“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.”
“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…”