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

        Chapter 15 - Bounce

        Her body jolted--agony raced like a brush fire through her every molecule. She must have made a noise of some sort, but she wasn't able to hear it--only felt strong hands against her bare arms, bracing with a delicate grip.
        Part of her wanted to snap like a wild animal, throw the hands off, bite, fight to get away; but when the rest of her mind kicked into action, she had a feeling that she knew who those hands belonged to. And they weren't Julian's.
        That thought seemed to tear another painful hole in her body. She felt for a moment like the overwhelming nausea might get an even worse reaction, but it settled down a bit with her nerves. The waves of not-quite-awareness that came with stasis healing were parting quickly. Maybe too quickly. She wasn't sure she was ready to deal with this shit.
        "Captain?" Pheta's worried voice questioned softly, almost as if she were afraid to hear a response.
        Jack let herself regain calm, keeping her eyes closed through several deep breaths. At last she answered, quietly. "Yeah." She tested first one eye, then the other. Things were blurred, but forms were easy to make out. "I'm all here. I think."
        While the woman was worried about her captain's state of health, she was more worried about her mental well-being. Several seconds ticked by as she tried to decide exactly what to say. If she waited too long to speak of anything... Something had to be said, that was for certain. Something professional, regardless. "The qualities of the inside job have proven to be far more extensive than I first thought."
        The sheer level of understatement would have been laughable under almost any other circumstance. As it was, however...
        Pheta didn't wait for her to voice the question. She had a... feeling. "Captain DeVierna... is severely damaged."
        "Severely damaged." Oh those were so not the words she wanted to hear. She blinked, slowly, several times. The blurry forms were starting to sharpen, but the mental fog had run away far too quickly. "Is he still breathing?"
        "Yes." The commander assured, though quietly. "But... that's about all, Captain."
        She closed her eyes from the world once more, taking a moment to still herself. It proved nearly impossible, but she was able to regain enough control to at least appear calm. That much done, she opened her eyes and delicately tested the flexing of her shoulder muscles. "Does anyone know... anything?"
        The woman had to force herself not to shrug for a moment. "If anyone does, I'm not aware."
        To hell with this. Jack sat under her own power, ignoring pain caused by the not entirely healed bits and pieces crying out at the motion angrily. Of course, an instant later the pain hit her skull with the thrashing of a million metallic twinges--she moaned quietly, holding her head almost between her knees. That had been one hell of a deep stasis sleep. Which meant she had been a little on the "extensively damaged" side herself. In fact, come to think of it, her breath was a little shorter than it ought to be... meaning either some ribs were broken or her sternum was cracked. What a glorious miracle she lived in a time of stasis healing--unless the stasis didn't last long enough due to the risks of prolonged exposure, of course.
        "I'm alright." She slurred slightly, trying to get the pain to unlatch its claws from her brain. Clearly she was not ready to get up just then. "Okay. What do you know about the incident?"
        Pheta nodded slightly, rolling right into her report. "Whoever was responsible used a very elaborate mechanical scrambler device on our communication systems, then singled out the individual signals for your personal communication devices."
        Slowly, Jack let her head lift. The vision was still fuzzy at the edges, but the pain was receding quickly. Someone had actually gone through the trouble of singling out hers and Julian's own device codes, just to get them to be good little targets. Come to think of it, it'd been a smart plan. "I take it you regained control at just the right moment."
        Suddenly the woman looked... a little uncomfortable. It was kind of unnerving to witness. "Well, that's the thing. I didn't open the dock. No one did. The action isn't even expressed in the program logs at all. After the door had been closed, control was regained on the bridge."
        Chills. That actually inspired chills. No language in the world could have comprised the sheer multitude of questions in Jack's head--and it began to throb again. "Okay." She breathed deeply for a moment, then sat up straight again. "Okay. First thing is first. I'm going to need you to unseal the security you've no doubt got on the back room."
        Pheta was feeling a little extra cautious about this... "What are you getting at, Captain?"
        "The Tree of Life, Commander. It got Nex back. Maybe..." She sighed, pausing momentarily. "I don't know. Julian was organic, in the beginning. Maybe it'll help him, too."
        That sheer... desperation in her captain's tone... It concerned her, certainly. Kinda pissed her off on another level--but that wasn't important at the moment. She sighed her response, not quite sure it was the right thing to do then and there. "Alright. You wait here for now. What do you need?"
        "Just a leaf." She answered hopefully. That's all Carn had done, right? Just make a simple medical something or other from the leaf? She'd gotten an interesting education in making drugs from certain plants, herself. While she didn't know the terminology (as everything was escaping her wounded mind at that time, anyway), she would know what she was doing when the supplies were in front of her.
        Pheta held a sigh as deeply as she possibly could, following orders. This was... hopeless, frankly. Hey, she didn't want to see Captain DeVierna drop dead or anything. But... well... She shook the thoughts from her head with the hint of a sardonic smirk, inputting her code to momentarily unseal the door. It just seemed... so useless. So desperate. She supposed if she were in that position, however... Well, not important.

        Upon walking back into the core of sickbay, her captain was already digging through cabinets for the necessary equipment. She quirked an eyebrow, aware that this seemed almost... what? Natural? Hm. Simply, hm. The captain easily could have called on another doctor. A nurse, even. The fact she was just as easily doing it herself, laying out precisely the correct equipment...
        "Fucking syringes." Jack murmured, having looked through all the drawers already.
        "Upper left cabinet. Labeled 'Syringes/Needles'." The ever so helpful commander offered quietly. This should not be funny, dammit.
        But her captain heard the barely withheld laughter on the edge of the woman's voice. It was so... unlike her, really. Or so she'd thought. Hey, humor helped a lot of things. "Give me a break, Commander." She threw back in good humor. "There's something crawling inside my skull right now."
        Not risking more possible inappropriate laughter during conversation, Pheta only laid the shimmering leaf she'd gathered on the counter next to the microscanners. It looked like a clean surface. Carn may have been a traitor, but he was still a doctor. And a neat freak.
        Needle and syringe in hand, Jack took a moment to stare at the leaf in thought. It wasn't... quite like all the times before. No, this had to be precise. She suddenly wished that the doctor hadn't been so fucking stupid; she really could have used his help. Making drugs from highly toxic plants was one thing, but this...
        "If I may, Captain."
        She looked up, noting how quiet Pheta's voice had suddenly become. How... interesting. Her lips parted to inquire, but her mind stopped the question. Certainly she was no better equipped to handle this than a Glexelan Defense Commander. Though, vice versa. "Do you have experience?"
        "Do you?" It was soft, less than accusatory.
        "In a manner of speaking." She relented.
        The woman nodded curtly. "Same here. May I?"
        "Knock yourself out." The captain offered, placing the equipment on the counter.
        She soon learned that Pheta was even more of a wonder. Exactly what went on was a little too fast for her slightly clouded brain to comprehend--she did catch some practiced motions, though. There was a mortar and pestle involved, some sort of alcohol perhaps, and something cotton-ish... well, no matter. In less than ninety seconds, there was a syringe full of a light green substance. Even tapped for air bubbles. How was that for service?
        Of course, there were a number of questions here. They both seemed aware of that... Well, hey. The woman gave her privacy, so she would return the same. For the time being, anyway. Carefully grasping the syringe, she followed the commander into the back, where the more private rooms were.
She flinched upon seeing the real wreck that Julian's body had become. Blood, wire, metal--and his face. It didn't even look like him. Had he not been in uniform, she'd have insisted that it wasn't, that it was just some insane mistake. Of course, she knew better. This had better work, otherwise...
        Well, the possibilities weren't anything to dwell on, here. He had a pulse (by some almost disturbing miracle), and there was still blood flowing in his body. A vein was a surprisingly easy find, and she did her best to make it quick. Thankfully the entire process of injection had come a long way since medicine first began. The sensors injected the liquid the instant they touched the surface of his skin, retracting the needle when done.
        The reaction was almost instantaneous. His whole body jerked, muscles constricting with such force that they almost succeeded in spilling him onto the floor. And then there was that sound--
        It was a wail, a desperate keening that he could neither recognize as his own nor control. It was just pain--pain, fear and darkness, overloading, overwhelming. Awake but not aware, between life and oblivion--electric showers roared through his body, making him feel every impulse and spark. Something truly awful was happening. But he didn't realize exactly what.
        Something had begun to pour from his wounds--but the sheer smell of the liquid proved that it was not blood at all. In fact, the liquid reflected the lights above, rolling in lazy waves off of the table. Molten metal had begun to break the surface, emerging from his skin and heating every surface it touched--so much so that Jack and Pheta were forced back to the doorway.
        Jack had never felt so utterly guilty before. She was completely responsible for this second onslaught of pain--and, more than possibly, worse than mere pain. It had been her bright idea, her good intentions. Fuck good intentions--they got friends killed and worlds destroyed. She knew that already.
        The volcano of metal was short-lived, thankfully. The wailing calmed as the last of the foreign substance slid to the floor, slowly melting welts in the surface. The environmental system seemed to pick up on this of all incredibly strange signals, immediately starting to cool the floor panels. The metal made several unappreciative pops, then began to hiss at the increasingly frigid temperatures it encountered.
        In the middle of the compromise of extreme heat and arctic cold, lay Julian. Whole. Unburdened himself by burn marks or tattered flesh, but still quite in agony from the experience just the same, unable to fully grasp consciousness. He panted hard, but the rise and fall of his chest was feeble at best. All muscles were slack, his eyes half open but blind. He couldn't hear anything but the beating of his own heart, racing erratically--and even that didn't exactly register. It still hurt. It still really, badly hurt. But he knew on some level that he was alive. What had happened exactly was a blur of burning hot agony, but it really didn't matter.
        Several minutes passed until the metal had hardened. On the up side, the floors had been redone. Not that they'd needed to be...
        Jack watched with an unmoving gaze as the breaths came a little slower, a bit deeper, a little more free. She didn't realize she was shivering, clad only in her pants and sleeveless undershirt, until Pheta had offered her own uniform jacket over her captain's exposed arms. The sudden contact actually made her jump a little, not even remembering what was going on for a moment. "Thanks." She breathed sincerely. "I... uh..."
        "You should get back to your quarters and rest for a while." The woman finished gently. "I'll take care of the bridge. You'll know if anything drastic happens. I'm sure the rest of the medical staff can handle it."
        Well, she was glad Pheta was so sure. Not that she really expected any of them to be incompetent or anything, but... yeah. "Good idea." She relented, tired and physically weak. Carefully she slipped out of the commander's jacket and offered it back. "I'll... be alright. Really. But, thanks."
        The woman nodded and accepted the article back. Jack really did look shaken up. More so than she'd ever imagined her looking, let alone... Well, she couldn't blame her. She only nodded back as the captain turned and left, straight for the lift. Never a dull moment around here.

        There was no sleeping to be had. It just... wasn't possible. For one, it ached to lay down. No, more than ached--an ache was tolerable. Not pleasant, but possible to ignore. This, whatever it was, went a little beyond the ability to ignore.
        And for another thing... it just seemed so quiet. And not the good kind of quiet. It was... almost lonesome; which was probably because the weight of her cherished weapon was no longer at her side. How... sad. She'd had that beauty since the first, since the very beginning. It was the personal worth that made it such a kick in the ass. Even if she'd had the desire to get a Spectre replica, it just wouldn't be the same. Not in weight, not in material, not it target or fire or any of the other things she'd come to know. It was like losing a family member. And that was certainly not a nice thought.
        She was halfway tempted to page Nex, frankly; just for the amusing company. But no, he'd be informed of only the basic details later, as was best. And he'd worry too much if she contacted him herself. Like she should care, right?
        She sighed with that last thought. These goddamn people. They were making her all... weird and care-y. Eck.
        The thought made her laugh a little. So she was starting to feel better... but there was no way in hell she'd feel anything close to good until she knew--
        Oh fuck. Door chime. She left her heating teapot for the time being to go and attack someone. Maybe not literally, but... it would make her feel even better. And everyone wanted the captain to feel better, right? May all the powers of the universe, known and unknown, help the poor fool who...
        --Julian. Standing. Looking a little shaky and a bit thinner than he'd been before, but... alive. He didn't wait to be invited in; he couldn't. He'd lose his nerve, his momentum. "I... I saw you." He started uneasily. But these things had to be said, dammit. He couldn't live with them bottled up. "I mean, I wasn't conscious, but... I saw you. Kind of like... computer memory, I guess. I don't know. Just..." He stopped himself, unable to express what he wanted to in words. And certainly not in a doorway. But then it was all he had to work with in the moment.
        Yeah it was awkward and more than a little bit sappy, but he didn't care. Didn't give a fuck. She'd saved his ass so many times... but this last had been the ultimate. Hell, she'd sacrificed her Spectre for him, so Pheta had said. Not just for him, of course--for all of them. For the whole ship and everyone in it, too. He'd be the first to thank her, though. Maybe his new, fully human self was just overcome with emotion--but no matter. He moved forward too fast to give her a chance to escape, hugging her tightly.
        She... didn't react. Too shocked, really. She only... stood there, feeling very weird. Sure they'd slept side by side on the same couch, but... this was a little more... alien. And they'd been drunk, then. That was a much better excuse than... well, alright, having your life saved might be just as close on the scale of sudden but acceptable odd behavior.
        He didn't let go. Wouldn't, until she acknowledged the motion somehow. It took yet another long moment before she realized this, even then raising her arms slowly. How different. How foreign. How... uncomfortable. Ki'ehr and she had hugged regularly, but... that was Ki. Beyond him, she'd practically no "experience".
        He couldn't help but feel... well, damn special as her arms rested against his back. Ha! he thought jokingly. Beat this, Nex! Pheta! He wouldn't have dared ruin the mood, though. This was just too nice to interrupt. Hell, he had feelings for the girl even outside of "a crush", but this--fuck. He'd admitted it to himself. Fuck fuck fuck.
        She, however... was in shock. A shock so thick that nothing, not even a large neon sign with the words "I HAVE FEELINGS FOR YOU" could have pierced through the haze. She was actually kind of trying to get him to let go, as this was just a little bit freaky. And her teapot was screaming. Ding! "How about that cup of tea, Jules?"
        --Wait a second. That wasn't what she'd wanted to say. Cross-checking... no, it certainly wasn't, as that implied he stay for more of these uncomfortable moments. How and why the hell..?
        His eyes shot open with wide, surprised sightlessness. Did she just... no way. No freakin' way. After that, she couldn't have just... "Uh... I'm not much for actual tea, myself."
        You're a fucking idiot, "Jules". His mind instantly yelled at him. In desperation, he decided not to let go of her just yet.
        And that was getting... really uncomfortable. Downright scary, even. She was starting to think like cornered prey for a moment; escape, escape... "Well, you... don't have to, then. You should probably rest, anyway." Escape.
        He wondered why, all of a sudden, he was picturing himself as some sort of predator animal. Weird. Point being... "If you'd rather be alone. I mean, I understand."
        Oh shit. Ball in her court. Alright, well... First thing first. "I... need air."
        "Oh." Well, he'd gotten a nice long hug in at least. Of course now things were... awkward. Dammit. Could he never win? "I... sorry if that was..."
        She dismissed the very idea with a little wave of her hand. She could understand, she supposed. Shock still sort of prevailed, but...
        He sighed internally. There was nothing he could think of to do or say that would make any of this better. He'd done all he'd needed to. Sure he'd have preferred something else, but... this was as comfortable as it would get for a while, most likely. And he hated that. But pushing things wasn't right. Not now, anyway. "I... probably should get some rest. If you don't mind."
        Something clicked--but it wasn't quite the "right" thing. She just knew that there was something he wasn't saying. And it might be her fault. As for what it was... "You don't have to. If you're in the mood for company."
        Oh how he wanted to latch onto that opportunity with everything he had! So very unfortunately, he thought that perhaps he actually did know better. Jack wasn't your run-of-the-mill chick. Clearly. He'd have to approach this... carefully. Not to mention making it a point to act as if he'd never had his damnable little revelation. "No, that's alright. We'll have plenty of time together on the bridge and... stuff." Make that smile count, Jules, c'mon...
        To her credit, at the very least she did understand that something was up. As for what... well, that was a truly foreign concept. "Are you sure?"
        No! "Yeah. We should both just... sleep, anyway." Stop me, stop me now...
        She was distinctly interpreting some mixed signals. And she wasn't even sure why. "I'll see you on the bridge, then." She promised, shock and confusion still pulling like quicksand.
        "Yeah." He answered, just a suavely as... a suave person might respond. "Get some rest."
        "You, too." She responded, pulling away--and closing the door quickly. That was just, too, weird.

        The damn walls had better be soundproof. Otherwise she'd have heard his tremendously agonized sigh with a groan worked in there somewhere. That much out, he turned to make a slow retreat. As he passed by the lift, however, it opened. And of all people, of all the fucking people--
        Pheta looked a bit surprised to see him, in fact. She'd left him to the medical professionals with no idea he'd be up and walking so quickly; but there was something else. Not that he'd asked, not that he'd even made contact in the sort of way that invites conversation, but... "You look..." she began--suddenly slicing off her own words. She couldn't be that brutally honest. So, she toned it down. A little. "Bad."
        An almost humorless smirk appeared on his lips. "Thanks." Only looking to avoid more eye contact, he looked down--and noted a box in her hands. A plain, forearm length, relatively narrow white box. How... odd.
        She pretended for a moment that she didn't notice the shadow of a dark look move past his features. There was something much more important in his eyes. Like... well, like a man who almost died, she supposed. There seemed like there was something else, perhaps.... Something strong enough for her to be asking about, anyway. "Are you certain there isn't anything troubling you, Captain?"
        "No." He had stated, firmly. However. There was no way, in all of the workings of life itself, found in any of the wonders they had seen over any of their lifetimes, he could have held in that sigh--a sigh so detrimental to assuring the commander that he was a-okay, that he felt utterly and completely... like an asshole, surprisingly. He knew he had to duck out, and damn fast. "I'm tired."
        The woman's hard look could probably make a full-grown Solanid explode from across light-years. And she used it with surprising accuracy, not to mention effectiveness. She didn't know this guy. He was... her competition, in a way. They didn't exactly "gel"--at least, not on a professional level. She hadn't cared to know him on a personal level, nor did she still; not specifically, anyway. But this... something she was perfectly sure she could put her finger on but didn't dare let the possibility sink in just yet... She cursed, albeit mildly in comparison to the usual, and gave in. Well, if Captain Veis liked the guy, maybe... hell, she didn't know. "Have you a distinct bit of discord, Sir?"
        That question, along with the almost knowing tone in her voice, made him blink as though he'd been smacked. That actually would have been more tolerable for some reason. Lucky thing she had that box in her hands, though. He found himself suddenly very honest. Not rude, but certainly matter-of-fact. "I don't want to talk about it, Commander."
        It almost got a grin out of the woman. These were... delicate matters, though. Even if they were on slightly different sides, in a sense. Hey, there was always a chance... although now she very much doubted it. Even if her captain had no idea, it seemed Julian had enough of one (not to mention initiative) for both of them. A situation like that always caused some sparks. She was not one to get in the middle, though. "Alright, Captain. Get some rest." And with that she turned professionally on a heel and walked right over to Jack's doorstep.
        A sudden rage burst through him--out of fucking nowhere. He didn't even know it was rage until he caught his own thoughts, murmuring deep inside his mind, Who does she think she is to bring Jack a gift?
        Oh shit. He turned around and did not stop walking until he was in the bedroom of his quarters. This was silly. This was just... freakin' weird. What... what the hell was this, anyway? Obsession? Why? She clearly didn't feel that way. Only, she didn't even know... did she? And what role did Pheta play? Why'd she come into the picture? What the hell was in the box?
        "I should be afraid of myself." He moaned painfully, sitting on the foot of the bed and grasping at his lightly pounding head. This... was not supposed to happen. Yeah he liked Jack, a lot. Always had... even though he'd been quite afraid of her at first. This was just... a passing phase. Infatuation, nothing more. He'd suffered similar things many times throughout the years.
        Similar. But not the same. But this was no different, either. He was just around her so often, and they worked well together. That was all, and that was fine. He'd get over this weird hormone thing or whatever.
        Liar. His own mind was against him. How sad.

        She must have been standing at the door for five minutes, trying to decide whether or not it was safe to admit to being conscious. The chime was relatively consistent, though. About every thirty seconds, by her count. Julian wouldn't have that kind of patience. She imagined Nex wouldn't, either.
At five minutes and thirty seconds, she finally surrendered. Regardless of knowing who it
must have been, she was still surprised. Must have been the box. In fact, she was staring at that box for a moment before she realized it was rude to be blocking the doorway from a guest. Even if she wasn't quite in "guest mood" anymore. "Checking up on me, Commander?" she got the ball rolling as the door slid shut.
        "Somewhat." The woman admitted. "But I wasn't sure this could wait."
        And why was she getting that really freaked out feeling again? She'd never even gotten jitters like that on an assassination job... of course, it'd been a long time. No matter. She wasn't quite used to gifts. Not the good kind, anyway. It was... numbing. Most especially so when the box was pressed into her hands expectantly.
        Heavy. That's the only thing that really hit her about this situation--the box was very heavy. Like there was a rock in it. Oh, that'd be the ultimate laugh, wouldn't it? But... no. There was something familiar here, too. She met the woman's eyes curiously for a moment, but there was nothing but encouragement there.
        Could be a bomb. Though she really doubted it. With a waiting breath, she carefully pulled the lid off, sliding it up and underneath the box itself--
        Her heart skipped several beats as she gazed upon the object nestled inside. "Pheta?"
        The woman grinned warmly and proudly. "We found it zipping along in space with some other debris." She dismissed momentarily. "Well, actually, I got Nex to follow it after I tracked it down. Point being. Looks like it came home." Nevermind she and Nex had several battles of Blade, Paper, Meteor to decide who got to deliver it...
        Jack shook her head slightly, amazed. Her Spectre. In as perfect condition as ever, save perhaps a few buffable scratches. Tough little fucker. No wonder it'd lasted so damn long. Time to get some new bullets for her baby. "How close are we to Biarcha?"
        "Ten hours or so." The commander responded, trying to hold in her curiosity.
        "Get us there, if you would." She almost suggested.
        With a nod, Pheta turned and began to take her exit. Hell, she was satisfied. No need for words and acts of praise, really. She certainly didn't expect it.
        "Pheta." Her captain called her back for a moment. "Thank you. Really. Both of you."
        Ah, that got a smile a little wider than she cared to show. Doing her best to keep in professional, she nodded once more--but there was something else. Something she'd been thinking about only recently. And maybe... "If I may say so, Captain..." she trailed off for a moment, feeling like a real moron for bringing this up. She shouldn't be. It was not a smart move on her part for a number of reasons. And then, professionally, it was really none of her business to begin with. "It's usually a stress reliever to get together with some friends and... let go."
        A blank stare met her response for so long that the woman actually began to wonder if Jack were still breathing. Miraculously, she was--or enough so that she finally spoke. "I'll... take that under advisement, Pheta."
        The woman made one more curt nod before taking her leave entirely. She was comfortable with where that had been left. More or less.
        Alone again, the captain gazed back at her cherished beauty. Some people had vehicles. Others had cherished flowers. Still others kept vast harems. She had her Spectre. Come 'ere, baby. Sliding her hand underneath and around the grip as though it were an ancient piece of crumbling artwork, she carefully removed it from its confines, turning it in the light to inspect the almost complete lack of damage. Amazing.
        Yes, she could sleep now. Wait--aaahh. That empty holster was weightless no longer.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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