...And Back Again
A Sequel to "The Faithful" and "Three for the Money"
Riddick raised the lid of the broad silver box and let his eyes wander over the rifle packed inside. He reached in and lifted it away from the stiff foam packing. It was lighter than he remembered, or he was stronger. Most of his life he’d gotten along with knives. Knives were a better fit for the very personal acts he chose to use them for. Besides, shooting people was easier; made him feel like he hadn’t really earned it. The first person he’d ever killed had been done with a gun and that had gotten him a whole mess of shit he didn’t feel he’d earned. Thinking back, he wished he’d beaten Freddy Liston to death with the butt of his own shotgun instead of just pulling the trigger.
He checked the safety, then popped the clip out and checked it, too. Jack was watching him. She sat on a wooden palette, her cameras on the floor by her feet. The one Ty had given her was cradled in her hands like a kitten. She showed him a small smile and raised it to her face, snapping the picture before he thought to turn away. Her smile broadened as she reviewed her prize on the camera’s tiny screen.
“That’s a deep look,” she said. “You thinking deep thoughts?”
Riddick slapped the clip back in and set the rifle in its case. He shut the lid and picked the whole thing up as he stood. “Trying my best not to.”
Jack quickly replaced the cameras in her bag and trotted after him as he made for the drop ship. The others were seeing to their own equipment and packing it into the Belle’s tight storage space. The truck took up most of the tiny hold and they’d have to pile in around it, just like old times. The Belle was a power-lifter, so she wouldn’t have any trouble with the weight. Once she was empty she would go like mad, too. Riddick looked forward to letting her cut loose.
“Lights off!” Marty’s voice boomed through the bay and the lights snapped off, plunging them into darkness. Jack tried to stop mid-step and staggered. She bounced off of Riddick and landed flat on her ass on the cold metal floor.
“Son of a bitch!” she growled. Riddick extended a hand and she took it, letting him pull her to her feet. She wiped her hands on her pants and glared into the darkness. “What the fuck is his problem?”
She took a few steps in Marty’s direction before Riddick snagged her arm. Jack tugged at it but didn’t pull free. “Let me go.”
“Stumbling past him in the dark isn’t going to do anything but piss you off some more,” said Riddick. “Besides, it’s not about you.”
Marty held a hand in the air as he crossed the room.
“How many fingers am I holding up, Wilco?” he asked.
“Thank you. Dickey?”
Like the others, Riddick needed some light to bounce off the shine in order to see in the dark. Even a small amount would do. The only illumination left came from the Belle’s dim running lights behind him and his contact lenses filtered a good deal of that out. He widened his eyes until he could make out the shape of Marty’s hand.
“Two, Cap,” Riddick replied. It had taken too long for him to answer and that chapped his ass.
Mercer had moved soundlessly to stand less than a few feet behind Jack. When he spoke, she jumped and let out a squeak.
“Three, Cap,” he rumbled.
“Kelly...” Marty flashed a lopsided smile and Riddick turned to see Kelly standing on the rear ramp of the Belle offering a grin and a one-fingered salute. “Thank you very much Mr. Kelly, I can see just fine. Lights to six!”
The lights rose and Jack dropped her eyes. After a moment she looked up, blinking and glowering at Marty. Then she turned back to Riddick. “Can I have my arm, please?”
He let her go and she stepped back, then turned and marched purposefully toward the Belle. He watched her as she stalked up the ramp and disappeared into the ship without a backward glance.
“You best go chase that girl down,” said Snowball. He stood beside Riddick and nodded after Jack. “She run off with your dick in her pocket.”
Snow walked past and Riddick scowled after him, then stalked up to the ramp and handed his case to Kelly.
“Balls,” said Kelly. He took the case and withdrew into the Belle, muttering. “I’m a fucking valet, now?”
Riddick had little desire to follow Jack into that claustrophobic space. If an honest-to-god argument broke out there would be no escaping and no keeping it between them. He turned and sat on the ramp. Sooner or later, Jack would come back down the ramp for the rest of her things. If he was lucky she would just give him the silent treatment until they split from the rest of the group. He didn’t want to air anything personal in front of people. More than that he didn’t want to spend the trip down listening to taunts and kissy noises from the other guys.
Dickey’s got a girrrlfriend.
He gave a snort of disgust at his own juvenile paranoia. This wasn’t a playground and he wasn’t fucking twelve.
Riddick’s gaze wandered the room and settled on Marty and Reggie. They stood close together, talking too low for him to hear. Marty held her hand and stroked the back of it with his thumb. As she spoke, he looked at her with such unabashed tenderness that Riddick turned away, suddenly embarrassed. The fine details of their affection lingered even as he fixed his eyes on the grate beneath his feet. He’d never shared a thing like that with another person. Jack aside, there had never been anyone he would call a lover and even she seemed only to touch him with intent. He was guilty of the same, whether it was just a question, or an invitation, or a hand on her to show the world that she was with him.
Can’t have it both ways, Numbnuts.
Every counselor and shrink since St. Anthony’s had known there was something wrong with him. He knew it, too, even if they hadn’t bothered to share their diagnosis with him. He couldn’t always imagine how others felt, and worse, he generally couldn’t make himself care. With practice he’d become a reasonable fake. He told people what they wanted to hear and they interpreted it as understanding. The need to relate for real had never really been there.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw Jack watching him again. She sat on the rear bumper of the truck and kicked at the floor with her toe. She flashed a small, uncertain smile and mouthed a silent “sorry”.
The need had never been there. But it was there, now.
* * *
“You look like you’re heading off to war,” said Reggie. She made a loose fist and knocked on the layer of light armor beneath Marty’s shirt. Not everyone had chosen to make use of it, but Marty had a singular inspiration to wear his.
“Thought all this would make you feel better.”
Reggie shook her head and set her hand flat against his chest. “Uh-uh,” she said. “You’re not going to come out on top of that one, Tiger, so let’s not start it up again.”
She wanted him to argue, to go on explaining how unbelievably safe he’d be while he was away. But he wouldn’t. Reggie wasn’t sure if that was because she had told him not to and he thought she meant it or because he believed he really didn’t have a chance.
They stood in the middle of the bay with people buzzing past them but not pausing to take notice of their conversation. Reggie thought it must have been out of respect for Marty rather than lack of interest in what they were saying. For a bunch of hardened fighting men these guys gossiped worse than a ladies’ sewing circle.
Reggie tried to think of something to say and was flustered when nothing sounded right even in her own head. She shifted her feet and made small, nervous gestures with her hands until Marty caught one of them with his own and held it.
“You bring anything to do while you’re waiting around?” he asked.
It was a ridiculously ordinary question and she almost laughed. “I’ve got books,” she replied.
“Ah,” he said. “The ones with the heaving bosoms and the throbbing--”
“Martin!” Reggie clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a loud giggle.
“All those long-haired, bare-chested, poetry-spouting manly men in tight pants do something for you?”
“I always picture you, anyway.”
He scrunched up his face and she chuckled at the result. “I don’t know if I should be flattered or horrified,” he said.
Wilkins walked past them and the men exchanged a nod. They’d be leaving soon and Reggie was overwhelmed with the need to hold onto him.
“Did you take your pills?” she asked.
Marty gave her a quiet laugh and a patient smile and she loved him for not giving her a hard time. She needed this. Putting things in order would help her feel less useless as he prepared to leave her here.
“I did,” he nodded.
“And you have the rest?”
He patted the pocket that held the little plastic box, tugged at the flap to show her it was firmly buttoned down.
“Your last injection was two and a half hours ago, don’t forget to set your watch for about nine and a half.” Reggie barely paused for breath before she went on. “You might want to set it a little sooner because you’re doing all kinds of running around and sweating and that’ll reduce the effectiveness of the anti-convulsants. If you--”
“--feel sick to your stomach at all, you can take a few of the palonosetron. They seem to work best for you. I know this is kind of pointless to wish for but I want you to try and keep your blood pressure down. Don’t be afraid to take the pills--”
“--because the interaction is minimal. And I know how stupid this sounds but I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to avoid head trauma of any kind. I’m sure you do as a general rule, but--”
She let rest of the words out in a soft sigh. “I’m babbling.”
His smile broadened. He leaned foreward and kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry.”
It couldn’t have been hard for him to know how anxious she was, but she was glad he’d noticed, anyway.
“Who’s worried?” she shrugged.
“Okay, worried,” she said. “The only way I’m not going to worry is if you don’t go. So just deal with it.”
He raised an eyebrow and blinked at her.
“Don’t start.” Reggie leveled a sideward glare at him. Marty squeezed her hand and tugged her closer. “I mean it,” she warned.
His eyes flashed and he leaned down to growl in her ear. “Gets me hot when you’re all forceful.”
“Martin!” She glanced around, suddenly self-conscious. Only Riddick seemed to be watching them and he turned away quickly. Marty drew back with a smile and she couldn’t help but match it. “Damn you for being able to make everything seem like it’s just fine.”
He shrugged. “It is.”
Easy as breathing, he could convince her of anything and for a moment Reggie believed him. Then the confidence behind his smile faltered and the illusion of certainty was gone. It was fast but she saw it and his look said he knew that.
“Alright you loafers, pack it up!” he shouted. Those headed downside finished what they were doing and began to scurry up the ramp and into the ship. From the top of the ramp, Aaron gave her a nod that was probably meant to be reassuring. But it only served to remind her that he was going and she wasn’t and if Marty needed her she’d be miles away.
Marty turned back to her and she studied him hard, then; the color of his skin, the clarity of his gaze, the steadiness of the hand that held her own. Part of her wanted to find something, anything that would make him doubt and more importantly, make him stay.
She fought the urge to throw her arms around him and cling to him. The corners of her eyes burned and she tried to blink away the oncoming tears.
“Don’t do that,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry.” Reggie didn’t wipe at her face, she didn’t want anyone else to notice. But the tears pooled and then overflowed, leaving hot trails on her cheeks. She sniffled and Marty lifted the bottom of his shirt to wipe her nose. “Don’t--”
“I thought we had a deal,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. Her eyes found his and she gave him as determined a look as she could muster. “Please be careful.”
Marty nodded wordlessly and slid his free hand around the back of her neck and nudged her face toward him.
“I’m all snotty,” she protested.
“I don’t care.”
He kissed her before she could argue again, slow and gentle. Reggie raised her hands to his face and ran her nails lightly over his short beard. He smiled against her mouth and hugged her tightly.
“I gotta go.”
She took his hand again and followed him toward the ship, reluctant to let go.
“I love you,” she said.
Marty kissed her again, soft on the cheek.
“I love you, too.” The ramp began to rise as he trotted up it. He stood at the top and he smiled at her. “I’ll be right back.”
“The man did not just disappear.”
Fenster snorted. “With any luck, he did.”
“She stashed him somewhere.”
“As long as she’s had him, Mack, she could have stashed him all over,” said Fenster. “Saw this guy once, got put through a reclaiming plant. Found bits of him floating in the solid waste pool.”
Mackey smacked his lips and cast a quick, sidelong glance at Fenster. “I’m cutting you some slack because you cracked your skull,” he said. He thought for a moment, then went on. “If she’s done him in then it’s her we need to find. That gets considerably more tricky.”
“It’s fine by me,” said Fenster. “I owe the bitch. The fucking car was a rental, but the damage to my person...” He lifted his right arm in its sling. “You got any idea how hard it is to fire the love rifle with your left hand?”
“Don’t mock my pain, man.”
“He’s not here,” said Mackey. “Someone would have seen him by now. They wouldn’t be able to get him off-satellite, even in a private ship, without being seen.”
Fenster’s eyes fixed on something off in the distance. “Say they did manage to get him out of here.”
“I’m being dramatic, goddamit!” Fenster flailed with his good arm. “Will you just turn?”
Mackey slid into the turn lane and waited for a few cars to pass. He could feel Fenster bouncing impatiently beside him.
“You drive like my grandmother.”
“Do you want to drive?” He gunned it across the street and turned onto Wapakoneta Avenue. “Where am I headed?”
“Left on Haulage Road.”
He let the gears turn in his head for a moment and came up with nothing. Either Fenster was still enjoying the effects of his pain medication or he actually had something.
“What’s on Haulage Road?” asked Mackey.
“Way out of town.”
Fenster smiled at Mackey’s puzzled look. Mackey scowled back at him.
“You said it. If they were still in town, there are enough people crawling up Castor’s ass with microscopes that we’d know where.” Fenster grinned, clearly pleased with himself. “So where’s the only place you can get out of town without passing through major surveillance?”
“You can’t,” Mackey said.
He spotted the sign for Haulage and turned left. The buildings changed abruptly from storefronts and tenements to blocky, windowless industrial structures. Manufacturing wasn’t big in Terra-luna. Anything that created large amounts of unrecyclable waste was illegal. Here on the fringe of livable territory there were warehouses, storage units and the few factories allowed by law. The roads weren’t as well maintained as the spotless paved ways in town. There were cracks and rough shoulders and a thick deposit of pale dirt from outside the field.
Mackey brought the car to a stop in front of a line of low, broad trucks. Less than a block up the road three similar vehicles passed into tunnel with two high, arched openings. On the other side, a pair of headlights came toward them.
“Where are they going?” asked Mackey.
Fenster puffed up. “That’s the main thoroughfare for trucks moving to and from the mines outside the field,” he said. “It branches in three different directions, and each has an airlock.”
“What’s out there?”
“Mines, Mack. And it would be no problem for Mr. Big Miner Guy to move somebody through here.” Fenster grinned and whacked the dashboard. “Eh? I did a thing. I found a thing. I’m a thing-finder!”
Beside the tunnel was a small guard booth. Mackey pulled into one of the empty parking spaces beside it and stepped out. Fenster scrambled after him. As they approached the booth, Mackey pulled his wallet out of his pocket and held it up. He let one flap fall down, revealing his concealed carry license. It was official-looking enough to fool most people. The guard took a brief look at it and straightened, squeezing his thumbs under his belt beside his ample gut.
Mackey nodded and tucked the wallet back into his inside coat pocket. “We’ve had reports of non-certified personnel being moved outside the field.”
The guard shook his head and shrugged. “Haven’t heard a thing about that,” he said. “Not for some time, anyway. Was some boys used to bring girls out to the barracks with them, for entertainment purposes, know what I mean.”
Fenster nodded sagely. “That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to crack down on Mr...” He leaned forward to look at the man’s name tag before he went on. “...Yancy?”
“Mr. Yancy,” Mackey began. “If you’ve heard something, or are aware of something pertaining to unauthorized personnel trying to pass through here recently--”
“Look,” Fenster cut in. He lowered his voice as he went on. “We’re not trying to bust your balls, here. Guys get lonely, shit happens. But somebody called us up and told us there was a good-looking redhead come this way not too long ago and they knew she didn’t look like one of those mud-fuck ugly girlies that--”
Yancy laughed out loud. “That wasn’t a girl,” he chuckled. “That was Queen Marlene.”
Mackey kept his eyes focused on the guard and hoped to God that Fenster was managing not to look too proud of himself. They must have looked appropriately puzzled because the guard went on.
“She works for one of the big companies... takes a drive out about every other month or so,” he said. “She’s one of the boss’s daughters. Nice-looking girl, redhead. Not that I can see somebody mistaking her for a, you know...”
The guard smiled and laughed along with Fenster, who chuckled and elbowed Mackey hard in the ribs. “Hah! How about that? Whoo! That would have been embarrassing as all hell, wouldn’t it?”
“It certainly would,” replied Mackey.
“Has she passed back this way, my man?” Fenster asked, still grinning.
Mackey worried that they’d pushed it but Yancy just pulled a small hand-held from his shirt pocket and began to tap the screen.
“Nope, nope she hasn’t.”
“Right,” said Fenster. “If you’re here when she comes by could you, you know, not mention that the cops came around asking if she was a sword swallower?”
“Oh sure thing,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to be within a kilometer of her when she heard it, anyhow.”
“Appreciate it.” Fenster exchanged nods with the man and headed for the car.
“Thank you very much for your help, Mr. Yancy,” said Mackey. Then he followed Fenster, shaking his head. As he slid behind the wheel he did his best to ignore Fenster’s poorly suppressed laughter. That became impossible when he shut the door and Fenster howled. Mackey started the car and pulled away, headed back toward the main road. “Are you about finished?”
Fenster’s laughter died and he made a hurt, exasperated sound that would have sold better without the glint in his eyes. “You’re bitter, man.”
“Okay, we know where she is,” said Mackey. “If she doesn’t have him we can still find out what we need to know from her. She’s an easier target to locate than Weller, to say the least. Getting out there is a problem.”
“I don’t know if it is,” said Fenster. “I know teamsters, I can get someone out there. Thing is, she might not be out there.”
Mackey blinked at him. Fenster pointed at something off to the left and Mackey pulled over, bouncing over a rough patch as he hit the shoulder. He squinted in the direction of Fenster’s gaze. Outside the field a small ship zoomed along several meters above the ground.
“It’s a Scurry,” he said. A Scurry wouldn’t have the kind of range a larger ship did, but it could go far enough to make them impossible to find anytime soon. “I do not believe this. How far could they have gone, exactly?”
“Well, here’s my theory on that,” said Fenster.
Mackey slumped and slid down in his seat. “I can’t wait.”
“If they had a mind to, they could have left the satellite, met up with a platform. Now, before you shit yourself, they should only be in range of three. Cobb Station is military, so no. Sumner is industrial, so maybe. Thessaly Station has a Plaza, a Regent, two Hiltons and a dress shop that delivers, so that would be my bet.”
“I’m going to drop you back home,” said Mackey. He straightened up and gunned it back onto the street to join the meager backroad traffic. “I want you to see what you can get from someone outside the field.”
“I’ll check the hotels on Thessaly, then I’ve got to swing by and pick up the dailies on Castor. A phone record would make my day.”
Fenster shifted in his seat and drummed his fingers on his thigh. “You know they could have gone anywhere from the platform.”
“That’s that last thing I want to hear, Fenster,” sighed Mackey. “You couldn’t have thought of this sooner?”
He pointed at the bruise on his face. “Hit my head, remember?”
Mackey was suddenly very tired. He’d been too long trying to answer the same questions, chasing the same people around in circles. He was patient, to a point. And dogged, more so than he thought he’d ever be. His years as a cop had taught him that learning all you could before you acted was, as a rule, the best course of action. It had saved him a lot of trouble in his time, but just now he would have given almost anything to stop watching and plant his fist in someone’s face.
“You alright, Mack?”
“I was just thinking about hitting people,” he said absently.
“Were not.” Fenster looked at him for a long moment. “You’re serious.”
Fenster whistled. “Man, we gotta figure this shit out in a hurry.”
The Belle shot out of the clouds and into a sheet of rain that hit her like a solid thing. The ship bucked, throwing Jack against the straps. Her fingers clamped down on the chair until they ached and she loosened her grip. She stared out through the windshield, unable to make anything out. The only sound in the cabin was the muted pounding of rain.
Across from her, Riddick sat still in his seat with his eyes focused on the ends of his boots. She opened her mouth to speak and instead let out a squeal as the Belle abruptly dropped several meters.
“You know where the ground is, right?” she asked.
Marty didn’t respond and she supposed it was perfectly alright if he considered the question a rhetorical one. He held the controls steady, though she noted that he was using both hands now.
“We’re clear in two kilometers,” he said. “Get ready to take this.”
Riddick unbuckled the straps but left them in place. He slipped his shades on and leaned forward, gazing out the window over Marty’s shoulder. The rain slowed, or rather they’d passed through the thick of it. The ground was closer than Jack thought it would be and she swallowed loudly.
“Take it easy,” said Riddick. He slid out of his seat and patted her shoulder before he moved to the front of the cabin. Marty stood and the two men traded places.
“When we’re set, I want you to bring it down to four meters. That’ll put the ramp about right.”
“You’re going lower?”
Marty stepped past Jack and hauled open the cockpit door. He turned and squatted in front of her and set a hand on her knee to steady himself.
“I want you to get what you need as quickly as you can without being sloppy. When you’ve got it head back up to the ship,” he said. “Then tell Herry to send the Belle back down by remote. She’s already programmed to meet us, so he doesn’t need to fool with the settings.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the hard edges of the straps as they bit into her shoulders.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked flatly.
Marty sighed. He looked tired to Jack, and there was more gray in his beard than she remembered seeing before. Her hand twitched as she thought of reaching out to touch it.
“Because you’re the boss, Jack,” he said.
Marty grunted softly as he hauled himself out of the crouch. He didn’t say anything more, just turned and left the cockpit. Jack shrugged off the harness and leaned as far forward as she could.
In the hold everyone was up and moving around. One by one they passed around the back of the truck and vanished. Marty and Wilkins released the tiedowns and climbed into the cab. They each slipped a headset on and Jack saw Marty’s mouth move as his voice came from the speaker overhead.
Riddick glanced over his shoulder at Jack. “You strapped in?”
“Kinda,” she said. “Has anyone else noticed that we’re still moving?”
She took hold of the harness but continued to watch.
“Down she goes,” said Riddick.
There was a hiss as the seal broke and the loading ramp started down. The wind shrieked over the opening and the heat of the air outside hit Jack and made her blink. The truck stayed in place, but it began to bounce and sway as the ship rocked.
“Keep her steady,” Marty said.
Jack watched the stony ground whiz by underneath them and realized that the ship hadn’t slowed much since they left the storm behind.
“They’re going to drive off while we’re moving?” she shouted. “Are they nuts?”
Riddick nodded as the ramp locked in place. “You’re a go.”
Marty caught her looking and flashed a wide grin. Then he raised a hand and flailed his fingers at her in the most unmanly wave she’d ever seen.
The radio crackled. “Bye-bye.”
There was a slight jerk and the truck was rolling backward. Jack’s eyes were huge as she watched it fly off the ramp and disappear.
“Holy shit!” she shouted. As the ramp began to rise, she threw off the straps of her harness and jumped up.
“Sit down, Jack,” said Riddick.
“What the fuck did they just...?” Jack rushed from one side of the cockpit to the other, peering out the window. She spotted the truck speeding away to their left, hauling more ass than that big, lumbering thing had a right to. She shook her head. “Showoff,” she muttered.
They flew on in silence. Jack watched the unremarkable scenery pass for several minutes before she realized that she was looking for something familiar. A ridge, a rise, a pile of rocks. Her eyes fell on a hill crowned with tall, tapering columns of dirt. She wondered if it was the same one she’d seen before, rebuilt. Then the ship banked away and she lost sight of it.
“How far is it?” she asked.
Riddick pointed. “Should be the other side of those hills.”
The Belle rose just a little and gave them a wider view of their surroundings. The flat ground stretched out on two sides as far as Jack could see. Behind them was a tall ridge that ran for kilometers in either direction and straight ahead was the line of hills he’d shown her. Riddick slowed as they passed over the rise.
On the other side a set of dusty buildings surrounded one large, round one; the tallest as far as she could tell. On one side were three long, low structures with rounded rooftops. The others were of varying shapes and sizes, with no obvious clues as to their purpose. Between buildings the ground was littered with white rocks.
Riddick circled once and landed on an open patch of dirt.
“Let me have a look first,” he said. He let the harness fall and leaned over to pull his shotgun from its place beside the pilot’s chair. Standing, he racked it and walked down the ramp as it settled to the ground. “Stay here.”
She followed as far as the upper edge of the ramp and watched him go. After long moment standing alone in the quiet, Jack peered around the edge of the ship and saw him coming back.
“C’mon down,” he said.
Jack grabbed her camera bag from under the seat and trotted after him.
“So is it the same?” she asked. “As the other place?”
“Pretty much. Just watch your step.”
They rounded a building and Jack saw the tall, domed thing that marked the center of the site. She glanced down and stopped. The broken pieces of a ribcage lay just a few steps away. Not white rocks, she thought. Human bones. They lay scattered in the clearing between buildings, half-planted in the dusty ground like some ghastly garden.
“Oh my god.” Jack stood on the edge of the bonefield, shifting her feet nervously. Riddick took her arm and led her. She kept her eyes on the ground and stepped carefully as they threaded their way across. “Why are they all outside?”
“Panicked. Didn’t make it to cover in time. Mass suicide. Fucked if I know.”
“This doesn’t bother you at all?” she asked. “All these people dead that didn’t deserve it?”
He flinched a little, but it was there and gone quick enough that Jack wasn’t sure she’d even seen it.
“I didn’t kill these people. They’re just dead. Got no obligation to them.” Riddick paused, frowning as he squatted beside an exposed skeleton. “You gonna take pictures or just soak up the scenery?”
Jack snorted at him and pulled out Ty’s camera, then slung the bag over her shoulder. She snapped off a couple pictures and looked at the results on the small screen. They wouldn’t win any shows, but they got the point across.
Riddick stood and wandered among the remains, kicking at the dirt and bending periodically to touch things or pick them up.
“Don’t suppose one of these poor dumb bastards died with a wallet in his pocket,” he said. “’Course I get the feeling they’ve already been looked over. No rings, no chains, no watches except this piece of crap.”
He tossed it at her and she almost dropped the camera in her scramble to catch it. Jack glared at him but Riddick had already turned away. She held up what he’d thrown her for a closer look and her breath caught. It was a cheap, plastic watch with cherries on the brown band and the image of a little boy dressed all in brown and white beneath the cracked and clouded face.
“Chocolate Sunday,” she said.
“Chocolate Sunday. It was this old cartoon. Used to watch reruns of it when I was a kid.”
Thinking of it made her sad, suddenly. She dropped the watch and started toward the tall, central building.
“What’s in there?”
“More bones. There’s a well, just like the other place. Only this one’s got water in the bottom.”
She frowned. “Howsat?”
“Looks like there’s a river running underneath.”
“Water? Heh.” She left him and went to peer through the wide-open metal double doors. Most of the room was bathed in sunlight. She searched the shadows for signs of movement and saw none. “So you think we could’ve made it if we’d gotten stuck here?”
“Not unless one of these buildings was a Minit Mart. Haven’t seen one thing growing. Guess there must be eats underground, but that’s a whole other problem.”
“I’ll bet those T-doubles taste just like chicken,” Jack said. She peered down into the well and didn’t see a damn thing. She stuck her head down toward the opening and heard the faint sound of rushing water.
“Don’t lean too far,” said Riddick, startling her. He’d come up beside her without a sound.
Jack jerked away from the edge and gave a short, nervous laugh. “Sorry,” she said. “Got the creeps.”
Riddick took her hand and pulled her back out into the light. He pointed at an unremarkable building with a tattered sheet of plastic in place of the nearest wall. “Found something over there might be worth a decent look.”
“What is that?”
“Looks to be the Assay Lab,” he said matter-of-factly.
She smiled. “Does it, now?”
“That’s what the sign says, anyhow.”
“Smartass,” Jack laughed. She ran her hand over his backside as she passed behind him. “You know, we’re out here in the middle of nowhere, all alone...”
“It’s the dead folks, ain’t it?” he asked. “They get you all worked up.”
“Must be all the bones.” She drew the last word out and made a grab for his crotch. Riddick grabbed her wrist and spun her around, then smacked her hard on the ass. “Hey!”
“Business first. Fun when we’re back upstairs.”
“But upstairs everyone can hear us.”
“You got a one-track mind,” he said.
He walked toward the building he’d pointed out to her. Jack grumbled and raised the camera again, stopping to take a few more pictures as she trailed after him.
“I stuck my head into the barracks. Looks like they’ve already been tossed. Whole place does.”
“Sure it wasn’t just people packing in a hurry?” asked Jack.
“They look like they saw this coming to you?”
Riddick lifted aside the plastic and let her into the single, rectangular room. Two tables stretched down the center almost the full length of the building. Dirt had formed a drift along the wall opposite the partially exposed side. Counters ran along both long walls, each with two monitors and a pair of machines Jack couldn’t identify. The tables were covered with chunks of rock and beneath them were baskets holding more.
“Rocks,” she said. “Hoodiedoo. What’s all this for?”
Riddick leaned the gun on his shoulder and started shuffling around the things on the far counter. “We figure out what the fuck ‘assay’ means, I suppose that’ll help.”
“Don’t look at me. I always counted on somebody who knew what the hell they were doing to take over the family business.”
Jack wasn’t sure how to read the look he gave her. Not until he spoke.
“You didn’t have to come all the way out here,” he said.
“Are you going to start on me now?”
Jack turned away, began pulling out drawers and pawing through them.
“Not starting,” he shrugged. “Just figured as hard as we fought for what you’ve got back home you might have--”
“Please,” she sighed. “No responsibility talk. I got plenty of that from Grandma, and the board guys. And Marty. He tried so damned hard to keep me from coming along.”
“I’m sure he had a reason.”
Jack clenched her fist but stopped short of slamming it onto the counter. Instead she opened another drawer. “Mmm. Has he ever just been, I dunno, wrong?”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
She found staplers and rubber bands and rusted paper clips and printouts that had faded with time and wear until the words were all gone. There were disks, too. They couldn’t have been worth a damn but she took them, anyway.
Most of the small equipment was laid out on the counter or scattered on the floor. The screens were intact, though most had fallen over. She found a small statue; a little man in a miner’s helmet, sagging pants and a shirt that said “Geologists make the bedrock”.
Jack smiled at it. She felt a twinge of guilt but brushed it off. Riddick was right. Didn’t kill them, didn’t owe them. She was even doing them a favor, indirectly. If the evidence she gathered screwed Donald Castor, then they’d be avenged in a way. Not in a way that made them any less dead, however.
“Huh,” said Riddick.
“Map?” Jack rounded the tables and went to stand beside him.
“Why are we talking like this?”
He unrolled a plastic sheet on the table and set rocks on the corners to hold it down. The sheet was criss-crossed by blue lines that cut it into squares. Land features were drawn out in black and labeled with writing so small she had to lean close and squint to read it.
“Can you tell where we are?”
“Middle of fucking nowhere,” Riddick muttered. He studied it for a long moment while Jack shuffled restlessly beside him. The wind picked up, shuffling dirt under the flapping plastic sheet. Jack frowned.
“Why is it so windy?”
“Probably catching the edge of the storm,” he said.
“Wasn’t windy last time,” said Jack. “Not even when it rained.”
“Different season, maybe.”
“Windy is a season?”
“Can be,” he said. He held his face inches away from the sheet and scowled at it. Finally, he tapped a few lines of tiny, red print and asked, “What does that say?”
Their bare arms brushed, then pressed together as Jack leaned in close. She was immediately distracted by the smell of him. They’d bathed before the drop and he smelled like soap and the stuff they washed their clothes in and that warm, sweet scent that was all his.
She made a small, flailing gesture with her left hand and forced herself to concentrate. “It says L-O-C 17 on the top line. The bottom is a bunch more letters. G-Y-P. C-A-L.”
“What’s the highest number on a top line anywhere on the map?”
Jack looked as Riddick’s reason for asking sank in slower than she would have liked. “There are only five on the map,” she said. “But the highest number is seventeen. Fuck.”
“So there are at least sixteen more places like this out there somewhere?” she asked.
“Maybe. Could be more if this only represents a particular area. Could be less if they never got them all set up.”
“There might have been people at all of them,” she said. Her stomach felt as though it had tilted at an unnatural angle, threatening to dump her meager breakfast. Marty had counted around forty-five skulls at this site on his last visit. Forty-five times seventeen was over seven hundred and fifty.
“If they weren’t just shuffling from place to place, sure.”
“How could so many people just disappear like that?” she asked.
“Free Space is a big place. Easy to get lost in if nobody’s looking for you.” He shoved the rocks off the corners of the map and rolled it up. “Let’s get what we came for and get the fuck out of here.”
Reggie twisted the rag and water pattered on the bottom of the sink. She watched until it fell in big, slow, single drops that barely made a sound. One drop fell on the divider in the center and made a whitish circle. She wiped it away absently, then started scrubbing at the rest of the sink even though it was already clean.
“Smells great in here.”
She started and spun, then blew her breath out in loud sigh as Ty stepped down into the kitchen.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t,” said Reggie. She pulled at the rag and wrapped it around her fingers, ignoring the wet spot it made on her shirt. She let out a short, self-conscious giggle and added, “Okay, well, yes you did.”
“You’ve been in here since they left?”
She nodded and made a half-hearted gesture at the room. “It was a mess,” she said. Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat loudly. “I don’t think Harry’s really cleaned in here for a while. There was something stuck in the sink drain I’m not sure I can identify.”
She realized she was babbling and made herself stop. “I thought I’d clean up a little.”
Reggie turned and hung the rag neatly on the edge of the sink. As she turned back to Ty, she loosened her hair in its holder and let her long bangs fall in her face. She’d stopped crying a few hours ago but had stayed on the verge of it. Her eyes stung and her cheeks felt stiff with the salt trails of her tears. Ty showed her a small smile that said he wasn’t buying her disguise but was too polite to say so.
“Can I get you something?” she asked. “It’s just, I moved things around.”
He pointed at the refrigerator. “Is the beer still in there?”
Reggie gave a nervous laugh. “Of course.” She started for it but he waved her off.
“I’ll get it,” he said. “Have a rest. You’ve earned it.”
She shuffled over and dropped into a chair. Ty followed with a pair of dark green bottles. He set one in front of her and seated himself on the other side of the table.
“No thank you,” she said. “I don’t drink, really. Much. Mostly because Martin can’t.”
Ty twisted the top off his own bottle and tossed the cap on the table. He reached across and opened hers as well. “I don’t think he’ll mind.”
Reggie wrapped her fingers around the neck of the bottle and gave it a warning glance. “Alright,” she said. “Just one. After that I get... goofy.”
Ty smiled at her and held his beer out over the table. “To safe returns.”
“Safe returns,” Reggie repeated. She lifted her bottle and touched it to his with a clink. She took a long swallow, then cradled it to her chest and set her chin on top. It felt good to hold something, even if it was just cold glass.
“Martin says you’re from Shackleton,” said Ty.
“Do you know it?”
“Spent time at Camp Hasford years ago.”
“Right down the road,” she smiled. “I hear it’s grown. Haven’t been home since I left for school. Mom keeps me filled in.”
“So you’ve not introduced Martin to your parents, yet.”
“Not in person. They’ve seen him, you know, on the vid. I think my dad’s pretty impressed.” She made a face and giggled softly. “My mom... not as much. She’s having a hard time with the fact that I married a soldier, even a retired one.”
Ty leaned back in his seat. “I’ll bet she was hoping for a doctor.”
“Oh yes,” said Reggie. “A much younger doctor, too.”
“Man does have some mileage on him, doesn’t he?”
Reggie made a short, shocked sound but she couldn’t stifle her smile. “I like to think of him as well-seasoned.”
“Spoken like a woman in love.”
Her smile widened. Crushes had come and gone but Reggie had never been silly-in-love before. Even the look of polite concern on her mother’s face hadn’t put a dent in it. Ty was watching her and smirking.
“Honeymooners,” he said.
Reggie took a swig from her bottle and rested it on her knee.
“How long have you been married, Ty?”
“Nine years and a bit,” he replied.
“Does it get easier?”
She sighed. “If you have to ask? Lie to me.”
Reggie’s eyes burned and she rubbed at them with one hand. She wondered if she’d get tired enough to sleep before Martin came back. Since the first time she stayed the night in his room at Sophie’s place, Reggie hadn’t slept without him. When she awoke this morning there had been a horrible moment when she thought he had already gone. Then Martin had returned from the shower wearing her fuzzy blue bathrobe and she’d laughed away the idea that he would had left her without saying goodbye.
“He’ll be fine, you know,” Ty said.
“I looked like I needed it that much?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“The reassurance,” she explained.
“Experience,” said Ty. The corner of his mouth lifted into a lopsided smile. “My wife is convinced that space travel alone is cause for panic. She’s an earthbound sort, never left her home ground. She’s a wreck whenever I leave home on business.”
“The first time I flew anywhere I was terrified. It was the demonstration of emergency procedures before take-off, and that little picture, you know the--”
“The ‘in case of depressurization’ graphic?”
“That’s the one,” she said. “I almost changed my mind.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “I’ve seen some very large, very capable men turn positively green in the face of space travel.”
Reggie laughed a little and took another sip of her beer. The taste was just tolerable but she liked the pleasant warm feeling it brought on. She promised she’d hold herself to one. Wouldn’t work to be sloshed if they needed her. She set the bottle on the table and slouched against the back of the chair.
“Does she have a secret to not worrying, your wife?”
“No point telling her not to worry,” Ty chuckled. “It just makes her angry.”
“You really do know what you’re talking about.”
“If it will make you feel better, I’ve never known anyone who could handle themselves the way Martin can. In fact, on more than one occasion his knack for survival has been compared to that of the cockroach.”
Reggie laughed out loud. “God knows he’s been stepped on,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to bother him as much as it does me.”
“Very little seems to.”
“Was he always this stubborn?”
“No,” said Ty. “He used to be worse.”
Reggie chewed her lip and tapped the side of the bottle with her fingers. She didn’t want to make things awkward but she might never have another chance like this again.
“Is that what happened with Martin and Lily?” she asked. As she’d suspected, she regretted asking already. “I know, I shouldn’t ask. You’re probably sworn to secrecy or something.”
“Well, not on pain of death or anything,” Ty said. He scooted down in his seat and stretched his legs until his feet reached the chair beside Reggie. She scooted it closer. “Thank you.”
“Lily’s worries were simpler than yours, I think,” he continued. “They were married while Martin was still recovering. Still in the hospital, in fact. He couldn’t do everything he used to, or everything he wanted to. He was frustrated, but... containable.”
“Containable,” she smirked. “That’s hard to picture.”
“Lily worried that he might trip on the stairs or eat something he shouldn’t or take the wrong pill. You’ve been hit with him full blast from the start, you poor girl.”
Reggie smiled but she could feel the sting of oncoming tears at the corners of her eyes. She tried to blink them away. Too much crying lately; it wasn’t like her and it wasn’t helping.
“There’s something else to it, isn’t there?”
She thought about lying and even opened her mouth to do it. But Martin trusted this man, though he hadn’t chosen to share what Reggie was trying not to say.
They’re trying to figure out what’s changed. Or worse. What’s wrong.
“He was scheduled for surgery,” she said. Her voice wavered, she ignored it and went on. “A few arteries in his brain have weak spots, which his doctor believes were caused or at least aggravated by his injuries. There’s no telling when they could rupture or if they ever will.”
The humor bled out of Ty’s expression. “Why didn’t he have it taken care of?”
“The surgery is risky, almost as dangerous as what they’re trying to fix. And there’s a very good chance that he’ll be out of action for a time even if it goes well. That’s why he pushed it back.”
“He didn’t want to hold things up.”
“Or have them go on without him.”
“I was wrong. He’s still just as stubborn.” Ty cast an uncertain glance at his beer, then drained the rest of it in one swallow. “What happens if something goes wrong out here?”
He probably dies because I can’t help him.
“There’s not much I can do for an actual rupture.” Reggie wanted to leave it at that. Ty was an intelligent man, he would figure it out. Talking about the possibilities had made them more solid in her mind each time. She was grateful when Herry came pounding toward them from the forward hall.
He erupted into the room, jumping the three steps and skidding to a halt on the polished kitchen floor.
“We’ve got--” He stopped, sniffed. “Smells nice in here. We’ve uh, we’ve got an orbit buddy.”
Ty was on his feet and moving. “What?”
“Huge mother just came out of nowhere and took up behind us. Uncomfortably close, and gaining.”
Reggie followed them as they raced for the cockpit. “Who is it?”
“Don’t know. They haven’t hailed us.” Herry dropped into his chair and flipped a switch beneath the port side monitor. The view changed from the planet below to a hulking gray shape. The main body of the ship was tall and narrow, the bridge window a wide strip of black across the top. “There she is.”
Reggie blinked. She leaned closer and stared wide-eyed at the image. “Call downstairs.”
“I’m not supposed to--”
She grabbed Herry’s shoulder and squeezed. “Just do it, Herry!”
Herry held a headset up to one ear and punched a row of buttons one after the other. Cursing, he threw it down again. “Fuck me! They’re throwing out hard static, I can’t get through it.”
Ty slid into the other seat. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“What the hell is that, anyway?” asked Herry.
“It’s the Death Maiden,” Reggie replied.
“Fuck,” said Herry. “That’s bad, right?”
“It’s certainly not good.” Ty slid the small black case off the dash and onto his lap and popped it open.
“What I don’t understand is how with all this high-tech crap laying around my ship, we didn’t see her coming.”
“No one would like to know that more than I would,” muttered Ty.
Reggie crossed her arms and rubbed at them furiously as she stared at the screen. She suddenly couldn’t seem to get warm enough.
“If they hail us, don’t put it on picture,” she said. “Cappy doesn’t know you. He won’t associate you with any of us unless he sees me.”
“You got it,” said Herry. “But he can’t hail us unless he stops the static.”
“If he does you can call...” She sighed. “They’ll hear, won’t they?”
Ty shook his head. “If you use the frequency I set up there isn’t anything they can do to hear the conversation. If they’re looking very closely they may be able to tell there’s one going on.”
“That will let them know there’s someone downside, assuming they don’t know already,” said Reggie. “But if they didn’t, why would they worry about keeping us from talking?”
“They might’ve noticed the ship on the other side,” Ty replied.
Reggie paced a short track behind the chairs. There were no weapons on the Death Maiden. At least none strong enough to pierce the hull of the ship. It was safe to say Cappy didn’t want to talk just now but what else could he do besides follow them in circles?
“Alright. If they hail you, answer,” Reggie said. “Play dumb. You’re here hunting junk. If he mentions the others, they’re your crew. Just looking around. Didn’t mean to step on your toes, packing up and going away now.”
“Um...” Herry waved a hand between them. “I was instructed to get the hell out of here if something like this happened.”
“Uh-uh,” Reggie shot back. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“All due respect, ma’am--”
Reggie cut him off. “We can’t leave them down there without even a warning. You don’t understand what will happen if he gets the drop on them, Herry,” she said. “He’s under the impression that Martin screwed him over and he’s a righteous grudge-holder."
"And giving him you is gonna help how?" asked Herry.
"Dammit, we are not going anywhere!”
The lights went out. Reggie’s breath caught and she stopped mid-step. She grabbed the back of Ty’s chair.
“What happened?” she asked.
Herry cursed loudly and bent down to pull open a door in the bulkhead beside him. Inside was a switch that he jerked downward, then up again. Nothing happened. He slammed the door so hard it swung all the way back open.
”Well, you got it, sister,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Snow kicked a rock and sent it bouncing away. “We gonna name this godforsaken piece of crap?”
“Has a name,” said Wilkins.
Marty shook his head. “It’s got a designation.”
Kelly peeked out from under the floppy brim of his sun hat. “Godforsaken Piece of Crap has a nice ring to it, yeah?”
They traveled down a gully that wandered westward toward their goal. The truck was twelve kilometers back, parked under an overhang of rock and covered with a tarp.
All this walking wasn’t as easy for Marty as it used to be. Saying otherwise would be bullshit. Pushing his leg wouldn’t make it any worse and it kept him from slowing the others down. He could feel the beginnings of a fierce ache and knew he’d be paying for this later.
Stow it, whiner.
The men had quickly fallen back into the old pattern; staggered in an arrangement that looked like no arrangement at all. Mercer had walked with them for a while before he broke off and vanished. He was out there somewhere, unseen; covering their asses. Mercer hadn’t lost a thing. He had never stopped. Had never been stopped.
“Place doesn’t have a lot of personality,” said Snow.
“Neither do you, man,” chuckled Kelly. “But you got a name.”
Snow rumbled with laughter. Smiling, he replied, “Fuck you.”
“Tara LaPiere,” said Marty. “Most of it’s flat and so was most of her.”
“Ships after women, planets after gods,” said Wilkins.
“There’s Venus,” Kelly replied.
“She’s a goddess, numbnuts.”
“Yeah, but she’s got knockers, right?”
Marty looked over Wilco’s shoulder at the readout on the Field Imaging Unit. The virtual landscape wasn’t much more interesting than the physical one.
“Anything good on?” he asked.
“Got some naked pictures of Kelly’s mom.”
Kelly honored them both with a one-fingered salute.
“I’m starting to pick up some tunnels, or partial ones...” Wilkins pointed off to the left. “Over there. They’re fairly uniform. Could be mine shafts. This cut goes on a few more klicks and then drops off into a big hole.”
“Our sinkhole?” asked Marty.
“Looks to be. About seventy-six meters across, twelve deep.” Wilkins punched a few keys with his thumbs and the picture changed to one of the aerial shots Ty had taken as their orbit passed over the area. At the foot of the craggy hills was a dark patch with a crescent of shadow on one side. “That’s it.”
Marty nodded. “Alright. Let’s tiptoe.”
They walked on in silence. The wind had died out and the quiet crunching of their boots on the dirt was the only sound.
The ground here bore the signs of having carried water at one time but not the smooth, deep creases of a longtime riverbed. Still, the significance wasn’t lost on Marty. If he’d thought about it he’d have told Wilco to fuck off and taken any route but this one.
The last time they’d all been together, following the tracks of old water, things hadn’t gone terribly well for him. Marty wouldn’t say it out loud but he was a superstitious fuck, just like the rest of them. He’d worn the same pair of socks all ninety-one days of Hell Week, washing them out when he had extra water and letting them stink when he didn’t.
This, though; this was Way Bad Mogumbo.
He reached for his medal of St. Martin before he remembered he’d given it to Jack . It wasn’t his first one. That was lost somewhere in the swamp outside Fort Benchley. The second he’d given to Lily about three weeks after he met her. She’d already known him for over a month by then. She had seen him naked before he ever saw her face.
That hardly seems fair.
Tell you what. When you can get up and go someplace private, I’ll even us out.
The next day he had wangled his way into a private room. She’d laughed and told him it didn’t count, but that he’d earned himself a kiss for the effort. Her lips were full and soft, and she wasn’t shy. It was enough to make him wonder what she’d been doing with him when he was still out cold.
The hospital had returned his personal effects once he’d been lucid enough to ask for them. There hadn’t been much. His watch survived. The crevices were filled with golden desert dust and the case was nicked, probably by one of the few bullets that hadn’t managed to hit him. The medal was covered with dried blood. His own. The clasp was bent but not broken. Lily sat on the bed, laughing softly as he made faces and struggled to fit the ends back together beneath her dark curls. Lily had rubbed at the metal and asked why it didn’t shine.
So it wouldn’t give me away.
The third one was the smallest. They were diminishing, like his similarity to a saint. Unless turning water into piss counted as a miracle these days, his resume was pretty thin. The third medal was Jack’s, now. She’d found it on the floor of their room at the Terra-luna Galileo Hilton and brought it to him at the hospital. In a half-addled fit of fondness he’d told her to keep it. If he didn’t know any better he’d have said there was a pattern there.
He stopped. He smelled water. Clean, but not rain water. The storm was to the north, blowing away from them. This was closer. The others had stopped without asking him why. He was glad of it. It was easier to smell when things were quiet, which made no fucking sense whatsoever.
Marty climbed the side of the gully and took a look around.
“Wilco, what’s over here?”
“Watch your step, Cap,” he replied. “You’re standing over a hollow.”
“You’re on top of it,” Wilkins nodded.
Marty shuffled around, stopping every couple of steps to bounce a little and kick at the ground. The smell grew stronger.
“Hole,” said Marty.
It was less than a meter across and not quite a rectangle. Two edges were smooth. Marty got down on his knees and ran a hand along one of them. Hard plastic. Industrial stuff. Something was splashing around down there. He suspected it was nothing pleasant. He lay flat on the ground and peered into the hole.
A narrow beam of sunlight shone over his shoulder, diffused in the water below. Bent, birdlike shapes pranced along the walls.
“Hello, you ugly bitches.”
A chunk of dirt came loose from the side and plunked into the water. The cave echoed with loud whoops and squeals.
“What the hell is that?” asked Snow.
“T-doubles,” Marty replied. “Small ones.”
“Ooh!” Kelly and Snow scrambled up to join him. They shoved and elbowed, each trying to make the other lose his footing.
“Take turns, kids,” said Wilkins. He made his way slowly up behind them.
Marty pulled himself up and the other two replaced him at the hole. Shoulder to shoulder, they stared into the darkness.
“My guess is that bit’s not used anymore,” said Marty. “It’s flooded and full of uglies.”
Wilkins held out the FIU and showed him the screen. “It’s sealed off up here. Can’t tell if the blockage is intentional or just a cave-in without a close look. I’d also like to take this opportunity to add that I don’t want to know bad enough to go in there.”
“Some badass you are,” chuckled Marty.
“Retired badass, thanks.”
Marty snorted, then turned to give Kelly a shove with his boot. “Are you assholes about done?”
“I think he likes it,” muttered Snow.
“Are you feeding the wildlife, Mr. James?”
Kelly muttered, “Busted.”
“They’re coming over when we block out the light,” said Kelly. He turned and squinted up at Marty. “They jump?”
“Some of them fly. Scoot.”
They moved and Marty sat on the edge of the hole, right over the plastic support. He unslung his rifle and held it out to Wilkins, who put it over his own shoulder and replaced it with the FIU.
“This case watertight?” asked Marty.
“Like a frog’s ass.”
Marty nodded and slipped the strap over his head and pulled out a flare. He held it down by the hole and pulled the cord, igniting it, then let it fall into the water. The light shone up through the water and filled the small cavern instantly. The animals below shrieked and thrashed and retreated down the tunnel. Marty waited until the sounds of their splashing ceased, then glanced down at where the flare had landed.
The water was clear, like spring water. The floor of the tunnel was plain dirt, with rocks piled around the edges. A tall stack of sandbags leaned away from the far wall. He turned on the flashlight that hung from his belt. Its beam wasn’t as broad as the flare’s but it would do as a backup.
Wilkins and Kelly stood back, but Snow hovered, watching him. Marty looked at the big man and waited for him to say something. Snow didn’t say a word, but his look pleaded.
“I know,” said Marty. He swung his legs into the hole and held onto the opposite side. He slid down and let his body dangle for an instant before he let go and dropped into the water. It came up to his hip and it was cold as hell. “Son of a bitch.”
Snow’s face appeared overhead. “What’s wrong?”
“My nuts have crawled up into the unknown,” he muttered. Without looking he raised a finger to the laughter above and glanced around the cavern. He could hear the T-doubles splashing out of sight in the darkness. There was a bend in the tunnel that gave them cover from the light. It was far enough away that he wasn’t worried about anything getting brave and taking a swipe at him.
The tunnel was around three meters across, almost the same from floor to ceiling. The walls looked solid between the supports. The ceiling was holding up. He knocked hard on a plastic column and a few small chunks of dirt fell into the water. Marty waded toward the sealed-off passage. It was sandbagged almost to the top. There was still enough room for him to look through, maybe even fit through.
His radio clicked softly. “You alright down there, Cap?”
“Five by,” he said. He set a foot on a sandbag and put his weight on it, testing. It didn’t budge. He reached for a handhold and hauled himself up the wall. At the top he hooked an arm over and peered through.
Metal brackets lined the ceiling, every two meters or so. There had been lights here, but they were gone. Probably recycled. Another pile of sandbags leaned against the wall. A rusted cart lay on its side in a shallow stream that trickled from between sandbags.
“Fucking conspiracy,” he whispered. Marty lifted the FIU and pointed it into the darkness. The screen showed a long, uninterrupted passage. He called up a map of the surface and measured them against each other. The tunnel ended at the sinkhole, level with the bottom. Better yet, it was empty. “Looks to be unoccupied. Goes where we’re going.”
“We’ll be right there,” said Kelly. “If Snow can fit his big ass down the hole.”
“Fuck you, man.”
They dangled and dropped one at a time. The splashing prompted inquisitive whoops from around the corner.
Wilkins winced. “Aw, shit. That’s cold.”
“Man,” whistled Kelly. “Mercy’s gonna be pissed.”
“He knows where we’re going,” said Marty. “Snow.” He slid off the topmost sandbags and handed them down. Snow lowered them the rest of the way to the floor and let them sink beneath the water.
When there was space, Marty straddled the wall and dropped down on the other side. His leg held but the impact hurt like hell. He gritted his teeth and kept quiet.
“Come on over.”
Marty drew the flechette gun from the holster strapped to his left leg. It only held nine rounds, but it was quiet. He leaned gun-first around the overturned cart. Nothing there. He stepped back up to the barricade and pulled the flashlight off his belt. He left it on and wedged it between sandbags.
“That’ll last twelve hours or so,” he said. “Keep the nasty birds from following.”
“Here, Cap.” Wilkins held out a rifle and Marty traded back the FIU.
“Couldn’t wait to get that thing the hell away from me, couldja?”
Wilkins shrugged and hitched the strap on his shoulder, cradling the device in one arm. “Don’t know what you mean, Cap.”
“I know the drill,” smirked Marty. “Keep the techie crap away from the bullet magnet.”
The others broke out in a chorus of denials. Marty shook his head and started down the tunnel. He slung the rifle and kept the flechette handy. There was less of a chance it would ricochet if he needed to use it in close quarters.
The light from the other side of the wall was enough to let him see several meters down the passage until the next bend. Beyond that, the glow from the field scanner would do.
“Keep it quiet,” Marty said.
They nodded in unison and followed him into the dark.
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