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Author's Chapter 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.