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Author's Chapter Notes:
the smell of a fart that wasn't mine
Justin and Shades quickly found the previously scant Excelsior crawling with extra hands, most of them Cyexian, from the look of them.

Wishing every step of the way that they’d had more opportunity to learn their way around this ship, they finally managed to make it back to their quarters. Mostly relieved that most of their unwelcome guests were on the lower deck levels, rather than up here. Ducking in the door just before several more pirates passed through. The complete absence of any struggle or alarm only increased their suspicions, as the rest of Mercer’s crew remained at large throughout the ship. As if it wasn’t awkward enough sneaking around a vessel full of armed enemies in just their swim trunks.

They were both about to grab their weapons— and some clothes— when they heard someone talking outside their door.

Looking frantically about the room, they both scrambled underneath the nearest bed, regretting that if they weren’t ridiculously outnumbered beyond this room, they could have sprung a decent am-bush in here.

“Let’s see what we have here,” a decidedly female voice mused as the door opened. “Even if we don’t find any of those passengers, we might still pick up some fun souvenirs.”

As the pirates’ footfalls spread into the room, the two of them tried to hold as still as possible in such a cramped space, Shades shifting uncomfortably to a more sustainable pose.

“Yeah, just try not to pick anything the other crew will miss,” one of the others replied. “We barely got the deal back on…”

She trailed off, sniffing the air sharply.

“What is it?” one of the others asked.

“Don’t you smell that?”

“Smell what?”

“Wasn’t me!” a third voice piped up.

Shades struggled to stifle a nervous snortle at the sheer absurdity of their situation as Justin glared at him, looking back at him like What?

The pirates shuffled around nervously for a moment, then seemed to calm down.

Just when it sounded like they were about to dismiss it and get back to their looting, someone lifted up the bed. Before either of them could make a move, they found a pair of power pistols pointed at them.

“Well, look what we have here!” one of them quipped. “I guess there were passengers after all!”

The others laughing so hard they could barely keep their weapons trained on the two of them.

“On your feet, you two,” one pirate snickered, “and drop the gun.”

Which Justin promptly did.

“What the hell did they feed these passengers?” another pirate piped up.

“Sorry,” Shades grunted as he got back up, “guess our breakfast disagreed with me…”

“If we live through this,” Justin muttered, “I am so going to kick your ass later.”

“Shut it, both of you,” the lead pirate ordered. “You’re coming with us.”

As they were led out into the hall, they found another pair of pirates covering the neighboring room.

“What’s going on?” the lead pirated demanded.

“There’s a…” one pirated began.

“A big-ass panther in there!” the other finished.

“At least Bandit’s okay…” Shades sighed. For now.

“Just keep the damn door shut,” the lead pirate instructed. “It’s Mercer’s problem, not ours.”

“Yeah, but doesn’t that sound sort of familiar?” the second pirate thought aloud.

Both of them stared after Shades and Justin as they were led away to the ballroom. Where they found Maximilian and Sebastian already held captive, but no sign of Max. In addition to the armed foes was Mercer in their midst, as well as someone they had hoped to never cross paths with again.

“…My friends have defeated you before,” Maximilian was telling Striker as she shoved him up against a table, and Sebastian looked on in impotent horror, “and they can do… it…”

Trailing off as they entered the chamber.

“You were saying?” Striker snorted, turning away from him to face her new guests. Stopping short at the sight of them. “You again?”

“Yeah,” Shades replied, “we missed you, too.”

He now understood that all of this— the swimming pool, brunch with Mercer, whatever wild goose chase they sent Max on— was all just a distraction to keep them from noticing that they were being boarded. And separated.

“Just a damn minute!” Striker demanded. “If that wasn’t you on that ship, then who…”

“Um, if it’s any kind of consolation,” Shades admitted, “we’d kinda like to know that ourselves, actually.”

“To think I thought you got away again,” Striker remarked. “Now I will finally have my revenge.”

“What about us?” Maximilian pressed, wanting to change the subject.

“What about you?” was Striker’s toneless response. Turning to her crew, she ordered: “Maroon them. They have lifeboats to spare.”

“Yeah,” Shades pointed out bluntly, “well at least you had a ship coming to rescue you.”

“A minor technicality,” Striker shot back. “You sank my ship, and now you’re gonna pay!”

“You were serious!?” Maximilian gaped at his friends.

Both of them nodded with much chagrin.

“Find me some ballast,” Striker commanded, turning back to her prisoners. “This time, we’re sinking you!”

“But what if we traded the ship for our lives?” Maximilian tried again.

“This ship isn’t yours to bargain with anymore,” Mercer reminded him curtly.

“Besides, it’s a matter of principle,” Striker interjected. “If I don’t kill those who cross me, people start to forget who they’re dealing with.”

“I’m sorry,” Maximilian apologized to his companions, looking as abject as Sebastian did grimly resigned. “I tried.”

“Search this ship from top to bottom,” Striker ordered her crew, “and find that damn panther, too!”

“Aye-aye, Captain!”

The three pirates headed for the nearest door in the once-luxuriously decorated hall to resume their search.

Striker then turned her attention back to her two half-naked prisoners.

“This is your last chance,” she told her two new captives. As amusing as she found their current situation, she wasn’t taking any chances this time. “I know that bastard Max is on this ship. Tell me where he is, and I’ll make your end less painful.”

“I’ll say it as many times as I have to.” Shades already understood Striker wasn’t going to let any of them live. Really didn’t leave much incentive for cooperation. Erix taught him that the hard way. “I don’t know.”

“And even if we did…” Justin added, having done some thinking of his own. This was hardly the first time in his life that he thought it was all over, but never in his wildest dreams would he have believed it would end like this. In my fuckin’ bathing suit, for cryin’ out loud! “We wouldn’t tell you, bitch!”

If he couldn’t have clothes, he could at least try for a little dignity.

“Have it your way,” Striker told them. “I’m going to enjoy watching you d—”

“Captain Striker! Captain Striker!” Striker’s mousy lieutenant cried as she burst into the room. “We have trouble! Down in the hold!”