Tradewinds 19: Dead Reckoning by shadesmaclean
Story Notes:
After the longest hiatus in the series' history...

Tradewinds. Is. Back!

My apologies for the long wait, and I thank everyone for their patience. Here's hoping you find it worth the wait.

1. I by shadesmaclean

2. II by shadesmaclean

3. III by shadesmaclean

4. IV by shadesmaclean

5. V by shadesmaclean

6. VI by shadesmaclean

7. VII by shadesmaclean

8. VIII by shadesmaclean

9. IX by shadesmaclean

10. X by shadesmaclean

11. XI by shadesmaclean

12. XII by shadesmaclean

13. XIII by shadesmaclean

14. XIV by shadesmaclean

15. XV by shadesmaclean

I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
solid ground
Not since their harrowing voyage to the Isle of Castaways had the erstwhile crew of the Maximum felt so overjoyed to see dry land as they were that day, struggling to keep their minds focused on this final stretch of their treacherous trip as the Excelsior concluded her maiden voyage.

Of course, if the bounty hunter Roxy had any horror stories of her own, she wasn’t in the mood to share them as she and Rufus came to double-check Mercer and Striker’s captive crews before they made landfall on what Justin told them was the seaport of Anchor Point, on the island of Yarbo. Sebastian and Maximilian continued to lend Justin a hand guiding the ship while she backed up Max and Shades at the brig. She could only hope the sudden announcement caught their prisoners off-guard before either of them could get their act together enough to try any last-minute escape attempts.

Anchor Point turned out to be a sprawling seaport town, ranged around a natural inlet, with a substantial dock complex at the main harbor. Much to their relief, the inlet was also deep enough to accommodate vessels as large as the Excelsior. As they slowed down for their final approach, Maximilian found the Port Authority’s frequency and hailed them, announcing both their arrival, as well as their troublesome situation. The dispatcher assured him there would be security officers on hand to apprehend the hijackers.

He and Sebastian came out to greet them, while Justin weighed anchor and prepared for boarding, the Young Master presenting the waiting officers with his charter, as well as Mercer’s contract and bogus cargo manifest.

The armed guards, wearing outfits that reminded Shades of Coast Guard uniforms from his own world, came down to the staterooms where the prisoners were held.

As the hijackers were marched out, looking mostly humiliated and rueful, even the two Cyexians, all of them could spare a venomous glare for Rufus. Who looked like he was about to hide behind the bounty hunter. Especially from Mercer, who actually spat at him as he went past.

“The feeling’s mutual,” Shades muttered, summing up their collective relief at finally being able to relax aboard their own ship again.

Once they were past, Roxy stepped aside to have a word with one of the officers.

“So that’s the Hunter Roxy…” an officer, who had introduced himself as one Constable Dennis Naysmith when he first came aboard, remarked. “I’ve only heard stories about her. A bounty hunter of no small reputation. You folks were lucky to have her along.”

“Very lucky,” Max agreed. “Before that, Striker basically had us.”

The constable whistled long and low as he walked away to join Roxy’s negotiation with his subordinate, mumbling, “Sounds like you had one hell of a voyage…”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Justin concurred as he came over to join them.

“All the same,” Constable Dennis remarked, “I just hope she doesn’t start too much trouble around here. Heaven knows, we already have our own share of it. From the sound of it, this Mercer and his boys gave you a rough ride, but he won’t feel so tough after a week in the Yarbo Stockade.”

While the prisoners were led away, Roxy rejoined them, saying, “I’ve explained the basic situation with them, and they’ve agreed to hold off on our docking and other fees until they’ve ironed out the bounty on Mercer and his cargo. And since you had a hand in his capture, I’ve also agreed with split the bounty with you fifty-fifty.”

“Fair enough.” Maximilian nodded.

“Um, what about me?” Rufus piped up.

“What about you?” was Roxy’s curt reply.

“Don’t I get anything?”

“You get amnesty, just like I promised,” the bounty hunter answered. “That’s what you bargained for, isn’t it? Don’t push your luck.”

“Well, yes… But what now?”

“Get lost,” Roxy told Mercer’s treacherous second, “and don’t ever cross my path again. While you’re at it, you’d be wise to leave this island as fast as you can. Rumors are one thing prison walls don’t contain for long, and Mercer and his boys are gonna smear your name from one end of this town to the other. And depending on what kind of tales Mercer tells them, the authorities may come looking for you anyway.”

It appeared to be all Rufus could do not to run as he scurried off to go pack his bags.

“He did get us out of here alive,” Max pointed out.

“And he sold out his own men to do it,” she reminded them. “He can’t be trusted.”

“Perhaps we could’ve given him a second chance,” Maximilian suggested.

“He just sided with the winning team, that’s…” Justin trailed off, looking like he didn’t like the taste of his own words.

“If you expect to wear that captain’s hat for long,” Roxy chided Maximilian, “you’re going to have to stop being so gullible. Mercer’s just the first in a long line of people looking to use you.”

“I suppose you’re right,” the erstwhile Young Master conceded.

“I suppose I am.” With that, she turned to go crash in one of the guest quarters. “I don’t know about you, but I could use some shut-eye. Any of you wake me up for anything less than a life-or-death crisis, I’ll cut your nuts off.”

Still, she maintained a lingering scrutiny on Justin, as if she still expected to remember him from somewhere.

“She could try being a little more personable,” Sebastian mumbled after she went inside.

“I think that’s just her way,” Shades commented, “but I doubt she’ll be sticking around long after she collects her bounty. We should probably start thinking about what to do next.”

“I think she has the right idea,” Maximilian concluded. “Without a crew— or passengers or cargo— we’re right back where we started in Alta. Plus we’ll need to pay for food and supplies, as well as docking in the meantime, and I’m too tired to think straight. After everything we’ve been through, I think we should all just rest today, and worry about the details tomorrow.”

“Very good, Young Master,” the butler replied as they went back inside.

“I’m with him,” Justin yawned. “Now that we’re finally on solid ground, I’m beat.”

“Still, I’m taking a room down the hall,” Shades added. “Neutering is for pets.”

They all shared a nervous laugh as they turned in.
Chapter End Notes:
Stay tuned for weekly chapter installments. :)
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
assess the mess
The following morning, they all woke up feeling refreshed, already letting the weight of the past ten days slip from their shoulders.

After breakfast, Justin and Shades strolled out onto the deck to find Maximilian gazing out at the horizon.

“I get it now…” the Young Master said, apparently talking to himself. “Why Freedan was so resentful. Why he didn’t want to treat me as a worthy enemy. I suppose I wouldn’t, either… All those years, just assuming I’d be running the company. But I had no idea how… Father, would you have shown me, if you had the chance?…”

He trailed off, finally noticing that he had company, and started with a gasp as if more mindful of his survival instincts than he was before this voyage.

“Sorry,” Shades mumbled, “didn’t mean to spook you.”

“It’s okay,” Maximilian replied. “In fact, it’s just the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about. I realize now that all this time, I’ve had no real idea what I’m doing. Just as I had no clear vision of how I would run the family business, either. No wonder the Assembly wouldn’t take me seriously… Maybe it’s for the best that I’m starting out from scratch, but if I’m going to become a real captain, I need more experience. If only I had someone to learn from…”

“Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy finding a new crew after this mess,” Justin commented as he joined them.

“First thing’s first,” Maximilian told them, “we need to go over this ship from top to bottom, take stock of what we still have, and what needs to be fixed. We also need to figure out what we can do without for now, as we surely can’t afford to repair everything all at once. After that, we’ll need to start with food and supplies, then the engines…”

“Then let’s get started,” Shades proposed. “Big jobs are always easier to work through if you break them down into smaller, bite-size tasks.”

They found Max and Bandit on the upper deck, gazing out at sea, and the two quickly joined them. It took some searching, but they found Roxy down in the hold, hanging from an overhead pipe. Doing pull-ups in full body armor.

“What do you want?” she grunted as she dropped back down to the deck. Seeing the look on Maximilian’s face, she said, “Let me guess. You’re lookin’ for an extra hand around the ship, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he answered, “if you don’t mind.”

“Very well.” Roxy shrugged. “I don’t have anything better to do until they come back with my bounty anyway, so I’ll lend you a hand for now. You’re probably going to be shorthanded for a while, the way things are going…”

“You’re welcome to join our crew,” Maximilian offered.

“No thanks,” she declined. “Once I’m paid, I’ll be on my way. My contract with the Alta Assembly’s shot, so I need to drum up some work, see what’s going on in this town. You’d do well to do the same after you’ve cleaned up the ship a bit.”

“She’s got a point,” Shades agreed. “It’s not like new crew members or clients are just going to line up on the dock for us.”

“Either way,” Maximilian repeated, “my offer still stands. I owe you at least that much.”

“You got that right. Now let’s get down to business.”

To that end, they toured the decks with some clipboards Sebastian found on the bridge, taking note of all the damage. Marking everyplace the Cyexians wrecked the electrical and communications systems. Salvaging what little was left of the food supply, and cleaning up after the impromptu ‘camp-sites’ around the ship, as well as other messes they left. Broken furniture, damaged doors, numerous acts they could already tell would take them days to clean after up all by themselves.

Later that afternoon, a representative of the Port Authority returned again with some men to confiscate Mercer’s contraband cargo, as well as open a strongbox containing the bounty for capturing smugglers.

“Five thousand credits…” Shades mused. “About the best that can be expected, all things considered…”

“Chump-change compared to what I could’ve got for Striker,” Roxy muttered as she counted out her share, “or even what the Assembly would’ve paid for Mercer and Sloan…”

“It’s more than we would’ve gotten in a lot of places,” Max pointed out.

“Still, it’ll last you longer than it’ll last us,” Justin told her. “If we weren’t fighting for our lives back there, I’d hardly think it was worth the trouble.”

“At least you get it,” she replied. “That’s why I work alone. That’s why I travel light. That’s why I seek outlaws with high bounties. That’s how you make a living when you’re a bounty hunter.”

“But it’s not just the money, is it?” Max asked. “I’ve seen you fight. You really are a hunter, and you like the challenge of dangerous prey.”

“Getting sentimental will get you killed, kid,” Roxy cautioned him as she headed for the gangplank. “There’s a good reason people are willing to pay that much to capture or kill people like Striker. If it was easy, someone would’ve done it long before she racked up a bounty that high. You oughta know better than most.”

“Where are you going?” Maximilian asked as she walked away.

“Out,” was her vague reply. “It’s almost evening. My business is with the seedy side of this town, and night is when you learn the most about what’s going on in most places’ underworld. Don’t wait up.”

She waved nonchalantly without looking back.

“Do you suppose she’ll be back?” Max wondered aloud.

“Probably not, unless she can’t find any work tonight,” Shades speculated. “Speaking of looking, I’m going to need some time off tomorrow to conduct a little search of my own.”

“Your friends, right?” Maximilian nodded.

“Yes,” he replied. If it weren’t for all the imminent threats to their lives lately, he might otherwise have thanked Mercer for keeping him too distracted to sleep deeply enough to encounter any further Zero ambushes like that morning in Alta. Yet he found that the glaring absence of his friends from his dreams of late felt even more ominous than most of his nightmares about them. Most of all because he had no idea what it was supposed to mean, if anything. “I’m glad you understand.”

“If it was my friends,” he said, “I’d be looking, too.”

“Mind if I tag along?” Justin asked.

“What for?” Shades asked back. “You never took any interest in my search before.”

“I just need to get off this ship for a while,” Justin told him. “We’ve been cooped-up for days…”

“I know how you feel,” Max told him, “but there’s still a lot of work around here.”

“Come on,” Justin pressed him, “just because I don’t have anyone to go lookin’ for…”

“How about in the afternoon?” Maximilian suggested. “By then, I imagine we’ll all need a break.”

“Sounds good to me,” Max agreed.

“Fine,” Justin muttered.

“Then I guess we’ll see what kind of welcome you get around here,” Max told his feline friend, patting him on the head as they all went inside to see what Sebastian had cobbled together for dinner before resuming the evening’s work and turning in for the night.

After all, they still had another long day ahead of them tomorrow.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Albatross
After breakfast, Shades set out, starting by dropping off the Excelsior’s docking fee, now that they’d been paid, and beginning his search in earnest, asking around the harbor offices first.

After they looted Mercer and Strikers’ crew the other day, they had divided the derelict gear up amongst themselves. Now he took his share to the seaport markets, looking to turn a tiny profit on their most recent misadventure while continuing his search among the markets and taverns. Figuring Max and Justin would set out to do likewise when their break rolled around.

Like so many places before, he turned up not the slightest hint of his friends’ whereabouts, reminding himself that he could not afford to let himself give in to discouragement.

To take his mind off the matter, he took a stroll around the harbor, taking in the sights and soaking up the local talk. Hoping perhaps something might jump out at him, or maybe his feet might tug him in a useful direction if either John or Amy had been through Anchor Point lately. A more casual version of what he imagined Roxy was up to last night. Though the fact that she had not returned gave him pause for a moment to wonder whether that meant she was having any better luck with her hunt or not.

He shrugged, figuring that, in her line of work it could easily mean either, and he would have no clue unless they bumped into each other along the way.

The port of Anchor Point, though not quite as up-and-up as Alta, nor as shifty as Bodeen, seemed like slow work for a bounty hunter. Especially if their little misadventure on the way here was the talk of the town. Still, he reminded himself that looks could be deceiving, wondered just what Roxy saw when she looked around.

And that line of thought gave him an idea. Figured he’d run it by Justin after they got back to the ship, although he was pretty sure there could be enough money in it to get him onboard.

According to locals, the inlet of Anchor Point sat right near the edge of the Moreanas Trench. Or the Abyss, as most called it. The deepest parts defied depth-sounding, yet even the nearest, shallowest region, was still fathoms past where most divers would dare.

While the bay made for a fairly sheltered harbor, compared to much of Yarbo’s rocky shores, the sea beyond was infamous for its violent weather changes, the Abyss having claimed many ships over Anchor Point’s long and storied history. So many ships, from all he’d heard, that it was no great surprise to see vessels outfitted with diving bells and other submersibles, part of what he understood to be an off-and-on salvage industry in these parts. As expected, there was also no shortage of tales about monsters in the deep, yet somehow this never stopped various crews from hauling up everything from gold to scrap metal.

He wondered offhand if the Seeker crew they met in the Konas had ever been through here, as he could easily see a lot of opportunity for them.

As he wandered past several fishing vessels, he spotted Max and Justin pointing at something obscured by other ships from his view.

When he came around the corner, he had no trouble seeing what his friends were so excited about. From his first glimpse of a tan wing peeking out from behind the next ship, he was increasingly certain he was seeing things as he beheld a seaplane moored at the dock. Long, broad wings, sporting pontoons near the tips, and twin props hanging over a wide, sleek fuselage with a boat-like bow and hull lining the underside. A large cargo bay door hung open, and beyond he saw that wide body tapered to a single tail.

“What is this thing?” Justin wondered out loud, his eyes wandering up and down the length of it as if they couldn’t figure out which part to gawk at first.

“I think it’s an… airplane…” Max suggested, recalling scenes Shades had shown him on TV and in some book back at that twilighty mall where they first met. “But it’s built like a boat underneath… Like a boat with wings, maybe…”

“So which is it?” Justin demanded of no one in particular. “A plane or a boat?”

“It’s both,” a muffled voice answered from inside, as a man stepped out from the cockpit to the cargo door.

“A flying boat?” Max scratched his head.

“I suppose you could call it that,” the man replied. Of average height and barrel-chested, with a roll of middle-age paunch that stretched out his worn, but well-mended, khaki shirt and chinos, he leaned against the cargo doorframe. A slightly lined, weathered, face of seemingly perpetual stubble, with a pilot cap perched atop it a jaunty angle. “Allow me to introduce to you the Albatross.”

“Does this thing really fly?” Justin’s expression the very face of incredulity.

“Everyone said it flew in here yesterday,” Max reminded him, seeing the miffed look on their host’s face, trying to smooth things over. “That’s why we came out here in the first place.”

“Of course it flies,” the pilot snorted.

“Yeah,” Shades chimed in as he joined them, “I used to fly from time to time back on Earth.”

“Did you just say Earth?” The pilot cocked his head at them, seeing these travelers in a whole new light.

“From that response,” Shades guessed, “I’d take it you know something of where this bird came from?”

Although an aircraft was an unexpected sight, in and of itself, what stood out to him most, though, was the painted-over traces of US Navy markings and numbers. Symbols that would mean nothing to either of his companions, but immediately told him some interesting things about this plane.

“Why, of course,” the pilot responded. “After all, I came here with her. The name’s Roger Wilco, and I’m in the transport business.”

“Shades MacLean.” He reached out and shook Roger’s hand. “Wilco?”

“Wilcox, if you want to get technical,” Roger told him, “but just between us, I go by my old flight school nickname in this world.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have served in the military back there, would you?”

“Me? No, I’m a civilian pilot,” Roger told him with a hearty laugh. “This here Albatross was de-commissioned years ago. Back on Earth, I used to fly supplies out to small, remote islands around the Bahamas.”

“You don’t say.” Noting the location, Shades wondered just what kind of tale this fellow had to tell if he bought him a drink.

“So,” Justin asked, most likely inspired by their most recent voyage, “how far away can you see land from, all the way up there?”

“A helluva lot farther than you can from down here, that’s for sure,” Roger told him with a jovial chuckle. “Makes navigating a far sight easier in these waters, let me tell you.”

“How fast does she go?” Max’s eyes still exploring the breadth and length of the Albatross, so engrossed he was barely keeping track of the conversation.

“Faster than the fastest boat, by a longshot.”

“Even so,” Shades pointed out, “the distances between realms can differ so much, and last I checked, a plane like this can only stay airborne a matter of hours, not days.”

“Of course, back in our world, you’d be right,” the pilot conceded, “but in this dimension, there are some interesting fellas out there. Tinkerers, inventors, engineers versed in sciences that haven’t even been invented in our world. And no Oil Industry patent-locks holding any of them back. ’Cept maybe in New Cali, but even there, there’re more people doin’ more stuff than their stuffy old bureaucracy can keep track of…”

He paused for a moment, patting the doorframe.

“I’ve tried to keep ’er lookin’ as much like her original self as I can, but under the hood, she’s got a ton of extra fuel economy, the engines are modded to work with several fuel types, and she’s even light enough to glide for a stretch. Just like a real albatross, a bird built to cross seas.”

There was no mistaking the pride shining from those words, any more than it was beaming on his face as he said that last.

“Sounds like you’ve had quite an adventure yourself.” Shades nodded.

“I suppose I have.” Roger nodded back. “And I’ve even managed to do a fair share of business along the way.”

“It’s not that I didn’t think anyone could,” Shades clarified, “it’s just that I was surprised anyone would, that’s all.”

“ ’T’ain’t easy,” Roger admitted, “but I wouldn’t give ’er up for the world.”

“You must cause quite a stir wherever you go,” Max remarked. “In all the places we’ve gone, we’ve never seen nor heard of anything like this.”

“I’m not surprised. Few are willing to risk the skies of this dimension,” Roger told them. “It takes a certain love of flying, a passion, if you will. Pilots come and go in this world, but I’ve been in this business longer’n anyone I’ve heard of. Only other one’s stuck around half as long was this airship I ran across once. Some lady pilot who’s probably too stubborn to die.”

“Sounds like someone else we know,” Justin quipped, and his friends shared a nervous laugh.

“There ain’t too many of us, that’s for sure,” Roger informed them. “While you hear about the occasional plane wreck, most simply vanish without a trace, sorta like I did…”

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever bumped into Amelia Earhart anywhere out there, have you?” Shades wondered aloud.

“Kid, that’s not funny.”

“Sorry.” Shades shrugged. “Morbid sense of humor.”

“Amelia who?…” Justin scratched his head.

“With all the weird tales I’ve told, I’m surprised I never told you that one,” Shades answered. Then he turned back to the pilot. “Still, I was at least half serious about that last question. I’ve seen enough to know we’re not the only things from our world to end up in this one. I’ve been searching for a couple friends of mine who almost certainly wound up here the same crazy night I did.”

“I see,” Roger replied, “Then I suppose you have quite the search ahead of you.”

“You’re tellin’ me.”

“ ’Course, it can take a while to convince paying clients to fly with me,” Roger resumed, “which means I need to get back to my maintenance inspection. This old bird needs to be in top-flight condition if they’re gonna trust us up there.”

“It was nice talking to you.” Max turned away slowly, his eyes still magnetized to the Albatross.

“Always a pleasure, talking to anyone from our world,” Shades added, taking the hint.

“Say, maybe we could fly on that thing sometime?” Justin proposed as they walked away.

“Perhaps,” Shades answered, “but he definitely won’t fly for free.”

“I would like to fly, too,” Max chimed in, “but first we need to get back to the ship and see what needs doing next.”

“Of course,” Shades replied, “but now that I think about it, there just might be a way we can afford it. There was something I wanted to talk to you about, guys, and I think it would be best to get our own act together before we approach her about it…”

With that, they headed back to the Excelsior, and Shades wondered if a certain bounty hunter would return, or if they had seen the last of her.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
tagging along
At first, they were pretty sure Roxy was gone for the night again, but when she turned out on deck in the morning, Shades could only guess that she had slipped aboard quietly last night.

As she headed for the gangplank, Shades and Justin had to hustle to catch up with her.

“What do you want?” she demanded point-blank. “If it’s about the ship, I dropped the kid some coin for the room last night. I’m a bounty hunter, not a cleaning service.”

“No, it’s not about that,” Shades assured her, “we just want to tag along.”

“Yeah,” Justin added, “We wanna see what it takes to be a bounty hunter.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“Actually, I’m quite serious,” Shades elaborated. “You know that I’m searching for two old friends of mine, but I’m starting to reach the limits of what my own investigative skills can turn up. The only way I can think of to move forward is to learn some new methods.”

Both of them had to keep walking to keep up with her as she continued her stride toward the port town.

“I see…” Roxy replied, appraising him. After a moment of contemplation, she appeared to have a change of heart, instead asking, “And I suppose your friend is just in it for the money?”

“Come on,” Justin shot back, “just because I used to be a streetrat, doesn’t mean I only care about the bottom line. And if it happens to put a few outlaws out of business, I won’t complain about getting paid.”

“I hope you paid attention during our voyage here,” the bounty hunter cautioned, “because this sort of work isn’t for just anybody. And what of Max? Does he want to be a bounty hunter, too?”

“I don’t think so,” Shades answered. “Now that the Excelsior is more, shall we say, presentable, he’s trying to help the Young Master search for some new clients and crew.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Roxy commented. “Of course, a kid like that can be a real trouble magnet. If we don’t find any good leads today, I might just have to see who he hires next…”

“You just said we,” Justin pointed out, “so does that mean we’re in?”

“Not so fast.” She held up a hand as they turned to a nearby shack with a mouthwatering fried aroma wafting from it. “This place has excellent seafood and reasonable prices for it. Since we’re not stranded in the middle of the ocean, perhaps we should discuss business the old-fashioned way.”

And so they sat down to lunch, ordering a variety platter the place called the Catch of the Day.

“Let’s start with the tools of the trade,” Roxy began. “I’ve already seen most of your arsenal, and while it could use some improvements, it’s a decent start. After all, some bounties are wanted dead, and others alive, so it’s good to have some options, especially for capturing and holding prisoners. The most important thing with any weapon, though, is being able to use it effectively.”

She then reached into her hip pouch, fetching out a small datapad they had seen her consult a couple times during their voyage.

“While it’s not an absolute necessity, I don’t know how I ever got along without it,” she explained. “Not only can I download updates from anyplace that has a relay beacon, but I can also enter and organize any information of my own about people, places or events, and it can even cross-reference it. You, Shades, would definitely benefit from a tool like this.”

“You’ve already sold me on it,” Shades answered her, making a mental note to look into it later.

“So tell me,” Justin piped up, grinning ear to ear, “would that thing have any info about a fella called Rude Bones?”

“Probably not,” she snorted, “not anymore. I told you before, he’s been out of the game for many years.”

“So, seriously, you’ve heard of him?” Shades remarked.

“Only by reputation,” she reminded them. “Back then, he was known as the Madman of Kimo Daji. Probably had one hell of a bounty on his head back in the day, but that was before my time. After all these years, I doubt anyone cares enough to front a reward for him now.”

“I see.” Justin nodded.

“Kimo Daji?” Shades cocked his head. “I wonder why he never talked about it, given how proud he always seemed of his pirate days…”

“For the same reason a lot of pirates and outlaws don’t make a habit of dropping details,” she pointed out. “Even if no one’s offering a reward anymore, there’s no guarantee someone somewhere doesn’t still hold a grudge, or how far they might go to have their revenge. And Kimo Daji is a place full of dangerous people. A pirate port, run by a loose coalition of gangs and Pactra, far away from the authority of other governments.”

“I’ve heard the name,” Justin commented, recalling some hushed talk about it around Benton seaport during his years in the Triangle State, “but only in passing.”

“Anchor Point has clearly enjoyed a long period of political and economic stability,” Roxy reflected, “but some places don’t have that luxury. Other pirate haven ports may come and go with the political climate, but Kimo Daji seems to be stuck in a situation where it can never go legit, as the whole island chain of Kara Danjo has been a lawless realm for as long as anyone can remember. According to most locals, even the name ‘Kara Danjo’ means ‘Chain of Troubles’ in the ancient native tongue of those islands.”

Danjo… Shades filed away a mental note to ask more about that name when they weren’t discussing business.

“You sound like you’ve been there before,” Justin mused.

“Once,” she snorted, “years ago. Though even I’d need a damn good disguise to ever set foot there again…

“Whichever group is in charge always charges a toll keep their own enforcers on the street. Being a criminal enterprise, the top dogs come and go with the tide. Black Market Bazaar is an open marketplace— unlike most black markets— that deals in drugs, arms and other hot merch that’s varying shades of illegal in most realms. Unlike most places, they maintain an Above Board trading policy, and prefer their clients to be only minimally armed, as the entire island is considered neutral ground. No coalition wants a gang war, as it’s bad for business. Those who cause trouble are no longer welcome without paying blood fines or reparations to wronged parties, as well as a cut for the bosses.”

“Sounds almost like government by mafia…” Shades concluded. “I wouldn’t have thought that could function for long without the law to keep its own tendencies in check.”

“Make no mistake,” she cautioned him, “it can be a very dangerous place when things get heated. The original Striker was once known as the Queen of Kimo Daji, but she was eventually ousted by her rivals, and her Pactra instead took to the high seas, which is where most people have heard the name. The other islands of Kara Danjo have little enough control over their own territories, so intervention in Kimo Daji is rare, and never ends well for whoever sticks their nose in. From what I’ve heard, they are mostly impoverished mining and fishing ports, that sort of thing.”

“Sort of like the Konas…” Justin thought aloud.

“But we’re getting way off topic,” she resumed. “Timely info is critical, as most criminals are on the move, and constantly looking over their shoulder. If you’re always one step behind, you’ll never catch up with them.”

“And then when you do catch them,” Shades tried to imagine the next step, to find that the law, at least in his world, didn’t really offer much in the way of options, “do we actually have any legal authority to arrest them?”

“That can go very differently from one realm to the next,” Roxy cautioned them, “but a lot of places will honor a publically posted bounty, just to get dangerous criminals off their streets. You’re gonna want to stow that Fair Play mentality of yours if you plan to hunt outlaws. It’s one thing to fight when your back’s against the wall. It’s a whole other business when you go out looking for a fight. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”

“So you just capture them?” Justin scratched his head.

“It’s not always that simple. Unless they’re already wanted for something in that place, you’ll need proof. Like when we showed them Mercer’s contract and cargo manifest. Even then, it helps to have a reputation, as some places don’t seem to mind jailing criminals, but will try to weasel out of paying the bounty if they think they can.”

From her tone, they guessed she was talking as much from personal experience as anything else she’d told them.

“Just keep in mind,” she continued, “the people we’re after are anything but innocent. No one would’ve put a bounty on them if they didn’t do something to someone.” Turning to Shades: “These are the sort of folks someone like you has always gone out of your way to avoid and keep out of your life, and you,” taking in Justin, “probably steered clear of whenever you could, so never let your guard down out there.”

Good advice, Shades reflected, even when you’re not looking for trouble. As he learned a long time ago, even when you’re minding your own business, sometimes trouble comes looking for you.

“Now, there’s one last thing to go over before we get down to business,” Roxy pointed out: “The pay. Since you’re apprentices, I’ll keep half the reward, and you’ll each take a quarter.”

She could see Justin trying to suppress a scowl.

“And as long as you don’t trip me up, we’ll talk about even thirds next time.”

“Very well,” Shades agreed.

Justin nodded silently.

“Remember, this is a limited partnership,” Roxy warned them, “so if you screw this up, there won’t be a next time. Now it’s time to start talking about the case. I have a couple leads on someone selling illegal salvage here in the seaport, but it’s not going to be an easy investigation. These people are as secretive as smugglers, since their game is also Black Market.”

“Illegal salvage?” Justin cocked his head. “What’s that?”

“This inlet sits on a shelf, just off the edge of a deep trench,” Shades fielded this one. “Combined with the sudden storms that can come from out there, a lot of ships have been lost over the years. You remember the Seeker, from our stay in the Konas? Well, the local authorities charge a salvage fee to fund their Port Authority, to keep pirates and smugglers in check.”

“Exactly.” Roxy nodded. “Because of the potential value of some of this cargo, the last thing they want is to have pirates prowling around. The licensing fees and registrations also allow them to regulate the surface vessels most salvage operations work from. This helps keep the salvage market itself manageable, but it also means some parties will pay under the table to get their hands on certain kinds of salvage.”

“Like gold?” Justin suggested.

“Now you’re catching on,” Roxy told him. “While the scrap metal market is pretty tame, there are plenty of other things down there that will draw the criminal element if the price is right.”

“So you’re thinkin’ maybe three sets of eyes and ears will be better than one?” Shades intoned.

“Only if those eyes and ears are discreet,” she pointed out, “and have some idea what they’re looking for. Because of our situation, my reputation precedes me here, which mostly works against me in an investigation, as a lot of this town’s troublemakers already seem to be avoiding me. Shades, you’re not very… approachable for seedy types, so you’re probably better off just fading into the background and keeping an eye out for anything amiss, since you seem to be fairly observant. Justin, you seem a lot more at home on the streets— no offense— so you’re better positioned to talk to people who’d go out of their way to avoid me, or your friend, so see if you can’t strike up some interesting conversations out there.”

“Out where?” Shades asked.

“Oh yeah, I forgot to mention,” the bounty hunter added, “all of my leads are in a rough part of Anchor Point called the Cyexian Quarter, so stay sharp.”

“Cyexian… Quarter?” Justin mumbled.

“It’s not all Cyexians,” Roxy assured him, “but all of the island’s Pactra operate out of there, so watch your step. And keep in mind, not all Pactra are criminal groups. A few are also more legit, like social clubs or civic groups, so you’d do well to pay more attention to activities than people if you’re not familiar with the local Pactra. And naturally, it wouldn’t do for all of us to go strolling in there at the same time, so meet me at the Timbers Lodge in a couple hours. I’ll approach you when the coast is clear.”

With that, she tossed a few coins and bills on the table and turned to leave with a flutter of her cloak.

“Hey! What about the rest of the bill!?” Justin blurted.

“What about it?” Roxy asked. “I never said I was going to treat you, did I?”

“She’s got a point.” Shades shrugged, reaching for his wallet.

“And that will be my first lesson,” the bounty hunter informed them: “There’s no such thing as a free meal, and never trust anybody who offers you one, because there will always be a catch. No matter what they say, they always want something from you in the end.”

The two of them just turned and looked at each other for a moment as she strode away, the whole thing putting Justin in mind of an old saying from the Triangle State: If wishes were fishes, beggars would feast.
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Captain Galford
Meanwhile, two Maxes walked down another street in the Docks Quarter, scratching off yet another lead from their rapidly shrinking list.

The Young Master was fast learning what a terrible disadvantage he was at. Though necessary to make the ship at all presentable before bringing any potential clients aboard, four days at anchor was long enough for word to get around about their last voyage. Long enough for the entire seaport to know what shape his poor Excelsior was in. Four days to absorb sordid stories of pirates and smugglers, of hijacking and mutiny.

And of a certain bounty hunter.

Even rumors that the ship was haunted or cursed, though he hoped that kind of talk wouldn’t fly with serious business people. Combined with his obvious youth and inexperience, it was already a hard sell. And that was without even bringing up the sad tale of how it even came into his possession in the first place, which would surely be enough to scare off anyone else.

Max tried to stay upbeat, but even his optimism was beginning to flag.

Their only remaining lead in the Docks area itself brought them to a harbor warehouse, a rather shabby-looking place that didn’t really inspire any more confidence than the other five places they’d been since lunch. Still, it was the only one that received more than one recommendation from the other places, especially the tavern, so they reminded themselves that appearances can be deceiving. If nothing else, the vibe they both got from the workers here was at least more reputable than some of the others they’d been to.

Docked outside, they glimpsed a cargo ship marked Queen of Night, but the mostly Cyexian crew on deck eyed them in a sufficiently uninviting way that they turned their attention back to the warehouse itself.

Though that was not to say that that the place was necessarily more pleasant for being less seedy; for although this crew worked diligently enough, there was also an air of frustration and dissatisfaction about them, as well.

“Excuse me,” Maximilian said to the foreman as he approached him, “my name is Maximilian Vandenberg, and I was told I could find one Captain Galford here.”

“Captain?” the foreman snorted, “Ain’t no captains around here, but if you wanna speak to Galford, he’s up in the loft.”

Pointing to some stairs leading up to an office overlooking the warehouse floor.

Not entirely sure what to make of that last, the two of them plodded up the steps, no longer having any clue what to expect. Up top, they found a makeshift office, with a broad bank of windows facing the warehouse floor, but only a couple smaller ones looking outside. Several rickety wooden chairs surrounding a large table strewn with mugs and papers and random clutter, with a small scroll desk over in the corner.

A lone man stood facing the floor below, turning to face them as they entered, whether because he saw them downstairs, or just heard them now, he gave no indication.

“And who might you be?” he asked of them.

Tall and solid, straight-backed in spite of the hint of grey creeping into his hair and neatly-trimmed beard, and one could not help picturing him cutting dashing figure in his younger days, like some living legend of seafaring. Something all the miles and all the years still couldn’t fade. Dressed in dark blue pants and a jacket with matching trim, all that seemed missing was a captain’s hat. A weathered, chiseled face that had held up well against both miles and years, with piercing, but not unfriendly, grey eyes.

Still, there was no mistaking a haggard new weight upon his shoulders, which he visibly struggled not to slump under the burden of.

“I am Maximilian Vandenberg,” the Young Master introduced himself, “and this is my associate, who’s also named Max. I represent the crew of the Excelsior, a ship that is looking to charter new crew members. And you, sir?”

“Devron Galford, at your service,” he replied. “I’ve heard tell of your ship’s plight, and it’s practically the opposite of our own.”

“Word really gets around this place…” Max mumbled, still surprised that he was at all surprised after all the similar responses they’d heard all day.

“Is that why they all referred me to you?” Maximilian asked.

“Perhaps,” Galford answered, “but before we discuss any sort of business, I would like to hear your story first-hand. As you already seem to know, there are a lot of rumors about your ship going around Anchor Point these days, so surely you can see why I would want to hear your side of the story before agreeing to anything.”

Inviting them to take a seat at the table as he seated himself.

“I hear you had quite the voyage…”

“I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you the half of it,” Maximilian sighed.

“Try me.” Galford fished out a pipe and pouch, puffing thoughtfully as he listened to their tale.

And so Maximilian went all the way back to Alta, the dispute over the Vandenberg Trading Company, as well as its aftermath, leading to Mercer and his backstabbing bargain with Striker, Roxy’s intervention, and their desperate struggle to regain control of their ship.

Max solemnly backing him up at every turn.

“You do have a point,” Galford conceded, sitting back in his seat and mulling it over for a moment. “If I heard this story from most people, I would have figured they took me for a fool. But I’ve seen a lot of faces in my years, and your friend here is too honest and straight-forward to play along with such a farce.”

“So you believe me?” Maximilian struggled not to sound too relieved while the jury was still out on that.

“I’m inclined to,” he replied, “but would your bounty hunter friend also vouch for it?”

“Of course,” Maximilian answered. “That is, if you can find her. She doesn’t spend much time on the ship anymore, but Justin and Shades will also back us up. When they get back.”

“And what happened to them?”

“They went looking for Roxy,” Max told him, “I think they want to learn about bounty hunting.”

“Ah, I used to be an adventurer like you,” Galford remarked, “but I found steadier work on the crew of a ship, the Harbinger. In time, I became captain, and we sailed all over the world… Until lately. About a month ago, we were caught in a terrible storm, out upon the Trench, suffering heavy damage out there. In a last attempt to save ourselves, we headed for Anchor Point’s beacon, a ray of hope none of us expected to find. Sadly, it was too little, too late, and our beloved Harbinger was lost. Another ship claimed by the Abyss. It was only with the help of a Port Authority rescue ship that we even made it, responding to our last distress signal, but we’ve been stranded here ever since.”

“A crew without a ship,” Max observed, looking around and seeing the warehouse workers in a new light. And couldn’t help but feel a hint of kinship with this crew, who were also bereft of a ship, struggling to find a new path.

“So now you see why everyone was pointin’ you in my direction, then,” Galford summed up. “We found work where we can, but there’s nothing here that would pay enough to buy our own ship. Even working here around the harbor barely pays enough to cover any of our personal expenses, but I fear before long, most of my companions will have to part ways, joining other crews one by one if they wish to return to the high seas…”

“I’m sure there’s room aboard the Excelsior for your whole crew,” Maximilian invited.

“Of that I’m sure,” Galford acknowledged, “but it is yet to be seen if you can also procure cargo or passengers. If nothing else, I will need to discuss this with the others, and there is also the matter of our contract here at this warehouse, but I will give you a fair chance. The day after tomorrow, I will pay your ship a visit, at sunrise. Anyone else who might be interested may also come with me to take a look. I’m not promising anything, but I will at least consider it.”

“That is all I ask,” Maximilian told him. “Thank you for meeting with us, Captain Galford.”

“Don’t go granting me titles just yet, lad,” Galford cautioned him as they shook hands. “I can see you have passion and will, but a good captain also needs a level head and experience.”

“And I’m willing to learn,” Maximilian assured him as he turned and joined Max on his way out.

Both of them certain that Galford and his erstwhile crew were the best offer they were going to get out of Anchor Point. That even if they could scare up some more leads tomorrow, there wouldn’t be anything with this kind of potential again anytime soon, certainly not in time to save the Excelsior. Maximilian, especially, convinced that he had just found himself a new mentor, as well as a captain.

Having already decided that the next day would be devoted to shoring up the ship, and seeing if he could find any leads on cargo or passengers, though how he was going to sell that pitch without a crew yet he had no idea.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
inn-terrogation
Justin and Shades lounged around the Timbers Lodge, both near opposite sides of the lobby.

Both having made their way there by different routes, Shades having arrived a few minutes earlier. Both having sought each other out while trying not to be looking for anyone in particular. Both of them still trying not to make eye contact, lest they betray their own acquaintance with each other.

Shades standing near one of the doors, Justin seated alone at a small table near the lounge, and wishing he were standing the longer he sat there.

In fact, Shades almost didn’t recognize him. Decked out in a black duster Roxy scrounged up from somewhere and left for him back at the ship. On one hand, he couldn’t complain about his looks, but on the other, he had to confess some misgivings about how it interfered with his draw. Figured he’d try it out for the rest of this investigation, and if he could make it work, he’d hang on to it.

Despite the name Cyexian Quarter, both of them still had to admit they had never seen so many Cyexians in one place, comprising the majority of the women in this part of town. According to Shades’ research, the violet eyes were a strictly XX chromosomal trait, making it exclusively female. Men of Cyexian lineage, on the other hand, bore no outward sign, and thus seemed to be historically nonexistent. Recalling Dagmar from the Isle of Castaways, they both reminded themselves that most of these gals probably held more legitimate occupations than Striker’s crew, that it was just an unfortunate coincidence nine out of ten Cyexians they’d ever met out on the high seas just happened to be pirates and swindlers.

All the same, each of them had also noted several recurring tattoos and other tokens that suggested membership in various gangs or societies, both of which were commonly called Pactra, and took Roxy’s warning to heart.

The Timbers itself was a fairly typically inn, with rooms for rent upstairs, and a public lobby on the ground floor, where both guests and others could order food and drink. The kind of place that put Shades in mind of inns and taverns from role-playing games. The kind with quest-givers and adventurers looking to form parties.

Looking around, he couldn’t help but wonder what sort of misadventures in this world started with a chance meeting at a place like this, and just what he was getting himself into here.

It was in the midst of these thoughts that he felt a hand tap his shoulder, as if to point out to him just how far his attention had strayed.

He glanced over his shoulder to see Roxy standing there beside him. She briefly pursed her lips to shush him, then nodded over to where Justin was still seated. They both watched a shifty-looking man sit down next their friend as the bounty hunter continued strolling past.

For his part, Justin was poking at the bread and cheese he had ordered earlier, having largely sated himself at lunch earlier. Slowly nibbling down, ashamed at the thought of letting even mediocre food go to waste, but not wanting to drop more coin on anything else just to hold his seat. Thus the stranger who seated himself next to him, unsavory as he seemed, was still a welcome change from paid loitering.

“Say, friend,” the stranger piped up, showing a broad grin with only a couple gaps in it, “are you tired of eating cheap tack? Wanna sink your teeth into some better grub?”

“Maybe…” Justin answered through a mouthful of cheese.

“I can tell you’re new around here.” To Justin, this fellow’s face put him in mind of a rodent, narrow and furtive, no matter how smooth his talk. “Trust me, I know all the local hands. And, fortunately for you, young mariner, I also have connections to folks who are looking for some fresh faces, and happen to pay well for those who get results.”

“I’m listening.” Justin swallowed his cheese hard, trying not to dwell on the last time he was hired by someone looking for fresh faces.

“I can see you recognize a good opportunity when it presents itself,” the rat-faced man continued. “You’re gonna go far, kid. You an’ me, we both know the streets. Sure, you’ve moved up in the world a bit, but you still bear the mark of the street, if you don’t mind me sayin’. You also strike me as someone who knows the importance of being discreet. Which brings us back to my original proposal.

“Based on your menu choices, I’m guessing your wallet’s a little light these days, huh? Well, I just happen to know someone in the Docks Quarter, who’s looking for discreet labor. They pay as much to keep your mouth shut as they do to work hard, if you take my meaning.”

“What kind of work?” Justin figured that was probably the next logical question in this line of discussion.

“Mind you, I’m not privy to the details,” he explained, “but given it’s the harbor, I would imagine it involves loading or unloading cargo, and they might even be hiring crew members if one was, say, looking to leave Anchor Point on short notice. While I of course have no idea why one might need to, things do come up sometimes, and it never hurts to have the option, don’t you think?”

“I suppose it doesn’t,” Justin replied, trying hard to think about the last time someone offered him passage in exchange for some discreet labor.

“If you’re interested,” he resumed, “I hear they’re meeting potential clients in the Docks Quarter, aboard a cargo ship called the Queen of Night. You know, in case you were looking for a quick credit. If ya go for it, tell ’em Slick sent ya.”

With that, he patted Justin’s shoulder, all chummy like, hopping out of his seat and ambling off to the far side of the lobby.

Justin, meanwhile, tried not to reach up and wipe off the shoulder of his new duster while Slick was still anywhere in sight. This fellow struck him as a low-level information broker, a Word On the Street type, so he was probably getting kickbacks for referrals that turned out, which meant that was one mystery solved. Now it was simply a matter of figuring out what that job actually was, and if it was anything related to their case.

He was just about to get up, having lost interest in the dry, crusty bread, as well as the expectation of ordering more to hold his seat, when another shady character strolled up to him. While Slick looked weasely and furtive, this fellow was lean and mean, looking more inclined to stick you up than pick your pocket. His Direct Approach scowl making it abundantly clear his business here was with Justin.

“You,” he said, gesturing to the door, where Slick was just making his exit, “that little pisser was talkin’ to you, wasn’t he? Offered you some kind of job, right?”

“And if he did?” Justin wasn’t sure he liked where this was going, but had seen enough to know things would go from bad to worse if he let himself sound afraid.

“I’m here to tell ya to walk away, if ya know what’s good for ya. That’s Stockade turf they’re steppin’ on, and you don’t wanna be there when they finally get what’s comin’ to ’em, ya dig?”

“Who?” Of course, Justin had heard the name Stockade around the Docks Quarter, enough to know they were one of Anchor Point’s bigger gangs, so he couldn’t help but wonder who would dare to step on their toes.

“The Cray Sisters,” the thug replied. “Those bitches been gettin’ too bold lately…”

He trailed off at the look on Justin’s face. In the short time he’d been nosing around the Cyexian Quarter, Justin had picked up enough to know the Crays were one of the bigger Pactra in town, and not one of the communal types. Which meant that he was standing on the threshold of a potential gang war, and he wondered just what he was letting this bounty hunter get him into here.

“You’re a nosy little shit, aren’t ya?” the thug demanded, suspicion written all over his street-tough mug. “Looks like we need to step out back.”

And proceeded to whip out a knife before Justin could make a move. Rendering all of his musings about his new draw moot and academic, as his power pistol may as well be back at the ship for all the good it was doing at his hip.

“Now, I don’t know who you work for,” he said, “but we’re gonna send you back with a little message…”

His threat fizzled out on the tip of his tongue, though, noting belatedly that Roxy had the drop on him.

Right behind him, power pistol concealed under her cloak, but pressed to his back so he would know she wasn’t bluffing. Justin could see the same look in her eyes as when she confronted Striker, and this guy seemed to take the hint, dropping his knife without even having to be told to. By now, Justin was pretty sure these last couple encounters were just the sort of thing the bounty hunter had been waiting for all along.

“I have a better idea,” she told him. “How about we all go upstairs and talk about this?”

The Stockade thug nodded numbly, allowing himself to be led to the stairs. As they went, Justin spared a glance over his shoulder to see Shades following them at a discreet distance. Positioned, he couldn’t help but notice, to cut off Stockade’s escape if he tried to bolt.

Roxy led them into one of the rooms the inn rented out, Shades closing the door behind them after checking to see they weren’t followed.

“You…” the Stockade muttered, though he was having trouble looking her in the eye. “So the rumors about you being in town were true. Them Cray bitches got somethin’ goin’ with ya? Pactra Special? Or do ya even turn in sisters, too?”

“I hunt down anyone the law offers a decent bounty for,” she retorted, holding her power pistol out in the open now that they had some privacy, “and that includes their crew, as well as yours. I couldn’t care less about your little territorial dispute. I want to know where the Cray Sisters are getting their most recent shipments from.” She turned to Justin for a moment. “I hear they’re even hiring non-Cyexians to make it look more legit, they’ve been hauling so much.”

“Don’t look at me,” Justin snorted, and Shades would never have guessed his friend was just playing along if he wasn’t also in on it, “all that other bastard said was to ask around the Docks!”

“Of course,” Roxy sniffed, “they obviously wouldn’t tell a no-name like you anything before you needed to know. About what I expected. So that just leaves you,” she said, turning back to the Stockade member. “Something tells me you know more than him about this, the way you’re goin’ around threatening all of Cray’s new hires.”

“And I ain’t tellin’ ya shit!” the thug shot back, drawing himself up a little taller. “Stockades don’t rat.”

“Is that so?” The bounty hunter turned to Shades and told him, “Go over to the closet and fetch me some duct tape, cleaning alcohol, and a pair of pliers.”

“What’re you going to do with that?” Shades tried not to let his voice betray just how uncomfortable he was with where this appeared to be heading.

“We’re going to get some answers.”

“Ha! You don’t scare me!” Stockade sneered.

Shades went over to the closet, and was almost surprised to find the items she asked for.

As he brought them back over, Justin piped up, “Seriously, just what are you going to do with those?”

“Do you really wanna know?” Roxy raised an eyebrow at him.

Justin’s throat bobbed for a moment in spite of himself at recollections of what sorts of things the Triangle State Authority’s guards were rumored to do to people with common shop tools.

“Now wait a minute…” Stockade stammered, “you can’t be serious…”

Shades stretched out a length of duct tape, trying not to let it show that he was contemplating just how far he was willing to take this before he could no longer uphold his end of this particular game.

“You got a name?” Roxy demanded.

“Do you know what they do to guys who snitch in the Stockade?” With each word sounding less and less like a hardened street thug, and more like a whiny juvenile delinquent. “We got guys on the inside, where do ya think most of us come from?…”

“Not my problem,” she said flatly. “You should be more worried about what I’m going to do to you right now.”

The Stockade looked around frantically, seeing no help. The bounty hunter, the henchman, and the guy he just threatened to cut up to send a message only minutes ago. Any of his boys he may have had waiting for him out back were also going to be late to this party.

“Bind his hands,” Roxy interrupted, “but be sure to leave his thumbs free.”

Stockade actually wailed and scuttled back against the wall the instant Shades touched the duct tape to his skin.

“Fine! You win, you crazy bitch!” he panted. “Fuck, I don’t really know anything, dammit! Even the Crays don’t seem to know who he is…”

“Not good enough.”

“I’m serious!” he insisted. “Word on the street is, he’s some hooded guy who never shows his face. Wears some weird gloves, probably a weapon of some kind… Nobody knows his name, and nobody’s figured out where he’s gettin’ all his shit, or how he’s movin’ it past the Port Authority… I swear I don’t know anything else… Please…”

“Very well,” Roxy waved her pistol toward the door, “seems nobody knows anything about our mystery dealer. If you move your ass and dummy up before you step out, your friends might just be none the wiser about our little chat. It’s more than you deserve, so consider this a reward for giving me a straight answer before things got ugly.”

Shades barely stumbled aside as the Stockade scrambled out the door.

“Remind me not to piss you off,” he remarked, covering Justin as he shut the door.

“Lighten up,” Roxy shrugged, “even I have idea what I was gonna do with that crap. It’s never come to that. If he’d called my bluff after you bound him, I would’ve asked for a lighter or a candle, and that always does it. A little psychology lesson:

“The more outlandish the stuff you call for, the more most people’s imaginations run wild trying to figure out what you’re going to do. I’m not even sure I want to know what he thought I was planning to do with that. Still, from the look on your face, Justin, you must’ve seen some shit wherever you came from.”

“Uh, yeah…” For his part, Justin was still trying to work some moisture back into his mouth.

“Remember, most gang members are cowards by nature,” Roxy told him, “that’s why they run in packs. They may bark loud when they’re together, but most whimper when you catch them alone. They remember all the shitty things they’ve done to others, and fear having it done to them.”

“I see…” Shades found himself pondering all the other things that would have been useful to know about a decade ago, when he was New Meat at a new school, even in a rural setting with no gangs to speak of.

“Now,” she told Justin as she led the way back out, “we just need you to attend their little job interview, so we can get some information about our mysterious salvage smuggler. But for now, I need you to look scared. Like I just threatened to do whatever you thought I was going to do to that other guy. Unless I approach you first, from now on, the only place we meet is at the ship. I don’t know how long that getup will fool anyone, but I’d recommend wearing it only when you’re on the job. And Shades, I’ll need you to keep acting like you’re my henchman.”

Seeing both of their expressions, she nodded.

“Good!”

As they came down the stairs, Roxy grabbed Justin by the collar of his duster, shoving him at one of the empty tables.

“Now,” she said as she sent him packing, “don’t ever waste my time like that again!”

And he certainly looked irked enough to play the part, glaring over his shoulder at her as he staggered away, straightening his coat indignantly.

“Now that that’s settled,” she said, turning back to Shades, “let’s see if we can’t find some real leads out there.”

And Shades followed, for his part trying not to dwell on the earful he was going to about this episode back at the ship later.
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
journey into darkness
Turned out that Justin had little to say about the whole Timbers affair when he finally returned to the ship, but Shades wasn’t necessarily sure that was a good thing. It still haunted his thoughts when he drifted to sleep…

…And finds himself hanging out with some of those single-serving friends that sometimes tagged along with him in his dreams. For the course of his dream, they had been friends forever, but after waking up, he would quickly realize that none of them ever bore any resemblance to anyone he used to hang out with in the waking world. And although the details would slip away when he awakened, he would always be left with that eerie impression that it was a different bunch every time.

The place they are hanging out this time could best be described as an odd combination of mall and theme park. Mostly indoors, with a couple movie theaters, video arcades, numerous restaurants, animatronic animals singing and dancing, some outdoor carnival rides… All connected by a whimsical maze of halls, ramps and stairways.

As they make their way to another theater, discussing what movie to watch next— not that anything about these films will seem familiar to him after he wakes up— Shades somehow gets separated from the others while looking for a restroom. Almost in spite of having just boasted that he knew his way around here better than any of them.

Ever more chagrined and confused, his every turn leading him farther and farther away from them, until he finds himself wandering into some closed gift shop. The door is unlocked, and even though he knows his friends won’t come here, his feet lead him on anyway. Everything is dusty and neglected, as if it was not only closed for the day, but had been for some time, and he wonders for a moment why the door is unlocked like that.

The atmosphere quickly changes, the deeper in he goes, shifting from muted festive to forlorn to unsettling.

At first, there are no outward signs, just a sense of things becoming seedier, weedier, hinting at a history of decadence that strikes him as jarringly out of place in a kiddy-themed setting. It’s in the dingy back room that things start to take a turn for the ugly, starting with a disturbing desk calendar. Shades knew the type, having seen them in auto mechanics’, plumbers’, and the occasional cubbyhole or garage office, with their bikini-clad gals posing in front of cars and such, but all other resemblances end there.

The bound and gagged forms of emaciated women, like some kind of twisted concentration camp porn, stop him in his tracks, knowing that this would never pass muster anywhere, even as the blackest of parody. As well as the nagging certainty that there must be a law against at least some aspect of how these photos were even made…

All the more so, for the chilling intuition that these sick photos were not doctored in any way, and he turns to leave, no longer sure what he’s even doing in this horrific place. Yet as he turns around, he sees even more of the room, none of it any better, as far as he is concerned. Stuffed animal mascots hanging from nooses, or dismembered and laying in piles of their own stuffing in the corners, broken bottles, and mysterious dark stains his eyes refuse to linger on.

A den of depravity, whose demented history already history already seems to be seeping into his mind, whispering of things he never wanted to know. As if every corner of this place is now screaming of the sheer
wrongness visited upon it. Both a warning, he thinks, and a cry for help. Last chance to turn back… each decoration seemed to say, Before you find out what really goes on in here…

The impression that each step is taking him deeper into some predator’s territory, and into its lair.

Every fiber of his being telling him to get out of here, while he still can, he stumbles back out into the store proper. Seeing a large bank of dusty windows overlooking the cavernous open levels above. Some kind of museum or gallery, with various vehicle displays, including an old bi-plane hanging from the ceiling, and he wonders how he missed all this on the way in. As he steps out onto the floor, wanting to be as far away from this little shop of horrors as his feet can possibly take him, he glimpses some steps leading up to a level above the shop, with a “CLOSED” sign hung across the stair landing on a chain.

Just as he’s about to head for the door, he hears a commotion up there, including a woman crying out for help, and bounds up the stairs. Even his waking mind will have a hard time sorting out the bedlam he blunders into next, a warren of business offices and personal quarters in total chaos. Young women being chased around by sleazy-looking men in business suits.

Near as he can tell, the women were being held captive before one of them somehow got loose, all of them looking like they seriously want out of this sick party. The hosts of this secret
retreat— apparently going on unbeknownst to the rest of the park— could best be described as nothing less than slimy, degenerate Good Ol’ Boy types at their worst. And Shades is pretty sure this impromptu game of tag wasn’t in the event program, as they are going at it with a total lack of festive pretense.

Even as he tries to wrap his head around it all, catching glimpses of signs of torture, drugs, and hints of other mayhem that he knows now has been going on for a long time. Right under the park’s nose, almost certainly by someone with power and influence. With a strong suggestion of No Witnesses by the end of each sordid shindig.

His shock and horror giving way to burning rage at the horrific scene unfolding before him, he is about to jump into the fray, when he spots someone who stops him in his tracks.

“Amy!”

But she doesn’t seem to hear him, and she doesn’t look back, either, focused entirely on the stairs he just came up only moments ago.

One of the Good Ol’ Boys in hot pursuit, but Shades reaches out his foot and trips him, sending him sprawling flat out on his face before he could reach the steps. Giving Amy a head start to the first landing, where she gains a further lead by jumping off the railing and onto the bi-plane hanging display in the chamber outside, dropping down onto a car display next to it on the gallery floor below, making it to the door as her pursuer finally stumbles to the bottom of the stairs. Cursing and screaming that she can’t be allowed to get out, no matter what.

He sees her run down the street, the other guy staggering to a halt as he runs out of steam, Amy having gained too great a lead to catch up with her by now.

Shades’ exultation at her swashbuckling escape is short-lived, though, as by now the others have taken notice of him, and not in a good way. The remainder of his dream becomes a blur of violence, blocking doors, flipping tables, using objects as improvised weapons, and just generally taking the fight back to these creeps any which way he can. Holding them off by any means he can muster, and hoping that even a few of their captives could escape from this splintering of separate, desperate struggles…


Shades was not terribly surprised to see that he had tossed all of his sheets across the cabin before he woke up from that bizarre ordeal. The last thing he recalled was something about a bunch of animatronic animals dancing around him all herky-jerky, singing something in a demonic chorus of chipmunk voices. As deep as he had gone, he was more surprised that he actually woke up at all. Especially since he couldn’t recall just how either struggle ended.

He sat in bed for several minutes, trying to piece it all back together. Second only to Amy’s dire cameo, the thing that disturbed him most was just how vivid, lurid, and, most of all, visceral, it was. As if he had just stumbled headlong through someone else’s nightmare. For so long, his dreams had been increasingly vague, sometimes not even about himself, the details skittering away from him, even as he opened his eyes, but this one…

For a moment, before seeing Amy derailed his train of thought, he had almost remembered how he did it. How he fought when he really got serious back in the day. The battle-fire, Rod called it. And then it all just slipped away from him, leaving him to struggle with the same desperation as if he was facing them all alone in the waking world. Even Amy didn’t seem to be her old Zero Hunter “Tomboy” self, who— battle for battle— vanquished at least as many Zeroes as he. Still, recalling her spectacular leaps back there, he pondered for a moment if she hadn’t started to remember how to navigate the dreamplane.

If she had really been a prisoner at all in there, or if she had actually dared to break into that Bad Business den for the sole purpose of setting the captives free. The sort of thing they used to do along the way in No Man’s Land, giving less fortunate dreamers a fighting chance to wake up. Though back then, the scenery tended to lean more toward industrial areas and mad science labs, and he didn’t consider the Zeroes’ new motif to be any improvement.

Then again, back then it had seemed as if the Zeroes were trying to push No Man’s Land farther up, as if to ensnare more dreamers. Even after his talk with Rod about it, the inconclusiveness of the whole matter still bothered him. Still found himself struggling with a vague sense of denial, wanting to be sure he wasn’t just confusing his dreams with some old cartoon they all used to watch or something. The way it seemed to get canceled mid-season, right before the big Final Showdown. As far as he could tell, they never really “won” so much as that mysterious rift in the heart of No Man’s Land simply fizzled out, and the whole Zero Menace collapsed in its wake. As if a window of sorts had opened, then closed, and they had merely held the fort through the worst of it. All the same, his own experience with this world had taught him that even a door which had been closed and locked for ages could all too easily be opened, so as far as he was concerned, Rod was more than justified in his concerns about the Zeroes returning again for some reason.

Without victory, there is only doubt…

Wished he could remember where he heard that old saying, as it summed up his current feelings all too well.

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.

“You up yet?” Roxy demanded. “I’ll be leaving soon, whether you’re ready or not.”

“Just a minute!” he called back, hastily tossing on some clothes, then pausing to take a more thorough inventory of his weapons and gear before he headed out.

He found her out on the deck, watching the docks from near the gangplank.

“Justin turn up any new leads?”

“Nothing useful yet,” the bounty hunter replied. “Only that word on the street about our mystery dealer seems to match up, source for source. Hooded, elusive, and wearing some strange gloves that are almost certainly weapons. There’s another shipment today, so Justin’s already out. Let’s just hope his double life can handle a little more underworld scrutiny while we dig at the other half of the equation. Time to go see what the Stockade Gang knows about all this. Not just the low-level grunts.”

As Shades joined her, he looked over at the ridge overlooking the far wing of Anchor Point’s wide inlet, just before the lighthouse topping it, at the walled, guard-towered structure above the cliffs, and reminded himself that the people they were on their way to see had all done time there. Yarbo Stockade, after which the gang Justin ran afoul of yesterday had named themselves, and wondered if he was really cut out for this at all. Wondered if his terrible dream only minutes ago was actually a hint about Amy, or if all the violence that had kept him company since Alta had simply seeped into his dreams.

Recalling what he dealt with in there, he decided that he would need to toughen up some more if he was going to be any help to Amy at all against people like that.

As he walked, Shades had a hard time taking his eyes off that razor-wired wall up on the ridge. The Stockades were Anchor Point’s oldest gang, according to local lore. From what Roxy had gathered, all of their inner circle had done at least one stint there at some point, and having served time somewhere was a requirement for even joining them. Had they approached him first, instead of the Crays, he doubted Justin would have any trouble selling them on his fun stay at Pullman Mine.

Roxy had certainly done her homework, ingratiating his friend with the city’s underworld, still he hoped it would be enough.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
all out of bubblegum
Shades tailed Roxy at a discreet distance until she reached her destination, then continued down the street a ways after the bounty hunter entered, before doubling back to space out their arrivals at least a few minutes apart.

He paused for a moment at the entrance to the Iron Pony Tavern, his thoughts about the coming confrontation falling aside for a moment. Now that he had time to stop and take a good look at it, he already regretted the fact that he was probably about to wear out his welcome in this neighborhood before he left. Mounted above the front door was what at first appeared to be a rusted-over sculpture, but closer inspection revealed it to be a contraption that looked like a mechanical pony on wheels.

“There’s got to be a tale behind that…” he remarked as he stepped inside.

Gathering his wits, as he was not entirely sure what sort of scene he was about to walk in on, he could feel the tension in the air even as he entered. He saw Roxy standing at a table near the middle of the floor, with a small, but unwelcoming crowd. Already he was quite certain the two of them were outsiders in the midst of a gathering of regulars.

“…and you think we’re just gonna turn around and play nice with someone who threatens to torture one of our crew?” one of the men at the table, presumably the leader, demanded. “You’ve got some big brass ones, just walkin’ in here after what you did yesterday.”

A puzzled frown touched the bounty hunter’s lips.

“A little bird lit on my shoulder,” the man told her, “and it tells me things. You didn’t think you could hide that for long in our town, did you?”

“And here, I even gave him a chance to save face with you guys… For what it’s worth, he put a knife to one of my contacts, useless as he was,” she replied flatly. “I gave him a chance to cooperate, but he made a mountain out of a mole hill. I was hoping perhaps you had more sense, and maybe knew something more useful about the Cray Sisters’ mystery dealer. I pay good coin for reliable info.”

“Assuming we even know what you want to know,” the Stockade lieutenant shot back, “it’s not for sale, and we sure as hell don’t need any of your help puttin’ those bitches in their place.”

“A little insurance never hurt anything,” she suggested. “I would get the bounty on the contraband, and you get to take back your turf and keep the spoils. Everybody wins.”

“ ’Cept the Crays,” he pointed out. “Why would I expect a Cyexian to sell out a Pactra?”

“I’m not Pactra,” she snorted. “I’ve always been a free agent, and I think we can both agree that this current dispute is going to be bad for business in the long run. The Cray Sisters are a bigger threat to Anchor Point’s balance, so I’m willing to work with you this one time, in exchange for a little information. This is your town, isn’t it?”

“Damn straight!” Pounding the table for emphasis. “And we’ll handle our own goddamn affairs, thank you very much. We’re not scared of you, Hunter. You don’t fuck with the Stockades and just walk away like it’s no big deal. Just who the hell do you think you are?”

Roxy turned to walk away, and several other patrons of this Stockade hangout stood up to oppose her.

“Yeah! You’re on our turf, bitch!” another at the table seconded. “What makes you think you’re goin’ anywhere?”

“Because in two minutes, I’ll be the only one at this table still standing,” she informed them.

“Yeah right,” scoffed one of the other gang members. “When we drag your bleeding ass upstairs, we’re all gonna—”

Was all the farther he got before Roxy kicked his chair out from under him.

“And in another five, I’ll be the only one in this room still standing.”

“That does it!” shouted one of the enforcers as he sprang to his feet and lunged at her, even before his boss could give any signal. “Stockades stand for their own!”

Roxy was now the center of attention, and Shades took full advantage of that. Up to this point, he very studiously kept his hands away from any of his weapons, playing the role of the slack-jawed bystander. Which seeing her in action already made him feel like anyway. Now that push came to shove, he slipped into gear, tossing in a pair of flash-bangs she gave him before they parted ways. Telling him, Use these if things get ugly, or to escape if things go bad. Leaving him only a moment to wonder where she got these things anyway.

Whipping out both stun sticks and skirting the room to sweep up any of the Stockade sentries around the edges as she went to town on the ones surrounding her. Most of the gang members at the edges had drawn, but hesitated to shoot at their own crew in the thick of things, making Shades’ job easier. By the time they realized what was happening, only a few were left standing, which Shades took out with a barrage of stun beams Justin would have been proud of.

He was fast beginning to reassess regulars here to pretty much mean gang members, the Iron Pony clearly being Stockade turf, with the few other patrons being little more than decoration. Those few who were not affiliated with them already scrambling for the door with understandable haste.

In the midst of the brawl, Roxy fired up her laser staff, making short work of the enemies who made the mistake of crowding her. It looked like she had things well in hand, nearly finished mopping them up, when one of the remaining enforcers, a big, burly hulk with huge arms, actually hurled a table at her. Though she managed to dodge it, she tripped over a fallen chair, fumbling her weapon as her elbow hit the floor hard enough to loosen her grip.

Meanwhile, some shifty character, the very one they had questioned at the Timbers, who had hit the deck behind the counter the moment things went sideways, now popped up behind Shades, hauling him around by the shoulder and stabbing him.

“That’s for yesterday, ass… hole…”

Unfortunately for him, he drove his blade into the left side, where Shades’ still-holstered backup power pistol was strapped, deflecting the edge and merely gouging his jacket. The blow would still leave a mean bruise along his ribs, but Shades would only notice that later. Right now, he elbowed his would-be killer in the face, nailing him several times with his stun blade before he hit the ground.

He had only a moment to marvel as his lucky break before he noticed Roxy was in trouble.

While he was distracted, the same thug who threw the table also lunged at her while she was trying to retrieve her weapon, and now straddled her with both huge hands around her throat.

Her weapon still lying a couple feet out of reach, as she gave up fumbling for it and focused on her attacker instead.

“I oughta take you down right here…” he snarled, as she kneed him in the ribs several times, to no avail, for his stance also prevented her from reaching with any groin shots, either, as he could block with his other knee. “Just like those other stuck-up cunts… Show the whole crew you’re not so—”

Roxy, seeing no other options, as he was built like a brick shithouse, and his grip was too strong to break, while her vision was already starting to blur, simply reached out with her free hand and casually broke his collarbone between her fingers.

Seeing that stopped Shades in mid charge, cringing in spite of himself as he recalled something Master Al once told him. Something about it taking only five to ten pounds of pressure to break the human clavicle. Not that he needed to take his sensei’s word for it, having broken his own in a swivel-chair accident when he was only five years old, the memory of it slamming into him like a physical blow as he watched her turn the tables on him.

“Fuckin’ bitch…” the man groaned, his stranglehold completely broken. As he crumbled to his knees, she leaned on his injured shoulder as she stood back up. “We’ll get you for…”

“If you can still talk,” she told him over his weak squeak of a scream as she shoved him gently to the floor, never taking her hand off her handle on him, “I haven’t hurt you enough.”

When she released him, he fell flat on his face with a barely audible moan.

“All the other stuck-up cunts send their regards, too.”

She then fetched her laser staff and turned her attention back to the Stockade lieutenant leading this group, who was trying to crawl away in the confusion, shoving him up against the counter.

“Where is it?” she grated, her voice still raw from being choked only moments ago. “Where is the pickup point? I’m through playing games.”

“I don’t know!” he blurted, “I swear!”

“I gave you the chance to aid me, even to your own benefit. I should have known better…”

“I mean it! I don’t know!” he stammered. “Boss didn’t say. Just rounded up a posse and headed out to go put his foot down on their bullshit. Wanted to catch ’em by surprise, he says…”

“Coulda saved yourselves a lot of trouble and just told me that in the first place.” The bounty hunter shoved him down, and he scrambled out the back with a frantic cry. Muttering, “Total waste of my time…”

“Um… yeah…” Shades mumbled, looking around the joint. And to think, Max and Justin weren’t even in on this one. The whole scene putting him in mind of an Old Western bar fight. “Uh, let’s get out of here, before that guy brings his friends.”

Thinking, You just can’t take this gal anywhere…

Roxy nodded, and they stepped outside.

Where Constable Dennis Naysmith and several of his men were waiting for them.

Please tell me you actually learned something useful after interfering with my investigation,” he moaned, shaking his head.

“ ’Fraid not,” she snorted.

“Wonderful. Just wonderful. Now you’ve just given me an extra mountain of paperwork, and nothing to show for it. Are you satisfied?”

“No,” the bounty hunter replied. “They didn’t know jack shit, so you would’ve questioned them for nothing.”

“But that’s our job, not yours,” he shot back. “We may have our troubles, but this is our town, and we’re getting by just fine without you.”

“Except that part about a turf war that’s about to destabilize your town’s underworld.”

For his part, Shades wondered for a moment when this turned from Wild West to detective drama, and just how hardboiled it was going to get after that tavern brawl.

“And you’re not helping. It’s not just this, either. Your friend is having a hard enough time finding a new crew without you making trouble all over town.”

He turned his stern gaze on Shades as he finished speaking, then sighed and turned his attention to the mess awaiting him inside the Iron Pony Tavern.

“Maybe we should go back to the ship,” Shades suggested. “We’re all out of leads unless Justin managed to—”

“Guys!” Justin panted, running up to them as fast as he could, now that the officers had gone inside. “Follow me! We’re running out of time!”

“Well, speak of the devil…” Shades remarked.

“Running out of time until what?” Roxy raised an eyebrow, but was already following him back the way he came from.

“Until we miss the deal,” Justin told them. “It’s goin’ down any time now, I just barely managed to sneak away… That job I took, they work for the Cray Sisters, but that’s not the half of it! You won’t believe who their supplier is.”

“Please tell me it’s not Striker…” Though Shades saw no way that could even work out.

“No, it’s even worse,” Justin warned him. “I saw it docked near the warehouse… Checkmate!”

“Oh shit…” Shades groaned. “Not him!”

“You know that name?” Roxy couldn’t hide her surprise at that last.

“All too well…” Shades shook his head. Both at the memory, and at the sinking feeling that he actually had met someone who fit all of the clues in this case. “But what do you know about it?”

“I know it was a professional job. Security cameras disabled, signals jammed, no living witnesses… But you know something about that heist, don’t you?”

“We know who did it,” Shades admitted.

“And here I was hoping he was dead…” Justin hissed.

“Well, we survived, didn’t we?”

“They never did find a body, or his ship…”

“You’re sure about this?” Shades pressed. “And where are we going?”

“Back to the harbor,” Justin replied, “and I’m sure you’d know better than anyone, having been aboard and all…”

“You had to remind me.”

“The warehouse is on the docks, and they had us loading a ship called the Queen of Night.”

“But that’s where Max said he was meeting Galford today!”

“No way!” Justin gasped. “We’ve gotta find him before he finds Max!”

“Or worse,” Shades reminded him, “Maximilian.”

“Who?” Roxy demanded. “Who are you talking about?”

“You’re the bounty hunter,” Shades answered, “I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”

“No time!” Justin dragged them along. “We’ll explain on the way!”

“Cooped up with Mercer’s murderous crew for days, and we completely forgot to tell you about that battle…” Shades facepalmed. “Well, you said you wanted a big bounty. Let’s just hope we’re up to this one.”
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
rancorous reunion
When they arrived at the warehouse, Galford asked for a private audience with Maximilian upstairs, if Max could wait down below.

Though both of them were hesitant to split up, Maximilian reluctantly consented, and they both went to the second floor room where they talked the day before.

“What is this all about?” Maximilian asked in earnest.

“I’m sorry to call you here on such short notice,” Galford began, “but we’ve all talked it over and come to a decision. We want to join your crew, but there is a considerable risk involved. Just not the one you’re thinking of.”

“Is this why you wanted to talk in private?”

“It’s why we have to, if we’re going to work together,” Galford cautioned him, “as I’m sure our time is short. I don’t mean to alarm you, but the first thing you need to know is that this dock and warehouse are controlled by a gang called the Cray Sisters. We didn’t know this when we first started, but you can’t work in a place like this for too long without catching on. Of course, the place smelled fishy from the start, but we were shipwrecked and short on options at the time…

“The point, though, is that this place is being used for smuggling, and we’re pretty sure how they’re doing it. As if ditching Mama Cray’s labor contract wouldn’t be trouble enough, the Crays’ little operation here has stepped on some toes with the Stockade Gang, which has traditionally controlled most of the black market in the Docks Quarter. None of us are too happy about this arrangement, but things are heating up, and I fear our crew will finally split up and ship out our separate ways at the first sign of violence between the two gangs.”

“So, that’s the real reason you fear breaking up…” the Young Master thought it over. “The Excelsior is your last chance to keep your crew together. But there’s a catch, isn’t there? Please tell me you don’t want us to smuggle for them or something.”

“No, we want no more part in this,” Galford explained. “What we need is insurance, that the Crays won’t come after us, for I fear we know too much. Word on the street is that the bounty hunter you came here with is poking around the Cyexian Quarter for leads on this very matter. If she busted them, our work contract would be null and void, taking the heat off of us, and we would be free to go join your crew and make a fresh start.”

“A couple of my friends are working with her, or for her, or something like that,” he confided, “and I’m sure she would be interested in your offer, but it might take some time to track her down. She comes and goes as she pleases.”

“Then you would do well to get started immediately,” Galford told him. “Time is running out if we’re going to do this. Right now, we have the building to ourselves, but that ship outside, the Queen of Night, is crawling with Crays. In a little while, they’re going to be meeting with a shifty, hooded man, to buy more salvaged gold. If she caught them in the act, she could claim the bounty for—”

Their negotiation was interrupted by a commotion at the warehouse’s back door.

Even as the two of them peered cautiously down into the warehouse below, a group of thugs whose shouts quickly identified them as Stockade Gang barged in, shoving past Galford’s crewmates at gunpoint and taking the center of the floor.

“Come on down, whoever you are!” shouted the leader of the mob. “We know you work for Cray! The Docks are Stockade turf, and we’re takin’ this joint back!”

A sentiment for which his boys backed him up quite vocally.

“Dammit!” Galford muttered. “We’re too late!”

Realizing that two of them couldn’t hold off such numbers for long, they both came down the steps, hands up.

“That’s better,” the Stockade Boss told them. “Now, after we bring your ‘employers’ in here, we’re gonna wait for your little mystery merchant and renegotiate this whole business.”

A moment later, several Stockades dragged in a pair of Cyexians.

“Boss!” one of them reported. “We’ve got trouble!”

“What is this?” the Stockade Boss demanded. “I told you to grab the whole crew!”

“That’s just it, boss,” the other responded, “we searched the whole ship, and there was no one else onboard, or even around the dock.”

“What the hell is going on here?” The Stockade Boss wheeled on Galford. “Mama Cray personally oversees larger cargoes. Where is her crew? What are you people trying to pull?”

For his part, Maximilian found his attention torn between this tense confrontation, and the Cyexians he spotted out of the corner of his eye, sneaking out of what appeared to be a cellar trapdoor.

Galford, apparently having noticed the same thing, elbowed and shushed him.

“Don’t play that game with me, kid,” the boss warned him. “If you know somethin’, you better spill it now, before I decide to beat it outta—”

Were the last words of the Stockade leader, as an energy beam burned into the back of his skull.

As he crumpled to the floor in a dying heap, everyone else looked around, their frantic gaze quickly settling on a hooded figure standing atop a stack of crates on the far side of the warehouse. Before any of the Stockades could shoot back, he ducked back behind the top of the stack again for cover.

“You gals promised me no drama…” the man’s voice echoed down to them.

“So we did,” a stern female voice answered from across the floor as a woman with a tough, narrow face strode forward. For one who couldn’t be much past thirty, she had the whole Stern Patrician look down pat. “Which is why I wish you’d let us handle him. It’s not like you’re going to stick around to fight a gang war, are you?”

“You got that right, lady…”

Even as the other Stockades moved to turn their weapons on her, they noticed only belatedly that the Cray Sisters had silently surrounded them during this exchange.

“Mama Cray, I presume…” Galford commented.

“In the flesh.” She turned to face them. “So you know that much already, Mister… Calford, was it? Do you really think we’re going to just let you walk away from this?”

“Max?” the hooded figure demanded as he stepped back out of cover. “What the hell are you doing here? And what’s up with the captain’s hat?”

“Do I know you?” Though Maximilian already had a gut feeling this guy was bad news. Not wanting to make the same mistake he had with Striker, as he was already sure who this ominous stranger was looking for, he said, “My name is Maximilian Vandenberg, captain of the Excelsior. Now who are you?”

“Such a pity…” he replied. “You look just like him.”

“Who?” Mama Cray interjected, already suspicious of both Galford’s, and her client’s, sudden interest in this outsider.

“I believe you’re looking for me, Erix…” Max said as he shoved an unconscious Stockade thug out of his way from using the facilities, such as they were. “Just what kind of place are you running, Galford, that a guy can’t take a dump in peace?”

Erix actually threw his head back and laughed out loud at that, shaking off his hood, revealing a face Max remembered all too well. Lean and angular, framed by a shaggy, raven black mane. One eye cold and calculating, the other dead and glassy, with a triple streak of scars down the left side. His wolfish grin that didn’t quite reach up to either eye.

Save for Mama Cray, most everyone else gave pause for a moment at this revelation of just who they were dealing with, and Max took the initiative, scrambling up another stack of crates, to where he could traverse a narrow catwalk to reach Erix’s side.

“But seriously, though,” Erix resumed, thumbing back at the Young Master, “what’s with him?”

“Dunno,” Max replied, deciding that it was none of his enemy’s business. “We met a while back, and even my enemies keep mistaking him for me.”

All the while, there were not enough Crays to take any of their weapons off the Stockades without being able to cover them, so Max crossed the catwalk unchecked, he and Erix meeting each other about midway.

Excelsior…” Erix mused, recalling that name from earlier. “So he’s that loser I keep hearing about, the owner of that leaky tub that washed up the other day, begging for a crew or some shit…”

“Well pardon me all to hell for needing a crew,” Maximilian piped up.

“Kid, with a mouth like that, you better have something to back it up with,” Erix admonished him. “After all, heroes die young.”

“So you say,” Max reminded him.

“You sure know how to pick ’em.” Erix paid the Young Master no heed, focusing solely on Max as he fired up his own pale blue energy blade. “You know how much trouble I had to go to to fix this thing?” He smirked. “This is going to hurt you more than it does me.”

“I won’t let you hurt my friends.”

“A fine job you did last time.”

“Given that they’re all still alive,” Max shot back, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Take it any way you please.”

“I already know you won’t just let us walk away, so there’s nothing left to do but fight.”

“Erix?” Mama Cray called up to him, “I can see you’re having fun and all, but where’s our cargo?”

“I’ll tell you as soon as I’m finished up here.” Seeing full well that her hands were tied. “Why don’t you go take over the Docks or something, now that you have the Stockades right where you want them?”

“Just get on with it,” she hissed.

“Now see what you’ve done?” Erix tilted his head at Max. “You picked a very inconvenient time for a rematch. This has nothing to do with you. I was just here to refill my wallet. I imagine they would have been just as interested in the Nimrod treasure, if you hadn’t fucked it up, and it sure as hell woulda saved me a lot of time and trouble.”

“Instead, you had to go fetch it yourself this time, didn’t you? Guess it’s better than robbing innocent people…”

“Such a grim face…” Erix remarked. “And here I thought I showed you a good time, when last we met.”

“Of course. I always enjoy falling off cliffs.”

“And yet you’re no worse for wear after our last dance,” Erix observed, angling in to strike the first blow, which Max blocked handily.

“I could say the same for you.” Max was already starting to realize the pitfalls of dueling in such a narrow space, still he took some relief in that at least no one was behind him, as he faced challenge enough ahead. “I guess this is what Shades would call a Final Exam.”

“Very final,” Erix agreed. “Your attachment to them is still your greatest handicap.”

“Perhaps,” Max countered, “but you still insist on making everyone your enemy. They’ve always got my back, just as I’ve got theirs.”

“And I see you still haven’t lost your taste for spouting crap right before a duel,” Erix noted. “Can we get on with this? I’ve got places to go and people to kill.”

And with that, Erix pressed the attack, and Max was forced to face him head-on. Having recovered from whatever injuries he may have suffered in the Konas, the infamous outlaw proved every bit as formidable as Max remembered, and in this narrow space, it was tough going, just holding his own. Max silently thanked Ma’Quiver for helping him shore up his defense, as he feared he wouldn’t have lasted this long without it.

As Max and Erix dueled their way up and down the catwalk, Maximilian looked on, again struggling against that recurring sense of shame at the thought that once again someone else was fighting his battles for him. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Galford steadily assessing their situation, nodding to him as if to suggest they bide their time until a better opportunity presented itself. Mama Cray gestured with her power pistol in silent admonition of either of them getting any bright ideas, keeping the corner of her eye on them even as she watched this unforeseen spectacle.

“I see you took our last battle to heart…” Erix gave him a lopsided grin as he backed off for a moment, retreating just far enough to draw and activate his other laser sword. Max, suspecting a feint, held back a few seconds too long to stop him once he saw what his foe was up to. “I commend you. It’s a pity you caught me on a busy day, or we could’ve had some fun this time.”

Max braced himself as Erix stepped up to redouble his offensive—

And that was about the time a familiar smoke bolt arced into the middle of the warehouse, throwing the entire floor into chaos.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
claim-jumped bounty
The Stockades, still furious at their leader’s abrupt and inglorious end, set upon their Cray captors before they could recover their initiative. Maximilian and Galford, along with his crew, scrambled to escape both enemies’ murderous midst. Taking both feuding factions while they were both preoccupied, Roxy, Justin and Shades advanced into the fray from three different angles to keep either side from regrouping, as well as to cover their friends’ escape as they retreated upstairs.

Yet Mama Cray still managed to slip through the melee, moving swiftly and nimbly to a control panel near the stairs.

Erix wasted no time taking advantage of this turn of events, lunging at Max, who barely managed to block, having learned from past experience being blindsided by the likes of Striker or Rawne.

They both froze, energy blades still crossed, as the catwalk began to began to shudder. The fighting beneath them slowed almost to a pause as the massive hangar doors on the side of the warehouse rolled open, letting in more daylight than all of the building’s high windows combined. Also letting in a strong sea breeze, gusting through the canyon of crates, blowing away Justin’s lingering smokescreen even as everyone inside started to resume their battle.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Roxy demanded upon seeing him alive, as she mounted the catwalk from the other side. Not entirely sure she believed Shades and Justin until she saw him for herself. “You were the mystery smuggler?”

Erix shrugged.

“This is why I put no stock in rumors…” she muttered, “but at least I see why they were so alarmed.”

As the battle between the Stockades and the Crays spilled out onto the docks, Justin and Shades advanced on Max’s position.

“This is why I work alone,” she reminded them, seeing the opportunistic, predatory gleam in Erix’s eye. “Butt out, boys, this is my prey.”

“Against him?” Justin blurted. “You’re nuts!”

“She’s right, Justin,” Shades told him. “If she wants to take him, all we have to do is cover Max.”

“You seem to know these guys, Erix,” Roxy observed. “Old friends of yours?”

“I was about to say the same,” he replied. “Why don’t you be a dear and introduce me?”

“Says the guy who needs no introduction,” Shades commented.

“I remember you,” Erix remarked jovially, “You’re that guy I held hostage back in the Konas. Wasn’t that fun?”

“Whatever.”

“Don’t try to act tough now— you were scared shitless.”

“Today seems to be a day for happy reunions.” Somehow, Shades found he was not as surprised to see Erix as he thought he should be. “First Striker, now you. Who’s next, the Triad?”

“So…” Erix flourished both energy blades. “You’re saying it takes four of you equal one of me?”

“Max, care to sit this one out?”

“I don’t care about revenge,” Max said as he backed down, recalling his fathers words from yesteryear. Only as tough as I have to be… And felt he was beginning to understand what he meant by them. As he backed down, he concluded that this was her fight, and just hoped she knew what she was doing. “But if he tries to hurt anyone else, I won’t hold back.”

“Fair enough.” Roxy nodded.

“You don’t have the balls to kill me, Max.”

“Yeah,” Roxy interjected, “well I do.”

Erix raised an eyebrow at that.

“Go to hell.”

“Ladies first.” Erix turned to face her. “You should’ve played dead. Now you get to do it for real.”

“Not if last time was the best you could do,” she shot back. “This time, there’s nowhere to run.”

“I’ll make sure you stay dead this time.”

“What? Didn’t like your facelift?”

“I look forward to returning the favor.”

“If I had his cat’s claws, I’d rip the other side of your face off, but all I need is your head.”

“My head isn’t free.”

“To the contrary, it’s worth at least fifty thousand, even in most backwater realms.”

Meanwhile, Max and his friends fell back to where Maximilian and Galford’s crew had entrenched themselves in the warehouse’s upstairs office.

“Is that really him?” Maximilian asked as they hopped through the open window next to the catwalk.

Max nodded, his grim expression speaking for him.

“We fought him in the Konas many moons ago,” Shades elaborated, “but we kinda hoped he didn’t make it.”

“First Striker, now him!” the Young Master moaned. “Is there anyone else out there who’s gonna try to kill me for looking like you?”

“No one else I can think of,” Justin hoped aloud.

“Don’t forget about Clyde. I’d steer clear of anyone who calls himself Danjo,” Max advised, struggling to focus on covering their position even as he caught glimpses of Roxy holding her own against Erix’s twin blades. Certain there was a great deal he could learn from her technique. “He used to train with Ma’Quiver’s master, and has the same moves, so be careful.”

“And if you ever meet both of them in the same place,” Shades warned, “hit the deck.”

“Oh, you mean like those two?” Gesturing to the swashbuckling duel unfolding out there.

Before they could discuss the matter any further, a swarm of Port Authority officers descended on the scene, rounding up stray Crays and Stockades, as the bulk of both gangs had chased each other off in various directions by this point.

“We should try to make a break for it,” Galford recommended, “now that the enemies are scattering.”

As they headed down the stairs toward the open hangar doors, calling out to the guards not to shoot, that they were merely caught in the crossfire, while trying to steer clear of the bounty hunter and the outlaw, still focused on their own battle to the exclusion of all else.

Thus, none of them noticed Mama Cray lurking behind some crates, her forces routed, originally seeking a way to evade the authorities. She was about to try going back to the warehouse, to use the underground passage her crew entered through not so long ago, when she spotted Maximilian.

“You brought the Hunter down on me, you little shit…” Cray muttered, aiming right at him.

Just as she pulled the trigger, though, someone ran in and shoved the Young Master out of harm’s way, taking an energy beam to the shoulder for his trouble.

“This is getting ridiculous…” Erix decided aloud, evading Roxy’s last counter-attack, and using the opening to slash a cable at the end of the catwalk, untethering a freight boom. He then grabbed the lift line and swung around to a platform just outside the warehouse, well out of her reach.

“Tch…” Roxy looked out over the gap, way too far for anyone to jump, when she noticed Max’s party, seeing Mama Cray still advancing.

Shades, meanwhile, had seen Maximilian go down, turning aside and dragging his assailant to his feet.

“Rufus!?” Recognizing the man they had kept such a tight watch on during the final days of their voyage. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I was looking for work out here on the docks…” he groaned, wincing at being moved with his wounded shoulder, “when all this shooting started…”

Even as Rufus belatedly remembered why he was wounded, he turned to see Mama Cray take aim at them again.

But she never got to pull the trigger this time, as Roxy shot first, bringing her down with several clean hits.

Justin looked at her, then at Roxy, then spotted Erix, who was only a short leap away from a nearby rooftop— and a quick escape— from his current perch, and opened fire.

“You won’t get away from the bounty hunter Justin Black so easily, asshole!”

Erix, though, had seen Maximilian’s party, and the diversion it caused for Roxy, and managed to duck in time.

“So you’re the infamous outlaw Justin Black…” Erix called back, leaning over the platform and snapping off some return fire. “You’ve got more balls than the chickenshit I’ve heard of. Guess you can’t put too much stock in hearsay…”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Justin demanded as they all scattered for cover.

“Who cares?” Shades pointed out. “It’s nobody we’ve ever heard of.”

“Sorry, bitch,” Erix told Roxy, “but sometimes you just have to cut your losses. So long, suck—”

Yet, even as he turned to make his jump, the whole structure started to collapse under his feet, causing him to stagger to one side, dumping him off the platform and into a fishing net strung out below for mending.

At the bottom of the platform scaffold, Max still held his laser sword at the ready, even after cleaving the supports on that side, his face as grim as his voice.

“I told you I wouldn’t let you hurt my friends…”

Even as Erix fired up his laser claws to free himself from this humiliating predicament, he was stopped in his tracks by a barrage of stun beams from a squad of officers that just arrived.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the infamous outlaw Justin Black
“Take him down!” Constable Naysmith ordered as his squad of at least a dozen Port Authority officers took control of the warehouse and the neighboring dock. “Sweep the area for any more stragglers!”

The rest of them lowered their weapons, and they could only watch several officers as they lowered the net their latest catch was tangled in, shackling his hands behind his back before proceeding to search him very thoroughly.

“You just can’t take this guy anywhere…” Shades mumbled, looking over the chaos and carnage that seemed to follow in Erix’s wake everywhere he went.

“The Queen of Night…” the constable mused, looking over at the now deserted vessel. “I always suspected she was a Cray front, but could never prove it until now…”

“Hey! What are you doing?” Roxy demanded.

“Arresting him, of course,” Naysmith answered.

“That’s my bounty!”

“This is our jurisdiction,” the constable reminded her, “and contrary to whatever you might think, we don’t need bounty hunters to deal with our troubles.”

“If it wasn’t for us,” Roxy informed him, “Cray’s whole deal would’ve gone down without you.”

“Sir!” one officer interrupted, rushing out of the warehouse. “We’ve reached the other end of Cray’s smuggling tunnel, and it leads to this place.”

“You were saying…” Constable Naysmith folded his arms. “Instead of catching Mama Cray in the act and rounding up her whole crew, you killed their boss and started a gang war. If your actions hadn’t at least saved these other folks’ lives, I’d have you arrested for all the disturbances you’ve caused lately.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” the bounty hunter retorted, “the Stockades got here first.”

“And let me guess,” Naysmith muttered, “you went and killed their boss, too?”

“No,” Max interjected, “Erix killed the Stockade boss.”

“They barged in to take over the place before the deal started,” Maximilian filled in, “but Cray laid an ambush for them.”

“You were going to have a gang war on your hands anyway,” Shades pointed out. “Erix just made it happen sooner.”

“Wait a minute,” the constable remarked, “are you telling me that’s the Erix?”

Grave nods all around.

“Ha! He don’t look so tough to me!” one of the arresting officers commented.

“That’s easy to say now,” Roxy admonished. “Just wait ’til he wakes up. You’ll wish soon enough you’d let me finish him off. There’s a reason no one wants him alive, Naysmith.”

“That’s Constable Naysmith, to you.”

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” Shades warned the lawman.

“We’re dealing with a common criminal,” Naysmith countered. “I’ve seen his kind before. He won’t be so tough after a few days in the Stockade.”

Those officers within earshot agreed rather vocally.

Roxy simply shook her head.

“Your biggest, baddest inmates will all be scared shitless of him by the day after tomorrow,” she said at last. “The ones who survive, anyway.”

“By tomorrow, the entire prison chapter of the Stockade Gang will know he killed their boss,” the constable pointed out. “He’ll have his hands full just staying alive in there.”

“The last prison that actually held him for more than three days learned their own convicts weren’t so tough after all. That was after all the top dogs ganged up on him to make an ‘example’ out of him, and they learned the hard way to just let him be. Busted furniture and blood all over the floor. Broken bones, missing teeth, at least half a dozen people stuck with their own shanks and shivs. Five dead, and their infirmary overwhelmed, and they hardly even put a scratch on him. During the final days before his escape, when he wasn’t in solitaire, he had his own table in the mess hall, not just his own corner of it.

“Just don’t come whining to me after he’s killed your men.”

Max had no trouble believing it after his own third fight with him as a reminder.

“And stories grow beards the longer they’re told.” Naysmith shrugged at her.

“I’ve got the crime scene photos,” Roxy informed him, patting the belt pouch where she kept her data pad.

“Whatever.” Constable Naysmith turned to resume presiding over the operation, muttering, “As if the city of Anchor Point could afford New Cali’s overblown bounty anyway…”

“And you never saw what Erix did to New Cali,” she muttered back. “I wonder if they’re even finished rebuilding after that mess. The bounty on him is still less than his repair bill.”

“Now that both gang leaders are dead, there’s guaranteed to be an all-out war on the streets here, and it won’t take long for the other gangs to get in on it, so you’ll pardon me if I’m not so broken up about how things are going in New Cali. The Cyexian Quarter’s going to be a battleground by tomorrow. I hope you’re satisfied.”

“No jail can hold him. I’ll be waiting.”

“Then would you mind staying out of trouble while you’re at it? I’ve got an operation to run here.”

He then turned to the others, saying, “We’ve got our hands full here, but I expect you to stick around town until we can take a statement. And I hate to do this to you, Mr Vandenberg, but your ship’s also impounded until further notice.” Naysmith turned back to Roxy, adding, “After this is all sorted out, I strongly advise you to leave Anchor Point now that you’ve worn out your welcome around here.”

“Ungrateful, pompous ass…” Roxy spat in disgust as the constable turned back to his work, and Maximilian led Galford’s crew back to the ship, saying they could stay onboard for now for their trouble until things got ironed out. “No way he’d ever bag a catch like Erix without our help…”

“You’ve fought him before, haven’t you?” Shades tried to change the subject, recalling something Erix said during his fun stay on Kon Kimbar.

“Damn straight,” she replied, “and I almost had him then, too…”

“Sounds like quite a story,” Shades quipped. “I’m surprised you didn’t tell it on our little sea cruise.”

“I’m a bounty hunter, not a storyteller,” she snorted, “and I don’t care to tell any now, either.”

With that, she turned to walk away.

“Wait up!” Justin called out.

Shades put a hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t think now is a good time to discuss anything,” he said, turning to his friend. “But I do kinda wonder about something. Do you have any idea what Erix meant when he called you the ‘infamous outlaw’ Justin Black? He sounded as if he’d heard of you somewhere… I never knew you were so famous.”

“How the hell should I know?”

“Justin… Black?” Roxy stopped in mid stride, turning to face them again, and none of them liked the look in her eyes as they narrowed. Scrutinizing Justin as if seeing him for the first time. And not in a good way.

For his part, Shades tried not facepalm, surprised that she could still hear him so clearly from so far away with all of the work going on around them. Certain he had spoken too soon.

“So you’re Justin Black…” she commented as she strode up to them, recalling Erix saying something about that during the final moments of their battle.

“Yeah, what of it?” Justin tried to sound cavalier about it, but couldn’t quite pull it off against the certainty that he was about to find out.

“Today might be my lucky day after all…”

Despite both of them seeing it coming, Roxy still got the jump on Max and Shades, slipping past them and shoving Justin up against the warehouse wall behind him.

“You are a bold one,” she conceded, “hiding right under my nose like that…”

Max stood there, slack-jawed, trying to figure out what just happened here. Maximilian, as well as Galford & Company, were already gone, headed back to the ship, so it was just the three of them facing her out here.

“This is about Pullman, isn’t it?” Justin blurted. “Those Authority assholes put a price on my head, didn’t they?”

Roxy cocked her head.

“This isn’t personal, is it?” Justin thought hastily. “I mean, I’d remember if I lifted anything offa somebody like you…”

“You?” she snorted. “I’d break your hand before you got anything out of my pocket. Still, you’re quite the master of disguise, I would’ve expected you to be a little taller. Then again, they do say you’re a little shrimp…”

“Hey!” Justin snarled, drawing himself up to his full, if diminutive, height. “What the fuck are you talking about, you crazy bitch!?”

“You can stop pretending. You’re busted,” she told him. “What I’m talking about is an easy thirty thousand credits—”

But Justin slinked back down, then slid between her legs, leaving her clutching an empty black duster.

She wheeled around, whipping out her laser staff—

Only for Max to block it with his own energy blade. Once again grateful for Ma’Quiver’s training on moving his whole body as one.

“Not so easy,” Shades warned her, “against all three of us.”

“Do you even know what he’s done?”

“I don’t know if I’m any match for you…” Max told her, somehow managing to look even sterner than he was facing Erix, “but it doesn’t matter.”

“He’s our bro.” Shades stepped up, as well. “If you pick a fight with him, you’ve picked a fight with all three of us.”

For once, Justin found himself at a loss for words.

“Did you really think we were just going to stand there and let you walk away with him?” Max demanded.

“Not really, but I’m surprised you would defend a wanted outlaw so readily. Though not as dangerous as Erix or Striker, Justin Black caused plenty of trouble in New Cali, too, among other places he’s wanted.”

“Dammit, I’ve never even been to New Cali…” Justin protested. Was sure he’d remember that, even in the murkiest depths of his childhood memories traveling aboard the Skerry.

“Just who is he to you?”

“He’s our friend,” Max replied, “so if he says he’s not an outlaw, I believe him.”

“Guys…” Justin looked back and forth between them, seeing both were prepared to fight alongside of him.

“Even if he was an outlaw, I don’t think I could sell him out so casually,” Shades added. “Through all these battles, through the fire and through the storm… Come hell and high water, the only thing we’ve had for sure all this time is each other.”

“What he said.” Justin nodded, whipping out his double-barrel power pistols.

“The world will never run out of ways to test those words,” Roxy cautioned him, “but I respect your loyalty.”

“Did it occur to you there might be more than one Justin Black in this world?” Shades brought up, trying to defuse this situation. “I know you’re having a bad day, but you’re not alone. Stop and think about this for a minute. If he really was some infamous outlaw, do you really think he’d go around blurting his name everywhere like he had some kind of death wish?”

“Are you really defending him?”

“Yes,” Max declared. “We don’t want to fight you, but we will if we have to. We’ve fought side-by-side through all of this, doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“I warned you about sentiment,” she reminded him, but she was already lowering her weapon. “All the same, this is… awkward. Perhaps mistaken identity…”

“You’re the one who went on about the importance of research and good intel,” Shades pointed out. “We know you’re pissed about missing Erix, but this is just sloppy. Too sloppy for someone of your caliber.”

“You’re right…” Roxy relented. Turning to Justin, she had one question: “Tell me, did you really want to be a bounty hunter, or were you just after trade secrets?”

“I never wanted to be streetrat,” Justin replied, “but I’m not ashamed of anything I had to do to survive. I don’t ever want to go back to that again, and as long as I have these two for friends, I’ll never have to.”

But the bounty hunter had already turned and started walking away from them.

“Where are you going?” Max inquired.

“Away,” was her vague reply. “I think it’s safer for your friends if I don’t return to the ship anymore. But that man Naysmith is a fool. There’s a reason nobody wants Erix alive anymore, as he’ll learn soon enough. He’s busted out of higher-security prisons than this Stockade, and when he does, I’ll be waiting for him. This time, there’ll be nobody to get under my feet.”

“I suppose it’s safe to say our partnership is terminated?” Shades intoned.

“Well, if you want it stated formally, then yes, I suppose it is…”

After fetching his gear from it, Justin tossed that black duster aside without even a backward glance.

“Let’s blow this joint.”
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
no jail can hold him
The erstwhile captain Mercer sat on a cot at Anchor Point’s Port Authority HQ, still trying not to stare slack-jawed through the bars of his holding cell at his new neighbor.

None other than the dreaded Erix. Figured that the Hunter was somehow involved in this, if not her troublesome travel companions. Then again, based on the guards’ commentary, as well as the way he just sat there, glaring sullenly at nothing, he was beginning to wonder if the infamous outlaw’s reputation was really all it was cracked up to be.

If nothing else, this turn of events was a welcome diversion from his own predicament. Though he had managed to avoid the Stockade itself thus far, he doubted his appeal would stand for much longer. Much as he feared, it really only amounted to a stalling tactic, postponing the inevitable moment when he would finally have to set foot in there, to face his former crew.

Torn between his hope that this current crisis he was hearing about would lead to bureaucratic delays in his own processing, and his fear that this mess would instead get him shoved aside to make room for bigger fish to fry.

Mercer held his breath was Constable Naysmith barged in with over half a dozen officers. About all he could likely spare, if even half the talk that leaked into this room was true. Tried not to sigh too loudly when it turned out to be Erix’s cell they marched over to and dragged him out at gunpoint.

They then clapped him in irons and seated him at a table in front of the three cells, only Mercer’s occupied now.

All the while, even after binding him, Mercer could see that they had their weapons set for stun, so that if Erix so much as twitched, they could all open fire without having to worry about killing their own men, and their prisoner clearly understood that, offering no more than the token resistance of stiff arms and legs.

Two guards flanking the constable, two guards behind Erix, and two more covering the door.

“Ah, the big man himself…” Erix remarked, leaning back in his chair. “To what do I owe this honor?”

His tone jovial enough, but as usual, his smile didn’t quite reach either eye. Well, perhaps the dead-looking one on the left.

“I don’t have a lot of time to waste,” Naysmith began, though he struggled a moment to meet that dire gaze before he continued, “so we’re going to get right down to business.”

“Oh, and what business would that be?”

“Your ship, and the remainder of your goods.”

“As if.”

“We’ve searched all the subs, as well as all the ships with submersibles, and we’ve been double-checking registrations on diving gear. Where were you getting your salvage?”

Erix smirked.

“I just held my breath for a really long time.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” the constable reminded him. “Your ship’s not doing you any good anymore. You may as well give it up.”

“General principle,” Erix replied. The Checkmate was paid up by proxy, docking fees covered several days in advance, so it would keep that long before attracting attention. Which meant that if the Port Authority wasn’t just trying to bluff a confession out of him, then they really didn’t know anything about it, so he could still hold out for a getaway ride. “And who says it’s docked anyway? You’ve got manpower. Go find it yourself.”

“You know we can’t right now. We have our hands full cleaning up after you.”

“Like I care about your petty little gang war.”

“You ought to. You started it.”

“Wasn’t planning on being in town for that part.”

“I’ll have you know, I put you in here overnight to cool your heels, but mostly because I need information,” Naysmith informed him. “I did my best to keep a lid on the news for as long as I could, but word got out fast. You do know the Stockade Gang has a prison chapter, right? Things are getting pretty tense in there, and after killing their boss, you’re going to be a prime piece of meat to them. You have until sunset to tell us what we want to know, then I stamp some papers, and in you go.”

“So, what do I get out of that?”

“A break. Right now, Stockades both in and out prison are howling for your blood, and I doubt even our own guards can hold them back for long, once you’re in. But if you stay in here a few days, the heat will die down between them and the Cyexians, and I’ll have a lot less paperwork to cut through. You might actually get to survive your stay in the Stockade.”

“I don’t need any favors from you. You mind your business, and I’ll attend to mine.”

“And just what sort of business is that?” Naysmith wondered aloud. “What’s your deal? What exactly do you do?”

“Whatever I want.”

“So, how’s that been working out for you?”

“Remarkably well.” Erix shrugged at his bonds. “Most of the time.”

“And that’s why you’re in here right now.”

“You’re not the first, and I doubt you’ll be the last…”

“You don’t seem to grasp how many people want you dead around here,” the constable told him. “Don’t you have enough sense to be afraid, boy?”

“Who’s afraid of who?” Erix raised an eyebrow. “Even in chains, you still fear me.”

“This treatment is nothing special,” Naysmith replied. “It’s what we’d do with any prisoner when we’re shorthanded. Nothing more than security protocol.”

“You just keep telling yourself that.”

“You seem to think you’re somehow above all the laws and rules everyone else is expected to follow. The first thing you’re going to learn in Yarbo Stockade is that you’re just another petty thug. Your name means nothing around here.”

“And you’re just a mercenary, a gun in someone else’s hand,” Erix told him levelly. “At the end of the day, you take your orders from someone else, and whoever comes after that. Even in here, I’m freer than you.”

“I chose this job,” Naysmith shot back, “to protect the freedom of all who abide by the law.”

“So, the freedom to obey?” Erix snorted. “Don’t give me that crap. You know just as well as I do that you’re just another tool.”

“Anything else to say while you have your foot in your mouth?”

“Yeah, in the meantime, you can deliver a message. Tell Max that the next time we meet, I’m comin’ for his whole crew.”

And, sitting over in his cell, Mercer was already dead certain he knew of whom Erix spoke.

“They’ll be long gone before you ever get out of here.”

Erix answered him with a stoic silence that treated his assertion as more of a challenge than any sour-grapes retort would have.

“Very well,” the constable sighed. “Back in your cell.”

“In the end, the only thing you have in this world is yourself. Everything else is only delusion.”

The guards covered him the same way taking him back, only this time leaving him in manacles.

As soon as everything was locked up, Constable Naysmith activated the intercom panel on the wall, declaring, “The prisoner is secure.”

With that, he departed, along with most of the guards, leaving only two officers covering the holding cells.

“I can’t believe we have to sit in here watching this washed-up scum while the real action’s out there,” one jailor muttered.

“That ‘action’ is mostly gangs shooting at each other, with us caught in the crossfire,” his partner pointed out. “I’d rather be in here, where all these guys do is glare at you.” He thumbed back at Erix. “This clown couldn’t fight his way out of a fishing net!”

Both of their laughter immediately dried up in the face of Erix’s impassive gaze, quickly proving much easier to make fun of when he was unconscious, compared even to being in a cage.

“I’ll be right back,” the other guard said as he stepped out the door, “I’m off to the commissary for some refreshments.”

“What about our orders?” the other pressed. “There’s supposed to be two guards in this room at all times.”

“I won’t be gone for long,” his partner reassured him. “Besides, what’s he gonna do, stare you to death?”

“I guess you’re right,” he conceded. Turning to Erix, he stepped right up to the bars, saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll protect ya from the big, bad Cray Sisters… at least until you go in. Then you’ll see you’re not so tough after all…”

“Hey,” his partner poked his head back in the door. “You want anything while I’m down there?”

“The usual,” he answered, turning around to address his companion. “This is going to be a long day.”

“You said it,” the other jailor replied as he headed out.

Mercer watched with quiet intensity as Erix slipped up behind the guard who had taunted him only moments ago, his back still turned to the holding cell. As soon as his partner was several paces down the hall, Erix reached out silently through the bars, snatching the guard’s sidearm right out of its holster, shooting him in the ribs to muffle the stun shot. For his part, the guard only heard a faint scree as Erix’s shackles brushed against the bars at the last second, able to utter only a startled squeak as he slumped to the floor against the cell.

“Your powers of observation leave much to be desired…” Erix hissed, pulling him up against the bars to reach his belt.

He then zapped him a couple more times to make sure he stayed down, wasting no time snagging his keys and unlocking his cell. As long as the patrols’ timing hadn’t changed, he had a critical moment to undo his shackles. Still, he wished it also provided him enough time and seclusion to borrow his jailor’s uniform, as well. Draped over the chair Naysmith sat in only minutes ago, he spotted a jacket he could throw on over his prison jumpsuit.

Then he turned his attention to his neighbor, who thus far wisely remained silent.

“You want out, don’t you?” Seeing the distrustful look on Mercer’s face, he added, “I’m not teasing…”

“Hey! What happened to your partner?” demanded the next patrol guard as he stumbled to a halt at the scene he walked in on, earlier than expected. “Oh shit! He’s—”

Erix cut him off with two clean stun shots, silencing him instantly.

He then slinked over and poked his head out the door, left then right. The coast clear, he dragged the guard’s limp form inside and around the corner. He then relieved him of his sidearm, turning back to Mercer.

“You’re on your own from here,” he told his fellow captive as he unlocked his cell and handed him the other gun. “Just don’t point that shit at me, or you’re dead, got it?”

Mercer nodded, then, like the caged animal he was, took off down the hall, muttering something about this being his lucky day after all.

Erix, meanwhile, spent a moment studying an emergency evacuation map on the wall next to the intercom panel before he reached out and pressed the red fire alarm button.

Seeing as how it wouldn’t be too much longer before even this skeleton crew noticed something was amiss anyway, he figured this Mercer would make the perfect diversion while he went the other way, the way he saw Naysmith turn when he left.

Sure enough, the alarms jangled Mercer’s already raw nerves, and he abandoned any pretense of stealth, his mad scramble getting him shot down in a hail of laser fire near the security gate, drawing all personnel away from Erix as he made his way to the administrative offices, then the fire exit in back.

He recalled this Constable Naysmith saying something after his capture about wanting to put his weapons in some kind of public display box. Some nonsense about Port Authority morale, and demonstrating that even the most infamous names on the high seas were not above the law. As far as he was concerned, that plan was about to go the same way as his sentence in the Stockade.

Of course, whether the good constable’s existence was about to be cancelled, as well, when he retrieved his gear, would depend on whether or not he had the misfortune of being in his office right about now.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
along for the ride
“So let me get this straight,” the pilot repeated. “This constable fellow’s going to pay me to fly aerial advertising? But he wants a cop onboard to spy on people?”

“Pretty much,” Shades replied, sitting in one of the passenger seats of the Albatross, that Roger mounted for showing prospective customers around. “It’s not so much the Port Authority that would be paying you, so much as the local merchants going through them as an intermediary. With all the fighting in the streets lately, business is down, and they’re trying to drum up some customers. At the same time, the authorities want an eye in the sky, to coordinate their patrols and raids. The banners are just a pretense for you to be up there without arousing anyone’s suspicions.”

“I see.” Roger nodded. “And where do you fit into all this?”

“Aside from helping him come up with the advertising cover,” Shades elaborated, “they’re kinda short on manpower, so they sent us with a camera to perform a test flight, just to make sure the idea is feasible before they seal the deal.”

And, of course, to give Max and Justin their first-ever opportunity to fly, but he kept that part to himself.

Then again, that wasn’t the only reason for Max, Justin and Bandit accompanying him. Though there was some concern about the latter, over whether it was safer to travel together, or leave him back at the ship. Since both sides of the ensuing gang war associated the Excelsior with Roxy— despite fact that she had yet to show her face onboard since their falling-out yesterday— they figured it wasn’t really any safer there anymore, either. So they left the Young Master and Captain Galford’s crew to attend to fortifying their currently impounded ship any way they could, while they traveled together for safety in numbers to deliver a very busy Constable Naysmith’s proposal to Roger Wilco.

“Right now?” Roger asked point-blank.

“That’s what we were hoping,” Justin said.

“It’s my understanding that you have your own business banner, that you fly when you arrive in most places,” Shades explained, “so we figured you could use that for the test flight. We have an emergency-band radio Constable Dennis lent us,” in addition to their own personal radios, not wanting to be cut off, dangerously out of touch with each other like they were leading up to yesterday’s harrowing raid, “so we figured we could use that for now. They’ve already authorized payment for the test flight, with more on the way if it works out. It’s win-win. Port Authority gets an eye in the sky, and you get a paying gig here in Anchor Point until this blows over.”

“They’d like to get started right away,” Max added, “before any more people get killed out there.”

Already, when they tested the radio out before leaving, they heard a steady stream of reports about sporadic ambushes and skirmishes all over Anchor Point, especially in the Cyexian Quarter, with the Port Authority spread too thin to respond to them all.

“After that,” Shades informed him, “it’s probably better for you, the less you’re seen with us.”

“Okay,” Roger nodded, ambling up to the cockpit, “I guess we’ll give this a shot. Just need to finish my pre-flight check, and we’ll be ready in—”

“Roger!” a familiar voice called out as a certain bounty hunter barged in. “Roger Wilco!”

“What are you doing here?” the pilot demanded as she blew right past them in her haste for the copilot’s seat.

“I need to hire your services. Right now,” she told him, strapping herself in. “Erix is getting away as we speak.”

“But the pre-flight—”

“Skip it. If we don’t move now, we’ll lose him for sure!”

“It’s for your own safety…”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. I put my life on the line every time I go on the hunt. That’s how I live my life.”

“And I take my life into my own hands every time this bird takes off in this world,” skipping to his barest Emergency Takeoff Check, “and when I take on passengers, I carry the weight of their lives with me, as well. I have never lost a passenger, and I don’t plan to start now. You’re just lucky I keep my Albatross in tip-top condition.”

With that, he fired up the engines and punched it.

“Strap in everybody! We’re goin’ for a ride!”

And everyone strapped into their restraints as the Albatross accelerated into open waters.

“Everybody?” Roxy turned, noticing the others for the first time. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“We could ask you the same,” Shades pointed out, noting even as he spoke that this modified Albatross was noticeably quieter than that puddle-jumper he rode in Alaska years ago. “You know this guy?”

“We’ve crossed paths,” Roxy answered, trying not to be distracted by the sight unfolding in front of her as they lifted off the choppy waters.

At first the others were speechless. Originally stunned by her unexpected arrival, then the breathtaking spectacle out their windows as they took flight. Max and Justin sat in awed silence, gazing out in rapt wonder as they ascended over the inlet, soaring over the harbor.

“So what were you guys doing here?” Roxy pressed. “You hardly seem to be in a position for taking leisure flights right now.”

“We’re doing our part to help end the gang war,” Max told her. “Eye in the sky. Now what’s this about Erix? I thought he was in jail.”

Was being the key word,” Roxy muttered.

“Seriously!” Justin blurted. “Erix escaped!?”

“Already?” Shades groaned, wishing he could be a little more incredulous about it.

“I know he’s broken out of higher-security places than their Stockade,” Roxy remarked, “but this has got to be a new record, even for him…”

“So what now?” Max demanded.

“Now we catch up to his ship,” she told them. “He just had to show up during the only break in my stakeout… Fortunately, I put a tracker on his ship, since the authorities didn’t seem to know about it, but we have to keep him in range.”

She proceeded to whip out a palm-size device that looked like a miniature radar screen.

“Head straight out until he pings,” she instructed, then re-examined her readout. “Wait… What the hell is he doing over there?…”

Gesturing for him to swing to starboard, out over the harbor.

“He’s after the ship!” Shades realized, dawning on him that Erix might just seek vengeance before making good on his escape, just like Naysmith warned them. He’s going to Checkmate the Excelsior… Recalling his undersea attack on the raiders’ ship back on Kon Aru.

“We’ve gotta stop him!” Max decided.

“How?” Justin pressed.

“This is an ex-military plane,” Roger told them, “and though I operate as a civilian, I know the importance of self-defense in these waters. I keep a quadra-barrel laser canon stowed in the back. You can mount it near the cargo door.”

“You guys set up the gun,” Roxy ordered. “Once we neutralize his weapons, I can drop down on a rope to board his ship.”

“Who’s this we?” Justin demanded.

“Look, you were right. I’m sorry,” she replied. “That was totally unprofessional of me before. I also see I underestimated you. It’s going to take all of us to stop him right now, so what do you say to full shares for everyone? Enough bounty to go around?”

“Assuming they’ll pay it,” Justin shot back.

“We still have a chance to save the others.” Max, meanwhile, wasted no time retrieving the gun, and Shades was helping him set it up. As Roger said, there was a built-in mounting in the deck, and a couple safety harnesses to tether themselves to. “We can worry about bounties later.”

As Roxy opened the cargo door, they could see they were none too soon, as Erix had already maneuvered into position to bombard the Excelsior. Though someone onboard must surely have noticed the ship’s strange behavior, there was no way they could all evacuate in time if he sank the ship.

Roger swooped in low, across Erix’s path, and the rest all opened fire on the Checkmate. Much as Roxy feared, the big gun was the only one doing any damage, their hand weapons’ shots splashing harmlessly off its experimental armor plating.

If nothing else, though, that got Erix’s undivided attention, as he ceased fire almost as soon as he started, instead activating all auto-guns and turning them on the Albatross instead.

“We have to take out those guns!” Roxy told Justin as he continued to fire.

“That’s what I’m tryin’ to do!”

It only took a couple rounds, though, to prove that the Checkmate’s guns weren’t designed for air-defense, as even the Albatross could evade them easily, dive-bombing too quickly for them to score more than a couple glancing hits (at which Roger winced every time), so after Justin took out a couple guns, Erix aborted his attack and made a swift retreat for open waters.

“Only one more…” Justin told himself as they streaked across Erix’s path again, steadying his aim for another round.

“Good,” Roxy said, strapping herself into a harness and securing a rope with Shades standing by at the cargo winch, having given her one of their radios. “Let’s see if his armor is any good against energy blades!”

With that, she stepped overboard, and Shades prepared to lower her in on the next pass, according to her instructions.

“Bring me down!” she ordered. “The last gun is retracting… What the hell is he up to now?”

Shades figured it out before anyone else said a word.

“Dammit!” Roxy shouted. “It’s a submersible!”

“That must be how he was collecting all that salvage…” Shades mused. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner.”

“You knew!?”

“Ya coulda just asked!” Justin replied.

“How did you know that?”

“It’s how he escaped back in the Konas,” Max filled her in.

“Not this time!” Roxy declared. “Just a little bit farther… Shit!”

Her feet barely touched the top of the cabin, only seconds away from being able to carve an opening and force him back to the surface, when it slipped beneath the waves, the water dragging her feet back, leaving her dangling, feet skipping on each swell.

“Bring me back up!” she called.

By the time Max helped haul her back aboard, they were all waiting around anxiously, unsure of how she would react to losing him a second time.

“So what now?” Max asked in earnest.

“You did what you could, I can’t fault anyone for that…” she admitted, “but I wish you’d told me about that ship’s diving capabilities sooner.”

“Unless he changed ships, it just didn’t occur to me…” Shades thought back to Constable Naysmith asking about this very same matter only hours ago, realized he just casually assumed they couldn’t find his ship because he must’ve hidden it underwater, and the others must’ve thought the same. “After all, the Island Patrol wanted to keep the whole Erix thing on the down-low.”

“I can see why,” she conceded.

“Sorry,” Justin said, and found he actually felt it. “With all the shit goin’ on, I guess it just slipped our minds.”

“But where did you learn that? It wasn’t included in the bounty information on that ship…”

“Then they’re going to have a hard time ever getting it back,” Max commented.

“That’s what happens when you leave out critical information,” Roxy agreed, “so that’s their fault for being too paranoid. And here, I thought its design was just armoring, didn’t even think of diving… Turns out you also forgot to tell the authorities about his ship, so I just kept an eye on it myself. Figured a backwater realm like this wouldn’t hold him for long. The last I heard, Erix was up to something in a place called the Kona Islands, but I had no idea he had a ship like that…”

“Oh,” Shades reminded her, “I was the hostage. Even took me for a ride back to his hideout.”

“I see.” Recalling Erix’s words back at the warehouse. “So you were serious about that?”

“I had some interesting conversations while I was held captive,” Shades told her. “I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you were the one who rearranged his face, weren’t you?”

“I’m surprised he’d actually talk about that.”

“The way he told it, he seemed pretty sure he killed you back then.”

“It was a close call,” she confessed, “and after seeing what he was truly capable of, I’ve made both a personal and career goal out of taking him down. We can’t lose him just yet. With that ship, he could hide out underwater, and come back to attack us all at his own timing.”

“But he’s not,” Roger told them, pointing to her tracking device. “He’s high-tailin’ it outta here like his ass is on fire. He tried a couple maneuvers, but I think he figured out we’re still following him.”

“That tracker has a range of about two miles,” Roxy informed him, “so try not to get too far ahead or behind him. As long as he’s underwater, he shouldn’t be able to get out to remove it and stay in motion at the same time. And if he stops, we can depth-charge him with grenades.”

“What if he goes in too deep?” Roger asked him. “The Abyss is said to be over two thousand fathoms off the shelf. Some parts are so deep, no salvage crew has ever laid eyes on them, not even the diving robots some ’em got.”

“I don’t think he can,” Shades assured them. “When I was onboard, I got to see the interior, and I’m pretty sure it was built more for stealth than depth. He was probably skimming salvage off the shelf, rather than in the Trench.”

“Should we go back?” Max wondered aloud.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” Roger told them. “We’ve already flown too far out to turn back.”

“Then I guess we continue the hunt,” she concluded. “I’m sorry about this, really, I am, but my offer still stands. Now that his back’s to the wall, and I’m working with people who understand the gravity of what they’re dealing with, a team effort might just be what it takes.”

She turned to Justin, telling him, “I can see now that I misjudged you. You’re not really competition, or trying to spy out my secrets, are you? You’re probably better off as treasure hunters than bounty hunters, but at least you’ve got it where it counts when things get rough.”

“We’ll choose to take that as a compliment,” Max replied.

“What he said.” Justin shrugged.

“Take it any way you wish.”

“That ship of his is fast,” Roger observed, noting his own flight speed, neither gaining nor lagging. Those same aero- and hydrodynamic lines and curves, designed to confound both radar and sonar, also allowed it to slice through the water like a hot knife through butter. “But it’ll probably be a day or two, at least, before he makes it anywhere, so I’m going to switch over to glide mode.”

“Glide mode?” Max asked, recalling Maximilian’s glider back in Alta.

“The wings are equipped with solar panels that can power a low-energy engine mode.”

“You have solar panels?” Shades remarked. “I don’t recall seeing those…”

“The technicians who installed them can make them any color they want, and they’re a lot more efficient than any you’ll find back on Earth.”

“Since we seem to have a lot of time to kill,” the bounty hunter proposed, “perhaps I can try to make it up to you from before. I’ll tell you anything I know, as long as it’s not a sworn secret, all you need to do is ask.”

None of them had any idea what Constable Naysmith was going to make of this turn of events, they just hoped the Port Authority wouldn’t give Maximilian too much trouble over it. The Young Master originally wanted to go with, recounting his excitement riding that glider back in Alta, but with two gangs menacing them, and Galford & Company still setting up shop, he couldn’t flake out on them at such a critical time. In addition to attending to Rufus, and several of Galford’s crew who were injured in yesterday’s raid.

Probably for the best, they decided, given what just happened. The only consolation they could think of was that that same gang threat inspired them to carry all of their weapons and gear with them anywhere off the ship.

As they found themselves whisked away out of Maximilian’s life, as surely as he just got left out of their tale, Max found he actually wanted to stick around the Excelsior a little while and help him out a little longer, now that he stood at the threshold of turning things around. Or perhaps it was just a kind of homesickness, as that ship was fast becoming the closest thing they had to one after losing the Maximum. Either way, he wished the Young Master the best of luck.

As they flew away, Max took one look back, murmuring, “Wind speed you, my friend…”
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
questions and answers
“I think there’s one thing we all want to know most,” Shades started off in earnest: “Just who the hell is this Erix anyway?”

“That’s a tough question,” Roxy admitted up front. “No one knows where he’s originally from, and no realm wants to claim him. What is known is that he doesn’t like to stay in one place for long— even his time in New Cali was brief, for all the damage he caused. He steals whatever he wants, and kills anyone who gets in his way. A shortage of living witnesses leaves a lot of gaps in his record. The handful of prisons that ever tried to hold him failed miserably, which is why so few places even want him alive anymore. The last prison he wound up in, he escaped during a prison riot.”

“I could see that…” Shades mused, recalling his own awkward conversations with him. “He has a knack for twisting your own words against you. In less… mindful company, I could totally see him turning prisoners’ resentment to his own purposes.”

“You’re reading too much into it,” Roxy told him. “All he did was leave the door hanging open behind him. The prisoners did the rest all on their own, and he just took advantage of it as he always does. Chaos is his only friend.

“And because I disfigured him,” she explained, “he’s now a marked man, making his fugitive life a lot more complicated. Now he has to be careful where he even shows his face out there, so his grudge against me is personal.”

“So you’re saying that no prison can keep him?” Max marveled.

“Yeah, pretty much,” she said, then added, “but there does seem to be one strange exception. When I was investigating his activities in New Cali, a certain information broker provided me some top-secret documents about an experimental prison, the only one that supposedly ever held him… For one hundred years, according to the report.”

“A hundred years!” Justin blurted. “How the hell is that even possible?”

“They kept him in stasis,” Roxy answered. “It may have been a century out here, but to him it was only a couple seconds. Still didn’t stop him from hunting down the grandson of the judge who sentenced him… According to the report, he said he wanted his ‘hundred years back’. It’s still not known to this day, who sabotaged the facility, but he wasn’t the only one held there. It seems someone was collecting dangerous people and creatures there, and the whole operation was financed by Camcron Industries.”

“Camcron?” Max gasped.

“The Institute, then?” Shades surmised darkly.

“You’ve heard of them?”

“Don’t forget,” Shades reminded here, “when we were in the Isle of St Lucy, we had to escape from one of their little projects.”

“And don’t forget that disappearing island,” Max added.

“We talked to a man once whose home island disappeared after the Institute started ‘researching’ out there,” Shades filled in, recalling Russell Wilkins’ account, wishing he already had one of those datapads, wracking his brains for names.

“He saw it from the next island,” Justin explained.

“Right, you did mention something about that.” Recalling one night’s tale aboard the Excelsior, she speculated, “It sounds like they’re doing something dangerous. So big, it would be impossible to cover up if it happened in New Cali…”

“But to what end?” Shades pondered.

“Hard to say,” Roxy admitted, “but you also mentioned someone named Geist, didn’t you? We had other things to deal with back then, but I believe you were right to worry. Accounts of Mr Geist have been floating around for decades, and usually with some connection to Camcron and its ‘research’ institutes. Seems nobody wants to talk about him, and anyone from Camcron will dismiss him as an urban legend.”

“Do you know anything about him?” Justin asked.

“Not really,” she confessed. “Never met him myself, not sure if he’s even the same person, or just a code name of some sort. Though the Institute’s been around for at least a century, they only started building these remote facilities in the last forty or fifty years, and no one knows what for. All I know is that his name comes up a lot in the establishment of these places, and that if it comes up again later, it’s never a good sign. Far as I can tell, this Geist acts as some kind of emissary and troubleshooter, possibly Camcron’s own enforcer.”

Justin swallowed hard at that name. As if this whole stasis business wasn’t already reminding him uncomfortably of Tranz-D.

“The reason why we know so little about him is that those who may have actually met him won’t speak a word, and anyone else is dead. He’s one of only a couple people I’ve ever heard of with a shorter survivor list than Erix…”

“There’s someone who leaves even fewer witnesses than him?” Shades remarked. “Damn…”

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise, being an assassin and all,” she elaborated. “Some don’t even believe he exists. Known only as the Reaper, a shadowy figure with no face. Just a ghost with a laser sword. The strangest thing is that the few people who’ve seen him and lived to tell all give the same description, of dark robes and a hood with no face under it. The other thing is that his energy blade is supposedly black.”

“A black laser blade?” Shades scratched his head. “How does that even work?”

“But a blade’s supposed to glow…” Max had heard, in addition to all he’d seen, that energy blades could be tuned to practically every color of the rainbow, but something that ‘glows’ black made no sense to him.

“No idea,” Roxy shrugged, “that’s just what people keep saying, even people who’d never heard of him before. Like a lot of things about him, it sounds like the stuff of tall tales. Sort of like how he’s also supposedly over three hundred years old.”

“Okay, now you’re just yankin’ our chain,” Justin laughed.

“Or maybe it’s a name that’s passed down,” Max suggested, “like Striker?”

“Could be,” the bounty hunter conceded, “after all, the name’s been floating around for generations. Or it might just be someone out there taking advantage of the legend. Whatever the case, he scares some powerful people in New Cali bad enough to post a bounty that rivals Erix, so I keep my ear to the ground. After all, you never know…”

“You know…” Justin brought up, his face abruptly taking a turn for sober, “now that I think of it, there is one thing I’d like to know. Just who the hell is this ‘Justin Black’ you kept goin’ on about yesterday? I mean, if other bounty hunters know that name, who’s to say they won’t come after me, too?”

“Oh? Him?” The bounty hunter paused for a moment, switching gears. “I was reviewing my info on him after we… parted ways. So tell me, you really never have been to New Cali?”

“No,” Justin answered, “not even when I stowed away aboard the Skerry as a kid…”

She stared intensely at him for a long moment, then turned her focus on Max, seeing no lie in either face.

“Mistaken identity then… Truth be told, you don’t even look much like him, either. So, what was that you said about… Benton, was it?”

And Justin took a couple minutes to fill her in about his streetrat childhood in the Triangle State, leading up to the Pullman Uprising.

“So really, they never put a price on my head over that?” he finished.

“Not that I’ve ever heard of,” Roxy replied, “though it may be that no one knows you were involved in this Trevor fellow’s death.”

“Though it does raise some ethical questions about the kind of people you’d be willing to work for,” Shades pointed out. “As your former henchman, I wouldn’t mind knowing where you draw the line.”

“I try to keep things on the up-and-up,” she told them, “and I won’t take a job if I don’t like the smell of it. A lot of bounty hunters are part-timers, mercenaries for whom hunting is just one type of gig. Even some specialists are known more for their results than their scruples. I’ve had run-ins with people who wanted to use me as some kind of discount assassin, but I refuse to play that game. Of course, in my line of work, letting your targets escape is bad for business, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread that around. I do have a reputation to keep.”

“I’m actually curious to see if you had anything on me,” Shades chuckled, yet still sounded a tad aloof, “but I doubt there’s much to go on, since I’m not from this world originally.”

“For all the trouble you’ve gotten yourself into,” she replied, “you don’t seem to have picked up any bounties.”

“Still,” Max pressed, “why were you so sure he was the one you were looking for? He’s been in the Triangle State all these years.”

“Funny you should mention that, because that was the other thing I wanted to know. According to my information, it just so happens that he’s originally from the Triangle State.”

“Wait a minute…” Justin’s relief at being off the hook evaporated instantly as he put two and two together. Clearly not liking the result. “Show me this picture, would you.”

Visibly apprehensive about the answer, even as she searched her datapad.

“That son of a bitch…” Even years later, Justin still recognized him. “When I catch up with him, I’m gonna kick his ass!”

“You know him?” Though Roxy figured she shouldn’t be so surprised if they both spent time in the same place.

“Yeah, somebody I used to know back in the Triangle State,” Justin muttered. “Jesse Fletcher. Jesse. James. Fletcher. That bastard! Running around, using my name…”

“How come you never told me about him?” Max asked, perplexity competing with a hint of hurt.

“I figured it was all in the past,” Justin told him. “I mean, we didn’t exactly part on friendly terms… I once thought of him as a friend, but he was a constant liar, and I guess I didn’t want to jinx our friendship by reminding myself of him. But to think, he’d stoop so low, after I gave him a place to hide from the TSA…”

“The Ruins?”

“Hell,” Justin snorted, “guess I should be glad he didn’t blab about that, too. So tell me, Roxy, just what has he been up all these years?”

“Try not to be too disappointed,” the bounty hunter replied. “He’s mostly just a petty con artist and grifter. He’s not even half as notorious as Erix, or even Striker, which is probably why you’ve been lucky enough not to run afoul of anyone who’s heard of him up ’til now. Even so, things got too hot for him in New Cali after he tried to swindle the Cass family. Dangerous game, that. They’re one of New Cali’s most powerful families, majority shareholders in Camcron, with rumored connections in the underworld, as well.

“And it was a bad year for New Cali’s elite, too, right on the heels of Erix trashing the Sky Room at Highwind Towers. Of course, the Towers are always the center of some scandal or another— what you get for having so many bigwigs rubbing elbows all the time in one place— but that year had to be some kind of record.”

“Sky Room?” Shades marveled. “Just how tall are these towers anyway?”

“Taller’n anything you’ll find in our world,” Roger piped up from the cockpit. “The Citystate of New Cali’s even bigger than the entire state of New York, let alone NYC, and you can see those towers from a hundred miles away, piercing the clouds…”

“Trust me, the name ‘Sky Room’ is no exaggeration,” the bounty hunter corroborated. “Highwind Towers is a mega-structure, with a central tower even taller than Camcron HQ. The highest levels actually have to be pressurized, and the Sky Room was a dome at the top, an exclusive club, where the air wasn’t the only thing rarified about that place. There are even rumors about a secret, experimental teleportation system being developed to get around…”

“Let me guess,” Shades commented, “another Institute science project?”

Roxy shrugged.

“Cass…” Justin turned that name over in his head, finally asking her, “Does the name ‘Felicia’ ring any bells with you? With the Cass family, I mean.”

“Felicia… No, but there is a Felicity Cass. The disgraced daughter of Perry Cass, the family patriarch. She used to be the heiress of the family fortune, before she was involved with some kind of huge scandal. Last I heard, she was disowned, and her younger sister now stands to inherit everything. Word on the street was that she ran off with some lowlifes she took up with.”

“A rather paper-thin alias…” Shades contemplated, seeing where Justin was going with this. “Was these lowlifes’ leader called ‘Danjo’ by any chance?”

“Could be.” Roxy shrugged. “I heard somebody who called himself that got himself in trouble with the Tanistas around that time. Compared to New Cali’s major syndicates, the Tanista Cartel is a bunch of small-timers who like to talk big, like those yappy little dogs they’re so fond of…”

“I think she mentioned that name when she was arguing with Clyde,” Max added.

“Clyde?”

“Clyde Voidt,” Shades explained. “He calls both himself, and his gang, ‘Danjo’ for some reason. If you ever find him, be careful. He’s got the same time-bending moves as that Ma’Quiver fellow we told you about. If he gets the first move, he’ll mop the floor with even you.”

“I see. Thanks for the warning. Still, the Tanistas are little more than a loose coalition of street gangs, without the big-business fronts or the financial clout of the older families. Even so, I heard their current leader is young, hot-headed and ambitious, to the point that a lot of folks are worried he’ll do something stupid, like start a turf war with the big boys. Then again, I imagine having both them and Cass pissed off at you would be enough to drive anyone out of town…”

“And it still doesn’t tell me how Fletcher fits into all this,” Justin pointed out, recalling, with a jolt, how they came to this topic in the first place.

“Even that I’m not sure of,” Roxy confessed, “and ‘Justin Black’ might not be the only alias he’s used over the years. Still, you used to know him, so if we compare notes, we might both learn something.”

While the two of them continued to examine her notes on him, and Justin recounted what he could about his time with Fletcher, Max realized with a start that he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Bandit since they took off.

For a moment, he had a horrifying image of his feline friend falling overboard during their assault on Erix’s Checkmate, but that evaporated in a flood of relief at seeing a black-and-white tail sticking out from behind some containers in the back of the cargo hold.

“Bandit? You okay…” As Max poked his head around the corner, he saw that Bandit wasn’t doing so well, curled up in the corner, with a nasty mess in the opposite corner.

“Poor kitty…” Shades remembered all too well his own struggle with seasickness when he first set sail with his friends. “I think he got airsick earlier.”

“Airsick?” Max cocked his head.

“It’s kinda like seasick, except from flying,” Shades explained.

“Airsick?” Roger groaned. “Great… Just what we need up here. Check the First Aid kit. I have some medicine I keep in there for passengers. For a cat about his size, I’d stick with the child dosage. You can also crack a couple vents to make his breathing a little easier. And let him have a little water. Just don’t feed him unless he can hold that down first. In fact, you should probably only let him eat a little while we’re up here, until he gets used to riding like this.”

“Good advice,” Shades seconded, recalling his mother using similar treatments for her dogs when taking them to and from the veterinarian, on that rather lengthy drive between Lakeside and Kalispell.

That said, he turned to helping Max, making sure he found the right medication, even doing what he could to clean up the mess, relieved that Roger had installed a small airline-style bathroom onboard, while Max comforted his old friend.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the Black Angels
And so the hunt continued, on into the next day, with no end in sight.

After their initial Q&A session, they all settled in, making themselves as comfortable as they could. The fact that Roger kept the Albatross equipped with half a dozen modular passenger seats helped, providing each of them with a place to crash. Roger himself kept the pilot’s seat almost constantly, even slept there on auto-pilot while Roxy monitored the tracker.

And sometimes seemed to forget he even had passengers, lapsing into his own off-key warbling, punctuated by the occasional belch.

Which mostly made Shades glad he took to carrying his Cam-Jam and his earphones with him everywhere anymore, even if it earned him an occasional glare from Justin.

In the interlude between conversations, all of them took time to gaze out the windows, at the sea below and the horizon beyond. Even Shades, who had done his share of flying in his younger days, when his father would be stationed in a different place every other year. Noting that the Albatross’ engines ran much quieter than any of the puddle-jumpers he had traveled in back when his father was stationed in Alaska.

He also took the opportunity to get a closer look at the controls, seeing that years of modification had altered the board into a mix-matched patchwork of original controls and instruments, and retro-futuristic components that looked like something from the set of some B sci-fi flick. Yet clearly it all worked, given that they’d been airborne longer than any plane he’d ever heard of, so all he could do was marvel at this meticulous merging of heretofore unknown technologies.

As afternoon wore into evening, the skies turning darker and cloudier even before sunset, Roxy’s well of relevant information seemed to dry up, and Justin simply tired of spinning his wheels fuming about a ghost from his past that he could do nothing about up here anyway. Whether it was because the bounty hunter felt she owed them for this mess, or because she was actually starting to open up to them, Shades chose not to question.

Instead, he decided to approach the pilot about a matter of great curiosity, telling him about the logbook they found aboard the Maximum when they first found her on that haunted island, Max and Justin corroborating his story at every turn, and, much as he expected, their host understood them all too well.

“I used to think the Bermuda Triangle was a load of crap,” Roger confessed. “Been flyin’ out there for years, without ever seeing anything unusual. Sure, I heard the tales, but statistically speaking, it ain’t any more dangerous than any other part of the sea.”

“But now we both know differently.”

“You bet your ass,” Roger chuckled. “To think, I was on holiday, flying out to Bimini, when I saw this giant wall of fog come looming out of nowhere. It was on top of me before I could even try to turn around. Of course, that was before I realized I no longer even knew which way ‘around’ actually was anymore.”

“Just like in the stories…” Shades breathed.

“It was the scariest moment of my life as a pilot,” he told them. “I was flying totally blind in there. My compass was spinning, my instruments were going haywire… Neither land nor sea passing beneath me. Drifting through nothingness.”

“What about your radio?” Shades made sure to ask that question, based on his own experiences.

“Nothin’. Couldn’t get ahold of any air traffic control, other planes, not even emergency frequencies, to save my life. Which is pretty much what I was tryin’ to do by that point. I no longer had anything to go on. No landmarks, no sun, no stars… No ground below, no sky above, I wasn’t even sure which way was up anymore. It was literally nowhere. Worse than dead reckoning…”

Each of them looked out the nearest window, at the grey skies around them, finding they could imagine the pilot’s nightmare all too easily up here.

“Hell, I didn’t even know how long that went on, since my watch was running backwards through the whole thing…” Roger continued. “The last part I remember was seeing a light piercing the fog, and gunning it for all I was worth, as it seemed to be shrinking, even as I got closer.

“Next thing I knew, I was back out flying over open seas again, although at a lower altitude than I was before. My compass was still wandering, but at least the rest of my instruments started to stabilize. Still no radio, but at least there was land off to nine o’clock.”

“How fortunate,” Roxy remarked.

“You have no idea. Especially since the place I wound up was an island called Centralict, a major port of call in this world. The seaport folks there were used to dealing with all sorts of weird goings-on in those parts, which helped me get my start there. Their library was especially useful.”

“You don’t say,” Shades commented. “I don’t suppose you ever visited the thirteenth floor, did you?”

“Oh no, some guy kept warning me away, though he’d never say why…”

“His name wasn’t Conan Swanson, was it?” Max asked.

“Why yes, I think it was, actually,” Roger replied. “To think, he’s really worked there all these years… Did he ever tell you what was up with that thirteenth floor biz?”

“Yeah, but we already stumbled across some of it by the time we talked to him,” Max explained. “There’s actually a doorway to another dimensions up there.”

“But not to ours,” Shades added, noting the look on Roger’s face. “It’s unstable, though, which is part of how I came to be here.”

“I see. And here I was hoping maybe you found something…”

“As you may have heard earlier,” Shades quipped, “there seem to be some people who might know a way back to our world, but they’re not the sorta folks you can just walk up and ask. As for me, I don’t feel right going back without finding my friends. Or at least what happened to them…”

“Even so, sometimes I can’t help but wonder why I came out there, of all places, like it was some kind of weirdness magnet…”

“That, and there’s the Harken Building…” Justin muttered. And that strange antique store he was only half sure he actually visited, but he kept that part to himself. “There’s a lot of weird shit on that island, but you’d never guess it just from lookin’ around.”

“The place just looks so… normal, y’know?” Shades remarked. “At least by our world’s standards. Still, you must make quite a splash most places you go. In all the time I’ve been in this world, the only other aircraft I’ve ever seen are some strange black jets flying by once.”

“The Black Angels…” Roger breathed. “You’ve actually seen the Black Angels?”

“The black what?” Max asked, though he nodded along with Justin, backing Shades up.

“No one really knows what they are, or where they came from,” the pilot confessed, “but they’re a very spooky tale among those of us who take to the skies in this world. Supposedly, a ‘lost’ squadron, a wing of elite fighters from an unknown realm. It’s been said their absence lost their homeland a major battle. According to legend, they’re eternally lost, cursed to never land again.”

“Creepy…” Shades shuddered, thinking of Flight 19.

Outside, the sky continued to darken, with flickers of lightning on the horizon.

“They say that on stormy nights, just like this one, they’ve been known to harass hapless pilots. A ghost squadron that attacks random aircraft, perhaps mistaking them for whatever enemy they were originally sent to fight. Over the years, they’ve been accused of shooting down at least a dozen pilots, though it might just be that they don’t want to admit going down for other reasons. Still, in all my years flying in this world, I’ve never seen ’em, not even sure they really exist, so I’m surprised you got to see them from the ground.”

“Well, we definitely saw something,” Justin insisted.

“That I don’t doubt,” he replied, turning back to the controls. “Of course, they also say that it’s bad luck to talk about the Black Angels while you’re up in the air. Though I’d say it’s more the weather that’s changing than our luck.”

Sure enough, even over the course of their conversation, the turbulence had increased, already starting to push them around against Roger’s expert handling.

“This isn’t good,” he told them. “We should climb to a higher altitude to ride above the storm.”

“But if we go too high, we’ll lose the tracking signal,” Roxy reminded him. “It only has a range of just two miles, which is why we’re flying low in the first place.”

“I know, but if we go down, we’re gonna be in deep shit,” Roger cautioned her. “The one time that happened to me, I was stranded out here for over a week, trying to use my wingflaps as crude sails to get back to land.”

“How long can you hold out?” Roxy pressed. “If we can pass through the storm, we could still track him.”

“I’ve since had my Albatross modified so that my wings can rotate vertical to function better as sails, but this hull structure and floats were never designed for prolonged exposure to such tall waves. I couldn’t care less what that bounty is worth, if it costs me this plane.”

“Very well,” she relented, noting the concern on everyone else’s face. “If it gets any worse, we go up. Much as I hate letting that bastard escape a third time, it’s not worth our lives.”

They flew on for about another fifteen minutes in stern silence, but the storm only got worse.

“Sorry,” he told them, “but I don’t think we can take much more of this. We have to go up now, while we still have the chance.”

Yet even as he pulled up, several energy beams streaked past them.

From behind, not below.

“What the hell!?” Roger screamed, his voice overlapping with a chorus of curses and exclamations from his passengers.

Shades spotted it first, coming up on them at three o’clock. A black jet, with sweeped wings, its contours limned against a flicker of lightning. For all the world bearing an uncanny resemblance to a modified F-14 Tomcat to him, bearing unfamiliar insignias. Their pilots vague shadows under tinted canopies. A startled yelp from Justin revealed another one cruising on their nine, as well.

And none of them would be surprised to see one of two them hanging on their six, or possibly above them.

“You’ve gotta be shittin’ me…” Roger groaned. “Come on, give me a break! You can’t just summon something just by talking about it. This is crazy!”

An unknown number of black fighters now had them completely surrounded, their formation boxing the Albatross in from all sides.

“Come on…” Roger muttered, fumbling with a radio that only saw use in some realms, scanning all frequencies. “They can’t be serious…”

“Dammit, we’re sitting ducks out here…” Roxy hissed, looking around for any possible way to fight back.

“A flying coffin…” Shades gasped, recalling an off-hand nickname of some old Soviet-era prop-fighter he once read about. “No matter how fast we open those cargo doors, they’re too agile for us. With the element of surprise we might nail one, but the rest would swat us right out of the sky like the civilian outfit we are… Do you have any parachutes onboard?”

“Yes, but there’s not enough for everyone,” Roger said, finally finding the channel these mysterious fighters seemed to be communicating on. “I’ve only got four, and besides, jumping into that mess would be suicide.”

“Jumping!?” Justin screeched.

“What about Bandit?” Max demanded.

“That’s exactly what I mean…”

Having found their hailing frequency, Roger flipped a speaker switch, so the others could hear what he was hearing.

“This is Shadow Squadron!” a harsh, militaristic voice declared. “Repeat, you have entered Deltanian airspace without authorization. You will land your craft immediately, and prepare to be boarded by our patrol ships.”

“This is the Albatross,” Roger responded, hoping for even a slight chance to resolve this peacefully, “and if we entered your airspace, it wasn’t on purpose. Please give us directions to the nearest landing site, and we will comply.”

“Negative,” the voice responded. “You must not be allowed to land on restricted ground. You will land here, or we will shoot you down on instructions from High Command.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Roger wailed. “We can’t land out here! We’d break up!”

“Shadow Leader!” another voice broke in, “Don’t listen to them! They probably scrounged that fossil up somewhere in Cyexia! Hoping to sneak below radar to spy or smuggle something!”

“Fossil!?” Roger bristled with indignation.

“Cyexia…” Roxy mumbled. “If they’re fighting Cyexians somewhere, they’ll immediately think I’m with them! If we surrender, there’s no guarantee they’ll listen to you if they think you’re with me, and no telling what they’ll do to you!”

“Duly noted, Shadow Four,” Shadow Leader acknowledged. “Shadows Two, Three and Five, prepare to engage! Unknown aircraft declared hostile!”

“What the hell are you people talking about?” Roger moaned. “We’re a civilian craft!”

“I’m beginning to think that wherever they happen to be flying is ‘their’ airspace,” Shades said darkly. Even as he spoke, he noticed something else about these fighters, as if he needed anything else to tell him they were bad news: their very flight didn’t seem to be slightest bit effected by the storm raging around them. As if they were cruising through a completely different reality. “They’re faster and more agile than us, plus they have us outnumbered. About all we can do is go in lower and see if there’s any safe place to land out here—”

Before he could finish speaking, Shadow Squadron opened fire, and Roger was forced to attempt whatever evasive maneuvers he could come up with against their superior firepower and maneuverability.

And learned right away that it would do them no good, as they sustained several hits right off the bat.

“Right engine down!” Roger warned them. “Left wing damaged! We’re going down!”

“That’ll teach ’em!” Shadow Four crowed as their radio signal started to turn staticky.

“Good shot, Shadow Two!”

As the Ocean loomed up at them, they caught a fleeting, lightning-strobed glimpse of a wooded shoreline, and a few tiny buildings up the shore.

“Alright, mission accomplished, everyone,” Shadow Leader congratulated them. “Now let’s head back to base.”

“I’ll try to set ’er down along the coast!” Roger grunted, struggling with increasingly uncooperative controls. “It’s our only chance! Brace yourselves!”

“Yeah, this recon mission seemed to take forever,” Shadow Two remarked. “I can’t wait to stretch my legs.”

All of them sat in terse silence, strapping themselves in as the storm-tossed sea filled their windows, screaming in near unison at the impending impact.

“When will we get back there?” Shadow Five piped up. “It seems like every time…”

Their voices faded into static as the Black Angels departed, riders on the storm, leaving their newest victims to the mercy of the elements, spiraling down into the stormy seas below as Roger attempted a desperate emergency landing.
Chapter End Notes:
-rough draft: January 11, 2013 - April 01, 2015
-word draft: March 11, 2014 - August 14, 2015
-additional revisions: August 20-5, 2015

If it feels like it’s been forever since Tradewinds 18, you’re not alone, and all I can do is apologize for the longest hiatus in the series’ history, even longer than the gap between 3 and 4, which mercifully none of you folks had to suffer through (only me, since I hadn’t released anything publicly back then). Since 2012, I’ve been through four apartments, three jobs, and two computers, as well as ditching Windows and working with three different Linux distros (Ubuntu, Xubuntu, and more recently, Kubuntu). I can even look at the original manuscript, and tell each place where I lost my footing due to real-world disruptions, and how long it took me to get back into it again. (But I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention I’ve also been through Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Torchlight II, and the entire Mass Effect trilogy in the meantime, and that probably didn’t help my progress any.) But before anyone comes down too hard on me for that, I must also disclose that I’ve also been working on a massive world-building endeavor behind the scenes, which will finally bear fruit starting with Tradewinds 20.

Originally titled “The Unfriendly Skies” (despite that part not even coming up until the final leg of the story), this also proved to be a tricky tale to tell, both because of the events of the last couple stories leading up to it, but mostly because, when I looked over my old notes, I found I had no real plot to speak of, just the return of Erix, so I had to build most of the scenario from scratch, including what he was even up to in Anchor Point in the first place. Even more so than the Excelsior’s delightful maiden voyage, since at least half of that was rooted in an actual story plot (even if it wasn’t going anywhere useful in the original notes). This one also took a lot of rejiggering, tweaking details to add up to the right clues, giving me a whole new appreciation for mystery writers, even if the culprit of Roxy’s investigation turned out to be rather less than mysterious. On top of that, I had just enough new characters that I was still getting the hang of. I also had to deal with the loose ends of Maximilian’s plot thread, in a way that would lead them to the next leg of their journey, but also leave a character who hung around a lot longer than I expected with some measure of closure. (Though I would not be surprised if they crossed paths with the Young Master later in the series, I think we can all agree it really was time to move on.)

The later chapters proved more fun and interesting to write, especially the battle at the Docks warehouse, and Erix’s jailbreak, refreshing after all the dithering over the early chapters. I can’t help but think I fussed around with them too much in the notebook draft, and in hindsight, I probably could’ve finished this sooner if I’d saved that stuff for the word-processed draft, like you’re supposed to… It was a constant feeling of being blindsided, almost every time I sat down to work on the early chapters, details I hadn’t thought about, plotholes in need of filling, and having to delve deeper into the history of Anchor Point’s gangs than I originally expected, but at least that part was interesting, and also yielded a fun and enlightening sidetrack about Kimo Daji and Striker’s origins. Whereas the later chapters allowed me to reap the fruits of all that detail work on the early portions, and just cut loose on the storytelling itself, which flowed much more smoothly for it. I also enjoyed seeing some payoff for several character arcs, especially Justin’s, as well as dropping a few more pieces of other puzzles. Still, after a two-year real-world gap, I just can’t help feeling a day late and a buck short with it.

If nothing else, I believe I learned a valuable lesson here, about the importance of focusing on forward progress above all else in the rough draft, and not sweating the small stuff until the working draft. I just created far too much pressure for myself, the longer this dragged out, and that’s a mistake I intend to avoid going forward. All I will say about Tradewinds 20 is that it is coming along nicely. I’ve found I always seem to jinx myself when I make projections, so I’ll just settle for saying that I’m making steady progress, and leave it at that. After all, it’ll be ready when it’s ready, and when it’s done, you’ll be the first to know, so stay tuned for Tradewinds 20: Wherein in a plane wreck is only the beginning of their ordeal.. :)

-12/07/15


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