Title: Mutable: Chapter Three, Part Two
Chapter Three, Part Two
Imperians, Cas thought to himself for the dozenth time since setting out, were arrogant.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t realized that before, but he hadn’t really understood it. Now he was beginning to see just how far their arrogance extended, and it would have made him shake his head if it wasn’t working so well in his favor.
He moved around the encampment like a wraith, sticking to the shadows and the obscuring rain, even when he began to shiver from the cold. There were regular patrols, but the people performing them were fast and perfunctory with their duties. It was clear that they didn’t have the slightest concern for their camp being infiltrated. And why should they? Imperians were the technological marvel-makers, the ones who had pulled themselves out of planetary solitude and obscurity first and gone on to create a new system-wide hierarchy as they saw fit. They were at the top—other trade planets were in the middle—Leelangers were at the very bottom. And Delacoeurians? Ha, they didn’t even make the graph.
It took about an hour to get the layout of the camp. The troop barracks and mess halls were close to the front gate, along with the administration tents. Further in were officer’s quarters, as well as the dedicated space dock where Imperian ships squatted like giant silver toads, waiting to leap into the air and croak their way into space. For a people who valued appearances so highly, Cas was surprised they didn’t do more to enhance the beauty of their ships.
He didn’t find any weapons, but that was only to be expected. Besides, anything could be a weapon. He did find the central generator, which was guarded by a simple camera and alarm system that a child could work around. If things went badly for Cas tonight, he could probably still manipulate Captain Basinti into letting him stay a little longer. Another opportunity to get outside meant he could disrupt the generators and delay the Imperians’ exit for days, possibly weeks. There was leeway here, and Cas knew how to turn the tiniest bit of leeway into a lever to open an entire cavern. Almost anything could be an advantage if you approached it the right way.
“If you think you might lose, then you’ve already lost,” his mentor, Ozeda, had told his pupils. Cas hadn’t been the only person of his generation to take on a phage. Ten had tried, seven had succeeded, and two remained alive. The other had already left the planet. She was the primary target on Cas’s list.
Christala. I’m coming for you.
First he had to make it off of Leelinge, though.
By the end of the second hour, Cas knew he should be heading back. He needed to break back in, after all. Shaking with cold, he made his way along the outer edge of one of the smaller barracks, a blocky, artless building that had probably been thrown together by a bot in under an hour. No aesthetics, no sense of beauty. Another chink in their Imperian armor.
Voices sounded from inside, braying with laughter so loudly that, despite himself, Cas was drawn to the sound. He hadn’t heard laughter in a long time. Should he…would it be wise to…
He had his ear to the edge of the door in a moment, eyes trained through the window to see what was happening inside. Two men and two women sat at a table, drinking what was probably alcohol, and also probably against regulations while they were in potentially hostile territory. Sloppy. So sloppy.
“But truly,” one of the men was expounding to the little crowd, “the fact that we’ve wasted so much time on this backwater irritates me. How hard is it to get the Leelangers to agree to our terms? Even cockroaches can be trained to eat from your hand.”
“Stiff necks,” one of the women, whose curly hair kept falling into her face, said. “Too much pride. And what do they have to be proud of, anyhow? Managing to survive on a swampy wasteland like this? Being better than the inhabitants of the unluckiest ship in the system? It’s ludicrous.”
“This whole fucking situation is ludicrous,” another man grumbled. “We should have been off this rock a week ago, not coddling a bunch of refugees destined to become our asteroid miners and toilet bowl cleaners. I blame Basinti. He’s too soft.”
“Watch it,” the first man cautioned him. “I admit that it’s inconvenient, but the captain is a hero of the conquest. He wouldn’t get a command like this if everything was exactly as it seems. There’s got to be some delicate diplomacy happening.”
“Fuck their diplomacy, Aleks,” the other man grumbled, taking another drink. “They don’t deserve diplomacy. We should have come in here, pointed our guns at their heads and said, ‘Give us what we want.’”
“I feel sorry for them,” the second woman spoke up. Belatedly, Cas recognized her—it was the soldier who had been dispatched to deliver his meal. “Not the Leelangers so much—the Delacoeurians. Imagine landing on the planet you’ve been traveling to for centuries and finding it so…awful. And then they got here and things were just as bad, if not worse. We’re doing the right thing by taking them away with us.”
“You’re a soft heart,” the loudmouthed man scoffed. “Too soft for this sort of work, Fillie. Lower planetary people are like stray wrakkens—feed them too much and they’ll cling like burrs, even when you try to burn them off. We shouldn’t be encouraging them to rely on better people to take care of them.” The door on the other side of the small building slid open, but the man didn’t notice. “Basinti should have told the Leelangers to take our crumbs and be grateful, and he should have told those fucking Dela-whatevers to make peace with their gods, because—”
“Because what, Private?”
The way the four of them jumped to their feet was gratifying. The one who’d been drinking the steadiest lost control of his flask, too. It fell to the floor with a clang as he wheeled around to desperately salute the officer who’d crept in like an unexpected storm. Darven, Cas remembered. First name or last?
“Commander Hije!” the drunk soldier gasped.
Ah. First name, then.
“Because what?” Darven pressed. “Because you think you’d like to go out there and dispense a little indiscriminate cleansing, is that what you’re thinking? Because you think, what, you’re so much better than people who’ve not only managed to live in some of the worst conditions imaginable for decades, but to almost take over the fucking planet while doing it? People with next to nothing build a civilization underground that rivals anything we could have done when we first arrived on Imperia. And lucky them, when they gave birth to dumbasses like you, those dumbasses didn’t survive long enough to make it into the military, where they could shame their commanding officers with their idiocy.”
The soldier looked about a moment away from throwing up with panic. “Sir, I—I didn’t, I’m so—I apologize.”
“I don’t give a damn about your apology,” Darven snapped. “What I give a damn about is you mouthing off in such a disrespectful manner. And the rest of you?” The three other soldiers seemed to shrink inside of their uniforms. “You should have cut your friend here off at the pass. I don’t care what you say when you’re on your own time, but on away missions like this, you have no time of your own. Your time is my time, it is Captain Basinti’s time, it is Imperia’s time, and you are disgracing all of us with your behavior. Next time I catch word of this sort of talk going around, I’ll have the four of you buried so deep in shit work that your eyes go brown. Do you understand?”
He singled out one of the women. “Private Fillie, the captain wants the Delacoeurian in Delta Two brought to his tent. Take Jarves with you.” He glared at the loudmouth. “And when you’re both done with that, Jarves, you come find me. Your night’s only just beginning.”
“Yes, sir!” The exited the tent double-time, and Cas swore. How was he supposed to get in around both of them? He sprinted around the outer edge of the camp to beat them back to his building, racking his brain for a way to get inside. He couldn’t out-maneuver two of them, not without—
Ah, but Jarves had been drinking, and heavily. That could be his in.
Cas beat them to their destination by a comfortable margin, and watching Private Jarves stagger along, he knew he had a chance. He sidled as close as he could, the rain mirrored against his bare skin, waiting for them to get close enough. Jarves was complaining—softly, so at least he could learn—and Fillie was trying to ignore him. He slouched up behind her as she scanned her wrist, made to follow her inside—
Cas stuck his foot out, and Jarves tripped over it and fell right into Fillie, knocking both of them to the ground. Cas darted in around them and went straight for the showers, letting the phage turn its efforts back to changing his face as he—very quickly—washed off under the spray, then dried and got dressed. By the time he came out, the soldiers had righted themselves, although both were rather red in the face.
“You must have really enjoyed that shower!” Fillie said brightly. “You’ve been in it for hours!”
Cas smiled sheepishly. “It’s the first hot water I’ve had access to for months.”
She nodded understandingly. “I see. But you didn’t eat anything. Weren’t you hungry?”
He was starving, actually—the phage took a great deal of energy to maintain. “I lost track of time,” he said apologetically.
“That’s all right. Why don’t you eat some real quick, before we go?”
“Fillie,” Jarves grumbled. “We’re on a timer here…”
“I’ll be fast,” Cas said. He bolted the food down—noodles in a salty sauce, some sort of spongy vegetable casserole, a square pretending to be chocolate cake, and a glass of diluted juice. It all tasted heavenly. He wiped his mouth and stood up from the cot. “Thank you so much,” he told her honestly. “I’m ready to go now.”