Jack didn’t breathe. Everything slowed down and she saw her life in a series of moments. Pain, and more bitterness than she should ever have known. Broken and battered, often with nothing left but defiance and the sheer will to get back up, to fight. Out of spite if nothing else.
One moment upon the other until she stood, starved, dirty and homeless. Behind Riddick as he fought, restrained, on the slip outside the Hunter-Gratzner, and she finally knew who she was. Knew what her life was meant for. From that moment on, she was Jack fucking B Badd, and she wouldn’t live in fear. And if ever she was afraid, she’d never be defeated by it.
She’d survived twelve years of hell. She’d survived the crash of the Hunter-Gratzner. She’d survived hammerheads that wanted to eat her and leave her bones to turn to dust on some distant planet that no one would ever know. She wasn’t about to go out scared by a waterfall.
Her crazy grin widened; whatever happened, it would be a hell of a ride. Everything clarified. The roar of the cataract as it thundered over the edge with force enough to crush the ship to sodden splinters on the sharp rocks she imagined below. The swirls of mist as they first rolled over the deck and then cleared; the air before her clear again with the startling clarity that was like so much else here.
Johns sat by Joanne, who held Anna tightly, and Jack knew that they were both terrified. She cared about it of course, but she was beyond it, in some other place where she stood alone after everyone else had given up. Had given their kicks and screamed themselves hoarse, nothing left to say anymore.
She wasn’t alone though. Duncan had stayed at the wheel with her. In her newfound clarity, she could hear his heart pound, his breath in quick pants, his knuckles as white as hers. He had stayed too.
Riddick would have stood by her, and now Duncan stood by her. Her family hadn’t, all the friends she thought that she had as kids hadn’t stayed by her either. Riddick, Shazza, Theo, and now Duncan. There was nothing here that he could fight off or protect her from; there was no way he could do a thing to help if it all went wrong. But he stood with her, and after a lifetime where she had stood alone that meant more to her than she could put into words.
The Moorglade sailed out over the cataract, as though it was nothing. Maybe it was something she had done countless times before; Jack had no way to know. Jack’s heart swelled and soared over the falls; the Moorglade’s sails pulled taut by the swirl of mist beneath her, far above the river below.
The relief she felt was personal; the ship’s fate tied to her own. There was no way to prove it, but Jack knew that no one else, save perhaps Theo, could have done what she had just done. Anyone else and the Moorglade would have foundered; she knew it with a certainty that could not be shaken. All of the things that she had endured for a lifetime had made Jack strong enough to take her over the falls safely.
Jack exhaled as the ship drifted down over the river again, as she had before, to fly just above. She would have cried, if she was anyone else. Instead she gripped the wheel, her knuckles white, and grinned defiantly out over the deck. A swirl of emotions as tumultuous as the falls they had flown over washed over her, and she felt exhilarated and exhausted all at once.
Duncan caught her before she hit the deck; his strong hands held her up first and then, as Joanne ran forward, lowered her to the deck.
“Oh god, is she okay?” Joanne fussed over Jack, her hands on her throat, her forehead; she picked up her hands and dropped them, seemingly all at the same time.
Strong hands soothed over Jack’s stubble. A reflex action, as Duncan made to brush the girl’s nonexistent hair out of her eyes. “She’s a little strung out. When was the last time she had any decent amount of sleep?”
Joanne looked up, her expression at first confused and then embarrassed; often, she thought of Jack more as a man than as a young girl, and it hadn’t occurred to her to order her to go to sleep. She realized that while the rest of them could nap, Jack had stayed at the wheel, so of course she was exhausted; the strain of the flight over the falls was just the last straw. Joanne wouldn’t look up at Duncan, but whispered her answer. “It’s been a day, I think.”
That wasn’t too long, as far as these things went. Duncan had gone almost a week without sleep on one occasion, although he had taken stimulants to do it. Jack had a few cups of coffee and a lot more adrenaline. She could handle a lot, but she was still just a kid. “I’ll carry her back to…”
Jack startled awake, confused and unsure about how she had ended up on the floor. She was sure that there was no way that she would leave the bridge. Her bridge. “No! I’m fucking fine, already…”
“Let me go!” Jack struggled a little more against Duncan but he held her fast. Jack huffed, “no one else can pilot her…” Exasperated and spent, Jack rested in Duncan’s arms as he held her. For much of her life it would have been a terrifying position, and the memory alone should have had her fight, but she knew that Duncan wouldn’t hurt her. As she had known that Riddick wouldn’t hurt her.
“So you sleep out here, and either tell someone what to do, or set some sort of autopilot.” Duncan looked up at Joanne, and she nodded and scurried off without a word. Jack was left alone with Duncan again, as Johns held Anna back on the other side of the bridge. His voice dropped to a whisper just over her ear. “You need to rest, Jack. There’s no weakness in it. Even Riddick has to sleep sometime.”
Jack looked up at Duncan, and blushed when she realized that he still held her in his arms on the floor of the bridge. That she liked how it felt to be held, and it reminded her of what she felt when Riddick and Duncan had very nearly fought over her. Flushed and feverish, she struggled free.
Duncan let her go and labored to stand; he hadn’t even felt his leg when he hit the deck to stop Jack’s fall, but he felt it now. Jack wasn’t strong enough to lift him, especially not in her current state, but she held onto him until he stood at the wheel again.
Joanne fluttered behind them, to arrange a makeshift bed for Jack; it was too far away and Jack would later pull it closer to the wheel. Jack didn’t need to look at the charts, they were committed to memory, and she plotted a course for the Moorglade to follow. Duncan listened to her as she explained what needed to be done, and that she’d prefer to be woken, no matter how small the problem appeared to be.
When Joanne was finished, she went back to Anna, who wasn’t in any hurry to disentangle from Johns. Jack pulled the pile of blankets and pillows closer to the wheel and curled up at Duncan’s feet, to catch a few hours sleep.
A scout darted between two trees farther ahead, the lantern he carried aimed at the ground at his feet. The light showed a pale pink to Riddick. It would cast just a faint circle to the antelope that followed; enough to keep them on the path through the forest. The scouts moved ahead, in the trees, just ahead of the creatures’ advance, and kept them on the move at a steady pace through the dark.
Riddick looked across at Theo, on his own beast; he rode up beside Underhill, with Jacob Underhill right behind him. Occasionally, during the night, one man, and then another, would catch an hour or so of sleep, right on the back of the beasts. He watched as Theo fell asleep across the antelope’s back, amazed that he could sleep in the position.
He had spoken with Shazza frequently at first; they were so close that it was easy, but after a while they fell into an equally comfortable silence. Even after everything that had happened, it still felt so novel to feel comfortable with a woman for that length of time. His hands rested at her hips, and after a while, the gentle sway of her in the saddle made Riddick close his eyes. With her warmth against his chest and his nose buried in her neck, he slept. And dreamt.
It was like a sheet of glass that went on forever. He knew that it was a dream, because he saw it in colour; a pale blue that stretched out to the horizon. Stones stood up out of the water in places, covered in beautiful, wind twisted trees and long grass that made a sighing sound in the gentle wind. It was his, all of it, as far as his eye could see.
Imam stood beside him, whole and unburned, with his arm around his shoulder. Riddick heard him speak clearly in his mind.
“…Quiet is good for the soul, it clarifies; and shows us things we would not otherwise see. He was a prophet, and a man from the city; but he had to travel to the desert, where there was quiet, to hear the words of god…”
Riddick had tried to understand that before, but it was a struggle. Nothing in his life could make him feel anything but contempt for any god that could have created a thing like the life he had lived. But Imam had given his life for him, and made Riddick want to try. Shazza and Jack most of all made him want to believe that there could be something else, anything else. Maybe not Imam’s god, but something. Something good.
Imam vanished, his voice faded, and Riddick watched Shazza and Jack, Theo and the others farther behind them, on a stone walkway that led to the sea. Maybe god didn’t exist, maybe there was just this.
“You drooled on me.” He awoke with his lips against Shazza’s neck, his face wet. He had drooled on her; he didn’t think he had gone out that hard. He looked up at the palest rays of light above the canopy. It wouldn’t register as dawn to anyone else for at least another half an hour.
“How long was I out for?” Still astride the beast, he tried to stretch out what he could. It wasn’t as bad as he would have thought, his body had moved naturally with the animal while he slept, rather than fight against it, and he wasn’t sore.
“A few hours or so. I’m not sure, I fell asleep myself for a bit.”
His hands caressed over her hips and he felt quiet as he wondered if she dreamt, and what she dreamt about if she did. Riddick looked around at the others. They had all fanned out again as the trees thinned. Theo rode beside him, silent, a quiet nod of acknowledgement. David Underhill and his son Jacob rode on the other side of him. “The Company men?”
Theo shifted the reins of his antelope until he rode beside Riddick. “The scouts ahead are flushing them out of the forest, killing the ones they can catch. There’s an open field they have to run across to make it to the ruins, and David believes it’s the best place to take them out. The scouts and dogs killed a few, but the Company isn’t stopping to fight, no matter who falls.”
Riddick locked eyes with Theo. That the Company didn’t turn and fight, even as their men were killed, was unsettling. The Company’s ground soldiers were fierce, with more loyalty to each other than to Earth, the Company, even their own superiors. That Company would leave behind men to die said a lot for their state of mind.
They ran for something, or they would have turned and fought, it being preferable to fight in the forest than in open ground. “How many are we looking at?”
“Three men, one woman in the lead, with about a dozen others behind them. One of the scouts said he thought that a soldier in the lead might have had a radio.” No one else turned or reacted when Theo spoke, so Riddick knew that it had been something shared with all of them. Apparently, some of the scouts were also runners, relaying information back to the villagers.
“Fuck. You think they could call down a ship if they get to these ruins?” Riddick was instantly alert at the thought of the fight ahead, and he had to make an effort to relax, to put Shazza at ease.
Theo’s expression hardened as he turned away from Riddick and looked ahead again. “I’m more worried that they already managed to get a signal out, that they got off a warning somehow before the Company ship went down. I’m more worried about what might be waiting for us.”
Copyright © march 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx