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

        Chapter 25 - Maybe it's the End of the Beginning

        Admittedly, her initial reaction to waking up next to another person was to jerk away. And rather violently, at that. It would have been a lot funnier had they been watching another couple of people; her unconscious response was to instantly pull away, while his was the instinctual grasping of whatever was suddenly moving away from him. The result was a pile of confusion on the floor.
        There was a long portion of silence when they both took stock of the situation. Seeing as how she had landed more or less on top of things, Jack decided it was in their mutual best interest for her to get up.
        For that, Julian was grateful. When he looked up at her from the floor, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking back down at him, he couldn't help it--somehow the laughter was just too much to hold down. He very nearly had tears in his eyes from it, turning over and curling into himself.
        And she... blinked. The situation was puzzling... but she supposed it couldn't be the worst sign if he was enjoying himself so much.
        It was sort of a flash-bomb of amusement, loud and sudden but short-lived. Catching his breath, he explained, "First time I sleep with a woman, and she casts me out of my own bed."
        She grinned down in a mildly sleepy haze, deciding to spare him all of the possible rude comments on the matter. "Won't be the last time." Well, almost all rude comments.
        He raised an eyebrow at that. Certainly he'd jumped far past her intended meaning... Nevermind. Not important. The freshly woken numbness made it a little difficult to get to his feet, but at least the bed was right there--
        And then..? He stared at the floor for a moment, not certain if he wanted to make eye contact. He didn't know and he didn't want to ask... but he felt the mattress shift, weight tumbling to the other side.
        Chancing a glimpse, he looked over with held breath... somewhat pleasantly shocked that she'd laid back down without a single word on the matter. How rude. He forced himself to swallow another laugh. Not that he minded at all. Swinging his legs back over, he turned and let his body mostly fall where it may. But, out of curiosity... "Aren't you aching to know what's going on while you sleep?"
        Just as he started to think she was already unconscious, she responded, "This is the first time I've gone back to bed after waking up in years. Don't ruin it."
        Well, what the hell. He could ignore general confusion in favor of sleep.

        It couldn't have been that much later when she was slowly awoken by movement next to her. Glancing over in a state of almost-consciousness, she saw Julian stretch and roll over.
        Ah. Right. Well... no reason to rush things. She stretched out herself, limbs hanging off the bed--brushing against something warm and fuzzy. That startled her--she pulled back in silent surprise, bumping into her bedmate.
        He, in turn, sat up from the harsh and unexpected contact, looking at her with a groggy, questioning expression. Absolutely uncertain of what was going on, he watched her carefully edge toward her side of the bed again, look over... and start to chuckle. It didn't... make any sense... at all.
        Jack wiped both tears of laughter and the sleep from her eyes as she gazed down at Doxy. Niehder-cats were indeed incredibly intelligent; he'd likely watched her or Nex for days, figuring out how to use the doors. After his intent had been clear, Domani had probably helped him along. The big cat looked back up at her, glad that she seemed happy rather than freaked only like seconds before.
        Julian took it upon himself to crawl up behind her and look over. "Holy shit."
        "Smart kitty." She joked, reaching down to give the beast a scratch behind the ears. He purred and relaxed at the contact.
        For one quick moment, her partner in crime actually considered something similar: reaching out and drawing her toward him. It was... kinda weird, that desire. Just... just once... to pull her close...
        "Guess I better go freshen up." She yawned, pressing her hand against her mouth in case she had the dreaded morning breath. She wasn't quite used to sleeping with anyone else, but she knew that there were rules one followed.
        Dammit. "In a rush to get somewhere?"
        His tone was such that it did seem like a joke, so she let him have a rather vicious smirk. "Little late for pillow talk, isn't it?"
        He grinned at her harshness, feeling surprisingly at ease about it. "Fine, fine. Take your cat and go."
        "I just will." She threw back in good humor, edging off the bed to stand... and then she wondered. Whatever it meant and however it was taken, she turned back. "Thanks, Jules." Before anything else could be uttered, she decided it might just be best to start walking--Doxy at her heels.
        Silent and empty, Julian stayed in bed for several minutes... but he couldn't say it was disappointment. Or depression. It was an odd kind of... hope, almost.
        Heh. Funny. In the same way shooting oneself in the foot was funny.

        Back in her quarters, Jack made quick work of changing clothes. A shower might be the recommended thing, but she simply... didn't feel like it right then. Better some tea first, then worry about the rest. Though... "Domani?"
        "Yes?" came the familiar voice.
        "Did you happen to help Doxy find me?" she asked out of curiosity.
        "He didn't need very much help, I must admit." The computer responded. After a moment's rest, the subject was changed. "You've been quiet with me lately, Jack."
        Hm. She had been, hadn't she? "Sorry about that." She apologized softly. "It just..." she trailed off, unable to think of another thing to say. What had it been, really?
        "I would suggest that you not succumb to this state of mind." The computer suggested, seemingly out of the blue.
        So. She really was that obvious. Dammit. "It will solve itself." She wasn't really sure who she was trying to convince, but... it seemed like the proper response.
        "'It' cannot solve itself if 'it' is being ignored."
        That was... almost creepy. Was Domani referring to the same 'it' that Beran-Turou had been? And why wasn't she voicing that question? Well, it certainly wasn't that she preferred mystery in her life--she blinked. A terrible fear had grabbed hold. What if... "I've lost my instinct."
        "No." The voice countered instantly. "You've stopped trusting it."
        Nausea hit her again. Yeah, that was... yeah. Not any better, in one sense. Used to be that she had nothing else to live for other than to understand her instincts. They had been all she'd survived on, and she damn well used them. Lately, though... she'd gotten caught up in everything else. In... herself, really--things loved, lost, and a very protective desire not to let the things she still had hold of slip away. Instinct, it seemed... had been ignored. If not pushed aside completely. How absolutely stupid had she been?
        "Jack." The soft computerized voice halted her thought process. "Regret is wasted time. Reflection after the fact is the preferable method of remembrance."
        She sat rather suddenly on her bed, staring off into space for some time. Domani was composed of... lifetimes. Other worlds. And so much philosophy...
        She needed to get to the bridge. That was indeed the strongest instinct she'd had in a long time. Right before that, however...
        Quickly, she prepared Doxy's breakfast. Hey, it was the least she could do. "I'll be on the bridge." She announced to the creature, tilting his head and listening to every word. "I'll be back soon."
        The cat watched her go with a great, growling yawn. Settling down, he was glad for having someone to feed him. Pressing buttons on door panels was much easier than opening bags of food.

        There was an odd kind of... disappointment, almost, when she didn't catch Julian in the hall. One part of her was a little glad, though; saving them both from some stupidly weird awkward moment.
        Eh, no matter. She had to learn to compartmentalize again. Domani was right... but that didn't really help any. They were not thoughts she wanted at all, let alone on her way to the bridge; there were still patterns to learn and more important things to focus on. Focus. Focus. Focus. Yeah, when has that ever worked...
        Stepping onto the bridge did feel good, though. Exactly why was lost in the greetings of her crew and the new Commander Laquea, looking... all too ready to start something dramatic and slightly frightening. Oh boy. May as well ask her Commander of Defense just what the hell was going on. "And what are we doing today?"
        The question brought a somewhat wicked smile to the woman's face. "Testing some patterns to make sure all command lines are solid."
        The door slid open an instant before Jack felt it necessary to throw back a none too gentle comment. In a satisfactory, comfortable stroll, Julian walked on in and sat down in his appointed chair. It was all he could do not to grin from ear to ear in one respect... so, clearly, he had no idea what was going to happen.
        "Perfect." Pheta pretended not to be egging both of the captains on. "Now you can both experience some of the attack and defense patterns on the bridge."
        Apparently there was an expression nearly strong enough to speak the words "uh-oh", because it was all over Captain DeVierna's face. And the day had started off so well...
        Amused, Jack sat next to him in her assigned seat. Seemed like things were going to get interesting very quickly.
        Pheta walked around to take the third seat, separated from the captains but relatively close. It had more displays and general controls than either of the other chairs, so she pulled up a bit of the information for their viewing pleasure.... even though it was hardly comprehensible in that form, even to her. Not that she was about to admit so. She turned to Captain Veis and announced, "It'll be your orders for which positions to take. Domani can make the rest of the decisions."
        Her heart instantly stopped--before it changed direction and raced. And why not all of the decisions? she couldn't quite find it in herself to ask. The things she'd been trying to push away flashed in her mind... Beran-Turou's words at the forefront. Did she really have that "it" of which he spoke? Did her instincts still... matter?
        Her fingers twitched on the armrest. Thoughts of the Tree of Life... of Domani and other universes, other dimensions... the library and everything contained within that she never did find the time to explore... Without being terribly aware of it, her gaze shifted upward; to either side were her wingmen--Pheta and Julian. Each pretending not to be looking back at her, sensing something... happening.
        They'd been there the whole time, hadn't they? Maybe not literally--there was the long period of eight years without Julian, and Pheta's friendship had taken a while, but... yeah. That wasn't important. Add to that... they didn't really need her protection, did they?
        One side of Jack's lips lifted. Suddenly she felt her Spectre again, safe and sound at her side. With an unconscious motion of her shoulders, she fully felt her uniform as well. Click.
        With a deep, quiet breath, she sat back into the comfortable captain's chair and lifted one leg, ankle raised and placed across her other knee. She released the armrests, no longer feeling the need to use them, instead resting her chin in her hand as she once again regarded the two beside her. Uncertainty didn't matter--no one was sure. Insecurity? Easily ignored for the time being. Yeah, the whole thing was bigger than her, bigger than all of them. In one sense, she may have started it... so damned if she wasn't going to finish it. If her crew was behind her, not to mention a whole fleet of other ships...
        "Well, come on." She joked, feeling the effect as the weight of the universe was simply dropped from her shoulders. "Let's see these patterns."
        For the most minute moment in time, Pheta and Julian gave one another a nearly parental look of pride. They didn't dare actually say anything about it... but the shift had been clear.
        Unaware of anything that had just occurred, Commander Laquea brought up the visual representation of several patterns, side by side, on the front screen. One could stare at them and determine what each line and each color meant... but why bother.
        "Alright." Jack didn't wait. "Let's try one of these out."
        It seemed the new fleet commander had no sense of when she was being sincere. "Seriously? Now?"
        She did her best not to sound too amused. "Well, we should make sure it works." She actually felt a touch of excitement at that. Time to see exactly what a fleet was capable of... and perhaps what the DarkHorse could do.
        "You will feel added gravity during the maneuver." Domani warned in a very matter-of-fact way so as not to alert the crew to its true nature.
        "Better tell the rest of the ship, then." Captain Veis suggested. Not everyone might appreciate the sudden, unexplained influx of gravity.
        "I will make an announcement." The computer agreed, instantly turning to the intercom system. The warning was simple and straight to the point: "Crew of the DarkHorse Vendetta. At the current time, there are tests regarding strike patterns occurring. Do not be alarmed. You will feel a sense of increased gravity, and no more. Thank you for your understanding."
        A maneuver in space was not at all like one in a full gravity environment--much to the joy of some and disappointment of others. It wasn't the shell of a tiny vessel like the Black Albatross, but a full-sized ship based on a gravity system powered by centrifuges deep in the heart of the beast. Acceleration could often be felt when the gravitational settings were being calculated and optimized, but the full turns and loops couldn't be experienced.
        --Well... not really. There was a large screen to look at... and if that screen were to show the point of view of the ship, so to speak... No, one couldn't feel real twists and turns, but the eyes would fool the brain into thinking so.
        Julian only glanced at the look slowly widening across Jack's face. I wish I were blind. Momentarily.
        She drowned out his prayer with a request. There was no need to hide the nature of the ship any longer. Why she felt that, she couldn't say... but she was suddenly quite comfortable with the decision. "Domani, can we have a full view from the nose of the ship's perspective?"
        "We can." The voice responded. Instantly, the front of the bridge darkened just a touch, the projection changing from the visualizations of patterns to the view outside. Not to mention a good view of a few of the fleet's ships, ready and waiting to either side of the DarkHorse.
        The smaller ships struck Jack as very bird-like. Each vessel had the body of a dolphin, a fanned "tail" above the main thrusters, and elongated "wings" to either side, acting both as scanners and weapons bays. They were sleek, simple, perfect vehicles for attacking in large numbers and flying away without a trace. Good to have on her side. "Alright." She indicated, making an attempt to relax into the chair.
        "Which pattern should we start off with?" Commander Laquea asked, walking to stand next to Pheta at her panel to take a closer look.
        Which one indeed... Captain Veis exchanged a glance with her partner in crime--himself looking less than thrilled with any of it. Like that had ever stopped her. "Pick us out a nice complicated one, would you?"
        He gave the request pause... but only for a moment. Hey, she was the one Beran-Turou said to follow at all costs. This might turn out to be a lot more fun than he'd anticipated. "Initializing pattern one-eight-three-four."
        Julian... was staring at her. Hoping for... something. Anything. But she would only grin into her hand, initiating a gloriously relaxed position of no worries.
        "Life's too short." She announced quietly. "You should relax."
        He opened his mouth with the intention of verbally smacking her around just a little for that comment--but the gravity had already begun to multiply.
"One-eight-three-four initializing." Domani confirmed.
        "Zing" was the only proper onomatopoeia one could ever really come up with. It wasn't an entirely fair assessment for those with vision glued to the screen, but just about any conscience thought process was drowned out with adrenaline... or fear. Sometimes it was a little hard to tell. While on one hand the whole process seemed terrifying slow, on the other it was of a head spinning, almost sickening speed.
        The process itself was smooth and perfectly executed, lasting little more than five seconds. A fleet of mechanical marvels, to be sure--but the DarkHorse was no slouch, either.
        The success of the first pattern was met with an astounding nothing. Complete silence.
        Leave it up to Jack to be the first to toss out an understatement, however. "That was... neat."
        Quite a bit more silence.
        Commander Laquea finally seemed to feel it appropriate to break in. "Smashing success."
        "One more time." Captain Veis requested, heart still pounding a little with that weird "virtual roller coaster" feel.
        Well, hey. If she said so. "Initializing pattern... eight-seven-four-seven." Laquea seemed to take his time picking that one.
        They found out exactly why when the maneuver caused the DarkHorse to do a full barrel roll, jet upwards, do a wide backflip, and rejoin the fleet that had criss-crossed in front. It had taken only about as long as the first pattern... and yet it felt both faster and exceptionally longer at the same time. Taken in context, a giant ship doing those sorts of things was... just a little frightening. But at the moment, taking everything else into account... it was really kind of fun.
        There was a long moment of silence from Captain Veis--only this time, it wasn't uncertain. It was calculating, pondering, weighing options. Without giving much thought to her words, Jack called upon the device with a very soft question. "Can I address the whole crew from here?"
        Julian's shoulders tensed slightly. He wasn't entirely certain about what to expect.
        "Yes, Captain." Came the computer's quiet response, clearly puzzling a couple of crew mates that seemed to decide it within their best interests not to question too much. Strange voices... not a good thing to admit to hearing.
        She took another period of time to consider her words, not to mention her location. No, it was no matter. She didn't really need to think it through, or be in a private space in which to say it. "I'd like to do that, please."
        A very mild click, as though a physical switch had been triggered. "Begin when ready, Captain." Domani almost seemed to be whispering from the headrest of the chair, just as puzzled as to what she meant to do as the rest of them.
        She took a breath, well aware of the eyes pretending not to be on her... but it didn't matter. There was just then, that moment. They'd see. With the mild clearing of her throat, she tried out the ship-wide comm system. "Attention crew of the DarkHorse Vendetta." She started... wondering just how many of them had been utterly startled, especially after that last ship-wide announcement. No reason to worry them. "This is your captain speaking... or at least one of them."
        The tension in Julian's shoulders suddenly eased under their own will. She was... well, Jack again. It felt good. And, wonder of wonders or proof of stupidity, he placed his full faith in her hands.
        Unconsciously noticing his increasing comfort, her words began to flow more easily. "Sorry to bother everyone, but this is kind of important. You're probably all aware by now that we're headed into what is to be a last big battle with the Pordethre. And, I guess, if I want to be honest about this then I have to admit it's a little bit personal. More than that, though... they're a real threat to everyone. The power they've gained has bred insanity, but they're still hungry for more."
        It was hardly a pause, really--but it inspired several tense breaths in its wake before she continued. "I know you all have families. Loved ones. Homes, probably. I won't ask anyone to fight that doesn't believe in the cause. And it's a damned complicated cause... but if anyone would rather go home, I won't hold it against you. You'll get good recommendations. If for some reason you'd rather stay... well, you're completely insane. And probably stupid. But I really appreciate it. Either way, we should be at a station in a few hours. Carry on."
        A long moment of half puzzled, half shell-shocked silence swept the bridge--and likely everywhere else. That was... simple. Very much to the point. But somehow carrying a bit more weight than that, a bit more... honesty.
        "And now." Jack spoke up, somewhat satisfied with her speech. "Unless anyone has a really good reason, I'd like the rest of the maneuvers sent to my quarters so I can review them. I need a shower."
        "There's just one little complication." Pheta's voice was edged with more seriousness than usual.
        And her captain noticed. "That would be..?"
        The image came on screen, making the closest of the bridge crew wince unexpectedly. Yes, that was the proper reaction, alright.
        Captain Veis stared in silence for a moment, wondering just how the hell so much calm still remained in her. "It's a great big fucking Solanid momma." She announced, as if anyone needed to be told. She knew Solanids got that big, and she'd seen still pictures and drawings of them, but... it did not prepare a person for the real thing. It was like a jellyfish on a grand scale--with hundreds of hook-tipped tentacles that could grasp and open even a ship as big as the DarkHorse as if it were a tin can. These were what world destroyer legends were based on. Here, this, floating only a few hundred light-years away if she was reading the coordinates in the corner of the screen correctly.
        And then... there was an idea. Solanids went after anything that moved, but... there were certain transmission frequencies they went after far more quickly, and others that they'd merely follow.
        "You've got a 'plan', don't you Jack?" The tone of Julian's voice was almost as awed as it was scared shitless.
        The shadow of a grin only deepened in her features. "Why indeed I think I do." Her eyes narrowed on the creature for a moment, working out the details. "If we were to drop it a little bit of energy from time to time as we go... You can handle that, right Domani?"
        "Correct, Jack." The computer no longer seemed to think it needed to hide itself, either.
        Captain DeVierna took control of the puzzled silence to grasp her plans from the air. "So... you're stringing that thing along?"
        "Exactly." She felt quite pleased that he didn't sound... entirely doubtful. "It's not as if we're far from the proving grounds, you know."
        She'd gone just one step beyond what he'd expected... but that was Jack, alright. "You really think you can use a Solanid to our advantage?"
        "I do. Crazy enough to work, right?"
        Silence, from all around. Total, unbroken, complete.
        "Oh, come on. It's not that bad." She insisted.
        "Go take a shower, Captain." The Commander of Defense's tone was almost purely amused.
        She glanced back with joking accusation--getting only a saucy fingers-only wave from Pheta. Yeah, things were feeling... okay again. In a manner of speaking, anyway. She shook her head at the woman, getting up. "Let's get to the nearest station as soon as possible and see who we've got left over."

        Ah, shower. Hot, long shower. Damned if she hadn't earned it.
        --Wait. Had she?
        Taking into account the last several weeks, hell yes. Maybe she should have been beating herself up over having let herself slipped so far... but she just couldn't find reason to. Domani was right, no doubt--no regrets. It had been a motto she'd adopted before she'd let it slip. Not again.
        The image of Pheta's fingers-only wave suddenly flashed to mind--and she laughed. Yeah, having been able to gather herself up must not have been all that secret from those closest to her. The woman had almost looked... kinda sexy like that.
        --Wait... Was that weird?
        --Wait. She... shouldn't even be asking herself that one. There was enough uncertainty going on for the moment.
        But, then... she'd never really given it much thought, come to think of it. Boy, girl, lizard... whatever rocked a person the right way. She just never happened to have come into contact with a female she could fool herself into "trusting" before. Did that mean she could "trust" her Commander of Defense?
        It was laughable. And... almost creepy in its own right. But then, it was just thought. She let her mind wander, if only for the purposes of humoring herself. What of Pheta? The woman had always taken care of her... even when she had seemed more like a scary, cold bitch, she'd been completely protective of her captain... But Jack had thought it'd all been about that, after the commander having been a most perfect officer of duty. At least not about... her, personally... but... hm. Could that explain... some things?
        Geez, no. How stupid of her. Julian had been right, it wasn't about her or her ego.
        Turning the water off and shaking most of the moisture from her hair, thoughts turned more to her partner in crime. That morning at last seemed to sink in, seeming much more unusual than it had before. Weird... was not the word.
        Neither was "unnatural", though. Apparently not, because there was no awkwardness at all... perhaps something awkward in its own way. It was no wonder, really. They'd been through quite a bit together.
        She shook her head, toweling off and pressing personal matters aside for the time being. Thoughts of the upcoming war seemed slightly more poignant... not to mention exactly how she was going to use that Solanid. Stringing it along would be the easy part. Even watching, monitoring its every move, wouldn't be that hard. But if they were attacked and any one of their ships suffered damage, it'd be an immediate danger.
        After a quick stop in the bedroom, she was dressed and more or less ready to "get serious". After tea, dammit. She found herself even more thankful for the quick heating of the water, pouring it over a randomly selected tea bag. Walking into the far room, she placed the mug by the computer console and scratched a napping Doxy behind the ears before seating herself. "Domani, can you get the patterns ready for me?"
        "Yes, Captain." The comforting voice responded. Instantly, the screen lifted from the table, bringing upon it a simplistic list of literally hundreds of four digit pattern numbers.
        Jack... paused. "Okay. Quite honestly, I'm not certain what to do with this."
        "If you would like, I can compile them into categories: attack, defense, and other strategic maneuvers." The computer offered helpfully.
        "That's a good start." She agreed. The moment she reached out for the keyboard, the screen began to disappear back into the table. "Uh..."
        "Julian is on his way here." Domani informed. "I will turn my attention to categorizing, in the meantime."
        In other words, you'll give us our privacy. She came very close to expressing out loud. She knew damn well that all "categorizing" by the ship could be done in mere milliseconds... but they could both pretend, if that were the way to go. "Sure. Thanks."
        Right away, the door chimed. She took the drink with her to the door to greet him.
        And he seemed nearly surprised at her ease. Not in a bad way, certainly; she was in jeans and a t-shirt again. Damn his old-fashioned adoration of that ensemble--he had to remind himself not to stare. "Hey."
        "Hey." She grinned, moving aside.
        He stepped in, following her hand as it indicated the unbroken couch. He sat there, watching her take an easy seat on the low table in front of him rather than beside him. Well, it worked. He may as well cut to the chase. "So what... exactly... happened there?"
        She knew precisely what he was referring to. "Must have been you and Pheta being there like you really gave a damn."
        That was entertaining. A little hard to respond to without revealing too much, however. A slight change of subject. "We'll be at a station in about an hour."
        "Ah." She almost sounded to have not given a damn, herself... but she was morbidly curious. Just how many people would leave? How many had realized how bullshit it was to try and win against the totally insane? "Supply or transportation?"
        "Transportation." He admitted. "We'll have to stop at another station to be able to stock up on supplies."
        She placed her tea carefully on the table, getting a bit tired of holding it. Reminded of dropping the universe's weight from her shoulders, she laughed a little. "We could die, here. We could all get killed without making a damn bit of difference. Without doing all the rest of the things we've wanted to do.         We've got a good chance at success, but..." There was no way to finish that. It wasn't an entirely serious thought, anyway.
        Julian nodded, understanding. It wasn't the talk of someone willing to give up. Just a thought, and one he was glad to listen to. "So what do we talk about when death is so close?"
        "Well, theories of the universe haven't really done us much good." She joked.
        He chuckled, shrugging in mock hopelessness. "Going through those patterns are you?'
        "Religiously." She responded with a straight face.
        "Didn't think you'd gotten to them yet."
        "You didn't give me a chance." She teased back.
        "And where will you be sleeping tonight?" --Shit. He hadn't really just said that... had he?
        "You'll probably find me having bludgeoned myself to death after studying the patterns. They call that 'eternal slumber'." She successfully dodged the question, taking a sip of her tea.
        Surprisingly, he couldn't have been more satisfied with her response. It was an excellent diversion. "Try not to do that."
        "I can only try so hard, Jules." She halfway warned. Seeing his expression healthily amused, she took a moment to ponder. Not for the sake of bringing him down, of course... but because she knew he could handle her thought process. "I suppose I should change into uniform and get ready to say farewell in the dock."
        "Yeah." He agreed quietly. "I was wondering about that, myself."
        She hadn't expected that degree of stoicism. "You can skip it, if you'd rather. But I kind of think I should be there as the punching bag."
He shook his head with a slight smile. "I'm not sure you appreciate your own crew."
        Her eyes narrowed jokingly. "And what do you mean by that?" In reality... she'd have loved to know exactly what he knew that she didn't.
Well... hell. "Rumors spread, you know."
        Interesting so far... "Yes?"
        Finally he knew something that she was absolutely unaware of--but wanted to know. He took a moment to savor that thought. "You have more loyalty than you realize." He simplified.
        Hm. She chose to let it go for the time being. "I should switch beds with you."
        "Oh?" And just where she was going with that...
        "Your mattress is obviously a lot better than mine." She sliced the subject straight through, getting a mild glare. Ah, just what she was after. Tapping the hidden subject at hand then darting away was almost an enjoyable sport, wasn't it?
        "It was the mattress?" he pressed, albeit very lightly. He knew better than to do anything more than take what was offered... until she offered too much to deny.
        "Well it couldn't have been the company." She joked viciously. "You toss."
        "You kick." He accused, not at all sure if it were true. "And you fall out of bed."
        "Only when I find myself suddenly restrained." She threw back with another sip.
        He merely stared at her, eyes narrowed with accusation. "And how many times have you found yourself in a restraint situation, Jack?"
        It sincerely made her laugh, regardless of trying to be as utterly serious as she ever had in her entirely life. So many ways that one could be taken...
        But, ultimately, he was glad that she'd reacted favorably. "Alright." He began to excuse himself. "Just thought I'd stop by and give you an excuse to slack off a little more."
        "I appreciate it." She admitted. "But I don't really need the excuse."
        Yeah. Sweet. "I will see you in the dock in a few minutes."
        Still feeling playful, she challenged, "Not if I'm invisible." Regardless of her suddenly argumentative response, she stood up to see him out.
        Unable to find a better argument, he relented. "I... suppose that's true..."
        Ha. "See you in the dock then, wonderboy."
        "Wonderboy?" he tried not to let her know he was holding his breath to prevent the laughter. Where the hell had that come from?
        She only grinned and gave him a mild shove out the door. Perhaps the proper term was "feeling her oats"--whatever it was, she felt... a lot better than she had in a long damn time. "Don't be late now."
        As he turned, the door closed; the last image covered by the sliding metal was the all too deviously playful expression on her face as she turned away. Well. Was he entirely ready for the "old Jack"?
        With a somewhat warmer bounce in his step on his way back to his quarters, the answer was pretty obvious. Not like he had any control over her, anyway.

        The minutes sped by, eased only by her tea and the fact that she no longer felt as trapped as she had before. It was the realization that the entire situation had been rather self-made, all in all--a matter of how one thought of the world around them. Or interpreted the universe, anyway... maybe even the nature of the creator.
        Stepping out the door with assurance to Doxy that she'd be back soon, she nearly chastised herself for thinking philosophically. Not that she'd ever honestly wish it to be any other way, but... recently, even looking down that path seemed to have lead to one hell of a lot of shit she hadn't really intended to dig up. But maybe that was the secret; it was rather like payment in return for knowledge. Eek.
        Surprisingly, the halls seemed just as abandoned as they usually did. No people running toward the dock with everything they owned in tow, screaming to be let off the nut house in space. Even walking into the dock and taking the lift down was... uneventful. And then at the bottom, as she approached Julian and the rest... it was more than a little weird. There simply weren't that many people that had decided to get off at the station, but she did feel the need to give them all a proper farewell. Some of them thanked her and others apologized... but she didn't mind. She was about to do what she absolutely needed to do... and so were they.
        Most faces she recognized, but very few names; yes, she would have to start making more of an effort in that regard. Better late than never. Either way, none of them flat-out accused her of... anything. They all seemed very gracious for the opportunity, even if they were previously on the Durago and spent very little time around her. She was actually starting to feel a little sorry to see them go when they seemed to have little more than nice things to say.
        When they began walking through the connected corridor into the station... well, that was certainly odd. A little over two dozen people walked away with waves and grateful words, their usually small cache of necessities in their arms or on a freight cart courtesy of the station.
        "Wow." Jack commented quietly, the corridor finally sealing as the last person made their way safely through.
        "Strange." Julian agreed.
        "Both of you should get to the bridge." Pheta verbally prodded from behind them. "It's just sort of custom for a captain to be on the bridge as we..." The term "leave crew behind" was far too harsh. "Depart."
        And stranger still. Captain Veis kept to herself, turning to follow. She'd never... left people behind like that before. The feelings creeping up were a slight bit... cold. Not something to focus on at the moment, though.

        As three, the captains and commander walked the hallways and rode the lifts to the bridge just in time to see the corridor recess back into the station on screen. It was a sight that drove them all to sit, really. Nothing lost, no... but a little emotional all the same.
        That's when it happened. Just at the most perfect, gloriously pre-planned time. The single, powerful shot was too fast for even Domani to have seen coming--the ships had been hidden behind the dark side of a giant moon, all frequencies cut off and rendered totally unnoticeable.
        The station itself blew apart faster than eyes could follow--and they were too close. Debris caught the side of the DarkHorse and thrust it sideways, into several of the fleet ships. Most of smaller vessels had time to get out of the way... but not all of them.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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