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Episode 10 Part 12

By:  Wynn

“It seems that you're all getting along. How wonderful!”

     The glare that Bullet directed towards Vonter as he reentered the room was no doubt intended to convey exactly the opposite of what Vonter had just suggested, but the pirate captain paid his dour new friend no mind, instead nodding to the others that had, for some reason or another, come to all but encircle the hapless Guardsman. His fellow pirates and subordinates returned the gesture, subtly distancing themselves from the Nathian as if hoping to disguise the way they had been menacingly surrounding him. His fellows' lack of tact and subtlety failed to surprise Vonter, but it didn't mean that he wouldn't be bringing this back up to them later. Best to keep them on their toes, and in line...

     “I hope you'll forgive me for my absence; the Fickle Fate is still having some residual difficulties from our last run-in with our former... with Donacon's merry band of murderers. Rocin is filling in for me for now, but I'll have to join him momentarily. Thank you for your time; I hope you all have been enlightened by this meeting, and I shall notify you the next time your presence is needed. Until then, ladies and gentlemen...” With a sweeping gesture back towards the door that had allowed him into the room, Vonter made his dismissal of the other pirates inescapably apparent, if genteelly phrased.

     Possibly relieved that their commander didn't want to question their 'conversation' with the Guardsman, the other pirates quickly took to his suggestion, departing the table in clusters, paying their respects as they passed Vonter on their way to the door. Only a few lingered: Mari took her time leaving, coldly teasing the Nathian by running a hand over his shoulder as she walked past him, her jagged grin making it clear that she, too, had heard his throaty growl. Dorvus Kelvar also waited, the orange-skinned boarding chief rummaging in the satchel he constantly carried before making his hesitant way over to Bullet. Vonter restrained the urge to roll his eyes as he saw the bulky pirate offering Bullet an all-too-familiar flyer, thankful, at least, that their resident Earth-fanatic would have someone else to harass.

     As for Bullet, he made no motions to leave, spearing Vonter with his gaze occasionally to remind the pirate that they still had unfinished business. The pale-skinned captain had long ago resigned himself to that fact; he would have to make some concessions to Bullet's demands if he wanted to keep the Guardsman from trying to arrest his whole crew again, or something equally absurd. Still, he wasn't entirely looking forward to this conversation...

     And then they were alone, Dorvus trudging out of the room with an optimistic smile and closing the door behind him. Enduring the fatal silence for only a moment, Vonter decided to try the easy route one last time. “Well, I hope that you've enjoyed your talk with my colleagues. If you'll excuse me, I must-”

     “Vonter.” The steel in that voice made Vonter wince despite himself, and he sighed internally. So much for the easy route.

     “Right, of course, our mutual... 'friend.' Please, what would you like to know?” Though the pirate had long mastered the cultivation of false smiles, this one withered on the vine, disregarding his faithful efforts.

     “Everything.”

     “Ah, but you have never been an easy one to please, have you?” Vonter glanced longingly towards the chairs, but restrained himself; that could only draw out this discussion, and such was the last thing he wanted. “Care to refine your query?”

     Realizing that Vonter had no intention of returning to the table, Bullet likewise stood, crossing his arms before his chest. “How about with refreshing my memory about how you too got acquainted?”

     “The Red Death is a pirate, and, you may have noticed, so am I. I command a small flotilla with a respectable amount of firepower; she lords over a fleet that has enough guns to make most armies cower. I have a few loyal captains, she has dozens of notorious brigands and plunderers clamoring for her attention.” Vonter shrugged casually. “When a person like that makes a person like me an offer, it typically tends to be wise to listen... closely. And so I ended up as one of her sub-captains for a while.”

      “Ah.” Bullet took a step forward, and Vonter could hardly help but notice the way that his hand strayed down to his belt. Thankfully the Nathian had been forced to leave his sword back in his room, which was... not far enough away for Vonter's comfort, actually. For not the first time, Vonter urged himself to invest in a larger flagship, when the opportunity arose.

     “Don't worry.” The bitterness in Vonter's voice stalled the Guardsman. “I wasn't involved with what happened with Colony 96. If you want to know why she slaughtered your home base, you'll have to ask someone else, however. My apologies, but I had had enough of her brand of casual chaos by then, and the captains you just had that pleasant chat with sided with me when I decided to leave.”

     If this did not take all of the tension from Bullet's stance, it bled much of it away. “But you still helped her on other raids.”

     “In my own way. Always my own way,” Vonter insisted, feeling the words curdle in his stomach. He had hoped that he could show her another way, but- no, that was enough. He knew better than to think like that.

     “Alright.” That assurance had finally cleared the Nathian's hostility, and he let his arms drop back to his side. “So, tell me about her. You knew her, right?”

     “We were close...” Vonter caught himself; dangerous territory, that. “In an organizational sense. I can, however, tell you about her operating methods and tactics. But that would be pointless, wouldn't it? You've seen it firsthand.”

     “Butchery,” Bullet snarled. “My cruiser was one of only two military vessels at Colony 96. My partner was still at the colony when she arrived, but I was on patrol. Even though we posed absolutely no threat to her...”

     “If yours was the only story like that, then I would be far more content,” Vonter commiserated. “That's the problem, though.” Vonter waved at the ship around him. “You've seen what condition we're in. That comes from a run-in with some of her minions, if admittedly eager ones. Had it just been her flagship after us, well.” Vonter laughed harshly. “We would not be having this conversation.”

     “How powerful is that vessel?” Bullet asked, concern spreading across his face.

     “Have you researched the Norians' military capabilities?” Vonter asked, glancing away with a tight grimace.

     “Some. I know they were involved in a war a decade or so ago, but they haven't been in many direct conflicts since.” Bullet shrugged. “I didn't focus on that aspect, since I figured she would be a renegade.”

     “Ah. Well, let's just say that she's profited from having scientific connections back on her homeworld. Absurdly powerful weaponry, highly-advance AI technology, you name it. Your Guardsman cruiser is not going to be enough to take that beast out, trust me.”

     “I had no intentions for that,” Bullet replied, a hint of feral determination in his smile. “I intend to challenge her personally again, as soon as I can track her down.”

     “Good luck with that,” Vonter said, leaning slightly away from the other man with a cautious glance. “She's not one for personal conflict. That's why she has lackeys, you understand.”

     Bullet nodded morosely. “If I had just cornered her on Earth... but with a hostage, there was little I could do to her.”

     “A hostage?”

     “She took an Earthling with her when she left. I assumed it was to help cover her escape, a human shield.”

     “Hunh.” Vonter scratched his chin, his confusion clear. “That doesn't sound right. She only does stuff like that to people she finds interesting. She wouldn't tolerate anyone else for more than a short time, and then...” Trying his best to ignore the stricken expression on Bullet's face as the unfortunate implications of that statement became apparent, Vonter struggled to think of a way to reassure the Guardsman. “Of course, she may have changed. I can't say that I understand her anymore.” He immediately regretted that final word, but thankfully Bullet was distracted with other matters.

     “Right. All the more reason to catch her quickly,” Bullet stated, refreshed determination burning in his eyes.

     “And I will help you do just that. But, for now...” The pirate motioned towards the door. “My crew needs me. We'll be making our way towards a nearby port soon, and hopefully I can help you find more answers then. If you have further questions... they can wait, eh?” With that parting comment, Vonter chuckled and turned towards the door, eager to make his escape.

     “Vonter... one more thing.”

     The pirate stopped just before the door, turning a mischievous smile back towards the other man. “Sorry, my friend, but I have no intention to reveal everything just yet. After all, we have a deal; isn't that what you told me just this morning?”

     “No... it's not like that.” The crumbling reticence in Bullet's voice gave Vonter pause, and so he dutifully turned his attention fully back to the introspectively-frowning Nathian. Even with Vonter looking to him, it took Bullet a moment to hew the words free from his stony hesitation. “Earlier, the questions... why? What was the real reason?”

     “Why, as I said, I am curious about-”

      “The real reason.” Bullet met his gaze, and the unyielding determination shining through his glasses caught the pirate slightly off guard. “I'll buy that you wanted me to open up. I even bet you wanted to get the others that serve you accustomed to my presence. That's fine, but... that isn't the heart of the questions you were asking me. You were after something, and I want to know what it is.”

     Vonter let his smile slip only slightly, a duelist's salute to one who had momentarily outmaneuvered him through dogged deduction. 'My fault for trying to hide something so simple from someone with detective training,' he mused, shaking his head slowly. “Fine, fine,” he yielded, spreading his hands in exaggerated surrender, “I'll tell you.” The words were a magician's flourish, a distraction to buy him time to think about the best way to shape his next words. The sharp stare Bullet was focusing upon him underscored the need for caution; he had no desire to say too much, lest the questions never end. Questions he had no pleasant answer to...

     “It's a matter of... perspective,” Vonter started, taking a cue from the slight gleam of Bullet's glasses and the conversation he had shared with Rocin earlier. “Think of it this way. During my travels, I've had the pleasure of encountering many different races, each of them with their own characteristics. Some of them have been entirely foreign to my sensibilities; all tentacles and oozing and ugh...” Vonter shivered, his lip curled with distaste. “Others, however, have seemed all but the same, just a few minor differences... for example, an extra arm or two, or eyes.” The pirate reached up to tab beside his own violet orbs, the pupil-less spheres directed into Bullet's own brown eyes. “Some have one, some have three, others none.”

     “Right, right,” Bullet uttered, nodding with a hint of impatience. “But-”

     “I've always wondered about that, haven't you? How someone would see the world with different eyes. Can they see things I can't? What is obvious to me that they will never realize?” Vonter shrugged helplessly. “What do they see when they look at me? Or, for that matter, themselves?”

     “I see.” The Nathian nodded to himself, ignoring the irony of that phrase. “So, you wanted to examine my perspective... of my own people? Really, that shouldn't have been so hard to figure out. Everyone tends to think of their own culture as...” At this, Bullet paused, visibly struggling. “As the best source for role models. Where we come from determines what we want to be.”

     “Oh?” Vonter's rictus smile revealed nothing, even as the ghosts of commanding voices and explosions haunted his memories for a sharp second. “I suppose you're right about that.”

     “So why?”

     “Curiosity,” Vonter insisted. “After all, in my world, I am the hero, though I fail to see how I could otherwise be accurately portrayed.” At this he offered the other man a toothy grin, and despite himself the Nathian chuckled in response. “And yet some narrow-minded individuals might see my activities as sordid, or reprehensible, without even bothering to consider my situation or needs.”

     “Like the need to have a gourmet chef feeding you every morning,” Bullet suggested wryly.

     “An absolute necessity; now that you've tasted his food, can you disagree?” Both laughed at that, and Vonter was pleased to note Bullet relaxing even as ice crept up his own spine. “You, on the other hand, must see me as a villain of sorts, even though I have done my best at educating you to the otherwise.”

     “Villain?” Bullet blinked at that. “A lawbreaker, and thus someone who deserves to be appropriately punished and redeemed, more like.”

     “Ah, but that brings us to our differing perspective on law, does it not?”

     “You rob people at gunpoint, or at least with the threat that there are guns that you could possibly use. Perspective has no place here, Vonter.” Now Bullet's voice was chill, certain, and the pirate was forced to nod in concession.

     “I am still my own hero, Bullet, despite what I do. And...” Vonter knew he was skirting too close to the edge, but he had to say something, the impulses leading him by their leashes. “You, and your people, are your own.”

     “Of course.” As if catching the scent of what Vonter was beginning to insinuate, the Guardsman drew himself up straight with pricked pride. “As you know, we're the ones who work to uphold the law. We protect the innocents from people like you, and people worse than you. I would say our perspective is considerably more justified.”

      “Ah, yes, but...” Vonter turned away, hoping that he wouldn't reveal knowledge he had already tried to hide. “Quis costodiet ipsos custodes?” he whispered, smiling, proud that he had managed to utilize something from the long discussions his Earth-loving boarding chief.

     “What?” Bullet demanded, his translator not picking up the low words.

     'Sharp ears,' Vonter grumbled internally, turning a bright smile back towards the other man. “Nothing, just musing on something.” He locked eyes with the Nathian. “Couldn't you say that every hero is a villain to someone?”

     “Sometimes that person just needs to look closer, then. Or at themselves, first.” Bullet replied stonily.

     “Perhaps you are right; maybe we should all try to check ourselves first before we jump to such conclusions.” Shrugging, Vonter reached out to trigger the door's opening mechanism. “Something to think about, eh? If you'll excuse me, I have work to do. Another time.” And before Bullet could formulate a response, the pirate was gone, leaving him staring at his reflection in the smooth door in uneasy silence.

 

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