Tradewinds 18: Skeleton Crew by shadesmaclean
Summary:

Wherein a passenger ship becomes a cruise ship becomes a cargo ship becomes a pirate ship becomes a prison ship…


Categories: Original Fiction Characters: None
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Warnings: Death, Violence
Challenges:
Series: Tradewinds
Chapters: 18 Completed: Yes Word count: 26510 Read: 16812 Published: 03/14/13 Updated: 08/09/13

1. Interlude: Triad IV 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

Interlude: Triad IV by shadesmaclean
“Hey! You!” A female voice shouted from farther down the dock. “What do you think you’re doing!?”

Chase Spencer looked over his shoulder from picking the lock on the ship’s cabin, seeing a couple Cyexian pirates rushing their position. As he figured. It would be either them or the Alta port authorities.

“We’re busted!” he called out. “Move your ass!”

“I’m working on it!” Kato shouted back, even as she continued cutting away the mooring lines with Chase’s dagger, cursing herself for still getting caught in that light blue hoodie she should have ditched weeks ago. “Just make sure we’re ready to go!”

Cutting more smoothly than any metal blade she had ever seen, the ropes melting away at the weapon’s slightest touch.

“Got it!” Chase crowed, opening the cabin door to let George scurry in, followed by Kato, who immediately made a bee-line for the helm. Chase, meanwhile, laid down a heavy cover fire as Kato fired up the engines.

He managed to hold them at bay long enough for Kato to get them underway, and out of reach of the pier before he hit the deck to avoid the Cyexians’ return fire as the ship picked up speed.

Once they were past a couple ships that obstructed their shots, he slipped inside, as well.

In order to see better, Kato slipped off her hood, trying to get the ship’s handling down even as she maneuvered her way out of the harbor.

Thus it was George who spotted it first, jumping up and down and frantically pointing at the large cruiser moving across the outer harbor to intercept them.

“Dammit!” Chase cried, getting a glimpse of the name Cruel & Unusual, as well as Captain Striker’s crew colors flying, as they crossed paths. “It is them!”

He and George hit the deck, and even Kato slid down in her seat, as they opened fire.

Gunning the ship’s superior speed, they managed to slip past by a short margin, but the Cyexian ship was already turning to pursue them, guns blazing.

“I told you I saw her!” Kato retorted. “Why the hell does this keep happening to us?”

To think they finally thought they lost Striker when they arrived in Alta about a week ago. Ever since their first run-in with Striker, those Cyexians kept turning up, like a bad penny, often within a day or so of their arrival anywhere. Making the acquisition of supplies, as well as any other business they may have had, a race against time, everywhere they went. Leaving the Triad III a perpetual shadow of her former self, barely seaworthy.

None of them had ever heard of a ship, once left behind, repeatedly arriving at the same destinations, and Kato was fast starting to wonder if it wasn’t some sort of curse in spite of herself.

In addition to scrounging for compatible parts, when they could barely afford food and skimped on docking fees whenever they could get away with it, they were also collecting junk for George’s attempts to rebuild his armtop. Poor kid had been utterly despondent since, mostly moping and tinkering, and hardly eating most of the time. And they figured he would continue to do so as long as his screen remained dark.

Chase, and sometimes Kato, finishing his portions to keep it from going to waste, though sometimes he was afraid to ask, despite the way she glared at him when he ate it all himself.

There was no way their old ship would have been able to escape this, even if they hadn’t returned from their little underground expedition to find Striker’s crew sitting on it. Four days, and most of their remaining coin, spend hiding out in some fleabag harbor boarding house, trying to keep a low profile even as Cyexian pirates prowled the port, with not even any coin to pay people to not see them. Finally left with no choice but to risk looking for a way off the island, since the Cyexians didn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

Should have known it was too good to be true when they spotted a ship sitting unattended like this, but so far their luck was holding as they were gaining enough of a lead to get out of range before Striker could bring out the big guns.

And so the chase continued for a piece, as the coast of Konosha thinned and vanished behind them, before Striker relented.

“They’re turning back?” Chase remarked, looking back with the binoculars he found on the table, observing their movement distinctly.

“Probably realized they lost us!” Kato laughed. “This ship’s pretty damn fast!”

“Well duh,” Chase replied, “but it still doesn’t make any sense. Won’t the Harbor Patrol want to have a word with them after that?”

“Who cares?” Kato shrugged. “It’s not our problem, and we sure as hell ain’t goin’ back to watch.”

“Still,” Chase said, “it’s a pity we won’t be able to go back down there again. I think that’s where my knife came from…”

After all, he had taken note of how the symbols on his dagger matched some of the ones on not only Kato’s Tri-Medal, but also Max’s and Shades’ from the brief time they were in their possession, as well as that mysterious journal they found in the Undercity. To say nothing of how unnaturally sharp it turned out to be, able to cut through things he had never seen a metal blade cut before. And showed not the slightest hint of dulling, either. Was extremely glad he’d thought to pinch the sheath while he was at it, as it seemed to be the only thing that could contain it.

“I hate to say it,” Kato leaned over her shoulder, “but it’s way too dangerous down there, even though it was the best lead we’ve found since Centralict… Underdwellers! Why the fuck did it have to be underdwellers?”

And somehow being smaller only made it worse than the models from the Harken Building.

“Well, at least we managed to save that Edric guy’s journal,” Chase pointed out. “To think, it actually has symbols from the Tri-Medals.”

“I know,” Kato groaned, “but it sounds like all the treasures of that place are long gone. I’m starting to think there might be more than one treasure out there, ya know?”

“Could be,” Chase admitted. “After all, what little the Centralict Museum had about it never said anything about Konosha or Alta…”

Meanwhile, George sat at the lounge table, snickering silently at something in the ship’s log.

“Hey! What’s so funny?” Chase demanded, reaching over to snatch the book.

After flipping through the most recent entries, he started howling with laughter.

“What?” Now Kato wanted in on the joke.

“Man,” Chase laughed, “you’re not gonna believe whose ship this is!”

“Was,” Kato corrected. Still, something had seemed oddly familiar about this ship the moment she spotted it, and only now was she finally able to put her finger on what it was. “Don’t tell me…”

Though she figured that would at least explain Striker’s redoubled fury.

“I can’t believe they left such a sweet ship unguarded like that!”

“Yeah, well we’re not goin’ back for ’em!” Kato told him. “Not with Striker on their ass!”

They all had a good laugh as they sailed off into the sunset, and Chase scribbled across the whole next page: HA! HA! It’s OUR ship now!
I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
good news and bad news
The four of them sat in a posh lounge room in Vandenberg Manor, a room that might not accommodate them for much longer, depending on how today’s hearing went.

Bandit sat sprawled in the late afternoon sun streaming through half-parted curtains as he watched his human companions discuss how they lost their previous home.

“So that really was Striker’s crew?” Justin asked.

“ ’Fraid so,” Shades replied, sharing what he had learned from the harbor authorities earlier this morning. “Showed up a couple days after we went down into the Undercity.”

Cruel and Unusual.” Unlike the others, Max recognized that name, heard Mousy call it out as the Brazen was sinking. “That was the name she said.”

“But I thought Rawne’s men had seized our ship,” Justin pointed out, “so how could anybody steal it?”

“He did have men sitting on the Maximum, as we feared,” Shades answered, “but don’t forget how long we were down there. Rawne was even paying off our docking fees to keep the harbor authorities out of it. But a couple days ago, they just up and left. Most likely, the money stopped coming, along with any word from either of their employers. By then, the Assembly was running its own investigation, so they were probably worried about how it might look if they were still hanging around on the Vandenberg payroll…”

“Took the money and ran,” Justin snorted.

“But that still doesn’t explain what Striker was doing here,” Max remarked, reaching down and scratching Bandit behind the ears, right where it always hit the spot.

“What I imagine she does everywhere she goes,” Shades shrugged: “being a pirate.”

“I suppose we’ll never know now,” Justin muttered, “seeing as how they never came back.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Shades quipped. “But still, I can’t help but pity whoever took our ship…”

“Did they find out who stole it?” Max asked.

“Nope.” Shades threw his hands up. “Too chaotic, too much shooting. Nobody got a good look at any of them.”

“And it’s not like we could catch up with ’em anyway…” Justin nodded, “but now we’ll never…”

He trailed off as they heard the echo of the doors out in the Great Hall beyond. A long, expectant silence, gradually filled in by approaching footsteps as Maximilian and Sebastian entered.

“So, uh, guys,” Justin chimed in, “how’d it go?”

Even his enthusiasm quickly faded in the wake of Maximilian’s haggard face, looking somehow older than he had before his excursion into the Lower Ruins, to say nothing of his butler’s weary expression.

“That bad, huh?” Shades intoned.

Bad doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Maximilian sighed as he slumped into one of the empty armchairs. “We were gone so long, the other investors had pushed the hearings through even without Freedan, and the result was that he completely ruined me. The Vandenberg Trading Company is going to be disbanded, and its assets sold off to pay my father’s debts.”

“So you basically spent the whole day in a room full of poisonous snakes?” Shades remarked. “No wonder you look so beat.”

“Most of them have already divided up what pieces they wanted… It wouldn’t have mattered if I was there a week ago,” Maximilian muttered. “And here I was hoping I could just buy you a new ship. I mean, I know it wouldn’t be the same, but I figured it would be the least I could do for all your help… Instead, I’m not even sure how many more days I’ll even be able to put a roof over our heads…”

“Well,” Justin offered, “at least we kept that bastard Freedan from getting his hands on it.”

“That’s just the problem,” the Young Master told them. “He did. We know now that he’s been cookin’ the books for years, but it’s even worse than we feared. Instead of hoarding most of the money somewhere here in Alta— where we might’ve recovered it— he started wiring more and more of it to an untraceable holding account in New Cali. He also must’ve committed the account numbers to memory, because no one could find any information in his office either.

“Maybe it’s for the best…” Maximilian sighed. “I’m starting to think Freedan was right about one thing all along. After an entire day of learning just how little I knew about this company, I really don’t think I have any business running it…”

“Young Master…” Sebastian shook his head as if it really hurt.

“But why was he sending it all to New Cali in the first place?” Justin wondered.

“It appears to have all been part of some scheme for Freedan set himself up back in New Cali, probably with the city’s underworld, using the embezzled monies,” Sebastian elaborated. “But now that it’s all there, we can’t get any of it back.”

“Wired?” Shades raised an eyebrow. “How?”

“With a Quantum Relay Beacon,” Maximilian answered. “I have no idea how it works, but some company— Camcron, I think— outfits some realms with them for direct communication, but our newest one was damaged in the earthquake, so we’re stuck with the older model until someone from there comes out here to replace it, and who knows how long that might take…”

Hearing this, Shades figured that must have been how that mobile phone back on Adnan’s Island was connecting, and again he vaguely wondered where to.

“But there must be a way,” Max insisted.

“I’m sorry, truly, I am,” Maximilian said, looking more and more shell-shocked as he recounted his own ruination. “There aren’t any long-distance protocols for this sort of thing, not with the older model relays, and I’d bet my last credit Freedan knew it, too. On top of that, his and Rawne’s deaths leave too much unaccounted for to get any cooperation out here. The only way would be if I traveled all the way there and made my appeal directly to the First Municipal Bank of New Cali in person…”

He trailed off at the thunderstruck expression on Shades’ face.

“First Municipal Bank of New Cali…” Shades mumbled, whipping out what was left of his wallet. Past his driver’s license, past his school ID, past his photo of John that he had already trotted around the harbor earlier, past his mom and his friends, past the washed-out remains of his video rental card. A flip-book documenting his entire life up to the night he wandered out of it. At last arriving at and whipping out the FMBNC card he had stumbled upon at the threshold of his current life, almost surprised it was still there after all he’d been through in this world.

“The Card…” Max gasped.

“What is that?” Maximilian demanded, after getting a good look at it. “How can this be?”

“Young Master,” Sebastian piped up, “you recognize this account number, too, don’t you?”

“It’s the card I lost after the earthquake, isn’t it? Stolen, wasn’t it? But how…”

“It’s a long story,” Shades told him, deciding to save the details for another occasion. “But seriously, this was yours?”

“I guess that would explain why there was so much money on it!” Justin laughed.

“But what was it doing in place like that?” Max wondered aloud.

“Wait a minute!” Maximilian snapped, “If it was stolen, why does it still work? Didn’t Freedan… report… it…”

“Based on what we know about him,” Shades sniffed, “I’ll give you three guesses.”

“This account might be how he was embezzling all that money,” Sebastian hypothesized, “but from there, it was somehow being transferred to another account we don’t have any access to here.”

“Sebastian.” Maximilian looked up, sounding more like himself than he had since the battle in the Lower Ruins. “I know it’s late, but would you send the Assembly one more message? I want to make one more appeal before I decide what to do next.”

“Young Master, do you think they’ll listen to any more pleas at this point?”

“I think they’ll listen to this one,” Maximilian answered. “If I’m right, I just solved one of their leftover problems, and solved our most pressing one, all in one stroke.”

“How?” Justin perked up.

“You’ll see,” Maximilian replied, “but it’s getting late, and I’ve got another long day ahead of me. It looks like they’re going to let us stay here for another day or two, and hopefully this new plan will help you guys out, as well, but I need to make sure I have my pitch straight before I deliver it.” He then turned to Shades. “I know the usual rule of the high seas is Finders Keepers, but I take it I can trust you to give me my card back, can’t I?”

“Of course,” Shades told him, handing it over. “I never quite felt right about using it, but I was all out of options back then. I haven’t used ever since I stopped needing it.”

“Thank you,” Maximilian replied. “I promise I will make this worth your while. All of you.”

Not long after Maximilian turned in, they did as well.
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
time and tide
The following day, the rest of them passed the time, occupying themselves each in their own way, as Maximilian made his final appeal.

Training, sightseeing, and largely hitting dead ends trying to learn any more about the theft of the Maximum. Even when Maximilian returned later that afternoon, an unexpectedly satisfied smile on his face, he still wouldn’t tell them what he was planning, other than that he had finally found a solution to their lodging problem. Among other things.

The following morning, he joined them in packing his belonging and boarding a ferry bound for the neighboring island of Amarrah, all of them eager to see what he had to show them.

“So, how did your appeal go?” Justin asked.

“I got about what I expected to get out of it,” was Maximilian’s cryptic reply. “Which is more than I was originally going to get. Even with the card, most of the money Freedan embezzled is still out of reach, and he and Rawne seem to have kept their dealings with the money they stole here in Alta pretty secretive, though I hear they have some bounty hunter working on that…”

“Whoa!” Max remarked, pointing off to starboard, “That has to be the biggest ship I’ve ever seen!”

“About five hundred feet, to be more precise,” Sebastian informed them, “with a capacity of almost two hundred people.”

“It’s painted like a cruise ship,” Shades observed, “but it’s built more like an old cargo or passenger liner… And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a modern cruise ship with sails…”

Justin gave a low whistle, as it could certainly compete with the largest ships he had ever seen anchored offshore anywhere.

“So this is it then?” Maximilian asked his butler. “The Excelsior?”

“Indeed it is, Young Master,” Sebastian told them. “A part of the Collection that won’t fit in any tower. Your grandfather Chauncey originally purchased this ship in his later years. As I recall, he had this plan for making it a ‘floating hotel’ that sailed around Konosha and Amarrah, but it never really caught on. So for many years, the Excelsior was simply kept dry-docked over here since no one could find a buyer.”

“Looks to be in pretty good condition for being neglected so long,” Shades noted.

“Funny thing, that,” Maximilian remarked. “Before he went after us in the Undercity, Freedan left orders for her to be refurbished and restocked. Most likely, he was planning to take Rawne and his crew with him on this ship when he left Alta.”

“You mean it’s all ready to go?” Max asked.

“Just about,” Maximilian replied. “We even managed to find a crew for her on such short notice, thanks to the Assembly. Not only are they signing on to operate the ship, but they’re even bringing our first cargo, meaning we’re already in business.”

“Cargo?” Justin cocked his head. “But I thought it was a passenger ship.”

“Originally, it carried both,” Sebastian explained, “as vessels of this sort often do to keep their business options open. The last time I was ever onboard was many years ago, but Master Chauncey had certain modifications made to the ship, including turning one of the cargo holds into an indoor swimming pool, and another into a ballroom. She still has at least half of her original cargo capacity, and if need be, we can also use some of the lower staterooms for that since we currently have no other passengers.”

“And you guys are welcome to the VIP Quarters,” Maximilian told them. “I’m afraid I can’t replace your ship, but you’re welcome to sail with us for as long as far as you need to go. We set sail tomorrow.”

“Time and tide wait for no one,” Shades mused.

In spite of all that had happened here, he found he was still in a hurry to be on his way, and not just to continue his search. Even without any more ambushes, like his first morning he slept in, his sleep had been a most uneasy one here in Alta. Now that he had seen for himself what lay underneath it, he suspected this was a bad place for someone like himself to try to get a decent night’s sleep. His experience with the faceless ones was quite enough to convince him that Rod was right about the Zeroes: they were back. Worst of all, his encounter aboard the Empty Set came with the revelation that he no longer remembered how to fight on that side. Zeroes were dangerous enough when you had the means to defend yourself; tangling with them without even that was suicide.

Though his anxiety had kept him from dreaming that deep since then, as he looked out upon the harbor, he quietly hoped that leaving this place, where the boundaries between dimensions was so thin, might give him some breathing room on that front.

“That’s a good way to put it,” Maximilian finally said. “According to Sebastian, I probably could have pressed for provisional control of the company, to see if I could turn it around before dissolving it completely, but I don’t think I ever would have had full control, even if I succeeded. Much as I hate to admit it, Freedan was probably right about one thing. I really don’t think I have any business running a company that large, not with how little experience I have…”

“Young Master…” Sebastian bowed his head.

“You don’t have to call me that anymore, Sebastian,” Maximilian told him. “I’m not your master anymore.”

“Young Master,” Sebastian replied, giving him a level gaze, “I have served the Vandenberg family for so many years— since your grandfather’s day— I would have no idea what I would do with myself without you. There is nothing for me here now. Even if you have no fortune, you are the only family I have left.”

“ ’Bastian… If that is how you feel…” The Young Master nodded. “You know I’m never coming back. Just like you, there’s nothing for me here now. It’s time to get on with my life. Walking in Edric’s footsteps has made me realize that. You guys, too, and Ma’Quiver. I’d rather start over and seek my own fortune in life.”

“So what’s the plan?” Justin enquired.

“Basically, to seek out cargo and passengers to transport from one realm to another,” Maximilian elaborated. “Though, aside from being some form of compensation after Freedan’s treachery, there was one other condition on which the Assembly granted my appeal. Along with the Vandenberg signet ring, I can also use the… what’s that word?… biometric data wired to New Cali to prove that I am my father’s legitimate heir. So, if I should ever find myself in New Cali, I have agreed to make a personal appeal to First Municipal Bank to try to redeem the money that Freedan hid there, with three fourths of it to be wired back to Alta to pay off my father’s debts, the remaining quarter of it my remaining inheritance.”

“Heh,” Justin snorted, “what’s to stop you from keeping it all for yourself?”

“Honor,” Max answered.

“That, and I drew up a contract with the Assembly, which I’m sure they’ve already wired to them,” Maximilian added. “One Assemblyman, Sloan I think his name was, even hooked us up with our current clients, as well. I did what I could to protect the rest of the company, and it looks like the other investors were willing to hire all of them, one way or another…”

“Which means you wrapped things up about as well as could be expected,” Shades concluded.

“All I negotiated for was the ship,” Maximilian shrugged, “and a few of my father’s personal affects. I just wish I could’ve given him a proper burial…”

“It was too dangerous,” Max shook his head, wishing he could’ve at least collected Percival’s skull as he had Chad Owen’s remains back in the Harken Building. Another brave soul taken by a grisly death. “The underdwellers never gave us a chance.”

“I think he understands,” Shades assured him, “wherever he is. The important part is that his memory lives in you.”

“You’re right.” Maximilian straightened up as the ferry prepared to dock. “Today, I begin a new chapter in the Vandenberg family history.”

All of them couldn’t help but stand a little taller at that sentiment as they prepared to disembark.
End Notes:
I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but it is what it is. It was more luck than anything that I've had internet for the past couple months, and I was really hoping to find another place with internet access, but it just didn't pan out. Which means I'm going to have to come up with my own, which will take time. In the meantime, I'm dropping one more chapter to go. I promise I'm doing everything I can to get back online, but I have no idea how long that might take, so please bear with me. It's been a hell of a year.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Excelsior
After the ferry arrived, they quickly piled onto the pier and headed out to the far docks, where the Excelsior was anchored.

The water in this part of the inlet was deep, sitting out past a high shelf on the coast, deep enough for even a vessel of the Excelsior’s size to dock. Along the pier, the crew wheeled and carried crates of varying sizes, loading them aboard as the ferry crew offloaded their own luggage for them. The sheer size of the ship impressed each of them in their own way.

Overseeing the operation from near the gangplank stood a man of modest height, stocky, with shoulder-length blond hair and a neatly-trimmed beard.

“Captain Mercer!” Maximilian called out.

“Young Master Maximilian, welcome.” Though dressed not much differently than his men, mostly dockworker garb, he also wore a white captain’s cap that accentuated his commanding posture as he stepped up to greet them. When Maximilian reached out to shake his hand, he paused for a moment, then reached out and took his hand. With a raised eyebrow, Mercer scrutinized them thoroughly. “And who are these people? Passengers?”

“Yes,” Maximilian informed him, “these are my friends I told you about. I owe them my life, so they will be taking this voyage free of charge.”

“I see,” Mercer replied. “Welcome aboard the Excelsior. If you’ll pardon me, Master Maximilian, I have cargo to attend to, if we are to set sail by tomorrow.”

“Of course,” Maximilian nodded, leading them aboard. “Please don’t think him rude. This is kind of a last-minute arrangement for him, as well, so he really has his hands full right now…”

“Mercer, you said his name was?” Max asked.

“Yes,” Maximilian told them. “When I offered to take the Excelsior off their hands, the Assembly still didn’t have any leads on a buyer for a ship this big.”

“And the Assembly gets to lose a white elephant,” Shades intoned, then seeing the looks on everyone else’s faces, added, “A term from my realm, something that costs a lot to just keep around, but serves no actual purpose. The Assembly is probably just trying to get it off their hands, but since Rawne lost the treasure, this is probably the closest thing to a windfall you’re gonna get.”

“Exactly,” Maximilian continued, “but there was just the question of where to find a crew, since Freedan was apparently going to have Rawne’s crew do it, and no money for us to hire one. Fortunately, one of my father’s old… business partners, Assemblyman Sloan, referred me to Captain Mercer, a traveling merchant with more goods to unload than he could find buyers for in Alta. He has prior experience captaining ships, so we struck a deal. A limited partnership. He could keep the lion’s share of the profits from this cargo as payment— minus operating costs— and if this arrangement proved profitable, we would split future cargo and passage fifty-fifty.”

“It was all a very hasty arrangement,” Sebastian admitted. “I just hope we can find some more clients along the way…”

“You worry too much, ’Bastian,” Maximilian laughed. “It was the perfect stroke of luck. With that pittance of a stipend we were left with, I was afraid we’d be stuck [I]living[/I] in this harbor until we found a crew and a client. Instead, fortune brought them to us.”

“I see,” Justin commented, “They need a ship. You need a crew. But do you really think you have enough people to run a ship this size?”

“Admittedly,” Sebastian confessed, “most of the men up there are just dock crew Mercer hired to load our cargo. He really only has about twenty men. Fortunately, when Master Chauncey first started setting up the Excelsior, he hired a nautical engineer to install an automated sail rig that greatly reduced the number of crew needed for a ship this size. Most likely to cut back on operating costs, but it also works in our favor. Even if the engines fail, or we run out of fuel, with the auto-rigging, we could run this ship with a skeleton crew, if need be.”

“We would have volunteered as crew,” Max told them.

“Since we need passage,” Shades shrugged.

“At least for a while,” Justin conditioned.

“I’m grateful for the offer,” Maximilian bowed his head to them, “but I’m glad it didn’t come to that. You’ve already done so much for me…”

“We’re kinda all in the same boat anymore…” Shades pointed out, patting his pocket where he kept his Cam-Jam music player. So glad he thought to take it with him on their expedition into the Undercity, as it was now one of his few remaining possessions. Just thinking about it made him realize just how much he had come to lean on the Maximum’s sound system over the course of their journey, how much he was going to miss it. “Metaphorically speaking, and now literally, as well.”

As they entered the cabin and walked among the corridors, Justin couldn’t help but think back on the Skerry, the elusive passenger ship he stowed away on for a portion of his childhood. The long rows of doors taking him back quite unexpectedly. Found he kept expecting to see Mr Morgan or Eleanor around every corner.

For his part, Max drank it all in, recalling both his parents, as well as his uncle Angus, talking about great ships like this, that could haul an entire village from one place to another. Until now, he had only seen them from afar, and only in a couple places, like Centralict or Bodeen. Actually walking the decks aboard one gave him a whole new appreciation of their size and scale.

“It is pretty big, isn’t it?” Maximilian remarked, trying to sound nonchalant, but still came out sounding every bit as awed as his companions. “It’s like having an entire wing of Vandenberg Manor floating out here… I believe our quarters are up on the next deck level. We might as well get settled in, since we’ll be staying the night onboard. One of the other conditions for this bargain was clearing out the Manor sooner…”

“I already miss it, too, Young Master,” Sebastian confided, “but this is our home now, and it’s up to us to make the most of it.”

“Of course,” Maximilian nodded. “And you guys are welcome to make yourselves at home here, too. After all, I know we can’t catch up with your ship, even if we knew where they went…”

“We know,” Shades assured him. And to think, we were more worried about having to take it back from Rawne’s henchmen, or breaking out of some kind of impound, not gone with the wind… “But if that’s who I thought it was, I suppose we should just be glad we weren’t around for it.”

“I hope she [I]does[/I] catch up with ’em,” Justin snorted. “Serve ’em right for stealin’ our ship…”

“That’s Striker’s revenge against us they’re facing,” Max reminded him, and by no means for the first time in the last three days.

“I still can’t believe you actually fought a pirate like Striker to begin with.” Maximilian shook his head incredulously.

“Neither can I,” Shades admitted.

“Says the guy who originally proposed the idea,” Justin quipped.

“Not one of my most brilliant ideas, I’ll admit,” Shades conceded. “Still, I have to wonder what the look on her face would be if she finds someone else onboard…”

They all shared a laugh at that.

“Even so,” Justin thought aloud, “I always thought they went after the Triad.”

“At least Kato had a sporting head start on them,” Max added. “Still, that was some time ago, even before our stay in the Konas, so maybe it was just…”

“A coincidence?” Shades intoned. “Luck?”

Our luck,” Justin muttered, his face as sour as his tone.

“All the same,” Sebastian piped up, “I can still barely believe our good fortune that we found such resourceful allies in our hour of need.”

“Even though I doubt they would have been much use against anyone as dangerous as Aden Rawne,” the Young Master told them, “I still didn’t want to drag my friends into it. Even if they still had the time of day for me, now that I’m no longer part of their high society…”

“I can respect that,” Shades replied. “Dragging your friends into trouble seldom ends well, trust me. And sometimes you don’t know who your true friends are until the chips are down.”

“Yet you didn’t even know me…”

“We didn’t have to. We could see you were in over your head. That, and we stuck our necks out because Max was already involved, and he’s our bro,” Shades explained. “I guess we’re used to living dangerously anymore. Still, as much as experience as we have doing thing people shouldn’t try at home, I would never ask either of them to do that on a whim.”

Both of his friends nodded in wholehearted agreement.

“I see…” Maximilian nodded.

At the end of the corridor, Sebastian opened a door, showing them into what was surely the most spacious cabin on the passenger deck. Though bigger than any of them were expecting, bigger than even the captain’s quarters, it was sparsely furnished, with only the most basic amenities, in spite of being billed as a luxury stateroom. The bed, which didn’t even look like it belonged on a ship, being the only thing that looked terribly ‘deluxe’ about it. Even stripped down, though, the window still offered a commanding view of the lower deck and the Ocean beyond.

“These are your quarters, Young Master,” the butler informed him. “I’m sorry about the… accommodations, but most of the original furnishings were no longer fit for use, and there was no way to procure anything else on such short notice. Or on our budget. Your father’s things shall be brought up here shortly.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for, Sebastian,” Maximilian replied. “You did what you could.”

“Your quarters are next door,” Sebastian informed the rest of them, “And Captain Mercer’s room is right across the hall. There is also a lounge on this level, and I will be serving dinner there within the hour.”

“It’s still bigger than any of our rooms aboard the Maximum,” Max pointed out, “so I have no complaints.”

“Beats having to hole up in a different corner of the hold every other destination,” Justin shrugged, “I’ll give it that.”

“Then it’s settled,” Shades agreed. “I guess all that’s left is to get settled in.”

That having been said, they quickly realized that none of them really had as much to unpack as they thought, even with the supplies Sebastian provided them.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
just got real
The following morning, the Excelsior set sail, only a little later than planned.

The weather was fair, the sea calm, and a steady breeze sped them on their way from Amarrah. Despite most of the preparations being last-minute, things were off to a most respectable start. By noon, the ship was out of sight of land, and well underway to parts unknown.

Justin and Shades stepped up to the pool, which Maximilian had requested the crew fill for their guests before they departed. Telling them he would be down for a swim after he and Sebastian discussed some matters with Captain Mercer over lunch. Max originally planned to join them, and Shades was relieved Sebastian had reinforced his own advice about unnecessary submersion before the knife wounds on his arm and leg, minor as they were, were fully closed. Especially since the pool facilities onboard did not include chlorination.

The pool itself wasn’t terribly large, about fifty or sixty feet long at most, but still impressive for having been added to the ship, rather than part of its original design.

Somewhere in the course of that final day on Amarrah, the butler even managed to score some swim trunks from somewhere at the seaport, near the island’s scenic beach, and both of them were surprised and impressed at how well he guessed the fit.

Justin jumped in with an ecstatic whoop, popping up a moment later to shake out his hair.

Shades opted for a more casual approach, dropping in over the side, finding the water much colder than he expected, colder than he was used to in an indoor pool.

“Hey, what’s with you?” Justin asked, pausing in mid stroke as he treaded water.

“Sorry,” Shades replied, “it’s just colder than I expected.”

“What were you expecting?” Justin laughed. “It is inside, after all.”

“Still,” Shades pointed out, “I’m pretty sure Sebastian said it was heated pool…”

“So, maybe they forgot to heat it.”

“Or clean it?” Shades observed, noting, even as he stayed in motion to keep warm, the visible amount of dirt floating around on the bottom of the pool.

“Well, now that you mention it…”

Justin looked around the pool, his former enthusiasm draining out of his face.

“I don’t know about you,” Shades told him, recalling what that long-closed hotel on Highway 93 back in Montana was like the last time he was there, “but this half-ass excuse for service doesn’t seem to bode well for Maximilian’s new crew, skeleton or not.”

“What’re you gonna do, complain about it?”

“I don’t know,” Shades said at first, then concluded, “Maybe let the Young Master swim in it and judge for himself.”

“I’m sure they’ll take his complaints more seriously than ours.”

“Perhaps. Our whole departure was pretty rushed, for a maiden voyage…” Shades still remembered swimming at that hotel south of Kalispell sometimes, as his third-grade friend Darek lived in Somers and knew someone who worked there. This pool reminded him of their final visit there, less than a month before the place shut down for good. That sense of neglect, as if the people involved weren’t even trying anymore. “Is it just me, or does this whole ship seem to be a bit off today?”

“What are you getting at?”

Meanwhile, they both continued to drift out into the deep end.

“Surely you’ve noticed it,” Shades remarked, taking a quick look around to confirm they were still alone down here, “how they all started getting more and more edgy since we left the island. I know it’s a new ship for them, but didn’t they say they were experienced sailors? They’re tense about something, that’s what bugs me.”

“Ya know, I’d like to say you’re thinking about it too much,” Justin replied, “but I think you might be on to somethin’. Is it just me, or has the whole crew been avoidin’ us since we set out?”

“Yeah, it does feel like we’ve got the whole ship all to ourselves all of a sudden,” Shades concurred. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but the more I think about it, the less I like it.”

“For once, I agree,” Justin told him. “We need to tell the others.”

Right about then, they felt a jolt, as if the ship bumped into something hard enough to shake it.

“What was that?” Justin demanded.

“Don’t know, but I don’t like it.” Shades drifted, staying as still as he could. “I don’t think the ship’s in any danger, or someone would’ve sounded the alarm, but it’s still too quiet for even a close call, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.” Justin nodded. “We need a plan.”

“First, we should go back to our quarters and get our gear,” Shades recommended. “I feel like we’re being left in the dark about something, so we should let Max know, and try to talk to Maximilian about it in private, as well. Sebastian, too, but definitely not Mercer, not until we know what’s going on on this ship.”

They both hovered in silence for a moment, as if sharing the same awareness of the growing gulf of ocean that now separated them from any outside help.

“Maybe we should wait for Maximilian to get here,” Justin finally suggested.

“Maybe,” Shades answered, trying to keep a lid on the alarms in the back of his head, which only continued to grow louder the longer they talked about this. “If you don’t mind the water, maybe you could wait for him here— you might even catch Sebastian, too— and I’ll go see if I can find… Max…”

He trailed off as a trio of figures approached the pool, with that sinking feeling they just ran out of time. Only one of them looked like he was part of the Excelsior crew. The other two armed women looking too much like Cyexian pirates to be mistaken for anything else.

Both he and Justin noticed, almost at the same time, one more thing wrong with this picture: instead of being held at gunpoint, the crewmember also held a power pistol, all three of which were trained on the two of them.

“Okay, kids, time to get out of the pool,” the man said, pointing to the ladder at the poolside for emphasis. “Play time’s over. Now it’s all business.”

Slowly, carefully, the two of them made their way over to the ladder, climbing out one at a time, Shades first.

“Passengers?” one of the Cyexians asked him, “I thought you weren’t taking any on this voyage.”

“It was just supposed to be the boy and his butler,” the other added.

“Couldn’t be helped,” he shrugged. “The kid took ’em on last-minute. I guess we’ll just let that crazy bitch decide what to do with ’em.”

“Have a care how you talk about our Captain around us,” one of them warned. “Mercer may have let us onboard, but we run our own show until he hands over the merch.”

“Mercer?…” Shades muttered, noting the flash of suspicion on Justin’s face, as well.

“You look familiar…” One of the pirates turned to them. “Who are you?”

“No one important,” Shades answered, dead certain of the one time and place such a crowd might recognize either of them from.

“Don’t get smart with us!” the other pirate warned them. “No more games. Now tell us, who the hell are you?”

“Ha!” Justin shot back, already fairly sure where this was going, “Justin Black doesn’t need to give his name to assholes like you!”

“But he did anyway,” Shades quipped, winking briefly at him, “because he’s just that generous!”

“Dammit, Dexter, don’t you—”

“Don’t call me Dexter!”

“I’ll call you whatever the fuck I want!”

“This is just like that time with the Triad!”

“Don’t go there, man!”

Their three captors simply gawped at them, flabbergasted, as they both tried to punch each other at the same time.

Both of the Cyexians flanking them were too dumbfounded to pull the trigger in time as Justin and Shades missed each other by a mile, stepping past each other and behind opposing captors, grabbing each of their gun hands and turning them on the third adversary, blasting him while he was caught in hopeless indecision.

Before either pirate could struggle to regain control of their weapon, Shades and Justin shoved them both into the pool.

“They actually fell for it…” Justin tittered as he reached down to pick up the fallen crewman’s power pistol. “Too bad we didn’t handle Kato like that!”

“Not sure if Max would’ve caught on. Still, the fact that Mercer’s in on this can’t be good...”

“I hate it when you’re right about these things…”

“At times like this, I hate being right,” Shades informed him. “But seriously, don’t call me Dexter.”

“Kiss my ass.”

With that, the two of them set out to reclaim their gear and hopefully warn their friends, leaving the two pirates floundering in the deep end. Both of them now understanding full well what Mercer’s crew was waiting for since they departed Amarrah. Both filled with a dread certainty they already knew who That Crazy Bitch was, as well as where those two must surely recognize them from.

Certain now that they had all spoken too soon the other day.
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
down in the hold
Max wandered the deck while Bandit was napping back in their room. Though he originally wanted to go swimming with his friends, he had to admit Shades had a point about his shoulder, as well as the long cut on his leg. The Vandenberg family’s long-time physician looked him over back in Alta— apparently a parting gift to Maximilian before moving on to start a new practice— giving him some antibiotics, just in case, assuring him that he didn’t have any dangerous infections.

While both wounds stung, at least neither got in the way of his movements, though the doctor still cautioned him to take it easy for a while, lest he accidentally reopen either cut.

Shades already spoke enthusiastically about how the long decks were well suited to running laps, in addition to the swimming pool. To say nothing of an open ballroom to train in. Max had already taken a casual stroll from one end to the other and back, figuring this feline friend would probably like to stretch his legs later. Both the sea breeze, and the sweeping view from the main deck, he found quite invigorating.

He was about to turn around and tour the port side, as well, when he spotted something on the horizon behind them.

Even as he squinted at it, already fairly certain he could make out the outline of another ship, one of the Excelsior crew came up to him.

“Um, excuse me,” he asked Max, “but would you be willing to lend us a hand with something?”

“What do you need?” Max replied.

“Well, it might be kinda dangerous,” he admitted. “You are armed, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Because we believe there’s a stowaway onboard,” he explained. “We’re not sure who it is, but several of us have spotted someone sneaking around down there.”

“Has anyone told Maximilian or Mercer?”

“We haven’t told the kid yet,” the man told him, “but we already told the Captain. We, uh, don’t want to alarm the young man. Better to let him know about it after we catch the intruder, don’t you think?”

“Well, I guess…”

Max took one last look out to the stern before turning to follow him, wondering whether his eyes were playing tricks on him, or if that other ship had drawn closer while he wasn’t paying attention.

“Come on,” the man said as he led Max back inside. “The sooner we wrap this up, the sooner we can tell your friend the good news, right?”

Max followed him down below, spotting several other crewmembers prowling around along the way, armed with power pistols, and he took the precaution of drawing his own.

Below the passenger deck were the storage holds, and the swimming pool somewhere to the fore. Down here, the lights were dimmer, and Max could hear the creak and groan of the hull, as well as the hum of machinery. He also sensed the presence of others down here, moving about.

Around the next corner, both of them ground to a halt at the sight of two open crates near the edge of the room, both empty. A little deeper in the hold, they found two women lying face-down on the deck. One with her head bent around at an angle that couldn’t possibly be right. The other having been stabbed in the back.

From their garb, and their armaments, the one thing Max was sure of was that they were pirates. The only other thing he could gather from the first victim’s wide, glazed eyes was even less reassuring.

“Cyexians…”

“That wasn’t part of the plan…” the crewman mumbled. “Mercer’s not gonna like this…”

“What’s wrong?” Max asked, staring at the bodies. “We were supposed to take them alive, weren’t we?”

“That’s not the problem,” the man informed Max, turning his power pistol on him. “Those two were guests, and their Captain’s gonna be pissed if she finds out. It could fuck up the whole deal… I’m afraid you’ve seen too much. Now drop your weapon.”

Max tossed aside his power pistol, still trying to piece together what just happened.

“Good, now step away,” he commanded. As Max stepped away from the fallen weapon, the man reached down for it, keeping his own weapon trained on Max. “You’re comin’ with me, kid, and not one word—”

The ship was jarred by an unexpected impact, sending both of them staggering.

As the crewman struggled to retrieve his own weapon, Max whipped out his laser sword and took him out with a quick sweep of his stun blade, his opponent going down with a panicked yelp.

“Not this time,” Max muttered.

Spotting some rope coiled in the corner, he tied a section of the other end of one of the pipes running overhead to tie up the renegade crewman’s hands, and keep him from going anywhere for the time being.

Then he set out to investigate that mysterious impact, which he noticed no one seemed to be responding to. Since whatever was going on here seemed to involve Mercer’s crew, even Mercer himself, given that man’s words, he sought to avoid them as he made his way back up, trying to come up with a way to warn his friends without tipping their hand to Mercer. To say nothing of watching out for this unknown stowaway, who was already killing people, and apparently still on the loose onboard.

The only thing he was terribly sure of in the midst of all these unpleasant surprises was that something was horribly amiss aboard the Excelsior.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a most unfortunate resemblance
Maximilian, Sebastian and Captain Mercer sat around a table in the Excelsior’s private lounge, partaking of some of their modest stock.

Though Mercer was the one who originally invited them to brunch, the discussion had mostly gone in circles, revolving around matters he was surely briefed on back in Amarrah. Aside from possible courtesy, Maximilian wasn’t even sure why Mercer even invited Sebastian at all. It was getting harder by the minute not to think about how he could be swimming with his new friends right now.

Just as he was trying to think of a way to excuse himself from his opaque host’s company, the ship was jolted by an impact strong enough to rattle the dishes.

Mercer jumped to his feet, cursing under his breath as he turned for the door.

“What was that?” Maximilian wondered aloud, standing up to follow him.

“Um, don’t worry about it, Young Master,” Mercer insisted, putting up his hands in a placating gesture. “It didn’t feel like anything serious, but I’ll go and check it out. You just sit tight and enjoy your meal, okay?”

With that, he slipped out the door before Maximilian could even ask him to not call him Young Master.

“Nothing serious?” Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “That felt pretty serious to me.”

“Well, we’re pretty new to this, and we are still running steady,” Maximilian noted, “so at least we don’t seem to have taken any damage. Perhaps we should wait and see…”

“Even so,” the butler pointed out, “what would we even run into way out here?”

“Another ship, maybe?” the Young Master suggested. “It did feel pretty big, whatever it was.”

Despite their own curiosity, they decided to wait him out, as it seemed a little too awkward to just follow him without any other cues.

The minutes dragged on in silence, until, just as Maximilian was about to step out anyway, Mercer finally returned.

Flanked by a pair of Cyexian pirates, both pointing power pistols at them. With the door open, they could now hear more people out and about in the corridor. Maximilian started to get up, but checked himself in the face of those weapons.

Of the two, he was the first to notice one detail about this scene that he like even less: none of those guns were pointed at Mercer.

“Oh, by all means, Young Master, do get up,” Mercer invited. “But slowly, mind you. No funny-business. There’s someone I want to introduce you to.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Sebastian demanded as he stood up, as well.

“I believe it’s called mutiny,” Maximilian intoned, “isn’t it, Mercer?”

“Mutiny?” Mercer snorted, “I’m the captain on this ship, and you were never my real client. Mr Freedan was.”

“Freedan?” Sebastian gasped, “But…”

“Make no mistake,” Mercer assured him, “this isn’t revenge. It’s all business, at least on my part. Though I’m not so sure about my host.”

Their conversation continued as Mercer led them down the corridor.

“What? Didn’t you think it odd that Assemblyman Sloan, of all people, just happened to offer you our services? He was in league with Freedan all along, and lost the most because of you. This was his parting gift.”

“Then what’s the deal with these pirates?” Maximilian pressed him.

“Originally, Freedan offered to hire us on as his crew,” Mercer explained, “but that deal fell through when the Assembly started investigating him, as well, and then he disappeared entirely. Then we were lucky enough to meet Captain Striker, who offered us a better deal.”

“Striker?” Maximilian gasped. “As in the Captain Striker?”

“Now you see what you’re up against?” Mercer grinned. “But you see, that whole mess at the harbor the other day complicated things. So all of this was just a ploy to get this ship, and our cargo, away from Amarrah so we could conclude our bargain.”

“So you used us, too…” Sebastian muttered.

“Don’t feel too bad, old man,” Mercer told him. “You and your boy are about to meet one of the legends of the high seas…”

With that, they entered the Excelsior Ballroom, which was currently occupied by a mix of Mercer’s crew and pirates. In the center of that gathering stood a tall woman, dressed a cut above the rest of her crew, issuing orders to the others. As they entered the ballroom, she turned and welcomed them with a sweeping gesture.

“Why Mercer! I see you brought guests.”

“Captain Striker, I presume…” Maximilian muttered.

“Boy, your manners do leave much to be…” Striker trailed off, staring at Maximilian with an intensity that he did not like the feel of at all. “Tell me, boy, what is your name?”

“Maximilian Vandenberg,” he answered, “if it’s any of your business.”

“You bear a most unfortunate resemblance, boy.”

“I thought you left Konosha the other day.”

“A clever ruse, since someone I was after got away. Even your attitude reminds me of him.”

“Yes, do tell us, what was that all about?” Mercer demanded. “We had to go to a lot of trouble to rearrange our deal after that stunt.”

“The people we were after put us through a lot of trouble before we even came here,” Striker informed him. “And they still got away… again. Which brings us back to you, boy. According to my information, you’re supposed to be filthy rich. I’m tempted to turn this boat around when we’re done and find out just what you’re worth.”

“Not much, anymore,” Mercer chuckled. “You’re too late for that. Maybe he was rich a week ago, but now this ship’s all he’s got left to his name.”

“Most unfortunate,” Striker told the Young Master. “Perhaps you might once have been worth something as a ransom, but now your life isn’t worth shit.”

“So, you’re just going to kill me?”

“Young Master,” Sebastian pleaded, “please don’t antagonize them. They hold our lives in their hands…”

“Well, you are pretty useless,” Mercer quipped.

“And you’re even less than worthless to us,” Striker declared. “The fact that you look so much like that other asshole isn’t helping your case, either.”

“You must mean the other Max.” And Maximilian looked like he wanted to kick himself the second after he blurted that.

“Other Max?” Striker raised an eyebrow at that.

“Him?” Mercer remarked, “Well, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to him. Body double or something…”

“You don’t say.” Striker turned to him, and Maximilian could see a gleam in her eye that he had trouble making eye contact with. “You’re going to tell me everything you know about this Max, even if we have to beat it out of you.”
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the smell of a fart that wasn't mine
Justin and Shades quickly found the previously scant Excelsior crawling with extra hands, most of them Cyexian, from the look of them.

Wishing every step of the way that they’d had more opportunity to learn their way around this ship, they finally managed to make it back to their quarters. Mostly relieved that most of their unwelcome guests were on the lower deck levels, rather than up here. Ducking in the door just before several more pirates passed through. The complete absence of any struggle or alarm only increased their suspicions, as the rest of Mercer’s crew remained at large throughout the ship. As if it wasn’t awkward enough sneaking around a vessel full of armed enemies in just their swim trunks.

They were both about to grab their weapons— and some clothes— when they heard someone talking outside their door.

Looking frantically about the room, they both scrambled underneath the nearest bed, regretting that if they weren’t ridiculously outnumbered beyond this room, they could have sprung a decent am-bush in here.

“Let’s see what we have here,” a decidedly female voice mused as the door opened. “Even if we don’t find any of those passengers, we might still pick up some fun souvenirs.”

As the pirates’ footfalls spread into the room, the two of them tried to hold as still as possible in such a cramped space, Shades shifting uncomfortably to a more sustainable pose.

“Yeah, just try not to pick anything the other crew will miss,” one of the others replied. “We barely got the deal back on…”

She trailed off, sniffing the air sharply.

“What is it?” one of the others asked.

“Don’t you smell that?”

“Smell what?”

“Wasn’t me!” a third voice piped up.

Shades struggled to stifle a nervous snortle at the sheer absurdity of their situation as Justin glared at him, looking back at him like What?

The pirates shuffled around nervously for a moment, then seemed to calm down.

Just when it sounded like they were about to dismiss it and get back to their looting, someone lifted up the bed. Before either of them could make a move, they found a pair of power pistols pointed at them.

“Well, look what we have here!” one of them quipped. “I guess there were passengers after all!”

The others laughing so hard they could barely keep their weapons trained on the two of them.

“On your feet, you two,” one pirate snickered, “and drop the gun.”

Which Justin promptly did.

“What the hell did they feed these passengers?” another pirate piped up.

“Sorry,” Shades grunted as he got back up, “guess our breakfast disagreed with me…”

“If we live through this,” Justin muttered, “I am so going to kick your ass later.”

“Shut it, both of you,” the lead pirate ordered. “You’re coming with us.”

As they were led out into the hall, they found another pair of pirates covering the neighboring room.

“What’s going on?” the lead pirated demanded.

“There’s a…” one pirated began.

“A big-ass panther in there!” the other finished.

“At least Bandit’s okay…” Shades sighed. For now.

“Just keep the damn door shut,” the lead pirate instructed. “It’s Mercer’s problem, not ours.”

“Yeah, but doesn’t that sound sort of familiar?” the second pirate thought aloud.

Both of them stared after Shades and Justin as they were led away to the ballroom. Where they found Maximilian and Sebastian already held captive, but no sign of Max. In addition to the armed foes was Mercer in their midst, as well as someone they had hoped to never cross paths with again.

“…My friends have defeated you before,” Maximilian was telling Striker as she shoved him up against a table, and Sebastian looked on in impotent horror, “and they can do… it…”

Trailing off as they entered the chamber.

“You were saying?” Striker snorted, turning away from him to face her new guests. Stopping short at the sight of them. “You again?”

“Yeah,” Shades replied, “we missed you, too.”

He now understood that all of this— the swimming pool, brunch with Mercer, whatever wild goose chase they sent Max on— was all just a distraction to keep them from noticing that they were being boarded. And separated.

“Just a damn minute!” Striker demanded. “If that wasn’t you on that ship, then who…”

“Um, if it’s any kind of consolation,” Shades admitted, “we’d kinda like to know that ourselves, actually.”

“To think I thought you got away again,” Striker remarked. “Now I will finally have my revenge.”

“What about us?” Maximilian pressed, wanting to change the subject.

“What about you?” was Striker’s toneless response. Turning to her crew, she ordered: “Maroon them. They have lifeboats to spare.”

“Yeah,” Shades pointed out bluntly, “well at least you had a ship coming to rescue you.”

“A minor technicality,” Striker shot back. “You sank my ship, and now you’re gonna pay!”

“You were serious!?” Maximilian gaped at his friends.

Both of them nodded with much chagrin.

“Find me some ballast,” Striker commanded, turning back to her prisoners. “This time, we’re sinking you!”

“But what if we traded the ship for our lives?” Maximilian tried again.

“This ship isn’t yours to bargain with anymore,” Mercer reminded him curtly.

“Besides, it’s a matter of principle,” Striker interjected. “If I don’t kill those who cross me, people start to forget who they’re dealing with.”

“I’m sorry,” Maximilian apologized to his companions, looking as abject as Sebastian did grimly resigned. “I tried.”

“Search this ship from top to bottom,” Striker ordered her crew, “and find that damn panther, too!”

“Aye-aye, Captain!”

The three pirates headed for the nearest door in the once-luxuriously decorated hall to resume their search.

Striker then turned her attention back to her two half-naked prisoners.

“This is your last chance,” she told her two new captives. As amusing as she found their current situation, she wasn’t taking any chances this time. “I know that bastard Max is on this ship. Tell me where he is, and I’ll make your end less painful.”

“I’ll say it as many times as I have to.” Shades already understood Striker wasn’t going to let any of them live. Really didn’t leave much incentive for cooperation. Erix taught him that the hard way. “I don’t know.”

“And even if we did…” Justin added, having done some thinking of his own. This was hardly the first time in his life that he thought it was all over, but never in his wildest dreams would he have believed it would end like this. In my fuckin’ bathing suit, for cryin’ out loud! “We wouldn’t tell you, bitch!”

If he couldn’t have clothes, he could at least try for a little dignity.

“Have it your way,” Striker told them. “I’m going to enjoy watching you d—”

“Captain Striker! Captain Striker!” Striker’s mousy lieutenant cried as she burst into the room. “We have trouble! Down in the hold!”
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
like a boss
“What is it now?” Striker demanded. Clearly trying to sound exasperated, yet somehow coming off sounding nervous instead, despite having the people who sank her ship right where she wanted them.

“Several of our crew! The ones that stayed with the cargo!” Mousy blurted. “They’ve all been killed!”

“What the hell is the meaning of this!?” Striker demanded, turning on Mercer.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about!” Mercer retorted, bristling with indignation. “Last I heard, we already secured the cargo holds…”

“We left our sisters in your care after they got left behind back in Alta,” Striker reminded him.

“They got left behind,” Mercer muttered, “because you just had to go after that ship, and business be damned.”

“That was business,” Striker informed him, gesturing to her nearest prisoners, “just as this is. They were Pactra, Mercer, do you know what that means for you right now?”

By now, all of Striker’s crew and Mercer’s were pointing weapons at each other in open distrust.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Mercer pointed out. Though his own crew was almost equal in number to her boarding party, he still didn’t trust those odds with them already onboard, let alone having reinforcements back on their ship. “That Max guy is still on the loose.”

“And taking care of the brat’s companions was on your end of the bargain,” was Striker’s curt reply.

Just when it looked as if the tension in the room couldn’t stretch any tighter, one of Mercer’s men came rushing in with his own frantic announcement

“Captain!” he reported, “There’s a problem! A couple of our men were found tied… up…”

He trailed off as he finally noticed the situation he just blundered into.

“Well now,” Mercer quipped, “I would dare say this means we both have a common enemy, Striker.”

“Max?…” Justin wondered aloud, blinking as if at the realization he had even spoken.

“Maybe…” Shades speculated, “but Max ain’t in the habit of just killing people…”

“Maybe they didn’t give him a choice?” Almost as soon as Maximilian finished speaking, he looked like he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth at all.

“Perhaps,” Striker cautioned. “If it is him, then you might get off only paying blood price, as this still happened on your watch.”

“Either way,” Mercer assured her, “he can’t make a move as long as we have his friends.”

“He’s probably right on that account,” Mousy mused, recalling her impression of Max from their last run-in, “but I can’t help wondering if someone else is onboard with us…”

“Like who?” Striker scoffed.

“I heard rumors, back in Alta…” Mousy told them.

“Nonsense,” Mercer agreed. “Who could possibly sneak aboard while we were all standing—”

Perhaps it was because they were both on-edge in the face of an unexpectedly grim end, but Shades and Justin were the only ones to notice the little black balls that rolled into the room, turning away just in time as they lit up the room with blinding strobe flashes.

Even as everyone else flinched, the second wave burst into a cloud of smokescreen. Justin and Shades wasted no time turning and disarming the nearest of their captors while they were blinded. The two of them being the only ones who closed their eyes in time to see anything of what happened next, caught glimpses of fast, agile movements cutting through the pirates’ midst. Flashes and flickers of neon yellow laser blade punctuated by grunts and cries of pain as this vague, fluid shape worked its way through their ranks.

One of the last ones standing regained his sight just in time to see a cleated boot rushing up at his face before he hit the ground.

The broad sweep of a laser staff ending in Striker blocking with her own red double energy blades.

“Oh shit…” Mercer gasped. “It’s her!”

A flutter of cloak, draped to her left in her current fighting stance. Shoulders squared by broad, angular shoulder guards, framing a dark grey military garb of unknown design. Stripped of any insignias, and fortified with bits and pieces of light body armor, including open-fingered gauntlets and knee-high armored boots.

Mid-length blonde hair, and the violet eyes of Cyexian ancestry, that seemed to match all too well with the dervish grin that took everyone else aback as she confronted her prey.

“Problem solved…” the newcomer declared.

Moaning, twitching pirates from both crews sprawled around the deck at her feet.

“The Hunter!” cried Mousy. “So it was true!”

“Quite the catch,” the Hunter remarked. “The Alta Assembly hired me to investigate some shady business dealings, but I never thought they’d lead me to the likes of you. And Mercer. And Sloan, with his confession…”

But Mercer wasn’t having any of it, running for the nearest door.

Only to get knocked staggering right back inside, falling flat on his face.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Max told him sternly as he strode into the room. Turning to their unexpected guest, he told her, “I don’t know who you are, but I thank you for saving my friends.”

“Nor do I know who you are,” the Hunter told him, “but I’m assuming you’re not defenseless. Hostage situations are such a pain in the ass.”

“You’re tellin’ me…” Shades muttered.

“So it is you,” Striker remarked, turning to face Max. “It’s about time you showed yourself, boy.”

The Hunter wasted no time pressing her own attack, forcing Striker to face her again.

“You don’t have time to mess with him,” she informed the pirate captain, “not when you’re dealing with me.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, Mousy jumped in between them, giving Striker an opening to go after Max as she drew her power pistol.

“The Captain’s got a score to settle!” she told the bounty hunter, apparently surprising even herself with her conviction, “So you’ll just have to—”

But her opponent wasted no time, cleaving her gun and sweeping her laser staff back across so fast Mousy could barely dodge the second swing, staggering away.

“You talk too much,” the Hunter told her, turning to see that Striker and the young man were already engaged. As several of Striker’s crew charged into the room, she kicked over a table and ducked behind it as she switched weapons to a compact, sawed-off disrupter rifle concealed under her cloak, a jagged-looking bayonet folded across the top. “Tch…”

Fortunately, Justin and Shades, who had armed themselves in the meantime, also wasted no time upending tables and joining her in returning fire as Maximilian and Sebastian hit the deck.

Max and Striker, meanwhile, picked up where they left off aboard the Brazen.

“I know that symbol, boy,” Striker told him. So much chaos that day, but there was something about that mark on Max’s headband that bothered her from the moment she first laid eyes on it, and it stuck with her long after they parted ways. Now that they stood face to face once again, she could confirm what she merely suspected before that humiliating battle: “It was the same mark worn by the man who stole my predecessor’s sword!”

Max paused in a dangerous moment of recognition. Last time they fought, he was sure he had seen her blade before somewhere before. Now he realized where: her sword looked just like one Angus had in his collection. Nabbed as a ‘trophy’ as he recalled, from some pirate or another, one half of a set. This must be its twin.

“Uncle Angus?…”

“You know him…” Striker’s eyes ablaze. “Where is that bastard!? I want what’s mine.”

“Wouldn’t know.” Max shrugged, surprised at the sound of his own regret. Though not for her sake. “Haven’t seen him in years.”

“Then I’ll settle for your head!” Though Max had at least provided her with a name. Angus. More than her predecessors ever found.

With that, she resumed her attack.

“You’ll pay for what you did to the Brazen!” she snarled, “and you’ll pay for what you did to me! You won’t defeat me this time!”

“I’ve defeated you once,” Max reminded her, ignoring her glare with an effort. Trying not to show the strain in his leg or shoulder, he reminded himself of all the experience he’d gained. Erix. Nikopolas. Ma’Quiver. Danjo. Rawne. Stronger than he used to be. “I can do it again.”

“Don’t get cocky, boy,” she warned, “just because you bested me once.”

Striker quickly discovered, though, that she was in for a rude awakening. Fast becoming apparent that Max’s skills and technique were leagues beyond what he was capable of the last time they crossed swords. Gone were all the gaping openings she could exploit before, tighter than she had ever seen anyone achieve in such a short amount of time.

Gone was her rape face, replaced by one of stern focus as they dueled their way across the ballroom, for it was becoming increasingly obvious who was leading this dance.

“Dammit…” Striker hissed, catching glimpses of the battle turning against her crew, owing as much to this unwelcome guest as Max’s troublesome friends.

“Captain!” Mousy called out, cupping one hand over an earpiece she wore, “There’s trouble back on the ship!”

Striker wasted no time, using that moment of distraction to rush Max, who had paused to hear what her second had to say, and he barely dodged, tripping over a fallen chair and losing his grip on his blade as his elbow banged the floor.

As his weapon rolled out of reach, he rolled over to find Striker standing over him, her blade pointed at him, just like on the Brazen.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
problems and bigger ones
“Ha!” Striker crowed triumphantly, savoring the turning of the tables. “Even if you’ve learned some new tricks, you’re still too soft to beat me! Now, where did we leave off—”

Striker was forced to turn her blade aside to block the Hunter’s attack, which she barely saw coming out of the corner of her eye.

“You shouldn’t say things like that while your enemy is still breathing,” the bounty hunter admonished her. “It’s called speaking too soon.”

“Yeah, well I’m still standing, too!” Striker shot back. “You’ve come between me and my prey, Hunter. I’ll go through you, if I have to!”

“You could barely handle him,” the Hunter snorted. “I’ll admit, the kid’s got skills, but I trained in the Old Ways, which your petty Pactra have long lost.”

“Dammit—” Striker began.

“Captain Striker!” Mousy piped up again, sounding unexpectedly stern, given who she was addressing, “This is serious! Mercer’s men are throwing firebombs at our ship!”

“The hell!?” Striker demanded, moving back from between Max and the Hunter, especially now that the former had drawn his spare laser blade to cover himself while he moved to recover his lost weapon.

“Serves you right, bitch!” Mercer shouted from a doorway on the other side of the ballroom. “I thought you might try to pull some shit while you were here, so I had some of my men set up to attack your ship in case you started anything!”

“You bastard!”

“Now it’s my turn!” Mercer told her, whipping out his power pistol—

But was immediately forced to duck back inside the doorway as Justin opened fire on him first.

“I’m the most ‘generous’ mariner on the high seas!” Justin warned him, “And I got plenty more where that came from!”

“Captain!” Mousy urged her again, “We have to pull back! If they keep it up, our only remaining ship will be lost!”

Striker looked around, at last noticing that all of her surviving forces had already fled, and she was in danger of being abandoned by her own crew once they disengaged.

“You’re not goin’ anywhere!” the Hunter told her. “You and Mercer are going back to Alta!”

“Like hell I am!” Mercer’s voice faded from the doorway.

“Look out!” Shades warned them as Mousy tossed a grenade their way.

Even as they hit the deck, belatedly realizing that no one would throw an explosive device anywhere near their own captain, it burst into a cloud of smokescreen as Striker beat a hasty retreat with her second.

“You’re not the only one who can play with smoke bombs!” Mousy taunted them as she covered her captain’s retreat from the ballroom.

Coughing and cursing, the Hunter took off after them as soon as the shooting stopped.

“Dammit!” she muttered as she re-armed her sawed-off disrupter rifle, the bayonet unfolding into a blade at least as long as the barrel itself as she powered down her laser staff.

“Wait!” Max shouted, joining the pursuit.

“Max!” Shades moved to back up his friend.

Justin looked back and forth between them and the direction Mercer fled, before Maximilian crawled out from behind another table, still covering a very apprehensive-looking butler.

“He’s heading for the bridge!” Maximilian announced. “I’m sure of it!”

“Young Master!” Sebastian moaned as his charge and Justin took off after the renegade captain.

The Hunter was hot on Striker’s heels every step of the way back to the main gate, both of her adversaries running too hard to return fire, and Max and Shades stayed hot on hers. Out there, they immediately saw what Mousy was so upset about, as a couple of Mercer’s men were lobbing what appeared, to Shades, to be Molotov cocktails down from the uppermost deck. Mousy called out to their own crew, who looked about ready to pull out, and some of them diverted their fire from holding off the bombers to covering Striker’s escape, forcing her pursuers to duck back inside the cabin.

“You’ll pay for this, Mercer!” Striker declared as they retracted their makeshift gangplank. “Your days are numbered! Yours too, Max, when next we meet!”

“Shove it, bitch!” Mercer called out from one of the bridge windows. “We ain’t stickin’ around for any more of your shit! We’ll find another buyer for our cargo as soon as we take back our ship!”

True to his word, the Cyexians barely had time to finish withdrawing before the Excelsior began to swerve in the opposite direction as the Cruel & Unusual was veering.

“We’ll see about that!” the Hunter challenged, turning to head for the bridge. Glancing at Max a moment in puzzlement, she demanded, “And what the hell did you do to piss her off that much?”

Before Max could answer, Shades did: “We kinda sank her other ship.”

“That was you guys!?” she blurted, clearly being her turn to be surprised. “I heard somebody fucked up her program, but…”

“That, and she thinks I know where the other sword in that set is,” Max told her.

“You seem rather well informed,” she remarked as they reached the corridor leading to the bridge, “for people who only fought her once.”

“A guy named Rude Bones told us about it,” Justin filled in the blank as they reached his position.

“We do our homework,” Shades added.

That Rude Bones?” she snorted.

“Why?” Justin shrugged. “You know ’im or somethin’?”

“Not personally,” she replied, “but in his younger days, he was known as the Madman of Kimo Daji. A real character, I’m told.”

“So he was a real pirate…” Shades mused.

“Well I’ll be damned!” Justin laughed.

“Okay, enough small talk,” the Hunter cautioned them as they entered the corridor. “We need to stay focused.”

“I don’t know what you’re planning out there…” Mercer’s voice threatened from behind that barred door, “but you can just forget about it! Once my men are through flushing out those damn Cyexians, we’ll be coming for you, too!”

“We’ll smoke ’em out!” the Hunter told them, digging in a pouch strapped down from her belt.

“Don’t even think about it!” Mercer hollered back. “I’ve got real grenades, and I’m not afraid to rearrange the cabin if it means getting rid of you!”

“Don’t think we should call his bluff,” Shades advised.

“Hey, guys,” Max commented, wincing as he belatedly noticed his duel with Striker had reopened his shoulder wound, “does anyone notice that we just stopped moving?”

“What the hell just happened!?” they heard Mercer demand from inside.

“I don’t know!” one of them blurted back. “We just lost all engine power!”

“Must be Striker’s leftovers…” the Hunter muttered, then called out, “So, Mercer, it looks like Striker’s sisters are giving you a hard time!”

But Mercer didn’t seem to be paying her any attention, as all they could make out was cussing and frantic babbling as they struggled to deal with this new turn of events.

“So if we’re not moving anymore,” Justin thought aloud, “what do we do if Striker comes back?”

“Check and see if I packed my brown pants for this trip,” Shades answered, then paused for a moment. “Y’know, I don’t think Mercer’s gonna budge in there, so maybe we should go back to our quarters to regroup and recoup. Right about now, pants sound good, brown or not.”

“Wait a minute!” Max cried, mortified that he could have forgotten something so important even in this chaotic situation, “Where’s Bandit?”

“Back in our quarters, last I saw,” Shades replied after a brief pause to switch gears.

“We better go check,” Justin recommended, seeing the worry all too plain on his friend’s face.

“No telling what Mercer might do right now if we try to take the helm,” the bounty hunter conceded, “and without the engines, the bridge is useless anyway… Dammit! I was trying to collect the bounty on both Mercer and Striker!... Now I’ll have to settle for just him. The rest are expendable.”

With that, they withdrew to the passenger deck to take stock of their situation.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the predator's predator
Watching each other’s backs every step of the way, they retreated to the VIP Quarters. Encountering no resistance, but finding it no less reassuring all the same. Though relieved to see the guest quarters empty, they were not terribly surprised to find the Young Master’s closed.

“Who’s out there?” they heard Maximilian’s muffled voice demand. “We’re armed, you know!”

“It’s okay!” Justin assured him. “It’s just us!”

“How do I know you’re not being held at gunpoint or something?” The jangled suspicion coming through even clearer than his voice.

“Because I wouldn’t be here if they were,” the bounty hunter answered, commenting, “Not bad, though, at least you’re still thinking…”

“And why should I trust you?”

“Because she helped us beat Striker,” Shades told him.

“Have you seen Bandit?” Max asked. “I haven’t seen him since the attack started…”

“He’s fine,” Maximilian answered as he opened the door for them, power pistol pointed out warily.

“Young Master—” Sebastian blurted from behind the bed, looking skittish enough to hit the deck at the first sudden move.

“It’s okay,” he reassured the butler, even as he confirmed for himself that the hall was as devoid of enemies as they said. “So what happened?”

“Mercer’s taken the bridge,” Shades informed him.

Max, meanwhile, brushed past them the moment he saw his feline friend in the cabin, both immensely relieved to see each other alive and well.

“And Striker’s crew have the engine room,” the bounty hunter added. “I’m sure of it. Which means things just got a whole lot more complicated. And now we’re pet-sitting?”

Justin and Shades, meanwhile, wasted no time racing into the other room and gathering up their gear, thanking their lucky stars that all of those interruptions had also prevented the pirates from looting any of it. Retreating back to the other room, they hastily threw on their clothes, the awkwardness of their capture coming back with a vengeance now that the fighting had subsided. At least for the moment, they now understood, as the implications of the bounty hunter’s words began to sink in.

“Who are you?” Maximilian finally demanded, summing up all of their collective curiosity.

“My name is Roxy,” she answered, “but most call me the Hunter.”

“Or ‘That Crazy Bitch’…” Justin noted sourly.

“And most folks who call me that tend to end up on the wrong side of fights with me,” Roxy warned him. “Besides, kid, right now you have bigger problems to worry about.”

“We’re sitting ducks out here, aren’t we?” Shades asked point-blank.

“You catch on quick,” Roxy replied. “Without the engines, we have no chance in hell of getting back to Alta. Which means that from here on out, we’re in a battle for control of this ship between now and dry land. Perhaps we should start with a roll call. I told you my name.”

“Max,” he told her, “and this is Bandit.”

“Shades.”

“Justin.”

“I’m Maximilian Vandenberg, the owner of this ship,” the Young Master introduced himself, “And this is— was— my butler, Sebastian. I’m grateful for your help.”

“Don’t thank me yet, kid,” Roxy cautioned him. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

“You know something about all this, don’t you?” Though there was little question in Maximilian’s tone.

“From the looks of things, more than you do,” the bounty hunter told him. “But since I don’t have obstructive bureaucrats who won’t let me talk to key witnesses out here, perhaps you could tell me something I don’t know. What really happened to Albert Freedan and Aden Rawne?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, even if I told you,” the Young Master sighed, and the others nodded solemnly. “That’s why I gave them the short and sweet version. Freedan and Rawne are both dead, but they took a lot of money we were never able to recover…”

“Your detective work leaves much to be desired,” Roxy replied. “I got a lot of intel out of the members of Rawne’s crew you missed. As I’m sure you know by now, Mercer was the buyer for Freedan’s arms, one of his various money laundering schemes, and Mercer finally found a buyer of his own, Striker. Then Striker’s little stunt in Alta the other day threw a wrench in their works. Then, just when it looked like their deal might fall through, you went and approached the Assembly.”

“Sloan…” Maximilian hissed, remembering the name all too well from his little chat with Mercer.

“Freedan was already planning to use this ship, which is why they dragged it out of mothballs,” she explained, “so all Mercer had to do was smuggle his arms aboard as ‘cargo’ and Assemblyman Sloan could finally wash his hands of his part in the whole Vandenberg scandal.”

“But what about the rest of the Assembly?” Shades pointed out. “Are they just as crooked? And what about Mercer’s ‘past experience’?”

“I’m afraid you dropped the ball on that one,” Roxy told them. “Mercer is an arms dealer, a smuggler, and his ‘past experience’ running ships was as a pirate. According to my sources, he’s hi-jacked at least two other ships along the way, so I’m not surprised he backstabbed you, too. For what it’s worth, if he didn’t have a dangerous man like Aden Rawne backing him, that’s probably what he would have done to Freedan, as well.”

“So what do you know about Rawne?” Max piped up. “If you don’t mind me asking?”

“Rawne?” She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “According to my info, he’s a free-lance merc with a preference for high-rolling clients. Bodyguard, escort, expeditionary. Known to tide himself over with piracy between more lucrative clients… Or at least, he was.”

“And Freedan?” Justin wondered aloud.

“Next to nothing,” she admitted. “Possibly even an alias. Apparently, he was from New Cali, by all accounts, but that seems to be all anyone in Alta really knew about him. My guess? He probably pissed off some powerful people back in New Cali, and spent all this time looking for a way to buy his way back in.”

“Which leads us right back here,” Maximilian concluded.

“I was originally hoping to collect on Mercer and Striker, but now it’s down to just Mercer, and our chances of doubling back to Alta are pretty much shot now. That means the rest of his crew are living on borrowed time if they don’t hand him over. I don’t take prisoners unless they’re worth something…”

“So it’s kill or be killed with you?” Max looked her square in the eye.

“I’m a bounty hunter.” Roxy blinked, otherwise taking his gaze head-on. “I don’t get paid unless I haul someone’s ass in for something. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan to spend the rest of this voyage surrounded by cutthroats waiting to kill me around every corner.”

“Trying to keep them all locked up would be a pain in the ass…” Justin agreed.

“But if anyone does surrender quietly,” Shades proposed, “we should find some section of the ship to use as a brig.”

“Your funeral,” Roxy shot back, “but if they get in my way, they’re dead. We’re dead in the water out here, boys. Have you given any thought to the food or water situation? And that’s to say nothing of what we do if Striker comes back around…”

All the while, Maximilian crumpled into the foot of his bunk, head down, looking as if he were trying to vanish into the corner.

“I’ve never really done anything on my own, have I?…” he nearly sobbed. “Maybe Freedan was right after all…”

Sebastian simply sighed, looking like he wanted to say something encouraging, but just couldn’t find the words after all they’d been through lately.

“Pull yourself together,” Shades told him, with every word trying not to dwell on the most recent gauntlet of perils he’d run himself. “We’ve survived worse than this. You’ve survived worse than this. Remember that.”

“And where were you when Freedan was taking my home?” he demanded, raising his head to stare right at her with his baleful gaze.

“Somewhere between Torgo and Alta… Your guess is as good as mine.”

The Young Master’s burning glare crumbled into a blank, ashen look.

“Don’t look at me like that, kid,” Roxy shot back. “I’m a bounty hunter, not a babysitter. I’m nobody’s hero. The Assembly didn’t even hire me until after Freedan disappeared. That’s just how it is.”

“Would ya cut him some slack?” Justin muttered. “He just lost his father, his home, everything…” Then paused and turned to him. “Still, be glad you got to have a father. Unlike some of us.”

“Shit happens.” Roxy shrugged. “The question is: what are you gonna do about it?”

Max simply stood there, looking at his double as if he wanted to say something, yet held his peace, wearing the same somber expression as when they found Percival’s remains deep in the ruins.

“I’m here now,” she told him, “and I happen to be an ally. I don’t need any dead weight.”

A troublesome ally, Shades concluded, but an ally nonetheless…

“So what do you want?” Roxy asked him straight-up.

“I want my ship back.”

“Are you willing to fight for it?”

And she was answered with indecisive silence.

“Um, if I might contribute something here…” Sebastian spoke up for the first time in this conversation, then trailed off for a moment, as if to make sure they would actually hear him out before he resumed: “Mercer doesn’t have to rely on the engines. Don’t forget, the Excelsior is equipped with an auto-rigged sail system that allows for sailing and maneuvering of a ship this size, even with only a skeleton crew onboard.”

“If he’s remembered that,” Roxy pointed out, “then Alta is out of the question. That means we’ll have to regain control of the ship before he can do anything else.”

The cabin got very quiet as they steeled themselves to take the next step.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
galley raid
“So where do we start?” Max asked, seeing one thing they all agreed on: that time was of the essence.

“First, since we’re right across the hall from his quarters,” Roxy told them, “we’ll need to see if Mercer left behind anything we can use against him. Then we go secure some food and supplies before the others try to take it all. Depending on just how entrenched they are, this could end up being a very long voyage.”

“Hopefully, Mercer’s more focused on getting the ship moving,” Shades mused, “so we should let them do that for us. Striker is still a common threat.”

“Speaking of which,” Justin piped up, “what do you think those Cyexians who sabotaged the engines are up to?”

“No good,” Roxy answered, “whatever that turns out to be. If nothing else, we won’t be able to move about freely while they’re still out there. To that end, I think it’s safer if I go to raid Mercer’s quarters.”

We go,” Max insisted.

“It’s for your own safety,” Roxy replied. “We may be in the same boat, but this is my fight, and I don’t need civilians getting under my feet.”

“It’s our fight, too,” Justin declared.

“And you can keep the bounty, if it’s that important to you,” Max added. “We’re fighting for our lives out here.”

“I work alone…”

“Not this time,” Shades told her. “As you so astutely pointed out, we’re all in the same boat here, and I’d prefer to avoid any hostage situations. Been there, done that.”

“Very well,” Roxy sighed, “if you’re willing to risk it. At least you seem to have your act together…” Switching gears, she said, “In that case, since there are six of us, we move or stay in groups of three. Any fewer is just asking to get picked off one by one. For now, this room will be our home base. One group will always guard this room when the other group is out.”

“That bad, huh?” Justin muttered.

“Could be worse,” the bounty hunter informed him, mentally counting. “Mercer had twenty-five men in his crew… At least thirteen are dead, and only five or six are still on their feet. That leaves about six or seven who may or may not be in any condition to fight. As for Striker’s crew, I don’t have an exact number, but I doubt more than four or five survivors got left behind.”

“Enough to pose as much of a threat as Mercer’s crew if we run into them,” Shades nodded. “I’ll come along too, since whatever Mercer’s got is probably locked up, and I’ve got a trick or two up my sleeve for that.” Then paused, as if remembering something vital, recalling some of the tactics his father told him about as a kid. “If we’re going to be splitting up, we’re gonna need a password, so the enemy won’t be able to just waltz right in.”

“An excellent idea,” Roxy agreed, “but might I add that we write it down for each other, instead of saying it out-loud? That way, even if someone is lurking right outside, they won’t be able to overhear it when we’re ready to go.”

“Very good,” Sebastian said, reaching into a drawer and tearing a page out of his journal. “We can use this for now.”

“We should also have a second password,” Roxy continued, “a warning in case any of us are being held at gunpoint or something.”

Each of them silently acknowledging that even one weak link abusing the password at the point of a gun would render all of their carefully-calculated precautions academic, a dangerous, yet unavoidable, gamble on human nature.

And so they wrote down the first set of passwords, agreeing to change it after each use.

That resolved, they set out to investigate the captain’s quarters. While Sebastian and Bandit hung back, the two Maxes covered the door as Roxy opened it. A cursory scan revealed the corridor to be empty, so Shades and Roxy crossed the hall while Justin covered them.

Roxy joined Justin in covering him as Shades picked the lock on the cabin door. They quickly discovered that Mercer had brought a small safe aboard with him, sitting in the corner. A brief glimpse was all he needed to know he was out his depth this time.

“Dammit, a combination lock…” Shades glared at the dial for a moment before deciding that he had only one tool at all suited for this task. Put away his makeshift lockpick, and whipped out one of his stun-sticks. Using just the tip of the energy blade, he carefully carved out the dial lock, switching to the solid blade mode to pry it out at the end. “I got your combination right here…”

“What?” He turned to them as he stuffed Mercer’s documents into the inside pocket of his jacket. “I practiced lockpicking, not safecracking.”

That accomplished, they retreated back to their room.

“Here,” Roxy said as Shades put the documents on the end table. “Your charter, and Mercer’s contract, as well as the cargo manifest, too. Proof of his treachery, that you can prosecute him for in most realms. As long as the cargo and the manifest don’t match, you can nail him to the wall with these no matter where we go.”

Maximilian looked like he was going to say something, but he took the documents without a word.

Deciding to get while the gettin’ was good, the same team of Roxy, Justin and Shades set out to raid the galley, grabbing and emptying out bags for the task as they left.

Making their way down the corridor, Roxy taking point, while Shades and Justin watched her back, they encountered no one. The entire ship eerily quiet as they tiptoed through each section, none of them able to tell if this stillness was necessarily a good thing. For now, all they could do was hope that Mercer’s boys were preoccupied with the sail rigging, and the Cyexians hadn’t thought about the food situation yet.

Even when the Excelsior listed sharply enough to starboard that they had to put their hands against the cabin wall to keep their footing, it provided no real hint of whether they were under sail or still adrift.

They finally got their answer to at least one of their questions when they heard the sounds of muttering and scuffling as they approached the galley.

A lone Cyexian stood watch outside the door, looking as anxious as if she expected to have to fight the rest of the ship’s occupants combined while her sisters sacked the kitchen.

“Who’s out there!?” she demanded, apparently having heard them in spite of their best effort at stealth, already backing into the doorway as if expecting a firefight.

“What! Already?” another one groaned from inside, her remark punctuated by a loud metallic clatter, then running footfalls as another voice piped up: “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

The sentry lingered in the doorway, distracted, just long enough for Roxy to take a couple pot-shots at her, but she ducked in just in time to avoid being tracked as she joined her sisters’ retreat.

“Tch!” Roxy hissed as they closed the gap between the corner and the doorway.

Inside, the pirates had left the place a mess of opened cupboards and upturned kitchenware, having fled through the staff entrance, but it was evident there was still food left.

“Focus on getting some dishes and cookware,” Shades whispered as he turned his own search to finding the least perishable foodstuffs that remained, acutely aware that they were limited only what they could carry in their bags. Also, all too aware of the other limit they were operating under here: “Let’s hurry, before Mercer decides to send someone, too.”

Roxy continued to cover them, taking on a full couple bags herself, as Justin and Shades continued to forage.

“Shit!” Justin muttered as he fumbled a drawer of silverware with a loud clatter, quickly turning to scoop up the next set instead.

It was just as they were leaving, having scraped together as much as they could carry, that they heard someone else approaching rather less than quietly than they had, from the same direction the Cyexians had vacated.

Wasting no time, they made their own tactical retreat before these new adversaries arrived, trying all the while not to dwell on how much more vulnerable they felt with their new burden, Shades feeling for all the world like they were on some surreal armed grocery errand.

On their way back, they encountered no one, as well, but even these glimpses of what both foes were up to was little consolation in light of the fact that everyone was after food so soon in this three-way stand-off as they made it back to their home base.

“Time and tide wait for no one…” Shades gave the safe password after knocking on the door, and Max let them in.

“We grabbed as much as we could carry…” Justin said.

“Enough to last us about a week,” Shades guesstimated.

“But by then we’ll need a plan of action,” Roxy warned them, “or this will all be for nothing.”

And so the waiting began.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the waiting game
And the waiting continued, dragging out for seven long days as the three-way stalemate continued.

By the end of the first day, it was fairly obvious Mercer’s crew had the sail rig working, just from the simple fact that Striker’s crew never returned to wreak any further havoc. Easily the single biggest thing to go right since the galley raid. Otherwise, things remained as quiet as they were tense aboard the Excelsior.

Though on the second day they mounted a second expedition to the kitchen, by that point, the others had already ransacked much of anything worth taking, so it was slim pickings. Roxy insisted on at least one patrol a day, for reconnaissance if nothing else, though they had yet to make any direct engagement with either enemy. Finding only evidence that Mercer’s crew, at least, was also carrying on some regular recon of their own.

After each run, Roxy whipped out a datapad and entered some information, though whatever she made note of, she kept it to herself.

On the third day, Mercer’s men tried to loot the captain’s quarters, coming closer to their home base than they had at any time up until then, presumably to retrieve the bogus captain’s documents, only to end up scurrying away empty-handed, cursing a little too loudly for their own good, before Roxy could talk them into taking the offensive.

Sure enough, they had barricaded the bridge, running the ship almost exclusively by the mechanical sail-rigging, the Cyexians’ engine room sabotage having robbed them of rudder control, as well. Their periodic patrols most likely to deter any further attempts at sabotaging the ship’s mobility. Mercer’s position largely unassailable without major infrastructure damage, much to Roxy’s annoyance.

The Cyexians, who at first stood to gain the most from sabotaging the rig, back when Striker still had a serious chance of catching up with them, didn’t seem to be aware of its existence until it was too late. Now they didn’t dare in the face of Mercer’s regular patrols topside. Instead, they apparently started disconnecting the ship’s intercom system, making direct communication between the three conflicting parties all but impossible.

By the fourth day, none of the intercom terminals functioned anymore, which the bounty hunter took as a hopeful sign that at least neither of their foes were conspiring together against them, since communication between the helm and the engine room, where the Cyexians had hunkered down, was completely severed.

Though the engine room also gave them control of the Excelsior’s electrical generator, as well, the pirates had thus far refrained from cutting off most of the ship’s power, most likely out of fear of uniting both adversaries against them.

Of course, their biggest concern was the Cyexians putting out the lights after dark, reducing them to the handful of flashlights they— and presumably Mercer’s crew— had scrounged up from around the ship, but that didn’t happen until the fifth night.

It was a tense night, with shifts of three, instead of just two, keeping watch, but none of them got much sleep, which was probably just what their most out-gunned and out-numbered foe most likely wanted to inflict on both of them, and even the fact that the power was restored around dawn did little to sooth anyone’s nerves.

By the sixth day, morale had dwindled right along with their food supply, the waiting taking its own toll on each of them in its own way.

Giving Shades a whole new take on Cabin Fever. Max ever-greater concern about Bandit as rations got smaller and smaller. Justin becoming more grouchy and snappy, keeping more and more to himself in even their cramped quarters.

Maximilian hardly ate anything, scarcely spoke a word, just brooding. As Shades expected his friends were beginning to understand, as well, a grueling wait like this could serve to galvanize one’s resolve, or to break it entirely, and only time would tell which way it would affect the Young Master. Shades was also cognizant by now that there was little any of them could do or say to sway him either way. Something he would have to decide for himself.

Most likely why Sebastian had largely gone silent despite looking like he had a great many things to say to his young charge, mostly just lending his cooking skills to Justin’s.

In the course of those grim days, the others recounted their misadventures in the Lower Ruins, as well as the Harken Building and the Sweet Lady of Twylight, just for good measure, to pass the time. Maximilian contributing little more than nods of agreement here and there. They expected a bit more incredulity, but the bounty hunter mostly offered a sage nod here and there, as if it squared with most of her own experiences. As for what those might be, she kept her own tales to herself.

Much like whatever toll this siege might be taking on her, she wasn’t sharing. Roxy simply waited.

It was around sunset on the sixth day that the monotony was broken by a knock at their cabin door.

“Who’s there?” Roxy demanded, snapping to attention even as the others scrambled for battle stations, all weapons immediately focusing on the door.

“My name’s not important,” a nervous-sounding man’s voice answered. “but I’m here on behalf of Captain Mercer. We want to negotiate a truce, and an alliance against the pirates who tried to hijack our ship.”

“After you let them aboard,” Roxy reminded him. “You’re off to a bad start here.”

“Point taken,” the man conceded, “but now they are a threat to both of us. They’re surely going to kill the power again tonight, and I think they mean to keep it off this time. If you folks are willing to let bygones be bygones, Mercer would even be willing to split the cargo with you fifty-fifty, unlike the original deal…”

“Why should we trust you at all?” Roxy retorted.

“We’re all running out of time,” the man evaded. “Surely you must understand that. Why don’t you let me talk to Vandenberg, if he’s really still in charge?”

All eyes turned nervously to him, then went wide at his response.

“No,” Maximilian told him, his voice the firmest they had heard it this entire voyage. “I’ll only consider it if Mercer himself comes forward to talk. I won’t bargain with underlings.”

“Young Master…” Sebastian gasped.

“You heard him,” Roxy told their unseen visitor. “Those are our terms. Mercer. In person. In neutral territory, or no deals.”

“Very well,” the voice replied, though to them, it didn’t sound nearly as surprised or resigned as its speaker’s words were trying to make it sound, “I’ll leave this here. For you to contact us when you make up your mind…”

With that, whoever it was walked away very audibly, as if to make it plain that he was leaving.

After a couple tense minutes, they unlocked the door, Roxy and Justin covering both ends of the hall, Max reaching out and picking up a small device he spotted on the deck.

“A radio…” Shades mused, immediately recognizing the handheld’s basic form if not its make. “Guess it makes sense, if the others cut off the intercom.”

As Justin shut and barred the door, Roxy rushed over and snatched it from him. She examined it for a long moment before turning it over for another. Then she yanked the battery pack out of its slot.

“No telling if they rigged it to eavesdrop on us,” she snorted. “We should keep it silent until we decide what to do.”

“And keep our own counsel about our next move,” Shades nodded, agreeing in full.

“To say nothing of the fact that Mercer may have given one to the other pirates, too,” Roxy pointed out. “This could just be a trick to flush us out into the open, especially if they’ve already been plotting behind our backs.”

“If they have a fusebox down there,” Shades added, “they could even selectively control what parts of the ship they’re blacking out. Mercer might be bluffing about being in the dark if they’re actually in cahoots.”

“And the only way to confirm that would be to risk going out there in the dark.” Max understood.

“Would they do that?” Justin wondered. “Mercer and Striker were about ready to kill each other before… you…”

“Now you get it,” she told him. “Mercer doesn’t trust me, and neither do they. That’s why they want to negotiate with you, Young Master. It’s putting us in an awkward position here.”

“It’s not just his decision to make,” Max reminded them. Turning to his double. “Is it?”

“She’s right,” Maximilian nodded. “We’re all in the same boat, but no matter what all of us decide, they see me as the weak link, so they want me to speak for us. Whatever we all agree to do, I’ll stand behind it. After all, a captain can’t afford to be indecisive.”

“Young Master…” Sebastian breathed, a mixture of relief and resolve written all over the butler’s face.

“If you need me to, I could double for you again,” Max offered. “This time because I want to.”

“I thank you,” Maximilian replied, “but I don’t want it to come to that. If this is going to be my ship, then I need take responsibility for it. We may be surrounded by cutthroats and swindlers, but we should still try to play straight on our end.”

“Just don’t play the fool,” Roxy cautioned him. “This is definitely a trap, no matter who’s using who against who here. Even if Mercer really does want our help against the others, he’s already backstabbed you once. Don’t forget that.”

Maximilian nodded grimly.

And, sure enough, even as they discussed their options, the lights went out again, just as Mercer’s emissary predicted, adding still more immediacy to an already urgent conversation.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
springing the trap
Sure enough, the seventh day dawned, and still no electricity, also as Mercer’s messenger warned, leaving more questions than answers about whether or not the two pirate crews really were conspiring against them.

All of them aware that there was only about three or four days’ worth of food left, and attempting to stretch it any further would only weaken them, softening them up for the kill. Even the knowledge that neither enemy was surely in any better shape themselves only served to reinforce their own desperation. The growing certainty that this situation’s own unsustainability would force change, and soon.

And with that, the dire knowledge that they could not afford to be a spectator in the events to come.

“Are you ready?” Roxy asked the room, radio in one hand, battery pack in the other.

They all nodded.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Maximilian told them. “Though I still feel like I’m walking into a trap.”

“That’s because we are,” Roxy warned him. “Stay mindful of that. Sometimes the only way to deal with a trap is to spring it. The most important thing is to not walk into it blindly.

“This is our last and best chance to flush Mercer out of his stronghold without trashing the bridge,” the bounty hunter reminded them. “It could still be a trick, but I don’t think he can hide from us for too much longer without losing face with his own crew, and risking a mutiny.”

“So basically, he has to show himself if Maximilian does, too,” Max summed up.

“We have to push for his appearance until he agrees to it,” Roxy coached the Young Master, “then they will hold him to it for us. After all, they’ve been going out there all this time, taking all the risks for him. Now it’s his turn.”

“If he still wants to be their captain…” Maximilian nodded, understanding her point all too well.

“At this point, we have a choice between risking everything, or accepting a slow, lingering death,” Shades reaffirmed. “Let’s make this count.”

“And if we can thin out the competition,” Justin pointed out, “there’ll be a lot more food to go around.”

“We’re not killing anyone we don’t have to,” Max told him.

“I’m just sayin’…”

“Speak for yourself,” Roxy commented, “but try to take Mercer alive, if you can. Most importantly, you two be sure to watch our backs while we’re dealing with him. No telling how many men he’s got left, or if the other pirates are in on it.”

Max and Justin nodded.

“Sebastian, when we leave, you should take the cat and hole up in one of the other rooms,” she recommended. “We’re taking an awful risk, leaving this place unguarded, but if it allows us to take back either the bridge or the engine room, this is probably the first place the other side will strike. For as long as we can, we should keep up at least the appearance of this room being fortified. If we should fail, you’ll probably have a better chance with the lifeboats than with either of these pirate crews.”

The butler nodded slowly, turning a tad pale in spite of himself at that grim prospect.

“It’s not going to come to that,” Maximilian assured him, “because we’re taking back our ship.”

He turned to Roxy, holding out his hand.

The bounty hunter looked him in the eye for a long moment before she slid the battery pack home and handed him the radio.

Switching it on, he left the frequency dial alone, as Shades and Roxy insisted, figuring that Mercer already set it to whatever channel he was using on his end. Several short beeps as the unit activated, followed by a faint hiss of static. Working some moisture back into his mouth, he prepared to begin the most important negotiation of his life.

“Mercer?” Surprising even himself with the clarity of his own voice. He waited through a long moment of that crackling silence before he tried again. “Mercer, this is Maximilian Vandenberg. I believe you already know why I’m calling.”

Another long pause.

“Mercer?” the Young Master demanded, “If you’re there, answer me.”

“Don’t push it,” Shades advised him. “He might only be listening at intervals to save battery power or something.”

Sure enough, after waiting a few more minutes, his next hail was answered by the same voice they talked to the night before.

“So you finally changed your mind, did you?”

“That has yet to be decided,” Maximilian replied, “but I told you before, I’ll only talk to Mercer.”

“So you said…”

There was a long pause, during which all of them began to wonder if Mercer was going to renege, or if something else had occurred that they were unaware of. A mutiny against him, perhaps.

“I take it you’re calling me because you wish to negotiate a truce,” Mercer’s voice finally responded.

“Perhaps,” Maximilian told him, “though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I want to. As long as the Cyexians control the engine room, we’re both in trouble.”

“Good to see that you understand the reality of our situation,” Mercer said. “I know we got off on the wrong foot the other day, but do understand that that was business. Unlike your old friend Freedan, or even Sloan, I assure you it was never anything personal. And I don’t know what happened between your friends and Striker, but that’s her affair, not mine. I was just trying to conclude our deal and get her off this ship.”

“When someone tries to kill you,” Maximilian informed him, “it’s hard to take it any other way but personally.”

“This is an awkward situation we’re in…” Mercer confessed. “You do realize that ‘no witnesses’ is just good business sense when you’re a smuggler, right? But if we were to become partners, there would be no more need for hostilities, correct? Wherever we go next, we would split the haul fifty-fifty. Even your friends get a cut. Anyone strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Striker is an ally too good to pass up…”

“I’ll consider it.”

“We’re running out of time,” Mercer reminded him. “What would it take to seal the deal?”

“Exactly what I told your henchman,” Maximilian answered: “I want to talk to you, face to face. Not on a radio, where someone else might be listening. In neutral territory, and no traps.”

“About what I expected,” Mercer admitted. “The Cyexian has counseled you well… Now here are my terms. We meet where we started, in the Excelsior Ballroom. We each bring two people. Bring whoever you wish, but I won’t meet you unless the bounty hunter is one of them. She is to keep her hands in plain sight at all times, or else we’ll regard it as a trick. Take it or leave it.”

There was a long, tense, pause before Roxy nodded her assent.

“Very well,” Maximilian agreed. “I’ll meet you in the ballroom. Bring any two crewmembers of your choosing. I’ll bring Roxy, and the one with the sunglasses. We meet immediately.”

“Agreed.” Mercer sounded quite pleased with himself, though he added: “I am tempted to ask you to bring your double instead, but I take it I can trust you to show yourself for real?”

“It wouldn’t be much of a deal if I didn’t shake on it myself,” the Young Master shot back, “and I could never look my crew in the eye again if I had to hide behind someone else. I’ll be there, Mercer.”

“Then we meet immediately,” Mercer concluded. “If you delay too long, the deal’s off.”

And Mercer went silent.

“Keeping up the pressure to the end,” Roxy observed. “Shrewd negotiator, even when he’s cornered…”

Figuring that was all he had to say to them, Maximilian only waited a few seconds before he switched off, but kept the radio on him, in case anything else came up.

Seeing that they had little time to spare, Max and Justin moved quickly, but quietly, as they checked out the hallway and the neighboring rooms to make sure no one was eavesdropping, or lying in wait to waylay them, then returned to their home base.

Max knocked on the door four times, and they opened it.

That confirmed, Maximilian, Roxy and Shades set out in earnest to confront Mercer. Though it was a short walk from the VIP Quarters to the Excelsior Ballroom, the fact that they encountered no one made it more harrowing than any ambush they could have encountered. Even the ballroom entrance on their side was unguarded as they walked in, looking almost exactly as they left it six days ago, down to the upturned furniture and the corpses still littering the floor from their previous battle.

Mercer stood by the far entrance, flanked by two of his men, neither of whom any of them recognized anyway.

“So you actually showed yourself…” Mercer grinned.

“I could say the same of you.”

Though Maximilian expected the rest of Mercer’s posse to be lurking just beyond that door, waiting for them to lower their guard before ambushing them, he simply focused on breathing steady, as Shades suggested, walking just one step ahead of his bodyguards.

Just as Shades tried to keep his own breathing level and even, even as he wondered just what kind of trap they were about to spring.

Tried to keep as cool as Roxy maintained, despite having to approach with both hands held out before her, empty and palms-up.

“Then let’s get down to business,” Mercer proposed.

“Let’s.” Maximilian nodded.

“As you know, members of Striker’s crew have taken control of the engine room,” Mercer recapped. “They’ve sabotaged the engines, broken the ship’s intercom system, and now they’ve cut off the power supply. If we allow them to keep this up, it will be the end of all of us. Our best chance is to join forces, as I don’t believe either of us can do it alone without taking severe casualties.”

“I agree,” Maximilian replied, though he was getting a similar vibe to his pointless brunch conversation with him at the beginning of this mess, “but what’s to keep you from turning against us once they’re out of the way?”

“I see you’ve decided to stop beating around the bush,” Mercer commented. “I told you before, what happened last time was just business. We’re here to renegotiate that business, and I’m willing to bring you in as a full partner in our operation, in exchange for your help with this.”

“You mean, become smugglers?”

“You make it sound like a bad thing.” Mercer shrugged. “If you’d been half as many places as I have, you’d already know the laws are different everyplace you go anyway. If we find the right buyer, this cargo is worth a small fortune.”

“So just what kind of cargo are you really carrying anyway, Mercer?” Roxy demanded.

“I’d be more than happy to show you, once our little pest problem is taken care of,” Mercer offered, frowning slightly, “but keep in mind, we have no way to know if we can trust you, even if Vandenberg agrees. More than anything, I want you off this ship when we reach land.”

“No deal,” Maximilian spoke up before the bounty hunter could. “I was foolish enough to take you at your word the first time. This time I want to know what we’re hauling. And Roxy saved us from Striker when you were about to hand us over to her. I don’t sell out my allies.”

Mercer’s frown deepened progressively over these last couple exchanges, shifting into an open scowl of suspicion at the Young Master’s unexpected resolve and conviction, in such sharp contrast to their last confrontation only days ago.

“You son of a bitch…” he muttered, stepping back abruptly, as if from a dangerous animal. Recalling Max’s toe-to-toe duel with Striker all to well. “You did send your double, didn’t you?”

“What are you talking about?” Maximilian shot back, noting that Mercer seemed to be upset about something more than just the impasse in his bargain. “Max is… back at our quarters…”

“You’re a terrible liar, boy,” Mercer observed. “Whichever Max you are. Now tell me, just what the hell are you up to?”

“I could also ask you the same,” Maximilian pointed out, though he still stepped back in spite of himself, unable to shake the image of more men lying in wait behind Mercer’s door.

Before this tense confrontation could become any more so, that moment of terse silence was punctuated by the sound of shouting and shooting somewhere out on deck.

“Captain!” a familiar voice crackled on Mercer’s radio, the same voice they had parlayed with before, “It’s the Cyexians! They’re attacking the sail rig!”

“Those two-faced, backstabbing cunts…” Mercer muttered, reaching for his own radio to respond.

But Roxy wasted no time, hitting the deck and whipping out her disrupter rifle. Gunning down both of Mercer’s flanks before either could draw. She was about to take a shot at him, as well, as he made a frantic dive through the door, but sure enough, he had a couple of his crew hiding back there, and they popped out to cover him.

Shades and Maximilian scrambled for cover behind overturned tables, and Roxy rolled to the right to cover herself, as well.

“Dammit! Where the hell are they?” the bounty hunter demanded, noting the absence of cover fire from their own door.

“Don’t tell me…” Shades gasped, the words of Mercer’s second and their implications sinking in, along with an educated guess about what Justin and Max were probably doing right now.
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
free-for-all
After Maximilian’s party rounded the corner at the end of the corridor, Max and Justin quietly stepped out to follow them, the butler following a moment later to lead a very reluctant Bandit in the opposite direction.

From there, the two followed the Young Master at a safe distance, seeking to remain unseen by any other parties along the way as they moved to watch their friends’ backs through what was surely a trap of some sort.

They made it about halfway to the ballroom, when Justin spotted a couple figures skulking around a nearby corridor, pointing them out to Max, who was covering the other direction, and they stopped.

“Let’s check it out,” Justin whispered.

“But what about them?” Max whispered back, not liking the feel of leaving them unguarded, especially the unwelcome recollection of a certain storm-brewing afternoon from the last day of his childhood.

“Don’t forget,” Justin reminded him, “we’re also supposed to be watching out for any other enemies, too. Who knows what they’re up to?”

“You’re probably right…” With an effort, Max put away that foreboding memory, reminding himself that his present-day friends weren’t children, as well as that not investigating this potential threat could hurt them in ways none of them would know until it was too late to do anything about it. “Let’s go.”

Whichever side they were on, they quickly proved themselves more concerned with speed than stealth, and it took them nearly a minute to catch up with them, out on the deck.

The two of them looked at each other for a moment when they got a good look at their quarry, seeing that they had followed a group of four Cyexians out here, arousing immediate suspicion of their most enigmatic foes, and what they were up to.

They got their answer only seconds later, as the pirates started shooting at the automated sail rigging.

Justin gave Max a solemn nod, which Max returned, as they raised their own weapons to ambush them.

Yet as focused as the pirates were on sabotaging the sails, they were still anxious enough about being caught out in the open like this, that when one of them spotted Max out of the corner of her eye, she instantly turned and opened fire on him, and it was only his friend’s dead aim and hair trigger that stopped her shots from tracking him all the way.

By then, the others turned and started shooting at the two of them as they scrambled for cover, even as Max and Justin ducked back into the doorway.

“Hey!” one of Mercer’s men shouted from the bridge, poking his head out of a window to fire on them, “Get away from there, you backstabbing whores!”

The three pirates split up, scattering different ways, and so did Max and Justin, too, taking advantage of the unexpected save to resume their pursuit.

Mercer’s sentry apparently decided to conserve ammo, and let potential adversaries do the fighting for him, letting them pass out of his admittedly limited firing range.

Justin chasing one down the starboard side, Max racing after the other two as they bolted up some stairs to the next deck level, taking off in opposite directions at the top. Max instinctively took off after the one who fled in the direction he was already running, gaining on her steadily.

As she raced around the rear of the cabin, dashing madly up the port side, she snapped off several blind shots at him, missing him by a mile, but slowing him down enough to reach the front of the cabin and turn the corner.

Max, not wanting to allow her enough time to take cover and return fire, came flying around the corner, even as her partner, who had been fleeing from the opposite side, popped out to attack him.

On wild reflex, Max plowed right through her with a flying kick, without even breaking his stride, blowing her over the deck railing with a startled yelp. He stopped short at the same sight that halted his adversary, down on the main deck, which was enough to divert him from looking back at his fallen surprise attacker.

For Justin had cornered the remaining pirate near the bow, had the drop on her as she tossed aside her weapon in a gesture of surrender.

It was seeing her movement out of the corner of his eye that Max caught her partner up on his level taking aim at Justin. There was no way he would reach her in time to do anything, so his only option was to shoot her.

Unfortunately, his shot startled Justin, who wheeled around and very nearly pulled the trigger on his friend before he recognized him.

The remaining pirate used the opening to reach into her coat pocket, saying, “Wait! Don’t shoot me! I’ll drop this—”

Still she spoke too soon, as Justin turned back around and shot her, and the object she was reaching for, which looked to him like some kind of wrench, flew from her hand, clattering across the deck and under the scupper slot, consigned to the deep.

“Fools…” she gasped as she collapsed to the deck, her final words: “You’ve doomed us all…”

“What was that?” Max demanded, his position too far away to see much of anything before it went overboard.

“Hell if I know!” Justin hollered back. “Looked like some kinda tool to me.”

Max looked over to see that the Cyexian he’d stunned had also dropped something, a very familiar-looking radio handset, which he picked up and switched on.

“—any of you bitches are listening,” Mercer’s voice threatened, “we’re coming for you, just as soon as we’re through with the brat and that bounty hunter! You’re all—”

Max switched it off, clipping it to his belt as he turned to his comatose captive. The radio itself was all the proof they needed of Mercer’s newest treachery, even if his single-serving allies had double-crossed him in the end. As much as he wanted to get back to his friends, since Mercer was clearly still on the loose, he already knew what Uncle Angus, whom his run-in with Striker had so recently reminded him of, would say about leaving things half done.

To that end, he reached into his pack for a length of rope he’d prepared during that long stand-off, and tied her up with it to keep her out of the battle when she woke up.

“Come on!” Justin called up to him, his exasperation plain to hear, “We’ve still got a battle to fight!”

That settled, they headed for the Excelsior Ballroom, hoping to pick up their friends’ trail.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
endgame
Mercer fled from the Excelsior Ballroom, even his henchmen lingering only long enough to cover their boss’s escape before joining him.

Much to Roxy’s surprise, though, their retreat didn’t lead back to the bridge, as they expected, but down to the hold instead. Something about that bothered her even more than the fact he seemed to be expecting something from the other pirates, and whatever just happened topside clearly wasn’t what he had in mind. For now, the best she could hope for on that front was that Max and Justin were on it, because she was beginning to suspect that they would have their own hands full down here, whatever Mercer was up to.

He led them on a merry chase all the way down to the lowest deck level, where Striker’s crew hadn’t even started to unload before she crashed their party. Along the way, their enemies scarcely bothered with more than a token of return fire, instead relying on the increasingly obvious fact that they already knew where they were going. And made all haste, with a desperation that felt too much like Last Resort material to her for comfort.

Far afield from their own home base, but a location where Mercer’s patrols had frequently interfered with their own recon, despite it being still farther from the bridge than the staterooms, thus they still lacked anywhere near a full inventory of what all Mercer was smuggling.

In the cramped corridor, Mercer’s men finally turned and put up a fight, holding the doorway to a section full of crates.

“Hold them off until we’re ready!…” they heard Mercer order them, also hearing what sounded like him prying open a crate.

“What now?” Shades wondered aloud as they retreated back around the corner.

“I still have one more smoke grenade left,” Roxy whispered, “and I’ll need an opening to use it before he does whatever he came to do.”

“Dammit! Where is it!” Mercer screeched in unvarnished frustration. “Don’t let her through!”

“Come on, Shades,” Maximilian said as he stepped up, “we need to give her an opening.”

“Do you hear me!?” Mercer screamed, at them, they at first mistakenly believed, until he continued: “Do you!? If any of you bitches are still listening, we’re coming for you, just as soon as we’re through with the brat and that bounty hunter! You’re all dead, mark my words!…”

“Now!” Maximilian shouted over Mercer’s escalating litany of threats and curses.

He and Shades threw themselves out across the deck, firing prone from the floor plane to con-found the enemy’s aim as they poured energy beams into the doorway, forcing them back inside.

With as clear an opening as she was going to get, Roxy dashed out into the corridor, lobbing the smoke bomb deep into their end of the hold as she could, and kept on running, even as her flanks belatedly ceased fire.

Even before the smokescreen started, Mercer’s men panicked, bolting from the entrance at the sight of the unknown projectile, the bounty hunter catching them both off-guard before either of them could even figure out where to aim, falling upon them with a brutal barrage of knees and fists, as Shades and Maximilian scrambled back to their feet to back her up.

“Mercer!” Maximilian roared, barging past the beatdown at the door, charging into the growing cloud of smoke, hearing someone scuffling behind some crates to the right.

Completely overlooking the last of Mercer’s crew hiding behind some crates to the left, popping up to fire in his general direction before the thick haze completely obscured his target.

Fortunately, Shades was hot on Maximilian’s heels, spotting the threat and jumping him with one of his stun-sticks before he could track his target, the pirate having no idea what hit him.

The hold section turned out to be a bit bigger than the bounty hunter estimated, and the smokescreen was thinning out faster than any of them expected, Mercer stumbling into a clear patch, brandishing a small box.

“Don’t come any closer!” Mercer coughed, holding the box out in front of him as Maximilian followed him out of the drifting smoke. “I’ll blow the hull out from under us and send us all to the bottom!”

“He’s bluffing,” Roxy stated as she strolled in, having rolled through both of his sentries.

“Oh yeah! See if I am, bitch!” Mercer shouted. “I’ve got enough explosives to kill us all if you don’t drop your weapons right now!”

The smoke thinning still more as it spread out the door.

“Your pirate friends backstabbed you,” Roxy continued, unfazed. “They not only tried to sabotage the sails so they could leverage everyone with the engine room, but they also switched out your explosives for other cargo, didn’t they?”

Maximilian turned to examine the contents of the crates their foe was scrounging through only moments ago.

“Don’t you dare!” Mercer thundered, shaking the detonator at him. “If you even try to fuck with my bomb, I’ll end it right now!”

“Then do it already,” Roxy goaded him. “You can’t, can you? That’s why you don’t want him to look.”

She nodded to Maximilian, who returned her stern gaze before stepping over and peering inside the nearest crate.

“Dammit…” Mercer tossed the useless detonator aside, reaching to draw his power pistol—

But Maximilian was quicker, springing at him even as Roxy halted her own draw with a half-uttered curse, the Young Master nailing him with a hard right.

“This is my ship!”

Followed by a left hook.

“My friends!”

Punctuated by another right.

“My path!”

Staggering Mercer with a left jab.

“My life!”

Ending with an uppercut that sent him sprawling.

“And I’m taking it back!”

Mercer’s cap fluttered to the deck as he hit the ground. Maximilian picked it up, dusted it off, and put it on.

“Spoken like a true captain,” Roxy remarked, stepping in to search Mercer and bind him, whipping out and slapping on a pair of severe-looking handcuffs from her belt pouch.

“Are you guys alright?” Max demanded as he and Justin rushed into the chamber.

“Yeah…” Maximilian finally shook out his stinging hand, now that Mercer’s back was turned. “Everything’s under control down here. How about topside?”

Max gave the Young Master the V, and Shades seconded the motion.

Meanwhile, as Roxy was turning her prisoner around, Shades walked over to one of the unopened cargo stacks and made a rude slash at the top crate with one of his energy blades, popping it open with the butt of the grip.

And Mercer flinched visibly.

Shades had no idea precisely what to expect, but the brace of compact power rifles didn’t surprise him too terribly at this point.

“You deal in some interesting cargo, Mr Mercer…”

“God…” he muttered at last, “at least you didn’t get the one with the explosives.”

Justin glared at both of them at that last.

“Surprise, surprise,” Roxy crowed. “Contrabands.”

“What’s with the weird plural?” Shades asked. “After all, isn’t it all contraband?”

“Yes,” Roxy explained, “but in the black market, models like this are called ‘Contrabands’ because they’re designed to fold down into a compact space. There’re entire bootleg industries out there that make most of their money back-engineering and cranking out knock-offs of New Cali tech, especially Camcron designs.”

“You don’t say,” Shades remarked.

“Well, duh,” Justin pointed out, “I bet Slash was probably smuggling some of these back in the Triangle State!”

Roxy gave him an odd look for a moment, but Max piped up before she could say anything.

“There’s still one more thing left up top,” he said, realizing one detail he forgot about their engagement up there. “There’s still someone on the bridge.”

“There’s still a lot left to do,” the bounty hunter agreed grimly, bringing their attention back to more pressing matters than wherever Mercer’s goods originated, “but you’re right about taking back the helm. We’re not out of this yet.”
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
all in the same boat
They led Mercer out of the hold, followed by his three surviving henchmen, where they were locked up in an unoccupied room near their home base, where Shades and Maximilian stood guard.

Max and Justin then helped Roxy round up the two surviving Cyexians. The one Max stunned and tied up earlier caught cutting halfway through her ropes with a knife behind her back before she dropped it and surrendered. The other, having broken her leg in her fall from the upper deck, surrendered without any further resistance at the promise of splinting her injury.

“I can’t believe you shot her…” she muttered. “She had the only tool for fixing the engines, and now it’s lost…”

“Then she shouldn’t have reached for it in the middle of a fight,” Justin muttered. “That was her own damn fault.”

“So that’s why you were trying to sabotage the sail rig.” Though from her tone, there was little doubt in Roxy’s mind that that was what they were up to from the start. “Mercer was pissed, to say the least.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “well he wanted us to ambush your representatives in the ballroom, cut you off from behind, but we didn’t really believe he would keep his word…”

Wincing at her leg as they hoisted her up.

“Treachery all around,” Max observed.

“You’re probably right,” Roxy said as they led her away with her companion.

They, in turn, were taken to another room across the corridor, which they had also previously jury-rigged to serve as a makeshift brig. Roxy stripped a med kit of anything that could be readily weaponized, and tossed it in their impromptu cells for them to patch up their injuries. All of them agreeing with Roxy it would be best for all involved to keep the two groups of prisoners separated.

It was in the midst of this that a certain butler poked his head out from one of the other doors.

Only to find Roxy’s sawed-off disrupter barrel pointed right in his face.

“Your timing is hazardous to your health,” the bounty hunter informed him.

“Oh dear…” Sebastian put his hands up even as her weapon went back down.

“Sebastian!” Maximilian greeted him, “It’s such a relief to see you again!”

“Don’t worry, Young Master,” Sebastian told him, already visibly regaining his composure, “Bandit is fine, as well, Max. So… I take it you were successful in regaining control of the ship?”

“Almost,” Maximilian answered.

“But we’ve still got some unfinished business with the helm,” Roxy reminded them.

Max took a moment to check on his feline friend before he rejoined her and Justin up top, where they cautiously approached the door to the bridge.

“Who’s there?” demanded a voice they all recognized now, from the door last night, and the radio earlier. “Tell me the password, if that’s you, Mercer…”

“I’ve got your password right here,” Roxy declared, firing up her laser staff.

“No need for that!” Justin added, aiming his crossbow at the door. “I’ve got an explosive bolt that’ll take out that door with one shot!”

“Don’t you even think about it!” Mercer’s second warned them. “I’ve got grenades, and I’ll blow us all up if it means I won’t die alone!”

“Not this shit again…” Justin muttered.

“There’s no need to do that,” Roxy called out. “If you come quietly, Vandenberg is offering you imprisonment as an alternate to death. What say you?”

“Why should I trust you?”

“You don’t have to,” Max pointed out, “but I don’t think you really want to die, do you?”

“Well, no…”

“Mercer’s already lost,” Roxy told him. “You’re all that’s left. There’s no reason to fight anymore. If you’re willing and able to help us fix the ship, there might even be amnesty in it for you.”

Both Max and Justin looked at her for a moment in surprise at that, but decided to see where she was going with this.

“You promise you won’t kill me?”

“Not if you cooperate,” Max promised.

A moment later, the door opened, and Mercer’s second stepped out, hands behind his head.

“Smart choice,” Roxy remarked, stepping up to search him thoroughly.

“I guess you would’ve found out in the end,” the man, who looked somewhat older than most of Mercer’s crew, confessed, “but I have no grenades. Only Mercer did, and he was planning to use them for some kind of trap…”

“We know,” Justin covered him while the bounty hunter conducted her search.

“Well, while you’re not killing me and all,” he volunteered, “let me tell you something else. We have a radio scanner up here. It detects signals from radio sources and pinpoints their direction…”

“I know what a radio scanner is,” Roxy retorted. “A lot of big ships have them. Get to the point.”

“We got a signal the other day. We couldn’t get a fix on its exact direction, but we started sailing on a general heading based on it. Then the Cyexians cut off the power, and we couldn’t follow the signal anymore. All this time, I’ve been trying to keep us on course…”

“I see. But without that signal, you have no way of knowing if you’re still on course.” Roxy nodded. “There’s a reason Mercer kept you up here, away from all the fighting, all this time. You’re the one he was counting on to fix the engines, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“So that’s why Mercer made you his Number Two,” Roxy summed up. “Well, a lot of things on this ship are still in need of fixing, if you want to earn your freedom when we reach dry land.”

The man nodded.

“Then let’s go.”

With that, Justin took the helm to keep the Excelsior on as steady a heading as he could without any leads, while Roxy and Max led their prisoner down to the engine room.

As expected, the door to the engine room was closed. While Max covered the man, Roxy chopped the door down, immediately ducking out of the doorway is case the pirates booby-trapped it or something, but that turned out to not to be necessary.

On her signal, Max brought him forward, and they entered the room. Pots and pans, blankets and scattered supplies, among the scattered machinery made the chamber look like a surreal campsite. Much to their relief, they found no stray enemies, meaning that the other two were likely telling the truth.

Though neither of them were mechanically inclined, it didn’t take a genius to see they had been busy dismantling the works these past days, even without the man’s low whistle of dismay.

“So, can you fix it?” she asked.

“What do you plan to do with Mercer and the others?”

“We’re going to turn them in the next place we go,” Max answered.

“What do you care?” the bounty hunter pressed.

“Just because I’m walking away from them doesn’t mean I don’t care,” he shot back. “So what are you going to do if I refuse? Beat me until I can’t work anymore?”

“No,” she told him, “I’m going to tell you the ridiculously obvious. We’re stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere, with supplies running out. Do you want to live long enough to go to jail? Or do you want to go back with them and starve to death with the rest of us?”

“We’re all in the same boat here,” Max summed up.

“I see,” the man nodded. “You need me as much as I need you.”

“So, can you fix it?”

It was the only question that mattered at this point.

“I don’t know…” Looking it over with visible concern. “They did a real number on this thing…”

“Fair enough,” she answered.

“I expect to be set free when we land.”

If we land,” Roxy conditioned. “In the meantime, I’ll be watching you personally.”

“I figured. But I’m going to need some tools, especially an adjustable wrench.”

“Wait a minute…” Max mumbled, recalling the pirate Justin shot out on deck. “One of them dropped some sort of tool overboard…”

“Shit…” Roxy muttered.

“I’m not making any promises,” the man suggested, “but I might be able to rig up something if we round up all the remaining tools onboard.”

“Then let’s get started,” Max agreed, “Mr…”

“The name’s Rufus.”
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
skeleton crew
The next three days were among the most grueling of any of their lives, running the Excelsior on a skeleton crew, with no clue how long they might have to keep it up.

Much to Roxy’s vexation, they had to spread themselves dangerously thin in order to maintain this ‘prison ship’ arrangement. Always two jailors for the prisoners. Always someone at the helm to keep them on what little they had in the way of a course. Always someone, mostly Roxy, watching Rufus at all times.

Even the fact that they hadn’t tried to pull anything did nothing to put their minds at ease.

Combined with Sebastian doing most of the chores, as well as cooking and serving as a go-between, meant that only one of them could sleep at a time, and with one eye open, between shifts.

On the first day, Rufus led them on a search of the ship, scrounging up any tools they could possibly use to fix the engine. The only thing working in their favor being that Striker’s stranded crew had mostly dismantled, rather than destroyed, most of the works. As if expecting to use both the tools, and the generators, to leverage Mercer’s crew into fixing the engines as a bargaining chips.

Roxy used the same trip as a pretense to scour the ship for any remaining members of either crew, but found no one, though none of them slept any easier for it.

The first order of business was getting the power back on, which enabled them to reactivate the radio scanner, which was their best hope of finding dry land out here any time soon. Much to every-one’s relief, it appeared they were still in range of the signal Rufus detected the other day, though it would take some time to get a fix on the signal’s exact source, let alone range, it meant they could potentially reach land with just the sail rigs, if need be, even if they couldn’t salvage the engines. Rufus then showed them how to read it so he could turn his attention to the engine room.

When Shades quipped that such a device would’ve come in handy aboard the Maximum, Rufus simply pointed out although he had heard rumors of such things, few ships below freighter size range could support all the extra gear involved.

Fortunately, Max, Justin and Rufus had prevented the Cyexians from doing any functional damage to the sail rigs, as the best Rufus could do was MacGyver some makeshift tools that weren’t quite right for the job, barely getting the engines up to about a quarter power, and even that might not last without proper tools to finish the job.

Along the way, they rounded up all the hand radios as they went, and Rufus set them all to the same channel. For, sure enough, Mercer had set them to different channels to talk to the Cyexians, as well as his own patrols. Fortunately, there were enough to go around for each station— jailors, helm, engines, and Sebastian, to each have one, which they subsequently kept on them at all times. With the power restored, could also use the battery charger on the bridge again.

Which was good, because, unlike the engines, the Cyexians did their damnedest to make sure the intercom would be unusable without tools and parts no one out here possessed.

Periodically, Roxy would leave Max watching Rufus long enough to dispose of each fallen pirate one by one, stripping each of any weapons, equipment or other valuables before dumping them overboard in the name of sanitation. A self-appointed task the others left her to without comment. The loot was collected in their home base room for safekeeping, to be divided up later, should they find a place to sell it all down the way.

While Rufus was working on the ship, Sebastian rounded up all the remaining food stores. Which didn’t add up to much. The fact that they had so few prisoners was the only reason any of them got anything to eat at all, mostly leftovers.

Both groups of prisoners mostly ate in silence. Sat in silence, despondent and defeated. Likely also too hungry, exhausted and demoralized to challenge captors who had already defeated them once before.

Mercer himself quite possibly the most beaten of all, looking as if he also suffered the wrath of his own surviving henchmen, as well.

In spite of this, none of them lowered their guard for a second when feeding the prisoners, or inspecting their impromptu cells periodically for signs of shenanigans, Shades in particular recalling all of the wacky jailbreak attempts he had ever heard of.

By the second day, they had a direction, and possibly a range, though it was anyone’s guess exactly how long it would take to cover the distance with only a quarter power to the engines.

The one thing they all agreed on— including Rufus— was that it would be wise to keep their prisoners in the dark about how close they might be to land. Though it carried the risk of driving them to desperation— possibly in a matter of days, as food dwindled— they agreed it was worth the gamble. Certain that any hint of a destination was guaranteed to inspire trouble on their part.

It wasn’t until high noon on the third day that the helm caught sight of land ahead.

“Guys!” Justin called out, clutching the radio with both hands, “It worked! I see land! Dead ahead!”

“Dammit!” Roxy reminded him, “You’re not supposed to just blurt that kind of information unless it’s an emergency! Now the whole ship knows about it!”

“Too late now,” Shades remarked, “Don’t worry, we have things well in hand down here.”

“Sebastian just woke me up,” Maximilian chimed in. “Is it really true?”

“Rise and shine, Young Master,” the bounty hunter told him, “Looks like you’re needed on the bridge.”

“On my way,” the Young Master responded. “So tell me, helmsman, what do you see?”

“What? Oh, you mean me…” Justin continued peering out at the looming coastline, afraid it would vanish if he took his eyes off it for even a moment. “Well, I see some buildings and ships and stuff… And what looks like a seaport farther up the coast. I think we really made it!”

“Just don’t let your guard down,” Roxy warned them. “We don’t want to lose it all, right when we’re in sight of our goal.”

“We know,” Max assured her, “We’ve come too far to let it end like that.”

“Damn straight!” Maximilian declared, borrowing from Justin’s stock phrases. “Today is our day, and we’re going to seize it! All hands, prepare to make landfall.”
End Notes:
-rough draft: March 22, 2012 – Nov 21, 2012
-word draft: Oct 01, 2012 – March 02, 2013
-additional revisions: March 11, 2013

So, here I am again. One year, three jobs and three apartments later, with half of my life in limbo in storage, and my best friend (and former roommate) on the other side of the ocean in Japan. I’m sure you can imagine how much chaos this has caused in my creative life. As a result, I’m still working on Tradewinds 19 and 20, but rest assured, I have every intention of having 19 up and running by fall.

In the meantime, it’s hard to figure out where to even begin with how much this tale changed from what I had originally written in my notes years ago. Starting with Maximilian, who was originally going to be a one-shot character. Then again, my original idea with the story had simply involved the Young Master winning back his inheritance, and had nothing at all to do with the Tri-Medals subplot, so what can I say? That, and their ship getting stolen was already part of the endgame concept for that story. By the time I was finished with Part 17, I knew it would be the height of cheesy to just have him hand Max & Company some cruise tickets and tell them Bon Voyage, so I instead lit on the idea of him starting a new life from the ruins of his old one, which also placed him onboard, when it was originally going to just be the main three. That, combined with driving Striker away necessitated a second adversary. Mercer.

Of course, the original story also involved Max enlisting the help of powerful creature in ridding them of Striker, a character from an older story I made up with my friends many years ago, but who just didn’t seem to fit in with this series’ direction. That, and it totally undermined the whole Round 2 vibe if Max didn’t battle her himself. Instead, I found that this was probably a better place to introduce Roxy than where I originally expected to (in Part 19), since she would now be a more established character, giving her a chance to work with Max and his friends before they face their next big foe.

On that subject, I’m sure most of you were probably wondering when she would appear, given the references I’d made to her in Parts 12 and 15, and I hope she didn’t disappoint, because she’s still got a lot of bounty hunting to do, both on-screen and off. Much like how Maximilian’s been hanging around longer than I expected him to, Roxy has turned out to be more important to the long-term of the series, even though his immediate role is drawing to a close. On the other hand, you can expect them to encounter the Excelsior in the future, and we’ll see how the Young Master’s seafaring career fares.

In the meantime, here’s hoping I can finish sorting this crap and get the rest of my stuff out of storage soon, so that I can take back more of my spare time, and get my ass in gear on the next leg of the journey.

-08/09/13
This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=11078