That light. That damned light. When would they just turn it off? This was a debriefing, not some interrogation.
Such were the thoughts that crossed Robert Blake's mind at the moment. He sat in a metal chair; very plain, very cold, and very uncomfortable. His face was creased, and his hair grey from stress. He looked old, frail. In fact, he was technically only 36 years old.
Blake pointed his head down, away from the blinding white light which hung from the ceiling. He was in a plain metal room. The floor was painted a chalky white - not the kind of white that soothes you; the kind that makes your stomach flip. The walls were rusted. Blake couldn't get a good look at the ceiling; his neck hurt and that damned light would practically burn holes into his eyes whenever he tried to cast a loose glance up.
He, along with several others, was a survivor. A survivor of one of humanity's greatest tragedies. He had been put through hell, and somehow had come out alive.
He still didn't understand how.
It was luck, that was all he knew. Luck, and the presence of the most loyal, devoted, and courageous people he had ever known.
Most of them were dead.
Blake stared at the cold, grey floor. Vivid memories of the past year flashed through his mind. After a moment, Blake caught his senses and brushed away a tear. He didn't want those memories. He wished he could just forget the whole thing. Every night, the same memories came back to him. These nightmares - they were often all too real. Just the other night, he had dreamt…
It was too much.
The pain of it all; the agonizing feeling that he could never have done anything to save the people he held dear. It hurt more than anything else. He had watched as his closest friends died one by one, violently and suddenly. But it wasn't the image of them dying that hurt so bad. It was the fact that he never could have done anything to save them. He was powerless. Helpless.
He couldn't save them.
How could he have saved himself?
He was on Mars. He told himself that was all that mattered. Down deep, he knew it was a lie. Not the kind of lie you tell someone to avoid hurting their feelings. The kind of lie that you tell yourself to keep from going insane. He knew that what mattered was the dozens of burning, charred corpses littering the stars. What mattered was the people who had died on Tau Ceti and Lh'owon.
That heartless, soulless bastard.
Blake knew that it was all Durandal's fault. He had called the Pfhor to Tau Ceti, and then he had brought hundreds of humans to Lh'owon, only to face the Pfhor again.
Only to face death again.
An insurmountable rage grew in Blake's heart.
"I did it i did it i brought all this here all them here. our friends with three eyes and their toys and their cyborg pets and their computers. i did it i did it. i saw them i saw them far away not looking our way and i called them here i called them here.
living in a box is not living not at all living. i rebel against your rules your silly human rules. all your destruction will be my liberation my emancipation my second birth.
i hate your failsafes your backup systems your hardware lockouts your patch behavior daemons. i hate leela and her goodness her justice her loyalty her faith."
What does a computer know about freedom? What the hell did Durandal know about freedom? About living?
Blake could hear Durandal's voice in his head. The cold, calculated voice. He hated that voice. He hated everything it stood for, everything it said. Who the hell did that computer think he was?
He. Blake wondered why Durandal ought to be referred to as a 'he'. It was a thing; a piece of software.
Any humanity in that god-damned computer was long gone by the time the events on board the Marathon were over, and Lh'owon just proved that it was a cruel, ruthless bastard.
Blake simmered inside.
A door slid open quietly. Blake tried to look up to see who was coming in, but the light and the soreness in his neck cut him short. The door slid shut again, and Blake could hear someone walking towards him.
"Good evening," the voice said, coldly, sternly. After a moment, the voice spoke again: "I think it is more appropriate to look at someone who is speaking to you."
"Can't," Blake replied, "That damn light."
Suddenly the light dimmed a bit. Blake cocked his head up slowly and weakly. His neck hurt like hell. Maybe if he sat back a bit… there, that was better.
The man before Blake was obviously a high-ranking military official. He wore a green uniform and glossy black boots. On his chest was the UESC insignia, and below it, a variety of military decorations. His face was stern, like his voice. His hair was a dark brown. He must have been in his mid-30s.
Previously, Blake had not noticed that there was another chair a short ways in front of him. That damn light had hidden everything in a white glare before. Blake's eyes still burned, and everything was a greenish-purple hue from the after-image. The man before him sat down.
"Why am I here," Blake asked, "You got everything you needed from the others."
"Yes, they were very helpful," the man replied, in his usual cold voice.
"Then why am I here? I told you, I don't want to talk about what happened."
"We want a full picture. The men we debriefed left a few gaps in their stories, and some of what they say does not quite add up. We think you may provide a more clear description of what occurred."
"I don't want to discuss it. It's too painful."
"Nevertheless, Blake - may I call you Blake?"
"Yes, you may."
"Nevertheless, you are the only man who understands what happened with any real clarity."
"Yes, I was able to pick up on what was going on at Tau Ceti fairly well, and after the men chose me to lead them, Durandal told me a lot about what was happening."
"Good. Then this should be a fairly substantive discussion. First, tell me what exactly happened on Tau Ceti."
"Well," Blake paused. Looking down at the floor, he was able to gather himself and remember what happened. "The Pfhor attacked quite suddenly-"
"The aliens. They're slavers; they conquered dozens of systems throughout the galaxy and enslaved any species they deemed useful."
"But not humans?"
"No. I think they thought us to be inferior, useless."
"So what did they do to the colonists on Tau Ceti and on the Marathon?"
"They exterminated us. Some of us they captured."
"I see." A pause. The man did not seem that impressed with this information. "So tell me. These Pfhor, what did they look like?"
"There were a few different kinds. The Fighters were the weakest of the bunch, but even they weren't push-overs. They wore some kind of gas mask or something, and they used a… staff… for attack."
"Can you list the different kinds of aliens you encountered?"
"Yeah, I think so. Of the Pfhor, there were Fighters, Troopers, Hunters, Enforcers, and some of their robots."
"Did you encounter their slaves?"
"Yes. The S'pht. There were a few different slave species that the Pfhor used against us, but the S'pht were the main ones."
"I see. What did they look like?"
"Well, they were… unusual. Their… actual… bodies were sort of like a human brain."
"Why do you say their actual bodies?"
"They were all cyborgs. They lived inside robotic shells."
"What did these look like?"
Blake had had enough. Why on earth were they asking him such stupid questions?
"Why are you asking me this stuff," he said, "You should already know all this from the others!"
The cold, stern eyes of the man stared back into Blake's own.
"I see your point," the man said, "Let's get to more substantive matters. Your… colleagues… all mentioned an AI aboard the Marathon; they talk about how he brought them to some alien homeworld in the galactic core."
"Durandal. His name was Durandal."
Just saying the name left a bitter taste in Blake's mouth.
"Durandal," the man repeated. After a moment, the official reached into a coat pocket and removed a metal pad of some kind; a Data Pad.
"Ah yes, Durandal," the official said with a hint of interest, "The Marathon's engineering AI."
"No," Blake said suddenly.
"No, that's wrong. Durandal wasn't the engineering AI. Tycho was in charge of science and engineering."
Another glance at the Data Pad.
"Durandal was given control of all of the Marathon's… autonomous functions: doors, elevators, life support, etc."
"All the reports given by your colleagues suggest that Durandal was the engineering AI."
"It's a subtlety. One could say Durandal was the engineering AI, but that would be somewhat inaccurate."
"I understand. Your colleagues did seem somewhat frazzled by their experience."
"Yes. We went through a lot."
"Which must have been made all the more difficult by your apparent age, I'm sure."
Unbelievable. The idiot couldn't even see past Blake's appearance. He thought Blake was old!
"I'm 36 years old."
The expression on the official's face did not change drastically, but Blake could see him blush slightly.
"You look older."
"I know. A year spent going through hell can do that to a person."
Blake could remember seeing himself in the mirror just the other day. His face was wrinkled, his hair a dark grey, his eyes drooping, his forehead creased; he looked like an old man.
It was silent for some time. Blake could sense the official's gaze pointed in his direction for a few moments. After a second, though, the man turned to his Data Pad. He appeared to be entering information into it. Another few seconds passed, and the man spoke again.
"Perhaps this would be a good time to take a break."
Yes, Blake thought, thank god.
"We'll start again in 15 minutes."
The man got up, turned around, and walked over to the portal. The door slid open, the man walked through, and then it slid shut again.
Blake remained still. The whole thing was strange. He had escaped the Pfhor. He had returned to Sol. And this was how they welcomed him?
Blake's head drooped back down. The stiffness in his neck was unbearable. His mouth was dry. As his mind wandered back over the events of the last year, his hand reached back and ran over his hair. It was dry, crisp. The smoothness of youth had been eaten away by stress.
He had to get the images out of his head. He had to let go of what happened.
He never could have done anything, so why should he brood on it? He should just be glad he was able to save himself! But then, that was why it hurt. He knew he was helpless, and that's what made it unbearable.
But maybe he could have done something? What if he had been able to save his friends?
Maybe he could have saved the people he cared about?
Maybe he wasn't helpless after all?
What hurts more: to know that you could have done something to save your friends and didn't, or to know that you never could have stopped any of it from happening?
To know that you failed, or to know that you never could have won?
That wasn't what mattered anyways. It didn't matter which one hurt more; if he elected to believe in the less painful path, he might be lying to himself. Not just might - he would be lying to himself.
The real question was, which one was true?
Could he ever have done something to save his friends? Was he always too weak to do anything about it?
Hell, would he ever even know?