DarkHorse Vendetta by Orin Drake
Chapter 8 - It's All
About the Cup Holder
just do?" he finally found his voice. The question
held neither weight nor venom, but its intent was clear enough.
She avoided everyone she possibly
could on the way to her quarters, having more or less ordered Julian
to remain in his guest room, waiting for... well, she hadn't really
figured that part out. She had only just told him to go there and
wait. That seemed the best and safest plan of action.
With a little less than delicate work of her Spectre blade, she produced another hole in her mattress at the foot of the bed. At least that way the hard drive would be protected from the weight of her body, and she didn't kick in her sleep... that she knew of. Wrapping it in an old jacket, she carefully pressed the metal box into its hiding place, then made the bed over it. Sure it was messy, but it was always messy. She wasn't used to company, so why bother?
That secured, the time had come to face Pheta. She could only run away from her all too perceptive commander of defense for so long--and, undoubtedly, the explosion on Old Centuri had been recorded. Pheta was a notorious detail freak, so if she hadn't witnessed it the first time through... it'd be in her bedtime reading material. Better to come clean now.
Upon opening the door to leave, she stopped dead in her tracks. She shouldn't have been surprised, she understood that already.
Pheta stood on the other side with her arms crossed. She'd been waiting for several minutes, knowing that door would open on its own sooner or later. "Captain."
Oh goodie. "Pheta." She tried to be as sickeningly sweet and sincere as she could. "Come in, won't you." Not a question.
Taking that as greeting enough, the commander marched inside. The instant the door was closed, she began coldly, "You decimated the last known computer archive on the planet." There was no need to ask questions; they were inferred quite loudly enough to hear.
Here goes nothing. "All of Julian's information was there. I had reason to believe it was dangerous to him and the rest of us. No information, no trail."
The woman only nodded once, as if that were a good enough explanation to keep Jack in the ship captain's line of work a little bit longer. "You should have filed a report."
"There's no one to report to, other than you." Jack tried to keep that very delicate. It may not have come out sounding that way, though. Not if the way Pheta was looking at her was any indication. "I mean, we have no organization. The best I could have done was make a ship-wide announcement. And, if you don't mind, I'd rather not involve the whole ship in... personal affairs."
At first, it seemed to the Sefirot's captain that Pheta might uncross her arms and attempt to strangle her. It was a very strong, uncharacteristic response, granted, but that's how she pictured it would go. Instead, the woman was ultimately silent for several seconds. When at last she did speak, it was a soft and shocking, "I understand, Captain."
Jack kept her jaw clenched, if only to keep it attached to her head. That was... amazingly understanding. Scary. "Thank you."
The woman nodded shortly. "I suppose you'll want to shirk your responsibilities until morning?"
That prompted a wide-eyed look from the notoriously unfazed captain--until she realized that expression on the other woman's face was an almost shy sort of smirk. She let her jaw go, just enough to speak. "That'd be great. I'll see what I can do to get you a raise.
"Thank you, Captain." She nodded once more, then walked out and away, down the hall.
Things are getting fucking weird. Jack murmured in her head. No, strike that. Just weirder. They've been weird for far too long.
Alone again, she took a moment to look back into her quarters, almost as if she were searching for a spy. She could have used someone to abuse at that point in time, if only to take the edge off this thing they called "reality". Ah well, violence would undoubtedly come later. She sighed deeply, putting her discarded uniform jacket back on. Off to see Julian. With a bitter taste in her mouth, she pondered the idea that this might well make her whole night--and not in a good way. All work and no play...
It took three buzzes to get Julian to come to the door. She was beginning to get a little frantic, until she heard the long and dragging footsteps approaching. He sounded drunk. Or tired.
As the door finally opened, he was clearly neither. His eyes were too clear for liquor, too glazed for mere fatigue. Just fear, nervous tension, and an absolute helplessness of not knowing and not quite understanding. He looked at her for a moment like he didn't even remember who she was, but the sudden recognition seemed to sober him up a little. He stepped aside and let her by.
Silence. The not quite awkward, but certainly not quite comfortable sort. Jack didn't turn around to face him, even after the door lock sounded. She wasn't sure she ought to, really. Maybe just standing, waiting, even until her legs gave out...
"So." Julian started, very quietly. "Are you in trouble?"
For a second, she felt like a kid again. She even let the dull shadow of a stubborn grin cross her face before the present hit her. She finally turned to him, but only in time to see him walk past her and to the sofa. "I thought I would be. I'd have bet you any sum of money that I was."
He sat like a tired old man: carefully and with a soft grunt. He sure as hell felt like he'd aged thirty years or so. "You mean Pheta let you slide?" he tried to maintain his sense of humor.
"Believe it or not." She responded, staying in place. There was only one freaking place to sit in the whole damn room. It was only a guest quarters, after all. He might well be a lot more comfortable in his own room on his own ship--
"Where is it?" he question lightly, his voice contrasting the astoundingly clear eye contact.
"Safe." She promised. "As safe as my Spectre ever was."
He nodded, looking more through her than at her. After a moment, he dropped his head and took a deep breath. "I really appreciate what you did. But... I don't know what the hell I'm going to do now."
"Just don't go away." Came to mind. But it's not like she ever could have said something like that. He'd get the wrong idea, firstly. And secondly... well, there was no secondly. It wasn't like that. He was just the only thing she had, in a sense. The only connection, the only real proof of memory at all--
The quiet order slapped her out of her self pity. She looked at him as though she hadn't understood the language, let alone the word.
"You look like you're about to fall over." He clarified, trying to force a polite smile. "I just thought you might want to sit. I know I have to."
Come to think of it, her legs were feeling a bit wobbly. All of this shit falling down on top of her must be getting a little heavy. As she approached, he scooted over a bit for her. It was still a small couch, though. Sitting next to him was... weird. Sitting next to anyone that close felt absolutely strange. Even on the tiny beast that was the Black Albatross, there'd been more room between them. It felt very foreign to be that so close to a living body anymore; she was so used to sitting across from everyone, being captain.
Julian remained seated next to her, hands in his lap, his head leaned forward just a little. Off thinking of other things. Of the future, the past, or the general lack of either that existed. It harkened him back to the days when he'd first met Jack, and he'd wandered over her books. There was a sad pain in his chest, realizing all of those had been destroyed long ago. Undoubtedly priceless treasures, lost forever in just one moment of--
"I should probably go." She announced softly. This was too weird. It ceased being awkward, but... it didn't quite feel like it was entirely safe to be right next to him. Not at the moment. She didn't feel unsafe in his presence, that wasn't it at all. It was just... something strange. Too much to deal with at the moment.
He looked at her with a very slight turn of his head, his whole being becoming quiet, tentative. "I, uh... I was kind of hoping you wouldn't leave. For a while."
The response she gave was utterly silent--Julian would have laughed himself stupid at it in any other circumstance. She'd never looked so fucking scared in all of her life.
"I'm not asking for that." He corrected softly. "I just... I could really use some company. Some trusted, old company."
She swallowed, feeling very little comfort in that, still. But she really didn't mind. She got the feeling he'd have done the same for her, should the tables be turned. She rather hoped they never would be, to a point. "Yeah. Alright."
"You're a pal." He joked a bit more heartily.
No tea and no kettle in the cabinets of guest quarters, they were forced to discover an old, relatively small bottle of spiced rum hidden behind the stove. It must have been there from the previous owner of the ship, or at the very least from a kind or forgetful guest.
The only bits of ceramic tableware in the entire quarters that weren't cracked or broken all to hell were two sake cups. Amusing, to say the least. Neither one of them really felt like leaving to find something else, so they made do with them like shot glasses. In the end, the rum wasn't hardly enough to make either of them drunk, but just this far of buzzed was plenty. It helped to put a blind sense of humor back into things.
They reminisced, a little. Jack shot off how much she hated Lady Astrid, and with plenty of time to have thought about it, Julian found that he agreed with most of her points. Ki'ehr came up--as a toast. As did the lives they'd left behind.
In the end, the relatively small amount of alcohol consumed, along with the general physical and emotional exhaustion, really just resulted in the severe desire to sleep. There was a sofa, and there was a bed. The two of them were sitting on the sofa, staring into the other room, wondering who would take that bed. But strangely neither of them seemed to have the motivation necessary to lift, nor walk.
Still staring into that other room, trying to summon her legs to get her to the bed before Julian even tried, she felt a sudden weight on her shoulder. Glancing over, she jerked away with the realization that it was an arm. Not only was it an arm... it was his arm.
"Surrender a little, Jack." He halfway joked, his eyelids growing particularly heavy. He neither pulled her closer, nor pulled his arm away. It was her choice, after all.
It had been a request. And, for no particular reason she could pinpoint, she felt like honoring it. Silently, she pressed a little closer to him, laying her head on his shoulder and sleepily wrapping an arm around his chest. As he leaned back into her, they fell asleep together.
Jack cringed as the hot water hit the way too damn delicate parts of her flesh. They'd have to go in for more treatment, soon. The wounds may look mostly closed, but there was obviously still some damage inside. All factors considered, the shower turned out to be incredibly short.
Toweling off, she reflected over the morning. Honestly, she'd never woken up in the arms of anyone before. Sure she and Ki had slept side by side during the times they were able to get away together as children. But... it was different, somehow. That was weird enough. Even more odd... when she'd woken up, she hadn't felt the least bit awkward. Her shoulders had been sore, her neck ached, but there wasn't any... unwelcome strangeness. No embarrassment, no uncomfortable rambling conversation. It was like they did that all the time or something.
That thought seemed to make the towel slip through her fingers. How... very unreal. The utter weirdness of everything was just freakin' climbing. Ah well. It was better than a bad, awkward sort of weird. So far so good, right?
Dressing, she quickly discovered that the good thing about drinking less was the lack of a hangover. No need for hair of the dog and standing against accusations of being an alcoholic that way. Not that she ever had been, but... she had the feeling that the day would probably come.
Julian had gone back to his ship in the meantime. She hoped everything was working out for him there. His crew actually seemed to have a little respect for him. And he didn't have anyone like Pheta to attend to. She wasn't a bad woman in the least. She was just... like an evil school mistress, sometimes.
Ah, the bridge. For being the captain of the place, she hadn't seen the bridge in an awfully long time. In fact, she got some curious looks from the regulars as though they had never expected her back. But, sliding into the slightly worn chair in the middle of everything, she felt right at home again.
Which was, of course, why Pheta walked over to her and motioned toward the mini-conference room. No words, no dirty glares, just the simple motion and silence.
Oh boy. Jack tried to slow her heartbeat down. Now I'm going to get removed or something. She turned to put another officer in charge, but it seemed there was already someone behind her who was just waiting to take up the task. Meaur was his last name, though she couldn't recall his first--she only knew his last because she'd giggled internally the first time she'd heard it, since it sounded like the sound made by a cat in heat.
Perhaps she should have felt a little offended to have been removed and replaced so quickly. That thought passed away into pure nervousness when Pheta not only locked the door behind them, but inputted a "no listen" code. Often times, people could easily communicate in and out of the off-bridge conference room, and sometimes even listen to the conversations going on there if they knew how. The room was mostly for the crew, anyway. Nothing too terribly secretive was divulged there, so it was never that much of a big deal. Just some harmless crossed wires.
Until now. She watched the commander turn slowly; but instead of having her arms crossed and a stern look on her face, her arms were almost carefully folded in front of her. While stern, she looked more... curious, than anything. That did nothing to still Jack's heart rate.
"I came by your quarters again last night to get filled in first-hand." Pheta began very softly, very tactfully. "You weren't there, as I'm certain you're aware. But I did happen to see you come out of a guest quarters with Captain DeVierna..."
Where the hell did that come from? was all that sprang to mind for a good few seconds. And then it hit her in a brilliant defensive maneuver: "Wait a minute. The guest quarters are nowhere near anything you'd be going by--"
"I just thought I'd ask, in the interest of being in charge of safety and defense," she interrupted nonchalantly, "If there was... a romance developing."
Jack... had no response. She stared, stunned, blinking occasionally. "Pheta..." she started blindly, with no conviction. "Pheta..." she started again, once more failing to get past the woman's name. As she opened her mouth again, absolutely uncertain of what may come from it, if anything, the blare of an "attention call" came from her personal communication device.
If there is a sentient creator of all of the universe, I owe it immensely. Instead of answering the device, she merely decided upon walking back out onto the bridge. After all, what was the point in talking to someone on that thing when they were clearly communicating from the other side of the door? At least it gave her enough distance from Pheta to get her heartbeat back in order.
A little annoyed with the interruption, the commander took to her station. "It's a dead ship." She announced for her replacement, who was backing away. Everyone knew not to mess with her when she had that look on her face--sometimes that meant just taking your leave while you still could. "But all of the electrical systems seem to be in order, just turned off." A few more buttons pressed, a few more screens processed. "No life signs, but no escape vessels missing."
Jack motioned for Meaur to get out of her chair as politely as possible. She was sure he'd been in it quite enough in her place. If the cushion had molded to his ass, she was going to be pissed. "Do you have a name on it?"
A ghostly silence covered the entire room like a heavy fog. Pheta had answered by using the projector to place exactly what she saw on her monitor, onto the side wall... and everyone was too stunned to react with words. There it was, a huge dead ship with unmistakable shape. But to confirm it, to make it all even more unreal, the name was written on the side in both Old Russun and Megarle texts.
The DarkHorse Nedalda. This was the ship of legends; Nedalda meant "peace keeper" in Old Russun, and "ark" in a dead language called Caprigo. It was the Old Russun Empire (composed of only two or so hundred people, really) that had tried so hard to stop the war between those of Megarle (the "new" side of the Ladies of Virtue, of Lady Astrid and the collapsed planet of Centuri) and Pordethre (those that had killed Astrid and the others). Both sides hated the Old Russuns out of principle; neither wanted to stop the war, in the end. Oh, they spoke of universal peace, but they would never practice such. In the end, it was one overbearing, paranoid government against another. Really, how long could an "empire" of two hundred really last?
This ship, this actual vessel, the DarkHorse Nedalda... was an amazing sight. It had been lost in space, so everyone had thought. Well, it had been. It still was. But they'd found it. Only the smallest of mechanical blips interrupted their awe.
"The Durago requests an audio link." The communications officer announced.
"Granted." Jack answered. Undoubtedly Julian was going to be as floored as she was.
"Do you see that, J--uh, Captain Veis?" his voice came through with the slightest static.
"Seems like it can't be real..." she responded. "We should get some teams together to go check it out."
"We have a working cut-and-seal unit at one of the aft docks." Captain DeVierna agreed, buzzed with the adrenaline of this discovery. "Get some people together and we'll meet on the Durago."
"Will do, Cap'n." Jack took a deep breath... and got up from her chair once again. "All yours, Meaur."
As expected, Pheta volunteered for the mission right away. Other than that, it was pretty much anyone who wanted to go, feel free. Surprisingly enough that turned out to be only a little over twenty people in all. So there was still some gun shyness about possible unwanted encounters. It was understandable.
The Sefirot's team sorted, it was only a hop, skip and a jump onto the Durago. Apparently they were more or less in the same boat; only eighteen crew members had decided to follow from that ship. In all they were forty strong, though. Not too shabby.
Both captains were clearly trying to hide their excitement. They gave one another looks like childhood friends during holiday, seeming almost ready to break out into fits of skipping.
The communication systems of both ships were linked for their little excursion. Mostly so both ships could help to fly the Durago into the DarkHorse properly, but also in case of any emergencies. Both ships would know exactly what was going on at all times. There were countless things that could go wrong; a fact that none of them were without in the darkest recesses of their minds.
The actual docking was indeed a bit rough. It wasn't due to the steering--that part had worked out perfectly. It was the fact that the DarkHorse was so perfectly armored. You couldn't cut into the sides at all thanks to design and material. Instead, you had to try to pierce one of the giant dock doors. (In fact, if they actually got a hold of the ship's controls, they could probably manage to properly dock both the Durago and the Sefirot in the belly, and have room for five more of the same size.)
But, of course, that was all dependent upon whether or not they could get inside in the first place. After the initial jolt, there was silence over the intercoms. Then came the squeak and squeal of giant gears moving to make an airtight seal out of layers of mechanized panels. That work required three of the finest engineers to drive it, and Julian had faith in his group. At least, enough not to let their expedition team die in space. Inside the DarkHorse itself, that was a different story...
"Success!" was finally called through both ships.
"Alright." By that time, Jack was absolutely spilling over with excitement. To see the inside of a ship of such immense legend, lost for so long...
"Well then." Julian took a deep breath, feeling a little scared and invigorated all at once. All other things fell away--all that mattered was this adventure. "Let's go."
"Not so fast." Pheta warned. "We've got to re-scan for life forms on board, first. The ship is too big to get a proper scan from the outside when it comes to Solanids."
"Oh, we'll do that." Her captain insisted, completely ready for this.
"I must look after your well-being, Captain." The woman announced sternly. "Especially now, seeing as how you are not completely healed. If you will excuse me, I'll take two assistants and have a report as soon as possible."
Well, she did have a point. But still, she seemed even more... snappish than usual, here. Eh, no matter. Pheta was a woman unto herself. "Alright." Jack admitted defeat--for the moment.
Nodding, the Commander of Defense merely looked at two crew members standing off to the side, and they followed like zombies. The rest of them were left behind, staring indirectly. The woman could be utterly scary in the most subtle of ways, when she wanted.
There was waiting. Not any more than ten minutes at most, but it seemed like a million. Some of the expedition group got drinks, preparing themselves for any and all consequences. Others, like the captains, merely wandered the halls restlessly. It seemed to be taking an awfully long time to take stock of the ship's current condition. Granted they had to start up the electronics and all, but... waiting was murder. Especially for the increasingly nervous and inexperienced crew members.
When at last the report did come, it was delivered in person. Pheta walked ahead of her "assistants", all looking quite... sober. "No life at all." She stated quietly. "But no signs of a struggle. No Solanid damage, no gun shots, no blood spilled, and no bodies. Everything is perfectly in place as though everyone just stepped out for a walk."
That was... concerning. Jack swallowed, reflecting on the information. "Any theories?"
"Not a one." The woman admitted. "But everything is running perfectly. It'd all been shut down strategically, on purpose. Even oxygen and water are perfectly filtered."
There was indeed a particular weirdness to that. Granted there weren't many left to house on the ship when it had been full of life, but... that didn't explain any of this. No struggle? All escape pods intact? It didn't seem quite right. "How long has it been since anyone's been aboard?"
"All logs stop about six years ago."
Two years after her old life had fallen apart, give or take. That may have explained the intensity of the "war"... without the Old Russians trying to stop them, the Megarle and Pordethre had been increasingly merciless in their attacks. "Any actual information you can get to?"
Pheta sighed and shook her head. "They've all been damaged by time, I'm afraid. All I have are dates, no actual entries. After some time, we may be able to bring clips out."
Jack crossed her arms, thinking. "Have you taken a look around?"
"Let's do that, then." The excitement was returning. She had... ideas.
Boarding the ship through the dock wasn't all that impressive, really. Astounding huge, even for the cargo area, but it looked like every other ship. Out into the hallway, however, there were several hushed oohs and aahs at the sleek gray metal walls and the almost natural lighting. It was a very technologically advanced ship on all fronts, apparently.
And the lifts were so nice! All forty of them could fit into one, and the ride was smooth, and there were no squeaks, sudden black-outs or stops! Jack just couldn't get over that. She'd used only the stairs on the Sefirot for a hell of a long time.
But the bridge... oh man, the bridge was scary. It was a massive room of seats and panels, each station having a tremendous amount of information at their fingertips. Right out of a science fiction novel, everything was that same sleek gray metal--and all of the chairs were padded leather. No kidding. Both captains just about shoved one another out of the way to get to the one in the center of it all--a throne of leather, a control panel to either side, a personal view screen, and... a cup holder.
Pheta crossed her arms and silently glared at the two of them acting like children, giggling madly at every feature. When they were finally just on the verge of squealing like excited school girls over the rotating view screen, she cleared her throat loudly. "Instead of a grand tour as a group, why don't we form teams and compare notes back here in an hour, hm?"
The partners in crime looked at one another impishly. Instantly they were off, Jack yelling behind her, "Okay, Pheta! See you later!" as the door shut behind them.
"Captain V--!" the woman began, then abruptly closed her mouth. What was the use?
"A cup holder. In a captain's chair. Damn." Julian was still vastly amazed with that.
Jack chuckled. "It's one hell of a perk. I wonder if there's a seat warmer."
"I know what you're planning." He grinned knowingly, directly changing the subject.
The pretense of innocence was getting harder by the day. She didn't even bother to hide it in her voice. "And that is..?"
"You want this ship for yourself." He stated as fact, waiting for the closest lift door to open.
"It's not a bad ambition." She paused as the door slid open and they stepped inside. There was a small illuminated cross-section of the entire ship on the back wall. Curious, she touched the area labeled "fix sick" in Old Russun. Instantly the doors closed and they began to move.
"Neat." Julian commented, genuinely amazed.
"The idea of fitting everyone onto this ship and keeping the two smaller ones for various purposes is appealing. More so than just having ours linked together until something breaks." She continued nonchalantly.
"You've already decided where you want your room." He joked.
"More or less." A touch of pride welled in her voice. Why bother hiding it, really. Hell, they'd found it, it was abandoned, why not? "Of course, we'll have to sell most of what we pirated from that Solanid ship just to fix our cannons."
"That'd be a priority, yes." He agreed, feeling them come to a very smooth stop.
They stepped out into the short hallway that lead right into a very well-lit, almost comfortable looking sick bay. What a facility it was; it turned out to have several operating rooms, recovery rooms, and even exam rooms separate from all the others. It was a mini-hospital, even. The equipment was a hell of a more up-to-date than theirs... the thought that maybe Nex could actually recover crossed her mind in a wave. The doctors would have plenty of room to work, not to mention better ability to monitor.
"Did you, uh... ask Pheta to say anything to my running crew?" Julian prodded gently, completely out of the blue.
Her eyes widened a little. That's right, even since the "incident", he hadn't been back on board. "Not a word, no."
He nodded slowly, finding himself a little more grateful for the woman than he had been around the first encounter with her. "I don't know exactly what she said... but I was greeted on the bridge like I'd just inherited ten battle ships or something. One did say she contacted them, but that's all I could get out of him."
Jack shook her head in disbelief. That chick must have a split personality or something. "I have to admit, I didn't even think about it. Or I'd have contacted them myself."
That had been all he'd wanted to know, really. Shifting gears back to being a kid again, they began exploring other rooms and various neat things. Hey, they were going to enjoy themselves within the hour allotted. Even if it did mean riding up and down in the lifts, over and over.
That was, until they reached the library. It was a slightly out of the way place that you had to shift lifts to get to; they'd discovered it by complete accident that way. But once the door opened to the proper level, they both gasped like they'd just entered Eden. The smell of actual real wood took their senses, and the place had a dark wood, old world look to it. Before them stretched walls of books; real books, paper and leather books, and that smell was even more intoxicating. This was a real library. Temperature and humidity controlled, even.
Rounding the corner, Julian heard a gasp from behind him. He turned, seeing a look of both ecstasy and pain on his cohort's face, a cupped hand at her mouth. He met the direction of her gaze--and saw a copy of The Multiverse Collective Theory staring back. Laying next to it as though recently taken down for viewing were three others of similar titles, all studies on the theories of that very book itself--all banned, burned and thought completely destroyed.
Jack suddenly had nothing but the utmost respect for the Old Russuns. Just one look around told her that most of the books in this sacred place were of the same sort. She only recognized a handful of titles, but the ones she did were ones she'd been searching all of her life for. The money spent, the trouble gone through to have obtained this collection... "Yes."
Julian stared at her, puzzled. "Yes... what?"
"We can't possibly let this go." She stated quietly, believing every word.