At least someone had owned enough sense to create nice-size niches when digging out the individual bunk slots in the rock. Enough sense, or maybe compassion for the poor slobs who would have to use them.

            Webb scooted back as far as he could, which left him about a foot and a half from the edge. He could lie flat on his back with his legs straight, and still have a few inches length-wise. It was the ceiling, however, which bothered him the most. There was no way to sit up. The roof was barely thirty inches above the bedrock, giving him a severe case of claustrophobia if he stared up at it. Maybe, given a little time, he could grow used to the coffin-like enclosure. In the meantime, he'd sleep on his side as much as possible.

            There was no mattress, just a flat gel pad no thicker than his thumb. No pillow, either. The thin blanket he was allotted would do if he got chilled. Otherwise, that was the extent of his bedding.

            The guy bunking below him was named Norsh. Like Webb, he and his family were transplanted Terrans,  who'd settled in the Blackwall Colony on New Haven III. In fact, every man on Doora IV appeared to have ancestral ties back to Earth, which made Webb think.

            "Hey, Norsh."

            "Yeah?" the soft response floated up to him.

            "Has there ever been any intergalactic species brought here?"

            There was a slight pause, then a shuffle. When the man replied, his voice sounded clearer. "A couple of times, a long time ago. Stories about this place say it didn't work out between us and them, so these moons were designated Earth humanoid only."

            "I didn't know the Terran Colonial Regents owned any global property outside of the Sol galaxy."

            "They don't. Not really. Rumor has it they discovered it during one of their deep space missions. Because this system lies on the outermost fringe, the TCR thought it would make an excellent penal colony. After all, it's only a worthless hunk of rock, just like its moons, except for the mines over on IV."

            "But doesn't the planet have an atmosphere?"

            "That's the rumor, but one guy who used to be here, he was a scientist of some sort. He said the atmosphere couldn't sustain our kind of lifeform."

            "So, in short, the TCR claimed this section of space without checking first to see who owned the rights to it."

            The pause was longer before Norsh replied. "The TCR has been using this planet and moons for nearly eighty years without any trouble. What are you trying to suggest?"

            Webb mentally shrugged. "Nothing."

            "Then shut up and get some sleep."

            "There's too many lights on."

            "Tough shit. You'll get used to it."

            "What if I'm not tired?"

            There was an exasperated sigh. "You're newly landed. That's why your body isn't adjusted to our time clock. If you can't sleep, go watch a movie. Or go raid the kitchen. Do something, but shut the fuck up so the rest of us can get some shut-eye."

            "The kitchen's still open?"

            "It usually leaves out a few things that have passed their expiration dates, in case someone gets the munchies."

            Webb heard a rustling noise. Shortly thereafter, a soft snore came from below. He glanced over to where he knew Merit's bunk was located. The man's back faced outward as the inmate slept.

            The ring of lights flooding from overhead kept the place nearly as bright as daylight. Norsh was right. He'd have to learn to get used to it. But in the event he didn't or couldn't, it didn't matter one way or another. It wasn't like he was going to spend any considerable time here.

            The mental reminder twisted in his gut, and any chance he thought he'd have to catch some sleep completely vanished. Carefully, he crawled out of his niche, reached out to grab an iron rung with one hand, and swung himself over, against the wall. Once he reached the floor, Webb headed out the tunnel for the dining hall.

            Unlike the sleeping quarters, just a small portion of the eating chamber remained lit. The rear area where the kitchen area was located was blackened out.

            Involuntarily, his eyes checked the death board, but nothing appeared to have changed. His name still sat at the bottom, although he would have sworn the name at the top was different. He shook his head. What did it matter? All he had to pay attention to was where his name was located on the board, and try to handle the stress of waiting as best he could.

            Against the far wall, underneath the lights, he spotted several containers and boxes, which he went to investigate. There was a cooler containing packets of ice cream that were past due by three days. He took one. The rest of the stuff didn't interest him. Going over to a table near the transparent wall, he sat down and tore open the container, then realized he needed something other than his finger to scoop out the contents.

            The cardboard utensils were located on a tray nearer to the kitchen. He walked over to grab a spoon and turned around to return to the table when he caught sight of a figure entering the dining hall on the other side of the wall. Webb froze in place as he recognized the long, butt-length hair before he saw the face.


            He remained still, hoping not to attract her attention. Afraid that if she knew he was there, she might flee back into the safety of her own tunnels.

            She moved slowly, but he got the impression it was not due to sleepiness. She stopped next to a pile of cartons, much like the pile where he'd gotten his ice cream. After some routing around, she extracted a pouch. Shuffling over to a nearby table, she sat down. But first she automatically moved her hair out of the way to keep from sitting on it. When her hand moved over her shoulder, he noticed dark bruises on her neck and throat. The sight of them explained her actions. She was in pain from the abuse she'd suffered from the deadhead he'd been told about at dinner.

            Hot anger colored his vision. He must have moved because her gaze suddenly shifted in his direction. Myka paused, her lips covering the straw of her drink.

            For several long moments, they stared at one another. Neither one of them moved, for which Webb was grateful. He noticed how she took him in from head to toe. As she lifted her eyes back up to the pouch in his hands, she removed her mouth from the straw and gestured for him to come closer. Surprised, Webb returned to the table closest to the wall. On her side, she shifted closer to where mere inches separated them.

            "I'm Myka." Her voice was muffled and barely audible through the partition, but he could hear her.



            "Yeah. Got in today."

            She took a slow sip of her drink. It was obvious it hurt to swallow.

            "Who's the bastard who did that to you?"

            A tiny smile lifted the corners of her lips. Beautiful lips. On a beautiful face. Green eyes.

            "It doesn't matter. He's dead now."

            Oddly, her comment cooled his anger. He dipped into his ice cream and ate a spoonful.

            "That looks good."

            "It is," he said, grinning. "Don't you have any over on your side? It would certainly feel good in your throat."

            Myka got up and went back over to where the leftovers were located. She moved lightly, her hair swaying gently around her hips and buttocks like an enticing veil. Webb felt an urge to run his fingers through those thick, brown strands. Instead, he concentrated on his ice cream.

            She returned to the table, her smile brighter as she held up a pouch. Ripping off the top, she lifted a spoonful to her mouth and licked the cold confection.  Immediately, Webb felt his dick stir to attention. His eyes riveted on the sight of her pale pink tongue.

            "Mmm. You were right. It does feel good on my throat. Thanks for the suggestion."

            "My pleasure." He paused. Where did that come from? Normally, he would respond with something like "no problem" or "you're welcome". Since when did he use a phrase like "my pleasure"?

            It had to be because of her. The woman was affecting him in a way he wasn't used to. Maybe it was because he knew why she was here on this rock. Or maybe it was because of his circumstances.

            Or maybe it's because of that long, damned hair.

            Mentally shaking himself, he dug into the bottom of the pouch for the last of the ice cream and tried to think of something halfway intelligent to talk about.             "Do you often come down here late at night for a snack?"

            Yeah, Webb. That really tops the scales for an intelligent remark.

            Fortunately, Myka didn't seem to notice. Or if she did, she didn't care.

            "Not really, but my throat was giving me fits. I took a pain killer, but either it hasn't kicked in, or it's not strong enough." She eyed him again from head to toe, that impish smile still hovering around her lips. "I take it you couldn't sleep."

            He shook his head. "No."

            "Don't worry. It happens to all the newbies. You'll soon adjust."

            "Wouldn't make any difference whether I do or don't," he muttered. He started to say more, but a shuffling sound came from the direction of the tunnel. He sat up stiffly, alerted by the noise. Someone was coming to the dining hall, and the last thing he wanted was to have someone see him and Myka having a conversation.

            He turned back to tell her he had to be going, but the table was empty. Either she had left on her own, or his reaction to someone coming had made her rabbit. A sense of disappointment went through him. He'd been hoping to talk a little bit longer.

            So much for chance encounters.

            An inmate lumbered into the hall. Webb took that as his cue to leave, and dumped his empty container in a waste receptacle. The inmate grunted a greeting as they passed each other, but no words were exchanged.

            Exhausted, Webb headed back to bed.