Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Six, Part One

Notes: One more chapter of exposition, and then we get some action! And by action I mean "creepy crawly violence" as opposed to "hot sexytimes." Sorry!

Title: Mutable: Chapter Six, Part One


Chapter Six, Part One

There were a lot of things that Imperians didn’t understand about the relationship between native Leelangers and late-coming Delacoeurians. That, in and of itself, was completely fine—Cas knew that he’d be just as lost when he joined Imperian society, and the amount of learning that he had ahead of himself was daunting, to say the least. It was a condition he was willing to meet in order to pursue his goals.

Really though, the Imperian diplomatic corps should have done a better job of supporting their own goals by learning more of the nuances of the people they’d crashed in on. Leelangers could pretend, they could act, they could say whatever they wanted, but when it came right down to it—the people in charge would always, always try to kill a Delacoeurian rather than let them go.

Part of it was religious fervor, a holdover from the original settlers’ more rabid views about being God’s chosen on this planet, and seeing any impingement on that as a mortal offence. Times had changed enough that Leelangers wanted their piece of the system-wide economy, but not so much that their “invaders” could ever be looked at with anything other than a desire to destroy. Modern entertainment painted every bad guy as a Delacoeurian, looking to steal money, food, children—anything they could get their grasping, mud-covered hands on.

Even the people who’d done the best at distancing themselves from this kind of thinking knew that the surest winning proposition to their people was a strong anti-Delacoeurian stance. Once—and only once—had the two sides met to discuss a peace deal, seventy years ago.

It had been scuppered before it began, ending with forty-two casualties. Cas’s own great-grandparents had died at that conference, shot to pieces by a trigger-happy Leelanger who went on to get a medal for it.

Cas’s own prejudices had been shaped by these stories, the memories his parents and grandparents had passed on to him. Life had taught him that almost all of the things he’d learned from them were true. And that meant that he knew, knew, that he should expect the Leelangers to try and come after him before the Imperians left. He was the holdout, the loose end, the one who should never have gotten away. They would come for him, treaties and agreements be damned. And he, naturally, would be ready for them.

It all started with the splice.

Splicing was an advanced talent with a phage, hard to learn and harder yet to maintain. The phage resided in almost every cell of Cas’s body, and could be directed to reshape him at his mental command. To work, though, it had to stay connected to him—fed by his blood, fueled by his oxygen. A splice took a piece of him and separated it out, to be used as fuel for the phage that resided in it. It essentially cut off a little bit of Cas, set the phage inside it to feed on it, and let it act as a decoy.

For his vital stats to look realistic, Cas reckoned he’d need a piece about as big as his earlobe to splice away. It was a lot, but if he was lucky he’d be able to preserve and reattach it. The five times he’d spliced before, he’d been able to reattach four of them. The fifth had created a divot in the skin over his hip that still puckered when he walked.

This time he went with the skin of his inner thigh. Cas lay back on his bunk, alone at last, and concentrated all his energy on creating a tiny mirror of his body. Heart rate and circulation, temperature, blood pressure—a lot went into creating the perfect splice. It was a good thing he’d trained his phage so extensively, because otherwise the little piece would exhaust its resources and die within minutes.

As it was, the phage knew how to prolong the splice for…oh, Cas figured that this one would last around an hour without attachment. Not his longest ever, but really, he shouldn’t need much more than that. After all, it wasn’t like he was going to be doing the hunting here.

The phage and its bit of body pulled and stretched, until it was only connected to Cas by the barest thread of connective tissue. Good. He pressed it flat against his leg, willing it to stay close, then in one smooth motion pulled the earlobe com free and reattached it to his leg. It shouldn’t have registered as more than a blip on Rone’s radar, not concerning enough to check out. Almost done.

The only question remaining was—when would the Leelangers mount their assault, and how? The direct approach was off the table—that would require answering to Imperian firepower. The Imperians might be stupid when it came to diplomacy, but their destructive capabilities were second to none. Plus, they wanted to keep their trade deal. It would be covert, then, and probably very soon—if Rone was right about raising hell over the surveillance, then the pressure was on. They’d have to move, or cause an interplanetary incident.

Of course, Rone and Darven had completely overlooked the fact that viewing technology wasn’t limited to Imperians.

They were still watching—he was sure of that. It might be from a mile away, but they were watching. They wanted him dead, wanted him exposed as a fake to the Imperians, as a new reason for them to distrust the few of his people who remained. This was their goal, and they’d stop at nothing to accomplish it.

When he didn’t walk out that front gate, alone and easy to target, they would resort to quieter, more difficult means of taking him out. Cas was ninety percent certain that sometime tonight, the Leelangers would let Eaters loose at the camp.

Cas shuddered, a little embarrassed at his visceral reaction but unable to contain it. Eaters were the Leelanger’s answer to phage enhancement, their own version of bending nature to their will. The phage had natural predators down in the caves, and the largest of those was a simple organism similar to a slime, which overwhelmed and consumed the phage. The Leelangers had found a way to integrate that organism into other animals, and the result was an Eater—a small, fast, carnivorous beast reshaped to hunt down and target carriers of the phage.

They were resilient, hard to track and even harder to fight. Cas had some tricks up his sleeve when it came to Eaters, though, and probably a few hours to put his expertise to good use before they found him.

You could tell Rone…

No. Impossible. Better to take care of this on his own than even hint that there might be something unusual about him, something that made small, sleek assassins seek him out in the night. He’d be fine.

Cas didn’t have any other choice.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Five, Part Two

Notes: More Mutable! We'll get off this planet soon, I promise. Just a few loose ends to tie up ;)

Title: Mutable: Chapter Five, Part Two


Chapter Five, Part Two

“Well, now that’s you’re officially tied into this,” Darven said, breaking the odd silence that loomed between Cas and Rone, “We’d better figure out where to put your new husband so that Jepson can’t give him too much hell before we leave. We don’t want to let on to the Leelanger delegation that we’re harboring a Delacoeurian either, if we can help it.”

“They probably already know,” Cas said. Both men frowned at him.

“What do you mean? How?” Rone asked.

These Imperians, honestly…it was like they thought the entire rest of the system was made up of idiots. “They know I’m in here,” Cas explained, keeping his voice earnestly Beren-like—it wouldn’t do to drop into a sarcastic “obviously, you morons” tone. “They’ve been keeping tabs on me ever since I came out from the caves. On all of us. That’s how I knew I wouldn’t last long if I was put outside the camp. They’re still there, waiting for me. If I don’t turn up sometime tonight…” He shrugged. “Then they’ll know I’m staying, at least until you leave, and word will move up the command.”

“This sounds like conjecture,” Darven said, but he was frowning. “How can you be so sure? What makes you such a high value target?”

“I’m not a high value target in and of myself, but my brother was.” Is. And they know exactly who I am. “He’s dead, but plenty of people aren’t sure of that. They would take me and torture me to get information on his whereabouts. And I’m sure because I’ve lived here all my life and I know how these people work, Commander.” Unlike you.

“That could just be making you extra paranoid.”

“Or it could make him right,” Rone said. “Let’s set up a thermal viewer and check.”

Darven sighed. “You want to set up a big, bulky thermal viewer right in front of the gate—‘cause that’s where it’s going to have to be if we’re going to target this right—this late at night, in this weather, where Jepson might see it, just to check a theory that doesn’t even matter anymore?”

“Succinctly put. And yes, I do.”

Darven glared half-heartedly at him. “You’re a cold man sometimes, sir.”

Rone smiled. “I know. See to it, and Beren and I will join you when it’s up and running.”

At least Darven didn’t try to fight Beren’s inclusion this time around. “Yes, sir.” He left, and Rone looked back at Cas.

He was expecting more questions about how he knew what he did, but instead the man asked, “Do you have any more property with you? Another set of clothes, personal items of any kind?”

“Oh. No, I don’t…there’s nothing else.”

Kindly, Rone didn’t pursue it. “Then I’ll see about requisitioning you some for the short term until we get back to my holdings.”

Interesting. He said his holdings, not his ship. That was a term usually associated with the Imperian aristocracy, but as far as Cas knew, Rone Basinti’s only title was Captain. There was something Cas was missing here, some connection that he’d need to understand before things went much further, but if Rone didn’t want to volunteer the information yet, he could afford to wait. This was still firmly a military operation, after all. His military title would hold more weight than anything else.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Is there anything in particular you want?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“All right. On to your accommodations. You could stay alone in the barracks where you cleaned up this afternoon, with a temporary scan pass to let you in and out until we can implant one in your wrist, or I could order one of my soldiers to accompany you, if it would make you feel safer.” Cas knew which one he preferred, but Rone wasn’t done yet. “Or, if you’d like, you can stay in here and I’ll sleep on my ship.”

Cas blinked. To be offered a place in a luxurious tent like this, and alone, no less…Rone was either too nice for his own good, or mildly insane. The damage Cas could do if he had free access to the systems in here…but it was too soon to be thinking like that, and the last thing he wanted to do was give his new husband any reason to suspect him. He needed Rone’s trust, first and foremost. “The barracks is fine,” he assured him. “And I don’t need an escort, I know your people are busy. I’ll be all right on my own.” I infinitely prefer it, actually.

Rone didn’t argue, just nodded. “I’ll give you a com unit with a direct line to me. If you need anything at all, I want you to come to me first. You won’t be disruptive, and I won’t try to put you off or be irritated with you, all right?”

He needed to stop being so kind. It threw Cas off his game. “Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure.” Rone reached into his desk, rummaged around a bit and emerged with an earlobe com. “It’s an older model, I know, but it still works well. Just press it and speak, then press it again and it will be off. It’s charged from your body heat, so you won’t have to worry about batteries or anything like that.”

Oh boy. “What else does it do?” Cas asked as he took it, trying to sound excited even though he recognized a tracking device when he saw one.

Sure enough… “It monitors your location and vital stats,” Rone admitted. “Just as a precaution.”

“Of course.” Great, he was going to have to splice. Splicing was such a bitch to get over.

“And here’s the scan pass.” It truly was an antique thing, a tiny card attached to a thin chain that went over his head. “I’ve already synced it to the compound’s codes, so it should give you access to all low-security sites. By the time you need to get on a ship, I’ll be escorting you.”

 “Great.” This, at least, would be useful. “I appreciate it.”

Rone shrugged. He looked tired. “Thanks for letting me do this for you.”

There was some sort of penance going on here, Cas was sure of it. He’d have to figure it out eventually—it didn’t do to be surprised by people’s emotional motivation, the heart could fuck up a good plan faster than Cas could change identities—but he still had some time.

Rone abruptly took on a distant look—Cas couldn’t hear it, but he bet his com had just activated. The Imperian coms were attached to their ear canals, from what he understood—invasive, but practical for soldiers who wouldn’t want to lose them in the heat of battle. “We’re on our way.” He stood up. “Darven’s got the thermal scanner ready to go. Let’s check your theory.”

“Let’s.” Cas made a point of looking a little nervous, and got up wringing his hands. “We shouldn’t keep him waiting, huh?”

“No, but let’s not charge out there until you’re ready for the weather.” He handed Cas a military-style poncho, loose enough to fit almost anyone but insulated enough that when he stepped outside into the rain, the only place that felt chilled was his face. Nice.

Rone led the way to the front gate, where Darven stood in his own poncho, a tripod with a broad, rectangular screen set up in front of him. “Can I turn this on now, sir?” he asked plaintively as they got close. “I’m freezing my balls off out here.”

So tender, these Imperians. Apparently, their world was something of a paradise—mild weather, lots of sunshine, well-adapted for agriculture. If a place like above-ground Leelinge was enough to make them cold even when they had technology on their side, Cas wondered how they’d fare in the caves. Not well, he’d wager.

Rone nodded, and his second-in-command fired up the thermal scanner. “It’s set to scan five hundred meters out,” he said, bringing the picture into focus. “None of the surrounding buildings indicate constant working conditions, so if there’s someone out there at this time of night, it’ll—oh.”

Cas didn’t have to ask what he saw—it was clear on the screen. Five different thermal signatures, each one in a different building, each one crouching, facing toward the camp. None of them moved, other than little shifts to give their knees a break here and there.

Rone took over and scanned in closer. The heat radiating off each person was enough to give an idea of what was immediately around them. The first one knelt in front of a window, and on the ledge in front of him or her…

A gun. The stock of a gun, at least. Probably for tranqs, but Cas couldn’t say for sure from the little he was seeing. Nice to know I’m right.

Rone checked out the other four targets. In three cases, a gun was clearly visible. The final case was inconclusive, but apparently the captain had all the evidence he needed. “I want recordings,” he said to Darven, low-voiced but clearly angry. “I want them packaged and sent to Jepson, our diplomatic corps and the Leelangers within the next hour. They have absolutely no business spying on our camp—it contravenes the agreements we made when we were given this space in the first place. If they try to deny it, then we inform our superiors that we can’t in good faith do business with a bunch of liars and we leave early. I’m sick of bending over backwards for these people and getting nothing but bad faith actions in return.” He glanced at Cas. “It looks like you were right, Beren.”

Of course. “I wish I hadn’t been.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you out of here safely as soon as possible.”

Cas smiled. “I know you will.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Five, Part One

Notes: More Mutable, on a day when I really need something fun and positive in my life. I hope you enjoy it--it's the wedding! The very brief, truncated wedding.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Five, Part One


Chapter Five, Part One

Marriage had never been a very important part of Delacoeurian life. In fact, it had been practically nonexistent during their peoples’ tenure on Leelinge: when there were so many more important things to take up your time, who wanted to bother with something as trifling as marriage? There were no societal benefits to be had from it, no ethereal, heartfelt lessons to take from it.

Functional, practical partnerships, now, those were things that paid off, but overall Delacoeurians survived as a group, not just as pairs. You grew up, you had children, you raised yours and others, you fought for them and lived for them and died for them. Rinse and repeat. Over and over. Having a sibling was nice, having both your parents was special, but them having each other? It was neither common nor particularly wished for.

At least, for the most part. Things had changed a little in the last decade of Cas’ life, when Leelinge entertainment began to filter down into the black market. Specifically, this was when the young Delacoeurians were exposed to their telenovelas. When Cas was fifteen and Beren was only four, and their mother had just died of infection a week earlier, Cas stole a viewer that was loaded with a copy of Passion Nights. It was, he’d eventually come to understand, one of the most overblown and ridiculously dramatic Leelanger shows ever produced, and he’d learned to despise it, but Beren had always loved it. The central plot was based around two families, rivals for money and power, whose children fell in love.

There was backstabbing, betrayal, dirty fighting—all valuable lessons about the lows that Leelangers would stoop to in order to have their way. But there was also a tender central romance between the young couple, eventually culminating in the grand event of the entire show: their wedding. Beren had been captivated, and after that, he’s spoken of marriage as something to aspire to.

“Wouldn’t it be great, Cas?” he’d said time and again. “To have someone who loved you enough to bind themselves to you like that? It’s such a commitment.”

Cas had scoffed. “You think I’m any less devoted to you just because we’re brothers and not married?”

Beren had blushed. “No, of course not, but it’s different.”

“Why is it different?”

“It just is.”

Cas had assumed at the time that Beren was referring to the sexual component inherent in marriage, which frankly he didn’t give a damn about. If he had an urge, he could ask someone to help him fulfill it. To waste time on romance was exactly that, a waste, not to mention unreliable. Sex could be had anywhere, but family was blood.

Beren had wanted to be a part of that strange institution, though. He had craved a deeper connection with someone, someone not bound to him by family duty and affection. He hadn’t had time to find it, and now he never would, but it hit Cas like a fist to the heart as he sat there across from Rone to think that, somehow, he’d fallen into living out his brother’s dream. It wasn’t the deep, loving connection Beren had imagined, but all of the dramatic elements were there. Beren…he would have loved this. Given enough time, he probably would have loved Rone, too.

To his shock, Cas found tears welling up in his eyes. He wiped them away, but not before Rone noticed.

“Beren? Are you all right?”

Gods, Rone was calling him by his brother’s name, and if anyone deserved a kind and gentle human being like Rone it was Beren. Cas was living out his brother’s stolen future. In that instant, he wanted to stab himself somewhere just to take his mind off the pain in his chest.

He needed to reply, though—Rone was looking more and more concerned, and the last thing Cas needed was for him to consider calling this whole thing off because the man he was intent on helping was mentally unfit. He inhaled a shuddery breath.

“I was just thinking about my brother.” The best lies were ninety percent truth; it was as good a place to prevaricate from as any. “He was my only family from a very early age. He never had time for something like marriage—it wasn’t really an institution for our people—but he always said if any of us was ever going to get married, it was me.” Cas tried on a smile. “It’s just kind of funny how right he was. Right for the wrong reasons, but still.”

“Beren.” Rone’s voice should have been illegal—he could probably order his troops into sinkholes and they’d cut in line to be the first to jump. “I know this is far from ideal, but I promise you it’s not permanent. We don’t have to be married any longer than necessary to ensure your safety. Once that’s done, we can get a divorce and you’ll be free to live your life however you wish.”

Cas shook his head. “You don’t have to apologize for doing so much to help me. I should be apologizing to you—I’m screwing up your career, maybe your whole life, and for what? Lieutenant Commander Jepson was right. I don’t have any truly desirable skills.”

Rone shrugged. “Skills can be learned. Nobody is born knowing how to fly a spaceship or be a neurosurgeon. You can be whatever you want to be, as long as you put the time in. And as far the skills you do have are concerned, they’ll be far more useful to me than you might think. I have two children, ages nine and five, and I’ve yet to find an actual human caregiver who can handle them. I don’t want my kids to be raised by nothing but their AI nannies while I’m gone. If you feel like helping me in any way, I’d ask you to start there.”

Ah good, a task! A way to increase his value to Rone while insinuating himself deeper into his cover. It was another good lever for Cas to pull. “I’d be happy to help look after them. What are their names?”

“Lilah and Shar. They’re—"

Cas didn’t get to hear what they were, because at that moment Darven stalked back into the tent, trailed by a confused-looking Private Fillie. “Let’s get this done,” he said. He had a mempad open in one hand, and set it in the center of the desk. “This is the marriage license. I need you both to read this and sign it, then we do the verbal part. Then Private Fillie and I sign and I send this up the chain before Jepson gets wind of it. Got it?”

“Very efficient, Darven.”

His second in command pointed a finger at him. “Don’t start with me, sir, I’m not in the mood to be mocked. This is going to get you, and him, and probably me in a hell of a lot of trouble.” He looked at Fillie, whose eyes had gone wide. “Not you though, Private, this is the sort of shit that only rolls uphill.”

“Oh,” she said faintly. “Good?”

Rone already had the mempad’s pen in hand and was signing with a flourish. He passed the document over to Beren, then paused. “Can you read Standard?”

“Hell, Rone—”

“Yes,” Cas said politely, cutting off what was probably another epic rant about being an idiot from Darven. He made a show of taking his time reading the license, while really he absorbed it all in less than five seconds. He looked at Rone’s name, in perfect swirling letters, at the bottom: Rone Edward Basinti. Edward. Huh. Cas signed right next to it: Beren Farling.

“Good.” Darven took the pad back. “All right, now the ceremony part. Take each other’s hands.”

Wait, what? Was that really necessary? Cas supposed if it was a real marriage, they would have no problem touching each other… Rone held out both his hands, and Cas steeled his spine and took them. They were warm, far warmer than his own. The phage kept Cas’ extremity temperature low to reduce wear and tear.

“On this day, the two of you come together to form an emotional, spiritual, and legal bond,” Darven intoned. “From here forward, you shall each share yourself wholly with the other, holding nothing back. Your worldly goods, your mental abilities, your bodies, your hearts, your pasts, and your futures—all are melded. From this day forth, you belong to each other. Do you agree to these terms, Rone Basinti?”

“I do,” he said, staring Cas straight in the eyes.

“Do you agree to these terms, Beren Farling?”

He had never felt less worthy. “I do,” Cas whispered.

“Then by the power vested in me by the glorious generosity of our sovereign leader, I pronounce you husband and husband.” He looked between them. “Now’s usually when you’d kiss, but I reckon we’re skipping that step.”

“We are,” Rone affirmed. He squeezed Cas’ hands once, then let go. “Sign and send.”

Darven signed, then passed the mempad over to Private Fillie. She signed, looked between the two of them and said, with awkward earnestness, “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Rone said. “You’re dismissed.” She left, and Darven sent the marriage license to be filed.

“Well, that’s that. Consider the beehive shaken, Rone. You can’t go back now.”

“I wouldn’t want to.”

“Neither would I,” Cas agreed. Neither would I.