These Are the Voyages…
Summary: Sequel, "Strange New Worlds" [recap inside] Sci-fi AU: Six months ago, space explorers Sam and Dean Winchester and their starship partners Gabriel and Castiel survived an attempt on their lives and their futuristic world. Now the consequences of that battle are sinking in. Are their enemies regrouping, or is something else going on? Destiel, developing Sabriel. NaNoWriMo 2013!
ON WITH THE SHOW!
Chapter One: Bad Day at Black Rock
The Story So Far: Strange New Worlds
Several hundred years have passed since the beginning of the third millennium AD. Despite the challenges the human race has faced since then, humanity has survived and flourished, filling up their home world. Along the way, the puzzle of artificial intelligence, or AI, was solved, although no one is entirely sure how the process works exactly. In any case, the computer minds far transcended the technology used to build them, and became the equivalent of humans themselves.
Partly because these intelligences found a place in the human species by taking the forms of starships, and partly because they could think at such faster speeds and process more information, the AIs and the humans developed a form of faster-than-light travel that involves transit through a realm of space where the laws of physics are different and allow ships to essentially transcend the speed of light, if they can avoid or survive the currents and distortions in the fabric of that universe that are equivalent to violent storms. This is generically known as flight, a natural corruption of the phrase 'faster-than-light'.
The starships are making the colonization of the relatively nearby universe by humanity possible. They have several quirks.
They like to call themselves by the names of fantastic characters out of myth and legend. They are distinct individuals. Rather than being exiled to space as faceless machines, they can appear among humans in a variety of ways. Along the way, humanity and the starships have also figured out the ability to project solid holograms. Some ships prefer this, because they can disappear and reappear at will. The more power that is directed into a hologram, the more solid it gets, but a side-effect is that touching one stings human flesh slightly at normal levels. Most of the ships also have human avatars, cyborgs constructed from a cloned human form and genetically and cybernetically modified to be stronger, faster, and more durable than human beings, which are precisely controlled by the appropriate starship.
The starships act human. They look human. They consider themselves human.
To accommodate the eternally growing human population, other planets are being colonized. Some ships, with human partners to keep them company in the deep and faraway black, occupy their time by traveling to star systems with potentially habitable worlds. Since they have never encountered another sentient species, and the ships do not have a history of violence among themselves, the starships are not armed.
Their human companions generally make a brief survey of the planet, if it's even there, while the ships check out the rest of the system. It is work for people who are a little bit crazy, who can survive and flourish with only a very few companions, and who thrive on risking their lives in unpredictable and dangerous situations.
One of these exploration teams is comprised of Sam and Dean Winchester, still much as they've ever been, and their starships Gabriel and Castiel. They have been working together for almost five years now. While they can be relied on to annoy people in authority on a regular basis, they excel at what they do. They enjoy their work, and they consider each other family.
Throughout the prequel to this story, Strange New Worlds, a series of flashbacks describe the developing romantic relationship between Dean and Castiel, incarnated in the human clone Dean regularly addresses as Cas. Their brothers are aware of this relationship, as are their friends such as their direct commander, Ellen Harvelle, and their surrogate father and good friend Bobby Singer. The two have developed a strong and powerful relationship, and are unlikely to be separated by anything short of significant amounts of physical violence.
Six months before this story begins, the Winchesters and the starships receive troubling news, shortly after visiting a planet they named Shadow for the ghostly figures Dean claimed he saw there. Ships and crews are disappearing, and no one can detect a pattern or figure out how this is happening, or what has happened to the missing ships.
Soon afterwards, not long after running across a peculiar anomaly that defies description, the ships are attacked by flight-capable and very armed starships. Castiel manages to escape, while Gabriel is damaged and captured. Here the story splits in two but runs in parallel.
Dean and Castiel return to Launch Station, the Fleet's headquarters in Earth orbit. In response to their report, the Fleet begins converting the starships with weaponry. However, this requires the ship being adapted to shut down, a vulnerable state. When Castiel is revived and he and Dean attempt to run off on their own to try to rescue their brothers, they discover that an override has been written into the ship's core programming, an attempt to force the newly armed starships to obey a military commander – the Fleet's starship commodore Michael. Castiel manages to break this conditioning and they return to the anomaly they discovered earlier. Taking the chance that it is a gateway to somewhere else, they travel through it to a completely lightless and alien universe.
This is the place where Sam and Gabriel have been taken. Sam works with the damaged and wrecked Gabriel to keep them both alive while the starship tries to figure out what is going on. Their efforts are interrupted more than once by the arrival and departure of the attacking ships, the purpose of which is at first unclear. Gabriel refuses to tell Sam his suspicions, but eventually the secret is revealed: the ships that hurt them are the ships that have gone missing.
These ships, referred to as the dark Fleet and led by a starship called Samael (another name for Lucifer), have learned to use the peculiar properties of the dark dimension they're inhabiting and have been corrupted by that power. The 'Beneath' is a realm where reality can be shaped by thoughts. Wishes and subconscious desires affect reality, if they're strong enough. The ships of the dark Fleet, after being brainwashed by their siblings and exposure to the Beneath, believe that access to the Beneath means they no longer need humans. They hope to convert the rest of the Fleet in the same way they attempted to convert Gabriel – by putting him into a desperate situation where he would have to use the power the Beneath holds. The only reason he wasn't significantly affected was because he had Sam to talk to and work with him. The other ships of the dark Fleet have all killed their human partners. They can create weapons from nearly nothing, change their own structures, and affect the fabric of the universe around them. They are very dangerous.
To make matters worse, Gabriel realizes that although Sam survived the initial attack by the dark Fleet, exposure to the Beneath is killing the human, faster and faster the more he uses it. Gabriel comes to realize how much he actually needs Sam, and how important the human has become to him. Most of the time, Sam is completely unaware that he is manipulating reality. If some of the things he needs happen to occur or be available, he chalks it up to good luck. But when Samael tells him how the Beneath works, he begins to try to fight back, unintentionally accelerating its effects.
Unknown to Sam, Gabriel, and the dark Fleet all, Dean and Castiel are navigating through the Beneath to rescue their brothers, figuring out the properties of this universe from scratch, but they are significantly outnumbered. When the two groups encounter each other, an elaborate shell game ensues to distract the dark Fleet and get Sam back in control of his actions, which culminates with Gabriel and Castiel running for their lives from a very angry Samael and his dark Fleet so that they can get back to their own universe and tell the rest of the Fleet about what's going on.
Samael and the dark Fleet pursue them through another gateway back into the normal universe, and Castiel comes up with the idea to collapse the gateway behind them. Since the ships of the dark Fleet only know how to open those gateways from within the Beneath, through the power of will and that universe's ability to respond to desires, the dark Fleet is now stranded in this universe.
The two ships and their human partners keep running from Samael and the dark Fleet, traveling faster than light to reach a relay beacon so that they could send a message home. Samael pursues them into the dangerous heart of a faster-than-light storm, seeking vengeance. He is ultimately destroyed by the force of the storm, although Gabriel is nearly destroyed as well in the process.
While the rest of the Fleet now knows about the threat posed by the surviving ships of the dark Fleet – four remain – and Dean, Sam, Castiel, and Gabriel are all alive and together, their universe has been significantly disrupted.
The ships' own corrupted siblings, while in hiding somewhere, will be looking for revenge.
A faction, of unknown power and membership, among the leadership of the Fleet proper, tried to control the rest of the ships entirely against their will.
Perhaps most significantly for this small family of Winchesters and ships who are the equivalent of angels, they have drawn attention to themselves, and very little of it is friendly.
They have made most of the rest of the universe their enemies, to some degree.
They have learned that they can only rely on each other.
That was six months ago.
The Middle of Nowhere: Not Long Ago
In retrospect, Captain Devereaux would look at the failure of the Prometheus' flightdrive as the pilot light in the flamethrower of misfortune that was pointed at them in the black dark of interstellar space. It was only a point of interest, until the rest of it flared up and hit you.
He was nominally in command of a fleet of ships, hauling materials and equipment out to a scientific anomaly one of the Interstellar Fleet's robot ships had turned up. Frank Devereaux could really do without those things – the ships, not the anomalies. He didn't quite hate them, as such, but he felt that there was something fundamentally wrong about being spoken to by a machine. Just because it had a supercomputer for a brain and could travel faster than light like a bird in flight did not, as far as he was concerned, make it a person. It faked it well, that was all.
In any case, one of the mining corporations that had set up headquarters on a planet called Bright Spot had heard the news and declared its intention to take advantage of the rogue planet, a world that had been, according to the Fleet, ejected from its solar system and consigned to the deep black. It was out there, traveling to nowhere. Completely lifeless, and, if the ship's scans had been accurate, rich in a variety of minerals Roman Enterprises could put to good use. He didn't think much of the company, but anything that would keep him flying despite the competition from ships that flew themselves was worth a look.
The fleet headed out to the rogue was carrying enough mining and processing equipment to rebuild a space station, which was essentially what they intended to do, albeit on the ground. The plan was to land the heavy miner, the slowest ship in the fleet and the biggest, on the surface, which could begin extracting any materials within range. They would also bring down and ground several of the other ships to serve as a base that humans could live in, and build out and work from there.
While Rogue, as it was inevitably called, was completely uninhabitable, a lifeless cold husk, the corporation's experts had accomplished more with less. Landing some of the ships, while leaving others in orbit to act as a form of air support and an increased scanning profile, made for a more or less instant base. Just like that, they'd have science labs, sealed entries, living quarters, power generators, food and materials replicators, plumbing, and more, not to mention the machinery that was there to do the work of a high-powered refinery. It was, by and large, standard procedure, and could be adapted to almost any group's purpose.
Another thing the sentient ships couldn't do. They were built for deep space only. Ask them to get into an atmosphere or gravity well and they'd start making excuses and finding other places to be. Frank had made a career out of kicking computers that didn't do what they were told and he wasn't fond of ones that kicked back and sidled off to do something else.
Frank's fleet had stopped momentarily, all fifteen ships of various sizes and none with pretentions of self-awareness or humanity, to transfer personnel between various craft. Nothing out of the ordinary; neither transporters nor smaller shuttles could operate while the ships were in flight, and crews tended to feel less isolated if they could visit other ships. It was also a good opportunity for the various ships' captains to confer and check in with each other. The break was purely psychological, but it worked, and Frank was not going to change something that worked for him.
No one reported any problems. That was the odd thing, he'd think later. A failure of the scale that the Prometheus was about to suffer didn't happen without some warning, in much the same way that stars don't suddenly stop shining or water abruptly freezes without a cause.
The fifteen ships had been back in flight for six minutes before someone on the Cassandra's crew did his job and noticed that the fleet now numbered only fourteen.
Frank set his bridge crew to checking that, with a snap of "Whaddya mean, not with us?" A moment later, his helmsman agreed that the Prometheus wasn't with them.
Irritated, and placing the blame squarely on the Prometheus' captain, Benny…he couldn't remember the man's last name, hadn't bothered to make note of it…Frank contacted the rest of the fleet and sent them back to where they'd last seen the Prometheus.
She was still there.
The Prometheus' crew reported that they couldn't find any explanation for the flightdrive's complete and utter failure. The ship's systems kept reporting that there was nothing wrong, but the powerful device that allowed the ship to jump into another dimension and travel there refused to do what it was supposed to.
Then the situation managed to get worse.
Impossibly, whatever was wrong with the Prometheus was apparently contagious. An hour into waiting for the Prometheus to get her act together, the Cassandra reported that her flightdrive had shut itself down for maintenance, which was not supposed to happen automatically and, when everything was working, required the captain's authorization, the first officer's, and that of the harbormaster at one of three ports that were light-years from the middle of nowhere where they were now.
One after another, without any apparent connection, five more ships had their engines go offline or otherwise malfunction. When the Miramar tried to jump back into flight, the flightdrive hummed happily and refused to engage with anything. The power was there, it just wasn't going anywhere, and neither was the Miramar. Neither were any of them.
Frank had been paying attention to the news. The longer they were stranded out here in the black, the more the entire fleet was at risk. A year ago, this would have been an inconvenience, an inexplicable and frustrating but probably solvable delay.
Now there were evil things in the sky. Some of those robot ships the Interstellar Fleet ran had gone crazy and made themselves weapons, human spacefarers had been warned. While some of them had been destroyed, there were four still left. No one knew where they were, what they wanted, or what they were going to do about it. But they were killers.
Captain Frank Devereaux took a good look at the crippled and vulnerable ships and regretted not pushing harder to bring more armed craft with them. Only two of the mobile ships, and small ones at that, were capable of doing more than running away, and while three of the others could shoot at things, they couldn't move any faster than a basic cruise.
They wouldn't last a second against ships that flew themselves in and out of flight with reflexes beyond a human's.
He hated to do this.
Captain Devereaux retreated to his quarters and accessed the communication relay system that the Interstellar Fleet was setting up wherever their ships went. It wasn't fast enough to let him talk in real time to the Fleet's commanders back in Sol system, but it would do for a message.
Some time later, his communications officer risked interrupting a shouting match his captain was having with the commander of a ship with an abruptly malfunctioning flightdrive and a complete lack of patience with Frank's approach to getting it fixed, which amounted to excessive amounts of sarcasm, to pass on a recorded message.
When Frank played it, it ran this:
"Captain Frank Devereaux, Maze Runner; Admiral Ellen Harvelle, Launch Station." Having introduced herself and confirmed who the message was for, the admiral went on, "We don't have any answers for you off the top of our heads here, but I know a whole host of engineers who'll get more out of your report than I will. Until they come up with something or your ships get moving again, though, the Fleet can spare you a guard. I have a pair of armed ships stationed just a few days away I can send you…"
Dean hated this planet unconditionally.
To look at, it wasn't a bad place, at least in the areas he'd seen and visited in the past few months. This region was similar to the grasslands of the Winchesters' first visit, when they'd conducted the initial brief survey. It hadn't been extensive or comprehensive. That wasn't their job. They'd come down, they'd looked around; they'd confirmed that humans could breathe there. Dean had seen shadows that had seemed to have human form. Sam hadn't. They'd argued. The ships hadn't found anything, so they'd agreed to flag it as something strange and then they'd all moved on.
He didn't want to be back here. Once they moved on, they were gone. At least, that was how it was supposed to work. Dean and his brother and the ship Castiel who was also his lover Cas and Sam's trickster ship partner Gabriel made whistle stops, and then they ran off to see what else the universe had to show them. Under ordinary circumstances, they'd spend weeks or even months with no one but each other for company.
That was how they'd liked it. While most people craved the company of the crowds that were so common on most inhabited worlds these days – there was barely an empty square inch of space on Earth, and most of the earlier colonies were filling up fast – the Winchesters only needed each other and space to run.
Dean was long past beginning to suspect that assignment to Shadow, therefore, was a punishment and was now absolutely sure of it. Four months, now, shading towards five every day, in one place. Four months of looking after an ever-rotating group of scientists and map-makers and clever people from all walks of life, checking this world out so that more people could move here, just in case one of them saw the same shadows he'd seen here the first time. Smart ships and dumb barges brought new people and took others away, and Dean and his family were left here.
Stuck. Grounded might be closer, he thought, and not for the first time.
Dean was surrounded by people, and he felt more alone than he had in a long time.
Most people would have probably quite enjoyed the view he had right now. This particular region of Shadow sloped off from the continent's primary grasslands, broken every now and again by an outcropping of rock, into low bluffs that separated shore from sea. The planet's star, a little closer and thus seemingly larger than Earth's, turned the grass almost golden, with an undercurrent of green. And then there was the ocean, receding to the illusory horizon. It was a shame he saw the horizons created by the curves of planets as borderlines these days. When the wind blew in from the sea, which it had been doing often today, Dean could smell salt, true, which he'd expected as most worlds inhabitable by humans had saltwater oceans, but there were a variety of other scents mixed in, none of which he could identify.
He missed Cas, who would know what all of them were and then tell him about it in detail until Dean laughed and pleaded with him to stop.
He and Sam had gone out this morning with a group of…marine biologists, if he remembered rightly, who wanted to do things he hadn't been listening to. It was the middle of the day now. The shadows – and they did exist! – had never been seen during the day. But Dean was the one who had insisted on the warning flag on this world. The logic seemed to be that he – and by extension, Sam, and by further extension, their ships – was the best person to enforce that warning.
Except none of them were suited to staying in one place for so long. They'd loved their lives of traveling ever onward, with a new horizon and a new world and new stars there for the finding whenever they cared to wander that way.
But then a single ship of the Fleet had found his way into a universe where reality worked differently, and he'd spread its poison and infected others. That dark Fleet had taken Dean's little brother and Sam's starship Gabriel to do the same to them. And for running away and bringing them back, they were all being punished. For succeeding. For defying the starship who ran the Fleet, they'd been exiled to this single rock in space to protect a full-strength survey team numbering in the several hundreds from shadows only a handful of people had ever seen.
They were being kept separated, the brothers and their ships, he knew it. Over the time they'd been exiled here, the portable holoprojector Dean usually wore around his neck like an amulet had been confiscated for cussing out Rufus, the leader of the survey team, and the virtual reality goggles that let the ships project images into the perspective of the wearer had mysteriously malfunctioned. Members of the survey team kept giving the brothers jobs to do, while some of them simultaneously acted as if the ships were unwelcome down on the surface, even though they could do anything a human could. It was as if they were being told that humans had one place, and ships had another, and that those two were very separate, even though no ship would ever stand for that. They considered themselves human, and resented being left out of things.
But if they objected and started causing trouble, it would look like they weren't trustworthy anymore. That the Beneath had corrupted them too, in a more subtle way than it had the missing ships of the dark Fleet.
It left Castiel and Gabriel sulking alone in orbit, their human partners and friends stuck somewhere they didn't want to be. Separate and under suspicion.
And right here, right now, there was nothing Dean could do but growl at himself, the people messing around in the shoreline who he was supposed to be guarding, and the Fleet authorities who had sent him here.
They had to get off this planet.
"You know we were sent out here today to get that look off your face, right?"
Dean twitched his sleeve away from where his brother had grabbed it to get his attention, probably hoping to bring him out of whatever he was thinking about before Dean actually took a swing at Rufus this time. The other day had been too damn close. Ironically, it probably was why they'd been sent to the beach, which under better circumstances should have been a vacation of sorts. Down at the shoreline, the rest of the team seemed to be treating it the same way, if what the brothers could see from their vantage point, in the open hatch of the surface skimmer that had brought them all out here, was any indication.
The lead biologist, Eve, was trying to get them to organize and get some work done, but every time she turned her back the people she was supervising went back to playing in the surf again. At least someone was having some fun while the brothers sat here wishing they were anywhere else.
He'd known Sam was there, and Sam knew his brother well enough to see the tiny flicker of body language that meant he knew he knew it. Years ago, Gabriel had laughed at them for "speaking in Eyebrow", as he'd put it. When Dean actually spoke aloud, it was far too quiet for Sam's liking.
"I can't go on like this, Sammy," he said darkly. "We gotta talk."
"Okay," Sam agreed, glancing around. "Here, or…"
Dean waved him off. "All of us."
"Ah." His brother clambered around him to get to the skimmer's controls. "Give me a minute." Less than that, and he had a signal that would reach orbit. This craft's systems weren't actually supposed to do that, but he could improvise.
"Gabriel," he called. "Castiel."
The message was picked up immediately, and the carrier wave was momentarily overwhelmed as two ships tried to talk through it simultaneously before they sorted it out. "Is she gone?" was the first thing Gabriel wanted to know.
Sam laughed. "Yeah, it's clear." He glanced over his shoulder. "She's trying to get Andy to stop throwing water on Ava. Sending us all to the beach might not have been the smartest idea she's ever had."
They were reasonably sure that Eve was the Fleet's primary spy on them. They were all under suspicion after returning from the Beneath. No matter that they'd been the victims, and that they'd been lucky to survive. All the rest of the Fleet knew about the Beneath was that the ships and the people who were exposed to that terrible dark void of a universe came out insane and dangerous.
Dean was still thinking about that rather than the amusing spectacle of their own personal shadow on Shadow failing utterly to dodge a misaimed splash and ending up soaked in cold seawater. Even the sound of her furious shriek, brought to them up on the bluff by a sea breeze, wasn't enough to take his mind off the fact that they'd been tainted by association through no fault of their own.
The sound of a transporter effect bringing a familiar figure down to the planet's surface was. The skimmer they'd brought out here was almost the size of a ground bus back on Old Earth, and in an open space large enough to fit a human being, a person was materializing.
He stayed unconscious for a brief second only – it was profoundly disorienting for a ship to transport its human avatar while simultaneously seeing through its eyes – before Cas woke up, and Dean reached out to pull him into a fierce hug.
The ship's avatar returned it as Dean sighed into his shoulder, relieved to have his lover back with him even if they were still stuck on this planet. They stayed like that, in each other's arms and comfortable, even as the transporter effect whirred to life again and Gabriel's human form joined the small group, seating himself behind Sam where he sat in the doorway of the shuttle. The two had become much closer since their time in the Beneath with only each other to rely on, but with more eyes on them than Sam was comfortable with, at least, their relationship was still very different from that between Dean and Cas.
They all needed each other.
"Babysitting is boring," Gabriel complained, and hardly for the first time. "We shouldn't be here."
"What are we going to do about it?" Sam put the question out there. "They don't trust us." It was a sweeping statement, incorporating the survey team on this world, the other ships of the Fleet, the humans that knew about what had happened to them in the Beneath, and especially the Fleet's commanders, from the many human admirals to Michael himself and the starships that were his immediate lieutenants.
"We don't trust them," Cas contradicted him. Castiel had been temporarily remote-controlled by a program Michael had had installed in the ships when they were being armed. It had been a fight for him to even let the repair crews back at Launch Station, the enormous space station in Earth orbit, fix the damage that had been done by the corrupted ships of the dark Fleet in their escape. He'd been even more reluctant to let them make the limited upgrades that Dean had eventually talked him into, and agreed only on the condition that Dean watched everything they did.
"Which is why we shouldn't be here!" Gabriel volleyed back. It sounded as if they'd had this argument before. "If they think we're going to lose control and start hurting people like Samael and his monsters, why are we here watching over this survey?"
Dean huffed mockingly. He knew the answer to that one. "Because they don't need us," he snapped back. "We're not here to watch the survey. What are we supposed to be doing, protecting them from shadows?" While it was unlikely that Shadow was actually haunted, as some people had put it, sightings of the planet's 'ghosts' were reported every now and again, although their refusal to show up on scanners or be caught on any sort of camera meant that the members of the team who hadn't seen them dismissed those who had as hysterics, hoaxers, and afflicted with too much imagination. The brothers and the ships were here, at least officially, to protect the survey team from those 'ghosts' as well as anything else that might find humans deliciously crunchy. "As long as we're here, they can watch us. The Fleet knows where to find us."
"We should leave," Cas said unexpectedly. "We should leave and not come back."
"What, completely?" Sam's eyebrows went up into his long hair. "Just take off?" He thought about it as the four of them fell silent.
When they'd been scouting new and unexplored planets, off on long tours that could run for months or up to a year at a time away from everyone else, the idea had occasionally come up that they should never go back to Earth. Why should they? the argument ran. They had everything they needed in each other.
Still, they'd always returned. Sam and Dean had friends within the Fleet. Their friend Bobby Singer, who was like an uncle to them, ran the branch of the Fleet that made things, fixed them, and remade things, and his department was responsible for keeping the ships and machines in good repair. Bobby was family. How could they leave him behind? Their supervisor, Admiral Ellen Harvelle, was a friend just because she put up with them, and before the Beneath, had cut them more slack then they'd really deserved. When they really thought about it, there were plenty of people that they'd miss if they left completely, if the ships pointed themselves at another galaxy and never planned to return. They'd never get to see Charlie and Ash argue about incomprehensible computer things, a spectacle that got more complex and hysterical every time, and that was only one example. It wasn't so much about the place – Earth wasn't their home, even though they'd grown up there. The ships who were also their friends were their homes. It was the people they liked that they'd miss.
And the ships… Starships were gregarious; they needed company to keep functioning as reasonable and rational people. They talked to each other in an ever-buzzing web of gossip and chatter. They flew together in impossibly spiraling flocks that never collided, an instinct instilled in them since their creation. When a single ship journeyed out into the black alone, a human always went with him or her to keep the ship company. It was perfectly possible for a starship to die of loneliness, if isolated too long. Those that took human lovers inevitably did, once the human died of one cause or another. Once that connection was broken, there was no replacing or healing it, and the loss had always proved fatal.
If they did run away, would the four of them be enough for each other? They wouldn't have a purpose or work to do. They'd just have each other, and nothing and no one else. Gabriel wouldn't have anyone to play with except Sam, and it had always been easier for the human to keep him under control if the trickster ship had other targets to take out his frequently mildly sadistic creativity on. They would lose the friends they had.
Worse, they'd be confirming the suspicion that there was something wrong with them because of their experiences. And the last thing any one of them wanted to do was prove those fears right.
"We can't," Sam argued when the silence stretched out too long. "If we just behave ourselves, Michael will start believing us when we say we're not dangerous, not like the others." He wanted to believe this. To some degree, Sam had the most invested in this belief. He was the one who had given in most to the Beneath's potential, who had begun to use its power to change reality through force of will so naturally that it had brought even his subconscious wishes to life. Sam had to believe that the taint that Samael and the dark Fleet had exhibited wasn't inevitable. If it was, then that was on him. It was in him. He refused to believe it. The dark Fleet had terrified and disgusted him. He refused to believe that he could, or would, be like them.
"We haven't done anything wrong," he reiterated. "We can do this, guys. Be patient."
"But it's taking too long," Gabriel whined, twisting around and going up on his knees to sprawl across Sam's back to talk directly into the taller man's ear. Realizing through long experience with the ship's sense of humor that this was a joke, Sam actually grinned at him, as Gabriel had wanted, and pushed him away, which he liked quite a bit less. Dean had become accustomed to having no personal space whatsoever over the years of his relationship, at first friendly and then romantic, with Cas. Sam was used to a little less physical proximity from a being who, until recently, had favored showing up as a hologram that could disappear at will and was, as he insisted on pointing out, remarkably difficult to stab or hit. People occasionally tried, as Gabriel excelled at and thrived on driving people as insane as possible.
Sam had watched with some amusement as their brothers had discovered what they wanted that relationship to be. But in the days immediately after their escape from the Beneath, where they had both nearly died, and had been saved by their reliance on each other almost as much as their brothers' timely rescue, Sam was beginning to suspect that he and Gabriel were working out a new relationship. Before, back when everything was normal, Sam would have summed up his relationship with the starship as not too much more than a favorite target. When Gabriel came up with some fantastic new prank, Sam was there to put up with it; it was a great game where no one got seriously hurt, although Sam had, at times, been mildly drugged by inventive varieties of coffee, woken up to discover the ship's artificial gravity switched off, been ambushed by holograms of extinct but large and often loud wild animals in the middle of the night, and had things go missing at inconvenient times, among a whole array of other things.
Now…well, some days they seemed to be going in one direction. Some days, it was like nothing had ever happened, between them or to them. Sometimes it had all been a colossal mistake. Sometimes they didn't talk to each other for days on end. It was all very confusing, and only the fact that he knew Gabriel was as confused as he was kept Sam from losing his temper sometimes. That, and that not blowing up at the mercurial, temperamental trickster on a regular basis was his job.
He wasn't sure what they'd end up becoming to each other, the ship and the man, and he suspected Gabriel didn't have a clue either.
But there was no way in seven hells he was going to ask Dean for advice, if only because his older brother would laugh ridiculously hard. They'd figure it out.
Then again, it might bring Dean out of the silent fuming his older brother spent most of his days in lately.
He didn't get the chance to bring up the lighter if much more personal and embarrassing topic, however, as their family conference was interrupted by a most unwelcome arrival.
"What are you still doing hiding up here?" a slightly wet Eve demanded, appearing from the newly created path up the bluff to where the skimmer waited for the beachgoing survey team. "We have work to do," she insisted, despite the evidence of anything but work going on down in the water, "and you two should be making sure nothing is going to attack us. And why are you here?"
The ships' avatars so rudely addressed glared at her, resenting the intrusion. They considered the Winchesters theirs, and for them, part of this punishment detail was having their human companions taken away and put under the command of other people.
"Hey," Dean challenged her, "give it a rest. No one's in danger, and if they were—" Inspiration struck. "…then Cas and Gabriel could transport them away much faster than Sam or I could get involved."
"Nice one," Sam muttered approvingly, for his brother's ears alone.
The situation might have been saved if everyone had backed down at this point, but Castiel had had enough.
"We're leaving," he told her curtly, shifting so that his head rested on Dean's shoulder and pulling his attention away from the human avatar, which lost consciousness briefly as the ship matched actions to words and dematerialized them both.
Dean rematerialized on his bed, in his quarters back aboard his starship – home! – with that ship's human form still practically in his lap despite the glazed look that meant Cas was busy being Castiel and wasn't really paying attention. The human was instantly grateful for the choice of landing pad, despite the fact that Castiel had switched off the lights in here after the human had left for Shadow and hadn't turned them back on yet, leaving them in a dark more complete than anything but the void of the Beneath, as he felt and heard powerful sublight engines roar to life.
It was an abrupt and rough launch as Castiel scorched out of orbit, desperate just to fly. He didn't care where he was going or how far they were going to get; the starship just wanted to get away, leaving Shadow and the people on it and his brother Gabriel and his friend behind equally. Castiel was built for speed and agility, smaller than some of his siblings but faster. He was desperately bored of free falling through orbit after geosynchronous orbit, going nowhere at the speed of Shadow's rotation. Trapped.
He wanted to run.
He knew Sam was right, and that his adopted small family's best bet was to behave and do what they were told for a while until they were again free to do what they wanted to do, free to be themselves, and free to wander the depths of unexplored space again.
This wasn't a complete break for freedom: if that ever happened it would be less spectacular and he wouldn't leave without Sam and Gabriel, because Dean would never give up his brother and Castiel could never bear to lose Dean. They'd go together, when and if they went.
Piling on speed, Castiel left the little blue planet far behind, cruising rather than jumping into the dimension where flight occurred, staying below the speed of light but chasing it the hard way.
Acceleration pressed against him, the starship's structure feeling the force of it in the exertion and resistance as he drove himself towards an impossibility as if that would relieve the frustration.
Back in his rooms, Dean could feel the push of acceleration as the ship's engines all but screamed. Castiel was running just to run, like a human runner pushing himself to his limits to feel the burn of stress and muscles working. He recognized it instinctively: if you hurt, you at least knew you were alive.
A sudden surge of power and speed was strong enough to not be caught completely by the ship's built-in inertial dampers, the shear of acceleration shoving the man prone, sprawled flat on his back on his bed in the dark. It felt infinitely vulnerable, held down by the laws of the fabric of space itself and unable to see anything. Only the fact that Dean had lived in these rooms for about five years now and knew what they looked like, and the complete trust he placed in his Castiel kept him from protesting or trying to struggle into a position that felt a bit safer.
He was rewarded for his trust as the ship's attention shifted away from their mad flight, scorching through space on a course to nowhere, to the human scale. The pressure of acceleration eased ever so slightly, enough for him to move freely, but was almost instantly replaced with human hands pushing him down to the mattress, the weight of his lover's body across his, and a desperate, hungry kiss.
Everything else could wait. This was real, and they needed each other. Dean knew that he was everything to Cas, and damn if it wasn't mutual. It didn't get any darker when he felt his eyes close involuntarily, surrendering any plans he'd had to the hot jolt of wantneedminemine that struck like lightning and set them both on fire. Storm lords, he'd missed this.
This was not one of their gentle days. This was going to be rough and furious and primal, he knew immediately, all but fighting Cas as they struggled to taste and touch and come together. Cas was stronger than him, Dean knew, but damn was that frustrating sometimes. He kissed and lapped at a spot on the other man's throat he knew was a weak point and almost forgot to take advantage of the distraction because of the sound his lover made.
Now he regretted not being able to see. Dean privately considered his lover very pretty for a guy and never more when he was losing control, as human as it was possible to be.
He wasn't thinking clearly – neither of them were – as they burned through space and burnt each other up. The human thought he managed to say something that sounded remotely like "let me—" right before Cas let him take back a degree of control and lead for a couple of minutes or so. It didn't matter; everything was lost in fire and need.
Dean didn't notice when the lights came up a little bit, just enough to let them see each other. He eventually noticed that they had, but only because he realized that he was seeing Cas's blue eyes drowned to blue edges around black want and how white his fingers had gone where they were braced against the wall at the head of the bed.
That was right before the hand he couldn't see did something that made the human's knees give out and Cas took advantage of that to flip his lover onto his back and pin him down.
That was when Castiel started to get creative and the ship's ability to project holograms anywhere within the various chambers came into play as black wings mapped themselves to bare shoulders and the ports that ran down Cas's back, moving with him and responding. The wings ruffled in response to the hands that swept across the avatar's chest, shifting and flexing as they moved together.
Dean swore, appreciatively, unable to stop himself reaching for them, burying his hands in virtual feathers. The sting that always accompanied touching a half-solid illusion tingled between his fingers and the calluses on his hands, buzzing at the end of his fingertips, strange but unexpectedly enjoyable. He grabbed for a handful of those black feathers and pulled Cas down to him, needing his lover more than ever before and overwhelmed by the sight of him as the angel he'd named himself after.
If they couldn't fly away free, they could at least pretend for a little while.
"That was new." Dean smirked, knowing that Cas knew him well enough to spot it as amusement born of approval and not mockery. Because why hadn't they thought of that before?
Cas pulled away enough to sit up, ignoring for the moment Dean's half-hearted noise of protest. "That's how bored I am," he grumbled, turning his normal deep rasp into something that sounded like nothing more or less than a growl. Illustratively, the holographic wings made an appearance, spreading to their full span and refolding themselves into the man's back, where they disappeared, like a hawk stretching its wings even though unable to fly.
Dean had a really good comment about how if that was what Cas made out of boredom perhaps the ship should be bored more often. He decided it was actually a really bad comment and decided not to say anything. Nevertheless, Cas knew him well enough to read the thought straight off his face; Dean never could keep a straight face that would fool him.
The human shifted almost uncomfortably as that direct stare Cas did so well came to bear on him. He'd seen that look before, and every time it didn't matter how many clothes he has on, he felt like that look could take him apart and see straight into his heart and soul. Just because in this case the number of clothes he had on amounted to none didn't help– now he felt even more naked.
"It's wrong, what they're doing to us," Cas said bluntly.
Really, he needed a few more minutes to get his thoughts back together. And possibly a few hours of sleep. Dean wondered where they were. Had they gotten all the way out to this system's Oort cloud yet? Had they been gone that long? Possibly not; that was a long way out there. But he was willing to bet that the cloud of rocks and ice and space junk that marked the boundary between a star system and interstellar space would be Castiel's line between 'staying in the system, just went for a run' and 'making a break for it'.
"I know, Cas," he agreed, resignedly. And, after a moment's thought, "Would you do it? Could you, Castiel?"
Dean rarely used the full name; he'd given Castiel the nickname within a couple of weeks of meeting the ship. He only ever called him that when he was angry or deadly serious. "Could we, I mean – be a fleet all our own. If we run, Cas, that's forever. That's crossing a line. We probably couldn't ever come back, if – and when, man, shit happens – we needed to."
The lights in his rooms went back out completely as Cas sighed regretfully and grabbed at the nearest sheet that they'd shoved off the bed sometime earlier, pulling it up and over them where they lay together, intertwined. For a while, Dean thought that the subject had been dropped and that Cas had given up on the idea, probably taking them back into the system at a more reasonable pace.
But before he dropped off to sleep entirely, Dean distinctly heard Cas say, quietly, "I just need you."
He was woken by the sound of a call demanding his attention. Still mostly asleep, Dean mumbled something about "Cas, dammit, 'm sleepin'!"
It was still pitch dark, so he felt rather than saw Cas smile, in the curve of the lips pressed to his cheek. That was nice. He could wake up for more of that. "Gabriel's calling." Well, that he could stay asleep for. "Sam wants to talk to you."
That was two reasons to wake up and one to stay asleep. Awake won. Dean opened his eyes and Castiel switched on a few lights accordingly. "We in trouble? Wait, don't tell me – he hasn't said yet, I know. Okay, put him on." He caught himself. "Just sound though. You know what he said the last time."
'The last time' had been almost a year ago, but it had been the only time Castiel had forgotten that while Sam was perfectly fine with his brother and the starship's human self sleeping together, he didn't particularly want visuals, which he had expressed as dramatically as possible to the amusement of exactly two people (Sam and Gabriel) after Castiel had switched on a video feed into Dean's bedroom when the human was just waking up and wasn't exactly dressed.
Sam had overacted and laughed a lot. Dean had retorted by digging up as many childhood embarrassments as possible. Gabriel had gotten involved and all but shrieked with delight at learning so many incriminating things about his favorite playmate and captive audience. Sam and Gabriel had gotten sidetracked into one of their arguments and Dean had chalked that up as a victory for himself.
"Feel better?" Sam's voice asked as Castiel put the call through.
"Bite me," his brother retorted.
He could hear Sam laughing. Oh, he couldn't hear anything, but the silence in itself was incriminating, and he could hear the tone in his younger brother's voice that meant he was grinning like Gabriel with candy and an unsuspecting target. "Guess what?" He went on before Dean could make any guesses, because that never went well. "Ellen called."
"You're kidding! What's up? Tell me she's found some other schmuck for this Shadow job."
"Sort of," Sam reported.
"What's that supposed to mean, sort of? Are we free or what?"
It was a testament to exactly how well the brothers knew each other that Dean knew exactly what facial expression Sam was wearing as he spoke. Dean had once decided to list all the expressions that he collectively referred to as Sam's bitch face but had forgotten which numbers belonged to which ones long ago. "We don't have to babysit Shadow for a bit, but we've got to run off and babysit someone else."
"Yeah. Mining fleet broke their engines. They're stuck out in the middle of nowhere and the fleet commodore is jumping up and down and frothing at the mouth because he thinks our favorite four psychopaths from another dimension are going to show up and attack them. Ellen wants us to go stand guard until they get moving again."
That sounded about a thousand times better than watching Eve and her minions wander about in the woods for hours on end. Besides, Dean had been meaning to hurt the remnants of the dark Fleet ever since he found out about them. He had issues with creatures that thought they could take potshots at his family, and those ships had done nasty things to his baby brother, someone who was important to Sam, and Dean's very own Cas.
Leave the endless rolling boredom of Shadow behind and go somewhere where the dark Fleet maybe might show up looking for a fight?
"Hot damn. Let's ride."
to be continued