DarkHorse Vendetta by Orin Drake
Dedicated to the memory of Zellie Blake.
Your constant support, humor and unending smile are cherished and remembered. If I should at some point feel a heavy smack on the back of the head with absolutely no explanation of how it happened, I will assume that you didn't like the ending. I'm sure we'll be discussing it.
When you get done with this book, go read Lightning Spliced by Zellie Blake.
That is an order.
Chapter 1 - The Ar/rival
"Your assistant arrives soon." The Lady Astrid announced from behind her bedroom door.
Jack's heart fell just a touch. Assistant. The "powers that be" assigned her an "assistant" to... to do what? Watch over her? Probably. A spy, no doubt. Maybe to test her loyalties. Maybe to try and straighten her out. Truth be told, she could probably defend Her Royal High Lady Among Ladies with both hands tied behind her back for all the people that were supposedly after her. So far just slavers and mountain men in space. That was a laugh.
The truth remained, however. Jack's loyalties had been in question since the beginning merely because she couldn't trace her bloodline. She didn't know who the hell her parents were in the first place. Strangely, neither did anyone else. What, did they think her an Old Russun stateswoman or something? All you needed here was a dirty look to deem yourself unworthy of life, let alone to defend the Lady Astrid. She was one of the last of her kind. And, deep down, Jack was glad for it.
Lady Astrid stepped out, daintily flattening the front of her all too perfect dress. "Did you hear?"
"Yes." Jack responded mechanically. She couldn't help but hear that shrill voice... but she didn't say so, of course. She didn't so much as smile at her own thought. "Does anyone know who it is yet?"
The Lady shook her head and turned around to admire herself in the mirror. "As a matter of security, his identity will not be revealed to even me."
"His". Jack pondered to herself, watching the woman spin around. Well, of course. They certainly wouldn't send another woman. Of course, she was rather glad for that. Too much estrogen... bothered her.
The console beeped with an impending message. "Yes, console." Astrid called.
The mechanism beeped. "Lady Astrid." The security officer's voice greeted. "The assistant's ship is docking."
"Thank you." The Lady called. "Console, off." She then turned to Jack, clearly unaware of the distant glare plastered on her face. "Time to greet."
Fuckin' joy, Lady. She desperately wanted to say. Of course, that'd have gotten her thrown in lock-up faster than... well, anything else she'd ever pulled. Jack took a deep breath and got up, following the lady out of her room and down the hall. She stepped inside the lift first and held the doors open, as was protocol. She hated that protocol. Those lifts were so old and ragged that she was certain any day now the gears would wear to dust and blow away.
Lady Astrid had no such fears, however. She looked into the reflective surface of the five foot wide tube, admiring herself. "Excited?" she asked.
"Yes." Jack lied absolutely flat-out without bothering to hide it.
The Lady giggled aristocratically. "Oh, you can be so funny sometimes, dear."
You should see me drunk. Jack responded only in her mind. In fact, please let me get drunk. Please. Booze will kill the pain you inflict on me every single fucking da--
The lift bounced with an unsettling grinding noise. It never failed to throw Jack's stomach to her knees; but the Lady never seemed to have much of a problem with it. She insisted the half blind, arthritic engineers knew what they were doing. The doors opened, and Jack was only glad to step out first.
Astrid followed with a nod to the security guards lining the far wall. She took her respected place, far away from the bolted door. You know, just in case the security dipshits let a criminal on board. As the door began sequencing to open, they could hear the sputtering of the other ship disengaging and taking off.
Jack could do little more than bite the inside of her cheek. Every day was getting harder to bear around this place. Stress, too much fuckin' stress. And Astrid didn't help that. She suddenly felt a sharp thrust against her back from behind.
"Go on, dear!" Astrid insisted rather loudly. "You shall be working with him, you should meet him first."
"Gee... thanks." Jack responded without a hint of attempted enthusiasm. She stepped forward and waited for some stupid freak to step through. Or better yet, a guy with a machine gun would be nice...
The door gasped open with a loud rush of compressed air. Out stepped... an officer. An academy graduate, in uniform. A real and true human being if ever Jack saw one. Hell, she'd step up and greet him, alright. He looked so... normal. And maybe halfway to intelligent, but it was too soon to tell. Sure he had a loose ponytail, but that was the style for coming out of the academy alive. He had to have been about her age, maybe a little older.
He looked right at her, seeing her uniform as the head of the Lady's security force. He stepped up to her, cold and military styled. "I'm Julian DeVeirna." He introduced, offering his hand. "Your new... partner." "Assistant" sounded so... defective, somehow.
She grasped his hand and shook it with a nod. Firm handshake without having to be fake about it, nice. "Just call me Jack." She said in a half friendly, half possessed sort of way.
Whether it was meant as a joke or a serious warning, he couldn't tell. He wasn't sure he wanted to. He pulled his hand away and decided that was a good name for her. Jack. Julian and Jack, ha ha, his acquaintances from academy were going to have a field day. Or, quite possibly, several in a row over the next however many years. And then there would be the jokes, "Working under a female and still not getting any..."
"Well." Jack began with a relieved breath--he was a normal one. She might be able to deal with him. "I'll show you to your quarters." She gave the security officers a look, granting them "permission" to look after Astrid in her absence. With that, she nodded to the Lady and led the new guy out into the secondary hallway.
Julian was impressed. The ship was old, he knew, but it looked managed. Maybe not well managed from all of the exposed panels and the scratched-up metal of the hall walls, but... it was a ship. In one piece, as far as he could tell, with a crew.
"I hope you don't get motion sickness." Jack stated, coming to a lift.
The new "assistant" looked puzzled. "Not easily..."
Jack just nodded with a thin smile, inviting him to step in first. She followed closely, taking a firm hold of the only unbroken hand bar that still existed in any of the lifts on the ship. She of all people knew why that was; they weren't all her fault, either.
The mechanical crunch and sudden jerk did very little to put Julian at ease after her odd warning. He immediately got what she had been hinting at, his stomach lurching as they rode the asymmetrical (and obviously not entirely safe) bars to the "special quarters floor". It was where Jack herself lived, right next to Astrid's insanely large apartment complex.
When the doors open, Julian slid out like a serpent--with motion sickness. He wasn't really nauseous, per se, but... that hadn't been fun. And he really didn't want to do it again. Ever.
His "assistant" walked behind him, trying not to make light of the situation. She herself still wasn't used to the damn things, so she had no right to insult him. Not that that minor detail would hold any bearing on her vicious teasing, should the moment arise. She didn't bother to offer any words of encouragement, just started walking down to the other end of the hall, past her quarters, past Astrid's mansion and to the previously empty quarters on the other side.
It took him a moment to get his bearings, and a moment more to see where she'd gone. He walked just a little stiffly at first, determined not to let the nausea that was still threatening from that head spinning trip rise.
She waited patiently for him to follow, arms crossed, purely amused. Oh, this would be fun. An academy boy in a clean uniform on a ship like this...
"Are they all like that?" he indicated the lift with his thumb, not wanting to look back at it.
"That's one of the better ones." She responded honestly, still amused. "My quarters is just by the lift, and yours is here. Lady Astrid's is between."
Julian took a moment to regard her statement, looking back at how far he'd traveled. It seemed the Lady lived well. He only nodded, feeling the slightest bit dizzy with the mere idea he'd have to ride lifts that were even worse, several times every day.
Jack inputted a light and number code into the outside panel, programming it to receive a new hand print. When the screen indicated that it was ready, she stepped back. "Just place your palm against the black panel and wait."
His eyes went wide. "You mean you don't have bio scanners on board?"
She raised an eyebrow. She didn't even have to say, Does it look like we have any sort of modern technology?
Shaking his head in disbelief as if her words had been spoken, he did as she asked. He felt the panel heating up, then felt the tingling of the structure program mapping out every tiny portion of his hand. It took almost a full minute before the screen read, "DONE".
Jack put in another string of code, and the panel beeped recognition. "There you go. It's barely furnished, but a commercial ship docks at the end of every month, so you have time to order furniture."
Julian nodded his thanks. "When do I start?"
His new "assistant" only shrugged. "Never had a... 'partner' before. I guess you start whenever the Lady asks you to."
Just the way she'd said "the Lady"... he read something off of that. Something very... bitterly sarcastic without being too obvious. He was starting to wonder if this really was the dream job he'd gunned for.
"Well, enjoy." She presented his new door with a wave. "I'm sure we'll... be around." It was as close to "pleased to meet you" as she could get, frankly.
He blinked, taken aback by the statement. "Uh... yes. Well... thank you... Jack."
She saluted, turned on her heel, and started back down the hallway. If she didn't return to Astrid soon, the woman would start to whine. And she couldn't stand that whining, calling her on the comm, asking everyone where she was.
Julian stood there somewhat dazed, watching her expert military walk melt almost immediately into a lazy stride. He had no idea what to think of her. But this would be an interesting experience, to say the least.
Lady Astrid had decided to get to bed early that night. Jack was glad as hell to be rid of her for an extra couple of hours, lounging around in her quarters. Sure she could see that Julian fellow and try to figure him out, but... why bother? They'd be around each other quite enough soon, anyway. Besides, he had to get over the shock of the ship first.
With a deep, stilling breath, she turned her computer console on and flipped the screen up. As it connected to the StreamNet, she found herself having to get up and get some coffee first. She didn't know if she'd be ready for this. And if not, a little caffeine burst would sure do her some good. With a dash of Dolda Ruskhi alcohol. Just a dash. Or a fourth of the cup, whatever worked.
Another deep breath later, she sat back at the console, taking a sip. A new message. From Ki. It was a reply, with the same subject line. So he'd gotten it. So he'd read it. And responded.
Again she found another couple of sips and a series of almost head spinning breaths occurring before she could actually pull the message up. This was... a big step. Especially for her. Slowly, she opened the e-mail from Ki'ehr and began to read.
Oh, my dear. I wasn't expecting this at all. Not in a million years. You certainly can surprise, can't you? On with it, I suppose.
I do love you, sweetie. But not like that. I guess it's come time to tell you something very important. I've come to accept that I'm homosexual.
She stared at the screen, all of her vision turning to white. Shock. Pure and utter, incompetent, shock. She grew up with Ki'ehr. They always talked about everything together, no stone left unturned. Except sexuality, obviously. She recovered enough to keep reading.
I hope I haven't destroyed your universe, sweetheart. (I know I'm sexy as hell.) But let's face it, the signs were there. You can't forget the dolls, Jack. The dolls. And the shoes.
Again she stared past the screen and gaped just a little. Yeah, that was true. He had a strange addiction to dolls. And a stranger addiction to calling her Jack. That's where she got the name, after all. Not to mention the fact that when they were even younger they played dress-up together and... "Oh."
I'll be getting into the station on Tuesday, though. Was going to surprise you but now I think maybe you need a little warning. Hey, you can figure out how to kill me, if you'd like. Give me a call tonight if you're up to it, okay? You know I like to see you pissed off.
Normally, she would have laughed her ass off at that. She didn't mind that he was gay. She wasn't "irked" by it in any way. In fact, there was a rather neat aspect to it (that she suspected only lonely straight women really understood)... but she was appalled by not only not even considering the possibility throughout their lives, but that letter she'd sent to him... "I feel like crawling in a deep hole... and shooting myself down there..." she said to the screen. It only answered with its casual, always there, never friendly but not quite hateful buzz.
"If you had a heart, you'd shock me to death right now." She growled back at the console. But again, it only responded with its usual buzz. Lovely. Time to call Ki, then.
She connected to the audio-visual portion of StreamNet, inputting his far too fucking long access code and her far too fucking long pass code. Too many numbers for too little result. As the flashed "CONNECTING", she sat back and waited. There was an undeniable nervousness there, even though there really shouldn't have been. She couldn't help it--except with another big swig of spiked coffee.
A beep. "ACCEPTED. CONNECT. LOW TOLERANCE MODE."
Oh, even more lovely. Due to the wonderful technology she had access to on the ship, he flashed onto her screen as little more than a rough series of pixels. She could see it was him, clearly, but his features were heavily obscured. Oh well, at least he could see her just fine. His work ship wasn't shit.
"Good to see you haven't slit your wrists over me!" he joked, sitting back and getting comfortable. Well, as comfortable as he could with someone watching. He rather liked audio-only mode, himself.
"Don't be so sure." Jack mumbled absently.
Ki'ehr got very serious, very fast. "Are you okay, Jacqueline?" he leaned forward to make certain she wouldn't lie.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." She responded honestly. "I'm just... I'm looking for a deep cave to hide in for a while."
"We've said worse to each other." Ki'ehr grinned.
Jack found herself grinning back somehow. "Did you get yourself a pink scarf and a feather boa yet?"
Ki'ehr laughed, glad to have her back in good spirits. "No, just fuzzy slippers." He held up his foot to illustrate.
They were the most godawful examples of footwear that she had ever seen. That was his style, though. They were a mix of reddish-pink that just... poofed out. There was no better way to describe them. They were large, furry poofs on his feet. Definitely not "subtle" fashion statements for his milk white hair and skin, but... whatever. "You've stepped in pink tribbles, Ki."
"Yeah..." he agreed with a slightly absent smirk. "Any idea where the next fucked up love interest is going to come from?"
The good humor immediately disappeared from her face. "Sometimes I think I could kill you, Ki."
He only grinned wider. "Sorry, m'dear. Just making conversation. I'm extremely tired at the moment."
"I didn't wake you, did I?" Jack asked with obviously false concern.
Ki'ehr made a noise of disgust. "Not that lucky, no. I haven't slept in about two days. Damn engineers just don't know what the hell they're doing in the first place. Was hoping I could get some sleep over there when I visit, but... now I doubt that."
"Damn straight." She answered, just a touch bitterly.
"I'll get to meet your new companion, though. Julian, is it?" He'd finished reading the ship's docking report only moments earlier. "What's he like?"
She snorted softly. "Yeah. He's, um... well, he's alright. A good, steady sort of person, it appears. I don't quite get him, though."
Ki'ehr chuckled darkly. "I bet I could get everything out of him. Rrrowl."
She burst out laughing at that. "Do you find him attractive?"
He seemed to sincerely consider that question. "Well, he's not someone you need to put a paper bag over, ya know... Then again, I've only seen one blurry academy picture. He wasn't posing."
Jack's expression turned wicked. "Just another wonderful road for us to travel down..."
"And disgust each other with, yes." He finished for her. "I am sorry, love, but I think I'm about to fall over..."
"And I care because..?" she said with the most honesty she could muster.
Ki'ehr grimaced comically. "I have to rest up for you and your goddamn antics, that's why. Just two days and I'll be there to scare the hell out of Asty."
Jack laughed again. Asty. It was something so stupid, it was funny. "Well, alright then. What time are you arriving?"
"Going to meet me at the gate with that sex kitten of yours?" When he got no response but a glare, he continued, "I believe at three... but you know how those things work out. I'll let you know if I get delayed."
"Take care of yourself, you hopeless bastard." She waved.
Ki'ehr tossed his hair in a "sexy" sort of way. "Oh, I will, baby." He waved back, flashed the devil/rock and roll sign at her at the last second, and disconnected.
Jack was left with a smirk. Not an unpleasant one, though. That'd gone a lot better than she thought it would; but then, she was a natural pessimist. Another gulp of coffee and a nice reclining chair--
Well, it used to be a nice, reclining chair. She didn't bother to get up at first (the coffee had barely missed her, luckily). Just staring up at the ceiling was... kind of nice at the moment. She'd be ordering some more furniture, herself.