- Text Size +
Author's Chapter Notes:
the waiting game
And the waiting continued, dragging out for seven long days as the three-way stalemate continued.

By the end of the first day, it was fairly obvious Mercer’s crew had the sail rig working, just from the simple fact that Striker’s crew never returned to wreak any further havoc. Easily the single biggest thing to go right since the galley raid. Otherwise, things remained as quiet as they were tense aboard the Excelsior.

Though on the second day they mounted a second expedition to the kitchen, by that point, the others had already ransacked much of anything worth taking, so it was slim pickings. Roxy insisted on at least one patrol a day, for reconnaissance if nothing else, though they had yet to make any direct engagement with either enemy. Finding only evidence that Mercer’s crew, at least, was also carrying on some regular recon of their own.

After each run, Roxy whipped out a datapad and entered some information, though whatever she made note of, she kept it to herself.

On the third day, Mercer’s men tried to loot the captain’s quarters, coming closer to their home base than they had at any time up until then, presumably to retrieve the bogus captain’s documents, only to end up scurrying away empty-handed, cursing a little too loudly for their own good, before Roxy could talk them into taking the offensive.

Sure enough, they had barricaded the bridge, running the ship almost exclusively by the mechanical sail-rigging, the Cyexians’ engine room sabotage having robbed them of rudder control, as well. Their periodic patrols most likely to deter any further attempts at sabotaging the ship’s mobility. Mercer’s position largely unassailable without major infrastructure damage, much to Roxy’s annoyance.

The Cyexians, who at first stood to gain the most from sabotaging the rig, back when Striker still had a serious chance of catching up with them, didn’t seem to be aware of its existence until it was too late. Now they didn’t dare in the face of Mercer’s regular patrols topside. Instead, they apparently started disconnecting the ship’s intercom system, making direct communication between the three conflicting parties all but impossible.

By the fourth day, none of the intercom terminals functioned anymore, which the bounty hunter took as a hopeful sign that at least neither of their foes were conspiring together against them, since communication between the helm and the engine room, where the Cyexians had hunkered down, was completely severed.

Though the engine room also gave them control of the Excelsior’s electrical generator, as well, the pirates had thus far refrained from cutting off most of the ship’s power, most likely out of fear of uniting both adversaries against them.

Of course, their biggest concern was the Cyexians putting out the lights after dark, reducing them to the handful of flashlights they— and presumably Mercer’s crew— had scrounged up from around the ship, but that didn’t happen until the fifth night.

It was a tense night, with shifts of three, instead of just two, keeping watch, but none of them got much sleep, which was probably just what their most out-gunned and out-numbered foe most likely wanted to inflict on both of them, and even the fact that the power was restored around dawn did little to sooth anyone’s nerves.

By the sixth day, morale had dwindled right along with their food supply, the waiting taking its own toll on each of them in its own way.

Giving Shades a whole new take on Cabin Fever. Max ever-greater concern about Bandit as rations got smaller and smaller. Justin becoming more grouchy and snappy, keeping more and more to himself in even their cramped quarters.

Maximilian hardly ate anything, scarcely spoke a word, just brooding. As Shades expected his friends were beginning to understand, as well, a grueling wait like this could serve to galvanize one’s resolve, or to break it entirely, and only time would tell which way it would affect the Young Master. Shades was also cognizant by now that there was little any of them could do or say to sway him either way. Something he would have to decide for himself.

Most likely why Sebastian had largely gone silent despite looking like he had a great many things to say to his young charge, mostly just lending his cooking skills to Justin’s.

In the course of those grim days, the others recounted their misadventures in the Lower Ruins, as well as the Harken Building and the Sweet Lady of Twylight, just for good measure, to pass the time. Maximilian contributing little more than nods of agreement here and there. They expected a bit more incredulity, but the bounty hunter mostly offered a sage nod here and there, as if it squared with most of her own experiences. As for what those might be, she kept her own tales to herself.

Much like whatever toll this siege might be taking on her, she wasn’t sharing. Roxy simply waited.

It was around sunset on the sixth day that the monotony was broken by a knock at their cabin door.

“Who’s there?” Roxy demanded, snapping to attention even as the others scrambled for battle stations, all weapons immediately focusing on the door.

“My name’s not important,” a nervous-sounding man’s voice answered. “but I’m here on behalf of Captain Mercer. We want to negotiate a truce, and an alliance against the pirates who tried to hijack our ship.”

“After you let them aboard,” Roxy reminded him. “You’re off to a bad start here.”

“Point taken,” the man conceded, “but now they are a threat to both of us. They’re surely going to kill the power again tonight, and I think they mean to keep it off this time. If you folks are willing to let bygones be bygones, Mercer would even be willing to split the cargo with you fifty-fifty, unlike the original deal…”

“Why should we trust you at all?” Roxy retorted.

“We’re all running out of time,” the man evaded. “Surely you must understand that. Why don’t you let me talk to Vandenberg, if he’s really still in charge?”

All eyes turned nervously to him, then went wide at his response.

“No,” Maximilian told him, his voice the firmest they had heard it this entire voyage. “I’ll only consider it if Mercer himself comes forward to talk. I won’t bargain with underlings.”

“Young Master…” Sebastian gasped.

“You heard him,” Roxy told their unseen visitor. “Those are our terms. Mercer. In person. In neutral territory, or no deals.”

“Very well,” the voice replied, though to them, it didn’t sound nearly as surprised or resigned as its speaker’s words were trying to make it sound, “I’ll leave this here. For you to contact us when you make up your mind…”

With that, whoever it was walked away very audibly, as if to make it plain that he was leaving.

After a couple tense minutes, they unlocked the door, Roxy and Justin covering both ends of the hall, Max reaching out and picking up a small device he spotted on the deck.

“A radio…” Shades mused, immediately recognizing the handheld’s basic form if not its make. “Guess it makes sense, if the others cut off the intercom.”

As Justin shut and barred the door, Roxy rushed over and snatched it from him. She examined it for a long moment before turning it over for another. Then she yanked the battery pack out of its slot.

“No telling if they rigged it to eavesdrop on us,” she snorted. “We should keep it silent until we decide what to do.”

“And keep our own counsel about our next move,” Shades nodded, agreeing in full.

“To say nothing of the fact that Mercer may have given one to the other pirates, too,” Roxy pointed out. “This could just be a trick to flush us out into the open, especially if they’ve already been plotting behind our backs.”

“If they have a fusebox down there,” Shades added, “they could even selectively control what parts of the ship they’re blacking out. Mercer might be bluffing about being in the dark if they’re actually in cahoots.”

“And the only way to confirm that would be to risk going out there in the dark.” Max understood.

“Would they do that?” Justin wondered. “Mercer and Striker were about ready to kill each other before… you…”

“Now you get it,” she told him. “Mercer doesn’t trust me, and neither do they. That’s why they want to negotiate with you, Young Master. It’s putting us in an awkward position here.”

“It’s not just his decision to make,” Max reminded them. Turning to his double. “Is it?”

“She’s right,” Maximilian nodded. “We’re all in the same boat, but no matter what all of us decide, they see me as the weak link, so they want me to speak for us. Whatever we all agree to do, I’ll stand behind it. After all, a captain can’t afford to be indecisive.”

“Young Master…” Sebastian breathed, a mixture of relief and resolve written all over the butler’s face.

“If you need me to, I could double for you again,” Max offered. “This time because I want to.”

“I thank you,” Maximilian replied, “but I don’t want it to come to that. If this is going to be my ship, then I need take responsibility for it. We may be surrounded by cutthroats and swindlers, but we should still try to play straight on our end.”

“Just don’t play the fool,” Roxy cautioned him. “This is definitely a trap, no matter who’s using who against who here. Even if Mercer really does want our help against the others, he’s already backstabbed you once. Don’t forget that.”

Maximilian nodded grimly.

And, sure enough, even as they discussed their options, the lights went out again, just as Mercer’s emissary predicted, adding still more immediacy to an already urgent conversation.