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

        Chapter 6 - Maybe This is a Nightmare

        The comm kept beeping and she kept trying to ignore it with everything she had in her. But it was simply not working with every passing second.         Finally she responded with a blind smack of her hand against the console speaker in the bedroom. "Yes?"
        Stunned silence. Then, finally, Pheta's voice. "Captain, there is a ship requesting dock and a friendly visit."
        What remained of a hangover almost instantly disappeared with that. "What ship?"
        "It looks to be a sister ship." The defense commander responded, getting some information. "Almost the same year, roughly the same model. It's called the Durago, and according to the logs, it really is a friendly ship."
        Well, if it were a Megarle ship, chances were they'd have been invaded yet again. Raiders didn't often ask permission for a "visit", after all. "Alright.         Request a computer exchange. That completed, grant permission to dock an hour from now."
        "Yes, Captain." The comm clicked off.
        Shit. A friendly ship? Were there such things anymore? Granted it was a dangerous move, especially with the cannons out... but then, she'd personally made sure that tidbit of information was not placed in the computer logs. After it was fixed, fine--but not when they were still defenseless.
        Durago... she went over that name several times, rolling it over and inspecting it on her tongue while she cleaned up after the night before. It didn't really raise any red flags, but it was familiar. Probably in one of her philosophy readings of long ago. A name, a place, a theory, an idea... What did it matter now, though. No more thought before showering. Thought hurt, shower felt good.

        Captain Veis appeared on the bridge with about ten minutes to spare before this docking and arrival. Granted she'd showered and changed clothes, but she still looked exhausted. Walking up to Pheta with a questioning glance, she pretended to be completely awake.
        "According to their logs, they're in the same spot we are." The woman typed in a few commands to bring up a cross-section of the ship's interior.         "They've been in a few Megarle scraps with nowhere to go, themselves."
        "Any idea of what they might be looking for here?" the captain ventured carefully.
        "Their mission statement might be of value." Pheta stated, amused. She pressed a couple more keys until the motto appeared on screen in bold text: Here's to finding neat things without getting killed.
        Something seemed to click into place like a sliding puzzle. She sure as hell wished she knew what it was, though. Not dangerous, but... familiar all the same. "Well, here's hoping. Let's go get ready to meet and greet."

        There wasn't really any sort of ceremony about these sorts of things. Hell, Captain Veis, Pheta and four random members of the crew that'd been asked to walk down with them were the entire welcoming party. They stood in wait, a touch of nervousness undeniably tainting the air around them. They'd never had a friendly visit from a sister ship before, though they heard it happened sometimes. Just in case, the Spectre was still in its holster... but the captain really did hope for the best. It was alright to hope once in a while.
        The dull whine of motors hummed as the dock hall turned so that it met with the other ship. Some thumps, some squeaks, the inner door unlatching... So far, no gunshots. No banging, no shouting, no rushing of footsteps. There was nothing to signal that they might be in trouble just yet. That was nice.
        Captain Veis situated herself in a very loose at-attention pose. Hell, she had no one to impress. The last dock door ground to unlocking position, then opened--on one casually uniformed man. "Oh my god..." she breathed, the term never having gained such significance to her before. "Julian?"
        The Captain of Durago looked back at her in shock. "Jack! Fuck, Jack!"
        "No, no, don't fuck Jack." She grinned widely and stepped up to meet him. They grasped one anothers' hands tightly and merely stared. They just couldn't believe, of all the luck, in all the rules of the universe they knew... "How have you been?"
        Everyone... gawked. Stared. Elaborated awe in every feature. She had a past? She had a past where someone knew her? Where someone was only glad to see her? What was this? Her name was... Jack? Obviously not their universe.
        Julian seemed to read the looks on their faces entirely. Luckily, he understood. "We can get better aquatinted in a more... personal situation, hm?"
        Jack forced herself not to openly scoff at that.

        "So we had similar ideas after all." He grinned like a mad man over the cup.
        Jack laughed, relaxing a bit more. "I guess so. After all of that..." her face fell noticeably, "After the 'unpleasantness', I needed something to do." She sighed deeply, taking a large gulp of coffee. Looking unsatisfied, she reached under the table and added a great big dose of something obviously alcoholic.
        Julian chuckled. She hadn't changed so much, after all. Certainly not more than he had, himself. But she had a look of pain that he had never seen in her features before. A great, terrible loss. It was understandable. An entire world said it was her fault. All her fault. Their Lady died of her course. And then he had seen Ki'ehr as he was escaping himself...
        "Awake?" Jack allowed herself to let go of the past for just a moment to have a very welcomed conversation.
        Julian snapped out of his thoughts. "Not by much." He admitted. He had been deep in the recollection of the various reports he'd been going over just that morning, and remembered something about a Captain Veis having been mentioned. She was the only one he knew of, so he prodded, caution thrown to whatever wind would take it. "I hear you barely survived an attack..."
        Her voice was void of all humor, but she tried so hard to mask it with a smile or a grin; or anything else. "It was... bad. I lost a lot of people."
        He nodded. "But what about you?"
        "What about me?" she responded, genuinely curious. She didn't know where he was going with this.
        "Everything." He spread his arms out to illustrate. "Absolutely everything. I want to know everything that's happened since way back when."
        She raised an eyebrow, suddenly feeling not so talkative. "What's this about?"
        "Just curious." He took a swig of coffee and looked at the spot where she had hidden the alcohol again. "I just wanted to know. It's been..."
        "Eight years." Her voice was hallow, haunted. Regardless, she handed him the bottle she'd caught him wanting.
        He didn't so much as sniff it before dumping a good amount into his own cup and handing it back. "It's been a long time. How'd you get here?"
        "I stowed away." She answered seriously.
        So seriously he could hardly laugh at it. "Did you really?"
        She nodded sincerely. "Unfortunately I was stupid enough not to have actually brought anything along with me. No food, no supplies, nothing but what I had on me. And of all the luck, the ship's medical head found me because I fucking sneezed because I was fucking cold." In hindsight, it was amusing... but only in hindsight.
        "He didn't throw you off?" Julian returned her expression and took another gulp of coffee... which promptly put a bit of a pained look on his face.
        "I still don't know why." She admitted, thinking back. "He just sort of slipped me in here."
        "And how the living fuck did you ever reach captain?" he wanted to know desperately
        "Guess they all found out about my leadership skills." She giggled quietly.
        He nodded. "Do they call you Captain Jack?" The two of them suddenly burst into riotous laughter.
        She actually wiped tears from her eyes because of it. "No. They don't know me as anything but Captain Veis."
        "'Veis'?" he questioned, taking a much smaller sip of coffee.
        "It was a place I'd wanted to run off to, a long time ago. Never got there. So I took the name." She explained, chasing the words with another gulp.
        "I take it they don't know anything about your past." He didn't know for certain, but that's how it had seemed. The crew looked like their entire lives had been shattered when they saw him talking to her like he knew her.
        She sneered just a little. "They don't know a damn thing. You could be my father for all they know."
        "I didn't age that much in eight years." He felt like grinning... but somehow he just couldn't make it. There was something under her statement that had bitten at him.
        "Well, the medical head knew. Since he was the one that found me and all. Charles. I called him Chucky. He just loved that." She paused to do her best to smile sarcastically. "But... he's dead, too."
        He felt a cold bolt run through his body. Everyone she knew was dead. Except for him. Everyone she had ever gotten close to was dead. That must seriously suck... "I won a card game." He stated simply.
        "To..?" she wasn't following his line of thought.
        "Oh, sorry." He waved his hand. "To be captain. I won a card game."
        Jack laughed heartily. He had changed, indeed. "Just goes to show how fucking nonsense this all is."
        He found himself a little surprised at that. She was captain, after all. Captain of a ship that supposedly did it's best to fight off "the invaders". Like they were some video game monsters that got shot down to give you life and points and special bonuses. It was ridiculous to try, yes, but... being captain, one would think someone might retain a little faith in the human race. A little purpose, at least. Her lack of such was easy to understand, though. "Shall we join forces?" he offered delicately.
        She seemed to choke on her booze-laiden caffeine jolt for a moment. "And what? Be a fleet of two?" Despite the harsh tone, there was a hopeful glimmer in her eyes and a true smile at the corners of her mouth.
        "What the hell?" he said, raising his cup. "What more do we have to lose?"
        She sat back and released her cup for a moment. "You're right, I think. How much crew do you have?"
        "Thirty-five people." He grinned idiotically. They both laughed again.
        There was a long moment of silence after that. It wasn't at all uncomfortable; in fact, it happened quite naturally. Comfortably. Almost as though they'd never been split up in the first place.
        At last, Jack looked up with the faintest sign of tears in her eyes. "It's nice to see you again."
        Julian felt a piece of his heart torn. She looked so lost and so... so awful... but happy at the same time. It was a bitter kind of happy, though, one that was scarred with its own intense kind of sadness and remorse... regret. She looked so ungodly pained that he reached across the table and took her hand; something neither of them would have ever done in any other situation. But, there had been change. Everything is going to be okay from here on out, he wanted to say. He wanted to... but he couldn't. He was just as hopeless as she was. "It's nice to see you, too."
        He half expected her to simply take her hand away, nod and suggest another subject. But she left her hand there for a number of seconds, eyes cast downward, thinking. Or maybe just enjoying the silence, it was too hard to tell. At last she met his eyes again, this time with a drastically serious sincerity.         "I should have come back."
        "Hm?" he replied, not quite certain he understood.
        "I should have come back to check on you." She said with a daunting, unemotional tone. "Not that it matters now, I suppose, but... I assumed you were dead."
        "I assumed the same for you, after I saw Ki'ehr..." was what wound up coming out. He wasn't certain he should have said that. Or at least put it that way.
        "Mmm." Was her only response. Her hand was still in his grasp, and for some reason she chose that moment to be surprised about it. She hadn't received comfort of any kind in eight years. Possibly a little more than that. It's not that everyone on the ship was cold to her, but she knew immediately that they were not... quite her kind of people. Nex was close, and he tried, but... look at where that had landed him. Pheta was devious and loyal to her captain, but generally kept her distance from everyone. Jack simply wasn't as riled and ready to fight blindly as the others were. Nor were they as open as she was in some ways. It was just easier to accept the situation and move on.
        Julian stared back, wondering what was going on in there, in her mysterious head. He wasn't certain he ever wanted to know, when they'd served together. As short a time as it had been, he'd gotten a feel for her. Now, it was either totally different, or completely hidden.
        She purposely interrupted him, seeing a look in his eye she wasn't at all comfortable with. "Want to get some food?"
        He blinked, a little surprised by the sudden idea. "Uh... sure." A moment of finally uncomfortable silence passed, and it was threatening. He needed to break it immediately. "Are you sure you won't mind the crew seeing us together?"
        It drew a grin out of both of them. "Nah." She responded. "Let's just keep telling them we're related. Only every time someone asks, we'll give them a different answer. Cousins. Brother and sister. Both. Whatever works on the old rumor mill."

        The two sister ships had been temporarily bound together so that the crew was free to go back and forth between them. Hell, they both needed a little internal repair, and it was only a friendly exchange of all of the resources they had. Until they got into a port to get the proper equipment, it would have to be a temporary binding, anyway. The dock halls were just not strong enough to keep the ships together upon acceleration. Sad, but that was technology--or lack thereof.
        Since the cafeteria on the Sefirot was exactly twenty square feet larger than the one on the Durago, Julian made the suggestion to his crew to move all of the food into that one to eat and share. Jack thought it a damn good thing she'd hidden away a small stock of beer from the last port. It was enough for both crews, she was sure, but not to the point where hers normally enjoyed it. Usually half of the ship would get piss drunk first, and whenever all of their hangovers were gone to the point where they could take over their posts again, the other half would do the same. This time there probably wouldn't be any drunkenness, but at least everyone got some enjoyment out of the situation.
        "Shit. Is that meat?" Julian pointed discreetly at a dish as he passed by with his tray.
        "Close enough." Jack answered, getting a big scoop full of something that at the very least resembled a meatball soup. She made it a point never to ask what anything actually was. As long as it was food and she could eat it.
        He was starting to consider her outlook on things as his stomach growled. "We've been living on bread."
        "Bread? Bring it over! They'll go good together!" she joked, glad to be able to do so so easily. They hadn't had bread--real bread, with yeast, that was baked--in... she didn't care to estimate exactly how long. Grabbing a piece of something resembling corn as much as could be expected for reconstituted food, she lead him over to the captain's table. In reality, it was like any other table, except for the fact that she and the bridge crew sat there.
        "Comfy." He commented, noticing that none of the metal chairs had cushions.
        "Yeah." She admitted while trying to seat herself in such a way that she would still be able to feel her ass when she was done. "We, uh... had to sell the cushions a few months ago."
        He couldn't help but laugh at that. "I hear you. We sold all of our cannon parts. Except the outside shell, that is. So at least we look dangerous."
        They both broke into laughter again, causing a few of the crew members at tables around them to stare as though they both belonged in an institution. Hell, maybe they did. Jack tried to calm the fit of laughing with a little of the soup. "Ours is broken, completely. I don't even remember what part it needs anymore."
        "The Tree of Life." He suddenly recalled where her ship's name came from. Hell, how could he have possibly not have remembered? "Ten Sefirots, right?"
        "That's right. And Durago is from..?"
        He leaned in to whisper. "I take it you remember Drawing of The Sephirot."
        She nodded. "It's been about ten years since I've read it, though. Doesn't really... click."
        "Damn." He smiled, pulling back. "When I leafed through your copy, that was the only word that stuck with me. A name, but... I don't know of what."
        Jack raised her glass of purified water. "A toast, then. To blissful ignorance."
        He grinned, only glad to meet her cup with his own. "Hear hear."
        "Captain Veis." Came the page from behind her.
        She knew it was the new navigator right away by the tone of his voice, alone. He had a way of being completely accepting and yet completely unsatisfied at once. It was annoying... but he was pretty good. Not Nex, but pretty good. "Yes?" she barely turned an eye to him.
        "Doctor Carn wished to inform you of the wounded crew status."
        "Wounded crew status." She went over in her mind with an internal laugh. You mean Nex, dammit. "Yes?" she asked again, quieter.
        "He needs you personally sometime this evening."
        "Thank you." Jack released him flatly. After she was certain he was out of earshot, she let a sigh go and turned back to the meal at hand. It was about Nex, alright. He was probably slipping. Or worse, had already slipped and was hanging by that artificial thread she so hated to think she might hang by some day. Were there such a thing as a soul, that must be awful.
        Julian read the look across her face skillfully. "Would you like to go now? I can probably handle--"
        "No." She barely spoke above a whisper. She had been looking down at her food, but then her eyes darted up to meet his for just a moment. "Not yet. If you don't mind."
        He didn't. He'd missed her and he liked her company--especially since he'd actually come to appreciate it. "Of course not." He didn't prod, but he knew he didn't need to. There wasn't need, or reason. She would tell him when she was ready, and he didn't mind. It was... kind of surreal, that way. So, instead of conversation, he settled upon his own soup, hoping at least some of that stuff was real meat. He didn't care to know for sure.
        It was so weird to be eating with someone. Well, she'd often eaten with Pheta, but the defense commander was usually so quiet and focused on other matters that it was like eating with no one at all. Julian, on the other hand, usually ate with his navigator; a very quiet man by nature, not usually one to carry on a conversation, let alone speak at all unless to answer a question. Nice guy, though.
        Well, speak of the devil. He saw Vesta walk by the soup with a tray of his own and waved him over. It might make Jack feel a little better. Or go completely insane. Either way, it might be good for her. "Don't worry." He assured as she noticed his hand movement. "Vesta is a good one."
        Captain Veis looked over to see who he was inviting. She recognized him as a Mohar Vi Tiat, just like Ki'ehr. Only Vesta had several crimson streaks through his snowy hair, signaling that he was a Breeder (capable of procreation). She wanted to ask if those were natural streaks or not, but how rude would that be? Instead, she stood out of politeness and greeted him with a nod. "It's been a long time since I've seen a Mohat."
        The Durago's navigator nodded deeply and slowly, a genuine greeting. "So I hear." He responded quietly.
        Jack shot a look at Julian, who only smiled back uncomfortably. He looked like he wanted to hit his navigator, but was merely too polite to do so in front of "a lady".
        Vesta got the hint quickly. "Yes, well... I'll leave you two alone."
        As the man bowed and walked quite a few tables down, Jack continued to stare at her old partner as she sat again. "Telling tales, are we?" she joked.
        "It came up." He covered, his head spinning quickly with ways to divert the conversation. "He's good, though."
        Just as she had opened her mouth to make some kind of sarcastic remark, her personal pager beeped. She sighed deeply, waiting several rings before she finally pulled it from her pocket and hit the button. "One question first. Is this important?"
        "Very." Pheta's voice assured.
        Jack sighed again. "Okay. Go on."
        "Readings indicate a Solanid just around the next planet."
        The two captains shared a look. Solanids were fucking bad news. Especially when full grown. And don't even mention the concept of a Solanid pregnancy. If just one got into your ship... "This far out?"
        "Dead ships around, more than likely." Pheta warned. "But I think it's just one in particular. We aren't picking up any more readings at all. And it doesn't appear to have reached beyond its third pod stage yet."
        Captain Veis gently rubbed her forehead with her fingertips for a moment. She was trying to remain relatively collected. "Okay. Uh... hold on a second." She hit the hold button and leaned into Julian. "Want to come with me and blast it to hell?"
        "You're going?" he was utterly shocked.
        "I still have the Spectre." She assured him. "And that's just about the only thing short of a good skull crush that'll take one of those out. Besides, I'm in for an adventure."
        Julian's jaw went slack for a moment. Was she serious? Was she really insanely stupidly serious about that? An adventure? After losing that much of the crew? After what they'd talked about and everything? "Sure. I'll come." Wait--did he just say that? Out loud?
        The grin on her face was actually very well worth the split second loss of mental capacity altogether. She pressed the button again. "Pheta, arrange the Black Albatross for docking. This is strictly a two captain issue."
        Complete silence on the other end. Absolute and complete silence. The whole bridge had heard that, and were struck just as dumb as Julian had been. Finally, Pheta's voice responded in a near-delicate squeak. "Yes, Captain."
        "Forget blissful ignorance." Captain DeVeirna raised his glass again. "Here's to idiocy in all it's forms."
        "To idiocy." Jack returned with a clink. Whatever the doctor had wanted would have to wait until they returned. In a way, she was very much glad for that. "Better stop eating now, though. The Black Albatross can be... a little bumpy at times."

        It took less than an hour for the remaining technical crew to get what was affectionately named the Black Albatross ready for a docking procedure. Not bad, considering it usually took a full tech crew nearly as long. It was really the only vessel capable of landing they had (the other pods having funded slightly more important things like food), and was the easiest to dock. That wasn't saying much at all. Captain Veis had grown fond of the black sheep, though. Only twenty of its kind where ever made, and all but two were purposely destroyed and stripped for parts. The other one blew up somehow. Speculation was that it was spontaneous and due to a wiring problem, but... well, she was willing to take that risk.
        "I really do feel like an idiot." Julian admitted, trying to find a seat belt. Hell, there were only four seats in the whole damn shuttle--two front, two back. And the two in the back were really more like small benches.
        "You'll have to ride shotgun." Jack commented offhand, getting specs on the panel together for the trip. "These are the only two left with harnesses."
"Harnesses?" he repeated. "It's old enough to need harnesses?"
        "Even if it weren't, they're the smarter choice." She glanced at him with a look that was far from comforting. "Don't worry about it. The ship likes me."
        "No comment." He grinned, sitting at her side. It was less of a harness than it was a harness system. Belt after belt crisscrossed, but he dared not let one go without being locked firmly around his body.
        Flipping a line of switches in sequence, the door to the bay began to close. A moment later, all lights dimmed but the ones required to run in the cabin. Another three switches, and the engines began to hum. The satellite boosters turned outward, and the track underneath pressed them forward. "All you need to do is hang on." She assured him, having spotted his already white knuckles.
        "That won't be a problem." He assured her, seeing the other bay door open into the star field. Slightly below them and to the side was a small planet, rotating near which was the ship with the Solanid. There was just enough time in the trip to get insanely nervous, he calculated.
        "You ready?" she asked with her hands already tight around the controls.
        "No." He answered honestly. "But let's go."
        The last flip of the switch--and it was as if someone had shoved them from behind, right over the edge of the universe. The boosters blasted off just once with a hiss, and they sailed easily into the gravity of the planet. "See? No big deal." She attempted to reassure him.
        "Sure, not now." He agreed, letting the wonder of actually being able to view the outside as they traveled through it take over. The simple fact that the vessel contained windows identified its age. "It's when we get on the other ship that I can worry."
        "Exactly." Jack joked, giving the back left booster a little on/off tap. It was just easier to align yourself the first time. The act of missing and going around a ship with the Black Albatross... was not fun. She gave the communicator a try. "Pheta?"
        A little static. Then a voice. "Yes, Captain?"
        "Do you have stats for the dock conditions?" They were just coming upon the edge of said ship, turning slowly. Very slowly. That could be an indication that it was a very recently dead ship--that the Solanid just had a fresh meal and possibly many more in storage.
        "Yes, Captain Veis." The commander brought up the information quickly through the connected monitor. "It's intact save for an already isolated breech in an unused engine sector. Oxygen will last for at least seventy-two hours, temperature is a little above normal for a ship of its size. Safe to board, but look out for a Solanid in the third level quarters-section."
        Jack took a deep breath. "Thank you, Pheta." She tapped the communicator off, taking a quick look at the ship's cross section. "Third level dock, then?"
        Julian took several seconds to answer her. "If you insist."
        She only smiled deviously, rotating the boosters and taking hold of the controls again. From where they were, she could just make out the dock they were aiming for. As long as they were more or less in line, she could let the auto pilot do the work. Being that it was an old model ship, though, things had to be just right. This usually proved to be the most frustrating part of flying the bird.
        Her companion looked over at her in amusement, strangely enough. He saw the careful adjustments she was making, the absolute concentration on her face. Finally, at long last, she flipped the last switch on the board and let it ride itself into the dock, completely releasing the controls and looking over. "Yes?"
        He shook his head, but his expression didn't change. After another moment of her staring back, he finally spoke up. "I just never thought of you as the... patient, delicate type. The type to maneuver a ship without, y'know..."
        "Crashing it into anything?" she added a little fuel to the fire.
        "That'd be what I was aiming for." He chuckled at her deadpan bluntness.
        "Well, it might feel like that's what's happening when we surge for dock." There was a touch of vindictiveness in her voice and a wry grin across her lips.
        Julian's knuckles began to bleed of color again. "I hope that delicate nature holds up."
        With a sudden jolt, he understood what she meant. The Black Albatross was an older ship; it required almost a full-force blast of the boosters so that it's door and the outside dock door actually connected, as it had no arms of its own to hold on with. Given enough of a ram, it merely slid ancient connectors into place so that they were safely hanging off of the door. It was still a bit of a scary thought, being saved from the eruption of outer space only by a few layers of metal that may or may not stay connected... he instantly began thinking of other things. Anything else.
        A series of quick metal clicks ensued. "Alright." Jack finalized, unstrapping herself from the seat. "Let's go kill the little fucker."
        "I hope it is a little fucker." He voiced, fumbling with his own straps. He wished he'd paid a little more attention when he was buckling them into place. But then, to hell with it. He pulled each and every buckle clip and let the straps fall where they may. He'd figure out how to belt himself back in later. Standing, he checked his pistol. It was still habit to make sure all bullets were in, all parts were in tact.
        Jack hesitated only long enough to realize that it was the same gun he'd always had, the standard-issue Storta. What comfort she found in that, she didn't really know. Not that it mattered--comfort was comfort. She pulled her cherished Spectre and flipped the first safety off, then initiated the emergency opening sequence in the door panel.
        Quite a thing to see that beauty of a weapon again. He didn't doubt that she'd have kept it at her side regardless of what happened, but it was just nice to know it was still there. It was like old times. Only better. At least, he hoped so.
        The dock door gasped open, as did the bird's door. No sucking out into space, no immediate bleeding, no strange feeling of being baked from the inside out. It seemed they were safe for the time being. Taking that under advisement, Jack lead the way down into the dock hall until they reached the other door. With another sequence of buttons on the inside panel, the door behind them ground shut.
        This was always the creepiest, most nerve-wracking time for Julian--this pause. The hallway needed time to compress a little. Not very much, more like ten seconds or so, but... it was always a long damn ten seconds. Your life could seriously pass before your eyes in that time, pictures of being trapped in an air lock that may or may not be entirely locked, the possibilities of a vacuum or simply a lack of air or--
        The panel beeped a friendly electronic greeting as the door slid open easily. Both of them took a slight breath of relief at that moment. Regardless of technological advancement, plenty could go wrong due to simple human error... or old technology in the mix.
        It was little surprise that they'd stepped onto a completely abandoned docking bay. All lights were on, all panels were up and running. It was actually quite eerie due to the fact that everything looked perfectly intact--only, without any people. Weapons in hand, they made their way out into the main hallway and discovered more of the same: all lights on, all panels working, but no sign of life at all. No sound, no motion.
        Jack felt she had to whisper for just that reason. "Quarters, then?"
        What, he was expected to agree with her? But that is what they'd come for. And if they didn't eradicate this threat right now, it just might live to threaten both of their ships. He only nodded and followed, both hands tight around his pistol. He'd only been witness to the execution of three Solanids; two babies, one in its second pod stage. The babies were hard to catch, let alone kill. The older one... he shivered just thinking about it and resigned himself merely to follow.
        Rounding a corner in the third deck main hallway, they found the cafeteria. As if they weren't already creeped out enough... Several plates of food lay untouched. Stranger still, there were three trays that laid on the floor; only one of those had been tipped over. Something disturbingly sudden had happened, alright. The crew didn't have a chance. And by the look of the trays, it was a small crew on top of that. Could have been merely a porter ship, in which case they could more or less ransack it for supplies after they took care of the threat. They hoped.
        A little further down lay an auditorium/gathering room of sorts. They didn't actually need to wander it to know they'd find no sign of life. Call it morbid fascination, though. They needed to cross the room anyway if they wanted to get to the quarters area faster.
        Actually opening the door of the running crew's sleeping area was when the more obvious signs began to appear. Several of the mattresses had been ripped the hell apart, deep claw marks even slicing through the steel underneath. "Looks to be first or second podling." Jack suggested quietly.
        Julian would rather have not thought about that. By the look of things, only a few of the people had actually put up a fight. The rest were probably still sleeping or fucking catatonic. By the sheer amount of blood, it didn't take long for the Solanid to decimate the whole room.
        It was even less likely that the thing was just a baby when they came upon the rest of the crew quarters. It was certainly a typical transport vessel, of both people and goods by the layout. That meant most rooms held from four to a dozen people. Looking at the damage, it appeared just about everyone was in bed at the time the creature began its killing spree--not pretty at all. By the time they were wandering around, the little thing could have gotten into the mechanical access spaces with its huge new cache to feed until its next pod phase.
        Jack sighed at that thought. She pulled the little communication device from her pocket and turned it on. A moment later, Pheta responded to the silent page. "Is everything alright, Captain?"
        "So far so good." She answered as honestly as she could manage. "We need specifics on its location, though."
        "That's pretty hard from here." The woman warned. "But... from the readings I'm getting, it's right beneath you."
        Great. "Thanks, Pheta. I'll let you know." Captain Veis put the device back in her pocket and stared down at the floor as if she could see through it.  "Probably all comfy in the dark already."
        "And we're going to go down there, aren't we?" Of course, Julian knew the answer to that. But he didn't really want to.
        "Only if the emergency lights work." Jack admitted. "Otherwise... I'm sure as hell not wandering with nothing but a fucking flashlight."
        At least that reassured him... a little bit. She didn't want to go wandering into rarely used metal tubes, either.

        They located the nearest hatch easily--by having accidentally tripped over it while wandering back from where they'd come from. At least that part was easy. Finding the panel that contained controls for the hatch, emergency lights and flashlights was easy as well. It was opening said panel that took some doing. It seemed that there were certain parts of the ship that weren't as looked after as they should have been. The necessary panel was included in that classification, being sealed shut with rust. Jack carefully ran the blade of her Spectre over it again and again, trying hard not to cut any important wires that might be right below the surface. After a while, though, their patience ran out. A few good, swift kicks from both got it opening.
        Well, the dented panel cover was of no use, so they simply left it on the ground where it had fallen. A couple of switches later and the below deck generator audibly fired up to light the passages underneath them. The flashlights worked well, so they took those--but they decided to leave the ration packs. There seemed little more... frighteningly suspicious than to find rations there. Worrisome, to say the least.
        "Ladies first." Julian insisted.
        Jack smirked. "Considering there are none of those around here, I suppose I'll go first." That got a chuckle out of him as she descended carefully, testing each metal wrung before putting her full weight on them. The solid metal floor was quite a bit further than she'd pictured it, but she reached it safely all the same. Taking a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, she carefully inspected the area before calling up, "Alright. Get your ass down here."
        "Yes sir!" came the sarcastic reply. Even though she had tested every individual foothold, he found himself taking just as careful steps.
        "Don't trust me?" she teased, flipping on her flashlight to take another sweep of the area. From there, there was only one tunnel, so... that was obviously where they were headed.
        "I don't trust any ship that has rations next to flashlights." He responded seriously, taking her lead and illuminating the other side of the small chamber.         While the smoky, reflective metal walls were supposed to bounce the small and far-spaced dim emergency lights back and forth, they really did nothing more than make them feel creeped out. They didn't enhance the light so much as just reflected where the lights were located. Not very helpful, clearly.
        At least they had flashlights. Jack took a deep breath, finding herself taking the front position. "Pistol ready?"
        "And trigger happy." He assured.
        "Then maybe you ought to be leading." She joked distractedly, noting a few interesting little scratch marks to the right. "I'm afraid we're probably on the right track."
        Softly, Julian pulled his pistol once again from its hiding place. Just in case, at least one of them should have a weapon drawn as they were walking.         Continuing down the increasingly claustrophobic tunnel, they spotted yet more small scratching marks in the metal, but nothing else. No blood, no remains of any sort; just seemingly random scratches. Regardless, those scratches got increasingly deeper. This fucker had claws. At least that probably meant it hadn't gone beyond it's third pod stage and developed acid venom it was capable of spitting thirty feet. Hey, that was a good thing.
        A "T" fork in the tunnel forced them to stop and take stock of the situation. On either side and in both tunnels were wide, deep scratches. Jack got a chill and prayed that the little monster wasn't actually intelligent, just desperate. Had it actually planned for confusion so it could attack from behind... she forced herself to stop thinking about it.
        "Flip a coin?" Julian whispered behind her, the same thought having nearly strangled him.
        A chitter. A sudden, unique chitter that sounded like little more than someone tapping their fingernails only once in another room--but it was enough. It had come from the right tunnel. Be it a trap or a mistake, there was something to the right. Jack flashed the light down the tunnel and noticed that it curved too much to be able to look all the way down it. Her chest tightened. "Ready?"
        He didn't really feel like lying, so he didn't say anything. Instead, he clicked his safety off and drew one step closer.
        Taking that as as much of an answer as he could give, she lead the way. Each step made her muscles ache with adrenaline, her heart trying its best not to explode with every slight turn of the enclosed tunnel. The feeling of being trapped, of being buried in a little metal tube was jutting into the back of her thoughts, trying to slash through to the forefront--but she would not let it. If she did, then it was all over. If she let that happen, then it was--
        "Oh fuck." Her mouth moved, her breath rushed--but the words didn't really come out. Three fire orange eyes stared back at her from around the next curve, the flashlight beam making the pupils almost invisible. Then she saw the thing's feelers extend from its "mouth"... it was enough to send just about anyone screaming in the other direction.
        Julian, having paused only long enough to remind himself that pausing would get them both killed, aimed for the head--but it had seen the movement.         Instead of dashing away as just about any "normal" animal might, it darted toward him on eight thick, almost arachnid-like legs. The sheer speed of its movement was a distraction, Jack unable to find it with the light for just a split second in time.
        That was too long, though. Julian fired twice, both bullets missing their mark. The thing leapt like an insect, extending the long reptilian toes that had previously been pointed as leg extensions. At the end of each toe was a claw, and that fact was all too clearly realized.
        Julian hadn't really felt it happen; only the hot wetness of the blood running down his cheek. Out of shock and instinct, he pressed a palm against the fresh wound and fired again. The bullet struck one of its legs, sending a gloopy purple jet squirting seconds before the leg automatically detached itself.
        This time, the little fucker had other plans. Even as it was attacking its first prey, it saw everything else with its other two eyes; light was the enemy, and the one holding the light looked like a good target. In the instant it leapt toward her, it realized the light was less dangerous than the glinting thing in her hand--it slashed instantly for the arm that held the weapon.
        The claws momentarily rendered her hand useless, the Spectre dropping with a loud clunk. She cursed and dropped the flashlight strategically before the pain could cloud her thoughts, keeping her eyes on the Solanid that was still looking at her with a hungry orange gaze. The light from the floor was enough--she surprised the hell out of the creature by advancing on it.
        She grasped the thing around it's slender neck with her good hand and threw it down; unfortunately, several of its claws found their marks yet further into her already injured arm. It was torn completely open and bleeding, as were several slices in her other arm and across the sides of her ribs from where the creature had desperately tried to thrash away, but she didn't let a bit of that slow her down. She just brought her steel-toed foot down hard on the little bastard's head, again and again until it cracked, crunched, then ceased to move. Only when all of the limbs lay around its body, detached and useless, was she certain it was dead.
        Seeing that the thing was finally crushed to death, skull and all, she hissed and grasped her arm instinctively. It was bad, very bad. Blood poured in thick streams over her hand and to the floor from what looked like the raw, butchered limb of a farm animal. She could smell it, the red liquid almost black in the dim hall, and it became that much worse in her mind. Somewhere back in there, she'd hoped for shock just so the blood would stop flowing so fast.         She could easily be dead in minutes, and the pain was starting to fuzz her edges of awareness.
        Luckily, she'd had experience. And, with further luck, the pants she had on were fucking cheap anyway. She ripped a leg off with her working hand, pulled it over her boot and wrapped the wound as tightly as she could. It would help, but she'd have to get serious medical attention soon.
        It had all happened so fast, so suddenly, that Julian was still standing across from her, eyes wide. The pain was just beginning to hit, and he realized with dread that she must have taken most of the damage. Well then, maybe he wouldn't be so bad. As she looked at him in appraising silence, he pulled his blood-soaked hand from his cheek and looked to her for a reaction. She'd know how bad it was. She'd had plenty of experience, he was sure.
        Jack shrieked. She hadn't meant to, really, but it just sort of came out. She had fully expected to see bone under the blood, possibly dangling muscle and such. But not metal. Not gleaming silver metal.
        "J-Jack?" he whispered, her reaction beginning to spread through him as well. Why had she screamed? She'd seen so much more, and had just been through enough to send most people off spilling their guts into a corner... "What is it?"
        She pointed her shivering hand toward one of the cloudy reflective tiles beside them. He looked over slowly, and his eyes got terribly wide. His jaw... was metal. But it went beyond that. He noticed the point at which the lower jaw and skull connected, and saw a bolt. Wires as thin as human hairs traced and swirled over and through the metal itself, and dangled like metal veins from the flesh that was carved off of him.
        A lifetime of dull science fiction novels involving artificial intelligence burned through his consciousness. It wasn't possible. That's all there was to it. Not only could he feel pain (not to mention his obvious ability to bleed), but he had a sense of self. A sense of soul. He knew he existed, and he knew he could change that existence at a whim. He could simply not be a machine. No. He'd had his blood taken before, and it was organic. Completely. Right?
What about his skin? It was real skin, it had to be. His fingernails grew. He had to rid his body of wastes as normally as anyone else. His hair grew, obviously. He had a pulse. He breathed. Sure, he didn't really bruise often, but that was no indication of anything more than strong capillaries.
        Or metal ones, that awful part of his mind that spawned nightmares whispered. He shook his head, closing his eyes tightly just to get the universe to stop spinning around him. "Give me your gun." He whispered.
        Jack just stared for a moment. "Fuck no, Julian."
        "Give me your gun." He demanded again, his voice a terrified mass of adrenaline and hatred.
        Her fear of the entire situation only intensified. Did he mean to destroy himself? Or did he mean something else? If he'd meant to kill her, he certainly had a million opportunities before.
        "I swear I won't kill myself." He calmly stated. Maybe a little too calmly. He still wouldn't look at her, though his eyes slowly opened to gaze back at his reflection.
        "And I'm a fucking Lady of Virtue." She hissed.
        "Then you can do it for me." His voice was still even, flat, and very... natural. It was agonizingly frightening. "I have to know. You have to cut me somewhere else."
        "I think you're bleeding enough." She hesitated to touch her Spectre. It did a great deal of damage either way, and the blade was always razor sharp. Even with her holding it, he could just lean forward and...
        He turned slowly toward her, stumbling a step or two closer. "Dammit, Jack, I need to know." Again, the picture of calm, though the very edge of his voice had grown gruff and demanding.
        If he was a robot (or android being the proper term, she supposed), then he couldn't kill himself... right? Wasn't that what all the sci fi books stated?         Thinking of it, she wasn't really sure. Just the thought of losing him, her only lifeline, her only... the tie to everything... "We'll find out later, Julian."
        "I have to know right now." His tone was growing a little in intensity, a sweat breaking over his face.
        "Are you going nuts or are you still with me?" she asked without making eye contact, staring down at her killing companion. The shine of wood and metal winked back, ready for just about anything. When he didn't answer, she carefully kneeled to pick it up with her good hand. She wasn't used to holding it in that hand, and it felt a hundred times heavier than it ought to.
        He was nearly ready to reach for the damn thing himself. He knew she'd be ready for that, however. She probably wouldn't hesitate to knock him out and drag him somewhere. Instead, he kneeled with her so that he could look into her eyes when he asked again. "Jack..." his nerves were fraying quickly.
        "Don't, fucking, move." She interrupted, flipping the second safety on with her thumb so that both were secure. A just in case for a just in case, how interesting. Holding it outward, finger on the trigger and pointed toward a random panel at their side, she thought about what to do next. Regardless of her entire being urging her otherwise, she tossed the weapon just an inch into the air, freeing her hand so that she could grasp it safely around the chamber.  With the barrel turned toward herself, and surrendered her weapon to him.
        He stared at the Spectre, not daring to meet her eyes again. Was this a sign of trust, or had she completely given up? Would it matter if he found out he wasn't... organic? But it mattered to him now, didn't it? Softly, he placed a shaking hand around the wooden grip and pulled ever so slightly. As Jack's fingers fell away, he felt how really heavy the artifact was. An absolute remnant of the past... maybe telltale for the future. He glanced around for the safeties but he could only find one, the other obviously secret, hidden from him. That was perhaps a smart thing.
        "Jules..." She whispered, rethinking her decision.
        He didn't look at her. "It's alright, Jack." That was all he could think of to say. He placed the Spectre in his left hand, extended his right arm, and sliced into the upper portion, inches below the shoulder. Not organic my ass, it hurts, his mind mumbled. He really couldn't believe he was cutting a chunk out of his flesh to begin with. But his nightmare was just beginning.
        She saw it too, biting her bottom lip to prevent herself from reacting to anything. No matter what she'd have done or said, it wouldn't have helped. It probably would have wound up making the situation much worse. So, she just sat back and stared. Blood, blackest red blood, poured from the wound like she'd seen from any human being. But there were more hair-thin wires woven within the flesh. As Julian carved further, teeth bared and jaw locked to keep in any sounds of pain, there was more unmistakable gleaming metal that formed bone.
        That was it, then. He wasn't organic. He wasn't human, after all. If not, then... what was he? He had organic parts, didn't he? Or did he even have that? The metal in him was obviously not merely placed inside of him when he was too young to remember... was it? And now what? Now what was to happen to him? What did Jack think of him? He couldn't lift his eyes to her gaze. He'd seen her injured arm. That was bone, real bone. But not him. He simply placed the Spectre on the floor in front of him and shuddered.
        She didn't know what to say. A word of comfort would have been nice, if she'd had one. It was just too mind blowing to really take in at once. What was he, then? And why didn't he know? Should she be afraid of him now? Well... she wasn't, and she didn't think she ever would be.
        "I have to go." He whispered suddenly.
        She couldn't think of anything to say. She had no reaction; her mind was utterly frozen to the events, those words, the pain, the loss of blood. She wasn't sure she'd even heard what he'd said, if he'd said anything.
        He didn't wait for her response. Injured but still mobile, he stood up and started to walk away from her. Too much to think about, too much going on. His mind was shutting down, focusing on just one purpose--to leave. To remove himself to a safer place so he could... so he... could... hell, he didn't know. It didn't matter. He just needed out, away.
        Somehow even with the injury she managed to catch his arm and slam him against the wall hard enough to bring bursts of white stars across his vision. Luckily he grasped hold of the moment with both hands, looking into her crazed eyes. "Do not fucking leave me, Julian."
        He wasn't quite sure how to respond to that one. She was clearly a "woman on the edge", fighting for control of her sanity. And very, very clearly... she was begging him not to abandon her like everyone else in her life had. It was selfish. It was impossible. Worst of all, it was completely understandable.
        Maybe worse still... "I won't, Jack." And he meant it.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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