There is a tiny blue blip on the navigation screen.
Castiel stops the truck so that he can contemplate this properly. He wouldn’t go so far as to claim that detecting another vehicle in the area would be the last thing he needs right now, but for a handful of seconds Castiel considers calling it in to Victor so there’ll be someone else awake and more annoyed than him at this time of night.
It’s sand and rock as far as the eye can see, though at the moment that’s only some 20 to 30 yards ahead with the truck’s lights on. Not that the view’s all that more educational in the daytime; the Eliot Desert may have some awe-inspiring sand dunes and horizons, but awe is for new arrivals and poetic hearts.
Speaking of new arrivals.
“Pull up today’s arrival schedule.” The truck computer beeps an acknowledgement of Castiel’s command. “Pull up yesterday and tomorrow’s schedules as well.”
The only thing for miles is Base Camp #4-15, or The Oasis, as they’ve been told to call it. At this time of night most base activity is restricted to inside The Oasis’ environmental shields, and for good reason.
The monitor beeps. There’s a transport vehicle signed to a Winchester, D. that’s due to arrive tomorrow, approved by Singer, R. and stamped with Ion’s acknowledgement. A secondary window chimes in with a size estimate of the tiny blue blip of inconvenience, and it matches.
Castiel sighs, punches in the new coordinates, and puts the truck back into drive.
It’s not like Castiel wants to find flaws among the civilian personnel in the Expatriate program. A number of them are exemplary – Ellen Harvelle, for example, made a number of people sceptical when she won the perishable supplies contract, but she’s proven to be as efficient as any Officer. Same goes for many of them in R&D, and the new flight crew is startlingly quick and giving Company veterans a run for their money.
But then there are things like this: Winchester D. trying to make his journey ahead of schedule without notifying anyone, as though a road trip to The Oasis is something one does for the heck of it.
The vehicle that comes into view is – showy. It dwarfs Castiel’s truck, and would probably be impressive under daylight. It’s custom, though underneath the modifications it’s a classic all-terrain Chevy, all sharp angles and heavy musclework in the chassis, with a conventional downward-pointing cockpit at the front. It’s also painted black, which of course makes it easier to find in the dark of the desert. There’s no immediate damage that Castiel can see.
Castiel turns on the short-range mic clipped to his ear. “Unmarked vehicle, I’m from Base Camp #4-15, safety code Delta Tango Eight Eight Sierra. Please confirm.”
There’s a burst of sound through the ear piece – someone groaning. “Jesus.” A groggy cough. “Yeah, I read you, uh, give me a... Okay, here we go. Response code, Juliet Echo Zero Lima Sierra.”
Castiel gets off his chair and starts suiting up. “I acknowledge. Are you injured?”
“Not last I checked.”
“Is there anyone injured on board?”
“Nope. No one injured.”
“Explain the problem with your vehicle.”
“Bearing strain, port side. Something pinged me a couple dozen miles back, no alarms going off yet but I’m not feeling the rest of the journey without a look-see. Would’ve handled it myself but temperature’s dropping fast. I got the hardware to hang out here, so I was just gonna call it a night.”
“I’m here now, so you needn’t do that. How large is your crew?”
“Your on-board crew,” Castiel clarifies. “How many?”
“Uh. Just me.”
Castiel pauses, his glove halfway up his arm. “Please repeat.”
“I’m alone in here. Well, not anymore now you’ve dropped by, how about that.”
Wonderful. Winchester D. is a lone cowboy, riding in on his modified Chevy (Impala, the computer informs him helpfully) in the middle of the night, as though changing the tires to desert-suitable tracks was the limit of the man’s logical preparation for this journey.
“If you have power to spare, turn on your lights. I’m coming out to check your frame.” Castiel locks the helmet in place with a click and pulls the safety visor down.
“Dude, you don’t need to do—”
“I’m coming out now.”
Castiel’s boots land heavily on the dry earth, and the truck door slides shut behind him. He has to tilt his head up a little to view the Impala, and concedes that at the very least the driver had the sense to get the safety shields up.
“Direct me to the damage, or I’ll inspect it myself,” Castiel says.
There’s an oddly loud clank, and then one of the Impala’s side lights turns on. Castiel follows it, crouching down to observe newer dents in the metal. “Seems something’s caught in the frame. May I observe it?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, not with the temperature dropping this quick. You should be heading back in yourself.”
Castiel checks the screen on his sleeve; the suit will hold up for a while yet. “This will only take a moment.” He circles the problem area, gauging angle and force. “There have been other vehicles facing the same problem. It has to do with the high silica content of the sand. This shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I know it’s not a problem,” Winchester snaps. “This is my job, I can check her myself, I’m just choosing not to because I wanted to handle it with a clear head.”
Castiel looks up at the Impala’s nearest security camera. Winchester may not be able to see his expression through the safety visor, but his voice should be plain enough. “Then you should have been wise enough to not chart your own course off the road, or try to make it to The Oasis before you were expected.”
“I wanted to surprise—”
“And you should have brought a crew with you instead of coming alone. What if the damage were more severe? Or if you were incapacitated during your journey? Why haven’t you put out a distress call?”
“Because I’m not in fucking distress! I know what my baby can take, Jesus Christ what are you, the base camp’s nanny?”
Castiel tilts his head at the Impala. “It certainly looks like you need one.”
“Oh, you did not.”
As Castiel takes a deep breath of filtered air, he reflects on how this situation is emblematic of The Oasis’ mission statement. He could waste energy wondering why this civilian agreed to take a post on a Company training base if they weren’t willing to follow Company protocol, or he could just do his job as efficiently as he can and let the damn civilian do whatever he wants.
“I am an Officer of the Company.” Castiel tries his best not wonder if Winchester hasn’t done the sensible thing of checking the identification code on Castiel’s suit to confirm his position. “And I am going to help you.”
There’s a pause. “Did you just threaten to help me?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Castiel tries to recall those long hours listening to Joshua’s seminars on People Skills and Subjective Protocol. Being patient in a civilian setting uses up completely different muscles from, say, being patient while holding a reconnaissance position. “If you’re uncomfortable, I will leave this vehicle to your responsibility, but I can’t leave you alone here tonight.”
“Hey now, you need to buy me drinks first.”
“I said you need to... never mind.” Castiel thinks he can hear faint computerized beeps through the speakers. “You’re doing your job, fine, I get that. I’ll suit up and join you.”
“Someone should be monitoring the internal status of your vehicle,” Castiel reminds him. “And as you said, temperature is dropping fast.”
“All the more reason why you should head back in.”
Castiel glares uselessly at the camera. “Do you make it a personal challenge to be as stubborn as possible?”
“Takes one to know one, right?”
“The damage is here, correct?” Castiel gestures at the suspected square foot of metal.
Castiel slides his hands into the grooves, moving his feet in brace position. Usually this is done with a clamp, but clamps are for people who aren’t Castiel. The earth under his feet shifts from the pressure of Castiel’s hefting the port side of the Impala off the ground, Winchester riding it and all, and there’s enough of a gap in the frame that he can push a hand inside to check the protective lining.
“Whoa! Are you... lifting my car?”
“Am I touching it?” Castiel asks. “I feel something.”
“Yeah, I think that’s it.”
Castiel carefully sets the vehicle down. “With your permission, I would like to go underneath to check the lining. I can sign a waiver, if you need one.”
Winchester falls quiet again, presumably processing this new information about Castiel. Honestly, if Winchester has a problem with augmented Officers then he’d… Well, he’d still find friends at The Oasis, but it’d be another tiring cliché and Castiel will live to be confused about civilians another day.
It helps that the lines are blurred now, and only getting blurrier. For decades augmentation tech had been tightly controlled by the corporations in power, who chose to restrict its advantages to its Officers and the occasional civilian willing to take on its mile-high price tag that they might as well have been an Officer in the first place. Civilians – Earthlings, as some of them like to call themselves – naturally developed an association between the two. To be augmented was to be one of them, and to be one of them was to think themselves better than the Earth they’d left behind for the stars.
Then the corporations went to war, the survivors limped back to mother Earth to lick their wounds, and out from the scattered ashes The Company was formed. Just The Company, which is hardly a distinctive name but is supposed to be symbolic of unity between the remaining corporation Officers, and they now invite Earthlings into their warm embrace with the hope of a mutually beneficial future.
Victor Henriksen, Head of Security at The Oasis, is Earthling through and through, and has had at least two augmentations under the new order. He’s able to command the respect of civilian and Company alike, and is probably a bigger trendsetter than he knows. Some people aren’t happy that he’s one of the frontrunners for Captain Sands’ second-in-command spot on the Executive, but that’s the way the world turns.
“You are one pushy son-of-a-bitch,” Winchester says. “All right, go for it. I’ll watch you from in here, and if you get so much as a scratch on my baby, someone’s gonna get it, and that’s gonna be you.”
That’s a long-winded yes, but still a yes. Castiel doesn’t hesitate in pulling the now-unlocked access panel open and getting between the tracks. Once he’s safely inside, helmet lamp illuminating the narrow, dark space under the Impala, he responds, “If you wanted to avoid getting your vehicle scratched then you shouldn’t have brought it with you.”
“And if you wanted to avoid wasting your time then you could’ve just left me a warning and gone on your way.”
Castiel frowns. “I’m not wasting my time.”
“Buddy, I can hear exactly how much you’re loving helping me out. FYI.”
“I don’t understand why you stopped. Why did you stop? You said you can manage, so why didn’t you—”
“Look at my car. Well, you’re underneath her now, but c’mon, just look. She’s been through hell of a lot more than a little cold, and I know she can hang here a couple of hours while I get some shut-eye. You know, sleep? I hear some people like to do it at night.”
Castiel opens his mouth, ready to point out the ludicrousness of that statement when Winchester is the one who’d decided it’d be a good idea to travel to a foreign place at night, but decides that it’s not worth it.
Civilians, Castiel thinks to himself. Out loud, he says, “I see the damage. I’m turning my camera on now, open frequency. I’m going to place a temporary seal. You’ll have the appropriate tools at base to recoat your car.”
It’s not as though Winchester knows that this is exactly what Castiel does. Castiel’s augmented arms are a gift from the Company, and he will use them wherever he’s able and at anyone’s behest, no matter how simple the task. He even has his own request form on-base that anyone can use to procure his services, so he’s done things from carrying equipment to fixing things to helping set up The Oasis in the first place.
Victor had even asked, at the start of the program, if Castiel would like to join his Security Team. “You’d be a great help,” Victor had said, but Castiel had declined, citing his desire for a more research-focused position. But Castiel still helps Victor every now and then, such as if one of his security staff is suddenly unavailable, or if there’s a safety incident that requires extra hands. Castiel’s experience does come in handy, and Victor likes that Castiel takes orders well.
It occurs to Castiel that Winchester is probably not the sort that takes orders well. If Bobby Singer is his boss then he’s probably in the Development Division, maybe under biomech with Virgil or soft tech with Ash. His voice reminds Castiel of Singer himself though, so he finds himself imagining Winchester in dark engineering overalls and cap, hunched over the Impala’s monitors as he stares intensely at every movement Castiel makes on his holy relic of a car.
“Heads up, winds coming in.”
Castiel turns off the flashlight and rolls into a corner between the ground and the Impala’s tracks. The blast of cold is familiar from the weeks of visiting the Satellite Stations, and the suit is sturdy in shielding him from sand and wind.
A metallic groan above Castiel’s head makes him start. “Winchester!” he barks.
“Whoa, I’m not turning the engine on! I’m just locking down the tracks, try to block you a little.”
“Oh.” A quick glance down confirms that the brakes are still on, so if Winchester wants to flatten him in some bid to protect his baby, Castiel will at least have some warning. “All right.”
“I did say that this was a bad idea.”
“It isn’t. Stop being dramatic.” Castiel loosens his hold when the wind eases down.
“How are you even breathing normal, man? Your helmet filters look pretty standard.”
“My breathing is augmented.”
“My respiratory system is augmented. My sinus lining and trachea, along with one and a half of my lungs, are artificial. I’ve been through more extreme conditions than this.”
Which is why he’d volunteered to take on the Satellite Stations, all five of them. Director Naomi had been skeptical but Castiel had pushed, accurately claiming that he could do the work of a team of three or four, and still handle the physical handiwork around base on top of that. The position was attractive to Castiel because it’s a straightforward job with a direct line of responsibility, and free of the politics that come from having to work in a team.
But the science is interesting, too. The Satellite Stations are lonely automated structures set up miles out from The Oasis, where they measure environmental conditions and crunch simulation numbers. The idea is that these Stations will someday be set up out in space, perhaps on asteroids or terrestrial planets, to independently gather as much information as they can. Each Station is of a different design and has different experimental tech; Castiel’s job in The Oasis’ R&D team is to monitor, maintain and evaluate all of them.
It’s definitely interesting enough for Castiel to make the long drives out every other night to visit them and see how they’re doing. One day, when the Executive finally takes off for her voyage, Castiel will be there to oversee their use across the galaxy.
That’s the idea, anyway.
“Aug arms and aug lungs?” Winchester scoffs. “What the hell kind of Officer needs both?”
“What kind of private engineer needs to bring their own vehicle for a short-term contract?”
“One that thinks the Company has fucking lousy taste in wheels.”
“I’m sure it has nothing to do with you having enough space in there to bring your personal effects to base.” A one-passenger Impala is practically a caravan, and Winchester’s going to have a fun time getting through the base’s security checks. “The Oasis isn’t a bunch of tents set up in the sand. It’s state-of-the-art. Well-stocked. There’s a civilian bar and eatery in which the food is excellent.”
“The Roadhouse, run by Ellen Harvelle. Yes, I know.”
“Oh, so that, you know.” Castiel shakes his head. The wind’s died down, so he resumes his work while Winchesters chatters on. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Can’t say there’s much else interesting in the brochure… Uh, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Castiel,” he says. “And you’re David Winchester. I obtained your details off the roster before I hailed you.”
A snicker. “Dean. It’s Dean Winchester.”
“Calculated guess.” Castiel leans back and studies his handiwork. “That should be it. Check the circulation.”
There’s a soft hum as the car inspects itself. “Looks good. All systems are ready to make like a tree and leave.”
“Excellent.” Winchester unlocks the tracks and Castiel crawls back out, stretching his arms in the suit’s limited range of movement. The sensors beep at him helpfully, a reminder that there are other things to do. “We should make our move.”
“Yeah, yeah, no more detours. You goin’ front or back?”
Castiel steps into his truck, locking the door behind him. “I have work to do at a Satellite Station. I will notify Security to expect you.”
There’s a sharp sound that Castiel takes a moment to recognize as not Winchester falling over and hitting his head, but of him laughing. “You’re going out by yourself? Isn’t it dangerous to travel alone? What if you get incapacitated during your journey?”
Castiel resists rolling his eyes. “Welcome to Eliot, Dean Winchester.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Superman.” A pause. “That does not make me Lois Lane, by the way.”
“Do you always talk so much?”
“Yes,” he says, but of course. “Winchester out, see ya on the other side.”
“Acknowledged.” Castiel keeps his eyes on the screen as he takes off his suit, just to make sure that the Impala is rumbling off in the right direction.