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.”
“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?”
“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.