Three figures, wavering in the heat, departed the newly arrived ship and headed toward them. Jack felt in her pocket for the knife she'd placed there earlier, but didn't find any real comfort in its presence. If they were mercs or bounty hunters they would take him and she wouldn't be able to do a thing about it.
One of the men raised a hand in greeting as they drew near, and with a reassuring squeeze of Jack's shoulder, Imam rose and went to meet them. He opened his arms in a welcoming gesture and embraced each of them in turn. Speaking quickly and with great enthusiasm, he reminded Jack of a used car salesman and she couldn't help but smile.
His exuberance was genuine but it also served to draw attention to himself and away from Jack, who had begun to suffer a mild case of stage fright at the impending meeting. Much of the time they'd spent waiting for the ship to arrive had been spent working out their story. It was uncomplicated but Jack still worried about forgetting something and had already decided to let Imam do the talking.
There were two men and a woman dressed in dingy gray flight jackets with patches on the sleeves and names on the front in faded black capital letters. The man walking beside Imam had dusky skin and short, dark, curly hair. He shared Imam's enthusiasm, smiling easily and gesturing with his hands as he spoke. Despite her uneasiness, Jack liked him right away.
The other man had brown hair almost to his shoulders and was constantly running a hand through it to push the bangs out of his eyes. He wore a short beard that seemed more a lack of the urge to shave than a serious attempt at growing facial hair. His shoulders were broad and his walk determined, whether because of his pronounced limp or despite it she couldn't be sure.
The woman was no taller than Jack, with straight, dark hair pulled back from a face already reddened with the effort of lugging a silver case nearly half her size. Her features were plain, even boyish save the delicate arc of her eyebrows. She swam a little in her jacket, which had the name "Pierson" stenciled on the front.
"Hi," she smiled, breathless. "You must be Jack."
Jack nodded wordlessly, afraid to open her mouth.
"We talked earlier," she continued. Her eyes passed quickly over Riddick as she lowered the case and knelt beside it. "I'm Regina. You can call me Reggie. Less uptight."
When Jack didn't respond, the woman offered a sympathetic smile.
"Everything's going to be okay, sweetheart. Don't worry."
Jack nodded again, but she was worried. She bit her lip and glanced around for Imam, relieved to find him close by, paying careful attention to the doctor's ministrations. The hand not in her pocket found its way to Riddick's shoulder and gripped it protectively. She kept her eye on the woman's hands, nearing panic when they pulled away the blindfold and lifted an eyelid, revealing a brilliant flash of blue.
"Oh my god, what..?"
While Jack waited for Imam to say something, her stomach began to churn and her heart leapt wildly against her ribcage. She took a deep breath and nearly opened her mouth to speak but stopped as a shadow fell across her. The man with the limp, the name "Bender" on his jacket, stood over them, head cocked to the side and hands in his pockets.
"It's called a shine job, Reg," he said flatly. Jack whipped her head up and for the brief instant her eyes met his she was sure he could see straight through her and into the panicked thoughts that suddenly crowded her mind. But his eyes flicked away from hers and he tapped the doctor with his boot, a tone of authority in his voice as he added, "Hard-line night ops guys used to get 'em so they could see in the dark without equipment. Miners and tunnel rats, too. Stop gawking and get to work."
With that, he returned to his conversation with the other men and left Jack to sag and utter a quiet sigh, hoping her relief wasn't too obvious.
The warden's sense of humor was readily apparent as Riddick strode through the crowded halls of Cell Block D. They were packed with angry white faces whose expressions ranged from disgusted to amused as he passed them by. He didn't lower his eyes, not in here, where a submissive attitude would get him an ass kicking or a boyfriend or both in a hurry. Instead he kept his eyes forward, even when he felt small objects pelting him from behind.
Seven-fourteen, seven-sixteen, seven....shit.
A stained gray t-shirt stretched over a broad chest blocked his path and Riddick stopped just short of bumping into it. Where the shirt didn't cover, a tattoo of thick, black points and curves covered pale, beefy arms. It made him think of scorched rose bushes. Riddick took a deep breath and lifted his eyes to meet those of the man in front of him. They were gray and hard and full of cold fire and as he stared into them he could hear the shuffling feet of others moving in behind him.
Mustering the same calm he'd displayed with the warden he squared his shoulders and waited for the other man to speak first. He didn't wait long.
"You lost, fish?"
Riddick considered telling them that he didn't want any trouble, but it would have been a lie. He wanted it. A month half-starved and freezing aboard a barely seaworthy government freighter in a cramped, stinking cell with rusted bars and a moldy mattress had instilled in him more than one man's share of anger and frustration. He wanted to stretch. More than that, he wanted to break something.
"No, I ain't lost," he responded flatly.
Withdrawing a dingy white rag from his pants pocket, Rose Bushes spit on it and nodded at Riddick's bare arm. "Unless that wipes off, you are."
"My brown don't come off any better than your ugly."
There was laughter behind him until the big man silenced it with a look. He puffed out his chest like an angry rooster and poked Riddick in the shoulder with the fingers of his left hand.
That was enough.
Riddick smacked the hand away with his right and followed the momentum, raising his left elbow and connecting with Rose Bushes' temple. He didn't stop. His right hand returned to land a solid blow just under the man's breastbone and when he doubled over Riddick brought a knee up to meet his face. The same elbow that had started the fight ended it with a downward blow to the back of Rose Bushes' head, crushing his nose between Riddick's knee and his own skull. The big man dropped to the floor and lay still.
The fight had lasted all of four seconds, but his first-day tussle earned Riddick three days in solitary. Affectionately dubbed "Times Square" by the inmates, Hubble Bay's solitary confinement area consisted of a single twenty by twenty foot room, three walls of which held four thick steel doors. Each led to a cell that measured no more than four feet on any side. No space within for a man to stand or stretch. There was no light and the small, square window could only be opened from the outside.
Three days in oppressive darkness, breathing stale air and sleeping on cold concrete left Riddick sore, light-headed and far too introspective for his own good. He was forced to fumble around blind for food passed through a slot in the door and the only place to relieve himself was what he determined to be a chewed-up plastic bucket with no handle. No one checked on him or even came to retrieve the dishes, which he stacked underneath the bucket to preserve what little space he had.
He wasn't angry. He'd gotten exactly what he wanted. He'd put someone in the infirmary, been separated from his overenthusiastic block mates and earned a little respect all at once. After he dropped Rose Bushes, the other men had hesitated long enough for guards to arrive and haul both Riddick and the unconscious man away. He wasn't sure what might have happened once they'd regained their wits, but he knew he'd find out once he was returned to General Populace.
When the door finally opened, the light from the single bare bulb in the room outside was enough to make him squint his eyes nearly shut.
"C'mon outta dere, y' unruly bastahd," said a laughing voice. It was deeper than his own, with a touch of gravel and a thick accent. Riddick guessed Jamaican.
Blinking and moving slowly he emerged from the tiny cell, knees cracking as he straightened. Riddick rubbed his eyes and tried to bring the figure into focus. The man who'd freed him wore the blue-gray uniform of a prisoner. There was a touch of gray in his beard and short dreadlocks but his manner was spry. Much more so than Riddick felt, anyhow. "Who the hell are you?"
"Terrence Yarborough," he replied, extending a hand. "I'm a trustee on dis godforsaken mountain of shit and you, lucky son of a bitch, are me new room met."
* * *
"Scary" Terry was a lifer, put away for a multiple murder committed years before Riddick had even been born. He wholeheartedly embraced both his guilt and his punishment, content with the decision he had made and accepting of the life to which it had led him. His easygoing manner, boundless optimism and wisdom tempered by harsh experience made him seem more holy man than convict and those around him had come to accept his word as gospel.
Yarborough imparted his wisdom to his young protégé, telling Riddick, "De're de only ones dat tink yah're a wortless bastahd. Ta yarself, you should be the most impartant muttafucker alive."
The arrangement wasn't unusual but some of the terms were. Riddick ran errands for his cellmate, worked the occasional shift in the kitchen for him and kept the cell clean. In addition to the odd jobs, Riddick's new cellmate required him to abstain from sex, drugs and alcohol. The condition of all three at Hubble Bay made it easy for him to comply.
In return he found that most of the other inmates treated him with respect, though he suspected that at least part of it had to do with the almost casual way he'd dropped Rose Bushes in front of his own gang. The man's real name, Riddick had been told, was Peter Mavery. He was a rapist and a thief and he'd been sentenced to life for killing two of his victims.
Riddick figured that was the guy's problem. A large, forceful man that preyed on helpless females. Human beings can sense weakness in others whether they do it consciously or not. In prison, where men were forced into a more primitive mold it was especially true. And when another's weakness was put so prominently on display as Riddick had done to Mavery upon his arrival, the man's position among his peers had gone straight down the shitter.
What Riddick didn't know was that every day since his release from solitary, Mavery had watched Riddick and his benefactor, pulling together the last, tattered shreds of his courage and confidence. The result was a constant stream of fights and cocky displays that left his body bruised but his ego stronger and stronger every day. Finally he worked up the nerve to strike. Not at Riddick himself but at the man who had stood between him and every ass-kicking he'd deserved since his arrival.
Riddick returned from a laundry shift and found the old man stabbed to death in their cell. His own reaction surprised him. Anger didn't come first. Slowly, calmly, Riddick lifted Yarborough onto his cot and pulled the sheet from his own bed to cover the body. Then he reached beneath his thin mattress and felt a jolt of pleasure as his fingers wrapped around the handle of the knife hidden there.
From out on the floor Mavery taunted him. Riddick emerged from the cell to find him standing, arms crossed, flanked by four other men, the gleam of metal in his hand. Wordlessly, Riddick descended the stairs and strode up to them, stopping just out of arm's reach.
"This how many guys you think it's gonna take to kick my ass?" he asked flatly.
"I brought a few extra."
Riddick shook his head. "You didn't bring enough."
With that, he launched himself at Mavery, swinging the knife in a great, sweeping arc. The other man brought his weapon up between them, but Riddick slapped it away with his free hand. They went over, meeting the cold concrete with a heavy thud, limbs quickly becoming entangled.
Mavery's four men leapt forward, pulling Riddick off him. They held on long enough for the man to stand up again, then one was pitched unceremoniously forward and slashed from behind by the small blade in Riddick's hand. The coppery smell hit him like a burst of fresh air and his heart began to pound wildly--not with fear, but excitement.
Killers often talk about entering a 'zone', a place where they feel detached from their bodies and their actions. Riddick, in his relatively short career as a murderer had no such experience. He didn't lose control but gained it absolutely. His vision was clear and his body did nothing that he didn't command it to. His intention was to kill and he did.
Feet and hands moved in concert, breaking bones and tearing flesh until the floor ran bloody beneath their feet. He took down four of them, including Mavery before he was stabbed in the gut and it still took six guards to pull him off the fifth. It wasn't the same as breaking Big Chris Eller's nose with a basketball, but it felt just as good. Maybe even better.
The dull ache of memory was replaced by the piercing pain of the waking world as Riddick started back to consciousness. He blinked his eyes open and the light flooded in as though trying to fill his skull, forcing him to squeeze them shut again.
He tried to remember how he'd gotten here; flat on his back with the taste of blood in his mouth and a ribcage full of razor blades. But the elephant sitting on his chest made it tough as hell to concentrate on anything but his next breath. It felt as though he'd been uncorked, his veins gone dry and his heart struggling now in empty air.
There were voices, distorted and distant as if he were underwater. Both were female, one of them he thought was Jack's. The air he breathed was sweet and humid and somehow familiar but he couldn't smell anything through it. He tried to lift a hand but wasn't sure of its response. Nope. He could only feel the parts that really hurt. There was a sudden surge of cold under his skin and suddenly he couldn't even feel those anymore...
* * *
"You okay, there, Big Guy?"
Riddick muttered something she couldn't make out through the mask, but the corners of his mouth curled upward in a small smile and set Jack at ease. He reached up with his other hand to pull the mask away, nearly upsetting a carefully arranged nest of IV tubes and wires.
"Whoa," she said, letting go of one hand in favor of the other. Leaning across him, she settled the hand back onto the white sheet and patted it as though she could make it stick there. "You probably shouldn't..."
He pulled the mask down around his neck and spoke again, clearer this time. "Lights."
Jack nodded and reached over him, dimming the lights and plunging them into near-darkness. The dull glow of the monitors tinted everything a ghostly blue. Jack's breath caught as two familiar points of light revealed themselves and fixed on her. She was pinned by them, unable to move or breathe for a long moment before she realized that they were glassy and clouded and he hadn't blinked in over a minute.
"Riddick?" she said, giving him a gentle shove. His eyelids fluttered and moisture rolled from the corner of one eye, dropping onto the pillow. Some of the life returned to his gaze.
"You feel okay?"
He smiled broadly. Not the dark, predatory smile she'd seen before but one Jack could only describe as...goofy. "I feel great," he slurred.
Jack smiled at him, relieved. "Did like you said, 'Mr. Stroud'.
"Where are we?"
"We're on a ship," she said quickly, hoping to cover the giggle that threatened to escape her. "They picked us up. In a few days we'll be heading for New Tangier."
"Grrreat. It's full of assholes just like me," he responded with a short laugh.
Jack shook her head emphatically. "You're not an asshole."
His smile returned, but it bore a hint of sadness. "You don't know me, Jackie girl."
The sound of her name shocked her and her face warmed suddenly. She hoped fervently that the reddening of her cheeks wouldn't register in his vision.
"I know enough," she replied, fighting to control the tremor in her voice.
"Y' Do, do ya?" The low rumble of his voice made her insides quiver.
She nodded, swallowing hard. "Yep."
Riddick rolled himself up onto one elbow and leaned forward until his face was inches away from her own. "What do you know?" he said in a low whisper.
Jack's heart fluttered wildly and her mouth went dry. She opened her mouth to speak three times before she finally did. "You saved my life," she said defiantly. "A bunch of times."
He leaned further, the stubble on his jaw brushing briefly against her cheek as he whispered in her ear. "How do you know I wasn't saving you for later?"
At her sharp intake of breath, he withdrew, one corner of his mouth hitched up in a near-smile. He met her eyes and held them, nearly driving her to panic when she couldn't look away. Then suddenly he dropped back into bed and began to chuckle softly, watching her.
"Why did you do it?" she asked before she could stop herself.
Jack took a deep breath and forced her mouth to reform the words. "Why did you do it?"
Her brow furrowed as she felt a little of the fire she'd mustered earlier returning. Was he really that out of it or was he messing with her? "Why did you save me?"
Shoulders still shaking with laughter, Riddick said simply. "Pack mentality."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what it sounds like," he replied, the laughter fading. Jack just looked at him. Not blankly; she studied his eyes, but the light they reflected turned them into glowing, unreadable orbs. For a long moment the only sound in the room was their breath and the gentle hum of the monitor. Riddick broke the silence, his voice soft and low.
"I read this book, once, 'Forgiving Nature' by a naturalist named Colin H. Myers . He was long-winded and the book was fucking huge, but the gist of it was that people share things with animals that we didn't even realize the animals were capable of.
"Most of his work was with dogs, which are social animals, like we're all supposed to be. They're accepting and faithful, even though they scrap once in awhile. They don't usually kill each other unless people teach them to.
"He said that when dogs are isolated they turn aggressive and bad-tempered and generally hard to deal with. They won't respond to handlers, owners, even other dogs. But once a dog is accepted by a pack and establishes his place there, he becomes a part of that family, whether it's other dogs or humans. Once they accept him, they become his pack.
"Animals that live together in a pack cooperate, they take care of each other."
The Death Maiden, a converted warship, was on her way back to the Tangier System after a somewhat successful run through the Romer Corridor, named for the first ship's captain to safely navigate it. Many hadn't. It was a back road, a deer path through space that was poorly charted due to unstable asteroid activity and an overabundance of rogue comets. The ship's thick outer hull was fitted with numerous sensors in order to detect incoming threats and several nests of energy weapons capable of destroying most of them.
Then there was the matter of their present company. From what Imam had gathered, most of the crew traded out every few years, but the Captain and First Mate had been with the ship for over a decade of their lives, cruising the back roads of space for wrecks and derelict spacecraft to salvage. Their methods were questionable, as evidenced by their quick arrival at the site of the Hunter-Gratzner's demise, but it was difficult to fault them for it. The nearest systems were weeks away and the survivors might not have lasted if forced to wait for an "official" rescue.
Alone in the small, dimly lit mess room, Imam closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The air was cool and clean and it filled his lungs; the increase in oxygen bringing on a mild state of euphoria, dulling his fatigue and the soreness in his bones. He was relaxed and relieved, but most of all grateful -- for surviving the crash and the night that followed; for those who had been spared along with him; for their swift rescue.
He had introduced himself as Jalil Midhat, the name of his great-grandfather, though it mattered little, as his current moniker was in reality a title and not a given name. As per Mr. Riddick's earlier instructions, he was to be addressed by the name Robert Stroud. Jack had dropped her masculine pretense but continued to refer to herself simply as Jack, still wary of divulging too much information, even to her companions.
His thoughts turned to his boys, their lives cut short in a cruel and unfamiliar place. He'd thought himself a strong man, but those moments had left him weak and trembling. Only his trust in Allah's will had enabled him to keep both his feet and his faith when all threatened to crumble from beneath him. They would be with him when he knelt before the shrine in New Mecca.
Which led him to another difficult subject. The Maiden would dock over New Tangier, a small planet that was home to a sprawling colony of settlers, most from Northern Africa and the Middle East. It also held the Tangier Penal Colony, the largest maximum security facility in the system. Word of the crash would have reached Tangier by the time they docked, if it hadn't already. The document that Jack had found on the planet below meant that their companion's presence on the passenger ship had been noted by the authorities. Any ship that passed near the crash site would be suspect, especially if its crew pulled into Port Safi with equipment salvaged from the wreck itself.
It would take months to reach their destination. Plenty of time to work out a solution, but also a great deal of time in which their secret could be discovered. Their secret. He chuckled softly and shook his head at the notion that he was including himself as part of the solution to Riddick's problem. Certainly he wouldn't turn the man in. His fate was best left in God's capable hands, for no one else could properly understand the circumstances that had driven him away from mankind or those which had brought him nearer to it again.
A softly uttered exclamation drew his attention to a short, slender figure that stood at the counter, shaking one hand vigorously. He caught the corner of her eye and the woman turned, smiling sheepishly with one finger tucked into her mouth. It was difficult to be certain in the dim light, but it seemed that her cheeks were flushed slightly beneath their caramel hue.
"Sorry, Father," she said. Her accent was not quite Cockney, perhaps colored with a hint of the Near East. Her features truly hinted at neither. "This company's beginning to rub off on me."
Imam offered a broad and genuine smile. "There is no need," he replied. Then, "I don't believe we've met."
She lifted a red plastic mug from the counter and sipped at it before making her way to the table. Setting it down carefully, she slid into the seat across from Imam and extended a hand.
"Laila Rasco ," she said. He took her hand and she squeezed briefly, then released him and wrapped her hands around the mug. "I had watch duty when you all came aboard. Didn't have the chance to say hello." She paused, smiling. "Hello."
Imam nodded. " A pleasure. I am Al-Imam Jalil Midhat. My companions have taken to simply calling me Imam."
The woman raised the cup to her lips, watching him over the top as she sipped at its steaming contents. Leaning forward, she set her elbows on the table and continued to regard him with eyes the color of dark honey. "Isn't that always the way?" she laughed softly. "I think it's supposed to be an indication of easy familiarity or something. Not a soul on this ship without a nickname. Cappy, Manny, Mad Marty. Sounds like a bloody boy's club. They should build themselves a tree fort in the hold."
"Men seem to feel the need for games long after women have outgrown them," he replied.
"Oh, I like you," she nodded, a broad smile turning her eyes into shining crescents. She took another sip from the mug and set it down. "How awfully rude. Can I get you something?"
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
Laila raised an eyebrow. "Just hanging about the Mess, then?"
"It was quiet."
"Never for long." As though on cue, a low rumble passed from one end of the Mess to the other, followed by a high-pitched wail. Laila gave a short laugh. "You see?"
"What was that?" asked Imam, laughing nervously along with her.
"Well, a few months ago there was a leak in one of the coolant chambers," she began. "We knew about where it was but couldn't pinpoint it since it was rather small, hence our taking so long to notice it in the first place. Anyway, Bender, in his brilliance, decided to up the pressure in the cooling system so the leak would spray and we'd be able to find it. Sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea, right?
"So, we cranked up the pressure, and found the leak and Bender fixed it and everything was fine and dandy again except that ever since then, the pressure has been off and every once in a bit it makes that horrible noise, sometimes in the wall right next to my bunk and it just about sends me through the roof every time. Sometimes I think I'm just a bit high strung for this job."
"Why do you stay on?"
She took a deep breath and sighed heavily, staring into her cup.
"Sometimes I wonder."
"Not like they didn't warn you, my man."
"Stop laughing you asshole!" Manny shouted as he leapt to his feet and looked himself over. The only visible damage was a broad strip of cloth missing from the leg of his jumpsuit. "Fucker almost took my leg off!"
"Chickenshit," chuckled Bender, squatting to examine the tear. "Didn't even draw blood."
"Yeah?" asked Manny, glancing downward hopefully. No blood. Relieved, his anger returned. "Well I don't give a shit. I'm not going back in there."
"Hey, Man, why didn't you tell me you had such sexy legs?"
"You shave those things?"
Shotgun in hand, Bender stepped into the doorway of the downed craft. There was enough of the bulkhead missing above ground to fill the exposed level with the pale, washed-out light of the blue sun. Glancing back, he nodded toward the other large chunk of wreckage.
"Go help out Jasper before he throws his back or something."
Manny nodded. "Yeah." He frowned, gestured toward the ship. "You sure you've got this?"
Bender raised the gun and smiled. "Me and my pal Trigger got it covered...Legs."
"Asshole," Manny walked off, shaking his head and chuckling to himself. Bender watched his back for a moment, then ducked inside.
A quick look around. Not much left on the upper deck that they hadn't already picked through and either pulled out or discarded as junk. He kicked aside a pile of cables and twisted metal. An upended seat, torn from where it had been bolted down. Wide, dark circle of dried blood on the floor. Somebody bit it here. And how. Cappy had no interest in confirming the number of dead or the identities of the survivors, and Bender wouldn't have given half a shit either if it weren't for one thing that gave him a full-on case of the wiggins.
Packed in with the straight fares was a pod marked in bold, capital letters:
The warning was on the upper, intact half of the window, the rest of which lay scattered in pieces on the floor. Kicked out? He raised an eyebrow, peered inside. Small blood smear on one wall. Either they pulled him out and buried him or he survived the crash. No mention in the survivors' story. He wondered why, frowned, and headed aft.
More junk tossed and twisted, smashed till it wasn't worth a shit. Busted support beam, separated at the top. Dark marks on the floor. Bender's scowl deepened as he knelt to touch them and his fingers came away black. He glanced around, eyes on the floor. Nothing at first but then he spotted two partial boot prints and a small pile of...dust? He looked closer. Metal shavings.
He stood, blinking and rubbing at his eyes. The blowing dust outside had gotten into them and it still felt as though his lids were lined with sandpaper. Bender shook it off and peered around the beam. There were marks in the metal where something had scraped against it.
The prisoner survived the crash, they restrained him. Then what? There would be blood if he'd been killed here. He paced the small area, eyeing the prints. Big feet. They could easily belong to either of the men they'd picked up. If they did, why weren't the other two talking?
Bender filed it away and continued picking through the wreckage, finding little of worth. The ship was a rundown piece of crap to start with. Wrecked, it was almost a complete write-off.
He approached a hole in the upper deck that led to the next, where light was scarce. The same spot where Manny's foot had slipped and the creatures scuttling beneath had jumped up in a hurry to drag him down. Bender could hear the sound of claws scraping metal and a rapid click-click-clicking from the shadows and his grip on Ol' Trigger tightened.
Big man, he thought, grinning at his own nervousness.
On all fours Bender peered into the gap, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Black shapes became gray ones, pacing a far wall. They stopped and turned their heads in his direction, offering curious clicks and short, high-pitched whoops. He squinted and took in what he could: elongated heads; gaping, lipless mouths; teeth curved inward, meant for tearing.
"Ugly fucks, you are," he muttered. "Don't suppose you assholes know what the hell happened here?"
THE CREW of the DEATH MAIDEN
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