Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Nine, Part One

Notes: More Rone time! And we're getting in the air. Strap in, because soon there'll be plenty of sneaking and skullduggery about.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Nine, Part One

***


Chapter Nine, Part One



A few hours’ worth of watching was more than enough to convince Cas that when it came to Imperians, what they really excelled at, beyond technology and exploration, was deluding themselves.

He skipped from documentary to history to visual encyclopedia, and gradually a consensus picture began to emerge. This was a group of people who had landed on one of the most hospitable planets in the system, rendered briefly challenging by a volcanic explosion. They had retained all of the original technology they came with, and thanks to a philosophy of selfish technocratic advantage, had transformed a society meant to be democratic and socialist into a hereditary monarchy.

Hell, they hadn’t even called the planet “Imperia” at first! It had been Gander, from the ancient Earth phrase “Take a gander at that.” Only after they’d firmly set their sites on conquest had the rulers changed the name. And conquest was the only word for it.

Imperia had been first to the game when it came to trade, to technology, to weapons. Now they were very carefully controlling every other planet’s access to the same, whether it was through diplomatic missions, technological “assistance,” or covert operations. They weren’t interested in peace between Leelangers and Delacoeurian transplants for the benefit of either of the original players—they wanted peace because it meant a more stable regime with which to pursue their own, generally self-serving goals.

Beware the outstretched hand, Cas thought bitterly, remembering his aunt’s saying. For it will strike you dead as soon as offer aid.

A sudden shift in the ambient noise of the ship knocked him out of his darkening mood. A hum started up, barely detectable at first, but growing with every second. What was happening?

“AI, what’s going on?” Cas barked.

“VS-229 is preparing for flight.”

Oh…oh, of course. Okay, sure. It had engines that needed to be prepped, of course. That was all it was. Of course.

Really, though, how was it possible that these things ever made it off the ground? They were so big, so ungainly. Powerful fuels aside, it seemed improbable that they worked as well as they seemed to.

Maybe they didn’t. Maybe some of the time they failed. Maybe this time would fail as well. Cas pictured it in his mind, the bulky spaceship rising slowly into the air, then faltering, its engines flickering before it crashed down to the ground again. Or worse—maybe they’d make it into space and then something would blow, a fatal error, only this time instead of crashing to the ground they would atomize in space. Cas could be dead before he’d even begun to realize his revenge.

Before he knew it, Cas was hyperventilating. He closed his eyes and tried to control it, whispered the names of his family and friends over and over again to draw strength from, but none of it helped. He was barely in control of the phage now. It felt childish—it was childish—but Cas pulled his knees up against his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and tucked his face tightly against them. The rumble grew more pronounced, and his breathing became more labored. His heart felt like it might fly right through his chest.

He didn’t even notice when the lights brightened, but he did feel the strong, soothing hands that settled on his shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Hey,” Rone said, more gentleness in his voice that Cas deserved. “It’s all right.”

It wasn’t. He was behaving like a child, he was jeopardizing his mission, he was causing the man he needed to trust him to hemorrhage respect for him instead. To his shame, he just whimpered.

“It’s okay. We’re just getting ready for takeoff.”

“’M sorry,” Cas gasped, and was startled when Rone pulled him forward into a hug.

“No, I’m sorry. I should have figured that this wouldn’t be easy for you when you’ve never even been on a ship before, much less off planet. It’s all right to be afraid.”

It wasn’t, but he had no way of knowing that. Cas was supposed to be strong—always, always strong—but right now he was pretending to be Beren. Beren wouldn’t be ashamed of needing a little extra help. He would welcome his husband’s touch, his calming presence.

Cas felt better already, in fact. He unwound himself just enough to return the hug, looping his arms around Rone’s broad chest. “I’ll get used to it. I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will,” Rone said easily, and that unexpected validation actually helped Cas calm down even more. “There are simulators on board if you want to practice getting accustomed to the sensation. Or you can just wait it out—with all the traveling you’re going to be doing, you’ll be an old hand at this in no time.”

The promise of travel was good. Cas would need to be able to move around freely if he was going to find everyone he needed to. His breathing finally eased back down to its normal register, and once he was sure his face was in place, he lifted it up and looked at Rone.

He didn’t mean for his breath to catch. Would he ever get used to the man’s face, and the way someone that didn’t look built for tender could still encapsulate it so perfectly? Don’t get any more dependent than you already are, he reminded his stupid heart. “Thank you,” he managed before looking down again.

“It’s my pleasure.” The ship shifted again beneath them, and Cas inhaled sharply. “That’s the landing gear beginning to retract. We’re getting ready to head out.”

“Do you need to be in the…” What was it called? “Command center for that?”

“Commander Darven is handling takeoff this time. Would you like to watch? Not with the command crew on the bridge,” Rone amended immediately when he saw Cas’s apprehension come zooming right back. “Right here, from our room.”

“We can do that?”

Rone pointed to the round window that Cas had darkened. “My quarters are some of the only ones on the ship that have a viewport. I like to watch the stars sometime. Today, though, I figured you might want to say goodbye to Leelinge.”

“More like good riddance,” Cas muttered, and Rone chuckled.

“Yeah, I agree completely. So.” He pulled back a little and held out a hand. “Are you up for it?”

Was he? On the one hand, he kind of wanted to stay nestled here and enjoy the illusion of safety for a while longer. On the other hand, if things went well he would never. Ever. Have to come back to this awful fucking place again. It might be worth watching it vanish from view. “I’m up for it.” He let Rone help him up, then lead him to the window.

“AI, show us the view.”

“Yes, Captain Basinti.” The opaque sheen vanished a moment later, and Cas started when he realized they were already in the air.

“That field down there was where we made our camp,” Rone said casually, still holding on to Cas’s hand. It was becoming smaller and smaller, and a moment later was lost beneath dark grey clouds. Cas tensed anew.

“Just wait a little longer.”

Cas took a deep breath and nodded, concentrating on the feel of his husband’s hand. His grip was strong, with long fingers and a wide palm. He would have made a good cavern climber, if his body hadn’t been so bulky. But then, if he’d been born a Delacoeurian, he wouldn’t have had enough food to maintain that kind of bulk. He was warm, always warm, and Cas felt the basal phage, the part that wasn’t actively involved in disguising him right now, actually pull toward Rone’s warmth like he was magnetic.

Cas swayed, shocked. The phage had never done anything like that before, never acted beyond his control once he’d assimilated it. Rone mistook his movement.

“Here.” He put an arm around Cas’s shoulders, spreading the warmth, and the phage seemed to purr from within his heart. “We’re almost…aha. There.”

In the space of a moment they were beyond Leelinge’s atmosphere. The planet arced brown and white before his eyes, with specks of blue here and there. Cas felt lightheaded, and this time he genuinely didn’t know what to blame it on.

“I’m so glad we’re leaving,” he whispered.

“Me too, Beren.” Rone squeezed him gently. “Me too.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Eight, Part Two

Notes: Sorry this is up later than usual, my kiddo had a nap that wasn't worth a damn. *sigh* Anyway, have some more Cas and Fillie. Next chapter--Rone comes back into play :)

Title: Mutable: Chapter Eight, Part Two

***


Chapter Eight, Part Two



“This is VS-229,” Fillie said as they walked toward the enormous ship that dominated the back half of the camp. “It’s the primary vessel our department uses for groundwork. It holds up to three hundred people, and it was reconditioned only last year to provide state of the art facilities.” She rubbed her armor-clad hands together. “It’s so neat! Definitely the most modern ship I’ve ever served on. Logistics doesn’t usually get first pick when it comes to upgrades, you know.”

“I can imagine.” It looked pretty impressive to Cas, but then he’d never even been off the ground before, much less on a ship that could travel through space. He shivered slightly at the prospect. It was…maybe, possible, just a bit…intimidating.

But you’ll be fine. Of course he would. Nothing was going to derail his plans for justice, especially not some ridiculous phobia that he was perfectly capable of controlling.

Fillie led the way up the gangplank and into the ship. It was bright in there, Cas realized. So bright it made him blink. After a lifetime lived in darkness, stepping into such a stark, artificial brilliance made his eyes burn. “Let me lead you to the—oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” Fillie apologized as soon as she turned to look at him. “I forgot to take you back to medical! They equipped all the other refugees with eyedrops to help mute the light until they adjusted. Come on, we can—”

Cas forced himself to smile. “I’ll be all right,” he told her. “I’d rather put off another trip to the doctor for now, if it’s okay with you.” I need time to move the phage away from where they’ll take blood samples.

“Sure! Of course, whatever you need.” Fillie shifted awkwardly on her feet, servos hissing a little. “Let’s go on to the captain’s cabin, then.” She led the way down the ship’s central hallway, the metalmesh floor giving a little beneath her weight. Lights lined the ceiling, the walls—there were even lights in the floor, along the sides of the hall. Cas frowned. These people seemed obsessed with being visible. If this was an indication of their greater culture, then he was going to have to change how he’d planned to get around in the future. Sneaking through the shadows might be harder than he thought. The only accent color was Imperian Red, too, which…good grief, it was gaudy on a person, but coating the inside of an entire spaceship it was downright garish.

People in uniform, but not armor, moved around them like ripples spreading out from a thrown stone. The stares were more intense in here—the crew left to man the ship hadn’t had as much exposure to Cas yet, and were even more interested because of it, but he followed Fillie’s lead and ignored them.

“Crew berths are one floor up,” she explained as they walked, “except for the captain and command staff, which are in the front of the ship near the command center. Engineering is one level down, and storage is beneath that and in the aft of the ship. The medical center is on this level, along with all the general work stations and meeting rooms.”

“I might need a map,” Cas joked, but Fillie took him seriously.

“You should already have access to the ship’s AI,” she said. “Just scan your chip on any of the readers and ask whatever you want. That’s how you’ll activate all the devices in your rooms, from the shower to the entertainment system.” She glanced back at him. “The doc will implant a regular chip in your wrist when you have your medical checkup, but the card should do everything you need for now.”

“Great.” Foreign technology to work around. The phage won’t like that. At this rate he’d exhaust the parasite before it had a chance to regenerate itself. If that happened…well, it was better not to borrow trouble. It hadn’t happened yet, and it probably wouldn’t. Probably.

“Here we are.” She turned down a small hallway to the right, just before they reached an impressive set of double doors, and stopped at the last doorway. “These are the rooms you and the captain share! I’ve never been inside, but I’m sure they’re amazing.”

“Oh.” They were here already? “Are you…leaving?”

“Well, I can’t exactly go inside myself.” Fillie held her wrist up to the reader outside the door and got a red light and a “Entrance denied” from the speaker. “Try yours.”

Cas lifted up his card, and a moment later the light turned green and the door slid open. The room inside seemed comfortingly dark, at least. “Okay. I guess this is it for now then, huh?”

Fillie seemed to sense his nerves for the first time. “I’ll find you later,” she promised him. “You can ask me any questions that come up once we’re beyond atmosphere. And if you really need me, the AI can link us up.”

“Got it.” He didn’t, really, but now wasn’t the time to cling. Although, if he’d really been Beren, he’d have been clinging to Private Fillie for all he was worth. “Thank you for all your help.”

She beamed. “You’re welcome! See you later, sir.” She turned and vanished at the end of the hall, and Cas took a deep breath and stepped inside to his new quarters.

The lights brightened immediately, and he winced and shielded his eyes. “Too much,” he muttered. “Um…” He looked for the nearest reader and scanned his card again. “Excuse me…AI?”

“I am listening, Consort Basinti.”

Ugh, what a title. “Can you dim the lights?”

“By what magnitude?”

“Fifty percent?” The lights dimmed immediately, but it was still too bright. “Make that sixty percent.” That was better. He took in the basic layout of the room—this was the public area, with enough elaborate velvet chairs to seat four around an extravagantly-carved table, and an eating area off to the side. The toilets and bedroom must be through the doors at the back. This room also had a round window, probably a meter in diameter, with a view of the bustle going on outside. It was strategically interesting, but strategy was taking a backseat to learning about his new surroundings for now. “Can you block out the window?”

“Yes, Consort.” The glass turned opaque, and Cas sighed with relief. That was better. It felt more comfortable in here already. Now…to get down to business.

“Can you show me the entertainment center, please?”

One of the walls completely transformed into a giant, immensely bright screen. “Dim the light!” It dimmed by sixty percent, and he blinked reactive tears away from his eyes. “Okay, then.” He sat down on the chair farthest from the screen, crossed his legs—it was one of Beren’s affectations, and would make him seem younger if anyone was watching him right now—and said, “Show me something on the history of Imperia, please.”

“Choices loading.”

“Thank you.” It was best to start getting a handle on his future terrain while he could, and no on would be surprised to see him researching in this way.

The Glory of Imperia appeared on the screen, followed by a long list of more. “Um…play Glory.”

“Loading now.”

“And dim the lights another ten percent, please.” It did, and the headache that had been forming behind his eyes slowly faded as an enormous ship came into view, heading for a green and brown planet in the distance. The narrator’s voice was soothing, and Cas slowly, finally, let himself relax a bit.

It would do until his husband got here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Eight, Part One

Notes: A longer chapter, with a little more exposition for you. We'll get back to action soon, but in the meantime--have some worldbuilding!

Title: Mutable: Chapter Eight, Part One

***


Chapter Eight, Part One



“We didn’t originally intend to be a monarchy,” Fillie said as she chauffeured Cas through the mess hall. He split his attention between listening carefully and keeping track of the people around them, soldiers who tried but generally failed to keep their interest in him discreet. Word had gotten around of Captain Basinti’s hasty marriage, and it looked like everyone was intrigued. “But the continent that our navigation system put the generation ship down on had just experienced massive volcanic activity. The ship wouldn’t fly, people were dying—it was a lot like what your people must have felt like on Delacoeur, probably.”

“Sounds terrible,” Cas said neutrally as the server gently placed a portion of casserole down on his plate—no splat for him, nothing that might stain the captain’s husband’s clothing.

“Right, so, John Basinti—our first king, but he wasn’t then, he was an engineer—figured out a way to turn the generation ship into an actual ship and sail us to a more hospitable continent. And it worked, and in the end we only lost ten percent of our original population instead of all of it, but things were still iffy—the weather was strange, the ship had to be reconverted in order to get into the sky again, we needed to find a new source of fuel—you know. Bad stuff.” She led him over to a corner table, which had been quickly vacated by two other soldiers when they saw them approach.

Fillie looked a little disappointed. “Aw, they didn’t have to go. You should meet more of your new people.”

Cas was just as glad they’d left. Apparently rank and mystery had their privileges. “You were saying, about the bad stuff…”

“The bad stuff, right! So, it was taking a long time to make these fixes, and the original colonizers were starting to die, and the only way some of their expertise had been passed along was apprentice-style, from one parent to the next. John Basinti had taught his children how to read the ship schematics, and after he passed away they kind of kept that knowledge to themselves, and eventually they were the only ones who could fix it, not to mention building new ships. So, they offered their knowledge for other kinds of assistance.”

Cas had to work to keep his jaw from dropping. “Wait, they blackmailed an entire colony into giving them kingship?”

“Oh no!” Fillie assured him. “Everyone wanted to make John’s son Koffi king! Our society was pretty messed up, and he was the only one with the authority to get people back in line.” She shrugged. “So we made him the king, and he did a great job. We got our police force back, he put the farmers to work—he even began our military!”

Of course he did. “And the Basintis have been running the place ever since?”

“Exactly.”

“So how does Rone fit into this narrative?”

Fillie frowned thoughtfully as she chewed a bite of creamed squash. “Well, he’s kind of a special case for the crown, because he’s illegitimate.”

Cas blinked. “And everyone knows that?”

“Oh, his father was very open about it,” Fillie assured him. “There are plenty of Basintis, but Rone was born along the direct line, straight down from John himself. His father was King Reginald, and Reginald’s first wife couldn’t seem to conceive—something about a virus she contracted, we’ve had some wicked ones on Imperia. The doctors were working on it, but Reginald wasn’t getting any younger, so he very openly had a child with another woman.”

“What woman?”

“Oh, no one knows that,” Fillie said. “The important thing is that he had a son, not the identity of the mother.”

Okay, that was going too far. “I would think that it would be important to Rone to know who his mother is,” Cas almost snapped. So many Delacoeurian children had grown up without mothers, fathers—without parents at all. It was hideous to think of denying a child that experience on purpose.

Fillie blushed. “Oh, but…he probably knows, right? I mean, it’s his mother, I’m sure he knows, but none of the rest of us were allowed to. Because it didn’t matter, for the succession. Captain Basinti needed to be firmly associated with the royal family, and he was! The people accepted him, King Reginald was pleased, everything looked good. And then…”

Here it came. “And then?”

“Queen Winifred got pregnant,” Fillie said in a rush. “They ended up having to go old school to adapt to her body’s difficulties, I think it was a womb transplant—at any rate, she had a son. Rone was five years old at the time.”

Cas could see where this was headed. “And the new son was named the heir.”

“Well, yeah, because he was really legitimate, you know? So Rone was trained to lead the military instead—that’s one of the hereditary roles for House Basinti.”

The easier to keep everyone else in their place. “And how did that go for him?”

“Well…okay, for a while.” Fillie winced and lowered her voice. “I hate to speak ill of King Amiru, but I think he was jealous of Rone. I don’t know why—he gets to be the king, after all—but he took over as supreme commander and put Rone in charge of Special Operations. They handle the really difficult tasks.”

“How did that work out for Rone?”

“He was amazing at it!” Fillie gushed. “Insurrections, mining disputes, contract issues with other planets—you name it, he handled it. We got to study some of his tactics back at the academy, and it was a real learning experience. He’s so smart. And then…” Her voice trailed off.

Oh no, she couldn’t leave it there. “Then what?”

“Well, no one really knows. He and his elite team were sent on a classified mission, but Rone was the only soldier who came back. The rest of his ship was filled with civilians, but their identities are all classified too. Except for the ones he adopted, we’re not sure what happened to the rest of them.”

Now this was interesting. “Adopted? His children are adopted?”

“Yep!”

The plot thickened. “How many people were on his original team?”

“Just ten soldiers, but!” She held up a hand. “These were the best of the best! Our most highly-trained operatives, the military’s most advanced team of soldiers. And Rone wouldn’t say what happened, not even under interrogation protocols!”

“How does everyone know about this?” It sounded like an operational security nightmare.

Fillie shook her head. “Oh, the captain didn’t try to hide it. He came back to Imperia ready to fight—he crashed a meeting of the parliament! They didn’t let him speak, of course. Anyway, he was court-martialed and eventually found innocent of wrongdoing, but he didn’t get back into the field for a few years. Now he’s working with us, instead of with the combat troops. And we’re…” She made a moue with her mouth. “We’re good at what we do, but we’re logistics. We’re support staff for the rest of the military, basically. It’s not as honorable as he deserves.”

Cas didn’t really have much of an idea what Rone deserved at this point. He was more confused now, not less. Cas had seen his fair share of dark operations—hell, he’d carried out plenty of them. He knew what went into that sort of work. You didn’t emerge unscathed. But Rone didn’t have the hardness that Cas associated with dark ops. It was…a puzzle. “So he’s somewhat disgraced, but even a disgraced, illegitimate prince gets a lot of respect?”

“So much respect,” Fillie affirmed. “Our aristocracy heads every aspect of Imperian society. You have to be a lord or lady to hold a position of real power.”

“How do people become lords or ladies?”

Fillie laughed. “They inherit the titles, of course! From the originals who passed them down! Mostly they were scientists, although every so often a new title is named when someone from the lower rungs does something really exceptional. But for the most part, we obey the aristocracy, and they lead us with the insight and compassion that their bloodline entails.”

Sure they do. Cas finished what was on his tray, ignoring the sour taste Fillie’s information let in the back of his mouth. As much as he loathed the Leelangers—and he did with every fiber of his being—at least they felt their superiority was for all of them, and not just some. This aspect of Imperia would take a lot more research to get a handle on, he could already tell. “Are there ranks within the aristocracy?”

“Sure! Generally speaking, the ranks are split into two tracks: Lords of Metal and Lords of Mind. Metals are the people who inherited positions of practical skill, while the Minds are more focused on research and development. There’s a lot of cross-pollination, though. There are Grands, which are the highest rank an aristocrat can have when they’re not king or queen, then Eminents, then Primes. There are a lot of little in-between ranks too, but those are the big ones.”

“Metal, Mind, Grand, Eminent, and Prime.” That was awkward as hell. “So how do you speak to someone who’s an aristocrat, then?”

Fillie smiled. “In the captain’s case, we were instructed by the king himself to treat him as a captain only. We do our best, but we all know he’s royal and it bleeds into things. For other people, it would be…oh, like ‘Grand Lady Nyla Kinzel of Mind.’ Or ‘Eminent Lord Waylan Booker of Metal.’ There are a lot of other little niceties, but those are the basics.”

These people probably wasted weeks of their lives just learning how to address each other properly. “Thanks for explaining that. It’s very helpful.”

“I’m glad you think so!” She glanced at his empty plate. “Ready to kiss this planet goodbye?”

You have no idea. “Very ready.”

Fillie pushed back her chair and stood. “Then let’s go on board your new home for the next…however long until we get back to Imperia!”

Cas followed her out, his skin prickling with awareness. More eyes. More whispers.

Bring them on. Apparently, he was disgraced royalty now too.