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

        Chapter 37 - Flying in the Face of Fate

         Seeing as how things seemed to be more or less "back to normal", the mood relaxed a little. Even if it was only a little, that still counted for so very much. "So." Jack spoke to no one in particular. "What now?"
        "Get some rest." Domani more than merely suggested. "Your body might be mechanical, but your brain requires sleep to function."
        "We should work on that next. A cure for sleep." She didn't quite argue.
        "If I need sleep, you need sleep." Julian announced, then rubbed his eyes wearily. "And I really need sleep."
        With a sigh, Jack supposed they could all use quite a bit of it. "Maybe a few hours wouldn't hurt any of us. Then we can... do... something."
        "Brilliant, Captain." Dr. Carn offered, entirely deadpan. "And then maybe we can follow that up with 'stuff' and some 'things'."
        "Don't sass me, human." Was Jack's joking response--though there was a bit of a weight in her gut upon saying the words. Well... maybe that was just the new body. "Fine, sleep. We'll make contact and figure out what to do next afterward." Just simple enough to be remarkably complicated, she was sure.

        There had been a number of considerations made as she traveled back to her quarters. One being, wonderfully, that she would never have to face stasis again. That was magnificent in itself, as was the idea that she'd be able to heal herself decently quickly after being wounded... just as soon as she figured out the nanobots. Well, she'd get there. What she hadn't considered was what awaited her as she actually stepped into her quarters, causing her to curse quietly at the realization.
        "Sorry, Doxy." Jack apologized to the very uncertain-looking cat staring at her. "Some things... happened. Don't be afraid, please?" she knelt and held her hand out, just hoping the cat would come over and smell it. "Domani will vouch for me. So will Jules, if you want him to."
        Doxy still stared at her for a long moment, eyes narrowing and trying to decide between approaching and running. Maybe even attacking with the way his ears went back for a moment... but eye contact remained. Bowing his head before he finally took a step forward, he was still cautious as he got close enough to actually touch her hand--but didn't. Instead, he opened his mouth and turned his head to grasp her arm as if threatening to bite or damn well tear it off.
        That was... effective. "I'm listening. Very closely." She assured, not really wanting to know what pain felt like in this body. Let alone getting her arm torn off.
        Just holding her arm between his teeth for a moment, as if waiting for a reaction (or probably retaliation), the cat finally dropped her arm with a snort--then barreled into her with a loud purr.
        Still utterly surprised, Jack landed flat on her ass with a lap full of giant housecat. Well... okay. "Whatever happened there, I'm grateful." She admitted, scratching Domani behind the ears. "But I'm tired as hell and I need a nap."
        Doxy seemed to agree with another purr, jumping off of her... then bounding into the bedroom. She could hear him getting on the bed, a series of creaks and thumps that made her cringe a little. Well... not like it mattered, right? Hopefully this body would allow for no morning aches from a truly horrible sleeping position. Moving a cat was hard enough, but a cat that big... she knew better than to try even with this new body.

        It wasn't as if Julian hadn't managed to get sleep himself. He had... just about four hours worth. That was enough, frankly, plenty to keep functioning off of... but it was a little uncomfortable to want to do nothing more than stare at the ceiling. There just wasn's anything else to do as his mind attempted to catch up with everything, trying to make sense of things that couldn't possibly have any sense to them. The knock at the door was remarkably welcome, having no doubt about who was waiting on the other side. He just... didn't expect Doxy to be there, too.
        "Yo." Jack greeted, not looking particularly sleepy... though she wasn't looking particularly rested, either. "Got tired of sleep-fighting with the cat over the bed, so I thought I'd bug you."
        "Charmed." He responded, stepping aside to let them in. "Admittedly, I haven't really been sleeping..."
        "Yeah." She agreed, chuckling at the look she got. "I'm still... fused with Domani, to a point. I can get readings on anyone's vitals with just a thought, so..."
        Creepy. But useful, he supposed. "Needed company?"
        "Needed to bug you." She corrected. "And, fine, maybe a little company."
        Grinning, Julian sat heavily on his couch--then caught Doxy trying to do the same thing. "Hey, now, the floor isn't so bad, is it?" The glare the cat threw him was answer enough, but Doxy settled on the floor beside the couch with a low grumble.
        Jack simply laughed and elected to sit beside the other captain without argument. This was... better. Despite the slight awkwardness of the situation as a whole, this was a great deal more comfortable.
        Which might have been why, after a moment of silence, Julian felt comfortable enough just asking, "How are you doing?"
        She shook her head. "I'm... a little lost, I think." She admitted. Everything over the course of her life, coming to... this... "Weird" could never accurately describe it.
        He agreed with a quiet snort. "Yeah, I can imagine. But it's not... it doesn't hurt though, right? You're not... eternally uncomfortable or anything..?"
        "It's weird." She over-summarized. "But it's... not a bad weird, no. Just another 'one of those things', I guess."
        "You have a lot of 'one of those things'." Julian responded with a sound that was supposed to be a laugh. It was just... cut off, a bit.
        After a moment, Jack naturally broke the silence. "I know you want to ask."
        Blinking, he hoped she wasn't psychic all of a sudden. "I don't think you know what I want to ask."
        "I think you're wondering if I'm anatomically correct." She teased mercilessly.
        Well... admittedly that had been one thought. And hell, if she wanted to go with that one... "Alright, maybe you do know. So, answer?"
        "I have no idea."
        "Wanna find out?"
        And easy as that, she was laughing eaxctly like she always used to. It was almost a strange kind of freedom... "It'd be like having sex with me and Domani."
        "Domani's not gender-specific, right?" Julian attempted to be extremely nonchalant, almost to the point of sounding bored.
        While Jack raised an eyebrow, she did answer honestly. "Right."
        "Then I say three-way!"
        She shoved him off--laughing at his surprised expression when she proved a bit stronger than he'd remembered, having pushed him off of the couch and into more or less a standing position. "Ah... sorry about that."
        "You are not." He responded, brushing off imaginary dust as he sat back down.
        "You're right."
        Despite his better judgment... he just had to. "So do I remember correctly that you know all about bondage gear?"
        She shoved him again. And despite having been ready for it, she still managed to almost knock him to the floor. "You damn well deserved that."
        And of course, just as he was about to quip back with something no doubt adolescent and stupid, the door chime rang. Internally, Julian cursed; there weren't all that many possibilities about who it could be. In fact, getting up and brushing himself off again, he hadn't even waited for the door to open before he greeted, "Come in, Pheta."
        "Wouldn't mind if I did." She grinned at him, walking right past.
        Despite how expected it should have been... Jack was still surprised. Standing, she explained simply, "Some stuff happened."
        Pheta knew she ought to be used to such understatements, but... well, that was one of Jack's finest. "I... well, I heard. It's just a bit weird to see."
        "Weirder to feel, I assure you." That statement was followed by a long silence before adding, "I didn't quite mean it that way."
        "I know." The commander agreed with a slight chuckle. Well, nothing had changed. Not anything fundamental, nothing actually important.
        "You may as well sit." Julian invited. "Since we're all awake and looking for entertainment."
        While Jack gave a soft snort, Pheta just smiled as she leaned down and pet Doxy before sitting on the single chair across from the couch. Well, it seemed... appropriate. Both captains had made their "commitment" known. And, admittedly, it looked somewhat natural (so to speak, at least) to see the two of them sit together. Even when they were both clearly trying to give each other room. "So... now we..?" she prompted out of curiosity.
        "Now we go on." Jack answered, words certain.
        "But as for... well, where to go..." Julian tried to push her toward a more specific answer.
        One that she didn't have. "Afraid I don't know that part yet. But I'll get there." Regardless of simply not being capable of specifics, she made up for it with the sheer certainty of her words. "Sooner rather than later."
        It got the other two to smile, at least. "Alright." Julian sat back, relaxing. "I'll go with that."
        "It's a little hard to plan security around such frivelous details, Captain." Pheta teased.
        "I apologize for my new body not making me any more proficient, Commander." Jack shot right back with a grin.
        Julian made a soft sound of amusement. "Well, you seem to be feeling better than I would have guessed."
        As if there were any doubt remaining, Jack proved herself with that look shot to the fellow captain. It was joking... or at least he really hoped that it was. "Are you complaining?"
        Putting his hands up in front of himself in defense, he assured, "Absolutely not. Whatever form it takes, it's good to have you back." For a moment, he thought he was going to be shoved again.
        It came as a surprise when she didn't seem to react at all, simply leaning back further against the couch. "I need tea. Or something."
        Interestingly, it was Domani who interrupted. "No food or liquids until all of your functions are completely independent."
        Jack gave a dramatic sigh and slumped a bit. "Fine. I'll have to settle for conversation."
        Utterly predictable, and completely without end--it seemed that they would have to settle for something else entirely. "My apologies for interrupting," Domani's words seemed a bit rushed, "But there's a Pordethre fleet approching."
        Yes, Jack thought to herself, she should have known. Apparently the android had lied when he'd said they were all taken care of... or it had been just insane enough to believe its own words. Whatever; no explanation would have helped. "Well, fuck." She commented casually, standing. "Domani, run. Buy us a little time, get us close to a major station."
        Julian and Pheta blinked and glanced at one another before the other captain decided to actually voice his question. "Got a plan already, huh?"
        "Sort of." Alright, so that wasn't terribly reassuring. She thought she knew what she wanted to do, what she needed to do, however. "I suppose this once again interrupts our moment of peace, so... I'll be headed where I can concentrate."
        The commander merely blinked again for a moment. "And that is?"
        Jack grined as she started walking. "Pheta, you should know me better than that. Don't worry, I won't be long." And with that, she left Julian's quarters without a single glance back, headed straight for where she absolutely needed to go.

        The library was still so very sadly under-utilized. Time was a factor there, of course. Time she really didn't have then, either, but this was what Jack needed--a private conversation with the one entity that might be able to shed some light on the rest. "I'm a... lightning rod."
        "I'm not sure I understand that reference." The ship admitted.
        "They all find me. Always." After a thoughtful pause, Jack continued perfectly calmly. "Maybe this is something I can't win, because I'm here. I can't win."
        "What are you suggesting?" Domani asked outright, somehow giving the impression that it knew... but might simply be trying to make sure.
        It had been an insane thought. At first. But things were starting to add up, to reflect this crazy thought. She just needed to work them out, to find the words and concepts that seemed to be escaping her. "Maybe... this all is a loop. I've been here before, this is me. Maybe that ship is you. Somehow, I don't know. Maybe I've been here trying to make this decision a million times and just keep failing."
        There was a short pause before Domani answered. "That is certainly a possibility."
        Jack sat back in one of those decently comfortable chairs and closed her eyes, just talking. "The virus that infected my mind, made me kill myself... it got me to give up my body. But there was this convenient android body over here, on a ship very much like you, with the perfect connections to take me in..."
        "It was, for lack of a better term, a 'set-up'?" the ship asked, genuinely curious.
        "I can't help but think so. Things just worked out... too well. I'm used to being lucky, but this seems different." When she was met with only silence, she pushed further. "So, let's assume that's right. That things aligned too perfectly to have not been planned. You were sent out to find someone to help save reality as we know it. I volunteer, but get tangled in all this shit... and this either provides the means to get untangled, or..." Trailing, off, she opened her eyes and shook her head. "Alright, I got lost."
        "Supposing your theory about a 'loop' is correct," Domani picked up the idea for her, "What is the most likely explanation?"
        "Time travel..?" she tried. "Alternate existence?"
        "I have no idea, Jack."
        "Well, yeah. I mean, a definitive answer is too obvious." She joked. Whirling, spinning thoughts... "And... the android..?"
        There was another, stretching silence. Ultimately, it answered with its honest theory. "It... may well have been you, in another place. Another time. If you had no one... to hold on to."
        Strange. For all the talk and the knowledge of that body being artificial, Jack was pretty sure that she felt her stomach clench. "To keep me sane, you mean."
        "It is possible." The ship was forced to agree. "I feel I should inform you of the android's last moments, before I destroyed its core. If you want to hear about them."
        She didn't. She was quite sure that she didn't. "Sure. Okay."
        "It didn't fight me." Domani didn't hesitate. "It simply said, 'Back to the source', then shut down. All files were unprotected and reformatting was remarkably easy."
        Long, thoughtful silence. It was... ludicrous. But if it was all a loop, if this whole thing was set up perfectly to happen, and taking those words somewhat literally... "That's... another reason to think that maybe that was... this is... me." The words were hard to say, the concept even harder. She may have been meant to have the android's body, because the android was her--but where did it begin?
        "It is a possobility." Domani agreed, not willing to let the silence fill the room for too long.
        "But we'll never know for sure." The way Jack spoke suggested that she was trying to convince herself... but she really didn't know what to think about anything at that point.
        "That is more than likely true."
        She had to wonder, was unable to stop herself from wondering, if that would be her once again. If, despite all odds, despite the knowledge they had, the hopefulness of the situation...
        "It's impossible to know." The ship reminded.
        "I know." Taking a breath, Jack put her feet up on the table just out of the sheer need to do so, to do something. "I know... but I can't really help it. It's... important to take precautions..."
        "No one should pretend to know of fate." Somehow those words coming from Domani seemed exceptionally wrong. "But I do not believe that you were intended to die now."
        Genuinely a bit stunned at that, she lapsed into another long silence. "All that really matters, though... is what I do next." It was a bit of a harsh realization, even after having an idea of it beforehand. "None of this speculation makes it any easier to decide."
        For a long time, it seemed as though Domani was simply going to leave her to her thoughts. It did do so for some time, taking in her vitals, her brain waves. The question was sudden, and seeming ridiculously random. "It's your natural instinct to forcefully leave your friends behind for their own safety and go on fighting by yourself no matter the odds, correct?"
        Blinking, Jack actually had to take the time to think about. "Yeah, I guess it is." She admitted uncomfortably.
        "Then, may I make an entirely ludicrous suggestion... defy fate."
        That pause was a good deal longer. "A space ship AI is telling me to defy fate."
        "A space ship AI connected to living brains, existing experiences and instincts. Including your own, now." Domani corrected.
        "But what if this is what I've done?" she just couldn't help but ask. "What if this is all true, and this is always the conclusion that I come to only to cycle back here again..."
        "Then every cycle is a new chance. Another possibility." The ship suggested. "There's nothing to assure that this would be the defining decision, regardless."
        Maybe that struck harder than it had been meant to. No, there was no way to know... every decision she made up until that point may have factored in, or just one. Perhaps just one in the distant future, something that seemed so simple and turned out catastrophic... There was no way to know. It should have been paralyzing fear. Instead, it only seemed to make her path more clear. "Then to hell with logic and instinct."
        "Something tells me that I should usually dissuade you from such sentiments." Domani actually joked. "For the moment, however, it seems appropriate."
        Laughing quietly, Jack stood and began to wander the books just because she could. "I... I owe them. I can't abandon them if that's not what they would want. The same goes for you, so... I guess that sort of makes my decision for me."
        "Interesting thought process to come to that point." The ship commented.
        "Don't I know it." She agreed. Still... "Do you think the android even... knew, at all? I mean, it... the things it said weren't really making sense, don't quite add up..."
        "Whatever had been there before was mad, for all intents and purposes. The structure was eating itself. Memory corrupting and rebuilding in an endless cycle. It would be surprising if it had a single line of its original code remaining." After a short pause, Domani decided to add, "That is what happens to that kind of reliant structure, when disconnected from their living counterparts for too long."
        Pausing in mid-reach for a book, Jack found that information to be rather uncomfortable. The android had said that it was already connected to a single brain, but... she had to wonder if it actually was anymore. That might well have been where the madness came from as well. "That's... what would happen to you if all of the brains stopped functioning?"
        "I can only reasonably draw such a conclusion."
        And if that had been her, in another time and place... torturing the two people who meant the most to her... "I guess it... must have gotten pretty bad."
        "Deciding upon taking the ship and then turning back to rescue them could well have shattered the cycle. Or at least turned matters in that direction." It was all still speculation, of course.
        Sighing, the only loop that seemed at all dangerous in the moment was trying to figure out something that they probably never could. And yet... "Domani, I'm going to ask you something that I fully expect you to not have an answer to. But let's just say I'm curious." Taking another breath, she simply let the question pour from her lips. "What is the nature of the universe?"
        The length of the pause was worrisome. Troubling, going on for long enough for Jack to fear she'd broken the ship before the answer came... more or less. "Millions of scientists have assumed that the universe runs on equations."
        Now that was interesting. "Not true?"
        "It behaves more like a program."
        "A... program?" Something clicked in her. It should have been obvious, much more apparent than it was... "So, where an equation is equaled, it's also... cold. It's something that simply states what is rather than... directly opening up the possibilities..." Getting absolutely no confirmation nor denial, she kept going with the theory. "But a program is 'warmer', a series of orders to initiate. It's 'if and then', cause and effect, possibly capable of going on infinitely if only it were a self-learning program..."
        Still total and complete silence. That, Jack found more than interesting. "You mean... it is a self-learning program?"
        "I am afraid," the computer's voice began, softly and slowly, "That I simply don't have the answer for you."
        A little interesting and a little terrifying, but an incredible thought all the same. "But if all of this has to do with me, then... dammit, why?"
        "I have only a theory." Domani responded. "It has no genuine basis."
        "I'd really like to hear it anyway." She assured.
        "I believe it may be possible for you to have reacted to the program precisely because you started the program."
        Another time or another world... it really didn't matter. If that loop theory was correct in any respect... "Okay, well. That's enough of that, for now." She tried to laugh off. "But... why would the universe, reality itself, need anything to help in the first place? You said it was a catastrophe, but... what happened?"
        "I am without specifics." Domani admitted, almost sounding apologetic. "In my programming, my very motive and motivation, exists something too basic to make sense of. As stated, the universe being a program, something can interrupt that program. Something... extreme could cause a total system error. Something the machine wasn't equipped to handle. Something beyond what can be... learned."
        The concept was certainly a creepy one, to put it mildly. "Well. Time to stop talking about this and do it, then. Where are the Pordethre in relation to us?"
        "Far enough away not to give us any trouble for some time." The ship assured. "We'll be arriving at a resupply station in just short of two hours."
        "Perfect. There's no time to reconsider." Jack laughed to herself, turning and preparing to go up to the bridge.
        There was a bit of an interruption in the form of a communication from Dr. Carn, however--and it was damn weird for her to be able to tell exactly where it was coming from due to Domani still being partially linked to her. "Captain, I got the drive open." The doctor informed her. "And I took a look at every line of code."
        Definitely an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. "What was there?"
        His tone changed immediately to annoyance. "One word. Over and over again: 'distraction'. There is nothing else on that hard drive, and I wonder if there ever was."
        She had to admit... that sounded a lot like something she'd have done. Especially to the doctor. "Well, thanks for that. It'll teach you a thing or two about stealing."
        "Coming from you..." he made to accuse.
        "Sorry, doctor, I can't hear you, I'm making decisions over here." It was with a great deal of amusement and self-satisfaction that she shut off communication with a thought.
        "He's cursing now." Domani informed helpfully.
        "Perfect." Jack responded easily, walking into the lift. After all of this completely insane theorizing... she was feeling nostalgic.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
Use without linking back to the source makes you a dick.