“Between a rock and a hard place…” Shades muttered, able to see, even at this range, that they wouldn’t last long up close and personal with such a heavily armed adversary, and hopelessly outnumbered if they turned back.
The recently christened new flagship of the Bodeen Militia looking like the end of the line once they got there.
“Hey, Justin,” Max piped up, hoping it wasn’t too late to suggest it, “you still have one of those grenade things left, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he replied, recalling how the repeat-loop in St Lucy always restored their inventory at the start of that same day. In a way, he found he was hanging on to it like a lucky charm of sorts, but now he reminded himself that the only good luck to be had from it was to actually use it. “I’ll go get it.”
“A grenade?” Ma’Quiver intoned, wondering what possible use just one grenade could be against a target of that magnitude, deciding to see what they had in mind first. “Won’t we have to be within their attack range to use it?”
“He’s right,” Shades muttered, remembering that this scenario differed from their battle with Striker’s crew in one very serious way. “With those other guys chasing us, we won’t be able to swerve away without them catching up. That, and we don’t have the advantage of surprise this time, so they’ll be shootin’ at us the whole time…”
“Isn’t there something you could do with your crossbow?” Max asked Justin as he came back from his weapons stash. “Any special bolts you picked up?”
“Nothing that would work against that,” Justin admitted, uncomfortably aware that they were almost within firing range. Thinking quickly, he added, “Of course, I could try just using the bow to launch it…”
Justin scrambled to retrieve the rest of his weapons from their hiding place, relieved that the Red-Bands were apparently more intent on sitting on their ship than searching it. He and Max, as well as Ma’Quiver, raced up to the top deck as Shades kept the helm. By the time they were up there, the Nikopol had already opened fire in earnest, rocking the ship with each glancing hit.
As the three of them crouched below the deck railing, Justin set one of his smoke bolts, wanting to distract the enemy from this projectile’s true nature. Ma’Quiver very carefully loaded the grenade on the tip through a slot near the pin. Max knelt beside them, power pistol at the ready to lay down some cover fire for them.
“Careful,” Justin cautioned, aiming upward toward the Nikopol, and trying not to think about what a disaster it would be if the EMP went off here and killed their own engines and weapons. “We only get one shot at this…”
Ma’Quiver held the pin, knowing that they would have to fire the moment Justin had a decent shot, or else they would lose all advantage in launching it from beyond point-blank range.
From Shades’ slouched view, the Nikopol appeared much closer than it probably was, and growing.
“Pull it!” Justin shouted as Max popped up to cover them.
Ma’Quiver removed the pin as quickly, and as gently, as he could, so as not to disrupt Justin’s aim, and a second later he fired with a twang scarcely heard over the Maximum’s engines or all that firepower.
As soon as he heard Justin call a clean hit, Shades swerved hard to starboard, angling to slide past the cruiser from behind. Trying to strike a balance between aiming for open sea, and not giving their remaining pursuers too much inside curve to gain on them still more. Putting them almost broadside with the Nikopol, exposing them to more fire, but forcing them to turn toward the Maximum, losing the broadside angle almost as quickly as they had gained it.
A burst of smoke issued from midway along the cruiser’s deck, and somewhere in the midst of it, the Nikopol’s guns went silent.
“What did you do to them?” Ma’Quiver asked, for he knew of no weakness on such a heavily armored vessel that could be exploited with a single grenade.
“Electromagnetic pulse,” Shades answered over the helm intercom. “A fun little toy we picked up a while back, but I’m afraid that’s the last one we’ve got. They sure did come in handy, didn’t they?”
“Damn straight!” Justin replied. “We have got to find more of those somewhere.”
As far as any of them could tell, their timing couldn’t have been much better. Along with her main weapons, the Nikopol’s engines also went dead in mid turn, the bulky cruiser drifting into the path of the patrol ships, which were already slowing down to stay out of firing range for their now-silenced barrage against the Maximum, forcing them to swing wide to avoid a collision and costing them whatever distance they had managed to close on their quarry in the meantime. Better still, at least half of them turned to render aid to their flagship, which could no longer moved under its own power.
And so the chase persisted for a while longer. With no more obstacles, the Maximum could finally build up to full speed, but the couple patrol ships left stayed on them in dogged pursuit, occasionally firing random shots at them in frustration as the others retreated back to the relative safety of the cabin. Yet as the long strip of land that was Sarna thinned almost out of sight, they at last gave up their hunt, turning back to Bodeen while they could still do so.
Now that all the excitement was over, their prolonged adrenaline rush spent, both Max and Ma’Quiver more fell than sat on the cabin lounge seats, the former having only felt this kind of exhaustion once before, after his duel with Erix.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Bandit came back up from below, hopping up on the seat next to Max, who put one arm around him, saying, “I’m glad to see you, too, boy. I was afraid I’d never see you again. Thank you, Ma’Quiver.” He turned to his new friend, adding, “You put up a hell of a fight. I’m so beat I can hardly move…”
“I hear ya there,” Ma’Quiver replied. “That’s the drawback of these power pills. For a little while, they allow you to exert yourself beyond your limits, or can give you a boost when you’re already worn out, but the price you pay later is exhaustion and muscle fatigue. To be honest, I’ve never used them before myself, but I still didn’t think it would be this bad…”
“Um, Ma’Quiver, was it?” Shades asked, wanting to get his name right in spite of the rather hectic circumstances of their first meeting, “Just what did you give Max anyway?”
“Nothing dangerous, I assure you,” Ma’Quiver told him, “or else I wouldn’t have used it myself, either. According to what I’ve heard, they originally come from New Cali, something concocted for soldiers, if I remember right. I’ve also heard them called ‘Second Wind’ and ‘Enzyme X’ among other things. Of course, the fact that Timofar had some means that Berto was rigging even more fights than I thought. I’ve fought all the local contenders at least a couple times, but there were a few matches where those Nikopol guys were different than usual, as if they had become more aggressive and reckless…”
“Sounds useful,” Justin remarked.
“Sounds like a last resort to me,” Shades added critically. “You’ve gotta be careful with shit like that. Who knows what side-effects they might have.”
“I assure you, they’re safe enough to use on a situational basis,” Ma’Quiver reiterated, “but you’re right about the tradeoff. Hell, I didn’t even want to use the things, but there are too many guards, and we were starting that fight already worn out…”
“Just how powerful is this Bertona guy anyway?” Shades wondered aloud, now that he had time to ponder who they just pissed off back there. “To even have people sitting on our ship, as well as running the arena…”
“Judging from what little I could find out about him during my time in Bodeen, the impression that I got was that he was some shady character who worked his way up the ladder of the city’s seedier business ventures, seeming to come up out of nowhere when he re-established Nikopolas Arena a few years ago,” Ma’Quiver explained. “Of course, it’s pretty much public knowledge that he’s got some kind of deal with the Bodeen Militia, but— and I’m just reading between the lines here— I suspect his Nikopol faction is probably just a front for ousting the current Patriarchs. Rumor has it that his mansion is practically a museum of relics left over from when the days when Bodeen ruled the entire island.”
“I see,” Shades nodded.
“So his organization’s that big?” Justin moved the money box over onto the lounge table, this new passenger’s words giving him still more reason to be glad they were clear of Sarna once and for all.
“While we’re on the subject,” Ma’Quiver’s offhand remark taking a moment to register, “I’ve also heard rumors that Berto’s paranoid enough to plant tracking devices on all the betting coffers, so we’re probably lucky those Red-Bands already had their hands full back there.”
The second those words sank in, Justin whipped out his laser staff, breaking the lock on the coffer. Dumped all the money on the table, then stepped out on deck and chucked the empty container overboard. As he came back in, he told Ma’Quiver, “Well, now they won’t be following us anywhere else.”
And then proceeded to start counting and sorting his haul.
“Of course, it’s not like anyone was following us anymore anyway,” Shades pointed out. “Still, this should solve our money problems for a while. That’s more than you ever would have made betting on Max anyway.”
“You were going to bet on me?” Max raised an eyebrow at that one.
“The important thing, though,” Justin moved on, “is that we taught those assholes a lesson! And,” just as importantly, he had learned along the way, “lived to tell the tale, with a little something to show for it.”
A sentiment they could all agree with as the island of Sarna vanished behind them.