Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Thirty, Part One

Notes: OMG, we're almost at the end! Three more posts total after this, I'm thinking. For now, enjoy Cas getting some well-earned R&R...while under constant surveillance.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Thirty, Part One


Chapter Thirty, Part One

Overwhelming pain, for Cas, was usually like a flood, the water risen so high within him that the only thing to do was find a distant corner of the cavern of his mind and either hope the air held out, or drown there. The phage was poor at pain management—healing was fast, but it entailed enduring a lot of suffering over the duration. Mental discipline had been the best way to handle it, and that had been a brutal learning curve. Cas was used to it, though. He knew how to handle that kind of pain.
It was different this time. There was no ticking clock in the back of his head counting down the seconds he’d need to endure, no gritted teeth or forced calm. If pain was a flood, then Cas was definitely underwater, but this time…breathing didn’t seem to matter. His whole body felt cool and relaxed, his mind pleasantly empty of anything that might disturb him. He was probably on some really excellent painkillers, then.
He understood that there were sounds around him—whispering noises, people or machines, but rather than try to rise and face them, he let himself go deeper. Eventually he touched down in a place he barely remembered. It looked like his childhood home—two rooms, one for cooking and company and one for all of them to sleep in, with stone floors and walls and a slate ceiling. It was cold, but in a comfortingly familiar way. There was the rug his grandmother had hand-knotted, there was his mother’s favorite cup sitting beside the kettle, and there was—Beren.
He seemed like just a baby, barely old enough to play with the other kids outside. His big, dark eyes were full of wisdom when he looked up, though. “Is it better?” he asked in his sweet, childish voice.
Cas sat down next to him. “Is what better?”
“How you feel now.”
This isn’t a conversation you need to have, Cas argued with himself momentarily. Much less with your mind tricking you into seeing Beren. That’s playing dirty. But surprisingly, he didn’t mind it so much. Maybe because he knew Christala was dead. It was a sick comfort, but nevertheless a solid one to rest on. “It’s better,” Cas said after a moment’s reflection. “Because it means that the hardest part is over.”
“But you’re not done.”
“No,” Cas agreed. “But I also might not get the chance to finish any of the rest of it. I went after the most important person first, and she’s dead now. If that’s what I have to be satisfied with, then I can be.”
“Do you wanna be?”
“What, satisfied? With just her?” Beren nodded, and Cas looked at the floor between them for a moment, following a familiar white vein of quartz to its inevitable end at the wall. “It would be a comfort in some ways,” he confessed. “To just be done with it all. To forget about the others and be happy with the havoc I managed to wreak here on Imperia.”
Beren reached over and took his hand. “You saved them.”
“I know.” Cas squeezed reassuringly. “I know I did. They know it too, but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to admit it, and I did a lot of highly illegal stuff to get here in the first place, so…we’ll have to see how it all balanced out. I don’t think I can rely on anything.”
“Rone,” Beren said very simply.
“You think I can rely on him?” Cas considered it. “Maybe. Absolutely in some ways, almost certainly not in others. Again, it will be a balancing act. If I’m lucky, he’ll order me sent off to join a group of Delacoeurian refugees, with a new identity. I’m sure he won’t let his brother do anything permanent to me.” Almost sure. Nearly sure.
Beren patted his hand. “He won’t.”
“Okay.” Cas opened his arm, and his little brother climbed over and into his lap. He hugged him close and nestled his face against the smooth, glossy black hair and decided it was all right to remember how to breathe.
Gradually he became more and more aware of his actual surroundings—there was a blanket on top of him, just a wisp of weight that nevertheless did a good job of keeping him warm from the chest down. One of his arms was free—or not free, exactly, but not confined by the blanket. It was warm too, and so was the left side of his chest…
Ah. He’d been turned into a pillow. Hell, the children had to be exhausted, what was Rone thinking letting them lie with Cas here when he was little better than a lump?
“…soon as possible.”
“That’s not going to happen.” That was Rone’s voice, and the other one was…Doctor Weiss, maybe?
“Wishing it isn’t so isn’t going to change things.”
“Wishing doesn’t factor into it. And keep your voice down, the kids are asleep.”
There was a long sigh. “I don’t know if you understand how precarious Beren’s position here is. He knowingly carried a virulent alien parasite within reach of our royal family. Not just you and your children, but Amiru’s as well.”
“He was hunting down another carrier.”
“That doesn’t matter! He should have reported her instead of—”
“How successful would a report from a refugee from a distant planet have been? What kind of impact would that have made with the admiralty? Would Amiru ever have even seen it cross his desk? No. Cas did the only thing he could, which was follow her himself.”
“While deceiving you and everyone else around him.” Weiss sounded tired. “Cas, yes, not Beren. That’s a great deal of the problem, right there. How can you be so blind to it?”
“He saved Amiru’s life.” Rone’s voice was firm. “And he saved mine.”
“He infected you with his own parasite, which then did its level best to kill you, from the look of things. Without your genetic modifications bolstering your immune system, the results could very easily have proven fatal.”
“But they weren’t. I’m fine.”
“You’re nowhere near fine!” Doctor Weiss spoke in a furious whisper. “I can’t extract it, do you understand that? It consciously evades detection in your blood and tissues! And your body is viral-resistant, so to engineer a virus that could successfully hunt it down would have to be so strong it would almost certainly kill you! And we’ve seen what these things are capable of now, thank to the vids from your brother’s home. Do you honestly think there’s any chance of you salvaging your military career after this? You’ll be lucky if the king doesn’t stick you on an island in the middle of a sea of lava.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“I care about the strength of the empire. I care about Imperia’s future. With you and Amiru working together, I was…optimistic.”
It was Rone’s turn to sigh. “Optimistic about what? That we could continue our conquest of the other settled worlds unmolested? That I’d go back to doing my brother’s dirty work without a qualm? Believe it or not, I think the phage is a good thing for us to know about. It proves that there are things out there that we don’t have a handle on and can’t control. Maybe it’ll make Amiru think twice about exerting the control of the crown over planets that have nothing to do with us.”
“You used to think that way too,” Doctor Weiss said thoughtfully. “Did the children change you so thoroughly?”
“They did,” Rone said. After a moment, he added, “Not just the children.”
“I can see that. Well, I can’t—” The doctor paused. “Ah. I think he’s waking up.”
“Good. Let’s move the kids. I want to talk to him alone.” There were sleepy grumbled, and the sudden absence of comfortable warmth, and then…silence. If Cas had still had his enhanced hearing, maybe he would have been able to detect Rone’s heartbeat or breathing, but to him it sounded like…nothing. Had Rone left him too? When was he coming back?
“Cas.” A big, broad hand covered his bare shoulder, and Cas shuddered with relief. “Look at me.”
With a grunt of effort, Cas opened his eyes.

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