Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Four, Part Two

Notes: A brief return to Rone's perspective, because I feel it's important to the plot and also, I just want to. ;) We're nearing the endgame!

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Four, Part Two


Chapter Twenty-Four, Part Two

Rone felt the flare wash over his eyes again, didn’t even try to hold it back. What good did it do to keep secrets, at this point? If things were as bad as Beren—no, Cas—said they were, then he’d probably have to come clean about his abilities anyway if they wanted to work together. Just like Cas had been forced to tell the truth about his own.

It wasn’t the worst way to try to forge a new relationship. He watched Cas notice the change in his eyes, saw him open his mouth, then close it again. He’s such a bad spy.

In retrospect, it was easy to see the places where Cas’s tells had gotten the better of him, where he’d done things or said things or simply moved in ways he shouldn’t have been able to, ways he probably hadn’t even noticed. He had a preternatural grace, and he never, ever seemed to run into anything or anyone.

Rone had walked side by side with Private Fillie plenty of times, and the woman was excellent at her job but no so excellent at maintaining a straight line when she walked. As soon as she was distracted or on a verbal tangent, her feet began to meander. She once bumped into him four times during the walk from the clinic to Rone’s own quarters aboard his ship, and that trip hadn’t taken more than twenty seconds. Cas, though, never seemed to make inadvertent contact with her. Rone had watched them wander around side by side several times, and while Fillie weaved worse than ever when she was distracted by someone she liked who was outside her chain of command, Cas avoided every stumble and sidestep.

It was so obvious. The reason Cas had lasted as long as he did was because he was imitating someone he knew in great depth, and because Rone had let his curiosity get the better of his caution. He didn’t quite know yet whether or not to regret that, but he’d know more after he leveled the playing field a bit.

“I want to believe you,” Rone said, and Cas seemed to shrink a little at the qualification. “And I’m not saying that I don’t. But I also think you’re laboring under a few misconceptions, and I want to clear them up. You don’t know what I really am.”

Cas frowned. “You’re a captain in the Imperian navy.”

Rone snorted. “That’s the least of it, lately.”

“You’re…a prince.”

“Regrettably, yes.”

Cas was silent for a moment, looking him over carefully. “You’re modified,” he said.


“More so than most Imperians.”

Rone nodded. “Much more so.” It was what bastards were for, after all, dating all the way back to the founding families of Imperia. The aristocracy had been in a shaky, untested position—the last thing lords and ladies needed were their infidelities coming back to lay claim to their wobbling status. So they formed a new branch of study around them. “I was brought up as a Devshirme. It’s an Ancient Earth term having to do with forced homage to the royal family, and it’s the fate of everyone like me.”

“Like you?”

“Children born out of wedlock to a member of the aristocracy,” Rone clarified. “We’re all trained up to serve from a young age. It was inevitable I’d be sent into the military, I had the pedigree for it and my brother had no interest in it. My father wanted someone he could rely on within the power structure there, and that meant me.”

“But what did it mean for you?”

“Genetic manipulation.” Rone could barely remember the sessions now, but he could recall how he’d felt after them—like every bone in his body had been scraped out and refilled with sand, so, so heavy he couldn’t even lift his hand. “Blending my DNA with several very particular strains in order to get results out of me. Some pieces came from Earth animals, some from local fauna. A few were entirely human engineered.”

Cas’s eyes were wide. “What effect did that have on you?”

Too many to count. “Increased memory skills, increased ability to withstand stress, increased speed and stamina. They were all meant to make me into a better soldier, after all. And they did, for years.” The flare rose up again and he let it go, sheening his eyes that telltale purple that had made the people who knew best run when they saw it. It let him see in the dark, and was one of the few modifications he hadn’t blocked when he finally got a say over his own biology. “I led an elite commando unit tasked with increasing Imperia’s standing and wealth among the system.” He resisted the urge to look down at his hands. “I killed a lot of people over a lot of years and basically thought nothing of it. I wasn’t capable of considering what I was doing to be wrong—obedience had been bred into me as much as innovation.”

“What changed?” Cas asked quietly.

Rone sighed. “My father died.” It had been the worst day of his life, but not because of the man’s death. Rather, it was terrible because it led Rone to make the realizations he couldn’t before that. “And my brother refused to continue the program. In fact, he’d married a woman outside of the aristocracy, neither a lady of Metal or Mind. She had a half brother who was an illegitimate son of a Baron of Mind, though, and he was taken into the program as a child. He died when he was fifteen. She hated losing him, and her influence on my brother has always been strong.” Thankfully.

“So you were cured?” Cas sounded skeptical. “Just like that, when the program ended?”

“Not at all,” Rone said. “In fact, I considered leading a rebellion against my brother for taking away my purpose in life. I kept working, kept pushing the men who stayed with me to keep to the cause. But without support, it was just a matter of time before my mind…cleared.” It had cleared on a mission, the face of an enemy suddenly giving way to that of a child just before he went to kill her. He’d stared into her fearful, furious face, and he had barely known himself. All he’d known was what he was doing was wrong.

His men hadn’t understood, hadn’t listened when he’d tried to call the raid off. Rone had been forced to take steps.

A lot of people had died that day.

Cas nodded gently. “Is that how you got Lilah and Shar?”

“Yeah.” Rone coughed to clear his throat. “I made amends to my brother, but there’s no denying I’ve got more than my fair share of monster in me. You’re tough, and you’re clever, but even with the phage, I could break you in two if I wanted to. I know this planet’s technology and society better than you ever will, and I won’t tolerate anything that puts any member of my family in danger. If you do that, I’ll do worse than throw you into jail, Cas. I don’t want to, but…” He sighed. “You’re not Beren. I’m not bound to you the way I was bound to him, not with the same intent. I want to help you get your revenge for him.” For the poor young man Rone would never get a chance to really meet. “But I won’t put any of my people at risk for you. Do you understand?”

Cas smiled, and for a second, Rone saw the man he’d thought he might fall in love with.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Four, Part One

Notes: Lie no more, darling, lie no more. The big reveal!

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Four, Part One


Chapter Twenty-Four, Part One

Cas laughed, softly at first, then so hard he knew he must have sounded like maniac. He doubled over at the waist, fell into a crouch and locked his arms around his knees, laughing the whole time. He was practically naked, he was burned and blistered, he could hardly breathe, he was exhausted and so was his phage, and he’d just revealed his true identity to Rone. He should be paralyzed with fear, afraid for his very life.

No energy left for fear. Why bother? Either he kills me or I get to explain. Maybe both. Explaining was vital, though—explaining might save Rone’s life. Cas lifted his head and tried to catch his breath, tried to speak, but it was too much. His body was betraying him now, his lungs weren’t having it any longer. They seized inside his chest, and suddenly it was all Cas could do to not to pass out.

“Fuck.” A second later, a pair of strong arms stretched him out of his tight, constricted crouch. Rone maneuvered Cas onto his knees and pulled his head onto his shoulder, gently patting his bare back and kindly avoiding the places that were still raw. “In and out, there you go. Calm down. Just calm down.”

Cas pushed weakly at his shoulder. “’m…calm…”

“Sure you are,” Rone agreed. “So calm that you can speak to me in full sentences. But—oh wait, no you’re not. And until you are, I’m not letting go.”

Shit. Cas absolutely hated Rone sometimes, hated how goddamn understanding he could be. Cas was a murderer, an imposter, someone who had done nothing but lie to Rone in order to accomplish his own ends. And now the man was trying to comfort him? “Fuck…you…”

“Better. You get that out without the pause and I’ll believe that you’re well enough for me to start yelling at you.”

Cas flinched, and loathed himself for it. It was the least of what he deserved, but he still hated to think about the hurt he’d caused this man.

Rone sighed, then stood and picked Cas up in one smooth motion. “We’re not going to do this on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom. Come on.” He took Cas out into the living room and carefully deposited him on the obscenely comfortable couch. Cas retracted into himself again, not wanting to soil it any more than he had to with his filth-covered body, but Rone just grabbed his feet and pulled until he stretched out. He sat down on the low table across from the couch and put his elbows on his knees. He looked at Cas, the purple sheen in his eyes brightening a bit.

“The kids are safe, the house is secure, and I’ve temporarily disabled the AI in the living quarters. If you can bring yourself to tell me the truth about you, now’s the time.”

The truth. Ha, right, no problem. Cas sighed. “All right. The first thing you should know about me is that I’m—I’m not Beren Farling.”

He waited for Rone to start yelling at him. Instead he nodded his head slowly. “Yeah, that part I can see. But you are Beren too, aren’t you? It took me a moment, but as soon as you hunkered down in there I could tell. Your body is the same as his, you move the same way. It’s just the face that’s different.” He tilted his head in consideration. “You’re the brother? The one with the phage?”

Cas gaped. “Are you a fucking psychic?”

“Far from it. I just…I knew there was something off with you. Something too calculating for you to be who you said you were. And the things you can do, the things you survived?” He shook his head. “Once might have been a coincidence. The incident with the eaters, I could let that go. But then, surviving the attack on the ship? Retrieving my children during a riot? Fooling our doctors into believing that you were who you said you were? No. Although,” he added with a small half-smile, “some of that was my doing.”

“Your—” The power outage. The wonderfully convenient power outage during Cas’s last appointment with Dr. Weiss, the one that had allowed him to get information on Dani Yorque. “You engineered that? Why?”

“I wanted to see what you would do with the extra latitude,” Rone said somberly. “I saw video of you defending my children outside the arcade. I felt that you wouldn’t cause them any harm, and I wanted to know what your plan was. Of course, that was when I thought you were really Beren,” he added. “Where is he, back on Leelinge? Why are you pretending to be him?”

“Beren is dead.” It hurt to think and hurt even more to say out loud. Rone was the one to wince this  time, like Cas’s revelation had caused him true pain. He thought back to their relatively few nights together, the tenderness he’d shown this shell, the solicitousness. Rone had liked Beren. “He died during the revolution. He was betrayed by someone like me.” Cas indicated himself with one trembling hand. “You were right about me. When I’m not completely burned out, I possess the ability to change myself to imitate others, right down to my cells. I’m a phage.” He swallowed hard. “I’m Beren’s older brother, Cas. And I’m looking for the person who killed him.”

Rone let his head drop for a moment. He sighed and ran a hand down his face, staring at the floor. It took Cas a second to realize that he’d just effectively destroyed Rone’s husband. The person he thought he was bringing into his life, into his family, wasn’t real. He’d been dead before they’d ever met. All he was left with was Cas, the pallid, trembling truth behind the imitation. He felt so ashamed, he wished for a moment that he could be back in Christala’s burning apartment, this time without a robot firefighter there to save him at the last minute. If he had burned to death, it would have tainted Beren’s memory but not wholly destroyed it for Rone.

“I’m sorry,” Cas choked out. “I’m so sorry, I hated to lie to you but I had no other way to get off-planet. If I’d stayed on Leelinge, they’d have found me and killed me. I needed to come after his killer, and she was already on her way to Imperia. Please,” he begged, “you can imprison me, you can send me back or kill me, do whatever you have to, but let me take her out first. It’s not just about Beren anymore. Everyone you know is in danger from Christala. She was behind the attack on the ship, she can separate pieces of her phage and make people into her puppets, she—I don’t know what she wants here, but she’s already killed both of our people to get it.

Now she’s worked her way into the king’s inner circle,” he babbled. Cas knew this probably seemed far-fetched, but he needed to get it all out before Rone put him in prison. He had to try. “I know she’s imitating someone close to him, but I don’t know who yet. Let me work it out, let me find her, and then you can do whatever you need to to me. Let me keep your family safe, Rone, please.”

He stared at Cas, and Cas stared right back, trembling but unwilling to back down. He couldn’t. He needed to see this through, for both their sakes.

Please believe me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Three, Part Two

Notes: Ta-daaa! A new part to the story, a little more about Cas's past, and some uncomfortable revelations for everyone.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Three, Part Two


Chapter Twenty-Three, Part Two

Flames licked their way through the apartment, spreading along the walls like a quick-moving rash. Cas turned back to the door, but he already knew it was hopeless. It had been completely consumed—but these were supposed to be flame-retardant materials. Why were they so susceptible to this fire, then?

Because Christala had planned it that way. Whether it was driven by chemicals or by a biological compound or somehow by her own spiteful love of destruction, this fire was a force that Cas couldn’t fight. His best option was to flee, then.

He ran into the next room of the apartment, where there was window that he could still get at. He tugged at it, checking for locks—nothing, but it didn’t budge. He smashed a stool against it next, hammering with phage-increased strength, but it still refused to yield. She’d sealed it somehow, closed it permanently—of course she had. She’d known he would come and investigate, and this was all part of the trap.

He couldn’t use the door or windows to get out, and there were no other exits he could see—no large ventilation or piping. It was time to use his last, and least favorite, option then—waiting it out. Cas stumbled, coughing, into the bathroom adjacent to the bed, and prayed that the water still ran in here even if the fire suppression system was cut off. A single slap of his hand woke the AI, and a moment later cold water began to fall from a cheap half-ceiling unit to the low ceramic tub beneath it.

His heart pounding, Cas soaked the single small tower he found in the pouring water, then wrapped it around his head. He braced against the wall and kicked at the old-fashioned tank toilet until it dislodged, pouring more water across the floor toward the shut door, which was already browning at the edges. He stayed low to the ground, pulling as much of his body into the spray of the water as possible, and settled in to do the thing he hated most of all—relying on someone else to save him.

Cas stared at the door, willing it to open, to reveal anything other than fire. This couldn’t be the end. Dying ignobly in Christala’s fucking bathroom, driven there like an eel farmer drove their crops out of their holes and into buckets…this couldn’t be the end of his story. He had risked so much, he had already lost so much, and there was so much more that he didn’t want to lose…
I want to stay with them. He barely knew them, his family, but he wanted to go back to them. He 
wanted to coax a smile out of Shar and teach Lilah how to make a spoon disappear. He wanted to see his husband and hold him and tell him how sorry he was that he wasn’t who or what he should be. He wanted his brother.

Cas coughed, and wrapped the cloth more securely around his mouth and nose as smoke began to infiltrate the room. He didn’t want to think about Beren, but how could he not, at a time like this?

The last time they’d talked, Beren had been so afraid. “Where can I go?” he’d asked, sounding helpless over the communicator. “Where can I go so that you’ll find me?”

“Don’t worry about me.” It had been so hard to breathe, to force air through his abused lungs. Cas had been pretty sure he was dying back then. If only. “Find a safe place and wait it out—Imperians are coming, they’ll break it up.”

“I’m not going anywhere without you!”


“I won’t, Cas! You’re all I have!”

Except that hadn’t been right, because he’d had his life, then. By the time Cas found him, nearly a week later, little better than a walking corpse himself, his brother had been dead for days. His flesh had already become soft, discolored—and his eyes had been missing. So was his throat.

It hurt to weep when you were burned inside and out, crisped by superheated air after being too close to an explosion. His phage had been overworked, devastated just keeping him alive, and if he’d been as good as his instructor always hoped he would be, Cas would have compartmentalized, pushing the horror of his brother’s death into the back of his mind until he was recovered enough to feel it without making himself worse. But he wasn’t that good. He’d broken down, wept so hard he passed out, and it had been hours before he, to his dismay, woke up again.

His new family wasn’t really his, not to keep, but Cas needed to see them again. He needed to explain…he needed to…

The shower stopped working, overwhelmed by the fire. The door was gone, and so was most of the wall, and the fire was inches away from eating him alive, and Case shut his eyes and thought of Beren.

Instead of being enveloped by burning flames, though, instead he was suddenly plastered with a strange, cooling foam. It enveloped him completely, turning him into a sort of gelatinous grub. Cas couldn’t see through it—he could barely even move—but he felt a pair of stiff, robotic arms gather him up off the floor, and heard the humming of its machinery as it carried him out of the ruined apartment, safely coddled in his strange cocoon.

He heard human voices, then a crackle, and a moment later the goo melted off of him, practically evaporating. Cas was lying in an emergency medical transport, from the look of the equipment surrounding him. “Sir! Sir, are you all right?” A medic sat beside him, his eyes wide. “It’s going to be fine, you don’t have to talk yet. Just lie right there, I’ll check you over for damage.”

Cas figured he must look pretty bad if the guy didn’t expect him to talk. He felt all right, though—more than a little singed, and he’d inhaled too much smoke despite his best efforts, but the phage was working on that. He didn’t have any of his disguises anymore, and he didn’t care. “Everyone—else—okay?” he managed to choke out.

The young medic’s eyes went even wider. “Oh no, were there other people in the apartment with you? Dalon!” He left the transport and ran toward another cluster of people—firefighters and more emergency personnel.

Now was Cas’s chance. As reluctant as he was to move, he forced himself to his feet, grabbing one of the emergency blankets and wrapping it around himself as he slid out of the transport and away from the apartment complex. He needed to be deep in the shadows before the young man noticed he was missing.

He needed to get home.

They searched for him, he could hear it, but Cas knew how to hide even when he couldn’t use the phage. He walked, barefoot, shrinking down the alleys like a wraith, picking his way across the city back toward Rone’s palace. There was no chance he would make it within his deadline, he knew that. Rone might think he was dead, or he might have people out searching the streets for him now, to bring him in to face a prince’s justice. Rone might not know anything at all, other than that his husband was gone.

Whatever happened to Cas afterward, at least he would be able to tell Rone the truth to his face.

By the time he reached the tunnel, it was almost dawn, and his feet were bloody. His lungs were better, at least. Cas limped wearily toward Lilah’s room, wondering if he’d be able to sneak in. Would it even matter?

Had Rone even noticed he was gone?

There was his shriveled bit of skin, still doggedly hanging onto his implant. He reabsorbed it with effort, then gathered up his clothes and opened the door beyond. He crept inside, and—

“Who the hell are you?”

Lilah wasn’t there, but neither were Rone’s soldiers. It was just Rone, holding a gun on him as he stared at him, hard-eyed. “Where is Beren?” he demanded.

Cas couldn’t help it. He laughed.