Jack stood in front of the door to Riddick's cabin, hand poised to knock. Sighing, she dropped it, raised it, dropped it again. Looking down at herself, she adjusted the tie on her robe and wiggled the silky material beneath it straight again. She took a deep breath and ran a hand through her hair, then knocked on the door and searched quickly for the right pose to take before it opened.
Leaning against the wall, she crossed her arms and smiled, hoping the makeup wasn't too much. As the door opened, she dropped the arms, setting one on her hip and the other along the wall. Riddick rubbed his eyes and blinked at her sleepily, then returned the smile.
"It's past my bedtime, kid," he said.
She bit her lower lip and looked up at him through her eyelashes. "Can I come in?"
He raised an eyebrow and gave her a quick once-over, pausing at her bare feet. "Cold feet?"
Jack shook her head. "I hope not."
Riddick flashed a crooked grin and held the door open. She stepped past him and turned, watching the muscles of his bare back as he shut the door. In one, swift motion, Jack pulled the knot loose on the robe and shrugged it off. She watched it fall to the floor and thought for just a moment of taking it up again and making a mad dash for the door. A chill washed over the skin not covered by her tiny, silk garment, and she wished suddenly that she filled it out better. But Riddick turned to face her and all wishes vanished but one.
Please don't throw me out don't throw me out don't throw me out...
He crossed his arms and leaned back against the door, mouth open to speak for a few moments before he finally managed words. "What are you doing?" he said simply.
"Thought you'd been around," she said, stepping toward him, painfully aware of the gooseflesh rising on her skin. He didn't move as she advanced, and soon she was inches away, silk-draped breasts brushing his arm. "Never seen a half-naked woman before?"
"Not for a long time," he replied in a low whisper. His arms unfolded from in front of him and she pushed forward, pressing the length of her body against his. Stretching upward on tiptoe, she ground her hips against his and smiled at the response she received. Her hands rose to his shoulders, kneading them gently.
"How long has it been since you've seen a completely naked one?" she purred. Taking his right hand in hers, Jack guided it to her left shoulder and used it to slip off one thin strap. "Oops," she said. She reached for the other hand but he snatched it away, grinning. Bending, he opened his mouth and took the remaining strap in his teeth, lips brushing against her shoulder as he slid it off. The only thing that held the garment up now was the pressure of their bodies.
Jack stood back and let it fall. She was tall for her age with a long, slender frame not entirely devoid of curves. Her skin was pale and freckled from old days in the sun and a long time out of it. The goose bumps returned full force and she shivered, catching his eyes as he watched her small breasts sway.
"Caught ya lookin'," she said, waggling a finger in feigned rebuke.
A hand snaked out and flicked off the lights as Riddick pushed away from the wall and stepped up to her, looming in the darkness. "Now I can look and you can't catch me," he rumbled, eyes flashing.
Laughing, Jack placed both hands on his chest and shoved hard. Riddick stepped back and the edge of the bed caught the back of both knees, sending him sprawling onto the narrow mattress. She stood over him, leaning to feel her way from his knees up, in search of the waist of his pants. As she pulled them slowly downward, her fingers brushed the hardness between his legs and she uttered a surprised squeak, drawing away quickly. Recovering, she tugged the pants the rest of the way down and kicked them away.
"Happy to see me?" she said with self-control she didn't feel.
"What do you think?"
Jack could hear the smile in his voice and it served to calm her a bit. Her hands still shook, though, as she straddled his legs and crawled onto the bed, hovering over him in the dark. His bare skin was warm on hers and she wondered if he could feel her heart pounding against his chest. Searching with her fingertips, she followed the lines of his arms, bumped gently over the ridges of his ribs, all the while catching the white sparks in his eyes as he watched her. He quivered beneath her, tense, as though forcing himself not to recoil from her wandering hands.
"Doesn't anyone ever touch you?"
"Not like this."
The words boomed in her ears and she smiled as he took her by the wrists and pulled her up to face him. Jack found his lips and pressed her own against them softly. Twisting his hands in her hair, he held her close, parting her lips with his tongue and flicking playfully at hers. She started at first, then sank into him, stroking his jaw gently with the back of her fingers.
He released her hair and made his way down, big hands grasping her hips and pulling them downward as she shut her eyes tight...
Jack came suddenly awake in her dark room, tangling herself in the sheets as she stumbled out of bed and groped blindly for the light switch. The light was dim but still harsh to her sleep-clouded eyes and she shaded them as she put her back to the cold metal wall. Her face burned and she couldn't stop her legs from shaking. A quick glance in the tiny wall-mounted mirror showed her bright red cheeks and a wide-eyed stare.
"Ohmigod," she whispered, shoulders shaking with nervous laughter. Looking her reflection in the eye, she said, "So, do you think that would actually work?"
Riddick paced the floor of his room in the dark, his bare feet padding back and forth as silent as a housecat's. He touched the walls on both ends of his path briefly before turning, increasingly aware of how small a space he occupied. He wanted to break something, but nothing breakable presented itself. Whirling mid-stride, he dropped onto the bed, bouncing roughly. He locked his fingers behind his head and fixed his gaze on the ceiling.
Think about baseball...
During his longer prison stays he'd learned that there were only two ways to avoid sexual frustration: turn it into aggression or take care of business himself when the lights went out. Sometimes both. But here he had nowhere to direct the first, and the second hadn't helped at all.
He beats the throw at first...
When they'd hauled him off to be chemically castrated along with the rest of the death row slobs on their way to Ursa Luna, they'd assured him it was for his own good and that of his fellow prisoners. Reduced sex drive meant a reduced urge to commit violent acts. In an overpopulated, understaffed facility, it was the only way to maintain order.
He had a good lead, but ooh! the pitcher fakes a throw and chases him back to the bag...
Riddick hadn't fought or argued. There was no point. Either he'd be transferred and wait out his last six months without the urge to polish the rocket, or he'd escape and the drugs that lowered testosterone production would wear off. He'd always be sterile as a mule but at least he'd be back in business. He laughed out loud. They were right -- he hadn't been involved in a single fight at Ursa. He didn't think they'd figure into their statistics the fact that he'd killed seven people on the way out.
He's got a big lead off the bag, again...and there he goes! He's stealing second!
Four weeks after his escape he began to feel the results of his body's return to its natural state. The problem was that he was too busy sniffing around for willing females to pay attention to the mercs hot on his ass. He got sloppy and he got caught. And damned if he wasn't setting himself up for it again. Since their first time together he'd met with Laila every chance he got. Met. Hell of a euphemism for what they did.
The throw looks wide...the shortstop dives but it gets past him!
They'd grown more daring as they continued to fly beneath everyone's radar, brashly moving their activities from narrow maintenance corridors and unused storage rooms to Riddick's own quarters. Whenever Cappy took watch, they took their time. What had begun as frantic rutting was starting to turn into something that made Riddick uncomfortable. But not uncomfortable enough to stop it.
The runner digs for third...
Laila was frustrated after years in a relationship grown comfortable and static. There were no surprises for her, anymore. But he was a surprise, and she'd been treating him like her favorite new toy on Christmas morning; unwrapping him with enthusiasm and playing with him until his batteries ran out.
The centerfielder comes up with the ball...the third base coach is waving the runner in...
She couldn't get enough of him, and despite the fact that he was digging himself in deeper when he was already in shit up to his knees, he would give her what she wanted. Like Jack's blatant adoration, Laila's attentions warmed something inside him. He wasn't sure what, exactly, but he knew that he liked it and didn't want it to stop.
Here's the throw from centerfield...
It was too late to break it off, anyway. She would be angry, and there was no good angle to that for him. Way to rationalize keeping your wick wet, Dickey, he chastised himself.
Looks like it's gonna be close...
He glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes before Cappy's shift, and right on time, Laila's rapid footfalls started down the hall and pounded past his door.
There's a collision at home plate but the catcher holds on to the ball...
Shit. Thinking about baseball never worked, anyway.
* * *
"Can I talk to you for a minute, Jack?" Reggie held up two thin bars of chocolate with dark brown wrappers. "My private stash."
"Sure," Jack laughed and set the book she'd been reading on her lap. The prize of Reggie's collection, a thick, yellowed copy of Les Miserables. With few other ways to kill time, it was the ninth book she'd borrowed.
"Kind of heavy for somebody your age, isn't it?" Reggie smiled and hoped she didn't look too nervous. The folded paper settled in her left pocket like a chunk of lead and she felt the nerve to bring it up sinking beneath its weight.
"It's not too bad," Jack shrugged. "Well, except for the fact that it takes like, I dunno, fifty-something pages before you even meet the main character." She paused, tracing the picture on the cover with one finger. "Can you believe they locked the poor shmuck up for nineteen years just for trying to steal a loaf of bread?"
"Actually it was only for five," said Reggie, watching the girl's gaze intensify as she touched the figure of Cosette. "They kept tacking on years every time he tried to escape."
Nodding, Jack flipped pages idly. "But he wasn't a bad person, you know? Even after all that time in prison, all he wanted was for people to treat him like a man."
A short, awkward silence followed. Reggie remembered the chocolate and handed a bar to Jack, tearing open the other, herself.
"Thanks," said Jack, sliding off the outer wrapper and gently unfolding the shiny silver one inside. She broke off a piece and popped it in her mouth. "What did you want to talk about?"
Reggie met her open, honest gaze and almost reconsidered. But she'd already waited three anxious weeks with no response to her message, and she thought it was important enough to risk asking Jack to find out if there was a murderer among them.
"About one of the passengers that was on the ship with you," she replied, keeping her tone light. She watched Jack's reaction carefully, but was met with an expression that seemed curious, and nothing more.
"I was traveling by myself," Jack shrugged. "I didn't really meet anybody til after the crash."
"There was a..." Reggie started again, then, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. "Here." She pulled the sheet of paper from her pocket , unfolded it and held it out. Blushing, Jack took it and smoothed it out on the table in front of her.
"I don't know why I kept it," she said, shaking her head. "Souvenir, I guess. Kind of sick now that I think about it."
"What happened to him?"
"He's dead," she said sadly. "They're both dead."
Kicking herself for not doing this as gently as she could have, Reggie pressed on. "You're sure? Did you see it happen?"
Jack looked stunned. She bit her lower lip and nodded as her eyes shined with forming tears. "Y-yeah," she stammered. Swallowing audibly, she wiped impatiently at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I did. I saw a lot of people die."
Putting an arm over Jack's shoulders, Reggie gave her a gentle squeeze. "I'm sorry," she said. "I just wanted to be sure."
"Yeah, I understand."
Reggie released her and stood, offering what she was certain turned out to be a pathetic smile. "If you need to talk about anything, Jack, I'm here. If there's anything I can do, all you need to do is ask."
"Thanks, Doc," replied Jack with a half-hearted smile.
With one last pat on the girl's shoulder, Reggie stood and left the room, almost as uncertain as she'd been when she entered it.
They passed in the hall, Riddick slowly making his way to the mess and Laila jogging past in her tightest and brightest. Their eyes locked briefly, then he dropped his to take in the rest of her, flashing an appreciative smile as she passed.
He spent ten thoughtful minutes with a cooling cup of coffee on the table in front of him before tossing it into the sink with a sigh and heading back. What really gnawed at him was that he knew better than to think with his dick. It hadn't been in charge since he was a teenager, but once in awhile there was mutiny on the bridge and control of the ship went straight to the gunner.
When he returned to his room she was waiting for him, posed naked against the wall with a pile of yellow spandex on the floor at her feet.
"Look," she said, running her hands over her bare skin. "Peeled and ready to eat."
Riddick chuckled softly and then breathed deep, smiling at the salty-sweet scent of her perspiration. She beckoned him with a single finger, then put it in her mouth and circled her tongue around the end.
Growling low in his throat, he snatched her away from the wall and forced her roughly to the bed with the weight of his body. A small, surprised noise escaped her and she stared at him wide-eyed, opening her mouth to protest. His hand on her throat stopped her. He didn't squeeze hard, just enough to feel her pulse pounding beneath his fingers. She squirmed beneath him, pressing her hands against his chest and giving a half-hearted shove.
"I'll scream," she whispered harshly. She narrowed her eyes at him and the fear in them threatened to get him off then and there.
Riddick cracked a smile and licked his lips. "I know you will."
He moved his hand and slid quickly down her body, parting her legs with his knees. Riddick didn't take the time to tease, but wrapped his arms around her thighs and buried his face between them. He nipped at the tender pink flesh and pried boldly with his tongue as she thrashed and twisted on the sheets.
With a low, animal sound he drew back and flipped her onto her stomach. Pulling himself back up, he pinned her beneath him as he shed his clothing. Then Laila clutched at the edge of the bed and let out a ragged cry as he lifted her hips and entered her roughly from behind. He thought she was going to fight, but she steadied herself instead, rocking on all fours and slamming violently against him.
He smelled anything but fear now as she reached back and raked his thigh with her nails, hard enough to leave stinging tracks on the skin. Pulling back, he wrapped his big hands around her calves and turned her around to face him. She squealed and trembled, digging her teeth into his shoulder to muffle the sounds of her release. Riddick followed, gasping and groaning low, his face buried in the crook of her neck. Half his weight, the upward snap of her hips lifted him as they clutched wildly at one another.
When his arms gave out, he rolled onto his side, pulling her with him so they continued to face each other. Their eyes met and for a long moment the only sound in the room was that of their harsh breathing. Then Laila locked her ankles behind him and squeezed one last time before she let go and rolled onto her back.
"So who were you fucking, just then?" she asked, breathless. "I don't think it was me."
He watched her breasts quiver with the force of her heartbeat. "I could ask you the same thing."
She turned a close-mouthed smile on him. "I asked you first."
"Aw shit," he replied. "Didn't know it was playground rules."
"You don't have to tell me. I was just curious," she said, adding with soft laughter, "I'd like to thank her, though. Or him."
Another long silence passed, then Laila turned to face him again, tracing his lips with her fingers. Her playful look turned pensive and Riddick braced himself for what he knew was coming next.
"Take me with you when you go," she whispered.
He tried to look surprised.
"What about Cappy?"
Laila sighed and picked up one of his hands, bringing it up to her mouth and nipping at his fingertips. "I've been with Cappy for twelve years. For the last five he's been promising me he'll retire and settle down, maybe start a family. But I don't believe him, anymore." She rubbed gently at his palm with the pad of her thumb as she continued. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life cruising between seedy ports on this glorified garbage scow."
"You don't even know where I'm going." He sat up and turned his back on her, setting his feet on the cold, metal floor.
"I don't care. I just know I don't want to be here, anymore."
"You don't know me," he countered, glancing at her over his shoulder.
"I know enough," she replied. He remembered hearing those same words not too long ago, only they made a hell of a lot more sense coming from Jack.
"You don't know shit."
She cracked a nervous smile, and he felt a spark of apprehension rising slowly up his spine.
"Please," she said, smoothing a hand down his back. "All I'm asking you to do is get me away from him. I'm afraid to do it on my own." She paused, drawing up close to him and nuzzling his ear. He resisted the urge to pull away and waited for the rest of the sales pitch. "I'll pay you, if that's what you want."
He shook his head. "I'm not a divorce lawyer."
"But you're a big, strong man," she purred. "And that should be enough."
"Why don't you ask Bender?"
"Because Bender's a prick," she said flatly.
Riddick suppressed a laugh. He'd probably turned her down, for one thing or the other.
Laila rolled off the bed and scooped up her clothing, slipping back into it almost hurriedly. He didn't like the way she moved, keeping her eyes on him and putting distance between them as she dressed.
"How about this, then," she said. Her eyes were steely but her hands trembled and her voice caught more than once as she continued. "You help me out and I don't tell anyone who you are, Richard."
Of all the emotions that nailed him at once, anger muscled its way to the surface first, but he shoved it back and kept his expression flat and his tone measured.
"You think you're pretty fucking smart, don't you?" he said.
To her credit, Laila stood her ground as he rose and retrieved his pants from the floor and slipped them on wordlessly, the muscles of his jaw working. But as he stepped up to her, she backed away, groping blindly for the door handle. He caught up her wrists and held them in one hand, then pulled her away from the door and pressed her to the wall.
"I swear to God, I'll scream," she said in a small, pinched voice.
"You won't have time."
She raised her quivering chin defiantly. "They'll know it was you," she hissed.
Leaning in, he brushed her ear with his lips. "I'm not gonna kill you," he rumbled softly.
"I --" she began. He put a finger to his lips and shushed her.
"I'll kill everyone else." Riddick watched the possibility settle in before he continued. "And if you do know enough, then you know that I will."
He leaned in again and nipped at her ear, making her jump.
"Then it'll be you and me, all alone together."
Laila nodded mutely and he backed off. For a moment she remained pressed to the wall, watching him and shivering like a frightened bird. He moved further away and she made a dash for the door, tugging it open and slipping out. Riddick stepped up and closed it behind her, then turned and slammed his fist into the wall as hard as he could. The impact sent shockwaves clear to his chest and feeling in his fingers was reduced to a pins and needles sensation.
Completely fucked. He could tell she'd believed whole-heartedly in his threat --far more then he did. His only hope was that she'd keep her mouth shut long enough for him to make himself scarce. And if she didn't?
Riddick took inventory in his head. The only thing that made Laila dangerous was her mouth. The Doc certainly posed no physical threat. Manny, by his own admission, was no fighter. Cappy was a scrapper but way past his prime, and Jasper was no young buck, either. The five of them together couldn't take him, but Bender might be able to do it on his own. There was the wild card, and it couldn't get any wilder. If the two of them rumbled, chances were he'd only be good for half the reward money.
And how the hell had she known? He didn't figure Jack or Imam to screw him over, and if Bender told anyone it sure as shit wouldn't be her.
Much as Riddick hated to put his faith in anyone's actions but his own, he stood the best chance of coming out on top if he won Bender's support. He'd trusted the man with his life before and even though it pained him to do so, he was going to have to do it again. But first he would talk to Imam. If the shit was going to hit the fan, he wanted to be damn sure the man knew when to duck.
Jack watched until Reggie was out of sight, then scrambled to her feet and made her way quickly toward Riddick's room. Her fingers toyed nervously with the folded sheet of paper in her pocket.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Fuck!
She hadn't really lied to Reggie about why she'd kept it. She'd tucked it away just in case it was the only thing left to remember all of this by. In case nobody believed her when she told them she'd really been there, and in case Riddick ditched her when he got the chance just like she figured he would. But that was before he'd told her about pack mentality.
Pack-mates take care of each other, he'd said. Jack had accepted him even with all she'd known and it looked like he'd done the same. He'd pulled her ass out of the fire, dusted it off and handed it back to her more than once, just because she'd put her trust in him. It gave her hope that he wouldn't send her away, or leave her on a bench in some starport looking for a place to go.
But that was all straight down the shitter, now, if he knew about that stupid piece of paper and how she'd left it for someone to find. It was exactly the kind of stupid slip-up she'd promised him she wouldn't make. Jack's eyes began to sting as she twisted and turned her way through the halls, walking quickly but not running. She needed time to think. If Reggie knew for sure that it was him, then she knew that Jack was lying when she said he was dead. But if she already knew, and figured Jack was hiding something, then why would she risk asking those questions and tipping her off the way she had?
Biting her lip, Jack turned around and scanned the hall behind her. Empty and quiet. Another dumb move narrowly avoided. She tried to think of ways to avoid mentioning the paper at all, but she couldn't work anything out and besides, he would know if she was lying to him.
Near tears, she rounded the corner, clutching her book to her chest like a shield. She was three steps down the hall when Riddick's door swung open abruptly and her heart skipped a beat. Jack stood glued to the spot, her throat gone suddenly dry. What would she say?
But Riddick didn't emerge from the room. Instead, Laila slipped out, her hair and clothes disheveled. She turned wide, tear-filled eyes on Jack for an instant, then dashed down the hall, her running shoes squeaking on the metal as she cut around the corner. The door closed behind her and Jack stared at it for a long moment as what she'd witnessed slowly began to register.
The book dropped from her hand, thudding loudly on the deck as Jack wheeled and bolted away.
The Nebulas boasted the highest percentage of old-timers in the Free Space Marine Corps. When Riddick asked why they'd lasted so long, each man gave the same answer: "Mad" Marty Bender.
Bender had been with the company for years, outliving three commanding officers, and was the only survivor of the original group of men to which he'd been assigned. The Nebula Corps, around for fifty-three years when Riddick came to them, hadn't earned their reputation as fearsome, undefeatable and indestructible until Bender assumed command. His men loved him. They worshipped him. They obeyed him without question. It took only one mission for Riddick to understand why.
Each man got a look at the big picture, the entire scope of the mission and how his part fit in with everyone else's. Their lives were in each other's hands, sometimes literally, and in order for each man to survive he had to make sure the others did as well. Forced to rely on one another, they came to do so willingly. If there was a chance for Riddick to live out his "sentence", this was the place to do it.
Riddick wasn't the only ex-con, either. Five others had been assigned to Bender's command, and each had fallen in with the men who had volunteered to be there, indistinguishable from dedicated career soldiers. Problems in the unit were solved in the unit and outside authority rarely entered their world. They lived in constant close quarters, got piss-drunk and stoned together, talked about women and what they would do when they earned their freedom. Bender told them they were a family and they believed it. The most unlikely band of brothers Riddick had ever seen.
For the Nebs, shore leave was infrequent at best, and for Riddick, it was allowed only at the end of a very short leash. The watchful eye of The Man took the form of the Captain as a drinking buddy, which Riddick decided wasn't all that bad. Bender knew the best bars and whorehouses wherever they docked, and they seemed to know him, too. Friendly receptions and all the extras for free for the Captain and his pal. And Bender didn't try to disguise his presence as anything but what it was. The first time they hit solid ground after Riddick's transfer, the man put an arm across his shoulders and said, "I don't fire warning shots."
He shouldn't have bothered. Riddick didn't want to escape. For the first time in his life he was a part of something greater than himself, and was able to put what came naturally to good use. He was respected and accepted by these men, even liked. If he didn't get dead, he would no longer be an ex-con but an ex-marine with a whole new life. He might even stick around, make a career of it. The only snag was that while he'd changed considerably, his newfound sense of honor and purpose sometimes failed to hold back his inner juvenile delinquent and it got him in trouble.
Three missions behind him, the last one completed only days before, Riddick was happy as hell to see Fort Benchley. It was only a few miles away from Bolshier-Lau, a popular fuel stop and shore leave destination along the Wilkinson Corridor. Despite the high concentration of guys itching for a pissing contest they would find there, he was looking forward to the break.
The Captain, as was his custom, set the drop down where he damn well pleased. It was a darkly shining, wicked-looking craft dubbed the Khadija after the woman who'd popped Bender's cherry when he was thirteen. Bender said the ship reminded him of her, which made Riddick wish he'd known her, too.
A crowd watched them land and march down the ramp like a conquering army. That's how it was everywhere they went. They gathered at the bottom of the ramp, waiting patiently for the Captain's short, ritual lecture.
"Don't catch anything that'll make your dicks fall off, Gentlemen. Dismissed."
The others dashed to a waiting transport headed for town. Riddick started after them but Bender put a hand on his arm. "Oh no, my man. We're walking."
"Sign says it's four miles, Boss." Riddick winced at the word and wondered why he'd even said it.
"Boss?" chuckled Bender, lowering his glasses to meet Riddick's eyes. "You still in the pen, boy?"
"We're on leave, Dickey. Keep calling me Captain, I'll forget my fuckin' name."
Bender started walking, boots crunching white gravel on the side of the road. He went ten paces before Riddick trotted to catch up. He didn't ask why they were walking. No point. Either Bender would tell him or he wouldn't. The lights of Fort Benchley faded into the darkness behind them and Bender slipped off his glasses, tucking them into a front pocket. Riddick watched his eyes shine as he flicked them over the wide, empty lots on either side, then turned them back to the road.
Grass rustled in a light, sweet-smelling breeze. Riddick inhaled deeply and let out his breath in a soft, quiet sigh. Clean air, not recycled, cooled or filtered. Entirely absent was the scent of cold, metal walls and machinery, and he began to appreciate Bender's decision to make his way to town on foot.
They walked in comfortable silence for just under an hour. The lots gave way to sparse suburban housing, most of it under construction, and eventually the road passed through a man-made canyon between apartment buildings and small businesses. Downtown was cramped and dirty, with narrow streets tinted loud colors by neon signs announcing everything from a beer called Shiner Bock to "The Cleanest Brothel in Bolshier-Lau". The gutters were clogged with litter and the streets crammed with half-naked prostitutes of both sexes and their customers waving money from the windows of cars.
Side-stepping a constant stream of propositions, they stopped in front of a place with metal grates on the narrow windows of a too-bright Oriental facade. A red, blinking neon sign proclaimed its name to be "Dragon Lyn's". Bender pushed the doors open wide and Riddick followed him into a dimly lit room much wider than it looked from the outside.
A dark wood bar ran almost all the way down one wall to the back, ending just short of a red and gold beaded curtain hung across a broad doorway. There were several small, round tables with four chairs each, most of them filled. Riddick glanced toward a group of men in uniform lounging at a pair of tables in a dark rear corner. One of them lifted his drink in their direction and the others laughed. He watched them for a moment, squinting through the smoke at their insignia as he followed Bender to the bar.
They were met by a tall, slender blonde with perfectly sculpted hair that reminded Riddick of antique black and white pictures of movie stars he'd seen when he was a kid. She wore a tight-fitting red silk dress embroidered with intertwined dragons and held together by a long row of closely-set buttons down the front, smoothing down breasts that he guessed were spectacular when set free. Her skin was smooth and white, but wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and the edges of her mouth told him she was probably older than she looked.
She smiled at Bender and leaned across the bar to kiss him. Riddick turned his eyes back to the men in the corner, surprised by his own embarrassment. They were watching him, leaning together to speak to one another over the din. He snapped his head around at quick motion in the corner of his eye and saw "Dragon Lady" land a loud, open handed slap on the side of Bender's face. Grinning, he nudged Riddick with an elbow. "She wants me."
Riddick nodded and the woman flashed him a smile, revealing perfect, white teeth. She opened two bottles and set them on the counter. "On the house, soldier boys."
"Thanks a million, sugar," Bender smiled in return, his look warm despite the artificial ice in his eyes. The woman gave Riddick a lingering once-over, then headed to the other end of the bar.
"You wanna know why we walked?" Bender asked suddenly.
"I said, do you wanna know why we walked?"
"I think I understand," he replied.
Bender regarded him for a moment, eyes glimmering. "You don't know the half of it, man," he said. "I was born on a medical frigate somewhere in the Dosojin Corridor. Didn't see the ground close up til I was around five, haven't seen it much, since then, either."
He paused, and Riddick noted, "You been busy showing it to other guys."
Laughing loudly, Bender nodded. "Hey, I'm a generous fucking guy." He took a long swig from the brown bottle and shrugged. "I've spent more time in space than a frigging comet, you know, so whenever I can, I plant my feet on terra firma. It's stupid, I know, especially while the other guys dash into town and get their hands on all the hot dollies first, right?" He gave a short laugh. "Good thing I've got my own stash."
Riddick cracked a smile. "You gonna share?"
"Told you, I'm a generous fucking guy."
Bender turned his attention back to the blonde behind the bar, and Riddick put his back to the counter. He watched the men in the back as they laughed and talked loudly, leering, hooting and adjusting themselves when the china-doll barmaids passed their tables.
"Base security from Benchley," said Bender, following his gaze. "They're like monkeys. Don't make eye contact and chances are they'll stay in their corner, pick their asses and fling shit at the passers by."
They laughed out loud, saluted the men with their beers and then downed them quickly.
"I gotta take a leak," said Bender, slamming the bottle down. "'Nother round. On me."
Bender disappeared through the beaded curtain and Riddick flagged down the bartender. When she turned his way he pointed at the empties and held up two fingers.
The hoarse squeal of wood on wood turned his head in time to see the men rise from their seats and head across the room, moving aside chairs and patrons with equal disregard. Riddick sized them up. There were seven -- four big bruisers, a couple of lean, angry-looking bastards, and a tall kid with a single gold bar on his collar. The big men lumbered, slow and steady, too bulky for their own good; the others might have the speed, but their manner held more bravado than bona fide balls.
Riddick took a long, slow pull on a fresh beer before he turned and leaned his elbows against the bar. The men spread out and formed a semi-circle, penning him in.
He studied the man in the lead, the blonde-haired kid with the lieutenant's bar. He didn't look much more than twenty, baby faced and gangly with a frame that showed the promise of filling out in a few years. Despite the back-up, his hands trembled and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. The muscles in his jaw worked and his arms settled stiffly at his sides, ending in white-knuckled fists. His lips twisted into a humorless smile as he regarded Riddick.
"You must be Mad Marty's new girl," he said.
"You know you're the only bitch for me, Johns."
The kid froze and Bender stepped past him, back to his place beside Riddick. He snatched up a new bottle by the neck and took a short swallow. Their eyes met and Bender shook his head. "Don't try to stare me down, Willie," he said flatly. "You'll sprain something."
Riddick took his cue from the Captain and remained at ease, but part of him couldn't help thinking of old prison scraps. A line of men, smug and swaggering, paraded in his memory, reenacting that final smirk, shove or taunt that snatched away his restraint and landed him in a cramped, dark box.
"What do you want, Johns?" shrugged Bender, leaning against the counter. "Look at you. Sweating, breathing hard...Do you wanna fight me or fuck me?"
There was laughter from the men around them and Johns' eyes filled with fire. "You and me. Right now."
Fight and accept the punishment for establishing your position and defending your life, or don't, and invite humiliation, ridicule and further violence? The choice was clear in a world limited by walls and guards and the strict timetables of faceless superintendents. But now, when he was the closest he'd been to real freedom since he was a kid, he wasn't sure of the rules.
Riddick glanced at Bender, looking for a clue, and saw calm confidence with not a hint of anger.
"Give me a fucking break."
Johns stepped up, coming within arms' reach. "They ain't shit," he said, to his nervously shifting companions. He turned back to Bender and pointed. "You ain't shit, and I'll prove it right now."
The other guys bought it and Riddick saw them tense to make a move. Bender flashed him a blue-white glance as he set his bottle on the bar. Their eyes met for a brief instant, but it was enough.
Johns nodded, triumphant, and headed for the door. The other men waited for Riddick and Bender to follow and surrounded them as they made their way to the parking lot.
"This happen a lot?" asked Riddick.
"He's got a burr up his ass," explained Bender. "About a year ago, he washed out of the program, four weeks in. His rich daddy bought him a shot at it and I only let it go to set an example." He shrugged, adding with a quiet chuckle, "Well, that and I figured I'd enjoy watching the candy-ass suffer."
"Yeah, I did."
In the parking lot, the men had formed a loose circle, with Johns waiting in the middle.
Bender spread his arms. "Alright," he said. "Let's get it over with. I came here to get drunk and get laid, not dance with you ugly fucks all night."
Obliging, Johns swung at him. His fist encountered only air as Bender ducked it, then straightened, sending out a quick, forceful, left-handed jab that caught Johns to the right of his nose and sent him sprawling on the pavement.
"That's why you washed out," said Bender evenly. "Because you don't fucking think."
The crowd flowing from inside the bar didn't have time to gather before Bender turned and walked away. Following, Riddick paused at the door to watch Johns' stunned buddies lift him and set him on his feet. He pushed them away angrily and fixed his hate-filled gaze on Riddick, who chuckled, blew him a kiss, and headed inside.
THE CREW of the DEATH MAIDEN
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