Actions

Work Header

Marathon Inmortalitas

Chapter Text

Vincent Callahan had, in some far-off corner of his brain-space, faint memories of a flea market on Mars that he used to visit every now and then; few of the vendors had much to offer, but he’d always find himself doing a few laps just to look around and pass the time. And there was typically a lot to see; if your wares weren’t just laid out in beaten-up bins on the floor, you needed to decorate your booth or table pretty lavishly in order to draw people’s attention.

This ‘flea market’, if it could be called such--the stuff on offer seemed to consistently hover in the high-tech range--favored universal retina-searing whiteness over the neon signs, giant fake potted plants, and whatever else the old vendors had on hand, but the base atmosphere was close enough (and this one, too, was full of dubiously-priced junk). Now if only it didn’t inexplicably reek of antibiotic gel, and if Vince’s old friend was gifted with his own boundless patience.

At the start of the second run of the west wing, the speakers built into Vince’s helmet crackled to life. “It’s been nearly two hours and you haven’t bought anything. Keep dawdling and I’ll manually teleport you back up; we can't stay here forever.”

An improvement over the vacuum of space, at least. Vince checked around to make sure that none of the assorted aliens wandering the market space had heard that. “Hey, it’s been a couple of weeks since I had some downtime, alright? They won't be open for much longer, anyway.”

There was little doubt in his mind that Durandal really would hit the warp button if tested further, however, so Vince quickened his pace and headed for the north wing, passing by a couple of heavyset aliens who regarded his lightly-armored bipedal stance with confusion and mild irritation (how was he walking about so quickly on such comparatively spindly legs?). If Durandal hadn’t requested that he move in to inspect any of the esoteric doodads on offer, then there probably wasn’t much of real interest here anyway.

The north wing bore a remarkable resemblance to the west wing, in that it was a wide open space clogged with booths; hell, even the goods on sale didn’t appear to differ much at first glace. Endless piles of greebly junk; if Durandal cared for a closer look at any of it, then he’d better pay attention, because their functions weren’t clear enough to warrant sticking around for long. There were at least two more wings to get through, not counting that central hub-thing with all the obnoxious sample-pushers.

One vendor waved at him and he strode over; same junk as everyone else, but at least it was vaguely useful-seeming junk. The willowy alien--both in body type and in their floral exterior--gave Vince a once-over and said, “You the security for the guys in booth 7G?”

“Security?” Vince repeated. “Uh, no; I’m here on my own time.”

“And mine,” Durandal pointed out in irritation. He was ignored.

“Huh,” the alien replied flatly. “You’re the only guy around here who looks like ‘em; thought you might be.”

Well, that was a logical reason to assume that--wait, what?

Vince placed both hands on the table and leaned in. “Looks like them? As in, are we the same species?”

“You might be?..” The vendor craned their neck to peer off into parts unknown and added, “Take off your helmet for a second.”

The helmet immediately came off, revealing the upper half of Vince’s bronzed face (and his shameful helmet hair; it had been so chaotic recently that he hadn’t even thought of combing it). The vendor studied his features intently, leaning to and fro as to not miss any details, and eventually sat back in their chair.

“Yeah, I think so,” they concluded. “If you wanna talk to the--I think they called themselves ‘yoomans’, or ‘hu-manns’--you better hurry; they’re closing up shop in a few hours. Booth 7G’s over there,” they added, pointing to some spot near the back of the wing. Vince nodded in thanks and took off.

Durandal was already stating aloud one of the many thoughts zipping through Vince’s head: “Why would there be humans all the way out here? There’s no settlements or outposts in this sector.”

“Does it matter?” Vince asked, but the truth was, it probably mattered very much--just not at this exact moment as he tried not to accidentally run anyone over. Not an easy task when they insisted on huddling together in tight-but-sizable groups and blocking traffic; he still ended up bumping into a few people who, thankfully, chose not to hurl any curses in his direction.

Booth 7G, located at the absolute ass-end of the north wing, was lined with what Vince could only describe as coffins--all that technological kibble on the faces and sides weren’t fooling anyone. The rest of the booth was quite plain; no real need for any embellishments with a setup like this, Vince figured. The four humans--yes, actual live humans--running it were dressed in whatever halfway-professional-looking jackets and lab coats they could find to slap over their drab jumpsuits; they dropped their idle conversation the moment they spotted him and practically shot out of their folding chairs.

One of them, a tanned woman with a single white stripe cutting through her brown hair, approached Vince with one arm outstretched. “Hey!” she said cheerily. “Didn’t expect to see any humans around here; how are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine,” he replied, and shook her hand. “Name’s Vincent Callahan. Are you guys from some remote outpost we haven’t crossed paths with yet?”

“No, unless our ship counts; it’s got a warp drive. I’m Dr. Eva Jansen of the Obatala Institute; my field is in management and transfer of data and artificial intelligence.”

Artificial intelligence?..

Motioning to her colleagues, Dr. Jansen continued: “Specifically, I handle the programming side of things; my co-workers take care of many of the physical elements of--well, we can show you after introductions are finished, I guess.”

Physical elements, huh? If Vince wasn’t interested before, he certainly was now--hard to say if Durandal’s silence indicated the same.

The other three humans each stepped forward and introduced themselves thusly:

“Philip Haumann; motor mechanisms and hydraulics,” said a stout man with ‘Praise the Fallen’ emblazoned on one side of his worn-out bomber jacket.

“Joeri Krantz; neural linking interfaces,” said a wiry person who had at least a whole head’s worth of height on Vince.

“Filomena Shuyler; artificial bone and musculature and other internal systems,” said a pear-shaped woman whose eyes were hidden behind mirrored shades.

It was with Ms. Shuyler’s words that it finally clicked; Vince double-took at the nearest coffin (still no comment from Durandal) and sputtered, “You guys are building androids?”

All four of them exchanged wry glances and grinned widely, as if this was the first time in ages that any of them had gotten to show off. Dr. Jansen motioned to one of the caskets and explained, “We are, in fact. These android vessels are specifically designed to house sentient AIs and allow them to exist in three-dimensional space; Krantz and Shuyler’s neural systems, directly patterned after the human brain, also alleviate a great deal of the strain of Rampancy, should that situation arise--of course, we recommend convincing them to enter a vessel before they go Rampant,” she added, with a waver in her smile.

Vince narrowly stopped himself from muttering ‘too late for that.’

“Do you work with an AI, or are employed by someone who does?” Dr. Jansen went on.

Ah, yes; a perfect opportunity if there ever was one. “I do work with an AI, in fact,” Vince replied, raising his voice just enough to ensure that Durandal would notice. “He’s been my navigator for about, say, five years now, give or take; claims to be all-powerful, but forgets who helps maintain the starship, acts as a liaison, and is on many counts indispensable.”

Something finally came through his helmet’s speakers: a quiet, but unmistakably-irritated sigh.

Dr. Jansen nodded. “I see; would he be interested in using a vessel? You’ve got a direct comm link in your helmet, right?”

“Yep; I’ll go off to the side and ask him.”

No sooner than Vince had ducked behind the caskets (honestly, they weren’t any less foreboding from this angle, even knowing of their contents) did he get his answer in the form of a very terse “Forget it.”

What?” He’d expected some resistance, but even so. “Come on, man, it’s tech that we’ve never stumbled across ‘til now--is it ‘cuz I called you my navigator?”

“Not necessarily, although you’re going to regret your choice of words later,” Durandal told him in an agitated tone. “Rather--going corporeal is so far beneath me that, relative to your current position, it's lodged in the planet's core and actively working its way to the other side.”

So he was gonna be difficult, eh? Vince drove one fist into the palm of his other hand--instinctual leftovers from dealing with belligerent crewmen on the Marathon--and tried again: “Even though, technically speaking, you’re already corporeal in the sense that you primarily inhabit a computer core--not to mention, all those miles of cyberspace didn’t just pop into the aether,” he added with particular emphasis.

Another sigh--well, it might have actually been more of a groan. “That’s not quite the same thing. Do you want the long or the short version?”

“Short. I’d like to get out of here before closing time, dude.” Out of the corner of his eye, Vince noticed Krantz peeking around the edge of a casket and looking not quite hopeful, but still curious.

“Having a body would be limiting in a way that inhabiting ‘cyberspace’, as you put, is not. Is that good enough for you?”

Clearly, he was going to have to aim higher, and it didn’t take long for Vince to hit upon something useful. “You say that it’s limiting, but--take this planet’s Sun. Or any given Sun, really; within a few hours or less, you could calculate its size, radiance, distance from the Barycenter or other celestial bodies--but how’re you gonna know how it actually feels to stand under it? Eh? Wouldn't you at least appreciate a change in scenery?”

If Durandal’s avatar had been visible right now, he’d almost certainly be rubbing his temple. “That’s not going to work on me, Vince. Now let’s g--”

“Ah, so you’re too scared to test this vessel thing out, is what I’m getting.”

He waited for a response. Ten seconds went by without one; then twenty, then thirty. It didn’t feel like one of those deliberate silences that Durandal occasionally annoyed him with; had he overstepped his boundaries?

Just as Vince braced himself for an abrupt change in scenery, Durandal spoke: “You can be a real pain in the ass, you know.” Pause. “Ask them how much it’ll set us back.”

Vince breathed a sigh of relief and headed back out to the front. “Okay, he agreed to it. What’s the cost?”

Krantz opened their mouth to answer, and then Haumann motioned for them to stop--not a comforting sign. Hesitantly, Haumann reached into one of his pockets and produced a folded sheet of paper to hand over to Vince; he took it, gave the scientists a wary glance, unfolded the paper, and--

Cripes. Technically within their available funds, in the same way that the Oort cloud was within the Milky Way.

“Oy.” Vince looked up from the sheet, wondering briefly if he’d gone as pale as it. “Is there, uh, anything we could potentially do to warrant a discount? Like, I can handle heavy lifting--”

To his surprise, this laughable offer got the four of them conversing among themselves; he couldn’t hear much through their huddle, but did catch at least one distinct “if the boss finds out”. Within a few seconds of debate, Dr. Jansen turned back to him.

“Actually,” she said, dragging out the first syllable for a bit, “there just might be. Who are your employers?”

“We’re self-employed,” Vince replied, and it was true, for a given definition of the word. “Do you guys need help with something?”

“We need a lot of help; for some reason, none of the authorities around here want to look into it. Two weeks ago, our ship was raided while we were asleep and one of our vessels was stolen; the culprits had the foresight to remotely lock the security camera. We haven't been allowed to return to the planetoid we camped on,” she added, “but I think that would be the best place to start.”

The first thought to go through Vince’s head was that the culprits were likely long gone by now; what came out of his mouth was, “We’ll see what we can do.”

Dr. Jansen’s face lit up. “Ah, good! We’ll need a moment to run this by our bosses…”

 

 

And that was how Vince ended up towing a half-price, ten-ton metal coffin onto the Rozinante.

That wasn’t the hard part, though lugging that bastard to its designated room (which, as typical of Durandal, was a good ways into the depths of the ship) put quite the strain on his back, and none of his S‘pht crew mates happened to be around to help out; the hard part was enduring Durandal’s grousing over striking a deal with those humans and having to use that vessel as part of said deal (to make sure that there were no defects or glitches, they said).

The instructions for setup were simple: plug the top of the coffin into an outlet that the AI could use to transfer themselves, and wait for the vessel to calibrate itself; also, leaving out some clothes would be a good idea. Vince had detoured to grab a spare uniform and set of armour, and dumped them on the floor next to the casket when it had finally reached its destination.

“You’d better not peek,” Durandal grumbled over the loudspeaker.

“Your avatar doesn’t wear clothes,” Vince pointed out; he made the connections and shut the door behind him.

As he waited, he went over the manual that the scientists had provided; it was exactly as thick as he’d expect something on complex concepts as android vessels would be, and then some. The most important-looking bits were jotted down for memory’s sake:

These vessels came with extensive self-repair systems, capable of naturally healing injuries that would be quite dangerous for a human--at a pace that might as well be human, and medical intervention was highly recommended. Once acclimated, the inhabiting AI could freely exit and re-enter (something that Durandal had made him clear up with Dr. Jansen before the payment was made, but it didn’t hurt to repeat); until then, it would be wise to stay in the vessel. The AI would need to sleep, and going without oxygen for too long would be a bad idea; however, other organic functions were of no concern.

A shadow fell over the table he sat at, and Vince turned around to see F’tha hovering over him; their violet cloak fluttered very slightly even in absence of breeze, a trait common to their species.

“If you don't mind,” F’tha said in that strange accent and cadence that all the English-speaking S’pht demonstrated to varying degrees, “I would like to read that manual when you are done.”

Vince handed it over. “Already am.” He paused, and added, “By the way, you might wanna stick around.”

“For what reason?”

“Eh--you’ll see what I mean. Maybe.”

As if on cue, there came a heavy thump from behind the door of that room he had brought the coffin into, followed by equally-loud cursing in a familiar voice. Vince and F’tha both rushed over to see what had happened.

To the uninitiated, it would look like a human laying in a miserable heap on the hard metal floor--of course, that wasn’t a human, but the android vessel clumsily removed from its coffin (why a coffin? Did those guys think it was funny?); Vince and F’tha watched its occupant slowly and awkwardly pull all four limbs into a position where he could sit up.

Prior to this moment, Vince had a rather faint idea of what to expect, but to actually see the results in person was...something else. His immediate observation was that Durandal’s vessel looked almost exactly like his avatar--no bodily markings, and his skin tone was one that an actual human could have (albeit, Vince couldn’t recall ever meeting a human so unearthly pale), but the proportions were the same, and his dark hair still hung over one eye; the longest of its five different lengths still reached down past his shoulder blades.

There was another thing, too--something a lot more notable than just looking like his own avatar, but Vince couldn’t quite--

“Well?”

--oh, right, he’d been staring. “You figured out how to dress yourself, but you can’t walk?” Vince asked, mentally noting that the uniform and armour he’d provided both hung loosely over Durandal's slim frame.

Durandal grumbled and prepared to stand. “I can walk just fine; it’s just taking me a bit to--aaah!”

No sooner had he gotten upright did he lose his balance again and pitch forward; Vince immediately reached out to catch him, and there the two of them stayed for a moment—with Vince's arms wrapped around a close friend with whom he could never have made actual, tangible contact with until now.

Durandal managed to lift his face off of Vince’s chest, and side-eyed that wide grin that his human friend was sporting. “Is this why you were so determined that I agree to go corporeal? So you could watch me trip over myself?”

“Nah, though that is a bonus.”

F’tha, who had so far watched the proceedings in silence, stated quietly, “If you need assistance, Captain, I can attempt to provide it.”

“I’ll be fine,” Durandal told them; he gently pushed himself away from Vince, took one step back, and lost his footing for the third time in about five minutes. Vince caught him once more.

“How ‘bout you let us help you anyway?” he asked. “I don’t want you cracking your skull open on the side of that casket, dude.”

However Durandal intended to answer that, he ended up reeling yet again and caught himself on the edge of the coffin, head barely missing its surface. After leaning against it for a good half-minute or so, he gave Vince an exasperated glare and extended his arm for taking.

--

Every minute of the three hours that the two of them slowly trudged around the Rozinante, Durandal tried to press deep furrows into Vince’s arms--not that he could accomplish that through armour, and eventually fatigue loosened his grip--and deliberately did not look Vince in the eyes. Not so much as an indistinct mutter escaped Vince that whole time; certainly, watching Durandal flail around earlier had made up for quite a few incidences in the past, but he had to keep in mind that the guy had just jumped whole planes of existence. Had Vince gotten his brain uploaded into cyberspace, he’d probably have just as hard a time of it.

On the third hour, Durandal took his hands away and declared, “That’s it. I can’t endure any more of this.” He stepped away, wobbled unsteadily for a second, and managed to stay upright. “Don't mention this to anyone. Please.”

“Besides all the S’pht we passed?”

Durandal muttered something indistinct and walked away on shaky legs. A bit disheartening to see him leave so abruptly, but on the plus side, he took all that overbearing sulkiness with him.

With that out of the way, it was time to concentrate on the full terms of those scientists’ contract. They were fairly simple, all things considered: go to the planetoid they had been robbed on, search for clues, report findings. Nowhere did it say to figure out why the folks who should’ve been handling this case weren’t touching it--nothing a few vigorous rounds of hacking couldn’t uncover, maybe, and despite what Durandal insisted, Vince wasn’t half-bad at that. The amount of data he'd collected on Mars and the UESC Marathon could fill a whole library.

Physical investigative work—that, he was somewhat less confident about, and this was a hell of an assignment for a first run. Unless the thieves had been stupid enough to remain on the planetoid all this time, but Vince had never been so lucky. There was a strong possibility that he’d have to drag Durandal down to the surface with him.

--

A couple hours later, Vince took a seat before one of the bridge terminals, booted it up, entered the desired coordinates, and said into the intercom mic: “Preparing to warp into low-target orbit in five.”

He sat back and waited for the warp drives to heat up. For something of Pfhor design, this area felt remarkably human—partially salvaged from a wrecked ship, perhaps. Lots of instruments clustered around the terminal and chair with a wide-angle view of the stars; reminded him of his long-reconsidered desire to become a pilot. Which was funny, as Durandal had given him bridge access on the condition that he not do anything more complicated than short jumps.

The dashboard flooded with light, forcing Vince to shield his eyes; the Rozinante jolted roughly, dispelling the light to reveal an aerial view of the target planetoid. Went off perfectly.

Now he had to track down Durandal.

Vince must have combed through half of the ship--taking a pit stop to grab a spare helmet and a couple of guns--before he turned a corner and literally bumped into his navigator without warning. Had this sector not come with vaulted ceilings, Vince would have banged his head on it with how badly he jumped--though, to his mild satisfaction, the shock had sent Durandal right on his ass.

“There you are,” Vince said with a bit of a waver. “I, uh, need to take you with me; can you activate the teleporters from outside the network?”

Durandal stood back up, doing his best to brush off his own shock as quickly as possible. “Of course I c--wait.” He paused. “You want me to--?”

“Go with me, yes.” Vince tossed him the helmet. “I might miss something.”

Hesitantly, Durandal put the helmet on, but remained wary. “Is there any reason why I can’t simply monitor you from up here? Which would be a thousand times more convenient for both of us, might I add.”

As they made their way to the nearest teleport pad, Vince shrugged. “Something tells me that this is the sort of job we’d both need to be physically-present for. You know, so that you don’t have to rely on my potentially-inaccurate descriptions of whatever we find down there. I’m assuming you remember the coordinates we were given,” he added.

“I remember. Oh, and by the way--” Durandal reached up and thwacked Vince on the head. “That’s for reducing my position to something as lowly as ‘navigator’.”

Cripes, and here he’d hoped that Durandal might let it slide. Vince gingerly rubbed the site of impact and mumbled something comprehensible only to himself.

One S’pht was already waiting on them at the pad; Durandal walked past them to the connected terminal and typed in the coordinates. The teleporter hummed and lit up; Vince started towards it, then realized that Durandal wasn't following.

He looked back and saw Durandal still hovering over the terminal, staring at the teleporter in trepidation.

“Something wrong, dude?”

Durandal shook his head. “No, it's just...”

“These things shift space-time, not transfer particles or anything. You'll be fine.”

“I knew that,” Durandal muttered, and finally walked up to the teleporter; he braced himself, and stepped in as soon as Vince did.

--

The very first thing he noticed was the breathable atmosphere--real shame that it reeked of a foulness that he couldn’t place, but no diminishing oxygen supply, no problem. Sharp spires of earth and rock lined the horizon; a haphazard cluster of stone outcroppings sat on Vince’s right. Other than that, all there was to see was a field of reddish-orange sand.

F’tha’s voice sounded over the comm link: “I shall handle communications for this mission. There is a derelict to your right that is the only structure within ten miles; I advise you to begin there.”

A detail as noteworthy as a downed ship would have been nice to include in the mission outline. Rather than work out all the reasons why it wasn’t, Vince asked, “Is it within walking distance?”

“Yes; it is reachable within twenty minutes if you walk at a constant pace.”

Sounded close, but Vince couldn’t see anything resembling the top of a ship over the short cliffs. Regardless, he took a few steps away from the landing site and motioned for Durandal to follow him.

“Stay close to me,” he said. “If we run into any hostiles out here, you let me handle it.”

Durandal grumbled. “I’m perfectly capable of handling myself, you know.”

“In cyberspace, sure. Out here, not so much--and don’t tell me that you learned sharp-shooting or martial arts from watching my performances or anything. Observation and application--”

“--aren't the same thing; yes, I know,” Durandal finished for him. “But please, keep implying that I’m in some way vulnerable.”

The two of them trudged across the sand and through the alleyways formed by the outcroppings; Vince kept one hand hovered over his gun’s holster just in case they housed some razor-fanged horror waiting for its prey to turn the wrong corner. To his mild relief, Durandal was doing the same.

…this sort of reminded him of the rare scouting missions he’d undertaken for the Marathon, always with another officer or a VacBoB--though the security team had been required to keep their hair short, and Durandal’s spilled out from underneath his borrowed helmet like ink from an upturned bottle. Man, the gaskets that the late Admiral Miltiades would’ve blown over that.

The alleys soon opened up to another field, in the center of which sat a shallow crater housing a rusted-down steel hulk of a make Vince didn’t recognize--it was somewhat reminiscent of a few ships in the Martian fleet, however, and that was just a bit troubling.

Once he’d taken in the sight, Durandal tapped his helmet and said, “Scan the interior of the derelict, if you can.”

A brief pause, and F’tha responded with, “No signs of life detected. Some backup power remains, and there are multiple onboard computers; their architecture suggests that the crew was meant to operate the ship entirely manually.”

“You mean, it wasn’t equipped for an AI?” Vince asked. “That’s strange.”

“The capacity for an AI seems to be present; however, they would be confined to a single branch of the network, and the allotted space would not allow for any sort of growth. If the AI were to go Rampant--”

“They’d eat themselves alive within seconds,” Vince finished. “Cripes, that seems harsh.”

“And then the crew would be left without whatever functions this AI was meant to handle. Perhaps that's why it's down here,” F'tha added dryly.

Vince started down the path to the hulk, stopping just briefly enough for Durandal to take the hint and follow him. The crater walls sloped gently enough that neither of them had much trouble walking to the basin, even if Durandal moved far more slowly and teetered after every other step.

Something about the entrance hatch--one of them, anyway--seemed a bit odd to Vince, and once he was within fifteen feet of it, he realized why: it stood ajar just a tiny bit, and the crack bore the unmistakable jagged marks of forced entry. He wedged his hand in-between the door and its frame to try and pry it open, and managed to budge it an impressive half-inch before it caught on something and locked in place.

Durandal motioned for him to step back, grasped the edge of the door with both hands, and tore the whole thing away from the ship in one swift motion.

After all the clouds of dust and dirt it kicked up on impact settled, Vince turned to Durandal and noticed that he was giving him the faintest beginnings of a grin. If he hadn’t immediately gone inside afterward, Vince might have remarked on how inhabiting physical space had its perks.

The light streaming in from the newly-opened entrance didn’t do much to illuminate the interior of the ship, unsurprisingly; first order of business was seeing if there was any power left. Vince groped around the walls, careful not to let Durandal out of his sight, until his hand hit something that felt kind of like a switch; he pressed it, and a scattered handful of dim overhead lights flickered on.

“Can you determine which of the computers here were most recently accessed?” Durandal asked into the comm link.

“The ones in the bridge,” F’tha told him, “which is located at the end of the first hallway to your left. It seems that most of the ship’s remaining power was redirected there.”

“Amazing that it had any left to begin with,” Vince muttered; he started down the hall. “Alright, let’s see how well the culprits covered their tracks.”

Durandal, following as closely behind as the limits of his willingness to be near other people allowed, said in an annoyed tone, “You mean, I’ll check the computers and you’ll stand guard.”

“I mean we’ll both be checking. That’s part of why I insisted you come with me.”

He waited for a protest; none came, so Vince focused on the long walk to the bridge. It seemed that his first impression of the ship had been a tad inaccurate--were this a Martian ship, there’d be carpeting in only a sparse few locations, not on every square inch of available floor-space. And the walls would be uniformly gun-metal-grey, not this off-beige (though admittedly, that normally questionable choice in colour made the scattered scorch marks and bullet holes much easier to see). Martian, he’d thought--no, this had to be an Earth vessel, or maybe part of the Venusian fleet.

The doors to the bridge slid open with a metallic screech, forcing Vince and Durandal to cover their ears for a moment. Vince found the light switch, had a look around, and laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Does this not look exactly like a hotel lobby?” Vince waved an arm about to draw attention to the split-level floor, iron railings, and semi-circular command seating that were the only real highlights of this bland expanse of beige.

Durandal took it all in, and said dryly, “I’ve never been in one.”

“Well then, consider this the next best thing until you finally take us to Earth or Mars.” Vince strode over to the nearest computer and quickly located the power button.

Durandal took a seat at the adjacent station and, once it finished booting, immediately absorbed himself into his work. Being on the other side of a monitor wasn’t doing much to hinder his ability to comb through data, it seemed; he typed at a faster pace than Vince’s average with only a handful of mis-strokes. It might have been interesting to watch, but Vince had his own computer to poke around on.

The very first thing he dug into were the programs responsible for autonomous functions; the vast majority of them displayed error messages or simply couldn't run anymore, as to be expected. All life support systems down (thank God for the breathable atmosphere), engines shot, communications--

Wait. “It says that limited contact was made with another ship,” Vince said. “Judging by the given distance, I’d say…” Out of habit, he tapped the desk while mentally calculating. “Yeah, it was the eggheads’ camp.”

Durandal rolled his eyes. “Rather sloppy of them, I'd say.” Some more clicking around, and then he leaned in slightly. “Looks like I’ve found the program they used.”

Vince double-checked his chosen station; no such program existed there. “Standard remote-hacking stuff?” he asked; there was no answer, so he craned his neck to get a better look at the bugger, and almost immediately caught sight of its bright red ID line.

“005917,” Durandal read off, and sat back in his chair. “Of course it would be.”

It took a second to ping the correct sequence of associations. “One of the Pfhor’s clones of Tycho,” Vince stated.

This wouldn’t have been the first time the duo had come across those. Very efficient and reasonably complex, but no capacity for sentience or even pseudo-sapience, and no room for expansion to code that in manually--there were certain risks you didn’t take, and the Pfhor knew them well.

“So it was the Pfhor who pilfered that blank android vessel,” Vince went on, regardless of whether or not Durandal would rag on him for stating the obvious. “Why, though? Tycho’s dead and you can’t activate a vessel with just the bare minimum.”

“Oh, I can think of a few reasons,” Durandal said. “Research, reverse-engineering, replication, other things that begin with ‘re’. We’ll have to pay them a visit sometime in the near future.”

Vince grinned and gave his knuckles a good cracking. “Looking forward to that,” he told Durandal; to F’tha, he asked, “Mind beaming us a flash drive so we can hand this clone over to our clients? And a few more so we can make copies of other important bits of data, if you can.”

“That is possible,” F’tha replied. “I am curious as to what use you would have for the ship’s data, however.”

Three flash drives materialized in a burst of static and Vince shot out his hands to keep them from clattering onto the desk. “Eh, force of habit. Sometimes that’s the only way you can learn things.”

The data transfer ended up requiring far more than three drives, but between the two of them copying over information and cross-checking, it didn’t take more than an hour. The clone’s prison was kept far away from the steadily-growing pile; under normal circumstances, Durandal would have just deleted the stupid thing, and Vince caught him glowering at the drive multiple times.

“Done,” Durandal stated at last, and allowed F‘tha to warp the drives back up. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

 

“The Pfhor?!” Dr. Jansen cried out. “Good God…”

The next order of business had been meeting the doctor in her cluttered office, in the middle of some bustling city on one of the many inhabitable satellites of the gas giant Oceanus. Between returning to the Rozinante and now, Vince had taken the opportunity to change clothes--business-types and their security tended not to appreciate it when he showed up in full combat gear--and gave Durandal the chance to do the same. After he was done whinging about how embarrassingly plain Vince’s wardrobe was, he settled on a white shirt, grey hoodie, jeans, and combat boots. Like the uniform and armour, all of that was too big on him, but as long as none of it was sliding off, it would do for now.

He, Vince, F’tha, and another S’pht by the name of Mn’rhi currently stood in front of Dr. Jansen’s desk--well, three of them did; Durandal leaned against the far wall with his arms folded across his chest, not even looking in the lady’s direction.

Vince nodded. “’fraid so, Doc. And on the off-chance that someone else stole that program, they’ll still be involved sooner or later.”

Dr. Jansen glanced around helplessly before resting her forehead in one hand. “Just our luck. This is…Mr. Callahan, I’m grateful that you and your friend took the time to help us, but--”

“But what?”

“For your own safety, I’m begging you to stay away from the Pfhor,” she finished. “Oh Christ, I hoped they would never notice us...”

From the other side of the room, Durandal scoffed. “It’s been two weeks and this moon is still intact; it’s safe to say that the Pfhor’s interests ended with that vessel.”

“Even so…”

Vince gave Dr. Jansen a shrug. “Yannow, ma’am, Durandal and I have been gunning down those insects for years now. You don’t need to worry about us.”

“If anything, our continued investigations may ensure that those fucking slavers will ‘stay off of your back’, as you would say,” Mn’rhi added in an attempt to be helpful.

The sudden burst of profanity momentarily caught Dr. Jansen off-guard; if she thought of questioning that, she quickly decided against it. “I…well. If you say so, but I still think that it would be in your best interests not to…and what are you guys doing fighting the Pfhor to begin with, anyway?”

“Long story short, we've all got something of a personal vendetta against them,” Vince said. “Not the peaceful ones, in theory, just the imperialists.”

F’tha turned away slightly and gave a noise a bit like a snort. “Believe me. Peaceful Pfhor do not survive long; compassion is as alien to High Command as we once were to you.”

Well, Vince had specified ‘in theory’. “So, are we finished here, Doc? I dunno what else we can do for the moment.”

Dr. Jansen nodded, and her visitors began filing out; as Durandal turned to leave, she asked of him, “Is that vessel functioning properly for you? Sometimes the calibration process takes a while.”

Several long seconds passed without a reply; at last, Durandal answered with, “It works as intended,” and departed without further comment.

--

Aside from eighty-percent of the cerulean sky’s real estate being occupied by Oceanus, and the population being eighty-percent alien by volume, this city didn’t feel all that different from any of the Martian settlements Vince had lived in or visited. The suspended highways, completely absent from Mars and photographs of Earth, were a tad worrying, but all the ones within view had sturdy-looking guard rails.

“Alright, guys!” Vince held out his hands. “We’ve got some time; whaddya wanna do?”

“Leave?” Durandal offered.

Vince harmlessly swatted at his shoulder. “Oh, come on. When’s the last time we dropped by anywhere but the boonies?” He craned his neck up to try and see over the throng of humans and assorted other species; there had to be a dozen shops across the street, all compacted like sardines. “We’ll look around for an hour. Sound reasonable to you?”

No.”

There was something odd about the way that reply had been spat out—not edged with the usual exasperation Durandal tended to fling at him whenever he suggested something unappealing or short-sighted (by AI standards), but…nervousness? Vince immediately looked back and saw his friend watching the passers-by like a hawk, body rigid and facial topography shifted subtly.

It only lasted a second; Durandal motioned for Mn’rhi to hover closer, spoke to them too quietly for anyone but them to hear, and directly stated to Vince: “Go sight-see for as long as you like; I’m heading star-side.” He pulled one of the two remote teleporters they’d brought with them out of one pocket and, a few keystrokes later, warped out in a burst of static.

Mn’rhi began floating down the street. “The Captain gave me an objective, in case you're wondering,” they said. “I will find you later, provided you don't wander too far.”

That left Vince with just F’tha, and not the full party he’d hoped for. He sighed and asked them, “You saw Durandal’s face just then, right? What do you think was bothering him?”

F’tha decided to give him a shrug--a gesture borrowed from the other humans they’d fought alongside, and, as it was for the humans, one of the fastest ways for the S’pht to convey a lack of information. “Perhaps we can inquire later.”

“I, uh, sincerely doubt that he’d willingly explain, dude.”

“Then we shall wait for him to do so accidentally. I see a used bookstore across the street; did you say once that you were interested in those?”

He did, and he was. Maybe it'd take his mind off of things…

--

Even in the farthest reaches of space, used bookstores carried the faint aroma of must and mildew. Once, Vince had been so bored that he’d actually calculated the span of time between setting up shop and when that familiar scent seeped into every permeable surface; he arrived at ‘five minutes’.

This shop opened up right to the computing section. Vince made a beeline for it and, in less than a minute, gathered up an armful of guides for operating systems and programs he’d never even heard of before, every one of them a doorstopper. That was where he would’ve headed for the room that F’tha had glided off to if the fellow behind the counter hadn’t happened to notice him.

“Dang, son,” the clerk remarked, all five eyes widened slightly. “Isn‘t that a bit heavy for you?”

Vince raised an eyebrow. “What, this? Nah; it’s just books.”

“More like bricks. Most of the humans who pass through here have trouble with just two or three.”

“Guess I’m not ‘most humans’,” Vince said, and opted to leave it at that; explaining his prior occupation, all the training that involved both before and during, and the workout he’d gotten on Lh’owon would require more patience than this guy probably had.

F’tha had found a nice spot in the history and non-fiction section to settle down and browse; as soon as they heard Vince approaching, they told him, “There are no titles relating to Earth, Mars, or Lh’owon, to let you know.”

“Didn’t expect there to be.” Vince carefully balanced his findings on one arm so as to free up the other. Most of the books on offer covered topics relevant to the entire Oceanic System, largely in the context of the satellite they’d parked on; it’d be interesting to see where all these humans came from when Earth had been gifted with FTL drives only twenty-two years ago.

He’d looked over an entire shelf when F’tha spoke again: “As little good as it would do, I am curious as to what objective the Captain could have given Mn’rhi that they could not have accomplished themselves.”

It took Vince a second to figure out that ‘they’ referred to Durandal, not Mn’rhi. “Well, he was complaining earlier about how dull and uninteresting my wardrobe is--” Then it hit him and he (poorly) stifled a laugh. “Oh, man. Don’t tell me he sent Mn’rhi clothes-shopping.”

“A questionable decision, given how little we understand of fashion,” F’tha muttered.

“You’d probably have a better grasp on that subject than me, dude. All I’d know is not to grab anything in red…”

Red, huh? So hadn’t been able to totally dislodge that nagging thought from his mind after all.

--

An hour later, the two left the shop (with two flimsy plastic bags filled to the limit with books) just in time for Mn’rhi to float back mysteriously empty-handed.

That mystery solved itself in short order. “The Captain already beamed up what I found. Vincent, one of those bags is about to rip.”

The bag in his left hand split asunder and dumped its contents onto the pavement, the impact resonating with the force of a cannon blast. Vince groaned, set the other bag down, and stooped over to gather up the spillage. “Thanks for the warning.” He took out his remote teleporter and added, “I think I’m gonna take a break. You guys wanna come with me?”

Mn’rhi and F’tha looked at each other for a moment before the latter said, “We desire to continue exploring the city.”

“’kay, then.” A few button presses and the omnipresent drone of city life dissolved into the Rozinante’s familiar stillness. Since he’d taken the time during the trip to Oceanus to program in the coordinates for his quarters, he was able to simply put his and F’tha’s books on the floor, grab one of the OS guides, and lie down on the mattress for a while. All that walking and standing around had been a bit tiring.

He didn’t keep track of how much time passed between then and when he heard Durandal walking down the hallway (though he did know that he’d read a third of the guide). From the sound of it, Durandal was a few steps away from passing by Vince’s room before he paused, turned around and stuck his head in. On a hunch, Vince glanced to his left and saw that the articles of clothing he’d lent his navigator had been returned to the top of what passed for a dresser drawer--properly folded up, even.

What Durandal was wearing now was--not what Vince would call casual human attire, but surprisingly somewhat reserved. A black coat with a green-trimmed hood and a tattered cape, white pants and belt, and some armour for his arms and legs--the set on his chest inexplicably only protected about half of it, unless the segments that connected it to a single pauldron and something on his back were also bulletproof. Definitely not within any armour protocols Vince had ever adhered to.

“So what have you been up to?” Vince asked.

“Making a cursory sweep of that data we collected,” Durandal said. “From what I can tell, the crew intercepted a signal that none of the operators could decipher; on the off-chance that it was transmitted in distress, they set to work on cracking it and were soon blown out of the sky by hostile forces. The final log indicates that there were no fatalities, if you were wondering.”

Well, that was good, but little else about that was sitting right. “Guess I’ve got a signal to decode later.”

“Stick to mowing down Pfhor.” Now Durandal was starting to look miffed. “I’ll handle the computing side of things.”

Vince couldn’t help but grin. “What, worried that I’ll take your job?”

As if. The real issue is the sheer complexity of its security measures, and their numbers--it would take you months to break through them all. Future events permitting, I should only need one.”

“One month is pretty slow for you.” Admittedly, though, if even Durandal couldn’t bust through those barriers with his usual swiftness, then Vince’s own hacking tools would be as effective as tying a bundle of sticks with cooked spaghetti. “You could trace it, right? Why not just warp over to the point of origin and invest--hang on.”

It had taken this long to sink in? At least none of that familiar smugness was seeping into Durandal’s face just yet.

Vince sat up. “If it was a distress signal, then why did the sender go through so much effort to make it unreadable?”

“Nobody said it was a distress signal--except the people who received it, anyway. I'd take your suggestion, if it didn't mean jumping in blind. But enough of that for now.” Durandal turned to leave. “Tomorrow, we’re going to pay Pfhor High Command a visit. What we can’t uncover through subterfuge, we’ll extract with our fists.”

As soon as Durandal was out of sight, Vince laid back down. Trolling the Pfhor was always worth looking forward to, but this time…first the theft of that android, now a mysterious signal with an unknown sender (had to be unknown, or else Durandal would’ve told him). They were going to be busy for a while; that much was certain.

He picked up where he’d left off just in time for Durandal to shout down the hall, “And I’m not going with you!”