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

        Chapter 13 - Shaken Up, Shaken Off

        Ah, time alone. She stretched out in the soft, comfortable library chair and stared listlessly at the stained glass above. It's not that she minded spending time with Nex, or Julian, or even Pheta to a point. But... damn. Silence was fucking nice, too. She'd barely even rifled through the books before savoring that moment of pure relaxation.
        Sure, somewhere in her mind she knew better. This moment of calm wouldn't last, it just wasn't "meant to be" for her. But she told Fate to fuck itself for just the moment, and relaxed. Amongst the pleasant smell of old books and real, honest to goodness wood, she simply, completely let her body go limp. Hell, even her mind for a moment--she hadn't daydreamed since... okay, so she couldn't remember how long it had been. A long damn time. Just pondering it made her feel like an old woman.
        Even when her comm device rang in the depths of her pocket, the warm light of calmness didn't dim entirely. Hell, it felt like a rolling ocean, the waves edging back out to sea. She reached for the device slowly, and made no effort to answer any sooner than she damn well felt like it. "Yeh?"
        A pause. "Have you been drinking?" came Julian's voice. Even he wasn't entirely sure if he was joking or not. He'd never heard her sound quite like that.
        Oh, this is better than any alcohol. "Nope." She answered simply.
        He was... puzzled, to say the least. "Uh..."
        "Just relaxing for the first time in many years, Jules." She assured him, finally sitting up straight and resigning herself to the fact that life must still go on. Fucking life. How dare it.
        What a strange thing for her to be doing. Well, not in the grand scheme of things. It just didn't quite seem like... her. Wonder of wonders, was she getting comfortable? The thought brought on a grin that he was glad she couldn't see. "There's a porter ship just within our reach. They've been advertising 'great deals and good food', so--"
        "Do we have any money left?" she interrupted, thinking that much more important than the idea of food and "second-hand supplies". Porter ships were pirates like them, only on a much bigger scale--not to mention porter crews were pirates first and explorers later. They weren't often so into it for the money, but rather for favors and power among other thieves--though, to be fair, porter ships only stripped dead vessels that hadn't yet been picked clean. Sometimes even totally empty ships could be stripped for parts and equipment, sold for extra.
        "I already asked Pheta." He glanced around, making certain she wasn't standing behind him or something. "I could only get her to say, 'We should check it out.' I'm guessing she doesn't want to raid a porter, therefore..."
        Jack shook her head, allowing her back to stretch with several audible pops. Hey, she still wasn't entirely out of the relaxed state of mind. Getting there way too fast, though... "Now I'm starting to worry."
        "Suppose she's got funds 'from home'." He suggested in a low voice.
        Now that was an interesting suggestion. The woman could well be more of a fugitive than they anticipated. But she was taking good care of them, no harm done. Might as well take full advantage of the situation as they had it. "I assume one of us will wrench it out of her eventually. In the mean time, feel free to make the arrangements. Ask if they'll accept a visit."
        "Will do." He promised. "And will you be bargain hunting with us?"
        "Of course." She assured, standing and stretching her legs with yet more painful sounding pops. Ah, that felt good. Hurt for a little while after that, but initially it felt good. "Never know what you'll find on a porter ship. You get a skeleton crew to stay behind, round up the troops, an--"
        "And what will you do?" he teased.
        "And I will be right behind you." She hung up with a grin on her face.

        Since Julian was first to get to the ships' dock area, he had his choice of which one to take. It sounded fair. He picked the Durago only because he kind of missed it, just a little bit. Sure the chair was uncomfortable and most of the electronics would shock a person when touched... it was kinda nice to take it for a spin once in a while. Riding it around the station had just been nice.
        The crew that were left behind on the DarkHorse put their orders in. Exactly who would be in charge of purchase was unknown--but somehow Pheta was more or less assigned the task. Or perhaps she simply took it upon herself. Either way, Jack was getting very curious about where these funds were coming from.
        No matter until they'd grabbed some good stuff, though. With the DarkHorse safely hidden behind a dead planet on the outskirts of a cold solar system, the Durago made the short jaunt to the porter ship. They had completely lucked out--it was a big one. Not simply "big" as in the concept, but big. At least half the size of the DarkHorse itself, with several old freighters and other little vessels orbiting around it. All for sale or trade. All a little beat up and undoubtedly stripped, but it was an excellent indication of the quality of goods to be found inside.
        Welcomed into the main dock with open arms, most of the crew went ahead and wandered into what was, for all intents and purposes, the great big floating mall. There had to be a few left behind; while porter ships weren't exactly known for stripping their own potential customers, it had happened on occasion. Those who waited on the Durago could go off and shop for themselves the moment someone else came back to take their place, so it wasn't such a bad thing.
        Where once there had been a mass of people, the dock quickly emptied as everyone scattered like cockroaches to find their own niches. There were weapon halls, kitchens full of food and separate ones for the sale of cooking equipment, furniture, exotic pets, writing implements, computer consoles, clothes, robot slaves (for various purposes), and about a billion other things that fit into the "don't really need it but damn it looks cool" category.
        Jack nearly rubbed her hands together as she approached one of the seven weapon halls (according to the advertisement that constantly played over the comm system). This one was specialized in blades and old war implements--mostly torture devices. It made her feel... giddy, to a point. It was simply funny, seeing as how most people avoided those rooms like plagues... but she could name almost every bit of equipment in there, and suggest some that the shop keeper may have never heard of. Some of them were absolutely horrific in nature, while others were quick and efficient execution devices. She was seriously pondering getting one of the larger torture devices to put in her quarters as a "conversation piece"...
        One of the specialized blades mounted on the wall caught her eye. It was a V'heger--something of a cross between a giant pair of scissors and a double bladed ax. The blades were almost as tall as she was, but she knew from experience that they were ultra-light, ultra sharp metal; the same kind she used for making bullets. The handle could be locked into place as a hilt, bringing the blades together and crossed for one kick-ass ax; or spread as the handle for a slicing weapon resembling scissors. The last time she'd seen one was on the wall of a pseudo-collector she'd been paid to off--
        Holy shit. It had the same fucking scratches on the hilt as the collector's had. She carefully pulled it just far enough from the wall to check... sure enough, part of the elegant craftsmanship was scraped into something like a figure eight--plus two distinct gouges above it. There was no mistaking who the former owner had been. She let a mild smirk cross her lips, almost an air of pride coming over her. Granted she was sure she'd killed a lot of people who weren't "all that bad" according to whatever "grand scheme" was out there, but the pseudo-collector was an asshole. He owned and operated a trader planet. And, in the end, that's the only sin you need to get yourself killed one day. Back then she'd considered taking the weapon just because it looked cool, but now she had better reason for it.
        "Interested?" a male voice, distinctly twinged with the clicking, gummy accent of a Celiduer, asked pleasantly.
        She paused to glance over--it was a male, alright. The males had darker plum colored skin, longer hands and wider bodies. His opaque silver eyes blinked on either side of his long, reptilian face, considering her as closely as she was studying him. In a split-second decision, she was suddenly determined to play him for all he was worth. "I think so."
        He nodded slowly, reaching above her easily with his long arms to take the weapon down. "Do you understand its function?"
        "Well, it looks deadly." She tried, using her voice to sound as delicate and feminine as possible. She hadn't pulled shit like this in a long time. The more helpless and stupid she could act, the better the deal would be. Not to mention the sweeter the reaction when she showed off her weaponry skills, "accidentally" in front of him at some point before she left...
        Deal time. He opened his elongated snout to throw out an offer, but was interrupted.
        "There you are!" Julian almost shouted, walking right up to the two of them. He'd been watching this whole thing--with the understanding that the Celiduer was actually one of the top-ranking personnel of this ship. He was not good to fuck with even in a playful manner, no matter taking into account the notorious Celi mood swings. He was giving Jack a perfect out, right now. "I thought you were going into the firearms hall!"
        She got the danger signal from him loud and clear--but she was still going to buy this thing, dammit. "Oh." She responded girlishly, still playing to the hilt. "But I saw this and thought it was pretty."
        Julian just about lost his own character right then. She was good at this. He wanted to laugh, and hard, but somehow contained himself enough to get them both out safely (and without a porter ship after them, as they already seemed to have enough enemies). "Well... okay. But that's it." He scolded like a parent.
        She sighed overdramatically. "Fine."
        The Celiduer, who had at first been a little unwilling to give up the weapon to a female, seemed a bit more at ease. Probably because he'd discovered the girl had a man with her. Celides weren't ones to let their own women wander far... that they knew of, anyway. "Are you with the crew of the Durago?" he grunted.
        "Yes." Julian answered for her. "Just add it to our tab, please."
        The Celiduer carefully wrapped the weapon in thick, carpet-like fabric, then ran a long string around both ends to keep it secure. "Thank you."
        "No, thank you." Captain DeVierna shot back as sincerely as he could. To keep the act up long enough for the whole incident to be forgotten, he took it upon himself to carry the weapon, then gently grasped Jack's arm and lead her out, well away from the hall.
        She softly took her arm back after they were out of sight and hearing range. "I suppose I owe you... something." She joked.
        He grinned, handing her new weapon over. "I would never have thought one of the high runners would have been selling part of his load." It seemed... so below them to actually be selling their own wares. Especially for a Celi. They were so big on dignity and all.
        "How'd you find out?" she kept her voice low, resting the new toy on her shoulder--and wondering how the hell she'd maneuver without braining someone accidentally.
        "Pheta is a woman of many impressive talents." He admitted. Sure he still felt a little awkward around her, but... hey, she could hack into and scan another ship's system in a matter of seconds. Especially one as old as the porter they were on. Well kept, but old nonetheless.
        That was enough for Jack to get the picture. They walked by one of the food service areas where a real and honest deep-fry vat was set up among the carts. Both of their stomachs growled, but they had to keep walking. Food fried in animal fat, even the smallest amount, after the length of time they'd been unable to obtain anything resembling real food... was not a good idea in the least. Still, it smelled good.
        "Any particular reason you picked that out?" he tried not to think about food. At all.
        "I told you, it was pretty." She grinned. "And it undoubtedly belonged to... a former someone."
        He knew she wasn't talking about an old boyfriend. "Sick fascination with artifacts of the deceased?"
        "Sure." She agreed. "And it really is pretty."
        He chuckled until his stomach hurt. Or maybe that was the smell of more food--real stuff that time, food of nutritional substance, that was grown or slaughtered rather than dreamed up in a lab environment or freeze-dried. Despite their knowledge that Food was an expensive commodity, their heads both turned to cast one more glance before leaving that part of the ship; and they laid eyes on Pheta, appearing to be making a deal. The captains threw a glance at one another, then walked away from the area entirely. If they wanted to live with themselves, they'd have to ignore that. The mere thought of food, real food, actual food... it was getting painful.

        There was one hell of a lot of neat shit on the porter. Jack and Julian must have wandered around together for a couple of hours at least, finding all sorts of interesting bits. There weren't many books, and none of them were the sort they were interested in, so that was a bust. All of their other obsessions either weren't represented or were granted a very poor selection. Not that it was a bad thing, in the end. It would save Pheta a bit of money.
        Jack did make one more purchase, however. It was in one of those weird little halls full of crap, forgotten on the floor against a broken piece of furniture--a big, full faced metal mask. Just one smooth, simple face-shaped plate that looked like pewter but felt like some kind of silky silver concoction. Either way, it was freaky as hell--the expression was nonresistant, the lips completely sexless, the cut-out eyes showing no emotion around them. It was just, plain, creepy. And she'd liked it.
        Julian didn't walk away empty-handed, either. He'd gotten a lamp. A real lamp. One of the kinds that would actually plug into a wall socket. It was the ugliest thing he'd ever seen in his life, bright yellow with white and orange flowers. Godawful. But it had made him laugh, so he grabbed it. It was an artifact in its own right, but so undesirable that the shop keeper said he could have it for free, then pointed him toward the yellow and orange beaded lamp shade. That inspired another round of laughter from both captains.
        Pretty much worn out, most of the crew had already boarded the Durago again, just waiting to take off. The docks would probably take a hell of a lot longer to empty out than they got filled, but that was all part of the joy of large-scale shopping. When at last Pheta was on board, that's when everyone knew it was time to go.
        The thrusters took a little extra burst to pull off a good speed, but not so bad. Only when they were on their way back to the DarkHorse did Jack lean into her Commander of Defense and ask, "And what did you get?"
        Pheta only gave her a transparent grin. "Wait and see."
        Oooh, ominous. And... rather intimidating.

        After a good deal of the crew had gotten their own crap to their quarters on the DarkHorse, many of them volunteered to help one another with the heavier items. Perhaps they were all just so happy with their purchases that they were feeling friendly. Or maybe someone had gotten booze, and word had been spread so that everyone was being extra nice.
        Either way, Jack took her two whole items and rode with Julian and his ugly lamp on the lift. Codes were inputted and the doors opened in The Captains Hall, he instantly knew where to put the monstrosity.
        Before Jack could stop him, he'd raced to the giant round window and placed the godawful thing right there, in the center, on the sill. Disgusting as it was, she laughed. "No!" she coughed, looking again and laughing so hard that breathing was difficult. It was just so... sick. This elegant, beautiful window that peered into space, through the stars, at time itself--with this horrific yellow, orange and white lamp, complete with oversized beaded lampshade, and no outlet to plug it into. She had to lean against the wall and wait for the giggles to subside.
        "Oh, come on." He carefully rubbed the moisture from his eyes, trying to get his own breath back. It was horrible. But it was just too funny. "It looks cozy now."
        "Sick." She accused jokingly, walking to her quarters before she had another laughing fit.
        He heard her burst out again as the door was closing. Grinning, quite proud of himself for having saved her ass and made her laugh that hard all in one day, he stared at the lamp. Maybe he should have gotten a table, too.

        She'd just gotten a nice spot for her creepy mask when the door chime rang. Well, what the hell--she walked over and opened it without hesitation.
A very innocent looking Nex stood on the other side. Before she had the chance to greet him, he threw a question her way. "What are your feelings on pets, Captain?" the boy asked hopefully.
        "As long as you clean up after it." She agreed. Hell, she didn't mind having animals around. She rather liked them, in fact. Anything but a Solanid, really. Strike that--anything without tentacles was just fine. She'd never been able to have a pet before; the orphanage wouldn't allow it, and having the job of corporate assassin didn't exactly scream "good pet owner". It just never really came up afterward.
        Looking at Nex's face, though... he was relieved. Very much so, in fact. She scanned over his expression quickly, wondering just why--oh, shit. The boy wasn't asking permission. He'd already bought something and was trying to find a good way to tell her. And still that angelic look of innocence crossed his young face. The little bastard. "Alright." She sighed. "Let's see it."
        He didn't even bother with a thin mask of surprise or a "how did you know" type of question; at that point there was really no need for those empty sorts of things. He rushed over to the lift (which was stopped with the door open, she just noticed) and produced a very large bundle of fur--without a leash, collar, or harness. Regardless, it trotted after him like a dog.
        It was a wonder how the fragile looking boy could wind up with something so freaking big and dangerous looking as a pet. "He's a Niehder-cat."
        She stared at the already huge "kitten". It must have been at least as tall as Nex if it stood on its hind legs--yet it retained that kittenish quality in the face and paws. "He's a sabre-tooth tiger, Nex." No, it didn't have the stripes, but it did have several sender black markings across its golden fur that criss-crossed randomly over its back.
        "Well... closely related, anyway." The boy admitted. "His name is Doxideus."
        A pause as this computed. "You already named it."
        "So you're... keeping it." While that was possibly the stupidest question she had ever inferred, it somehow seemed appropriate given the situation. It was so... big. How the hell would the kid handle it, let alone clean up after it?
        "Him." Nex corrected gently. "Doxy is a 'him'."
        "Great." She responded quietly. As long as he didn't hump legs...
        "Don't you like cats, Captain?"
        She found it in her best interest not to answer that, at all. The Niehder-cat had a reputation; their brain size was truly immense, elongated into their skull and the thick base of their neck so that it honestly didn't look it. Truth be told, however, their intelligence was quite astounding. Many of their owners had sworn up and down that they could learn language perfectly, though lacked the vocal chords with which to speak it. Jack... didn't know what to think. But a very large pet, and a very smart pet, seemed like a bad idea all of a sudden.
        It was at this point that Julian had walked out of his quarters to take the lamp into account again--then saw the beast casually take a seat right in front of Jack's quarters as if he belonged right there. Obviously, he had the overwhelming urge to come over and investigate. His only question was a smiling, "What the hell?"
        "Doxy is a 'him', and his name is Doxideus." She replied in such a flat monotone that it was hard to take in any way but seriously.
        Captain DeVierna laughed anyway. It had started out as a chuckle, but it grew. "Doxy..!" he giggled, then lost himself in hysterics. Gasping, he finally announced, "I like it." Then he was off again, removing himself for a moment so he could lean against a wall.
        In the middle of the giggling fit, Jack's joking glare was interrupted by a page on her comm device. Just a page. From sickbay. Curious, to say the least... she eyed a still very innocent looking Nex carefully. No, he didn't look sick or anything. Julian had some obvious head trauma as a child if she took that lamp into account (she grinned at that), but he was okay. And she... well, maybe she was due for... something. Although she knew she wasn't. And she'd have assumed that if Dr. Carn wanted anything or had any concerns, he'd open a comm channel or drop by instead of just paging her...
"Something wrong, Captain?" Nex inquired quietly.
        Good question. She was getting... a feeling, here. Ignoring it wasn't making it go away, either. "I don't think so." She decided upon, seeing that Julian's hysterics were dying down rapidly. He'd noticed the look across her face, too. "I'm sure I'll let you both know. Suppose I ought to go respond to this in person."

        As part of her had suspected, sickbay looked abandoned. But she knew where to look--straight for the back room, where the door to the branch was. With a slight surprise, she saw the door was open... and the doctor was looking at her expectantly. He had been waiting. And, by the look on his face, he had something very weighty to say.
        "I have something of extreme importance to discuss with you, Captain." He announced, crossing his arms and pulling them tight in an unconscious gesture of worry.
        She wasn't sure what to think. Or hope for. Or... do. But she stepped inside and uttered the "secret words" without the least bit of emotional intonation. The door shut, the lights came on--and Dr. Carn looked like he was terrified. She refused to speak first, forcing an explanation out of him.
        He started off slowly, shakily, unable to make eye contact. "I-I take it you've discovered the prisoner didn't escape on his own."
        A cold, hard weight hit her chest like a sledgehammer. Still, she kept all indications of mood and reaction hidden. "That's what Pheta thought, yes."
        He took a deep breath, pacing very slowly twice across the room before he was able to continue. His captain just let him do it, giving him plenty of rope to hang himself... "I'm responsible."
        She honestly didn't know how she ought to be reacting. A dark storm was raging inside, but she would not let that through. Firstly, not unless she had to break the doctor to get information. And secondly... that quiet anger just might tear him apart like it did the prisoner he'd apparently had something to do with. If he was responsible, she wanted him alive...
        "He told me who you were." The doctor continued, his shoulders dropped and his arms still tight against him, keeping away a nonexistent cold. "At least, most of the truth."
        She was almost sorry she'd killed the little fuck. She should have saved him to empty the aggression she was feeling in just that moment. Somehow she kept herself unmoving, waiting for his explanation to resume.
        "He told me, though... that you killed Lady Astrid. She was my Lady, I was... my family occupied her lands..." his voice grew softer, his pace steadily decreasing. "But I know... I... I believed him. At first. But then... I changed my mind."
        Unbelievable. Unbe-fucking-lieveable. Had he paused for a response? She wasn't sure she could give him any; but sure enough, one passed her lips with perfectly tonelessness. "Why?"
        "I don't know." He whispered, his pacing stopped as he turned her direction--but remained unable to look at her. His eyes were solidly on the floor, waiting... for whatever would come. "I just... the branch. The way you reacted. I've been thinking about it. And Nex. Just a... a feeling." He made a grunting sound, shaking his head for a moment like a disturbed mental patient. "They say you should go with your feelings when you're a surgeon. That's what I learned. Seven years nonstop and that much fucking money, and that's what I came away with."
        She swallowed--and somehow felt less rage than before. "Why bother telling me now?" He could have gotten away with it... Likely Pheta would have found him out, but he could have kept his mouth shut. He may have been able to escape...
        "I can't possibly not tell you." He responded gruffly, head falling so his chin rested an inch from his chest. "I know... this is betrayal, but... but I didn't think to... I didn't know..."
        "You realize I can't possibly trust you now." She was calm, very even--he wasn't a moron, either way you cut it. No need to talk to him like one.
"I do." He whispered, his voice almost not coming at all.
        "And there's no way to prove your loyalty to me." She continued, picking her words and tone like a cliff animal does each stone it climbs on.
        That certainly got his head to snap up. "N-no way, Captain?"
        "Not a one. Not anymore." She admitted, still fluidly calm. "You might have come to me, but... that's a tactic in itself."
        He was actually... shaking a little, quite sure of the next step in her plan. "I... I understand."
        She sighed, pulling out of the moment for just a little while. Deep breaths, calmness, serenity. Oh, screw it. She was pissed, yes, but... it was quiet, either way. "It's a damn shame, too. You were the one doing the research. Now someone else will have to." Yes, she rather enjoyed the fear that was pooling in him. He fucking deserved it.
        "B-but... I..." he began to make excuses, then stopped abruptly. "Y-yes. I suppose s-so."
        Benefit of doubt, perhaps? It was a little hard in this situation... She did her best under the circumstances. "It looks to me like you've got two choices. I can blow you away right now, or I can get you on a trader planet. And don't think I'm above using old contacts to see that you stay there."
        He didn't know which option sounded worse. A trader planet... he'd have to run for shelter from the heat and toxic solar rays during the day and find group shelter at night. That is, if he was able to find a group of people that wouldn't kill him or use him in... uncomfortable ways. Those kinds of places were only good to find felons and thieves. He fancied himself neither. "W-which trader planet?"
        She sighed, really unwilling to act upon either option. She'd have liked for him to stay, but there was no longer any reason to trust him. There was nothing in any man that guaranteed they wouldn't do the same damn thing twice. Or more. "Maybe one with a port. I'll have to think about that."
        His heart was beating out of his chest. What a dumb fucking mistake he'd made. Maybe he was a lunatic for telling her in the first place, but... he really did want her to know. It hadn't been a plot, or a tactic. Hell, he was in trouble from her and the Pordethre government, now. He either should have kept his fool mouth shut or not have accepted the offer in the first place. He was starting to wish she'd just blow his head off all of a sudden and relieve him of the stress, the waiting...
        She wished it didn't have to end like this. But she knew too well that one had to cut off the disease before it spread--even though she felt like she was missing an opportunity, here. If only she were more trusting, she may feel comfortable with trying to use him as a double agent. Or a walking bomb. But that last one wasn't her style. She knew she ought to just blow him away right here and now with no conversation--but she wasn't entirely sure that he wasn't telling the absolute truth. And if he was, if she could prove it... she'd want to find him again. "You have any weapons on you?"
        Scared to death, he shook his head. "I d-don't like them. But the prisoner g-gave me a revolver. It's in the front desk. In s-sickbay."
        Choosing to believe him, she nodded. Taking her comm device out of her pocket, she called Pheta.
        "Captain?" came the voice instantly.
        She took a moment to regard the shivering doctor, reduced to sitting against the wall on the far end of the room. "Your presence is requested in sickbay, Commander. Get a cell ready, and find a trader planet with a dock."
        A shocked pause responded for several seconds. "Yes, Captain."
        Comm off, she looked back at the new prisoner. This betrayal... this was a hell of a lot worse than William. At least she'd known that fucker was a walking, talking prick. Carn... well... he was a doctor.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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