Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Three, Part Two

Notes: Cas is making his way around the camp, finding out all sorts of interesting things ;) Read and find out what. The next chapter is where the tropey goodness really starts to kick in!

Title: Mutable: Chapter Three, Part Two

***



Chapter Three, Part Two



Imperians, Cas thought to himself for the dozenth time since setting out, were arrogant.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t realized that before, but he hadn’t really understood it. Now he was beginning to see just how far their arrogance extended, and it would have made him shake his head if it wasn’t working so well in his favor.

He moved around the encampment like a wraith, sticking to the shadows and the obscuring rain, even when he began to shiver from the cold. There were regular patrols, but the people performing them were fast and perfunctory with their duties. It was clear that they didn’t have the slightest concern for their camp being infiltrated. And why should they? Imperians were the technological marvel-makers, the ones who had pulled themselves out of planetary solitude and obscurity first and gone on to create a new system-wide hierarchy as they saw fit. They were at the top—other trade planets were in the middle—Leelangers were at the very bottom. And Delacoeurians? Ha, they didn’t even make the graph.

It took about an hour to get the layout of the camp. The troop barracks and mess halls were close to the front gate, along with the administration tents. Further in were officer’s quarters, as well as the dedicated space dock where Imperian ships squatted like giant silver toads, waiting to leap into the air and croak their way into space. For a people who valued appearances so highly, Cas was surprised they didn’t do more to enhance the beauty of their ships.

He didn’t find any weapons, but that was only to be expected. Besides, anything could be a weapon. He did find the central generator, which was guarded by a simple camera and alarm system that a child could work around. If things went badly for Cas tonight, he could probably still manipulate Captain Basinti into letting him stay a little longer. Another opportunity to get outside meant he could disrupt the generators and delay the Imperians’ exit for days, possibly weeks. There was leeway here, and Cas knew how to turn the tiniest bit of leeway into a lever to open an entire cavern. Almost anything could be an advantage if you approached it the right way.

“If you think you might lose, then you’ve already lost,” his mentor, Ozeda, had told his pupils. Cas hadn’t been the only person of his generation to take on a phage. Ten had tried, seven had succeeded, and two remained alive. The other had already left the planet. She was the primary target on Cas’s list.

Christala. I’m coming for you.

First he had to make it off of Leelinge, though.

By the end of the second hour, Cas knew he should be heading back. He needed to break back in, after all. Shaking with cold, he made his way along the outer edge of one of the smaller barracks, a blocky, artless building that had probably been thrown together by a bot in under an hour. No aesthetics, no sense of beauty. Another chink in their Imperian armor.

Voices sounded from inside, braying with laughter so loudly that, despite himself, Cas was drawn to the sound. He hadn’t heard laughter in a long time. Should he…would it be wise to…

He had his ear to the edge of the door in a moment, eyes trained through the window to see what was happening inside. Two men and two women sat at a table, drinking what was probably alcohol, and also probably against regulations while they were in potentially hostile territory. Sloppy. So sloppy.

“But truly,” one of the men was expounding to the little crowd, “the fact that we’ve wasted so much time on this backwater irritates me. How hard is it to get the Leelangers to agree to our terms? Even cockroaches can be trained to eat from your hand.”

“Stiff necks,” one of the women, whose curly hair kept falling into her face, said. “Too much pride. And what do they have to be proud of, anyhow? Managing to survive on a swampy wasteland like this? Being better than the inhabitants of the unluckiest ship in the system? It’s ludicrous.”

“This whole fucking situation is ludicrous,” another man grumbled. “We should have been off this rock a week ago, not coddling a bunch of refugees destined to become our asteroid miners and toilet bowl cleaners. I blame Basinti. He’s too soft.”

“Watch it,” the first man cautioned him. “I admit that it’s inconvenient, but the captain is a hero of the conquest. He wouldn’t get a command like this if everything was exactly as it seems. There’s got to be some delicate diplomacy happening.”

“Fuck their diplomacy, Aleks,” the other man grumbled, taking another drink. “They don’t deserve diplomacy. We should have come in here, pointed our guns at their heads and said, ‘Give us what we want.’”

“I feel sorry for them,” the second woman spoke up. Belatedly, Cas recognized her—it was the soldier who had been dispatched to deliver his meal. “Not the Leelangers so much—the Delacoeurians. Imagine landing on the planet you’ve been traveling to for centuries and finding it so…awful. And then they got here and things were just as bad, if not worse. We’re doing the right thing by taking them away with us.”

“You’re a soft heart,” the loudmouthed man scoffed. “Too soft for this sort of work, Fillie. Lower planetary people are like stray wrakkens—feed them too much and they’ll cling like burrs, even when you try to burn them off. We shouldn’t be encouraging them to rely on better people to take care of them.” The door on the other side of the small building slid open, but the man didn’t notice. “Basinti should have told the Leelangers to take our crumbs and be grateful, and he should have told those fucking Dela-whatevers to make peace with their gods, because—”

“Because what, Private?”

The way the four of them jumped to their feet was gratifying. The one who’d been drinking the steadiest lost control of his flask, too. It fell to the floor with a clang as he wheeled around to desperately salute the officer who’d crept in like an unexpected storm. Darven, Cas remembered. First name or last?

“Commander Hije!” the drunk soldier gasped.

Ah. First name, then.

“Because what?” Darven pressed. “Because you think you’d like to go out there and dispense a little indiscriminate cleansing, is that what you’re thinking? Because you think, what, you’re so much better than people who’ve not only managed to live in some of the worst conditions imaginable for decades, but to almost take over the fucking planet while doing it? People with next to nothing build a civilization underground that rivals anything we could have done when we first arrived on Imperia. And lucky them, when they gave birth to dumbasses like you, those dumbasses didn’t survive long enough to make it into the military, where they could shame their commanding officers with their idiocy.”

The soldier looked about a moment away from throwing up with panic. “Sir, I—I didn’t, I’m so—I apologize.”

“I don’t give a damn about your apology,” Darven snapped. “What I give a damn about is you mouthing off in such a disrespectful manner. And the rest of you?” The three other soldiers seemed to shrink inside of their uniforms. “You should have cut your friend here off at the pass. I don’t care what you say when you’re on your own time, but on away missions like this, you have no time of your own. Your time is my time, it is Captain Basinti’s time, it is Imperia’s time, and you are disgracing all of us with your behavior. Next time I catch word of this sort of talk going around, I’ll have the four of you buried so deep in shit work that your eyes go brown. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir!”

He singled out one of the women. “Private Fillie, the captain wants the Delacoeurian in Delta Two brought to his tent. Take Jarves with you.” He glared at the loudmouth. “And when you’re both done with that, Jarves, you come find me. Your night’s only just beginning.”

“Yes, sir!” The exited the tent double-time, and Cas swore. How was he supposed to get in around both of them? He sprinted around the outer edge of the camp to beat them back to his building, racking his brain for a way to get inside. He couldn’t out-maneuver two of them, not without—

Ah, but Jarves had been drinking, and heavily. That could be his in.

Cas beat them to their destination by a comfortable margin, and watching Private Jarves stagger along, he knew he had a chance. He sidled as close as he could, the rain mirrored against his bare skin, waiting for them to get close enough. Jarves was complaining—softly, so at least he could learn—and Fillie was trying to ignore him. He slouched up behind her as she scanned her wrist, made to follow her inside—

Cas stuck his foot out, and Jarves tripped over it and fell right into Fillie, knocking both of them to the ground. Cas darted in around them and went straight for the showers, letting the phage turn its efforts back to changing his face as he—very quickly—washed off under the spray, then dried and got dressed. By the time he came out, the soldiers had righted themselves, although both were rather red in the face.

“You must have really enjoyed that shower!” Fillie said brightly. “You’ve been in it for hours!”

Cas smiled sheepishly. “It’s the first hot water I’ve had access to for months.”

She nodded understandingly. “I see. But you didn’t eat anything. Weren’t you hungry?”

He was starving, actually—the phage took a great deal of energy to maintain. “I lost track of time,” he said apologetically.

“That’s all right. Why don’t you eat some real quick, before we go?”

“Fillie,” Jarves grumbled. “We’re on a timer here…”

“I’ll be fast,” Cas said. He bolted the food down—noodles in a salty sauce, some sort of spongy vegetable casserole, a square pretending to be chocolate cake, and a glass of diluted juice. It all tasted heavenly. He wiped his mouth and stood up from the cot. “Thank you so much,” he told her honestly. “I’m ready to go now.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Guest Post: Lander by J. Scott Coatsworth

Hi darlins! I've got a friend stopping by the blog today with the latest installment of his Oberon Cycle series. Is this not the most gorgeous cover? And don't you want to get your hands on some wingfic? One stop shopping, right here ;)


Blurb: Sometimes the world needs saving twice.


In the sequel to the Rainbow-Award-winning Skythane, Xander and Jameson thought they’d fulfilled their destiny when they brought the worlds of Oberon and Titania back together, but their short-lived moment of triumph is over.


Reunification has thrown the world into chaos. A great storm ravaged Xander's kingdom of Gaelan, leaving the winged skythane people struggling to survive. Their old enemy, Obercorp, is biding its time, waiting to strike. And to the north, a dangerous new adversary gathers strength, while an unexpected ally awaits them.


In the midst of it all, Xander’s ex Alix returns, and Xander and Jameson discover that their love for each other may have been drug-induced.


Are they truly destined for each other, or is what they feel concocted? And can they face an even greater challenge when their world needs them most?

***
 Excerpt:

Jameson savored the kiss, his arms around Xander, the way they fit together just right. They were finally together, and Titania and Oberon were one again.

Erro, Quince had called this new world. Like the skythane god of the sun, the one Errian and the Erriani were named for.

For the moment, everything was right in his life, and he never wanted it to end.

A cold drop of water on his cheek brought him out of his reverie. He glanced up. Storm clouds were piled high, swiftly overtaking them. Rain began to pour out of the sky like a waterfall, and thunder echoed in the clouds as the valley went dark, sunlight smothered by the onrushing clouds. Nearby trees thrashed about in the wind, their purple leaves fluttering in distress.

“What the hell?” Xander said as the winds picked up and ruffled the feathers of his wings. He stared up at the black tempest.

“The Split!” Jameson shouted over the howling of the wind. He mimed the two halves of the world, each with their own atmosphere, suddenly being forced together in the middle. “When the Oberon half shifted, all the atmosphere it brought with it along the Split was forced up here!”

A bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, crisping it to ashes and standing Jameson’s hair on end.

“Run!” Xander shouted.

Jameson’s vision swam, and a memory slipped into his conscious mind from that other part of him—a high-ceilinged cavern that was more like a faery palace than a cave—where he’d stolen away with a lover. More than once.

His stomach heaved at the displacement, and he clenched his hands. That wasn’t me. They were someone else’s memories.

“Follow me!” he shouted at his four companions—Xander, Quince, Kadin, and Venin—and ran toward the cliffs that were rapidly fading to invisibility behind the rain. He pushed down the memory-nausea, tasting bile in the back of his mouth.

Alia was missing. He’d last seen her as they had fled the Mountain, when it had begun to collapse. Jameson looked around wildly, but she was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Alia?” he shouted at Kadin as they ran. Thunder shook the valley.

Kadin shook his head, mouthing, “I don’t know.”

Rain swirled all around them, coming down so fast that it pooled on the ground and ran in rivulets downhill toward the lake that was now half filled with the broken remains of the Mountain.

The mud made the footing treacherous. Jameson clambered up the hill, using roots and rocks that offered a firmer surface than the naked ground. The wind tugged at his wings, threatening to flip him over. He pulled them in tightly and glanced back to be sure the others were following him through the tempest.

Jameson reached the cover of the forest, plunging under the protection of the canopy. The trees here were tall and thin with white bark trunks and broad purple leaves that were being shredded by the storm.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Three, Part One

Notes: Time to get our sci-fi on, folks! Have some phage on your Tuesday morning. Not my longest update, but hey--at least it's here!

Title: Mutable, Chapter Three, Part One

***



Chapter Three, Part One



“It could take some time for Darven to get the information I requested,” Rone said, drawing Cas’s attention back from the tent’s exit. “Possibly not until dinner this evening. In the meantime, I unfortunately have a lot of work to do in preparation for our departure. Let me escort you to a safe place for you to wait, and get you access to showers and a hot meal. I’d like you to think about the sort of work you’d be qualified to do on another planet before we meet again, and present your options to me this evening.”

Cas nodded. It was as good a way as any to spend the time, but if he was cautious, he could use his relative liberty to do some research of his own instead. “I can do that.”

“Good.” Rone smiled, and Cas was struck by how immensely kind it made him look. Rone wasn’t a remarkably handsome man, his rare eye color notwithstanding. He had a square face and a strong jaw, a nose slightly bent and flattened in the center, and smooth, healthy skin, but all together he wasn’t someone Cas would look at twice. When he smiled, though, his features were elevated by the warmth in it from everyday to exceptional. Despite himself, Cas smiled back.

Rone stood and gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”

It had started to rain outside, a typical misty, fog-laden afternoon. Cas could barely see more than ten feet ahead of them, and he carefully counted his steps and looked for landmarks as they walked. Rone led him to a barracks-like building close to the camp’s fence, fielding curious looks and occasional salutes with easy aplomb. He pressed the thin skin beneath his wrist to the pad outside the door, and it immediately opened to admit him. “Come inside, Beren.”

His impression of a barrack was confirmed as soon as Cas got a good look around the place. Cots were spread along the wall in a neat and orderly fashion, each one with an attached footlocker. At the end of the building was a bathroom enclosure.

“Towels are stacked in there.” Rone pointed to the bathroom. “Feel free to help yourself to them, or to lie down anywhere if you’re tired. I’ll make sure someone comes in with a meal shortly.”

“Okay.” Cas made a show of looking around a little uncertainly. “Will anyone else be joining me?”

“No,” Rone said, making the assumption Cas was going for. “This isn’t a place for my troops, this was for refugees. Almost all of them are gone now, but we haven’t gotten around to breaking the hardware down yet. No one will disturb you in here.”

Damn it. Cas smiled. “That’s good to know, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll be back once I have some news for you, all right?”

“That’s very kind of you.” Keep being kind to me, I need every edge I can get.

“It’s no problem.” He turned to leave.

“Captain?” Cas called out. “What, um…what’s your last name? In case someone comes in and I have to…” He laughed nervously. “Have to justify my existence to them, or something?”

“Ah.” Rone inclined his head. “Captain Basinti, at your service.”

“Thank you.” Cas waited for the door to shut behind him, then swore softly. Well, shit. It wouldn’t be as easy to get out of here and move around as he’d hoped, but with the weather the way it was right now, at least he’d have easy cover. There was no time to waste, though.

Cas stripped down to his skin as fast as possible, running the clothes back to the bathroom and turning on one of the showers for good measure. Unless they were monitoring the water use—and why would they be, on a planet so perpetually soaked in rain—any visiting Imperian would assume he was in the shower instead of seeking him out. Cas moved to the corner closest to the door, pressed as tightly to it as possible, and with a long exhale, let the phage crawl to the surface.

If he had been observing himself, he would have seen pale skin suddenly change, becoming mottled and then smoothing out to match the off-white color and slightly wavy texture of the wall behind him. Even his hair made the shift, while at the same time Cas’s chin became less pointy, his cheekbones a little less sharp. The phage was a miraculous creature, but it had its limits, and maintaining Beren’s more delicate features while reimaging Cas to blend into his surroundings was too much. Hopefully, it wouldn’t matter. He couldn’t allow himself to be caught. Cas held himself perfectly still, closed his eyes until they were nothing but mere slits, and waited.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later, the door opened to admit an Imperian soldier carrying a covered tray. She glanced around once, shrugged to herself and set the tray down on the nearest cot, then headed for the door again. As she scanned her wrist, Cas detached himself from the wall, creeping up on silent feet to stand as close behind her as he dared. He’d have less than three seconds to make it out behind her, so he had to make them count.

The door opened. The soldier left, Cas shadowing her so tightly he was a little amazed she couldn’t sense him right behind her. He made it out with a good second to spare, though, and dropped down into a crouch beside the side of the door as soon as he was clear. The phage shifted again, this time to a moving tapestry of dark and light greys—the perfect camouflage for a rainy day.

Cas watched the soldier walk away with a sense of satisfaction, then crept around the barrack until he was right up against the wall—also conveniently gray, so he wouldn’t have to tax the phage as hard as if he was trying to make it across the center of camp. He looked assessingly in both directions, building a map in his head of where he knew the largest entrance to the camp was, where the ships and Rone’s tent were, and where he was right now. Once it was done, he turned and began to work his way to the right.

He should have several hours to gather information on his new situation, and he was going to make the most of them.


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Two

Notes: The next chapter of Mutable is here! The plot thickens...

Title: Mutable, Chapter Two

***



Chapter Two



The captain’s tent was on the other side of the camp, close to where the enormous Imperian ships were docked. The Captain—Rone, apparently, and no one had said his last name yet so Cas didn’t have anything else to call him—must have been a fairly important man, because not only did the guards continue to escort both him and Cas to the tent, the officer who had called Cas a distraction came long as well. The other man was a shade or two lighter than Rone’s dark, earthy skin tone, and his face was fixed in an unimpressed expression. He looked like he was expecting a cave cricket to leap into his mouth at any moment.

Rone, by contrast, appeared serene, leading the way without a single glance back at Cas. Was it because he genuinely thought he had nothing to fear? Cas was outnumbered, after all, and the way he looked right now he knew he didn’t appear to be much of a threat. That was good. He needed to keep that up. The phage would last another few days without needing a break, if Cas was careful.

The inside of the tent—and tent was a little misleading, when the whole thing looked like it was made of opaque glass, and covered with opulent red and cream-colored fabrics inside—was big enough for four to sit comfortably, with a side room that was probably for sleeping. Once they were inside the captain dismissed the guards with a word and a smile. His officer friend rolled his eyes.

“I hope you don’t expect me to leave you alone with a prisoner, Rone.”

“I know better than that,” Rone replied. He sat down in a heavy-legged, high backed velvet chair and gestured for Cas to do the same. “Join me, Beren. Let’s get to know each other a little better.”

Cas sat down gingerly, very aware of the dirt embedded in his clothes and shoes, even the creases of his palms at this point. It wasn’t something that just washed away, the cavern dirt, not something that hot water and soap or one of those sonic showers could fix just like that. Cavern dirt stayed on you, it stuck with you. It seeped into every crevice until your body wouldn’t know what to be without it, until your skin stopped feeling abraded and started feeling caressed by it. Cas didn’t want to wash it all away. He wouldn’t, until he had no other choice.

Rone’s friend stood right behind him, looming. It made Cas want to turn around and slash through his fancy uniform, gutting him like a fish before he has a chance to do more than gasp in pain.

He didn’t, obviously. That wouldn’t get him off this planet, and that was where he needed to be. He affected a nervous demeanor. It really wasn’t much of a stretch. “What do you want to know?”

“What makes you think you’re not safe here?”

Cas couldn’t help hit; he snorted, and it actually brought a little smile to Rone’s face. “All right, then what makes you think you’re less safe here than any other Delacoeurian?

“Because…” Cas didn’t actually want to go into all of this, but it was probably going to be necessary. He might even score some sympathy points. “Because my brother was a phage. You know what those are?”

Rone’s face said that he did. His friend, on the other hand—“What the hell does that mean?”

“Phages were Delacoeurian assassins,” Rone said softly. “People capable of changing their appearances, thanks to the help of a rare protoplastic bacterium. Is that correct?”

“The bacteria killed more people than they worked for,” Cas said. He remembered the agony of the initial infection, how he was sure his blood was going to boil inside his skin and his bones would catch fire. “You had to have a really strong immune system to survive infection and learn to use them, and most of us have always been on the sickly side.” Being forced to live underground for generations would do that to you. “But if you survived and figured it out, then yeah. You might become a phage. My brother Cas was one.”

“Cas Farling.” Rone stroked his chin with a forefinger. “I think I remember seeing some sort of telecast about him. Wasn’t he killed—”

“In an explosion on Giverns Tower six months ago, yes,” Cas said, lowering his head. He hadn’t died, obviously, but it had taken him a long time to heal from the burns. Too long. By the time he came back to himself and was strong enough to work again, Beren was already dead. Not killed by a Leelanger, though.

Killed by a fellow Delacoeurian.

“What does this have to do with you?” Rone’s friend asked.

Cas swallowed hard. “Everyone knew my brother,” he said quietly, with an air of confession. “He was the most successful phage in the history of the war. If he hadn’t been killed—” injured to the point of uselessness, god damn it— “he would definitely have been executed by the Leelangers by now for war crimes. Because they can’t get him, they consider me the next best thing.”

Rone’s friend scoffed. “This sounds far-fetched at best. You’re saying you’re the subject of an extrajudicial manhunt that will end with you, what, being ‘disappeared?’”

“Not disappeared. Murdered.” Cas did his best to speak calmly, levelly, and to get his utter sincerity across to Rone, whose broad, handsome face gave nothing away. “I know I’ll be murdered if I stay here. There are people watching this camp right now, Leelangers who will follow me the moment I’m released through the gate. I’ll be picked up within a block, and dead within a day. I know it.” They warned me. God, I wish I’d done more to get Beren out of here before…

He coughed uncomfortably, trying to purge the memory of his last contact with his brother from his mind. Beren had been so afraid, but Cas had been bedridden, unable to help him. He’d sent him to stay with friends, with people who should have protected him.

Cas had been so, so wrong.

“All because your brother was a bigshot killer? I don’t believe it.”

Cas ignored him, focusing on Rone instead. “There was a price on my brother’s head, put there by the government. No one ever got to collect it because they couldn’t positively identify his body, but there are people out there who will still pay a bounty if mine is presented as his next of kin.”

“Fucking outrageous lies—”

Cas had had enough. He rounded on the guy behind him and snapped, “You’re an ignorant asshole who has no idea what was going on here before you flew in to save the fucking day, and you don’t give a shit what will happen once you leave! Your opinion doesn’t matter, because you don’t know anything and you don’t care to know anything! You don’t give a shit about us or about the war, you just want to leave! So leave!

In the resounding silence that followed, Cas wondered whether he’d gone too far. Then Rone started to chuckle and, oddly enough, so did his friend.

“Okay, so you might have a backbone after all,” the man said. “But I still don’t buy it. The Leelangers have promised to take all Delacoeurians into protective custody and keep you safe until you can take the blood test again.”

“I bet you anything that people have already mysteriously ‘vanished’ under their protective custody,” Cas said. “And I bet they won’t want to share their information with you when you ask. Ask them, find out. You’ll see I’m right.” It was a gamble, but he was willing to try anything at this point.

“Darven, go do just that,” Rone said. “Or get Jepson to do it. I want those numbers as soon as possible. And I want a verified, head-by-head count. Don’t just take their word for it.”

Darven groaned. “Damn it, that could take all night.”

“Then you better get started.”

“You want me to send someone else in?”

Rone smiled politely. “I don’t think I have anything to fear from Beren here, do I?”

“No, sir.”

Nothing I’m willing to let on yet, that’s for sure.