Author's Note:Because apparently I will not be satisfied until I have written every single Marathon idea that comes into my head. I'd be sorry, but when there's only about two or three other people writing in the fandom at all... Please enjoy!
Springs in the Mind
He should have been watching his motion sensor.
He'd been having fun taking on a group of Troopers in the bombed-out ruins of the Pfhor garrison on Phi Ursa, stealing their own weapons and gunning them down, so he hadn't been paying attention to anything but dodging their grenades and breaking heads when he heard a shout that wasn't in Pfhoric.
"Over there! I hear gunfire!"
Without a second's hesitation Mark blew off the last Trooper's head with a grenade and dove for cover in the next room. Just in time; even as he pressed himself flat against a cracked, roofless wall, he heard heavy footsteps run into the courtyard he had just left.
"Any problems, rookie?"
"No - they're all dead already..."
"What do you think happened, Captain?"
"Probably started fighting each other. They get riled up and do that sometimes - I've seen it before. All right, clear the yard and make sure they're all completely neutralized, then report back."
Mark's hands were coated with Pfhor ichor. A few droplets threatened to drip onto the floor, and he pulled his arms in so they slid silently down his chest armor instead.
"You heard the captain, rookie. Check the next room, too, could be more of 'em hiding out there."
"Damn, fine... Are you ever going to stop calling me rookie? I have a name, y'know."
"We'll stop calling you 'rookie' when you stop being one - rookie. Now check that room before we all die of old fucking age, all right?"
"I hate you guys."
Mark held his breath, trying to fade into the wall's shadow as the rookie's helmeted head appeared in the doorway. The rookie glanced around the room without checking the corners - fucking sloppy, but Mark wasn't about to complain - and pulled their head back, saying, "It's empty, okay? Can we go now?"
"Dunno, rookie. Pretty sure you haven't checked all those bodies yet..."
"Screw you, Petrova."
Mark listened to them bicker until their voices faded along with the green squares on his motion sensor. Then he whispered into the comm, "Hey, Durandal, you notice we got company?"
"Well before you did," Durandal said through static. "I teleported the S'pht back and have Rozinante concealed in the third moon's shadow for now, so don't be surprised if communications go out."
"Great. Did they just get here or what?"
"About ten minutes ago, but you were having so much fun I didn't want to interrupt. They appear to be -" Kzzsssh. "- garrison about fifteen klicks north of your current position. It was empty when we arrived, or I would have -" Kzzsssh. "- never mind. It's a UESC ship, the Pericles, and the crew manifest includes a detachment of S'pht'Kr."
"Nice to know they get along with someone," Mark said. "It didn't spot you?"
"Now I'm getting insulted. Of course not." There was a hissing pause, then Durandal said, "You aren't going to go say hello?"
He opened his mouth to say hell yeah, and he was going to ask them for a ride home too so Durandal shouldn't wait up, but his voice froze on the words before they came out. A second later he heard more footsteps and Petrova's voice again: "Sure you didn't see any Pfhor, rookie?"
"I told you I didn't!"
"Yeah, but we're still getting a blip around here, so looks like you missed something."
"It's probably just one of those weird bug-frogs, they show up on the trackers sometimes."
"Look again anyway or I'm gonna tell the captain you spit on my boots."
He could just step out there and wave at them. Make it obvious he wasn't one of the Pfhor's walking bombs, lay down his guns or something as a peace offering. Hell, he was the Hero of Tau Ceti, wasn't he? Not that it meant much, considering what had happened to Tau Ceti after he'd been kidnapped. Hero of Lh'owon, maybe, if Blake had made it back to Sol safely and told some tall tales. Hell, if Blake had really played it up, they ought to welcome him with open arms and free drinks for life. He just had to take a couple steps and say hello...
"Ugh, fine, I'm looking."
- knee in the gut and twist the head till the neck sna#~~?to the head in case o``-
Mark leaped for the wall on his left, caught the crumbling top of it and and vaulted over into a new room right as the rookie started to enter. He landed as softly as he could in a crouch and saw a froglike creature with six legs hopping away from him; he grabbed it and tossed it back over the wall, then held still and waited.
"- hear something, Yoshida?"
"Yeah - rookie, you okay in there?"
"I'm fine - I told you it was clear! It's only one of the frogs, I think it hopped over the wall just now. That's probably what you heard."
"Seriously? It sounded way bigger than that..." Footsteps. ?#~rom above and neutralize the thr# - fuck, what was wrong with his head? They were humans, he didn't need to hurt them - he didn't want to hurt them, damn it, but something lurking in the back of his head wouldn't quit spouting that garbled bullshit. "Huh, it is just a frog. Sorry, rookie."
"Well, maybe next time you'll actually believe me. Are we leaving yet? I'm sick of hauling this pack around, I want to get settled in the base already."
"Yeah, yeah, we're going."
The footsteps faded again, but Mark stayed in his crouch, still trying to crush down the red rage that wanted him to hunt the soldiers down and tear them apart. Shit. He'd had flashes like that before, but always while fighting the Pfhor when it didn't matter, not against humans - other humans, people just like him.
Well, maybe not so much like him, considering they'd bought the thing with the bug-frog. The Pfhor on this planet were going to eat them alive.
The comm link crackled in his ear. "Are you still listening? If you're ignoring me, I'm going to start playing -"
"I'm listening, I'm listening, don't you fucking dare pipe in any of your shitty music." Mark took a deep breath and stood up so he could stretch. "Can you get me out of here?"
"Not at the moment," Durandal said. "The ship that dropped off your new friends is still hanging around; I can't get within teleport range without attracting their notice."
"Fucking great. How long till they leave?"
"Going by their communications, the Pericles has orders to remain in orbit for another two days to provide air support to the base - apparently they are incapable of noticing the fine work I've already done in that area. Until they leave, we're both stuck; they'll catch me if I try to leave the system or pick you up."
That really, really wasn't what Mark wanted to hear, which meant it was probably true. "So I'm on my own for the next couple of days, huh."
"As much as you've whined about not being able to go back into UESC territory, I thought you would be more excited," Durandal said.
"So did I," said Mark, sighing. "Got any helpful advice?"
"Once they're done sorting their asses from their elbows, as you might put it, I'll have to cut the comm link. There's too much chance of them spotting the transmission when they're not distracted. So play nice, don't tell anyone I'm here, and make them pay for all your drinks."
Shit, he was breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about drinking with some actual humans. It was going to be two long, long days hiding from the soldiers, apparently, not that he was going to tell Durandal that. "Gotcha. See you later, then."
The comm link hissed again and then clicked off. Mark double-checked the motion sensor to make sure he was alone and headed out. He still wasn't going anywhere near the humans at the base if he could help it, but there were plenty of Pfhor left in the garrison; he might as well make the soldiers' jobs a little easier.
By nightfall, Mark was starting to regret his decision. With Durandal out of reach, so were ammunition dumps; he had to ration what he had left so it would last. Sure, he could steal guns off the Troopers, but they weren't a proper substitute for a pack full of assault rifle clips and shotgun shells.
At least he'd been running into Enforcers, too. Nothing like the agonized screams of Pfhor dying in the flames of their own weapons to brighten up his shitty day.
Night came slowly on Phi Ursa, the blueish sunlight lingering in a long, cool twilight as the sky darkened to deep purple dotted with faint stars and the lumpy crescent of the planet's closest moon. If Mark looked out of the corner of his eye, he could just about make out a point of light that didn't waver, hovering dead overhead. That would be the Pericles, probably, hanging around and making his and Durandal's lives difficult.
He rounded a corner into another roofless hallway - Durandal had really done a number on the place - and walked right into something that honked at him angrily. Fuck. When he jumped back and fired, the muzzle-flash from his pistols was enough to reveal it was a pair of short-range fighters. Nothing he couldn't handle, but the brief encounter proved a point. Slow sunset or not, it was getting too dark to fight; he needed to find a place to hole up for the night. He vaguely remembered passing a small room that had still had part of its roof a few hallways back, so he turned to retrace his steps.
Halfway there, he rounded a corner and stopped dead as a warm reddish light suddenly glowed through a hole in the wall ahead of him.
A familiar voice drifted over the wall. "I can't believe I'm stuck out here on night watch with you two."
"Well, rookie, it ain't my idea of a good time, either, but Major Sudarat Vidal wants to know how come we keep finding dead Pfhor instead of live ones, and what Major Sudarat Vidal wants, she goddamn well gets. Gimme a hand with this thing, will you?"
Mark swallowed a groan. Those clowns again, and setting up camp right beside him so he couldn't get away - just his fucking luck.
"Okay, seriously? My name's not 'rookie,' it's Pearl Hua. Not that hard."
"Like I said -"
Mark missed the next phase of the conversation, too busy concentrating on inching his way towards the hole in the wall slowly enough that their trackers wouldn't pick up the movement. He wanted to get a look at his personal pains in the ass.
He reached the hole and stole a couple of quick glimpses - couldn't risk looking too long or they might spot him. Three people setting up a rudimentary camp in a ruined room, all in battle armor mostly like his own but bulkier and shiny-new; one short and stocky, one a little taller and skinny as a rail, the third even taller and heavyset. The short one was already sitting down by a round red lamp in the middle of the room while the other two worked. When Mark looked again, they'd taken their helmet off to reveal buzzed blonde hair and said with Petrova's voice, "So, rookie, how'd you end up out here anyway?"
"You mean in the heavy armor division?" the tallest one said.
"Nah," the third - probably Yoshida - said, "she means in the minor leagues - yeah, the heavy armor division."
"Well - it's not that much of a story... Mainly I guess it's because I got to meet Robert Blake this one time, that's about it."
"Whoa, you got to meet Blake? The Blake?"
Huh. Maybe the situation wasn't going to be as boring as he'd thought. Mark settled in for story time.
"It wasn't all that exciting, really," Hua said, "it was just - okay, so I was fresh out of basic, didn't know where I wanted to go from there so I took some leave and went up to the Moon to think it over. He was up there for some big secret UESC project, very hush-hush, but he took some time to give a few talks and I went to one where you got to shake hands and stuff after. Great speech, super inspiring; ended up cutting my leave short, went back to Earth and signed up for the heavy armor training and qualified, so here I am."
"Huh, not bad."
"Wow," said Petrova dreamily. "You really met Blake - that's awesome."
"It's not like we had a big heart-to-heart... There were a lot of people there, and he was busy with the hush-hush stuff, y'know."
"Top secret project, huh - you ever find out what it was about?"
"No, I heard some rumors but that was all. Maybe it got scrapped."
"A secret project on the Moon with Robert Blake... oh man, you think it was battleroids? I bet it was battleroids!"
"Don't fucking start, Petrova."
"Uh, well - I did hear a rumor like that, but there were all kinds. Could have been cyborgs, could have been new armor or weapons that didn't pan out..."
"It was totally battleroids!"
"Aww, donkey shit," Yoshida said, "you had to go and get her started."
"Did Blake talk about cyborgs at all? Did he mention the ones that got smuggled into the colony? What about the guy who saved the Marathon? He talked about that guy, right, and how he was totally a -"
"For fuck's sake, Petrova! Rookie, don't listen to her, she has this thing about battleroids - she's got some weird theory that the Hero of Tau Ceti was a battleroid, just ignore her."
Something in Mark's head clicked so hard he was amazed the three clowns didn't hear it.
Because only you would survive the fall...
In the end, you will be no better.
...scared of you. He never dreamed of using you the way that I do.
"- mostly about the war effort," Hua was saying, and Mark focused on her voice, trying to ignore his (human, completely human, had to be) brain. "How we all have to do our part and so on. Didn't talk much about Tau Ceti or wherever else he'd been, except to say how scary the Pfhor are - I mean, that's the part everyone knows, so he didn't really have to talk about it."
"Cmon, you gotta remember more than that!"
"It was like a year ago, I don't know... Maybe he said something, I don't remember."
"Give it a fucking rest, Petrova."
Don't give it a fucking rest!
"Please? Pretty please? I'll stop calling you 'rookie,' cross my heart and hope to die..."
"Let me think a minute, okay?"
Mark's hands tightened on his pistols.
"I think - I think he did mention right at the start how he was only there thanks to - um, the sacrifice of a brave man. 'The toughest man I ever met,' he said, I think. True hero, saved them all out there, blah blah blah... And how he was sorry that guy couldn't be there, but he'd had to leave him behind because - something something crazy AI, that's all I remember."
"Yeah, that's it. Honest."
Oh, you fucking coward, Blake, Mark thought, filled with a helpless rage. He hadn't had any hard feelings towards the man since getting left behind with Durandal on Lh'owon, since it had mostly worked out all right, but now he was pissed. Blake could talk him up as a hero to a bunch of patsies on the Moon but couldn't have waited five goddamn minutes to snatch him off Lh'owon before making a run for it? And he had the guts to blame Durandal? Had the son of a bitch known Mark was a -
"- could have been a cyborg," Petrova said sulkily. "It's totally plausible. Didn't they dig up those records saying there were ten and someone else said they had only found nine? So maybe -"
"Seriously, just drop it already. No one fucking cares except you and a shitload of conspiracy theorists on Mars."
"Fuck you too, Yoshida."
"Okay, for that? You get the second watch. Hua, you can have the first."
"Fuck! I hate you."
"Hate you too, buddy."
If he had to listen to those fuckwits for another minute he was going to (^#troy all enemies destroy all enemies destro#!) bust through the wall and kick their asses till they shut up. He didn't give a shit whether they noticed him or not, he jumped up and ran for it - heard them shouting, ignored it, just leaped over a half-wall and ran, deeper into the Pfhor garrison. He crashed into another pair of Pfhor fighters and didn't even bother with his guns but tore right into them, smashed their heads together so hard they broke into bits, and kept going.
He didn't stop till he burst into an intact, brightly-lit room filled with Troopers and a couple of Hunters. Exactly what he needed. They had just enough time to honk a few curses before he yanked a gun from one Trooper's claws and started shooting. Two Pfhor went down immediately in sprays of yellow-green ichor; the rest didn't take much longer as he cracked their armor with grenades and fired into their exposed flesh, ripping them apart until he was the only one left standing, surrounded by mangled bodies.
He wasn't even breathing hard.
Mark contemplated that fact for a minute, then looked around the room. Besides the one he'd come through, there was only one other door, set into the opposite wall; he grabbed one of the Hunter corpses by an outflung arm and started hauling it towards the door. He repeated the process till he had a barricade of Pfhor bodies in front of both doors, which was probably enough to keep him from getting disturbed for a while, then settled down in a corner that had mostly escaped the bloodbath to try and rest.
He knew from the start it was going to be futile. Those sons of bitches, they had all known he wasn't just human - Blake, Durandal, Tycho, all of those fucking bastards, they'd known. Shit, Durandal had probably known since Tau Ceti or before, and anything he'd known Tycho would have known... And they couldn't just fucking tell him, no, they had to dance around it, tease him with cryptic shit and then laugh at him when he didn't get it. Durandal probably thought it was the funniest thing since the invention of the knock-knock joke. All that time thinking he was a regular human - all those memories of his childhood, his father, his rookie training, Mars, signing up for - for -
(there hadn't been a war, not since)
(out in the aste#!)
Fuck. He rested his head in his hands and tried not to howl. Now of all times his memory was giving out on him? If Durandal were there he'd be giving Mark the hardest time for not even remembering whether he'd been in a fucking war...
Wait a fucking second. There was no way in the whole goddamn galaxy that Durandal would have passed up a chance to openly rag on him for shit like being a cyborg, but besides a couple ambiguous jabs - nothing. If it was true, his life ought to be a never-ending hell of stupid nicknames and repurposed song lyrics, which, okay, that actually was his life besides the nicknames, but cracks about cyborgs and battleroids weren't usually a part of it. And it had been years, at least; if it hadn't come up by now, well then - maybe it wasn't true. Maybe he was just a guy after all. Just a plain old human, no more mechanical bits than the next average citizen of the twenty-ninth century, maybe some memory problems and mystery scars but even that didn't mean anything, really. He was only so good at killing Pfhor because he'd always been the best in training exercises - other than those couple of months when the girl from Texas had been a visiting student - and because he'd gotten a hell of a lot of practice at it, not for any other reasons.
Yeah. Yeah, that made sense. He wasn't some freakish cybernetically resurrected zombie soldier with patchy memories of his former life and the occasional urge to slaughter random humans, because if he was, his crazy AI overlord would have made jokes about it at his expense. Totally, perfectly sensible.
Part of his brain was trying to tell him he actually wasn't making sense at all, but the rest of him was tired as hell and didn't care anymore, so he ignored the angry part and the room's bright lights and slept on the problem instead.
Mark's only warning was a sharp crackle from the comm link, and then Durandal said, "How the hell did you end up on the other side of the planet?"
"You want the long version or the short one?" He hosed the last Trooper down with an Enforcer's weapon, then tossed the empty gun aside and scooped up the assault rifle clips that appeared in front of him.
"Never mind, you can regale me with tales of your exploits later. You're not where I expected you to be, that's all."
"Yeah, well, I was expecting you back two days ago."
"You only have yourself to blame for that," said Durandal. "The Pericles decided to overstay its welcome so that the officer in charge could find out why the ground troops were encountering more dead Pfhor than live ones. Nice work, by the way; I would have liked to observe it myself. Anyway, it only left the system thirty-five minutes ago, resulting in the unfortunate delay."
Mark considered the door to the next room and the faint warbling he could hear through it, then decided he didn't fucking care. Might as well leave something for the human garrison to do. "So what's a guy got to do for a lift off this rock?"
"Bring me Jjaro technology," Durandal said promptly. "Find anything in your wanderings, or did you get too distracted by all the mass slaughter?"
"Sorry, nothing. And I did look, I swear," Mark said. "The Pfhor had trashed the place pretty well by the time we got here."
"Maybe I should leave you down there till you have some real results. If you asked the human-S'pht'Kr base for help -"
"C'mon, asshole, just get me out of here."
Mark materialized back on the Rozinante, but halfway across the ship from the teleport pad closest to his quarters. He rolled his eyes and muttered "Jerk" under his breath, then started trudging; he passed the occasional S'pht as he went and greeted them, but didn't stop to chat. Even so, the ritual exchanges with the ever-polite S'pht drained a little of the lingering tension from his body.
When he finally reached his quarters, he saw a box with six dark brown beer bottles in it sitting on the stateroom table. He gave them the once-over, but the labels and everything looked genuine. "Hey, Durandal? Did you get the S'pht to make this or what?"
"Or what; I sampled the garrison's storehouses on the way out of the system. A little due compensation for wasting my time and for your efforts on their behalf. There's more where that came from, though not too much more. No one likes cleaning up after drunk humans."
"Thanks." The sweating bottles glistened in the bright lights, the liquid inside glowing a deep amber and calling to him, but... "Mind keeping 'em cold for me? I have to take care of the equipment first."
Maintaining his weapons and armor was usually just another chore, something he did to pass the time between missions. He always went through the same routine, the same motions: scouring the armor clean, unloading and breaking down the guns, relaxing into the scents of oil and gunpowder and polished metal. This time the knowledge of the cold beers waiting for him gave the task a new dimension; layered memories of cleaning red dust out of the practice weapons before hitting the canteen with his buddies, of listening to the other officers talk about Saldana's latest brewing experiments in the locker room at Tau Ceti's security HQ while Mark inspected the suits for damage. The good old days, sort of, and he lingered over the work, letting habit guide his hands while his mind wandered a few years back and a thousand light-years away.
Even after he'd finished and packed everything away, he didn't head for the beer immediately, but seized the chance to shower off the dirt and sweat from Phi Ursa and throw on a pair of pants and shirt fresh from the replicator. Only then did he go back into the stateroom.
The tabletop was empty when he walked in, but a moment later the six-pack reappeared, the bottles still dripping with condensation. Mark savored the sight of them for a moment, then grabbed one, pried the cap off with his teeth ("Disgusting," Durandal said), and took a long, slow drink. Oh yeah, that hit the spot. Didn't get more human than a good cold drink after hard work...
"Happy anniversary, by the way," Durandal said, as Mark swallowed.
"It's been exactly three years since we left Lh'owon."
"Huh," Mark said. "Pretty long time."
"You do realize that most normal humans would have gone insane from the lack of contact with other people by this point, don't you?"
And there it was, the perfect opening. Guess that makes me a cyborg, right? Hey, so am I really a battleroid? When did you figure out I wasn't a normal human, anyway?
Whatever. Mark took another leisurely drink from the bottle and said, "Yeah, well, guess I'm just special that way."
"It's probably my benevolent influence," Durandal said, and Mark snorted so hard that half his mouthful of beer went up his nose instead. "Or you simply lack the mental complexity to be disturbed by your situation."
"Happy anniversary to you too, buddy."
"If you're not going to refer to me by name, you could at least use one of the approved alternatives I gave you."
"Sure, I'll get right on that, 'All-Knowing Master of the Universe' who didn't even notice a UESC ship sneaking up on us in time to warn me."
The pack of beer vanished right as Mark drained the first and reached for a second one. "Hey!"
"I'm cutting you off," Durandal said. "At least I have several valid reasons for wanting to avoid contact with the UESC, what's your excuse?"
I might accidentally kill them all was heading back into territory Mark didn't want to cover, so he went with, "Sorry, didn't realize you would be so broken up that I didn't grab a ride back to Earth."
"I was looking forward to having some peace and quiet around here for once."
"Bullshit. You'd be bored out of your circuits in ten minutes with no one but the S'pht to talk to, now give me back my beer."
"Because your conversation is always so intellectually stimulating." But the six-pack materialized again, none the worse for its disappearance.
Mark snatched a bottle and popped the cap off, then relaxed back into the chair as much as he could and put his feet up on the table. "So, care to tell me where we're headed next?"
He let Durandal talk while he drank his second and third beers at his leisure; nothing put the AI in a good mood like a chance to ramble, and hell, Mark had sort of missed hearing his voice during the last four days of radio silence. Which was at least as disturbing as the possible cyborg thing, when he thought about it, but with the beer buzzing pleasantly in his brain he found it hard to care. So maybe he wasn't all human - so what? Neither was anyone else he saw on a daily basis, and they got along all right, somehow. Hell, he was probably doing the UESC more good going on Durandal's hit and run missions than he could anywhere else, and that was the important part. That, and now he thought about it, staying out of the humans' way on Phi Ursa meant they weren't getting caught up in Durandal's crap, so it was a win-win situation for everyone, really. Yeah.
He was eyeballing a fourth bottle, working out whether he really needed another beer or ought to save them for a rainy day - only Durandal knew how much he'd stolen - when he realized he was surrounded by expectant silence. "Uh - sounds good?"
"You weren't listening, were you."
"I'm going to replace you with a Drinniol. Or a Nebulon."
"Oh, come on! Those people get conquered by everyone, they'd be useless."
"At least they would listen to me, which is clearly more than can be said of you -"
Yeah, it was mostly good to be back where he belonged.