No story today, since it's all presents and messes and running after my kiddo. Because I love you, here--have a picture of the kidlet being hoisted and smooched by her daddy :)
Yes, those are cats on her pajamas, because we are stylish mofos.
I hope your holidays are delightful, whatever you celebrate, and that you get the chance to hug your loved ones. I'll do another post on upcoming projects and the new year later in the week.
For now, I'm off to read my baby one of her dozen new books. Yes, we're book people, how could you tell?
Tuesday, December 25, 2018
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Notes: It's time for some action! It's time for some adventure! It's time for Cas to venture nearly butt-naked out into the dark of night. Hope he has fun with that ;)
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Two, Part Two
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Two, Part Two
Chapter Twenty-Two, Part Two
“How do you know?”
Cas paused as he served the kids’ dinner up—it was similar to the pasta they’d vehemently refused before, but with a sauce that Rone assured him they would love. Rone wasn’t with them tonight. He’d been there when they got home, listened attentively as the kids regaled him with the take of their outing—Shar managed to express quite a lot, considering he didn’t verbalize—and commiserated with Cas over Danie’s fate, but had been called away before dinner.
“It could be all night,” he’d said apologetically as he grabbed his jacket. “But we have a full guard here at the house and on the grounds, so there’s no need to worry. No one can get in or out without being found.” It had been an odd bit of reassurance—Cas wasn’t worried about someone else infiltrating this place, not really. It would be too direct, not at all Christala’s style. She was going to come after him upside down and sideways, which meant he needed to get ahead of the game. He needed more information on her, on the shell she’d worn before changing things up.
He needed to get to Danie Yorque’s apartment.
“Beren.” Lilah poked him with her fork, jolting him back to the present. “I said, how do you know?”
“Know what’s important for your mission and what’s not?”
“Hmm.” He handed each child a bowl of the pasta, then himself, and sat down across from them at the table. “It’s mostly in the small details.” What the hell, it wouldn’t hurt to pass on a little spycraft. “The big things won’t be wrong, but little things—those are the pieces that the person I’m pursuing might not get right. Things like…how they drink their tea, or whether they hum to themselves while they work.”
“Like Fillie does!”
“Right, like Fillie does. If she didn’t hum, you’d know something might be wrong with her. Maybe she’d be nervous, maybe she’d just be tired, but maybe…maybe she’d be something else.”
The kids were riveted. “Like what?” Lilah murmured.
He was getting in way too deep with this now. He should pull back, lighten it up. Cas wanted the kids to be able to sleep tonight, after all—he needed them to, if he was going to get away with what he had planned. “She might be…not right. Compromised in some way. But that’s not something either of you need to worry about,” he assured them. “Fillie is perfectly fine, and so is everyone around you.”
Lilah looked at him with a serious expression. “But we should still let you know, right?”
“Let me know what?”
“If one of the details is wrong. It could be a person being conprom…comprim…what is it again?”
“Compromised,” Cas said. What the hell. “And yes, if you notice something like that, then tell me. But I’m sure you won’t.”
Lilah nodded with satisfaction. “I’ll keep a lookout.” Shar nodded too, solemnly. Cas was struck once again by the fact that he really didn’t deserve these kids. They thought he was Beren, their loving stepfather, when really he was just…
It was frustrating even thinking about being Beren right now. Beren would have been upset that his husband wasn’t coming home tonight—Beren would want every chance to reconnect with Rone. Beren would be feeling neglected. Beren would be feeling horny as hell. That much, Cas could attest to, but the strange, delicate dance he and Rone were playing out came second to the mission.
Tonight, he’d get field work done on his terms. He had what he needed, thanks to absconding with one of the smart-fabric facemasks he’d taken from their attackers during the riot. He’d kept it close to his skin all day, and had focused all the energy that the phage could spare on working its’ talent for mimicry. If things went well, the phage would change Cas’s skin to provide the same functionality as the fabric—confounding electronics and distorting anything that the cameras might pick up.
It would be hard work. Cas served himself another helping of pasta.
By midnight, the children were asleep and Rone had sent a message confirming that he’d be gone until the next morning. Cas had responded with the appropriate amount of disconsolation, then shut out all the lights and headed for Lilah’s room.
He let himself quietly into the tunnel, closed it up behind him, then stripped down until he was wearing nothing except a covering for his groin, fashioned out of the facemask. He released the phage, and sighed with relief as his face became his own again—thinner, rougher, more broken but so assuredly, unmistakably his. Cas ran his fingertips over the bridge of his nose and down his chin, massaging the dimple there, the little starburst ridge of scarring across his forehead. Then he focused on what needed to be done to make his next transformation.
It wasn’t enough to be simply versipellous, to mimic the color and shape, this time around. He had to change the function of his skin at the same time. The phage organisms were capable of this on their own, but very few of them had ever managed to translate that innate ability into something useful for a host in the field. It hadn’t been necessary, on Leelinge—the technology wasn’t advanced enough to warrant it. But here, on Imperia, Cas was damn glad he’d made the effort to perfect this aspect of his control. Christala might be able to influence other people, but Cas could change the way the cameras, the computers, everything out there saw him.
At least, he hoped he could.
He started with his hands, staring at them and visualizing an overlay that would affect the texture of his skin, take him from human-smooth to viper-rough, with the corresponding iridescence. It should turn his heat signature into a blur, make him seem more like a spot of mist on a camera than a man.
It hurt, forcing the phage to conform to a new shape, and over such a huge proportion of his body. The organism nearly vibrated as it infiltrated his integument, morphing everything from form to pigmentation. After twenty minutes of agonizing focus, though, Cas not only had his mobile camouflage up and running, he’d also pried out his implant, along with enough of himself to keep it broadcasting that he was present and accounted for here in the house. He was close enough to Lilah’s room that it would look like he'd never left.
Cas shivered as he stood up—it was cold in the tunnel, and he was already exhausted. Hunger nipped at his stomach like an angry eel, just nibbling for now, but soon it would rage through him, leaving tremors and blurred vision behind. Ideally, he’d be back within the hour.
Ideally, it would take half an hour just to get to Danie’s apartment, if he hitched rides on passing transports.
Cas took a deep breath and shook out his hands—dull gray now, except for the faintest shimmer when he turned them toward the dim glow coming from under the entrance back to Lilah’s room, where she slept with a nightlight on.
No time to waste. Toughening the soles of his feet a bit as a precaution, Cas headed for the mouth of the tunnel.
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
Notes: Please excuse my attempts at Bengali, I don't speak it and am relying on reveral different websites for decent translations. It's just a few words, but I'm just putting this out there.
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Two, Part One
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Two, Part One
Chapter Twenty-Two, Part One
Two days later, Cas stood outside an older building on the east end of Obsidian, one child holding onto each hand and a royal guard behind him, and wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into.
It was supposed to be a quiet, discreet visit. The sort of thing he could shrug off as a vague interest—oh, you know, linguistics is so interesting and I hear there’s someone there who came from Leelinge, so I thought I’d go and check it out. As soon as he’d broached the idea to Rone, though, it had gotten out of hand.
“That’s an excellent idea,” Rone had said. “I’m sure you’d enjoy the company of one of your own people for a time, too. And you can take the kids.”
Cas had nearly bitten his tongue. “What?”
“They’re itching to get out of the house, and this will be something novel for them. Besides, they’re both bilingual. It might be nice to utilize their native languages some.” Rone elaborated when he saw Cas glance at Shar. “No, he doesn’t speak it, but he understands. I think they miss it.”
“Oh.” And that had been that. There was no way Cas could call it off, either—not after Lilah practically jumped into the air with excitement when she found out.
“Is it for secret stuff?” she’d whispered that night as Cas was tucking her into bed. “For your mission?”
“Yes,” he’d whispered back.
“Don’t worry.” She’d patted his hand. “We’ll help.”
In the present, Lilah tugged at the end of his sleeve. “Don’t you want to go inside, Beren?”
Didn’t he? Wasn’t he anxious to find Danie Yorque—actually Christala—and confront her? Wasn’t he ready to take her to pieces?
Not with the kids along, he wasn’t. He’d have to play ignorant this time around, and even though it was technically a waste of time, something in his heart eased at the idea that the end wasn’t coming quite yet. It would arrive, certainly, but not—not just yet.
“Yeah,” he said to Lilah. “Let’s go inside.”
Of course, the organizer was expecting him. Security had cleared this whole visit ahead of time, so when a man with skin a few shades darker than Rone’s and wearing a blue, scholarly robe came forward as soon as they were in the door, Cas wasn’t surprised. “Consort Basinti!” The man bowed. His pince-nez didn’t drop even a millimeter—they must have been made very true to their name. “What an honor to have you with our humble group today.”
“Prime Lord Aheer,” Cas replied with a polite nod, just like he’d been told. “It’s our pleasure to be here. Thank you for making room for us.” Lord Aheer was in the lower rank of the nobility, a researcher and linguist, and about as well-traveled as an Imperian could be without joining the military.
“Naturally, naturally!” Lord Aheer straightened up with a smile, his eyes bright. “It isn’t every day my humble fellows and I get the chance to hear a rare dialect of Delacoeurian origin from a native! And of course, it’s a delight to speak with your children as well.” He cleared his throat and turned to Lilah. “Namaste.”
Lilah shook her head. “Sat sri akal.”
“Oh dear, my Punjabi isn’t really up to speed, I’m afraid. Um, mainū māfa.”
“Oh, good.” He glanced at Shar, who stared stoically back at him. “Ah, would either of you care to join our Shivan experts for a little conversation? They would love to speak with you.”
Cas nodded when Lilah looked up at him. “Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Lilah squeezed his hand, then detached herself and her brother and headed toward the group of three women in the next room that Lord Aheer pointed out. One was clad in a familiar red uniform—some sort of civil servant, perhaps? The other two wore sumptuous green and blue and purple fabrics, more cloth wrapped around a single person than Cas had ever seen before. Wearing something like that would have been considered wasteful, back home. It made his heart hurt a little to think about it, and he wasn’t sure if that meant he missed Leelinge or just missed all the potential joy his people had ignored in favor of bitter practicality.
He pushed the thought aside and turned his attention back to his host. “Lord Aheer, I was under the impression there was another Delacoeurian who met here. I can’t be very unique, in light of that.”
“Oh, yes.” The other man’s expression became somber. “We did have a young woman join us for a short time, but she went missing last week. Of course,” he added with a grimace, “missing is something of an understatement, considering Danie was going hiking near the Pelean Flow. Several of us advised her to reconsider—it’s safe enough in the cool season, but so near the eruptions it’s foolhardy to walk those trails. The government closes off most of the access points, but a determined person can still get back there.”
“Danie went walking on lava flows?”
“Most of it’s quite cool,” Lord Aheer assured him, “and the sights are—unparalleled, really. But when she didn’t show up to our meeting last week, we alerted the authorities to her absence and intent. They checked her home and did a cursory search for her, but with the riots and the enormous eruption right before them, they didn’t have a lot of people to spare.” He shrugged regrettably. “I’m afraid it’s unlikely that we’ll see her again.”
“Ah.” Damn it. Christala had jettisoned her new identity. With her ability to use the phage as a tether to other people’s minds, and the fact that she could literally be anyone right now, Cas felt like he’d been dropped back at square one. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“If you’re interested in learning more about her, perhaps a chat with Shivani?” He gestured to the woman in government reds sitting with the children. “They were friendly with each other.”
“Thank you.” It was worth a try.
The kids were happy to have him join them, but Cas redirected their attention to the other two ladies and once Lilah was chatting happily in Bengali again, asked Shivani about Danie.
“We live in the same building, but I wouldn’t really call us friends,” Shivani said. “When she first arrived I helped introduce her around, got her in touch with the building event group, asked her to a mixer with a lot of the other palace staff—that’s where I work,” she added. “In groundskeeping. I’m in charge of one of the rare flora greenhouses. But she didn’t really seem to click with any of it, and after a while I figured it was better not to bug her and to let her acclimate at her own pace.” She looked down at the table. “And now she never will. I wish she’d come to me, I would have told her not to go, or at least not to go alone.”
“She probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. Delacouerians are a very stubborn people.” Cas smiled. “I should know.”
“It’s nice of you to take an interest.” She leaned forward a bit and asked, conspiratorially, “Do you have any idea when the samples from the mission to your planet will be released to the public? I’m dying to get a look at some of your native plants. I have a friend who works in the botany lab on base, and she isn’t allowed to give me details but she says the fungi are amazing.”
“I’ll see what I can do to speed things up.” Which would probably be very little, but he’d try anyway. “Thanks for talking with me.”
“It’s my honor, Consort.” She paused, then said, “Can you at least tell me their color?”
Cas smiled. “Sure.”
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
Notes: A few callbacks to earlier characters this time around, plus glowing mushrooms, dead parasites and not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-One, Part Two
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-One, Part Two
Chapter Twenty-One, Part Two
Cas blinked as Fillie’s hand came down on his shoulder, startling him out of the tangled confusion of his own thoughts.
“Are you okay?” Fillie asked, her smile giving way to a frown. “Did everything go all right with Dr. Weiss?”
He forced himself to act normal. “Fine, it was fine. Except for the power outage.”
“Wasn’t that so strange?” Fillie marveled. “The brass were supposed to undertake a complete overhaul of the power generators while we were on our mission to Leelinge. The upgrades the engineers had planned should have made actually losing power impossible. I mean, my gosh, we can travel to whole other star systems, shouldn’t we be able to keep the lights on here at home?” She tilted her head in a subtle suggestion, and they began to walk down the hall together. “It’s better not to linger around Medical,” she murmured. “Apparently there’s no such thing as too many tests, and they’re always looking for people to volunteer for research studies.”
Not this person. “Where are we going, then?”
“Well, the captain should be done with his meeting with the admiralty by now, which means he’ll be in with the Chief, but…” Her frown got deeper. “I don’t really think that’s a good place for us to rendezvous. The Chief is still kind of…” She wagged a hand back and forth, the servos in her gauntlet whining gently. “Kind of iffy on you. Which isn’t your fault at all, Beren,” she hastened to add. “It’s just after what happened to Jamal, he’s…well. Yeah.”
Cas was a little too on edge to reel all of his sarcasm in. “He’s afraid I’m going to nefariously lure another of his innocent engineers down a dark hallway, where I’ll force them to try and kill me just so I can have the pleasure of crushing their heads with their own equipment?”
Private Fillie sighed. “Something like that. The guy’s a great engineer, but he’s not the most reasonable person. Anyway, I thought we could go to the botany lab instead, we can—whoops!” She threw a salute at a passing officer, who barely glanced their way before continuing down the hall. “Huh. That’s strange.”
“That’s Admiral Glasden’s chief of staff. I’m just kind of surprised to see him over here—the admiral’s office is on the other side of the compound, the captain and the commander probably had to run there to make it to their meeting on time earlier. And now he’s here, instead of…” She looked after him for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s probably nothing. Anyway, botany!”
It was strange. Being around Fillie, especially with everything else going on right now, should have annoyed Cas. He had Christala to find, he had Rone to trick, he had the loyalty of his children to maintain. Fillie was a distraction, endlessly chatty and ruthlessly cheery. But he enjoyed her company, more than almost every other person on this damn planet and most of the people from his own. She reminded him—a little bit—of Beren. It was the optimism, their never-ending ability to light a candle in the darkness. She and Beren would have meshed like two delicate spiderwebs, coming together to create something stronger and more beautiful than before.
Fillie was apparently a jack of all trades, welcome everywhere she went. The botanists let her into their lab without a hitch, and she towed Cas from plant to fungi to slime, finally finding Lieutenant Pelshar again. The lieutenant greeted them enthusiastically.
“Beren!” She motioned him over to the box she stood in front of. Its walls were completely opaque, but she was looking through a device set in front of it. “Excellent timing, I think they’re about to spore! The bioluminescent mushrooms we talked about last time, the ones I was having trouble replicating—the advice you gave me about the proper nutrient base for them has worked out perfectly. Come and see.”
Cas rounded the table to stand beside the Lieutenant, who stepped away. “Look!” He looked into what seemed like an oversized set of goggles inset in a stand, and—
Oh. “Beautiful,” he murmured without even realizing it. “They’re perfect.” They looked just like the mushrooms that had sprung up near the midden piles in the caves.
“And they’re almost genetically identical to Old Earth mushrooms, which—this is one of the most impressive examples of parallel evolution I’ve ever heard of, especially across such incredible distances. It’s astonishing, really. Or it might be possible that the spores actually traveled through space from one location to the other, which would be even more amazing.”
“No wonder you’re in raptures,” Fillie teased her. “You’ve got something new to publish about.”
“Or not,” Lieutenant Pelshar said with a frown. “All data from the mission is still classified, and we can’t release any of it to the public. It’ll be a long wait to see whether or not they decide to open at least the scientific surveys up for publication and research, but…” She sighed. “It’s not as though we don’t have plenty of other things to work on here. The biologists think they might have identified a completely new type of parasite!”
Cas froze for a split second. “Really?”
“Yeah, it was passed along from Medical, something they took from someone’s blood—what’s his name—it doesn’t matter. Anyway, the sample wasn’t still alive, of course, but they did a genetic analysis and are coming up with some fascinating data on its potential mutability.”
“Yeah. Not, again, that they’ll be able to publish anything at this point, but—”
“Lieutenant!” one of the techs called out. “You better get over here. We can’t access the backup drives.”
She frowned. “That’s not possible. They automatically disconnect from the mainframe whenever there’s an incident. They should be reachable through the secondary devices.”
“Not this time.” The tech sounded grim. “And the central data drives coming back online look patchy.”
“What?” She glanced at Cas and Fillie. “Excuse me, I’ve got to handle this.”
“Of course.” Cas watched her go, agitation evident in her steps, then murmured, “We should probably leave.”
“Right.” They left the lab but didn’t go anywhere once they hit the hall. Fillie looked pensive. “It’ll be terrible if the data they collected is lost. Even if it isn’t completely gone, it might be so badly compromised that it isn’t useful.”
Cas thought about what had happened in Medical, and couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t reveal his relief. He was saved from having to speak by the arrival of Rone, striding down the hall with Darven dogging his heels.
“—too much and you know it—” Cas could make out with his enhanced hearing before a gesture from Rone silenced him.
“All finished?” Rone asked, drawing to a stop in front of them. His face was smooth and unconcerned, despite the rising chaos in every department around them.
“Botany is having some issues, sir,” Fillie offered nervously.
“Engineering is on it,” Rone soothed. “They’ll be around to help set things to rights as soon as possible. What are your orders for the rest of the day, Private?”
“I’m at your disposal, sir.”
“Good. Come home with us, the kids miss you.”
Her worried look vanished under fresh pleasure. “Thank you, sir!”
Rone turned his focus on Cas. “Ready to go?”
“Absolutely.” He was more than ready to be out of there, to wipe this whole strange morning out of his head. Cas had never been a big believer of coincidence, but he was feeling the squeeze of time and circumstance on all sides now. He had to take some things on faith, and since Rone seemed supremely unconcerned, he would let himself be too. “Let’s go home.” He wanted to see the kids—it was strange, to miss them so quickly.
Plus, he had a meeting to prepare for.