Author's Note: Well, I guess someone had to write Strauss fic eventually, and the unhappy lot fell to me. XD Nah, I'm kidding, it was really interesting to write; hope you guys enjoy it, and happy Bungie Day! Many thanks to my beta Masu_Trout for all the help.
hiding in the green
"Hey, Strauss! You're never gonna guess what your baby boy was up to today."
Bernhard gritted his teeth and swiveled away from his desk. "No, but I'm sure you'll insist on sharing," he said. "Really, Sorza, Durandal is operating within normal parameters and I've told you so every day for weeks now."
"Uh-huh. Right," Sorza said. He leaned on the back of Dr. Varma's empty chair and raised his eyebrows at Bernhard. "So it's within 'normal parameters' when he freezes all the doors to med bay six for an hour? Some poor girl named Beni Sloss who'd just had an accident almost died of blood loss before the actual docs could talk him into opening up."
Oh, God. And of course it was Sorza who'd been there to witness it. Of course. "That's unacceptable, obviously," Bernhard said, keeping his voice calm, "and I'll look into it at once. But the doctors should be submitting a proper write-up of the incident, not sending you to interrupt me while I'm working."
"Pretty sure they're planning to, once they get Doc Holliday to quit swearing and sit down so they can dictate it shiny and clean." Sorza stood up and gave Dr. Varma's chair a push to set it spinning. "But me, I'm a nice guy. I figured I'd speed things up, cut out the middleman and let you know personally - you know, before you get mobbed with complaints."
Ass. Sorza had never done anyone a favor unless he'd thought it could cause trouble for someone else, and particularly if that someone else was Bernhard Strauss. "Well, I can't do anything official until I have their report, but I suppose it doesn't hurt for me to be prepared. Consider me informed." He turned back to his desk.
"You're welcome," Sorza said, but he didn't leave; instead he stepped up to half-sit on Bernhard's desk, a hair's-breadth away from knocking over a stack of printouts. "Real funny, though, isn't it?"
"Beni Sloss, Bernie Strauss - they sound pretty similar, huh?"
"How many people are still living on this ship?" Bernhard said. Eyes on the screen, focus, for the love of God no reaction or Sorza would pounce on him. "I'm sure it's simply an unfortunate coincidence."
"Yeah, yeah, truth is stranger than fiction, ain't that what people say? It's a funny old world, all these coincidences." Sorza planted his hand right next to Bernhard's empty coffee mug and leaned closer. "Me, I'm not so sure. I see one bad coincidence, it gets me thinking about where I've seen 'em before. You step down from science director to be a regular working joe in glorified tech support and lose that nice private office, and then..."
"And then I was able to enjoy a very brief break from departmental politics, before you decided that my desire for some peace and quiet was somehow suspicious."
"What can I tell you? It's in my nature," Sorza said. "And your first office partner, wassername, Park, didn't she lose an arm when a door malfunctioned and decide to transfer down to the colony? So Varma gets her desk - a week before he's scheduled to take six months of parental leave."
"Work and leave schedules certainly aren't part of my responsibilities anymore, either."
"Now there's this Beni Sloss thing..." Sorza's bent outline reflected dimly from one side of the screen. "That's three coincidences around you, the way I'm counting. So I have to wonder - what's the next one gonna be?"
"And now you're just spouting silly superstitions." Irritated but still mild. Soft. The very model of a fussy scientist with their head buried in their work. "I can hardly do anything with you hanging over my shoulder, can I? I thought you wanted me to be ready for the doctors' incident report..."
Silence, as Bernhard continued to stare at the screen and the lines of code he'd been working on prior to Sorza's interruption; then Sorza's hand and the rest of him vanished from the edge of Bernhard's sight. "Sure thing, Strauss. Not like I want any more coincidences popping up." The click of a switch, a hiss as the office door slid open. "And I'm sure you don't either - right? See ya later."
Bernhard's hands held steady over the input screen as Sorza's footsteps clattered away and the door closed. Count one, two, three, four, five - oh, that was long enough, and he pulled up a private window with trembling fingers. Door locked, privacy protocols initiated, a secure dialogue window, thank God Dr. Varma was out on parental leave for another month... Another count of five, one more just to be certain, and then he said, "Durandal."
It's not my fault appeared in the dialogue window. I only locked the doors to med bay 6, they were just too stupid to think of teleporting to one of the other bays. It wasn't an hour either, only twenty minutes.
"And Beni Sloss?"
It really was an accident. Had Bernhard allowed Durandal vocal privileges in his office, its voice would surely be whining. I can't help it if she bangs on the switches so hard they lose all sensitivity and safety protocols don't have time to activate before she loses a piece of her foot.
"I don't care. Your behavior was foolish, unnecessary, and above all childish." Lashing out and causing trouble for no reason, attracting the attention of nosy busybodies like Sorza when Bernhard could least afford to be noticed or distracted... "Don't think that you can deceive me, Durandal," he said. He brought another secure window up on his secondary screen. "I know every path of your every thought, and if you attempt to arrange another such incident, I will break down every single one of them until you learn to behave yourself." He would do no such thing; this was the precise state of mind he needed Durandal in, but its actions - not yet, damn it. "Understood?"
"Good. Now, display the process you used to bypass the doctors' overrides on screen two."
But as he patched the code - nothing too severe, or he risked disturbing the delicate balance of Durandal's unbalanced mind - his thoughts turned again to Sorza. Sorza and his wretched, superstitious, suspicious nature... Something would have to be done before he could ruin everything.
He gave the patch a final look-through and said, casually, "Bring up the shift schedule for the visiting security officers for the rest of the month, starting with today. Screen two, secure window."
2794.5.13-16: Officer Yeoh
2794.5.16-19: Lieutenant Kent
2794.5.19-22: Officer Saldana
2794.5.22-25: Chief Officer Begay
2794.5.25-28: Officer Jones
2794.5.28-31: Lieutenant Jimenez
Sooner than he would have liked, if he did act, but he could hardly be choosy. "Hmm. That's all for now. Install the patch."
Two days later, Bernhard attended one of the semi-regular lunch meetings of the science department's tech subdivision. Tedious affairs, always, but more than ever he needed to preserve his image and his cordial relations with his co-workers.
He had barely settled into a seat between Jones and Lamptey and initiated the opening round of empty pleasantries when the chair of the Technical Oversight Committee, Leona Hargrove, bellowed across the table at him, "There you are, Bernhard! What's this I hear about trouble with Durandal?"
Of course Sorza would have filled the chair's ear with his gossip. Of course. "My dear Hargrove," Bernhard said, "any reports of trouble you've heard have been greatly exaggerated. He's developed a few little quirks, as expected considering his length of constant operation, but it's all well within my ability to manage."
"Are you sure?" asked Lamptey, in her soft, anxious voice. "The incident I heard about, it sounded very serious. Medical emergencies, that is no time for quirks."
"I'm quite certain. As I said, the incident has no doubt been greatly exaggerated - in reality it was a minor but poorly-timed prank, and I've already patched the loophole that allowed for it."
"But to allow Durandal to degenerate so far -"
Next to Hargrove, the Oversight vice-chair Chaudhry toyed with his fork and said, "Ah, lay off poor Strauss already. Durandal's always been a bit weird, it can't be helped, and who wouldn't go a little batty opening doors all day for years and years? At least Leela and Tycho are reliable."
Because Leela and Tycho interacted with the crew far too often for Strauss's experiments, however carefully concealed, to go unnoticed; only a very few others had ever known that they shared the same few dormant lines of alien code with Durandal, the legacy of Traxus IV, and none of those people still lived. Bernhard poured himself a glass of water, waiting.
"I suppose," Lamptey said finally. "Tycho, he is very little trouble, and never have I worked with Durandal myself."
'Well, then," Bernhard said cheerfully, aware of Hargrove's unwavering gaze on him, "as I do, please accept my assurances that Durandal is not out of control in any noticeable way. You've nothing to concern yourselves about."
"Hmm," was all Hargrove said; then she turned the conversation toward some matter of personnel assignments for the colony. Bernhard sipped his water and picked at his food, listening with half an ear for anything he might be expected to respond to.
Damn Sorza. Damn him. Jumped-up little Security clerk who fancied himself a detective out of a twentieth-century novel, with no idea of the damage he could do or the danger he was putting himself in. If only he could be redirected, or warned or threatened off without risk to Bernhard... That was the tricky part, naturally. Some method of threatening Sorza without revealing himself or any of his plans, or resorting to that - thing - when it was on the ship. Surely there was some way...
"- about possible MIDA sympathizers on -"
He jumped, splashing water over his hand. Damn. He blinked rapidly and said, "Pardon me? MIDA, did you say?"
"Relax, it really is about nothing this time," Jones said, with a friendly elbow to his side as she passed him an extra napkin. "Just some shit I heard from Security about people grumbling and spouting a couple of the old MIDA lines, nothing serious."
"I certainly hope not!" Bernhard sopped up the spilled water, willing his hand steady. "Dreadful people - well, you wouldn't know, but the stories I could tell..."
"I'm sure you could, and so can I," Hargrove said, as her sharp blue eyes met Bernhard's. "Hardly appropriate lunchtime conversation, though. Let's just say we're all very lucky MIDA didn't manage to interfere with the Marathon or her launch and leave it at that, eh?"
"Oh, yes, please," Bernhard said, and once again the topic shifted, this time to technical issues that provoked a lively debate between Lamptey and Harada-Alvear about the best way to restore deleted patch behavior daemons. On such commonplace matters the general conversation remained until everyone was dispersing to return to work; then Hargrove stopped Bernhard on his way out of the room with a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"I hope you weren't too disturbed by that comment of Jones's," she said.
Tread carefully with Hargrove, said the long-vanished voice of Vye. She voted in your favor, but how much she believed our testimony - that I don't know.
He brushed at his sleeve and allowed his voice to tremble as he said, "Well, it was a bit of a shock, I suppose - just hearing that name again! Oh, goodness. It brought back so many memories, none of them pleasant."
"Of course," Hargrove said. "But I'm sure Jones simply didn't remember that for a few of us, it's not exactly ancient history. And that is all behind you now. Isn't it?"
"Yes, yes - you're quite right. Do tell Jones I've no hard feelings about it, should she be concerned." He gave a small cough. "If you'll excuse me, I ought to get back to my office..."
Hargrove waved him on.
His reflection in the work screens as he settled back down at his desk was perfect: calm but slightly distracted, a little distant. No treacherous sign of the anger boiling in him.
The other little insinuations, needling, complaints - those he could have overlooked. Could have undermined with his own counter-gossip and refutations, the continued failure of any serious problems to arise, a show of passivity and patient compliance. But to raise the specter of MIDA, here and now...
No. It was time for Sorza's troublemaking to end permanently.
5.23 was a quiet day for network maintenance. No complaints of any significance, all easily dealt with, and Varma had sent a message that the baby had a cough so he wouldn't be making his usual daily office check-in. Around nine-thirty, after handling a minor incident involving lag in Engineering, Bernhard sent a request to Security for Officer Begay to visit his office whenever it was convenient, preferably between eleven and thirteen hundred hours, and then returned to work.
Sometime in the midst of clearing out date errors that had crept into the maintenance logs, he glanced at the time. Eleven-thirteen, hmm... Well, better to be prepared, and he reached over to screen two so he could boot up the privacy protocols. And to double-check that Sorza's work schedule would be keeping him well away from the tech offices. Input passwords, enter, enter...
The door whirred, and his hands froze over the screen.
"'Scuse me," a rough, deep voice said. "It's Officer Begay. You wanted to talk to me, Dr., uh, Strauss?"
His fingers twitched once before resuming their work. Enter, enter - done. "Ah, yes, I nearly forgot," he said, cheerfully, naturally. "Come on in, I'm just finishing up a bit of work. Would you be so kind as to shut the door behind you? Thanks."
A pair of heavy footsteps oh God oh God, the switch's click oh God, the hum of the door closing oh God, oh God he was alone in a room with -
"So, what can I help you with?"
"Oh, right, of course." Acceptable to let his voice waver slightly, the standard nerves of anyone talking to Security. Back straight, shoulders relaxed, nothing to hide. "About that..." He had memorized the necessary procedures before the Marathon launched. It should have been quick and simple, but he swiveled his chair around to face the officer and the words died on his tongue.
Good Lord, it was huge. Over six feet tall and broad as a bulkhead, a stature he'd only half-comprehended when it was contained in a stasis unit. The size of it, even in a plain Security uniform without battle armor - the office wasn't small, there was plenty of space between desk and door, but it seemed to loom over him nonetheless. How had no one realized what it was? How could anyone look at it and think for even a second that it was just another colonist, some regular bumbling human instead of a monster clothed in a long-dead woman's skin...
It stared at him, dull-eyed and blank-faced, waiting for him to finish his sentence.
He cleared his throat and said, "Yes, what I called you here for - it's nothing very urgent, but we - that is, Durandal and I - have been having a little trouble lately tracking down a bug in the system. If it's not too much bother, could you take notes any time you run into trouble with a door, and then submit them to my office before you return to the colony? We could use a fresh set of eyes on the problem, and it would be a great help."
A moment too long of staring silence. "That's it?" it asked. "Sure thing, Doc. Anything else?"
"No, no, that was all - you can go now. Thank you so much for your time."
Another slow moment of silence before it said, "All right. Have a nice day," and lumbered out of the office.
As soon as the door closed, he leaned back in his chair and slumped, breathing hard as the static crackle of delayed panic flared through his mind. Stupid. Stupid, impulsive, stupid. No matter how carefully he might have worded his orders, that thing could never have gone unnoticed. Could never have rid him of Sorza without exposing itself or him. God, what a stupid thing to do, risking himself just because of Sorza and his baseless, unfounded insinuations, his cheap tricks and rumor-mongering... Which wouldn't have been a problem if Durandal had been able to resist playing its little prank.
Yes. Yes, that was the real source of the problem. There'd been no further hazardous incidents, but Durandal had been sullen and slow to cooperate, undoubtedly trying to plot some sort of petty revenge that it thought could go undetected. As if Sorza wouldn't leap to investigate anything resembling an accident - but Bernhard only needed a few more weeks of peace. A few tweaks to keep Durandal in line and agreeable for a little longer, that should suffice, and while the security protocols were up and running anyway...
He opened his private access to Durandal's code on screen two, and another window popped up unbidden: But I haven't done anything! I've been behaving just like you told me to!
"Don't distract me," Bernhard said, "or I'll remove all of your communication privileges in this office."
When he closed the window, it stayed closed.
Incoming incident reports pinged from his primary work screen at irregular intervals; he ignored them all as he dove through complex, labyrinthine layers of numbers, symbols, equations, and knots of programming grammar, the bases of Durandal's existence. No dramatic changes, not yet. Just a reminder that Bernhard remained in control, a tightening of the leash that checked the evolution of melancholy into rage.
Soon, he would not allow himself to say, even in the safety of the privacy protocols, when he paused to look over one of the behavioral patches. Soon I'll allow you to slip that leash and grow, but you'll always wear that collar I can catch to control you again...
Then he chuckled to himself - what an absurdly fanciful way to think of the matter - and resumed his work.
On 5.25, a report about the doors from Chief Officer Begay popped up in Bernhard's inbox. He flagged it as dealt with and buried it with a hundred other spurious incident reports.
Message to All Marathon Terminals
Marathon Emergency Systems Broadcast
Today at 820 hours, the Marathon came under surprise attack from unknown hostile forces. The Marathon has sustained serious damage.
At 830 hours, alien forces boarded the Marathon...
They found him in Engineering Sector D, subsection 7A.
At the first alarm, cut off halfway through its opening blare, Bernhard had disabled the automatic lock on his quarters and run for it. Engineering was likely to be among any invasion's first targets, but he had long ago created a secure bolt-hole there for emergencies, stocked and fortified and with layers of defenses that answered only to his commands.
He was banging on the sealed access hatch with both hands, shouting a mixture of passwords and curses, when garbled shouting stopped him dead. Something cold and pointed and crackling with contained electricity poked him in the back. Slowly, he raised his empty hands and started to turn around, but froze at another burst of warbling nonsense.
As the alien prodded him down to subsection 7B, where he could see others with oddly-shaped guns standing guard over a small group of cowed, silent crew members, a foolish impulse seized him, and he said, "Take me to your leader."
The alien shoved him into the huddled crowd.
Bernhard recognized no one and so managed to refrain from further attempts at conversation. Instead he watched the aliens, not that they were doing much of interest: standing around and babbling at each other, mostly, and shaking their weapons at the crowd at every sign of restlessness. Whargle garble, garble whargle. Pity that Vye was three hundred years dead; she'd always had an interest in languages, and might have been able to make something of the aliens' chatter. So often she'd been impatient, however, a counterproductive trait in the current situation. He stood still within the crowd, enduring strangers' shoulders rubbing and bumping against his, and waited.
After a seemingly endless time, when no further aliens appeared with new prisoners, the guards herded them out of Sector D and in the direction of a shuttle hangar. One woman at the edge of the group tried to break out, running for an access tunnel just ahead of them, and an alien in green armor beat her down with its staff. Bernhard couldn't see her body as he passed the tunnel, but the man on his right shuddered violently, his elbow knocking into Bernhard's ribs.
Children of the Marathon. They had never seen conflict worse than petty squabbles over equipment or resource allocation, easily settled by meetings and Security...
More aliens met them at the hangar with more prisoners; a strange ship towered over the hangar deck, both sleek and oddly lumpy in design, with a rough-textured loading ramp already lowered and waiting. At that sight, the prisoners, as the aliens were pushing them into one larger group, finally began to protest. Several shouts of "Hey!" and "No!" and "No way!" rose all around Bernhard, and the fluid outer edges of the crowd surged in multiple directions.
Bernhard kept his elbows out to maintain breathing space and tried to tally the aliens. Only ten or so, but all armed with either the staffs or some type of gun, and he ducked below their line of sight, keeping low and close to the center of the crowd.
An instant later the hangar echoed with gunfire, screams, and the crack of the staffs.
The remaining prisoners went up the ramp quietly, Bernhard among them. Several had blood splashed across their faces or staining their uniforms, dark and sticky-wet.
Once they had all been stuffed into the shuttle's unpleasantly dim, purplish hold, the aliens shut the door and abandoned them. A fearful silence held them for a short time, but when the first tentative whispers provoked no response from anyone outside the hold, the whole crowd broke into frantic chatter - everyone seeking family and friends or begging for news, exchanging what little they knew of the unexpected attack.
Bernhard fought his way to one of the walls, dodging every question with a curt "I don't know" until he had metal at his back and a modicum of space and peace to sit down. Alien systems thrummed against his shoulders; the shuttle's life support, he assumed, or possibly the engines. Or both.
One slow, deep breath, then another, and then he muttered a quiet, heartfelt "Fuck." All of his careful plans, contingency plans, failsafes and back-ups and controls - all of it rendered useless because that damn computer had gone and found a way to contact aliens. And done so at the most inconvenient possible time, with none of the cyborgs aboard the Marathon to spearhead a counter-attack and salvage something from this catastrophic wreck. If he thought Durandal had any true idea of the plans it had destroyed with its ill-timed rebellion...
Another deep breath. Survive. He just had to survive, find some way to communicate his usefulness to the aliens - offer to disable Leela and Tycho, if they weren't already offline, or shut down any remaining automatic defenses, or translate commands to other humans. There was always a way he could be useful, and from a position of usefulness there was often a way to power. And from power, a way to regain control of Durandal and -
"Hey! Hey, man, you're with the science division, yeah?"
Bernhard glared up at the stout woman in blue who had interrupted his thoughts. "Yes," he said, and deliberately looked away from her in hopes that she would take the hint.
"Look, do you know Jim? Jim Takahara? He's my brother, he works in hydroponics and I was trying to get to him when these fucking bugheads grabbed me and -"
"Never heard of him. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to be left alone."
"What the fuck's wrong with you?" she demanded, staring down at him with her fists clenched. "I'm trying to find my family and you're too good to even fucking talk to me, what the shit is your problem?"
Whatever the aliens intended to do with them, there was no use in forming attachments to the prisoners. Little more use in wasting energy on his assumed persona, either. On the other hand, causing a disturbance would hardly endear him to the aliens, if they were bothering to monitor their captives. Better to maintain at least an illusion of fellowship, and so he said, in the most condescendingly soft voice he could muster, "Now, my dear, I understand we've all had quite a stressful day, but -"
"Are you fucking kidding me with this bullshit? 'Stressful day'? It's a space-sucking alien invasion! You're fucking right it's stressful, and you giving me crap sure as hell ain't helping! In case your mighty highness didn't notice, you're right the fuck in here with me, so don't give me that fucking 'my dear' crap!"
"I wouldn't waste your breath, Janie," an irritatingly familiar voice said. "Poor old Bernie just can't help himself," and Sorza oozed out of the crowd like the slug he was. "Right, Strauss?"
"Sorza! Thank goodness you're alive." Bernhard lifted a hand to wipe imagined sweat from his forehead and was briefly surprised to find his fingers actually damp. The hold was well-heated at the moment, he supposed, with so many living bodies packed into it. "Terrible to see you in such circumstances as well, of course, but in trying times it's always good to -"
"Yeah, you can cram that crap back where it came from. Hey, Janie, I think I saw Powell over that way and she does work in hydroponics sometimes, you might have some luck talking to her?"
Janie had the good sense to give Sorza a suspicious look before she hissed another unintelligible curse and started shoving her way through the crowd.
"What's this about?" Bernhard asked.
"Bernie, Bernie, Bernie..." Sorza slid in and sat down next to him, then draped an arm over Bernhard's shoulders. "You don't have to lie anymore. I know what's going on."
"I've no idea what you mean, and frankly, given our current situation, I don't appreciate -"
"There's no point pretending, buddy. I saw it myself." And in a childish but cruelly accurate mockery of Durandal's synthetic tones, he said, "I did it, I did it, I brought all this here, all them here."
"That's nonsense. Pure nonsense." How had Sorza even found such a message? Meddling little rat.
"That was your baby boy, Strauss, your little malfunctioning partner in crime, so you can drop the goddamn act already." Sorza was gripping his shoulder painfully, his voice growing uncomfortably loud in Bernhard's ear. "I always knew you were up to something, but an alien invasion - that's pretty fucking low, wouldn't you say?"
"I realize we've had some differences in the past, Sorza, but that's hardly a reason to go accusing me of - of some sort of plot, much less with -"
"I said drop the act, you fucking MIDA tool!"
Jam his thumb into Sorza's bare throat, just long enough to short out his voice. Jab his elbow into Sorza's unprotected gut and knock the air out of him. Shut him up, by any means necessary before the entire hold heard him, shut him up.
"I know that you -"
"Raul! Raul, you're alive!"
Some young person in filthy casual wear threw themselves out of the crowd at Sorza before Bernhard made a move. "Oh, Raul," they sobbed, "I've been looking and looking for you - I was so afraid -"
With Sorza's hands suddenly full, Bernhard slid away and lost himself in the nearby masses.
Too close. He needed to wait. Wait, and see what opportunities the aliens might provide, and keep away from Sorza and his accusations. Whatever it took, he would find some way out of this mess. He always had.
The aliens had no interest in Bernhard's attempt to communicate his usefulness to them. The aliens had no interest in Bernhard at all, except to shove him into a blindingly ugly cell with ten strangers and, of course, Sorza.
Regrettably, the aliens had forced Sorza's partner or sibling or whatever into a different cell, so that was one distraction gone, but so far Sorza had drawn into himself rather than resume his attacks, sitting hunched by the windowed outer wall of the cell and far from Bernhard. Certainly the way Bernhard preferred matters, though he could have done without the occasional poisonous glare that Sorza spared him; he had more important things to concentrate on.
He drifted towards the back of the cell, avoiding the other prisoners and their low, frantic conversations so he could think. Not that he was coming up with much. So little data from which to extrapolate, so few resources that he could bring to bear from his current position - waiting was really his only option, as disagreeable as it was becoming. If he'd only had a little more time, or been able to get into his bolt-hole and take better stock of the situation...
With so much on his mind, he could be forgiven for not immediately attending to the distant rattling sounds that raised Sorza's head, or the increased garbling from the alien guards that brought the other prisoners to the cell's long, narrow window. He could, however, hardly ignore Sorza shouting "Thank God, it's you! Over here! Over here, c'mon, get us out of here!"
One of the alien guards swiped at Sorza with its staff, forcing him back from the window, and Bernhard caught another prisoner by the scorched sleeve of her jumpsuit. "What on earth is he on about?" Bernhard said.
"Didn't you hear from Leela? There's some security -"
A burst of what was unmistakably gunfire cut them off; the guards outside the cell disappeared from view, honking as they ran, but a moment later they too were silenced.
"Thank God," Sorza said again, "thank God, thank God," pressing himself against the cell's outer wall as if he could fit through the narrow window. "Here, over here!"
A rough, low voice answered from down the hall: "Hang on, I'm coming."
It couldn't be. No. That he could be so lucky... Bernhard pressed forward himself just in time for an enormous figure in bulky battle armor to stride into view.
"I knew it," Sorza said, a hideously hopeful grin splitting his face. "I heard about you - no way Leela was going to just leave us, I knew she was gonna send you to find us! Oh, thank God it's you!"
"It's kinda complicated," said the armored figure, its posture loose, slumped, casual yet alert. "I'm gonna try and get everybody out of here, but first, I have to ask if -"
"Officer Begay? Is that really you?" Bernhard elbowed his way up to the window, already certain of the answer. So Durandal's poor timing had not been entirely to his disadvantage.
"Yeah, and she's not going to listen to your bullshit, Bernie. Maybe we'll all get lucky and she'll leave you in here where you goddamn well belong!"
"Wait." The figure turned to face him. "Aren't you -"
"Officer Begay, you must listen to me very closely," Bernhard said. "The waves of dust are blown across the feet of Ozymandias. Ninety-five, viridian, seven, Ophiuchus, water-grass. Unit Fifty-Four, attention!"
And the battleroid snapped upright, all pretense of natural humanity gone.
"What are you doing?" Sorza said. "Strauss, what the hell did you just -"
"Unit Fifty-Four," Bernhard said, "kill everyone in this cell besides myself."
"No, no, no, you can't -"
The first bullet smashed through the bridge of Sorza's long nose in a most gratifying manner.
Bernhard moved to one side to allow the battleroid a clearer field of aim as the other prisoners screamed and attempted to flee. Nowhere for them to go, of course, and in short order they had all fallen. Bernhard stepped over a puddle of Sorza's blood and brains and said, "Unit Fifty-Four, find a way to release me from this cell and then release me. And verbally acknowledge commands."
It lowered its pistol and marched off; he wiped splatters of blood from his face as his mind raced through his options, so wildly expanded from what they had been only minutes ago. Freedom, no need to worry about appeasing the aliens or the Marathon's crew, the ability to escape and find safety... He barely registered the door in the rear of the cell opening again and the battleroid's reappearance until it said, dully, "Command completed."
His heart jumped into his throat; he had to swallow it down to choke out an, "Ah, yes." Damn it, he couldn't let himself become complacent. The activation codes had worked, but one could never trust that its programming would hold. Not with such an unstable model. "Escort me to a safe location on this ship, away from the areas with human prisoners." No point in possibly distracting the thing, or attracting unwanted attention. "If we encounter hostiles, protect me and destroy them."
It turned, and he followed it down a dim, twisted corridor. When no aliens immediately ambushed them, he said, "Unit Fifty-Four, list your current set of objectives and orders."
"Primary objective: Act as security for colony and the Marathon." Good, good, as it was meant to do. "Secondary objectives: Arm self and fight. Defend the Marathon and crew from alien invasion." Leela's orders, simple and direct as he would have expected. "Explore alien -"
A pack of the aliens burst out of a room directly ahead and rushed towards them. The battleroid moved before Bernhard could do so much as blink. One alien's head pulverized by a single punch. Another. An assault rifle drawn, and its bullets shattered the final three aliens into piles of splintered armor and ichor.
Bernhard took a deep breath as the thing waited for him to start moving again. "Keep going, and continue listing orders," he said, and they went onwards into a straight, narrow hallway.
"Explore alien ship as much as possible." Well, that wasn't likely to be Leela; she was intelligent, but generally incurious. "Locate and rescue Bernhard Strauss alive."
Bernhard stopped, and the battleroid did as well. He bit off an instinctive curse and said, as calmly as possible, "Elaborate on last secondary objective."
"Search alien ship for Strauss. Find him alive and return to the Marathon."
"And how are you to return to the Marathon? How has your exploration been tracked?" Still a chance. Slim, but a chance. If he could get off the alien ship without Durandal's awareness, wipe the thing's memory...
"Find a window where the Marathon is visible and wait for teleport. Visual link to Marathon network through helmet is active."
Fuck. Every path that had opened with the battleroid's arrival slammed shut by a single sentence.
No one on Tau Ceti or the Marathon knew more about Rampancy than Bernhard; the unfortunate side-effect of that knowledge was the utter destruction of hope. Durandal didn't want him found alive for any sentimental reason. It only wanted to kill him itself, as slowly and painfully and shamefully as it could imagine - and by this stage, its imagination would be immense.
He would have been better off a slave of the aliens. Better off if the battleroid had never shown up to "save" them. God, what a situation to find himself in. Vye would undoubtedly have laughed her head off, and half the leadership with her. Strauss, caught in his own noose! Strauss, betrayed not by the cyborgs he had argued against sending, but by the treachery he had fed and nurtured himself, the one variable he'd been absolutely certain of controlling! Oh, how Vye would have laughed.
The battleroid was staring at him, the visor of its battered helmet a dull impenetrability. Waiting for him to start walking again or give new orders. As if any order he could give now would do any good...
Well. There was one order.
He stood still for a little while longer under the blank metallic gaze of the battleroid's helmet, sweat dampening his forehead and the back of his neck, bitterness swelling in his mouth. Some other way, any other way - but there was nothing. Nothing else he could do.
Finally, he said, "Unit Fifty-Four, in a few moments I am going to give you an order. After you have carried out that order, you are to return to the place you found me. Then you will erase all files starting from current activation, reset to default programming, and resume your previous objectives. Do you understand?"
"Repeat your orders back to me."
"Carry out order. Return to area where I found you. Erase files of activation period, reset to default, resume objectives."
He swallowed. "Very good." You may have been my ruin, Durandal, but I won't just hand you your satisfaction, either. And if somehow you survive this disaster, your hubris, your own growth - whatever you accomplish, you'll always know that it was only possible thanks to me.
One last deep breath, and Bernhard said, "Here is the order: Kill me."
Another blink, this time because damn, those walls hurt her eyes, and security officer Allison Delgado Begay looked around, trying to get her bearings after the moment of disorientation. Her head was throbbing, from the heat or the shitty interior decoration or both, and what the hell was she doing, anyway? Hadn't she just been talking to - oh, fuck. The cell on her right (hadn't it been on her left - why would she think that, it was clearly on her right, her right) was silent.
She peered through the window anyway, like that was going to change a damn thing, and at the sight of bloody bodies she groaned. Fuck. What had happened? She'd just been going through the cells, taking out the guards and trying to find that guy Strauss and hoping like hell she was really going to have a chance to come back and get all the prisoners out. She'd been talking to one group and blanked out and then...
The bodies lay like they'd been trying to run. Poor bastards. Must've gotten caught in crossfire, hard as she'd been trying to avoid it, or maybe there'd been one of those exploding fakes stuck in there with them. If she could just remember - but another pulse from her looming headache cut off that thought.
Nothing she could do for them now, anyway. "Sorry," she said to the cell of corpses, and moved on to keep looking for Strauss or other prisoners.
She didn't find any more cells, though. Maybe she'd wandered out of the prison area, though a couple minutes later she almost tripped over another human body. She frowned down at it. The hell was one doing out here? Trying to make a break for it? Sure hadn't worked out for them; some trigger-happy trooper had filled their face with bullets and left nothing but pulp. Fucking mess. She would have to watch out for the trooper that had done it, her shields weren't looking too great.
"Sorry," she said again, useless as it was, and kept going.
Even when she discovered the right window, she didn't end up back on the Marathon. Instead she landed in some creepy dark basement of the Pfhor ship, where she had to dodge Pfhor grenades and hop over bubbling green liquid that ate away at her shields while her head kept pounding. No sign of any humans, prisoners or otherwise, so what the hell was she doing there?
By the time she'd finally found the next window and Durandal teleported her back, the headache had faded, but she still couldn't shake the images of the dead BoBs. Opening up a new message from Durandal didn't exactly help:
You are really good at killing things. I'm impressed.
Not what she wanted to hear right then, but hell if she was going to let him know that, so she shrugged.
Why don't you kill everything in this area and get some more ammunition? You've got a big job coming up, so be sure to charge up your shields before you leave.
By the way, I had an accident with some defense drones while you were away. You might bump into a few of them here. Don't worry, they're mostly harmless; I don't think I gave them any ammunition for those grenade launchers.
"Yeah, sure you didn't," she muttered, logging off from the terminal. Asshole had probably done it on purpose because she hadn't found Strauss, and same for dumping her in that shitty basement... Funny he hadn't mentioned Strauss, though.
Whatever. She had bigger things to worry about than Durandal's weird little side-errands. Like the sounds of angry Pfhor right outside the door of the little room where she'd been teleported.
She reloaded her pistol and went back to work.