The dull whump of the first distant explosion could be felt beneath the crumpled hull. Duncan rested his head against the skin of the ship and tried to gauge how far off it was. It would be one of the ones on the perimeter; it sounded like it had come from the direction of the river. They would have taken the trail rather than walk across the grass in the dark.
There were tripwires all around the ship but he knew that they would be more careful after the first explosion. He had no idea if it had taken anyone out, or how many if it had. It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter, not if Shapiro was in charge. He had seen Shapiro in action and the big merc was relentless.
Shapiro would pull back and reassess the situation, and then the assault would continue in earnest. It was only a matter of time. The silence stretched out for what felt like hours; he didn’t bother to look at his watch, it wouldn’t help to know just how much time had passed, or how little. All it would do is heighten the claustrophobia and make him do something stupid. He had to play for as much time as he could.
He could feel them out there, in the forest. They would carefully test the perimeter and they would, given enough time, find and disable several of the tripwires. They wouldn’t find them all of course, the traps were too varied, too many. A few more of their number would be killed, and then they would be within striking distance of the ship itself. It was only a matter of how many, and who, were left.
An untold time passed and there was another dull thud, closer this time. He turned to look at Johns, who hadn’t moved from where he had stood ages ago, against the bay doors. There wasn’t much light in the cabin but it was enough to see that Johns had gone pale; if he stayed there much longer he wouldn’t be able to move at all. Fear could drive a man, but not forever, and Johns was near the breaking point.
‘Tharn.’ It was an old word, an ancient word, from a story his father had told him years ago. About rabbits of all things; he had never seen a rabbit. They would freeze in the face of danger, if there was nowhere to run, and death would fall on them. Johns would end up like that soon if they stayed where they were much longer.
He looked over his shoulder at the dim figure of the injured merc, braced against the hull with his weapon. The man panted and he was slicked in a sheen of sweat; whatever the medic had given him for pain wouldn’t hold him much longer. The medic was an even fainter figure, as he moved among the rest of the wounded. He pulled a scrap of a sheet over a man’s head and his own head lowered. It was faint but the whispered words of the twenty-third psalm echoed in the still space. They had lost another man.
Duncan was a realist; he had killed too many men to be anything else. Death came when it came and there wasn’t much that could be done but fight and hope that death took the other guy. Not everyone here would make it. The injured mercs would never leave the ship, they would die here, and he knew that the medic would die with them, rather than leave.
He looked across at Johns again and knocked softly on the hull to catch his attention. Johns was beyond the point of being startled, his head swung lazily in his direction, the eyes wide and white. He was terrified, but he wasn’t gone yet. He crooked his finger and waved Johns over, he didn’t want to speak aloud, not with what he had to say.
Johns crept over from the other side of the bay doors, knuckles white on his weapon. Duncan reached out for his shoulder when he was close enough and pulled the tech close. It wasn’t the first time that Duncan had been in this situation, or one like it. He could feel Johns shift towards him and rest his weight against Duncan briefly before he pulled himself back a little.
He needed the contact, just to prove he was still alive, that he wasn’t alone, but he hadn’t fallen apart yet, he was just afraid. They both crouched as another explosion ripped through the forest, even closer this time. Clods of something hit the sides of the ship wetly, and Duncan half listened to that, and listened to Johns as well. His breath was quick, but some of the color had come back to his face. Frightened, but less frightened with Duncan nearby.
He tapped Johns’ elbow and signaled for him to follow and he crept along the side of the ship to the gun turret. It had been smashed to hell when they had made their emergency landing and could no longer be used as a weapon, at least not without a major overhaul. But it had sheared loose a portion of the hull when it had hit the trees on the way down. There was a section ripped open, very close to the forest floor, and Duncan crouched down next to the gap.
Shapes flitted through the forest silently; they had clearly agreed on a strategy before they got this far, because they said nothing to each other. It was too dark to see if they were using hand signals but Duncan assumed that they would be. He got comfortable on the ground, his weight shifted from side to side, until he could hold the weapon without strain in the cramped space.
He focused on one figure and then another through the sights, while he absently began to speak to Johns. “I’ll need you to reload for me and to keep me in weapons once the shooting starts.” Duncan looked up from his place on the floor; Johns hadn’t let go of his weapon and in all likelihood he no longer knew it was there. Duncan watched him as he dragged a crate over from where they had gathered the weapons earlier.
“Lay them out like this…” Duncan had Johns set out the order of weapons, with their ammo. Johns’ hands shook less when he had something to do. “Sniping weapons first, I want to take out as many as I can quietly before they catch on. Then we’ll need something a little faster.”
“They’ll attack us harder then, right?” Johns’ voice trembled, barely more than a whisper, as he lay down on the ground. He looked down at the collection of weapons that lay between them; it didn’t look like so much when it was all laid out like that. He shut his eyes and tried to press into the floor even more. He had never been so afraid in his whole life. “Duncan?…”
Duncan glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He didn’t normally care enough to comfort people; he was a killer, a predator, and had spent his life surrounded by men much like himself. He didn’t know what to say to the kid to make his fear less. Normally he wouldn’t give a damn about it either, he thrived on fear, but Johns was a good kid.
He thought of all of Bishop’s secretaries. Maybe it wasn’t the kindest comparison to make, but he knew he would never say it out loud. Bishop had hurt a lot of those women, not physically, but emotionally. Bishop had belittled and frightened them. When Duncan talked to those women, one of the things he spent time on was comfort, so he comforted Johns.
“We’re going to get through this Johns.” He angled up on an elbow to look Johns right in the eye as he whispered across the space between them. “I need you to hear me, to listen carefully. We. Will. Get. Through this.” He leaned in closer until he nearly whispered in Johns’ ear. “I want you to accept that no one else here will, can you do that?”
Johns moved to turn back and look at the others; the injured merc that now slumped low against the bulkhead on the other side of the bay. He drifted in and out of consciousness. The medic sat beside the man that had just died a short time ago. Duncan reached out so that he would stay still and Johns stopped, his eyes clenched shut. He looked as though he would cry; if he did, Duncan knew that he would fall apart, and if he did, he wouldn’t live. Duncan was surprised at how badly he wanted Johns to pull himself together.
Johns froze, and Duncan couldn’t hear him breathe. Duncan didn’t breathe either; he just watched Johns and waited. The spot between Johns’ eyebrows unbunched as he began to breathe again. He lowered himself back to the ground beside Duncan, his eyes still closed. “Tell me what you need me to do.”
Duncan reached out and rested his hand on Johns shoulder for a moment just as another low whump sounded across the forest floor. Very close this time. Johns tightened but otherwise made no sound, his mind made up. The bay filled with the scent of fresh blood and Duncan looked up. A rivet had blown free with the concussion and had killed the armed but injured merc. At least he had likely been unconscious when it had happened.
Duncan squeezed Johns shoulder once more before he lowered back to the firing position he had taken earlier. He could hear the screams from outside and knew that the last explosion had taken at least a couple of their men. If he could kill a few more it might be enough.
A shape flitted across his sights; he waited until the one shape became a clump of shapes that gathered out in the trees. He took one shot and then another, and another. He had to be quick as the shapes clumped together briefly, until a hard voice barked out and told the men to scatter, to put distance between them and the ship.
That would be Shapiro. Duncan didn’t like it that Shapiro had managed to stay alive, but he knew that he wouldn’t get that lucky. The big merc barked a few more orders and the forest returned to relative silence. “Change.” Duncan whispered the order and was pleased that Johns handed him the next weapon. No matter how terrified he was, he pulled it together when it was needed. “You’re doing okay, Johns.”
Johns didn’t look at him, just took the sniping rifle from him and reloaded it. Duncan smiled inwardly at that too, that he did it without being told. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Johns lined up the weapons again.
The shapes faded out amongst the trees and Duncan knew that it would only get harder from here on out. Johns peered out into the quiet, his ears strained for the slightest sound. He was no Duncan, but he could do this, he could listen. As a tech officer it was one of the few things that he knew he could do well. The shape flitted closer to the ship and clarified; Johns tried to press closer to the floor but he couldn’t ignore the high-pitched whine when it hit.
Johns scrambled over the weapons and flung himself over Duncan and covered him with his body. The explosion ripped through the ground right outside the ship and drowned out the sound of Johns’ sharp scream. The sound died out quickly until Johns’ panicked breath was all that Duncan could hear.
Duncan lay still; Johns had risked his life for him, had flung himself across his body when he heard the whine of the charge. “I’m okay Johns, you?”
Johns gasped and scrambled off Duncan’s back after he muttered a stream of apologies. Duncan reached out to steady him before he scrambled off too far and repeated his question. “You okay?” He watched as Johns fumbled around to check his body for injuries; he watched too, but kept still as he did so.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Johns eased back to the floor beside Duncan, his eyes downcast. He whispered ‘sorry’ again and lay frozen beside Duncan.
Duncan fired off a quick burst through the gap. The weapon was louder than the sniping rifle he had just fired, it wasn’t meant for stealth. He dropped three more of the villagers before they disappeared back into the forest again. He scooted back from the gap and rested against the bulkhead to look at Johns. “We have to go, Johns.”
Johns looked back at the medic, at the dead merc, at the other injured mercs. Duncan could see the hesitation and he reached out to touch Johns shoulder again, more gently this time. “We can’t do anything for them.” He stood and pulled Johns up with him. “We weren’t all gonna make it anyways, Johns. If we don’t get out now we’ll die here with them, you don’t want that, do you.”
Johns expression hardened as he held Duncan’s gaze. His eyes closed and he nodded, before he stooped down to pick up three of the weapons from the ground. “All right.” He licked over a spot on his lips and looked sheepishly at the floor. “I don’t know how much good I’ll be to you, but I’ll listen, and I’ll do what you tell me to do.”
Duncan slung two of the weapons across his chest and looked at him. Johns stood before him submissively; his eyes downcast, as he waited to do anything that Duncan told him to do. Duncan took in everything about the kid, a kid that had just flung himself overtop of him to save his life without a flicker of hesitation. He stepped forward, cupped the back of Johns head, and let his forehead rest against his. “Don’t be afraid, Johns. What happens now is in the hands of fate, and I don’t think we’re fated to die here. You know that too, you’ve felt the same thing. We just have to last until Riddick gets here.”
Johns looked up and the two men stood eye to eye for a heartbeat. Duncan ruffled through his hair and let him go, his hand trailed down to his shoulder to turn him away from the gap in the hull. “Give me a minute, and then we’ll head out that way.” Duncan went back to the gap and crouched down over the two weapons that remained there. He lodged them both into the earth at the edge of the gap, where he had lain earlier, and set them to fire on full auto. They would expend their clips in about four or five minutes; just enough time.
Once the burst started, Duncan pulled Johns with him back to the large bay doors, their only other way out. He pushed Johns behind him as he cracked the bay doors, already lowered to a firing crouch. He swept the weapon in an arc and then stepped out. When he was sure that it was safe he pulled Johns out with him.
Shouts and cries could be heard from the other side of the ship. The gunfire wouldn’t offer cover for the full five minutes. At some point Shapiro would realize what had happened and he would send men out to hunt them on the other side. He wanted to put as much distance between them and the ship as he could, to hide in the forest until dawn.
He looked up, at the palest light that slipped in rays through the trees. Duncan didn’t know why it gave him hope but it did. He only hoped that enough time had passed, and that Riddick would return. That Riddick wouldn’t return wasn’t an option.
The forest quieted around them as they slid through the trees, to head for the grassland beyond. The villagers had taken the path by the river; he couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t head out into the grass for them, but he didn’t think they would. Shapiro might force them to. Their path cleared before them as day broke. That it would be easier to hunt them was a thought it did no good to entertain.
Johns heard the sounds of pursuit before Duncan, a quick whine of gunfire, and whispered Duncan’s name. “Save it, run kid. We have to reach the grassland.”
They both set off at a run, and sacrificed stealth for speed. “And then what?” Duncan didn’t answer. He didn’t have an answer. They darted out across an open patch of forest floor, the grassland a few steps away.
Duncan didn’t hear the shot because his entire focus was on the villagers that Shapiro had sent to flank them. The villagers darted amongst the trees and if they reached the grassland before them, Duncan and Johns would be cut off. One of the villagers lowered to a crouch and took aim. If he took the shot he would drop Johns, who was clearly in his sights.
Duncan dove for him and slammed hard into Johns’ back, to drive him to the forest floor. The air whuffed out of Johns’ lungs but he otherwise stayed still. Duncan ground his teeth and suppressed a roar as the bullet tore through the muscle of his thigh. He rolled off of Johns’ back and made an effort to pull the kid up but Johns was already on his feet, the weapon out. A few quick pops and the villagers were dead. Johns now held him up. “Fuck! They fucking shot you!”
Duncan chuckled, it was out of place but that didn’t matter. He couldn’t help it anyway. Johns didn’t see the humor in it. “Yeah kid, they shot me. We have to keep moving.” He knew that Shapiro wouldn’t be far behind. Johns grabbed Duncan’s arm and pulled it over his shoulder. He struggled under the weight but didn’t let up; he pulled and dragged Duncan across the open ground for the grassland.
Copyright © January 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx