Title: Mutable: Chapter Twelve, Part Two
Chapter Twelve, Part Two
The first thing to do was to get ears in different places, telling Cas what was going on and whether or not he was being mentioned. There were probably plenty of ways to do this with Imperian technology, but all of them would be trackable by other people as well, probably easier than Cas could even imagine. There was still too much he didn’t know, and even daily training sessions with Private Fillie and evenings spent debriefing with his husband wouldn’t be enough to fill the gaps. That meant it was time to dip into some of the more obscure abilities of the phage.
Training with the phage encompassed all kinds of tactics, with every conceivable espionage technique made available in some form or fashion. It could be dangerous to teach your phage too much, however. They were learning creatures, adaptable in the extreme, and if you didn’t hold their reins tight enough, they would destroy you in an attempt to escape. The organisms were independent-minded to begin with—it was part of what made the fatality rate of phage trainees so high. If their strength was greater than your ability to fight them down, they would win, overtaking your body and oozing out of every orifice in an effort to expand.
Cas had had his phage for long enough that they were well settled now, but it hadn’t always been like that. He’d nearly lost control of it three times before—once when he first received it, once when he first learned to separate it from himself (boy, had that ever given the rest of the organism the wrong idea) and finally when he taught it to gather resonant information.
Resonance gathering wasn’t as comprehensive a separation as making a piece of himself that behaved like his real body did. All it required was the slightest bit of the phage spread in a bodily fluid—blood was best but saliva or urine worked—and spread someplace where it would be exposed to sound, light, and vibration. While it was wet it would absorb and retain the stimuli around it, and then once it was dry Cas could return to it and use the phage to analyze the contents of its recording.
It wasn’t an easy or foolproof way of gathering information—most of the time all you got was gibberish—but it would let Cas know where to concentrate his focus. The morning after his talk with Rone, he sat and meditated in his room for a while, thinning out the phage in his blood and preparing it to receive new information. Rather than fighting to escape him, the rest of the phage settled deeper into the bone, like a skeleton-eel content to gnaw on an old, familiar carcass. The danger of a revolt was always there, but didn’t seem like it would be acted on today.
After an hour of preparation, Cas carefully cut the index finger of his left hand. The standard shake for Imperians was with the right, so if he had to greet someone he could do it that way and leave his wound unnoticed. The wound bit fairly deep, but no blood flowed out. That would only happen when he was ready for it to.
He met Fillie five minutes later and they began today’s activity—a guided tour of the ship. “There are a lot of interesting departments,” she said as she walked down the hall with him, bright as a torch in her smooth red uniform. “Astrometrics, Botany, Logistics and Trade—that’s where I work. Engineering is always fun, and so is the Leisure department. You’ve already seen the medical unit and the mess hall, so we can skip those—”
“Let’s start in the mess hall, actually,” Cas said. “I could use a snack before we get started.”
“Oh right, of course!”
Being with Fillie was like having a buffer made out of pure sunshine. Most of her colleagues warmed around her, softened by her own softness. A few of them tried to take advantage of it, but either she recognized the attempt and toughened up a bit, or someone else stepped in to keep it from escalating. People like Fillie were probably the reason a closed environment like this didn’t lead to a bloodbath—natural peacemakers were invaluable to any army.
“The muffins are good,” she advised as they got into line. Cas touched his finger to the very end of the counter and let it stay there as they walked down, leaving a very thin smear behind. It would stay liquid for a few hours, maybe half a day if the air temperature stayed constant. The phage came with all sorts of advantages. He could come back at dinner tonight and see if it had learned anything.
“What kind of muffins?”
“Oh, everything is good, but I think the special today is currant-cherry. Have you ever had currants before?”
“No. Or cherries.”
“Beren!” She plopped a muffin down on his tray. “That’s got to change!”
They sat and ate together, Fillie keeping up a string of light conversation, and Beren expanded his hearing and listened to the people around him gossip quietly. The attention was less intense today, but still present—perhaps half of it was positive, the other half derogatory. Interesting.
They moved on soon enough. Astrometrics was quiet and beautiful, filled with holographic star charts and math that Cas couldn’t follow but found wonderfully elegant. The lieutenant in charge there was nice enough, with no obvious signs of discontent at Cas’s presence, but not a lot of curiosity either. The same happened in the Botany lab—if anything, the woman running it was eager to ask Cas questions about the flora found in the caves on Leelinge, and asked him to point at similar specimens in her repository.
“It’s a terrible shame we weren’t able to make any actual forays there,” Lieutenant Peshar said pensively, curling the tip of her long white braid around her finger. “Leelinge is one of only two planets with extensive underground caverns, and the one on Nomad isn’t easily accessible to its inhabitants. We know almost nothing about the kind of plants and animals that thrive there. It’s a terrible scientific oversight, not to mention the humanitarian consequences.”
“Why not conduct interviews of refugees?” Fillie asked before Cas could.
“I requested to,” Peshar said. “My requests were denied repeatedly by Lieutenant-Commander Jepson.”
Naturally. Cas still wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Jepson. She seemed to be loyal to Rone, but at the same time she was a rule-following bureaucrat of the highest order. Was she also a rabid xenophobe?
“Maybe next time,” Fillie tried to commiserate. Lieutenant Peshar snorted.
“There won’t be a next time. The Leelanger government is going to quarantine those caves to all outsiders and either rework them or level them completely, so that nothing remains of the original inhabitants and the evidence of their way of life. It’s a damn travesty.”
“I’d speak to you about it,” Cas offered. He wasn’t sure why he offered—he didn’t know this person any better than most of the people on the ship. Maybe it was her passion for a place that had been everything to him once. “I mean, you could interview me about it.”
Lieutenant Peshar looked intrigued, but wary. “We were given orders not to ask you for anything.”
Oh, Rone. “You’re not asking,” Cas explained. “I’m offering. I’d love to talk about Shyne to someone who’s really interested in listening.”
“Well, in that case…” They made an appointment for the following morning, and Fillie looked as proud as if she’d set the whole thing up herself.
“That was so nice of you!” she enthused as they headed toward Engineering. “The lieutenant has been in such a grumpy mood ever since we left Leelinge. Some people say that her, um, attitude is the reason she hasn’t made commander yet, despite how good she is at the science.”
“People are jerks sometimes.”
Fillie nodded. “They really are. Great, we’re at Engineering, let me introduce you to the Chief!” She leaned in a little closer. “He’s the only other noble on the ship, a lower Lord of Metal. But he never holds it over other people like he could.”
“That’s…” the bare minimum of decent behavior in an environment where talent is supposed to take precedence, “nice of him.”
“I know!” She led Cas into a large, cavernous space in the bottom of the ship. Silvery tanks humming with thousands of gallons of coolant lined one wall, with an orderly mess of tubes extending out from them through every surrounding surface. Another wall contained a very robust-looking AI interface, in front of which a heavyset man with cavern-black hair tipped in blue stood, watching a dozen different screens and shouting at a dozen different junior engineers.
“Brendan, I swear to the fiery mountain, if you don’t get that electrical line unhooked before another surge comes through, I will come down there myself and dampen it with your thick head.”
“We really just need a replacement, Chief, it’s—”
“And do we have a replacement?” he demanded, rhetorically it seemed. “No, we do not, because we had to give all our extra supplies to a bunch of damn diplomats, so make it work with what you have! Take it off, find the source of the surges and fix it, then put that one back on.” He finally noticed Fillie and Cas and turned with a scowl. “No tourists today, Private.”
“I know you’re busy,” Fillie said. “I just wanted to give Beren a quick tour, if that’s all right? The Captain—”
“The captain knows better than to mess around in someone else’s domain just because he wants to keep his pretty little husband from getting bored! I’ve got three emergencies in three different departments today because those fucking diplos took my fucking supplies, and you want me to—”
“The sealant isn’t working, Chief! We’re going to lose Nu-Tank Two in less than a minute!” This was from a different screen, spoken by a dark-skinned young woman who was shaking a tube of something with a scowl on her face. “I can back it up with a sara-patch that might hold it for another few minutes, but then I’m out of options down here.”
“I’ll bring the welding equipment, you do whatever you can in the meantime. Do not let that tank fail, Nevins, otherwise we’ll be eating nothing but unflavored protein mush until we get home.” He turned to Fillie. “I’m commandeering you, Private. Grab that rig over there and come with me.” He pointed at a heavy, backpack-set welding unit. Cas wondered for a moment why he couldn’t take it himself until he picked up a cane from on top of the desk and began to limp down the second hall to the right.
“And you!” He twisted and pointed a finger at Cas. “No wandering! You can have your little hand-holding expedition later!”
Fillie, her expression torn between immediate obedience and dismay, looked apologetically at Cas. “I’m so sorry, Beren. I’ll catch up to you as soon as this is done, all right?”
“It’s fine,” he assured her. “Go, before everyone gets nothing but protein mush.” She grabbed the rig and heaved it over her shoulders, then ran off after the Chief, who was very fast with his cane. Cas stood there for a long moment by himself, tempted to look around but knowing he was being filmed right now. He reopened the cut on his finger. Where would be a good spot to mark before he left…
The voice was faint, coming from the hall farthest to the left. It was smaller than the others, and looked more like an open access hatch than an actual hall. Cas walked over to it, letting his hand brush gently against the wall as he stopped in front of it. “Help, please!” the voice called out again.
“What’s wrong?” Cas called back.
“Hurry, before it falls! Please, I need help!”
Strange timing. Cas pressed his wrist to the wall and said, “AI, respond.” Nothing. Was that normal in Engineering? Perhaps it was—perhaps there was too much going on in here already to configure the AI in the walls as well. Or perhaps it was a trap.
Cas’s instinct was to ignore the cry. Obviously this place was a mess, so it might be legitimate, but unless he knew for sure, he shouldn’t risk it. It wasn’t his job to help. He could find another crewmember and send them in.
Beren, though, wouldn’t do that. He was a sweet-hearted, actions-without-second-guessing kind of soul, and he wouldn’t wait. He would go in himself. Cas knew that, and more to the point, Rone probably knew that. The last thing Cas needed right now was more oversight from his husband.
“I’m coming!” Cas called, and started down the small access corridor. He had to stoop a little to fit, and moved as quickly as he could while stretching his senses wide. Machine lubricant, ozone, steady vibrations in floor and walls, and—
He reached a four-way stop in the corridor, and suddenly the lights went out. Only because his ears were attuned for it did he hear the sudden creak of the metal plate over his head, as though every bolt holding it on had just been loosened. Cas dove forward into a roll, and a second later a thick square of ceiling plunged to the floor just behind him.
A second after that, someone’s hand was around his throat.