Wow. Here we are already, the final chapter of Faint Premonition. Of course, this isn't the end, not by a long shot. Next up is A Matter of Instinct, which will start posting next Wednesday and stay on the same weekly schedule. After that, there's at least four 'interim' stories, and maybe more - I just had an idea today that you'll find out about when we get there. *smirks* Much thanks to BlueEyedPisces and QuietStorm Aka Narusake-Koi for your reviews. And a heartfelt welcome to the series for sgtpep93 (*salutes*) and celticshannon. Read, enjoy, and please review!
A Pitch Black Alternate Universe
"Any sign of them, old boy?" Zeke rubbed at his left elbow, half trying to get at an itch just under the dressing, then looked at Paris over his shoulder. The merchant quivered nervously.
"Nothin' since th' shots. An' the last one had t' be Bergenhaus—it sounded different from Johns' gauge." He hoped to hell his Shazza was all right. Without 'er, he was worth less than nothin'.
"They are hauling at least a hundred and forty kilos." The doc had a point; it was a lot of mass, even if they had all the adults pulling, which was both impractical and unlikely. God only knew where they'd been when the eclipse began, how far they needed to come on foot.
The prospector nodded, acknowledging Sean's comment, and then looked at the three boys. They sat side-by-side in the skiff's jump seats, murmuring in unison under th' bright light. The holy man had said their uncle was some kinda 'very important man,' but their actions were full of humility, not wealth or status.
Like Sharon; her old man might be a trillionaire, but that affected her behavior not at all. It was part of why he loved her as much as he did.
Zeke stared back out into th' darkness, propped up against one side of the hatch. They had t' make it outta this, though th' merc could die for all he cared. Twelve of 'em, a round dozen, would just fit inside the craft, though it'd get stuffy an' cramped if they were in it for long. Wordlessly, he added his own prayer to th' boys' chanting.
Rested up, we formed a line for the run. Jack had a firm hold on my belt and would act as my speedometer, as she was just barely the shortest of us. Shazza held her other hand, a torch grasped between them, Fry and Abu following in the same manner. Riddick shrugged, settling the harness around his torso, and lowered his shades. I worried about the others to various degrees, but not him; simply by being there, he proved that he could take care of himself.
I glanced warily at the creatures lining the cliff tops, sure they'd attack pretty much anything that moved at this point. The air above seethed with swooping forms darting at each other. Occasionally, they'd connect, but for the most part they rolled away from each other's tails and talons at the far end of my visual range.
"Don't look up." Somebody squeaked when the instruction came in harmonic stereo surround sound. I'd have put money on the pilot.
"Move!" I darted forward carefully, gauging the pace by the tension around my middle. The whooping and clicking intensified, the beasts anticipating a fresh meal. My breathing thundered in my ears as I fought for every molecule of oxygen.
Then the meaty impacts echoed down, followed swiftly by bits of gore. I could feel it in my hair, dribbling down my face, but stayed focused. At least my night-sight's tendency to mute colors—more so the darker it got—spared me some of the detail. My nose easily made up the difference, picking up rotting meat, probably half-digested, and the pungently coppery scent of the aliens' blood.
The ground retained the odor because it had been steeped in the ichor for one year out of every twenty-two as the gruesome creatures—I abruptly decided 'grues' would be less of a mouthful—slaughtered themselves. This was one fucked-up little planet. I'd make sure it got interdicted, maybe with a patrol ship or two to help any future stranded vessels.
The carnage only increased as we got further into the canyon. I couldn't tell how far away the fallen ribcage might be, let alone the settlement. How much longer could we keep running? I could hear a rasp in someone's breathing.
And then the first drops of rain fell, hissing as they touched open flames. No gradual increase in intensity; moments later, we ran through a downpour. The ever-growing carpet of grue bits turned into a muddy, slippery stew, making progress even more difficult.
One small misstep stopped us all, even Riddick. Shazza went down hard, bringing the girl and the blonde with her. The violent tug on my belt had me pinwheeling my arms, trying to stay upright as the imam's momentum landed him atop the others. The convict stopped just short of the pile, the power cells nearly knocking his feet out from under him.
And when the bushwhacker tried to get up, one leg refused to support her. I knelt beside her and felt at the ankle. It wasn't broken, fortunately, but it was badly sprained.
"She's not going much further under her own power." Looking around, I saw a crevice in the canyon wall just big enough for a person to squeeze through. With the probability that a river had once flowed where we stood, there might be a cave on the other side, which would make it defensible. As long as that was the only exit, at least.
"Leave." The brunette put on a brave face that didn't quite cover her despair. "You lot get outta here. Just… keep Zeke safe for me, please?"
"I'll be damned if I abandon anyone here!" The words completely bypassed the filter between my instincts and my mouth.
"He'd try to come after you anyway, even if you were already… gone by the time we told him." Jack swallowed hard before continuing, her voice quavering. "I won't lose you both like that!" The boyish pitch cracked, then disappeared entirely.
"You… you're a girl!" Fry looked completely shocked.
"What does that matter now?" A mulish expression settled on the youthful face. "What's important is how we're gonna get all of us and the cells to the skiff."
"Two trips." Abu paused. "If there is somewhere secure nearby where we can take shelter…?" I nodded slightly. "Then we make one trip to take the power cells to the settlement. Dr. O'Connell can wire them to the one that is already there, while a second trip returns to carry Ms. Montgomery."
"Not 'we.'" Attention turned to Riddick. "Me." I watched comprehension dawn on the girl's face while the other two standing adults sputtered protests.
"He's right. Both groups must be capable of defending themselves." The argument stopped, brown and gray eyes focusing on me. "Hauling those cells, he won't be able to move quickly enough if someone with him is attacked. If I don't stay here, this group remains really vulnerable, cave or no cave."
Unable to refute my logic, the pair grudgingly helped Shazza limp toward the crevice I pointed out. A few beats later, Jack gave me an odd look and followed, giving me a so far very rare moment alone with a man who was rapidly becoming an obsession for me. I leaned into his solid, warm presence, sighing as his hands moved up and down my sides, smoothing over the soaked fabric of my tank top. My hand on the back of his neck drew him down for a hard, almost desperate kiss.
"Hurry." I didn't even try to disguise the pleading in my voice. My feral side didn't want to be away from him at all, but its need to protect Jack was equally strong.
"Doin' this for you an' th' girl." The growl sounded more frustrated than angry. "Not for th' rest of 'em." Even as I nodded, he pulled me onto my tiptoes to receive a lingering, almost tender kiss. Riddick backed away slowly, fingers trailing along my arm and briefly tangling with my own before he bent to retrieve the cable harness.
Once I'd joined the others in the cave, he muscled a large rock over the entrance, sealing us inside. It was a tight fit for four adults and an adolescent. Fry began to freak out about the boulder that was now our 'door.'
"Will you shut up?" My words came out a little more sharply than I'd intended. She turned to face me, eyes wide. "It's not to keep us in, it's to keep those gruesome things out." She huddled in on herself, and I refocused. "How do we stand on light?"
The tally came to six broken bottles and two half-full ones. To make it last as long as possible, one was emptied into the other, even squeezing the liquid out of the second torch's wick. Then we crowded around the small flame, anxiously waiting for our reluctant savior to return.
I grind my teeth on th' breather. Takin' in as much O2 as it c'n put out. Legs're goin' like one'a them old internal combustion engines. Can't let the fuckin' dead weight of th' cells get bogged down in th' mud an' carrion. I barely got 'em goin' outside th' cave.
Th' cave. Eileen. Can't— won't let her down. Gotta get her an' th' kid outta this insanity. Half batshit with wantin' her, an' it's one helluva feelin'. Ain't never wanted a woman, let alone a specific one, as bad as I want her.
I weave through what's left of th' ribcage that was clipped by the 'Cat, straight through a new waterin' hole, an' up the slope outta th' fuckin' canyon. Footing's bad, an' I nearly go face-first down th' other side. Gives th' cells more momentum, though, an' I fly past a bunch of aliens snappin' at each other.
I skid to a stop at th' bottom of th' shitty little skiff's ramp, an' the bushwhacker starts lookin' around. Doc's got a bit more sense, grabs a power cell.
"Your woman sprained her ankle." Man don't look very happy as I lean over, hands on my knees. Another breather enters my sight; one'a th' holy man's boys offerin' me his. "Goin' back for 'em."
"Here." Th' little bald guy shoves his breather into my hands. "You've done more than any of the rest of us." I take it, mostly 'cause th' idiot don't look like he's gonna back down. It'd be a waste of my time t' kill him, in any case.
Fuckin' gratitude's uncomfortable, so I take off. More'n time I got back to Eileen anyways. I ain't leavin' her behind… don't wanna be anywhere but with her.
Goddamn woman, drivin' me insane.
The flame dimmed as the alcohol in the bottle dwindled. Jack had fitted herself snugly against my side shortly after Riddick left, shivering, and I'd put my arm around her. Between being soaked and having the aliens whistling, whooping, and clicking outside, the atmosphere had grown tense. At least they hadn't started working the boulder away from the cliff face… yet.
We'd both tucked our legs up, knees to our chests, to give Shazza room enough to keep her injured leg extended. She put no pressure on the ankle, but still grimaced in pain, jaw muscles bunching rhythmically. Abu crouched between her and the girl, adding a ceaseless murmur to the other noises. And Fry sat clear across the cave, as far from me as she could possibly get. She would glance at me, then look away, adding fear to the other scents she exuded. Justified fear, though, because I was just barely restraining myself, ready to lash out physically.
The flame shrank, going from orange to blue, then vanished entirely with a little 'phut!' My hand lights were already dead, and the grues seemed to sense, somehow, that we were now in darkness. The semi-hollow clunking that I'd guessed was bony heads knocking together intensified.
Jack gasped suddenly, and I followed her gaze upwards. I'd noticed the small slugs on the ceiling earlier, and now they glowed with a gentle blue light. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism against the hammerheads outside, to keep them from being gobbled up. Ironic, as I could just make out four protrusions on one end of each larva, and two on the other; left alone, they'd probably become grues themselves.
With a grin, the young girl uncapped the bottle we'd emptied earlier and began plucking the little creatures off the walls. The mouth was just wide enough for her to push them inside. The imam quickly joined the effort. Within a few minutes, it was full, and Shazza took possession for the container to scrape away the label.
Jack stood on the holy man's shoulders to get the last few larvae as I waited anxiously, ready to catch her if she fell. The second bottle ended up about two-thirds full, and it joined the other in the center of the cave floor. The sounds of fighting outside faded, and then something thumped as the boulder rocked a little. The girl clutched at the straps attached to my back-plate when it happened again, and I carefully drew my daggers at the third impact.
The stone moved to one side of the entrance, but slowly, perhaps a centimeter at a time. A talon tried to get inside, the opening too narrow. It drew back, and then I heard a grunt— a human grunt.
Pressing my face against the gap, I could see Riddick. He held the arms of a grue about his size, his hands below its wrists. It snapped at him, but couldn't reach far enough to actually connect. It paused, seeming to evaluate its strange but powerful adversary.
Quick as a lightning strike, the convict released one arm, drew a swingblade, and struck at the creature's abdomen. Entrails spilled into the mud as it collapsed, and the human moved to straddle its neck behind the head. Grasping the horizontal protrusions of its skull, he twisted. A dull crunch ended the beast's feeble struggles.
"Did not know who he was fuckin' with." Riddick spat on the corpse, then turned toward the cave. I backed up a little as he wrestled the makeshift 'door' out of the way, then flashed him an appreciative smile. One side of his mouth twitched upwards, followed by an eyebrow as he spotted our larvae lamps.
Shazza was unceremoniously tossed over his shoulder as the rest of us lined up. It was still pouring rain, but the grisly shower of carrion seemed to have stopped for the time being. Perhaps the initial bloodlust had been sated. I wasn't going to count on it.
We set out at a trot, the free settler looking supremely uncomfortable as she bounced with every step. God knew the convict had huge arms and shoulders. Jack and Fry, fourth and second in line, respectively, carried our lights, which were a gentler blue than the fiberoptics had been. They didn't force my eyes to change completely when I looked at them.
No one spoke as we moved through the canyon. The freshly broken bones went by, sending a frission of anticipation, relief, fear, and worry through me. By my best guesstimate, it would take between five and ten minutes to get to the tarmac.
The pace increased a bit as we splashed through a shallow pond, startling grues that had been drinking at its edges. A narrow gap between two groups of the creatures became our escape route. I heard them whistle and click rapidly, but we got far enough ahead to deter pursuit.
The end of the canyon looked completely different from its suns-lit state. Chunks of meat and even whole corpses carpeted the slope, but Riddick scrambled up the pile without hesitation. The pilot and the imam paused.
"What is this?" The holy man was probably talking to himself, but we all heard.
"It's a fuckin' staircase! Now climb!" The instruction came in a parade-ground bellow that the others obeyed almost immediately.
"Ick, ick, ick…" The young girl in front of me had opted to use her hands to help her climb, in addition to her feet. I didn't blame her; she was probably in the middle of a growth spurt, all arms and legs and inevitably clumsy.
The gore gave way to actual ground, turned into slippery mud by the rain. The convict stayed on his feet as he half-slid down the slope toward the settlement. The rest of us chose to go down on our butts instead of risking another fall. For some damn reason, Fry handed her light to Abu at the bottom and took off, headed for the faint but visible glow of the skiff's lights. I swore under my breath and pelted after her, Jack just managing to match my pace.
Riddick, Shazza, and al-Walid must have taken a different route, disappearing from sight quickly. Our path twisted and turned, and the moment light could be seen between buildings, the pilot put on an extra burst of speed, leaving me and the kid to bring up the rear.
The scene that awaited us on the tarmac got me upset right off the bat. Oh, Zeke holding his wife as tightly as he could and the imam speaking to his charges in rapid Arabic was fine by me. The control couch sliding forward with a 'thump' was not.
Because Riddick, my Riddick, was nowhere to be found. I hesitated. When and why did I decide that he belonged to me? Then I shook off the thought.
"Where is he?" My terse question came out plenty loud enough for them all to hear. The brunette looked at the dark-skinned man, then turned to me with downcast eyes.
"One of those big 'uns jumped us." She spoke quietly, subdued. "He told us t' keep goin' while 'e kept its attention on 'im."
"Dammit!" It was a surprisingly selfless action for the escaped convict. A hum began, the engines under each wing starting to glow. "Carolyn Fry!" She didn't seem to hear me at all, continuing the run-up on the main drives. "Docking pilot, power down now! That is an order!"
Everyone jumped at my bellow, but I got the reaction I wanted. The hum died, and I stormed into the skiff, pulling the handle that would release the pilot's seat and move it away from the console. One hand grabbed her right arm, and I hauled her to her feet.
"You spineless little bitch." I snarled at her, our faces only a few centimeters apart. "I wish you'd died and Owens had lived." She flinched and deflated at that, shoulders slumping. I grabbed the full bottle of larvae, dragging the woman with me. "Which direction did you come from, Shazza?"
"There." The prospector and heiress pointed at a dark gap between converted cargo containers. "Not too far back, but there's some turns between here and there." I nodded my thanks and headed that way, forcing the blonde to come with me. The rain made it difficult to follow the scent trail, but the incense that clung to Abu lingered enough to guide me.
I scented him as we approached a T-intersection. He'd been cut, injured, undoubtedly by a grue. The knowledge pissed me off.
At that moment, my animal side subsumed my civilized mind— not that it put up much fight— and went into what I can only describe as a blood rage. I shoved the light at Fry and pulled Sinistra and Dextra from their sheathes, the blades vibrating faintly in my grip and producing a ringing at the edge of my hearing. Then I charged around the corner, yelling at the top of my lungs.
Riddick had managed to get himself well and truly boxed in by a pair of massive grues, their heads nearly as wide and tall as his entire body. One lurked at each end of the narrow section of alley, clicking madly. His hands hung limply, stained with his own blood; I could see the swingblades in the mud and a large tear in one pants leg. He'd shifted most of his weight onto the other side.
Furious that these filthy beasts had hurt my Riddick, I dodged a whipping tail, sliced it to the bone, and leapt onto the nearest grue's back. It thrashed about, squealing and trying to shake me off in any way possible. But I clung like a limpet, slowly moving toward its shoulders.
A deft flick of my wrists and brief opening of my hands reversed the direction of my daggers. Crossing my arms above the creature's neck so that the edges faced each other, I plunged them downwards and began to close them about the vulnerable column of flesh like a giant pair of scissors. Thick ichor welled up around each blade, driving the beast into more panicked movement, but each jerk served me instead, deepening the cuts. Suddenly, the oozing on the right side turned into spurting, and the grue sank to the ground. I yanked the twinned daggers out, set their backs together, and drove them into the middle of the alien's neck. They glanced off bone, then went in hilt-deep.
With one last, weak keen, the hammer-headed creature stilled, the ribcage beneath me going a bit flat as its last breath whooshed out. The night went very, very quiet as the shriek echoed through the settlement and beyond.
I glanced back, the animal in me retreating to let the human side take over again, and saw Fry plastered against the corner I'd come around, the ghostly blue glow of the larvae making her eyes look even wider with fear than they'd been before. Ahead, the remaining beast had taken to the flat roof of a building, cautiously moving closer. But I was more concerned about the injured man who'd collapsed during my fight, lying on his side in the thin layer of mud.
I dipped momentarily as I approached, scooping up his set of matched blades and hooking them through my belt. Kneeling, I struggled to right him, despite the fact that he massed far more than I did. Even once I had him sitting up, I had to lean against him to keep him that way, stroking his scalp gently.
"Eileen?" His voice was a pained whisper.
"I'm here, babe, right here." I looked up at the pilot, who hadn't moved. "Dammit, Fry, get your ass over here and help!" Whimpering, she obeyed my hissed order, sliding along the wall with her gaze fixed on the corpse. Once she'd gotten past it, she scrambled, pulling futilely on Riddick's other arm.
"Get up, get up, get up!" I added a slight nudge to her panicky chant, and he slowly struggled to his feet. Both of us tried to support him, me ducking beneath his arm the moment there was enough room. Staggering around the dead grue, I kept a wary eye on the living one that crept along the roof's edge, tracking the movement of its former prey and the creatures all but dragging it away. When we reached the intersection, it pounced on the carcass, ripping into it in a display of gleeful cannibalism.
Hauling somewhere near a hundred kilos of injured, limping male made the trip back to the tarmac and skiff seem twice as long. Nor did it help that the blonde's period attracted a crowd of smaller aliens. As we approached the last turn, one got bold enough to swoop down and make a pass at her. Fry grunted quietly, and I smelled fresh blood; the thing had hit its mark. Still, she kept moving.
Once we got up the ramp and into the small ship, the pilot darted toward the controls, leaving me to steer the convict into a seat as he crumpled. Jack held out the open med-kit as the hatch closed, and I gave her a slight smile as I grabbed a small packet of antiseptic wipes.
The engines roared to life as I concentrated on cleaning Riddick's hands to inspect the damage. Everyone not seated swayed as the skiff lifted off, and the gravitic forces I felt told me that Fry had chosen a pretty steep ascent. Irregular thumps made the vessel shiver, probably airborne grues in our path.
The big guy's hands, apparently punctured straight through his palms, had already healed visibly and would be fine with simple dressings. The gash on his legs, where his pants had been shredded, would need stitches; the peculiar bulge beneath it, however, needed investigating first. He didn't make a sound as I probed with a pair of forceps salvaged from the geologists' medical supplies. Finally, they caught hold of a hard object, and I withdrew a large, dark triangle— a tooth from whichever creature had managed to get him.
All of the vibrations and exterior noise faded as I tied careful knots with purloined sutures and a needle. The twin-ringed gas giant loomed in front of the skiff in a deceptively beautiful vista, its edges gilded by the binary suns.
"Gonna be a lotta questions, whoever picks us up." The girl's quiet statement made me raise an eyebrow. "Could even be mercs. So whadda we tell 'em 'bout you?" She had a good point, with Riddick a potential target for anyone who wanted to make a bundle and felt like they were macho enough to take him on.
"Tell 'em…" He shifted next to me, far more alert than he'd been when we took off. "Tell 'em Riddick died, somewhere back on that planet." Stunned silence followed the answer. Feigning a re-examination of his hand, I ran my thumbs over his broad palm. He gave me the smallest of smiles, letting me know that he understood the truth behind the gesture.
"Reached the shippin' lane." The pilot's voice sounded faint and strained when she spoke after a few minutes of silence. "Act'vatin' 'stress bea… c'n…" As she trailed off, Sean jumped up and pulled the seat release. The blonde woman nearly tumbled out of the couch, limp as a wet dishrag. The priest helped the astrophysicist move her to the small section of decking not already occupied, and I crouched next to her unconscious form.
Nothing showed on her front, so I carefully rolled her onto one side. A ten-centimeter tear had been made in her dark blue shipsuit near her right kidney, the blood nearly blending into the fabric. Once the shirt was cut away— I left her bra intact, so the holy man would have no room to complain about indecent exposure— an already-swollen puncture wound oozed nastily, little black tendrils radiating from it under her skin. I dug into Sergeant Drift's kit again, extracting two hypodermic needles.
"Looks like those suckers had venom." Most of the English speakers started talking at the same time. I injected the broad-spectrum antibiotic and general antivenin, then held up a hand for silence and got it. "Zeke got immediate treatment, and the coagulant would have kept any venom from spreading. As for Riddick…" I shot him a wry look. "God only knows what all the prison system's exposed him to, what his system resists these days."
That seemed to settle the questions. I bound a gauze pad lightly over Fry's back and covered her with a blanket that Suleiman offered. I'd done what I could for her; we could only wait for our ride back to civilization.