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.