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

        Chapter 35 - Never Gonna Be a Hero

        It was most likely that no food would have held well in their stomachs. The "porchamiches" (if that was indeed the proper plural form of "porchamich"--Julian did not pretend to know) hadn't been spiced, but not overly plain, and they had been hungry... but food was perhaps not the best thing for them.
        Not that Julian nor Pheta had gotten sick or anything. Just... sincerely heavy stomachs. Doxy didn't exactly mind eating the share they hadn't finished. If a cat could indeed grin, his facial expression would have been a prime example.
        Jack looked on in something akin to sympathetic amusement; even as she finished her food and went for tea right after. She was watching... waiting. For what, she wasn't sure, and believed it to be better she didn't know. Caught halfway between enjoying the moment given and dreading the possibilities of the moment that may follow seemed about... natural by that point. It simply was. As it seemed it may always be.
        What happened was a tired slump. It was actually a little amusing to see what appeared to be an unspoken and slow-moving contest between Julian and Pheta as to who could lean back the most without falling on the floor. At last, when they both looked about ready to sleep right there, Jack decided to put them out of their misery. "You two go rest." She stopped just short of officially ordering.
        "What about being good company?" Julian did everything he could to keep a sleepy slur out of his voice. Food plus the need for rest... it was not a battle he could win.
        Jack smirked at the question, then at Pheta's attempt to sit up again. "I think I'll be alright knowing that you two are... breathing. And sleeping."
        Julian pointed at the other captain, albeit sloppily. "You're just gonna sit here and worry. And blame yourself."
        "It is my right to do so."
        "I'll do what I can."
        "Hmph." Jack commented, reaching to rub lightly at her right temple. After everything she'd been through... it was that moment when a sharp headache struck.
        "If we're resting, then you should rest too." Julian tried very hard to make some kind of "deal."
        "I think a walk would help more, actually." She admitted, stretching. "Just need to wander. But you two really need some rest."
        Sighing, the other captain made to stand... then stopped. "Might need some help here."
        With a great theatrical sigh, Jack stood and offered her hands to both of them. They were both incredibly heavy... though she could tell it was mostly from slack muscles. The weight they'd lost... was not something she was willing to think about. "Do you need escorts to your rooms?"
        "No, ma'am." Julian was just tired enough to be incredibly daring. "I can stumble by myself."
        Snorting quietly, Pheta agreed. "As can I, Captain."
        "You've got further to go, Commander..."
        "I'll be fine." She assured again. "I'm sure Doxy would let me lean on him, if I needed."
        The cat raised his head, looking at all of them for a moment before trotting to Pheta's side. Rubbing his cheek lightly against her leg, he seemed perfectly willing.
        Jack smiled behind her hand. "Seems he'll escort you, regardless."
        "At least there's one gentleman here." The commander quipped, placing her hand carefully on Doxy's shoulder. He was certainly solid enough to support her, probably enough for her to ride... though that seemed generally rude, regardless of the momentary amusement.
        "I'm afraid you are correct." Julian agreed without a fight.
        "To bed, then, both of you." Captain Veis' order was particularly final. Even if no one moved right away. "I will push you out the door myself..."
        "We're going." Pheta mumble quietly, walking to the door with Doxy in step beside her. "You sleep as well, Captain."
        "Jack, Pheta." She reminded lightly, waving. "Rest."
        As Julian took a stumbling step toward her, he countered with, "Sooner or later you'll be too tired to stand. Then you'll rest."
        "That's one way to look at it." Jack agreed, opening the door for them both. "You sleep, I'll walk." There were sleepy murmurs from the two of them, but they did seem to obey. At least she saw Pheta and Doxy make it to the lift, and Julian taking his sweet time feeling along the wall of the hallways as he made it to the other side. That much done, she waited for a few minutes before simply wandering.

        Some thoughts really couldn't be escaped. Not that she'd have run from them, but... distraction was nice. It saved her from thinking overly much, and even Jack knew that she was dangerous when she was thinking.
        Funny, that. Spend long enough thinking about the greater concepts and it allows one to completely ignore the terrors of what was right in front of them. Once again her mind went to the Black Albatross... and Nex. How she'd never see either of them again. Was it really for a purpose? Was there a point when this slaughter wasn't nearly as close to an end as she hoped? Ridiculous. Stupid to think. Ki's death had been utterly senseless, there was no question about that. That knowledge didn't exactly make her feel any better, but it was at least... final.
        And then there were Commander Laquea and Second Commander Relek Vorhe, the only survivors of the fleet they'd been given... and that was because the men had been on the DarkHorse at the time. Above stupid fucking luck, it was protocol. The idea made her stop to laugh.
        Above all, dammit... she wouldn't bend. The universe would have to snap her in half, first. At this rate...
        --Nope, not the sound of snapping. But it was damn sure the sound of footsteps, causing her to turn and sigh. "I thought I said--"
        "I've heard it all before." Julian dismissed.
        Hands rather jokingly on her hips, she pointed out, "I thought you were exhausted."
        There wasn't an ounce of apology in his voice, though there was still a bit of shakiness in his steps. "Did you know you stocked great coffee on board?"
        For a short moment, Jack considered calling security to take him back to his room and get him to sleep. A lot of good that would have done when "security" was probably already sleeping. "Somehow I doubt you should be drinking coffee in your condition."
        "Well, my condition is now vibrantly awake, so I think it's okay." Julian shrugged noncommittally, simply falling into step beside her when she started walking again.
        It was a bit of an internal struggle not to shove him only to prove that he needed the rest... but it wasn't as if she didn't realize how much stubbornness he'd learned directly from her. "We'll make a lap around the ship then get you to bed."
        "Whatever you say, Captain." Julian grinned.
        Jack's snort was a bit telling. Allowing. She opened her mouth to say something snappish and then--stopped. Something... wasn't right here. It was something... it was something so minor... Something so minuscule that it was ridiculous even to try to focus on, but--
        Nothing. Not a word, but a concept--the whole concept of nothing sweeping over her for only the slightest instant. So tiny, so fleeting that it was almost not there at all. Blink and you miss it.
        Only... Jack hadn't blinked. There was no way she could have allowed herself to let such an odd sensation, no matter how quick, pass her by. There was something there...
        Realization. Terrible, cold realization. Everything struck at once. The android. The fucking android kept her there too long. "He got to me."
        Julian blinked. "What?"
        Panic. Raw, fierce panic that needed to be pressed down, shoved aside... "His eyes... I don't know. I can't explain it, but... his eyes passed the program along."
        Sheer confusion was starting to bleed to panic for Julian, as well. "Program?"
        She shook her head, not having the words and barely understanding it herself. "The last defense... I'm on self-destruct now. If we try to leave this place... it's going to activate, and I'll kill us all."
        Everything felt like a nightmare. "What? Jack, you're not making se--"
        She turned quickly and grasped his shoulders, effectively silencing him. "Make this worthwhile."
        His stomach fell to his knees. His heart followed. How he managed to understand what she meant by that, he did not want to guess. "I... I don't..."
        "I'm sorry." She cut him off, absolutely honest. "For everything, I'm sorry. This is mine. I'm taking responsibility. I'm sorry you have to put it all back together."
        "You're not making sense." He'd meant it as an accusation, but all that rose was a whisper.
        "I know. I'm sorry for that, too." There was true sorrow in her voice, but it was... numb. And growing a little more distant with every sentence. "You can do it. You know me. You know how I think by now, so you can do it."
        Panic was a cold and lonely thing. Her presence and her contact didn't change that at all. "What... am I doing..?"
        Jack was talking faster then, racing against time and the universe. "Taking over for me. The ship. Everything left unfinished. Everything."
        "But--what does that mean? Just--does Domani know?" The beat of no response seemed like eternity. "Domani?" he tried again.
        Domani was silent. Utterly, totally silent.
        "It won't answer." Jack murmured. "Domani knows."
        There was a silent, hidden rage in Julian's chest at that. "What?! How--"
        "I don't think Domani realized anything until now, either... but I'm human. Organic. I can't... get the program out..." She sighed, deeply and painfully.         Nothing else she could do. She let her legs collapse underneath her, caught harshly on her knees... but she hardly felt a thing. She just reached for what she knew she was going to need...
        Julian moved before he really understood what was going on, successfully grasping her arm before she could bring her weapon to her head. He twisted the limb--not cruelly, not beyond its reach--but had to twist further when the arm kept moving. "Jack!"
        Even though they both knew that limb was on the verge of breaking, she didn't drop the Spectre. "I know. It looks like I'm escaping. Looks like suicide, doesn't it?"
        There was incredible distance in her voice, in her eyes... but only cold, clenching fear really registered. "Jack..."
        "Fact is, Jules... I'm poisoned. The android got my mind." She shook her head unable to explain beyond that. Unable to understand beyond that. "I can... kinda understand, when I stop and think about it... but I can't stop it. It's kinda like you, remember? You were programmed to kill threats--"
        "But you pulled me out of it." He tried to keep his voice strong, even. He was failing.
        "Yeah. Yeah, that's right." She winced, realizing it wasn't about escaping. The program was only on a timer. "Fuck... it's already started. I can... kinda feel my life being erased. This is... a little uncomfortable." Her vision flickered, heart rate spiking for a moment and aching in her chest. "I gotta go."
        Final. This was all too final. Too bitterly numb. "Please... I..."
        "I gotta go." She repeated. "Before everything's gone and I kill everyone. Who knows where it'll go from there... It's been good, Jules. You gotta take care of everyone for me. Sorry about that, too."
        His fingers grasped, but there was no power in them. "There's got to be another way..."
        Going. "Not anymore. Jules... let go."
        Going. "Jules... let go."
        Pleading desperation. "If I could just... keep you here somehow, if I could--"
        So close to gone. "It'd be delaying the inevitable. Here at least I have the chance to end this right."
        "You call this 'right'?" Julian simply couldn't find anger in his voice.
        "As right as it can be now. You have to leave."
        No. No. He didn't want to be there, he didn't... but the thought of her... by herself... "Not... going."
        At least his grasp had slackened. At least her arm felt none of the pain. "You're not gonna want to see this."
        "If you... if this is what you have to do, then... I... the least I can do is... make sure." He was shaking. Violent, trembling spasms. He couldn't believe the words that were leaving his mouth.
        "It's the sure-fire way with a Spectre." She stated so calmly, so distantly. The light was dying in her eyes. "Thrust the blade through the neck and fire.  Severs the spine. Severs the whole damn head. I don't want you to see that."
        He didn't want to see that, either. None of this was... none of it... couldn't be happening...
        "Look away, Julian."
        "There has to be--"
        "It's going." She interrupted, voice distant and harsh at the same time. "Mind, memory... coherency... can't hold on. I love you. I love you all. So take care for me."
        He'd probably always hate himself a little for looking away. Maybe better than marring her memory by actually witnessing it, but... The sound of the shot was by far louder and more final than any he'd heard before. And, wincing at the thud that came after, he hoped he'd never hear it again.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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