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Author's Chapter Notes:
just got real
The following morning, the Excelsior set sail, only a little later than planned.

The weather was fair, the sea calm, and a steady breeze sped them on their way from Amarrah. Despite most of the preparations being last-minute, things were off to a most respectable start. By noon, the ship was out of sight of land, and well underway to parts unknown.

Justin and Shades stepped up to the pool, which Maximilian had requested the crew fill for their guests before they departed. Telling them he would be down for a swim after he and Sebastian discussed some matters with Captain Mercer over lunch. Max originally planned to join them, and Shades was relieved Sebastian had reinforced his own advice about unnecessary submersion before the knife wounds on his arm and leg, minor as they were, were fully closed. Especially since the pool facilities onboard did not include chlorination.

The pool itself wasn’t terribly large, about fifty or sixty feet long at most, but still impressive for having been added to the ship, rather than part of its original design.

Somewhere in the course of that final day on Amarrah, the butler even managed to score some swim trunks from somewhere at the seaport, near the island’s scenic beach, and both of them were surprised and impressed at how well he guessed the fit.

Justin jumped in with an ecstatic whoop, popping up a moment later to shake out his hair.

Shades opted for a more casual approach, dropping in over the side, finding the water much colder than he expected, colder than he was used to in an indoor pool.

“Hey, what’s with you?” Justin asked, pausing in mid stroke as he treaded water.

“Sorry,” Shades replied, “it’s just colder than I expected.”

“What were you expecting?” Justin laughed. “It is inside, after all.”

“Still,” Shades pointed out, “I’m pretty sure Sebastian said it was heated pool…”

“So, maybe they forgot to heat it.”

“Or clean it?” Shades observed, noting, even as he stayed in motion to keep warm, the visible amount of dirt floating around on the bottom of the pool.

“Well, now that you mention it…”

Justin looked around the pool, his former enthusiasm draining out of his face.

“I don’t know about you,” Shades told him, recalling what that long-closed hotel on Highway 93 back in Montana was like the last time he was there, “but this half-ass excuse for service doesn’t seem to bode well for Maximilian’s new crew, skeleton or not.”

“What’re you gonna do, complain about it?”

“I don’t know,” Shades said at first, then concluded, “Maybe let the Young Master swim in it and judge for himself.”

“I’m sure they’ll take his complaints more seriously than ours.”

“Perhaps. Our whole departure was pretty rushed, for a maiden voyage…” Shades still remembered swimming at that hotel south of Kalispell sometimes, as his third-grade friend Darek lived in Somers and knew someone who worked there. This pool reminded him of their final visit there, less than a month before the place shut down for good. That sense of neglect, as if the people involved weren’t even trying anymore. “Is it just me, or does this whole ship seem to be a bit off today?”

“What are you getting at?”

Meanwhile, they both continued to drift out into the deep end.

“Surely you’ve noticed it,” Shades remarked, taking a quick look around to confirm they were still alone down here, “how they all started getting more and more edgy since we left the island. I know it’s a new ship for them, but didn’t they say they were experienced sailors? They’re tense about something, that’s what bugs me.”

“Ya know, I’d like to say you’re thinking about it too much,” Justin replied, “but I think you might be on to somethin’. Is it just me, or has the whole crew been avoidin’ us since we set out?”

“Yeah, it does feel like we’ve got the whole ship all to ourselves all of a sudden,” Shades concurred. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but the more I think about it, the less I like it.”

“For once, I agree,” Justin told him. “We need to tell the others.”

Right about then, they felt a jolt, as if the ship bumped into something hard enough to shake it.

“What was that?” Justin demanded.

“Don’t know, but I don’t like it.” Shades drifted, staying as still as he could. “I don’t think the ship’s in any danger, or someone would’ve sounded the alarm, but it’s still too quiet for even a close call, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.” Justin nodded. “We need a plan.”

“First, we should go back to our quarters and get our gear,” Shades recommended. “I feel like we’re being left in the dark about something, so we should let Max know, and try to talk to Maximilian about it in private, as well. Sebastian, too, but definitely not Mercer, not until we know what’s going on on this ship.”

They both hovered in silence for a moment, as if sharing the same awareness of the growing gulf of ocean that now separated them from any outside help.

“Maybe we should wait for Maximilian to get here,” Justin finally suggested.

“Maybe,” Shades answered, trying to keep a lid on the alarms in the back of his head, which only continued to grow louder the longer they talked about this. “If you don’t mind the water, maybe you could wait for him here— you might even catch Sebastian, too— and I’ll go see if I can find… Max…”

He trailed off as a trio of figures approached the pool, with that sinking feeling they just ran out of time. Only one of them looked like he was part of the Excelsior crew. The other two armed women looking too much like Cyexian pirates to be mistaken for anything else.

Both he and Justin noticed, almost at the same time, one more thing wrong with this picture: instead of being held at gunpoint, the crewmember also held a power pistol, all three of which were trained on the two of them.

“Okay, kids, time to get out of the pool,” the man said, pointing to the ladder at the poolside for emphasis. “Play time’s over. Now it’s all business.”

Slowly, carefully, the two of them made their way over to the ladder, climbing out one at a time, Shades first.

“Passengers?” one of the Cyexians asked him, “I thought you weren’t taking any on this voyage.”

“It was just supposed to be the boy and his butler,” the other added.

“Couldn’t be helped,” he shrugged. “The kid took ’em on last-minute. I guess we’ll just let that crazy bitch decide what to do with ’em.”

“Have a care how you talk about our Captain around us,” one of them warned. “Mercer may have let us onboard, but we run our own show until he hands over the merch.”

“Mercer?…” Shades muttered, noting the flash of suspicion on Justin’s face, as well.

“You look familiar…” One of the pirates turned to them. “Who are you?”

“No one important,” Shades answered, dead certain of the one time and place such a crowd might recognize either of them from.

“Don’t get smart with us!” the other pirate warned them. “No more games. Now tell us, who the hell are you?”

“Ha!” Justin shot back, already fairly sure where this was going, “Justin Black doesn’t need to give his name to assholes like you!”

“But he did anyway,” Shades quipped, winking briefly at him, “because he’s just that generous!”

“Dammit, Dexter, don’t you—”

“Don’t call me Dexter!”

“I’ll call you whatever the fuck I want!”

“This is just like that time with the Triad!”

“Don’t go there, man!”

Their three captors simply gawped at them, flabbergasted, as they both tried to punch each other at the same time.

Both of the Cyexians flanking them were too dumbfounded to pull the trigger in time as Justin and Shades missed each other by a mile, stepping past each other and behind opposing captors, grabbing each of their gun hands and turning them on the third adversary, blasting him while he was caught in hopeless indecision.

Before either pirate could struggle to regain control of their weapon, Shades and Justin shoved them both into the pool.

“They actually fell for it…” Justin tittered as he reached down to pick up the fallen crewman’s power pistol. “Too bad we didn’t handle Kato like that!”

“Not sure if Max would’ve caught on. Still, the fact that Mercer’s in on this can’t be good...”

“I hate it when you’re right about these things…”

“At times like this, I hate being right,” Shades informed him. “But seriously, don’t call me Dexter.”

“Kiss my ass.”

With that, the two of them set out to reclaim their gear and hopefully warn their friends, leaving the two pirates floundering in the deep end. Both of them now understanding full well what Mercer’s crew was waiting for since they departed Amarrah. Both filled with a dread certainty they already knew who That Crazy Bitch was, as well as where those two must surely recognize them from.

Certain now that they had all spoken too soon the other day.