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

        Chapter 26 - One Step Forward and Two Steps to Oblivion

        Domani reacted immediately, firing thrusters to prevent serious damage to the smaller vessels--some did bump together in the race not to be crushed, but none retained anything that couldn't be patched up quickly. It took a mere heartbeat's time to scan the area, finding the three Pordethre ships responsible for the incident as they screamed out from behind the dark moon they'd used to hide themselves. Without the need for orders, the DarkHorse opened fire with long-held missiles.
        There was only the barest pause from shock before operations returned to normal. Pheta immediately found the damage report on her screen even before she called on it--almost Domani's reassurance. Nothing broken, just a little banged up.
        Jack, however... "Blow 'em apart." She growled quietly. It was a little more of a suggestion to the ship than it was an order... but it was an unquestionably raw sort of suggestion.
        The entire understanding of the Solanid trailing them had been utterly forgotten... until one of its tentacles appeared on screen. It seemed Domani was involved in too many operations at once to be able to verbally communicate, so it used visuals--that giant space creature was certainly surprise enough (especially after what had just happened) to give a few on the bridge a strong desire to ponder the nature of deities. The scene presented was really more informative than it was a warning; the Solanid had a good deal of space between the DarkHorse and fleet, and the rest of the "happenings"--
        And that was exactly where it was going. The station's explosion had caught its attention, but the impact of Domani's missiles with two of the Pordethre ships was what specifically drew its hunger. A Solanid had no need of things already exploded, but they would certainly suck the energy out of a wounded ship. How those beasts could move so quickly without thrusters, without resistance in space...
        The whole of the bridge watched in wide-eyed awe. The world-eating beast that they'd been stringing along went to work in a very extreme manner--the first ship it touched nearly disintegrated on contact. The second broke cleanly into two halves, squeezed apart by a single tentacle. Amazingly, those watching were able to make out what could only be described as a glowing bolt transferring from the ship to the creature as every last bit of energy seemed sucked away.
        "Back up." Jack kept her voice down, addressing none of the crew themselves. "This is taken care of... but don't leave yet."
Less "stressed" with hundreds of operations, Domani obeyed instantly. Sending a quick order to the fleet, they began backing up as one mass, getting a better distance between themselves and the eerie space creature. Especially after it had reached out for the third ship, cracking it into three pieces with hardly an effort.
        Well, they did fire first. Julian reminded himself, still cringing with the idea of how... horrible that would be to have to go through. Like everyone else, he'd grown up with legends of Solanids. To see a full grown one in action... was almost too much to understand. And to think of what it'd be like to encounter one in that capacity... almost unfathomable.
        "We're going to have to kill it, Captain." Pheta broke in quietly. "We can't let it spawn."
        She sighed at the woman's words--not because she didn't agree, but... it all seemed a shame. The creature was doing them one hell of a favor. Though, with all the energy it was sucking, it was certainly preparing to impart a bunch of baby Solanids into the universe. It reminded her of a number of stories, about worlds with vast oceans and sailing cultures that feared the monsters of the deep waters... right before memories of her own miniature battle with a baby Solanid had taken place. She hardly needed to glance at her fellow captain to know he was suffering mild flashbacks as well. "Yes." She agreed. How to go about killing that, though...
        "We can load bombs onto something." Commander Laquea suggested, using one of the panels to get into contact with the fleet for damage reports. Nothing major, thankfully.
        "I'm afraid I don't know of any bombs at the moment." Captain Veis admitted. They had all been on the Black Albatross...
        "We should have a few between ships." Laquea stated. "All we need is a vessel."
        The two captains looked at one another. For a moment, it appeared as though they were going to indulge in a game of rock, paper, scissors--before Julian surprised them both by speaking up. "Use the Durago."
        Jack certainly hadn't expected that. "You sure?"
        "Not like it's going to do any good in the hold, right?" he tried to give her some indication that it wasn't as morbidly final as it all felt. Hey, it wasn't his ship, really. He'd only won it with a decently drunk poker face... and it wasn't as if he'd even set foot on it in such a long time... Just memories, and not the best ones of his life, either.
        She nodded, taking him at his word. "Alright, we'll use the Durago. Do what you must, Commander."
        He gave a terse nod back, taking the order to heart. With a swiftness of authority that was sure to get him into trouble at some later date, he took command of the situation. "All fleet ships: inspect for bombs. Those carrying, board the DarkHorse." There was a pause, then. Not a long one, but the sort of pause one has when they are utterly confused about who (or what) to address. He'd heard that strange computerized voice, come to the conclusion that it had something to do with the operations of the ship... the rest could be inquired about later. And so, he let the orders hang on their own. "Open the dock and get those ships inside."
        Domani obeyed wordlessly. Explanations at another time.
        Jack turned to her partner in crime, half in humor and half in a real sort of concern. "We better get down there and see what kind of damage they're gonna do."
        "Great." He responded flatly. He wasn't quite certain that he wanted to know... but he followed her, anyway. Story of his life.

        They'd never seen the dock so full of activity. People and ships were scattered everywhere, and yet there wasn't a lot of noise coming from the crowd. Kind of... unnatural, really--all talking was done when absolutely necessary, and all of it called out with a kind of discipline that may well make Pheta shudder. The process itself was swift, small packages of wrapped bombs being carefully handed off.
        A very skinny, very stiff man in uniform walked up to the pair of stunned captains, giving a cold and uninterested nod. "I'm Second Commander Relek Vorhe. Pleased to meet you both."
        Exactly how he'd known they were the captains of this fine vessel was both unimportant and less than puzzling when the time was taken to consider that they were the only people that had left the bridge. It was Julian who responded, because he thought he simply may as well. They were wiring his old ship for total destruction, after all. "Smooth operation you have here."
        Oops. Wrong thing to say by the look on ol' Vorhe's face. He cleared his throat and looked to Jack, expecting something a little more coherent.
        To which he got a rude awakening. She gave him a fitting if somewhat insincere smile, feeling suddenly both cocky and deviously playful. Not the best combination--she greeted him by grasping both of his shoulders like an old friend. "Blow it up good, Commander."
        Seeing absolutely no help coming for him, he delicately removed himself and took a step back, all the while attempting to retain some professionalism. His lips moved, but for a few seconds there were no words coming. At last, the safest course of action seemed to be, "That we will do."
        Watching him excuse himself very quickly, Jack leaned in to quite possibly the only other person in the universe that could stand her humor, not to mention constant change of moods. "How long do you think it's been for him?"
        And quite possibly the only person that was able to get exactly what she was digging for without taking offense. "Virgin, definitely. Probably not by choice."
        "I dunno." She whispered back. "I mean, can you picture..?"
        "Thank god no." He grinned.

        They rigged the ship with bombs, alright. The entire bridge was wired to do some severe damage with what must have been at least twenty sparsely spaced packages, each wired together with a jeweler's perfection. Both captains had gone in with the intent to check things... but seeing the sheer amount of firepower, they elected to take a peek and back right on out. No problems, no problems at all.
        "At least it's going out with an incredible bang." Julian pointed out on the lift back to the bridge.
        "To say the least." His companion commented. She leaned back against the wall, giving some thought to the whole situation. "Funny that it seems a little easier to deal with a Solanid than a bunch of psychos running a government."
        "Not so funny, according to history." He shot back, surprising himself at how... nearly thoughtful that had seemed. It'd been a while.
        She noticed. Caught between continuing the conversation and the admittedly ridiculous idea that doing so would only further bring about strife from some outside source, she was keenly aware that the bridge was only a few seconds away. "Let's continue that line of thought in my quarters later, hm?"
        The very universe had moved. "Okay." He found himself saying, lacking any and all ability at being smooth. Not that they weren't both aware of that already.
        Nodding in satisfaction, she pushed herself away from the wall just in time for the door to open to the bridge. Funny, no one there seemed tense at all... but they hadn't been privy to the number of bombs in their hull at that very moment, either.
        "We're ready to send it out on auto pilot, Captain." Pheta announced.
        Whew. "Have at it." Julian invited, sitting down.
        Almost immediately, the dock opened. On screen came the view from the front of the ship as several fleet ships emerged and slid back into their previous positions... and then the Durago. It was really almost a little weird for Captain DeVierna to watch his own ship aimed for the gorging Solanid, knowing that in a moment it would be no more. But then, really, there was nothing left to hold on to. It was an object... with a lot of lonely memories and quite a few good ones. Still, it was... his ship. Heading suddenly very fast. Very, very fast. It was pretty much dive-bombing--
        They all got a first-hand look at the inner portions of a Solanid. Technically, that was a scientific achievement... so Jack hoped Domani had a way to record it while the rest of them just looked away for a while--achievement or no, it was very... unpleasant. Chunks of the thing did actually wind up hitting the ships, but none big enough to matter. All in all, the whole event was simply a little less than appetizing.
        Okay, a lot less than appetizing. Not that anyone could really bring themselves to care, having survived not only an adult Solanid but a Pordethre attack... on the station. Jack's very being flared with a quiet rage in that fact alone. She'd tried to do the right thing... hadn't she? She'd let the crew off that weren't willing to give everything... those with other things to take care of that were personally more important... "That was the right thing to do... wasn't it..?"
        The question itself was almost impossibly quiet... but somehow everyone heard it. Though, no one could answer.
        Julian fought back the urge to grab her hand. The thought itself was a stupid one... but it just felt like it was... something that he could do. Maybe she didn't want it, though. Maybe she wasn't looking for comfort, least of all in public. "What's done is done." He heard himself sigh. "Get ready for the next one."
        If she thought she'd surprised herself by smiling, she certainly shocked the hell out of her fellow captain. She knew how he'd meant it--on with the show. "I suppose that is true, yes." There were families to contact, unimaginably heart wrenching things to tell them... but, too, there was a mission. One made even more clear, more real, by the horrors of what had just happened. No, they weren't just meaningless lives that had been up and, oops, lost--but they couldn't be the concentration in that moment. When there was time, there would be incredible mourning. Until then... they just had to press on. Maybe they were all callous assholes for it, but...
        "Time to go do my job." Jack excused herself gently. "I'll be in my quarters if anyone needs me."
        It was... the weirdest thing. Seeing her walk away with a confident stride inspired one of the most wonderful things Julian had felt in a long time. Oh yeah. This was... on.

        Doxy greeted her warmly at the door. On some level he must have understood what had happened (if not been told... she was starting to get the feeling that Domani gave reports to more than just her). There was a truly human worry in his eyes as he pressed his nose against her hand and whined quietly.
        Yeah, she understood the bond of pets and their owners. Even if they weren't of the type that could understand the words. "It's okay." She assured quietly. "But thanks. Now I've got a little work to do."
        The creature seemed more than satisfied with a generous scratch behind the ears before he settled down on his claimed couch. At least he was sticking to that bit of furniture.
        Stretching until an overly loud pop exploded between her shoulder blades, Jack made her way into the room at the far end. She actually sat down at the desk, brought the screen up, and didn't immediately feel like going to do something else. What a miracle. Though... "And I'd thought... what they'd done was inexcusable before..."
        "You're on your way to finish it." Domani reminded her kindly. "And you have plenty of support."
        "I appreciate it."
        "I'm afraid you may have one more distraction before you can get to work, however." The voice warned gently.
        That never seemed to her to be a good sign... but there wasn't time to ask about it before the door chimed. Well. A little soon for Julian, but maybe he could be of help. There was quite the unexpected surprise waiting for her, however.
        Pheta stood on the other side, looking neither nervous nor relaxed. She took it upon herself to get things started. "Would you mind if I came in for a short conversation?"
        What an... odd question. "No. No, of course not. Come in."
        For a moment, the woman seemed to be pondering sitting in one of the couches... but seeing as how one seemed to be permanently belonging to the large cat sleeping atop it, she elected to make use of the table in the back room. At least it had chairs.
        The captain held back for a moment, wondering just what had brought this on. She was being led around in her own home... weird on its own. Made more so by who was doing the leading. She did follow, however. Eventually. When she remembered that she was supposed to.
        The commander waited until they were both seated before the conversation began in the only way possible: brutally to the point and without pause. "How can you be so cold, Jack?"
        She blinked. "Coming from you, Pheta..."
        They both laughed. But the point hung in the air.
        The actual answer came easily. Almost disturbingly so. "The more you see, the less you feel. But right now there are better things to concentrate on."
        Well, that was... understandable. However... the woman had come for other reasons, as well. "I've heard a lot about you over time. But very little from you."
        Interesting, indeed. Jack began to wonder exactly where this had come from. "I bet that could be said for quite a few people."
        "Granted." Pheta agreed quietly. "Somehow it feels more... poignant for your case, though."
        She grinned mysteriously. "I'll keep that in mind."
        A beat of thoughtful silence. "Checking up on you, I suppose." The commander finally offered somewhat of an explanation. "And I have one question that must be answered. Though it's inappropriate."
        Inappropriate, huh? Jack nearly allowed herself to be amused. "I'm not sure that matters at this point. Yes?"
        "Did you and Julian ever..?"
        "Play tea party?"
        The woman's smirk was almost crackling with energy. "Alright, fine. Did you fuck him?"
        "The language!" the captain feigned offense for a moment. "Yeah. I did."
        That wasn't really... complete, somehow. "'Okay'? That's all you have to say?"
        "I was only curious." There was another long moment of silence. "You are his, aren't you?"
        Jack blinked at that. Honestly, she wasn't sure she could face the question herself, let alone the answer. It was simply the situation they were in... And then... and then, she didn't know the answer. Did she?
        The woman took the silence as a telltale sign. "It's a shame." She joked. "I would have treated you only slightly less well."
        There was another long moment of absolute quiet before Captain Veis found herself able to speak again. "Is that... I mean... do you two... talk about... that?"
        "Yes and no." She admitted. "Mostly in code and glances."
        The captain wasn't sure about how serious that statement had been until she noticed that the eye contact never wavered. "Oh."
        The reaction was a touch more than surprising, honestly. "You mean he hasn't made his intentions perfectly clear by now?"
        Momentarily wide eyes blinked a second later. "I..." --she stopped cold. She was about to say that she didn't know a thing about that, had never had any indications herself, but... that wasn't quite the truth. An odd realization. "I suppose he has."
        With a close to impossible quickness, Pheta got the gist of the situation. There were a million things she could have said, a million conversations that she could have started... but instead, she declined to press into matters that Jack herself didn't fully understand yet. She'd known deep down that Captain Veis would never be her own... but she didn't mind the friendship in the least bit. She was left at the end of their conversation with a feeling of far less disappointment than it was a mere confirming of the facts. "Good to have you back, Jack."
        Another long silence rested solidly between them. "Good to be back." She admitted.
        The woman grinned with a certainty almost unbreakable. "Well, back to work."
        "Leaving already?" She hadn't even offered her guest anything, let alone...
        "We've both got jobs to do, I'm afraid." Pheta dismissed. "Then we can laugh at one another for various reasons all we want."
        "Good point." The captain agreed. "Well then... keep... commanding."

        After the distinct unpleasantness of contacting families had left her nearly numb, she studied the patterns for hours over tea and a bit of food. With Domani's help, she even programmed a few of her own, inspired by the others. The ships were capable of freely exchanging information--anything she programmed would be immediate knowledge to everyone else in a matter of seconds.
        It was actually going well. And, even more amazing, it was feeling pretty damn good, too. She was learning again. Using her mind to figure things out. Amazing stuff, there.
        Halfway through her three hour pattern binge, Doxy came in to lay at her feet. It was a uniquely pleasant experience, even when the sweating began in the boots.
        Hell, even when she was paged on the comm she wasn't annoyed enough to mind the interruption. "Yes?"
        Pheta's voice. "You're needed on the bridge, captain. We're picking up something that looks to be another unregistered ship hiding behind a dark moon."
        The morons are using the same tricks already? "Be right there, Commander." She assured. After the communication was severed, she became more curious. "Domani?"
        "Yes, Jack?"
        "When will we know for sure? Whether it's an 'enemy ship' or not."
        "If all previous occurrences can be used for a pattern, the answer can be classified as 'very soon'."
        The smirk that responded was obvious even with body heat sensors. "Thank you." She glanced down at the Niehder-cat warming her feet. "I'm afraid I need to get to the bridge now, Doxy..."
        Lazily, the beast stretched and rolled over, just enough to release her before rolling right back. She pet him on the head in thanks before realizing how agonizingly cold everything underneath the middle of her shins was. Ah well.

        There was no dread as she approached the bridge. She actually had to take a moment to reflect on that. No dread... wow. Wonder of wonders. She even stepped into the room with a bit of a bounce, plopping down into her chair comfortably.
        Unbeknownst to her, Julian gave Pheta a most astoundingly questioning glare. She responded with a playful grin but no more. Well.
        "Okay, I'm here." Jack announced with a slight bit of enjoyment.
        "And we're all better for it." Came the sarcastic reply.
        She turned to see the speaker--with a hand over his mouth. Yup, Commander Laquea. She grinned at the bastard, glad to see he wasn't a thing like his Second Commander. "You'd better watch yourself."
        "Captain." He responded miserably, unsure of just how much he'd been allowed to get away with. There was always later, when he least expected retribution... And for some reason, he got the feeling that she was just that type of person, given the right circumstances.
        The other captain at her side breathed a tense but amused sigh. It was good to have comic relief, no doubt... but the all too realistic possibility that there was another ship just waiting for them, already, was not enjoyable. "Any new information?" he asked, trying to quell his increasing nerves.
        "Not yet." Pheta responded. "The readings are extremely unclear."
        "It could be a ghost image." Domani broke in gently, seeming to have abandoned all desire to hide itself from the crew. There was hardly a need, anymore. "An electric signature left behind to distract us."
        "I assume you're checking all possibilities already." Jack spoke up.
        "Of course." The computer reassured. "But that does stretch my ability to pick up the smaller details."
        Well, if the Pordethre kept up with their familiar pattern, then they'd probably see them coming. Probably. That last surprise... had been uncharacteristic. Not in its bloodshed, but in its very nature as a sneak attack. Whether it was planned or a split-second decision... that would have been very nice to know.
        A nervous twitch rather suddenly overcame Jack's fingers on her right hand. She glared down at it, sure that she was over this shit, already--but then there was that familiar sped-up heartbeat. Hairs bristled on the back of her neck. Something was going to down--
        There wasn't time to react, let alone think about it. Something, for lack of a better word... shimmered near the front of the bridge. It wasn't the shimmer of a sparkling object, but rather one that seems to move the very world around it, like shivering heat lines.
        It was only the blink of an eye, but the lights dimmed enough to assure them all that Domani was simply too busy trying to shut down unnecessary operations to be able to do anything about it. As the shimmering air swiftly began to expand, the computer's tone was urgent. "It's a particle device of some sor--" the almost a primal, unheard-of grind of a giant hard drive was all too clearly heard; the system was locking up. "It's a molecular transportation device--We are being invaded!"
        Jack stood, feeling herself completely unable to remain seated. Domani's voice had skipped at the end. Something more than simple computer operations lag was going on here; and then there was the shimmer. She could hardly bring herself to believe it. A real molecular transporter? It was only the fodder of science fiction! It wasn't really possible... except for the fact that it was happening right in front of her, developing both shape and substance.
        Finally whole, standing before them was a human-ish creature of complete unfamiliarity. There were Bertozian, reptilian ridges along the flattened forehead, cheeks and sharp chin, but the skin was composed of tiny black scale fragments that reflected nearly blue in the light. Two arms, two legs.. but the clothing was too loose to allow any other factors to be noticed. The thing had no hair to speak of, but rather a crest of something like quills...
        And then those fucking eyes. Julian felt like his body had been stripped away from him, standing even though his legs seemed like they may melt away at any second. The inorganic silver eyes made contact with his: one alien phrase was spoken to him, directly. Three syllables, on a tongue that could not possibly be close to human. Instantly, the world simply ended.
        "Jules?" he thought he heard, muffled, somewhere far above... though it was too hard to tell. Images, sensations, tatters of memory--all assaulting the very flesh of his brain at once. All and everything that existed exploded in a whirl of--
        Silver eyes. They were so unusual--
        Ah! Having missed his cue in Academy Hand-to-Hand, he'd caught an unpleasant fist in the cheek--
        That wasn't academy--
        "Wake up! Listen!"
        Fuck! What was that pain?! It was darkness, all was darkness--
        "Government puppet--"
        The metal didn't break, but the tendons caused pain, made the torture possible--
        The metal of the chair was the same color as the man's eyes--
        "...little project for you--"
        No! Not again! Please, I haven't done anythi--
        "... easily programmed with a little effort--"
        Augh! No more! Stop!
        "... perfect with the trigger--"
        This isn't me! I don't want to do--
        "... will do everything you want--"
        The whirling stopped. The sounds, the sensations--all things ceased. All and everything stopped, ending in darkness. There was nothing at the end of the universe.

        Julian's arm suddenly fell in front of her--for a moment she thought he'd spotted something that she hadn't and so was trying to protect her by holding her back. How horrifically wrong she was. With a quickness she knew him capable of but rarely saw him use, he grasped her Spectre and yanked it away.
        It was that tiny instant of puzzled shock that allowed him to finish what he'd started. Mechanically, he stepped back and leveled the pistol at her temple. All without a word. All without a warning.
        She surprised herself by leveling her gaze--straight ahead. She knew there was no way she could have glanced over at him. There was no fathomable ability, even now, that she could have met his soulless gaze.
        She didn't know what to do. She... she didn't... know... "Domani?" she tried, carefully. Silence answered. Several seconds passed. No response, no signal, no-- "Domani?!"
        Silver Eyes grinned bitterly--less with teeth than with peculiar spikes on its lips. "Your computer is officially off-line."

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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