His human companion threw his legs over the edge of the square of floor space in his cabin, the rest occupied by a V-shaped wedge of mattress and blankets that comprised his cabin, matching the contour of the bow. Above, a bright square of sunlight had gradually worked its way to his last position before he woke up. As he stepped into the small below-deck corridor, he glanced over at Justin’s quarters, finding the tiny cabin empty. After that, he stepped into the small bathroom to wash up.
He yawned and stretched again, smiling and almost laughing out-loud at how it felt for his arm to finally be free of that cast and healed enough to use again. Those fifteen days since they left St Lucy had done them all a world of good after Project Pythagoras and that maddening repeat-looping day. One of the first orders of business upon arriving on the island of Sarna the other day was to visit a local clinic Shades had found out about, and it was such a relief to know his arm was almost good as new, the doctor there simply admonishing him to avoid overexerting himself for another week or two.
As he finished washing up, he turned and headed up the steps to the main cabin, saying, “Let’s see what’s for breakfast…”
The mere mention of breakfast was enough to wake Bandit up at last, and the big cat followed him up, tail swaying eagerly at the thought of food.
Much to his feline friend’s disappointment, though, Max picked a bite to eat from a hanging basket of fresh fruit Shades gathered from the marketplace yesterday. Seeing no one topside, either, he decided he would wait for his friends to return before cooking. Pondering how Shades’ remarks about the importance of eating plenty of fruit while traveling the high seas echoed his parents’ own experience in that regard as he ate, he stepped out on deck, Bandit trailing along behind him.
Though the Maximum was surrounded by a crowded jumble of modest-sized vessels, some local, some of foreign design, all vying for limited dock space, Max could easily see much of the city of Bodeen looming over him. A mix of grey and tan edifices, topped with slanted rows of red and brown tile roofs marching in staggered, haphazard lines up the inclined streets toward the city center, up on the hill. The morning shadow of all those buildings still loomed over the harbor, rendering much of his immediate surroundings in various shades of drab and dingy.
Munching casually, Max let his eyes wander among those rooftops, wondering offhand what the view must look like from up there. If perhaps he might get to see for himself before they left. Justin was very insistent about not leaving the ship unguarded here, and Shades agreed with him with barely a moment’s thought. Now that Max saw the place in this light, reflecting all that he had seen in the last couple days, he could see what they were getting at, concluding that maybe they were on to something. Although no one told him he couldn’t bring Bandit ashore with him, he noticed that, while people still admired the big cat, they also gave him a lot more space than either of them were used to. Though not quite as traveled as Justin or Shades, he could sense there was something about this town’s atmosphere that was noticeably different from Centralict, the Kona Islands, or St Lucy.
Something he instinctively trusted less than any other seaport he had seen.
As he finished eating, he wondered if perhaps he wasn’t spooking himself with such thoughts, for the more he scanned that roofline, the more he felt as if he was being watched, and even Bandit seemed noticeably less relaxed than when they first came topside.
“Pardon me, young man,” a voice said from off to Max’s left, “but my boss has a little business proposition for you.”
“Huh?” Only belatedly, Max realized he was so preoccupied watching the rooftops, that he had failed to notice several men approach the dock next to the ship. “What do you mean?”
“Why, young mariner, I’m talking about your panther,” the somewhat older man, who appeared to be the leader of this group, replied, gesturing toward Bandit, “that fine specimen of a panther. I’ve never seen such markings… How much would you be willing to part with it for?”
Bandit growled softly at the half dozen or so men, a sentiment that matched how Max was fast starting to feel about these guys.
“I’m sorry,” Max told the man, becoming ever more suspicious of them, and this situation, by the second. At times like these, he was reminded that he was not accustomed to people barging in and just striking up conversations without even introducing themselves. That he wasn’t used to the idea of live animals being treated as merchandise. Nor was he used to the idea of people calling his oldest friend an it. “You heard him. My friend’s not for sale.”
“Boy, you don’t seem to understand your situation,” the man informed him as his crew stepped aboard the Maximum. No weapons drawn as of yet, but their manner was all the more imposing as they moved to surround Max. “You must be new to these parts, or you’d know the House calls all the shots here in Bodeen.”
Max noticed that all of them, regardless of their mode of dress, wore the same red arm bands, which he had seen from time to time about town, and, he now realized, still had no more clue what they were about than he had the first time he laid eyes on them.
“Get off our ship,” was all Max had to say to him, increasingly certain that this was going to come to blows.
“Our boss has had his eye on your little pet,” the man continued as if Max had never said a word, “and what Mr Bertona wants, Mr Bertona gets. That just leaves the little question of what you get. The boss makes very generous offers, but he only makes them once, so we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Either way, we’re taking the cat.”
Max glanced about for a moment, noting that anyone who may have been about the docks a couple minutes ago had made themselves scarce in these folks’ wake.
“I said, get off our ship,” Max repeated, wishing Shades and Justin would hurry up and get back. Even more so as he reached for his laser sword, hoping to make them back down peaceably with a little intimidation of his own, only to find it missing. Even worse, he was still in bare feet so soon after waking up, so he didn’t even have his backup blade concealed in his boot. Sensing they were already aware something was amiss on his end, he warned them, “If you lay a hand on my friend, I won’t hold back.”
“It’s seven against one, boy, and nobody’s gonna make a move against us around here, so what’s it gonna be?”
Before Max could reply, one of the henchmen made the first move, but Max had already resigned himself to a fight, blocking the man’s punch and dragging him in the way of the next guy’s kick. Max then back-kicked the one behind him, then moved forward to shake off the two who had just moved in from the sides to pin him—
As Max’s would-be captors staggered away from him, Bandit, who was angling to take a bite out of one of them, was instead struck with the unfamiliar sting of a tranquilizer dart.
“Bandit!” Max cried out, watching his companion snarl in pain and surprise as he reeled and fell over, wrenched the two men straining to pin his arms, kicking another out of the way as he dragged them toward his fallen friend.
The last thought he could remember was of how the dart seemed to have hit Bandit from somewhere above them, when he himself was struck by the familiar zap of a stun beam, square in the back.
“That’s enough of that,” the ringleader remarked, keeping his power pistol trained on Max until he was sure both of their targets had gone silent before reholstering it. Figuring the smartest thing he had done after locating where the cat was staying was to post a sniper up on the rooftops, just in case their quarry became unruly like that.
“Shit!” one of them muttered, kicking Max’s limp form as he got back up. “That hurt!”
“Come on,” the leader said to them, “we don’t know when his crewmates will be back. We’ve already caused enough of a scene here, and the last thing we want to do is cause more inside bickering between the boss and the rest of the House, or the brass. One of these days, he’s gonna go too far…”
“What should we do about this guy?” one of his henchmen demanded, kicking Max again while two others picked up Bandit and dragged him toward the dock.
“Take him along, too,” the leader ordered, realizing that the boss himself could provide them with a way to kill two birds with one stone. “He seems to be quite the scrapper himself, I’m sure they’ll provide the House with plenty of entertainment.”
That resolved, they hauled Max and Bandit away.