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

        Chapter 27 - A Very Dim Light at the End of a Very Long Tunnel--Maybe

        Whatever his accent was, it was unfamiliar. What seemed a little more important at that very moment hit her even harder than the unwinding situation her universe had suddenly become--the molecular transportation device. Was something in Domani disconnected? Was the entire system taken away?
        And Julian... There was no way she could ignore that. Her stare at the invader became harder and more ferocious by the second. All of the crew aboard the bridge held back, waiting and hoping for an opening in which to act.
        Whatever old Silver Eyes was, it wasn't about to tell her. "I'd have thought you smarter than to carry a programmed time bomb around with you, Captain."
        Hmph. On the surface, the little bastard was quite right--she'd found those files, after all... having stated that Julian was, for all intents and purposes, "engineered" to hunt out and destroy threats to the Pordethre. But then, it seemed that the programming had failed when he never did try to kill her. So, logically... "Apparently you didn't program him very well."
        There was one, silent sliver of time when the creature's grin fell away. A blow was stricken, but it refused to let such a minor matter slip. "His initial programming occurred long before you became a threat--though it seemed to lay even more dormant than we'd anticipated. I am the 'last resort', as it were. He received more specifics right after you surfaced as Astrid's lapdog, and additional lessons right before the Durago. Where we placed him."
        Even Jack hadn't seen Pheta reach for a weapon--but the invader sure did. It outstretched its hand only slightly, using what appeared to be some sort of hidden pulse device that instantly knocked the Commander of Defense on her ass. That... that was not a hopeful sign.
        "I suggest you hold yourself back." Silver Eyes growled, turning his attention again to the conversation.
        Watching from the corner of her eye, Captain Veis was at the very least glad that it seemed Pheta had been stunned rather than killed. It was... troubling, however. She continued, hoping that if she could just distract more attention, gain more time... "Is the Durago crew in on this?"
        "Of course not. Were anyone to accidentally trigger him--that would have been unacceptable. The former captain did meet a swift end, however."
        That didn't sound... good. As far as she knew, and from what Julian had said about gaining the ship for himself... "I thought it was a card game."
        "So did he." The invader dismissed.
        At least she knew that it wasn't Julian's doing. She'd known that, deep down... but it only brought so much peace of mind, given the situation. Problem being (besides the obvious) that she had no experience with mental conditioning. Pure and simple torture was one thing; torture for the purpose of programming was quite another. Everyone she'd ever come into contact with did what they did because they wanted to. On some level, at least.
        Seeing as how the woman was beginning to stir, she made fleeting eye contact with Pheta... and wished at once that she hadn't. She'd never seen the commander's reserve so shattered. Her expression spoke of sickening pain with more than a touch of horror--and no ideas.
        Guess it's about time. Jack tried to induce some sort of bullshit calm. Truth was, she'd just made it out of too many difficult situations. Wounded, yeah, but alive. This time... She ignored Silver Eyes but didn't change her straight forward gaze. "Come on, Jules." She taunted hopefully. "It can't end like this."
        Silver Eyes seemed to whisper something; it wasn't quite a word, really, but apparently it was an order. Julian's body moved a touch closer, making the motion utterly clear with the bladed pistol in his hand.
        She flinched with the unexpected pain, her stomach seeming to drop out of her body entirely. Her own Spectre. Drawing blood at her temple, slowly dripping down her cheek. "Maybe it's a fitting way to go." She pondered out loud. So many sins, right? Wasn't that the idea?
        Nah. She risked her eye with the head jerk, later being glad she'd gauged the pressure against her temple correctly. She'd yanked her body backward as calculated as she dared, narrowly avoiding the momentum it would have taken to slam her legs against the captain's chair and knock herself down.
        But she did not escape entirely unscathed. The Spectre certainly went off; with a roaring crash and a blinding explosion in front of her, rendering her momentarily blind and deaf. It was enough, it was all just enough--
        Even without her sight, her mind had kept the whole picture in memory--with breaking force, she put all of her strength into slamming her forearm into Julian's.
        It worked, with two sickening snaps; her ulna bone, and his radius. An unbelievable duet of cries erupted, sending them both--and the Spectre--reeling.
        That was clearly not meant to happen. The invader stared in rage and surprise, knowing that it could no longer use the human once pain had invaded his mind; the program had been broken, for the moment. Stepping back, it seemed to call upon the ship it had come from, immediately shimmering back to "nowhere".
        Having paid no attention (although later gaining a great appreciation) to the strange creature that had blinked back out to wherever it had come from, Pheta darted toward the downed captains. More of a just-in-case action, she carefully restrained Julian while making sure not to cause any more damage to his arm. There was simply no telling at what point he'd be himself again.
        Ah, broken bones. Not something anyone could ever get used to. At least all of the pain came in one solid burst, for the most part... Jack couldn't help a moan, suppressing the morbid desire to see how extensive the damage was. She really didn't want to know.
        Speaking of horrifying knowledge, however... she made certain that there was no one else at the front of the bridge before gazing down at a shuddering Julian, almost leaning against Pheta's hold. The pain was just... so bad... so bad... more than the physical...
        It was clear to Captain Veis, however, that it was him. "We'll be fine. Just pay attention to the other ships. That thing can't be alone."
        Admittedly, the commander of defense was a little loathe to release the possible threat. Silver Eyes had made a point... but it didn't seem like the time to discuss it right then. The point that her captain had made seemed more important; she gave a nod, carefully let the moaning weight slide from her grasp, then went back to her station.
        "C'mon, Jules." Jack pressed softly, waiting.
        He heard... he did... but it just... it hurt... so much... He took a breath, trying to calm himself and get a grasp of the situation. Blinking didn't really clear his vision... but Jack's voice was all he'd needed. She'd lead him... drag him, if she had to. Though, he recalled her crying out a moment ago, too...
Letting his broken arm hang limply at his side--causing another yip in the process--he carefully lifted himself with his other arm. At least he made it into his chair by himself. As for making it any further...
        She kept an eye on him, seeing his progress halt rather suddenly. So, she stood and grasped his good hand with hers, giving him a solid pull.
        Were he not so completely out of it, he would have been flying with that simple concept... Seeing as how matters were hardly in the best of sorts, however, he wasn't quite certain exactly what was going on. His mind only began to clear in the lift right before it opened on sickbay.
        --Wait a second. Even in his state of mind, he knew something was off about Dr. Carn leaning back, sitting in the middle of the floor. Since when the hell had there been a chair in the middle of sickbay?
        A similar realization hit Jack at the same time, causing a bit of a questioning, narrow-eyed glance. Not that such a thing affected the doctor, at all. So he'd stolen a chair from an unused quarters and made an ottoman out of a box. He'd earned it. "Hey, Doc." She greeted casually.
        Dr. Carn tried his best not to sigh, seeing the two of them stumble in... again. But, he did owe her. Even after the trader planet. "It's been almost too long." The problem was pretty damn clear from the beginning.
        "I concur. We don't need stasis for this, right?"
        "I'd recommend it, frankly." He simplified, finally standing. "It seems we've got some systems offline right now, so balancing the... 'pain tolerance' won't be easy."
        Lovely. But then, in the grand scheme of things, stasis really didn't seem so bad. "If it's gotta be like that..."
        Dr. Carn nodded. "You two wait in the first exam room. I'll set everything up manually.
        With a less than thrilled sound of acknowledgment, she lead her equally wounded companion to wait with her. Damned if she was going to sit in a tiny, creepily lit room smelling of disinfectant all alone. They sat side by side on the low exam table in silence--for a moment.
        A long, shivering sigh came from Julian's lips as the full weight of what had just occurred finally hit him. Memories and realizations, but nothing solid would come...
        He was shaking. So horribly. "Hey, it's over." She tried her damnedest to be reassuring... which, even she had to admit, fell short. "Ya did good, kid." Whatever the hell possessed her to say that...
        He actually had to force himself to bite back a sob from those words. No. No. It wasn't... alright. He had almost killed her... he was engineered to destroy threats... he just hadn't realized how extensively until the memories flashed back to him... everything... He was so close to destroying everything without even admitting, letting her know...
        "Jules." Her voice was so quiet. And still she felt like she was yelling, in a way. "Relax."
        "This is... wrong." He whispered.
        "All of it is wrong." She agreed, not raising her voice. "That's why we're still fighting." It felt, for a moment, as if she was only just realizing the things that were coming out of her mouth. "I promised Domani I would leave with it if I could stay long enough to finish this. So I damn well need to do that."
        "I want to come with you." He whispered gruffly.
        "I know." There wasn't really... much more to say about that. She'd expected it... even looked forward to it, a little...
        But the ease of her words was too frustrating. "What if something like this happens again?!"
        The sudden roar of his demand made her body tense, giving the broken arm another jolt of godawful pain. It was a little... clarifying, though. "Then I'll knock the shit out of you and we start over. Just like now."
        Unholy power of the universe. That made sense. So much sense that he fought not to break into a fit of wracking sobs.
        She found herself rambling before she really understood the words. It wasn't a normal reaction of hers, really... not since the days when she'd been a nervous start-up assassin. "Fuck god, fuck the universe, fuck divinity, and fate, and destiny. I can't honestly be made to feel that I deserve to be treated so fucking badly by the powers that be. I killed bad men, and I stopped when I knew that would have become untrue. I made money off of death, but not from the lives of the innocent. I've taken a hell of a lot of blows for things that I am not guilty for. I want... some fucking happiness that stays for a while, already."
        The words themselves were a shock. He wasn't sure he'd heard them right, actually...
        There was no need to think, because there was no necessary thought to put in it. Earlier, Pheta had confirmed suspicions that she'd never really known she'd even had until they'd been brought up... and in that moment when he'd held the Spectre to her head, it wasn't her own death that worried her most--it was how crushed Julian would be if he "woke up" to realize what he'd done. Not that her thoughts were out of ego. She just... knew. At least, she knew she'd have been the same way. Their entire history was grounded in saving one another's lives, really. Amusing as the thought was... she figured she may as well give in to this tiny portion of fate that seemed offered over and over. Across the universe, they'd run into each other eight years after the incident when they'd both thought the other had been killed. They'd always had each others' backs without question and without the need to confirm. Perhaps there was something to the idea that paradise was spread out across the universe, but rarely realized...
        Anyone would have argued that it was an asinine thing to do. Especially after her history... even more so after the Ki "love note fiasco"... But there was no thought to be had, no questions needing to be asked. Astounding in its own right. However it was handled would be entirely up to him: she snaked her good arm around his lower back and leaned into him. It was less of a hug than it was the close animal nuzzle between packmates. No grand romantic gesture--just a grasping of fate, by the neck, and shaking thoroughly.
        He closed his eyes to absorb the entire sensation. It wasn't real, was it? After all that time... could it be? Was there actually a chance that the universe would sacrifice one moment of--
        "Just fucking relax, Jules." She joked.
        It made him laugh. And, better, he took her advice. He wasn't asking for change, for stupid promises, for anything impossible... just whatever came. It was the first long hug he'd ever experienced where he didn't want to pull away... but he did, eventually. He knew he'd have to for them to get on with life, anyway, but... "Okay. We've got to get this finished, first."
        Maybe no one deserved the weird, motionless internal warmth she felt all of a sudden... but that wasn't going to stop her from enjoying it for as long as it would let her. "Atta boy."
        "Okay, you two." Dr. Carn's voice felt like a fire alarm after the silent stillness. "Separate and go to sleep."
        "You waited for the 'right moment'." Jack accused.
        The doctor didn't confirm that. But he didn't deny it, either.

        Blurred light... and that goddamn sick feeling that crept over her with all the subtlety of a south coast ice storm. Yep, that was waking up from stasis, alright. Blinking several times, she decided the world would be a little less tinted by nausea if she stayed laying down for as long as possible. Possibly weeks. She might want to look into room service...
        "How's the stomach?" only Pheta's slightly vicious delivery came through the haze of buzzing in her head. "Would you like a rich pastry, perhaps? Or something with a good deal of oozing cheese? Maybe a Maracen fried tendril or two?"
        Not that Jack wasn't glad to be awake and alive, but... she was less than glad about her greeting. "Cruel, Commander."
        "They're both good to go." Dr. Carn's voice, from across the room. "Whenever they choose to suck it up and get out."
        Still laying down, the good Captain Veis raised her formerly broken arm and then her middle finger at the general area she'd heard the doctor's voice come from. It seemed appropriate enough. "That didn't take too long, did it?"
        "A couple of hours." Pheta confirmed. "On the up side, Domani was able to reboot. There are a few... issues, though."
        She swallowed. The woman hadn't made it sound too dangerous, but... "Issues?"
        "Some systems will take a little longer to get back to normal function." The commander informed.
        "Good to know." Regardless of the circumstances looking better... she just didn't want to sit up. Not until the effects of stasis wore off, which would likely be... a long time. There was silence while she pondered her situation... something she was grateful for. Unfortunately, she knew better. "I suggest you stand back. Just in case."
        Pheta grinned, not that the expression could be seen. "Go rest in your quarters. Both of you."
        She nodded, attempting to blink the rest of the general blur away. So, Julian was in the same room. Strange how he'd been so quiet...
        As one set of footsteps led away, another seemed to take its place--going so far as to sit beside her. A puzzling thing until she heard her partner in crime's voice. "Lazy." He accused jokingly.
        Dammit. "How the hell are you up and walking so soon?"
        "Apparently your break was worse than mine." He announced with absolute smugness.
        Dammit, again. "So you're already over your crippling case of nausea."
        "Not quite." Not that it wasn't a pleasant reminder...
        She took a deep breath, knowing what was to come... and forced herself to sit up anyway. Boy, what a mistake. If Julian hadn't been there, she probably would have fallen off of the recovery bed. And at that, he seemed just a little too helpful. Or at least, he held on a bit longer than she would have thought... unless that was just the post-stasis screwing with her mind. "I'm out of practice." She admitted, eyes finally able to make out shapes and most details.
        Damn. He was grinning. Much more brightly than she was used to--and then the exact events and conversation that had occurred right before stasis hit her. Wow... so that wasn't a dream... Weird.
        More surprises were in store, however. Julian... wasn't letting go. For a moment, Jack had really started to wonder if she'd actually woken up... but the next violent spin of the room and her stomach convinced her otherwise; he was... holding her. In both arms. He'd picked up her entire body and was in the process of... carrying her?!
        He felt her body stiffen with sheer surprise (and a little sickness), taking the most perfect, absolute advantage for himself. Ignoring the very small medical staff (and the blandly shocked stare of Dr. Carn), he transported her to the lift.
        Only after the door closed was she able to find her voice. "Jules?"
        "What the fuck?"
        Her drop-dead, brilliantly simple delivery only made him feel that much more smug about the whole situation. He could not help but appreciate the moment. "You're not embarrassed, are you Jack?" he nearly teased, refusing to let her down.
        That was an interesting question. Regardless of her vision having gratefully returned to her, she elected to stare off into space while she pondered the nature of the situation. Embarrassment... was not what she was feeling. "No..." she began, no other words forming. Her arms rather awkwardly hung at her sides, unsure of whether to start hitting him now, or later.
        "I'm going to take you to your quarters." He informed her.
        She blinked, unaware of what the hell was going on. "I'd have made it there eventually on my own..."
        "That's not the point." The lift stopped, door opening to interrupt him for a brief moment.
        She finally met his gaze with narrowed eyes. "And what is the point?"
        That all too satisfied grin responded. "You're supposed to wrap your arms around my neck and get all sappy." He informed her jokingly, stepping out into the Captain's Hall. With a false sigh, he carefully lowered her to her feet and set her upright in front of the window overlooking the universe. "But I guess this is good enough."
        His humor finally set her at ease... enough. For a moment there she was pretty certain she'd encountered a horrifying alternate reality. "You've had a few too many fantasies about this."
        Well, since she'd brought it up... "You have no idea."
        "This is not some grand, romantic love story." She turned to face him as she spoke, having felt a completely insane need to clarify.
        "Don't I know it." He countered, unshaken.
        The guy was still grinning. Dammit, he just wouldn't stop. And worse, that cocky playfulness was spreading. She tried not to let it, she tried! Defeated almost instantly, she shook her head. "I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
        "In the worst way." He responded, but patiently. "You get some rest. Take a shower. Eat something."
        Hm. Not that she was complaining, but... it wasn't quite what she expected to hear. "And you will be..?"
        "Waiting for you." The word "cocky" didn't even begin to fit the mood he had been lodged in. "There's no rush." With a small but well-meant wave, he turned and walked to his quarters without looking back.
        She stood there for a little bit too long in silence. The words themselves could have been taken a number of unpleasant ways... but they weren't. None of the important things had changed. He'd wait... and she'd assuredly find him, as she always had. It was enough to annoy her in most usual situations. This time, though... at least they both knew about it. How... weird.

        She was greeted by a somewhat uncharacteristically (for a cat, no matter how large or from what planet) excited Doxy at the door. It was almost touching--until he lead her straight for his food bowl. Ah well, she was glad to be greeted, anyway.
        When all of that was taken care of, she prepared herself for a shower. Though, it'd be nice to find out... "Domani?"
        The response was immediate, but the language itself was cluttered and slurred in a way that only a jumbled computer could create. "J-Jack. E-excuse my l-language process--ssors. They a-are in need o-of repro-programming."
        While the sound of the words was actually a bit creepy, she was glad to know the ship was still responsive. "Are you alright?"
        "N-nothing was imm-mediately damaged." Domani replied. "And y-you?"
        "My stomach could be better." She felt the need to complain about it until it went away. Hey, why not. "But everything else... recovered."
        "A-and of Ju-ulian?"
        Her eyes narrowed at that question. "What about Julian?"
        "I h-heard rumors-s. From Do-octor C-Carn and t-the C-commander of Def-fense."
        Those bastards. She couldn't help the semi-amused sigh that came of it, though. "Yeah, well. I guess we're an item now."
        "It's ab-bout t-time."
        Hm. "Yeah. Thanks." Suddenly she felt like a shower was the least of her worries... but she was going to get one, anyway.
        The computer paused for a moment, gathering other resources. "I-I will be ab-ble to an-analyze th-the situation s-soon. Right n-now, my err-rors must b-be fixed."
        "Understood." Jack responded, adjusting the water temperature. "I take it the basics are still taken care of, right?"
        "A-all life sup-port remains unaf-affected." Domani confirmed. "I w-will be onli-line again with-thin the ho-our."
        "Take it easy." She partially joked, eager to wash away the far too familiar stench of stasis. Not that it had a smell in itself, but... it sure felt like it. And to think she'd once naively hoped she'd never have to go through that again...
        Even with her tender arm, a hot shower was the way to go. Of course, it was also very conducive to thought... thought that seemed perfectly innocent at first. Just going through the events of the last few hours to be sure she remembered everything of importance... But then the obvious reached up and struck her so hard that she couldn't possibly think of anything else.
        Why, why wouldn't that silver-eyed creature merely have killed her itself rather than get Julian to do the dirty work? The freak could have done her in with great ease, certainly... ended it all right there, forever. So... why? Apparently the ship Domani had thought it may have spotted, turned out to be a ghost to distract them. At least she thought that the proper assumption to make when she hadn't gotten immediate reports about following a Pordethre ship.
        Deeper still. Maybe the Pordethre weren't quite as blind and stupid as she'd thought... but they couldn't possibly be geniuses, either. Though... that thing, Silver Eyes, wasn't Pordethre in origin... was it?
        The government had been experimenting, that was certain. Julian was living proof that they had quite a bit of technology... so was that thing some kind of "creation"? Even then, that explained nothing... but it opened up more questions. Headache-inducing as that was, it was closer to answers.

        Julian had been reading. While Domani's internal communication systems were down, all of the collected logs and external information was still available. He'd been able to gather some basic information about the galaxy they were in, simply curious to know what it was like. He'd seen some pretty scary shit over the years, but some of the pictures of the creatures wandering the planets around them... eeeeeh.
        The instant the door chimed, however, he was up. Not running, exactly, but... walking quickly. Hey, there was no reason to be rude about it. It wasn't as if he didn't know who would be waiting for him. Opening the door, he was delighted--and not at all surprised. Still riding a wave of nearly impossible cockiness, he actually leaned in the doorway and greeted her with a supposedly suave, "Hello, Jack."
        It was very close to unbelievable. Not that she wasn't somehow happy about it. He really was enjoying the whole situation way too much. So much so that, without really being aware of it, she'd reached up and prodded an all too familiar pressure point on his shoulder that caused that arm he was leaning on to give out, sending him tumbling. She couldn't have said that she was sorry to see it happen... but she did catch him before he hit the floor.
He... wasn't quite sure what to think. She caught him, yes... but he decided it was in his best interest to hold onto her arm. Just in case.
        "Aren't you smooth." She teased, recklessly.
        Well, at least that was in his favor. Regardless of exactly what had happened regarding his memories, he did remember one thing. Arms hooked together, he was able to pull her down and use her center of gravity over his hip to flip her onto the floor beside him.
        That was actually quite the unfortunate surprise--only in the fact that it surprised her. She was able to recover remarkably fast, getting her feet underneath and balanced as if for a fistfight.
        She'd gotten up at least two full seconds before he had. That much... worried him. Almost enough to dissolve his playful mood... almost. Unfortunately, he was just feeling too good. He mimicked her stance, that goddamned cocky grin coming back. "So this is how it's gonna be, huh?"
        She really could do little more than laugh at the whole situation--until he made a mocking punch-jab for her. She caught it and used his sloppy, unexpecting momentum against him.
        He stared up from his soft landing on the floor. It was a good thing that no one else was there to see this...
        "Is this what we're going to be doing all night?" Jack grinned as she suddenly came into his range of vision from above, quite aware of how that question could be taken. And, perhaps, looking to gain the upper hand by making him uncomfortable. Hey, some situations required dirty fighting.
        "Only if we're lucky." Came the unplanned response. Well, seeing as how it didn't look like he was going to get the upper hand physically... "So. How have you been?"
        "Absolutely aggravated." She answered honestly, electing to sit cross-legged beside him. "I just can't figure it out."
        Well, he had asked. The meaning of her words was instantly understood because he'd been thinking the same thing right after stasis had cleared--the why's. The same frustratingly illogical why's that she'd no doubt combed through with no clear answers. But... there was more than that... "I don't know what memories are real."
        She nodded, managing to throw her attention across the room for a moment in thought. Wow did moods change quickly around there. "Time will tell."
        The cavernous nature of the comment made him sit up. "You think?"
        "Nothing else will help." She remained staring out into the room for a moment, almost as though she were trying to put thoughts away.
        And he noticed. "What?" She looked absolutely relaxed there on the floor. As if nothing could bother her if it tried. But he'd learned it was more of a... of an internal feeling rather than a visual signal. She still remembered her training in body language, apparently.
        Meeting his gaze in an almost lazy fashion, she supposed there was just no reason to pretend she could hide anything anymore. "I'm kind of wondering who the real 'pawn' is, here."
        Those words were... quite terrifying for a reason he couldn't begin to fathom. "As in?"
        "As in..." she gazed out into nothingness again for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "We both got fucked by 'the system'. I just wonder how much damage I've done without knowing it."
        His throat felt quite suddenly dry. "Does it really matter?" No more guilt, Jack...
        "No, not really." She responded as honestly as she could. "Curiosity, that's all."
        It took him a few seconds to realize that yes, he could attempt to offer her comfort without it being misconstrued. There was nothing left to interpret in the wrong light--
        But there was an interruption. Another chime. At the door. That door. Oh, dammit.
        Not that it was unexpected, in the grand scheme of things. Fucking "grand scheme".
        Silence. Neither of them really wanted to invite anything that would undoubtedl shatter that small moment... but another chime more or less reminded them of their duty. Fucking duty.
        With a grunt, Julian stood. Hey, it was his quarters. And he pretty much knew who must be at that door.
        Jack didn't really get around to standing... but let loose an incredibly (and surprisingly) mild sound of frustration. "Yes, Commander? What horrible thing has happened this time?"
        Pheta looked only quite pleased to have interrupted a "moment"--but only in an almost friendly sort of way. Regardless of her expression, she carried an announcement with a great deal of weight. "There is an empty ship circling a nearby moon that might be of great interest."
        An eerie feeling of deja-vu accompanied her announcement... with a rather dark afterthought.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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