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

        Chapter 12 - Not Easily Shaken Away

        He waited patiently at the window overlooking the DarkHorse's dock, alone. He'd been waiting there for well over an hour at least, his legs aching, his crossed arms begging for a change in position. It had taken very little effort to get Nex and Pheta to leave--a surprising little, actually. Maybe they didn't want to know. He had promised them, though. He had promised...
        A mechanical sound interrupted his thoughts. He turned toward the whirring, knowing it to be the lift even before the sound really registered. As the doors opened, he felt his chest tighten. It was Jack, alright. There were just the slightest sprays of blood on her, so slight that perhaps most people wouldn't even notice if she were to pass by; but Julian sure as hell noticed. He couldn't help it.
        Eye contact was extremely fleeting. There wasn't exactly a need for conversation, so she simply walked away, toward her quarters. He watched her, wordlessly, using a carefully organized gait to hide the limp. She must have had practice with these things before. What would he find if he visited the Sefirot now? Was the body already disposed of? He came very close to calling her name, to stopping and asking... but couldn't bring himself to.

        She must have spent about an hour and a half in that shower, leaning heavily against the tile with her eyes closed and the hot water beating down. It was the longest shower she'd ever taken in her life. And even as the hour mark registered in her still surprisingly accurate internal clock, she had no desire either to open her eyes nor part with the water. The only reason she got out at all was the fact that the comm in her quarters kept making noises. It was getting aggravating.
        Finally reaching outside the shower to hit the button, she announced a weak but stern, "Yes?"
        There was only a small pause before Pheta's ever professional voice responded. "Captain, I think I have information regarding the incident earlier."
        Jack listened very closely. There were no background sounds--meaning there was no one around to hear this. But just in case... "Are you alone, Commander?"
        "Yes." She confirmed, then turned to the business at hand right away. "It was clearly an inside job, Captain."
        Inside job... echoed slowly in her head for a moment. So there was either a spy or someone with a major death wish in the ranks. Someone let the bounty hunter out. Or provided him with the means to do it himself. "Any more information?"
        "Not yet." The woman sighed quietly, annoyed with herself for not having predicted this. Perhaps there was no way to have done so, but she was still the Commander of Defense, and therefore felt she should have seen it coming. "The cell was tamper-proof from the inside. But not the outside. And for now, that's all of the information I have acquired."
        "Thank you, Pheta." The captain offered quietly. Thankfully, the woman took her leave and disconnected.
        Turning off the water, Jack wrapped the towel around herself and wandered her quarters for a little while. It just... felt like the thing to do, strangely enough. The very idea she had considered this home... Well, it was just her luck, really. She took a deep breath, letting it out as she flopped limply onto the couch. Never in her life had she been in nothing but a towel--not for an extended period of time, anyway. It was... kind of weird. Weirder still, perhaps, that people actually considered something like that not only normal, but comfortable. Naked and unarmed. It just didn't make sense.
        A chime. No, the doorbell. Who the fuck could that be? And why now? And now what? Really, just... what the hell? She grit her teeth, knowing only a couple of people could be ringing--neither of which she cared to see in person at that moment. And certainly not in a towel.
        Instead of taking her telepathic hint, whoever waited outside simply rang again. She sighed to herself and rose, fully aware that they most likely wouldn't be going away. Though maybe, if she did just answer in nothing but a towel, that would get them to leave. Yes! A master plan!
        A master plan that proved utterly worthless when a frail Nex was revealed as the door slid open, a small box of random objects in his hands--one of which being her teapot. Even her state of undress and her combined look of surprise and aggravation didn't drive this kid away. Made him turn red, sure, but not turn tail and run. Damn.
        "I... I d-don't mean to invite myself over..." the boy began timidly. "But, we haven't had tea in a long while..."
        How very odd a thing to ask of her, she thought. Not that she minded at all, but... it was just strange. Especially right at that moment. And in what she was wearing. But he had that lonely puppy dog look down, alright. Bastard. "No, don't... don't worry about it. It's no trouble." Was she actually saying that?
        He swallowed, looking the least little bit relieved. As she stood aside, he darted past as if just being next to her was incredibly sinful, and straight into the next room. Luckily, he'd made it into the kitchen just fine. And what a nice one it was.
        She locked the door, pausing at the corridor between her bedroom and the kitchen. Nex was already unpacking, taking each object into both hands and treating it as though sacred, finding just the perfect spot for everything from cups to tea bags. "I'll be right with you." She promised quietly, ducking into her room to get some clothes on. She tried not to grin when he looked like a million weights had been lifted from his shoulders.
        When there was a door between them, she wondered both who had sent him, and who had granted him a clearance code to the Captain's Hall. Not that it mattered, really, but... it'd have been nice to know. And she sure as hell would know evenutally--from who was not clear.
        Screw protocol; she required comfort for this little meeting. Her standard (if not considerably un-dressy) t-shirt and jeans would simply have to suffice. She didn't even bother putting her hair up; again, screw protocol.
        She entered the kitchen to find the teapot already boiling, and Nex having placed tea bags in the cups, ready to go. Well, since he seemed to have that much under control, she politely stepped to the side and into the "office". To her surprise, there awaited her two plates, one at each side, with something resembling real and honest-to-god pastry. Had she just a little less control of herself, she'd have squeaked like a little girl at her own birthday party.
        "Sit, Captain." The boy suggested warmly, a cup of tea in each hand.
        "You really shouldn't be up and around so much yet." Was her first reaction, taking a seat. And then, even more important, "Is that pastry?"
        He nodded, trying to keep the amused look off of his face as he focused on placing the cups on the table without spilling. "One of the Defense Commander's 'extra purchases', I think."
        How much can one woman do? Jack let herself wonder for a moment.
        As he sat down himself, he finally responded to her first comment. "And I'm fine now."
        They relaxed in silence for the moment, each playing with their tea bag and eyeing the pastry. Nex was surprisingly the one to break the quiet wide open. "Didn't know you had it in you." He suggested softly, getting right to the point at hand, albeit in a delicate fashion.
        She met his eyes with a level gaze and almost no expression. "Maybe you ought to go back to your quarters."
        "I'm not afraid of you, Captain." He stated strongly. Judging from his normal tone, this was like yelling to him.
        "Thank you." She responded flatly.
        His voice fell back to normal once again, noting that there was truth in that simple phrase somewhere. "I just would never have known. That's all."
        "Things happen." Her voice collapsed into a whisper as her eyes fell away. "I protect what I have. I guess I did go a little far, though."
        "Yeah." He agreed conversationally. "But... even I have to admit, the guy deserved it."
        There was genuine surprise found in that. She wasn't entirely able to express it at the moment, however.
        "It's not your fault, anyway." He prodded ever so gently. When her eyes narrowed and it was clear she had nothing to respond with, he continued with a light clearing of his throat. "Julian told me everything."
        "Lovely." She commented quietly.
        "And Pheta."
        "Even better."
        Somehow her response was actually giving him quite an urge to grin. He tried his best to suppress it, so it wouldn't be mistaken for something else. "We pestered him."
        She took a drink and waited for the heat to move through her. "In this together, are you?"
        "Something like that." He paused to swallow some tea, himself. "The point is, we support you."
        There was really no response she could fathom. His sentiment tensed her whole body--even if she'd had the words, she wouldn't have been able to speak them.
        "You're welcome." He chuckled.
        "You people are insane." Her tone was even.
        Nex just shrugged with another careful sip.
        "Did Julian convince you to come here?" she let her mind venture.
        "No." He answered honestly, staring for a moment at the pastry and wondering briefly if his stomach would be able to take all that sugar after so much time away from it--though he was perfectly willing to try. "I thought you could use some tea."
        She nodded, taking another drink slowly. Hey, if the kid was going to bring her good things, she wasn't going to refuse. She prodded thoughtfully at the pastry, and was even more absolutely enthralled to find it soft and flaky. Like pastry. This was no freeze-dried piece of crap that she'd tried and failed numerous times to equate with real and actual food--this shit was the real thing. She felt a sudden hoarding instinct surface immediately, but that was dropped quickly in favor of actually being... dare she dream it... hungry? Too freaky.
        The boy watched across from her, equally amused as he was fascinated by her reaction. He was pretty used to his mother having baked at home, though it had been a long while since he'd had anything resembling her cooking. Or any form of cooking at all. It was clear that his captain found "real" food a rarity, and he rather understood why.
        Finally her walls collapsed. Carefully, almost secretly, she brought the plate closer with a single fingertip. The smell was amazing, intoxicating--butter and citrus, and something that only a bakery could smell like. Almost daintily, she grasped the sides of the pastry and brought it to her lips, enthralled in the experience of senses. The rest of the universe simply ceased to be as she bit into layer upon layer of the most amazing food she'd had in many, many years. Perhaps ever.
        Nex found himself smiling, chin resting in his hand, just watching. "Good?" he dared.
        She chewed, she savored, she swallowed. "A thing set before gods to keep them from destroying worlds."
        He chuckled, taking one more sip of tea before indulging in the pastry himself. Hey, she was right. It was this perfect place between soft and sweet, flaky and sour. Lemon, that's what the flavor was. Quite authentic, actually.
        With the last bite of that religious experience of food, Jack sat back and tried not to think about caloric intake. Fuck it, really. She'd certainly been through enough exercising the past couple of days. Another swig of tea and all was shiny and happy--for the moment. She'd enjoy it for as long as it would last. Maybe it was just the moment, the caffeine, sugar and good food acting more so like a pleasant buzz than any alcohol, but... "Thanks, Nex."
        That was quite possibly the nicest thing ever said to him. Well, considering. "Anytime, Captain."

        "I am rather pissed at you, Mr. DeVierna."
        Shit. That's worse than your mother using your middle name. He turned, meeting Jack face to face in an empty hall. He just had to be walking alone... "Uh... what'd I do?"
        The glare more or less told him everything, but he waited for her to actually speak. Her only offer was, "Is my life story up for grabs?"
        "Oooohhh." He tried to look both terribly sincere and absolutely innocent. It failed instantly. "Just call us the Jack Fan Club."
        "I could shoot you."
        "Uh-huh." He teased.
        "No, I mean it. I could shoot you right now."
        Impossible as it may have seemed, he playfully pulled his pistol (making damn sure the safety was on) and made a challenge/come hither motion with his free hand. All the while he had a madman's grin across his face, darting back and forth like a boxer. It was a nervous energy, but it worked. "C'mon, Jack. I dare you."
        She stared at him blankly for a number of seconds, looking every bit the stunned moron. At last she let the subject go, giving him a vicious expression. It occurred to her that if anyone were watching, they'd probably both be removed from duty and immediately carted off to a mental ward on some distant planet. Luckily, no one was watching. Instead, she threw her leg out and caught the backs of both of his knees, bringing him to the ground--with one hand she grabbed the pistol away, using her other arm to support him so he wouldn't fall too hard.
        He realized, staring at his own gun pointed between his eyes, that she was still damn strong when she had to be. And fast. And scary as hell. "Good thing I had the safety on."
        She regarded the pistol, making a disappointed noise. "I suppose it is."
        He stared at her, trying to convince himself that it had been a joke. For a moment there he really was ready to witness his life flash before his eyes--but the familiar, almost vicious expression returned as she pulled him back to his feet. She was good at terrorizing the shit out of people.
        "Oh, come on." She assured. "I can hear the click or unclick of a safety from deep space and still be able to tell the difference. Especially on that synthetic thing."
        "Huh." He responded, getting his breathing and heart rate back in order. "At least mine's not some damn ancient artifact."
        She shook her head, walking a few steps away then turning back to face him. "Why'd you tell them?"
        "I told you." He joked gently, "It's the Jack Fan Club. We share information." When her piercing stare persisted, he surrendered a little bit. "They wanted to know. I thought maybe they had a right to. After all that was already said and everything..."
        She cast her gaze downward for a moment, thinking his explanation over. Maybe he did have a point there. They were supposed to be her friends, after all.
        "Still pissed at me?" he asked playfully after a long pause.
        "Yes." She grinned without looking up.
        Well, at least that was a good sign for him. So he believed, anyway. She continued, "Nex arrived at my doorstep for tea a little while ago. He insisted you had nothing to do with it."
        He grinned--but revealed nothing. No, he didn't have anything to do with that. But he knew why the kid was there, alright. "And?"
        Her eyes narrowed, barely enough to notice. "And, what?"
        He just shook his head, changing the subject to something that really was a little more important. "I think I did gather a little information." He looked from side to side, knowing that no one had come down that hall since he'd been wandering it but needing to make sure it remained that way. "About Pheta."
        Jack was more than interested now. "Yes?"
        "I heard her curse. She's Glexelan."
        "Glexelan?" she repeated to herself. It made sense, perhaps. It was an artificially created genetic off-shoot of humanity, though how and why they came to be was buried deep within history. "And how would you know this?"
        Julian looked a little too proud of his deduction techniques. "I roomed with a Glexelan in the academy. Mouth like a sailor--of course, I couldn't understand any of it. But I remember certain phrases. He didn't admit his lineage to even the academy, but with a mouth like that, they must have known."
        She could not help the grin spreading over her face. Glexels had cut themselves off from the rest of the universe--looking up at the sky was practically a sin. Meaning... "Are you wondering perhaps if Pheta is a fugitive like us?"
        "I thought it was an interesting notion." He acknowledged.
        Indeed. "I was on my way to see if she'd found out anything else, anyway. This will make an interesting topic of conversation."
        "By the way..." Julian kept her from dismissing herself prematurely. "How'd you find me here?"
        That grin was practically devastating for some reason. "You can come join me for tea sometime and find out."
        How... puzzling. Enough to have let her slip through his fingers and down the hall. Damn.

        Having absolutely no clue as to where Pheta spent her time off the bridge, Jack had to page her communicator in the lift. The woman responded, almost psychically, "Captain?"
        "Yes." She assured. "Is it possible to meet to discuss the situation?"
        A pause. "Uh, yes. I suppose so." She then realized what was really being asked of her. "Oh. Commanding Crew Quarters Hallway. It's, uh... level 3 on the map. You'll see it, it's shaped like a kidney."
        Jack did indeed see it. "A slightly diseased kidney, apparently." She pressed on the more or less kindney-shaped area of the map, instantly riding in that direction. "I'll be there in a couple of minutes."
        "Acknowledged." The woman conceded.

        She arrived at what she could safely guess was the right floor, nevermind how many doors lined the hallway. How the hell would she find Pheta? Maybe she should have thought this one through a bit better...
        But her hopeless prayers were answered by the opening of a door several yards away, the Commander of Defense sticking her head out and giving a mild wave. It was kind of funny in a surreal sort of way. Jack was actually going to venture into what she could only assume were Pheta's quarters. It was... odd. Still, she approached without breaking her stride.
        "It's still a mess." The commander apologized immediately. "Actually, it always was a mess."
        "I know the feeling." The captain admitted, stepping inside. Wow--these crew quarters were a great deal bigger than the Sefirot's had been. Hell, they were just noticeably smaller than her own. A damn fine ship, this.
        "Sit, please." Pheta invited, distracted for a moment by a pile of paperwork in the corner about to fall over. Sometimes the only way to get information cheaply and easily was to request it in paper... but there were extreme downsides to that method.
        Upon sitting, Jack spotted a huge full-sized poster in the hallway across from what appeared to be the bedroom area. It was a busty brunette model with no top and a g-string, draped on the front of a blood red sports plane with her arms out just like the wings. Not quite classy, but hey. "I had no idea." She commented offhand.
        Pheta felt a cold sweat erupting instantly as she turned, realizing what was being referred to. Shit, now what? What should she say, or do, or react to specifically, or--
        "I love those sporty planes, too." Jack continued, turning back to get to the business at hand. "They can't fly too far above the atmosphere, but the speed is fucking amazing."
        The woman wasn't sure if her nervous tittering actually sounded authentic or not, or if the captain had been trying to crack a joke--and it didn't matter. Subject change. "You came for information?"
        "An exchange of it, maybe." She made no secret of needing to ask some questions. Straight to the point, as she found it necessary to do, she presented her question. "Are you Glexelan, Commander?"
        The woman's mouth felt a little dry. She wasn't quite sure where her captain was going with this one. First completely ignoring the topless brunette, now this... "Yes. I am."
        Jack nodded. "Okay. Your turn, if you've got any personal questions."
        Pheta was still a little startled. No one had ever asked if she were Glexelan before. No one had ever assumed, perhaps... and then it hit her: cursing during that awkward moment with Julian. Damn, she'd slipped there. Caught off-guard. But then... her captain hadn't an accusatory molecule about her. In fact, she was being quite honest about this, she was certain. So, she took a deep breath, relaxed, and offered a question she deemed important. "What did you do to the bounty hunter?"
        "I killed him. Eventually." She answered easily. "He was useless, anyway. He had no information because he wasn't given any." Seemed the Pordethre government really had gotten a little smarter, over time. They were no longer tossing out information like scatter bombs. "Of course, that may be a really bad thing." She acknowledged quietly.
        The commander agreed with a short humming noise in her throat. The boy was clearly a pawn of some kind, but for exactly what purpose... Well, it was her job to find out. "Another personal question, Captain?"
        Jack nodded. "Like for like."
        Pheta agreed with a slight incline of her head. "Is Julian full of shit?"
        "Usually." She grinned, pausing. "But I can pretty much assure you that anything he told you is the truth. He's just that kind of guy."
        The woman took a moment to ponder that. Yes, she supposed that much was true. "Alright, your turn."
        "Are you running?" the captain summed up neatly.
        "I guess so."
        With a soft sound of acknowledgment, Jack spoke her thought out loud. "Seems like we're just a bunch of misfits and outlaws."
        "That's how the best stories go." Pheta found herself grinning.
        The captain agreed with a short chuckle. "Alright, enough of this. Do you have any more information on who let the psychopath out?"
        "Nothing." She sighed roughly. "No prints, and no one seems to have seen anything. But it will be discovered sooner or later. A big mouth is a big asset."
        Jack nodded. "Well, alright then. I suppose I'll leave you to your work."
        While there was absolutely no indication of another meaning, Pheta had to take a moment to breathe before she wound up blushing. "I will let you know, Captain."
        "No doubt." She agreed, lifting and seeing herself out. Walking down the hallway, at least she was secure in the knowledge that her Commander of Defense would not fall for an asshole like William. That thought kinda made her smile, somewhat.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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