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

        Chapter 31 - Maybe it's Fate

        Dr. Carn had been woken quite rudely--experiencing sudden consciousness while in mid-air from being pushed off of a makeshift cot could never be pleasant in any situation. It was clearly far less enjoyable than it could have been, however... seeing as how he hardly remembered falling asleep, let alone recalled where it was that he'd woken up. Sometimes even he had to argue that it was best not to know certain things.
        Exactly how that situation had been turned into being dragged up by both arms then shoved into a dim hallway, he really hadn't thought the most important focus. There were, surprisingly, more vital things to find out; not that he could grasp much of a chance to consider what those may be before the wall found his face, indeed followed by full-body impact. Questions from him of any sort would likely not be appreciated.
        "I expect very little difficulty with you." He heard, almost too soft and calm to be whoever had grabbed him. The voice, though... there was something... wrong with that voice...
        Whoever (or whatever) had been unkindly crushing the doctor against the wall quickly pulled him away from it--but did not disengage entirely. It seemed that his escape was probably the last thing his captor desired... pity. He was turned roughly and again shoved forward, a clear indication to walk. The curiosity bit into him, the desire to look back at the one whose voice had caused internal shivers nearly overwhelming his general sense of self-preservation. The indication that he should not look over his shoulder was too incredibly distinct, however.
        He went where he was pressed--and quickly. There was no sense of urgency heard in the strange voice, but the decisiveness of the presses onward implied otherwise. Pushed when he seemed to be walking too slowly from one hallway to another, he hardly had time to mark distances before they'd taken one more countless turn. It came to no use at all to make note of which direction they were traveling by the time he was allowed to stop in front of a sealed door. Not that the situation had improved any.
        "Dr. Carn." The voice behind him stated, almost musically.
        Having his title spoken by such an unnerving sound... He didn't look back. He didn't even let his eyes dart over when he saw motion in his peripheral vision--the speaker having stepped beside him. No. Curiosity be damned, he knew protocol for prisoners. Not to mention, he had quite a bit to live for at the moment.
        The voice's owner chuckled softly at his professionalism. "Very well, Doctor. Prepare yourself, then."
        A male. At least, as the door started to slide open slowly with its great heft, the doctor thought the sight out of the corner of his eye had indicated that the figure was male. The voice gave no gender away... gave very little away at all, to think of it...
        The scene behind the door created an instantaneous twisting in his gut. He thought he might vomit, hovering on the edge of blacking out for a long moment before he was able to catch his breath and swallow. Pheta and Julian were on the other side of the large, spherical room... in some truly horrific shape. Even as a doctor, he'd never encountered... anything like...
        No Jack. He realized, edge of consciousness gaining a firmer hold. And if she wasn't there, then...
        "She isn't even awake yet." The speaker seemed to strangle his thoughts as he read them, stepping forward enough to be seen.
        Male? It was too hard to tell, but he had to pick one gender or anothe rto identify this thing with... It seemed human, even... but not. No, certainly not. Something was very, very wrong... There was another question roaming his mind, though. Louder. "Why aren't I being tortured?"
        "Oh my dear Doctor." The odd man turned, granting a tremble-inspiring smirk. "Such a masochist. Clearly it is so you can... heal them."
        As if things could make any less sense. "You want them healed?"
        "Well, not particularly... nevermind that. You'll will only be tortured if you resist. Clear?"
        His stomach had already fallen to the bottom of his feet quite some time ago. Perhaps he'd lost it somewhere a deck below them. "Crystal."

        The darkness edged away on an almost... comforting level. Slowly, easily, warmly...
        --And then the memories hit. Her body surged--held back by something solid. Her eyes refused to listen to the screaming panic in her mind, remaining closed despite her need to see. The adrenaline felt cold, heavy; it did nothing to ease her general frightened concern.
        "Take it easy, Captain Veis." She heard suddenly. Very close.
        Despite the increasing animal panic welling up, the words forced her to pause. There was something about that voice... something deadly and unfathomably... unnatural. Some... little thing that was absolutely off, absolutely not right... Her eyes still fought to open, but it all felt... liquid...
        "The harder you fight, the slower the recovery process." That voice came again. "Now, I could simply give you the antidote. But you'd have to ask nicely."
        "Fuck you." She gritted out the best she could, muscles in her face still not under complete control. Even as her heart thundered loudly in her chest, her intent was clear, and that was what really mattered.
        "Good enough." Responded the voice. Footsteps followed... and then the burning pain of an old-fashioned needle and syringe. "It will only be a minute."
        She tried to control her breathing. It was the only solid thing she felt she could focus on, trying to spend a ridiculously large portion of her thoughts on being "calm"... Only when her heartbeat steadied did she notice that her limbs seemed to have a little more wamth to them, her eyelids less heft... but she didn't really know if she wanted to open them. Obviously, she could keep them closed forever, but... something... wasn't right. Something far beyond the voice had caused a horrific feeling of ill-ease in her.
        "Wake up, Captain." Whoever it was who sent shivers through her stomach teased.
        Well, she knew long ago that her curiosity was a damned monster. And not one that she really wanted to kill... even if it was more than likely going to wind up mangling her. Her eyes opened and she'd wished the surface below her weren't so solid, wishing nothing more than to be allowed to fall through and away as quickly as possible. Never in her life had the instinctual urge to get away been so sickeningly strong.
        Those eyes... there was something... truly other-worldly in those eyes. Not in the way old Silver Eyes was, either this person--this thing--hovering above her was... something... utterly different. Swirling green and blue... colors that were neither steady nor able to be seen... but not able to be un-seen, either. Color beyond sight, beyond vision. Reminded her of things she had no business understanding.
        "Don't stare too long, Captain." Its voice was almost... gentle with those words. "These eyes have seen the things you don't care to imagine."
        Her gaze narrowed, calmly testing the bonds that held her wrists and ankles as she glared. this... "person" presumed to know a little too much. Not to mention, she was immobile. The fear swiftly became a very delicately held rage.
        Before it (he?) gave her the chance to speak, its nearly sincere, knowing smile silenced any thoughts of her forming words. "Come, now. This is the time for you to listen, not talk. Ask nothing."
        Her jaw clenched with that sentiment... but she remained silent. It was certainly not the time to wreck any of her chances to find out just what the hell was going on, let alone the desire to survive being quite clear. Didn't stop her from glaring daggers at this thing, of course.
        "What you will do, Captain Veis," it spoke with the utmost patience, but slowly and clearly enough to make her understand that she was going to listen, "Is go where I lead. That is all. Clear?"
        The response that immediately popped into her head didn't seem as though it would be taken all that well... She elected, instead, for a nod.
        "Very good." Her captor stepped away from her sight for a moment.
        Jack... was getting a very bad feeling about the whole thing. Mores than usual, anyway. It was more than the sheer unnaturalness of the strange man (It was a man, wasn't it?), the fleet having been destroyed, the idea that she was more or less trapped... it was something deeper. Closer to instinct...
        The thoughts were blown apart when the devices that had held her down mechanically opened. Without giving it thought, she sat up immediately. Fuck being a servant, asking for permission to do everything. Whatever bullshit was going down, she just wanted to get it over with.
        "I had better be able to trust you." The man (creature, thing) chuckled almost unpleasantly. "Follow. Now." With hardly a glance back in her direction, he simply began walking.
She stood, making a sincere step to follow--and found her legs slightly unwilling. They trembled with the second step, but damned if she was going to lose the guy. The journey behind him seemed greatly important, to put it lightly. She stumbled before the circulation truly returned to her legs, but she did not fall enough behind to lose sight of him.
        Wherever she had wound up, it was sleek. The interior of what appeared to be another standard passenger ship reminded her of the DarkHorse; technologically driven, but still rather "homey". Many of the gently curving hallways took on a familiarity, as well as some of the panels... even if she couldn't read their text. In fact, it was almost... eerie... not that she could let those thoughts solidify. She knew she'd have to pay more attention to her unsettling instincts, and likely very soon.
        At last with a final turn, the man paused in front of a very solid looking metal door, then turned back to her. "You will step inside ahead of me. You will stay there."
        These orders were not the sort that she was interested in listening to, let alone obeying... but her choices seemed quite narrow at the moment. She swallowed, enough of an indication that she understood.
        She watched with apprehension as the door opened and found no strength to step forward. Her captor had to push her inside himself, closing the door behind them both.
        On the other side of the spherical room, Julian was crumpled on the floor, shaking and gasping, face full of terrible pain and his eyes not so much as registering her form even though they swam blindly toward the door. Pheta was several yards away from him, seeming unconscious (or at least unmoving), in a fetal position on the floor... and there was blood everywhere. Covering both. Puddled thickly around them. Splashed and streaked between them. Wet, shining from the overhead lights... and plenty dried and crusted from earlier.
        There had been a moment of complete helplessness. However, it had faded; the years had given her many opportunities to suppress what would normally occur the moment in favor of getting revenge first. She turned sharply to her captor. "What the fuck is this?"
        He held up his hands, unarmed and without defense. "That's why you're here. You see, Jack... this is your choice. Your last, and most absolute, choice. But your computer's restoration would be a freebie."
        She didn't understand. His words made no sense, no solidity to them... She wanted nothing more in that moment than to rush him, kill him in the bloodiest by the fastest way possible, get to her friends and leave. But she didn't have enough information... the fucker. "Do I even fucking know you?"
        His calmness never wavered. He'd already known how she would react. "We may have crossed paths once or twice..."
        Real specific. It was getting really old, really quickly. "What's the use in all of this?"
        "I'm getting to that." He was just too easy, too natural. "It's an interesting thing, really... You see, I'm not what I appear."
        She hadn't needed to be told, frankly. It only described so much of her reaction to him... but impatience was winning out. "And?"
        His expression became sharper by a minor percentage... but it was something noticed. "To your choice, then." He relented slightly. "You have every right to take off with your ship. Go into the realm beyond this, try to save a dying existence. And if that's what you choose, there is nothing else left to stop you. But if that's what you want... what remains of your crew will suffer. It will be your sacrifice offered, in return of discovering what's beyond this. As you know... there is always a sacrifice."
        Her eyes narrowed immediately. How did he know any of what he'd been saying? And why was he so eager to tell her about it? And who the fuck did he think he was to suppose that her "sacrifice" was his to watch over? "I should believe a word you're saying why?"
        Another shrug accompanied the question. "There's really nothing left to hide. But may I remind you that the more you ask, the more blood your friends here will lose."
        She very much doubted that "nothing left to hide" business... but his other point was a good one--time to cut to the chase. All of this had to be connected somehow... it was just too perfect to be random. "And the Pordethre..?"
        "All puppets unto themselves, Jack--and all dead, now. I needed very little from them and they ceased to be useful. In general, they were already quite deluded enough to have just been given a mild shove here and there." He paused, seeming to think it time enough to change subjects. "This is less about you than it is about your ship."
        Somehow she found that much more terrifying. So. This guy was powerful... and knew too much. "You're after Domani..."
        He seemed pleased enough by her words. "Not entirely... but it's a start. Not everyone believes in what that unnatural computer spews forth, you understand. Opposing points of view, that's all. Merely trying to do what I feel is... right."
        And still the situation wasn't making sense. "Then why would you give me a choice?"
        "Because I know." He growled, albeit still calmly. "I know of how feeble mortal minds are. You can't leave. Not when the lives of... what remains of your friends are in the balance."
        He sought not just to stand in the way of her promise... but clearly to take pleasure in what suffering he could. Seemed universes weren't that different after all. She bared her teeth unconsciously--something akin to a war beast reared its head not so deep inside of her. "What gives you the fucking right..."
        "Careful, Captain." The near playfulness with which his words had previously come died away. "The feline and the doctor haven't been touched yet, but..."
        "You're just that fucking sick, aren't you." A cut to the chase in a monotone voice not quite suited to expressing her innermost violent thoughts. She could smell the blood, casting a thickness in her throat... unsettling her stomach... She had to know, but she had to rush as well.
        "Whoah. The accusations!" His tone changed again, back to the smug calmness. Nearly teasing like an old rival. "Do you kiss Captain DeVierna with that mouth?"
        That finally set her off. "Fucking--" she strode forward with the intent to literally rip the smirk off of his face with her bare hands.
        "Don't, Jack. You haven't got the power here." To illustrate his point, he glanced in Julian's direction--and there was a scream. The wet, semi-conscious sort of scream that somewhere in the depths of her most primal being told her that only hours of torture could bring about.
        She didn't move closer. She didn't move at all; except to clasp her mouth shut. Her stomach felt as if it might try to evacuate her body altogether. How he'd done that... or exactly what he had done... Did it matter? Maybe not... but whatever strength he had that she couldn't see was nearly disarming. Made her unsteady. Made her wish she was in just about any other situation at all.
        "It's hard to face your Achilles Heel, isn't it, Captain?" he teased quite viciously, giving very mild glances at Pheta that were clearly interpreted--if Jack made another move against him, the commander was next to suffer more.
        She hardly even recognized her own voice. It was rough, intense... sickened but strong in its own right. "You think I'm that weak, don't you."
        He seemed almost surprised that she should say such a thing. "No, of course not. And I would never say so. You were a damn good assassin. Even recently you've proven to be an intelligent and decent killer. Now you're just... settled. A housewife in the making."
        Rage. Warm, driving rage. "What's your name?"
        He seemed genuinely puzzled for a moment, then seemed to understand what she was asking. "It is Marduk, here."
        There could be no worse irony... Or, perhaps, nothing that made more sense. Full-circle... a thought destroyed by necessity. "Fuck you, Marduk." Her tone held bite, but the voice itself... lacked.
        He had a hearty laugh at that--not a sound that set anyone in the room at ease in the least. "Indeed."
        She stole another glance at her companions... wondering why. Her stomach tightened again, threatening to run away straight through her abdomen if it had to. It was... it was not... pleasant. Possibly the most horrible thing she'd ever witnessed... and that really was saying a lot. Too many questions remained--she just didn't understand. It wasn't making sense, wasn't... together. And time was running out. "What are you?" she hissed at last, turning back to face him.
        "A freak of nature. Not nature at all, frankly... but you'll learn of that. If you take your ship." His smirk was increasingly sickening. "Perhaps you can inquire about that in another realm. The world you're trying to save has created a multitude of horrible, unnamable nightmares. You should know what you are helping to bring forth."
        There wasn't time. Dammit, there wasn't time for all of her questions! Her friends were directly behind her, bleeding, shaking... dying... not to mention the rest of her crew... Friends or not, they didn't deserve to be part of this shit. "Everything I want to know... could be answered through the DarkHorse?" Why she would bother to trust anything that he had to say...
        He smirked again, terribly amused with her attempt to trick him. "Yes, of course. When that damned computer is restored and you fly off to the other end of reality... that's where your answers will be. But all else will be left behind to my... care."
        She closed her eyes for a long, long time. Breathing. Silence.
        Damn her curiosity. She always knew it would cost her everything.
        So many questions. She had so many questions... but an overwhelming feeling that he'd never really answer them all. Not on that ship. Not about him.
        She had fallen. Far.
        She was on her way back, yes... but there wasn't time. Her Spectre was heavy against her. Obvious. But there was too much at stake to reach of it.
Breathing. Closed eyes, and silence.
        Until, finally, she gave a meager voice to her first solid thought. "You have the power to restore Domani."
        She was still at this game, apparently. At least he could play along easily. "I'm the one that took the damn thing off-line in the first place."
        "Prove it." She growled, needing to know.
        "This ship around you." He indicated with a subtle flourish. "Same technology used. Close to the same world. It slowly took control of your ship's central systems from open communications channels--a slowly over-powering viral lock, so to speak. Point being, while not identical, they are near sister ships. And I do have a vast knowledge of these workings. Organic brains and manufactured circuits in perfect harmony... not to mention that special branch of a certain mythical tree, correct? Oh, that alone is worth so much..."
        She sloughed off all of his cocky sincerity, the voice and tone that made her insides cringe. There was only one answer she needed. "But you can restore Domani entirely."
        If she insisted on going along with such transparent behavior... "I already have, if you must know the truth." He gave his bleeding prisoners another long, appreciative look. "The most precious thing about computers with mortal brains--especially ones that sincerely and absolutely believe that every thing they do is for the 'right cause'--is that they know fear. They can be threatened to stay out of the situation so that, for example, they can be listening right now... watching through their sensors... and feel absolutely helpless to do anything about it." His pause was thick with confidence. "A pity that they're so susceptible to weak things like... 'friendship'. 'Devotion'. Do you know of devotion, Jack?" To punctuate his question, the next glance he cast his prisoners carried with it soft groans of pain.
        Sickness. Such a... godawful, horrific sickness in her... all of her. Through her guts, running cold and dead through her veins... There was no color left in her skin. No heat, either... all things frozen. All things must be frozen. "I'll take my ship, then."
        He laughed at her ridiculous words. "There's no need to play mind games, Captain. I know better."
        Teeth gritted, fists tight, she assured him, "My choice. Is to take. The DarkHorse."
        Her voice was so serious, so completely without pretense, without lies. Her eyes revealed only her decision... and the haunting nature of it. It couldn't be... She was... running? "Cease your tricks, they won't work."
        "No tricks." She assured him, her voice hard. There was no way she could look in the direction of her friends, no possibility of so much as letting their torment cross her mind... She was driven. By vicious insanity. By curiosity. By the need to know and promises to be kept.
        "I will torture them to death." He promised. "In ways that mortals cannot understand pain. In ways that will echo all the way to where you are going."
        Unflinching, she merely nodded once. Harshly. "I want your word to leave me and the ship alone. I am going to leave. Now."
        Two distinct, horrifying screams pierced the silence behind her. She cringed--there was no way to prevent that.
        The man laughed quietly, a sound that tore at all living things. "I had no idea. You have certainly proven yourself to me." With hardly a motion, he seemed to control the ship by thought; there was a mild bump felt, with a mechanical sound. "I have attached my ship to yours. You may pass through the tunnel in the adjacent room to the left as you exit."
        She tried her damnedest to prevent the look of surprise. She had expected so much more of a fight... but now she was merely free to go..? "It's that simple?"
        He sighed, though his expression never wavered. "Allow me to let you in on a little secret. It really doesn't matter, in the end. You're just one of the few, the very few, that decided to slip through. I've been doing this for eternity... I can last a bit longer."
        She bit the inside of her cheek with the words... but didn't make any other motion. Except, of course, to will her legs to move... and she walked out, there and then.
        Gone. She was... gone. She'd left them behind... for the sake of a world that was not theirs.
        For the sake of her goddamned curiosity.
        The strange man grinned widely as he heard the door close, seeing the barely conscious, fallen looks on the faces of his new toys. "This is almost enough torture to rest upon, isn't it?"

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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