Tradewinds 12: Keep One Eye Open by shadesmaclean
1. Intro: CheckMate by shadesmaclean
2. I by shadesmaclean
3. II by shadesmaclean
4. III by shadesmaclean
5. IV by shadesmaclean
6. V by shadesmaclean
7. VI by shadesmaclean
8. VII by shadesmaclean
9. VIII by shadesmaclean
10. IX by shadesmaclean
11. X by shadesmaclean
12. XI by shadesmaclean
13. XII by shadesmaclean
14. XIII by shadesmaclean
15. XIV by shadesmaclean
16. XV by shadesmaclean
17. XVI by shadesmaclean
18. XVII by shadesmaclean
19. XVIII by shadesmaclean
20. XIX by shadesmaclean
21. XX by shadesmaclean
22. XXI by shadesmaclean
23. XXII by shadesmaclean
24. XXIII by shadesmaclean
25. XXIV by shadesmaclean
26. XXV by shadesmaclean
27. XXVI by shadesmaclean
28. XXVII by shadesmaclean
29. XVIII by shadesmaclean
30. XIX by shadesmaclean
Intro: CheckMate by shadesmaclean
candy from a baby
The marina hangar lay in near-total darkness under a clouded sky. Moonless, starless, the darkness interrupted only by a few scant circles of light from arc-lamps spaced around the buildings. The entire scene so quiet, the only sounds to be heard were the faint buzz of the lights and the steady wash of the tide. So quiet, it was little wonder those in charge saw fit to leave only a skeleton crew to watch over the place.
Night at the Centralict Island harbor’s Secure Storage complex.
Two security guards stood watch over the entrance. One watched the inside of the hangar. And one more walked the perimeter with a guard dog.
Four in all watching this section.
Under the light of twin lamps hanging above the entrance, the two guards stationed there passed the time in conversation, the younger of the two saying, “…Ya know, it’s still gonna be strange not having you around the barracks anymore. I mean, no offense, but it just seems like you’ve always been there.”
“Hey, I’m not that old,” he replied, punching his partner’s arm. Chuckling wryly, he told him, “I’m just transferring to the Internal Division so I won’t have to spend the rest of my career freezing my ass off out here during the winter!”
“Are you sure it isn’t boredom?” the other asked, reflecting that this job wasn’t nearly as exciting as he originally expected.
“Andrew, there’s no more going on at headquarters than there is here,” his elder replied. “Maybe you’re the one who’s bored.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Andrew sighed, stretching and trying not to yawn too visibly while on duty as the night stretched out for hours before him. “It’s just that nothing interesting ever happens around here…”
As they conversed, the guard with the dog passed between their assigned hangar and its neighbor, his canine companion veering into the narrow gap between them. No one noticed him slip into the darkness, turning sideways to fit as the dog insistently led the two of them to their grim fate. No one heard a thing as the two of them were quietly dragged to their deaths in the murky water beyond the two hangars.
And the lone surveillance camera at the gate saw nothing.
Thus the two guards out front carried on their discussion unawares, the one called Andrew telling his partner, “And I can’t believe security relaxed so quickly. It’s only been five days since that high-speed chase downtown. I even heard some of the suspects stole a ship, and the others went and hijacked one.”
“According to the report, they were shooting it out with each other in traffic…”
“While we were stuck here the whole time,” Andrew muttered. “Just once, Terry, I wish we’d get to see a little action around here, that’s all.”
The two stood in silence for a moment, then Andrew piped up again, saying, “Say Terry, do you know anything about this ship we’ve been guarding lately?”
“Nope. Just the name CheckMate, that’s all I know,” Terry told him. For all his partner’s talk about boredom, this was quite possibly one of the most unusual assignments he had ever received. “Some bigwigs are passing through, and they entrusted it to us during their stay. Port Security’s been pretty hush-hush about the whole thing, so I’m not sure exactly what it is we’re guarding. Just that our bosses are being paid a hefty sum to watch it.”
“CheckMate, huh? Maybe we should—”
Before he could suggest any bright ideas his partner would probably object to in spite of his own curiosity, they both paused, hearing a loud splash from inside the hangar itself.
“Jack, what’s up?” Andrew asked their inside man, wondering if he might yet get a glimpse of this mystery ship.
“Hey, Jack?” Terry called out, a little louder this time. “You fall in or somethin’?”
“Could you give me a hand?” a voice called back.
“Sure thing, Jack,” Terry replied as he unlocked the hangar door. He turned to Andrew, all trace of humor having taken a back seat to business, saying, “Stay here.”
Then he went in. The darkness inside the hangar cast everything in heavy shadows. Moving toward the light switch, and cursing the complex’s mostly outdated systems every step of the way, when he saw it.
At first it didn’t quite register, even as he looked right at it. Jack’s body lay sprawled on the floor near the edge of the inner dock, soaking wet, one leg and arm still dangling in the water. What held his attention, though, was the fact that his head was turned almost all the way around.
There was no need to examine him; no one survived having their neck that cleanly broken.
His cry of horror froze on the tip of his tongue, though, as he felt an iron- knuckled fist pressed against his back. This sensation barely registered in his brain as it was quickly followed by a piercing, stabbing pain, then total numbness in his back and torso. He gasped as he looked down in frozen terror at the three lavender laser blades protruding starkly from his chest. In the final moments of his life, time seemed to slow down, and all he could do was watch, too numb to utter more than a barely audible squeak, as those shimmering instruments of destruction raked straight down.
“Three down…” a voice behind him whispered darkly.
The last thing he would ever hear.
“Terry?” his partner called from outside. With growing concern, “Terry, you alright in there?”
“Terry, this better not be some kind of joke…” he muttered as he entered, his voice faltering as he set eyes on his two dead partners. Turning on some unconscious impulse, he saw a shadowy figure who now stood between him and the door. All he could think of to say was, “You son of a bitch…”
“Last night, I hear. Bummer…”
For his part, the figure simply stood there, guarding both his escape route, and the alarm.
The guard named Andrew stood there for a long moment, able to think only of the need to take in a good suspect description. This deadly intruder was decked out all in greys and blacks, a paramilitary uniform of unfamiliar design. And, he noted, bearing no markings or insignias of any kind. What vexed him most, though, was that helmet, mostly black with narrow eye slits, and what looked like some kind of underwater breathing apparatus on the lower half.
That, combined with his choice of weapons and the fact that he was all wet from head to foot, could only mean that he had carved his way through the underwater portion of the hangar doors with those laser claws of his.
All he could come up with to do was whip out his hand radio, finally finding his voice, he blurted, “Dispatch! Do you read me? This is Andrew in Hangar Number Five! Intruder alert! Repeat! Intruder alert! Dispatch, do you copy?…”
Trailing off as he realized there was no signal. Just the distorted static of a jamming frequency.
The intruder watched him, and Andrew could picture a wolfish grin on the unknown face behind that mask as he told him, in a decidedly amused tone, “But of course, nobody’s listening anyway.”
Andrew threw down the unit in disgust, and it bounced and clacked across the floor to land at the intruder’s feet. The dark figure stepped on it, grinding it under his boot with a popping and crackling of plastic.
“Jack… Terry… You killed them…” he stammered. At first too terrified of this murderous stranger to move. As the seconds ticked by, though, his initial horror at the scene before him gave way to outrage, and he straightened up, telling him, “You won’t get away with this!”
“One more to go…” was all this dark intruder had to say as he stepped into a casual fighting stance. “Heroes die young.”
The guard rushed him, throwing caution to the wind. Both enraged, and scared out of his mind, this proved to be a big mistake, as the intruder largely shrugged it off. As he flew at the dark stranger with a wild flailing of fists, his adversary blocked and dodged them with ease.
“Shit, I was expecting military guards, not rent-a-cops…” the intruder muttered. “No gun, even. You’re not even worth my time.”
With that, he actually started fighting back, obliterating the guard’s amateur defense. In seconds, he had the poor man reeling on his feet. Making one last attempt at survival, he staggered past this intruder and jabbed his palm into the alarm button.
Much to his dismay, nothing happened.
“I told you, nobody’s listening.”
Even as the intruder told him this, Andrew looked at the wall next to the alarm, to see that the cables— not just to the alarm system, but also the lights and the security cameras, as well— had been cut with metal shards.
“Who… the hell are you?” was all he could think of to say for himself.
“The dead have no need of my name.”
Even as he turned around, leaning on the wall for support, the intruder gave him no time to cry out as he lunged at him. Striking one final blow with his palm, ramming the guard’s nose right through his brain. Eyes bulging in dazed fear, blood oozing from both eyes and nostrils, he fell to his knees, then flat on his face.
Apparently having had enough action for one lifetime.
“I didn’t think it would be this easy…”
With no one left to stop him, he hauled up a bag of gear he had hung under the dock while he fought, then yanked off the tarp draped over the ship to get a better look at his prize. Black, aero- (and hydro-) dynamic, sleek and swift with a trident-shaped hull, all forty feet of her. In grey letters, barely readable in the scant lighting, the word CheckMate was marked in several places.
Opening a waterproof pouch, he fetched out a keycard he had absconded with before he came here. Inserting it in a special slot made the hatch next to it pop open. Taking one last, brief look at the aftermath of his raid, he climbed aboard.
Making his way to the cockpit, he used the keycard again to activate the controls. Once situated, he started both the engines and the weapons systems. Before taking out the guards, he had severed several important points of the hangar’s sea gate with his energy blades, so all he had to was nudge the gate aside to leave, twin hydro-jets spraying seawater all over the fallen guards as he departed.
Security would soon be aware of his presence.
Though this ship’s twin engines were uncannily quiet, he still chose speed over stealth, as any movement in the stillness of the harbor would be seen as suspicious. Sure enough, it only took a moment for one of the search lights to lock on to him, and others swiftly followed, tracking his movements. A moment later, alarms started going off all over the harbor.
Almost immediately, he picked up several Harbor Patrol cruisers fast approaching. While this Secure Storage outfit may have been lax, Port Security was still stinging from local criticism for the escape of the criminals in that chase and shootout only days ago, and would not be so forgiving of any further trouble in the near future. Once in range, they opened fire, but he strongly suspected that they were trying to disable the stolen ship while still taking it intact. Deciding to give his new ride a full field test even as he escaped from the Centralict Island harbor, he forced his pursuers to back off with several rounds of auto-gun fire.
The lead ship immediately dropping back, having sustained serious damage from the focused barrage of energy beams right off. The others started firing even more, but it was too little, too late. They were no longer in good range, and the CheckMate’s polarized armor was engineered to withstand considerable punishment.
Fortunately for him, their attacks had not entirely diverted his attention from what was going on in front of him. He was not overly surprised to see two large cruisers crossing each other in front of his only available opening. Even with all the speed he had built up, they would still bar his path before he could get there.
Or at least they might if this were an ordinary vessel.
He imagined his foes’ consternation as he watched the water level rise up over his view monitors. Laughed at their impotence and frustration as their quarry dove beneath the waves. Easily submerged in time to pass underneath their blockade.
Hindered by their own tactics, the other patrol ships were forced to abort, the two cruisers being unable to move aside in time to do anything useful, and he was met with no further resistance as he made for open waters.
“I love Centralict Island!” he crowed.
Before he encountered the chumps who ran this security outfit, he had never fully appreciated the meaning of the phrase taking candy from a baby, he was that surprised at how lax and poorly prepared a group of so-called professionals actually turned out to be. Had broken into more obscure places than this that had tougher security. Now, after having seen it in action, he was sure this new ship would come in handy no matter what he found to do next. Setting the auto-pilot to warn him if anything came along, he settled in for a little shut-eye. Though he had long-since reached a point where he could go for a couple days without sleep if need be, he still had to catch up eventually.
As he leaned back in the seat, having found a place safe enough to let his guard down and sleep soundly, CheckMate departed Centralict Island untouched.
weathering the storm
The rain pounded furiously against the hundred-foot cruiser, the waves pushing the modest-sized vessel around as her crew worked the controls as best they could.
While rain washed off the forward windshields in sheets that greatly hindered visibility, the crew of the Maximum rode out the storm inside, the cabin as bright and warm— and most of all, dry— as the sea outside dark, windswept and raindriven, the darkness broken only by an occasional strobe of lightning. Hot cocoa and canned soup from the ship’s stores, and damp towels hanging from anything that might serve as a hook. The storm had come with little warning; it was no mean feat taking down the sails as it hit, but fortunately, they had at least some practice at it in more ideal weather.
“…Of course, what happened to me that night isn’t entirely unheard of,” Shades told his companions, then took another sip of his hot chocolate as he glanced out the port windows. Still raining. Just as it was that fateful night, he reflected, his mind’s eye haunted by snapshots of what he had seen, scrambling through the dark woods, every move he made only taking him farther away from his friends… It was a memory he tried not to dwell on as he continued on his way searching for those friends. “When I was in grade school, I once read an account about a man who was just standing out in a field, just waving to his family and friends, then vanished. At first they thought maybe he just fell in a hole or something, but even though they searched the entire field, they couldn’t find any holes.”
“And they never heard from him again?” Max asked, though that was a common ending to many of his friend’s tales of the Unknown. Of course, like several of his stories, it did sound an awful lot like what happened to Shades the night of the Flathead Experiment, as his friend jokingly called it. A real-life spook story he would never forget. Now that it was dry enough, he bound his shoulder-length blond hair with a black headband, marked with his family sigil. One of only a couple treasures from his childhood home of Layosha, the Islands having fallen years and countless miles behind him. Storms always reminded him of the night he lost his home, threatening to dredge up memories he felt he could do without.
At times like these, he took a measure of comfort in his feline companion, Bandit. As a cub, the black-and-white panther was the first and only friend he met on the otherwise deserted island he came to call Paradise. He saw it as a good sign that the big cat, at first so upset by the storm, was now sleeping soundly on the lounge bench— it meant he was adjusting still further to sea travel.
“Once. Once.” Shades smiled mysteriously as he continued his tale. The erstwhile high school senior nudged his namesake wraparound sunglasses back up his nose, trying not to shrug right out of loose-fitting robe from the captain’s quarters closet. His pants and denim jacket hung up to dry with the towels, and his short brown hair still hung limp in his face. “They say his wife went out one day and heard his disembodied voice calling for help. And that was the last anyone ever heard from him.”
“Creepy!” Justin remarked from the helm, where he continued to battle the storm raging outside. The young fugitive from the Triangle State was short and wiry, making control difficult and his primary focus under such rough conditions. Wishing he had a headband like Max, he again swiped his shaggy black hair out of those shifty brown eyes that indelibly marked his years on the street as he glared at the limited view the rain afforded him. Wishing he understood why rain bothered those two so much; Shades would mostly just stare out the windows, and Max, though the youngest in this crew, his grey eyes would come off looking older than his years.
He had to concede, though, that he would once have dismissed a story like this. Sometimes, it took falling into a hole that was never there before or since to make more skeptical folks believe. And in his case, falling down holes between dimensions had only led him to still stranger experiences.
To say nothing of this ship, which Shades could confirm was originally from his world, having somehow ended up on the high seas of the Sixth Dimension. Originally belonged to a smuggler, but they had made a few modifications themselves. Now it was the closest thing any of them had to a home, traveling together all over the Ocean.
Until this storm, they had cruised rather uneventfully these past eight days. Eight days since their run-in with the Cyexian pirate Striker and her crew, as well as Kato and the Triad, who had stolen Max and Shades’ medallions— which Kato called Tri-Medals— and still no sign of pursuit. From either of them.
It was getting harder to keep their guard until the sixth day, though, when all three of them were startled by a squadron of black jets passing by overhead, their engines scaring Bandit below deck. What the hell was that!? Justin had demanded, How the hell should I know? was Shades’ initial response. Max just stared at this spectacle above their heads in silent wonder, too awestruck for words. As best they could figure, it was a flight of fighters of unidentifiable design and origin, seemingly on a course from nowhere to nowhere.
Just to be on the safe side, they changed their direction every other day— even trying the same general heading as those mysterious black jet fighters— but never back the way they came. Otherwise, nothing noteworthy had happened lately, at least until this storm.
“Say Justin,” said Max, seeing how tired his friend looked, “You want me to take over for a while?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” Justin replied, hopping out of Max’s way as he took control of the helm. Max, six-foot-four and solidly built, could exert more leverage on the wheel, doing the same work as Justin while still being able to tune in more to the conversation, whereas Justin could now relax and join in more.
“Tell me,” Max asked Shades as he wrestled the ship back under some semblance of control, “has anything else strange ever happened back where you come from?”
While Shades pondered that question for a moment, Justin took to re-checking both of his double-barrel power pistols. Though they had lain in the sterile darkness of Tranz-D for years uncounted while their former owners crumbled to dust, even though they were apparently water-resistant, he had been through a lot with them at his side. They had saved his life multiple times, and he had even snatched them while escaping Striker’s sinking ship, he had taken such a fancy to them. The only thing he didn’t get to take was that backstabbing bitch Kato’s Tri-Medal.
Though the spare clothes from the closet, dry as they were, fit none of them particularly well, Justin was visibly the worst off, the baggy hooded sweat shirt and tropical shorts trying to fall off of him with every other move. On Max, everything appeared too short, too small in the chest and shoulders, and though they were still too baggy for Shades, they were at least about the right length. Even garbed in borrowed clothing, while their own dried, Justin’s companions still wore the triangular silver medallions they had fought so hard to reclaim, first from Kato, then from Striker. Supposedly the keys to some long-forgotten civilization’s treasure, Justin considered it such a waste to keep them separated like this, yet he had to admit that without the fourth one, and a means of translating the arcane symbols on them, there wasn’t much either party could do with them.
“You know, I just remembered something,” Shades told them after a long silence. It was hardly the first time he had drawn from his store of eerie tales to pass the time, but Max’s query made him realize he was so busy contemplating paranormal accounts from other times and places, he neglected one from right in his own back yard. “When I was a kid, I heard about this hotel down near the lake, just out of town, that was supposedly haunted. There were some weird rumors going around about the place before it closed down.”
“What kind of rumors?” In spite of his own creepy experiences and misadventures with some of their more recent destinations, Max found himself developing something of a fascination with this whole Unknown business.
“While I’ve heard scarier stories about hotels, this one hits pretty close to home.” Close enough to ride my bike to, he reflected. “And not just because of its location, but because it might very well have been real. Before the Bay View Hotel closed its doors, it experienced a sharp decline in business, which was said to have been caused by strange and disturbing things happening there.”
“Like what?” Though Justin wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know, he was having a hard time coming up with things more disturbing than the last couple places they visited. Yet he doubted Shades would; he had done it before and would probably do it again.
“It was said that some people simply disappeared, for starters,” Shades said. “At first they were just treated as the usual missing-persons type of cases, but the strangest part was that none of the missing guests had any plausible explanation for vanishing, none of the typical motives or causes. And all of them, in the space of a few months, all involving the same place. I imagine their management probably tried to downplay the whole affair, possibly even tried to cover some things up for all we know, but word got out and people quit staying.
“And it wasn’t just people disappearing,” he added with a cryptic smirk. “They also said that sometimes people just appeared, too, people who were not on the guest roll, walking out of locked rooms, often confused and disoriented. Some of them didn’t even speak English, and some were dressed very strangely.”
“Who were they?” Max asked.
“No one knows,” Shades replied. “It was said that they would just run away, and nobody saw ’em around again. That, and there was talk of people hearing strange noises from unoccupied rooms and maids finding weird messes, knocked-over furniture and stuff. But that wasn’t the only thing that happened back then.”
Shades’ dramatic pause was interrupted by a particularly bright flash of lightning, then punctuated by a blast of thunder whose timing, as far as he was concerned, couldn’t possibly have been better.
“The part that creeped me out the most,” he resumed, “has to do with a guy who ordered breakfast by room service. But when the tray arrived, he lifted the lid to find, instead of his breakfast, a strange piece of fruit. Sadly, no one had a camera handy, so all I have are conflicting descriptions of the fruit. Mostly about it being brightly colored, even striped, but the one thing they all have in common was that it was shaped really different, didn’t look like any kind of fruit known to man.”
All that came to Justin’s mind was those unhallowed shapes hanging in some frozen meat locker in the twisted depths of the Harken Building, and he shuddered at the memory of it.
“What did it taste like?” Max asked.
“Who knows?” Shades remarked, for a moment confused by his friend’s choice of questions. “I doubt anyone tried to eat it. According to the story, the staff put it in the fridge and called some experts from some university to come examine it. But when they opened up the fridge later that evening, they found that it was all rotten, black and shriveled up so you could no longer tell what it was.”
This time, all three of them thought of the same thing: the food they had taken from the Harken Building in their explorations, which, once outside, had decomposed in a matter of hours as most things would have taken weeks.
“The whole thing was written off as a hoax, the fruit was thrown in the trash, and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.”
“Maybe it didn’t belong in that world…” Max theorized, puzzling over the whole matter.
“I suppose,” Shades conceded. “Some of this was in the papers, some it may have just been rumors and playground spook stories, but now I’m starting to wonder if there wasn’t more to it. Even though it happened years ago, now I can’t help thinking it might have something to do with what happened to me. I wish I could go back and investigate more…”
“Let’s talk about something else,” Justin suggested; in addition to the Building and his delightful stay there, this talk of haunted places was bringing back memories of an island they only recently visited. Given that no name was ever mentioned, it would likely be forever referred to as the Haunted Island, and even though he had obtained a gold amulet there that fetched a handsome price in the Tradewinds Mercantile District— even the Maximum herself, in their hasty departure— being attacked by an army of household appliances and furniture on that killer island was not his idea of fun. Anymore, he felt as if he had lived through several of Shades’ stories, and thus wasn’t really interested in hearing about them. The guy never seemed to run out of the damn things.
“Alright,” Max agreed reluctantly, seeing that the subject had worn out its welcome with him. On the other hand, after years of isolation, any word of the outside world was music to his ears, and he especially couldn’t soak up enough of Shades’ accounts of the Unknown.
“Yeah, I guess,” Shades agreed, though he himself couldn’t stop wondering if there wasn’t some sort of connection between the Breakfast Exchange Program and the Flathead Experiment.
For a while, as Max struggled with the helm, Justin tried to teach Shades a card game from the Triangle State— which to Shades bore a passing resemblance to Poker back on Earth— with a deck of cards from the ship’s lounge, having to improvise for unfamiliar suits. Though they ultimately had to give it up because of the tossing of the ship kept shifting their chips around.
Eventually, Shades took Max’s place at the helm. Being most accustomed to late hours, he would hold the fort first shift while the others slept. Max sprawled out on the dinette bench seat, Justin crashed on the couch in front of the entertainment center, rather than their cabins.
For the duration of the storm, they would all stay at or near the bridge, just in case.
“Land ho!” Shades called out as he spotted the outline of an island against the dawn horizon. Grinning. “Heh, I always wanted to say that…”
Shades’ cry awakened everyone on the bridge of the Maximum as they rested after their own repetitive shifts at the helm. Max sat up in the lounge seat, blinking and looking around with a casual alertness almost as feline as his companion’s. For his part, Justin squinted at the daybreak with bleary eyes, yawning and stretching— then falling off the couch with a yelp of surprise.
“Everybody awake then?” Shades asked.
“I am now,” Justin muttered.
The first thing both he and Max noticed was that the storm had apparently blown over during Shades’ watch. The sky was now bright and sunny, holding the promise of a most pleasant day. Since his wake-up call, the Maximum continued to cruise forward, so it didn’t take them more than a glance to notice what Shades was talking about.
On the horizon lay a green patch of land.
Max grabbed a pair of binoculars for a closer look, revealing, still too far away yet to see with the naked eye, a second island off to the side, beyond the first. By the time Justin grabbed a pair, they had drawn close enough to see the second island without them. Through telescopic lenses, both he and Max could now see what they were pretty sure was a third island, swept further off to the side of what increasingly appeared to be a chain or cluster of islands.
Before either of them could relate this to Shades, he pointed out to them something a bit closer at hand. Previously veiled by the glare of sunrise, they now spotted a fairly large ship, and what appeared to be a floating platform nearby. Several people stood on the deck, as well as on the platform, and most of them waved casually at the Maximum as they sailed by.
As they drew nearer, they could all read the name on both the ship and the platform: Seeker.
It was both a welcome sight and a relief. Before the Tradewinds Mercantile District, their last destination appeared pleasant enough, but turned out to be not only abandoned, but haunted by a malevolent presence of some kind. The fact that there were people, and that they didn’t seem to have anything to beware of, was most appreciated after that last ominous welcome.
After that killer island.
As they approached the nearest island, any doubts about the safety of landing in this place were dispelled as they spotted a small port ahead. A closer look revealed that not only was the place in working order, with rows of docks and intact buildings, but also— best of all— people, about a dozen or so that they could discern, out and about around the place. The only question left was what kind of welcome mat the locals would roll out for them.
As if in answer to their unspoken question, a pair of vessels swooped in from starboard to intercept them. Each was smaller than the Maximum, painted black-and-white, and swift enough to flank them before it even occurred to Shades to try to evade. Aboard each, designated Sentry I and Sentry II, were seven or eight crew members armed with an assortment of power rifles.
“THIS IS THE KONA ISLAND PATROL!” Sentry I declared by megaphone. “SENTRY II WILL GUIDE YOU TO A VACANT DOCK. YOU WILL THEN COME OUT UNARMED, IDENTIFY YOUR-SELF AND STATE YOUR BUSINESS. ANY DEVIATION FROM THIS COURSE OF ACTION WILL BE REGARDED AS A HOSTILE ACT, AND WILL BE MET WITH FORCE.”
“I don’t like this,” Justin mumbled. Though these guys didn’t appear to pack as much heat— for the Board of Directors kept their enforcers more uniformly armed— they still reminded him way too much of the Triangle State Authority, who ran the show back where he came from, for his taste. This looked far too much like the stuff of checkpoints and armed inspections to him. “Let’s get outta here.”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Max told him, seeing no way to get out range without taking a lot of punishment first.
“But what about our shit?”
“I don’t think they mean us any harm,” Shades observed, trying to calm things down before Justin’s instincts drove him to do something that would cause trouble. Noting everything from the minimalist dress code that passed for a uniform here to the complacent expressions on most of their faces, he added, “They’re a bit highhanded for my taste, but they seem to just be following some kind of routine.”
“I still don’t like it.”
They continued in silence as Shades allowed them to be escorted by Sentry II. Sentry I, meanwhile, hung back, barring any attempt at a last-second getaway. Sentry II led them to an open dock, where several people were beginning to gather, waiting for them, most likely.
“They said unarmed, Justin.” While Shades pulled his power pistol from its concealed holster, worn under his jacket, and left it next to the helm— but taking both of his stun-sticks and hiding them behind the lounge cushions— he watched Max set his power rifle near the cabin entrance. Only one of them refused to disarm.
“Dammit, we should’ve left the moment we saw them.” Justin could already hear the clank of shackles, could already feel cold steel clamped on his wrists…
“Dude. Chill.” Shades gave him what he hoped was a firm, reassuring look, and Max did, as well. “They don’t know you from Adam.”
“Never mind. The point is, they don’t know about you here. But if you go in armed,” Shades stared pointedly at both of his gunbelts, “they will be suspicious.”
“Besides,” Max pointed out, “we didn’t come here to fight, and we couldn’t win against these numbers anyway.”
With a disgusted sigh of resignation, Justin Black, Triangle State fugitive, forcibly ignored a decade or so of instinct and left both of his double-barrel power pistols on the table, but joined Shades in hiding his laser staff behind the lounge cushions, as well.
That settled, they disembarked.
It was at that point that Shades realized he was so worried about Justin, it only dawned on him now that he couldn’t remember seeing Max remove his laser sword, or his backup. Max always seemed to treat his laser sword as somehow separate from the rest of his weapons and equipment. And now that he thought about it, he’d almost bet money Justin was still packing one of those EMP grenades they bought…
And now, of course, there was nothing he could do about it without giving them away, so all he could do was keep a straight face, and hope there wasn’t some kind of weapons search.
By the time they stepped onto the dock, a welcoming committee of nearly a dozen men, only three or four of them unarmed, awaited. The leader of the group was a man wearing a long brown coat, his deeply tanned and weathered face seeming amicable enough, but hinted at a sternness to match his apparent authority. Though his tone was rather formal, his smile was warm enough as he cleared his throat and addressed his visitors.
“On behalf of the Joint Committee, I would like to apologize for the grim welcome. We’re usually more accommodating to visitors, but what with the storm damage, and some of the troubles we’ve had lately, security’s been rather tight. We are a small outfit, and we’ve had more than our share of unfriendly visitors recently, so I am very sorry about the armed escort. It was only a precaution.”
“Apology accepted,” Max smiled, glad to know they didn’t need their weapons here.
Now that they could see up close, and were no longer preoccupied with fight or flight, Shades and his friends could see what the man was talking about. Though they had weathered quite the storm themselves at sea last night, judging from the damage it was easy to see it had hit these islands even harder. Just a glance at the surrounding buildings revealed a degree of devastation not as apparent from farther away: torn shingles, broken windows and scattered debris made strong testimony to the Ocean’s fury.
Even Justin could see, and grudgingly acknowledge the reason— just their sheer vulnerability— for the Island Patrol’s high state of alert.
“I am Roger Corrick,” the head of the small delegation continued, “owner of the Kon Kalona Hotel.” Gesturing to one of the buildings behind him. “Welcome to the Kona Islands.”
Shades tried not to sigh out-loud, out of sheer relief that simply appearing to be unarmed was apparently enough to satisfy the locals. He could see that even Justin was starting to relax more.
“I’m Max,” Max returned the introduction. “I’m glad to know you meant no harm, we didn’t either. We’re just passing through.”
“And I’m Shades MacLean,” Shades put in, reaching out to shake Mr Corrick’s hand on impulse, finding that that particular custom was apparently familiar in this realm. “We just came out of that storm, and were looking for a place to drop anchor for a little while.”
Seeing all eyes were on him now, Justin shrugged. “Justin Black. And do you really have to scare the piss outta visitors like that?”
“Again, we’re sorry,” Corrick told him. “Aside from recently, our quiet islands don’t see too much trouble. Even so, Chief Toma of the Island Patrol thinks it’s best to maintain a certain level of readiness until things calm down a bit.”
As he said this, Corrick gestured to one of the armed men in his party. His olive skin and round face, that put Shades in mind of Pacific islanders back on Earth, at first seemed too docile for a lawman. Until he looked in his eyes, which were sharp and watchful. And, he noticed, mostly seemed to linger on Justin as they talked.
“I suppose,” Justin conceded. Fighting Striker and her crew had given him a whole new appreciation for what Corrick was talking about. Being on the receiving end of these measures, though, still didn’t fail to leave a bad taste in his mouth. “We’re not lookin’ for any trouble.”
Now that these visitors were found to be just common travelers, most of the members of the welcoming committee began to drift away to attend to other matters.
“Glad to hear it,” Corrick replied. “Oh, and please pardon the others. Aside from meeting new visitors for the time being, most of them are in charge of repair and cleanup projects. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and the Kona Island Festival is just around the corner. This storm had such terrible timing…”
“Maybe we could help with that,” Max told him. Back on the Isle of Paradise, he had weathered his share of storms, including one that flooded half the island, so he knew what it was like.
“We could what?” Justin’s jaw dropped as he caught up with his friend’s words, trying to figure out where the conversation detoured.
“An interesting proposition.” Corrick thought it over for a moment, then asked, “Would you really help us? You mean it?”
“Yes, I’m serious,” Max replied.
“I suppose we can come to some kind of arrangement,” was Shades’ response.
“Perhaps a discount on rooms,” Corrick suggested. “I am the manager of the Kalona Hotel, as well as the Island Commerce Board. I could put in a good word for you with the local merchants if you help us out.”
“You mean we have to work?” Justin still wasn’t sure he was hearing them correctly.
“You can always pay full price for your room,” Shades offered, wondering if his companion had ever done any real work in his life. “I don’t think they take Bank of New Cali here, so you might want to hang on to a few credits, you know.”
“Fine.” Justin knew that, somewhere along the way, Shades had picked up a card marked First Municipal Bank of New Cali, that seemed to be attached to a considerable— if unknown— sum, but Shades kept saying he refused to use it as long he had his own money.
“There’s still much to be done before we can even begin to prepare for the Festival, so your help would be most appreciated.” As he said this, Corrick happened to glance at the cabin of the Maximum, seeing something he hadn’t noticed before. “Is that a wildcat up there?”
“His name is Bandit,” Max informed him.
“I see,” Corrick told them. And Chief Toma nodded to him, then turned and left as the rest already had, leaving them alone with Corrick. “As long as he behaves himself, I imagine you can take him ashore, possibly into town, as well. Unfortunately, I can’t allow him in the Kalona. Four generations of Corrick’s have kept that place ship-shape, and I plan to carry on the tradition. Please try not to take it personally.”
“I won’t,” Max replied, resigning himself to the fact that this was probably going to be an issue a lot of places they would go. But still relieved his feline friend could still stretch his legs elsewhere on the island.
“Don’t worry,” Shades assured him, “we can take turns watching the ship at night.”
And Max nodded his appreciation.
Relieved there was no scene to be had about Max’s laser sword or Justin’s EMP grenades, he decided it would be best to warn Corrick about the trouble they had encountered earlier, saying, “By the way, Mr Corrick, you mentioned something about unwelcome visitors before the storm. Not to be nosy, but I was wondering, what kind of trouble? Pirates?”
“Actually, yes,” Corrick replied. “The worst possible kind. Have you heard of the Cyexian pirate Striker?”
All three travelers looked amongst themselves for a moment at this name none of them were expecting to hear again so soon, and Corrick took that as a yes.
“I see,” he resumed. “Well, about fourteen or fifteen days ago, Striker and her crew came through here, causing a major incident before Toma and his men drove them off.”
“Yeah, I can see why you’re so edgy now,” Justin commented.
“You sound like you’re speaking from personal experience,” Corrick remarked.
“We are,” Max informed him. “We ran into them about nine days ago.”
“But we managed to get away,” Shades continued, trying to detour the conversation away from their battle with them. After all, they did come in peace, and didn’t want to drop any hints of just how much firepower they really had. “In all that time, we haven’t seen any signs of pursuit, and after that storm, I doubt anything could’ve followed us.”
“You probably lost them now,” Corrick agreed, “but thanks for the warning.”
“Maybe they stopped by that haunted island or somethin’…” Justin shrugged. “We can always hope.”
“Either way,” Corrick concluded, “I doubt they’ll be coming back any time soon.”
That resolved, Corrick led them a short distance to the Kalona Hotel. Much like the exterior, the interior of the Kalona was constructed of dark- and driftwood forms, done in what to Shades looked like a pseudo-Colonial style. The lobby was well-furnished, a clear indication of how well four generations of Corrick’s had done for themselves, with a large bank of windows offering what would ordinarily be an unobstructed view of the Ocean. Right now, though, several men were removing plywood covers from them, making the lobby appear dim as if after dark.
Corrick then led them behind the front desk and into a small office. Corrick sat behind a teak-wood desk, flanked by an array of photos hanging on the wall, mostly of Corrick (and presumably his forebears) situated in various island settings. Dominating most of one wall was a large map of the Kona Islands, which Shades could see now were indeed a chain of four. On a table in the corner, he also noted some radio gear.
“Feel free to take a seat.” Corrick gestured to several chairs placed around the room. “In addition to helping with the repairs, I was wondering if I could talk you into sticking around to help with the Island Festival. There’s something else we might be able use your help with, and if so, the Kona Council would make it worth your while.”
And so they spent the next half hour or so ironing out the details of this arrangement.
an honest day's work
“Damn! I’m beat!” Justin remarked, falling into one of the chairs in the Kalona Hotel’s recreation room. After an afternoon of moving junk and repairing walls, he wondered how he ever viewed Max’s training as hard. “I thought today would never end!”
“That’s because you made it more work than it had to be,” Shades replied. In here, they found what to him looked like a billiard table, and though the balls bore different colors and markings than he was used to, he was still able to show his friends an improvised version of how he played pool with his old friends back on Earth. “But you have to agree, the accommodations are pretty sweet!”
“You bastard,” Justin muttered as he watched Shades take his turn, still sore everywhere from his shoulders to his hips. And somehow, Shades had still painted almost twice as much as he had. When he demanded to know how the hell he was doing that, Shades simply replied, The oldest secret of martial arts. Smirking wickedly with every word. Eliminate wasteful movements. Then just went right on his merry way painting. And so he had turned disgustedly back to his own work, certain that this would turn out to be some not-so-practical joke, for when Shades did that, it was always more abstract or obscure than Max’s pranks. “Maybe I should just quit.”
“Corrick did give us our rooms for half price, as well as free food while we’re working,” Shades pointed out. The day was sunny, hot and humid, but the work crew also kept plenty of cool water on hand.
During the day, someone brought a portable stereo to the site, and Shades volunteered his pocket jukebox, using some adapter cables he picked up at Tradewinds Mercantile to hook them up with his massive playlist of tunes. Though the crowd was a mix of natives and non-natives, everyone seemed to find something they liked.
“Yeah, I know,” Justin sighed. Shades just kept saying that, and variations thereof, any time he tried to voice a complaint. Just tell them Corrick sent you, the man told them that morning. They had, and the crew leader wasted no time— or movement— pointing out something for each of them to do. Justin’s past experiences with manual labor had all involved being watched every minute by Authority guards, and beaten if he even tried to stop before the appointed break time. Here no one was forcing him to do anything, yet any time he tried to quit, Shades would just remind him how much it would cost to. Still had no idea exactly how that worked, and he again wondered how he got talked into this mess.
“Just a few more days,” Shades answered him, “then the repairs should be done, and we can just chill until the Island Festival.” He turned to Max, whose turn it was now at the table, asking, “So, are you really gonna go through with it?”
“I don’t know.” Max aimed and shot, sinking another ball. “I still need to think about it a bit.”
“So what exactly did Corrick want with you anyway?” Even after he and Justin went off to join the cleanup, Corrick had kept Max in his office for a while longer. Later, while the two of them painted, Max helped out hauling boards and equipment, and appeared rather preoccupied whenever they saw him about. “What was that all about?”
“It had to do with that ship, the Seeker. They want me to be…” Max searched for the term Corrick had used, “a third party observer for the Seeker salvage operation.”
“Seeker…” Justin mumbled, recalling the ship and the floating platform they passed on their way in this morning. Now that he was no longer worried about being locked up somewhere, what he really wanted to know was, “What are they doing out there anyway?”
“They’re a salvage operation,” Max replied. “They search for sunken ships and try to bring up whatever they can.”
“I was hearing about that,” Shades commented. Several people had spoken of it during their breaks. “Apparently there used to be gold mines on a couple of these islands, Aru and Kimbar. And long before our time, some outlaws came and hijacked a shipment of gold.”
“Gold?” Justin perked up, deciding that this might be more interesting than he expected.
“The ship was called the Nimrod,” Max added, remembering what Corrick told him, “and it sank during a sudden and violent storm as they were leaving. Corrick said that many people here believe it was a curse for stealing the gold from the islands. Others have tried to find the Nimrod before, but these guys say they actually did find it.”
“Then why haven’t they brought anything up yet?” Justin pressed.
“Because of the storm,” Max told him. “It messed up their marker buoys and damaged some of their equipment, so now they have to make repairs and relocate it.”
“I imagine it won’t take more than a few days,” said Shades. “After all, they already know the general area where they first found it, so now it’s just a matter of pinpointing the exact spot again.”
“But that’s not all,” Max told them. “The gold mines were originally started by Outlanders who came and forced the Islanders out of their homes, even tried to make them work in the mines. All of the gold was being taken and sent to other realms, and the two groups were constantly fighting with each other.”
“Just like the Triangle State…” Justin muttered, remembering his years on Benton (once Gwanga) Island, guards and checkpoints and forced labor… “But wait a minute— there’s nothing like that here! …Is there?”
“Not anymore,” Shades assured him, having picked up some of this from recent conversations, the rest an educated guess based on the history of his former home of Montana back on Earth. “The gold mines went bust long before we were even born, and now it’s all abandoned, kinda like the ghost towns where I come from.”
“But it doesn’t change the fact that the Outlanders stole from the Islands,” Max pointed out, remembering Corrick’s impromptu history lesson. “A lot of people here say the hijackers of the Nimrod got exactly what they deserved. Corrick said there are a lot of people who don’t want the treasure raised, and he’s surprised the Kona Council even allowed it.”
“Don’t want to dig up old wounds…” Shades theorized. “I can see that. I suppose they’d rather leave that part of the Islands’ history where fate left it.”
“Okay,” Justin nodded, “but what’s that got to do with you, Max?”
“Well,” Max continued, “even though the Kona Council allowed the Seeker crew to search for the Nimrod, they’re not too trusting of them.” So-called archaeologists, Corrick called them. Toma and I both think they’re really just treasure hunters trying to cash in on all that sunken gold. “Now that they actually found the ship, things have gotten worse.”
“And thus a third party observer.” Shades now understood. “They want you to watch the operation, and make sure nobody tries to pull a fast one, right?”
“Right,” Max confirmed. “If I agree, they will each pay me the same amount of money, to ensure that I’m not being bribed by either side, and then I watch the entire operation to see that they both keep their end of the bargain.”
“Okay.” Justin was starting to get the picture. All the while thinking that Striker missed the real treasure while she was here, wondered if someone as ruthless as she would settle for raiding supplies from the island port if even had an inkling what the Seeker crew was up to. “And what if they do try to bribe you?”
“Don’t be gettin’ any bright ideas,” Shades admonished him. “We’re outsiders here, so it would be best to avoid getting dragged into any local trouble. But if you do take the job, Max, we’re behind you all the way.”
“Thanks. And if they do bribe me,” Max informed them, “I will still keep my part of the deal.”
If nothing else, Shades was reassured that at least Max was giving it some serious consideration before making his decision.
As cool as Shades thought the Maximum was, he found it was still nice to sleep in a real room sometimes, and Justin at least seemed to like the accommodations. Tonight was Max’s turn to go back to the ship and keep Bandit company, and tomorrow night he would take his turn to let Max enjoy the comfort of a fine hotel room. In the meantime, he found he just liked to stay in different places, as he seldom got to travel back on Earth.
Anymore, all three of them, to some degree, had come to be able to make themselves at home just about anywhere.
And so three days passed fairly quickly, helping out with the rebuilding, and though it rained heavily the night before, the fourth day dawned bright and sunny.
Promising a pleasant tour of the Kona Islands now that the repairs were complete. The view from their room spanned most of the harbor and the Ocean beyond, a day too glorious to waste doing work anyway. Even Justin didn’t seem to mind waking up early.
Though the Kalona Hotel’s breakfast menu was an enthusiastically embraced change from ship’s stock, it was still hastily eaten this morning so they could get underway.
It was a short trip to the nearby island of Miribar, and there was little conversation as they took in the picturesque island scenery. Most of the surrounding waters near both islands dotted with fishing boats, even a few specks on the horizon near Kon Aru and Kimbar, that were also, most likely. A few other vessels also drifted between the islands at a leisurely pace. A tropical scene straight out of some travel guide.
For Justin, it was as if the Triangle State had lost its Authority— and its patrol cruisers, checkpoints and garrisons; islands left in peace. Though the buildings themselves bore no real resemblance to Max’s former home, the overall atmosphere of the Kona Chain put him in mind of the Layoshan Islands, leaving him in a semi-nostalgic haze of vague childhood memories. Shades tried to remain focused on the helm, telling himself there was no need for daydreams since he was sailing through one.
As they disembarked, Shades noticed how much less modern the harbor here looked compared to Kalona. Most of the buildings here looked older, having stood at least a generation or two longer. Docked all around the Maximum were a variety of fishing boats, some of newer and older design, as well as a few other vessels.
The marketplace was only a few minutes’ walk from the harbor, the main street here lined with shops and even booths that surprised all three of them with the broad variety of merchandise they had to offer.
“I think maybe we should split up,” Justin suggested. Like his friends, he had brought along a little spending money, in case he found anything that struck his fancy.
“Yeah, we’ve all been pretty cooped-up lately,” Shades agreed. “I also think a little ‘me’ time is in order.”
“Sure.” Much as Max enjoyed the company of other human beings after years of solitude, he also figured a little time to themselves was probably a good thing.
So the three of them split up.
On a whim, Max decided to let Bandit lead the way, and before long, he found himself standing in front of a booth advertising cooked fish. Max shrugged, figuring he should’ve known. Still, he was pleased to see his feline friend was as readily accepted here as he was at the port of Kalona.
Though not allowed to set one paw in the Kalona Hotel, Bandit was welcome around most of the rest of the island. Figuring that the worst that could happen would be getting sent back to the ship, he decided to see how they would react here. Much as on Kalona, the people of Kon Miribar, by and large, stared at Bandit more out of curiosity than fear, much to his relief.
“I’ve never seen a cat that big, but I’m glad he has such good taste,” said the man running the fish booth. Short, as most of the Kona tended to be, with a friendly face framed by straight black hair, he wore the same casual blend of outland attire they seemed to favor in this realm. “Why don’t you try a free sample? You won’t find better fish— or better deals— anywhere else on the island!”
“Sure, thanks,” Max replied, and the man grabbed a long fork, removing a short strip of fish meat from the small grill next to the booth. When Max took a bite of it, his smile said it all.
“And if that ain’t the best fish you’ve ever tasted, then my name’s not Shan!” the fisherman boasted. Seeing Bandit licking his chops, he added, “And I’ll bet your friend would like some, too.”
When Max asked how much, he found the price quite agreeable. So, too, did Bandit find the fish itself, quickly gobbling it up. Then looking up at him as if to say, That was a good appetizer, now where’s the food?
Max was about to give him some of his own fish, but Shan handed him another strip, saying, “One more for the road. I wouldn’t dream of charging such a magnificent cat another credit! You’re obviously a newcomer— I haven’t seen you around here.”
“My name’s Max,” he told Shan, chagrined to realize that he had completely forgotten to introduce himself, “and this is Bandit.”
“Bandit. It seems to suit him. So, Max, have you heard of the Kona Festival?”
“Yeah,” Max replied, “Mr Corrick told me about it, and we’re going to be helping out with it.”
“Corrick?” Shan remarked. “Why didn’t you say so? We go back a long way, me and Corrick. Stick with him, Max, he’ll treat you good!”
“We are,” Max replied, “and he’s helped us out a lot.”
“Oh yeah, Corrick can hook you up with almost anything in these islands. You said you were staying for the Festival, right?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Great!” Shan crowed. “I’ll have a booth over on Kalona during the Festival. You should stop by then!”
“We will,” Max promised him.
As he turned to continue on his way, fearing that Bandit would eat every credit of his pocket money if he lingered in front of that fish grill, Shan asked him, “By the way, my friend, has Corrick heard any word about Larson? Is he still missing?”
“Well…” Max thought for a moment, trying to recall where he’d heard that name, finally remembering that first morning, in Corrick’s office. Their conversation about the Seeker job was briefly interrupted by a call on that radio in the corner, in which he now remembered Toma telling Corrick that it would be a while before he could spare any men for a search party. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything since the other day.”
“I see,” Shan nodded. “I hope the old man’s alright. All alone out there… Well, thanks for the news. I guess I’ll see you at the Festival.”
“You too.” Max waved to him as he set out again, spotting Justin in the crowd at another booth while he continued on his way.
While Max fed his cat, Justin tried to figure out what to do in this place. So much, yet so little that actually interested him. To say nothing of how this place reminded him so much of his former hometown of Benton that it left him with mixed feelings about it.
He was beginning to consider going back to the ship and waiting when he found a booth that sold weapons. Under TSA regulations, this would have been completely unheard of, their prohibition of private weapons tightly enforced. Shunning years of experience telling him to disappear before this place got busted, he decided to see what they had.
Though stocked with a hodgepodge of equipment culled from a variety of realms, at least half of it consisted of an odd blend of the archaic and the cutting edge of martial technology. What caught his eye right off the bat was a strange-looking gun, that appeared to be folded up, but whose exact form he could not discern. He reached over to examine it a bit more closely.
“Please be careful with that,” the booth merchant admonished him, picking up the weapon. “That crossbow is very expensive.”
“Crossbow?” Clearly unfamiliar with the word.
“Here, I’ll show you…” The weapons merchant popped a latch somewhere on the stock, and the two folded pieces snapped out, forming a bow. “Not the best I’ve ever seen, but the best in my current selection.”
“What’s it do?” Justin could see a shaft for a bolt, but there were also two more offset barrels, one to each side of the shaft.
“The main line can fire most conventional crossbow bolts,” the merchant explained, “and it can also launch a harpoon grappling hook with a mono-fiber wire rope and power wench built into the stock.”
“And the others?”
“One is a disrupter, and the other one fires specialized mini-bolts. All I’ve got are ‘flash’ and ‘smoke’ rounds, but there are others.”
“Like what?” Justin had all but made up his mind, but in true bargaining fashion, kept a casual tone.
“More than I can remember,” the merchant informed him going into what he could: “Some have explosives, tranquilizers, signals, gases… Every time I think I know ’em all, I hear about a new one. And then there are even more advanced ones, with even more weapons built in.”
“You got that right!”
“So, how much?” One of the big questions of Justin’s existence.
“Sorry. ’Fraid I can’t spare that much. Could have for two, but not three.”
“Twenty-five hundred, that’s my final offer. You won’t find one in such excellent condition any cheaper no matter where you go.”
“Fine. Twenty-five.” Justin knew he would have to go back to the ship to get enough money for something like this, so he told the merchant, “I’ll be back shortly. And remember, you agreed. Twenty-five.”
Justin refused to grin until he turned around. He would have to go back to the ship for more money, but he didn’t doubt that last about the price. Though more money than he wanted to spend today, a rare find like that wouldn’t come any cheaper no matter how much he shopped around. He could already think of instances where a weapon like this would have been handy in the past, so he figured it was a very sound investment in the future.
As Justin made his way back to the harbor, Shades saw him out of the corner of his eye. He had seen the weapons booth, and was glad his friend found something of interest in this place where he must surely be bored to tears. He just hoped Justin didn’t blow too much money while he was at it.
Shades, on the other hand, was anything but bored. He had ambled around a bit, talking with people about everything from the storm to the Island Festival, and especially the topic du jour, the Seeker Project. Though he was obviously a newcomer, and likely just passing through, he found he hardly felt like a tourist.
One of the merchants even told him that the Kona Festival was going to be especially great this time around, because a couple of merchants managed to get ahold of some fireworks from a passing trade ship, and he had made a point of picking some up, since, at least according to his increasingly meaningless watch date, he had already missed Independence Day back on Earth, so some pyrotechnics were definitely in order. Just picturing the looks on Max and Justin’s faces when he showed them.
Then again, the more he wandered around, the more he began to notice a general absence of tourist junk everywhere. Part of the reason why he felt so casual here was because no one was shoving “Kona Islands” t-shirts and coffee mugs in his face. Most of these places were real shops, with only a hint of “tourist” appeal. None of it was just for show; real people, just going about their lives.
Totally unlike the tourist-traps most small towns in Montana had been reduced to. Where the Cowboys were just a memory and most Indians lived on reservations, “the Old West” flattened into hollow Hollywood set pieces with a few refurbished antiques and artifacts. Some of it there for informative purposes, a lot of it just for out-of-stater photo-ops.
Looking around these islands, he was pleasantly surprised to see things had taken a different course here, detouring from his homeland’s history. This whole place made him feel as if he had wandered into any of a number of documentaries he had seen as a kid. That atmosphere of mystery now returned, only this time he didn’t have to settle for just imagining it.
Even so, his time here wasn’t all sightseeing. In addition to talking about local events in the marketplace, he also paid a visit to the Kon Miribar Hotel, which Mr Corrick had recommended. Making much the same inquiries here as he had made during his stay at the Kalona.
In his wallet he carried a laminated picture of his friend, John Doe, hanging out with their friend Sandy and the band, along with giving a description of Amy O’Connor. At times like this, it burned him that, on his last day on Earth, the two of them walked right past a photo booth, and he kept regretting not even suggesting taking a picture with her because he was too embarrassed; such a photo would surely come in handy now, and perhaps might even help her, wherever she was. For he had reason to believe that same stormy night, his friends also ended up in the Sixth Dimension. Admittedly, he hadn’t expected to learn much, but now that he was free to explore this world, it was maddening not to at least try.
After all, his bad dreams about John mostly involved a mansion in the mountains, sometimes involving a snowstorm. Amy, on the other hand, spent most of her time being chased through a twisted, ever-shifting dreamscape by some unseen hunter. But his waking mind sometimes pictured a highway, running though a desert of mesas, tumbleweeds and ghost towns, with the occasional road sign whose words were never clear to him.
That, and a constant sense of impending danger threatening either of them. Wherever they were. In spite of this, though, he still refused to leave any possible stone unturned, and would again ask the same questions on Kon Aru, as well.
To that end, he was pretty sure it was time to return to the ship and wait for the others. As he neared the docks, he spotted four strangers confronting a lone fisherman. Cornering him, it looked more like, as none of them struck him as seeming terribly friendly. It quickly became apparent that they were indeed holding him against his will as he drew near enough to overheard them.
“…was told you’d give us a good price on fish!” snapped the first stranger, who appeared to be the leader of the group. Though dressed in nondescript street clothes, there was a definite air of men-ace about him. “What do you call this bullshit, huh!? Huh?”
He then smacked the basket the fisherman was carrying out of his hands, shoving him at one of his accomplices. The four of them proceeded to push the terrified fisherman back-and-forth among themselves, refusing to let him leave. Shades only watched this for a moment before he started looking around. There was hardly anyone about, and most of them also seemed to be looking for someone else to help; failing to spot any of the local constabulary around, he concluded that if no one else would help, he would have to do what he could.
Meanwhile, the ringleader was taking the fisherman by the shirt, hauling him up face-to-face as he said, “Now, if you don’t—”
“Take your hands off him. Now.”
“Why don’t…” At first the ringleader’s demand started out sounding bold and belligerent, but then he turned and actually looked at his challenger, his voice trailing off in uncertainty. “you… make…”
Then again, Shades reflected, he wouldn’t be too enthused about having to fight Max, either. Especially when he took that tone of voice. He wasn’t sure exactly which way his friend just came from, but Shades was still relieved he showed up all the same.
“Who the hell are you?” the ringleader finally demanded.
“If you have a problem with Shan,” Max answered him, returning the man’s glare with an intense stare the other couldn’t quite match, “we can talk things out. But I won’t let you hurt him.”
“This is none of your business,” the ringleader shot back. “Now get outta here.”
“Yeah!” one of the others shouted, pulling a knife. “You can’t take all four of us!”
“Oh yes we can!” Shades piped up, standing by his friend. It was a relief not to have to face them four-on-one, and though he was confident that Max could take them by himself, he had no interest in seeing his friend needlessly hurt. That, and as far as he was concerned, the fact that they were ganging up on people to begin with gave him no need of reservation for joining the fight himself.
The odds now lessened to two-against-one, it was starting to look as if Max had won this staring match as one of the others blurted, “But the Commander said we weren’t supposed to draw attention to ourselves…”
“Shut up!” the ringleader told him. Though these guys didn’t look like locals, he wasn’t about to go back empty-handed on account of nobodies. “Quit talking out of turn. We ain’t goin’ back without procuring our damn food!”
With that, he rushed Max, while the others moved to surround them. Max caught the leader’s fist, grabbing his arm and swinging him around into another of his crew. Shades, meanwhile, side-stepped the one with the knife as he slashed at him, grabbing his wrist and raising his knee, breaking the man’s grip on his weapon as Shades shoved him down.
The fourth man tried to attack Shades while his back was turned, but Shades saw it out of the corner of his eye, sliding aside and tripping him. And Max, who had just floored the ringleader with a mean right, simply reached around and clotheslined Shades’ attacker, flipping him over onto the ground. And Shades saw one of the others try to draw a power pistol, but kicked it out of his hand before he could bring it to bear on Max behind his back.
Having apparently had enough, the four of them staggered to their feet and started running, the leader cursing them and swearing vengeance if they ever met again.
“Who the hell were those guys anyway?” Shades wondered aloud. If nothing else, wondering about their identity gave him something to dwell on other than the knife one of them abandoned in the street, which he had very nearly been stabbed with only moments ago. About how out-of-place this whole incident felt; based on everyone else’s shock, this couldn’t be a common occurrence here. Combined with how vicious Striker’s crew likely were during their recent visit, he had no trouble seeing why most folks here were holding out for the authorities.
Even as he thought about how scary that must have been for Shan, he and Max both noticed that the fisherman had fled the scene during their altercation, finally both shrugging and figuring they could hardly blame him. After all, everyone else seemed to have vacated as well, once the fighting started.
“Hey Max! Shades! Check this shit out!” Justin called as he ran up to them with his new cross-bow. He stopped short as he looked at them, then at the stunned expressions of the crowd now gathering around the scene. “Um, did I miss something?”
silent stone sentinels
While Justin waited aboard the Maximum, Shades and Max gave Port Security a full report of what happened, and were told that they would investigate the matter from there. After seeing those gathered cheer for his two vigilante friends, Justin actually found himself feeling a little jealous; nobody ever did that in the Triangle State. All the same, he was relieved to see them return from the Security office without any hassle.
Then it was off to Kon Aru.
About the only thing that looked terribly modern on this island was the harbor itself, and even that looked older than the one ones on Kalona and Miribar. By now, the three of them noticed that while Kalona seemed about half-and-half, the farther along they went, the more it became increasingly Kona territory. To come here, they quickly learned, was to be immersed in an older era, one that had somehow survived where so many others had not.
Enjoy it while you can, it almost seemed to say, it’s one of the last refuges of the Island Paradise Dream.
After a brief stop at the inn to ask about John and Amy— though given that no one on Kalona or Miribar had seen of heard of them, Shades wasn’t really expecting any different info way out here, just being thorough— they sought directions to the trail he was looking for, and were directed to an old Kona man, sitting on a chair in the shade out front, mending a fishing net.
“Pardon me,” Shades introduced himself, “we’re travelers staying on Kalona Island, and we were wondering if you knew the way to a place Mr Corrick told me about, a certain Koha site.”
“Corrick?” The elder Kona looked up for the first time, taking them in. “Hnn… If Corrick told you about it, I see no harm.”
“Thank you,” Shades replied. After properly introducing themselves, the elder told him how to find the trail outside the village, then the conversation turned recent events, the old man commenting, “Looks like the Nimrod’s coming up whether the opposition in the Council wants it or not.”
“Sounds that way,” Shades replied. “Before we left, I heard they were close to finding it again, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they locate it by tomorrow.”
“No good can come of this…” the elder told him, “Just more trouble.”
“Yet perhaps it would be best to close this chapter of history…” Shades replied, wondering how an outsider like himself managed to get so involved in this debate anyway. “Then again, I suppose it’s none of my business.”
As his companions turned to walk away, the elder looked straight into Shades’ mirrorized lenses as he added, “A storm is coming… Keep one eye open.”
Shades turned to see his friends were already on their way, and didn’t seem to have heard any of that, and the old man had turned back to his work as if he had never spoken to them at all, and so he was left to catch up with them, scratching his head.
Instead of wandering the marketplace, as they had before, Shades led them out of the village, up into some highlands near the coast. All he mentioned was that there was something he wanted to see, something Corrick told him about. When they asked him, he just gave them that cryptic smile and told them that they would have to see this for themselves.
Since Shades wouldn’t tell them where they were going, instead Justin asked “So, Max, did you decide to take the job?” Recalling, as he did, that Max excused himself to go talk to Corrick yesterday afternoon.
“Yes,” Max answered. And Corrick had encouraged him to go out and see the Kona Islands for himself before deciding, but he had already made up his mind. These last couple evenings, swimming and playing down by the beach after a hard day’s work, held bittersweet memories of his childhood in Layosha, but in the company of his new friends, he was starting to think of them as new memories for a new life. “This place is pretty cool. Maybe we should stay here for a while.”
“You can’t be serious,” Justin replied. Though he had to admit that, in spite of all the work, his stay here so far was a pleasant reminder of his two carefree months on the Isle of Paradise.
“He does have a point, Max,” Shades conceded. Beaches were something new to him, but something he could definitely get used to. “If nothing else, there is the question of what to do when the money runs out.”
“Just how much gold is on that ship anyway?” Justin wondered aloud.
“Well, depending on just how much gold there turns out to be, where I come from, it could be worth…” Shades tried to put it in terms of his own world’s currency, coming up with, “Anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.”
“The money where I come from. Remember those bills I showed you from the ship?” He tried to arrive at an exchange rate, but based on the prices he had seen at their last couple destinations… all he could come up with was, “Anywhere from half a dollar to three or four bucks to a credit would be my guess.”
But that was the problem. They still had almost five thousand credits left, even after Justin’s little spending spree back on Miribar, but the economic disparities between realms made it difficult to tell just how far that money would really go.
It was a long trudge up a little-used trail, but at least the scenery made for a pleasant air for conversation, so it didn’t seem like such a long way to their next destination.
As they stood out on a low cliff overlooking the sea, at first Max wasn’t sure what he was looking at. From behind, they appeared to be oddly curved pillars of dark stone. Even as they walked around to view them from the other side, seeing their stark, jagged profiles, weathered by countless ages of sea wind, it still took him a moment to piece it together. Though for Shades it was a confirmation of sorts, and Justin a sight he never expected to see again.
Hands. Narrow, strangely proportioned, crudely stylized stone hands, raised palm forward. A good couple dozen of them, mostly intact, all facing the sea in staggered rows. Almost as if to ward off some unknown thing.
“What… are they?” Max finally managed. To him, the closest thing they looked like were the Ancestors’ sculptures back in Layosha, but the style was totally different.
“Tiki gods,” Shades grinned. “Actually, I’m not sure they really have a name, but the Kona call these monuments remnants of the Koha, the Old Ones, a people they believe lived here long before even they did. Back on Earth, there’s a place called Easter Island that’s got statues a lot like this. Only those ones are giant stone heads instead of hands. I’ve seen pictures of people standing next to them, but I still can’t believe how huge they are…”
“But what are they for?” Justin pressed.
“No one really knows, in either place,” he replied. He had borrowed a couple volumes from Corrick, and spent much of his downtime over the last couple days reading a book, written and published elsewhere by some explorer. Corrick had added some additional historical notes and factual corrections in the margins. Though this gave him another layer of knowledge to all he saw, there was still nothing like beholding it with his own eyes. “Not even Corrick could tell me much.”
Max seemed to agree, saying, “They must be really old…”
“Yeah,” Justin added. “You know, I remember hearing that there were big stone statues like this on Benton Island.” Of course, the island’s Director’s estate sat in their midst, surrounded by other estates and facilities, so he never got to see any of them in person. “They say that not even the oldest people there know who built them.” He shrugged. “Like they just always been there or somethin’.”
“That’s sort of like here,” Shades replied. “They say the Old Ones, whose original home sank into the sea, built them, but nobody knows what became of those people. Corrick told me that people still stumble upon objects, from time to time, that seem to hint at some long-lost civilization predating even the current natives.”
Ruins some said were jealously guarded by the ancestral spirits of those forgotten people. At first glance, this vista seemed well suited for a picnic, like the one they packed for this trip, but once Shades stood in the midst of these silent stone sentinels, the very air almost seemed to weigh down on them. He noticed that the others sensed it, too; as their conversation progressed their voices became increasingly subdued, as if to avoid waking these sleeping monolithic giants.
It appeared that even the miners, whose only interest in this place was gold, apparently also saw fit to let these ancient monuments stand untouched.
And so their repast was a quiet one in the shadow of the Koha’s legacy.
on sacred waters
After they ate, they didn’t linger in that lonely place more than a few minutes before being on their way.
Shades told them that they wouldn’t be able to land on the fourth island, Kimbar, but they could make a close pass anyway. As they sailed around Kon Aru, they again saw what Shades had taken to referring to as the “Tiki Gods”— this time from out at sea— from whence they now looked like some grim, foreboding welcoming committee gathered on the cliffs, a barrage of hands calling approaching ships to a halt. Almost a prelude to the somewhat more recent ruins they saw next.
While the first places they visited looked rather quaint, though reasonably prosperous for such an obscure locale, the shanties on the far side of Aru, on the other hand, looked as if they were rather run-down even before they were abandoned. Consisting of several clusters of crudely tossed-together structures, standing near the beach and scattered across the side of the small mountain from which most of the island was formed, drab and stark in the late afternoon sun. At least half of the docks having rotted to the point of collapse, now mostly submerged, with what looked like the remains of an abandoned ship sitting near the middle, and the rest of it leaned haphazardly as if it might fall over with the next puff of breeze.
“What the hell happened here?” Justin asked.
“That’s the old shantytown,” Shades told them. “It used to be the main mining town, but that was way before our time. Now no one lives here anymore.”
“Why?” Max wondered aloud.
“You see,” Shades replied, “Many years ago, some explorers came to these islands, and, like others who had passed through in ages past, did some trading and stuff. Unfortunately, they started spreading word that they found gold here, and that was when the trouble began. Later visitors started building gold mines, and tried to force the Kona to leave. Who knows how long the fighting would have continued, but it turns out there wasn’t that much gold here to begin with, so when it all dried up, the mining company cut their losses and ran. Eventually, they shut this place down, and everybody moved over to the other side of the island.”
“Why didn’t they just stay here?” To Justin, this place— the whole mining business— gave him bad memories; at the mere mention of a mining operation, he felt as if someone just walked on his grave. But that was no reason for them to leave.
“It’s the water,” Shades said quietly. “Even after the mines folded, people started getting sick. Turns out that gold wasn’t the only metal in the ground here, and heavy metals contaminated all of the water on this side of the island. You’ll also notice there are no fishing boats out this way, either.”
In fact, aside from the Maximum, there was a marked absence of any kind of boat out this way. Through his binoculars, Shades could see that even the vegetation looked stunted and sickly. Forlorn, as he imagined the locals’ grandparents must have felt, abandoned by the mining company, stranded in the same boat as the indigenous population after years of slaving away. Likely joining forces just to survive…
Justin, though, having seen the Authority’s mining practices, could see how far this place had come from there. For him, this was like pushing fast-forward on history as Shades did on some of the ship’s small video library. A glimpse of what the Triangle State might look like after the crystals ran out.
“After that, those who remained formed the Joint Council,” Shades elaborated, “to protect the people, and the Islands’ natural beauty. And charming atmosphere, I would imagine.” Noting, as he did what seemed to be a deliberate effort on their part to not end up as some tourist trap.
“I guess that makes sense,” Justin replied.
“There’s also another reason,” Shades informed them cryptically, “and it’s why I’ve been careful to stay near the coast. The other answer is right under our feet.”
Everyone’s attention was previously held by first the Tiki Gods, then the decrepit shanties, that neither of them ever noticed what a sight lay beyond the railing in the shallow waters below.
Shimmering beneath the tide was a collection of structures that looked hauntingly like buildings. Most likely made of stone, originally, though now grown over with a blanket of coral and seaweed. The fish swimming in and out among them only served to complete the otherworldly look.
Shades had glimpsed it now and then, couldn’t help himself, but had mainly focused on guiding the ship so he could view it with his friends. It was his guess that this place must have existed above sea level, once upon a time, yet somehow managed to sink to this depth largely in one piece. A mystery in and of itself. It made him wish he had a camera.
“Unreal…” Justin breathed, watching a flat, round, brightly colored fish drift in and out of what was likely once a window.
Max absently patted Bandit’s head, silence saying it all for what he lacked the words to convey.
“We drift on sacred waters,” Shades spoke quietly, almost reverently, breaking the eerie silence that hung over this place even more heavily than it had over the stone hands. “The Kona call it Koha na’Chindi, the City of the Dead. It is an ancient custom to bury their dead at sea out here, that their spirits might dwell in the city under the sea, from which the Koha supposedly came, to watch over the islands.”
“An undersea graveyard…” Max understood it was a cross between his own people’s custom of burial at sea, and the common Outlander custom of burying the dead in graveyards.
“I asked Corrick,” Shades said, “and though there’s no law against it, this place is avoided by general custom, not to be disturbed by the activities of the living.
“Of course, he also told me once that he came out here late at night years ago, and saw the true City of the Dead.” His voice becoming more and more hushed as he continued his account. “He said there was a bluish, greenish light under the water, and he saw the ghosts of the Koha walking around in the city below…”
“Yeah right,” Justin remarked. Then stopped himself. After spending so much of his childhood in the shadowy corridors of the Ruins, he had developed a reflexive tendency to scoff at any suggestion of the supernatural. But after some of his more recent experiences, he found he wasn’t so sure anymore.
As they drifted along, their course brought them nearer to Kon Kimbar. Shades explained that the mining was even more extensive there, and so too was the heavy metal contamination. As a result, the entire population was forced to migrate into the other islands.
“In fact,” he told them, “aside from some of the Kona elders, only one person lives out this way. A guy named Mr Larson, who I guess helps watch over the City of the Dead.”
“Didn’t Mr Corrick say he’s been missing since the storm?” Max asked, remembering Shan’s question about that.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard, but Corrick said the search party sill hadn’t re—”
Shades stopped abruptly, snapping his head around at Kimbar Island.
The others looked at him curiously.
“Anyone else see that?” Shades asked.
“See what?” Justin demanded. Then, “Hey! You’re not gettin’ me with some ghost prank.”
“No,” Shades replied, “it’s nothing like that. I just thought I saw a flicker of light over there.” Up on a cliff was a house, with a porch on stilts, presumably the residence of this Mr Larson. “Eh, probably just the sun reflecting off the windows or something.”
Sure enough, they watched, but nothing else happened, so they headed back for dinner, chalking it up to the atmosphere of these history-haunted waters.
The following morning, Max and his friends came aboard the Seeker platform, having been awakened early at the announcement that the Nimrod wreck had been relocated. Bandit, though, had to stay back on Kalona. The captain was a good deal more adamant about it than Corrick ever was.
Captain Harper seemed pleasant enough at first, but she could be hard-edged about some things. Such as being delayed for days by the aftermath of that storm when she was right on the verge of her greatest find. Now her crew moved fast to make up for it.
The weather was partly cloudy, but fair, excellent conditions for the operation, and they had no intention of missing their window of opportunity.
From what Corrick had told them, the Seeker crew started out as a salvage outfit, but a lucky break got them into the treasure-hunting business. Apparently, while searching for recently-sunken cargo ships in another realm, they stumbled upon the wreck of a trading ship that had eluded local efforts for more than a century. By then, there was a standing reward— a substantial sum— for the recovery of the ship’s lucrative jewel cargo.
That was how Harper got her start.
Though they had gained a reputation for finding ships that defied all past efforts, the Joint Island Council didn’t fully trust them. Based on the Islands’ past history, some flat-out called Harper a treasure-hunter, and insinuated that she would take the treasure and run. Even though the Council ultimately agreed to split the proceeds 40/60 in a “rainy day” fund for the Kona Islands, certain factions still fought the decision.
The end result was Max, an impartial third-party observer, who would watch every aspect of the operation, and inform the other party if either side violated the bargain. Shades and Justin were there only because Max asked for it, and Corrick put in a good word for them.
Now that the Nimrod was (again) relocated, the Seeker’s divers spent most of the morning exploring the wreck and moving things into place to prepare for recovery. The Nimrod’s hull had deteriorated to the point that there wasn’t much left of the roof, so that the two intact crates of gold could be raised directly to the surface with the Seeker platform’s crane. It took them hours to clear away all of the debris, but they finally gave the “all-clear” signal to start hauling, and now it was time to raise it from the depths.
As the line came up, everyone watched with varying degrees of anticipation— days’ worth of work, not to mention weeks of searching and debate before that— waiting to see the lost treasure of the Nimrod.
There was a big splash as they hit the end of the line, and the biggest crate most of them had ever seen was lowered, pouring and dripping, onto the platform deck. Half-covered in seaweed and other growth, but still intact. So, too, was the heavy, rust-encrusted lock holding it shut.
As the line was lowered to retrieve the second container, Harper stepped up and took a crowbar to it. Rusty as it was, though, it still wouldn’t open for her. After that, Max took a crack at it, getting it on his second try by jamming the bar in place and kicking it.
Then Harper stepped back in to open it, revealing a loose pile of gold ingots, hastily melted down, each one impressed with the brand of some long-extinct mining company.
“The method is crude,” she commented, “but—”
Whatever else she may have had to say about the ingots was interrupted by an energy beam that hit her in the shoulder, knocking her down, and sending the gold piece clanking to the deck.
That shot proved to be a prelude to more yet to come; before anyone could piece together what was going on, more shots came from the horizon. Along with the high-pitch, rattling drone of small engines now that they were within range. All anyone got to see at first was at least a dozen single-person watercraft approaching the Seeker platform before hitting the deck.
Several crew members weren’t quick enough, getting hit by the attackers’ front-mounted weapons as they swept to either side of the platform in two distinct groups. After this initial volley, both formations started circling the Seeker platform like black-helmed vultures. Shades and Justin ducked behind the treasure crate for cover, the latter cursing the Island Patrol for insisting he leave his guns behind.
As most of them had little or no combat training or experience, the rest of the Seeker crew completely lost its composure. Several jumped overboard and tried to swim for the ship. Others stayed right where they hit the deck. One tried to help a fallen comrade while another pulled off his dirty white shirt and started waving it at them in frantic surrender.
To no avail, Justin predicted, only half a second before the man was cut down by the next wave of shots. Whoever these guys were, they weren’t taking any surrenders. His first instinct was to run, but the problem here was that there was no place to run to.
And no place to hide, either, Shades observed, for the very crate they took cover behind must surely be the enemy’s goal. The thought occurred to him to abandon the platform and swim for the nearby Seeker, as most of the others were doing. Totally oblivious, he now realized, to the fact that the Seeker herself was also being swarmed, and scratched that idea.
No choice but to fight, Max concluded, struggling against the shock of memories he could really do without. All of those craft looked so much like the ones the Cyexian Slash’s clan attacked with all those years ago… He shook the sounds of rain and thunder and crashing waves from that fateful night out of his head, then made his move.
As one of the craft passed, he sprang from the deck, dashing and making a flying leap, tackling the pilot just before he got out of reach.
Taking his cue from Max, Shades grabbed a short length of chain with a hook on it lying next to the crane. Staying as low as he could, he swung it around several times for momentum, hurling it at one of the raiders as they passed. Though the man wore a black helmet, just like the others, the hook was still heavy enough to knock him slouching overboard.
The second Justin saw him go down, he jumped into the water and started swimming madly for the stalled craft. The pilot was stunned, unable to resist, so Justin simply left him floating there as he took off with it. Shades, meanwhile, saw Max fall overboard with his opponent, and dove in to help him. Even as it occurred to him that he had no aquatic combat experience, he saw Max kick off the hull and start swimming toward the Seeker instead. Unknowingly leaving Shades to face to the pilot all by himself.
Before such a fight could begin, though, another craft swerved by, sideswiping the stranded pilot. Shades noticed Justin at the controls as he stopped, just long enough to say, “Get goin’! They’re on to us!”
Sure enough, the other raiders started making evasive maneuvers as they realized there was someone onboard who could offer resistance.
Shades climbed aboard the unmanned craft before its original occupant could catch up with him, glad that the machine was similar to one he had once taken out on Flathead Lake a couple years ago, starting the engine and getting underway before the others could come about to target him. He caught a brief glimpse of Max, swimming underwater to avoid the hailstorm of enemy fire across the surface. Though Shades understood, much to his dismay, that in a firefight like this, a stray shot could hit you just as easily as a well-aimed one in this chaos. Yet he had to confine his worries to the back of his mind, as it was currently occupying all of his concentration on just surviving this mess himself.
While Shades and Justin dealt with the threat out on the water as best they could, Max’s swim became a shorter, but more complicated, one as the Seeker started moving. Unlike the rest, he had seen what else was going on while everyone else was busy fighting or panicking. As the Seeker pulled up alongside the platform, the remaining crew found, instead of rescue, that more raiders had taken control of the ship. Having left only a skeleton crew during the raising of the cargo, the enemy quickly overran the Seeker, and now two of them covered another pair as they boarded to hijack the platform, as well.
The crane was still raising the second crate as the attack began, and one of the hijackers reached the controls just as it surfaced. Another hijacker attached lines from the crane on the side of the Seeker itself, to the first crate, swinging it over aboard the ship. Meanwhile, the second crate was being set up for transfer.
Max suspected that whoever was leading this attack was likely onboard the Seeker now, and that stopping them would be the key to winning this battle. The best way to save his friends, as well as anyone else who was still alive, to say nothing of perhaps throwing a wrench in these hijackers’ works.
As Max climbed the diver’s ladder near the rear of the ship, his plans— as well as the ongoing battle beyond— were interrupted by an underwater explosion that jarred him back into the sea, just as he was about to launch his surprise counterattack.
The explosion took everyone by surprise.
Even the hijackers, Shades noted with much dismay as he veered sharply away from the blast area. If the explosion isn’t their doing, he mused ominously, then whose is it? “What the hell was that!?”
“Holy shit!” Justin nearly lost control of his craft from the shockwave as he swerved past the scene.
The crane boom was in mid motion at the instant of the explosion, unceremoniously dumping the second crate on the deck of the Seeker, the hijackers tossed right off the deck of the now sinking platform like living crash-test dummies. The blast itself toppled three or four enemy craft.
Which suited Shades just fine, as his current tag-along was still tagging along, and he had enough on his hands with just that. Even as he tried to figure out how to lose an enemy that could shoot at him when he couldn’t shoot back, another craft came in from in front. Swerving back-and-forth in a desperate attempt to evade their shots, he was frustrated to find that it was having the same effect on his own aim.
As the other bore down on him, apparently thinking he wanted to play chicken or something, Shades recalled a trick he learned, and executed a move his friends had shown him out on the lake. As his two adversaries closed in on each other, Shade jumped his craft, plunging beneath the surface while turning sharply. Having found a new use for an old trick.
Shades resurfaced as the other two, having gotten too close to avoid each other, both fired belatedly as they slammed together, throwing both riders over their handlebars. As he looked around to see who would attack him next, he wondered offhand if John’s bandmates, Sandy and Becky, would give him points for style. Though he doubted either of them would ever have imagined him using a stunt move in battle. His sense of victory, though, was fleeting as he took in the rest of the battle, seeing they were still ridiculously outnumbered, and at this rate, they wouldn’t hold out much longer.
Justin had arrived at much the same conclusion: now that they had thinned out the ranks a little, with just him and Shades they didn’t stand an ice cube’s chance in hell. As he shot down a third craft, he could see the odds were still too heavily stacked against them. Every fiber of his being was telling him to drop this no-win battle and make a break for it, book it to one of the islands or something. But he knew that Max wouldn’t leave, not until he had done everything he possibly could— Shades, too, most likely— and found he just couldn’t bring himself to abandon him like that.
As Justin circled around, another craft pulled up alongside him, the pilot whipping out a power pistol. But although he was barred from carrying his guns in public here, Justin had taken to concealing his laser staff on his person, and now that he was at a close enough range to use it, he did. Before his opponent could aim at him, Justin took the barrel off his gun, then slashed again, cutting the guy’s handlebars off at the shaft.
Wondering for a second what the expression on the bastard’s face looked like under that visor as his black-clad opponent veered out of control and crashed into another watercraft on approach, sending both adversaries skidding across the water, Justin remembered the other weapon he had taken to concealing on himself. Kicking himself for not thinking of his original backup plan first, and checking to see that it was still tucked snugly in his pocket, much to his relief. Wasting no time, he swung around and made a bee-line for the Seeker.
Arcing in close, and trying his best to remember speeds and distances from their battle with Striker’s pirates, Justin pulled the pin on the EMP grenade with his teeth and tossed it at the Seeker.
As he sped away, he just hoped he could make it out of range in time. Which he did, whether by timing or by luck, but several pursuers were caught in the effective radius, their engines and weapons disabled by electromagnetic pulse. Even so, he realized, he was still outnumbered at least five-to-one, and the only thing that would save them now was a miracle.
Two miracles, he amended, seeing that they were now outnumbered nearly ten-to-one, since Shades’ craft was also caught in the pulse.
Shades simply drifted for a moment as his craft’s engine sputtered out.
In the midst of this near-deafening silence after all the noise of motors and energy blasts, the strangeness of this whole scenario began to sink into him. Now that the initial shock of the attack had faded, he was left feeling somewhat awkward, just thinking about how peaceful things were a mere five or ten minutes ago. In the last few weeks, he had come to find himself in a world where people fought with sci-fi weapons, ships roamed endless seas, and his grade-point average was now the least of his concerns…
Then he snapped out of it, alarmed at how he could have spaced out, lapsing into such dangerous lines of thought while surrounded by deadly enemies.
“THIS IS THE KONA ISLAND PATROL!” a voice blared from the distance. Fast approaching the battle were Sentry I and Sentry II, as Chief Toma resumed on the megaphone while they reached the edge of the battle: “SURRENDER AND PREPARE TO BE BOARDED! ANY RESISTANCE WILL BE MET WITH DEADLY FORCE!”
At last, Justin got his miracle.
“Hell yeah!” Shades crowed, more than grateful for the reinforcements, even though it now brought to mind the question of exactly where they had been all this time.
“About fuckin’ time!” Justin never imagined he would actually be pleased to see a security force.
As Shades tried to figure out how to signal the Island Patrol ships for help without drawing enemy fire, he happened to catch a glimpse of what was happening aboard the Seeker, and his relief evaporated. Even as Chief Toma’s men fired at the raiders, he believed he now had a cause for that mysterious explosion. Not to mention cause to believe the situation was about to get worse before it would have any chance of getting better.
A dark-clad figure chinned up onto the deck of the Seeker, dry in spite of his apparent mode of entry. Though a similar color scheme to theirs, his garb was of a totally different design than that of the hijackers, putting him in mind of paramilitary gear from his own world, especially the helmet. Particularly what appeared to be some kind of breath screen covering the lower half of the face.
Well suited to this newcomer’s tactics, though, as he lobbed several grenades across the deck. The hijackers, preoccupied with the arrival of the Island Patrol, only belatedly noticed this unwelcome guest as the grenades went off. In seconds, most of the deck was swimming in smokescreen.
Although the smoke-bombs finally alerted the hijackers to his presence, it still worked to this intruder’s advantage, allowing him to take down his first few adversaries one at a time. Justin’s EMP wave reduced those onboard to hand-to-hand combat, which this fellow clearly excelled at, beating down each attacker in rapid succession. When the smoke began to clear, and several of them ganged up on him, he more than evened up the odds, firing up what appeared to be a pair of violet laser claws.
With a start, Shades remembered that pulse weapons, like laser blades, were typically unaffected by EMP, and given how proficient this new combatant appeared to be, was already worried that someone that organized might also have some kind of contingency up his sleeve for dealing with the Island Patrol. Already quite certain this one was no ally. As he watched, with speed and ruthless efficiency, this stranger continued to blaze a bloody trail through nearly a dozen hijackers, apparently making his way toward the helm, Shades wondered if there was anyone left to stop him.
“This won’t be a fight… It’s gonna be a slaughter.”
Max vs the dark stranger I
Max got a more up-close and personal view of the carnage as he climbed back up onto the deck of the Seeker, fearing already that anyone this brutal was more foe than friend. Watching this guy rip through their ranks, he came to same conclusion as Shades, that against someone of this caliber, it would be little contest. Murderous though these raiders were, this was more than he could stand to watch.
Reaching for his own energy blade, he prepared to confront this deadly intruder in the hopes of finding out this stranger’s intentions, and if nothing else, put an end to this senseless slaughter.
“And just where the hell do you think you’re goin’?” a voice demanded from behind.
Max turned to see the two hijackers who were previously controlling the crane. “It’s you…” the other one remarked, and it clicked. Though Max couldn’t see his face under that helmet, he could place the voice just fine: one of the men who accosted Shan in the fish market the day before.
“So that’s what you were doing there…” Shades had told him those guys seemed out of place in the Kona Islands, and this confirmed it. At a loss for time and patience, as every second gave that intruder more ground in his cutting a bloody swath through everyone else onboard, Max whipped out his laser sword, sweeping both of them with his stun blade even as they paused in mid attack at the sight of his weapon. “You’re not getting away this time.”
He then turned his attention back to what he was now instinctively certain was the real threat aboard this ship.
By now, the surviving hijackers had taken up stray tools and implements as makeshift weapons in a desperate attempt to slow this unexpectedly deadly adversary’s advance.
As he felled his current opponent, slicing the business end off a wildly swung sledge hammer and backhanding its user, the dark stranger turned to Max as he approached, sensing right away that this opponent was completely different from the rest of these, demanding, “Who are you? You’re not part of the Seeker crew.”
To which Max replied, “If you want to know somebody’s name, it’s only polite to give your own first. Who are you, and whose side are you on?”
“The dead have no need of my name,” the stranger answered. “And the only side I’m on is mine.” Then, almost as an afterthought, added: “Oh, and thanks for taking out the trash, but this is my ship now, and I don’t need any help. Got it, pretty-boy?”
“The name is Max,” Max told him, assuming his fighting stance, “and I can’t let you do that.”
“Heroes die young.”
With that, the stranger powered down the claws and whipped out an electric- blue laser sword of his own, letting his blade do the talking. Impressed as he was by the way this guy handled himself, he now understood that he was also the most dangerous enemy on this battlefield, having demonstrated that he was willing and able to kill anyone who got in his way. After Justin’s EMP attack, he was confident that the Island Patrol could handle the now mostly defanged raiders, but he had a sinking feeling this one was more than either side bargained for.
Max was able to block the initial barrage, even replied with several attacks of his own, but as his opponent’s speed escalated, Max found himself increasingly on the defensive. Quickly proving himself to be every bit as formidable as Striker, if not more so. Only moments into the battle, and he was already wondering if he was in over his head, yet he knew that if he backed down, this man’s killing spree would resume, and he had already seen enough, enemies or not. That, and a part of him simply refused to give in as long as his friends were in the line of fire.
In the meantime, most of the surviving hijackers decided to back off. Most likely trying to figure out what to do about the Island Patrol now that they no longer had any weapons, and the Seeker was immobilized. Just trying to stay out of the way as the two swordsmen dueled their way across the deck, perhaps deciding it would be safer to simply let them fight each other, then knock off the victor.
One of them, though, got the bright idea of attacking Max while his attention was focused on the duel. Unfortunately, just as he lunged in with a pry-bar from the salvage tools, the stranger kicked Max inadvertently out of the way, sending him rolling across the deck to avoid his next attack. Which slashed the unwary hijacker instead, flooring him as he toppled off-balance after missing Max, the energy blade gouging the deck.
“Oops!” was all the intruder had to say. “Sorry ’bout that!”
Max bounded back to his feet, torn between relief for that little break in the action, and revulsion at this man’s casual disregard for the lives of others.
“What the hell are you lookin’ at? Swords are weapons, they were made for killing,” the stranger informed him mockingly. “And what’s up with this stun crap anyway? Unless you can kill, there’s no way in hell you can beat me! You’re too soft for your own good.”
“I’m still alive,” Max shot back. “Your name?”
“Fine,” the stranger conceded, “you’ve lasted longer than most, I’ll give you that. Take it as a parting gift. When you get to hell, tell ’em Erix sent ya! You wouldn’t be the first, nor will you be the last.”
Justin the sniper
At first Justin was hoping that the Island Patrol’s arrival would take some of the heat off of him now that Shades was out of the fight, but rather than picking off enemy craft while they battled Toma’s men, he instead found himself caught in the crossfire. In addition to those raiders who still targeted him, he was also harassed by what he at first thought were stray shots from his allies. Then it occurred to him that perhaps not all of Toma’s crew necessarily knew he wasn’t an enemy.
In the chaos of battle, he would never know for sure who hit him, or why as he was thrown from his damaged craft while passing near Sentry I in an attempt to let them know he was on their side.
Not wanting to get caught treading water in the middle of a firefight, Justin paddled over to the nearest ship, Sentry I, trying to keep a low profile. So focused on not getting shot by the raiders that he was initially surprised to find one of the Island Patrol guards training a power rifle on him as he swam up to the side of the ship. He just floated there for an awkward moment before the realization that he was still a sitting duck, and right in the line of fire out here, got him moving again.
“Don’t shoot!” Justin called out, reaching for a helping hand. “I’m on your side!”
“I can’t let you onboard…” the guard began.
“Let him on,” Chief Toma ordered, “or didn’t you see him fighting those pirates?” After the guard hauled him aboard, he asked Justin, “Can you tell me what happened?”
“Well, there’s not much to tell,” Justin admitted. “One moment, they were raising the treasure, the next those guys came outta nowhere and attacked. We were just trying to defend ourselves.”
“So that distress call was a diversion…” Toma muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
While Sentry I held the rest of the raiders at bay, Sentry II pulled up next to the commandeered Seeker and the sinking platform. Under heavy cover fire, Harper and the other surviving Seeker crew members were taken aboard. Many of them were in serious need of medical attention, so for now it was Sentry I’s main purpose to cover them during the rescue. Only then would they turn their full attention to the hijackers and their assault.
“I see,” Toma nodded, grasping the true nature of the thieves’ plot. Taking in the battle, he contemplated their next move. He was hoping for more info, but while he wasn’t sure he could fully trust this Justin Black, he was at least satisfied that he wasn’t in on the attack on the Seeker. “Do you know what happened to your friend, the observer?”
“You mean Max?” Justin asked, realizing with a start that in his desperate struggle to survive, he had completely lost track of him. Shades, too, he noted, no longer seeing him anywhere near his disabled watercraft, and surprised himself by being worried about him. “Last I saw, he was swimming toward the…”
That was when Justin caught the telltale flash and flicker of energy blades aboard the Seeker. Even as the Sentry I crew continued to keep the gradually diminishing swarm of enemy craft at bay, people on both sides of the conflict were starting to take notice of Max and Erix as they dueled across the deck of the captured ship. Like most of them, Justin wasn’t quite sure what to make of the situation, but he had already concluded that this wildcard wasn’t on their side.
“I’ve gotta help him…” Justin reached for one of the spare power rifles on the patrol ship’s gun rack, instinctively relieved just to have a weapon again. His gut feeling about this dark-clad stranger, after seeing him in action for but a few moments, was that he was bad news. And he didn’t like the idea of Max taking him on all on his own.
“Stay out of it,” Toma warned him, stopping his hand. He had already ordered his men not to fire on the Seeker, seeing as how no one there seemed to be able to shoot back for now, and instead focus on covering the marauders who still could. That, and to him the risk seemed too great; Max was their best bet on that front as long as he was still in action. “That’s Max’s fight!”
“No, I can hit him,” Justin said, aiming at Max’s opponent. “Eat shit, motherfucker!”
Much to his vexation, the Sentry was rocked by a round of enemy fire right then, and his shots went wide.
“Dammit! I missed!” Justin hissed, scanning the deck of the Seeker. At first, all he saw was Max stumble back to his feet, but no sign of his adversary. Relieved that he at least hadn’t shot his friend; without him to keep this mysterious meddler busy, they could lose any chance of reclaiming the ship.
And he could lose a good friend.
Then Justin fired again as he spotted a by-now familiar helmet pop up from behind the cover of some supply crates. This time his shot was a clean hit. But his jaw dropped in shock and dismay as that helmet sailed through the air and plunged out of sight into the sea below.
“No way…” Justin gasped, knowing right off that couldn’t be right. Even without a helmet, he had never heard of a mere power rifle decapitating someone, let alone at this range. “If I…”
“Look out!” Toma cried, lunging at Justin as he still tried to piece together what just happened back there, knocking him to the deck as a salvo of energy blasts swept past.
“The hell…” Justin muttered as he got up.
But Toma didn’t.
It only took Justin a moment to figure out that the guy just took a hit for him. The burn streak across his back was all too visible as he rolled over and struggled to his feet.
“You okay?” Justin demanded, still trying to catch up with this most unexpected turn of events.
“I will be…” Toma assured him as one of his crew turned to render aid. “I’ve taken worse than this, kid.”
Taking him at his word, and deciding that it would be best to hold his fire until he had a cleaner shot, Justin turned back to watch the duel unfolding before him, hoping Max was faring better than he had so far.
Max vs the dark stranger II
Just as Erix made his next attack, he found himself being tracked by several rounds of laser fire. He was about to hit the deck, but he just couldn’t resist the opportunity when he saw that Max was even more startled by it, and lunged at him. Max turned his attention back in time, and just barely managed to deflect Erix’s attack, but it still knocked him down, just in time to avoid the rest of the stray shots.
“Shit!” Erix hissed as he stumbled across the deck, ducking behind some supply crates. Wondering if he just inadvertently saved his stubborn opponent, knocking him out of the line of fire like that. Given the direction, a brief glance from his hiding place revealed the source of the shots to be someone aboard Sentry I.
Hadn’t expected a backwater outfit like this to have a sniper. And again cursed that mysterious blackout that silenced both of his power pistols or he would very much enjoy returning fire. Deciding to test that theory, he unstrapped his helmet and held it out from behind the crates in a loose grip—
“Damn!” he muttered, watching his helmet fly right out of his hand. Glad now that he hadn’t stuck his head out there.
When the shooting stopped, it only took Erix half a second to figure out the implication. Wasting no time, he sprang out from his cover, dashing in close to his opponent. Keeping Max between himself and this unknown shooter as a human shield.
Max was still staring at Sentry I, and it was only seeing Erix’s movement out of the corner of his eye that saved him as he jumped aside.
“You don’t have time to look around while you’re fighting me!” Erix told him, staying close to his adversary to confound any sniper in the distance. That was when he recognized Max’s face from his recon earlier. “I get it… You’re the one they hired as an outside observer, aren’t you? Never guessed you’d also double as a guard.”
“That’s not what they intended,” Max replied curtly, trying to focus on defending against Erix’s renewed assault. Finally seeing his enemy’s visage behind the steel faceplate, lean and angular, framed by a shaggy mane of black hair, but what struck him the most was the left side of his face. Streaked with three slashmarks, and a glass eye that gazed blankly at the world, one clear grey eye gleaming on the right that matched his wolfish grin. It took an effort of will to look straight into that eye, yet Max continued, “but I’m still going to protect them anyway!”
“Who cares about them?” Erix demanded. As they continued to trade attacks, he reflected that this Max guy was stronger than he originally gave him credit for, having lasted far longer than most. Still, if he let this fight drag out too much longer, it would give the Island Patrol a chance to interfere in his plans, once they boarded the Seeker. “I’d be more worried about myself if I were you, pretty-boy!”
For his part, Max steeled himself to carry on as long as he could. He knew he was engaged in an uphill battle against his toughest opponent yet, but he was determined to hold out at least until the Seeker crew was rescued. All the same, he found a part of him didn’t want to back down now, even if defeat meant certain death.
It was all he could do for now to keep this Erix occupied, and hope his friends were still alive out there.
After boarding the Seeker, Shades stuck to the starboard side, as most of the battle sprawled out off to port.
It was nerve-wracking knowing that all he could do against stray fire was try to keep a low profile, but he tried to keep his focus on this mysterious adversary hell-bent on hijacking a ship that was dead in the water. Between Max’s stunning swordsmanship and Justin’s sharp-shooting, this guy was still standing, which told him just how dangerous he was. Still, it was teamwork that broke Striker’s back, and he was beginning to fear that Max couldn’t handle this bastard all on his own.
Though he felt something resembling shame at the thought of interfering in his friend’s duel, he ultimately told himself that he would rather drop the macho bullshit and see him alive, than mourn him as the dead hero of some far-flung island nation, concluding that the best approach was to sneak up on him.
Shades had just long enough to wonder if either of them had any other particularly swashbuckling moves up their sleeves before he finally got a good look at this ominous stranger’s face. Up-close, it was like looking in a warped family portrait. Even with the sliced-and-diced complexion and false eye, there was still a peculiar, almost family, resemblance.
Then there was no more time for speculation as he saw Erix reach for what appeared to be a second laser sword. Focused on fighting Max, he hadn’t seen Shades yet, who was now close enough to intervene. Moving as quickly and quietly as he could, keeping his stun-sticks deactivated until the last second to avoid giving himself away, Shades closed the short stretch of deck to end it in one blow.
Erix’s back-kick had enough stopping power to bring Shades to a grinding halt, knocking the wind out of him. His stun-sticks simply fell out of both hands, clattering to the deck. Even on his blind side, this one still sensed him.
“Shades!” Max could only watch in helpless horror, too far and too late to move in time, as Shades was snatched by the arm and swung around, arm pinned behind him.
“Nice toys…” Erix commented, kicking Shades’ weapons aside, firing up one of his laser claws and holding them across his hostage’s neck. Max’s eyes having betrayed him the moment this other one made his move.
Max shifted in indecision, then froze.
“Don’t even think about it!” Erix smiled wickedly, the mortified expression on Max’s face telling him everything he needed to know. Fighting Max had taken too long for his original plan, so it was nice to finally turn the tables on him.
For his part, Max just stood there speechless. Now the nightmare was all too complete. At high noon, he had to blink away at the afterimage of rain pouring all around him, his mind as storm-tossed as the sea that fateful night.
By now, all eyes were on them, friend and foe alike focused on this confrontation.
“I’m gettin’ out of here,” Erix spoke, addressing not just Max, but the Island Patrol as well while he was at it, “and—”
He nudged Shades’ back, winking with his remaining eye.
“Shades,” he replied, still slightly dazed.
“Shades here is my insurance.”
“You’re not going anywhere, dipshit,” a voice declared from the upper deck of the Seeker. A figure emerged from the bridge, garbed the same as the rest of his crew, save the helmet. Instead, he wore a red military-style beret, apparently denoting him as the leader of this gang of thieves. Straightening said beret, he gestured to several of his remaining henchmen with a compact automatic pistol of outland design, then aimed it square at Erix’s head. “Excuse me, whoever the hell you are, but I think you’re forgetting something. Your hostage don’t mean jack shit to us. You’re dead, punk!”
Erix simply grinned.
“Let him go, Erix!” Max blurted.
“Hey asshole!” All eyes turned to Justin, aboard the drifting Sentry I. Power rifle trained on the leader. “If you shoot my friend, maybe you won’t mind if I kill you!”
“This is getting too complicated…” Erix muttered, saying “Plan C” to no one they could discern, signaling his escape. Then he started backing up toward the rear of the ship, where there was a low platform used for divers.
“And just where the hell do you think you’re going, you bastard?” the thieves’ leader demanded.
“Please, Erix,” Max pleaded, preparing to put down his laser sword, “take me ins—”
He ground to a halt as he joined everyone else in staring in surprise and confusion as a black, forty-foot boat emerged from the water next to, and slightly behind the Seeker. CheckMate, read the name, and game was auto-guns, several of which extended from hidden compartments in the cabin and hull, placed at strategic points. Just hovering there, a genuine predator compared to any of the raiders’ watercraft.
“Do I have to draw you a diagram?” Erix asked rhetorically. The top of the Checkmate’s cabin was about level with the rear deck of the Seeker, and he and Shades stepped aboard. “That’s what the auto-guns are for, dumbass. A word of warning: they’re set to track movement.”
“You’re full of shit,” the leader responded. Cocking his head toward Erix, he ordered the only other of his henchmen who had a firearm, “Fire at will!”
“Who’s ‘Will’?” Erix smirked.
“Ha!” the leader retorted, “That EMP also disabled your weapons, too. Don’t kid a kidder.”
The raider tried to aim his gun quickly as he could, but wasn’t quick enough, as the two auto-guns covering that firing quadrant locked on and blew him away, his one fired shot going wide.
“Told ya!” Erix laughed. “This ship has countermeasures!”
That having been resolved, Erix resumed, primarily addressing Max: “If you want your friend back, bring the treasure to Kimbar Island by noon tomorrow. Just you, Max, and no tricks. Got it?”
Max nodded slowly, not daring to try anything else.
“Please!” cried one of the overboard raiders, obviously betting on who he thought would be the winning horse, “Take me with you!”
“Sure, why not,” Erix shrugged.
The raider paddled toward the Checkmate— and promptly got toasted by the auto-guns.
“Yeah right,” Erix laughed harshly as he led Shades down the hatch, programmed to open as part of his “Plan C” escape protocol. “Get your own damn hostage!”
A couple raiders looked at Max.
“Think harder,” Max told them, shifting his grip on his laser sword for emphasis.
As the Checkmate slipped back beneath the waves, Erix repeated his ultimatum over the ship’s external megaphone: “High noon! Kimbar! Just you! Bring me the treasure, or your friend dies!”
Inside the Checkmate’s cabin, no one heard Shades utter, “What have I done?”
Once the auto-guns retracted, the black ship having descended back below the calm surface from which it had so violently erupted only moments before, Max quickly snatched up Shades’ fallen stun-sticks and bolted over the railing before the others could make a move against him.
“That just leaves you,” Justin told the leader, having kept his power rifle trained on him through the whole confrontation. “You heard what the bastard said. Now get the hell outta here and leave the treasure so we can—”
Before Justin could finish rattling off his demands, there was a loud noise the like of which neither he, nor most of the Island Patrol, had ever heard before. Though the rocket-launcher’s targeting and guidance systems were shot, at this range it was still possible to point and shoot. And that’s exactly what the thief did, nailing the recently arrived Sentry III’s fuel tank bang-on, taking out most of the vessel in a blazing fireball as everyone else hit the deck.
The whole time, the thieves’ leader stood calmly, waiting until Erix’s auto-guns were out of the picture before his men could play their remaining trump card. Now he ducked back into the cabin. Justin, startled by the explosion, was too late pulling the trigger, his shots missing by a mile.
“I think not!” the leader called out. Waiting until his henchman was finished reloading in the midst of everyone’s shocked inaction, he then continued, “We’re leaving, and if anyone else attacks, we’ll blow the shit outta them! Retreat!”
With that order, the remaining hijackers set the Seeker’s sails and set out without engine propulsion, gliding past the petrified crew of Sentry I.
“Hold your fire!” Justin and Toma shouted at once.
They both looked at each other for a moment, and Toma glared at him, saying, “I give the orders around here, kid.”
Justin simply shrugged.
Aboard the Seeker, the leader huddled out of sight, just in case that sniper who targeted Erix earlier— whom he strongly suspected was that cocky brat who dared to point a gun at him— took another shot in spite of the rocket-launcher. Parting in total disarray, but with the Seeker so badly damaged, they had no choice. Reminding himself that once he reached Kon Aru, they could transfer everything to their own ship, about the only part of the original plan that still held up. The whole incident made him glad he decided not to reveal their own ship at this point in the game, or things might have gone even worse.
Max simply drifted there until Justin finally tossed him a line. Once aboard, he just sat there with a haunted look on his face, assailed by memories that wouldn’t be silent. All around him, Island Patrol guards scrambled to aid any survivors of the Sentry III explosion.
“Rescue any survivors!” Chief Toma barked, ignoring the pain in his back as best he could. “The wounded take priority! Once that’s done, round up these other bastards for questioning!” Then, thinking fast: “And send a scout after the Seeker, but tell them to keep their distance. I just hope they won’t leave the Islands in that condition…”
He knew Harper and the Seeker crew would be upset, and he had no clue how the Joint Council would react to this catastrophe, but it was his job to ensure its safety until they decided what to do with it. In spite of both culprits getting away, which burned him to no end, he was almost disgusted enough to let the treasure go since it was diverting manpower from the rescue effort. Yet he couldn’t do that, most of all for this Shades fellow, whose very life depended on their ability to retrieve it.
A small boat glided onto the scene, then took off in the same direction as the escaping Seeker, apparently the scout Toma ordered. Keeping a cautious distance after they saw the smoking wreckage of Sentry III. As a scout, their mission was to monitor the movement of the thieves, nothing more.
“The Seeker was badly damaged,” Toma mused to himself, trying to figure out what to do next, “so I doubt they’ll leave the Islands like that. Besides, all those smaller craft couldn’t got here on their own. That means they must have another ship hiding on one of the other islands.”
“Aru,” Justin concluded, remembering what Shades saw yesterday. “Nobody’s supposed to be out there, right? Where better to hide?”
“You’re probably right,” Toma muttered, already wishing it was someone else’s job to report that last to the Council, as it was not going to go over well. “For now, though, we need to make plans and repairs of our own.”
All of them set to work, except for Max, who didn’t care about treasure or politics either way, as long as his own worst nightmare could be averted. Justin mostly sat next to him, not sure what to say, as Max made a simple promise, though to whom he had no idea: “Don’t worry… I’ll save you. Somehow.”
But Max honestly didn’t feel any more heroic than he may have sounded.
Shades goes for a ride
“I don’t ordinarily take on hitchhikers,” Erix remarked jauntily from the Checkmate’s controls, “but for you I’ll make an exception. Now that was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, let’s do it again some time,” Shades replied unenthusiastically. “I told you my name.” Albeit at gunpoint. “Mind telling me yours?”
“You’re hardly in a position to make demands, you know.” After all, he had done a thorough job of binding him to one of the rear passenger seats while the Checkmate executed his escape on autopilot. Not going anywhere.
“I’ve been told I’m good at making up nicknames, you know.”
“Don’t even think about it.” Erix pointed his power pistol at him, then sighed in disgust as he remembered it was now useless. “It’s Erix. The only name I’ve ever had.” Reholstering his gun, he muttered, “Your friend ruined my original plan, so now I’m improvising.”
“So, um, Erix, do you mind me asking just what kind of plan?” Shades asked, trying to keep his tone conversational, even as he fought back the useless impulse to struggle against his restraints.
“Guess it doesn’t matter now.” Erix shrugged. “I was going to use more smoke bombs to make the Seeker look like it was going to explode, then take off with it while everyone else was running away from it. But that EMP stunt killed my remotes.”
“Good plan,” Shades commented, mulling over his captor’s tactics, as if he needed any further sign of how capable this guy was. “Dude, you’ve really got your shit together.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Erix told him, letting the ship’s autopilot continue steering as he tossed his two useless sidearms into the other passenger seat. He then picked up a couple more power pistols, which, along with anything else still onboard at that moment, had been shielded from the electromagnetic pulse. “Besides, your little friend fucked up the whole thing with that stunt of his.”
“He’ll do that.”
“Hmph. Just make yourself comfortable, kid,” Erix replied, checking the Checkmate’s sonar screen. Even cruising underwater, the Checkmate could easily move faster than the Seeker. Could, even with her engines still working, and Erix was wasting no time anymore. “We’re gonna make a little stopover on Aru before we reach our destination.”
“What for?” Shades asked, already not liking where he was going with this.
“To make sure your friends can uphold their end of our bargain, of course,” Erix answered, checking the long-range targeting system, displaying a superimposed map of the coast of said island, marking the old port, near the edge of the abandoned shantytown. “Now those bastards will have to stop there, and your friends can pick up my treasure for me.”
Not the way he originally wanted it, but at least no one else would get what they wanted, either.
With that, he pressed the red fire buttons on the control yoke, unleashing a torrent of blasts from the Checkmate’s underwater batteries. On the surface, a lone ship hovered off the coast, draped in netting and junk from the shanty port as camouflage, and Shades belatedly recalled the ruined ship in the shantytown harbor. Apparently belonging to the thieves and poised for a quick getaway, jolted as her engines were targeted. Without any warning, nor any chance to take evasive action, the rear section started smoking, then started sinking in earnest, soon to become a real wreck.
“So,” Shades asked, “what do you want the treasure for anyway?”
“Haven’t decided yet.”
“Are you serious?”
“Money is just a means to an end,” Erix replied. “A lot of people just chase after it like it’s the only thing worth having, but a man can’t be too bound to anything. This is just a game, and that treasure is the prize.”
“I bet you could probably take the treasure yourself if you felt like it,” Shades remarked, wondering if perhaps it was the prospect of his continued ordeal that was inspiring him to make such pointed observations.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Erix shrugged, “but I think it’ll be more amusing to make your friends go fetch it for me, don’t you?”
Shades had no answer to that, so after a moment, he instead asked, “You don’t seem to have any connection to those thieves, so where do you fit into all of this?”
“I’m the joker in the deck,” Erix laughed. “And what are you, some kind of detective or something? Bounty hunters don’t ask so damn many questions… Not that it matters at this point in the game.
“I started out following those marauders as a simple test. That ship of theirs I just blew up is a military cruiser from somewhere, and it has active sonar. Turns out Checkmate’s stealth mode is totally invisible to it— they never noticed a thing. This baby’s got a shitload of multi-band decryption systems, too, it can crack almost every known military and civilian code, and I’ve been tuning in to both the marauder’s and the Island Patrol’s communications, as you saw today. And lo and behold, they come to these lovely islands and decide to loot a treasure ship they heard about. Am I on a lucky streak or what?”
“Damn. Where do you get a ship like this anyway?”
“Centralict. Picked it up a couple weeks ago.” Erix’s lopsided grin made Shades wonder if he really wanted to know the rest of this story. “Ah, memories…”
“Who’d you kill for that one?”
“Several losers and their dog.”
“This is getting boring,” Erix commented. “Then again, most prisoners usually are. Sad, given that you’re smarter than you look, and in the worst possible way.”
“Like me, you’re too smart for your own good,” Erix told him. “Your problem is that you hold yourself back. This life is just a game, and the biggest difference between us is that I play to win. Remember that, should you live past tomorrow, that is.”
Shades sat in silence as the Checkmate continued on her way to Kon Kimbar, somehow understanding that he had already gleaned as much information from this conversation as this Erix was going to let him. Now he faced the grim prospect of bracing himself for a very long night.
As well as the sinking feeling that Erix just made him the proverbial Man Who Knew Too Much, and what that would imply.
Ranged around the recently repaired Kona Lounge of the Kalona Hotel sat an impromptu gathering of the Kona Joint Council, as many as could attend on such short notice. Captain Harper, and a couple of survivors of the Seeker crew, Chief Toma, Corrick, as well as Max and Justin. Spacious as the lounge actually was, it felt very cramped in such somber company.
“Our scouts report that the hijackers have dropped anchor in the old shantytown on Kon Aru,” a very haggard, but determined, Chief Toma informed them. Wincing slightly at the burn on his back, he pointed to a large map of the Kona Islands hung on the wall, indicating the old mining port. “According to the report, they had another ship anchored there, but it was sunk by an underwater attack. The most likely culprit is the same saboteur who bombed the Seeker’s salvage platform. We at least have a solid lead on his identity.”
“Erix, most likely,” Justin muttered, dawning on him almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth that the name itself didn’t really tell him anything useful. Visibly uncomfortable in the midst of so many authority figures, and realizing mumbling to himself was only making it worse.
His remark, though, was drowned out by the Kona Council members’ reaction to the violation of Kon Aru’s standing desertion, which was every bit as unpleasant as Toma feared it would be.
“I’ve consulted my records,” for, as Chief of the Island Patrol, Toma kept a record of outland bounties and wanted listings, any info that found its way into his island home, “and I believe the man who sabotaged the Seeker raid was a fugitive outlaw named Erix. Origins unknown, but he has a hundred thousand credit bounty on his head in several realms. In New Cali, Centralict and the Mesa District alone, he’s wanted for murder, assault, robbery, piracy, sabotage, arson, criminal trespass, burglary, extortion, hijacking, smuggling, weapons violations…”
The chamber went stone silent as Toma continued to rattle off the bounty notices’ list of charges.
“What about that gang of thieves?” Harper demanded, for that was what she really wanted to know. Shifting her wounded arm in its sling for emphasis.
“I’m afraid I have no leads on that one,” Toma admitted. “Based on all witnesses, they would appear to be an ex-military outfit from another realm. That would explain their precision and tactics.”
“And where the hell were you when they attacked?” Harper continued, refusing to break stride in her interrogation. “Aren’t you supposed to be policing these waters?”
“That’s exactly what we were doing.” Toma tried hard not to grind his teeth. This whole affair was humiliating enough as it was. “We were responding to a distress signal that turned out to be fake. It claimed the Cyexian pirate Striker had returned, and was attacking Miribar, and so they managed to draw our forces away right before the attack.”
“But what do you mean, ex-military?” one of the Kona members asked, frowning. His neighbor added, “And what are they doing on Kon Aru?”
“Well,” Toma explained, “when a government loses control of its army, sometimes they turn to banditry. It wouldn’t be the first time, especially if they were mercenaries to begin with. They’ve got weapons, and nothing better to do with them.”
“And they trespass on sacred ground,” another Kona added.
“Who cares!?” Harper demanded. Once upon a time, she might have been more sympathetic, but after wading through indigenous politics to get this far, her patience was at an end. “Those sons-of-bitches killed ten of my people, and managed to injure damn near everyone else. Those murderers are going to pay! Now tell me, Mr Island Patrol, why haven’t you gone in there and busted them already?”
“Because it’s not that simple,” Toma shot back, agreeing with her on general principle, but wishing she would quit acting like the sole victim of this tragedy. “They killed seven of my men, too, and when this is over, I’ll have to go speak with every one of their families…
“But that’s not the issue. You didn’t get to see the end of the battle, or you would know that they’ve got a rocket-launcher, and an unknown amount of ammunition for it. They have fortified themselves in the ruins of the old shantytown there, and I can think of at least three places off the top of my head from which they could sink our ships if we try to get anywhere near them. Even if most of their weapons were disabled by Mr Black’s EMP attack, they may have hidden more on the island.”
“So we’re just gonna sit here and do nothing?” she hissed.
“Of course not,” Toma replied, “because—”
“Excuse me, Chief Toma,” one of the Councilors cleared his throat, “before we go any further, might I ask what these outsiders are doing in an emergency session? They’re not part of the Council.”
“Yes,” Toma fielded that one as well, chalking it up to unusual circumstances that it hadn’t been brought up before, “but their friend is the one being held hostage by that extortionist. You’ve all read his demands. Max here is the one who was chosen as the third party observer for the salvage operation, and Justin Black is his friend.”
“I’m sorry things turned out the way they did,” Max told them, “but Shades is my friend, and his life is more important to me than any treasure. As long as Erix has him hostage, he can make me go get the treasure, even if I have to fight them all alone.”
Max got some odd looks from most of the people in the room, the look in his eyes apparently imparting a sense of perspective, based on their reactions.
“We have to reclaim the treasure,” Corrick told them, “for no other reason than to save that young man’s life. Both he, and those standing before you, risked their lives to save everyone else. I don’t like negotiating a ransom any more than you, but there are people in this room who owe their lives to these brave young men.”
There were words of agreement from around the Council this time, after a long pause for reconsideration.
“You’re not alone, Max,” Justin told him, feeling more than a little awkward at his own words, “I guess we’re just gonna have to save the bastard…”
“Thank you,” Max sighed, hoping he wasn’t leading another friend to his doom.
“To that end,” Toma interjected, “I ask that the Council conclude this session on a resolution to retrieve the hijacked Seeker, and secure its cargo, for the purpose of opening a dialogue with the outlaw Erix. Our goal: to rescue his hostage.”
As Corrick recalled Erix’s demands, especially the meeting place, he realized that he probably knew the exact location on Kon Kimbar. A truly horrifying thought crossing his mind. First the storm, then cleanup and repairs, then the salvage, then the surprise attack. Realized that in the midst of one mess after another, he had never gotten around to finding out if Larson was alright out there. Just so certain the old coot would turn up all on his own…
Now he was sure his old friend would never be coming back.
After a few minutes of deliberation, resulting in Captain Harper’s objections being almost unanimously overruled, the Council concluded its session. Much as some of them might resent being left out, Toma had convinced them that there was little left for them to do; after all, Shades’ rescue would not be accomplished by discussing the matter as a committee. After the others filed out, all that remained of the original gathering were Corrick, Toma, Max, Justin, and several trusted Island Patrol officers. All that was left now was laying out plans of their own.
There wasn’t much time, and options were limited.
an awkward conversation
Shades sat bound in an ironically comfortable chair, positioned to offer a sweeping view of the surrounding ocean through a sliding glass door, flanked by banks of windows. Bound in chains that looked as if they were appropriated from some dock supply shed, such that he could scarcely even twitch. Never in his life, he thought crossly, had he ever truly appreciated simply being able to scratch his nose.
Erix had searched him very thoroughly, and his jacket, cap, boots, and other gear lay piled in a corner, well out of reach even if he had a free hand.
Craning his neck as much as he could, he scanned the room itself, which failed to reveal anything useful in sight. His trip through the house was brief, with Erix stopping to check a couple doors along the way, apparently to make sure no one had entered while he was away, never stopping long enough to let him get his bearings entirely. Revealing little, other than that the house itself stood on a cliffside overlooking the sea between Kon Kimbar and Aru. Beneath the deck before him was a tall scaffold, and the back-and-forth stairs he was led up afforded no clear view of the house itself.
“Great view, isn’t it?” Erix asked as he came back in from the deck, binoculars in hand.
“For once, I agree with you,” Shades admitted.
“I can see anything approaching this island from three different directions,” Erix informed him, sauntering over to his chair, “and I’ve got ways of knowing if anyone tries to come at me from behind. As you’ve seen for yourself, I guard my blind spots, so no one will come here without my knowing. I even made sure you got the best seat in the house.”
“I see,” Shades sighed, trying to figure out what to say in the most awkward conversation of his life. While his captor was away, he had thought. And thought hard. During their short cruise, his sense of unreality gradually wore off, and it was becoming hard to focus in the face of the idea that these might well be the final hours of his life. Seeking to find just how much intelligence this guy would divulge if he intended to kill him anyway, he asked, “So, just whose place are we staying at?”
“ ’Fraid I didn’t catch his name,” Erix replied, “but he was rather stubborn about not letting me in.”
“Was?” Shades tried not to shudder, already guessing the answer, and couldn’t help feeling bad for Corrick. “Larson…”
“Yeah, that might’ve been it.” Erix smirked. “Went on about how it was his responsibility to guard it, or some such bullshit…” Then his face hardened into a more serious look. “It’s my island now, at least for the time being. I killed him and took it for myself.”
“You talk pretty tough,” Shades told him, weighing his words carefully between his desire to keep breathing, and a deep need to defy his tormentor somehow, even if only with words, “but I think you’re nothing but a coward, hiding behind me.” Trying a different tactic, he added, “Max is tougher than he looks.”
“I should hope,” Erix replied. “To the contrary, I want to piss him off. As long as he’s afraid to kill, he’s no fun. I want Max at his best, because it’s been too long since I’ve had a good fight.”
“You didn’t have to kill innocent people. You could’ve just challenged him.”
“That’s just your opinion. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there are no innocents. Defenselessness is just a state of mind, an excuse the weak hide behind to deny that they’re not even trying. And mercy is just compromise, and I don’t compromise with anybody.”
“So you make the whole world your enemy? You know, most people would consider that to be rather evil.”
“Not as many as you might think,” Erix countered. “In the end, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just labels people make up. There is no good or evil— only power. The power to be your own master and live as you please. That is how I will live, until the day I die. The only thing I won’t let go of is my pride.” He shrugged. “After all, the only time I won’t have any use for it is after I’m dead.”
“Sounds rough,” Shades muttered, wondering just how long he would have lasted all on his own, without any of his friends to back him up.
“Whatever,” was Erix’s toneless reply. “You just absorb the pain until it becomes a part of you. Then it can’t hurt you anymore…” He paused for a moment, shoving those thoughts back into the murky depths from which they had so abruptly emerged. Then he shrugged. “Honor will knock you down before your chance to fight. It’s all just a game, but there are no rules.”
“Or rather, you just make up your own,” Shades amended. “Just sounds like the Law of the Jungle to me.”
“It’s nothing more than a law of nature, the oldest law there is.” Again with the smirk. “And you’re doing it again. You talk all this self-righteous crap, but even now you’re trying to figure out a way to beat me and save your own life. Like I said, there are no innocents.”
“Well, what’s wrong with wanting to live?” was all he could come up with.
“Nothing, of course. Looks like you’re finally starting to get it. I fight only for myself. Your fatal mistake was worrying more about Max than about yourself.”
“I see.” Then, deciding to change the subject, wondering if he really wanted to know, he asked anyway: “So what happened to your face?”
“A bounty hunter I fought once,” Erix leaned back in a chair near Shades’, tipping back on its rear legs. “Bitch even broke my arm, but I got her in the end…”
To Shades, Erix had a hard look about him, as if all of his tears had been wrung out of him at a young age, and every word of their exchange only served to reinforce that impression.
“And speaking of faces…” Erix rose from his seat and strode over to his captive. Leaned over him, reaching down and removing his sunglasses. It had been bugging him for a while, but when he stopped to wonder why he hadn’t just taken them off to begin with, all that came to mind was the peculiar notion that they simply looked like they just belonged there. “You won’t be needing these anymore. Nice eyes, by the way. Must be popular with the ladies. Why ever would you cover ’em up?”
“None of your business,” Shades shot back, feeling totally naked without his shades. Much to his dismay, not only had his attempt to establish some kind of rapport with his captor very clearly failed, it had also revealed an adversary harder and with fewer weaknesses than he already suspected. There would be no talking his way out of this one, he now understood; no bargain, for he had nothing to bargain with, and no negotiation, as this guy had everyone else right where he wanted them, and thus was the only one in any position to dictate terms.
Erix stared into his eyes for an interminable amount of time, and Shades concluded that this must be how a bird in a cage must feel while being stared at by a cat. Then Erix seemed to grow bored of taunting his prisoner, and went back out with the binoculars to watch the show on Kon Aru, which would likely begin before too long.
Leaving Shades to his own grim contemplations.
the raiders' defense
“Status report?” the thieves’ leader demanded over his hand radio. Scowling out at the sea, where the wreckage of his own ship sat half-submerged in the shallow waters near the docks. No longer disguised as a shipwreck, having been reduced to the real thing. “How much longer will we be sitting ducks out here, lieutenant?”
“Sir, it’s a good thing the Seeker has diving equipment, or we wouldn’t have been able to retrieve the parts we needed,” the lieutenant’s voice responded between fits of static. “The wreck is really unstable, so it’s a good thing we got it all before dark. Even so, it’ll take several hours to repair the Seeker’s engines. We won’t be leaving Aru before dawn, Commander. Over.”
“Very well. Keep me informed. Over.” After shoving the radio, one of precious few pieces of equipment retrieved from their ship before it sank, he pounded the half-rotten wall of the shanty they were using as an impromptu command center with his palm, muttering, “Dammit! That bastard is going to die if I ever catch him again!”
This mystery man who claimed to be the infamous outlaw Erix. In his travels, he had heard the name. A figure of some notoriety in the underworld of various realms. Given that he not only matched the descriptions from the wanted posters, he was also entirely too competent and resourceful to be an impostor, had proven it with both his expert sabotage of their raid, as well as locating and sinking their real ship. Proven that he posed an even greater threat than the Island Patrol, and now he knew he couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes. Crew morale had sunk along with their ship, and he was quite certain he would have a mutiny on his hands if he didn’t get them out of this mess by sunrise.
Revenge against Erix would have to wait, though he intended to pass by Kimbar Island, hoping they still had a rocket to spare if the bastard poked his head out, but, much as it galled him, the real objective was to actually hang on to the treasure. Hoping that the loss of over half of his men roughly doubling the survivors’ shares would appease them for now. It was vexing enough having to flee with their tail between their legs in a crippled ship, but to find their own sinking when they arrived, their quick getaway consigned to this abandoned harbor, was maddening. Having already learned the location of their base of operations, and now the Island Patrol knew of this place, as well.
With enemies on all sides, it was getting entirely too hot in this kitchen for his taste.
It was getting darker by the minute out there, and it was making him nervous. They had fortified their position as much as they could, but with only half as many men, and not even enough weapons to go around among them, it felt like a skeleton crew. If push came to shove, it would be a logistically challenging evacuation, and a fastbreak retreat, hoping that the enemy didn’t have any more of those EMP bombs left.
“Get your asses in gear,” he muttered, readjusting his red beret. Looking out at the sun as it sank below the horizon. “I want to get the hell out of these godforsaken islands before dawn.”
Shades stood on top of the bathroom counter, trying to make as little noise as possible.
He really did have to use the can, and was rather surprised Erix actually let him. Not that the privilege came without its conditions. When Erix came back in to take a break from his stakeout of the shantytown on Kon Aru, having left Shades to watch what might well be his last sunset, he made his request. And his captor consented, but cautioned him: And don’t insult my intelligence by asking me to undo your hands. To which he replied, Of course. But it’ll be tough to wipe my ass like this. Erix left no room for debate: Deal with it.
And so Shades had. Sitting on the toilet, he had curled up his legs and nearly wrecked his back shifting his manacled hands in front of him. Flushing the toilet with his elbow to mask the noise. Though he had locked the door behind him out of habit, he knew that against Erix’s energy blades, that would buy him five to ten seconds, at most.
Much to his dismay, the bathroom had no windows, which was probably why Erix allowed him to use it in the first place. Along with not wanting to put up with the smell if his captive really did reach his limit, he accommodated Shades already knowing this. Just when he feared that taking care of business and scratching a couple itches that were driving him to distraction was all he would accomplish with this ploy, he spotted a vent in the wall, near the ceiling, apparently connecting to the next room.
It was going to be a tight squeeze, but he was fresh out of bright ideas.
He knew he was taking an awful risk, but if there was one thing he and Erix saw eye to eye on, it was that there were times when you just had to help yourself. Could hear the voice of his father, Sergeant Douglas MacLean, tell him: A prisoner’s first obligation is to escape. Though he was all too aware that Max would come for him, this was his own life at stake, and in the meantime, he would take any chance he got to save himself.
And Max, who would have to fight Erix otherwise.
Trying hard to ignore the sweat pouring down his back, Shades carefully removed the vent grill, struggling to juggle the need for stealth against the time slipping through his fingers. Just barely managing to hang on to the grill from the other side, slipping it sideways through the vent and gently setting it on the counter. Flushing the toilet one last time with his toe, he climbed into the vent.
The act itself reminded him that he would be trying to make a getaway in his stocking feet, having left his boots back in the room he was held in. Thankful that Master Al’s training involved running laps around the block in his bare feet, as it would be his only advantage once he was on the run. It was indeed a tight fit getting through the tiny vent, and fortunately, there was a cot directly underneath to break his fall.
Hoping that didn’t make too much noise, he rolled over— to find himself face-to- face with the business end of Erix’s power pistol, stopping him short.
Apparently, I wasn’t fooling anybody but myself…
“Any last words?” Erix asked.
“Um, shit?” Shades replied sheepishly.
“Good answer, smartass.”
The last thing Shades saw was a red-orange flash of light as Erix pulled the trigger, then darkness.
the assault I
While Shades was enjoying Erix’s hospitality, Max stood on the deck of the Maximum, watching quietly as the sun went down on. Could feel the sun setting on his friend, as well, and knew it would fall with the rising of the sun in the morning. No matter what, he repeated to himself, feeling time running out with the shifting of the sky, I can’t let that happen.
Already knowing that he if he failed to save him, he would never forgive himself.
Bandit sat next to him, looking out at the horizon with an expression that seemed to mirror his companion’s inner struggle between resolve and uncertainty.
Max leaned over the railing, gazing down at the coral-encrusted structures below. As it grew darker, all he could see was the murky outlines of the eerie buildings, finally lingering only in his mind’s eye. It felt so unreal to remember sitting out here with Shades only yesterday. Like himself, Shades had always dreamt of seeing the world, and if Erix killed him here, it would be the end of that dream.
While he prepared himself for the coming night assault on the shantytown of Kon Aru, Justin prepared the ship for it. Drifting silently in the dim waters behind them were Sentry I and Sentry II, and one more junker they had dragged along just for this occasion. All four ships hovered as far out of the projected range of the enemy’s rockets as possible, keeping all the outward appearance of an intercept group, so as not to kick off their little surprise party early.
And so they waited until it was dark enough to commence their approach in earnest.
Using lanterns set for minimum illumination, they kept their signals simple, known only to Toma’s people. Currently maintaining radio silence, their earlier transmissions handled in verbal code for the benefit of anyone who might be eavesdropping. Justin’s verdict was that Toma had way too much spare time on his hands in these backwater islands; with the present threat, they were behaving more like a local militia than a police force. So well-organized, he would pity Striker if she ever showed her face here again.
Staying hidden behind the cabin, Max donned his diving mask and oxygen tank, just as the harbor crew had instructed him when he was helping clean up debris around the docks only days ago, then dropped overboard as they got the green light. Swam underneath the ship, then stayed low as he veered off to the left, toward his planned landing point. The place was a shallow embankment where he could climb undetected from any observation points near the shantytown itself.
Justin, for his part, draped himself in a black tarp and set out in an inner tube, taking only a moment to remember having drifted out on the beach on it only days ago, the thought having never crossed his mind that he would be using it for anything like this. Then again, its flat black coloration would serve him well in sneaking up on the other side of the shanty from Max’s landing point. Careful to keep his new crossbow above water, he found he still couldn’t believe he was actually doing this.
His EMP attack had reduced the raiders to a couple firearms and limited ammo, and what few energy weapons may have been salvaged from their own defunct vessel, and that damnable rocket-launcher. Erix’s countermeasures, though, had shown the limitations of that tactic. Combined with the sheer area of coverage, he understood all too well that it would be useless for this battle. Though reluctant, he had given Toma one of his last two grenades, as a last resort to stop the Seeker, if it came in danger of escaping the islands with Shades’ ransom.
Meanwhile, as Max threw his leg over the top of the bank, he spotted a sentry, reduced to a vicious-looking knife by the weapons blackout aboard the Seeker, all he could do was charge at Max and try to shove him back over the edge. But Max had years of experience climbing, and sprang to his feet before his scout could reach him, catching his opponent’s knife-hand and plowing him back into some nearby trees, out of sight, before firing up his laser sword and stunning him to keep both the noise and visible light to a minimum.
After all, this mission hung on stealth.
Dropping his scuba-gear for pickup (hopefully) later, and keeping just in sight of the path, but not on it, Max moved into position, then waited for the signal. He didn’t have to wait long; Toma and his scouts knew the island far better than these intruders, and had anticipated the most likely places the enemy would set up to fire their rocket-launcher from, so he wasn’t entirely taken off-guard when the scream of a rocket erupted from somewhere higher up the slope, likely the crumbling ruin of some long-abandoned mine owner, the missile streaking out to sea. Even as he heard the distant thunder of an explosion out there, he watched the majority of his adversaries in the immediate area give away their positions as they scurried about frantically.
The party was officially on.
If not for the plan, Max might have worried about them hitting one of his friends, but even calculating for them firing from the highest possible vantage point, all three ships that actually mattered were well out of range. Night had not only descended on Aru, but hung over the island under a pall of clouds, shrouding everything in nearly impenetrable darkness, providing ideal conditions for a covert attack. A couple jury-rigged spotlights swept across the coast in front of the port, making a direct approach easily detected, thus the only ship to take the direct approach was an old rust-bucket no longer considered seaworthy, long- since cannibalized for spare parts, recently requisitioned by the Island Patrol as a decoy.
Aside from the spotlights, not a single flicker of light betrayed itself from the exterior of the compound above, so there was no reliable way to determine enemy positions farther in.
Careful, so as not to blow his cover, Max reached into the waterproof bag he brought with him, pulling out an all-weather lighter, and something Shades had bought at the market the day before as he neared the first group of outbuildings near the edge of the shantytown. Something he originally picked up for the upcoming Island Festival, but, like a lot of things around here of late, would find itself being put to a rather different use. Shades was always the innovative one in this outfit, this newest addition to their arsenal was a tribute to that spirit of ingenuity.
Tossing it out into the open, it went off a moment later— and those with working weapons, all three of them— started shooting wildly at the Tasmanian Devil of hissing pyrotechnics as it spun across the dusty clearing between the buildings, darting around and dive-bombing in crazy patterns. Targeting those three first, remembering one of his father’s tales, of how they were outgunned and out- numbered, using decoys to draw enemy fire, Max pumped each gunner full of stun shots until they went silent. While others scrambled around in a frantic attempt to engage the fizzling fireworks, only one of them happened to spot Max as he stepped out to attack the others, coming out of a doorway behind him and kicking his power pistol out of his hand.
Even as Max staggered back, his handiwork on the ground was matched by more in the sky as the fuses aboard the junker, and reserves aboard the Sentry II, went off, fiery blossoms bursting above. The whiz-bang of their ascent startling the other sentries, sending them scrambling back toward their makeshift strong- hold in renewed panic. Even a second rocket-launcher— something Toma was apparently very wisely concerned about— fired in a vain attempt to shoot down the fireworks, causing a distinctly different mid-air explosion that sent his enemies running even harder.
Leaving Max’s attacker all alone, a decoy of a less willing nature.
Recognizing Max from the battle aboard the Seeker, the thief chose not to engage him directly, instead scrambling after Max’s fallen weapon. Apparently not at all liking the odds of attacking him unarmed. Yet even as he reached for the gun, Max jumped back in, kicking him back and knocking him on his face before he could get a good grip on it. After dropping him with the stun blade, Max retrieved his power pistol and turned his attention to the enemy’s ramshackle fortifications.
The hijackers had likely entrenched themselves in the harbor, with sentries and watchers, as well as the rocket-launcher, stationed at a higher elevation, other- wise no telling exactly what sort of defenses they may have set up to hold them until dawn, when the Seeker would likely set sail again. With only a cursory knowledge of the terrain, and even less of the enemy’s defenses, he would have to watch his step at every turn on his way in. Working his way inward past several clusters of old buildings, he walked among decrepit-looking structures and overgrown— if rather sickly-looking— foliage, all that remained of the deserted mining town once called Gold Beach, according to the faded sign he just walked past.
Everything looked as if it would fall apart if he so much as blew on it. Aside from the thieves, he was quite sure he was first to walk these paths in his lifetime. Following the trail of slanted walkways leading up to the center of the shanty- town, he made his way to an old warehouse where they had rather visibly entrenched themselves. The main entrance itself was guarded by a makeshift barricade formed from massive dock planks and support beams, obviously a new addition.
As forbidding as this obstacle may have looked, it proved no match for Max’s laser blade. Several swift slashes later, the impromptu gate fell inward, landing with a splintering crash and raising a thin cloud of the dust of years that blanketed the place. Max looked down for a second, spotting an arm flailing frantically from under the massive pile of beams, hearing the agonized groans of the guard it landed on.
The planks were heavy, but not too heavy, he’d live.
To his right, Max spotted the shadowy entrance to a side room that was apparently serving as a guard barracks. Wasting no time, Max again reached into his bag of tricks, fishing out several small red cylinders, then lighting and tossing them into the room. In his head, hearing Uncle Angus offer up a classic tactic against enemies hiding behind cover: Smoke ’em out.
Moments later, multicolored clouds of smoke, as well as several coughing and sputtering guards, came pouring out the door. The bewildered guards, already startled by the collapse of their barrier, were greeted by a barrage of flying fists and feet, a green energy blade delivering the final word in this confrontation. The noise of the fireworks above masking Max’s moves.
As the pyrotechnics died out, Max heard one last pair of rounds go off, glancing out the gate to see the twin green signal flares, indicating that Justin, as well as Toma’s Kona buddies, who had spent the whole evening approaching the place from behind the mountain, had taken out both of the rocket-launcher positions higher up the slope.
Skirting the edge of the entryway, Max worked his way in, closing in on the heart of their new lair. Beyond was an open area, scantly illuminated by the pale moonlight streaming in through the broken remains of windows higher up the walls, as well as where portions of the ceiling had collapsed. And the now broken clouds still higher, the heavy cloud cover from earlier apparently drifting away right along with their lessening need of it. From the few leaning support posts, rickety shelves, and other debris, he guessed this used to be a storage area of some sort.
Before he could figure out where to investigate next, about a dozen thieves sprang out of various corners, surrounding him. A couple very familiar faces among them.
“You bastard!” one of them shouted, “Now it’s your turn!”
And Max braced himself to face the onslaught, to run the gauntlet, all too aware that he had finally walked into a trap. Knew he was outnumbered, but even if a couple of them hadn’t just moved to block his retreat, he just couldn’t bring himself to give up, not with Shades’ life hanging in the balance. Even as he fired up his energy blade, sacrificing stealth for attack power now that he was busted, one of them shoved a loose support beam at him, hitting his arm even as he moved to dodge, and sending his weapon tumbling into the dusty darkness as it winked out.
Attempting to give himself some breathing room, Max leapt to unleash a swift roundhouse kick, but someone hit him from behind, knocking him down. He was able to kick the first one off him and scramble to his knees before the rest descended upon him.
As he grappled with them, the next thing he heard amidst the scuffle was a string of laser blasts, followed by a familiar voice.
“Hold on, Max! I’m comin’!”
another awkward conversation
Shades woke up with a splitting headache. Trying to reach up to rub his forehead quickly proved useless, as he was bound to a chair he vaguely remembered sitting in earlier. He snapped awake as it all came back to him.
Outside on the deck, he could see Erix. From across the water, he watched the assault on the thieves’ stronghold on Aru. Muttering to himself at one point, “Oho! Looks like the natives are getting restless…” As far as Shades could tell, his captor hadn’t slept at all while he was out, just sitting there with a radio headphone stuck in one ear. Time was still a little soft to him, but after what seemed like a minute or two Erix got back up and went inside.
“Oh, you’re awake…” Erix smiled, looking him over for a moment. “Hmph. So it is possible to survive a stun blast to the head at point-blank…”
And Shades had the blurry vision and a dull ringing in his ears to prove it.
“Not feeling so clever now, are you? I’d advise against taking more hits like that— I’ve heard they can cause brain damage.” Then his tone took one of those sharp turns from flippant to deadly serious: “Of course, if you pull that shit again, I’ll kill you for real.”
And Shades didn’t doubt it. Anymore, he didn’t feel very clever at all. If it wasn’t for the fact that he had used the can only moments before it happened…
“Don’t get any funny ideas,” Erix warned him. “I spared you only because if you die, Max will probably fight recklessly trying to avenge you. If he thinks he can still save you, though, he will fight more competently. Any more bullshit, though, and I’ll settle for provoking him with your carcass. Got it?”
Shades nodded as much as his bonds would allow, the very face of sober. Realizing now that he was only fooling himself by thinking he had fooled Erix at all. If any unforeseen opportunities to escape presented themselves, he would have to weigh his chances carefully. Very carefully.
After their see-saw battle on Striker’s ship, Shades was forced to accept the very real possibility of being held prisoner in this world. Had spent the meantime adding on to his own countermeasures. In fact, bought the last piece of it in the Kon Miribar market the other day, which included the one piece Erix hadn’t noticed. He had played his hand, and now he wondered if he shouldn’t have tried to pick the locks on his chains before slipping out of the bathroom.
Not that it mattered now; now he still had the pick, and no opening to use it.
Erix perched on a chair near the glass door, looking out at sea. Acknowledging the fact that he was new to this whole hostage business, though it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Of course, he had used them briefly in battle as exit insurance, and was no stranger to using enemies as human shields, but he had only held this bastard captive for a matter of hours. And I’m already starting to feel like a goddam babysitter.
Though he wasn’t about to tell his prisoner that. Knew he had the upper hand against everybody, including that ramshackle Island Patrol. And through Max, he had set them on the only ones he didn’t have a direct handle on, the hijackers. All the same, he made a mental note to think up a less troublesome plan next time.
“You missed all the fireworks,” Erix informed him jovially, switching gears back to gracious, if mocking, host. “That was quite a show your pals put on out there. Dumb sons o’ bitches didn’t even know what hit ’em. Your buddies passed with flying colors. Then again, if he couldn’t handle those losers, he wouldn’t be any fun anyway. Pity you had to miss it— I even saved you a front-row seat.”
“I was still chained up. It’s not like you had to shoot me.”
“Oh, but I did,” Erix replied. “After all, I couldn’t have you go running off when I promised your friend I’d keep an eye on you ’til he gets back.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He knows I can take care of myself.”
“Oh really?” Erix intoned.
“Point taken,” Shades conceded. “But still, I feel no obligation to honor a ‘promise’ made at gun-point.”
“Funny part is,” Erix replied, “I actually agree with you. Still sucks for you, though.”
Sitting here with nothing to do but watch, Shades found he was sweating again in spite of himself, and even more than before. He also understood now that Erix also knew he had succeeded in rattling his cage. Earlier, he may have been able to play some resemblance of cool, in part because it all hadn’t felt quite real to him, but after getting shot like that, the reality of his peril was finally sinking in.
“Guess I lose, Warden…” Erix sighed, fishing out a note of unknown denomination, flicking it into the breeze. Shades followed it as far as his restricted field of vision would allow as it floated down to the sea.
“About what?” Shades asked, trying to take his mind off his mounting anxieties.
“Nothing,” Erix muttered. “Old bet.”
After that, Erix refused to speak again, leaving Shades to return to his own grim thoughts.
Left him sitting there, in a front-row seat that, to him, might as well be an electric chair, pondering a couple dozen action movies. According to those flicks, he was fast approaching the scene in which some friendly neighborhood action hero would swoop in and save him. Making a flashy entrance and kicking Erix’s ass in an exchange of fists and witty remarks. Yet even in the Sixth Dimension, he somehow doubted he would find such marvelous help on such short notice.
No commandos. No superheroes. No secret agents.
This picture would only be starring Max, possibly Justin, and if they were lucky, a few extras they may have rounded up. At least Max does all his own stunts, Shades told himself, but it was little consolation. He just wasn’t so sure they were up to Erix, but he knew Max, at least, would try. That was the part that hurt.
And so Shades sat, awaiting the dawn.
the assault II
With Max distracting the sentries down in the shantytown with his pyrotechnic stunts, Justin was able to reach the first rocket-launcher position unhindered. After slicing the weapon itself with his laser staff to take it out of commission, he then fired the first flare bolt to signal his success.
By now, the sky was ablaze with a ration of Festival fireworks, the diversion in the air making it easier to sneak around on the ground, and the second rocket-launcher’s attempt to shoot them down giving away their position, as well, it didn’t take him long to skirt the mountainside in between.
Unfortunately, he arrived just in time to see the enemy finish reloading. Knowing that Sentry I and II would soon be approaching Aru, and this position offered an all-too-perfect shot at them, he knew he would have to do something about it. But now that the weapon was reloaded, there came the question of how to silence such an explosive weapon without it blowing up in his face.
Feeling time running out, all Justin could come up with was to aim his new crossbow and fire one of his specialized bolts. This one producing a cloud of smoke as it hit the ground near the marauder. Who proceeded to stumble around frantically, shouting vague threats as Justin hit the deck.
Now fearful that the bastard might fire at random.
A moment later, his enemy went silent as abruptly as he had begun. As the smoke cleared, Justin looked up to see several figures standing in the midst of the thinning haze. And, as it became clearer, one lying unconscious on the ground. Now he could see that the rest were Kona, Toma’s Island Patrol members who had spent the daylight hours sneaking up from the other side of the island in preparation for this attack.
“Good work, Mr Black,” one of them said. “That was just the opening we needed.”
“Uh, thanks,” Justin replied as the Kona guards confiscated the rocket-launcher, and he aimed one last flare to let Toma and the rest know that the rocket threat had been completely eliminated.
Seeing that the Island Patrol had a handle on things here, Justin took off for the shantytown itself, as he had become increasingly worried about Max facing so many enemies, even as poorly armed as they were, all by himself.
Following the sounds of commotion from what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse near the harbor, he found his worst fears had indeed come true, as Max was outnumbered and quickly being overwhelmed. Much as it vexed him, there were too many obstructions for a shootout, and too much chance of hitting Max, so he was as reduced to close-quarters combat to as his foes were. All the same, he realized he did have one last trick up his sleeve to even the odds as he armed one more flare bolt.
Taking several shots into the outside of the crowd to cover himself, then launched the flare.
“Hold on, Max!” he cried. “I’m comin’!”
Several of Max’s attackers looked over in varying degrees of dismay and confusion, dazzled by a blinding flash of light, the closest just in time to catch a glimpse of Justin’s boot as it nailed him in the face. As he charged into the open storeroom, brandishing his laser staff, he could see that Max, even buried in a struggle he couldn’t win, was still fighting to the finish anyway. Justin cut a wide swath through them as they backed off, cutting his friend just enough slack to claw his way back up from the depths of the maelstrom.
“Justin!” Max remarked, surprised to see his friend here so soon.
“Looks like you could use some help!” Justin wondered if he would ever get used to this. Part of him still could not believe he was doing this in the first place. Not so long ago, he would never have dared to stick his neck out for anybody, but now he wondered if this wasn’t a thing he could get used to. “Now let’s kick their asses and finish this!”
Max and Justin stood back to back.
Several enemies staggered back to their feet, one of them slinking away in unabashed retreat. The others, though, still had some fight in them, moving to encircle the two, bringing to bear knives, brass knuckles, chains, or anything close at hand. From the moment Justin first laid eyes on the shantytown, he kept expecting Triangle State soldiers to come swarming out of the woodwork, making it an unexpected relief to face enemies who finally showed themselves.
“Kick ass and take names, right?” Max took inspiration from one of Shades’ favorite sayings about the matter.
“Damn straight!” Justin agreed.
The ensuing clash was brief but brutal. Max, especially, knowing what would happen if they lose their formation. Between slashing blades, and swinging fists and feet, rotten shelves and flimsy walls giving way as enemies were slammed right through them, the two of them held their ground, back to back and side by side, quickly cutting the enemy party down to size. Too busy kicking ass to bother taking any names.
“Hell yeah!” Justin shouted after the last couple foes still standing as they fled the warehouse into the night. “You better run, assholes!”
“So, how did the attack on the Seeker go?” Max asked as he scanned the floor for his fallen laser sword, spotting it at last. After all, this whole party would be for nothing if they didn’t secure the treasure.
“I bet they’re already done,” Justin told him. From what he saw on the way down, it looked as if the party would be over before it could rightly begin. So bewildered by the light show, as well as the absence of any rocket cover against this fast-break assault as Sentry I and II hemmed them in, that he saw little resistance. Caught in the midst of repairs, most of them had tools in their hands instead of weapons. Sure enough, through a gaping hole in the ceiling, they spotted a red flare, followed by a blue one, signifying that both the Seeker and the Nimrod cargo were secured. “Now all that’s left is the leader!”
“Then let’s end this,” Max replied, feeling the weight of two harsh battles in one day, with only a scant few hours’ rest in between. And still one more to go. All of their efforts would be in vain if he had nothing left to face Erix with tomorrow. Based on how well things had gone so far tonight, he felt confident Toma could handle the cleanup.
That settled, they made their way deeper into the warehouse, shooting or beating up several more enemies as the situation warranted, Justin covering Max’s advance every step of the way. At the top of a rickety stairway was a door, which Max sliced cleanly off its hinges with a swipe of his laser blade. Another thief was on the other side, just barely dodging the door as it fell in.
Giving Max an opening to jump in and pummel him, ending with Max kicking him right through the door at the next landing with a loud crack of rotten wood as the door splintered.
“Halt, or I’ll shoot!” a harsh voice commanded.
In the room beyond stood the leader of the thieves, pistol pointed right at Max’s head. Though Max already had his laser sword drawn, his opponent was too far out of reach to make a move before he could fire. Justin rushed into the room, stopping short at Max’s predicament.
“Throw down your weapons!” the leader ordered. He had suspected that door was as flimsy as it turned out to be, so as soon as the commotion began outside, he prepared himself to ambush anyone who entered without declaring themselves to his sentry outside. To think that one man and his friends— or were they his enemies?— had, in one day, completely destroyed everything all the way down to his contingency plans… “You’ve fucked up my plans for the last time, boy. Now you’re going with me to the ship. You’re going to be my insurance, Mr?…”
“Max,” he muttered bitterly, kicking himself for not thinking to use more smoke-bombs or something.
“And you drop your gun, too, little man,” the leader addressed Justin as he backed them out of the room and down the steps. Grinning viciously at him, he added, “I bet my hostage means something to you, asshole—”
As they reached the bottom of the steps, a shadow leapt out of the gloom, pouncing on the leader. The gun went off, his belated shot going wide and the bullet grazing Justin’s leg. Max wasted no time jumping in and stunning the leader with his spare laser sword as his feline friend fled the deafening noise of his firearm.
“Bandit?” Max remarked incredulously as the leader fell to the floor in a crumpled heap, staring at his companion. “I thought…”
“Dammit, I thought I left you back at the ship,” Justin muttered as he limped over to his friends. The big cat was still damp, and smelled of seawater. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“You were that worried about me, were you?” Max mussed his friend’s fur. At his feet lay the leader’s crimson beret, bearing golden wings and what was likely a military insignia from some realm he had never heard of. Kicking it aside, he asked Justin, “Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better,” he remarked, relieved that the fight was over. The blood was already starting to soak his pantleg, and it hurt to walk, making him wonder if he was going to be of any use against Erix at the next stage of the battle.
“Good,” Max sighed, reminded again of how unaccustomed he was to seeing so much blood. “So now what?”
Before his friend could answer, Chief Toma broke radio silence, the unit clipped to Justin’s belt declaring their mission a complete success, and Justin responded with a confirmation of his own.
For as little shooting as there was that night, there was somewhat less left of the shantytown in the morning, the disturbance having caused the collapse of several buildings, including part of the warehouse as the surviving thieves were led out by the Island Patrol. Even part of the dock the Seeker sat at fell in, forcing them to move the ship to a safer location.
That left just one more mission, and Max wanted to tend their injuries and get some much needed rest while there was still time before facing what he suspected was their most dangerous battle, for high noon would come all too soon.
Max vs Erix I
Again Max stepped ashore, this time on Kon Kimbar, this time waiting after sunrise, rather than sunset.
After the attack on Aru, he and Justin rested as much as the remaining time allowed before embarking on the most treacherous stage of the plan. Once the Seeker was secure, they loaded the crates aboard the Maximum, on deck where they were clearly visible, to use as a last-resort bargaining chip, if need be. Max left Justin and Bandit back onboard, flanked by Sentry I and II, now that the prisoners had been dealt with, to observe— but not interfere— unless Max failed.
None of them trusted the dock, not with Erix occupying the island, so Max landed in a rubber raft, dragging it onto the sand, then working his way toward the stairway running around the stilts underneath Mr Larson’s house. Based on Toma’s expert assessment, this was the most likely place for Erix to be holding Shades.
As Max plodded through the damp sand, hoping his friend was still alive, that this wasn’t just some cruel joke whose punchline was yet to be sprung, he came close enough to hear footsteps descending those stairs. He spotted Erix as he stepped around the corner, then headed down the steps toward him. Both power pistols holstered, but even without the dormant energy blade in hand, Max knew from past experience those laser claws could be brought to bear on a split-second’s notice.
What caught his attention most, now that his adversary had shown himself, was that he was wearing Shades’ sunglasses.
“If you killed him…”
“You’ll what?” Erix snorted. “My, that is a scary face. Does that mean you’re gonna fight me for real this time?”
“Tell me now.”
“Damn, you’re no fun,” Erix muttered. “Fine, fine. He’s alive already. Happy now?”
“No,” Max told him bluntly. “What now?”
“Did you bring it like I asked?”
“Yes.” Max reached carefully into his pocket, fishing out a gold ingot from the treasure. Just as Toma recommended, to offer as proof. Max tossed it over as Erix stepped off the stairs, deftly catching it with a snatch of his hand.
Erix examined the gold for a moment, at last satisfying himself that it was the real thing.
“So what’s the plan?” Max demanded after waiting for as long as he could stand to.
“Now we fight to the death,” Erix replied. “The rules are simple. If you win, Shades lives and you get to keep the treasure. If I win, your friend kicks the bucket, I get to keep these spiffy specs for myself, and your other little friend hands over the treasure.
“Oh,” he added, raising his laser sword, “and no outside interference. The Checkmate already has those two Island Patrol ships targeted, so I can take them out with the push of a button. Do you accept?”
“I’ll fight you,” Max told him, “and I’m here now. Why do you still need Shades as a hostage?”
“Insurance,” Erix informed him. “And, I might add, you’re hardly in a position to dictate terms.”
“But this fight is pointless!” Max pressed, already firing up his blade, half-afraid he already knew the answer.
“So you need a ‘point’ to fight, do you?” Erix taunted, igniting his own energy blade. “You need a meaning? Then how about this? If you lose, I’ll kill you. Then I’ll kill your friends. It doesn’t get any more meaningful than that, does it?”
“So be it.” Max stepped up, inwardly preparing for battle.
“Heroes die young,” Erix reminded him. “So, are you ready to die today, Max?”
“Perhaps you should ask yourself that question, Erix,” Max said darkly. He knew this could be the last thing he ever did. This guy was a lot tougher than Striker, that much he had already seen, and he tried not to worry about how he would fare in the absence of battlefield distractions. Yet he found he didn’t care; after everything he had come through to get this far, Erix was all that stood between him and his friend.
A short clash of blades served to confirm Max’s suspicions. In spite of this, neither of them gave way. Max fiercely determined to get past him or die trying. Erix holding his own without too much apparent effort. On top of that, Erix’s eyes betrayed little to begin with, but with his friend’s shades covering them, it was even worse.
“I’m impressed, really,” Erix told him as Max finally backed off a bit. He knew a fellow prodigy when he saw one. Max’s form and style were definitely a cut above, but it didn’t take him long to find his opponent’s actual combat skills lacking. Yet during those moments when Max lost himself in battle, he clearly displayed keen instincts and a natural talent Erix had seldom seen.
Max, for his part, quickly figured out that the direct approach was out of the question. Much to his chagrin, this Erix was a bit quicker than him, and his moves weren’t predictable like Striker’s. Didn’t leave any openings, either, it was obvious this guy had fought way more battles and he and his friends combined, the difference in their levels of experience showing already.
I need to surprise him somehow…
They only had to fight for a moment for Erix to figure out that Max wasn’t really backing into a defensive posture, so much as he was trying to work his way around him to the stairway, and moved to cut him off.
Max, seeing that his initial plan was a wash, fell back among the stilts holding up the house above, hoping to slow Erix down with obstacles. As they dueled between the supports, Erix cut right through a couple of them before slowing his offensive. Max used that time to try to figure out a new plan, painfully aware that he could stall for only so long.
“You’re beginning to disappoint me,” Erix told Max as he hunted him among the beams. “Maybe you’re not as strong as I thought you were…”
“We’ll see,” Max shot back, thinking frantically while trying to keep Erix from pinning him against the cliff face at the back. As long as he stayed next to the stilts, Erix risked bringing down the house if he slashed too carelessly. Here in the shadow of the house, he felt as if he was losing this battle before he had even begun to fight.
At least until he spotted a way around Erix, gauging his position carefully.
Silencing and sheathing his laser sword even as he dodged, Max evaded Erix’s next attack, grabbing the stilt pole with one hand, shifting his weight and swinging around on it. Erix belatedly charged in the wrong direction, giving Max enough time to flip his legs onto one of the crossbeams, swinging the rest of himself up out of the way as Erix turned around and swiped at him. Just like the acrobatics he used to practice in the trees back in Paradise, he worked his way up to one of the landings of the stairway working its way up the outside of the scaffold.
He then took advantage of the opening he made getting past Erix, charging up the steps. Thinking that if he could free Shades, it would be worth the risk. Then all he would have to do is buy his friend enough time to escape, and then only need to worry about himself.
It only took Erix all of two seconds to figure out what his opponent was up to, chinning up to the nearest stair railing and dashing up the steps in hot pursuit. About halfway up, though, Max tripped on a storm-damaged step, giving Erix a chance to catch up with him. Max then had to turn and fight him as he worked his way up.
Having taken the risk, and had it backfire on him, Max quickly learned just how difficult it was, dividing his attention between not tripping over his own feet on the twists and turns of the steps, and not getting them cut out from under him by Erix’s ruthless blade. A stairway, he now understood, was one of those places where the classic “high ground” strategy just didn’t work. He barely managed to jump a couple steps as Erix tried to sweep his legs.
Max nearly stumbled again when he finally backed up onto level footing, barely rolling out of the way as Erix hounded him.
“I haven’t given you enough credit,” Erix conceded, “but you’ll have to do better than that.”
“Just tell me where Shades is!” Mad demanded.
“Do you think I’d be stupid enough to tell you after your little plan failed?”
“Just thought I’d ask,” Max said dryly, deciding that that was all the breather pointless questions would buy him.
“Turn off that stun blade and ask me with your sword,” Erix told him. He then reached for his utility belt, drawing a second laser sword. Seeing Max’s stubborn refusal: “Very well, then. Have it your way. Let’s up the stakes, shall we?”
Erix jumped back in, both blades swinging. This new approach quickly put Max on the defensive. Though they continued to duel, Max didn’t take long to figure out that Erix had the upper hand, even more than before, and now he was just barely keeping up with him. Now he was starting to get an idea of what he was really up against.
Still he fought on, knowing that if he lost, Shades’ life would be forfeit, as well.
Shades escapes for real
Shades woke up with a start, cold sweat dripping down his back.
Unable to remember exactly when he finally fell asleep. If these were to be his final hours, he didn’t want to spend them sleeping. As far as he could tell, Erix hadn’t slept all night, just sitting there, waiting. Now he was gone, and all Shades could conclude was that he must have left after he dozed off in spite of himself.
The last thing he recalled before waking was a dream about going to the movies with Amy. Just as they originally planned to before he took a wrong turn one stormy night. She turned to him, and was about to take off his shades—
When it abruptly became Erix pulling them off, and he snapped awake, straining at his bonds.
As the night wore on, he eventually lost track of his many thoughts. Now he almost wished the dream had continued on its original course; the thought that he would never see Amy, or John— or any of his other friends, either— again was more than he could take. That they would never know what happened to him pushed him to the brink of panic.
What brought him back to his senses was hearing the sounds of combat outside. At some point after he nodded off, Erix must have drawn the curtains, because now all he could see of the two combatants were their vague silhouettes as they dueled across the deck. Most likely closed them so that Max couldn’t see him, but it also made it so he couldn’t see anything, either, had no idea who was winning. He thought about calling out to Max, just to let him know he was still alive, but thought better of it, lest he distract his friend at a critical moment.
Yet sitting there, having no idea what was going on out there, was driving him nuts.
What allowed him to hang on was the realization that now Erix couldn’t see him, either. That this would be his last chance at escape. He never doubted Max would come for him, but he feared his friend was in over his head against this guy. But before he could help Max, he would, of course, have to help himself.
To that end, he re-evaluated his situation.
This Erix slept with one eye open, watching him like a hawk since his little bathroom stunt, but now, as he felt the edges of his handcuffs, he realized that Erix got careless. Before, his hands were bound so that the keyholes faced away from his hands, but now he could feel the edge of one keyhole. All he could make of this was that Erix must have figured that, if he still had any means of picking the locks, he would have tried to use it in the bathroom last night.
To the contrary, after their battle onboard Striker’s ship, he had gone to even greater lengths to ensure against capture, and he still had the most carefully-hidden piece of his lockpicking arsenal on him even as he sat here. Last night, he had figured Erix wouldn’t give him enough time to use it, so he had focused on trying to escape the bathroom and putting more distance between himself and his captor before trying it. After his attempt failed, he wondered if he shouldn’t have tried to free himself first.
Could almost kick himself, if he could just move his legs. But now, with no one looking, he could play the last ace up his sleeve. The one Erix would never have given him the chance to while he was still there.
Moving with great care, he reached into his back pocket, finding the tiny tool bit he had placed there. Apparently, too tiny for Erix to find when he searched him. With sheer force of will, ignored the sweat pouring down his back as he slowly fished out the lockpicking implement he had to nearly wrench his shoulder out of joint to even reach. Cursed silently when he nearly fumbled it getting past the hem of his pocket.
Once he had a solid grip on it, he paused for a moment, pulling himself back together with several deep breaths. Visualizing the lock, glad that he had looked over diagrams of various locks over the years. Though he had practiced getting out of handcuffs a couple times, just for the practical experience, he had never attempted it with his limbs and joints restrained like this, now understanding that he had a long way to go before he would ever be the next Houdini. Probing with the bit, trying to make it budge, but the harder he concentrated, the more his head hurt. Still, he pushed on, sweat dripping down his face, staying focused.
Finally, there was a click, and the binding on his wrist came undone, freeing one hand.
Now that he was able to twist the other wrist around, it was much easier to undo the other hand. But then his fingers slipped, and he ended up tipping the chair over and fumbling behind his back for a couple minutes to get his hands on it again. It was even more awkward going, lying on his side, but once he managed to unfasten a couple more locks, the chains slipped off and it became easier with each one after that.
Rolling over, he sat for a long moment, catching his breath, before his growing sense of time running out caught up with him.
Grabbing only what he felt he had time for, he snatched his jacket and a couple other items from the pile, then slipped quietly over to the sliding door. Figuring Max could use all the help he could get against this guy, for real this time.
Max vs Erix II
Max only needed one round against Erix to realize that he wasn’t going to last long at this rate.
Erix just kept pressing him back, pushing him around to a degree even Striker had never managed. Before his opponent could strike again, Max drew his backup laser sword, the one he found in the Harken Building. He had meant to hold it back as a reserve weapon, but he now understood that if he didn’t change his tactics, he wouldn’t need a backup anyway.
“You didn’t tell me you had another sword.” Erix grinned.
All Max could come up with was, “You never asked. And what about yours?”
“Fair enough,” he conceded.
Max tried to use one blade to block, the other to counter. In his mind, he heard Robert quip, Having two swords isn’t always an advantage, and now he was fast learning— the hard way— what his father meant. Found himself remembering his childhood friend, Lance, how he seemed to be a natural at two-weapon fighting. On one hand, an expert had a deadly edge with two swords— and Erix clearly had trained to be adept with twin blades— but on the other hand, for a novice at it, two weapons could quickly become a burden, as Erix was already figuring out Max’s simple patterns.
Much to his chagrin, it didn’t come as any great surprise when Erix finally tweaked the left sword out of his grip.
But Erix wasn’t finished, striking with the other blade, as Max barely sidestepped, feeling the tingle of the energy blade as it swept a bare inch past his face in his opponent’s near-miss.
“Don’t you feel the rush?” Erix laughed. “Your life could end any minute. Try to enjoy it while it lasts!”
With that, Erix jumped back in, as Max found himself pushed back to Square One. Then his back up against the wall. Was still off-balance as Erix drove his blade home.
It was only on reflex that Max somehow steadied himself by bracing one foot against the wall behind him. His abrupt halt allowed him to avoid Erix’s blade by a hair’s breadth. It all happened in a fraction of a second, but time seemed to slow down for Max as he kicked off the wall, nailing his adversary’s right hand while the blade was still buried in the wall.
Max then snapped his foot back across, hitting Erix in the chest, sending him staggering back as he fumbled his weapon.
Certain this would be his last chance, Max took the offensive, pressing Erix back. Now Erix had only his left-hand sword, and Max intended to take full advantage of it. Doing all he could to keep him from switching hands.
This kept up for a short while before it began to dawn on Max that something was terribly wrong, as Erix continued to hold out.
“Not a bad idea, Max,” Erix remarked, “but I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, too. Starting with the fact that I’m ambidextrous!”
“Amba-what?” Though Max already didn’t like the sound of it.
“Dumbass! I can use both hands with equal skill!”
To prove it, Erix immediately took back the initiative, throwing Max off-balance as he tried to contend with the opposite hand to what he was used to.
In desperation, Max lashed out at the next opening he could find. Only to discover a split-second later, to his horror, that it was only a feint. Even as he tried vainly to sidestep, Erix tripped him, sending him sprawling against the deck railing, hard enough to topple him.
Max barely grabbed the railing as he went over. The pull on his shoulders nearly wrenching his grip loose. He looked down for an anxious moment at the jagged rocks and crashing waves below.
Then back up at the ruthless grin on Erix’s face as he peered down at him.
“It’s been fun!” Erix told him, laughing as he stepped on Max’s hand, breaking his grip, and nearly breaking his fingers while he was at it. “But all good fights must come to an end!”
He then stomped on Max’s remaining hand, but Max barely caught himself with his other, numb, hand.
“Shades…” Max’s voice was almost too cracked to be heard, from the strain alone, he knew the next stomp would be the last. “Forgive me…”
“Fall!” Erix lifted his boot to strike again—
When he was struck upside the head with a length of chain. Before he could regain his balance, that same length of chain wrapped around his arm, dragging him back. He only got a brief glimpse of Shades as he was hauled over with the very chain that once bound him, and Shades kneed him— hard— in the solar plexus.
As Erix doubled over, Shades reached out, removing his sunglasses from Erix’s face, then kicked him aside.
Putting his shades back on, he warily eyed his foe as he keeled over. A dangerous animal he didn’t dare turn his back on. Was shocked to realize that he was actually contemplating killing him once and for all.
Seeing that Max couldn’t hold on much longer made up Shades’ mind for him, and he turned from his dark thoughts to help him.
Justin the sniper, reprisal
Justin sat at the helm of the Maximum, trying not to feel too vulnerable as he watched the duel through his binoculars.
It was hard for him, standing out in the open like this, but there were times when he forgot himself as Max escaped from one close shave after another. Found he wished he could do something, but at this range, he was too afraid of hitting Max instead of Erix. At first he had some decent shots when they were still on the beach, but chose to honor Max’s request to let him confront Erix alone at first and only interfere if he lost, but then the fight danced among the supports and up the stairs, moving farther and farther up until he doubted he could target Erix at all as they shifted back and forth across the deck up there.
There were moments when he could hardly believe he was doing this, much like on Aru. The thought had crossed his mind several times to just take the treasure and run, maybe toss his last couple EMP grenades at the Island Patrol ships as he went by. Yet he found he wasn’t serious, it was nothing more than a passing whim as he watched his friend; that it just didn’t seem that important at the moment.
That, and he kept telling himself that he couldn’t just leave with Bandit sitting on deck like this.
“Max!” Justin screamed, nearly fumbling his binoculars as he watched his friend go over the edge.
Seeing he now had no choice, he put down the binoculars and took up his new crossbow. Feared it was just barely in range, but at least he had a clear shot. There were too many obstacles and too much risk of hitting Max in that melee, but it was now or never.
Then, even as he was drawing a bead on his enemy, he saw Erix go down and Shades, of all people, step in to help his friend. Justin stayed his finger, sliding it back from the trigger as he watched this precarious rescue attempt. Found himself holding his breath as well as his fire, hoping Shades could pull it off.
Without warning, a shadow that could only be one thing loomed up behind Shades, yanking him back.
“Shit!” Justin hissed, wondering what he could do now, but knowing that both of their survival depended on him doing something, the sooner the better.
Remembering the extra mini-bolts he picked up along with his new weapon, he reloaded frantically, knowing full well that this would all hinge on that balcony still being within bow range. Hoping desperately that he was not too late, he took aim again. Waiting until he could pick out Erix’s position cleanly again, relieved that he wouldn’t have to actually aim this one at him.
This time, he fired.
Max vs Erix III
“Well, this is an odd reversal,” Shades grunted as he leaned over the railing to help his friend.
He honestly wasn’t sure if he could lift him, but he was sure as hell gonna try. Max stared up at him with obvious surprise, but now was not the time for explanations. Shades hauled his friend up, and Max helped out with one arm still holding the railing.
“Shades…” Max began urgently, staring up.
“Not now,” Shades replied. “First we’ve gotta—”
And so Max’s warning went unheeded as Shades felt an elbow strike him between the shoulders. He lost his grip on Max’s hand as Erix jerked him around by his jacket collar. Before he could react, Shades found himself being bombarded with punches and kicks as Erix combo-ed him right up against the wall.
Shades was able to block one or two hits, but Erix quickly broke his defense, and the last thing he remembered as he hit his head against the wall was Erix’s voice in his mind saying, Shoulda killed me when you had the chance, kid…
“I respect you for what ya did, but it didn’t work,” Erix told him, seeing his own reflection in Shades’ mirrorized lenses as he activated his laser claws. “Attack me from my blind side, will ya…”
But before he could attack, something struck the wall near him, erupting in a cloud of smoke-screen.
“Dammit!” Erix hissed as he staggered back, drawing one of his power pistols and aiming in the Maximum’s general direction.
“Justin!” cried Max as he charged Erix, kicking the gun out of his hand, making his shot go wide. In the absence of any further interference, he finally managed to drag himself back up. And apparently rejoin the fight just in time.
Shades lifted his eyelids just long enough to catch a blurry glimpse of Max as he jumped back in. This Erix was a real piece of work, he reflected vaguely; not since his and Max’s battle with Mall Security had he felt this beaten down. That one man managed to deliver more punishment than a dozen guards.
Shades slumped against the wall and waited for his vision to clear, for now it was all he could do.
Erix was still slightly dazed from Shades’ initial attack, and now Max was going all-out against him. Even so, he still tried to keep one eye open for Shades, in spite of his slumped posture. Still had no idea how he got free in the first place, and thanks to those damn shades there was no way to tell if he was really out or just playing possum, though so far he hadn’t moved.
Found he still didn’t trust it, though.
Worse, he found he had little margin to watch out for Shades as Max was making a comeback. Seeing his friend alive gave Max renewed strength and resolve, taking the fight back to Erix. Reduced to hand-to-hand combat, they were both more evenly matched.
Finally both of them paused for a moment, catching their breath.
“Well met…” Erix said quietly, already thinking of his next move. Inexperienced as he is, he’s got the touch. In spite of the interruptions, this was still the best fight he’d had in a long time. “Your move, pretty-boy.”
Max paused for a moment, looking into those eyes— one cold, one dead— realizing that as grim as things appeared to be, he found he liked the challenge in spite of himself.
Yet when Erix blocked his next attack, he fired up his laser claws again and slashed. Max just barely slipped aside, belatedly remembering his adversary even had them to begin with. With the advantage of energy weapons, Erix turned the tables on Max, pushing him around, as about all he could do was dodge them.
Max knew it wouldn’t be too long before Erix got in a hit or two, and that would be the end of it. What he needed was a chance to grab even one of his fallen laser swords, or else one of Erix’s. A way to block and counter. But Erix was running him around relentlessly, refusing to give him a any time to do more than evade.
As Erix drove him back toward the railing again, Max got a flash of inspiration as he spotted a pole sticking up from the railing. Drawing from a duel he had watched years ago, and was hoping to make end differently this time. Envisioning Erix as his father’s nemesis, Slash, he allowed himself to be pressed against the railing, knowing that even one mistake could be the death of him without Erix even lifting a finger. Figuring that if it worked against Striker, it might also work against him.
Grabbing the post as he jumped back over the edge, Max swung around on it, aiming both feet at Erix while he was still facing the wrong way.
Shades blinked his eyes open in time to see Erix slide across the deck, landing against the wall, laser claws gouging the deck and the wall along the way.
Max staggered as he landed, making a dive for one of his laser sword before springing back to his feet. Erix also spotted one of his own blades lying nearby as he scrambled to his feet. Not as effective as it had been against Striker, but it at least gave him an opening. Instinctively fearing Erix might try to take Shades hostage again, Max charged him.
As the two resumed what must surely be the final round of their battle, Shades let his head roll to the side to keep them in view, not wanting Erix to see that his eyes were indeed open behind those impenetrable lenses. The two of them were in the zone. Except in the movies, he had never seen such spectacular swordplay.
But he knew it couldn’t last for long; this had to be Max’s power play.
Shades knew he would get cut to ribbons if he got in the way of those energy blades, but he wanted to help Max. Then he spotted Max’s other laser sword lying on the deck. Now that Max had Erix’s undivided attention, Shades reached slowly for it. Max needed help, and this was the only way he could think of to deliver.
Meanwhile, Max and Erix stood toe-to-toe, blades locked together, neither giving ground.
As Shades pretended to slump all the way on his side in order to finally grasp the fallen energy blade, he felt a portion of the deck tear away from the wall, starting from where Erix’s claws bit into it only moments before.
Max and Erix paid no heed, though, Max shoving his opponent down, but Erix snatched up his other sword as he rolled across the deck. Was about to launch another attack, having regained the advantage, when he saw Shades bound back to his feet out of the corner of his eye—
Then the whole structure gave way with a loud ripping noise and snapping of several supports below.
Max and Erix were both thrown toward the edge of edge as the entire deck toppled over. Shades dashed across the deck, leaping outward in a desperate attempt to hit deeper water— to say nothing of getting the hell out of this thing’s way when it hit. He saw Erix tumble and Max go into a graceful spread-eagle trying to gain some distance himself.
The last thing Shades heard was Erix’s surprised scream, then he hit the water, and all he could hear over the rush of bubbles all around him was the thunderous crashing behind him.
“The fuck…” Justin breathed as he watched the whole works come crashing down, even part of the house itself.
Lowering his weapon, half-relieved not to be trying to pin a moving target at this range anymore, he scrambled to the helm. Steering the Maximum to where he saw them hit the water, he moved in close to see if there were any survivors. Power pistol already in hand in case— much as he hated to think it— Erix was the only one.
As he drew near the still-floating wreckage, as close as he dared, he waited for some kind of sign.
Just when he was starting to worry, he saw two shapes emerge near the edge of the debris. It took him only a moment to make out the form of Shades, who appeared to be hauling Max behind him. Apparently having to dive deep to help his friend. He could already tell Max was barely conscious, and Shades would need help getting him onboard.
Working together, the two of them hauled him up the rear ladder and onto the deck as carefully as they could. Max’s right arm was injured, and Shades feared it might be broken. They tried to lay him down on the bench seat so they could examine him more properly.
At first, Max insisted on sitting, looking anxiously seaward, fighting off the pain. Now that he and Shades had taken turns saving each other’s lives, he had no intention of losing it all at the last moment. Both Justin and Shades started at their own carelessness as they realized Max’s vigil was for Erix.
Whom both of them completely forgot about.
It wasn’t until after they watched for a good couple minutes without Erix turning up anywhere, that Max finally relaxed, succumbing to his own exhaustion. He looked over at Bandit, who had instinctively joined his vigil, and when his feline companion nudged up against him, Max reached out with his uninjured hand, mussing up the fur on top of his head. Max leaned back in the bench, at last unable to hold back the full extent of his injuries, his eyes flickering shut even as Sentry II pulled up alongside of the Maximum, and an Island Patrol medic came aboard.
“Relax, my friend,” Shades told him, putting one hand on Max’s shoulder and gently pushing him all the way up onto the bench. “You’ve earned it, man.”
That was the last part Max remembered before he passed out.
Justin walked into the small infirmary room on Kon Kalona, now that he was allowed in. After waiting what felt like forever outside while they treated Max.
Though Shades sat next to his friend, with only a few bandages and his ankle wrapped, Max reclined in a cot in the corner. Wearing even more wrappings, with his arm in a sling. Bandit, whom the medical staff had tried to eject before Shades set them straight, lying on the floor next to him. Max was finally awake, and he and Shades were talking when he walked in.
For having endured three brutal battles in little more than a day, Justin figured, he could have looked worse.
“Hey Justin,” Max smiled weakly, “how’s it goin’?”
“Okay, now that you are.”
“Compared to you, Max, this is nothing!” Shades laughed. Considered it a good sign to see Justin making more jokes. Especially less cynical ones.
“It wasn’t a clean break,” the doctor informed them as he came in from the next room, “but it’s still pretty serious. He has a single fracture, and it’s amazing he didn’t break his arm completely in a fall like that. I would recommend you be careful with those hands, too, for the next week or two. Your arm, though, will take more than a month to heal. Just take it easy for a few weeks, and you should be well on your way to making a full recovery. You’re lucky to even be alive.”
Max nodded gravely.
“You’re luckier than you know, young man,” Chief Toma told him as he strode in behind Justin. “I did some more digging now that we don’t have a crisis on our hands, and from what I can gather, this Erix is bad news. Before, I was mostly telling the Council what I could recall about him— and hoping they wouldn’t call me out on it— but in the meantime, I found the papers I was looking for before. I’ve got a small pile of bounty notices from all over the place. Most of the rewards on this Erix fellow are six- and seven-figure amounts.”
“You mean if we caught him,” Justin asked, “we could’ve got a reward?”
“Don’t push your luck, Mr Black,” Toma replied. “It’s not like the Council has that kind of money to throw around. Besides, do you know how many people he’s killed? No one knows for sure, but just the ones I read about hint at hundreds.”
“Seriously?” Shades spoke for all of them on that account.
“I already told the other Council members we would do well to downplay his involvement in what happened here the last couple days,” Toma said. “Just the name will draw the attention of every bounty hunter and mercenary passing through.”
“Is he still alive?” Max demanded.
“I don’t think so, but we’re not really sure,” Toma answered bluntly. “Sentry I scoured the surrounding waters while Sentry II escorted you back here, but there have been no sightings. No sign of Checkmate, either. If we just found his ship, he might be dead, but…”
“Yeah, but that ship was submersible,” Shades pointed out. “What if he just left it waiting for himself underwater somewhere?”
Max, recalling that it was supposedly close enough to target Toma’s ships, already doubted they would find it.
“Captain Harper’s been helping us with that,” Toma replied. “Now that the Seeker is mostly re-paired, they’ve got a sonar they use for salvages, and Harper’s quite adamant about tracking down the man who hijacked her ship. But we’ve had to be careful with Larson’s house, on the other hand. Bastard set up booby-traps and alarms strung up to pots and pans and stuff all around the place. If one of my men hadn’t noticed a hand-grenade rigged to the back door, anyone going in that way would’ve been blown to bits. I’m guessing the collapse of the front part was also his doing. We still haven’t found Larson himself, though…”
“No clue there,” Shades shrugged glumly, wishing he could be more help on that one. “All Erix told me was that he killed him.”
“I see,” Toma sighed in resignation. “I feared as much.”
“I hope that son of a bitch is dead,” Justin remarked.
“Oh, and I almost forgot,” Toma told them, turning to Max, “I originally came here to tell you that, on top of the amount the Kona Council was going to pay you for monitoring the salvage, they also agreed to set aside a reward of one thousand, two hundred credits for your part in retrieving the treasure and stopping the thieves.”
“Hazard pay,” Shades commented. “Not too shabby.”
“Personally, I wish we could give you more,” Toma continued, “but with all the repairs and medical expenses and everything, it’s what we can spare.”
“Thank you,” Max replied. “You are most generous.”
“Well, I suppose you have some things you want to talk about,” said Toma, “and I hear we caught some stragglers on Kon Aru this morning, probably the last of that gang, so I’ll be going for now. See you around.”
With that, Toma took his leave, the doctor a few moments later, after checking on Max.
“Not bad. Not bad at all!” Justin crowed after they left. “Even if they didn’t have a reward, I picked up a little something for our troubles…”
As he dug frantically in his pocket, Justin’s face abruptly shifted from elation to confusion, to outright consternation.
“What’s wrong?” Max asked.
“Where did it go?…”
“Tell me you didn’t,” Shades remarked, already getting an idea what Justin meant.
“Yeah,” he admitted, “I kinda pinched one during that first battle, but…”
“Justin!” Max looked at him crossly.
“There’s a hole in my pocket,” Justin informed them, the very face of sheepish. Now he recalled something Toma said earlier, in the aftermath of the Aru raid. Looks like one of the thieves got greedy, ’cause we found one of those ingots lying on the ground back in the shantytown… And now he couldn’t believe he hadn’t checked his pockets in the meantime through one mess after another. “That was mine?…”
“There, there, Justin. Easy come, easy go, right?” Shades tried not to laugh at Justin’s little heist falling through like that. “They say that’s what happens to those who steal from the Islands, but who am I to say? I’m no philosopher,” he continued, “but I think some things in life are supposed to be a mystery. I believe I told you, not long after we escaped that haunted island, there are more things in heaven and earth— especially in this world— than are dreamt of in your philosophy, my friend.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” Justin hated it when Shades started in with the obscure sayings shit. “Maybe money just burns a hole in my pocket, right?”
The three of them enjoyed a good laugh, even Justin lightened up.
Then Shades sobered up sharply. On the subject of mysteries, he had finally put his finger on what was bothering him ever since they discussed whether or not Erix was still alive. Now that he was no longer worried about his life, and Max’s, he finally remembered where he knew that name from. Could still see the ominous pronouncement printed on the page…
“I think Erix is still alive, and I may know why.”
“What do you mean?” Justin demanded.
Max immediately turned serious, as well.
“The Book of Fate,” Shades answered, seeing his friends tense up at the mere mention of that sinister tome. “I’m sure I saw his name in there. If I remember right, it said he was going to die from falling from a great height, or something like that… And they never found him.”
“If we survived that, so could he,” Max concluded darkly.
“Unless they turn up a body,” Shades advised, “it’s probably safer to assume he is alive.”
“And mad as hell, I’ll bet!” Justin laughed, though he would be the first to admit that he didn’t particularly relish the thought of running into him again.
“Though given the shape we’re in,” Shades remarked, “I doubt he’s currently in any condition to fight us, we should probably still watch our backs until we’re sure whether or not he decided to stick around.”
From there, the conversation wound down, and Shades decided to let Max and Justin hang out for a while. Wanting some fresh air, Shades treaded lightly, favoring his injured ankle as he made his way to the nearby docks. There, he found Toma sitting on a bench, looking over reports.
The weathered lawman looked up from his work as Shades walked by.
“Pleasant morning, isn’t it?” Toma intoned, and Shades paused in mid step.
“Yes. Yes it is,” he replied.
“My friend, it’s always a good day when you live to see it,” Toma told him. “So, if you don’t mind me askin’, have you decided what you’re going to do after the Festival?”.
“Yeah,” Shades told them, “we’ve been talking about it, and we’ve decided to hang around for a while. At least until Max’s arm is mostly healed. After that…”
“I see,” Toma nodded. “No need to rush. You’re still young. I just hope you don’t make a habit of being so reckless. Everybody likes a hero, but ‘young’ is a tragic way to die.”
“So Erix told us,” Shades conceded. “Then again, it’s not like we set out to be heroes or anything… It’s really more like we were put on the spot… So many people killed…” Still hadn’t gotten used to all this… “To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely comfortable with guns.”
“I find that rather reassuring,” the island lawman told him. “Your friend there whips out those guns of his a little too casually for my taste, so I’m glad to hear that.”
“I’m sure he means well, that’s just the way he is,” Shades explained. “But I never trained for anything like this. I carry this power pistol only because I feel I need it in this world…”
“Nothin’ wrong with protecting yourself,” Toma smiled. “The fact that you don’t like that weapon tells me you’ll only use it at great need. Just know what you’re shooting, and why you’re shooting it, and you should be fine. And if you ever find you’ve reached a point where you enjoy pulling the trigger, my advice would be to throw that gun as far as you can, and run in the other direction.”
“I think I would,” Shades answered. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Toma nodded.
And Shades resumed his walk, pondering the Chief’s words, for it was indeed something to think about.
“So, do you think Erix survived?” asked Corrick as they walked among the booths of the Island Festival. Given both his new friends’ ‘hero’ status around these parts, as well as how well-liked the big cat had become during his short time here, even Bandit was allowed to attend with them.
Among those who were in the know, it was the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the week since the battle, and the jury was still out.
“I don’t know,” Shades replied, though he quietly hoped he hadn’t in spite of his doubts. Still limping slightly, but his ankle was doing much better, markedly on the mend. “Most of the Island Patrol guys think he’s dead, but I’m with Toma. They never found his ship, and Max and I survived, so I think it’s safer to assume he still alive.”
The Festival itself was the Island Paradise version of the traditional block party. Food, music, dance, games, with a blend of local customs for flavor. A melding of Native and Outland. There were parties being held on both Kalona and Miribar, but the big party was on Kalona. And for this festival, there were fireworks, as well, a rare and spectacular sight in these parts that delighted one and all.
“And probably really pissed!” Justin laughed. Although the prospect really didn’t appeal to him.
“I agree,” Max added. Though, given that it had been days since the battle, and Erix hadn’t turned up anywhere to give them trouble, his best guess was that he chose to retreat. It would be weeks before his own arm was healed enough to continue training, and there was no telling what injuries Erix may have suffered, too. But that still left him at large, somewhere out there. “He probably did survive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants revenge.”
“Well, I sure hope he doesn’t come back,” Corrick remarked. “He caused enough trouble the first time.”
“I don’t think he will,” Shades told him. “If both of us got injured this bad, I doubt he came out of it unharmed, either.”
“Still, I wonder what he planned to do with it…” Corrick mused.
“The thieves were probably going to take it to another realm and sell it on the black market,” Shades told them. At least that was how those sorts of things worked in his world, at any rate. “And I imagine that was Erix’s plan, too.”
“By the way,” Justin asked, remembering the arbitrary and draconian judgments that passed for law in the Triangle State, “what are they gonna do with those guys?”
“I hear they’re going to be split up into several groups and sent out on some old boats Toma rounded up.”
“With a week’s rations and unarmed, of course,” Corrick added, sounding uncharacteristically grim. “After all, these islands have a few holding cells for the occasional criminal, but nothing to hold that many prisoners.”
“And they must never return, on pain of death, right?” Max intoned. Remembering that exile was the traditional punishment for murder in the Layoshan Islands, as well. As he recalled, it was a penalty not invoked since his grandfather’s day.
Unlike Earth, Shades reflected, in this world of endless oceans and random destinations, it was a convenient way to get rid of people you never wanted to see again, without having to soil your own hands. Sent on their way, at the mercy of the sea, and whoever they came upon— including predators and scavengers of similar inclinations to their own.
“Speaking of them,” Corrick told them, “I heard about what happened the other day. Shan is an old friend of mine, and I want to thank you for helping him out back there.”
“No problem,” Shades replied. “Bullies piss me off anyway.”
“Just glad we could help,” Max added.
“Hey! It’s you guys!” a voice called out from the crowd.
They looked over to see Shan the fisherman running a booth for the festival. Max, remembering what he said about setting up on Kalona for the Island Festival. Bandit immediately perked up, remembering him instantly.
And Shan apparently remembered, too, as he brought several pieces of fish over. He also thanked them for helping him out the other day, apologizing sheepishly for running away, as he wasn’t used to dealing with people like those thieves. Though by then they were beginning to tire of the topic of the treasure heist and Erix, both of which had become the talk of the islands.
“This is a party,” said Max. “Let’s just have fun.”
“I second that motion,” Shades agreed.
“Hell yeah!” Even Justin seemed to lighten up and relax.
Walking among the crowd, Chief Toma supervised the Island Patrol members working security detail. Keeping the thieves under lock and key until the Council’s tribunal made their banishment official, combined with the casualties of the battle itself, left them short-staffed, so he had to curtail his own enjoyment of the Festival this time around. As he watched the three travelers again, he wondered.
He kept a collection of high-profile wanted posters and bounties from other realms, just in case any of these lowlifes decided to pay their fair islands a visit. And was in the midst of documenting this ex-military gang’s members for that same purpose. In addition to Erix, he also looked up this “Justin Black” and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Still, this kid didn’t really look much like the infamous outlaw. Even what Shades and Max said of him didn’t fit the bill, either, so he finally shoved the file back in its drawer.
Concluding that it must be a coincidence of names. After all, it was a big world out there. Or so he was told.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.