Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Nine, Part Two

Notes: A move, a countermove. The subtle chess game of catching a liar has begun.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Nine, Part Two

***


Chapter Nine, Part Two



“Come on, let’s get you to medical.”

Cas didn’t startle at the abrupt change of subject, but it was a near thing. “Right now?”

“They’re the ones who’ll be able to implant the identification chip in your arm.” Rone smiled and tugged the edge of Cas’s badge. “No more lanyard. Plus we need to clear up the bloodwork issue, and the sooner, the better. Otherwise the entire ship can be stopped from landing on Imperia.”

“Oh.” Well, fucking damn it all to hell.

No. You can do this. You’ve done it before, and it’ll go better now. You’re rested, you’re fed, you’re already in space—what are they going to do, turn the ship around and drop you back off on Leelinge if you don’t pass it? But he had to pass it. Everything else depended on it. “Sure, let’s get it done.”

“Don’t worry.” Rone took his hand. “I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

And watching, no doubt. Cas felt confident that Rone was a good man. He just wasn’t sure what else he was. A captain of a ship with a crew, a member of the royal family, however illegitimate. Was he a fair man, though? Did he value justice more, or honesty? These were things that Cas needed time to find out, time to incorporate into his strategies. And to get that time, he needed to be Beren through and through. There could be no doubt in Rone’s mind that he was who he said he was, or the game plan would become very different, very quickly. “That’s reassuring.” Cas smiled for him. “Lead the way.”

Medical wasn’t far, like Private Fillie had indicated. It took up the entirety of the hallway directly adjacent to this one, and was staffed by four people, all of whom looked equally bored. The doctor in charge of the whole thing—or so Cas assumed, given the tassels on the man’s red uniform—greeted them with way more enthusiasm than a little blood-draw merited. “Captain! Congratulations on your nuptials, sir. Everyone in the medical ward was very pleased to hear the announcement.”

“Thank you, Doctor Weiss. This is my husband, Beren Farling Basinti.”

Doctor Weiss held out a hand, his round face fixed with a pleasant expression. “Pleased to meet you.”

He’s wearing a glove. He’s a doctor, so not surprising if he’s seeing a patient or handling samples, but there’s nothing like that in sight. Everyone here is at loose ends—no active patient cases visible, nor any labwork being done. He was waiting for us. The glove is thicker than the Imperian norm, not a piece of formal attire, not a known medical device—custom made? Does he have a condition that merits such precautions? No issues on visible exposed skin, and how could a germaphobe be a doctor? The glove is a device. The glove will be the first test.

It took just a split-second to evaluate the situation and determine what was really going on, and with a silent effort, Cas willed the phage out of his hand, leaving behind a slightly paler, weaker appendage, but not so different that anyone other than him would notice. He extended his hand for the shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well.” And—there. A faint scratch across the back of his hand, so minute that if he hadn’t been expecting it, he wouldn’t have felt it at all. There was no blood—just a tiny little tissue sample. Clever.

Doctor Weiss took his hand back and turned to the nearest table. “Please, have a seat. This shouldn’t take long at all.”

“Great, thank you.” Cas got up on the table, and was a little surprised when Rone settled in right next to him. Between the two of them Cas was a little surprised the fragile-looking thing didn’t topple over—Rone was a big man. It didn’t even shiver, though. I need to learn more about how they build, what their materials are, and how to break them.

He watched the doctor out of the corner of his eye, saw him carefully lay his palm down flat on the table beside the bed for a moment before reaching for the instrument he’d set there. I knew it.

“So, do you use needles?” Cas asked, wanting to get either or both of the other men talking instead of focusing on him. He needed to get the phage out of where they were going to poke, and fast. It was harder to clean the blood—bits and pieces tended to linger if he pulled too fast. “Because I’m—I don’t do so well with needles, and that’s what they used down in the camp, and—”

“What?” Doctor Weiss turned toward him, perplexed. “Needles are generally a last resort, we use micro-syringe technology. Who used a needle on you down there?”

“The medic who took my blood the first time.” Cas did his best to project total innocence. It helped that what he had to say was true. “She said that you’d run out of the other kind.”

Doctor Weiss’s lips thinned. “Did she indeed?” He gestured to the three other people in the room, all working on the other side of it but just as clearly invested in listening in. “Is the woman who assisted you down there in the room right now?”

“Yeah. That lady over there.” He pointed at the one with dark hair braided into a neat coronet around her head.

“Nurse Galway.”

Cas felt more than saw Rone’s sudden interest. There was something at work here that he didn’t understand… “It was fine,” he said, doing his Beren-best to smooth things over. “Needles aren’t that bad. I mean, I don’t like them, but it’s not like any doctor I ever knew used anything else.”

“Hmph. We consider them useful in emergency situations only,” Doctor Weiss replied, finally looking away from his nurse, who seemed…alert, but still calm. Whatever the politics underlying her actions were, she wasn’t concerned enough to start making excuses or getting out of there. Maybe it was just good, old-fashioned xenophobia.

God knows I’ve got plenty of experience with that.

“Well. Back to the task at hand.” Doctor Weiss picked up the instrument, shaped a bit too much like a gun for Cas to be completely comfortable with it. “This is a micro-syringe. It can both deliver the microchip you need and take the blood we require. I’ll simply press it into the skin of your wrist, and five seconds later the exchange will be done. It analyzes the blood within two minutes, so you’ll be finished before you know it.”

“That sounds a lot better.”

Doctor Weiss smiled. “I thought it might. Now, which is your dominant hand?”

“My right.”

“Then that’s the one we’ll chip. Please draw back your sleeve a bit.”

Cas did so, slowly, evincing reluctance while focusing his intensity inward, onto the phage. Up, up… He felt if crawl up his arm, pooling in his elbow. Some there, some there—no, all of it, it all had to go…

“Beren? You okay?”

Cas blinked and looked at Rone. “Yes, sorry. I’m sorry, it’s fine.” He finished with his sleeve. “Go ahead,” he said, then held his breath.

“You really don’t have to worry,” Doctor Weiss told him, readying the device above his wrist. “I doubt you’ll feel a thing.”

“Sounds good.” He leaned a little into Rone anyway, and bit his lip as the doctor pulled the trigger. Rone stroked the back of his neck, almost disrupting his careful concentration, but then—

“And done!” Doctor Weiss pulled the machine back on the table. “Now we just wait a bit to see what results pop up, and we can test the microchip in the meantime.” He picked up an electronic reader and closed the open file on it, then held it out toward Cas. “Swipe your wrist over this.”

Cas did so. A tinny voice, like the ship’s AI but smaller, intoned, “Access denied.”

“It reads you, good. Now for more specifics.” He pulled up a diagnostic program and said, “Engage signal analysis.” The pad beeped. “Now swipe your wrist again.”

Cas repeated the motion. The pad beeped, then the voice said, “Basinti, Beren Farling, of Leelinge, Delacoeurian ancestry. Access allowed on levels One and Two, common areas, captain’s quarters, command center. Further access denied.”

“Perfect.”

“That…” Cas had to say it. “Is amazing. It can tell all that about me, just by swiping my wrist?”

“It can.”

He needed to know more. “What if there’s an emergency? How does the chip prevent me from getting trapped?”

Rone frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what if I was in a place that became…dangerous, and I had to leave it, but the only way to get out was through a place I wasn’t allowed to go?”

“That’s a very specific concern,” Doctor Weiss commented. He sounded a little suspicious. It was time to do some damage control.

“I just—I’m used to living underground, in caves. There were—sometimes, things would collapse. We had emergency exits built into every room, every building, every tunnel. What if that happens here? How would I get out?”

Cas saw the knowing look pass between the two men and smiled internally. Bought it. “In case of emergencies, the AI bypasses microchip security to allow people to get to where they need to go,” Rone explained. “If the AI is malfunctioning, then most doors can be forced. It sets an alarm off, but if it’s a real emergency then that doesn’t matter.”

“Ah.” Interesting. I might have to engineer a few real emergencies to get where I need to go, then.

The micro-syringe beeped. “And there are your results!” Doctor Weiss picked the device up and engaged the screen on the side of it. “And…all seems to be well. No contamination of any kind. You’re healthy.”

Phew. Cas slowly let the phage creep back down his arm. “That’s great news.”

“It is,” Rone agreed. “Let’s go get something to eat, then I’ll escort you back to our room before I return to duty. Sound good?”

“Sounds perfect.” They got up to leave, and Cas felt not only Doctor Weiss’s benevolent gaze, but also Nurse Galway watching them. The nurse would merit some more attention.

In the meantime, he had data on his fellow refugees to get from Fillie. It was time to go traitor-hunting.

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.”