The realm that ships flew through, faster than light, was a real place. It wasn’t a theoretical abstraction or a trick of maths. Sound carried further, faster in water than in air; matter could travel faster in the adjacent dimension of flight than in regular space. Despite the water metaphor, people tended to think of that dimension as ‘above’ the everyday one even though ‘up’ wasn’t an accurate description. And, after all, ships went there in flight, a term much more evocative of a sky above than a sea below. Ships jumped between the two dimensions fairly freely, existing in one as contentedly as in the other, although the transition was rough on humans and exposure to what that dimension looked like as interpreted by the human visual system was almost impossible for human brains to process.
It was an environment all its own, but there were analogues between those two dimensions.
It had weather.
Ripples of extra-dimensional energy like winds against ships’ hulls, which they compensated for as naturally and intuitively as a bird in Earth’s skies. Currents where they could move faster while expending less energy, or the reverse if they were moving against the flow, not physical substance but the crackle and course of energy. Whirlpools and eddies that snatched at them in passing as they tore by.
They weren’t extremely common, but ships ran across them every so often. They were volatile, both in size and in location. A ship detecting the first tendrils of a storm ahead or approaching wouldn’t be able to tell how intense it was until the gale was nearly upon him or her. Sometimes they were no more than ripples, brief upheavals of the local environment, easily traversed and quickly over, with no more effect on the ship or crew than a brief bit of turbulence and the unnerving feeling of an already alien environment taking the opportunity to turn over the snow globe and shake you up a little bit.
Then there were the true tempests, hurricanes of storms that spanned enormous distances and moved even more capriciously than the little disturbances. Most ships avoided them, dropping into so-called real space to cruise along below the speed of light, dipping back into their other dimension periodically to check if it had passed. If it was a slow-moving system then a ship’s best choice was to pick a direction and limp off hoping to hit an edge. The odds were truly unpredictable. A slow system could accelerate without warning and engulf whole star systems’ worth of that other space; a fast-moving one could stop dead. Since ships jumped from one point in this dimension to a corresponding section in the other, exactly like diving into water and swimming before resurfacing, if the ship’s best guess didn’t match what the storm was doing then no one was going anywhere fast.
The other choice was to stay in that dimension, and either weather the storm until it passed by skirting the edges or jump in and go for a real hell of a roller-coaster ride.
The Winchesters and their two ships were on their way out into the black after what felt like an overlong stopover at Launch Station. No matter how much of their childhood had been lived in packs of people, the boys had grown accustomed to having whole cubic light-years to themselves, and after being re-immersed in the human horde for a while they were ready to get back to their adventures.
New worlds, strange skies.
…And enormous other-dimensional hurricanes.
It was massive, Castiel and Gabriel relayed to them an uncomfortably short time after they’d they felt the first winds while in flight. The humans could pitch in opinions, but ultimately it was the ships that would have to decide what to do.
“Show me?” Dean asked, because he hated flying blind if he didn’t have to.
Charting this side of the sky was always a bit hit-and-miss, but Castiel did the best he could. Either it really did look like a hurricane or the ship had been borrowing images from the databases.
“I know what you’d rather do, Dean,” Castiel commented as Dean looked over the chart and wondered what it would be like to fly in that. He patched in the conversation the two ships were having; it was inevitably a bit delayed as they communicated at a faster rate than humans could take in, but the essence of it was:
Castiel thought they could handle it. He was willing to fly straight in and risk being thrown off course. They didn’t have a course, not as such, as they went wherever they wanted and only went to the star systems ground-based observers recommended because there was a better chance of something interesting being there than in choosing stars at random. The smaller ship was built for agility and, Dean thought as he listened, a bit intrigued by the idea of testing his abilities against the other-dimensional storm. He could sympathize. Realizing that, he briefly considered the idea that it was his tendency to do things like this that was influencing Castiel’s opinion.
Gabriel was older and more cynical and didn’t terribly like the idea of being so out of control, as the hurricane’s effects would no doubt cause. While Gabriel was happy to send other people spinning in every direction possible for as long as possible, he tended to be the one in control of who spun where, keeping a privileged and secure position where he could sit back and snicker at them through a lollipop or two. He didn’t particularly like the idea of plodding along at cruising speeds for an unknown number of days either, because that would be boring and if his maps were right there wasn’t supposed to be anything at all except maybe a stray rock or two for light-years.
“Can I interrupt?” Sam asked, also a witness to the conversation, and then did so, most persuasively. “It might be fun, Gabriel.”
That was almost always a winning argument where Gabriel was concerned. The thought that very few ships tried taking on a hurricane like this also appealed to him. Assuming they weren’t actually torn apart by the effects, something everyone thought unlikely, it would be something they could boast about to the rest of the Fleet for weeks when they got back.
And, if things got too rough in there, they always had the option of dropping back to cruising speeds in the universe where light speed was still the iron ceiling. They’d be stuck in—or just below—the middle of it, but at least they had an escape hatch.
They went in.
Dean felt it the minute they hit the edge of the storm. He was watching in the same lounge where he would, one day in the future, stare out at the wreckage of a dying star right before catastrophe struck his family. Castiel’s flight got rougher as the impossible currents of the hurricane beat against him, trying to shove him off course and out of control. The faint vibrations, as familiar and comforting as the human’s own heartbeat, faltered momentarily before becoming a roar as the ship maneuvered to ride the winds, running and rolling with the unstoppable power unleashed all around.
Any attention Castiel had been paying to his human partner was instantly reallocated to the storm. Dean all but felt him go, as if he’d been in the room and abruptly left without even a farewell. The floor-to-ceiling screen that masqueraded as a window showed only distortion for a moment, then fragmentary images that defied interpretation, giving only the impression of incredible movement and inconceivable forces.
He could feel the storm, not directly as his ship did but in the effects it caused. The deck shifted beneath his feet, constantly, making keeping his balance and his lunch both an act that required active participation. The more intense vibrations of the laboring engines maneuvering them through it all were overwhelmed, for a moment, by the strikes and stabs of the otherworldly energy against Castiel’s hull like concentrated, sustained lightning. The glimpses he did get, through the viewscreen before Castiel shut it off so he could devote even that tiny fraction of his concentration to other purposes, spun his mind into a dizzy, reality-bending spiral that created miniature hurricanes of their own inside his eyes.
It was an impractical, incredible, foolhardy, reckless, insane thing to do, riding a killer hurricane at faster-than-light speeds in a dimension no one really understood intellectually.
They were in it for four days, cutting a transverse route through the currents and sudden, intense whirlpools and cyclones the storm encompassed, hidden until the ships were already in the middle of them and fighting weather they couldn’t predict.
Dean wasn’t afraid of the wind and the weather. If Castiel said he could survive it and bring them both out of it intact then Dean trusted him completely. He’d accepted that his life was completely in this still-inhuman being’s mostly metaphorical hands. The stuff of bad horror stories and late-night drinking with paranoids as it was, if Castiel ever chose to turn on him then Dean would be dead immediately and without knowing what hit him. He was completely vulnerable before the power the ship wielded and held but, he knew, would never hold over him.
And then he’d gone and slept with that same powerful, glorious, impossible, frequently incomprehensible creature and handed him absolute control over not only his body but his heart as well. Dean had never regretted doing so. They were good together and he was happier than he’d been in a very, very long time and he wanted to think that his Cas was too.
No, it wasn’t the storm that sunk cold claws into his stomach and heart and tightened his jaw as he thought dark and terrible thoughts.
Essentially since the first time they met, Dean had been able to get past all Castiel’s barriers and shields between the ship’s true personality and the rest of the universe. Provoking him had been a challenge, one Dean had enthusiastically embraced and gone for with his usual fervor. The image of the untouchable analytical starship mind had crumbled beneath his relentless and entirely irrepressible assault, and it had been a man like any other—if unique and amazingly powerful—who had responded, baffled and helplessly intrigued, to the human’s overtures of friendship.
To him, Castiel had pretty instantly and always since been Cas, a friend and a colleague and, eventually, a lover who had become part of his family in a way no one else had ever achieved.
Not even when they’d first met, nothing—it seemed—in common and nothing—yet—between them, had Castiel been quite so alien.
The little contact he had with the ship as they weathered the storm was perfunctory and inattentive, mostly just clipped assurances that Sam and Gabriel were doing all right once or twice a day. There was no eye to this storm to provide a temporary time-out, no pattern of circular winds they could anticipate—in that sense, hurricane wasn’t exactly a perfect metaphor. In scale, however, it was dead-on. Navigating it took almost all of Castiel’s attention, and the few times he spared Dean so much as a comment here and there were distracted and somehow cold.
It was a chilling reminder that the man was a façade, the striking human creature who dozed beside him in his bed at night a puppet for a fundamentally inhuman mind whose nature was as far from Dean’s as his was from one of those speechless sea creatures Joshua had been developing.
If asked, Dean would have said nothing scared him. It would have been a lie. The idea of losing Sam—the beloved, brilliant, infuriating little brother who was as close to him as his own skin—scared him. He didn’t fear the prospect of his death in its own right, just that something would happen to the people he considered his family without him to look after them, because that had always been his job, trained into him from an age so young he didn’t remember a time when mind the baby, Dean hadn’t been his mission in life.
And now this. The possibility—the likelihood!—of not only losing Cas, but that the difference between them had always been too great and that one of the few times he had chosen to trust with all his heart and soul he had done so mistakenly.
In the storm, an environment that showed all too clearly what Castiel really was, it seemed all too likely.
…Except, damn it, he had wanted, and he had trusted, and Dean was not going to let that go if he had even the slightest shadow of a fighting chance. He wavered furiously between despair and desperation and anger, sometimes between one breath and the next as his ship pitched and rolled as wildly as his mood.
They cleared the storm towards the end of the fourth day, the ships leaving it behind them and continuing on into the clear space beyond, still traveling faster-than-light in a dimension with no upper speed limit. A storm like that devoured all the inconsistencies within its reach, smoothing out the space in its wake. They would have crossed a similar distance in no more than a few hours, maybe as much as half a day, under normal circumstances, but just surviving a storm like that was an accomplishment and being able to rocket out the other side and keep flying was something they’d be smug about forever.
On the other hand, Dean’s unspoken fears were devouring him, and despite the clear sailing in their future he stayed in his rooms trying to figure out what he was going to do. If he pushed he could break what they did have between them, and he was somewhat shamefully aware he didn’t want to lose even the façade.
“Dean?” the intercom asked. Castiel, unable to take a hint, as always. “What’s wrong?” Why was he only perceptive when Dean didn’t want him to be?
“Not now,” the human grumbled. He was sitting in the dark on his own. There wasn’t a bottle in front of him to complete the picture only because he’d forgotten that the bottle he’d stored in his rooms, one of several brought from Launch Station since replicated booze never had the same bite, had been almost empty and now was completely empty after only a couple of mouthfuls. What part of that didn’t say ‘leave me alone’?
“You’re unhappy. Why are you unhappy, Dean?” There was what sounded like definite anxiety and confusion in Castiel’s voice. “Are you hurt?”
“No. Yes. Dammit!” He shoved himself out of his chair and resorted to pacing the room, glaring at the mostly-invisible ceiling. “How do you do it? How can you possibly—”
“I don’t understand.” Storm lords, if Dean had a bottle of non-replicated booze for every time he’d heard that he’d never run out in a million years and there wouldn’t be room for him in here or anywhere else aboard this infuriating ship. “Do what?”
“Pretend.” Dean heard the venom in his voice and tried to scale it back. “This—that—that’s what you are, Castiel.” Dean almost never called the ship by his full name; he knew the instant it slipped out that the mistake would set off red flags all over. “How can you possibly pretend to be human when you can do that?”
There was a long pause, which might have been Castiel reeling from the unexpected accusation or, Dean suspected at this point, the ship trying to figure out how to phrase his explanation. As it turned out, it was neither.
He got his answer in the form of the door to his rooms hissing open. He didn’t need the brainpower of a ship to recognize the silhouette in the doorway.
“Pretend?” repeated Cas incredulously. He stepped into the room and the door closed behind him, leaving them in darkness. Temporarily blinded, Dean couldn’t see a thing, but Cas had no such problems, navigating the clutter of the room with the ship’s sensors as easily as if the man had a brightly-lit empty room to traverse. It wasn’t fair.
The next time Dean knew where he was it was because the hand in the middle of his chest essentially had him pinned to a wall. “You think I’m pretending?” Cas almost snarled, voice dark and dangerous and Dean had to fight something and Cas had just volunteered.
Except the rest of that sentence became a kiss that knocked the breath out of him, fierce and hungry and goddamn obscene, intimately familiar body pressed into him with an unambiguous demand and the hand not keeping him in place unhesitatingly and roughly diving into the front of his pants between them. Breathing was overrated anyway.
“Do you have any idea how much I need you? How alive I am with you?” That was unfair too, that Cas could still talk when Dean had stopped thinking completely and just wanted to take control and start doing something of what was being done to him, flight completely off the table and fight redirected into lust and hunger and desperation.
Riding what passed for the ship’s adrenaline rush of fighting the roller-coaster of the hurricane at faster-than-light speeds, Cas clearly had no intention of surrendering the dominance he’d claimed, and when Dean flattened a hand against the wall to gain some kind of leverage and flip them around, it was trapped beneath a much stronger grip and kept there. If he ever wanted his hand back, and he did, there were so many things he could be doing with that hand, and if Cas wouldn’t relinquish control, Dean was just going to have to figure out sneakier ways to break it.
Something that started out as a growl turned into a whimper before it made it out of his throat and he briefly forgot what he’d been intending to do as Cas moved against him and storm lords that went so far beyond good—
There wasn’t a single loose sheet left on the bed by the time they’d settled into some sort of relaxation and Dean would have been perfectly content to stay there for the rest of his life, sweat drying into his skin and the weight of his lover in his arms. He’d bitten straight through his lip at some point and never noticed, and it was only now he realized that some of what he tasted was blood. They would both bruise later despite that Cas was designed to not be injured easily.
“Pretending,” Cas huffed. Oh, right. He’d said that. Hands folded across Dean’s chest and he felt his lover rest his head on them. “Do you think I’d have put up with you for this long if I didn’t love you?”
Even through the haze, Dean heard that. “You—what?” he said stupidly.
“Mmm.” Whether that was a reply or a commentary to go with the hands that had moved from his chest to his cheekbones and hair, he wasn’t sure. “You knew.”
They were so close he knew exactly where Cas would be when he moved to kiss his lover, the shift setting off sparks between them even in the spent exhaustion, and it could have been an apology for doubting him or simple appreciation or both. “Yeah. I’m just an idiot sometimes. Don’t.” That was an obvious opening and Cas had known him long enough to take it. If they even got that far, because the movement against him and the ghosts of kisses against his jaw and throat meant even breathing was quickly becoming inarticulate gasps again and exactly how quickly could they manage rebound? “You know I—”
“Yes,” was the answer, as unambiguous and wholehearted as the kiss pinning him to the wall had been earlier. “You never have to ask me that, Dean. Yes, I know you do, always, and yes, I do, and if you forget again I will remember for you, always.”
Storm lords, Dean’s life could not be this good.
And now it wasn’t, which shocked him not at all.
The best thing that could be said about their escape from Launch Station was that they had escaped and they were now well on their way to reclaiming the rest of their family from the darkness. Once Castiel was in flight he could run silent and block any transmissions from other ships, and while they knew approximately where he was going finding someone in flight was always difficult if they didn’t want you to; the Fleet in his wake would never overtake him.
He’d spent a couple of days hiding—and it was hiding, Dean knew him too well to think it was anything else—as Cas, taking horrified mental stabs in fits and starts at the invading programming while physically sticking so close to the human that Dean was in danger of literally tripping over him. He’d let his shaken partner be, though. He could see the sudden lapses into absolute stillness that were the ship’s mind coming across yet another trap or misdirection that would have forced him to act or kept him against his will.
Trapped, the shadow of the man had said during those terrible hours when Castiel was shut down. The unadulterated, unshielded horror in his voice had chilled Dean’s blood then. The abrupt stops, eyes going blank and then closing in an involuntary flinch, were worse.
Before he’d realized how badly Castiel was taking what had happened as they’d taken off on their unofficial rescue mission, Dean had been intending to get a good look at the weaponry Bobby’s teams had installed, just in case—as seemed likely—he had to repair any of it at some point. He also wanted to learn something from the professional work so he could duplicate it in miniature aboard his shuttle. The project had been mostly to give him something to break as he worked off the fury of being attacked and being roughly separated from his brother, and had been abandoned as soon as he’d reconciled with Cas.
But it still seemed like a good idea to have a second armed craft around. Just in case, again. This time they knew they were heading into danger.
“You should do that,” Cas agreed unexpectedly when Dean broached the subject. He wanted to get back to work on it, but he also wanted to stay with the man curled up in his bed, where he’d been for more than a day now, apparently content just to stay there and keep an eye on Dean as he moved around his rooms making a cursory effort at picking up some of the things on the floor. Most of them had ended up in rough piles on the bed where, the human knew from past experience, he’d forget them, having accomplished ‘cleaning up’, until deciding to call it a night, finding things all over his covers, and sweeping them all back onto the floor while resolving to deal with them in the morning.
Technically Dean wasn’t leaving him there on his own; the ship would be aware of him and with him no matter where he went. “All right,” he conceded. “Come find me if you want to later.”
He got a faint smile for his efforts. “I won’t even have to move.” At least not any further than it took to steal all the blankets, dislodging one of the piles of junk and sending it back to the floor a bit early, Dean noticed.
His Baby shuttlecraft still wasn’t designed to bear arms, but three or four hours examining Bobby’s work gave him some good ideas. While he couldn’t access the business ends of the weapons retrofitted into Castiel, he knew enough about them by the time he headed over to the shuttlebay that he thought he could improve on his earlier work significantly.
Hauling his latest bag of tools and possible supplies into the shuttlebay to get back to work, Dean got as far as opening the side hatch to have somewhere to sit that wasn’t a floor and sorting out some of what he’d brought with him into an orderly pattern that made sense to him, at least, before glancing casually over the shuttle’s nose and—
The man shrugged, leaning back against the shuttle’s hull. He looked up at his friend but didn’t seem inclined to add anything to that. Dean knew it was the flesh-and-blood person that had bothered to come down to the shuttlebay because of the small details. Like the fact that Cas wasn’t wearing any shoes. The hologram was pretty much a default image and Castiel would not have bothered to reprogram it to wear different clothes because he wouldn’t have seen the point. Dean could have explained it to him for a week, and at the end of it he still wouldn’t have seen the point and Dean would have lost track of what the point was into the bargain. They’d had discussions like that before.
Well, he wasn’t in the way over there. “It’s not gonna bother you?” Dean had to ask. “I’m doin’ some of the same things to her that were done to you.”
Castiel put up with the shuttlecraft as a rival of sorts for Dean’s affections, he fetched it back from planetary surfaces when Dean had left it behind when returning by transporter, and he otherwise ignored it. But now Cas patted its black hull absently and said, “You’re not trying to hurt her, and she doesn’t mind.”
Dean knew the shuttlecraft didn’t have a mind or a personality beyond the whims and quirks of its mechanical components and the helpless animism of a man who lived with and loved a sentient starship and worked with that ship’s equally sentient Fleet of a family. So he personified the shuttle a bit, so what? It was all in his head. Still, he couldn’t help joking slightly, “Nice to see you two getting along,” as he mentally worked out where he wanted to start with the next stage of the refit, taking the seat offered by the open hatchway and the shuttle’s deck beyond it. From here, he couldn’t see Cas where the ship’s human self sat on the opposite side of the shuttle’s hull, but since when had that ever been a problem for either of them?
“I was going to stay in your rooms,” Cas replied in an apparent non sequitur. Dean was used to them; it just meant Castiel was approaching a subject or idea from a direction he felt he had to explain. “They’re familiar. I have good memories associated with them.”
If he didn’t know Cas was trying to make a point, Dean would have made a comment there. For the moment, he settled for listing all his possible replies in the relative privacy of his head and grinning to himself.
“I can see you, you know,” said Cas, a bit waspishly, which only made the human grin even wider. As if the sidebar had never occurred, he resumed, “I thought I would feel safer there. I’m working on erasing some of the code installed back at Launch Station, but some of it I need in order to operate the weapons. We both need that code. Sam and Gabriel need it.”
That was true. Dean was working and listening, a skill perfected after many years of practice, but he knew the ship wouldn’t interpret the sounds of him moving around and grinding metal tools against equally metal components as inattention.
“It’s not easy to tell what is what. While I know there are traps buried in it—Michael would not have wanted any of us digging too deeply into codes used to control us—I do not know where they are or even if they will work without his direct influence.”
“Nervous work,” Dean guessed. “Can you do it?”
“Yes. I believe so. And it is very nervous work, as you say. But I felt—more secure, being physically present. Being…human…saved us once. More than ever, Dean, this is as much who I am as the ship I was designed to be. I could never go back to what I was, although some of the programs I have defused—”
He stopped. Listening, Dean did the same.
“—would have forced me to,” Castiel said finally. “It may also have been designed to erase or suppress my memories of who I have become, with you. …I did not read that program too closely before deleting it.”
“Cas, that’s revolting,” Dean swore, angrily taking a wrench to a panel that had, from the feel of it, gotten jammed closed when the shuttle had first been wrecked and consigned to the junk heap before he’d rescued her. “They’d do that to you?”
“It appears so,” the other man confirmed unhappily, “although I am uncertain who exactly ‘they’ are. It is possible that Michael could have rewritten the code on his own, although why he would do so, considering how long ago he must have begun working on this, escapes me.”
The cover to the panel he’d been wrestling with finally separated from its housing and Dean caught it as it fell to prevent a discordant clang, even though the sound would have perfectly expressed his feelings about the situation. “Preparations for war. That’s what it looked like when we got in, remember? Some people look at the past few hundred years and say since we’ve never run into anyone else, there’s no one else out there, just you and us. And some of the others see the same thing and say we’re past due to cross paths with something else and odds are it won’t be friendly. Maybe Michael’s one of those. Bet he’s been so for a while, too.”
Behind the shuttlecraft, Cas made a small noise of distress. “And yet he may be right. We were attacked, Sam and Gabriel taken, seven more ships and their crews before them. They are not friendly. And if we need the weapons, then—you do not hear most of the foolishness we talk about and do, Dean. However arrogant you may think us, we squabble and gossip and make trouble for ourselves like human children, incessantly. Perhaps it is preferable we not be a rabble in arms.”
Dean ripped a power cable from its mounting with more force than really necessary, winced, and apologized to Baby with a pat on her deck plating. It wasn’t her he was angry with. “Nuh uh. Check what you’re saying. Sure that isn’t the programming talking?”
He didn’t get an answer, which made him think he’d been right. Besides, there were other things he wanted to take issue with and if Cas wasn’t going to respond then he was going to go right ahead and object to them.
“And maybe Michael’s right about that, Cas. The threat, sure. But sneaking behind everyone’s backs and turning the Fleet into a bunch of puppets on a baby mobile is insane and wrong, no matter which way you look at it. Doesn’t matter how much order you want in an army—yeah, I know as well as you do that’s what they’re turning the Fleet into—remote-control soldiers are just a bad idea. Lobotomized ones—” He spat the word. Centuries on and the idea was still, understandably, an abomination. “—just obscene.”
“That’s what scares me.”
Fine. Enough. He dropped the shuttle part he was holding without bothering to see what it was, and left his task entirely to circle around the shuttle’s nose to join Cas on the floor. The pain and betrayal in his voice had been too deep to be left to fester alone.
“We won’t let ‘im, Cas,” Dean said reassuringly, wrapping an arm around his lover’s back and pulling him into a hug. Cas relaxed into it, turning into him and taking the shoulder so freely offered in support. “You’re tearing out the code and we got away. What’s done can be undone, and now that you know how to do it you can teach others when we get back with Sam and Gabriel.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“You said Michael had gone behind everyone’s backs to do this to us. What if he didn’t? Even if all the programming went through and was implemented, you can’t reprogram humans not to notice the changes. Someone would ask questions. Unless they already knew. And approved.”
“Storm lords,” he said softly. Unconsciously, he tightened the arm around his companion. “No,” he denied, but it was more of a prayer than an assertion. “They wouldn’t do that to you. To us. Not our friends, or Bobby, or Ellen.” But he knew as well as Castiel did that plenty of the humans running the Fleet at one level or another didn’t fall into that select group and loved manipulation and control as much as any second or third person in power. For all he knew, the ships were as bad, but he was fairly sure Cas would keep his family’s secrets if they were. “That’s damn scary, Cas. For once I hope you’re wrong.”
“So do I,” Cas admitted.
“Now I’m considering goin’ back to my rooms and hiding for a bit, and I’m not the one with tripwires in his brain. So why’d you leave and come out here to listen to me work on Baby?”
And as horrific as the conversation was, Dean was in the perfect position to catch a sight he enjoyed but saw only rarely—Cas’s pure, sincere smile, blue eyes half-closing in pleasure and at least momentary peace. “It wasn’t the space I felt safe with. You were here.”
The first time they’d passed this way, there had been four of them and they’d been free to do as they pleased, without the threat of ambushes from the darkness or flaws in the fabric of space. The gap between this dimension and a possible other place—assuming that the various leaps of logic and just plain starry-void guessing were anywhere close to the truth—had been a curiosity, not a danger. Different and inexplicable, and not particularly pleasant, but it had been the disgruntlement of intelligent minds unable to solve a particular puzzle, not the blot on Castiel’s sensors it was now.
“So it is still there,” Dean said, relieved. Ellen had said that the other one, far away and months ago, that Remiel had apparently vanished into had disappeared by the time Balthazar made his way out there to check his brother’s findings, so that the report had been set aside and forgotten. As they got closer and closer to where it had been when they’d passed by before, Dean had become more and more preoccupied with that possibility. If this thing that might be part of somewhere else had closed up or gone elsewhere while they’d chased and been chased around Launch Station, trapping his little brother in one place while he was in another, he’d tear the universe apart with his bare hands to get him back, however long it took.
What would happen to Sam in the meantime, though, he couldn’t guess and didn’t want to. Was he hurt? Did he know where he was or anything about what was going on? What did he think had happened to Dean? Was he even in any shape to worry?
Castiel had tried to stop him working himself into an absolute rabid fit over these unanswerable questions by assuring him that they were going to answer them, and they were getting there as fast as he could go. It hadn’t helped, but Dean had sort of appreciated it.
Now the discontinuity between them and whatever lay beyond gaped at them, black on black; a mouth to devour them, a black-flooded eye that betrayed the danger within.
They’d dropped out of flight some distance back, and Castiel had approached cautiously, feeding Dean more data than he could really handle in his version of nervous chatter, sensor information that was meaningless to both ship and human and mostly added up to empty sets anyway. From the idly curious perimeter the ships had skirted a few weeks ago, they knew nothing, Dean interpreted from his surface understanding of the data and his memories of Cas muttering in a privately offended manner as Dean and, from the other end of a commlink, Sam tried to get a straight answer about the unexplained stop out of the two ships.
As they got closer and closer, however, they knew too much and none of it made any sense. A figure or dataset had one value in one second, and quite another in the next. It was either hundreds of kilometers across or only three. It had depth or it didn’t, or possibly it reached out towards them. That reading had made Castiel stop in his metaphorical tracks, unwilling to get any closer on anyone’s schedule but his own. A few seconds’ check had confirmed that it was essentially a trick of the light it didn’t reflect or emit; a distortion of perspective like the optical illusions humans sometimes created for entertainment. Castiel had never had one of those images work on him before. He wasn’t sure he liked it. Actually, he remarked to Dean as he slowly advanced again, having corrected for the problem, he was definitely sure he didn’t like it at all, considering the circumstances.
This close, the ship was having second thoughts, not about taking on the discontinuity, but what their chances of success would be. He shared only one of them with Dean, knowing that the human was going to insist that they went in but feeling obliged to warn him that “I cannot predict what will have happened to them beyond here, Dean. I know Gabriel was not destroyed in this universe, but—” He sought an example, found one. “We know how to ride out storms in flight, in a space with no enemies actively intending us harm. We know nothing about what is in there.”
Dean had already lost patience with the slow pace of glide and pause and scan that Castiel had been maintaining, and it showed in his voice as he snarled, “I know, Cas! So let’s go get them before something does happen to Sam that I can’t fix!”
Pacing angrily back and forth, he tossed off at the listening ceiling, “Shoulda come here first, instant they weren’t shooting at us anymore. Maybe we coulda caught up before they even got this far.”
Asking and done what, Dean, thrown rocks at them? was clearly an exercise in futility, and Castiel didn’t try. They’d had this conversation; they’d had the conversations that evolved from it. They were returning armed and aware of things that they hadn’t been before, and since Castiel’s departure from Launch Station had been much more dramatic than he’d intended they probably had half a dozen ships not far behind them for backup, if only because Michael would want him dragged back to Earth to be shouted at in person.
Or, alternatively, Michael could come out here himself, which might actually work out, because even whatever was behind hostile enemy ships from a dark dimension might think twice upon seeing Michael bearing down on them, especially now that he was as armed as his little siblings—probably more so—and thus now truly the battleship most people called him behind his back. Castiel was onto his oldest brother now and no one was going near his mind ever again. Unless the command ship actually started shooting at him, the most Michael could do was shout. Quite contrary to the intended purpose, Michael’s little puppet program (he could call it that derogatively now, since he was almost completely sure the control algorithms were all deleted) had actually proved that Castiel and Dean only had to obey the orders they wanted to.
And if the Fleet tried to separate the two of them, choosing to take issue with their creative disobedience and their relationship, they just wouldn’t go back to Launch Station for a few years until things calmed down. Sam and Gabriel would go with them, and they’d keep on doing what they were good at. Castiel loved his Fleet family, most of the time and as long as you didn’t ask him to spend too much time with them, because for a very long time he’d had no one else. Now he had Dean and, in an entirely different way, Sam, and Gabriel was a familiar but interestingly different challenge to understand that kept him thinking and trying to keep up; that was his life, one he could be alive in.
Life would go back to normal. They’d go see what the universe had to show them, send messages and reports back to Sol system, just to show willing, and when they needed to, they’d outrun anything that came after them.
It was a happy little dream, and Castiel filed it away to share with Dean at some future time when they both needed to hear it.
But here and now they were here on the edge, and despite the dream all the possibilities lead straight into darkness. Castiel might not be completely human in the absolutely traditional sense of the word, but he was a person nevertheless and, as he had discovered and explored over the last few years, he felt, emotion and sensation both. And now he was afraid.
“Dean,” he said softly, through the intercom. There were too many unknown factors all around for him to spare the extra effort needed to be human, for now. “I’m scared. Tell me to go in. I’ll listen. But I can’t do it alone.”
Interminable seconds went by. Humans thought so slowly sometimes, thought Castiel uncharitably. He recognized the thought for what it was—a symptom of fear, lashing out at everything around him—and attempted not to think it anymore.
All Dean’s anger of a short time ago was sputtering out, given an immediate problem to tackle, but it was still there in the way he spoke and the words he chose at first. “Our family’s in there, Cas,” he reminded the ship unnecessarily. “Doesn’t matter what happens to us in there, you hear? Hell, I don’t know what happens next, we go in there, any more than you do. But I know they need us, Cas. You know I wouldn’t ask otherwise.”
“I know,” said Castiel, and he did not mean that their brothers were in danger or that only the threat to Sam would force Dean to ask Castiel to risk their lives. He knew that too, of course.
The familiar phrase, so loaded for such simple words, put out the rest of Dean’s impatience and frustration, replacing them with something stronger. He could have commanded, and Castiel would have obeyed, they’d proven that already, but he didn’t have to, and he knew it. Instead, he settled for, “I’m done givin’ you orders, Castiel. My Cas. Been too much of that lately. But I promised you wouldn’t have to do this alone. That you’d never have to be again, if you wanted. I trust you.”
As much as Castiel did not want to go forward into the impossible darkness of the gap between here and elsewhere, the thought of what would happen if he did not was unbearable. What he stood to lose—Dean would never be able to forgive him if he backed away now, and that would break Castiel. He would never forgive himself. What they’d had had been good, and he wanted it back.
That and Dean’s faith in him; it was enough.
“Ready when you are, then,” he said.
Dean might have refused to openly give him orders, but command was in his nature, and there was authority in his voice. “Bring it on.”
Foolhardy, stubborn, relentless, arrogant, and Castiel loved him for it. He’d been hovering at a boundary he’d sensed intuitively rather than scientifically detected, a balance between his natural attachment to this home dimension and the incomprehensible pull of the discontinuity and what lay beyond. Now he stopped fighting the force trying to draw him in, surrendering to it and then outracing it, not dragged in against his will but diving.
The instant of transition was a shock like nothing he’d ever felt before as everything changed around him, all the constants shuddering and coming back as something else, and he struggled blindly for what felt like an out-of-control eternity. It was probably only moments, as time was one of those constants bouncing around.
What exactly this place, this space, was like, Castiel would need time to figure out. But, immediately and irrevocably, he knew it was completely alien, and that he did not belong. It almost oozed across him, at once engulfing and rejecting him.
Except that was unacceptable, and the ship fought against it, forcing himself to adapt, to learn, to find a way to turn this place inside out for his—their!—family.
Whatever happened to them here, they were now apparently a whole universe closer to a successful rescue, and answers.
And maybe a war.
It was hours this time before Gabriel declared the coast clear again. After some time of hissing at the ship to tell him what was going on—it had occurred to Sam that if there wasn’t vacuum outside, maybe sound could carry far enough to be detected, so he’d better keep his voice down—Sam had realized that Gabriel just wasn’t going to answer him. Maybe those things outside were keeping his full attention, or whoever or whatever ran them were watching him so closely that they’d be able to tell if he started talking to Sam.
In any case, with nothing to do and no way to get any more information, he ended up getting a few hours of sleep within the engine’s protective field. It wasn’t terribly comfortable even with the main bulk of the spacesuit shoved to one side and Sam wished he could take the field with him, wrapping the distortion and its cloaking effect around him like a cape and hood. Every little child believed that hiding under the blankets protected him or her from monsters. It was a shame the blanket of invincibility—or at least invisibility—he had here was fixed so firmly to the ship’s infrastructure.
When he woke up Gabriel still wasn’t answering and the anger and aggression that had been Dean’s first reaction had worked its way out of the grip of Sam’s self-control. He was just as much a fighter as his brother, although he hid it better most of the time, but now he was ready to lash out against the first enemy he could find. It was very frustrating that he couldn’t find any at all and didn’t know anything more than he had when he went to sleep. He’d hoped that the lull would have allowed him to subconsciously make connections that might have eluded his waking mind, but he still knew very little and didn’t have any way to find out things on his own. He was completely dependent on what Gabriel could tell him. When the ship was speaking to him.
Sam spent something over an hour sitting and sulking and wishing he had something to drink in the safe field with him. He wondered if he’d had enough forethought to store something like a water bottle in his toolkit. He doubted it. For a lack of anything else to fill the time, he got mentally locked into his thought of the ‘night’ before, of an invisibility cloak of spatial distortion he could wear around the ship to hide him from the enemies outside. He’d sunk low enough to start wondering what color it would seem to be to outside eyes—setting aside briefly the fact that it was meant to stop anyone looking at it—when Gabriel spoke to him again.
“Hey, Sam? They’re gone. You can come out from there, y’know.” He sounded a bit better now; there was more of the old arrogance in his voice. Evidently not having holes ripping through his skin outweighed having a fleet of enemy ships showing up to—do what? If they’d attacked again Sam would have noticed; he’d sure as hell noticed the first time. What sort of hostile force ambushed them from out of another dimension, deliberately tore the ship open to kill the human within, dragged the wounded ship (and Sam) back into that dimension, left them alone, showed up to shout at them, disappeared again, and came back with all its friends to—just loom menacingly before leaving again?
“So what do you know that I don’t, Gabriel?” Sam asked, irritably. While he was perfectly fine with roughing it—until recently, fending for himself on unknown alien worlds had been his life—he liked to be able to choose when it happened and have enough warning to pack a bag. He really wanted that drink, too.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the ship snapped back with what seemed like undue hostility. “If I knew anything useful, don’t you think I’d tell you?”
The human stomped his way over to an equipment locker in the walls of the engine room and slammed it open roughly. A random fluctuation in the distortion field followed him most of the way there, only retreating once he got to the wall. As annoyed as he was and as long as he’d been encompassed in the field, Sam didn’t notice. Rummaging through it in the hopes of finding some water, he snarled back, “Well, an entire fleet of enemy ships just blasted through here and stayed for damned ever. Or did you just yelp at me so I’d have to run down here and hide and you could laugh at me for falling for it?”
Gabriel huffed at him. The ship didn’t need to bother to expend the energy on a hologram, Sam knew exactly what expression the shorter man would have been wearing, and it would have had screw you! written all over it. Gabriel sulking in human form was an entire production, whether he was being told off for sending half the Fleet off on a wild goose chase or reprogramming human news broadcasts to do or say something completely insane, losing a fight he’d deliberately picked with Dean, or finding out that someone else had come up with a particularly ingenious trick before he’d had the chance to. Sam left off turning a second equipment locker inside out to pick a spot, focus on it, and mentally fill in the empty space for himself: Gabriel’s human self, vaguely reddish-blond hair all ruffled as if he’d been running his hands through it, if he wasn’t actively doing that; arms folded just loosely enough to let his hands flicker through the wide range of rude gestures the ship knew; eyes rolling sardonically; all his weight on one side so he could use the other foot to kick patterns into the dust or against metal deck plating; imaginary prop lollipop rolling from one corner of his scowl to the other as he spoke around it. Yes, he could almost see it.
But Sam was not being unfair, and he refused to apologize. Apologizing to Gabriel never got him anywhere. “So what gives? You said you might be able to retune your sensors to work here. Any luck with that?”
As overreacting went, Sam mused, this was up there in the unreasonable category. The static-riddled, disjointed, accelerated discordant noise from the intercom was almost certainly Gabriel talking to himself at a rate human ears couldn’t keep up with; Sam could hear the tone of voice anyway and it wasn’t particularly happy. He was willing to bet that if he’d recorded the noise and slowed it down, there would have been some swearing mixed in, mostly aimed at him.
“I’m working on it,” the ship finally slowed down enough to say. “And I don’t have anything new on those ships for you. Think I’m going to go up against a whole bunch of them like that? Two of them nearly tore me apart on our own ground, and one probably would have been enough. The other one just missed Castiel and decided to cut its losses by taking it out on me.”
Another surge of fear for his brother shuddered through Sam at the mention of Dean’s ship companion, but they already knew the rest of their family wasn’t here and Gabriel didn’t sound particularly worried. Which was odd, considering a whole fleet had just showed up to—he still didn’t know what.
“How many are there?” Sam wondered aloud.
“Ah—in this whole universe? How would I know?”
That wasn’t what he meant, and Sam said so. Gabriel could stand to be a little more helpful, he thought, and didn’t say that.
“Um…five?” Gabriel didn’t sound particularly sure of himself at first, but then his voice got a little more confident, as if he’d worked something out. “Yeah, five or so showed up, I think. Still trying to get my bearings here, Sammy.”
Sam was in no mood to let the ship call him that. A third locker hadn’t yielded any water and he had run out of patience a while ago. This next one will have water in it, he told himself firmly. He was absolutely sure of it, he reassured himself.
He must have been paying more attention than he thought he had the last time he was down here, or some time ago in the past when things weren’t quite so dangerous, because when he opened the fourth locker there was a bottle of water buried under some old-fashioned bungee cords and more stuff that someone had shoveled in there and left. It wasn’t going to be particularly cold but by then Sam didn’t care what temperature it was as long as it was wet and not overly poisonous.
The drink improved his mood somewhat, but it had been so far down there to begin with that it wasn’t much of a development. “So what do we do now?” he asked, licking stray drops away in an effort to get everything possible out of his lucky find.
“Well,” said Gabriel thoughtfully, “the patches were good. I kind of caught that they’d been expecting repairs to be underway by the time they stopped by.”
“You listened in?” Sam pounced on that. “What were they doing, holding a conference over us? Did you hear anything else we can use?”
No, Sam wasn’t buying that. Or if he was going to, he needed a little more than that. Was Gabriel keeping things from him? Why the hell would he do that? Did he think Sam wouldn’t understand? Sam should be the judge of that, surely. He wasn’t stupid, far from it. Maybe he wasn’t a starship, but he could keep pace and understand things that a lot of people didn’t. He could think creatively and remember accurately and Gabriel was going to have to cut him in on what was going on!
“Gabriel,” Sam said sternly, “fill me in right now. You were going to retune your sensors. What can you show me? Maybe I can guess some things about whatever’s flying them if I can get a look at the ship designs.”
The ship grumbled. “Like what? I’d rather you fixed more things. I’ll handle what’s going on out there.”
Sam was determined not to be deterred. His hour or so of absolute paralyzing boredom earlier had given him a ravening appetite for something for his mind to do. And for food, he thought in an aside. He made a mental note to do something about that later. While he’d been lucky enough to find some bottled water down here he strongly doubted that there was any food. He wasn’t even going to bother to look, the probabilities were so low.
“Well, you take Fleet designs.” He felt he was repeating obvious basics to a creature who should know all this already, but Gabriel was clearly trying to distract him and he thought his idea was better. “You were designed to go fast, right? And you can see it in the shapes, all streamlined noses and bodies and engine sections pushing from behind and a little beneath and spread out a little as if for balance like wings. But you’re not designed to fight—no external weapons mounts. That tells me—or whoever ‘me’ is on their side—we’re explorers in a universe we thought was empty, or at least one without anything to threaten us. Now, you take Michael. You take one look at him and you know he’s not half as fast as you or Cas, but damn he’s scarier, just because he’s that much bigger and built heavier. Everyone looks to him ‘cause he’s probably the biggest thing around, so it’s an easy guess that he’s in charge or at least central. And I could give you a dozen more examples for the rest of the morning, Gabriel, all of which you know much better than I do. So show me what you’ve got already and I’ll see what I can come up with!”
If Gabriel had been projecting a human form or up to inhabiting the human clone still stored, inactive, somewhere in the ship’s core, his tone of voice told Sam he’d be feigning casualness, which seemed strangely inappropriate at the moment. “Good point, but I still can’t. I know what’s going on around me, but I don’t feel good about translating it into something you can see just yet. You won’t like the nonsense that comes out. It’s not just a matter of assigning x-rays random colors and smearing them across a screen for you. I’m not used to feeling things rather than seeing them, okay?”
Sam tried to understand. “So, it’s like…I’m in the water, right? And something splashes nearby and swims past me. I know it’s there, maybe it’s circling me, but I don’t know if it’s something like a shark or more like a turtle?”
What Gabriel actually knew about what it felt like to be underwater was limited to the one glorious time Sam had gotten to throw the human self Gabriel didn’t often use into a lake on a particularly watery world. That had been fantastic and Sam had laughed himself to sleep over it for weeks until Gabriel had successfully plotted a satisfactorily intricate revenge. But the ship accepted the metaphor here and now without giving any indication that he remembered that. “Yeah. Like that.”
He was going to have to accept that. “Fine. And they still don’t know I’m here?”
“Well, I was hardly going to tell them, was I?”
“Never said you were, Gabriel,” Sam reassured him, wondering again if he was going to have to put on that damned spacesuit again just to get something to eat. “So where can I start today?”
Where he actually ended up starting was taking a loop around the repairs he’d made ‘yesterday’. Sam mentioned to Gabriel that he’d decided to make this a new day in his mental calendar, just so the ship would know what he was talking about if they ever got a chance to sit down with all the information and work out a timeline of what had happened to them. They spent some time checking Sam’s welding a section at a time as Gabriel re-pressurized formerly breached corridors and chambers and Sam crept around carefully with his helmet ready to hand or on and open, to check the results just in case the repairs gave out and sprang a leak.
It took longer than it should have, not because Gabriel was as addled as he had been yesterday, but because he insisted that before any air got in, he needed to get the ether this universe seemed to be filled with out, because “eewwww, Sammy!” That meant that Sam had to go in with the full suit on, reopen a small tear in the metal he’d spent so much time applying, and get out as Gabriel’s systems pumped in the usual human-rated oxygen/nitrogen mixture to push the ether out. Only then could Sam go in again as atmosphere hissed around him and weld closed the gap before too much of the newly produced replacement air leaked away.
Hours later, Sam had found something to eat, the laser welder had apparently responded to Sam’s invocations of death and destruction for it if it gave out under the repeated use—well, in any case, it had held a charge and kept working—and Gabriel was by and large a whole ship again. He was a lot more awake than he’d been yesterday and as Sam broke off for what his internal clock said was a late lunch, he was pleased to see the barest outline of Gabriel’s usual holographic image—the one he’d been imagining so vividly earlier, only without most of the sulk—flicker into life to keep him company. The resolution was pretty low and there wasn’t much substance to him, but it was a good sign.
“Okay, we’ve got hull integrity, right?” Sam checked as Gabriel’s image appeared to sit on the table across from him and attempt to bat around the surface the wrappers of the basic nutrient bars Sam had turned up. He wasn’t making contact very often as the hologram fizzed in and out of solidity, but Sam was all right with that. The fewer wrappers he had to retrieve from the floor, the better. He was just glad the artificial gravity hadn’t given out at any time, something he only considered as one of Gabriel’s more successful swipes sent a new—and now empty—water flask teetering off the edge of the table.
Sam caught the flask and got up to put it away. Gabriel sulked briefly, but was reassured by the knowledge that he still had an audience. “Looks like it,” he answered Sam’s question. “There might be a few cracks here and there, but nothing that’s an immediate threat. And I’ll do something about those when I have a moment.”
“Yeah?” Sam wondered idly, shoving the flask back in a drawer and returning to the table. “How’re you going to do that?”
The hologram flickered out of existence for a brief moment as Gabriel lost concentration. “Uh…just seal off the intact doors to those areas and depressurize, I guess?” He sounded like he was asking more than answering.
“Sounds good,” Sam confirmed just in case Gabriel was asking for approval. “So what’s next? You made that to-do list yet?” Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “How about propulsion? Can you move through this space?”
“They can,” said Gabriel, obviously referring to the enemy ships. “So I probably can too. Engines are up and running—you should know.”
The snort Sam made didn’t properly convey his feelings about it, so he followed it up with, “I’m so sick of hiding under those engines. They’re all yours again.”
The ship’s image grimaced at him. “Not if you still want to stay out of sight they’re not.” He flicked at a wrapper Sam hadn’t managed to take away yet and successfully sent it spinning away across the room, replacing the scowl with a grin.
“At least you’re having fun,” Sam complained, knowing even as he retrieved the scrap that if they weren’t in such danger he’d be setting himself up for a game of fetch—with him as the dog. He’d gotten suckered into that game before as Gabriel transported small items around, a tool or plate or book or datapad or garment moving from where he knew he’d put it down to somewhere across the room. Sam had had to chase a pair of pants all the way down the corridor once, wavering between swearing at Gabriel’s holographic self, who’d most accurately mimicked collapsing in tears of laughter, leaning on the nearest wall and simply howling at the spectacle; making random snatches and lunges in the hopes of outmaneuvering Gabriel’s reflexive transporter abuse; and giving up entirely and just finding a different pair—if Gabriel hadn’t decided to step things up and make his whole wardrobe dance through the corridors. (Gabriel‘s sensors had recorded the whole one-man circus, just to make things worse, and Dean had eventually somehow gotten hold of the footage and howled just as loud for just as long. Sam blamed Gabriel unconditionally.)
Damn, he never thought he’d miss living with a being whose biggest problem was finding new games like that to play.
“So—moving,” he reminded Gabriel, who was eying the wrapper with the clear intent of taking another shot at it.
“Yeah, I think I could do it. No damage, but cruising speeds only, though. And where the hell are we going to go?”
Sam thought about it. “Well, if this space is anything like our own, there’s probably not a lot out there to run into, so maybe we should just pick a direction and go that way.”
Gabriel disagreed, and since he was the one with the direct control over the engines his vote was probably going to outvote Sam’s. “That’s a hell of a big if. For all we know this space has planets and rocks all over at random like a bucket of beads tipped over in zero gravity, and I’ll cruise right into one and never know it’s there until I hit it. I can’t see where I’m going, Sam! Not yet, anyway,” he amended quickly. “Give me another day or so to work on the sensors.”
“Another day or so for those ships to come back,” Sam grumbled. “There could be thousands of them out there.”
“Nah,” the ship dismissed this possibility, too casually. Either that was a really scary prospect or, again, he knew something Sam didn’t. But then again Gabriel had already said that he knew things he just couldn’t translate into human terms without more time to figure it out, so Sam let that lie.
“And anyway,” Gabriel added, “those ships out there can maneuver a whole lot better than I can here, and I don’t particularly want them coming after me unhappy—at least, not until I can do something about that.”
Sam had to admit he had a point. “They must have hauled us here in the first place—you weren’t in any shape to move on your own right after the attack—so I guess they could drag you around by the scruff of your neck here too.”
The hologram shuddered, but this time Sam thought it was a deliberate gesture to make a point rather than a slip in his control over the projection.
“All right, so we stay where we are for now,” Sam conceded. “They haven’t taken any more shots at you, so I guess until we know more we’ll be better off not picking a fight.”
Gabriel was happy to agree, since that was what he’d wanted to do in the first place.
“So what now?” Sam felt like he’d been asking that forever now. But for the moment he was uninjured and fed and watered and, well, relatively clean. The headache incurred by the transition from their universe to this one had ebbed away through food and sleep and work, so since there was nothing he could do out there, it was up to Gabriel to keep him informed about what needed to be done on that front.
“You already know the transporters aren’t working right, or you could come take a look at the holoprojector controls,” the ship complained, batting at his wrapper toy and glaring at it when his hand went straight through both it and the table beneath. “I think the fault’s in the central control unit rather than the individual projectors or me. You asked for a second pair of hands, right?”
He had done that, and it was good that Gabriel remembered, because that had been during one of the moments where he wasn’t sure if the ship was even conscious.
“I think I could fix them myself, given time,” continued Gabriel thoughtfully, “but there’s a hell of a lot burnt out in those systems.”
This might have been empty bravado, or a way to hide that he was asking for help, since as far as Sam knew, Gabriel didn’t have the sort of automation to do repairs like that, especially since the hologram was only solid on an irregular basis. Maybe he was desperate enough to download to the human body, but physically moving things with human muscles was, he thought, not high on the list of things Gabriel wanted to be doing. Sam rescued the besieged wrapper and tossed it away. “Right, I’m on it. Come on, then, or are you going to meet me there?”
“I lose my grip on this one,” was Gabriel’s commentary on his options, “I might not get it back.” The hologram followed Sam out the door into the corridor and continued a step behind him as Sam dragged up his memories of where the ship’s various control points were located, designated banks of mechanical, biological, or hybrid computer equipment that the ship could access at will without having them directly interfaced with his mind, like a simulator controller that a human could put down or pick up at will rather than having it wired directly into the brain.
He picked the transporters as his first objective, just in case. The control point for those wasn’t a location Sam visited particularly often, as Gabriel could pretty much run and maintain it on his own, but he set off on his best guess, focusing on his goal and taking turnings as he saw fit. If he took a wrong turn, Gabriel would be sarcastic at him, which would be embarrassing, but at least they wouldn’t get lost.
Sam was pretty sure he was on the right track, but he never got there. At his elbow, Gabriel’s image suddenly froze, yelped, “Sam!” before adding, in a very small voice, “oh crap,” and then falling silent, image juddering.
He wasn’t stupid, and unlike some people he could name, Sam could take a hint. He spun around, instantly calculating the fastest route to the engine rooms not far away, and took off running.
He hadn’t gotten much further than a few steps when Gabriel reappeared next to him with an expression he’d never seen before and which frankly scared the hell out of Sam. He looked…ashamed, and understandably scared, and a little bit whipped.
“Don’t bother,” said Gabriel. The intimidated and shameful look in his eyes and across his body language made him look even smaller than usual. “Sorry, Sam.”
The next voice Sam heard speak was not Gabriel’s.