DarkHorse Vendetta by Orin Drake
A completed novel, available as a paperback through Lulu and an ebook (Part One) through e-Quills.

        Chapter 4 - Worst Luck in the Universe

        Astrid stood there between her security team, openly nervous. She'd met Ki'ehr before. She never remembered how to pronounce his name, but she knew it when she heard it. He... frightened her. He made her incredibly uneasy, so she usually just let Jack spend as much time with him as possible so she wouldn't have to be around him herself. When the door initially unbolted, she almost jumped.
        But Jack got a little rush of excitement as the barrier gasped open. She always liked it when her friend visited, as it really helped her to get the hell out of her agonizing situation for a short while.
        What stepped in somewhat resembled her oldest (and really, her only) friend. It was Ki'ehr, alright. It was Ki'ehr in a black zoot suit, white satin gloves, black cowboy boots with extra-tall heels, and sunglasses. As if that wasn't enough, he had a devious plan up his sleeve already...
        "Asty!" he called, opening his arms wide and attacking the Lady with them before she had the chance to think, let alone move. He was about two feet taller than she was anyway, so even if she hadn't been too shocked to attempt a struggle, she was far too small to get away.
        Jack thought she was going to wet herself. It was the funniest thing she'd ever seen. Astrid's eyes were larger than humanly possible, a complete look of agonized shock carved in every feature of her body. If Ki hadn't freaked her out enough all the times before, this should have signaled the breaking point.
        Ki expertly pretended not to notice her discomfort, and continued hugging until she actually started to push him off, at which point he threw a wink to Jack. He gently let the Lady go, then turned his attentions toward the other uniformed officer. "And you must be Julian." He grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
        Julian swallowed. He wasn't sure what was so unpleasant about the look he seemed to be getting (as he couldn't even see the eyes leering at him), but he was a little stunned. Regardless, he held his hand out.
        Ki'ehr's grin changed into a pleasant smile as he realized the kid wasn't such a tight-ass. He grasped the boy's hand and shook it, lowering the sunglasses to reveal his somewhat mild wink.
        So that's it, Julian's mind responded from a distance; the eyes were gleaming, blue-green and slitted like a reptile. He wasn't "quite human". He wasn't even close. His features were far too delicate, too porcelain and gaunt. And, of course, the first indication might have been the snow white hair and skin. He'd had never run into this sort before.
        "And Jack, of course." Ki'ehr greeted ever so warmly, taking his friend into a big hug. His squeeze grew just a little lighter than usual when he felt her heartbeat quicken more than it usually did, her breath intake having been sharp. He'd ask her about that later, when they were alone.

        As predicted, Astrid let Jack "off for a while". She had no more intention of dealing with Jack alone while her strange friend was around than she did spending time with her and said friend. To Astrid, Jack was simply a completely different person with him around, and the Lady didn't appreciate that. Truth be told, the only difference was that Ki played off of Jack while everyone else stayed as far away as possible.
        The reunited friends had a "place" on the ship. There were no windows on board, no port holes to see out of--but there was a navigation center that no one used. It was obsolete, really; just a digital map of the stars. But the great thing about it was that you could get a full room projection. It wasn't quite like laying down and looking up at night, but it was as close as they'd get, being ship-bound.
        It was their hiding place from all the other shit that may be piled on them from their respective daily grinds. Strangely, Jack never went there on her own. There was no point; her imagination was completely destroyed on the ship without Ki. With him there... it was like the good times before all the crap. Like sneaking out into the country and stealing away a moment of the night just to talk. And, thanks to the glory that was no bio sensor technology, no one could find them. No one ever thought to look.
        Jack took a long moment to check the hallways, making certain no one had watched them. Then she stepped inside, closing the door behind her. No need to lock it, really.
        Ki'ehr laid on the floor, hat resting on his chest, staring upward. When he wasn't joined right away, he extended his arm and an invitation. "Come on. Relax."
        She was only glad to do so, curling up with him and sighing into the release of tension. "Navigation field, full display."
        The room instantly dimmed to utter blackness. Then, slowly, there were some tiny twinklings. Bit by bit, the image of the old star field began to appear until all visible stars and galaxies from Centuri (where the ship was built and dedicated) were shimmering as if they all still existed just as they were.
        "Now tell me." Ki prodded gently. "What happened?"
        Jack didn't need to have it explained, she knew him too well; he was referring to her reaction when he'd hugged her. She'd more or less gotten used to him knowing she was sick or had a fever long before she was aware herself.
        "You remember William." She murmured to get the story started.
        "Shit. Never thought I'd hear about him, again."
        "Never thought I'd see him again." Just thinking of the guy was really starting to get... infuriating. She continued anyway. "Well, apparently he'd worked for Grady."
        His eyes got wide and he looked over, a soft green glow coming from behind the sunglasses. "The same Grady that was your first job?"
        "That Grady." She took a breath, generally annoyed with herself. "I never knew."
        "I don't think anyone could have." Ki'ehr tried to be supportive. He knew how hard she was on herself when she really shouldn't be.
        "Well... as an act of revenge, he brought me down to Ceist Vyst. And somehow..." She paused, trying to find a simple way to put her findings. "Well, now I know the rumors about the spider people are true."
        Hiss jaw hung open. There was a long silence as this fact registered. "Wow."
        She found herself laughing at that. "Yeah, 'wow'. It wasn't really 'wow' when I was going to be the meal."
        "At least it was some excitement for you." He joked. "How bad was it?"
        "I don't know." It had occurred to her that no one had really told her, and she didn't bother asking. She could have been on the edge of death for all she knew. "But it doesn't matter much now."
        "No, I guess not." He agreed, looking back at the stars. "So, you and this Julian guy..."
        She shot him a look that he could feel as easily as see. "Nope. I learned my lesson."
        He grinned in response. "Well, just checking. In case I have a shot."
        "Feel free." She invited. "How are things going on the Tura?"
        "Ung." His initial response was a quiet sort of agony. "Not as bad as they were last time I visited you. But I swear I'm in charge of morons."
        She laughed heartily at that. "I'm among them and you're leading them. Fantastic."
        He chuckled. "Yes, well. If they had any engineering skill, maybe I wouldn't cringe every time I had to refer to them as engineers."
        "Any... interests?" she teased.
        "Not really." He admitted, a little sadly. He'd hoped, after all. "Some potential, but... like I said. I can't do morons." He giggled at that. "You seem to find potential quite easily." He joked.
        Jack held her head in her hands painfully. "You... William... what the fuck is going on here?"
        "Your feminine whiles have you doing backflips for the wrong people." Ki'ehr suggested with a soft hug.
        "That must be it." She mumbled bitterly.
        He tried to stifle an amused sound in the back of his throat. "You've always had the worst luck in the universe."
        "And what the hell is up with that?!" she demanded, reluctantly letting herself be pitied.
        He was trying so hard not to laugh. He didn't want to laugh at his friend, but... well, he felt a little extra cruel after having done such wrongness to Astrid. It still felt pretty damn good. "Things will get better."
        "So I hear." She sighed. "Certainly doesn't feel that way. It's stress, such a godawful amount of str--"
        A rather unfamiliar sound had cut her off. Something they'd never heard before while laying in that room, looking at the stars. It was puzzling at first, until they looked toward the source. The door had opened. That literally shocked the two of them to utter and complete silence. Someone... had entered the room. Neither of them said a word, just staring over, letting their eyes adjust to the backlighting to get an idea of who the hell it was--
        "Oh... um... sorry." The form apologized.
        It was Julian. Now that was even more surprising.
        "Don't worry about it." Ki'ehr spoke for her. "Come on in. Look around."
        Jack knew damn well that Ki found Julian attractive. It was in is voice. She also knew from prior experience that he would do just about anything to be around the things (and people, she now realized) that he thought aesthetically appealing. Even if he didn't have a chance of owning said things.
        Julian was just as stunned as they had been when he'd opened the door, trying to find something to say. "Oh, no. You two just... no. I was touring the ship."
        "Oh, come on." Ki insisted, putting a hand over Jack's mouth playfully.
        "I didn't mean to interrupt..."
        The chance for an open invitation did not pass the Mohar Vi Tiat by. Besides, maybe this could be fun and get Jack out of her stressful stupor. "No, seriously. It's alright. We're not together or anything. Just gazing at the stars as they were twenty years ago." When the boy still stood there in a weak military stance, he continued, "We were just about to get something to eat anyway. Maybe you'd like to come with us?"
        Both Jack and Julian were absolutely shocked by the suggestion. Jack couldn't have said she minded, actually. She'd barely had a chance to get to know the guy, let alone decide whether she liked him or hated him yet.
        Julian was equally as surprised to be asked. He wondered what Jack thought of the situation, but... didn't really care to ask. Again, his curiosity would need to be satisfied if he were to keep a sane mind. Sitting with these two old friends would be... very, very interesting, he thought.
        "Well..." Jack began conversation again, "We can't eat in my quarters. It's just not big enough." Not with the stacks of books, anyway...
        "Hm. At least the guest quarters have tables." Ki'ehr suggested.
        "All but the first one." Julian announced.
        Jack sat up, looking puzzled. "It did..."
        "And I was up late last night." He responded.
        She grinned at him. Maybe she could get along with him, after all. "So you're saying we'll brunch at your place?"
        "There's nothing in there anyway." He answered. "Just a console and a table. And something resembling a bed."
        Ki elbowed Jack as subtly as he could. She elbowed back, completely determined to keep Ki'ehr's ideas to himself. And to just plain shut up.

        "So how'd you get rid of Astrid?" Jack wondered, waiting for the "cook" to answer the page. Sure this wasn't exactly traditional, to take orders for or deliver to Astrid's security when the Lady was not with them to eat. As was Jack's reigning theory of life, just because something isn't logical doesn't mean you shouldn't try it anyway.
        "She said she had work to do in her chambers." Julian responded, waiting in a stolen chair by the stolen table.
        "Ah." She answered, catching Ki's look of annoyance at the thought. "She's probably still trying to get information on me."
        Before Julian could question that, the comm beeped. Jack answered, "Yes, console."
        "You called." One of the "food preparation officers", as they liked to be called, stated. The obvious sounds of dishes and conversation from the cafeteria rattled on in the background.
        "Yes, we've got an order here." She wondered what sort of comment she'd get about this.
        "Lady Astrid is eating in her quarters." Came the actual response.
        Jack cleared her throat, determined not to ask, "And what the fuck does that have to do with anything?" At least, not in those words. "And all her security team is requesting are three simple late breakfasts."
        There was a very long pause of dish clatter. "Fine. What do you want?"
        She looked back to the other two. "French toast anyone?"
        "Oh, two of those." Ki'ehr announced. "And bacon. Lots of bacon."
        Jack smirked and looked to Julian for his response. She'd be curious to know what he ate when he actually ordered himself.
        But they'd made him terribly hungry for something he hadn't eaten in four years, at least. "Three, then."
        The "cook" sighed deeply. He'd never done this before; never had he considered special treatment for Astrid's security. But, once was enough.  "Alright. In that quarters?"
        "Yup." Jack confirmed. "We'll be waiting. Console off."
        "So glad everyone likes you so much, Jack." Ki'ehr joked.
        "I make friends easily." She shot back with a laugh.
        Julian didn't say anything. He was obviously trying to hide some sort of amused expression, and was almost successful. Really... he kinda liked her. Not like that, but... the initial shock of her had worn off. Sort of.
        "So Julian..." Ki started suavely, "Where are you from?"
        An unsuspecting academy graduate wandered dangerously close to the trap. "Centuri. The Bouleri continent, specifically. By the hook, right next to the ocean."
        "Ah." Ki nodded, now becoming interested. "We're both from Centuri, as well. Akero continent, though. By Impahli."
        Hm. Now he was getting somewhere. A little knowledge of where Jack was from, anyway. "Oh? Parents in the mining industry?"
        For some reason Julian didn't understand, Jack seemed to jerk away from that question just a little. She didn't back down, but there had been a physical reaction. "We don't really know. Grew up in a public house." "Public house" was supposed to be a kinder, gentler word for "orphanage". But it didn't work at all.
        Well, at least that may have explained some things about her. About both of them, frankly. He didn't want to get too personal or sound rude, but... "Do you know who..?"
        "I don't." Jack answered. It seemed like the billionth time she'd been asked about her lineage. It was such a fucking important thing on Centuri. "Ki's were interplanetary travelers, though." She made it sound like that was one of her dreams, the way she spoke the words.
        "Or drifters." Ki'ehr grinned. "Either way."
        The comm sounded at that instant with a slightly urgent tone. Julian tried his hand at responding, "Yes, console."
        "Julian?" Astrid's voice called. "Are you busy?"
        He just looked at the other two with a very... dull expression. Close to annoyance, but not quite; he hadn't been there long enough. "Well, I guess no--"
        "Good." The Lady interrupted. "I'd noticed you had a food order, but you can hold off until I'm done with you, right?"
        Jack smiled bitterly. That woman had pulled the same shit on her a number of times. Chances were that all breakfasts were off, as Astrid had more than certainly been kind and courteous enough to cancel all three all for them.
        Julian regarded her expression and fought to hold in a sigh. "Certainly, Lady. I'll be there in a few minutes."
        "Wonderful!" the woman cried, then called her console off.
        "I guess we wander back to my place." Jack tried to sound a little surprised.
        "Guess so." He responded, genuinely starting to look annoyed now. The Lady had just sent him away, and now she was calling him to her without explanation, asking him to hold off on eating even though she'd already had her breakfast--he was starting to understand a little more about his "assistant's" attitude. "Any messages you want delivered?"
        "Give her one of these, will you?" Jack asked only too politely, holding out her fist. Delicately, and yet somehow very powerfully, she extended her middle finger and held it there as though it were to be revered like a god. Somehow it had all the importance of an entire religion, within her fingertip.
        Julian's eyes went wide. Ki'ehr grinned and looked away, pretending he hadn't seen at all.
        As Julian spoke, his voice tremored with shock. Lady Astrid was the Lady Astrid, to be treated with no less than total respect and absolute authority. "Certainly... you don't expect me to deliver that message..."
        Slowly, Jack withdrew her finger back into a full fist and held it to her heart, unconsciously indicating that she would always wish such a symbol upon to the Lady Astrid. Or at the very least, to an unsuspecting "assistant" who still followed her unquestioningly. "I suppose not. Maybe I'll deliver it to her myself one of these days."
        He swallowed, staring at her. Was she serious? Could she be? "You are responsible for protecting her very life."
        "I know." She took a deep breath, trying to still the turmoil inside of her. "I know. I don't have to like it."
        Instead of being completely face to face argumentative, Julian sat back to gain a clearer picture. He was more curious than anything. He didn't suspect her of treason, but... "Then, if I may ask, why are you here?"
        "I sort of just... wound up here." She admitted. "I was hired. And eventually I discovered that if I went elsewhere, I probably wouldn't be able to survive there long. If you know what I mean."
        "I'm afraid I don't." He leaned in, focussing exclusively on her.
        Ki'ehr just sat back and waited for this conversation. He trusted Jack wouldn't say anything incriminating--but if she did, he was there. Not until then; he would wait and let her speak. He was starting to get curious, as well, but he knew much more about the situation than this new "partner" of hers.
        "The Centuri government, figure-headed currently by Lady Astrid, would capture me and torture me to death in a public forum. Like they do with all of the others they label as traitors." She simplified.
        "But those people were dangerous traitors." He confirmed blindly. "Like Marcus Januri--"
        "I knew Marcus Januri." She gently cut him off. "We both did." She looked to Ki, who nodded back but said nothing. "And I happen to know he was working for the freedom of the royal servitude. That wasn't dangerous at all. It was the step to questioning the things that are, to improve them for the future. And you'll find that all of those poor people did little more than that."
        Julian continued to gaze at her--at her eyes even when they weren't meeting his, which was rare. He didn't think her to be a liar. But what she was saying... he'd never heard that before. Never read it, never listened to a lecture about it in academy. "But the royal servitude has been in place for hundreds of years."
        "That doesn't make it okay." She stated quietly. "It's just gotten worse... you should know some of those 'traitors' are actual royal slaves. Some of them actual members of the harem."
        He just looked... sideswiped. He'd never heard, never thought, never seen, never... he just never. The very thought, the idea was... "But I thought you were a Centuri Human."
        "I am." She said with no pride, but no hatred. Just a matter of fact. "But I don't have to agree with what the government does. Or at all." She paused, feeling another point had to be made. "But Lady Astrid and the government are separate in my mind. I just happen not to like either of them."
        His eyes grew wide. "You're not suggesting... overthrow? Revolution?"
        "No." She assured. "Revolution doesn't work. It's just killing for killing's sake, and I think there's been quite enough of that." She paused to take some breaths; this was as much a matter of passion as philosophical debate for her. And she could not allow passion and emotion to fuse in that moment. "It is evolution that would make things better. But that requires an openness, an ability to listen. It seems the government of Centuri, the Ladies of Virtue," she spat the title, "Aren't capable. They could at least listen. Instead, everyone who speaks out gets tortured to death for treason. Personal computers aren't even safe. Did you know there was an underlaw established so that every once in a while, at the government's discretion, all computers built on or by Centuri are scanned for 'content of treason'?"
        Julian just sat there with a brilliantly fascinated look on his face. He didn't know what to believe. He didn't know who was telling the truth, or what was going on. But the very thought such things could be true... it was whirring in his head.
        "Sorry." Jack sighed. "It just... it gets to me, is all. As long as I'm doing my job, I'm fine. If I ever left... there's an automatic death warrant."
        "It's... a good job, though, isn't it?" he asked, his voice quiet. "I mean... you're taken care of. Everyone wants that security, everyone asks for that security..."
        "I didn't ask for this." she answered, already on such a roll it was hard to stop. She knew all of these things from personal research, from Ki being talented with computers, from people she used to know being bled to death on the stairs of a public Hall. But Julian, he was from academy. And they didn't teach you any of this in a government-run institution. "I mean, what is this, really? It's not like my loyalties have even been bought, they've been borrowed and forged for the sake a woman who is better off d--"
        "Keep your mouth shut, Jack." Ki'ehr warned, his tone so harsh and final--so unlike him--that he cut her off immediately.
        He was right. And she knew that. She couldn't very well openly and verbally expose the fact that she had no desire to be around Astrid, let alone protect a life that Jack felt just wasn't worth protecting. She really hadn't fucking asked for it.
        Instead of continuing, she shook her head. "Just... well, we'll go now."
        The look of question and shock never left Julian's face, but he nodded. Whatever this was about, maybe it didn't concern him. Maybe he should be concerned, but that wasn't his business.
        "I'll see you later." She assured calmly. "Tonight, if I get paged." She didn't think she would.
        "Alright." He agreed just as calmly.

        "That was... that was quite the speech, Jack." Ki'ehr began softly.
        "Yeah." She agreed, her voice hollow. They hadn't spoken a word to one another since they'd sat down together in her quarters, oh, twenty minutes previous. It just... didn't seem appropriate. "Sorry about that." She added halfheartedly.
        Only one word made it's way past his lips, but it was the only thing that seemed at all to sum up what he wanted to know. "Why?"
        "I will do... what I need to do." She said quietly. There was honesty in that, certainly. But no emotion. Not a longing for, but a longing to be without.
        He looked her over seriously. Years ago he'd thought for sure she was dead. She'd been hiding for a while. That's how she'd wound up where she was, coming from a job as a "corporate assassin" as it were, moving to personal bodyguard. He'd been so glad to have her back in his life, when she finally contacted him from the very ship they were sitting on.
        Obviously intending not to meet his eyes, he lightly drew his finger along her neck to lift her chin. "I didn't know it was killing you, Jack."
        A very unexpected thing happened. A sudden moisture had entered her eyes with his words. But that was ridiculous. She hadn't cried since... well, since long before she could remember. Crying was weakness. Crying was feminine. She didn't want to be either, really.
        She cleared her throat, cleared her thoughts, and regained her absoluteness. "Just tickin' me off, Ki." Her voice wasn't as steady as she'd have liked, but it served.
        He placed both hands heavily on her shoulders and turned her body so that there was no reason that she shouldn't be facing him. "You're fighting for a cause you don't support, and protecting the life of a woman that represents so much of what you hate. Not to mention the fact that you hate her. You have to get out."
        A surprising anger erupted in her, but she continued to control her voice to the best of her ability, hands still holding her in place or not. "And do what, Ki?"
        "Anything else," He answered firmly. "Go study somewhere, or just get another name, another place and live there in seclusion for a while until you know what you'd rather have."
        It sounded so good. It really, really did. But she had seriously fucked herself over by being a corporate assassin in the first place.

        There had been very little more conversation along those lines for the rest of the day. Ki knew he'd made his point and that he needed to give Jack her space; she knew that he would do so. It wasn't that she was trying to forget the subject, or even run away from it. But she did need another focus for a while.
        The two of them wandered around the ship, enjoying each others' smart-assed commentary. It'd been a while since they'd gotten some freedom together, away from Astrid. They were going to enjoy every second they had together. Poor Julian, though. He'd have to put up with that woman all by himself.
        They merely talked about old times, making crude inside jokes, and generally being their bothersome selves for anyone that may have been watching.  Chances were slim that anyone bothered to stick around after they'd seen them coming, of course. Couldn't say they minded. It always felt like them against the world; why should adulthood make them any different?
        Of course, right as they were about to make their way to finally get something to eat, the raid siren began to blare. "Oh great." Jack sighed deeply.
        Ki'ehr had never actually been there during a so-called "raid", but she'd given him enough descriptions. He couldn't say he was all that worried. "Well, where would you like me?"
        She gave him a teasing smirk before answering seriously. "Better stay in your guest quarters until this blows over."
        "Aw, that's no fun." He prodded.
        "On the very off chance these guys have guns, you're better off out of the way." She warned, tapping a panel right before the lift. Instantly the raid area appeared on screen. Just a couple of floors up, one of the docking bays. Nothing new or unusual about that. Time for another great bloody "battle" with mountain men in space.
        "I'll watch from the rafters." Ki offered.
        "What makes you want to watch so badly?" she asked, stepping into the lift and holding the door open for him. Hell, she already knew that he'd won his way. He was good at that.
        "Just want to see you in action, babe." He tipped his hat, grinning.

        They met Julian right outside the docking bay, looking like he was expecting a battle of epic proportions. Seeing how absolutely calm his partner and her friend were rather shocked him. "What are you doing? Shouldn't he find shelter?"
        "Shelter?" Jack asked nonchalantly.
        "It's a raid." Julian punctuated every word as if he were speaking to a deaf child.
        "Oh, a raid." She did her best to pretend to be frightened. It fell miraculously short, of course. She'd been through this a million times. The raiding parties were never a match for... well, anything. What, they might have a couple of hammers and some ax handles this time? No match for a couple of gunmen.
        "Aren't you worried?" Julian was astounded.
        "I've been through..." she counted in her head, "About thirty-seven 'raids'. And they've all ended the same way."
        "How's that?" her partner's adrenaline seemed to shift into pure astonishment.
        "Bumps and bruises for 'our side', all dead on the other." No remorse, no apology. "Look, if you're worried, come in after me. I've got your back, regardless. Point, shoot, blam-o." She pulled her infamous Spectre from her side and flipped the chamber open, eliciting an awed breath from Ki'ehr--he just loved that thing. He shopped for her bullet parts as if the weapon were his own dearest love. Stay back and watch, that was what he'd do. But he'd make sure to get a damn good seat for the show.
        "How can I trust you?" Julian whispered. It wasn't accusatory at all, merely a question.
        "Because I like you, Jules." She whispered back, loading bullets. "And because I'm not a traitor. I'm a Centuri Human, I was born one, and there's a damn good chance I'll die one. I'll do my job." She snapped the chamber back in and looked at him, clear in the eyes, waiting for a response.
        He met her gaze, measure for measure. There wasn't any sort of excuse or lie in her eyes, and there hadn't been any in her voice. She'd been protecting Astrid for this long. Little choice he had now, anyway. "Alright." He believed her. He honestly did. He pulled out his own gun, and they walked through the doors.
        Sure enough, there was a group of soldiers waiting in the bay. This was ridiculous enough; instead of just opening the dock doors and getting rid of the threat right away, it was procedure to wait until the raiders had actually cut through the doors and entered the fucking ship. Julian had known this in the back of his mind as protocol, but seeing it in action... he started to understand Jack's attitude toward the way the ship was run even more.
        "You, hide." She told Ki.
        He nodded, taking off to the back to find a nice, slightly higher point to view the happenings from. There were several old dock crates near the back corner that would provide all things necessary, he was certain.
        "Well?" a familiar voice came from behind them.
        Both Julian and Jack turned, stunned. It was--of all the fucking luck, all the fucking people--Lady Astrid. Out of her quarters, in the middle of a "raid", just standing behind her guards casually.
        "You shouldn't be here, Lady." Julian was the one to indicate the obvious.
        "Oh, I know." She dismissed. "But I really wanted to see this. You have a good record thus far, don't you dear?"
        Jack cringed at that name. "Thirty-seven out of thirty-seven victories. But you still shouldn't--"
        "There now, see?" Astrid looked way too impressed for it to be real. "Let's see what both of you can do. I'm in no danger."
        So you're a closet blood whore on top of everything else. Jack growled silently.
        "I highly recommend that you reconsider and leave before this starts, Lady Astrid." Julian tried one more time. "It could get dangerous."
        But in a instant of grinding steel, it was too late. The previously sealed third airlock door was fractured; instantly the other two on the outside slammed shut. Not that it mattered, since the raiding parties were always plenty small enough to fit without losing a single member. This time was no different by all outward appearances. A little over a dozen ragged men ran into the bay.
        Astrid's security team of two didn't have any more time to convince her. They turned, guns drawn, and started to move in for the kill. The rest of the soldiers would beat them down enough so that the shots would be quick and clean. If Astrid had any sense at all, she'd just follow behind them.
        Things were going well. Many of the weak pa-pings from the standard issue soldier pistols seemed to strike targets. Without ricochet, even, which was a wonder in itself. But then, something else sounded. The blast of... something certainly not standard issue. Quite frankly, it was louder. And Jack could swear that the gush of crimson, far too much to have been done by a soldier pistol, had come from a uniformed officer of their ship.
        Oh shit. These... were not mountain men in space. They weren't even pirates. This realization was crowned with another thump and shake of the ship, signaling that there was more than one ship after them now. No, these weren't your standard raiders at all.
        Another soldier screamed as his arm disintegrated in gore; these fuckers were serious. Jack let a bullet rip, tearing one of the raiders in half. She then leaned into Julian, speaking quickly. "I'll take Astrid. Split. I've got your back."
        "Okay." He responded simply, taking off to the other side of the room. Of all the times a "real" raiding party could have hit, it had to be while he was still new. But he was ready. He let a bullet of his own tear a nicely sized hole in another's chest.
        Jack kept the stunned and suddenly nearly hysterical Lady behind her, using her whole body to corral Astrid over and to the side. At least they wouldn't be out in the open, and Jack had plenty of range. She hoped Ki was getting all of this action, alright. Her eye was caught off to the side as one of the raiders pulled a sawed-off shotgun on her partner.
        A powerful, deafening whaaap-pppPOW erupted in front of Julian. The Spectre. For a moment he was startled, scared, knowing that bullet had gone right through the fallen man in front of him. But, looking down, he was completely fine, himself. Save a little blood, some splattered... bits. The uniform would need a damn good cleaning after this. None of the fact that Jack had just saved his life registered yet; he had to get to safety, first. Somewhere he could shoot from without being shot just as easily.
        Another couple of quick shots came from Jack's corner, Astrid sobbing behind her. That didn't matter. Hell, it didn't even occur to her that it was Astrid's life she was trying to save at the moment. She was utterly determined to shoot anything not in a uniform at the moment.
        The whole ship shook again, at a different angle from before. That meant yet another raider ship was trying to hack into theirs, having pierced another airlock.
        Fuck! The pain was too instantaneous to have allowed Jack to react verbally. She knew, in the scientifically clinical part of her mind that moved in fast motion and without language, that she had been wounded--but not mortally. She was still standing, still breathing, still able to turn and shoot at the asshole who had gotten a good hit on her from the side. It might have gotten a bit of a splinter off a rib, but nothing important was pierced. It sure hurt like a mother, though.
        There was a warmth all of a sudden at her right leg, and then a weight. She heard something hit the ground behind her and turned, startled by the sudden sensations--and was utterly overcome by the vision of it. It was a body behind her, that had slumped against her. But not just a body, it was--there was an arm missing, the bone sticking out of the bleeding flesh like it was somehow natural to do so. (She would later rethink that comment in the back of her mind.) Blood, the side of the face gone, most of the chest torn to shreds...
        It was Astrid. Oh, my... oh god, no... She could only stare at the body numbly. It was Astrid. There was no doubt about it. She let Astrid die. Turned for a second, only for a second to defend the girl and...
        Julian turned with the sharp wail of one of the crewmen. It was a feminine scream of horror, really. Then he saw it: Jack's face. It was... heart wrenching. An absolute picture of guilt; and he knew instantly that this was not supposed to happen. This was... this was not... not...
With a shaking hand, Jack placed her Spectre in it's rightful place, regardless of having neither safety flipped on. Even if there had been any more living raiders in the room she stood in, she'd have stayed like that and allowed herself to get shot down. No such luck, though. Julian had taken down the last one, the one that he hadn't realized had already destroyed the last Lady of Virtue... The ship shuddered again and they could hear battle calls in the other hallway...
        One of the soldiers picked up a fallen weapon and ran toward Jack. "You let Lady Astrid die!" he screamed madly.
        "Now just a fucking minute here..." Julian interjected, dashing to the scene. It was starting to look like vigilante justice before a hanging. Such a thing was unfair of that crewman to have suggested. They were both doing their best to protect Astrid, and Jack had obviously had a bullet go right through her. Back-up guards hadn't even bothered coming, regardless of that part being regulation, too. His thoughts were immediately disintegrated when a rifle butt came down on the back of his head with a gut churning "crack", and he fell in a lifeless heap.
        Jack moved to get revenge on that action, but the rifle was already cocked and pointed at her head. Even given all of her experiences, she'd never looked down the barrel of a gun before. It was... interesting. She saw the look on the man's face as he slowly began pulling the trigger: anger, madness, and absolute terror. Fear beyond fear.
        So this is it... her mind raced. What a crappy ending...
        Her vision having been completely severed by her mind's finality of it all, she only heard the shot and ducked. After a few seconds had passed in which she not only felt no pain but had not screamed or fallen to the floor, she opened her tightly closed eyes. Ki'ehr had grabbed hold of the barrel of the gun and pulled it up, then rammed it backward into the man's chest.
        Ki wasn't even bothering to duck out of the way of any more bullets. He just rushed forward, picked Jack up in his arms, and darted with all of his strength for the planetary transport vessels. The escape pods were far too obvious a choice to keep them safe.
        In a sense, it felt like eternity before they reached the safety of the small vessel bay just off to the side of the ship's hull. But really, it seemed to pass with great, blurring speed. Maybe it was the adrenaline, the moment of finality that had been torn away, disrupted. She wasn't sure. She just knew that Astrid was dead. The ship was being raided. Her job was over. But that last thought did not help. She could get away, they could escape... but somehow there was absolutely no comfort in that idea. She didn't understand exactly why until she felt Ki stumble.
        She gained her legs at that moment, leaping from his arms gracelessly and landing on one knee beside him. There was something wrong with him. He wasn't getting up. He tried to kneel, but even that failed; he collapsed onto the metal floor of the deck right before transport vessel number fourteen, gasping.
        Fuck. The very thought was too distant for her to hold on to. She crawled toward to her lifelong friend in a flash, using the shaky strength she had left to turn him onto his back, elevating his head in her lap. It was only then she noticed the bullet holes. Some must have missed her by mere inches, but she didn't remember either the sound of them whizzing past nor the tremble of avoidance. None of that mattered. Her lips moved, but she could not speak. "Ki?!"
        "It's not your fault, Jacqueline..." he gasped as the blood began pouring from his mouth. He kept moving his lips, trying to say something else, but there was only blood. At the same instant she felt the warm life empty out onto her pant legs, his lips finally stilled. Everything stopped moving, his eyes falling into a distant gaze of no emotion. His beautiful milky skin and white hair were stained forever by his own blood.
        She lost it. Absolutely, completely, lost it. She fell over his body and wept. She just lost herself to the sobs, crying until her throat hurt, until the body underneath her was cold. She didn't think of who might find her or who might see. This was not happening, this was not happening...

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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