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

        Chapter 5 - Some Things Never Change

        She was a hard ass, when all was said and done. But, when one was forced to admit it, she was fair. She worked everyone to the bone, far beyond what they had ever done before... but she did give them plenty of rest. And she always made sure to "hide" plenty of extras in the cafeteria. When they ventured to a station, she always somehow came up with the money or means to get the better meats and sometimes even some pretty good booze.
        The fact remained good and strong, however, that she was a hard ass. A very unfeeling, demanding, bitch of a woman. Maybe she expected too much from a crew of young upstarts that were just beginning to understand that they did not want to be a part of this universal war. Her whole attitude seemed to reek of "life is unfair, deal with it".
        She worked herself far past her own limits on several occasions, though. Sometimes the lead physician would come to the bridge and force her to "surrender", as he called it. He seemed to be the only person that had any power over her at all, and even that was fought out tooth and claw. There had been times when it appeared he had to drag her out with her heels firmly in the threadbare "carpet". When she wasn't on the bridge, the running crew joked about her drag marks.
        Nex was barely sixteen years old (and a Perupte Human, making him smaller and thinner than most), but he'd taken quite a bit of responsibility upon himself. He'd also made it his duty to find out what made his captain such a... well, bitch. At the very least, he considered it a personal challenge to get on her good side. She didn't seem to... hate him, really. She seemed to appreciate his natural skill at navigation.
        It was just venturing into late evening when he made his way quietly into the hallway where the captain's quarters was. She'd "been dismissed" from the bridge less than half an hour before, so he was relatively certain she wouldn't have any big plans or be sleeping. She was rather notorious for not sleeping for extended periods of time, anyway.
        What luck! He put on his most gentle and sincere smile (hey, he was sixteen and well past his awkward stage, he knew how to work it) as he saw the captain walk out into the hall and stare at him.
        "Nex." She somewhat greeted, surprised.
        "Captain Veis." He smiled full-on. "I'd wondered, if you weren't too busy, if I could discuss something with you later."
        She raised an eyebrow. Intriguing. She knew the kid was trying to get closer to her for some reason (it wasn't as if he could work his way up to Super Navigator or anything), but this was a very ballsy move. "Anything in particular?"
        "The Theory of Parting Realities, actually." He tried so hard not to incriminate himself.
        So you hacked into my main console to see what I've been writing... Truth be told, she wasn't angry in the least. In fact, she was impressed. He was showing... incredible initiative from a captain's point of view. But more than that, he was showing... intelligence. It'd been a while sine she'd been pleasantly surprised.
        He saw that the look on her face was not one of rage, but rather one of... pride, maybe? No, not quite. Akin to it, though. Maybe she was impressed. He beamed at the possibility.
        "Yes, I think we can do that." She chose her words and tone carefully. She wanted to keep him on edge just to see what'd he'd do.
        He still considered that success, however. He just couldn't hide that agonizingly sunny smile. "Thank you, Captain Veis." He nodded and dismissed himself, walking back down the hall and the stairs from whence he came.
        Captain Veis was left blinking into nothingness. Impressed? More like flabbergasted. But certainly not in a bad way. Hey, the kid was cute. And she knew very well that he used that to his advantage. She was only about a decade older, anyway. The thought made her grin a little as she dismissed it, going the opposite way down the hall.

        Her door buzzed half past ten at night. A little earlier than she expected, but she was ready. "Yes?" she asked, regardless of knowing for absolute certain who was standing outside.
        "It's Nex, Captain Veis." Came the stunningly innocent reply. "May I come in?"
        What a question. She stretched, rising from the place behind her console screen. She hadn't bothered to change clothes since she'd gone off duty, so she checked herself in the mirror only long enough to note she didn't have any huge rips or stains, then hit the manual panel to open the door.
        The ship's navigator stood there, perfect posture and smiling, hands behind his back but completely at ease by all other appearances. "Hello, Captain" He greeted, pouring on the charm right away.
        She really couldn't hide the amused smirk. This would more than likely prove quite interesting. She stepped aside and waved him in, closing the door behind. She only locked it out of the passing thought that she did not need rumors to start should someone spontaneously walk in. Not that anyone would, but she had enough secrets staining her hands, thank you very much.
        Nex politely waited in the middle of the main room, allowing himself a quick look. It was far from organized, regardless of how few things there were. No pictures of family or anything of the sort, no artwork. The old wooden bookshelf was pretty much the only thing distinguishing this room from any other room on the ship, and even that was only halfway full of books. What was there looked old, though. Old but well taken care of. It was all he could do at that moment to suppress the urge to rummage through them; books were a rare commodity these days. He began to understand where she went when she disappeared for hours at a time at random stations and bases.
        Captain Veis regarded him juat as closely as he was inspecting her living area. She also watched him catch a momentary glimpse of the rooms beyond the one they were in, but kept that much to herself. He was clearly perceptive whenever he was on the bridge, but this... was different. "Can I get you anything?"
        He looked back at her with that all too bright, polite smile. "I don't want to bother you..."
        "No bother." She assured honestly. Yeah, this kid had agenda. Probably nothing too serious, but he was here for a reason.
        He took the words at face value, fully aware he was being watched. That didn't surprise him. He'd watched her watching other people for months. Her perception seemed acute, as though she were certainly not born to be a captain, quite... But maybe he'd get that much out of her at a later time.  "Well... do you have tea?"
        "Caspian and Chamomile." She relaxed a little, knowing they were on equal ground now. All of that work from long ago still served her instincts well.
        "Whichever you find first." He smiled. Tea with Captain Veis. No one was going to fucking believe this. If he told them, anyway. He wasn't entirely social, despite his age and his skill at making casual friends.
        She nodded and beckoned him through the door and to the right, into the tiny little "kitchen". He wanted a look, he could get a look while she got the stovetop to work.
        He took a long glimpse into the open door on the left--the bedroom. Simplistic dark gray, regular issue blanket. But the pillowcase was sort of a cherry champaign color, and he could only assume that the sheets were the same. Interesting. The room itself was really too small for anything other than a bed, so yet more blank walls didn't really surprise him. But before he could be accused of staring, he turned back just in time to watch the captain take a good steady kick at the side of the stove. And to his surprise, the coil suddenly came on.
        "The switch doesn't work." She apologized for the sudden jolt of noise, then turned to get the tea kettle.
        Nex watched closely as she filled it with "regulation water" from the tap. It was quite the impressive piece, actually. Rather like the books, it was an old ceramic kettle with a tiny chip missing here and there, but still taken care of. "Do you collect antiques?" he ventured.
        She glanced back at him with a knowing smile. "Not as such. I just happen to find old, useful things." For slightly higher than usual prices...
        The coil successfully heated the water quickly, causing the steam to whistle out in a matter of seconds. She opened the cupboard above the sink, getting out two regular issue mugs and a small wooden box full of random tea bags. "Take your pick."
        He reached in delicately, selecting one without looking at the label. He watched as she carefully placed his selection in the bottom of one cup, hers in the other, and poured the boiling water slowly over them. With another, almost unnoticeable kick to the side of the stove, the coil instantly began to cool.
        The only other room in her quarters was the one with a regular table, so he politely took his selected mug and walked in, waiting for the captain to sit.         Since the table contained two chairs, she chose the spot across from him and made herself comfortable, watching closely but indirectly. Waiting until he sat down and cast an inviting look in her direction, she finally came out with it; herself. Her personality. She just let it go. "Cut the shit, Nex." She smiled a little. "What are you here for?"
        "Conversation." He answered honestly, easily. For some reason, he was not at all surprised that she'd been so direct. In fact, he was quite thrilled. "You're the only one that doesn't treat me like a mentally retarded grade schooler. And... I'm interested in your theory."
        "Just a mix of the Multiverse Theory and the common knowledge of the Mobius Strip with a speculative bridge." She dismissed. Hell, it was a labor of love, but it was nothing special.
        "But that in itself is interesting." He assured her seriously. "All science starts with theory."
        "If I may ask..." she let her curiosity as free as her personality, "Did you attend a school?"
        "For a few years." He admitted, gently testing the edge of the mug and deciding it was still too hot. "My parents didn't really have the money, though. I got a tudor for a year when I was twelve, but beyond that... they taught me or I taught myself."
        "Best way to learn." She commented. She remembered all of the dumb fucks she'd met who'd come from wealth and schooling and almost cringed.         Granted they weren't all that way, but... way too many of them were. Many of them had been jobs...
        He looked at her hopefully, almost expectantly. He was hoping upon hope that maybe, just maybe he'd crack a tiny piece of her shell and discover something about who she was. Everyone had a past, dammit. No one could trace hers. But no one really wanted to, except him.
        She read that look like prey might read the eyes of a predator. But Nex proved far less a threat, she understood. He was looking for a foothold, a grasping rock, a connection. And she was actually going to give him one. No one would ever believe this. But she got a feeling that no one besides the two of them would ever know to begin with. "Have you ever read Thomas Gern?"
        He searched his memory for a fraction of a second, instantly coming across the name. "Yes, I think so. There was something about Ceist Vyst..." His eyes widened just enough for her to understand his thought process--he recognized the writing style. As if his brain was a perfect computer, he cross-referenced what he'd hacked into from her console and the essay of Thomas Gern he'd read scant months earlier out of boredom.
        She let the shadow of a grin cross her face as she witnessed his reaction. That's all he'd needed. Amazing. Screw a decade age difference, she could get to be friends with a kid like this.
        "So... there really are arachnid humanoids on Ceist Vyst?" he leaned forward in utter amazement. Not that he had ever outright called the author known as Thomas Gern a liar, but... well, the fact remained that very few people knew the name, and less knew of Ceist Vyst at all. He didn't have the experience or knowledge of the person nor place to make assumptions either way.
        She intentionally made him wait as she took a sip of tea. "Yes." She assured simply.
        "And someone you know was captured?" he leaned closer, enthralled.
        The corners of her mouth rose, but she tried to suppress the expression. "In a manner of speaking--"
        "You were captured?"
        My but he caught on quickly. Riding the same wavelength, so to speak. "It's not something I go bragging about."
        "Understandably." He sat back, looking a bit shocked--but elated. Elated to have known, to have discovered and been told something about her, by her. He made a quick note in the back of his mind to see if he could use that to find anything else about her at a later time. "What point of view did you write it from, then?"
        "A nonexistent outside observer." She left it at that, taking another sip.
Nex followed suit, swallowing with a reflective look on his face. "Wow." He uttered, having been completely blown out of the water in a number of senses.
        "I'll show you the scars sometime." She felt at ease enough to joke.
        For no good reason what so ever, that very phrase had almost inspired him to blush. That hadn't been his intention, and that certainly hadn't been on his mind. But she drove it there expertly, teasing or not.
        Their moment of calm was shattered with a thud that rocked the whole ship. The mugs slid from the table and landed whole but heavily on the carpeted floor. "I knew I left the good cups in the cupboard for a reason." The captain mumbled even as she stood up. Obviously it was time to get back to the bridge. Something was happening.
        Oh fuck. Nex, opitimy of manners and good taste, thought bitterly. Just as they were getting somewhere. Hopefully it was just another band of pirates. They were easy enough to handle.
        The comm jittered a couple of beeps, the signal lost for a moment before a voice came through. "Captain! Megarle cargo ship attacking!"
        "Shit." She cursed to herself. "Coming right away. You know what to do."
        "Yes, Captain." The commander of defense signed off.
        Well, a Megarle ship, regardless of what kind, was a hell of a lot worse than just pirates. These were pirates with vendettas against all living things not on their side. Double fuck. Nex thought, disappointed. It might be a while before this conversation was picked up again.
        "And now I'm going to show you the highlight of my collection." The captain grinned, fully expecting him to follow into her bedroom.
        While gentleman's law may say otherwise, he had been invited. Still, he stood at the doorway and watched as she kneeled next to the bed. With an impatient tug, she yanked the sheets off the side of the mattress and reached into a slit that had been cut there. Out of that she pulled what looked to be a holster for a gun. Without standing up, she pulled her jacket off and strapped it on, quickly sliding the jacket back on all in a practiced move. And then she reached into the hole yet again, pulling out something wrapped in a square of real and true black velvet. The Spectre .45 glittered like a living machine in those black reaches, regardless of the sickeningly dim lighting that had just begun to grow dimmer as another shock wave shook the ship.
        Nex didn't recognize it for exactly what it was, but he knew enough. He'd never seen anything like it, and it looked like it most assuredly belonged in the past. He watched as she flipped the chamber open, checking the bullets which had laid there untouched for he didn't know how long. Satisfied, the chamber snapped back in quickly, she flipped the second safety off before seating it in the holster and stood up.
        "Impressed?" she asked with a smirk, straightening out her jacket.
        "A little." He responded, following close behind.

        They walked onto the bridge almost completely unnoticed--well, Nex was. Captain Veis got swamped by worried expressions while the navigator took his seat. If they needed to accomplish some strategic avoidance in deep space, he was the man for the job.
        The woman behind the center-back console nodded. "Captain." Defense Commander Pheta greeted shortly. "We have a sudden breech in docking bay 2."
        She flinched ever so slightly. The fucking memories... "Is that the only ship?"
        Pheta nodded quickly. "One ship, one breech."
        Ugh, what a decision to be made. But it was the only one available, really. They were just on their way to pick up parts for the cannons, of all the fucking ironic luck of the universe. They couldn't attack from outside, so... "All able bodies to docking bay 2, then. This is an official invasion and we've got to stop it now." She nodded and turned to leave herself.
        "Captain?" Pheta called after her.
        Captain Veis didn't stop walking, but she did call over her shoulder, "I am an able body, Commander. You all know what to do in the 'what if circumstances'." With one last glance at Nex, she was off to battle.

        Even as she jogged down stairs and through corridors, she could hear Pheta's announcement over the ship intercom. Well, she heard Pheta's voice, but didn't really hear the words. The words, she didn't care for. They left a bitter taste in her mouth and a dryness on her tongue, knowing that she could very well have issued orders of death of some of her crew. There were only seventy-two people on the entire ship, herself included. And she was not going to stand idly by like so many captains before her, while her crew fought and died alone. She had her Spectre--trusted, tried and true as a friend could be. Normally, she wouldn't think twice about sending her crew into battle... but lately, news of the random Megarle raids had gotten more intense. They'd managed to maintain hold of a lot more than sharp sticks.
        Meeting up with the flood of crew members making their way into the docking bay, she got a number of nods of acknowledgment. Mostly, though, there were worried looks. They all knew the possibilities. Worse, some of them knew they'd be killing their own countrymen, having joined up with the Megarle for whatever stupid reason may have come up. But this was war. And this was a strategic defense. Before this point, they'd been able to avoid seeing the faces of the enemy. But that goddamned cannon had to blow out during an asteroid run.
        Running into the bay with the rest, she wrapped her hand around the Spectre and paused, just for a moment. That baby hadn't tasted blood in eight years, give or take. So, this would be appropriate in a number of ways. She pulled, and it came like the good pet it was. Its heft was as distant as it was familiar, and in the end it felt like she'd never hidden it away at all. She checked, with a brush of her fingertips, to be sure the holster was fully loaded with bullets; of course it was. It was ready. She was ready.
        The first rush of Megarle raiders. Their weapons were more advanced than pirate's clubs and iron pipes, which was truly unfortunate. Sure there were some with swords, knives and an odd assortment of projectiles, but there were guns, too. But none of those would match up to hers. Instinct alone drove her; she lifted that Spectre and squeezed, six times, rapid succession, each one hitting a brutal mark on a different man.
        Some of the crew gawked for a moment before they truly realized their own lives were in danger. Others were too full of adrenaline and kept it in the back of their mind, to be questioned later. Captain Veis paid no mind to either of these groups of people. She merely snapped the barrel open and reloaded.
        With a quick click back in, she realized that one of the invaders had gotten far too close to her. He'd raised a knife to slash her throat, but apparently hadn't stopped to notice she was not carrying a regular gun. So, she gutted him with an almost thoughtless twist and jerk of her wrist and left him behind to move closer to the battlefield.
        Just like old times, eh? her mind whirred on its own. Only not. Not at all.
        Another quick squeeze, and another fell. Now her crew was really getting in on it, taking them down one by one. But she still heard a whimper or a cry from time to time that sucked the life out of her, little by little. Harder than she thought. Harder than it looked. Hard and cold and fast and efficient; but deadly wrong. Another couple of squeezes, a slice through a throat, squeeze, squeeze, slash, squeeze, reload.
        She backed up this time, looking for a nice spot that wasn't so out in the open. She could get some better hits and a better view on the more dangerous ones, letting her crew take out the weaker. She only had so many bullets. And it had been a long time since she'd been able to locate supplies to build any with.
        She was turning, making her move, when she felt the stab. She didn't think it such a bad wound, being able to turn and take the bastard's head off quickly. But when she turned back to climb into position, she suddenly found that things were a little more... viscous than they ought to be. Like the world had slowed just a touch for all but her, adding weight to time. She fell without knowing why or how, heaped onto her side on the ground. As she clawed at the floor with one hand, making a mad attempt to get back up, there was a hand firmly pressed against her shoulder. The ship's head physician came into her line of view; good old Chucky.
        She was obviously wounded. But it couldn't have been that bad. "Just seal me up so I can keep going, huh?" she suggested harshly.
        Charles simply shook his head. "I'm afraid you've got your guts spilling onto the floor. There's no way you can keep going. I'll have to knock you out and take you for surgery right now."
        I knew I hated you, she wanted to say. Instead, she only nodded. So that's what it felt like to have yourself turned inside out... not so bad until someone told you.
        At least the guy was quick with a needle. She barely felt it before her limbs started to get all warm and weird. She really despised having to get sedated for any reason. Then there was the thing with the blurry vision. She looked up at Charles--who she couldn't see grinning, but she knew he was because that's the kind of sadistic freak he was--and then to a form over his shoulder. She tried to open her mouth, point, warn him, but with every slow-motion moment, her mind was less and less there to begin with...

        "She's gaining consciousness." She thought she heard over the bubbles that seemed to be popping in her brain. Ugh, those drugs didn't wash away as fast as they flooded in. She wished she could have just gone in stasis clean, dammit. That damned man, what's his name... Charles...
        Chucky. Her thoughts slowly focused. An image of the last thing she'd seen passed in front of her mind, and she forced her eyes open. That had been Pheta's voice, from before. Shit. Shit, that was not a good sign at all, having your Commander of Defense next to you as you woke up. "Report, Pheta." She ground out roughly, trying to shake off the nausea.
        "You are fine." The commander assured first. "But... we lost twenty-three crewmen."
        She didn't bother to hold in that groan. "Was Chucky part of that list?"
        "I'm afraid so." Pheta answered, perhaps a touch timidly. Out of their four-person medical staff, Charles had been the most practiced and well versed. They'd need to grab another or get some more training for the rest.
        "And wounded?" the captain slowly sat herself up, trying to ignore the headache it brought on. In truth, she didn't want the answer. But she knew she needed to ask the question, at least.
        "Thirteen wounded, only seven seriously." She tried to be reassuring. "The navigator, however..."
        The captain felt her chest tighten to the point where she thought, for a split second in time, she would implode. Nex. Something happened to Nex.
        Pheta saw the silent reaction, but continued. "He is currently in a coma."
        Captain Veis tried very hard to retain herself. "How did that happen?"
        Pheta looked down for only a moment, guiltily. "He insisted he was an able body, Captain. I didn't think to stop him..."
        "It's not your doing, Commander." She assured with all the conviction she had in her... which wasn't really all that much. "How... bad is it?"
        The defense commander looked to the side, having the captain follow her line of vision to what looked to be a calmly sleeping Nex just a couple of cots over. "It was a pretty severe blow to the head. It... actually looks like he took it while trying to defend you." She stopped instantly on the last word, looking away as she cleared her throat. "I didn't mean for it to sound like that, Captain."
        Pheta was "one of the good ones", the captain knew. Kind of a cold bitch at times, but.. who wasn't. But for all that, there was that familiar guilt prickling the back of her thoughts like the drugs had just moments earlier. Knowing Nex was there, comatose, had pretty much instantly sobered her. "It's alright." She assured quietly. "If I'm all set, then... I'd like to go to bed now."
        Pheta nodded solemnly. "Shall we expect you on the bridge at the same time tomorrow?"
        "Maybe a little later." Captain Veis admitted. "But... yes, expect me."

        The ship's highest medical rank and twenty-two others, dead. Nex in a coma. So many wounded. Oh god. She didn't think she could take this anymore. She sighed, locking her door, cutting off all consoles. She did not want to be interrupted. She hadn't cried since Ki died... but she knew her record would be shattered tonight over a bottle of cheap scotch, New Siberian coffee, and a looping recording of "Fur Elise".

        All things were running smoothly on the Durago. A minor miracle, to say the least. The ship's captain had just sat down on the bridge to enjoy the absolute boring stillness of the night when he was startled by the voice of his communications officer.
        He opened his eyes, looking at the woman as though she'd just told him his dog was dead. "Yes?"
        "We are approaching another ship, sir. Almost the same make as this one, in fact." She responded, grabbing schematics from the ship's open log.
        That was interesting enough to actually get him to stand up and walk over, taking a look over her shoulder. "What is that ship?"
        "The Sefirot, sir." She answered, looking up momentarily from the controls.
        The captain stood there for a long time, thinking. It looked like the same sort of ship he was in charge of; old, beaten down, but still crawling by some miracle. All in all, it did not resemble an enemy. And something was quite familiar about the name. "Send permission to board, friendly meeting."

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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