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

        Chapter 21 - Making Good Use of Borrowed Time

        While the suggestion to awaken Pheta at all costs had seemed like a relatively good one the night before, the following morning didn't hold the same effect. Perhaps that was because some actual semblance of sleep was involved, therefore causing what others had known to be a relative form of rested sanity to come over Jack. She woke with the worry that the first thing she'd see when she walked into the hall was a pissed woman with a blunt, heavy object. That gets a person out of bed quickly.
        "Would you like a status report, Captain?" came Domani's voice, noticing the movement.
        "Perhaps not this soon after I've woken up." She admitted, unsuccessfully attempting to stifle a yawn to go with the full body stretch. The idea of actually waking up feeling somewhat rested seemed... so unreal. "Shower, then update." Taking silence for acknowledgment, she stumbled out of the bedroom and couldn't help a glance toward the door. No killers there. Yet.
        As the hot water flowed over her, she realized two very key things. One being that she wasn't sure she really wanted a status report; and the other... was a painful lesson in showering with a still raw leg. It wasn't an open wound anymore, but the thin new skin wasn't terribly receptive to the hot water, let alone soap--especially when the mixture was held right against the surface by a very absorbent med wrap. Some... unpleasantness.
        At least that meant she could strip the cloth afterward... whether it was medically sound or not. No way she should waste time trying to dry it out, after all. After toweling off, she had a good five minutes of tugging before the very soundly attached wrap would give her an area to peel back; even then it must have been another five or ten before it was completely detached. Perhaps she'd eventually grow an appreciation for med students. Perhaps. But not likely.

        Dry, clothed, and having just made herself tea, she sat at her desk console, breathed deeply from the diaphragm, propped her legs up on the table, and finally responded to Domani. "Okay. Let's have that report, if you would be so kind. I hope." She added into the cup with her first sip.
        "All clearances have been taken care of." The computer assured firstly.
        "Impressive." She commented, experimenting with crossing her legs at the ankles. Finding the motion marginally annoying, she simply laid both legs out flat on the corner of the tabletop. "And when can we expect the doctor?"
        "The Sefirot is actually in the process of landing in the hold as we speak." The computer responded with an air of something like pride.
        "So quickly?" Impressive... or scary?
        Domani seemed to toss off her concern with the slightest of pauses. "A high speed retrieval was preferred by the Commander of Defense."
        Interesting. How much did Pheta know of the basic situation, she wondered... even if she was in very secure charge of defense. If Jack were so interested, she could probably find out herself. But that was no fun. "Any idea as to why she preferred it to be done so quickly?"
        "It was recommended." The voice admitted. "There were Pordethre ships in the sector, although they were far enough from the trader planet not to have noticed."
        "Ah. Better safe than sorry." The captain acknowledged. "Did Nex make it back for his shift?" The thought brought a lazy smile to her face. She could picture the kid zooming all the hell around a galaxy in that thing. If it were able to hold up, that was.
        "He did." Domani answered. "And the Black Albatross is still in perfect working condition."
        Not that she'd had any doubts... but it was nice to hear, anyway. Of course, down to business... "You said the Sefirot was docking?"
        "I would suggest that you get there within the next few minutes if you wish to greet the passenger." The computer shoved subtly.
        Yeah, yeah. I know, relaxing tends to be a sin in my universe. "I suppose you're right. Will Jules be there?"
        "Captain DeVierna is already at the dock."
        That was... shocking. He'd gotten up early. And had gone to do captain-like duties. By himself. Shit, he was already a better captain than she'd ever been. Not that she could say she minded being relieved of the less interesting duties.
        "He suggested you should be left alone to sleep in." Continued the digitized voice. "Seeing as how you are awake, however..."
        "I get it." She mumbled, taking a swig of her tea. At least she was owed that much. Leaving the almost full cup on the table and giving her still damp hair a shake as though that would make it look any more kept, she darted from her quarters.

        Yep. That was the dock, alright. As the lift doors opened, she witnessed about half a dozen officers acting like a much larger team of security, lined up on either end of the walkway leading to the Sefirot. Julian was at the front, having taken a rather captain-like stance of standing up straight with his hands behind his back. As Jack walked up beside him, she couldn't help but feel just a little bit of satisfaction when he started mildly as her motion surprised him. He'd almost appeared to be someone other than Julian up until that point. Someone... professional. Nice to know he was the same guy, was all.
        Interrupting the moment (and any possible small talk), the Sefirot's dock door opened. It was time. Very quickly. All of a sudden. It was one of those moments when, for that split second when it was happening, not even all of the blatantly dumb decisions in her life seemed on any level worse than standing there, waiting for Dr. Carn to disembark. It simply didn't seem all that... smart. She felt about a millisecond and a breath away from bolting like a startled horse--and probably would have had Julian not glanced her way at just that moment, the look on his face going instantly from neutral to worried.
        Deep breath. Relax. No reason to feel like that. A general lack of sleep over the past several weeks and recent loss of blood were doing a number, that was all. It's not like the guy was on a trader planet for so long that he went completely insane, bludgeoned Pheta to death and stole the ship... right?
        ...Right? It seemed like an awfully long time before--oh, wait. There she was, unmistakable, "prisoner" in tow. Quite literally, with a pair of wrist cuffs. How... interesting. Perhaps even the Commander was uncertain of exactly what would happen.
        As for the doctor himself... He looked... like shit. Definitely like he'd been on a trader planet for a while. And not just by his ragged layers of clothes, most of which so worn that it left a trail of threads as he walked. It wasn't even the stubble on his face, or the freshly healed cuts and new bruises peeking obviously through the tatters. No, it was his death glare, made more fierce by the dark circles under his eyes. Everyone from a trader planet had the same trademark glare for everybody. Especially suited for the one who put them there.
        She was half ready to dodge out of the way, part of her absolutely sure he had a gun. He approached her empty-handed and shackled, however, stopping before her to deliver only that meticulously loaded glare. Even Julian had taken a wide step back, out of the way. Hey, if she needed him, no problem. But up until that very second...
        She cleared her throat, not quite sure how to put things without sounding like an asshole. "Sorry about that."
        "Yeah." The doctor responded simply, his voice rough and worn by the polluted air... and who knew what else. "First and foremost, I want a shower. Then some antibiotics. Then I'll call you." Looking back at Pheta, he was almost capable of a conversational tone. "Can you get these goddamn things off me, now?"

        At least the fact that she had been informed she could simply wait for Dr. Carn to contact her afforded her the ability to finish the tea. It was a little cold, sure, but nothing a little extra hot water couldn't fix. Sometimes it was those long silences, hot tea still burning pleasantly in her stomach well after it was gone, that caused the most impressive thoughts to flood her mind. Or at least the clearest ones. "This whole situation is insane." She told herself mildly.
        "Were you one to say that sanity is in the eye of the beholder?" Domani piped up at the oddest times.
        Though, granted, Jack had been speaking out loud. She actually afforded herself a moment to think about the question. "I suppose it would have to be. And then individual reality seems to change all the time, meeting up with other ones like planets crash together..." she trailed off, overcome by a rush of thoughts. Just old theories, things she'd read, books she knew she probably never would have time for. "What is another reality like?"
        "The one I am from is much like this one." The computer afforded simply. "You will most likely be able to take whatever you think you will miss with you, without any harm done to the object."
        Even she hadn't noticed she'd bitten her lip until the coppery tang of blood rushed her taste buds. What was that reaction? Obviously there was a bit of nervousness, merely because of the unknown factors, but...
        "Is it the saying good-bye that you dread, Captain?" the voice pressed ever so gently.
        Regardless of a well-meaning and conversational intent, she felt her chest tighten a little too uncomfortably to be able to continue such a conversation. Sitting forward with her eyes closed, she caught her breath. No. The universe was not crashing in on her. She had not formed friendships that could possibly be that meaningful. That computer and the brains that composed its consciousness were a little too seeing at times. She could rush away without a second thought, just like in the good old days... which really hadn't been so good, but at least they'd been free. Hadn't they?
        "I didn't mean for that effect. I apologize." Domani shut the conversation down immediately.
        "No." She responded quietly. "No, it's... don't worry about it."
        "There is a mythology where I am from that may interest you." Without waiting for a response, the voice continued. "Of a girl that runs from her destiny. Her life is running. No sleep, no food, just running." There was a pause as though a question were expected--or unconsciously asked. "She kept running until she was too weak to go on. Her destiny found her a ruined heap and could no longer use her. So her destiny passed her by and left her for dead."
        There was a long, dull silence. Finally the arguing portion of Jack's mind locked on. "Then that was not her destiny, was it."
        "Do not overlook the moral of the story with 'trained logic', Captain." The computer suggested carefully.
        She wasn't quite certain of when she'd felt more emotionally drained in all her life. Drained and yet... full. Too full to drain slowly... "I think I get it."         Another several beats later, she asked, "Can you tell Julian I'd like to talk to him later tonight?" The other two... well, she'd be able to approach later.
        "Of course." Domani's tone changed immediately back to a regular old computer, just doing its duty. "And I believe that Dr. Carn is on his way over."
        "Now?" Already? Not such a lovely prospect, in some ways. She was hungry to know of the things she wanted to ask about, but... "Wait. How's he going to get the code to the Captain's Hall?"
        "The Commander of Defense is riding in the lift with him."
        So she's in on it. Whether the look on her face was a grin, a sneer, or some combination of the two, she wasn't certain she cared to explore. Eh, maybe he wasn't such a bad guy... if he didn't try to kill her. Or something. Well then. She smoothed out her clothes, ran a hand through her hair, and called herself ready. Good enough, anyway. Making her way to the main room, she let the thousands of horrible possibilities flash through her mind, noting uncomfortably that she was not prepared for the vast majority of them. But at least Pheta could--
        "The Commander has departed, Captain." Domani informed. "Dr. Carn has come alone."
        Pause. Desperate, agonizingly curious but knowing it was oh-so-not-safe-anymore pause. Well... what was she gonna do? Though, Spectre at her side, there wasn't much more that she saw she could do--
        She caught herself, looking down at her most precious possession. What the hell had she been thinking? A former corporate assassin, hunted down by an entire government, suddenly nervous about one doctor? One possibly very angry, very crazy doctor? Regardless, that was just silly... right? Of course. There were more important things to focus on... which she'd have to eventually admit to herself were the things she was trying to distract herself away from. But not now.
        The door chime almost brought a laugh from her throat, thinking of how ridiculously paranoid she'd been. It was only Dr. Carn. A geek if she ever met one. Not that there was a thing bad about that, but... come on. A dangerous geek who happened to have made it through med school? Nah.
        Opening the door... gave her second thoughts a little too late. He looked better, no doubt; clean shaven, showered, new clothes, dark circles almost gone from his face. And yet somehow the murderous look was not washed away. Nor was the bland yet accusatory tone in his roughened voice. "Captain."
        Whether that had been a greeting or an accusation was too hard to tell. Either way, he hadn't come with a carving knife... that she could see. So, she stepped out of the way and invited him in with a simple gesture. "Tea?" was her only shield of opening conversation.
        "Certainly. Thank you." He didn't so much as pause and look back to respond. The words almost fell behind him as he kept walking, all the way to the other end of the hall and into the little office area. As good a place as any to sit. He'd more or less rushed his way there, in desperate need to clear things up... especially his position.
        Well, at least the teapot was still relatively hot. It took hardly a handful of seconds to heat the water back to boiling, pouring it over a randomly chosen tea bag in another cup. Ignoring thoughts of stories she'd heard about hot teapots being used as effective weapons in times of desperation, she carefully paraded the tea into the room at the end of the hall, setting it carefully in front of her guest.
        In the meantime, Dr. Carn sat there silently, considering every move she made with calculating eyes. She betrayed neither nervousness or uncertainty, even as she placed the unwavering cup in front of him. Taking her example, he waited until she had chosen to sit down across from him to reveal anything behind the wicked stare. "Thanks."
        It wasn't much, but it was enough to assure her that her full guard would not be necessary. At least, not to the point she may have once expected it to be. A cut to the chase was in order. "I went with my instinct. Though that doesn't mean it was right. Even at the time."
        "No, I did deserve it." He answered honestly... but without any conviction. He believed it, but he didn't like to admit that. He certainly hadn't expected betrayal to be met with a slap on the wrist, but...
        "Yes, you did." She offered no sympathy.
        There was a long, hard, unmoving look thrown in her direction. At last it was broken by a swallow, then a beat. "So. What's been going on?" He found her immediate laughter puzzling. "That little?"
        "Exactly." She agreed, containing herself. "Nothing too unusual. Turns out the DarkHorse is a sentient entity named Domani. Beyond that, the Pordethre government knows exactly where we are because I blew up one of their spiffy ships, therefore it's only a matter of time now."
        Another long pause cast silence against every corner of the quarters before he finally found himself capable of speaking again. "Just another day, Captain."
        She made an open-handed "well, there you have it" gesture. "And in your life?"
        The smirk was decidedly vicious. "Well, I learned several interesting wrestling holds. At least, that's what they told me they were... Point being, let's pretend it never happened."
        Jack nodded, perfectly willing. There was just that one thing left, though. "So. This branch of the Tree of Life."
        He gazed momentarily at the hot brown liquid in front of him, pondering what anything besides filthy water and bathtub alcohol tasted like. It seemed to have been years. "Yes?"
        "Is silver." She finished simply.
        Surprising them both, he seemed to get her point right away. "Yes." He stated, though with a total lack of conviction or certainty.
        "Ideas?" she pressed, unable to help the verbal prodding. It was kinda fun. Even beyond that twisted amusement, she was certainly curious.
        "I've been trying to come up with some." He admitted, a little of the general aggravation toward his captain falling away. "Well, until..."
        "'The unpleasantness'." She simplified.
        That aggravation almost flared up again. But, bygones. "I can't explain it. Not yet. But I plan to discover more about it." He paused, taking a moment to force himself to make and hold civil eye contact. "That is, if I can."
        She grinned, fully prepared to hurl a devastating but humorous insult his direction when Domani interrupted. "Excuse me, Captain." It apologized, quickly moving to the subject at hand. "The Commander of Defense requests you to the bridge immediately. It is urgent."
        That was as good an excuse to end the conversation as any, she supposed. "Will do." She agreed quickly. Standing, she nodded politely to her guest. "I am paged, Doctor."
        He unwittingly raised his eyebrows at the title. "Does that mean I'm welcomed back into sickbay?"
        "Only until you piss me off again." She tossed behind her on her way out. "Finish the tea first, if you want."
        "I think I will." He raised his voice mildly to her retreating form. "No doubt I'll be seeing you soon."
        She turned to deliver a smirk before leaving her quarters completely. Somehow she had no reason to expect him to do anything more than excuse himself... after thoroughly enjoying a bit of silence at the expense of her private quarters. She'd soon find out, wouldn't she? Besides, she now had Domani on her side to keep him from snooping.
        Regardless, her curiosity was getting the better of her inside the lift. "What's this about?"
        While she had mostly been talking to herself, the familiar computerized voice responded. "I will set up a channel to the Commander." Not even three full seconds later, Pheta's voice rang through loud and clear. "There are three Pordethre freight ships trailing us." She simplified perfectly.
        It seemed that "matter of time" had come rather quickly. "Let's hit it, Pheta."
        A pause. One far too long to mean anything positive. The woman's voice responded in a low tone. "They've got some sort of wave jamming device. Three different ones working at once, to be clearer. The closer they get, the harder a time Domani is having locking onto their exact positions. It might take a minute to adjust."
        "A minute we probably don't have, right?" It was a guess on her part, but she was pretty damn sure it would be an accurate one.
        "Correct, Captain." The Commander sighed, shortly but sharply.
        "Shit." She commented quietly. There was nothing they could do short of buy time... or surrender--but that was not an acceptable option. Buy time, buy time...
        Her only viable idea came in the form of a landslide--the Black Albatross. It'd been tried before, but that was no reason not to try it again. At least if she could be a distraction while Domani got up to speed...
        As if reading her thoughts, Pheta added in a very cautious tone, "As for the Black Albatross..."
        And why was a little touch of cold sweat breaking out across her palms all of a sudden... "Yes?" she found herself barely able to voice. Something... was not right.
        A silence that was a little too long responded at first, then a shifting. Julian's voice answered her, his tone absolutely bland. "It's... outside."
It didn't click. At all. A numbness had overcome her, knowing deep down that something was...
Nex. She stepped off of the lift, hardly aware of her body moving at all. The totally irrational thought beat rhythmically with every step: Not again. Not again.
        Instinct more than sight carried her to the bridge. She stepped in wordlessly, walking at a quick pace to the almost foreign captain's chair... but felt unable to sit there. She avoided eye contact with her friends, actually concerned that the numbness might go away if she were to look.
        Turning to the holographic projection in the front of the room, she sincerely wished she hadn't. It displayed what was actually going on outside; three large Pordethre ships had formed a triangle configuration, headed straight for them. In the middle was a pinprick, the very epitome of an insect in a land of giants. Yeah, maybe. But it had enough bomb power left in hidden chambers to--
        She was finally able to sit, alright. Her legs almost delicately folded underneath her, depositing her in a plush, comfy chair... with her face covered by a splayed hand. The explosion had actually caused the DarkHorse to lurch backward for a moment before the thrusters fired up and forward at Domani's reflex, trying to avoid the most of the molten debris.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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