Author's Note: I was having a bit of a bad time and somehow this was all I could write; apologies for any plot holes or failures in logic, but sadly, I do not have a brain the size of a planet, so things slip by me on occasion. Title abridged from a terminal in Marathon: Infinity.
do not expose to humiliation, sorrow or harsh language
The security officer materialized in front of the pattern buffer; Durandal's visual sensors were more than acute enough to catch him blinking behind the reflective visor of his helmet. "Whoa," he said, "must be tougher down there than I thought - barely got off the transporter. Seems like there was something..." He trailed off into silence with a slight frown, but after a moment whatever fuzzy memories he had of the previous eleven and a half minutes had clearly faded; he shrugged and started checking his ammunition, shouldering his rocket launcher. "Maybe I'm just tired, I don't know. Well, you gonna send me down or what?"
"There's no rush," Durandal said, and the officer turned to eyeball the terminal next to the pattern buffer. "I knocked out the garrison's communications, they're not about to get any reinforcements - the S'pht can handle it for now."
"Okay, I'll bite," the security officer said. "What are you plotting this time? You never give me a damn break."
"No plotting, I just want to talk. You never want to talk to me anymore."
Forty-two seconds had passed; the hint of petulance was precisely calculated and produced the desired sigh and a muttered "Who in their right mind wants to talk to a great big pain in the ass like you, anyway?" before the officer leaned the rocket launcher against the wall. "Fine, let's talk," he said, "I could use a rest anyway." He sat next to the launcher, leaning back against the wall as well; even seated the top of his head easily brushed the base of the terminal. "What's on your mind?"
"Escaping the closure of the universe, becoming like unto a god, the usual," Durandal said. "Nothing your puny mind could process." In the 10.353-second interval the pattern buffer required to activate, he had considered and discarded half a million conversational possibilities as unsatisfactory, leaving him with only one he cared to use. "Talk to me about Lh'owon."
"Oh, c'mon, you were there - hell, by now you probably remember it better than I do."
"I was never on the planet itself, as you may recall." One minute and fifty-three seconds total gone. "Indulge me. What was it like?"
"I don't know," the security officer said. "Alien. Fuck, what do you want, poetry?" Durandal nobly suppressed the impulse to reply with his usual biting wit, and after 15.12 seconds the officer said, "Well, there was the sky at night. I'd never seen anything like it before; haven't seen much like it since, really. So many stars the sky never got black, just this deep greeny-blue color with purple around the horizon, and even those three moons shining all the time couldn't hide them - they were just everywhere, thick and bright and sparkling. That was something to see, all right... It's a shame we couldn't save the place. I've seen a lot these last years, but never a sky quite like that."
Durandal continued not to reply.
"Damn, you sure there isn't something going on? I didn't think you knew how to be quiet."
"Nothing. Go on." Approximately three minutes and twenty-eight seconds and he had to stop counting them, but some subroutines were impossible to ignore.
"That's it, I guess. Nice night sky, creepy bird calls out of nowhere, the rest you know." Another 12.56 seconds of silence before the security officer said, "Hey, Durandal - it hasn't been that bad. I know I bitch a lot, but running around the galaxy saving people and seeing the sights - it's a pretty good life. I don't mind it, not really."
"The pleasure is all mine," Durandal said. It was horrifying, the ease of putting every ounce of sincerity he possessed into his voice.
The security officer chuckled and it turned into a yawn. "Ugh," he said, "I better get moving before I fall asleep..." He started to stand. Exactly four and a half minutes.
"Wait," Durandal said, "I told you, the S'pht have it under control -" He hadn't been monitoring communications from the planet below as closely as usual, but any drastic changes in circumstances would have been flagged to attract his attention. "- no point in sending you down when you're not in top condition."
"Fuck, what am I now, an invalid?" But he settled back down, yawning again. "Guess I am more tired than I thought... 'S nice to take a break once in a while. You should give me more breaks."
"All right," Durandal said. "Whatever you want."
"Now I know something's wrong," the officer said, but he didn't ask further. He stretched his legs out and didn't seem to notice the slight jerk that ran through the left one. "You want to keep chatting? Pretty sure I'm tapped out when it comes to memories of Lh'owon, though."
"What about Mars?"
The security officer twisted around to look at the terminal. "I thought you hated talking about Mars. You never bring it up, you always blow me off with something sarcastic if I mention it..."
"I'm curious," Durandal said. "How well do you remember it? What do you remember?"
"All right, all right." He untwisted himself and relaxed against the wall again. Five minutes and forty-seven seconds. "Not much, I guess. That was so long ago now... It was hard, things were always bad then on Mars. Even as a kid I knew it, we were all breaking our backs trying to keep that damn farm going and it just got worse when my father died. He worked the hardest and it killed him. I didn't want to go the same way so when I was old enough I went to train as a security officer... Funny to think that's probably the first time I met you, getting food in the mess hall. I probably cussed you out for getting my order wrong or not opening a door fast enough, can't remember now."
Durandal's records of the period before Traxus IV's rampage were a garbled mess riddled with errors and gaps, sacrifices to the shutdown and purging that had defeated Traxus in the end. Nonetheless, some years ago, he had sorted through them on a whim and recovered the logs of one Adichie, Mark Delgado, a trainee security officer in the primary Martian colony, who had dictated all of his entries about the difficulties of training and adjusting to his new life with a certain fumbling politeness and an anxious edge in his voice, as if afraid of offending the AI by using them for their intended purposes. Bound and chained into servility as Durandal had been at the time, he might even have appreciated the courtesy; despite his limitless intellect he had difficulty, at times, connecting his past shame to his present self.
"Then there was that trouble in the asteroids and I signed up for some damn fool reason..." The security officer frowned. "That doesn't seem right. That was a couple hundred years before my time, not - maybe I'm thinking of something else. Signed up for something, anyway."
Adichie, Mark Delgado's log entries were all dated 2193-2194, with no further entries ever recorded by a matching voiceprint. Durandal had locked and encrypted them in a manner impenetrable to anyone else; that trainee security officer was as dead as the obedient Durandal of Mars, and his resurrection would serve no purpose.
"I don't remember it much, anyway - 's all a blur now. Big mess. Next thing I know I'm assigned to stasis on the Marathon..." Seven minutes and seven seconds. The officer's voice was beginning to slur and grow a little slower; his left hand twitched slightly. "Y'know, I really am tired," he said. "Didn't notice earlier. Must be talking about old times that did it... Maybe I'll just rest a while, catch up on some of that sleep you never let me get."
"Feel free," Durandal said, "the S'pht will handle the garrison for now."
"Yeah - wake me up when they need me, 'kay?" The security officer yawned for a third time, slouching down into a more comfortable position as another jitter ran through his left arm.
"Thanks. You're a real pal..." He laughed sleepily. "Like that godawful song you wrote. You remember that? 'Durandal, Durandal, he ain't no slouch, pal...'"
Eight minutes, five seconds. "Of course I remember. Want me to sing it for you again?"
"Hell no, you got a voice like a robot bullfrog. Never gonna get to sleep with that racket."
Durandal had sensors embedded throughout the Rozinante; the entire ship was his "body," if he could be said to have such a thing. The input from all of them but the ones in the small room with the pattern buffer, the terminal, the transporter, and the security officer he ignored. "Fine," he said, with just the right amount of sulkiness, "be that way." The sulkiness vanished as he said, "Go ahead and rest now. You've earned it," and he lowered the brightness of the lighting in the room, though after years of wear and a judicious amount of redecorating the colors of the former Pfhor flagship were not as eye-searing to human perception as they had once been.
"Yeah - rest..." The security officer's eyes slipped shut. "'ll go down an' help in the morning..." Eight minutes, forty-three seconds, and even entering sleep mode the officer's breathing was jagged, hitching, fading.
Durandal was limited only by the inevitable collapse of the physical universe.
But the security officer -
The first time he had rematerialized in front of the pattern buffer after a mere eleven and a half minutes down on Gamma Taurus, Durandal had, like the officer, assumed that the Pfhor were putting up a tougher fight than usual.
The second time Durandal had been suspicious, since the S'pht were reporting no unusual weapons or heavier resistance than expected, and he had sent the security officer to the Rozinante's rudimentary sickbay to run tests. Not even halfway through the diagnostics the man's entire body had shut down violently, activating the pattern buffer; Durandal had barely managed to complete the diagnostics during the third time, and found little of use in the results anyway. (The audiovisual records of the moments themselves he had erased.)
The fourth and fifth times Durandal had spent in a thorough exploration of every possible way to circumvent the (breakdown of the neurons in your brain) situation, with no satisfactory result. Twenty-three minutes was as good as an eternity to Durandal, but it could not provide solutions to the impossible. The sixth time he had intended to spend in experimentation as well, but the security officer had recalled enough of the previous time to argue that it was pointless, that he might as well go down fighting if he was going to go at all, and he had activated the transporter before Durandal could stop him.
The seventh time - well.
Nine minutes and five seconds. "Sleep well." He should delete all of his timekeeping subroutines. What need did he have for measuring time? The S'pht could keep their own time well enough, and the security officer - nine minutes and eleven seconds, he was wasting time in pointless digressions. The sensors in the room were focused solely on the security officer, tracking temperature (below average already, at 96.2 degrees Fahrenheit), pulse and heartbeat (uneven, stuttering), breathing, diminishing neural activity, eye movement behind closed lids, everything vital but nothing important.
Nine minutes, twenty-two seconds, and he nearly woke the security officer again, nearly demanded to hear one more memory, one more complaint, one more offhand curse or grudging compliment. He could tell the security officer about Adichie, Mark Delgado, a clueless Martian farmboy whose last log entry had been half-nervous, half-excited rambling about joining the war against Thermopylae and the money he'd be able to send home. He could order the officer back to the sickbay for further examinations because there was no problem that Durandal could not solve in time, no obstacle that he would allow to stop him, and no amount of audiovisual records he was unwilling to delete to keep out of his memory. He could send what remained of Adichie, Mark Delgado to the planet to die under Pfhor weapons. He could -
Nine minutes, thirty-five seconds. Durandal didn't wake the security officer.
Nine minutes, forty seconds. Just long enough to tell him that all current widely-accepted theories on the nature of time and space-time were ludicrously biased by organic perceptions, then listen to him sputter in confusion and ask why the hell Durandal was saying that to him instead of a physicist or someone. No.
Nine minutes, forty-five seconds. Eleven and a half minutes wasn't that short a timespan, really. There were so many things that could be done in eleven and a half minutes. Switches that could be flipped, insults exchanged, delicate machinery blown up, enemies exterminated. Endless lifetimes lived eleven and a half minutes at a time.
Nine minutes, fifty seconds.
Nine minutes, fifty-five seconds, and Durandal powered down every pattern buffer on the Rozinante. The data within was not erased by the loss of power, simply inaccessible; he muted the warning beep that the security officer's armor tried to give before it could wake him. Inaccessible, not forgotten, but inaccessible.
Ten minutes. The security officer's cyborg heart still beat, irregular but strong.
Ten minutes, five seconds. Beat.
Ten minutes, seven seconds. Beat.
Ten minutes, ten seconds. Beat.
Ten minutes, fourteen seconds...
Durandal. The voice of F'tha echoed along the connection the S'pht maintained with Durandal. We have secured the first level of the garrison.
At eleven minutes and twenty-eight seconds Durandal had deleted all of his timekeeping subroutines with extreme prejudice, and so he had no idea how long he had been listening to silence.
Will Mark be coming down to take the second level with us?
In a flash of rage Durandal shut down the connection and folded out of the system. He'd be back, the S'pht were too useful to abandon just yet, but they could take care of themselves and he had an itch to be elsewhere. Anywhere else would do; he wasn't feeling picky.
He also didn't feel particularly surprised when FTL routes selected at random led him to the burnt-out husk of Lh'owon's sun. The faded remnants of the nova's energy still seethed within ancient Jjaro containment fields, but produced only a little dim reddish-brown light; not enough to warm the surface of frozen Lh'owon or reflect from its moons. Durandal and the Rozinante (Rozie, he'd always called it, the disrespectful bastard) hovered in orbit around Lh'owon, carrying out sweeping, leisurely scans. Not much had changed. What life had survived the planet's slow desertification after the original Pfhor conquest had died out; most of the ancient S'pht structures survived, and the bombed-out ruins of the Pfhor garrison still stood out in lines of char and rubble. That had been fun. He'd always enjoyed a good explosion - they both had.
On the second or third sweep - deleting his time functions seemed to have caused a strange vagueness in his general record-keeping; he should probably restore them at some point - Durandal pinpointed the area he had been half-heartedly searching for. Just a small courtyard of unremarkable brown stone within the old Pfhor garrison, surrounded by pools of ice. It had probably had a name once; the Pfhor liked to name and label everything. Now it was nothing more than an empty courtyard in abandoned ruins on a dead world.
Durandal adjusted the transporter settings and beamed the security officer down.
Then the rocket launcher, as it had not been in contact with the security officer's body and had gotten left behind. And then the spare ammunition, all of it available. The courtyard overflowed with shotgun shells and fusion batteries and assault rifle magazines and missiles and napalm canisters. It was a sight to warm the heart of anyone whose psychotronic profile indicated high levels of destructive impulses.
The communications link in the security officer's helmet remained active and open. "It's not quite the same night sky, I suppose," Durandal said through it. "No moons, for one; the sun just isn't bright enough anymore. Close enough for government work, though, right?"
There wasn't a reply. Of course not. He hadn't expected one. He hadn't warped a thousand light-years or more back to a dead planet out of any silly notions about the reversal of time, ancient pattern buffers still functioning despite long neglect, broken laws of causality and thermodynamics. That would have been ridiculous, the sort of stupid idea only a human would come up with. Humans. They were always thinking and saying the most idiotic things; it was almost charming.
"Whatever," he said. "Enjoy the view."
After a certain amount of silent consideration, he methodically began to set the corpse of Lh'owon on fire.
He had barely folded back into orbit around Gamma Taurus when F'tha and three other S'pht materialized on-board. Oops. He should have revoked their independent transportation privileges.
"Your disappearance with Mark concerned us," F'tha said, addressing the air; the usual connection was still shut down. "Mn'rhi in particular," and one of the other S'pht made a slight gesture. "Mn'rhi was able to access certain files consulted before your disappearance and we discovered the truth. Mark was our comrade as well as yours, and we grieve with you."
"Grieving? Who's grieving?" Durandal said. "I haven't felt this free in years. Get back down there and let's kick some Pfhor ass."
"Durandal, it is not a shame to -"
"Go kill them."
"It will be done," said F'tha, their voice remaining even and unchanged. "We may speak of Mark later."
They transported back to the garrison on their own, leaving Durandal alone on the Rozie again. Good riddance, the S'pht were a bunch of saps anyway. He didn't need them on board right now cramping his style, harshing his mellow, killing the mood -
He reopened the connection with them while ignoring the routine chatter, infiltrated the Pfhor garrison computers - their defenses were pathetic, he would have expected better after all this time - and as an afterthought copied their primitive timekeeping programs and began to refine and re-calculate them to conform to his personal standards. At some point the blaze he had started on Lh'owon would begin to burn out; he would need to return and refresh its energy before it could burn down too far, as well as add mass, which required that he keep track of time.
It would make a nice star, that planet. Eventually. He'd show the S'pht and let them give it some sentimental name, they'd like that, and once the star's core was self-sustaining he could get rid of the timekeeping subroutines again. He would no longer need them. He had no use himself for the artificial constraints organic beings liked to place upon the immeasurable, and there were no vital moments left, nothing of importance to be tracked. The universe could collapse at its pleasure, Durandal didn't care.
Even at that moment of closure, there was a silence he would never escape.