Shades’ cry awakened everyone on the bridge of the Maximum as they rested after their own repetitive shifts at the helm. Max sat up in the lounge seat, blinking and looking around with a casual alertness almost as feline as his companion’s. For his part, Justin squinted at the daybreak with bleary eyes, yawning and stretching— then falling off the couch with a yelp of surprise.
“Everybody awake then?” Shades asked.
“I am now,” Justin muttered.
The first thing both he and Max noticed was that the storm had apparently blown over during Shades’ watch. The sky was now bright and sunny, holding the promise of a most pleasant day. Since his wake-up call, the Maximum continued to cruise forward, so it didn’t take them more than a glance to notice what Shades was talking about.
On the horizon lay a green patch of land.
Max grabbed a pair of binoculars for a closer look, revealing, still too far away yet to see with the naked eye, a second island off to the side, beyond the first. By the time Justin grabbed a pair, they had drawn close enough to see the second island without them. Through telescopic lenses, both he and Max could now see what they were pretty sure was a third island, swept further off to the side of what increasingly appeared to be a chain or cluster of islands.
Before either of them could relate this to Shades, he pointed out to them something a bit closer at hand. Previously veiled by the glare of sunrise, they now spotted a fairly large ship, and what appeared to be a floating platform nearby. Several people stood on the deck, as well as on the platform, and most of them waved casually at the Maximum as they sailed by.
As they drew nearer, they could all read the name on both the ship and the platform: Seeker.
It was both a welcome sight and a relief. Before the Tradewinds Mercantile District, their last destination appeared pleasant enough, but turned out to be not only abandoned, but haunted by a malevolent presence of some kind. The fact that there were people, and that they didn’t seem to have anything to beware of, was most appreciated after that last ominous welcome.
After that killer island.
As they approached the nearest island, any doubts about the safety of landing in this place were dispelled as they spotted a small port ahead. A closer look revealed that not only was the place in working order, with rows of docks and intact buildings, but also— best of all— people, about a dozen or so that they could discern, out and about around the place. The only question left was what kind of welcome mat the locals would roll out for them.
As if in answer to their unspoken question, a pair of vessels swooped in from starboard to intercept them. Each was smaller than the Maximum, painted black-and-white, and swift enough to flank them before it even occurred to Shades to try to evade. Aboard each, designated Sentry I and Sentry II, were seven or eight crew members armed with an assortment of power rifles.
“THIS IS THE KONA ISLAND PATROL!” Sentry I declared by megaphone. “SENTRY II WILL GUIDE YOU TO A VACANT DOCK. YOU WILL THEN COME OUT UNARMED, IDENTIFY YOUR-SELF AND STATE YOUR BUSINESS. ANY DEVIATION FROM THIS COURSE OF ACTION WILL BE REGARDED AS A HOSTILE ACT, AND WILL BE MET WITH FORCE.”
“I don’t like this,” Justin mumbled. Though these guys didn’t appear to pack as much heat— for the Board of Directors kept their enforcers more uniformly armed— they still reminded him way too much of the Triangle State Authority, who ran the show back where he came from, for his taste. This looked far too much like the stuff of checkpoints and armed inspections to him. “Let’s get outta here.”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Max told him, seeing no way to get out range without taking a lot of punishment first.
“But what about our shit?”
“I don’t think they mean us any harm,” Shades observed, trying to calm things down before Justin’s instincts drove him to do something that would cause trouble. Noting everything from the minimalist dress code that passed for a uniform here to the complacent expressions on most of their faces, he added, “They’re a bit highhanded for my taste, but they seem to just be following some kind of routine.”
“I still don’t like it.”
They continued in silence as Shades allowed them to be escorted by Sentry II. Sentry I, meanwhile, hung back, barring any attempt at a last-second getaway. Sentry II led them to an open dock, where several people were beginning to gather, waiting for them, most likely.
“They said unarmed, Justin.” While Shades pulled his power pistol from its concealed holster, worn under his jacket, and left it next to the helm— but taking both of his stun-sticks and hiding them behind the lounge cushions— he watched Max set his power rifle near the cabin entrance. Only one of them refused to disarm.
“Dammit, we should’ve left the moment we saw them.” Justin could already hear the clank of shackles, could already feel cold steel clamped on his wrists…
“Dude. Chill.” Shades gave him what he hoped was a firm, reassuring look, and Max did, as well. “They don’t know you from Adam.”
“Never mind. The point is, they don’t know about you here. But if you go in armed,” Shades stared pointedly at both of his gunbelts, “they will be suspicious.”
“Besides,” Max pointed out, “we didn’t come here to fight, and we couldn’t win against these numbers anyway.”
With a disgusted sigh of resignation, Justin Black, Triangle State fugitive, forcibly ignored a decade or so of instinct and left both of his double-barrel power pistols on the table, but joined Shades in hiding his laser staff behind the lounge cushions, as well.
That settled, they disembarked.
It was at that point that Shades realized he was so worried about Justin, it only dawned on him now that he couldn’t remember seeing Max remove his laser sword, or his backup. Max always seemed to treat his laser sword as somehow separate from the rest of his weapons and equipment. And now that he thought about it, he’d almost bet money Justin was still packing one of those EMP grenades they bought…
And now, of course, there was nothing he could do about it without giving them away, so all he could do was keep a straight face, and hope there wasn’t some kind of weapons search.
By the time they stepped onto the dock, a welcoming committee of nearly a dozen men, only three or four of them unarmed, awaited. The leader of the group was a man wearing a long brown coat, his deeply tanned and weathered face seeming amicable enough, but hinted at a sternness to match his apparent authority. Though his tone was rather formal, his smile was warm enough as he cleared his throat and addressed his visitors.
“On behalf of the Joint Committee, I would like to apologize for the grim welcome. We’re usually more accommodating to visitors, but what with the storm damage, and some of the troubles we’ve had lately, security’s been rather tight. We are a small outfit, and we’ve had more than our share of unfriendly visitors recently, so I am very sorry about the armed escort. It was only a precaution.”
“Apology accepted,” Max smiled, glad to know they didn’t need their weapons here.
Now that they could see up close, and were no longer preoccupied with fight or flight, Shades and his friends could see what the man was talking about. Though they had weathered quite the storm themselves at sea last night, judging from the damage it was easy to see it had hit these islands even harder. Just a glance at the surrounding buildings revealed a degree of devastation not as apparent from farther away: torn shingles, broken windows and scattered debris made strong testimony to the Ocean’s fury.
Even Justin could see, and grudgingly acknowledge the reason— just their sheer vulnerability— for the Island Patrol’s high state of alert.
“I am Roger Corrick,” the head of the small delegation continued, “owner of the Kon Kalona Hotel.” Gesturing to one of the buildings behind him. “Welcome to the Kona Islands.”
Shades tried not to sigh out-loud, out of sheer relief that simply appearing to be unarmed was apparently enough to satisfy the locals. He could see that even Justin was starting to relax more.
“I’m Max,” Max returned the introduction. “I’m glad to know you meant no harm, we didn’t either. We’re just passing through.”
“And I’m Shades MacLean,” Shades put in, reaching out to shake Mr Corrick’s hand on impulse, finding that that particular custom was apparently familiar in this realm. “We just came out of that storm, and were looking for a place to drop anchor for a little while.”
Seeing all eyes were on him now, Justin shrugged. “Justin Black. And do you really have to scare the piss outta visitors like that?”
“Again, we’re sorry,” Corrick told him. “Aside from recently, our quiet islands don’t see too much trouble. Even so, Chief Toma of the Island Patrol thinks it’s best to maintain a certain level of readiness until things calm down a bit.”
As he said this, Corrick gestured to one of the armed men in his party. His olive skin and round face, that put Shades in mind of Pacific islanders back on Earth, at first seemed too docile for a lawman. Until he looked in his eyes, which were sharp and watchful. And, he noticed, mostly seemed to linger on Justin as they talked.
“I suppose,” Justin conceded. Fighting Striker and her crew had given him a whole new appreciation for what Corrick was talking about. Being on the receiving end of these measures, though, still didn’t fail to leave a bad taste in his mouth. “We’re not lookin’ for any trouble.”
Now that these visitors were found to be just common travelers, most of the members of the welcoming committee began to drift away to attend to other matters.
“Glad to hear it,” Corrick replied. “Oh, and please pardon the others. Aside from meeting new visitors for the time being, most of them are in charge of repair and cleanup projects. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and the Kona Island Festival is just around the corner. This storm had such terrible timing…”
“Maybe we could help with that,” Max told him. Back on the Isle of Paradise, he had weathered his share of storms, including one that flooded half the island, so he knew what it was like.
“We could what?” Justin’s jaw dropped as he caught up with his friend’s words, trying to figure out where the conversation detoured.
“An interesting proposition.” Corrick thought it over for a moment, then asked, “Would you really help us? You mean it?”
“Yes, I’m serious,” Max replied.
“I suppose we can come to some kind of arrangement,” was Shades’ response.
“Perhaps a discount on rooms,” Corrick suggested. “I am the manager of the Kalona Hotel, as well as the Island Commerce Board. I could put in a good word for you with the local merchants if you help us out.”
“You mean we have to work?” Justin still wasn’t sure he was hearing them correctly.
“You can always pay full price for your room,” Shades offered, wondering if his companion had ever done any real work in his life. “I don’t think they take Bank of New Cali here, so you might want to hang on to a few credits, you know.”
“Fine.” Justin knew that, somewhere along the way, Shades had picked up a card marked First Municipal Bank of New Cali, that seemed to be attached to a considerable— if unknown— sum, but Shades kept saying he refused to use it as long he had his own money.
“There’s still much to be done before we can even begin to prepare for the Festival, so your help would be most appreciated.” As he said this, Corrick happened to glance at the cabin of the Maximum, seeing something he hadn’t noticed before. “Is that a wildcat up there?”
“His name is Bandit,” Max informed him.
“I see,” Corrick told them. And Chief Toma nodded to him, then turned and left as the rest already had, leaving them alone with Corrick. “As long as he behaves himself, I imagine you can take him ashore, possibly into town, as well. Unfortunately, I can’t allow him in the Kalona. Four generations of Corrick’s have kept that place ship-shape, and I plan to carry on the tradition. Please try not to take it personally.”
“I won’t,” Max replied, resigning himself to the fact that this was probably going to be an issue a lot of places they would go. But still relieved his feline friend could still stretch his legs elsewhere on the island.
“Don’t worry,” Shades assured him, “we can take turns watching the ship at night.”
And Max nodded his appreciation.
Relieved there was no scene to be had about Max’s laser sword or Justin’s EMP grenades, he decided it would be best to warn Corrick about the trouble they had encountered earlier, saying, “By the way, Mr Corrick, you mentioned something about unwelcome visitors before the storm. Not to be nosy, but I was wondering, what kind of trouble? Pirates?”
“Actually, yes,” Corrick replied. “The worst possible kind. Have you heard of the Cyexian pirate Striker?”
All three travelers looked amongst themselves for a moment at this name none of them were expecting to hear again so soon, and Corrick took that as a yes.
“I see,” he resumed. “Well, about fourteen or fifteen days ago, Striker and her crew came through here, causing a major incident before Toma and his men drove them off.”
“Yeah, I can see why you’re so edgy now,” Justin commented.
“You sound like you’re speaking from personal experience,” Corrick remarked.
“We are,” Max informed him. “We ran into them about nine days ago.”
“But we managed to get away,” Shades continued, trying to detour the conversation away from their battle with them. After all, they did come in peace, and didn’t want to drop any hints of just how much firepower they really had. “In all that time, we haven’t seen any signs of pursuit, and after that storm, I doubt anything could’ve followed us.”
“You probably lost them now,” Corrick agreed, “but thanks for the warning.”
“Maybe they stopped by that haunted island or somethin’…” Justin shrugged. “We can always hope.”
“Either way,” Corrick concluded, “I doubt they’ll be coming back any time soon.”
That resolved, Corrick led them a short distance to the Kalona Hotel. Much like the exterior, the interior of the Kalona was constructed of dark- and driftwood forms, done in what to Shades looked like a pseudo-Colonial style. The lobby was well-furnished, a clear indication of how well four generations of Corrick’s had done for themselves, with a large bank of windows offering what would ordinarily be an unobstructed view of the Ocean. Right now, though, several men were removing plywood covers from them, making the lobby appear dim as if after dark.
Corrick then led them behind the front desk and into a small office. Corrick sat behind a teak-wood desk, flanked by an array of photos hanging on the wall, mostly of Corrick (and presumably his forebears) situated in various island settings. Dominating most of one wall was a large map of the Kona Islands, which Shades could see now were indeed a chain of four. On a table in the corner, he also noted some radio gear.
“Feel free to take a seat.” Corrick gestured to several chairs placed around the room. “In addition to helping with the repairs, I was wondering if I could talk you into sticking around to help with the Island Festival. There’s something else we might be able use your help with, and if so, the Kona Council would make it worth your while.”
And so they spent the next half hour or so ironing out the details of this arrangement.