“First, since we’re right across the hall from his quarters,” Roxy told them, “we’ll need to see if Mercer left behind anything we can use against him. Then we go secure some food and supplies before the others try to take it all. Depending on just how entrenched they are, this could end up being a very long voyage.”
“Hopefully, Mercer’s more focused on getting the ship moving,” Shades mused, “so we should let them do that for us. Striker is still a common threat.”
“Speaking of which,” Justin piped up, “what do you think those Cyexians who sabotaged the engines are up to?”
“No good,” Roxy answered, “whatever that turns out to be. If nothing else, we won’t be able to move about freely while they’re still out there. To that end, I think it’s safer if I go to raid Mercer’s quarters.”
“We go,” Max insisted.
“It’s for your own safety,” Roxy replied. “We may be in the same boat, but this is my fight, and I don’t need civilians getting under my feet.”
“It’s our fight, too,” Justin declared.
“And you can keep the bounty, if it’s that important to you,” Max added. “We’re fighting for our lives out here.”
“I work alone…”
“Not this time,” Shades told her. “As you so astutely pointed out, we’re all in the same boat here, and I’d prefer to avoid any hostage situations. Been there, done that.”
“Very well,” Roxy sighed, “if you’re willing to risk it. At least you seem to have your act together…” Switching gears, she said, “In that case, since there are six of us, we move or stay in groups of three. Any fewer is just asking to get picked off one by one. For now, this room will be our home base. One group will always guard this room when the other group is out.”
“That bad, huh?” Justin muttered.
“Could be worse,” the bounty hunter informed him, mentally counting. “Mercer had twenty-five men in his crew… At least thirteen are dead, and only five or six are still on their feet. That leaves about six or seven who may or may not be in any condition to fight. As for Striker’s crew, I don’t have an exact number, but I doubt more than four or five survivors got left behind.”
“Enough to pose as much of a threat as Mercer’s crew if we run into them,” Shades nodded. “I’ll come along too, since whatever Mercer’s got is probably locked up, and I’ve got a trick or two up my sleeve for that.” Then paused, as if remembering something vital, recalling some of the tactics his father told him about as a kid. “If we’re going to be splitting up, we’re gonna need a password, so the enemy won’t be able to just waltz right in.”
“An excellent idea,” Roxy agreed, “but might I add that we write it down for each other, instead of saying it out-loud? That way, even if someone is lurking right outside, they won’t be able to overhear it when we’re ready to go.”
“Very good,” Sebastian said, reaching into a drawer and tearing a page out of his journal. “We can use this for now.”
“We should also have a second password,” Roxy continued, “a warning in case any of us are being held at gunpoint or something.”
Each of them silently acknowledging that even one weak link abusing the password at the point of a gun would render all of their carefully-calculated precautions academic, a dangerous, yet unavoidable, gamble on human nature.
And so they wrote down the first set of passwords, agreeing to change it after each use.
That resolved, they set out to investigate the captain’s quarters. While Sebastian and Bandit hung back, the two Maxes covered the door as Roxy opened it. A cursory scan revealed the corridor to be empty, so Shades and Roxy crossed the hall while Justin covered them.
Roxy joined Justin in covering him as Shades picked the lock on the cabin door. They quickly discovered that Mercer had brought a small safe aboard with him, sitting in the corner. A brief glimpse was all he needed to know he was out his depth this time.
“Dammit, a combination lock…” Shades glared at the dial for a moment before deciding that he had only one tool at all suited for this task. Put away his makeshift lockpick, and whipped out one of his stun-sticks. Using just the tip of the energy blade, he carefully carved out the dial lock, switching to the solid blade mode to pry it out at the end. “I got your combination right here…”
“What?” He turned to them as he stuffed Mercer’s documents into the inside pocket of his jacket. “I practiced lockpicking, not safecracking.”
That accomplished, they retreated back to their room.
“Here,” Roxy said as Shades put the documents on the end table. “Your charter, and Mercer’s contract, as well as the cargo manifest, too. Proof of his treachery, that you can prosecute him for in most realms. As long as the cargo and the manifest don’t match, you can nail him to the wall with these no matter where we go.”
Maximilian looked like he was going to say something, but he took the documents without a word.
Deciding to get while the gettin’ was good, the same team of Roxy, Justin and Shades set out to raid the galley, grabbing and emptying out bags for the task as they left.
Making their way down the corridor, Roxy taking point, while Shades and Justin watched her back, they encountered no one. The entire ship eerily quiet as they tiptoed through each section, none of them able to tell if this stillness was necessarily a good thing. For now, all they could do was hope that Mercer’s boys were preoccupied with the sail rigging, and the Cyexians hadn’t thought about the food situation yet.
Even when the Excelsior listed sharply enough to starboard that they had to put their hands against the cabin wall to keep their footing, it provided no real hint of whether they were under sail or still adrift.
They finally got their answer to at least one of their questions when they heard the sounds of muttering and scuffling as they approached the galley.
A lone Cyexian stood watch outside the door, looking as anxious as if she expected to have to fight the rest of the ship’s occupants combined while her sisters sacked the kitchen.
“Who’s out there!?” she demanded, apparently having heard them in spite of their best effort at stealth, already backing into the doorway as if expecting a firefight.
“What! Already?” another one groaned from inside, her remark punctuated by a loud metallic clatter, then running footfalls as another voice piped up: “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
The sentry lingered in the doorway, distracted, just long enough for Roxy to take a couple pot-shots at her, but she ducked in just in time to avoid being tracked as she joined her sisters’ retreat.
“Tch!” Roxy hissed as they closed the gap between the corner and the doorway.
Inside, the pirates had left the place a mess of opened cupboards and upturned kitchenware, having fled through the staff entrance, but it was evident there was still food left.
“Focus on getting some dishes and cookware,” Shades whispered as he turned his own search to finding the least perishable foodstuffs that remained, acutely aware that they were limited only what they could carry in their bags. Also, all too aware of the other limit they were operating under here: “Let’s hurry, before Mercer decides to send someone, too.”
Roxy continued to cover them, taking on a full couple bags herself, as Justin and Shades continued to forage.
“Shit!” Justin muttered as he fumbled a drawer of silverware with a loud clatter, quickly turning to scoop up the next set instead.
It was just as they were leaving, having scraped together as much as they could carry, that they heard someone else approaching rather less than quietly than they had, from the same direction the Cyexians had vacated.
Wasting no time, they made their own tactical retreat before these new adversaries arrived, trying all the while not to dwell on how much more vulnerable they felt with their new burden, Shades feeling for all the world like they were on some surreal armed grocery errand.
On their way back, they encountered no one, as well, but even these glimpses of what both foes were up to was little consolation in light of the fact that everyone was after food so soon in this three-way stand-off as they made it back to their home base.
“Time and tide wait for no one…” Shades gave the safe password after knocking on the door, and Max let them in.
“We grabbed as much as we could carry…” Justin said.
“Enough to last us about a week,” Shades guesstimated.
“But by then we’ll need a plan of action,” Roxy warned them, “or this will all be for nothing.”
And so the waiting began.