Already knowing that he if he failed to save him, he would never forgive himself.
Bandit sat next to him, looking out at the horizon with an expression that seemed to mirror his companion’s inner struggle between resolve and uncertainty.
Max leaned over the railing, gazing down at the coral-encrusted structures below. As it grew darker, all he could see was the murky outlines of the eerie buildings, finally lingering only in his mind’s eye. It felt so unreal to remember sitting out here with Shades only yesterday. Like himself, Shades had always dreamt of seeing the world, and if Erix killed him here, it would be the end of that dream.
While he prepared himself for the coming night assault on the shantytown of Kon Aru, Justin prepared the ship for it. Drifting silently in the dim waters behind them were Sentry I and Sentry II, and one more junker they had dragged along just for this occasion. All four ships hovered as far out of the projected range of the enemy’s rockets as possible, keeping all the outward appearance of an intercept group, so as not to kick off their little surprise party early.
And so they waited until it was dark enough to commence their approach in earnest.
Using lanterns set for minimum illumination, they kept their signals simple, known only to Toma’s people. Currently maintaining radio silence, their earlier transmissions handled in verbal code for the benefit of anyone who might be eavesdropping. Justin’s verdict was that Toma had way too much spare time on his hands in these backwater islands; with the present threat, they were behaving more like a local militia than a police force. So well-organized, he would pity Striker if she ever showed her face here again.
Staying hidden behind the cabin, Max donned his diving mask and oxygen tank, just as the harbor crew had instructed him when he was helping clean up debris around the docks only days ago, then dropped overboard as they got the green light. Swam underneath the ship, then stayed low as he veered off to the left, toward his planned landing point. The place was a shallow embankment where he could climb undetected from any observation points near the shantytown itself.
Justin, for his part, draped himself in a black tarp and set out in an inner tube, taking only a moment to remember having drifted out on the beach on it only days ago, the thought having never crossed his mind that he would be using it for anything like this. Then again, its flat black coloration would serve him well in sneaking up on the other side of the shanty from Max’s landing point. Careful to keep his new crossbow above water, he found he still couldn’t believe he was actually doing this.
His EMP attack had reduced the raiders to a couple firearms and limited ammo, and what few energy weapons may have been salvaged from their own defunct vessel, and that damnable rocket-launcher. Erix’s countermeasures, though, had shown the limitations of that tactic. Combined with the sheer area of coverage, he understood all too well that it would be useless for this battle. Though reluctant, he had given Toma one of his last two grenades, as a last resort to stop the Seeker, if it came in danger of escaping the islands with Shades’ ransom.
Meanwhile, as Max threw his leg over the top of the bank, he spotted a sentry, reduced to a vicious-looking knife by the weapons blackout aboard the Seeker, all he could do was charge at Max and try to shove him back over the edge. But Max had years of experience climbing, and sprang to his feet before his scout could reach him, catching his opponent’s knife-hand and plowing him back into some nearby trees, out of sight, before firing up his laser sword and stunning him to keep both the noise and visible light to a minimum.
After all, this mission hung on stealth.
Dropping his scuba-gear for pickup (hopefully) later, and keeping just in sight of the path, but not on it, Max moved into position, then waited for the signal. He didn’t have to wait long; Toma and his scouts knew the island far better than these intruders, and had anticipated the most likely places the enemy would set up to fire their rocket-launcher from, so he wasn’t entirely taken off-guard when the scream of a rocket erupted from somewhere higher up the slope, likely the crumbling ruin of some long-abandoned mine owner, the missile streaking out to sea. Even as he heard the distant thunder of an explosion out there, he watched the majority of his adversaries in the immediate area give away their positions as they scurried about frantically.
The party was officially on.
If not for the plan, Max might have worried about them hitting one of his friends, but even calculating for them firing from the highest possible vantage point, all three ships that actually mattered were well out of range. Night had not only descended on Aru, but hung over the island under a pall of clouds, shrouding everything in nearly impenetrable darkness, providing ideal conditions for a covert attack. A couple jury-rigged spotlights swept across the coast in front of the port, making a direct approach easily detected, thus the only ship to take the direct approach was an old rust-bucket no longer considered seaworthy, long- since cannibalized for spare parts, recently requisitioned by the Island Patrol as a decoy.
Aside from the spotlights, not a single flicker of light betrayed itself from the exterior of the compound above, so there was no reliable way to determine enemy positions farther in.
Careful, so as not to blow his cover, Max reached into the waterproof bag he brought with him, pulling out an all-weather lighter, and something Shades had bought at the market the day before as he neared the first group of outbuildings near the edge of the shantytown. Something he originally picked up for the upcoming Island Festival, but, like a lot of things around here of late, would find itself being put to a rather different use. Shades was always the innovative one in this outfit, this newest addition to their arsenal was a tribute to that spirit of ingenuity.
Tossing it out into the open, it went off a moment later— and those with working weapons, all three of them— started shooting wildly at the Tasmanian Devil of hissing pyrotechnics as it spun across the dusty clearing between the buildings, darting around and dive-bombing in crazy patterns. Targeting those three first, remembering one of his father’s tales, of how they were outgunned and out- numbered, using decoys to draw enemy fire, Max pumped each gunner full of stun shots until they went silent. While others scrambled around in a frantic attempt to engage the fizzling fireworks, only one of them happened to spot Max as he stepped out to attack the others, coming out of a doorway behind him and kicking his power pistol out of his hand.
Even as Max staggered back, his handiwork on the ground was matched by more in the sky as the fuses aboard the junker, and reserves aboard the Sentry II, went off, fiery blossoms bursting above. The whiz-bang of their ascent startling the other sentries, sending them scrambling back toward their makeshift strong- hold in renewed panic. Even a second rocket-launcher— something Toma was apparently very wisely concerned about— fired in a vain attempt to shoot down the fireworks, causing a distinctly different mid-air explosion that sent his enemies running even harder.
Leaving Max’s attacker all alone, a decoy of a less willing nature.
Recognizing Max from the battle aboard the Seeker, the thief chose not to engage him directly, instead scrambling after Max’s fallen weapon. Apparently not at all liking the odds of attacking him unarmed. Yet even as he reached for the gun, Max jumped back in, kicking him back and knocking him on his face before he could get a good grip on it. After dropping him with the stun blade, Max retrieved his power pistol and turned his attention to the enemy’s ramshackle fortifications.
The hijackers had likely entrenched themselves in the harbor, with sentries and watchers, as well as the rocket-launcher, stationed at a higher elevation, other- wise no telling exactly what sort of defenses they may have set up to hold them until dawn, when the Seeker would likely set sail again. With only a cursory knowledge of the terrain, and even less of the enemy’s defenses, he would have to watch his step at every turn on his way in. Working his way inward past several clusters of old buildings, he walked among decrepit-looking structures and overgrown— if rather sickly-looking— foliage, all that remained of the deserted mining town once called Gold Beach, according to the faded sign he just walked past.
Everything looked as if it would fall apart if he so much as blew on it. Aside from the thieves, he was quite sure he was first to walk these paths in his lifetime. Following the trail of slanted walkways leading up to the center of the shanty- town, he made his way to an old warehouse where they had rather visibly entrenched themselves. The main entrance itself was guarded by a makeshift barricade formed from massive dock planks and support beams, obviously a new addition.
As forbidding as this obstacle may have looked, it proved no match for Max’s laser blade. Several swift slashes later, the impromptu gate fell inward, landing with a splintering crash and raising a thin cloud of the dust of years that blanketed the place. Max looked down for a second, spotting an arm flailing frantically from under the massive pile of beams, hearing the agonized groans of the guard it landed on.
The planks were heavy, but not too heavy, he’d live.
To his right, Max spotted the shadowy entrance to a side room that was apparently serving as a guard barracks. Wasting no time, Max again reached into his bag of tricks, fishing out several small red cylinders, then lighting and tossing them into the room. In his head, hearing Uncle Angus offer up a classic tactic against enemies hiding behind cover: Smoke ’em out.
Moments later, multicolored clouds of smoke, as well as several coughing and sputtering guards, came pouring out the door. The bewildered guards, already startled by the collapse of their barrier, were greeted by a barrage of flying fists and feet, a green energy blade delivering the final word in this confrontation. The noise of the fireworks above masking Max’s moves.
As the pyrotechnics died out, Max heard one last pair of rounds go off, glancing out the gate to see the twin green signal flares, indicating that Justin, as well as Toma’s Kona buddies, who had spent the whole evening approaching the place from behind the mountain, had taken out both of the rocket-launcher positions higher up the slope.
Skirting the edge of the entryway, Max worked his way in, closing in on the heart of their new lair. Beyond was an open area, scantly illuminated by the pale moonlight streaming in through the broken remains of windows higher up the walls, as well as where portions of the ceiling had collapsed. And the now broken clouds still higher, the heavy cloud cover from earlier apparently drifting away right along with their lessening need of it. From the few leaning support posts, rickety shelves, and other debris, he guessed this used to be a storage area of some sort.
Before he could figure out where to investigate next, about a dozen thieves sprang out of various corners, surrounding him. A couple very familiar faces among them.
“You bastard!” one of them shouted, “Now it’s your turn!”
And Max braced himself to face the onslaught, to run the gauntlet, all too aware that he had finally walked into a trap. Knew he was outnumbered, but even if a couple of them hadn’t just moved to block his retreat, he just couldn’t bring himself to give up, not with Shades’ life hanging in the balance. Even as he fired up his energy blade, sacrificing stealth for attack power now that he was busted, one of them shoved a loose support beam at him, hitting his arm even as he moved to dodge, and sending his weapon tumbling into the dusty darkness as it winked out.
Attempting to give himself some breathing room, Max leapt to unleash a swift roundhouse kick, but someone hit him from behind, knocking him down. He was able to kick the first one off him and scramble to his knees before the rest descended upon him.
As he grappled with them, the next thing he heard amidst the scuffle was a string of laser blasts, followed by a familiar voice.
“Hold on, Max! I’m comin’!”