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

        Chapter 16 - The Result of a God Sneezing

        It was a wonder that he'd slept at all. Not that he'd been obsessing over the night before or anything... Well, not so much. Not that bad. Not, like, psychotically or anything. Probably. Not according to the strictest definition.
        He was woken by the sound of a steady beep from his desk console in the far room. Unusual. Apparently someone had figured out how to use the damn things. How wonderful that they could wake a person... Stumbling in the midst of too little sleep and way too much running of the mind, he tapped the keyboard and received... an invitation. From... Jack(?!).
        "Consider this an invite to a 'breakfast meeting'. Bring your own food. Tea provided. Festivities begin:" After the message was a clock, counting down. Apparently he had about an hour until... well, whatever. He got the distinct impression he wasn't the only one invited. And exactly what he ought to feel about that... was lost somewhere. This was... this was odd. Too odd to react to in any way other than to get up and shower.

        Filling the teapot with miraculously filtered water, she was starting to wonder if she'd just gone off the deep end, herself. Inviting people over... it wasn't something she'd ever done in her entire life. Even Ki, even with her oldest and dearest friend, she'd never invited him to see her. Though that might have been because he had no problem with inviting himself.
        She chuckled at those fond memories. Even up until those last moments... Well, that was nothing to think back on, really. What had happened was ultimately over and done. It wasn't the kind of thing a person wanted to think back on.
        Another random and somewhat amusing thought came to mind--when Ki had more or less admitted that he thought Jules was cute. She found herself laughing harder, wondering what ol' Captain DeVierna would have thought about that whole thing...
        Ah, speak of the devil. Or something along those lines. The door had chimed and the time was about right. A little early, though... she really had no idea which one of them it would be. Not that she was the sort to get nervous, but... considering the events she had planned, a little jitter was completely understandable.
        Water heating, she left the kitchen to welcome whoever the first visitor happened to be--a little taken aback by the fact that four pairs of eyes met her gaze, all having tried (and failed) to be a little earlier than the others. Doxy, of all beasts, stood in front of the group as though it were his most natural position. Standing beside him was Nex, carrying a box of some sort. Beside and a little behind the boy was Pheta, looking absolutely no worse for wear considering she barely seemed to sleep anymore. And then, behind all of them, was Julian--his lack of sleep a little obvious. Must have been a combination of dark pits under his eyes and clearly not having shaved. Or maybe it was the glazed look.
        "Well." Jack started, trying to mask her general confusion as to how and why they'd all shown up at once. "This is a bit of a surprise."
        "You did invite us." Nex pointed out all too damn cheerily for that time in the morning. Granted that on a ship they went on an old system of time measurement that had nothing to do with their surroundings, but the daily cycle was strictly enforced so that no one got exhausted... or went insane. According to the ship and their body clocks, it was morning. Early--more often than not used for sleeping--morning.
        Just as Jack got ready to throw a pointed comment back in the cheery boy's face, he handed over the box he was carrying as a gift. Peeking inside, she couldn't help but notice it contained six distinct pastries... of some sort. What kind and from where exactly did not matter; neither did the fact that she'd never found blue-tinted food to look quite so appealing. It, was, pastry. That was all that mattered. "I was only halfway joking about bringing your own food... but thanks, anyway."
        "Oh." Nex shrugged off the gentle attack on his goodwill. "Then, do you have anything for Doxy?"
        Being the good host that she was, she finally stepped aside and let them all in. "I wouldn't forget Doxy. Although I'm not sure if what I have for him is actually from something that was once an animal... but it meets health standards."
        The boy had to admit he was a little... surprised. Not that he figured the captain to dislike pets, but... he never quite thought of her as the sort to like them so much, either. Hell, the other two were equally as stunned, glancing back and forth. The fact that she may even have had a fish as a pet in all of her life was just... weird.
        But they were not so stunned as to not try to divide Jack's attention a little bit. Even Pheta had to admit (though only to herself) that this sort of a morning gathering was a little... nerve-wracking. It was just old instinct to divert a little attention from whoever held the most power in a situation, but as for exactly how she would be able to do so...
        Well, someone else had already taken care of that. A slight splintering sound came from the couch to the group's side. As they looked over, a purring of the sort they'd previously only thought old machinery could manage erupted from a very satisfied Niehder-cat. Doxy had managed to crush the couch under his weight, having climbed up and laid down as though he owned it himself.
        All three of the invited crew looked to Jack--half in horror and half trying not to laugh. Somehow they had expected quite a loud reaction to what the cat had just done to her furniture, but all they got was a very calm hand on her hip as she stared at the beast silently. When at long last she did speak, it was with all the patience in the world. "I think he ought to learn just how large of a kitten he really is, Nex."
        The boy let out a relieved sigh as quietly as possible. "Yes, Captain." He knew better than to actually bring the subject up, but he couldn't help himself. "But... aren't you... a little angry at him?"
        She grinned slightly at the question. "Nah. Never use the couch anyway." Much easier to be patient with something that won't talk back, perhaps. With that phrase in mind, she turned to get the tea ready. "Go ahead and have a seat in the conference room at the back. I'll be right there."
        Left to fend for themselves, there were several curious glances exchanged. But, really, what was the use in waiting? With a worry-free smile, Nex nearly skipped down the hall--leaving Pheta and Julian to fend for themselves. That was, until the commander followed close behind, leaving the other captain to let his nerves flare. Taking on a baby Solanid? Hey, no problem. Taking on Jack, even with other people, in a completely unknown but undoubtedly dangerous situation like this? Different. Vert different.
        Doxy walked past him and down the hall after the other two, successfully interrupting his mental anguish. Well. He couldn't have quite this amount of competition, could he? He immediately rebuked himself for that line of thought and followed.
        Luckily for all of them, there was no time for idle conversation before Jack arrived with a large silver-black tray in her hands. Four cups graced the corners, with a small pile of tea bags and a hot water decanter in the middle. In the spaces between the tea paraphernalia were small croissants--and one rather large object wrapped in butcher's paper. Seeing all eyes rest upon that particular thing, she nodded toward it as she set the tray on the table, object on Nex's side. "That, is for Doxy. And the rest can be shared or fought over."
        Tentatively, Nex grasped the offered gift and carefully pulled the tape from the paper. What was inside was a marvel for two reasons: one, it was a bone from a very large animal, still covered with a bit of meat. And two... it was still warm. As though it'd been freshly heated. As though Jack herself had made the effort to keep some part of something she'd bought for herself, suddenly offered specifically to Doxy, and heated it to body warmth like Niehder-cats preferred. It was shockingly heart-warming. Or just shocking. But to all of these details, he chose to say nothing other than, "Thank you." I was just... easier that way. He carefully leaned down to smooth the paper on the floor so Doxy wouldn't make a mess. He was still a kitten, after all. The creature immediately laid down to enjoy his gift.
        Their "hostess" sat at the head of the table, Julian and Nex to her sides and Pheta across. Jack actually looked surprisingly... comfortable. Not without being on her guard, of course, but... there was a "natural calm" about her. And somehow that didn't seem to sit well with the others.
        "Alright." She began, soft but merciless. Even before food and drink were offered, she laid it all out on the table. "I suppose you all know way too much about me. So now it's everyone else's turn."
        Julian could think of little response to something of this scale. He seemed to echo the others when his mouth barely formed a reliable, "Uh..."
        Jack continued her line of thought aloud. "If we're all going to do this 'friend' thing, then we might as well spill all of our secrets to each other, right?"
        Devious. Absolutely devious. They were all beginning to wonder if the door had somehow been locked so none of them could escape...
        "And now," their hostess continued far too calmly, "Feel free to serve yourselves. This might take a while."
        Julian suddenly realized what it must feel like to know he was about to be tortured. For a long moment, only the sound of Doxy's teeth crunching against bone filled the room. It was finally Pheta that extended a hand to grasp a cup, carefully dropping a random tea bag into it before pouring nearly still-boiling water from the decanter. She could not reveal just how heightened her nerves had become. How far this thing might go...
        "Pheta." Jack's voice was so dangerously soft that the Defense Commander jumped ever so slightly. "Would you like to start things off?"
        A decisively agonizing rush of cold sweat seemed to cover the commander's palms for a moment. Her overcompensation for nerves had told too much. And while this was not an attack on her captain's part... it sure felt like one. "What would you like to know?" she struggled to keep her voice and the hand that held her cup steady at the same time.
        "Everything you're willing to tell." The captain responded, gently but distant.
        Pheta took a deep breath, not at all ready for this... but Jack had made a good point. They all knew so much about her that she'd really have rather they'd not found out... This was about courage, wasn't it? Bravery? Some bullshit like that? After all, she was loyal to her captains, to her ship. There was no need to worry... right? Might as well spill it all on the table right now, or she may never. Who knew, it may even be a weight off her shoulders. "Then... my full name. Is Pheteir Magellan Beran-Turou."
        Jaws dropped to the table. Even Nex knew just enough of that name to have a stunned look on his face.
        "Beran-Turou?" Jack finally found her tongue, but wasn't certain if she'd heard that right the first time.
        "Yes." Pheta assured quietly, taking a very measured pretend sip of tea.
        So much for the theory she'd merely heard wrong. "As in--"
        "Yes." The woman answered again.
        Beran-Turou. It was like a faceless syndicate of... well, everything. The name itself brought about pictures of a bogeyman that may or may not exist, something to scare people who lived and worked in space. Beran-Turou was a storybook person of the sort that owned universes and swam in streams of currency. To find out it was a real family bloodline, and then to find out it was associated with Pheta, not to mention being Glexelan in origin... There had never been proof that a real Beran-Turou existed. Once in a while a ship was lost or a planet on the outskirts subtly removed from a map, but the joking whispers of "Beran-Turou must have got 'em", were just that.
        Jack took a moment to pass over the very little she knew of the name before considering her next words carefully. "Does that have anything to do with why you left home?"
        Pheta was finally starting to look truly uncomfortable, being the center of attention. "Sort of." She admitted softly. "My father told me to leave." She looked down at her hands suddenly, folded in her lap, as though they were the most interesting things she'd ever seen. "He gave me money and safe passage. It just wasn't safe for me back there."
        There was another long bout of astounded silence. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Jack broke it again moments later. "I... well. I don't want to prod too deep, but... if I may ask, why?"
        The woman took a measured breath before she was able to respond. "If you don't mind, I'd rather not get into specifics. It was bad. I think that's all anyone needs to know."
         Jack shivered with renewed memories of torture--and not just her own. Sure a lot of those assholes deserved what they got and more, but... she wondered how blind she'd been as a corporate assassin, all of a sudden. And to think someone as clearly loyal as Pheta would have gone through what she seemed to be implying...
        Julian caught only a glimmer of Jack's reaction--but dammit, it was enough. He wondered, not so distantly that he couldn't really taste the bitterness of the thought, just what else that girl had been through. And then there was that maddening, wicked little voice in his head: Now they have another bond you don't. He had to stop himself from literally knocking that thought right out. What a terrible thing to be thinking at a time like this.
        It was almost as if the commander could sense the motion of his thoughts. Her eyes glanced up at nothing in particular. If this was a truth session, there was something she needed to know. "And if I might," she countered softly, glancing very quickly and only once in Jack's direction, "Would you happen to be..? I mean to say, are you--"
        Maybe it was the way the woman was suddenly grasping her arms. Maybe it was the tone of voice. Either way, Jack got a surprisingly distinct impression as to what was being asked of her. Mere hours earlier, in sickbay... it was spoken then only in passing and never in specifics, but it was enough to have remained somewhere in their minds. The syringe, trying to make an injection from a leaf of the Tree of Life, they'd noticed one another's ease with needles... "An addict?"
        The boys gasped softly with that accusation. But Pheta had other matters in mind. She simply wanted to know. "Yes."
        "No." The captain responded in utter honesty. "To be frank, I just didn't care for it. But I did live around it for long enough. You learn to return favors in easier ways than... 'the usual'."
        The commander nodded slightly, really feeling nothing at all in reaction. She had simply wanted to know, to satisfy her curiosity.
        Before Pheta had the chance to recover and move on, Jack knew she had to push a little further. Hey, it was fair. She hadn't brought them here for them to ask her questions. "What about you?"
        This was getting... interesting. Julian and Nex were holding their breaths, looking from one side to the other as if watching a tournament of some kind. It was fascinating.
        "N-no." The woman responded with a matter-of-fact nod, eye contact nearly impossible. "Not an addict. Not... not those sort of drugs."
        Well now that was even more interesting of a response. Captain Veis was starting to feel she was impeding quite unwelcome into an area she had no business in. Of course she was still curious, but she wasn't about to push into territory she wasn't aiming for.
        "They're hormones." Pheta admitted under her breath, once more staring straight at her hands. Just the other half of the whole truth. The first half had been easy enough, hadn't it? But the second...
        "You don't have to--" Jack began, sensing that this was the start of an awful memory.
        "It just..." The woman sighed, feeling now as if she almost needed to let it out. It'd been banging at the back of her mind for quite some time, really. "It h-has to do with the torture. And my reason for leaving home. I need the hormones."
        Certainly explained why the woman was good at haggling--any advanced medications like the kind she referred to were understandably expensive. She certainly must have ample money, even so long away from home, but anyone would try to make that money last as long as possible. "It's alright, Pheta. Really."
        But once it had started, once the secret she had been ashamed of all that time had started to surface, she found there was no stopping it even when she wanted to. How embarrassing it would be, how awful--"I, I wasn't born a woman..."
        Julian pulled back just slightly--not from Pheta, but from this whole situation. A dam was breaking, here. He felt like he needed to get the hell out of the way before it flooded over him. Nex almost leaned forward to watch the incoming current, fascinated as much as he was uneasy.
        "Not physically..." she went on, shaking slightly.
        "You don't have to go on, Pheta..." Jack tried to keep her voice soft, encouraging. But... damn. This was... interesting. Not as though she wanted to see her commander break, but... just, damn. It was a car wreck fascination mixed with the genuine desire not to see a friend in pain.
        "I know." She responded roughly, finally hearing a voice override the memories of her father's advisors. Those people, those fucking horrible people--"You just... you don't become anything but a man when you're born a boy... certainly not of that family..."
        Julian was getting it. A little too much. Glexelans were exceptionally phobic of anything outside of the normal male-female, straight-laced relationship. If the impression he was getting was true... well, son of the "great and powerful" Beran-Turou Dynasty wanting to be a woman... that would not have been met with enthusiasm. There was, in fact, little doubt of what torture had been used. Glexelan cultural systems of belief and law were not known for making sense, surely--the very idea made him cringe and cross his legs.
        Jack herself only knew so much--but from having heard the shift of Julian's pant legs, she got the drift quickly. "We're..." Oh, this sounded so fucking melodramatic and stupid, but... but it was true. "We're here. Y'know, if you need..." Be smooth. Caring and smooth. "Stuff."
        There was a slight and coughing sound of laughter at that. Her voice was still grinding with tears that refused to fall, but she was composing herself. "Thank you. Captain. It was... traumatic. That's all."
        "I can scarcely imagine." Jack admitted. Her torture was nothing quite like that. And even then, mentally--for all the scum she may have been, lived around, or may become, she was strangely never made to feel like a freak. Different, sure. But not... like that. The combination of all of it must have been... overwhelming.
        "I'm sorry about this." The woman apologized, composing herself.
        "Nah." The captain dismissed gently. "Had I known how little it took to get you to break down, though..."
        "Heh." Pheta was increasingly glad about that vicious sense of humor. "It happens only twice in a lifetime, Captain."
        "Glad to hear that." Jack admitted. "I think you earned some food."
        While the commander was busy selecting a croissant, the two boys carefully kept their hands in their laps. The last time someone had reached to get tea, Jack had singled them out. Not that either of them had anything quite of that caliber to share, but... well. It didn't seem safe.
        Unfortunately, Julian made the mistake of establishing partial eye contact. He just couldn't help it! She was silent and motionless for so long that he had to glance over if only to make sure she was still breathing... it was the sleep deprivation that impeded his judgment.
        "Anything you have to say, Jules?" she challenged a little more lightheartedly.
        Seeing his chance, Nex grabbed a cup for himself. Hey, for a few minutes, he was in the clear.
        "Uh... not really." Captain DeVierna admitted. "I've had a pretty normal life. As far as I can remember." His admissions came to a screeching halt as he considered his words for a moment. "At least, I thought so. Until I met you, anyway."
        Pheta and Nex glanced at one another from over their cups, having almost heard an audible "click" of something falling into place--or falling accidentally out into the open. Not that it mattered; Jack didn't seem to have caught it in that way.
        To all of their surprise, she simply let it slide. The interrogator turned to the boy with a fresh cup of tea and invited, "And what about you, Nex?"
        Perhaps feeling an air of confidence in how easily the last "attack" was evaded, he shook his head. "I'm no one interesting. Just a Perupte with a mother, father, and no siblings. And an aunt."
        "You are lucky in your normalcy." Pheta commented sincerely, feeling more at ease herself.
        "I've got a question, though." Nex turned the tables so sweet and innocently that it could not have been any better planned.
        Unable to help the grin on his face, Julian finally felt relaxed enough to get himself a cup of tea. He didn't even like tea, but there was a sense of extreme satisfaction as he poured the hot water while Jack wriggled slightly under the spotlight.
        "Alright." The captain sighed quietly, knowing this would probably happen but still unready for it. Like they needed to know any more about her.
Nex shot a particular bulls eye. "Who'd you kill?" It wasn't a sharply toned question at all; more of a child-like curiosity.
        There was actually a bit of humor in response to that. He sounded so damn sincere, so curious to know. "Lots of people, I'm afraid."
        "Give us an estimate." Pheta grinned deviously.
        Well, they'd asked. And she probably deserved it, anyway. She needed hardly a second to think about it, adding on the last couple in recent times. "Four hundred thirty-seven."
        Silence, for a moment. And then Julian, surprisingly enough, broke it. "Are you rolling in riches or something?"
        "Hardly." She grinned, almost secretively. "Corporate assassins work for corporations. It's a sad fact that money doesn't exactly leak down to the actual grunt workers. That's why you took what you could from the guy's pockets and ran."
        "So... can we call you Jack?" Nex grinned innocently.
        Julian covered his mouth as surreptitiously as he possibly could. The chuckling was barely controllable.
        Jack's glare found him--and the laughter got more intense. She turned her gaze back to Nex with narrowed eyes for a long moment, then over to Pheta's crossed arms and easy smirk. "Fine." She finally decreed, roughly. "But not in public."

        While none of them would have believed it so in the beginning, it really was as if a weight had been lifted off of them. Between Nex's box of pastry and the croissants Jack had somehow managed to acquire without anyone else's knowledge, they even got a meal out of it. Perhaps not the healthiest of meals, but a meal that actually made them feel full, regardless.
        Conversation even moved on to more pleasant topics... although it was mostly just naming of names and how much certain people annoyed all of them. Nex did very well to keep up his sweet and innocent image--at first. They learned that there were some people on board that made his smiling eyes glaze over, however.
        Breakfast was brief, but it didn't really feel that way. Nor did it feel like a long, hard ordeal. It was just... a nice change of pace. Even with the confessions. Truth be told, though, Jack knew better; the longer they were all together, the more chances there were to ruin a good thing. Not that she actually thought that was likely to happen, but... well. She was a natural pessimist, to put it lightly. When all cups but Julian's were drained (he tried his best, but he just couldn't take it even with sugar) and only crumbs and flakes of bone were left behind, Captain Veis took it upon herself to gently dismiss them. "You're all free to go. But only if you take a few hours off before doing any work. Sleep, or recover from sugar shock. Or, whatever."
        "Thank you for the... everything..." Nex showed his normal, polite self... at first. "Jack."
        "Hey." She retorted, semi-seriously.
        "Just trying it out." The boy defended himself with a mask of naiveté.
        Pheta efficiently pushed herself from the table and stood in one movement, her usual air of service and sophistication in place again. "Yes, thank you, Captain."
        "That means you, too." Jack answered. "Take a little time off, at least."
        "Are you familiar with the phrase, 'I'll rest when I'm dead', Captain?" the woman presented deadpan.
        "I am." She responded, pushing her chair away from the table. "But it's not as much fun as, 'Someone else will take care of it'."
        Julian sat for another few seconds, wondering just how easy it would be to slip out unnoticed. Or at the very least, to just be able to leave without question, without confrontation. It had been an interesting morning, but all he found he wanted was to curl up in his bed and forget about it.
        "And Jules." She called him from his thoughts. "You have clearly got to get some sleep."

        The group had headed out at the insistence that, captain though she may be, she was capable of cleaning up herself. And she was. And the couch would likely be left exactly as it was for the next time Doxy visited. All that was fine.
        What was not fine... was Julian. He'd been staring at the ceiling of his bedroom for over an hour, by his count. He had counted. It was the only way to keep coherent thought at arm's length. So he believed.
        Why he was not fine, was just another thing he was trying not to think about. What he wanted to do was go back and talk to Jack alone. For what reason, he wasn't willing to delve into. One thing was absolutely certain, however; he was not going to sleep. The counting had become close to obsessive. His heartbeat began to run in time with his whispered numbers. He was going to go completely insane.
        Almost unaware of it until after it had happened, he sat up and simply walked out the door. Only on his way across the hall and to Jack's quarters did he fully "wake up"--and that was only because he'd caught something unfamiliar next to the ugly lamp at the window. It was a... curious sight, to say the least. She didn't seem to have heard him or she'd probab ly at the very least have looked up--but as it was, she was too deep in thought to acknowledge another presence to begin with.
        Jack sat in the windowsill to the giant plastiglass eye which overlooked time and space, her body curved forward so that her elbows rested between her knees and her shoulders were almost horizontally level with her hips. For just about anyone save a dancer, that position would just look... stupid. Creepy.
        For some reason, in that moment and to Julian alone, it looked a little... reassuring. How that word came up, of all things--didn't really matter. She looked like she'd been there for a while, just thinking. A familiar cup of nearly untouched tea rested on the floor, its lip caressed in long, rhythmic and unconscious strokes with her dangling fingertips.
        He found himself absolutely uncertain of what to do, content for the moment only to stand there and stare like an idiot. There wasn't exactly anything "better" to do; he could walk back to his quarters, possibly gathering her attention as he retreated, or try some shadow ninja tactics in the art of silence. But, come on. Or... well, he could approach her. Sit next to her. Ask her what she was thinking. Yeah, that'd work.
        No, it wouldn't. Moron. He was beginning to get sick of this sarcastic little voice in his head...
        It was surprisingly him that got knocked off of his thought track unexpectedly. He was sure he looked like every bit the moron he felt, just standing there. "Hey, Jack. Trouble sleeping?" Damn but he was capable of absolutely no smoothness whatsoever.
        "Might as well stay up, I guess." She answered with a light smirk, her posture never changing. She did catch her fingers along the teacup, though, electing instead to pull them back into a loose fist. "You too?"
        No sense in keeping to himself--for the most part, anyway. "Yeah." He agreed, feeling equally awkward merely standing there as he would have if he'd approached closer. He just wasn't sure what to do. So, he talked. A little. "Might have something to do with all of our 'secrets revealed'." Oh, that was a smart move.
        She chuckled curtly, much to the surprise of her fellow captain. "I know it." She looked down at the cold liquid, not quite aware of what it may represent to searching eyes. "If all that's out in the open... kind of makes me wonder what's still covered up."
        Pessimistic till the last. His chest got a little tight at what her thoughts may imply, though. He was sure she'd meant nothing by it, but... Well, why worry? He was getting sick of over-calculating things. Especially considering she'd always been the one he was most comfortable being around. Of course... "Then what do you still have to hide?"
        That honored him with a relatively vicious looking grin as response enough. "I think I'm going to make one more damn attempt at relaxing in the library. If one more thing interrupts, so help me..."
        He shook his head, laughing. It was nice of her to change the subject that completely. Even if she hadn't known what she'd done. "You haven't picked up a single book yet, have you?"
        "No!" she whined jokingly. She was silent again for a moment, holding her posture until a telltale pop sounded in one of her vertebrae. She sighed, appeased at the slight release of tension. "I'll run into you later, though." She assured him, standing.
        "Oh, sure." He agreed. "I'll, uh... see you on the bridge." With that, he simply turned and walked back to his quarters. He couldn't bear to be there anymore. One more second, one more genuine instant of silence, and he might have just gone with his emotions and announced that this weird little crush was something bigger. What an idiot he'd have been then. What would she have thought?

        Hitting the switch to the stained glass ceiling, Jack let herself feel at ease--enough. It was a great place to relax, and absolute paradise for her. Not to mention a bit of a hiding place. Though why that thought came up, she really couldn't understand.
        "All these secrets..." she murmured to herself, picking up a random book and inspecting the cover. So ancient, but so perfectly preserved. She placed it back on the shelf, seeking out something a little lighter... like a book of god theory or something.
        "There is one more secret to reveal, Captain Veis."
        Halfway to reaching for another book, she stopped dead. Cold, shocked, and dead. That voice. That voice was not... entirely a voice. It was not organic. And it was coming from the fucking wood-trimmed speaker on the wall. This was... a science fiction nightmare...
        "Captain Veis?" the distinctly false voice repeated.
        Well. Holy crap. What else could she do but answer? "Uh... yes?"
        The lights in the room suddenly dimmed slightly, almost giving the impression of a "cozy, quiet atmosphere"... almost. "Please, Captain. Sit down."
        This was fucking scary. Of all the things she'd ever encountered, this was... definitely the weirdest. Then again, she didn't really know exactly what was going on. Though, if she weren't dead yet, there was a good chance she wouldn't be. Not that she had reason to believe her life was in danger, but it was instinct. Slowly, she backed up to the chair at the old wood desk, and sat. While part of her thought it would be a good idea to keep her mouth shut, the other part more or less admitted that was impossible. "And just what... or who, are you?"
        The digital voice responded immediately. "I am the ship that you have named the DarkHorse Vendetta."
        Oooooookaaaaay. So many questions came to mind that none of them made it to her tongue. Science fiction nightmare? Oh yes. A little creepier even than being in the presence of a branch of the freaking Tree of Life. Though the question that finally got spoken was far from the first thought that had come to her mind, it seemed important enough. "What happened to the crew that was here before us?"
        "They are no longer of this reality." The voice answered.
        Yeah, that made her feel so much better. Fucking HAL gone mad. She used to have calm conversations with a known serial killer, but somehow conversing with a ship was starting to make her incredibly nervous. Then again, she always had her Spectre around the serial killer. Whatever you could threaten an advanced computer system with was a little beyond her means. "You mean you 'got rid of them'?"
        "I didn't kill them." The voice's emphasis almost made it sound a little bit... offended. "I released them."
        Uh-huh. Again she was reminded of conversations with murderers. "'Released them'?"
        If highly sophisticated computerized ships could sigh, this one was damn close. "In another dimension of existence, in layman's terms."
        Her mind had officially been blown. Another long line of questions shoved for their turn at the forefront, but only one made the grade by pure luck. "How can you do that?"
        The voice explained slowly, but not patronizingly. "The Mobius Strip Theory isn't so far off. It's very complicated, however. The explanation cannot be put into language, and I have tried for centuries. It is merely nature beyond the understood natural-- Are you alright?"
        She was very lightly rubbing her temples, trying to absorb all of this at once. "You can see me?"
        "I can read your heat signature through the panels. Yes, I can see you."
        "Headache coming on I think." She dismissed halfheartedly. Not to mention how her blood pressure had no doubt spiked beyond almost all possibility. "It's a lot to take in. Why didn't you... well, talk before?"
        "I had not anticipated that the leaf serum would drive all inorganic portions out of Captain DeVierna's body. Otherwise I would have been able to have spoken earlier, interfacing through him."
        Well... a good enough excuse, she supposed. "Then... why now?"
        "Your language is a complicated one. I had to learn all words, all connotations. All inflections. Now I can fully understand and communicate, with a vast knowledge of all interpersonal relationships on board."
        Interpersonal..? It was listening earlier. "Excuse me. This is just fucking creepy."
        "Are you afraid of me?"
        What a question. "I'm just... creeped out. Why didn't you go to Julian first this time?"
        "You happen to be alone. Less deprived of sleep. Willing to learn. I thought you more the authoritative type. And I wanted to be certain that you were recovered from the incident in the dock."
        Realization struck like that fucking metal pipe. "Did you open the dock?"
        "Yes." The voice responded without expectation of any kind. "I was unable to help any sooner without further putting either of you at risk. Although may I suggest automated weapons be installed in the docks from now on?"
        How... helpful. "Noted, I assure you. But how was control gained to begin with?"
        "There was an electrical pulse of a frequency I was never equipped to handle. I believe they assumed it would destroy my systems entirely. It merely knocked my consciousness off-line for a number of minutes. Now I am fully equipped to handle that particular frequency, should I encounter it again."
        Well... good. Her mind was still in recovery from being blown, however. This all seemed like a dream that was getting way too real--though she wasn't ready to wake up, yet. It was also incredibly interesting, even if it was absolutely nightmarish in some respects. "You know... all about all of us... and have full control of every aspect of this ship... so what's to stop you from going absolutely insane and malfunctioning?"
        "At my core are four organic brains to prevent just such an occurrence." The voice explained carefully. "Each one is fully connected, and I can read and access their thoughts like hard drives. The first belonged to one of my programmers who felt it of utmost importance to stay with me. The second was from what may still be considered the greatest war general of all time. The third, from a spiritual scholar, years later. The last is from many generations ago, from a young woman who discovered me and volunteered. They are all important to my functioning. They give me balanced morality, in a sense."
        Unreal. "'A dimensional traveler, a general, a priest and a girl walk onto a ship...'" She started the joke without any ability to finish it. "That is incredible. But what's to say they won't die off?"
        "Their organic brains have been formatted to my system, to put it simply. We are so connected that if something happens to any one of us, the same fate befalls all."
        "Oh goodie." Somehow that did not seem to be all that reassuring of a thing.
        "While it is not a logical statement, I will remind you that we have survived intact for this long."
        "Granted." She agreed, finally starting to understand that this was not a dream. "But why are you here in the first place? What's the point of you, and a branch of the Tree of Life and... all of this?"
        "There was a great cataclysm in one sector of what you know as the Multiverse. It is unexplainable, but clear. It is what some have referred to as 'the only thing nature did not intend'. And it is spreading across all realities, so to speak. If one collapses, they all will."
        A sense of frightened awe overtook her at that explanation. "You were built in that particular reality?"
        "And the branch?" she pressed carefully.
        "To be honest, it is no more than an enticement. I am completely unaware of where it comes from, as is my programmer."
        Very smart enticement. She was no stranger to the old bait and switch technique. "So... 'god' sneezed. The computer of the universe had a 'failure to read' error."
        "If you'd like, yes. If I may, the 0's and 1's had a 7 in them."
        She found herself grinning. At what a computer had said to her. "Hey, that was good."
        "Thank you."
        "Can't you do anything, though? I mean, why build you to seek out others when they could have built you to solve the problem?" It seemed a good enough question...
        "I am only four brains and a logic center. Help seems to require a wider range of thought."
        Of all of the questions still aching to be asked, there was just no way to order them. They all crashed around inside her skull, but she knew there wasn't enough time to ask them all. She didn't even know how to put most of them into words. "This is... so much..."
        "Forgive me. I understand that you have been through a lot. If you are really and honestly not up to the task, then I can assure you that I have dropped off a number of people in my travels. But I must warn you, I've had to wipe their memories of however long they knew me."
        "Well, that makes sense." She admitted calmly. "No, I... I just need this to sink in for a little while."
        "I am sorry to say this, but every second does count, Jack."
        She grinned slightly at the use of her preferred name. "I understand. But... I have to let it sink in. No one wants a war fought with unwilling men."
        "That is true."
        "Or with willing men on the sidelines."
        "That is true as well."
        She sighed, the headache coming on slow but strong. "You don't... you wouldn't mind if I let my friends in on this, would you?" Granted that did seem to be who those people were, her "friends"... but the term was a little weird coming from her own lips.
        "Pheta, Nex, Julian." The voice read off matter-of-factly. "No, I don't mind at all. They all prove trustworthy."
        Another question, almost ridiculous considering the sheer immensity of the situation, came to mind. "Uh... what do I call you?"
        "Would you like the translation of my name?"
        "Then I am the Domani Drive."
        "Domani..." she repeated quietly. That name felt... so familiar. Embedded, somehow. Deja vu, as though she positively knew it but never remembered hearing it. "What is that?"
        "It's the Strain. The Domani Strain. Too hard to put into language effectively, but... it's the gateway. The path. The wormhole. Dimension travel and more. It was caused by the cataclysm. But it can be harnessed at certain times in its cycle. It is the sound made by the Tree of Life."
        Fuckin' heavy. It was almost making her mind ache, her reality creak with the stress suddenly placed upon it, receiving stress fractures... "One more question, Domani."
"Why me?"
        There was a calculated pause; the kind of which only a living mind could ultimately deliver. "I think that you, in particular, have some knowledge and understanding that may aid all of us. If you insist we must wait... then I will grant you the time you need."
        "There are some things I need to take care of, first." She announced quietly.
        "Understood." Domani acknowledged.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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