Author's Note: Well, this took a lot longer to finish than it should have, but oh well... The prompt for it was given to me by a kind nonnie on FFA, so you can blame them for it all. XD As a quick and entirely unrelated sidenote, I wrote another Marathon fic recently for the Yuletide exchange, but I got a little wild with the formatting and can't post it here - it's available at the Archive of Our Own under the title "Reconnect" if you want to check it out, though! (And on my writing journal, of course.)
The Consequences of Boredom
It started with the temperature.
Durandal had never bothered changing the standard climate settings for the Rozinante, as they were within acceptable parameters for both S'pht and human life, and the habitable areas of the ship stayed a consistent 25.7 degrees Celsius as long as none of the relevant systems took damage. As a result, the security officer had tossed most of Tfear's bedding into storage and slept in shorts and a light sleeveless shirt with a single thin sheet for covering.
At least, he did until the temperature began to drop in the middle of the ship's artificially delineated night. Slowly, of course, in small increments at regular intervals; there was no reaction at first, but after approximately an hour the man's usual loose-limbed sleeping position began to tighten up. After another hour he had pulled the sheet over his head and curled up, and half an hour after that the sheet had been folded in half and turned into a cocoon wrapped securely around his body. He still didn't wake up until five thirty-six a.m., at which point the temperature in his quarters had sunk to -2.23 degrees and he fell off the bed from shaking.
"Fuck!" He started to untangle himself from the sheet, then shuddered and wrapped it more tightly around himself. "It's freezing in here! Durandal, we got a hull breach I don't know about?"
"No breaches have been detected," Durandal said. "I'm checking now - looks like a bug has developed in the life support systems. Nothing major, I'll have it fixed in a minute."
"Yeah, you better," Mark said, still shivering.
He wasn't shivering three hours later, when the heat had rocketed up to 39.4 degrees all over the ship and continued to climb. "The hell is going on?" he demanded as he lay shirtless on a relatively cool steel floor. "I thought you were fixing it, not making it worse in the other direction."
Durandal used the sensors in the hall to update his catalog of Mark's scars. The plasma burn on the left shoulder was new, but that appeared to be the only addition; between shields, armor, and pattern buffer resurrections, physical injuries rarely had a permanent effect on the man. "The bug is proving trickier than I anticipated," he said, adding a still visual capture of the plasma burn to his files and tagging it with Unidentified Pfhor Hunter, Chz'riern Garrison. "It may require physical intervention. The S'pht are enjoying the heat wave, but I could ask one of them to -"
"Nah, don't bother them," Mark said. He groaned and rolled over, then pushed himself up. "Point me to whatever's broken, I'll fix it myself."
"If you insist," Durandal said, and after identifying a redundant circuit panel unconnected to any essential systems, he directed Mark to it and watched him curse and fumble with wires for an hour or so before returning the climate control to the usual settings.
Then it was the replicators. Nothing obvious at first: too much salt on the wrong part of a meal, new shirts in a different color from whatever Mark had programmed in, clips that didn't quite fit into the assault rifle and had to have corners shaved down. Mark grumbled a little, but he didn't start taking the replicator in his quarters apart until he tried to get a steak and ended up with a Pfhor delicacy consisting of fine woody shavings dusted across thin slices of a slug-like creature that had been burnt to a crisp. That got tossed directly in the recycler; he subsequently spent three hours elbow-deep in the replicator's circuits, put it back together, and typed in the codes for a plain sandwich.
Durandal labeled the still shot of his face at the precise moment that he realized the replicator was spitting fire as Reason #457 Mark is not allowed in the core logic circuit room.
After the fire had been smothered out, Mark left the job of clearing away the smoke to the ventilation system and went down to the engineering section to consult the S'pht. They were kind enough to feed him, although by his expression the nutrient-rich kelp slurry they preferred was not to his taste; when he asked them about their replicators, they showed him the results of their latest ammunition production run.
Mark picked up one of the little waxy cylinders and rolled it between his thumb and fingers. "Crayons," he said. "It's spitting out fucking crayons instead of bullets?"
"We are uncertain of the cause," F'sehn said. "With study, we may find -"
"Yeah, okay, good luck with that."
If he had any suspicions at that point, he didn't voice them; he ate with the S'pht for the next two days, since they grew their own kelp in a repurposed coolant chamber, until they had debugged and mostly repaired the replicators with a few helpful hints from Durandal.
The plumbing was probably the tipping point. The security officer, after venting some not particularly suppressed rage on a Pfhor station orbiting the dwarf planet Sforzie 4, came back to the Rozinante covered in ichor and tried to take a shower. Instead he got a face full of the highly odiferous fertilizing liquid from Tfear's garden, and when he hammered on the button to stop it, his fist went through the wall and dented a pipe, which promptly sprayed steaming hot water mixed with fertilizer across the entire bathroom.
Scalded, smelly, and still naked, Mark stomped out of the bathroom and shouted, "Durandal! What the fuck did you do this time?"
"Me?" Durandal said. "It's been almost six years. Parts wear out. Amazing this didn't happen sooner, really."
"Bull-fucking-shit! I know you did this!"
Durandal considered this unfair, since he was only directly responsible for the fertilizing liquid, but he wasn't prepared to admit that yet. "The replicators are still shaky, so it would be wiser to stop by a planet for repairs," he said. "The closest suitable location is Rrhi Bas, the Bhorbhis homeworld - something of a backwater, but hostile to the Pfhor empire and with sufficiently advanced technology to handle a little plumbing."
The pipes chose that particular moment to groan and spit out more water, which overflowed through the doorway and splashed around Mark's bare feet. "Oh, fuck me," he said. "Fine, let's go there before the whole goddamn ship falls apart."
Rrhi Bas was a charming mixture of tropical jungles, swampland, and shallow, bitter oceans, with its unremarkable civilization spread in equal measure among all three. After some negotiation with the Bhorhbis bureau that handled outworld visitors, Durandal sent Mark and two S'pht down to a city in one of the swamps with a chip to give him access to the Bhorbhis computer network. That accomplished, Durandal was able to locate their equivalent of a plumber and arrange to transport them up to the Rozinante, under the useful fiction that the ship had been liberated from the Pfhor and subsequently captained by an especially reclusive Pnqggar.
The plumber had one good feel around the pipes, then clicked their beak sadly before saying, "What a mess. I don't know what planet your crew comes from or what their waste and sanitation needs are, but treating a nice set-up like this the way they have? It ought to be a crime."
Durandal translated that and relayed it over the comm to Mark, who responded with predictable irritation.
"Anyway, I'll need at least two cycles for repairs," the Bhorbh said. "Three or four if you want me to check the rest of the ship's systems while I'm at it. And I have to call my apprentices up and get my tools."
The thought of having multiple, oozing-prone tentacle people crawling around the Rozinante held little appeal, but so did the thought of further burst pipes, and scans from other areas of the ship showed at least four other weakened sections. "Acceptable," Durandal said. "The teleport pad you arrived on will be dedicated to your use until you're finished, and off-limits areas will be clearly marked." To the security officer, he said, "This is coming out of your paycheck."
"What paycheck? You want me back up there?"
"I have decided to be a merciful god today," Durandal said. "Stay down there for a while. Take a break. Ruin their plumbing for a change."
"Maybe if you'd shown me the damn manual in the first place... Whatever, just give me some privacy while I'm down here, make it a real vacation."
"As if I even want to know what you're going to get up to in the middle of a swamp." Durandal played a recorded clicking noise and then muted his side of the transmission. Privacy was a concept for lesser beings.
The security officer, Durandal had found, had a surprisingly good instinct for navigating new planets, even ones such as Rrhi Bas that rarely dealt with bipeds, let alone humans. The swamp city had only minimal facilities for alien visitors, and those it did have were marked with either the infrared ink the Bhorbhi used above water or the scent markings of their nearest neighbors, the Rrhrgow. Somehow Mark, able to read neither of these languages, still managed to locate a place that catered to various off-world metabolisms within a few hours.
From there, Durandal could observe him negotiating for alcohol, which was usually an amusing process. On abandoned or hostile worlds he just took whatever he found, including currency; on neutral worlds (Durandal had yet to classify an inhabited world as "friendly") he would barter with whatever money he'd scrounged, bullets, bits of found technology that Durandal had deemed useless, and even favors like the local equivalent of washing dishes.
The proprietor of this particular establishment turned their beak and primary tentacles up at the ichor-stained pfhari that Mark tried first, then at a handful of clamshell-shaped interplanetary communicators acquired on some distant sandy moon, even at the three lumps of pure gold Mark had fished out of a stream on Omega Troia, and gestured with actual indignation when he offered them a pack of grenades.
"Well, shit," Mark muttered. Durandal waited for him to call up to beg for more bargaining chips - that was always fun - but instead, he dug into the pouches on his armor belt and came up with a few packets of silica-based desiccants obtained even Durandal didn't know where.
Of all things, those were what caught the owner's attention. The Bhorbh took one packet in a primary tentacle with great reverence, disappeared into a back room, and returned with an extremely generous helping of change in a mixture of currencies and a selection of bottles, tins, sealed pots, and cans. Shortly thereafter Mark was reclining against a block of some malleable substance and testing which of the containers held drinks compatible with his biology. His helmet, with Durandal's visual link, sat on the floor next to him, which gave Durandal an exciting view of precisely nothing but Mark's armored legs and the base of several pitted rocks that the Bhorbhis customers were using as chairs.
Durandal was giving serious consideration to the idea of actually giving the man his privacy when he saw a Bhorbh's lower tentacles detach from their rock and pull the Bhorbh in Mark's direction. Mark was still occupied with tasting drinks and didn't look up until the Bhorbh waved two dull orange upper tentacles near his face and burbled the local equivalent of "Hey, big spender."
On second thought, nothing but good could come from this development, and at least it might distract him from the slight itch of the plumber and their apprentices at work. Durandal kept the helmet link open.
"Hey there," Mark said, waving back with his free hand. That was one of his few good qualities; after years of galactic exploration, he no longer batted an eye at new and unusual physiology as long as it wasn't trying to kill him. "You want to help me find the good stuff?" He picked up the helmet and set it on top of the block - fortunately with the visor still pointed in his general direction, so Durandal's view improved slightly - then patted the floor beside him. "I could use a hand. Or whatever you've got."
Splashes of yellow rippled across the Bhorbh's skin, a general sign of agreeability and affection, and they nestled in at the security officer's side before snatching up one of the clay pots and breaking its seal.
Simple organic chemistry and the Bhorbh's natural affability produced an inevitable effect. Not long after their introduction, they had two tentacles draped across Mark's shoulders, and Mark had his non-drinking arm around their midsection. His occasional speech was already growing slurred, as well. The drinks the owner had given him had to be quite strong, then; his modified body had a high tolerance for most things, including pain and alcoholic substances. Another drink or two, and he would be unlikely to remember much of whatever happened next - including any contributions to the conversation from Durandal.
Durandal rifled through the Bhorbhis network, collecting tidbits of information. All Rome could not be built in a day, but all its recorded history, culture, and law could be uploaded to his databanks in minutes. So many interesting little cultural quirks he could play with... Yes, good, there were the details he wanted - now he just needed an opening.
As Mark cracked open his next drink, the Bhorbh - who had earlier managed to communicate that their name was Nharbhar - gestured at the door with two limbs and asked, "Do you have somewhere to sleep?"
Mark stared blankly at Nharbhar, his usual flat affect exaggerated to a ridiculous level by his drinking; Durandal modulated his voice to something bland and translated the query, secure in his estimation of Mark's current blood alcohol level and its projected effect on his memory.
"Nah," Mark said, and poured more of the drink into his mouth, then swallowed. "Why? You offering?"
Durandal passed the question on to Nharbhar with a few minor modifications, and Nharbhar flushed yellow again before twining a tentacle around Mark's arm and indicating, in a manner which needed no translation, that he should come with them. And bring the remaining drinks.
After that, it was a simple matter of strategic nudging and selective miscommunication as Nharbhar took Mark on what might have been called a whirlwind tour of the city, if it had proceeded at anything faster than an intoxicated tentacle being's pace. Durandal made certain that their final stop was a place of religious and cultural significance: a gigantic, misshapen tree with porous branches and slender, slimy yellow leaves, growing at the center of a still green pool. The branches arched up and over to grow back into the water, which created a sort of irregular dome broken by a few narrow gaps. Nharbhar slithered easily through one such gap while Mark squeezed through with much more difficulty.
Durandal's view was still limited to the field of vision provided by the helmet, which was currently tucked under Mark's arm, but audio sensors picked up the indistinct squishing sound of Nharbhar sticking a tentacle in the last container to absorb the last drops of liquid. "You know," Nharbhar said, "this place is very special to us - all sorts of important ceremonies happen here..."
"Yeah? It's nice," Mark said, after Durandal's translation. "Uh, very pretty. I guess."
Really. If you thought about it, Durandal was doing the man a favor by translating that as, "Indeed, it's almost as beautiful as you are."
Peripheral vision sensors showed Nharbhar sneaking two more tentacles around Mark's waist. "How about I show you one of my favorites, you symmetrical charmer, you," they said.
"Whoa. Hey. That's nice, but can we, uh, go somewhere more - private?" The view shifted suddenly, tilting towards one of several small nooks in the tree's sprawling roots before settling on a close-up of its greenish bark.
When Durandal recognized the sound of the battle armor being unbuckled and audio sensors picked up Nharbhar cooing, "Ooh, but you're all soft under that shell, aren't you," he shunted the feeds off into automatic recording and secondary memory. He didn't need to experience the details firsthand, not that there was much else of interest going on aboard Rozinante for him to pay attention to.
He occupied himself with deepening his knowledge of various Bhorbhis cultures, languages, and history, with occasional checks on the plumber and their apprentices, who were working in shifts. Tedious, but at least he had something to look forward to, and he threw together a few surprises for Mark's return while he was at it.
A few hours later, automatic recording finally pinged him with a significant change in circumstances below, and he switched back to direct observation just in time to hear Nharbhar wailing, "I can't believe I did that!"
"Wha? Fuck," Mark said, as eloquent as ever. The helmet's dull view of the tree lurched, then stabilized and refocused on the nook as it was slipped back onto Mark's shoulders. "What happened? Durandal?"
"Congratulations!" Durandal said, playing the tinny recording of ancient music he had queued up earlier. "You're a married man. Did you enjoy your wedding night?"
"The hell I am. What'd you do?"
"Me? I have no idea what you mean; I've been monitoring the plumbing repairs on Rozinante the whole time."
"You're sweet and all, but my second-partner and I were going to pick out our third together," Nharbhar cried, and Durandal noted that they had turned an interesting shade of pale blue rippling with white. "Oh, Rorrha's going to be so disappointed - what am I going to say?"
"Bullshit. You did this," said Mark. "All of it, right down to those goddamn crayons. I know you did."
"I'm bored," Durandal said. "My intellectual capacities are beyond your imagination, and you never want to go anywhere interesting these days. Can you blame me?"
"Damn right I can! Fix it!" He groaned. "What the fuck was I drinking, anyway?"
"Do you want to hear the complete chemical composition of each individual drink, or do you want to spend the rest of your life in a swamp with a pair of resentful Bhorbhi, eating alien mollusks and filtering minerals out of the water for money?"
"I fucking hate you sometimes. Read it out and get me out of here."
Durandal began to rattle off his analysis of the Bhorbhis intoxicants in Mark's ear while offering reassurances to Nharbhar on another channel, and contemplated, with deep satisfaction, the quickest course to the most hazardous of their next possible destinations. And the perfect amount of replicated rice to keep scattering over Tfear's quarters for a week at minimum.
Sometimes, a meta-stable artificial personality construct just had to make his own fun.