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

        Chapter 34 - Clawing Back to the Light

        There hadn't been argument when Doctor Carn lingered in the doorway. There hadn't been a need for words at all.
        Jack didn't rush back to her quarters, but found no reason to distract herself away from it, either. She could have gone back to the library... but reading wasn't really a thing she could have concentrated on. Really, she could've used silence, a cup of tea and perhaps Doxy for company. She could probably could have used some exceptionally strong amphetamines as well, but those she didn't happen to have on hand. Nor did she want to consider the possibilities of having them in reach.
        Sleep, she knew, wouldn't come. She was tempted to page the doctor for help on that front, but... artificial sleep was ultimately without rest. It was still something she'd have indulged in for as long as he'd let her, but she knew she'd have had to wake up sometime. Wake up and deal with herself, her decisions.
        There was suicide, then. She laughed at the ridiculous thought. To come so far and kill herself? Well, it would be a perfect ending, perhaps... but, no. Better alive. Better to keep fighting. So close... she knew it, somehow... so close. That other ship had so much to do with everything if only she could figure it out, point out that thing that was savagely unrestful within her about the whole ordeal...
        Being greeted by Doxy was a wonderful distraction. He sensed her emotion beautifully, keeping at her heels everywhere she went and laying across her feet with a roaring purr every time she managed to pretend to relax a bit. She fed him, though couldn't find it in herself to eat. She was amused when he sniffed her cold, half-finished cup of tea and tried a bit... discovering with a great snort and a resounding multi-directional splash that he did not enjoy it.
        And so Jack was left with silence. Two of her most trusted friends (and one might say her only living friends) were in sickbay... counting on the third "at least sorta friend" to save their lives. Beran-Turou's entire fleet had been destroyed. Too many men and women she'd been in charge of had died. She had seriously started to ponder the use of her own existence.
        Normally, Domani would have left her alone to her thoughts. But her vital signs were reaching places the ship could not be silent about. Not to mention what the biological elements were picking up by instinct... "Jack?"
        The captain didn't respond immediately. Didn't so much as move for a moment. "The mourning has to be done. Some people elect after the fact... I'm taking care of the possibility there won't be an 'after the fact'."
        "Haven't you any faith?" It was an odd question for a ship to ask... but there were many meanings.
        Jack paused to choose her words carefully. Spoken language didn't seem sufficient to explain... anything, but... to try was important. "No matter what happens here and now... a promise is a promise. I'm coming with you when I finish this--and I want to. It's not obligation. But I'd... like to leave some things intact. And I'm really not sure I'm capable of focusing on both."
        It was Domani's turn to be left with silence. Really, there was nothing it could have said... and there was nothing to say, it seemed.
        The captain knew that to dwell was the wrong thing to do. But she knew to keep looking away from everything going on wasn't any more right. There didn't seem to be much of a middle ground, though... so she would dwell in the extremes, switching back and forth between them. She supposed most of her life had been like that already. She was used to it. Or she should have been, anyway.
        She knew Julian would have disagreed. He likely would have been upset with her attitude, but... since he wasn't there... It was a thought that amused her a bit, actually.
        She sighed, but mildly. Leaning down to run her hands through Doxy's soft fur, she decided to make a request. "Domani, how about some music?         Something soft." If all she could do was wait and think and try to figure the universe out, then she would do so. But it would be in comfort.
        "Yes, Captain."

        Chime. Doorbell. So she had managed to fall asleep, after all. Then who the hell was interrupting her? And could she possibly just get Domani to send them away...
        But, it could be important. Or at least something ridiculously ironic enough to make her forget everything and embrace the Cosmic Joke, whatever it was. The thought was certainly amusing enough to get her to walk to the door.
        She didn't ask who it was because she was pretty sure she didn't want to speak with anyone who might be on the other side. She was just glad she didn't answer with the, "What do you want?" that was so close to the surface as the door slid open.
        Julian met her presence with a weak grin. "Too tired to knock." While his expression said he'd been joking, the way he was barely standing seemed to prove the truth in it.
        She moved to stand beside him, getting no argument when she had him lean against her and stumble carefully inside. Once he was safely on the couch, Doxy moving groggily to lay at his feet, Jack voiced her concern. "Somehow I don't think the doctor recommended this."
        "He said I shouldn't move on my own." Julian admitted. "But I told him where he could put his opinions."
        "How rude of you." She joked, willing the last strands of sleepiness to stay with her. It might have made things a little easier.
        "Sit." The single word was quiet, but managed a fullness of meaning.
        She didn't want to. At least, there was a large enough part of her that didn't entirely want to. It meant... conversation. Something serious. And that would lead to reflection she wasn't quite ready for. Some things had to be held back for the moment, to keep her going on...
        In the end, she submitted to his request without argument. Pushing away all thought of how close she was supposed to sit, if she was supposed to make eye contact, if anything was expected of her at all... she tried to relax and say the first thing that came to mind. "You should probably want to hit me at least once."
        There was certainly an obvious bit of surprise in his tone that time. "Why?"
        --Alright, so that was a stupid question.
        --Wait, no. Her statement was what didn't add up.
        Ugh. Too many drugs. Sure they were the fun kind that kept the pain away, but... Julian shook his head, trying to focus his thought process. "No. Just... no." He realized, then, that she hadn't asked him anything. "You didn't... we didn't... no."
        "Got some pain inhibitors, huh?" she managed something very close to a grin--but his eyes caught her. It was... very peculiar. Something about his eyes seemed not to will her into silence, but into something... other. Not grief or guilt or any of those awful things; just stillness. She hadn't seemed to realize the truth in her words until after she'd spoken them. "I'd never have really abandoned you." I'd have found a way... regardless...
        He reached for her shoulders, but managed to grasp her biceps. Well, close enough. "I was... admittedly worried for a bit there."
        It was funny. It should have been funny. But she couldn't react to it. A subject change, perhaps. "Shouldn't you be in counseling or something?"
        His hands slid down her arms, more from a sudden feeling of exhaustion than truly wanting to let go. "We don't have a counselor."
        "True." She was alright, for a moment... then slowly sat forward, her face in her hands as she caught her breath. Imagined images of how he'd gotten all of those injuries were hitting her hard. She just needed a moment to... to catch herself.
        "Hey, now..." he reached for her softly, forcing his hands to make their way to her shoulders.
        "You're going to see these things..." she spoke with a quivering, odd sort of voice, through her fingers, "When you close your eyes. Now and again, for the rest of your life."
        He felt her posture drop like a helpless rag doll, shaking with what could only be the beginning of some awful burst of horrifyingly negative emotion--and couldn't let it happen. Could not let it happen. He grasped her arms and turned her, not even quite sure how he'd managed to find the strength, pulling her body up so that she had no choice but to look at him. Yeah, his arms hurt because of it--his whole body still ached and felt feverish, shaky... but that wasn't important. Not at all important. "Jack. It was not your fault. The whole ship was knocked out. You couldn't have done anything more. You had a stupid, stupid plan. And you know that's the only way that anything ever works."
        Oh how she wanted to laugh... wanted to toss it off of her completely and move on, but... It was an easy thing to shrug his grasp away, surprisingly easier to wrap her freed arms around him. She was as delicate as her senses could afford considering the emotion it entailed. Her voice was raw with too much of... everything. "Don't you understand how close I came... how close I let myself come to losing everything I care about..."
        That was... shocking. The only thing keeping him from entering a catatonic state was the physical pain of arms against his still-healing back. "Oh."
        --Alright, so that was a stupid reaction for what she'd just done and said, but... he was caught totally off guard. Finally gaining insight into exactly what had been eating away at her, his brain began to function in a semi-regular state again. It was surreal, bringing his arms up in return. Fuck the pain--he held her close, ignoring all else. Whatever she wanted, whatever she needed...
        After a long period of time when she could do little more than shiver and hold on, she sighed deeply--but did not let go. "No, that... wasn't fair. That was selfish."
        "I think you can afford to be, a little." He admitted.
        It was funny. At least, she thought it usually would have been funny. She took a steadying breath, feeling... better. "I just need to... figure out what it is I'm still hanging around here for."
        It almost sounded like a threat, actually... or something he ought to be offended about... but he knew the meaning behind it. Things weren't finished. There was still that ship... and that hard drive Dr. Carn had likely been interrupted from with all of the... er, "drama". He wanted to say something. He really wanted to say something of substance, of value... and he thought it might have actually been possible had the door chime not interfered.
        --Not too many people could have been on the other side. With limited choices... either possibility might have come with their own problems.
        Julian saw her hesitation, but he knew her to be curious. Even if it was probably morbid curiosity. Things were pretty much like that on his end, as well. "Do you... want to..."
        "Yeah." She responded quietly. "But only if you don't mind."
        "No. I don't." He meant it, really. It wasn't like they were... "having a moment" or anything. Not really, anyway. They hadn't gotten that far. A thought that nearly made him laugh his ass off--so the drugs were still pretty strong.
        Jack gave a nod, getting up to walk to the door. Well... no sense in waiting. Seeing the doctor on the other side prompted a half-joke, at least. "Good news and bad news, right?"
        Dr. Carn certainly looked surprised about his greeting. He recovered quickly enough, opening his mouth to throw back something at least slightly sarcastic, when he happened to catch Julian on the couch. "Oh. This can wait..."
        "Might as well be now." She invited, stepping back. It was true. Not to mention... she did want to know what was going on.
        The doctor paused, looking less than thrilled to have an audience, but did decide to enter. If she wanted a man recovering from the effects of torture to deal with things most people couldn't take while perfectly balanced and unharmed, that was her choice. In fact, that struck him as what her choice would always come down to...
        The really puzzling thing came with the third chime. At that point, the visitor was obvious. Upon turning and opening the door that had really just been closed, Jack still managed to be a little surprised. Not that she wasn't glad to see Pheta was walking, but... she was a little concerned that there might be a gun in the woman's hand. So, the captain greeted the commander in the only way she could: straight from the heart. "What am I, a nurse?"
        "At this point, you may as well be." Pheta shot back tiredly.
        Jack could accept that. She offered her body as a crutch, glad to see the commander didn't see fit to strangle her or otherwise break her neck. Though, maybe that was only because she lacked the strength to do so.
        Dr. Carn shook his head and sighed as they passed. "None of you should ever expect to heal if you won't follow simple doctor's orders."
        "Oh, if we all did that the universe would be gone by now." Jack threw back, leading Pheta to the other side of the undamaged couch, next to Julian. Hey, they didn't have the strength to complain about seating arrangements.
        The words had been said in jest, of course... but... the others couldn't help but realize the possible truth in it. Kind of annoyingly funny, actually.
        "I wasn't aware you were having a get-together." The doctor quipped quietly, finding himself with the choice of either the table... or the broken couch. Doxy looked up at him from Julian's feet as if giving permission.
        "Neither was I." Jack admitted. "But I suppose I should go make some tea, now."
        "I won't be here that long." Dr. Carn declined, finding himself sitting quite a bit closer to the floor than he'd imagined. Apparently the cushions were softer than he'd thought.
        Well, then... "Do tell." Captain Veis invited with no intention to sit, herself. She just... couldn't.
        With a deep, settling breath, the doctor began with something a bit different. "Actually, I was hoping you could tell me what you know about that other ship."
        An interesting way to go about things, certainly. "Supposedly it's a... 'sister ship' of Domani's. And that... being there was an android. Or, well... an extension of the ship itself."
        There was quite a frightened silence following that announcement. Neither Julian nor Pheta seemed to have the desire to express... anything.  Understanding completely, Dr. Carn filled the silence. "Cybernetic technology... is somewhat simplistic by comparison. As we understand it, anyway. But this, whatever this is... between Domani, the drive I pulled, the files, the other ship... it's head-spinning. It doesn't make enough sense to exist on a technical level, and yet it does..." he trailed off, annoyed with himself suddenly. "I'm not sure if I can be of much help despite what I've been learning."
        Jack let silence fill the room again, once more wondering what the hell might be going on and what they were supposed to do about it. "Eternal..." She mumbled quietly--then more conversationally. "Eternal. Like a... god, a force. At least the ship thinks it's eternal." It was an odd thing to think about, let alone to say. "Give me a few hours. I'll get my thoughts together in writing, then I'll send it over. It might be easier that way."
        The doctor nodded, grateful. "We can all get some rest, then. Everyone except you."
        She would not admit to being glad for that comment, but her voice was quite obviously joking anyway. "Get out."
        He was not about to argue. Standing up from almost off of the floor, he took a last look at the other two. "And there's really no point in saying anything to either of you, seeing as how it'll just be ignored anyway."
        Julian gave a lazy thumbs-up, while Pheta attempted to wave. The doctor merely rolled his eyes, escorting himself out.
        Jack gave the two of them a look, herself. "Well. Should I bother with tea? Food? Anything?
        "Both, please." The other captain requested.
        It certainly earned him a bit of a teasing glare, but she complied. "Just a few minutes. Don't fall asleep and make me think I wasted my time or anything." She wandered into the kitchen area, not too terribly worried about leaving them alone. And should they fall asleep... more for her.
        As soon as she heard things being arranged, Pheta started up a conversation. "I suppose you'll be asking me to leave now?" she half-joked in a lowered voice.
        Julian grinned in response--then shook his head. "No, actually. It's... up to you."
        She sat back (or flopped further back against the couch, really), keeping her eyes firmly on him, trying to determine exactly what he meant. "I don't think anyone here is ready for that."
        Her response had surprised him. "You're still gunning for her, aren't you?" It was said in jest... initially... but the woman's expression calmly hidden by the turn of her head didn't answer for certain.
        "I'm not trying to overthrow you, keep in mind." She grinned, hidden only by a lazy palm over her lips.
        Now this was interesting. Not to mention amusing as hell, speaking like this while Jack herself was out of the room. "What, you want shared custody?"
        "I want clear boundaries." The woman allowed, straight to the point. "And I want to know what you want from her."
        "Her heart" seemed exceptionally melodramatic. "I want... her. In my life. And to be happy. However that comes."
        She was no fool; there was something else there. "But..?"
        Again, words didn't seem to have... enough meaning. He simplified the ideas, and still they seemed to come out wrong... but it was the best he could manage. "I don't want to own her. I just want to... be part of her."
        Messily, she crossed her arms. "Well, if it's just that simple, then I want the same thing."
        So... maybe it wasn't just that simple.
        She looked away for a moment. "I remember, you know."
        He flinched at her words. "I... I thought you were... out."
        "I was, for a while. But I can still remember it."
        That was not a conversation he wanted to have happen. "You didn't answer."
        She shook her head, confirming his memory. She'd had an idea of what would be done were she to refuse to speak again... she'd known what she was getting into... but she didn't know it would be so sadistic...
        "It wouldn't have saved us." She hadn't wanted to prolong the inevitable, herself... even though she knew she'd be wishing for death. And she did that, certainly. "Your confession amused him, anyway."
        Julian went from blushing to pale in seconds. Yeah, just what he'd wanted; to amuse some psychotic android.
        "Was it true?" she prodded mercilessly.
        His mind spun uselessly trying to find something to grab onto. "I don't remember what I said."
        "Bullshit." She didn't accuse as much as she... suggested. Strongly.
        Slipping, slipping... "I don't."
        Well, if he wasn't going to admit it. "I can quote you. Word for word." Her voice lowered quietly, almost dangerously. "'Jack is everything. Don't even think of hurting her or I fucking swear I will find a way to bring the wrath of every vengeful god upon you no matter which world I wind up in control of. And I will wind up in control.'"
        Those words had been full of such enormous, impassioned strength... until searing hot metal found his already broken shoulder. Most coherent thought ended there. He would have recovered had the ribs not come next, one after the other smashed in with utmost perfection.
        Pheta allowed him a moment to think about it before she continued. "If that's not quite a few steps further than romance..."
        That struck him as a little... strange. "Are you trying to convince me of something?"
        "Not necessarily. Just trying to get you to admit it."
        "I have admitted it." He sighed, defeated.
        "You think you have. But you haven't, really." No accusation there. More like, strangely enough, a helpful sort of hint. "You know better. She's not... like that."
        Well if that statement didn't describe Jack to a T... Not that he had the time to reflect on those thoughts before Jack herself entered the room, complete with tea and... some kind of wrapped food that he wasn't familiar with. It didn't seem to matter to his suddenly very hollow stomach.
        "They're a little bland." Their hostess warned, passing out the food. "But it's as close as I can get out here."
        Pheta's stomach growled beyond her control, but curiosity came before hunger. "And what is this?"
        "Simply, cured meat and cheese wrapped in flat bread." Jack responded, taking Doxy's flattened couch with her own food. "But in Ryder, it was 'porchamich'."
        "Ryder." The commander made a face.
        Julian felt a bit... out of the loop. "And Ryder is..?"
        "A trash heap." Pheta mumbled, staring at the food longingly. Well, as long as it wasn't actually from Ryder...
        "A colony." Jack corrected. "Mostly of your standard low-level criminals and human filth, granted. But the food was good."
        With a hearty growl of his stomach, Julian found he could deal with that.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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