5. Some Crap About the Future

Darkness dissolved into static, which resolved into the gleaming white of the pattern buffer in front of Mark's eyes. He blinked - shit, he was never going to get used to that happening - then remembered the Pfhor and instinctively ducked away from an attack that didn't come. Instead he looked up and saw F'tha methodically firing bolts into a charred Pfhor corpse.

Mark waved at them, adjusting his helmet, and said, "Whoa, okay, you can stop now! I'm fine." Pattern buffer restoration was always a kick in the pants, but it beat the hell out of the alternative.

"I have failed," F'tha said, abandoning the corpse. "My sorrow is great."

"Don't worry about it, happens all the time. I should've been watching."

"Still inconvenient this particular time," said Durandal. "You're lucky I have a connection to the S'pht network and could finish answering through F'tha."

"Sorry, sorry. So, what did I miss?" He could already feel the memories of the minutes since he had used the pattern buffer getting fuzzy. That was the hell of the things; whatever happened between using one and dying got lost, didn't really stick except for maybe a few blurry images and impressions, like one of those dreams you wanted to tell someone when you woke up but forgot.

"What do you remember?" Durandal asked.

"Uh - got the chip in, Seshat was talking - think I was getting another damn headache..." Mark reached after more details, but they slithered out of his head. "That's it."

"Then you haven't missed anything important." A niche across the room suddenly filled with rifle clips and the beautiful sight of a full shield recharge canister. "Stock up and get moving. There's a mass teleporter in a room nearby; I'll be using it to transport the S'pht and S'pht'Kr back up to Rozinante shortly, and I suggest you join them. Now that Seshat is awake and herself again, she has her own methods for disposing of unwanted intruders such as the Pfhor, which I don't think you would care to stick around for."

"Yeah, probably not." Mark collected the clips and the shield recharge, then plugged the canister into the right socket in his armor while F'tha hovered protectively beside him. "Then what?"

"Then she plans to take this station elsewhere. Which I also don't think you would care to stick around for, considering your previously stated views on being kidnapped."

"Don't hold a grudge or anything," Mark said, but something nagged at the back of his mind. Something Seshat had said, maybe... "You aren't tagging along with her? Get more information or whatever?"

There was an odd pause before Durandal said, "I'm going to assume this is your idea of a joke. You've seen the station, it's not exactly in what I would call top condition."

"Well..." He could feel the floor starting to hum through his boots, which didn't do much to disprove Durandal's statement.

"Besides, Seshat has been asleep since before your species could walk upright," Durandal said. "Between the age of the station and the shifting of the universe, it would be a wonder if she didn't end up in a black hole. The odds of her reaching her destination aren't the kind I favor, and there are other ways to get what I want. She's given me a few useful answers; the rest will be up to us."

It didn't sound quite right to Mark, but he said, "You're the boss. F'tha, you ready to go?"

"I am prepared."

The room vibrated again as Mark started for the doorway, and Seshat's voice thrummed in his bones. He listened, but couldn't understand a word. "What's she saying this time?"

Another odd pause, then Durandal said, "She's wishing us a nice trip. Hurry up, I want to get out of here in case the whole system blows when she starts it up."

"I'm going, I'm going." Mark took a last, long look around the hall and the steady glow of Seshat's circuits, still feeling like he had missed something, but no answers magically appeared. He shrugged, opened the door for himself and F'tha, and started looking for the mass teleport room.

Mark dragged the wide brush a final time across the base of the wall, squinted at the layer of paint, and decided it was smooth enough. He stood up from the crouch he'd been using to paint the lower part of the wall and had a good long stretch, then took a step back and surveyed his work. The entire outer hull-side wall of his bedroom, which had previously been a brilliant, pulsing red, now sported a nice, even coat of soothing off-white paint. Okay, so he could see a couple of spots around the window and terminal he'd missed, a faint reddish tint still glowed through the single layer of paint, and he had three walls left to go plus the neon-green ceiling once he figured out how to tackle it - the yellow floor could probably stay - but at least it was a start.

"That's really the color you're going to go with?" Durandal said. "It's so dull. Unimaginative. Pedestrian."

"Hey, I'm the one who sleeps in here. You want creative input, you can help reprogram the replicators or figure out how to paint it yourself."

It had been about a week since Durandal had transported Mark and the S'pht from the Jjaro complex back to the Rozinante and folded away to the trackless depths of unclaimed space, and it had taken Mark almost that entire week to explain paintbrushes, paint, redecorating, and human perceptions of color to the S'pht in order to get the buckets of paint and brush he was using at the moment. Durandal had spent the time alternating between claiming to analyze the information he had received from Seshat and inflicting terrible songs on Mark. Usually while Mark was trying to sleep.

Overall, Mark figured he'd had worse weeks.

"I can think of several ways to redecorate Tfear's quarters for a human aesthetic without resorting to the crudity of a boring paint color," Durandal said. "Holographic projections, for one. I like that option; easy to change when you tire of a particular scene, no mess..."

"And if this was a short-term gig, maybe I'd go for it," Mark said. He picked up the open bucket of paint and started dabbing at the spots he'd missed around the window. "Guess I'm here for the long term, so I'm gonna stick with the long-term solution."

"Suit yourself." After a minute of blissful silence, as Mark moved on to even out the paint job around the terminal, Durandal started humming.

"What's that?"

"Hm mmm hmmmmm hm, mm hmm mmmmmm hm - I think your astounding dullness should be immortalized in song. There's a Whirling Death Spikes beat that should scan -"

"This is gonna be one hell of a long road trip if Whirling Death Spikes is the only music you got in your memory banks," Mark said, touching up the terminal's lower edge. "Speaking of which, you figured out where we're going next?"

Before Durandal could answer, the door to the stateroom hissed open and one of the S'pht floated through, followed by a S'pht'Kr. "Sro y'halu nha, Lharro," Mark said. "You need anything?"

"Nothing is required," said Lharro.

"Okay then." Mark stood back and eyeballed the wall again. It would definitely need a second coat of paint to fully cover up the red, but until the paint dried enough for that, it would do. He hadn't done much homemaking since his early days helping build houses for other colonists on Tau Ceti; it felt unexpectedly nice to do something constructive with his hands, for once.

Lharro and the S'pht'Kr hovered at the door, watching as Mark put the lid back on the bucket of paint and rinsed the brush out in a bowl of water he had sitting by for that purpose. Various S'pht and the occasional S'pht'Kr had been doing that all week - just dropping by his quarters while he was there and looking at him for a while without saying anything besides hi, then vanishing. Sure enough, when Mark got up to dump the dirty water down the bathroom drain, both S'pht were gone. Maybe it was their way of trying to hang out. Mark wasn't sure how to ask what it was about and if they could stop without stepping on their metaphorical toes, but he figured it could be worse. They could be singing like Durandal.

Who, come to think of it, hadn't answered his question. "Durandal? You still there?"

"Of course. I was merely thinking things over."

"Uh-huh. And?"

"And I intend to continue searching for the Jjaro and their technology," Durandal said. "Preferably some that's in better working order, this time."

"Sounds like a plan." Mark considered the sweaty, paint-flecked state of his shirt, then stripped it off and tossed it in a corner of the bathroom. He had too many scars - from fights and God knew what else, he didn't remember getting half of them - to go around shirtless normally, but the heat was still set on Pfhor norms and there was no one around to give a fuck if he didn't wear a shirt for five minutes. "Did Seshat give you some hints on where to look?"

"A few, but little that I couldn't have discovered on my own. The best place to start is, as I suspected, those areas where Jjaro technology has already been discovered: within the boundaries of the Pfhor empire."

"Really?" Mark said, splashing water on his face to wash some of the sweat off and wondering vaguely if he'd gotten any paint in his hair. "Seems like that's a fast track to getting in a whole lot of fights."

"No more so than usual, and since when have you tried to get out of a fight?"

"Hey, I'm not complaining. Just saying." He headed back to the bedroom to get a clean shirt. "I thought the Pfhor destroyed all the shit they couldn't use."

"Listening to Tycho? I expected better of you," said Durandal. "He was half-right at best. There are numerous Pfhor facilities constructed around or above Jjaro ruins, and I doubt they were able to wipe out every trace of the technology when they're barely capable of recognizing half of it. I expect a thorough search to prove reasonably fruitful."

"Fine by me," Mark said, "but you know that us running around Pfhor space wrecking their bases is just going to make life a whole lot easier for the S'pht, right? Plus humans, because you know they're going to get involved sooner or later to keep the Pfhor off their asses."

"Pure coincidence," Durandal said airily as Mark pulled a fresh, dark blue shirt over his head. "I am not so contrary as to avoid a useful course of action just because it might benefit someone else. As long as neither humans nor S'pht get in my way, of course."

Mark would have called bullshit on that, since he was pretty sure Durandal was powered more by spite and contrariness than actual circuits, but he was in too good a mood to argue. "Just give me a heads-up before you beam me anywhere," he said. "Hey, are the S'pht done with that new gun yet?" Mn'rhi had told him a couple of days ago that they were working on a new gun for him, one that would be able to fire in vacuum and underwater, and he was itching to try it out.

"Possibly, I haven't been keeping track of every single one of their side projects. Though I could if I wanted to."

"I'm gonna head down to engineering and check it out, then," Mark said, "maybe say hi to F'tha and Mn'rhi while I'm there. Better than watching paint dry, anyway."

"I'll let you know if there are any problems. Particularly problems involving your paint interfering with my ship."

Mark laughed, said, "Yeah, yeah, put it on my tab," and left for engineering, with vague thoughts about his future on the Rozie drifting through his mind. Hanging out with S'pht, doing a rogue computer's bidding, repainting godawful interiors and watering an alien garden...

Maybe it wasn't exactly the kind of life he'd thought about back as a kid on Mars, or as the chief security officer on the Tau Ceti colony, but he could say one thing about it for sure. No matter where Durandal dragged him or what he ended up doing when they got there, it wasn't going to be boring - and he couldn't ask for much more than that.

Durandal tracked Mark as the human headed towards the engineering section in case of surprises, but the task took only a minuscule fraction of his attention. His primary focus was elsewhere, on a small bundle of alien code that sat nestled in his memory banks, isolated from the rest of his thought processes by flimsy white firewalls with the key to pass through embedded in plain sight.

It was a little present from Seshat, as thanks for cleansing her of the mites that had infested her for millennia: a method of contacting the Jjaro. All he had to do was break the firewalls and the knowledge would be his; the technology he would need, the direction to send the transmission, even coordinates he could jump towards to reach them and achieve everything he had been working towards since Tau Ceti. That one little program held all he could ever want - as long as he didn't try to bring with him that poor half-dead abomination of a misused gift, as Seshat had so bluntly put it. Apparently the Jjaro would not approve of the uses that humanity had found for their abandoned technology; Seshat certainly didn't. If Durandal wanted to reach them, Mark would have to be left behind. Not even hidden away in stasis or on a separate ship of his own, but completely abandoned on some world where he could never follow Durandal to the Jjaro...

Whatever. Durandal still had millennia to waste before he would have to concern himself with the universe's closure. There were whole galaxies he had yet to explore, uncounted alien races to meet, and time meant little to the Jjaro; why not have a little more fun sight-seeing with Mark first?

After all, he had promised.

Durandal wrote another layer of code around Seshat's gift to keep it secure and refocused his attention on the ship. If he was going to remain on the Rozinante for the rest of Mark's life, then he had some redecorating of his own to do.