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

        Chapter 18 - The Ties That Bind and Tear Apart

         "We've gotten way too comfortable." Jack shattered the silence as they arrived within a minute's reach of their goal. She had been thinking the words for quite some time, getting a taste for them. She didn't like how truthful they'd been. How dangerous.
        Julian started slightly at the sudden words. He opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but found that he already knew. And she had a point. It was just... too easy to forget some things, maybe.
        She stared at the lights and dials, paying attention to how Domani would handle the situation... and so she didn't have to make eye contact. "Comfortable" was perhaps not the exactly correct word, but it was the sharpest one she could think of. They'd all settled well on the DarkHorse, forgetting perhaps just how much guard they had to be on. And she, most of all, had forgotten that she had other things to do. What had happened moments before... well, she tried to put it out of her mind for the time being. It had been a moment of stress, a moment of wanting to forget... and perhaps that was just as dangerous in its own right.
        For no particular reason, she recalled a piece of advice she'd gotten when she was hired by the corporation way back when. It wasn't that an employee's romance was looked down upon, specifically. It was the fact that romance in significant doses ate an assassin's skill from the inside. It had sounded both ludicrous and logical at the time...
        But it, whatever it had been, wasn't romance. Weird a thought as that was... it simply, wasn't, romance. Not in the way she understood it, anyway. Perhaps she wasn't the one to offer a definition, though. It was valid, certainly... but it was a far different quality from... well, that.
        It seemed to be only luck at that point that the subject was forcefully dropped--they had arrived. "Okay." Jack began, shifting gears entirely with a couple of switches. Hey, no harm in helping out a little. "All you have to do with the bomb is place it three and a half yards from where I place mine, on the same wall."
        He was... doubtful. The words did remind him to buckle up again, though. "Easy as that?"
        "Easy as that." She assured. Keeping in mind that Domani had things under control, she got up from her seat. Kneeling behind the pilot's chair, she located and tapped a small panel in the floor. It rose on a spring, revealing a tiny compartment.
        Again, the idea of the low-tech sometimes being the best way to go hit Julian with humor. So simple was this hiding place, that he doubted anyone would ever find it. The amusement left his face as a weighted ball the size of his fist was dropped in his hand. He starred at the object uncertainly; it had no features. It was merely a... well, a lead ball by the look of things. Not that it made him any less nervous about the actual placing of the object. "Two of these are supposed to destroy a ship?"
        She grinned, taking her own bomb in hand and closing the compartment. "Keep in mind that Ki was secretly dealing in equipment for me since the time I'd made contact again." She rose, then sat back in her chair. "He provided me with bullet materials, mostly. But, on occasion, he'd stumble across some more powerful parts. And he knew his business very well." Hell, she'd been shocked herself to learn that her sweet little Ki was actually able to tell the difference between active and inactive carbons while they were still inside dormancy jars. Beyond that, he was damn handy with trader codes--the lingo used only in weapons trading. Not so innocent, to put it lightly. If he found a very good product that he thought Jack may eventually be able to use, he bought it, bringing it on his person when he went to visit her.
        No, he certainly didn't think she was stretching the truth. But that didn't ease his mind. Especially not after he witnessed her sit down and strap in. "We're just about there."
        He needed no more indication. Instantly he placed the bomb in his lap (Not a place I'd really like it to be...) and grasped at all of the remaining loose belts to keep him thoroughly secured. It wasn't like landing on a planet, no... but he was certain it wouldn't be like landing on a silk pillow, either.
        While she kept her fingers busy, she let Domani do most of the work. If it was keen to take over, she was keen to let it. Having seamlessly entered the Pordethre ship through an engine duct, there was a noticeable change in motion. The engines powered up and thrust hard to get past--and this is where having more than one brain could get a computer slightly lost. The thrusters shot them across the interior engine deck like a rocket once they got past the initial friction, and they certainly felt that. At the same time, the tiny vessel's engines rotated and fired again to slow them down, causing a fast break that rocked them backward just before they hit a giant metal grate. Also in that very instant, the duct they had to enter in order to reach their actual target was straight above them, calling for the thrusters to rotate again, shooting them straight up, through several thin metal flaps (that were once to keep the oxygenated air separated), then sideways and through a long chamber. The whole motion took less than a handful of seconds to accomplish, finally bringing them to an almost delicate stop a few feet from their goal.
        As they came to a solid rest, Julian shot a death glare at his companion. She wanted to say that it wasn't her fault, but there really was no time. Unstrapping herself, she remarked, "Well... it was a soft landing. Eventually."
        "Yeah." His knuckles finally began to get some color again as he pried them away from his seat. "Thanks."
        "Don't mention it." She mumbled to herself. With one final check of the air quality outside, she realized exactly what Domani had made plans for. They were in a recycling air duct. Which happened to be, not so wisely, very near an engine duct. The two combined, with two powerful bombs, would literally consume the back half of the ship from the inside out. Even after the explosion was halted by the vacuum outside, with that much of a rotting interior exposed to outer space, the whole thing would very quickly begin to disintegrate. Devious. And smart. And glad she was that Domani was on their side.
        On a silent signal, they rose and walked to the door. A little burst of adrenaline was clear in their bloodstreams--and that was probably all that got Julian to get out of his chair in the first place. As if there hadn't been enough new and interesting experiences of late...
        The first thing they noticed was how insanely cold it was. Usually when you entered any of the places air circulated, it was roughly the temperature the rest of the crew interiors were. If logic held, then either there was a cooler in the duct for no fathomable reason, or the crew was very used to sweaters.
        No matter. With one last glance behind to check the paper map she'd laid on the instrument panel, Jack lead the way onto the steel flooring, automatic door closing behind them. Pretty straight-forward, alright. There was only one indentation in the entire chamber that looked anything like where Domani had indicated they lay the bomb. Finally, something easy. Each of their footsteps echoed in a metallic tone along the walls, almost making the room somehow seem smaller in scope. It was... a weird feeling.
        "I'll tell you something, Jules." She began out of nowhere, kneeling to place her bomb. "I don't like killing innocent people. But what I really don't like... is killing people who may or may not be innocent."
        That... struck him. It seemed confused. "What do you mean?"
        "I don't know how many people are on this ship. I didn't ask and I don't think I want to know." She paused, trying to get a handle on how to explain her feelings. "This ship might have sent a message... and the government officials might be after me--or us--but... I know there are a bunch of people who happen to belong to the Pordethre, who may even be on this ship, who do not share their exact ideology. And I really don't want them or their families to have to suffer for what I'm doing." Of all the things... it didn't seem "fair".
        He was... taken aback, perhaps. A little stunned at how deep what she'd said had been, and what a... completely fucking insane dichotomy it produced. "But you're bombing it anyway." It wasn't an accusation, just a statement to establish fact.
        "Yeah, I am." She admitted quietly, standing up again. The bomb was ready.
        "But... you'd be okay with killing innocent people?"
        "Of course not." She dismissed, making a small hand motion that indicated it was his turn. "But... I'd know for certain, then. And I can better live with knowing."
        Odd, perhaps. "And, out of curiosity..." he kneeled to place his own device. "How do you justify it to yourself?"
        "I don't think I can." She hadn't thought about the response first. The words just came on out. "Sometimes the ancient ideas of heaven and hell are... interesting bedside thoughts."
        He blinked, trying to concentrate on setting the bomb down without dropping it. To his own astonishment, he was successful. The ball itself wasn't perfectly round--there was only the slightest of indentations on one side, making it roll until it rested perfectly. A little adjustment was all it needed; on his feet again, he looked at her. It was quick, but it was... revealing. How so, he didn't understand right away. Even if he'd chosen to follow it, there was no chance in that moment.
        Something skittered behind them. Immediately, a cold chill ran through his spine. Solanid?
        "Venued." Jack whispered as if he'd spoken out loud.
        "What?" The word had sounded... even worse than a Solanid, if that were possible.
        With a tone that was almost dismissive, "Attack robot." Without another word, she pulled out her Spectre.
        Something in his head pulsed. "I could have been informed of this..."
        "I forgot." While what she said was true, her voice didn't seem to hold interest in the idea at all.
        That... concerned him. For a lot of reasons that even he wasn't quite sure of. Not that any of them mattered now.
        Another skitter--this time from behind the Black Albatross. It must have been hiding while they'd gotten out, waiting for its moment. It emerged slowly, seeming to glare at Julian with its single raised sensor eye.
        What met his gaze was... almost laughable. It was a small and simple thing, rather a great big gun on small tank treads with a heat sensor. Actually, that's exactly what it was--and this was where low-tech got dangerous.
        "Split." From her lips, it sounded more like a suggestion. Luckily for him, he knew better. Taking her words into account, he darted to the left as she side-stepped quickly to the right--
        A wall of heat exploded between them, sending a deafening roar to shake the steel panel underneath. The "gun" packed the hit of a canon. It was a trifle unexpected in that capacity...
        Seems they've upgraded... her mind commented numbly as she rolled, aiming her Spectre. There simply wasn't time; she had become sole focus of the sensor. She squeezed the trigger as she rolled again, the bullet causing only a shredded dent in one side of a tread, getting to her feet with the momentum too late--
        Another thunderous roar erupted, shattering an unfortunate and decent sized hole in the panel wall behind her. Several slender chunks of white hot shrapnel flew, a good number catching the calf of her right leg and digging nearly all the way through. The pain only occurred when she threw her weight on it to squeeze off another round--all of the muscles in her leg turned to wax, bringing her down into a joke of a regal kneel. It was unlike any sensation before it; searing and tearing, turning and digging into the muscle--
        Perhaps it had been lucky for her that the most simplistic of robots did not have the sense to continue attacking until a threat was assuredly dead before moving on to the next prey. The gun twisted in a flash of motion toward Julian--but he found he was prepared for it. All this life or death shit was really starting to make him better, little as he wanted to admit it; with a split second decision to make, he was able to duck and roll out of the path of the canon and remain far enough away to escape the raining debris. Even mid-roll the painful reverberation of the explosion caused his hands to cover his ears.
        Fuck this. Her mind was saturated in a haze of pain, but it wasn't as if she hadn't gone through something like this before. If anything would carry her through, it was the fact that she was just, plain, pissed at this stinkin' little bastard machine. She shot off two more bullets, one catching a rear axle and splitting it in half, the other sinking into... the fuel tank.
        The words "uh-oh" never contained the... devastation that she was certain she had mouthed them with. That much would never be minded--the thing had sprung a leak. And while the very next bullet from any one of them might not ignite it, one of the next ones would.
        No time. Julian had caught the sparkle as the fuel had begun to pulse onto the floor. The smell hit him instantly. "Uh-oh" didn't seem entirely appropriate.
        Maybe the Black Albatross didn't have advanced heat sensors by which to judge the location and emotions of people, but Domani was comprised of brains, as well. At least one of them suffered from quite the "bad feeling"...
        The tiny vessel's door slipped open. Eye contact between the two captains was established briefly--but enough. Julian was closer. And, dammit, he ran for it. It wasn't an act of cowardice; if he could just get a wall between himself and the robot to shoot from, to defend from...
        But Jack was still out there. And now that the other living heat source was hidden behind a cold ship's wall... She saw the torrent spin to face her again in slow motion. A lot of good the bullets had done her, but at least the thing didn't move any closer. She held her Spectre with absolutely no idea of where to aim it. Didn't matter anyway, did it? If she shot, the fuel might ignite. If the robot shot first... well, it was pretty definite that there wasn't much of a chance it wouldn't explode.
        And yet, somehow... the thing did not shoot. She was right there, right in front, gun pointed and ready for use, wounded... but there was no canon. The fuel continued to spill, the thing keeping her in its single sight...
        Self-preservation? she asked herself. Maybe not in the sentient sense, but... maybe these suckers were hell to build. Or expensive. If so, they'd be programmed to avoid killing themselves if possible. Maybe it knew, on some level, the same thing she did--its seconds were numbered.
        And if so... she tried to ignore the silent scream in her muscles as she very carefully got both knees under her... and slid a few inches to the side, toward her ship. The muzzle of the gun did indeed follow her. But there was no explosion. "Jules?" she tried, very softly.
        He was watching from just inside the bird's door, gun drawn, mouth open. What she had proven had just hit him, and he was glad he hadn't fired in the name of her protection. "Yeah." It came out weak, nearly soundless. Why did this shit always have to happen to them?
        Luckily the room was not without excellent acoustics (even if her ears were still ringing a bit). She nodded to herself. Well, maybe this was stupid. Then, maybe it was their only way out. Once again, with a wince, she side-stepped on her knees a little further toward her cherished little ship, afraid that if she were to stand that the thing would most definitely fire. It was insanely funny, in that look back someday and laugh, grand scheme of things way. And at what point, she wondered with another dizzying knee-step, would this machine stop thinking of self-preservation and just fucking explode?
        And then... and even then... She swallowed more with the thought than another lance of pain up and down her wounded leg; and what happens when the Albatross' thrusters fire to get them out? The bomb casings were supposed to be able to withstand heat (and they had so far)... but how much heat? The bird's shields would keep them fine from any sort of fuel explosion... but were those bombs to go off at the same time...
        Then I guess all of my philosophical questions will be answered a little sooner than I thought. She tried to shake it off. Each "step" was getting a little harder, leaving smears of blood behind. Every motion was trailed perfectly well by the canon and the sensor, all other parts of the robot remaining still. Did it recognize that she was leaking, too? It was a funny thought, one of those things that a person might just laugh at in the moment... were they not wound so tight. Were they not bleeding and hurting so much. She could literally feel the shards working their way further into her...
        It was taking a great deal of effort for Julian to stay where he was. More than he ever thought he had. There wasn't anything he could do for her, though. Sure he could go out and give her a hand, but would that be all that could trigger the "self-preservation instinct" to turn into a bomb of its own? This was lo-tech... and that was somehow infinitely harder to understand than hi-tech.
        Only a few steps away. If she could cartwheel, she'd be able to touch the side of the Albatross in one rotation. The very picture was hilarious... or would be, when she was able to laugh again. On the next side-step, she realized just what a ridiculous concept having her Spectre in front of her was. Everything seemed tinged with an air of the ridiculous there and then.
        She glanced down. The blood was slowing... somewhat. What that meant, she didn't really bother to address. She wouldn't know for sure until she was safely on that ship, and that's exactly what she needed to worry about. Her weapon was getting heavy, though. The adrenaline was starting to seep out, bringing her muscles back down. That's why her leg ached more, and that (plus the blood loss) was why her arms had started to tremble. This was simply unacceptable.
        Another step, and she was one away. Desperately hopeful, she slowly slid the Spectre back into its place at her side. Almost surprising her, the robot did not fire--only kept following. Just sensors. And logic they knew nothing about.
        On the last step, Julian reached down, grasping her body and scooping her inside as quickly as physics allowed. At the very instant the doorway was clear, it sealed. While it couldn't pick up heat, it did have that door sensor...
        Safety. Ignoring the fact it could be "found out" for certain, Domani fired off the thrusters. No more time.
        There was an explosion. One so powerful as to throw the Black Albatross all the way across deck, knocking Julian down and slamming Jack into the far wall--but the bombs were secure. Without taking the time to make any such calculations of when they might become unstable, Domani fired up the engines again and got them the fuck out of there in a hurry, back from whence they came.
        Under normal circumstances, Captain DeVierna would have been in shock. The idea that the ship had flown itself out of the situation would probably have stricken him silent. What had caused his worry to rise again this time, however, was the fact that the pilot was sprawled on the floor behind her chair, out cold.
        He crawled over, their course having stabilized. "Jack?! Shit." He sighed through gritted teeth, kneeling and gently opening her eye wider to see if her pupil would react. "Should have known better, right? We're never the lucky ones."
        She was still breathing, that was a good sign. Her body temperature was well above average if her forehead was any indication, but maybe that wasn't so bad. Her pupils... were still there. Sort of bouncing around, retracting at will, but... there. He really should have paid more attention to his human anatomy class.
        Well... he did pay an awful lot of attention to movies in the academy. While part of him hated to do this, the other part of him was just a hopeful lunatic. He smacked her, quite hard, across the cheek in hopes that it would bring consciousness about. What it did was leave a large red welt and an immense feeling of guilt. Damn.
        A moment later, she coughed. He sat back on his haunches to watch, seeing nothing more that he could do with any certainty.
        She grumbled quietly, her hand instinctually going to her head even before the pain hit. What a headache she'd be having for the next... way too long. Immediately after, her leg began to throb, relieving her of being worried in the least bit about a headache.
        "You alright?"
        She blinked, waiting for her eyes to focus, then stared at him blankly for a number of seconds from the floor. Some things seemed obvious. But there were others. "Why does it feel like I've been smacked?"
        He contemplated lying for a little too long.
        "Ah." It seemed her question had been answered regardless. She lifted her head to look at her throbbing leg, seeing small trickles of blood nudge around the shrapnel tears.
        "Do you have a med kit in here?" he followed her gaze, noting just how much damage had been done for the first time. It didn't seem life threatening, no, but... well, it couldn't be comfortable. Let alone healthy.
        "I don't think it'll be too necessary. The metal was hot and the entry holes aren't very big. If I hadn't walked at all..." It was the movement that tore new wounds. Had she just had the sense to pull what metal she could reach out before she went stumbling around, maybe she wouldn't be bleeding quite as much.
        "You'd probably be dead." He finished.
        "That's right." She ignored the stone cold seriousness of his voice. "Which is why I elected to give it a try, instead." Another thought struck her. "How long have I been out?"
        "A minute, if that." He answered as honestly as he knew how. It hadn't seemed that long, not to him...
        Her hand found the detonator, placed securely in an inside pocket of her jacket. The tiny, smooth panel put her only the slightest bit at ease. Good. At least I didn't lose it. Without a word and without pause, she pressed the two tiny arming switches at the top of the rectangle, then "the button" itself.  It would have been a lot more satisfying to have heard the explosion, she was sure. But she'd have to settle for a small, almost inaudible confirmation beep. The bombs had blown, and they were clear. That was all that mattered.
        Julian felt his throat go dry. "Did it..?"
        She swallowed, unsure. Just because the detonator beeped didn't necessarily mean... "I think so."
        "It is so, Captain." Came a startlingly unnatural voice from the communicator up front. Curious though he was, the "co-pilot" was too surprised to have questioned this knowledge, let alone who had given it to them.
        Jack knew there was no way she could continue this, however. Regardless, she knew there was one more thing to accomplish first. "Contact Pheta."
        A mechanical blip as the request went through. In the mean time, the crew of exactly two people stayed where they were, almost nervous to stray from where they'd been when the button was pressed.
        "Captain Vies, Captain DeVierna?" a professionally worried voice inquired.
        "Fucking success, Commander." Jack spoke up, shaken but triumphant. "We'll fill you in when we get there."
        "Did you get hurt?" The woman's voice was already assuming.
        "We'll fill you in." The wounded repeated with an edge of humor. It seemed to be all Pheta had needed before the disconnect.
        Once again there was silence. Only this one included a long, seeking stare. Julian seemed ready enough to receive the information. "About that message..." he elected to begin, rather than about any incident following. He had the absolute and most distinct feeling that the mysterious message on the screen right before they'd left had quite a lot to do with the mechanical voice he'd just heard. Why was hard to say, but Jack's reaction told him he'd been right.
        She blinked, a little taken by surprise at his frankness. "Oh, yeah. Well..." She looked back at him, long and fully. Things hadn't... changed, had they?         Or maybe they had, a little. "Uh... the DarkHorse... is sentient."
        Utter silence. Unmoving, complete silence. Then the quiet sound of a natural swallow. "Hm."
        Well, that was... interesting. Not to mention a little unexpected. She'd take his pondering silence as time enough to start pulling shrapnel out of herself.
        "Sentient?" he repeated quietly with no emotion.
        "Yes." She confirmed gently, giving one of the larger pieces a little tug and wincing, then taking a deep breath. "Aware. Alive, one might say." His totally quiet, reflecting reaction almost threw her. Maybe... "impressed" was not the word. Neither was "shocked", but... it was somewhere in-between. Only... it was kind of comforting, as well.
        Of all the questions to ask, one seemed prominent. "Does anyone else know?"
        How... interesting. "Just you and me." With a powerful yank and a deep indrawn hiss, another of the pieces gave way.
        Without another word, Julian pulled his jacket off, then offered a hand. She took it, hesitantly, and he pulled her to a sitting position. Delicately but distantly, he lifted her wounded leg by the ankle and placed the outstretched jacket beneath it. Hey, he didn't know what kind of crap the old floor had on it.
        "And this ship..." he finally continued, "It... it was somehow in control of this piece of crap, wasn't it?"
        "You noticed?" may have been stupid. She nodded instead, watching him closely. Some people were very calm before their storms hit. Some people went mad this way. She'd never seen it, but... there had been enough stories. Not to mention having witnessed some of the results with her own eyes.
        Legs beginning to go numb, he sat back and let them stretch to the side. It also gave him a chance to get a little closer, both to watch her process and to converse.
        "Domani." She called very quietly. "Introduce yourself."
        "Gladly." The voice offered in a friendly enough way. "Hello, Captain DeVierna. I am Domani."
        It wasn't that he'd thought she was lying--but when the thing had actually spoken to him... said his name... He got chills and remained silent. The name... there was something about the name, Domani... and this whole thing was just creepy to begin with. He only realized he'd been thoroughly emerged in stunned silence when Jack had pulled another piece, murmuring what was no doubt a colorful curse under her breath. "Uh... hello, Domani." And then, as an afterthought, "Would you mind waiting until we get back to the DarkHorse to have a conversation?"
        "Not at all." The voice replied. Then absolute silence, once again.
        "It's a little weird, isn't it?" His companion oversimplified, removing a smaller piece. At least those didn't hurt... so much. Just splinters. Granted they were larger than your average wood splinter, but that's all they amounted to. She wasn't able to reach a hell of a lot more of the shrapnel on her own, but she'd damn well do what she could.
        As in shock as he was, as scared as he'd been, as confused as he was sure he would remain for a long time yet to come... he laughed. It was short and quiet, but it was a genuine laugh. Yeah, a little weird. Like finding an abandoned ship with all the amenities they could ever want was weird. Like having a branch of the Tree of Life was weird. Like all the ancient books of philosophy that ran along the same lines of their own personal interests was weird. "It's a little fucked up, I will admit."
        And that simplistic wording made her return the laugh, even as she shook one of the last shards free. The actual sharp pain was dissipating, leaving a burning ache behind. At least maybe she'd be able to avoid any actual stasis. She hated stasis. She'd have much rather just taken a few good drinks of something strong and let a doctor cut them out of her. The old fashioned way. "I spent almost the entire day just trying to figure out how to tell... well, you. And Pheta. And Nex."
        "Is that all?" he found to be a most important question for no good reason.
        "Yeah, I think so." She had wanted to continue that thought, but... she didn't really want to think about it. They'd all elected to deal with a part of her life, in a way. Those were the only ones who would get involved, and even then... She just didn't want to think of anything past a good night's sleep.
        It was all so... weird. Everything that had happened over the past... well, however long it had been. Did the breakfast only take place that morning? It felt like a million years ago, somehow. He realized with an almost imperceptible start that he'd zoned out, finding Jack's leg looking to be free of shrapnel, but bleeding all the same. How many times had similar things happened? Seemed like a million. Everything was... spinning. Out of control. He met his partner in crime's eyes with a perfect clarity. "You mean to leave soon, don't you?"
        The question surprised her. But more, perhaps... it shamed her. And that was not a good feeling in the least. It was more than that... or so Domani had had her think. But... yeah. Even if there had been no Domani... eventually she would have had to cut ties anyway. Don't you think it's time? Don't you think it would be better that way? Don't you understand you're all in so much trouble because you keep hanging around me and all the old shit I keep dragging along behind?
        There was no chance to ask such questions. The thrusters had rotated and fired forward, slowing them down. They were already at the entrance to the DarkHorse.
        He let the whole thing drop. Not because he wanted to. Not because he even felt he necessarily had to. It was because of that wince. It was even stronger than the ones she'd showed him when she'd dug the metal out of her leg.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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