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

        Chapter 20 - All That Glitters

        She managed to make her way back to her quarters without the need for a crutch. The medical wrapping had included an inside layer of a powder that quickly aided the mending of flesh, so at least she had that much going her way. Yeah, it hurt a bit to walk, but it wasn't a big deal. Especially not after a moment of real and honest relaxation. Even if it did happen to have occurred in a secret back room of sickbay. Kind of a eerie thought, indeed...
        Taking her sweet time, she reveled in the abandoned passageways. Maybe it was the luck of the draw, the time, the possibility that she was sending out mental waves of "don't bother me", or all of the above. Regardless, it was nice to just sort of... saunter. A strange thing in that. There was a time when the thought of more or less doing nothing would have driven her insane... and yet, in the situation, she was enjoying it. Of course she knew it couldn't last, but... every second would be savored.
        There was a mild pang of something resembling anxiety when she boarded the lift to the Captain's Hall, but that was erased before the doors ultimately opened. After all, there was nothing to really worry about. Even though she was glad as hell that she saw no people moving around, it wouldn't have been the biggest of deals if they were all standing around waiting for her to arrive. A little intimidating in a sense, perhaps, but... not so bad.
        Not that the idea wouldn't give her reason to hurry the hell up into her actual quarters. As the door shut behind her, she let out a breath of relief. A shower was a little too much to ask for, given her leg and all, but just laying down in bed would be absolutely welcome. Just for a little bit. A rest before the inevitable, she was sure.
        Speaking of inevitable... walking by her bedroom left her with a rather sudden feeling that she should look back. Something... had not been visually right. Backing up a step, she peered in... somewhat floored by what met her vision.
        It was Doxy. But not just Doxy. It was Doxy, the monsterous-sized beast, sitting on her bed and purring. Granted the bed itself had collapsed under the cat's weight, causing what was once the frame to be little more than a useless rectangular metal sculpture underneath the fallen mattress.
        She glared at the animal. It only responded with a louder purr, then closed its eyes. So, she tried something different. "Doxy, come here."
        Instantly the purr stopped. The cat's eyes opened and the ears sagged just a little, knowing he was in trouble. Still, he obeyed her command slowly, carefully stepping off the former-bed and padding his way up to her, his head and shoulders down. Stopping a few feet away, he glanced up just a little bit with great big eyes.
        "Do you know what you've done?" she continued, her voice hard and cold. It was so difficult to go against those huge eyes, but she didn't need him to know that.
        As if knowing her every word, the animal glanced back at what was once her bed, toppled to the ground. He then looked back and her, cautious. Taking a chance, he lightly rubbed the soft fuzz just on top of his nose against her ankle in apology and whimpered quietly like a sad puppy.
        "Don't ever do that again, Doxy." She kept her voice firm.
        The eyes seemed to grow impossibly bigger. There were almost glittering tears there for crissakes.
        Jack sighed. Powers of the universe help me... Without a word she kneeled and embraced the poor creature. He just looked so dejected, y'know?
        "Aaaaww." Came two male voices from behind her.
        She squeezed just a little bit tighter in reflex--but the cat simply began to purr again, satisfied. "All against me." She mumbled against the fur. Nex and Julian must have snuck in while she was reprimanding the creature. Damn them. And damn her for not remembering to lock the door.
        "I'm sorry, Captain." The boy apologized profusely for his pet. "I didn't know he'd try... that. I just thought it'd be a nice surprise when you got back..."
        "Brilliant tactic, Nex." Jack released the animal, a little loathe to try and raise herself on the bad leg. That was okay, she could kneel for a while longer without losing too much necessary circulation. "Taking my mind off everything by destroying my furniture."
        The navigator grinned sheepishly. "Good thing I'm not a tactical advisor."
        "Damn straight." She couldn't help but agree--and then a thought came to mind. It was enough to get her to stand on her own (and partially regret doing so), but she wasn't worried. Just then, anyway. It was a strange thing to realize at that very point in time, and stranger still not to have thought about or questioned it long before... but understandable. She hadn't really wanted to think about it. Pulling the sheets back from the end of the mattress, she found an almost familiar slit cut along the bottom. Reaching inside, she immediately found what she sought, removing it for inspection. A little of the metal casing was dented, with a gentle line of stress fracture. Not so bad, really.
        Julian recognized it right away. It was the drive she'd pulled from the computer on their little "mission" to Centuri... revealing a bit of his past that he still wasn't certain he cared to know. "I-is... that..?"
        "Yeah." She confirmed, simply and quietly. Julian's life was still contained in that thing... she swallowed the thought down, knowing that Pheta must have brought it in, having found it in her other mattress aboard the Sefirot. Well now. This was interesting on a number of levels. No matter just yet--she only wanted to be sure it was safe. That much apparent, it was put right back where it belonged--out of sight.
        While the other captain seemed a little involved in gathering himself, Nex looked to be deep in thought.
        That, understandably, worried Jack a bit. So, she changed the subject just a little. "How'd it go? And where's the commander?"
        Julian found himself incredibly glad for the shift in thought, serious matter though it was. "She's gone to her own quarters to have a word with Domani, I think." He tried to ease into a weightless sense of humor again.
        "I'm sure this brings up some security issues." She joked, leaning against the door frame of her bedroom. One couch and one bed already gone. Maybe it'd be better to learn to stand all the time.
        As for the other matter... he switched gears almost unwillingly. "It went... okay. Domani did most of the talking. It was best that way."
        Jack glanced down at Nex as he pet Doxy, catching the boy's feint shiver. Yes, she remembered being a little more than simply creeped out when she'd first discovered the entity. She was a breath away from asking "So, what exactly was discussed?" when a piercing look from her partner in crime almost erased the urge to speak at all. He hadn't consciously meant anything by that look, but she could read it as clearly as a neon sign. Alright, this was up to her. "Hey Nex."
        He looked up, trying to hide the eagerness in his eyes. Her tone had been... inviting. "Yes?"
        "How'd you like to see the cockpit of the Black Albatross?" she continued, grinning.
        An impossible smile lit the boy's every feature. "Technically, I already have." He admitted, having searched endlessly for detailed photos and schematics. "But not in person."
        "Well, here's your chance." She offered.
        "Really?" he could hardly believe this. He couldn't believe this. But he couldn't question whether or not it was real for the very sake of preserving the moment. She'd just offered him the chance to sit in the pilot's chair...
        Then again... "There might still be some blood in there, though--"
        "I don't mind." He interrupted, serious but excited, standing immediately at attention.
        She couldn't help but shake her head in wonder. "Well, okay. I trust you'll be reporting for your duty in three hours."
        The struggling-to-be-serious expression turned to a most absolute awe. Three hours? He wanted to see the vessel, but even he couldn't sit there for thre--"Wait... are you saying I can...?" He didn't dare to finish the thought.
        "As long as you stay within sprinting distance of the DarkHorse, have a blast." She offered sincerely. He was the navigator, after all; it wasn't as if he were going to get lost. That, and she knew he wasn't the type to do anything recklessly. At least, not when it came to anything other than dealing with her on a personal level, apparently. She knew he'd been seeking out every tiny glimmer of information on that ship before he'd even asked, because that was just his nature. Chances were that he knew the controls better than she did. And, were anything to go wrong, Domani would have override capability.
        "Thank you, Captain!" he literally called over his shoulder on the way out, Doxy at his heels.
        It was an incredible sight. For all his light body structure, he could haul ass when he wanted to.
        Julian waited patiently until the door to her quarters closed and all sound of footfalls ended. He gave her one careful look, mentally pinning her in place as he strolled over to the door, locked it with the keypad, then walked back to where he'd left her. Alright. Now, then. "What else is going on?" he inquired almost innocently. Quietly.
        A lot of people would respond with another question. She would normally be one of those people... but it wasn't the time. "I kind of wanted to make an announcement. Eventually."
        "I don't think I can wait for 'eventually'." He admitted blandly. His wandering mind and increasingly horrific imagination would not allow her any more time. "It's been bothering me too much."
        A lead weight wrestled around in her stomach. She hadn't meant for him to... well, worry, for lack of a better word. For some reason, it suddenly felt like it would be easier to address the group rather than just him. Alone. Here and now.
        But he was not backing down. He didn't want it to feel like an interrogation, but... at the moment, that seemed to be the only way to break through all of the barriers at once. That whole thing with Nex and the piece of crap ship felt like she were attempting to get her possessions and affairs in order. Not a good sign, considering the mounting pressure...
        She attempted one last diversion. "Shouldn't I wait for the others so there are no more secrets between any of us?" Even before the question left her lips, she knew it was bullshit--so much so that she didn't even give him the chance to respond. "Alright, strike that. What, exactly, are you aiming for?"
        He cut to the quick. "You're planning on leaving. Why?"
        And she... was surprised. Not in a shocked kind of way really, but... his skills at commanding (or perhaps "captaining") had sharpened dramatically over the past few days. Either that, or she'd unknowingly given him an unintentional edge. Not that she minded... until situations like the ones before her. "Domani is a dimension traveler. And I'm... going to go with it."
        His pause was almost unnaturally long, and disturbingly unmoving. It was as if it had taken a moment for the gears in his head to get moving again, a genuine shock having rattled them out of alignment. He wasn't sure what right he had to ask for more. So, he didn't. "You should probably get some sleep."
        It was her turn to be shocked into silence. Her definite and to-the-point reaction surprised even her for a moment. "I'm not running away. It's not like that."
        He swallowed with the almost hidden intensity in the words, unable to allow them to be ignored. The breath he'd taken to speak caught in his throat as he realized that he didn't know what to say. Her eyes were completely clear, keeping his gaze focussed back on hers. It was... an unusual sort of thing. It wasn't as if he hadn't made eye contact with her before, but that was the feel of things in the moment. "What is it, then?"
        "An adventure." There was no reason he should have been comforted in the least by that statement, but she could see it in his eyes. The details weren't expressed, but the most important things were understood.
        The rest of the story could be saved for later. He nodded unconsciously, getting what he needed for the time being. "Get some sleep, anyway."
        A silent sigh of relief rushed her, but she was careful not to give it voice. Could ruin the moment and all. "I'll try."
        There was a real moment there when he pondered hugging that girl. But, perhaps luckily for him, he thought better of it. Instead, he clasped a hand on her shoulder, turned, and excused himself.
        "You too, Jules." She offered after him.
        "I'll try." He called back with a mild but sincere smile right before he waved once and stepped out.

        Having to sponge bathe herself with a ratty leftover Sefirot washcloth was a little... disheartening, maybe. It was an aggravation more than anything else, but she was incredibly loathe to do it on some other level. There was no way she could get away with showering until the surface wounds were healed over, though. That and they'd probably just burn with the soap and water. That was a terrible annoyance when a person was trying to relax.
        So was a racing mind. She'd tried to suppress it already with some classical music thanks to Domani, but that sure as hell wasn't working. She elected for something in the computer's musical library called "hard rock", instead. Boy was that an interesting thing.
        "I think that's enough music for tonight." She finally relented, rinsing her hair in the sink.
        "I have thousands of other music types to suit your mood." Domani offered kindly.
        "Thanks." She grinned at the Nex-like eagerness. "I don't think I'm in a music mood right now." Of course, she wasn't in a silence mood, either. Nor a conversation mood. Maybe just a sleeping mood.
        "As a matter of human intricacies," the entity began carefully, "Might I ask why you didn't wait to tell the others about this 'journey' as well?"
        Jack pondered that for a moment, toweling off. "You'd think you'd have experience with these sorts of things with so many brains at your disposal."
        A pause. "So I am to take it that you definitely don't want to discuss it?"
        Alright, so that was funny. She could admit it. "I'm not sure I'd have much to talk about."
        "A word of advice, Captain?"
        Uh-oh. "Shoot."
        "Perhaps you should stop avoiding the desire to reflect upon your own thoughts and emotions until the point at which you feel forced to do so."
        Well, that was... "Interesting." There was that downside to having so many brains again... "And what leads you to this advice?"
        "A hunch." The computer simplified.
        "Hm." It was almost a shame that she was too tired to come back with a simple response--or, better yet, a defense. "We'll worry about that after I wake up."
        Domani remained thankfully silent as she dressed, blessed as being the only computer that could take a hint. She seriously pondered having a good stiff drink before bed... until she came to understand that she could handle either a flattened mattress on the floor or a sour stomach in the morning, but not both. The days of sleeping half-wasted on cement were over, and would remain so in all forms.
        Ah, no matter. Not really. Sure there wasn't really any more bed frame to speak of (although the corners still stuck up a little, giving the impression she was laying in a soft sinkhole), but it was still comfortable. Tapping the light panel, pulling the blankets up around her, she cleared her mind and readied it for all-enveloping unconsciousness. Tired. Oh so tired. So sore and so--absolutely, unequaled to any other feeling, ever--tired. The warmth of a bed, the soft warm covers pulled up snugly around her, an adventure before her, on a sentient ship, with a great big glowing--
        Her eyes grew wide quite suddenly. Something had hit her like the force of two planets crashing into one another. Only one word struck, but it was a word so important, so utterly more so than any other seemed to have ever been... Gold.
        According to all texts, all accounts, all art and illustration she had ever seen, heard or read... the Tree of Life was supposed to be gold. But that branch, that incredible little bit of miraculous shrubbery, was silver. What did that mean? And why hadn't she even thought about it until then, of all times?         Obsessed as she was, she'd have thought that the subject would have come up long before; in Julian's mind at least, if not hers.
        "Jack?" Domani suddenly spoke up, sensing her physical reaction. "Are you alright? Your body temperature is highly irregular."
        "Fine." She responded honestly, but with hesitation. "I just thought of something. The Tree of Life... isn't it supposed to be gold?"
        "By all accounts I am familiar with." The computer admitted.
        She sat up slowly, almost afraid to make any sudden movements before voicing her revelation. "But the branch you have is silver."
        There was an all too realistic pause before Domani responded to that little detail. "Perhaps all of the accounts are incorrect."
        Granted. It was certainly possible--no one really knew if anyone had ever seen the Tree of Life before. It could have been merely a theory. But that minor detail, color... seemed pretty damn major, suddenly.
        "You're concerned." The computer presented a gross understatement.
        "Very." She admitted carefully. She sat in silence for a moment, pondering... "Is there any way you can locate Dr. Carn?"
        There was a pause--one of uncertainty, no doubt. "Attempting to locate Kulthadeus Carn."
        It took a beat before she questioned that, not sure she'd heard correctly. "Kulthadeus?"
        "That's his first name according to the logs."
        She chuckled softly to herself. "Now I know why he never introduces himself by anything but 'Doctor'." She thought to herself, running that name through her entire history. She couldn't place the way it sounded with any region in particular. "Do you have a history file on him?"
        "Getting nosy, Jack?" the computer actually joked. There were both advantages and disadvantages of having living brains... "At last report, he was still alive in the trader colony you'd banished him to."
        She grinned unconsciously at Domani's words. "And that last report was when?"
        "Two days ago." A pause. "Shall I send the Sefirot to pick him up?"
        "Better ask Pheta what she thinks." The captain admitted. "Follow her lead."
        "She's asleep as of now." The computer responded.
        Well, that incited a chuckle. "She's never asleep. She's Pheta. And if she complains, remind her how much her captain appreciates her. That should do it."
        Yes, indeed; even a computer was capable of sighing.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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