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.