Author's Note: Written for the 2013 Robot Big Bang and also my own pleasure, as I've been wanting to write this fic as something of a set-up for some of my other Marathon fics like "The Iirian Adventure" and "A Marriage of Untrue Minds." It was hard, but totally worth it. Many thanks to proleptic-fancy for beta-ing, and to IraeNicole for putting up with me whining about writing it!

1. Station

The security officer tried to wipe a splash of Pfhor blood off his visor and only managed to smear it, leaving a thin green film across half his field of vision. Fuck it, he didn't feel like dunking the whole helmet into lava just to clean it off, and he staggered through the junked remains of the Juggernaut and other, gorier reminders of the carnage that had taken place to the terminal on the other side of the room so he could access it.

He scrolled through Durandal's bragging. Scrolled through the description of the Pfhor's last-ditch attempt to strike back at them all with a brief huff of laughter at You can stay behind to work on your tan if you'd like, but I'm leaving, scrolled to the next page about some rogue star Durandal wanted to hunt down and paused at We will meet it in one of the great voids between the spiral arms. One more tap of the screen to activate the teleport and he'd be off this damn rock at last, but... "Yeah, about that," he said, his voice sounding even hoarser than usual.

What? appeared on the terminal.

"I got a couple conditions." He'd been thinking about them since - well, for longer than he wanted to admit. Almost since he'd woken up on the Boomer, Christ, he really didn't want to think that even that far back he'd known he wasn't getting away from Durandal.

Tone didn't really come through disembodied green text all that well, but it wasn't hard to imagine a sarcastic air to Do you really think you're in any position to bargain with me?

He shrugged, even if Durandal couldn't see it. Probably couldn't see it. He'd never figured out whether the AI actually had visual sensors in the terminals. "Not every day I get a front-row seat to a nova." It would be a hell of a sight, and he had the ammo to make sure he didn't have to sit around waiting for a slow death from radiation or cold if the nova didn't just vaporize him, but he didn't think it was going to come to that. "And I didn't see you down here taking out the Pfhor's finest."

All right, Durandal wrote, let's hear them.

"No stasis," the security officer said instantly, though he was tired enough from the day's work of slaughter that a little time in cold storage almost sounded good. Not so good that he actually wanted to go back into one of the notoriously unreliable Pfhor stasis chambers, however. "I'm not sleeping my whole damn life away on your business."

Fine, but you're going to regret it. I don't have time to waste on entertaining you. Any other requests?

"You play me straight." He was sweating some, even with the room's open ceiling those little pits of lava really heated the place up; he pulled his helmet off and wiped his forehead, then ran a hand through his close-cut wiry hair. Needed a trim, probably, like he'd had time for that. "I don't care what you're after or who you want me to shoot as long as you don't bullshit me about it and it won't hurt Mars or Earth, and if you get bored with me, drop me back on Mars or somewhere I can catch a lift, don't just dump me at the ass-end of nowhere."

Durandal wrote, I'm insulted by your insinuation that I haven't been perfectly honest with you before.

The security officer gave that text the long, silent look it deserved considering how Durandal had just faked his own death, and Durandal must have picked up on it somehow because Point taken were the next words to appear on the screen, followed by I'll accept your conditions, but I have one of my own.

"What is it?" He hadn't been born yesterday, there was no way he was agreeing to any condition of Durandal's before he heard it.

I believe that you owe me your name.

"My - oh shit, right." A month with the Pfhor and their not-so-generous hospitality followed by a week of running around Lh'owon activating ancient circuits and taking care of various other anti-Pfhor errands had almost wiped the memory from his head. Durandal's core on the Boomer under siege and the whole ship shaking apart around them but Durandal had still found the time to pester him...

/*%hat is your :#name?

Tell you what - after we get through this, we'll exchange names all normal and friendly-like.

And somehow, unlikely as it had seemed a month ago, they had both gotten through that particular disaster. Alive, to boot.

The security officer laughed. "It's Mark," he said. "Mark Delgado Adichie, at your fucking service. And I still can't believe you dragged me halfway across the damn galaxy without even knowing my name."

Some of us have more important things to worry about. Like getting out of the system before the sun goes nova, just as an example.

"Yeah, I'm coming..." But before he hit the teleport key, Mark tilted his head back and took one more look up at the night sky of Lh'owon. A million brilliant stars glowing against a deep purple sky in patterns he'd almost started to recognize, the giant lavender moon hanging over the edge of the room's walls while the smaller yellow one shone dimly higher up, the termite-mound outline of the S'pht ruins outlined against the horizon - it was a hell of a sight, even for a boy from Mars. He was almost sorry to leave it behind.

Almost was the key word in that sentence.

He slipped his helmet back over his head, keyed up the teleport, and watched Lh'owon vanish into static.

The first thing Mark saw as Durandal's new ship materialized around him was a hideously bright pulsing red wall a foot away from his face. Great, this one was as ugly as the other one had been; he'd sort of been hoping that Admiral Tfear might have had better taste than the rest of the Pfhor fleet.

He turned around to get a look at the rest of his surroundings, came face-to-face with an orange-cloaked S'pht, and jumped back a mile with his hand already on his shotgun before he remembered that the S'pht weren't supposed to blast him dead anymore. "Whoa, sorry," he said, taking his hand off the shotgun and raising both hands in the air to show they were empty, "you just startled me - we're on the same team now, right? No shooting each other?"

The S'pht didn't respond, which was par for the course in Mark's experience with the S'pht, free or otherwise; it just regarded him silently somehow, even though he'd never figured out what part of their visible exoskeletons might be the eyes. After a few seconds it moved towards him and he had to take a step back before it ran him over. He could see he was in a hallway now that he had a little perspective on the situation - a narrow one, too, his hands were practically touching the walls, and the ceiling was only a little higher than his head. The S'pht lunged at him again like it was going to barrel over him and he couldn't help exclaiming, "Shit! The hell do you want, you -"

As he stepped back that time, his boot heel found empty space and he slid ass-first down a short flight of narrow stairs he hadn't seen. The orange S'pht zoomed over him and disappeared down another red corridor without even pausing.

Mark grumbled curses as he got up, rubbing his sore ass. Of course the damn thing had just wanted to get past him and he'd been too jumpy to realize it, what a great way to start off on the exact wrong foot. He could see a terminal back down the hall he'd been teleported into; he started towards it, figuring he could maybe look up a map of the ship or see if there were any halfway interesting messages on it, just to pass the time. He reached out to activate the terminal and a voice boomed from overhead, "Don't touch that!"

"Jesus Christ!" He yanked his hand back and grabbed his pistols, but even as he did so he realized there was something familiar about the voice. "Durandal? Is that you?" He hadn't heard Durandal's actual voice since he'd woken up in orbit around Lh'owon; the terminals on the planet hadn't been equipped for it and by the time he had gotten back to Boomer too many systems had been down for Durandal to waste power on voice synthesis.

"None other," the voice said, not quite as loudly. Yeah, definitely Durandal's voice, though there was a weird buzz to it, maybe from the Pfhor broadcasting systems. "What do you want, anyway? I'm busy."

"Bullshit," Mark said. "Busy with what?"

"Since you seem to keep forgetting," Durandal said, "let me remind you that the sun is going to explode. I have the remnants of the Pfhor to mop up and agreements with the S'pht'Kr to hammer out before that moment, so unless you're going to do something useful like help the S'pht hunt down any Pfhor that managed to survive my purge of this ship, I suggest you shut up and stay put until we're out of the system."

"Geez, fine, I can take a hint." Mark leaned back against the wall, holstering his pistols, and tried to rub a streak of char off the battle armor with his thumb and a little spit. Scorched by lava baths and plasma blasts, splattered with Pfhor blood and viscera, battered by long falls - that armor'd had a long hard day, and so had he. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd done more than take a nap standing up, unless it had been while he was a prisoner. The S'pht could do Durandal's clean-up work; he was going to take it easy for once, relax and maybe enjoy a nice -

He grimaced as a spike of pain twisted behind his left eye. Enjoy a nice splitting headache, apparently. It was probably Durandal's fault somehow; he hadn't had a non-metaphorical headache in years, and he shouldn't be getting one from the eye implants, which had been designed specifically to avoid that kind of side effect. He pushed the visor of his helmet up to rub at his temple, but it didn't do a damn bit of good. When a giant S'pht'Kr with its red hook-shaped body floated up from the stairs and towards him, all he could muster up the energy for was an eye-roll and flattening himself against the wall so it could get past him.

The S'pht'Kr didn't move, and Mark waved it on. "Go ahead," he said, "c'mon, there's plenty of room."

It stared at him with its scratched-metal dome of a head as it bobbed up and down in front of him. Great. "Seriously, what do you want?" Mark said. "I can't read your damn mind, and if you aren't going anywhere..."

The S'pht'Kr hissed at him, then started to talk rapidly in a soft, fluid language while Mark tried to pick his jaw up off the floor. He had known the S'pht had a language, he'd seen plenty of their terminals, he'd just - never heard any of them actually speak. Or make any kind of noise. Somewhere in the back of his head, he hadn't been entirely convinced that they weren't mute or didn't speak telepathically or something.

When the S'pht'Kr paused, Mark raised his empty hands up in a placating gesture. "Well, I'm glad we had this little chat," he said, "but I still don't know what you're saying, so you're gonna have to take this up with someone who does. Like Durandal. Durandal? You know him, right? AI, speaks S'pht, got a superiority complex the size of a moon - that Durandal?"

The S'pht'Kr just started talking at him again, even faster than before.

"Okay, this is getting us nowhere," Mark said, and he edged around the S'pht'Kr so he could reach the terminal, figuring that accessing it might help him get a certain someone's attention. "Durandal!"

"What part of 'I'm busy' does your tiny mind fail to understand? If I have to put you in vacuum to get some peace and quiet on this ship, I will."

"There's this S'pht'Kr here -"

"I would hope so," Durandal said with barely restrained frustration, "since they are insisting that if some of the S'pht intend to stay on board, representatives of the S'pht'Kr have to come as well, which frankly is not my idea of a good time but whatever."

"Yeah, cry me a river, this one's trying to tell me something and I don't speak S'pht, so can you tell it to fuck off and leave me alone?"

"I am not your personal translator."

"Oh, come on!" Sweat was starting to drip down his face - the Pfhor liked to keep their ships warm - the pain from the implant was spreading through his head, throbbing with a dull but insistent ache, and just to enhance the whole experience another S'pht, this one in purple robes, came down the corridor and stopped to chat with the still-ranting S'pht'Kr. "Just tell me what they're on about before I have to shoot them to get them off my back!"

Durandal produced an excellent imitation of an irritated sigh. "Fine, this once, but you really should have picked up some basic S'pht by now - you're going to need it."

"I'll get right on that, now what are they saying?"

Durandal listened to the S'pht'Kr for a minute, then said, "It's nonsense, the same thing Thoth has been trying to tell me and the Pfhor since he realized they used the trih xeem - that there's some kind of horrible monster that was trapped inside the sun and if we don't do something the whole galaxy will be destroyed. Even by my standards it's insane, just ignore them."

"About that..." The S'pht was talking now too, which was deeply unnerving somehow, and between it and the S'pht'Kr hovering right next to him the narrow hallway was starting to feel real crowded. "You sure we can't do something?"

"To stop a nova? Yes, I'm pretty sure that's a little beyond my abilities at the moment," Durandal said. "Why do you care?"

"I care because these bastards won't leave me alone!" He yanked his helmet off before he drowned in sweat and accidentally elbowed the S'pht, who sputtered something that Mark ignored. "Doesn't anyone have any ideas? Some tech that time forgot or whatever?"

"Thoth is broadcasting something about a station, but I - wait." Durandal's voice sharpened. "I did scan an old space station in an asteroid belt at the outer edges of the system on the way here, but it was deactivated - basically space debris - and I was too occupied with other matters to give it a thorough inspection."

"Great, let's check it out," Mark said. "How much time before the sun goes boom?"

"Approximately three hours and seventeen minutes, but this is entirely irrelevant because we are leaving, and I don't care how much you or the S'pht whine."

"For crying the fuck out loud, Durandal!" He was exhausted and his head felt like it was about to split open like some kind of disgusting flower and the last thing he wanted to do was go running around an ancient heap of alien junk that probably didn't even have atmosphere, but if it would shut the S'pht'Kr up then he'd do it. "Give me an hour or two, see if I can get the station running, if I can't you can tell the S'pht we tried and we'll get out of here - just give me a chance, okay?"

Dead silence, except for an imperious demand from the S'pht'Kr, and Mark was starting to think that Durandal was carrying out his threat to ignore them all when the AI said, "You've got one hour. And only because I'm feeling exceptionally indulgent towards you for some reason."

"Whatever, I'll take it," Mark said. He swiped the worst of the sweat off his forehead and rubbed his temple again; the pain had ebbed back down to regular headache levels instead of brain-splitter, but it was still an irritating ache. "Send me over."

The chill of the metal wall seeped into his back like the icy hand of death. A hand that was going to get real familiar with him in the next two minutes if he didn't recharge his shields, but as usual, there was somebody in his way.

The eerie howl of a Hunter resonated through the air, originating from - there.

Mark charged out of the narrow hallway and twisted and the pair of shotguns in his hands sounded off, blasting shells directly into the Hunter's armor. It fired blobs of livid green-yellow energy back at him and one flew wide, another buzzed past his right shoulder and he rolled out of the way of the next three and fired again and again and again until finally the Hunter crashed to the floor to join the bodies of the others he'd already killed.

He whipped around at once, guns up and ready, but nothing else fired at him. The Juggernaut was already a heap of pink scrap, and no more Hunters' calls or Pfhor warbles echoed in the giant hall.

Mark breathed out, lowered the shotguns, and turned around to hit up the shield charger. While that plugged along he took stock of the ammo situation - low on shotgun shells and rockets, good on everything else - and the situation on the station in general.

The Pfhor had gotten there first. Of fucking course. Either they'd decided to listen to the warnings of the ancient S'pht AI Thoth, too, or they were there just to spite him and Durandal. The second choice seemed the most likely to him, but the end result was the same both ways: a whole division of armored Pfhor flooding the old station and making his life difficult. A few S'pht'Kr had beamed in along with Mark, which helped some but not enough. They didn't appear to have any more idea of how to turn the station on than he did, and he'd already used up almost forty minutes just fighting and trying to find his way around the place. The whole damn station was a maze.

At least there was atmosphere. The only way the situation could get worse was if he had to run around losing air and looking for oxygen rechargers that were still online.

The shield recharge was done; he unplugged, holstered the shotguns, and drew the fusion pistol. Time to go hunting again. According to Durandal's last message there were two chips on board, one that ought to get the station powered up and another one to activate whatever field it was supposed to use on the sun. One chip he'd already picked up in this hall during his first run clearing out the Pfhor; he just needed to figure out where the hell to put it in the next twenty minutes, then grab the other one to do the same. Durandal had marked out a few possible slots on the station map, but actually finding them in the looping hallways with half the doors and lights out of commission wasn't that simple.

Especially not with this goddamn headache.

Mark started towards one of the halls that he thought would lead back towards the station's outer ring and a long, agonized metallic groan echoed through the room. A chill shuddered down his spine. Fuck, it wasn't even the first time he'd heard that noise and it still gave him the creeps. He didn't need Durandal's time limit to want to get off the station as fast as possible, before the whole damn place collapsed on him.

The hallway he'd picked was short and dead-ended in an elevator shaft with the elevator at the bottom. No button to call it up, either; he had to jump and did, letting the battle armor absorb the impact. He rolled out of the shaft with fusion pistol up, glancing around the brightly-lit room. Nothing besides the Juggernaut floating harmlessly out in space on the other side of the room's single giant window. He'd cleared this area already along with most of the outer ring; he just needed to get the damn chip to the right slot.

If he remembered right - the headache spiked again, and fuck, that sure wasn't helping him think straight - one of the chip slots should be around this area, on the upper levels somewhere. He ran up the shadowed staircase on one side of the room, past the dark alcove with an inactive pattern buffer and shield recharger, up another flight of small shallow steps - who built a space station with stairs? The fucking Jjaro, apparently - and around the walkway that edged the same room he had jumped into. A broad doorway on the other side opened into a dark room with an inactive terminal and a thick column set somewhat off the room's center.

He stuck his head out to look around the column and a Hunter's bolt almost took it off. "Shit!"

It fired again. He ducked back behind the column, waited, and when it came around the corner he started firing, backing away as he kept up a steady stream of fusion blasts. He side-stepped another two bolts without missing a shot and the Hunter exploded in a burst of electricity and blue goo. Another one howled off to his right and he jumped out of the way of more bolts, slammed a fresh battery into the fusion pistol, then charged around the column and blasted the other Hunter into goo as well. The blast from that one knocked him back and took a bite out of his shields, but he'd live.

Nothing else came at him, and he looked around on the off-chance there'd be another shield recharger. No dice, but he spotted an alcove with oh thank fuck it was the chip slot he was looking for. He put the chip in - as carefully as he could, since God alone knew how old the thing was - and the room's lights flickered on with another labored shriek of metal. The terminal came on, too; he headed over to see if Durandal had anything useful to say.

That's one.

I have been learning as much as I can about this station from Thoth and the S'pht'Kr, as well as taking my own readings. It was used in the terraforming of Lh'owon when the S'pht first came here with the Jjaro, and - well, the exact details aren't important at the moment. I have located the second chip you'll need; it's in this room, trapped in a containment field that the Pfhor have so far been unable to breach. Once you've retrieved it, it should be inserted here, at the other end of the spindle.

A slightly blurry image of a dark room appeared on the screen, as well as part of the station map with one point circled in red.

Oh, and I'm sending more of the S'pht'Kr over to help clear the station out. I've been monitoring the trih xeem's effect on the sun in case we need to make a quick exit, and there are some very strange readings coming in, readings I shouldn't be getting even from a star about to implode. Forget my deadline; just get that second chip in place as soon as you can, because I'm starting to think Thoth might be on to something.

"That's real fucking reassuring," Mark muttered. He logged off the terminal after getting a good look at the map, and the ceiling directly above his head creaked. "Oh, fuck this shit." He should have let that S'pht'Kr keep yammering to itself while Durandal got them out of the system.

He started circling the station's outer ring, looking for the room Durandal had marked out with the other chip. More lights were on and a couple of previously inactive doors had opened, courtesy of the first chip, but the station's partial activation had drawn even more of the Pfhor. He took a few shots but left most of them to the S'pht'Kr. His head was pounding again, every shriek from the station's infrastructure skittering through his nerves, and every second he wasted trying to find that goddamn chip was making the headache and the station noises worse. It was getting to where he could swear he was hearing voices in the groaning, nonsense he could barely understand.

...lost home anew lost and lost...

...trackless whisper chattering through the hollow space in...

...Arthur Frain calling any UESC controlled ship...

Mark shook his head and kept going. The room he needed had to be around here somewhere - wait - this pale corridor he was running down looked familiar. He checked against the map and it looked like the right area. About fucking time. He slowed his pace, figuring the Pfhor and their uncanny ability to be pains in his ass were probably waiting for him; he turned a corner in the hall, saw a sliver of a room through the open door ahead, and flattened himself against the wall with the fusion pistol up. He edged along far enough to see part of a Hunter's green leg armor on top of a ledge. The room looked on the small side and he didn't want to risk an explosion that could damage the chip, containment fields or no, so he holstered the fusion pistol and reached for the assault rifle strapped across his back. Noisy, but it would get the job done without electrical explosions from the Hunters.

...calling. That is all...

He ignored the station's complaint and went in, spotted the chip floating between two pillars, and immediately had to duck and roll as bolts from three Hunters converged on him. There was another curved hallway on the other side of the room and he went for it, more bolts following him, but he got far enough down and got friendly with the wall again and they all flew past him to splatter harmlessly on the opposite wall. He waited for the Hunters to come down after him, but they didn't move, just kept firing; bastards probably had orders to stay in the room and make his life harder. Fine, they wanted to play that way, he had enough shields left to play that way too.

Mark charged back in, darting between bolts, and sprayed the room's ledges with bullets. One Hunter finally jumped down off its ledge and he got it point-blank, taking it down, but bolts from the others hit him and his shields wavered. He twisted around and hit one with a grenade and a few more bullets took that Hunter down. Another bolt hit Mark's shields and dropped them into the red and he vaulted up onto the last Hunter's ledge and jammed the rifle into its midriff and let loose till the bastard toppled off the ledge with a clatter of armor. Blood roared in his ears and he emptied the clip in the rifle into the air, daring more Pfhor to crash the party.

None did. He reloaded in peace and quiet, then leaned off the ledge and reached for the chip. His hand passed through whatever barriers there were without a problem.

...I make this wrong right...

"Getting real sick of this shit," Mark said, and he grabbed the chip and jumped off the ledge as the deck creaked angrily under his feet. Almost done, he just had to find that other goddamn slot and then he could get the hell off the station and do something about the headache and stop fucking hearing things.

...steps that falter fail...

...stay the hard way...

Despite the station's chilly climate sweat ran down the back of his neck. Fuck. He needed out.

Mark went back down the hallway he'd come down and crashed straight into more Hunters already engaged with a trio of S'pht'Kr. He dodged bolts of energy from both sides and wove through and kept running, circling back around the outer ring while a cacophony of distorted voices echoed the clanging of his boots on the deck. Where the fuck was that slot Durandal had marked - he leaped to the left as a Hunter shot at him and fired a few bullets back as he ran past, but left it for the S'pht'Kr. He checked the map for an instant - almost there - turned it off and ducked into the corner with the inactive shield recharger and holy shit, there was the slot he needed, right in a wall he damn well knew had been blank the last time he'd run by here.

As Durandal would say, whatever. Mark stuck the chip in and the station shuddered so hard he had to grab the wall, the voices of the damned groaning around him...

The lights came on. Shield recharger powered up, pattern buffer online, creepy sounds of structural instability fading - he took a deep breath and punched the air in victory. Hell, even his headache had vanished all of a sudden; that alone felt worth celebrating.

He glanced at the readouts on the inside of the helmet and whistled at the state of the shields. Better get that fixed. He recharged at the newly-activated station, used the pattern buffer just to be on the safe side, and went hunting for a terminal. The closest one he remembered was the one by the first chip slot, so it was up the stairs, around the walkway, on his right and he logged in.

You've done it.

The station is fully operational and the nova has been contained in its gravitational fields; the sun is still going to die, but it won't be affecting us any time soon. The anomalous readings I was getting earlier have vanished and there's no sign of whatever creature Thoth and the S'pht'Kr feared. Any Pfhor that are left on the station are welcome to it; it's long past time we were gone from this system.

"What's the rush? I thought I just saved the day, here." Not that he really wanted to stay on the station, but he could stand the place a little longer if it meant he could mop up the rest of the Hunters.

Yes, the sun is not going to explode and devour us all just yet, but the Pfhor are still aware of our presence and have been calling for reinforcements since the moment of my triumphant return. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of playing with them for now, so I suggest you get back on the Rozinante before another battle group shows up. I'm already recalling the S'pht'Kr - those that have decided to stay on my ship instead of on their own, at least - and the course out of the system is set.

"Great," Mark said, "get me out of here."

The teleportation field took hold and he materialized in what looked like the same damn ugly tiny hallway he'd appeared in the first time. He rolled his eyes at it and nearly fell over. Shit, he needed to sleep. With the headache gone, there was nothing keeping him awake but force of habit. "Durandal, can you point me to wherever Tfear's quarters are?"

"What do you want with Tfear's quarters?"

"I'm gonna go bowling in them, the fuck do you think? He's toast, his quarters are mine, and unless there's something you really need me to kill right now, I want to crash. For about the next two days."

"You can be so human sometimes," Durandal said. "Fine, to get to Tfear's quarters you need to go left, down those stairs..."

He followed Durandal's directions over two decks of the ship to a set of spacious but sparsely decorated rooms near the bridge. By then he didn't give a damn about the neon-green walls or pulsing red ceiling; he stacked the guns by the door, shed the helmet and the heaviest parts of the battle armor, collapsed onto the narrow rectangular shelf in the wall that looked the most like a bed, and was out cold as soon as he turned away from the lights.