Roxy continued to monitor her tracker, most likely meaning to rush out if Erix’s ship gave even the slightest hint of movement. Though to what purpose, none of the others were exactly sure. Max and his friends having already resolved to make a move only if that blip actually started moving toward them. After all, even its remaining firepower could do the Albatross some serious damage.
All that talk of escorts and boarding and forbidden ground still ringing in their ears, making all of their sleep uneasy at best.
Whether this ‘Shadow Squadron’ really was the infamous Black Angels, and if they should be expecting company. At first proposed standing guard under the landward wing, to keep the rain off, but ultimately decided against it, since Erix was a competent sniper, and could sneak up or pick off any outdoor sentries one by one. Instead, they stayed inside, with hourly two-on/two-off guard shifts, while their injured pilot tried to get some rest, elevating his leg and using some instant cold-packs from the Albatross’s First Aid kit.
Still waiting for the other shoe to drop after the Black Angels’ ominous threats. Despite their growing suspicion that whatever places they were talking about were a long way from here, and whatever conflict they were babbling about happened long before their time. After hours with no response— no ground troops, no patrol ships, not even a fly-by to locate any wreckage— they began to conclude that they were likely on their own out here.
Trouble enough, given who they were stranded out here with in the meantime.
No other enemies, but also no rescue. As if any of them had any good plan for what to do if any armed patrols did show up. So, rather than some heavily-guarded military secret, they appeared to have been dumped into some completely unrelated situation.
Judging from the absence of any sort of response to their plane crash, they figured the buildings were every bit as deserted as they appeared to be, but chose not to take any chances, based on some of their past misadventures.
“It’s time,” Roxy finally declared, rising from her seat and shouldering her disrupter rifle, with its wicked-looking fold-out bayonet rig.
“Should we really rush in?” Max asked, patting Bandit’s head as he looked up from his fitful nap, front left paw twitching with the pain of the reflexive movement. The big cat’s apprehension mirroring his human companion’s.
“Surely he’s going to be expecting us,” Shades pointed out.
“Yeah, it could be a trap,” Justin agreed, though he kept his crossbow at the ready. “Why not just let him go if he doesn’t come after us again?”
“He has no good reason to hang around here, now that the storm’s over,” the bounty hunter pointed out. Showing them that his blip had indeed remained stationary. “If he hasn’t already left this place, it’s because he can’t. Which means he’s stranded here with us. If that’s the case, we should be expecting him. This isn’t about the bounty anymore, not out here.”
“So our best bet is to strike first.” Shades nodded.
“Exactly.” She moved over to the cargo door, turning back to them. “Max, stay with the injured and guard the ship. I’ll take point. You two,” pointing to Justin and Shades, “cover me.”
“We’ll only get one shot at this,” Max told them, “so stay on your guard. Let’s all come back in one piece, okay?”
They all nodded soberly as Roxy opened the cargo door.
As none of them had seen anyone approach the Albatross, they first turned their attention to the lodge. Shades kept a close eye on it while Roxy and Justin searched ahead. Though they hadn’t spotted anyone skulking around there, the building was big enough to conceal someone sneaking through the woods and entering through the back.
One thing he was able to confirm from this close was that there were indeed several cabins farther back, reminding him of summer camps back on Earth.
As they rounded the bend, Shades turned his attention back to the front, he and Justin both feeling entirely too vulnerable out in the open against a marksman of Erix’s caliber, while Roxy seemed totally unfazed, a model of focus.
Given that Erix could shuffle from a bottomless deck of dirty tricks, it was impossible not to feel like they were walking into a trap, no matter how cautious they were. Mostly just glad that their radios were voice-activated, leaving both hands free for whatever came next.
Up ahead, they could make out the black and grey armor of the Checkmate, beached amid a jumble of jagged rocks, confirming that Roxy’s assessment was right on the money, and they were all glad they stuck to their cover.
The bounty hunter slipping from tree to tree through the woods to work her way around to the far side of the ship.
Justin peering out from behind the crumbling piling of an old dock just past the edge of the camp grounds. The sea breeze through the leaves occasionally bothering him with the possibility of someone sneaking past (possibly up on) him.
Shades crouching behind the massive trunk of a fallen tree, looking out from behind a bush growing in front of it for concealment. Even as he tried to focus on Erix’s ship, he found an ominous weight leaning on the back of his mind from the woods behind him. Through the trees, he could make out the rusty hulks of abandoned logging vehicles and machinery, surrounded by a sagging chain-link fence bearing weathered warning signs.
Struggled against the unexpectedly vivid image of all those old machines coming to life and rampaging after them…
He shook his head, pushing back the creepy image, just in time for the shootout with the ship’s remaining auto-gun to commence.
As he recalled, Erix originally had about five or six auto-guns onboard, but after their last battle in Anchor Point, he appeared to be down to only one. Unless he was holding back before. He silently thanked Justin for that, as he felt no small relief about not having to shoot it out with all of them at once, especially at this range. As it was, their hand weapons were no match for the ship’s prototype armor, and even the auto-gun itself could withstand more than one hit from their power pistols and still remain functional.
Justin ducked back behind the piling as the gun swiveled back to fire on him again, cursing under his breath as he holstered his disrupter pistol and unslung his crossbow. Much as he would have preferred Roger’s quadra-barrel canon for this job, it required a power source like the Albatross’s engines to fire more than a handful of rounds, or a really long extension cord. And there was nowhere near enough cover to move something that bulky within firing range. Instead, he fetched out an explosive bolt, preparing to make another shot when the heat was off.
“Guys!” he called out, “Draw that thing’s fire!”
The main tactical advantage they had going here was that they had the ship surrounded from every direction but the sea, so one lone gun couldn’t target all three of them at once, thus the targeting computer’s priorities were confounded by both Shades and Roxy firing on it simultaneously, giving Justin the opening he needed to take aim.
The explosive bolt finally did the trick, blasting the gun right off its swivel mounting.
All the same, Roxy understood it was too soon to celebrate as she hid behind a jagged rock outcropping, part of the same formation the ship ran aground on. After waiting to see if any more hidden guns would pop out, she raised her cloak on a stick, so when no more energy beams lanced in her direction, she concluded that there were no more auto-guns in reserve. Which brought them to the moment of truth.
The storm, plus the incoming tide, had wiped away any tracks, though she held no doubt that he must have stepped out at least once to reconnoiter. Could see the hull ground up against the rocks, confirming her hunch that he was as stranded here as they were. Was originally half afraid, before finding the ship itself, that they would just find a pried-off tracker bug lying in the sand, and Erix himself long gone.
According to her direction-finder, though, he hadn’t even bothered to search for or remove it, which meant that he didn’t care if his ship was found, a fact that bothered her even as she approached.
The idea of catching him, of all people, flat-footed, just didn’t sound right to her. Though it was possible he was injured in the crash, she just couldn’t picture him defenseless, it was just too convenient to even consider. At the very least, she needed to ascertain whether or not he was still onboard, or merely using the ship’s remaining defenses as a diversion while he widened the distance between them, and their next move would be to try to pick up his trail. Still, if he was too injured to flee, there was no telling what his next wily move might be.
And only one way to find out, she concluded, scrambling for the next nearest ridge while Justin and Shades covered her.
By the time she reached the last available cover, no additional defenses popped up to challenge them, so there was nothing left to do but knock.
Slicing through the lock with her laser staff, she opened the cabin’s side hatch, hiding behind its armored bulk as she hauled it open, lobbing in a smoke grenade to make things uncomfortable for anyone still in there.
Listening closely, hearing no coughing, no cursing, not even a hint of movement.
Wondering if he already flew the coop, and left the ship’s defense systems as a stalling tactic, or if he had some kind of breath mask, she peered inside as the smokescreen wafted out.
The interior turned out to be as Spartan and utilitarian as Shades described earlier, offering no practical hiding places, so it only took a matter of seconds to search the cabin, even the cramped toilet compartment she couldn’t really picture Erix cowering in anyway, turning up the vessel completely empty.
That just left the question of which way he went, without any immediate trail to follow. It was just about then that she remembered what Erix was doing with this ship back in Yarbo to begin with. That perhaps he hadn’t fled on land, but sought to evade them underwater until he got farther away…
As she looked around, noting that any diving gear Erix may have possessed was as absent as he was, she spotted a blinking display on the mostly dormant control panel.
And only bare seconds left to act before whatever nasty surprise he left for her went off.