There was a short in the emergency beacon and Riddick couldn't find it. He was in no mood to try and recall Electronics101, but without an operational beacon there was no point in taking off again. Leaving here would be no different than setting themselves adrift on an ocean. They could float for weeks without seeing another ship.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this lousy. The wound in his leg had begun to bleed through the bandages and it throbbed in time with a heartbeat grown suspiciously fierce for a man sitting still. His stomach clenched painfully, still working its way around the first real food he'd eaten since a few days before boarding the ship with Johns. "Don't you start," he muttered, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
"So, how much you worth, anyway?"
Riddick started, nearly tearing out the delicate panel of circuitry that dangled before him. Lying flat on his back with his head beneath the dash, he hadn't noticed Jack's approach. Between the ringing in his ears and his focus on the task at hand he figured a marching band could've gone by without much notice.
"Why?" he smirked, laying his head back on the deck and frowning at his work. "You gonna turn me in?"
Her legs gently brushed his sides as she stepped over him on her way to the pilot's seat.
" 'Course not," she replied. After a short silence, she added. "Is it a lot?"
"That gonna change your answer?" Riddick cracked a smile at her small sound of exasperation. "Two and a half million U.S. dollars. About two hundred seventy five million yen. Nine million four hundred thousand riyal. New Tangier, not North African. Twice as much alive." He shrugged. "Whether or not it's a lot depends on where you spend it."
"Five million bucks? Damn."
"Guess they figure that'll make it worth trying," he said absently. He squinted at a bunch of wires, unable to determine their color. What little sun his eyes had been exposed to had washed the color out of his vision. "Come here, kid."
"Down there?" Jack leaned over to look at him.
"What the hell do you think?" It wasn't said angrily, but it brought her quickly to the floor. She knelt, then wiggled her way under the dash beside him. When they were shoulder to shoulder in the tight space he turned the panel so she could see the wires and pointed at the ones in question. "What color is this?"
"Green," she replied.
"Shit," Riddick muttered in return. "This one? Black?"
"No, that one's blue, too," her voice cracked and she cleared her throat nervously.
"Motherf..." He scowled at the circuit board. Holding a single thin wire between two fingers, he followed it to its source. The feeling of Jack's eyes on him was nearly tangible and the muscles of her arm trembled against him. Riddick reached across her for the screwdriver and felt her flatten beneath his arm. "Take it easy," he said. "I'm not gonna bite."
"That's not what I heard," she replied, trying a smile.
Riddick gave a short laugh. "Not what you heard, huh? What did you hear?"
Jack paled suddenly. "I...uh...jeez. The stuff they wrote in the paper was pretty scary. My dad read the paper every morning," she shrugged. "I guess that way it was easier for him to pretend there was nobody else at the table."
Riddick noted the swift change of subject and let the former question drop in favor of another. "What's your name?"
"Jack," she responded without hesitation.
"Your folks named you Jack?" He quirked an eyebrow but kept his attention focused on his work. She straightened beside him and her voice took on a note of defiance.
"Jackie. Your folks name you Richard?"
"Folks didn't name me at all."
"What's the B stand for?" she shot back.
"Is that European?"
The cabin shook with his laughter. "Smart ass."
Riddick could still feel her watching him as he followed the wires with his good hand, waiting for the shock that would tell him he'd found the right one. There wasn't enough power running through them to hurt and he didn't have the patience to take the console apart.
"Thanks," he said by way of a dismissal. Jack opened her mouth to protest but instead squirmed from beneath the dash and returned to the pilot's chair. As she stood, she leaned a hand high up on his thigh just as a jolt and a quiet crackle announced his discovery of the short.
"Shit!" he said in a harsh whisper. "Found it." Reaching around and tapping on the dash, he added, "This blinking?"
"Tell me when it does."
He adjusted the wire slowly until Jack tapped him. "It's blinking."
In a sudden burst of sound, clicks and whines and static-marred squeals filled the cabin. They seemed random at first, but Riddick soon recognized a pattern beneath the static.
"What is that?" shouted Jack above the din.
Riddick closed his eyes and listened, counting out the clicks. "It's a responder," he answered. When she didn't reply, he added, "A ship. Probably answering the last distress call before the crash. Must've been behind us in the shipping lane." He worked his way from under the dash and hauled himself to his feet, then flipped a toggle switch. The blinking light began to flash in sequence with three others beside it. "Better stick out our thumb."
"You mean someone's coming to get us?"
"Looks that way."
"Whoo-hoo!" Jack whooped. As she turned for the ramp, the ship lurched suddenly and Riddick launched himself forward to catch her as the floor dropped out from beneath them.
Jack yelped as the ramp collapsed with a squeal of tortured metal and the aft end of the skiff swung downward. Swept from his feet, Riddick hooked the back of Jack's pants with one hand and reached out with the other to stop their fall. He caught hold of something but his bruised and swollen fingers soon lost their grip. They tumbled and bumped over the deck and came to a sudden, violent stop against the crazily bent ramp.
The ship continued its backward slide, thrusting the aft section into darkness before it lurched to a halt. The only light came through the windscreen which now faced the sky.
The air was filled with inquisitive whoops and clicks as the darkness came alive around them. Riddick leapt to his feet and pulled Jack up with him.
"Ow! Wait, I'm stuck." She tugged at her foot, wedged between two folds of metal, but couldn't free it. With a muttered curse Riddick bent and wrapped a hand around her leg. Jerking her foot out of the shoe, he picked her up and lifted her toward the roof of the skiff.
"Grab the edge!"
Jack did as she was told, sailing up and over the side as he gave her a push from beneath. The skiff had come to rest at an angle and she could make her way back to the surface by climbing up the incline of the ship's hull. Heart pounding, she turned to make certain that Riddick followed. She was met instead by a gaping maw full of glistening, yellowed teeth as one of the creatures sprang at her.
Its jaws snapped inches from her face and Jack shrieked in terror. Bellowing its rage, the animal was pulled abruptly backward and out of sight. Blind panic gripped her and she scrambled upward on hands and knees, oblivious to the scrapes and bruises she received.
She pounded frantically on the dirt where it met the hull and a narrow beam of light burst through. Larger and larger chunks of earth fell until Imam's face appeared before her, framed in sunlight. His hand shot into the gap and snatched her wrist, drawing her to the surface. Jack clung to him tightly with trembling arms until she realized that she'd emerged from the cavern alone.
"Riddick!" she yelled back into the hole. "Where is he?"
Jack lunged forward but he held her back.
"Let me go!"
"Rushing to your death will not help him."
The skiff jolted. Jack twisted herself free of Imam's grip and scrambled to peer through the windscreen. Relief washed over her when she saw Riddick pull himself slowly into the sunlight but her heart skipped a beat when she saw the trail of crimson smeared across the deck behind him. She swallowed hard and watched him hook a blood-spattered arm over the pilot's seat to keep from sliding back into the darkness below.
Frantic, Jack pounded her fist on the windscreen. "Riddick!"
With a sudden, wrenching effort he drew himself up and over the chair, dumping his battered body across it where he lay with his back to her and the blinding sunlight. One arm dangled and thin streams of red spiraled down it, falling in large drops from his fingertips.
Jack beat the glass again, frantic.
"Come quickly!" Imam shouted. She made a small, pained sound and tore her eyes away, racing back to the hole. Imam knelt there, knocking away loose dirt and rocks with the butt of the shotgun to widen the opening. Jack started into it and again he restrained her. "Light," he said simply, holding up a small box of metal and glass. "Let us hope it is enough for them to fear."
He searched for a switch and turned it on, pointing the beam into the darkness below. Jack listened with grim satisfaction to the angry shrieks that followed.
"I will crawl inside far enough to illuminate the way out," said Imam.
Jack shook her head. "One of us has to go in there," she said. "He can't make it out on his own."
Imam's brow creased. "I will go." He looked at the gun uncertainly, then set it down. "And I will hope there is no need for this."
"I'll hold the light," she said. When Imam opened his mouth to object she added, "You can't take care of both things at once."
With that, he handed the light to Jack. "Together, then," he said.
They slid through the opening with the light held out before them, driving the animals back as they advanced. Reaching the edge of the skiff, Jack held the light at an angle, illuminating what area the sunlight did not. In its pale radius were splashes of blue ichor and the blistering corpse of one of the creatures. She kept an eye out for movement as Imam lowered himself to the ramp and disappeared from view.
The skiff creaked in protest and as his weight shifted toward the front the ship resumed its backward slide.
"Imam!" she called. "Hurry!"
He soon reappeared, struggling with the limp body slung over his shoulder. Jack made sure the light was steady and reached out with both hands, hooking them beneath Riddick's arms. She threw her weight backward as Imam pushed from beneath and their combined efforts got him onto the skiff's roof. Jack forced the phrase "dead weight" from her mind as they struggled toward the surface.
No sooner did they emerge than the skiff's nose slipped from the rocks that had supported it and fell with a crash.
Before it was a prison, Hubble Bay had been the site of a high-class, beachfront resort. When newer and more convenient retreats sprung up the grand old girl had been scoured until she retained none of the comfort and beauty of her former life. Windows had been bricked over and exits sealed with thick metal plates; warm, soothing colors stripped away in favor of institutional gray; and plush carpeting torn down to the cold, hard concrete.
Rows of cypress trees were replaced with two chain link fences topped with coils of rusted, barbed wire. One was electrified but no one was sure which. The fences were ten feet apart and trained dogs roamed the space between them day and night. Guard towers rose from the corners, manned at all times by men with instructions to kill anyone attempting to escape. On the west side was a twelve foot cinderblock wall that formed a broad rectangle. Near the top, the blocks were filled with cement and broken bottles and shards of colored glass were set into them. The play yard.
A line of men dressed in dingy gray coveralls and manacled hand and foot shuffled toward the heavy main doors, each linked to the man in front of him. The prisoner at the end was as tall as the others and broader in the chest. But his smooth face and eyes not yet dulled by years staring at cold cement walls betrayed the youth behind his hardened demeanor.
The warden was a thick, broad-shouldered man, shorter than most of the convicts, but what he lacked in height he made up in sheer mean-spiritedness. There was a permanent crease between his craggy blonde brows and his ruddy complexion made it look as though he were constantly simmering, just waiting for an excuse to boil over.
"Welcome to Hubble Bay International Penal Facility," he began. "Pride of the Scandinavian Prison System. My name is Warden Bayer and I am now the absolute authority in your worthless lives. You will call me 'Warden', 'Sir', or 'Boss'. Failure to do so will result in my putting a steel-toed boot up your ass. You will obey myself and anyone wearing a uniform without hesitation. Failure to do so will result in my putting a steel-toed boot up your ass. You're in my world, now. This is all you need to know."
Check-in was done with the standard helping of casual brutality. One by one the prisoners were released from their shackles, stripped and searched before being allowed to dress themselves in a standard issue, one-size-doesn't-quite-fit-all, bright orange jumpsuit. Then they were assigned a cell and turned out into General Populace to wander the place until they found it.
"Riddick, Richard B.," the warden muttered. Eyes fixed on his new charge, he crossed off the name without looking down at the clipboard. "You gonna cause me any trouble, boy?"
Riddick kept his eyes lowered, hands linked behind his back. He knew the drill. "No sir, Boss," he replied.
"Gonna give me any shit whatsoever?"
The man drew his baton and begin to pace a slow circle around Riddick, looking him over. "Where you from, boy?"
"Know where you are, now?"
"In your world, sir."
The warden paused in his step briefly, then continued, nodding. "Goddamn right," he said. "You're a smart fucker."
He stepped in front of Riddick and regarded him through narrowed eyes for a moment before giving the baton a sudden, upward swing. It connected violently with the prisoner's unprotected stomach, sending a jolt back up the warden's arm. Riddick staggered but didn't fall.
"I don't want smart men in my prison," he growled and swung again. This time Riddick went down, knees cracking against the concrete. "Bad for business. Am I clear?"
"Yes sir, Boss," he muttered between clenched teeth.
"D-block. 718. Get the fuck out of here."
Riddick stood quickly and the warden balked despite himself, earning a dark, humorless smile from the convict. Bayer held his baton at the ready but let it drop as Riddick passed him by and disappeared through the rusty metal gates of his new home.
* * *
Jack wrung her striped shirt over the dusty ground and regarded with growing anxiety the puddle of red that formed beneath it. By the time she pressed it back to the rent flesh another pool had formed and no amount of pressure she applied could slow it down. The wild rhythm pounding out beneath her hands was at once alarming and reassuring. A desperate voice in her head chanted along with it: Don't stop don't stop don't stop don't stop...
Guilt stabbed at her as she watched him sweating and shaking and struggling to breathe. For her. She hadn't done anything to deserve this. Her flesh and blood father would have pushed her in front of a freight train to save his own worthless ass, but a murderer with no incentive or obligation had risked his life in her defense. The thought would have overwhelmed her with bliss were he not bleeding to death on the ground in front of her.
Riddick took a deep, shuddering breath and his eyelids fluttered for an instant before snapping shut against the sun. Jack reached for the tattered remains of his shirt and laid it across his eyes.
Jack looked hopeful when he responded with a single word, uttered softly. "Shit." She glanced up and smiled weakly as Imam returned with a canister of water. He set it down and knelt beside it.
"I think he's gonna be okay," she said.
"I feel pretty fucking far from okay," muttered Riddick.
"Then certainly you are still alive, my friend," replied Imam, unwrapping the cloth from his head. He pushed it beneath Jack's hands and added to the pressure with his own.
A high-pitched whine issued from below ground and Jack jumped as though stung. "Oh my god," she said. "The ship. I didn't...if the radio works... I can tell them we're here and we need help and then they'll hurry, right?"
Jack was up and running toward the gaping hole left in the ground by the skiff's unceremonious descent, kicking up dirt in her wake. Despite Imam's shouted protests, she snatched up the light and leapt onto the ship's roof. Snapping it on, she lowered herself into the darkness and out of sight.
Beneath the makeshift blindfold, Riddick shook his head. "Kids today, huh?"
"Hunter-Gratzner, this is the salvage ship Death Maiden out of Port Safi, Malaga, New Tangier. Your distress call has been received and we are en route to your last known location. Do you read?"
The message was met with static and the steadily repeating pattern of an emergency beacon. Reggie frowned at the console, her freckled face tinted green by the readout lights. Somebody had to have turned the damn thing on. More than twenty-four hours had passed since she'd intercepted the original distress call and there was little doubt that the ship had already hit ground. "Hunter-Gratzner, do you read? Please respond." More static. She threw down the headset in disgust. "Jasper, it's not working."
He stepped forward from the shadows of the cabin and leaned both hands on the back of her chair. Closing his pale eyes he tapped the fingers of one hand in time with the signal. "That's a crusty beacon signal," he said.
She twisted in the seat to face him. "How do you mean?"
"The format was changed years ago," he replied. "We can still pick up the old standard but it's...it's like using drum beats to communicate. The information contained in the signal isn't as complicated and doesn't have the same range as say, what you'd get with a radio."
"You understand what it's saying?"
"Sure. Beep-beep, click click beep...Try upping the juice."
"Ass." She turned back, chuckling softly. "Hunter-Gratz..."
A burst of static cut her off. It was followed by an uneven pattern of hums and clicks. Jasper leaned over her and switched the receiver to the next channel. The static eased, replaced by an uncertain voice.
"Is somebody out there?"
"Score," Reggie smiled.
"They're not broadcasting on the standard emergency channel," Jasper frowned and scratched the back of his head. "Weird."
Reggie nodded her agreement, slipping on the headset and pressing the single earpiece close. "I read you loud and clear. Please identify."
There was a long silence on the other end, then, "Um, my name is Jackie Weller. We need help."
With an incredulous look at Jasper, she mouthed the words, "A passenger?"
"Sounds like a kid," he said softly.
When she spoke again, her tone was softened and the formal language dropped. "We're on the way right now. Are you hurt, honey?"
"How many of you are there?"
She held up three fingers for him to see. "Crew?" he whispered.
"Are any of the crew there with you, sweetheart?"
"No, they're all dead." The voice, small and timid, became insistent as it added. "Look, there's only gonna be two of us if you don't hurry."
With her hand over the mouthpiece, she turned again to Jasper. "Tell Cappy we're a go for salvage. And we need to hotfoot it, there's somebody hurt down there."
* * *
"I don't give a flying fuck."
Feet shifted and the other crewmembers eyed the floor nervously, preparing for the inevitable face-off. All but Jasper, who watched them intently, poised to leap to her defense.
Reggie's cheeks reddened as her expression changed from shock to anger and her hands bunched into fists at her sides. When she spoke her voice was carefully measured, but it trembled with barely restrained ire. "Cappy, it's a good run. I pulled the specs..."
"We'll make the run," he nodded, steeling his gaze and knitting his fingers behind his back. "But damned if I'm going to stress the ship so we can pick up some fucking tourists. She's creaking and leaking as it is."
The Captain was a tall man with a large frame, but age and years of space travel had trimmed away the bulk of his youth and left him with the lean, hungry look of a scrap yard dog and a disposition to match. Reggie refused to back down but inside she squirmed beneath his scrutiny.
"Manny, Marty and I can take the drop and scout the site while we're at it. It's faster, it's in better shape and..."
"And it's expensive as hell to run," he broke in. "You take it, the cost is coming out of your cut."
She met his eyes. There was no anger in them and she hadn't really expected any. It took a great deal more than a stubborn crewie to get the Captain worked up. His expression questioned and she took a moment to consider her answer. She had been hired on as medical officer despite having managed only a year's worth of medical school. The money she made here would go toward completing her studies and this would put a significant dent in her savings.
But what sort of doctor would she make if she let money interfere with the saving of lives?
"Alright," her voice broke the uneasy silence. "Deal."
The chill had fled the air, replaced by the unrelenting heat of twin suns at midday. Crouched beside Riddick in the shade of the wreck, Jack concentrated on the steady rise and fall of his chest as though her will alone could force it to continue. Sweat stung her eyes, sparking the sharp twinge in her nose and cheeks that signaled the onset of tears. She wiped at her face impatiently with the back of her sleeve. She didn't want to cry.
There was no way to tell how long it had been since she'd emerged from the skiff, flushed with excitement at their impending rescue. Three hours, the voice had told her, until they were off this cosmic dust ball. Three hours of hoping that Riddick would last until help arrived.
The sound of Imam's musical prayers drifted to her on the hot breeze and inspired an impromptu prayer of her own. She turned her eyes skyward, squinting against the washed-out blue.
"I haven't been to church since I was four," she said softly. "I've lied...a lot. And stolen, too. I can't think of a good reason for you to listen to me, and you probably don't think he deserves to live. But I'd do anything if you'd just give him a chance."
Jack scooted closer and gently lifted his head, settling it carefully in her lap. Riddick sighed softly and shifted, resting his cheek against the inside of her thigh. Her face reddened and her heart skipped a beat and for a long moment she just watched him. Unsure if he was awake beneath the blindfold, Jack reached down and brushed his cheek with the back of her hand. Where there was no stubble, his skin was smooth as hers and cool to the touch despite the heat.
The slow, steady sound of his breath continued uninterrupted. Glancing about guiltily, she lowered her lips to his forehead and kissed him softly. The contact sent a shock through her and set her whole body tingling. Straightening, she scolded herself inwardly. She was supposed to be taking care of him.
Jack frowned. Imam's voice had quieted and in its place rose a low hum that grew steadily louder and caused a tremor in the pit of her stomach. She tilted her head and listened. A ship.
"You're gonna be okay," she whispered.
* * *
"Christ on a crutch, what a mess."
The Tolliver followed the trail of wreckage and the broad scar in the dusty ground left by the freighter's impact. Sheets of metal ten feet square were scattered like playing cards over the planet's shining surface and columns of thick, black smoke rose into the sky. Reggie blinked at the debris, shocked that anyone had managed to survive the crash that caused it. Beside her, Marty Bender leaned forward in the pilot's seat, shaking his head.
"Trashed," he remarked.
One hand on a bar of metal bolted to the ceiling, a third crewmember stood just behind and between the seats, squinting in the harsh light that blazed through the windscreen. "There was a good chunk of cargo bay in one piece back there," he said. "Nothing better than going through dead people's luggage."
"Got half my wardrobe that way," nodded Bender.
"You guys are sick," Reggie chuckled despite herself.
"But we've always got extra socks."
A burst of exasperated laughter escaped her and she gave them both a mortified look before returning her attention to the torn landscape. Small bunches of black, rectangular shapes began to appear, dotting the ground on both sides of the trench.
"Manny, are those..?" Reggie began.
"Cryo lockers," nodded the man behind her.
"So many of them," she whispered, watching them pass beneath the ship. "How awful."
"Back-road hazards aren't mapped for shit," said Bender, pulling back on the throttle. "That's why we're here."
Manny nodded his agreement. "See, the big company ships don't pass this way. These routes are for second-rate shipping and for those too poor to afford the fares of regular liners."
"Aw, Jeezus, here it comes," Bender muttered.
Manny continued as though he hadn't heard. "There isn't much money in keeping the lanes clear; so no sweepers, no up to date charts, no regular lane maintenance, nothing. Nobody gives a damn what happens to a bunch of freelance diggers and settlers who can barely scrape up enough money to pay their taxes. And the Lane Commission has so many officials in its pocket that it's unlikely the conditions will ever improve."
Bender raised a fist in the air and gave a half-hearted shout. "Stick it to the man."
"Flare," replied Manny.
"Flare," he repeated, pointing ahead.
A ball of pale pink flame raced upward, barely visible against the washed-out sky. It hovered for a moment at the top of its arc, then fell, trailing sparks.
"There," said Reggie.
Below, a single, robed figure stood on the glistening plain and waved as the Tolliver passed overhead.
Bender circled once, banking the craft sharply and scowling downward.
"What is that, a sinkhole?" frowned Reggie.
"There's a goddamn ship in it," said Bender, half to himself.
Manny leaned over for a better look. "Didn't come from the freighter, there's nothing intact that's big enough to hold it."
"It's the source of the beacon," said Bender. He paused, easing back the throttle. The engine whined and the craft shuddered as it slowed. Bender argued briefly with the stick as he engaged the landing thrusters. "Give us a little leg, Reggie," he grinned.
She gaped at him for a moment, then mouthed a silent 'oh', and flipped a large, green toggle switch over her head. "Landing gear engaged."
A cloud of dust surrounded them, obscuring the wreck from view.
"Either of you armed?"
"Okay, no." He glanced from her to Manny, who shrugged.
"Sorry, man, I'm a pacifist."
Reaching behind him, Bender produced a small pistol with a wide barrel. He chambered a round and tucked the gun into the back of his pants. Grinning, Manny did the same, though his weapon was smaller.
Reggie punched the hatch release and headed down the stairs, throwing over her shoulder, "Just try to keep them in your pants, guys."
THE CREW of the DEATH MAIDEN
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