air supply from the air available in the room. If there was an unknown leak somewhere, which was a very real possibility considering all the known leaks around, Sam wanted as much of the air as possible to be where he was. While he was at it, he tagged that thought for further consideration. There were spare spacesuits on one of the decks he didn’t happen to be on. Accidents happened to them, and homemade patch jobs were not recommended for spacesuits, which had to be absolutely airtight. Half-assed field repairs wouldn’t do it for more than a few minutes. Maybe an hour if it was somewhat more than half-assed, but three-quarters-assed wasn’t really a phrase.

“There’s nothing,” the ship reported as Sam was struggling back into the suit. “I can’t explain how I know. But I checked.”

“Can your sensors reconfigure themselves to work here?” Sam asked, slightly muffled by the treated fabric.

There was a very long pause, which Sam hoped was the ship taking a little too long to answer a fairly simple question because he wanted to get it right rather than the ship losing time. When Gabriel resumed, as nonchalantly as if he’d never left, Sam could hear the shrug in the trickster’s voice. “Guess so. I’ll put looking into that way at the bottom of my list of priorities, shall I?”

“You’ve got a list?”

“No. But if I did, ‘make a list’ would be at the top. It’s not a list if there’s only one thing on it.”

“Very funny. You know, getting into this thing and checking it over was a lot easier with a second pair of hands, Gabriel. You put together enough to materialize and help me out here so I can go patch up your hull or what?” Some of the seals and connections that laced the suit together and allowed it to run smoothly as a pressure-sealed airtight unit were less than easily accessible, mostly because the most efficient place to put a significant mass on a human that they were expected to move, gravity or not, was between the shoulder blades. A difficult spot to reach at the best of times, most people would agree, and the bulk of the spacesuit didn’t help.

Dammit, it would be a lot easier if I could reach that cord! Sam thought, groping over his shoulder for a connection that would link the assembled parts of the suit to one of the compressed air tanks. It was just out of reach—

And then it wasn’t, as his flailing hand caught a connector that he could have sworn had been beyond his grasp a second ago.

Well, with Gabriel and his aforementioned second pair of hands out of commission, apparently, Sam wasn’t going to complain. He finished linking the various suit components together and checked the seals he could see.

“Switch on the computer,” Gabriel suggested. “I’m not up to puppeteering a hologram around, but I can monitor the suit. If it’s damaged I’ll be able to tell you.”

Accordingly, Sam clicked on the simple onboard computer, which was barely anything more than a status monitor mixed together with a communicator. There were more complicated alarm clocks, although Sam hadn’t had to use one of those for most of his life. He’d shared space with Dean for years, and his brother rarely slept for more than five hours at a time. And Gabriel got bored far too quickly to let Sam sleep in for as long as he wanted to.

“Coast still clear?” he checked before leaving the relative safety of the engine complex.

Gabriel actually sounded offended, like he thought Sam might be insinuating something like a lack of trust. “I’d tell you. Think I’m gonna let down my guard with those ships and I don’t know what in the dark out there? Get a move on. This was your plan.”

With Gabriel watching the dark skies and his air supply both, Sam occupied his thoughts with the practical aspects of how he was going to patch up the gaping wounds in his ship’s hull. There were welding tools to repair hairline fractures and even minor breaches in his basic toolkit, which he thought he’d left somewhere inconvenient like his quarters. Ships were built tough, but something small and solid could hurt them if they hit it just wrong, and while debris fields like the one they’d been exploring at the beginning of this ordeal were rare, more than one ship had dipped in too close to a particularly intriguing ring system and been blindsided by a chunk of rock or ice on a rogue trajectory between the gravities of the planet and whatever moons were complicating things.

“Can you access whatever lists you are keeping? Of inventory, preferably?” Sam asked the intercom, thinking out loud. “Look for sheets of metal. Considering the circumstances, I think the best I can do is welding patches across what’s missing. I don’t want to be anywhere near it if you do manage to get back into flight, and overpressurizing those sections would probably be a very bad idea, but it should hold if I do it right.”

“You’ll need a lot of sheet metal,” Gabriel admitted. “I’ll reroute some power and see if I can get the industrial replicators working.”

“That would be good,” Sam said absently, wishing he’d brought one of the data viewers that he’d left scattered around the engine room floor. “Mind checking if there’s some working plumbing around while you’re at it?”

Gabriel made an appropriately rude noise at him. Progress, of a sort.

Two hours later Sam had retrieved the toolkit he needed from his rooms, which hadn’t sustained any damage from the attack as they were deep within protected areas of the ship. Gabriel had turned off all the lights and most of the heating in there in his ongoing search for power that could be put to more immediate uses, although he had, as requested, left the plumbing working. Sam wished he’d thought of that before he’d put the spacesuit back on and been forced to go through the whole stupid routine of taking it off and putting it on again, although he’d had to go through some areas that had been exposed to this universe’s empty space and didn’t have any air left. So he hadn’t had much choice. It had still been the poster incident for inconvenience.

“I could do with a little more light,” Sam had muttered as he tripped over something else that had been knocked onto the floor in the chaos.

Maybe the light had brightened a bit. In any case, he had managed to get out of his quarters without incurring any major injuries to himself.

He’d started small, successfully welding closed some of the smaller fractures in the ship’s hull, more side-effects of the major damage than significant damage in themselves. Under ordinary circumstances Gabriel would have been whining about them anyway as they hissed air reserves and heat into the vacuum of space, but right now they were just practice for the major repairs he was going to take on.

Whatever those ships were or whoever was flying them had better take a long time about coming back. And he was desperately hoping that they didn’t have longer-range sensors than Gabriel did, or ones better adapted to this environment, both of which were all-too-perfectly likely. He was standing in a hull breach, albeit one he was welding metal over, and in a realm without light he’d stand out exactly like a candle in the dark. For the moment, he was settling for being thankful for small mercies, like the fact that the enormous industrial laser welders that worked in the vacuum of space came in handheld sizes and worked in whatever this universe or dimension was.

Sam could feel the difference as he moved through the areas of the ship that had been opened to not vacuum but whatever ether filled this space. His movements were a little more controlled than they’d been in the airless vacuum environment in which he’d trained and not too long ago he’d been exploring happily. He kept overcompensating, making his movements awkward and slow until he got used to it. It did feel almost like atmosphere, if a thin and alien one. ‘Ether’ might not be so far from the truth.

Gabriel,” he called. The ship hadn’t said anything for a few minutes, even though Sam had asked him to keep up a running commentary so he’d know if his ship partner was losing time again. In a human, that would be a symptom of a seizure. He didn’t know what it was in a ship, but it definitely indicated something wrong with the starship’s mind or, more likely, his physical brain. Sections of his neural networks had been badly damaged in the attack, Sam knew. The first time he’d tackled one of the bigger breaches, the crackle of ice against his gloved hands had taken him by surprise and then revulsion as he realized the ‘ice’ had once been some of the biological components of Gabriel’s neural networks. It had been brain cracking under his hand and burning away as he swallowed down his disgust and sympathy and fixed down the latest in an assembly line of too-thin metal with the laser welder.

And whoever or whatever was aboard those enemy ships thought Gabriel could repair himself?

“I wish,” Gabriel had said when Sam had told him about this. “Like that helps.”

“Might make you feel better,” Sam had suggested, for lack of a better idea. He was assessing the damage to another bulkhead as they spoke and was not looking forward to the trek back down to the working industrial replicators, which were located adjacent to the engine complex, safely in the unbreached interior of the ship, and an inconvenient distance away.

Now he grimaced as he temporarily shelved the conversation, reaching out to brush away yet more rough edges that might have been biological neural net, miniscule mechanical components, remnants of bulkhead, part of the ship’s energy distribution circuitry, or something else entirely that had had the misfortune to run through this section. He must have been getting tired, not an unreasonable reaction, because he could have sworn they hadn’t been there when he’d first looked the terrible wound over. The jagged remains bit into his fingers, metal edges tugging at his gloves. Sam pulled back before they tore the fabric of the suit and he had to take even more time and effort to replace them with one of the spares.

“Sure. I’ll do that. And while I’m doing that, I’m going to try transporting this latest patch up to you. It’s fairly simple, so I think I might be able to hold the pattern and put it back together again. We’ll have a race and see which one is helpful first.”

The panel, when it did materialize, made Sam very glad that Gabriel had tried this on an inanimate lump of metal before the ship took a shot at running him through the transporter. The surface was pitted and warped, smeared out and melted in a way almost reminiscent of what the enemy ships had looked like in the scans Gabriel had shown him.

“Not so much,” Sam said honestly, because Gabriel could see the damage for himself through the local sensors he’d assured Sam were working and the tiny recorder located within Sam’s spacesuit helmet. “But it doesn’t have to be perfect for a quick fix, and that’s all we’re doing today.”

Despite the damage, he used it anyway. There weren’t any holes in it and he could have welded those closed if there had been. It was faster than going down to the replicators for what couldn’t possibly be the millionth time.

Don’t give out, he mentally ordered the welder, giving a critical glare to the power pack, which had been working heroically but the charge levels of which were wavering. Stay working, do you hear me, you inanimate object? While there was a spare somewhere Sam didn’t know where it was offhand, and they probably couldn’t afford the time it would take him to find it, especially as the inventory list Gabriel kept somewhere in his brain was inaccessible or just not a priority at the moment.

They really couldn’t afford the time at all, because a shout from Gabriel sent him running down recently cleared paths back to the engine rooms and the engines’ cloaking effect.

“They’re coming back, Sam!”

And if that was a problem, Gabriel’s next words only made things worse.

“Can’t you feel the waves? I think there’s a whole fleet out there…”

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