Tradewinds 11: Honor Among Thieves by shadesmaclean
Summary: Wherein an unexpected encounter brings things full circle…
Categories: Non-Naruto Fiction Characters: OC
Genres: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, General, Sci-Fi
Warnings: Death
Challenges: None
Series: Tradewinds
Chapters: 14 Completed: Yes Word count: 16798 Read: 5317 Published: 16/03/13 Updated: 27/03/13

1. Interlude: Bargain (I) by shadesmaclean

2. I by shadesmaclean

3. II by shadesmaclean

4. III by shadesmaclean

5. IV by shadesmaclean

6. V by shadesmaclean

7. VI by shadesmaclean

8. VII by shadesmaclean

9. VIII by shadesmaclean

10. IX by shadesmaclean

11. X by shadesmaclean

12. XI by shadesmaclean

13. XII by shadesmaclean

14. Outro: Wayside by shadesmaclean

Interlude: Bargain (I) by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a buyer for the Amulet
Later that evening, a very different visitor docked in the Tradewinds Mercantile District.

Oriental in aspect, though tall for his apparent ancestry, with long, raven-black hair and cold grey eyes. Cloaked in a long black coat, feet barely visible, he seemed to glide across the floor as he entered the trading post. Almost spectral, like something that walked in out of some unsettling dream.

The shopkeep couldn’t even recall hearing this mysterious stranger enter; just felt an odd chill, looked up from his book keeping, and there he was. Saw that his lone customer, previously examining his wares, now just tried to keep his eyes to himself as much as this strange visitor would allow. The shopkeep looked out the window and got this sinking feeling; earlier, the weather was sunny and clear as far as the eye could see, yet now dusk brought with it rapidly darkening clouds.

As if a storm swept in in this newcomer’s wake, he reflected.

Without saying a word, the stranger produced what looked like an antique compass. It appeared to spin and sway wildly for a moment, but the needle ultimately came to rest pointing at the door to the back of the shop, behind the counter. The man then snapped the case shut and tucked the thing back into the unfathomable depths of his coat, making his way to the counter. As silently as he entered, the stranger slid across the room to him, at last casting his eyes upon the shopkeep.

Who, for his part, did what he could not to flinch at that imperious gaze.

“I wish to purchase the Gold Amulet of Emperor Qi.” The man spoke before the shopkeep could even find the words to greet him. Even pronouncing it “chi” like in his book of Antiquities, this man spoke of it with a casual familiarity that bothered him greatly. Much like his regal tone and condescending manner.

His very presence seemed to cool the room off a few degrees.

“Y-yes… Of course…” the shopkeep finally managed, finding his tongue had turned to lead in this ominous man’s presence. Just the fact that this stranger even knew about his recent purchase told him there was something very wrong with this picture. He realized that his entire salesman’s façade had crumbled as he mumbled, “What’s… your offer?”

Had thought about opening the bidding at fifty thousand credits. After all, this was one of the ancient Lost Treasures of Emperor Qi he was dealing with, whereabouts unknown for centuries, and surely this man must know their worth. But then thought better of it, and let this mysterious customer make the first move.

“I offer you thirty thousand,” the specter declared flatly.

“Sold!” the shopkeep blurted, deciding not to try bargaining with this guy. One of the principle secrets of surviving these waters, he thought numbly, was knowing when not to press your luck.

As if to confirm this, he could feel how eerily quiet the whole District felt this overcast evening, as if waiting for a storm. He didn’t need to see his only other customer slink out the door to know this fellow was bad for business. Found he was beginning to care less about making a profit, and more about getting him out of his store as quickly as possible.

“I’ll be right back with it,” the shopkeep told him, wishing his voice didn’t sound so muffled to his own ears. Not only was he sure this guy wouldn’t take no for an answer, but that refusing him might be far more trouble than it was worth.

The specter stood silently. Waiting.

Among other things the shopkeep instinctively disliked, it was difficult to tell if this one was young or old. His eyes gave the impression of having beheld sights he wouldn’t much care to see. Had read a thousand faces. Still he couldn’t quite figure out what made this man so imposing; all he got was the disconcerting feeling that this man— if he was even such— could make all hell break loose on you, literally, if you angered him.

A couple minutes later, the shopkeep returned with the Amulet. In his absence, the stranger fetched out a thick envelope full of hundred-credit notes. Examining the coin, and seeing that it looked no different than it had the first time he set eyes on it, he handed the shopkeep the wad of bills.

Saying, “You have done well.”

For his part, the shopkeep found himself feeling relieved to settle for thirty thousand credits. Not as much as he originally hoped to make off the thing, but it was still ten grand more than he originally paid for it. Sometimes, a profit is a profit, he reflected as he counted his money, and a wise man just left it at that.

This he thought as the stranger neatly dropped the amulet inside the dark depths of his coat, saying, “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“Stop by again…” The shopkeep faltered on the end of that remark, wondering why he had just invited such a curse upon himself.

Didn’t care if he brought a million credits next time. He didn’t want there to be one.

With that, the stranger glided right out the door.

As if he’d never been there in the first place… he reflected.
I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a reason to act
The late afternoon sun felt good on the shoulders, they both decided as the Maximum sailed on.

Max stood near the cabin, wielding his original laser sword, Shades near the rear of the deck, brandishing the teal energy blade his friend found in the depths of the Harken Building. In the four days since they left the Tradewinds Mercantile District, he had received a crash-course in swordsmanship whenever Justin had the helm. Just practicing with Max’s “spare” blade since the recent weather remained largely pleasant.

And with this training he was fast gaining a whole new appreciation for Max’s skills, not to mention the art of swordsmanship itself. Saw how far he had to go to catch up with his friend, in spite of his being younger. Years ago— for some cultural event, as he recalled— Master Al once demonstrated his proficiency with a katana from his sword collection, even double-slicing a chunk of wood before it hit the ground. Had once heard a third dan student mutter that no matter what level he reached, Al-sensei would never teach him swords. For his part, Al once explained that, although certain ancient traditions still endured in Japan, he would not teach the sword in America. Though he taught some other weapons— mostly ones with non-lethal applications— a sword, much like a gun, was made to do only one thing, and that was to kill.

Then again, he wondered what the samurai of old would make of stun blades; after all, he had seen Max use that stun blade against enemies to great effect. Of course, this was not Suburban America, nor the peaceful mountain town he had left behind. Human or otherwise, all the adversaries they had faced so far had no intention of merely arresting them, or stealing their valuables, or trying to bully them. With the possible exception of the Triad, every single one of them meant to dispose of them, eat them for dinner, or loot their corpses.

And not necessarily in that order; as far as he was concerned, in this world, the use of swords— and guns— was fair game.

Of course, Shades also continued to practice the tonfa kata Master Al taught him with his new stun-sticks. And began adapting his “empty-hand” forms to his exotic new weapons, as well. Now that he was finally gaining his sea-legs, his balance was also improving, something he now understood would be essential to his survival now that he traveled the high seas. And when Max had the wheel, he also taught Justin bo staff kata, using a broom handle from the equipment room to demonstrate. And Justin was catching on fast.

“That’s good,” Max told him as Shades finished imitating Max’s succession of moves. He could tell his friend’s experience learning other weapons mostly helped, but a sword naturally handled differently from other weapons, so it also tripped him up in places. “Before too long, you’ll be almost as good a sparring partner with a sword as you are with a staff.”

“Maybe…” Though Shades had dreamt his share of fantasies about becoming a legendary swordsman when he was a kid, he was beginning to wonder if he was really cut out for it. He was by no means averse to the work involved, and wielding a weapon that was the stuff of his favorite sci-fi flicks was a dream come true, but he was also coming to the conclusion that Max’s personality, his fighting spirit, was better suited to swords than his. “But, grateful as I am, might I ask, why are you taking so much time away from your own training?”

“Because I can see you’re really into swords. Well, that’s part of it.” Since he first washed up on the Isle of Paradise, Max had practiced his father’s sword forms (or kata, as Shades called them) diligently for years. As best he could. All the same, there were limits to how much one could teach oneself on one’s own, and now, after years of solitude, he had other people in his life who were also interested in the fighting arts to hone his skills with. “The other reason is that I can’t become a true swordsman without a lot more experience. Hmm, I guess I’m not really taking time out of my training, am I?”

“I see,” Shades replied, recalling something Master Al once told him. A good teacher can also learn from good students. Intuitively, Max seemed to understand that, even if he never reached Max’s level of swordsmanship, the experience of sparring with different opponents, in and of itself, would help him reach new levels.

And so he again repeated the forms Max showed him.

Back in the Mall, in spite of being in another world, the hotel room had given him some semblance of a “headquarters” for a time. A base of operations, if not a real home. Now, having their own ship gave him some of that back, and with friends to travel with, was already starting to feel like a home of sorts. Though one thing he was having to get used to about the nomadic life was having to pack all of his gear around with him.

Can’t leave anything behind for even a minute, or it’ll be gone forever…

Though he had to admit, traveling light did relieve him of many burdens he never realized he was even carrying.

While the two of them trained, Justin minded the ship from the upper helm.

Now that she was decently outfitted, he found he was fast falling in love with the Maximum. Found it harder and harder to believe he had actually considered walking away from a ship the like of which he only dreamed of having in the Triangle State. While Shades still got on his nerves, he had at least found ways to put that to use. After all, Shades had proven himself a valuable source of knowledge about staff and hand-to-hand combat.

And he was fast finding out the pampered housecat did have claws. Besting him in the lion’s share of their sparring matches now that the ship’s movements no longer threw him off so much. At first he had tried to picture Shades as Trevor, the aristocratic scion of some powerful bigwig family, but couldn’t find anything mocking or cruel about him. Now he realized that this young man was something else; neither obscenely wealthy like the Board of Directors, nor dirt-poor, as he had always been, but something in-between. Not the training of elite bodyguards, like with Trevor, but still driven by a desire to be able to defend himself.

Either way, tougher than he appeared.

Had watched his training, this Mosh-Fu, as he jokingly called it. As he once remarked that he used to train with a boom-box out in a field near his old house. It almost looked like some exotic dance with that makeshift staff, or unarmed, or with his stun-sticks. A very dangerous dance to get in the way of, he came to understand from sparring with him.

In the midst of his thoughts, he happened to spot a thinning plume of smoke on the horizon. Picking up the binoculars hanging around his neck, for they were always assigned to whoever had the helm, he slowed the ship down to take a closer look. Much as he expected, it turned out to be another ship, one much larger than the Maximum, as he adjusted the focus for a better view.

Nearly fumbling the binoculars at what he beheld.

“Max! Shades!” Justin scrambled over the ladder to the lower decks, shouting, “Fold up the sails!”

“What’s going on?” Shades asked.

“Is it another ship?” Max could see nothing else around.

“Yeah. Dead ahead,” Justin told them. “We need to be prepared, just in case.”

After tying down the sails, Max and Shades joined him up top. Even Bandit, previously napping in the lounge, also stood near Max, sensing that something important just happened. Each of them held one of the pairs of binoculars they picked up, each seeing the same thing.

Though the smoke had diminished by the time they got a good look, and they drew a little closer before the Maximum came to a complete halt. The vessel itself was noticeably larger than theirs, and they marked at least twenty people on deck. Lots of weapons, too, in that ragtag crowd. What held all of their attention, though, was the black flag.

“Pirates,” Max muttered.

The setup looked right. There was also a smaller ship tethered next to them. To all three of them, it looked like they got boarded.

“I don’t think they’ve noticed us yet,” Justin pointed out, not wanting to tangle with them, “so I think it would be a good idea to get the hell outta here before they do.”

Shades was still floored at times by how things were done in this world. They still fly the Jolly Roger here? He was about to concur with Justin’s plan when he spotted something else, saying, “Say, doesn’t that other ship look familiar to you?”

Sure enough, there was something familiar about the other ship over there, smaller than the Maximum, and so completely dwarfed by the ship looming over it that it was hard not to think of the two as predator and prey. And it didn’t just look familiar to Shades; Max and Justin were also pretty sure they’d seen it before. The name was the last confirmation they needed.

Triad III.

“Looks like her bad karma’s finally caught up with her,” Shades remarked.

“Ha!” Justin snorted. “Got what you deserve, you stupid bitch…”

“So,” Max asked his companions, even as he tried to decide for himself, “do we turn away and leave, or do we join in the fight?”

“Why the hell would I want to help them!?” Justin demanded.

“We’ll have to,” Max reminded them, “to get our Tri-Medals back.”

Shades honestly wished he hadn’t brought that back up again. Just when Justin finally seemed to have dropped it. Pushing the limits of the binoculars’ range, he managed to make out Kato’s face in the crowd, remarking, “Sure are a lot of women onboard…”

“Probably Cyexians,” Justin commented. Based on all he’d heard, he could fairly guess how it was done. “I bet they were lured here with some kind of distress signal, and probably all that smoke, and by the time they knew what was up, it was too late.”

In Brazen Defiance…” Max read. “Definitely a Cyexian ship.”

“I see…” Shades remarked, contemplating these pirates’ tactics. Looking at the shortwave radio at their own helm, pondering its range. No Coast Guard out here. No Navy, either. No one can here you scream out here. “I think we’re out of our league challenging these guys…”

“Luring victims with phony distress signals…” Max knew there were some hard and fast laws of the sea that were so ancient as to be thought sacred. That only the most callous and depraved would ignore. Now that these seagoing predators had found their prey, the skull and crossbones flew as a warning to any passing ships.

Just keep sailing, Shades thought, Nothing to see here, folks. Repeat, just keep…

But Max had no intention of looking the other way.

“You’re not thinkin’…” Shades began.

“Max,” said Justin, “I know you said you were with me if we ever met those bastards again, but I don’t think we’re up for this…”

“So all your bold threats were just a bunch of hot air,” Shades remarked, wondering exactly when he started advocating fighting them. Then he said, “Never mind. Just let it go, man.”

“Hey, those assholes are one thing,” Justin shot back, “but how the hell are we supposed to beat a whole pirate crew?”

“Even if it is Kato,” Max told them, “we should still try to help them. Pirates are pirates.”

“This is none of our business,” Justin told him. “What are we, some kind of ‘champions of justice’ or something?”

“It is our business,” Max replied. “They have something that belongs to us.”

“Outclassed, outgunned, outnumbered,” Shades noted, wondering when his mind latched onto this insane scheme, and how far they would take it. “What we need is a way to even up the odds. Level the playing field…”

“Not you too!” Justin exploded. “Are you crazy!?”

Shades, then Max, nodded.

“I didn’t want you to answer that,” Justin informed them, muttering “Fine,” and concluding that this might be his only chance for revenge, “but how do you plan to fight them?”

“You know…” Shades was previously torn between his growing impulse to fight alongside Max, to take back what was his, and what he was pretty sure was the voice of common sense, but that conflict ended with what he just remembered. “There just might be a way.”

Though they would need a little firepower, and a lot of luck.
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
among the captives
Kato stood on the deck of the Cyexian pirate ship, lined up with Chase and George, feeling like the biggest fool on the high seas.

Chase warned her, of course, but with all the smoke, it looked like a genuine emergency from afar. Should have known from the moment she saw so many Cyexians in the crew, yet it wasn’t until they were well within range that any of them showed any weapons. Naturally, they had tried to retreat, only to quickly discover that the enemy’s armaments were too heavy, that the Triad III would suffer too much damage before they could get out of range.

Sink or surrender, they quickly concluded that there was at least some chance of survival in the latter.

So now she stood next to her friends on the main deck of this pirate ship, being stripped of their valuables while a boarding party looted the Triad itself. Admittedly, none of them had a whole hell of a lot, but what they did have was pretty damn important to them. Such as George’s “armtop” computer and visor-monitor, or Chase’s new plasma rifle or coat-of-arms.

Busy stripping it of anything of value, carrying on with such gleeful remarks as: “Ooh! I don’t know what this is, but it looks expensive! I bet it’ll fetch a good price on the black market!” or “Weapons upgrade! You people are too kind!”

“Wow! This looks like a fun toy!” one of them laughed as she swished and twirled the laser whip Kato was certain had saved her life in the Harken Building, while she was now stuck glaring at its new owner from at gunpoint. “I’ve never seen one like this before!”

Much like her friends, Kato was torn between her fury at being robbed like this, and the cold, hard understanding that the best the three of them could hope for was to be relieved of most of their possessions, and left to drift in a largely stripped-down vessel.

Though bearing accessories and stylistic elements of at least a dozen realms at a glance, the one thing these seafaring scavengers all had in common was the military uniform motif. Only with a mercenary compliment of weapons on their persons, a random mix of whatever they could get their hands on; Kato and Chase even spotted a few energy blades in the crowd. Even the supposedly unarmed decoy crew members who waved and shouted for help not long ago now sported comparable arsenals: bandoliers, sashes, gunbelts, straps, boot holsters and sheaths.

Overseeing the pillaging of the Triad and her crew was the woman they were pretty sure was the captain of this ship. Tall, perhaps as tall as that Max fellow, with unfemininely broad shoulders, she was decked out a cut above the rest of her crew, with a pair of power pistols fine enough for any military officer-grade sidearms. And quite possibly were, to say nothing of the weapon that looked a lot like a laser sword, only with what appeared to be a wicked axe blade for a hilt. A strangely elegant and authoritarian weapon next to her crew’s motley assortment of armaments. Her auburn hair, though short and spiky in the front, hung just past shoulder-length in the back, and her stern eyes were the same violet shade as Kato’s.

Descended from the upper deck to walk among her anxious captives, relieving them of anything she saw fit to take.

This was a final confirmation to Kato, for unless they were clearly in the minority, there was no way they would accept a non-Cyexian as their leader.

That captain now strode up to the captive Kato, eying her like a fish she considered throwing back, then asked, “So, girl, you think you can run with real Cyexians?”

“Well, um…” All Kato could think of was cowering before NK-525, or jumping at her own shadow in the Harken Building, just one humiliating memory after another. Now she faced fellow real Cyexians, and she couldn’t help thinking this was some manner of mockery, all of them measuring her up and finding her lacking, and all she could come up with was, “I would, but I already have my own crew…”

“That could be remedied,” the pirate captain told her, gesturing to Chase and George in turn, then sliding her finger across her neck in a very universally recognized gesture.

“Hey!” Chase snapped, “don’t even joke about it, Kato!”

For his part, George just stood there looking very nervous, face pale, twiddling with a triangular silver medallion while the pirates just laughed at him.

“Ha! You’re no fun!” the captain sneered, several of her crew snorting and snickering. “As if we’d let a wannabe like you join—”

“Whoa! Is that real silver!” one of them remarked, snatching the Tri-Medal from George’s hand, chiming, “Jackpot!”

“Shit!” Chase hissed, and Kato tried not to flinch at what she knew was next. “Dammit, George!”

“Seems you’re holding out on us…” the captain intoned, spying part of the chain peeking out from under Chase’s shirt collar. At gunpoint, there was nothing he could do as she strode up to him and reached inside his shirt, snatching that Tri-Medal as well, saying, “Same design… Interesting.”

Now all eyes were on Kato.

It took an effort not to shrink from her as she strode up to Kato, unzipping her coveralls slowly, to draw out the suspense, quipping, “Your boy’s not the jealous type, is he?”

“Good one, Captain!” one of the others laughed.

Before Kato could sputter any objections of her own, or Chase could catch up with their host’s insinuation, the captain grabbed her Tri-Medal, too.

Embarrassment heaped on top of humiliation, Kato reflected bitterly, and now most of the pirates were laughing at her.

Before the Captain could make further sport of her prisoners, though, one crew member, a mousy slip of a girl who couldn’t possibly be any older than George, scrambled out of the main cabin, shouting, “Captain Striker! Captain Striker! Lookout says there’s another ship approaching!”

Even as everyone else started to look about in abrupt apprehension, they all heard the unmistakable sound of engines bearing down on them to port. No one, not even Kato, had seen this particular vessel before, but though no one could place it, it didn’t take a tactical genius to tell these visitors were looking for trouble. The approach speed alone would be enough to tip most off.

Even as Kato tried to figure out what this was all about, that name caught up with her, and she started sweating, realizing that she was in more trouble than she wanted to believe.

“Prepare to—”

But the unknown vessel préempted Striker’s call to battle stations and opened fire first.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a little ammo and a lot of luck
“Everybody ready?” Shades asked over his headset. Though not particularly more experienced than the others at maneuvering the ship, he was easily the least experienced at fighting with energy weapons, so it only made sense for him to take the lower helm, where he would make a harder target for them.

“Yeah, let’s get this over with,” Justin responded, having mounted one of their new quadra-barrel cannons and hooked it up to the Maximum’s new power cables.

“Ready when you are,” Max replied, now hidden behind the cabin, power pistol in one hand, their trump card in the other.

Certain that his human friends were about to do something reckless, Bandit very sensibly stayed below deck.

For a moment, the ship was so quiet they could hear not only the sloshing of the waves, but also the rustle of the sea breeze, the creak of their own boots, the drumming of their own hearts.

It had been years since Max last faced Cyexian pirates, and now that he had committed himself to this battle, he silently vowed that this time he would not hesitate, would not fail to protect those he cared about. That things would end differently this time.

“This one’s for you, Dad…”

Justin stayed below the deck railing line, not wanting to get hit before he even got to fire a single shot. It felt totally unreal to crouch on the threshold of actually going on the offensive against his enemies. A long— too long— life of running and hiding, his deadly cat-and-mouse game with NK-525, being hunted by his own shadow— and possibly something more— in the Harken Building, even that most profitable medallion was gained more by fast footwork than anything else… As if perhaps this change could break whatever curse he had been living under all these years, change his luck for the better, take back what was his. And maybe make just one betrayal in his life would end differently, even if this was Kato, and not…

“Slash, this one’s for you…”

For his part, Shades sat slouched in the lower helm, having found what he hoped was the best possible balance between maximizing his field of view, while minimizing himself as a target. Of late that sense of disbelief, that none of this was actually happening, had become his constant companion from ordeal to ordeal, he reflected, and he wondered if it would ever go away. At least thought he had made up his mind, but now his own better judgment seemed to be having second thoughts. His feet turning colder by the moment, yet never in his life had generations of MacLean military heritage seemed to frown on him harder than now. Even so, the thought that if he fell here, he would never get to see John or Amy again was almost enough to make him hit the gas and scuttle the whole attack.

“No.” Shades shook his head, resolving to put his vows to the test. This was his idea, and he would follow through for the sake of his friends. “I don’t know if I’ll survive this,” and he still couldn’t shake the dread premonition that, even if he found his friends again, he wouldn’t be strong enough to help them as he was now, “but I’ll face whatever I have to to see you again. This one’s for you, guys…”

All of them on edge, nerves strung taut enough to play with a pick. One wrong word could easily provoke panic, or simply invoke common sense, to call the whole thing off and retreat. To shut up about the Triad and the Tri-Medals and forever hold their peace. After all, they were still far enough away yet to escape while their foes were burdened with a captured ship.

Yet each of them sensed that they had somehow crossed some unspoken point of no return.

Then there was no time left for doubts. Remembering that every second he hesitated increased the odds of being spotted, of losing their chief advantage, the element of surprise, Shades took the throttle in a white-knuckle grip. After letting the tension in his hand ease up a little, he punched it.

The calm before shattered as the Maximum’s engines powered up and the storm broke out in earnest. As they gained speed, the pirate ship seemed to loom closer every second, and it took a growing effort of will not to flinch, waiting for them to fire. Pouring on as much speed as he dared, reminding himself that the plan relied on precision maneuvering, while still getting in range fast enough to actually make the next move, all he could think of to do was psych himself up, rather than out.

“Maximum! Is! Go!”

Even as he shouted this into his headset mouthpiece, somehow knowing that wasn’t quite right, he found half a second to wish he could remember exactly where he picked up that strange line. Was fairly sure it was something he used to say in his dreams, often before going to battle monsters, or something like that. Either that, or something running in the doldrums of syndication when he was a kid. But he couldn’t quite figure out why it made him think of Amy…

Justin took that cryptic battlecry as his cue to start shooting. Sweeping the deck only a foot or two over everybody’s heads, forcing them to hit the deck. He nailed the hull a couple times, but mostly strafed above everyone’s heads to scatter the pirates and keep their heads down. Much as it tempted him, they needed Kato & Company alive— and preferably fighting their captors— for this plan to possibly have any chance in hell of succeeding. Not only would this limit the enemy’s return fire— a tactical goal in and of itself— but, much as silencing more targets would have been his preference, it would give the Triad an opening to make the next move.

“Justin, take out that radar dish!” The words just flowing from Shades’ lips before he even digested his own commands, surprising himself with every syllable. “Or they’ll still be able to chase us even when we’re out of visual range!”

Though Justin’s shots scattered those on deck, he spotted several sentries, mostly likely posted to watch out for just this sort of thing. Yet he seemed to have caught them flat-footed; apparently, no one had ever attacked them during a raid this far out at sea before. Even so, they regained their initiative after a few seconds and started firing back.

“This is nuts!” he screamed, ducking and sweeping the quadra-barrel wildly at them. “You’re outta your fuckin’ mind!”

“Cut the chatter,” Shades said absently, his mouth spouting stock phrases on auto-pilot while he focused on the controls. Now that the enemy was shooting back, he found himself veering tightly through a hailstorm of energy beams. In the movies, this scene— with its barrage of streaks of light lancing toward the camera, occasionally jolting the screen with a glancing hit— would be exhilarating, bordering on climactic. Facing the cockpit view in real life, riding into the eye of the storm like this, though, he felt anything but heroic.

All he could do was try to stay on target, while keeping the rhythm of his weavings from becoming too predictable. It was hard enough not to flinch before all hell broke loose; since the shooting actually started, now the only thing keeping him from turning tail was the rational knowledge that this fast-break approach was screwing up their aim. The stark knowledge that retreat would expose them to more firepower than a straight attack.

The pirates’ shots became more and more frantic as the Maximum came closer to ramming into them. Hoping he brought them close enough, Shades swerved hard to port. The rest was up to his friend now, he knew, as he shouted, “Max! Throw it now!”

Braving full exposure to enemy fire, Max sprang from his hiding place to execute the next stage of the plan. Snapping off a couple shots to cover himself, he cocked back his other arm and hurled a small grenade at the Cyexian ship. Then he dove for the deck as several pirates targeted him.

Peering through the gap in the back of the upper helm, Justin was the only one who saw it land on the rear deck of the Cyexian ship as they slid back and forth away from their escalating return fire, calling, “Got it, Max!”

With the Maximum evading at full speed, they quickly moved out of their adversaries’ effective attack range, swinging wide and preparing to make a second run.

“Watch out!” Shades warned them. “They’re gonna be ready for us this time!”

Giving it as much time as they could without looking suspicious, for all three of them were beginning to doubt the wisdom of their next move, before they made the second run. If Max missed, they would have been forced to abort the attack and run like hell, as the Maximum wasn’t built to withstand the full firepower of a ship like that, but now there was no point in retreat and they followed through. The only thing on their side the first time around was that their foes were mainly using hand weapons, only a couple sentries manning any of their bigger guns.

Sure enough, the second round was as bad as they feared; now that the pirates had regrouped, they brought all of their weapons to bear on the Maximum, and they knew the damage this time would be more than just cosmetic if they sustained more than fifteen or twenty seconds of this bombardment.

Much to their relief, that was about the time the pirates’ guns went silent.

The three of them cried out in triumph as they renewed their assault, the EMP grenade they bought at Tradewinds Mercantile having worked like a charm. Even as they themselves stayed out of its range, leaving their own engines and weapons still fully operational. The one lone laser cannon that was still functional, located near the bow, didn’t last long as Justin blasted it almost as it resumed firing. Otherwise, the Cyexians scrambled about in a general panic, confounded by the inexplicable failure of their weapons.

Shades was almost beginning to wonder if another run would even be necessary, when he noticed that something was amiss. The first stage was a setup, to catch them off-guard and give Max an opening to use the EMP grenade. The second stage was disabling the pirates’ weapons and engines. The third stage was to provide cover for the Triad to make a break for it, leading to the fourth stage, “escorting” Kato & Company out of there while the pirates tried to pull themselves back together.

And that was the problem: one of the Cyexians, whom he suspected to be the captain, now held her power pistol to Kato’s head.

“Shit! Hostages!” Shades just about pounded his fist on the sideboard as he slowed their approach. Then, almost as horrifying afterthought, he told Justin, “Hold your fire! We have to get them out alive to get our stuff back!”

Much to his surprise, Justin found he already had ceased fire as they drifted up to the ship.

Over the headset, Max’s voice sounded both lost, yet still fiercely determined, at the same time, as he asked, “What do we do now?”

Shades knew he had only fast-ticking moments to come up with something, yet all he got was the frantic feeling he was overlooking it.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the tables turn
For her part, Captain Striker was rather surprised that her ploy had actually worked.

It was simply her natural instinct to take charge of situations, and though she naturally hit the deck at first, just like the rest of her crew, it was seeing this Cyexian girl attempt to make a break for it that gave her the idea. Her mysterious attackers’ tactics made perfect sense if this was some kind of rescue attempt, and besides, when the shooting started, it was never a bad idea to have a hostage. Or at least a human shield, if nothing else.

And when the shooting abruptly died out, she knew they had fallen victim to some dirty trick or another, still she was perplexed that her foes would stop shooting when the weapon she threatened her hostage with was likely as useless as the others’, let alone surrender.

Figuring this girl must be of some importance to them, Striker stayed on her roll, snapping at Kato’s companions, “You too! Stay where you are if you value her life!”

Kato watched her friends with quiet resentment, hating the fact that they couldn’t move for her sake. Cursing her own powerlessness in this situation, she finally turned her attention to her would-be benefactors’ ship as it coasted to a halt next to the Triad III. As the pirates regained their initiative and threw a plank boarding ramp across, she found that she could not recall having ever laid eyes on this particular vessel before, and this only piqued her curiosity as she tried to guess the nature of their supposed saviors, what this was all about.

She got her answer as Captain Striker’s newest prisoners marched up onto the deck.

You?” Kato demanded as Max and his crew strode onboard. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Saving your ass again, what else?” Justin grumbled, keeping both double-barrel power pistols trained on his would-be captors as he advanced on them.

The tables, it seemed, had not quite turned against the crew of the Maximum, and Striker clutched her sidearm as if it were control itself. For Max also held her crew at bay with his refurbished power rifle, and Shades brought up the rear, tentatively aiming Max’s power pistol at them. Ordinarily, the three of them would stand no chance in a firefight against so many without solid cover, but the pirates were all too aware of the uselessness of their own weapons, and backed down as their enemies’ surrender became a reverse boarding party.

Shades noted that these pirates wore lots of guns, like their old-fashioned forebears. A look and an arsenal that would have been quite intimidating earlier. But now just mocking them, as not a single one actually worked.

In the midst of this strange confrontation, Kato and her companions could only stare at the three bumbling travelers they thought they’d left behind in Centralict.

“Not one more step!” Striker snapped, retraining her gun on Kato’s head. “This is my ship, and I make the rules.”

“Do it,” Justin said flatly, “and I’ll shoot a few of your friends.”

“The girl shares the same fate as anyone you kill,” Striker shot back, “so fire away if you dare, boy.”

Max somehow managed to keep an outward façade of resolve despite the fact that he really didn’t like all this talk of hostages and killing, while Shades just hoped his mirrored lenses would conceal his growing unease.

That’s it!” Kato thundered, no longer able to stand the suspense even one moment longer. In that same second, she swept Striker’s arm aside, and elbowed her in the ribs, sending the pirate captain staggering back as she staggered forward, blinking. Kato was quite certain Striker pulled the trigger in the midst of that attack, and the fact that nothing happened was all the proof she needed that Striker was bluffing all along. “Shit! Why didn’t you just call her bluff!”

“You know,” Shades began—

But was cut off by an energy beam streaking past his head, followed by another, straight up in the air.

“The hell…” Justin muttered.

The rest of Striker’s crew stepped aside to reveal two sentries who were previously standing at the bow. At the farthest point, they all understood, from where Max’s EMP grenade went off. Just out of range. And so the tables turned once again as the two pirates targeted Chase and George.

“Now,” Striker told them, “I will only tell you one more time to throw down your weapons and surrender. This is the last warning I intend to give.”

Shades, for his part, had already fumbled his gun at that last shot, reducing it to two gunman versus two gunwomen. Max lowered his power rifle in silent frustration, unable to think of what to do next. Justin kept both guns trained on Striker for a long moment, every instinct acquired in his outlaw life telling him he should kill her now, as she would most certainly kill them later, but something stayed his hand. All he could figure was that he somehow just couldn’t do that in front of Max.

“Fuck!” he spat as he threw down both guns. Glaring at Kato as the pirates moved to encircle them, some already heading for the now unguarded Maximum, he told her, “This is all your fault, bitch.”

“Kiss my ass,” Kato replied.

“Do you know how much all our weapons cost?” Striker demanded, striding up to Max. Though not quite as tall as he, she drew herself up to her full height as she faced him. She whipped out her own laser blade even as she spoke. A most unusual specimen, with a thicker, longer grip than most, and a hilt that looked like a wickedly curved axe blade. “Do you?”

Max answered her with defiant silence.

“Surely you must have known you were no match for us,” she told them.

“The thought had occurred to us…” Shades surprised himself by actually answering her. With a casual audacity that was uncharacteristic of him.

“Hey! Do you know who you’re talking to!?” the mousy one demanded, staring sharply at Shade’s impassive lenses. “That’s Captain Striker to you, so you better show some respect!”

“Mousy,” Shades said, coining the name the exact same moment Justin did, trying not to giggle as he said it. Couldn’t believe he was cracking wise at a time like this.

In the midst of all this, Justin found a moment to wonder, Does every Cyexian pirate captain have one of those? Though she looked different from Slash’s Mouse, her personality and manner were nearly identical.

“What’s so funny!?” Mousy screeched. “Nobody laughs at Captain Striker in front of me!”

Striker. Justin had heard the name before, and now realized they were in even more trouble than he could have imagined. Though Cyexian, Striker and her crew were not of any of the clans he was familiar with. Unlike Slash and the clans that operated on the islands beyond the Triangle State, the Ocean itself harbored its share of free-roaming pirates and marauders. And it looked as if they had finally run afoul of one.

Though Slash was infamous in Cyexian and Triangle State waters, Striker’s name was feared on the high seas at large. Had overheard accounts of her exploits among travelers in the port town of Benton. To be honest with himself, if he had had even the slightest inkling of what he was really up against, he would have just dropped the whole business and left the Triad to their own fate, Tri-Medals or no Tri-Medals.

“It just sounds so ‘butch’.” Shades found it hard not to laugh at names like “Striker” and “Slash” for some reason. The more nervous he got, the more smart remarks seemed to fly from his lips. Before, he wasn’t caught in the midst of this dangerous crowd; now, though, he feared he might slit his throat with his own tongue, yet found it the only weapon he had left to wield. Though he found his confidence was in short supply, still he would stand tall.

Something inside of him just refused to back down.

“Shades,” Justin hissed, elbowing him, “what the hell are you doing?”

“Why don’t you speak for yourself, pipsqueak?” Shades quipped.

Smoldering silence.

“Why are you pissing her off?” Justin demanded. “They’re already gonna beat the crap out of us!”

“It’s obvious you’re only Striker’s bitch,” Shades continued.

“Nobody messes with Striker!”

Shades shrugged.

Meanwhile, another battle of wills was playing out nearby as Striker stared down Max. Or at least tried to. Thus far, this mysterious young man returned her gaze with a defiance she had never seen in one so young.

“You won’t act so tough when I’m through with you, boy,” Striker informed him.

“I’m not going to beg for mercy…” Max told her. Even as he feared for his friends’ lives, Max found he couldn’t keep his eyes off Striker’s weapon. Was increasingly certain he had seen that exotic design before. Not merely heard descriptions of it, but having actually seen what might have been its like before…

As Max and Striker stared each other down, Justin turned to Kato, her eyes still wide, and shrugged, muttering, “Bet you didn’t think you’d ever see us again, did you?”

“Some rescue, shorty,” Kato hissed. “But you just came here for…” thinking quickly, “for revenge, didn’t you?”

“Damn straight, bitch!” Justin shot back. “After you stole our Tri-Medals when we helped…”

Kato grimaced as Justin blustered on.

Shades smacked his forehead in spite of all the enemies who were probably just looking for an excuse to beat his ass.

Justin’s tongue finally stumbled to a halt, but the damage was already done. Pausing for a moment in mid staring match, Striker wheeled on Kato and Justin, firing up her energy blade in a gesture that cut right between the two of them. Revealing a pair of red laser blades running parallel to each other, the leading edge slightly shorter than the other, giving the combined blade the illusion of curvature, its massive hilt finally making sense to its hapless observers.

“You were saying?…” As Striker’s gaze shifted between the two of them, she held up the three Tri-Medals in her other hand. When neither of them spoke, she said, “Please don’t stop on my account. You were having such an intriguing conversation, and we have all the time in the world out here.”

“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Kato said brusquely. “Ask him.”

“Bullshit!” Justin shot back. “You’re the one who told us all about it in the first place!”

“Not very talkative now, are you?” Striker mused, looking over both of their travel companions. “Maybe they can convince you to pick up where you left off…”

“Ha! You wouldn’t talk so tough without your crew!” Justin found he actually resented Max, and even Shades, being used to leverage him. “Without them, Max would kick your ass!”

“You talk too much, little man.”

“Fine. I’ll tell you.” After making such bold promises to himself before the battle, Max had to force out every word as he spoke. “All I ask in return is that you let my friends go. Take what you wish, but let—”
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the tables turn again
“Captain Striker!” one of the other Cyexians interrupted, “We’ve got trouble!”

Sighing with exasperation, Striker turned to see what was wrong now. Clearly surprised as everyone else to see the boarding party for the Maximum backing all the way up onto the deck of their own ship. Every step they backpedaled matched by a black-and-white panther.

And Striker again silently cursed her enemies for taking out most of their weapons. This was about the last thing her virtually unarmed boarding party would ever have expected to find onboard. That such a bizarre but perfectly killable thing could bring their ransacking to a grinding halt.

“Hey, shrimp,” Kato hissed, “didn’t you dumbasses have some kind of plan, or what?” Surely, she thought, even Max must know that Striker couldn’t be trusted to honor any bargains made with her. “Please tell me he’s got something up his sleeve.”

“ ’Fraid he’s got nothin’,” Justin muttered. “That was the plan.”

Kato had to admit, this was a hell of gamble.

“Kill it!” One of the boarders in particular seemed to be terrified of Bandit, all but hiding behind the two with working power pistols as she continued to retreat. “Somebody kill the damn thing!”

“No,” Striker belayed that order, raising her blade for emphasis. “Stun it and toss it in the hold. After all, exotic animals always fetch a good price in some places… And if it does die, there’s always a market for furs, you know. No point in letting it go to waste…”

Little realizing as she spoke that Max was becoming angrier with every word, slowly reaching for where his laser sword was concealed.

“Yeah,” one of the other Cyexians laughed, clearly poking fun at her crewmate’s mysterious phobia, “they say wildcat tastes like—”

Before anyone could act, though, Max leapt right past Striker— taking advantage of the fact that her blade was pointed in entirely the wrong direction, so her belated backswing missed him by a mile— taking down the two pirates with power pistols with one broad sweep of his stun blade.

Shouting, “Don’t touch him!”

Max’s surprise attack split their captors into three abrupt reactions. Most of the unarmed ones staggered back. Meanwhile, at least half a dozen of Striker’s posse fired up energy blades, proving the Mercantile shopkeep’s bit about pulse weapons being immune to EMP to apparently be true. While close-range weapons against guns would have been one thing, now that their enemies were stripped of that advantage, the use of these weapons actually made good tactical sense, as they advanced on him. And lastly, as the two working energy weapons clattered to the deck, several pirates scrambled for them in spite of Max.

Justin would have joined them, if not for the fact that several of those with blades immediately turned on him, forcing him to reveal his concealed laser staff. Shades, as well, as he reached into his jacket pockets and whipped out his stun-sticks. Both of them thankful that this long chain of interruptions prevented the enemy from getting around to actually looting them yet before Max made his improvised move.

Striker, furious at having been out-maneuvered by just a boy, wheeled on Max, and even those who initially tried to jump him backed off the second they saw her fury; even those scrambling for power pistols gave way, one of them accidentally kicking one of the guns and sending it spinning across the deck. But Max instinctively expected as much, already turning to face her. As their blades clashed, Max could tell already that this Striker was a cut above the others, and he silently hoped his skills would be enough.

“No more surprises,” Striker told him. “You’ve got more tricks up your sleeve than I expected, but it ends here. No man has ever beaten me, and neither will you!”

“You won’t hurt my friends,” Max shot back. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that the aforementioned friends were still alive, and he at least took heart from this as he turned back to his opponent. “I don’t let my friends die, so you’ll have to kill me first!”

“As you wish,” Striker replied, then resumed her attack against him. “You don’t have time to look around, boy. Not against me.”

Max quickly discovered that Striker wasn’t bluffing. After a short exchange, it became apparent that her swordsmanship was nothing to take lightly. Though his own form and technique were much more refined, it was obvious she had a good deal more combat experience than he. Whatever she lacked in the way of formal training, she made up for with keen instincts and familiarity with her chosen weapon. It made him wish he had been able to train longer before challenging her.

The only thing he had to hang on to being his father’s advice. Concentrate, not on winning or losing, but on the fight itself. Defeat was not an option. A lapse would prove fatal, and not just for himself. All of their lives hung in the balance.

He just hoped his friends were faring better than he was; though fighting with everything he had, Max quickly found himself being pushed back by a most formidable foe.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
back to back...
In a matter of seconds, the deck of the Brazen became a battleground.

The second all hell broke loose, Justin and Shades both moved at the same time. Instinctively sensing that this was their last chance at survival. Both of them whipping out their concealed weapons, thankful that their captors had been delayed in searching them by one distraction after another.

Shades hauled out both of his stun-sticks, jumping in and nailing each of the pirates who had grabbed Justin’s power pistols back-to-back. At the same time, Justin swung his laser staff, beating down the one who grabbed Max’s power pistol. He then turned, seeing the one who grabbed the power rifle pointing it at Shades’ back, and took her from behind.

Shades whirled around at the sharp movement, seeing Justin’s handiwork. After a moment of piecing it together, he told him, “Thanks, man.”

“Now we’re even,” Justin shrugged, turning back to the fight at hand.

Now that the initial rush was over, Shades again found himself feeling awkward to be battling a bunch of women. This just wasn’t how things were done in his world, and even the few men he spotted in the crowd did little to dispel this awkwardness. It was seeing some of those women wielding energy blades that drove the point home; trying to do things as they were done back on Earth would be a deadly mistake. To these gals, chivalry was clearly a foreign concept.

Both he and Justin now noticed that most of the Cyexians with energy weapons were converging on the two of them, though a couple of them seemed to have marked Kato as an easier target; the rest were ganging up on Chase and George. All of them steered clear of Max and Striker as they dueled their way up and down the deck.

Having disarmed and incapacitated the only ones with working laser guns, it was all too obvious what the others were after.

Earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the EMP attack, a number of the crew had thrown down their sidearms in disgust, and this now worked against them in their mad dash for a weapon that actually worked.

Thus, the two of them moved to intercept anyone who tried to go after the guns.

Each of them wondering quietly how long they could keep this up, Justin especially wishing for an opening to snag even one of his power pistols.
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
...and side by side
At first, Kato and her friends thought they were doing pretty well for themselves.

With Striker’s back turned, as soon as they saw Max’s attack succeed, they each made their move. George hit the deck. Chase snatched up his half-sacked coat-of-arms. And Kato tackled the pirate who took her laser whip while her attention was fixed on Max, grabbing her wrist as they fell to the deck.

While she struggled with the other Cyexian, Chase hastily threw on his coat, hauling out the first weapon he could find that hadn’t been stripped down yet. At first, the group of pirates surrounding them jumped back in spite of themselves at the sight of his compact power pistol. Then, both he and they remembered the EMP wave with almost simultaneous chagrin. Figuring it wouldn’t hurt to try, Chase pulled the trigger.

Everybody jumped again, but nothing happened.

“Shit!” Chase muttered, tossing his useless weapon aside, and digging again.

Before they could close in on him, this time he produced an exotic and evil-looking knife. The very one he had lifted from that mysterious weapon gallery in the Harken Building. After their escape from Centralict, he had considered just throwing it overboard, fearing it might be as cursed as the place it came from, but instead decided to keep it as both a trophy and a souvenir of his haunting experience there. Now he was glad he kept it, as it now served as both a weapon and a reminder of the merits of low-tech armaments.

Such thoughts flashed through his mind in the space of a couple seconds, which was a good thing, as that was all the time he had to think before the fight resumed. Much to his dismay, now that his adversaries had regained their initiative, they too went low-tech, at least half of them pulling knives, iron-knuckles, and one of them even a length of chain with a hook on the end. All he could think of to do was back up against the deck railing; at least it would keep any of them from getting behind him, and just hope he could avoid getting pushed overboard.

Only a few feet away from him, he then spotted George huddled against the railing, cradling his now possibly useless armtop computer in his arms, trying to keep a low profile.

Fearing another hostage situation, Chase shouted at him, “Hey dumbass! Go back to the ship right now!”

At first, George just sat there looking dumbstruck.

“Go! Now!”

That finally got George back on his feet, scurrying over to the boarding ramp leading to the Triad III, Chase warily covering him every step of the way.

It was an immense relief to see that Kato had managed to overpower her opponent and reclaim her laser whip, she and Chase both moving to cover the boarding ramp as George scrambled aboard. Fortunately, the pirates who had boarded the Triad’s ship had rushed back aboard their own when the fighting started, so now it was just a matter of securing their escape.

“As soon as George is done fixing the engine,” Chase told her, “we get the hell outta here!”

“Not yet!”

“Why?” Chase demanded. “Those bastards came and attacked all on their own! They can take care of themselves!”

“We’re not goin’ anywhere without our Tri-Medals!”

It was hard to shake off the memories of cowering before NK-525, jumping at her own shadow in the Harken Building. Now she faced real Cyexians, had to fight in front of them, and she just wasn’t sure she was up to it. Yet, when it all came down, she had worked way too hard to just abandon their dream, even in the face of such dire odds.

Hoping she wasn’t making the last mistake of her life, she held out for now.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Max vs Striker I
Max was starting to wonder if trying to take on Striker all by himself wasn’t a big mistake.

Admittedly, in his favor, he was the one with the best chance of defeating her, but was starting to think he had perhaps overestimated his chances. At the same time, though, the others were engaged against the rest of the crew, keeping them from interfering in this duel. Which was for the best, because if anyone else ganged up on him against an opponent of this caliber, he held no doubt that it would be the end of him.

Just holding his own against Striker alone was proving to be an uphill battle.

As the two of them hacked and slashed and parried their way back and forth across the deck, Max wondered just how much more straight punishment he could stand up to. Striker was a good deal stronger than he expected, even for a Cyexian, and though he managed to take the offensive a couple times— briefly— her defense was solid, and he was mostly being pushed back. Though Max had the edge when it came to form and technique, it was obvious Striker had been doing this for a while, and had likely bested stronger opponents than he.

“I don’t know who the hell you think you are,” Striker warned him—

But Max took the chance to parry her attack, forcing her back with a swift kick.

Striker hissed sharply, rather than cry out; she was not going to lose to some nobody.

“Max,” he filled in, resuming his attack, “and don’t you forget it.”

Striker deciding that perhaps this Max was not as crazy as she thought… or perhaps hoping he was even more so.

“I couldn’t care less,” Striker informed her wild enemy, hammering his guard relentlessly, “but nobody fucks with Striker and lives to tell about it!”

“Why don’t you say that after I’m dead?” Max shot back, then, seeing what might be his only opportunity, struck at the first real opening he had seen in this fight.

Only to discover, belatedly, that Striker’s opening was just a feint, and he took the bait hook, line and sinker.

Before he could counter, she tweaked his sword out of his grip with a flick of the wrist, nearly identical to one of his childhood friend Cleo’s favorite moves, then knocked him down with a vicious kick while he was still off-balance. As he spun around toward the deck, he got a brief glimpse of the battle. Of the Triad being ganged up on at the boarding ramp of their own ship, of Shades and Justin pinned down by enemy fire from a working weapon, an intense energy blast that reminded him of NK-525’s super-laser, disintegrating part of the cover they were so valiantly losing from. And knew that they had gambled and lost.

He hit the deck to find the tip of Striker’s energy blade pointed at his throat.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the tables turn once more
The tables had turned back and forth in this largely improvised struggle, and both sides were fairly certain there couldn’t possibly be any more surprise twists left to tip the scales.

Max was soundly defeated. The Triad cornered aboard a ship that wouldn’t be going anywhere in the near future. Justin and Shades surrounded by enemies, who, after seeing their opponents’ abilities, had opted to wear the beleaguered duo down from a defensive posture.

From the pirates’ collective attitude, the mood onboard suggested things would get still uglier once they re-established control of their ship.

This whole scene was starting to look like “last stand” material to Shades.

In the midst of all this, it was all one black-and-white panther could do just to stay alive. Cut off from the Maximum, Bandit scrambled around frantically in an attempt to stay out of the way of these crazy humans and their unnatural weapons. It was tough enough as it was with so many of them flailing energy blades about.

It got even tougher when one pirate in particular, who seemed to have it in for him, singled him out. Having finally reached the uppermost section of the deck, clutching one of the weapons looted from Chase’s stash in one hand, she took up a position from which she could target most of the deck. She had heard it said that pulse weapons were resistant to devices like EMP, and the use of all those laser blades seemed to confirm that.

“Gotta kill it…” she muttered, not wanting this feline terror to find its way up here. She took aim, whispering, “Gotta kill it, or it’ll kill us all…”

With that, she pulled the trigger, and the plasma rifle Chase bought, last in stock, at Tradewinds Mercantile, spat a ball of radiant white light with each shot.

Much to Bandit’s good fortune, her aim with rifles left something to be desired, and all of her shots were way off as the big cat zigged and zagged in desperate evasion.

Seeing the first of these new attacks, Shades shoved Justin behind some crates, likely plunder from one of Strikers’ other victims. Caught off-guard by the person who was supposed to be keeping his back, Justin nearly lashed out at him, but came to a grinding halt at the sight he beheld. For the plasma shot that would originally have hit him collided with one of the Cyexians instead, her agonized scream cut short as her entire torso evaporated in a nearly blinding flash of light, both her legs and one of her arms flopping to the deck a moment later.

Where the other blobs of plasma hit, entire chunks of deck simply vanished as the super-charged particles splashed against it, instantly vaporized, and the other pirates scattered in a panicked frenzy to avoid their comrade’s gruesome fate.

“Fuckin’ A!” Justin screeched, that last grisly spectacle reminding him entirely too much of the Enforcer’s super-laser for comfort. Feared he would jump overboard in spite of himself at the knowledge that a weapon like that would cut them to ribbons in short order.

“They’ll blow our cover— literally!— in no time with that thing!” Shades realized aloud.

As another plasma shot obliterated yet another chunk of the deck, they both remarked “Damn!” in near-perfect unison.

“Shades,” Justin whispered, spotting one of his fallen power pistols lying on the deck, “I’m gonna go for it. If I can take that crazy bitch out, it might be our only chance…”

Even as Justin braced himself to make his desperate move, Chase turned to Kato, saying, “That’s it! I’m outta here!”

With their adversaries scattered, he moved for the boarding ramp, dragging her by the arm until she shook him off.

“But the Tri-Medals!” Torn between what she was sure must be common sense, and her dream, her feet didn’t want to budge even an inch.

“What good are they to us if we’re dead?” he demanded, reaching for her arm again…

“You’re finished!” Striker cried triumphantly, savoring the taste of victory against this unexpectedly difficult foe. Her crew would soon put an end to this little uprising, then it would be payback time against these uninvited guests. “You put up a good fight, boy, but no man will ever defeat me!”

Max glared defiantly, refusing to give her the satisfaction of begging for mercy.

That was when Striker finally noticed one of her crew cutting loose with the plasma rifle.

“Hey!” Striker shouted, still keeping her blade at Max’s neck, “What the fuck are you doing to my ship!?”

Striker said this just as the pirate with the plasma rifle was drawing a bead on her increasingly isolated target. Her captain’s shrill demand shattered her concentration with its overwhelming animosity. Even as she turned, startled, lost as to how to apologize or explain herself for her reckless move, she jerked the rifle around right as she pulled the trigger.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Max vs Striker II
The explosion shook the entire ship from stem to stern as the rear munitions stash blew, taking most of the Brazen’s hindquarter with it.

The shockwave tossing the panic-stricken pirate and her plasma rifle into the sea like a rag-doll, just more debris. The main propulsion screw propelled across the water, skidding like some surreal skipping stone. The deck canted sharply forward, then backward, as the ship started taking on water.

No one was spared from being rolled across the deck as randomly as dice, people and objects falling where they may.

Max’s luck hadn’t failed him yet, for Striker was knocked over backward, her blade yanked away from his neck before she could finish him. Wasting no time, he scrambled back to his feet and played his last trump card. Now that he had a window of opportunity, he whipped out his other laser sword, the fallen adventurer Chad Owen’s teal energy blade shimmering to life to continue the fight.

With no one left in his way, Bandit sprang to his feet and bounded for the boarding ramp.

Shades stumbled to his feet, both having had their feet bounced out from under them, ears still ringing, clutching both stun-sticks and covering Justin as he crawled across the deck, retrieving one, then the other, of his of his double-barrel power pistols. Then he covered Shades as he grabbed Max’s power rifle. By now, most of the pirates were getting back up, so the two of them booked it for the Maximum. The boarding ramp was only halfway on after the explosion, and Justin finished the job with a grand sweep of his laser blade, holding off any wannabe boarders with both guns while Shades went to start the engines.

On his way, he barely sidestepped a couple pirates as they made a hasty exit from the cabin. Who must have made a run for the ship once the fight broke out, most likely hunting for working weapons. But all they found was another who sought refuge on the ship. They both backed away from Bandit, who proportionately advanced, his enormous fangs bared against these interlopers.

Even Shades was taken aback in spite of himself by this almost comical repeat, saying, “Don’t look at me, gals. He’s a cat. You expect him to just sit, roll over, and fetch on command?”

That was enough for them. Without any further prompting, they scrambled overboard, choosing to take their chances with the sea rather than face the feline nightmare that guarded this ship.

“Try to keep any unwanted passengers off this ship!” Shades said as he made for the helm.

“With pleasure!” Justin replied.

Meanwhile, before Kato could even open her mouth to warn him, Chase was struck upside the head by a flying hunk of debris from the Brazen, laying him out across the deck of the Triad III in a dazed heap. Seeing that many of the sinking pirate ship’s crew were eying her ship as a possible escape route, she took a page from Justin’s playbook, taking out the boarding ramp with a slashing flick of her laser whip. Silently hoping George could jury-rig the engine somehow, knowing that some of those pirates would try to jump if she moved from her position to check on Chase without first putting some distance between themselves and their enemies— between themselves and Max’s crew, too, while they were at it.

She turned her attention back to the sinking ship, hating to admit it, but as she watched Max resume his duel with Striker, she just couldn’t figure out any way to get her Tri-Medals back from this situation, so all she could do, much to her vexation, was hope that Max could somehow pull off what she herself could not.

From the helm of the Maximum, Shades gave them, then Max, the V, hoping it would stick.

“You bastard!” Striker thundered as she rose to her feet, hand still clamped on her laser blade, eyes blazing with unchecked rage. It was well known that the most grave offense on the high seas was the sinking of someone else’s ship, and she was one of those who subscribed to the death penalty for it. She brought on her attack with renewed energy, telling him, “I’m gonna make sure you go down with this ship, boy!”

“We’ll see about that,” Max replied, glancing over his shoulder for a second. Most of the crew had abandoned ship, and both his friends and the Triad appeared to be holding their own for the moment. Now all that was left was the Tri-Medals. “You have taken something that doesn’t belong to you.”

“Try being more specific,” Striker snarled. “And for your information, what I take is mine!”

“If you return our Tri-Medals,” Max continued, “I’ll help you with the lifeboats. There’s still time—”

But Striker wasn’t having any of it, jumping back in and carrying on the fight as if unaware of the watery grave that awaited them if they didn’t escape soon.

And so Max was forced to meet her head-on, knowing that time was running out, and fast. It quickly became apparent that she was trying to push him back over the shattered edge of the deck; In Brazen Defiance was finished, never to rise again, and she clearly meant to give him the same treatment. Perhaps it was the knowledge that seconds were counting down to his demise, but Max dug deep, hammering back at her with redoubled fury.

In spite of her rage, Striker was now beginning to understand that she had over-reached. Now that her initial onslaught had washed over him, she was starting to run out of steam. It began to dawn on her just how long this duel had dragged on; she was accustomed to ending her fights sooner than this, and wasn’t used to prolonged combat.

This Max, on the other hand, seemed to possess almost bottomless stamina, and was still going strong, was now forcing her on the defensive, her advantage slipping.

All the while, aboard the Maximum, Shades watched their battle from the cabin in dumbstruck amazement, beholding swashbuckling swordsmanship the like of which he had only ever seen in the movies.

“Shades!” Justin called out, not wanting to be anywhere near a ship this size as it went down, “Why the hell aren’t we moving?”

“What about Max?” Shades demanded as he snapped back to the here and now.

“He can take care of himself!” Justin answered. “We’ll be stranded out here with these assholes if we go down with their ship! What good is that?”

Their debate was interrupted, though, by a distress flare rising from the Brazen’s upper deck.

“What the hell was that!?” Justin demanded.

“I don’t know,” Shades replied, not liking the look of it. Then, as the implication of it sunk in, he concluded that time might no longer be on their side. “Okay. Fine. Let’s get into position. If they’re trying to signal somebody out here, it means we might not have as much time as we thought.”

With that, he rotated the Maximum, nudging up against the still disabled Triad III’s hull and pushing it away from the half-submerged ruin of the Brazen. Away from its pull, as well as anyone else who may have boarding on their minds.

Aboard the fast-sinking ship, both Max and Striker also saw the signal flare.

“Captain!” Mousy called out as she ran up to them, though still keeping a safe distance, flare gun still in hand, “I’ve signaled our other ship, Cruel and Unusual! ETA twenty minutes, if they haven’t already noticed our loss of radio contact!”

Striker ignored her, glaring at Max.

“Please! You have to escape while you still can, Captain!”

“She’s right,” Max told her. “If we don’t get out of here now, we’ll both die!”

“Not ’til I finish you!” Striker lunged again.

Max, now seeing that Mousy had demonstrated the limits of trying to reason with her right now, realized that he needed to end this quickly. As if the growing slant of the deck wasn’t enough of a warning of the gravity of this situation, of his ever-shrinking time limit, he was also unsure how long he could keep up this sustained offensive. Yet at least he was starting to get the hang of Striker’s fighting style, getting used to her patterns, brutal but rather predictable.

It came to him in a flash of lightning, a flickering glimpse of that stormy night years ago, and he turned about, taking a more evasive stance and allowing her to press him back against the leaning main mast.

Desperate to end this fight, Striker lashed out at him again, and Max sidestepped her, snagging a rope dangling from the mast and swinging away from her. Striker’s downward slash missed him entirely, and without even an attempt to block it, the laser blade burying itself almost hilt-deep in the deck, throwing her so far off-balance she nearly fell on her face. Struggling to pull the axe-hilt free, she finally sprang to her feet, looking around frantically for her vanished adversary.

Only to realize belatedly that Max swung all the way around the mast and now loomed behind her. And moving too fast for her to avoid as he kicked into her back with both legs, sending her sliding over ten feet up the canted deck to land sprawled on her side.

Mousy watched with tangible apprehension as Max walked over to Striker, taking back the Tri-Medals, then strode over near where he had fumbled his original sword, a treasure he was not about to let go down with this ship.

He turned to Mousy, telling her, “Get her out of here. I’m leaving.”

Mousy nodded. She then picked up Striker’s blade, tucking the exotic weapon in her belt. Hoisted her Captain over her shoulder as best she could and dragged her the other way, feet dangling. A couple crew members still had the presence of mind to launch one of the lifeboats, and she would see to it that they were not left behind.

Firing up both energy blades, Max ran for the edge of the deck, making a spectacular flying leap into the ocean. Taking a double-swing with both swords, sending any nearby pirates splashing frantically away from him.

And Shades would have given him a perfect ten on the landing.

While Max swam over to board the Maximum, Kato finally got a moment to check on Chase now that she no longer had drive back potential hijackers. The first thing to go right all day, as far as she was concerned. Ordinarily Chase would make up more than half of their firepower— with his weapons restored, there would be no stopping him— but now he lay crumpled on the deck, his head bleeding slightly. Still, she noted, at least his breathing was steady, so she settled for resting his head on the lower half of his coat, grabbing the jacket George left behind and pressing it against his head to stop the bleeding.

At least she wouldn’t have to listen to him complain.

Turning her attention back to the situation at hand, she ruefully wished George would hurry up and finish fixing the engine so they could get the hell out of here, hopefully before Max and his crew could get back on their case.

Her thoughts strangely distant against her own bitterness, as she couldn’t believe the Tri-Medals were lost, gone down with the ship…
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the sinking of the Brazen
“I think that’s all of us,” Shades remarked as Justin helped Max climb aboard from the rear deck ladder.

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” Max told them, wasting no time as he made his way to the helm, “Striker’s called for backup. They’ve got another ship out here, and it’s on its way.”

“And we don’t wanna still be here when it arrives!” Justin concluded.

“Just one last loose end to tie up…” Shades said to himself as he maneuvered alongside the Triad III. Even though he knew Striker’s crew would have killed them all anyway, he found he was still relieved they would be rescued in spite of himself; murderous as they were, marooning them just seemed inhuman.

Kato looked none too pleased to be facing them all alone.

“You still have my Card, don’t you?” Shades asked point-blank.

Kato simply glared at them.

“Now this is a double-cross!” Justin told her. “You stole ’em from us, and we stole ’em back. Now the Tri-Medals are ours!”

Kato’s jaw just about hit the deck when she saw Max holding all three, stunned that he had managed to reclaim them.

“Say Max,” Justin continued, “why don’t you let me have one…”

He trailed off at the unexpectedly grave look on his partner’s face.

“Damn it all to hell…” Kato muttered, having recovered from her initial shock, fetching Shades’ Bank of New Cali card from a hidden pocket. For a moment, she had considered telling them that Striker took it, but, given that they had her at gunpoint, decided that one body search was humiliation enough for today. “I can’t believe you’d kick us when we’re down…”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” Shades replied, “last time I checked.”

“So, Kato,” Justin demanded, “how does it feel?”

“How about a deal,” Max suggested. In spite of her stealing from them first, a part of him still felt like a thief, so he proposed, “You hand over Shades’ card, and we’ll give you your Tri-Medal back. How does that sound?”

“Just one…” Kato mumbled, trying to cope with the thought of being knocked all the way back to Square One after all the trouble she went through.

“Say what!?” Justin blurted. “Are you nuts?”

“We just want what’s ours,” Max reiterated.

“Yeah,” Shades seconded, retrieving his own Tri-Medal from the tangle in Max’s hand. Thumbing back to Striker’s stranded crew. “I thought they were the pirates.”

“But what good does it do to keep them separate?” Justin argued.

All Kato could do was watch and glare sourly, having been left completely out of the discussion of the fate of her Tri-Medal.

“We just saved them from pirates,” Max countered, “and now we’re going to rob them?”

“I thought you despised the Triangle State Authority,” Shades pointed out. “Why are you in such a hurry to become like them?”

“You…” Justin began, then trailed off, folding his arms in disgust as he relented. “Do what you want.”

“We came to rescue you, not rob you,” Max told Kato again as he approached her with her Tri-Medal. “But we also came to take back what was ours in the first place…”

“…Or you can keep the Card, and Justin can have your Tri-Medal,” Shades suggested. After all, they were running out of time, and he wanted to keep her from playing that to her advantage.

“George!” she called out, trying not to shudder at the thought of parting with it, “You done with the engine yet?”

Nothing but silence answered her.

“God, I wish he could talk…” For the thousand-and-eighth time. “Fine…”

And she handed over Shades’ Card in exchange for her original medallion.

And that, of course, was when George finally came through with the engine, albeit the thing did sound weak and not entirely stable.

“A word of advice, Kato,” Shades told her, thinking of the journal from that haunted island, of its author’s likely similar contempt for archaeologists. “Obsession is not a healthy thing. It’s not my place to tell you how to live your life, but if I were you, I would be careful if you choose to—”

“You haven’t seen the last of me!”

They all turned to see Striker clinging to the side of the Brazen’s lifeboat as they slowly paddled away from the now mostly submerged ship, having dealt with one of the two responsible for sinking her ship.

And having somehow come up with her plasma rifle that was blown overboard, reaching with her free hand to aim at the Maximum.

“If you fuckers even try to escape, I’ll blow the shit out of you! Just you wait ’til my other ship gets here—”

That was as far as she got. Before she could even aim the weapon, Justin snapped off several shots at her, sacrificing accuracy for getting the first shot, and she ducked underwater with an abrupt curse. Causing her to lose her grip on the plasma rifle as one of Justin’s shots sent sparks spitting from its main chamber.

The pirates’ last viable weapon consigned to the deep.

“Looks like you spoke too soon,” Shades remarked.

“Shut up, bitch!” Justin snapped as she came up coughing and sputtering. “You’re in no position to threaten us.”

All the while wishing he could be saying that to Slash, but he would just have to settle for Striker.

“Though she does have a point about that other ship,” Shades pointed out. “Let’s wrap this up before we have another battle on our hands.”

“Agreed,” Max echoed his sentiments, turning back to Kato, saying, “Now we’re even.”

“We won’t forget this,” Kato hissed, clutching her Tri-Medal in one hand, her laser whip in the other. “If we ever meet again…”

“Yeah, yeah, and we’ll be waiting,” Shades assured her, hoping that day wouldn’t come any time soon. “In the meantime, let us go in opposite directions from here.”

“Fine, fine…”

“And if we catch you following us, we’ll open fire, no questions asked!” Justin warned her. Then, wanting to heap insult on injury, he added, “Oh, and by the way!” Pausing for a moment before delivering his parting shot. “I have it on good authority that there are actually four Tri-Medals! So, by all means, do keep looking!”

“Why’d you tell her that?” Shades demanded as the Maximum pulled away from them. “It would’ve been better for them to go on thinking there were only three of the damn things.”

“Serves ’em right,” Justin answered. If I can’t have one of the Tri-Medals for my troubles, I can at least have a little satisfaction. “That’ll keep her busy for a long time!…”

Then there was no time left for listening to him gloat. As she took the helm, she could tell the Triad III’s engine was by no means at full capacity. She sighed dejectedly, knowing that George had done his damnedest, given the situation. Ignoring the bitter, ashen taste of defeat this whole experience had left in her mouth, she eased as much speed out the crippled engine as she dared, knowing they would need all the head start they could get.

While George sat down next to Chase, who finally seemed to be coming around, she took off. Careful to go in the opposite direction as the Maximum, knowing that she could no more fend them off with just her laser whip than she could Striker’s reinforcements. On that note, she hoped Chase recovered soon, so she would have a reliable lookout, but for now, she tried to keep a shifting eye out in all directions, all too aware she had no idea which direction this other pirate ship was going to approach from; she could only hope they made a greater priority out of rescuing their own, this time from a real distress signal instead of a fake, rather than exacting immediate revenge. Though grateful for even a half-functional engine, she had learned from past experience that George left much to be desired as a lookout.

Of course, the subject of revenge was never far from her thoughts. While she at least got to keep her first Tri-Medal, a part of her still couldn’t wrap her head around how easily she lost them. Or that she likely owed her life— as well as her companions’— to the ones who took them back.

Continuing her retreat, she kept focused by reminding herself that escaping from the pirates was only the first of what she suspected would be many troubles awaiting them between here and solid ground.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
red sky at night, sailors delight
“I can’t believe we did that!” Justin crowed as they left both enemies in their wake.

“I can’t believe we survived it!” Shades laughed, with both gusto and relief, amazed he was still alive as he retook the helm. “Though I must say, not a bad bit of rescuing…”

“We do make a pretty good team,” Max told them, hoping his words would hold true.

“Maybe we do…” Justin reflected on he and Shades’ keeping each other’s backs in that battle, wondering if he hadn’t misjudged him. At least he was beginning to understand the method to Shades’ madness, as well as that foreign notion Max called honor. Though he still wasn’t entirely sure what he thought of it. It was certainly a change from what he was used to, but an increasingly welcome one. “Maybe we do.”

“Dude,” Shades told him, “the next time I get a brilliant idea like this, please feel free to stuff me in the supply closet until I come to my senses.”

“Way ahead of you, man,” Justin told him. “And I’ll hold you to your word on that. That was nuts.”

“I’m just glad you’re such a good shot!” Shades told him, wondering if Justin hadn’t finally decided to bury the hatchet.

“Best this side of the Triangle State!” he boasted, whipping out his hand and pointing his finger at Shades’ head with almost blinding speed.

“Could you give me some pointers?”

“Sure, if you’ll show me how to pick locks…”

Max watched his two friends congratulating each other on a battle well fought, his worries from days past largely dispelled by their growing rapport. Once upon a time he dreamt of going on an adventure with his father and Lance and Cleo; now he traveled with Bandit, Justin and Shades. Seeing those two now, he doubted this adventure was going to end any time soon.

He just hoped sparing Striker wasn’t a mistake, of the kind that would come back to haunt him as Slash did to his father years ago. None of them had any idea which way Striker’s other ship would come from, so they put the pedal to the metal. Counting on the Cyexians being more preoccupied with rescuing their mates than with retaliation. Hopefully.

All of them, though, watched for a moment with immense satisfaction as that black flag slipped beneath the waves. At last looking back on the one sight as beautiful to behold as the sunset, and that was the one thing they could no longer see: the Brazen.

As the Maximum set out, Shades looked out at the setting sun, recalling an old line he once heard as a child. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Then he smiled. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight…

Though he had no idea if such weather wisdom held true in the Sixth Dimension, it was still a good expression for how this moment felt.

“I wonder if we’ll ever see the Triad again,” he pondered aloud, having no idea what he would do if they ever did meet again.

“Or Abu-Sharrah,” Max added, again thinking about how strange that old man could be, almost mystical. Life is a funny thing, he recalled his mother saying once, often moving in circles of varying sizes…

“I hope not!” Justin laughed. “Either one!”

He was still at something of a loss for why he would miss Striker when he had a clean shot. A lifetime of instinct told him he should have killed her then and there so she could never kill them later, yet he found he just couldn’t pull the trigger on someone as defenseless as she was then. Especially not in front of Max. Then again, he found he didn’t regret it as much as he thought he would.

So this is what satisfaction feels like, he thought to himself. I could get used to this.

“Who knows?” Shades shrugged. One night over a month ago, he made what he once thought was a wrong turn on his way home from work. Now he wasn’t so sure. Not after hitching a ride on Abu-Sharrah’s path, on an unknown road that likely went on forever, even if those who traveled it did not.

Looking out at that horizon, with its promise of a thousand destinations, he found he could believe it. That whatever he might seek, hidden treasure, mysteries, true love— even his missing friends— it was all out there, merely waiting to be found. Days, though, might not align between planes, and he may already have missed the ceremony back on Earth.

But he felt he had graduated after his own fashion.

“I know you’re out there…” he said quietly as the others talked. He may have missed his own graduation, but he had no intention of missing his hike, or his date, either one. “Hang on… I’ll find you, I promise…”

At that moment, Shades recalled a most bizarre dream he had last night.

In what appeared to be some smoky, dimly-lit tavern lobby. With the Flaming Ghost sitting across the table from him. Why he was now on such inexplicably peaceful terms with a being that once threatened him with eternal torment was beyond him, but the fiery apparition was now dealing cards. Cards similar to the ones the role-playing crowd always played with in the library, with stylized art depicting different people on them. Frequently reshuffling, though the cards never so much as singed in its burning hands.

Instead of the usual arcana, the cards all bore the names and likenesses of his friends, as well as other names from the Book of Fate, accompanied by faces he had never seen before, and remembered little of upon awakening. All arrayed against one another in different combinations, allies and enemies whose implications were all unknown to him. Playing for keeps, that much he understood. Accompanied by glimpses on the TV hanging near the ceiling, showing scenes of far-off places, and a voice that sounded like some deranged sports announcer giving a largely incoherent play-by-play of what appeared to be battles in the future.

And some cryptic remark, something about “the next time we play” that he desperately wished he could remember the rest of.

The whole thing, eerie as it was, made him feel hopeful for some reason. The cards have been reshuffled, the dice re-tossed… And not even the Book of Fate could foretell where they would land.

Before, he had worried over potentially messing with the lives of people he had never heard of, but now he wondered if perhaps he should be glad that he had read his friends’ names in the book, that if he had changed his own fate, as well as his companions’, he might well have given himself an opening to change John and Amy’s fates, as well, a thought that gave him renewed hope.

“So where to now?” Justin asked.

“Wherever the winds may take us,” Max replied, taking inspiration from Abu-Sharrah’s blessing. Found himself reflecting that perhaps they were all part of the same long journey. The journey is the destination, Robert sometimes used to say, and now he felt he was at last beginning to understand what his father meant. Now that he was finally getting to journey to that destination, chasing a dream of adventure. To be sure, one of danger, as well, yet somehow he felt they were ready for it.

As ready as we’ll ever be…

And so the journey continued. Different people from different places, and all a long way from the places they once called home. But now traveling the same path as they sailed off into the sunset.

To wherever the winds may take them.
Outro: Wayside by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
by the wayside
The island was a lost treasure.

A hidden gem in that endless sky men called the Ocean. This one a glittering diamond of white sand that stood alone, having no constellation to share its stark brilliance with. Fathomless miles out of anyone’s way, it was a pristine place, seldom seen by human eyes, and likely just as rarely, if ever, touched by human hands.

The Reflection sat anchored just off that dazzling shore, its mostly sandy, rocky stretch dotted with sparse patches of green and the occasional palm tree. On the deck, Abu-Sharrah lounged in a wooden folding chair, fishing pole propped against the deck railing. Largely inhospitable, surrounded by sharp reefs and visibly shallow sandbars, the old man wisely chose to forgo landfall, seeking the Ocean’s bounty at this particular stop.

As he looked out at the desert isle before him, his thoughts touched on that young man of recent acquaintance, Max, and he wondered absently if anyone had ever been stranded on this island before. Though it bore precious little resemblance to his Paradise, he suspected it might still be possible to survive in such an unforgiving place. If nothing else, though, he reflected, it would be a very harsh existence.

Just thinking of Max seemed to make him feel as if he was forgetting something. He still wasn’t sure why that boy was so familiar to him. The only conclusion he could come to was that if it was of any importance, he would remember sooner or later.

After all, he always did.

Again he wondered, as he had off and on lately, what those crazy kids would do next. Especially the hotheaded one. While Max would have listened and thought it over, and Shades might have nodded as if realizing that he should have known all along, he had refrained from talking too much about connections between people in this life in front of Justin. Not so much to misinform him, as it was in hopes of persuading him to abandon his vendetta. No matter how big this world was, some people simply traveled in the same circles.

Yet what struck him as most important to them was finding their balance.

In retrospect, he felt drawn to that particular dock from the moment he arrived in Centralict. It was a feeling he had grown used to over these long years. No matter where he went, he just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to help those in need, and always in ways that were within his grasp. This time, though, he sensed something out of the ordinary about their chance meeting, as if he had gotten himself involved in something big. Bigger than he had encountered in many years.

He could tell those three young men were new to each other, yet their presence together felt like pieces of some great puzzle falling into place.

It all seemed somehow summed up in the dream that awakened him from his nap in the first place, a vision of Max standing on the deck of that new ship of theirs, gazing off into the sunset with those eyes that always seemed to be fixed somewhere past the horizon.

Wherever the winds may take us…

That sagely smile widened as he watched him speak those words, for he found this scene very reassuring, enough so to hope it was true.

So lost he was in his ruminations, it took him a moment to notice that he finally had a bite on the line. A big one, too, from the feel of it. Found a moment to wish he had someone like Max around right now to help him haul it in, but ultimately decided that for now he was content to relax here by the wayside for a while before setting out again.

As he turned his attention back to his fishing, he wished his most recent passengers a safe voyage on the journey of life.
End Notes:
INTERLUDE
-oldest draft: 1997
-notebook draft: Oct 18, 2006
-word-processed draft: Sept 15, 2007
-additional editing: July, 2009

"HONOR AMONG THIEVES"
-oldest draft: 1997
-notebook draft: Oct 26, 2006 – Jan 17, 2007
-word-process draft: Sept 16 – Sept 30, 2007
-additional editing: March 27, 2008; July, 2009

OUTRO
-oldest draft: 1997
-notebook draft: Jan 17 – 20, 2007
-word-processed draft: Sept 26, 2007
-additional editing: July, 2009

This is the final episode of the portion originally title "One-4-All" in the oldest version of the series. It was also written to be finale of Volume 1 of Tradewinds, but it didn't start out that way. It may not necessarily finish that way, either. When I wrote the original draft, I wasn't ready to move on with the main storyline, so I thought "I'll throw something together with pirates" and this part actually started out as a "filler" story, believe it or not. Only time will tell just how much my writing actually improved over the past decade, but one of many things that has changed is that I don't believe in Filler anymore. One of the things I decided early on when I returned to this series was that, no matter what, every story would have to include either important character or plot development, and any story idea from older versions that didn't involve some of this fell by the wayside. In fact, there is a measure of irony that when I came back around to this story for the notebook draft, Naruto was in the middle of what turned out to be an 80+ episode, year-and-a-half-long filler jag, and thus I went over this storyline very thoroughly to see if it was salvageable. Much to my surprise, I began to realize that what started out as a throw-away story had a lot of climax and character/plot resolution potential that I had completely overlooked the first time around.

Of course, even with that potential, it took a complete overhaul. The original version had all manner of problems plaguing it, starting with the Triad running into an iceberg (yes, you read the correctly, and even I don't know what the hell I was thinking at the time), and being rescued by another ship. Which subsequently got boarded by Striker & Company. In addition to tossing in a bunch of pointless extras, the original scheme involved Bandit swimming over to Striker's ship and planting a bomb. Total wallbanger (props TVTropes) material, given that they were a) trying to rescue people from aboard that ship, and b) even boarded it themselves while the clock was ticking, to say nothing of c) Bandit carrying explosives like some kind of weaponized helper dog. Then, to top it all off (probably because I watched waayyy too many martial arts flicks in high school), Max challenges Striker to a sword fight. Blindfolded. And then Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting (props TVTropes). Even though they had guns and shit. That was where I got the idea to retcon the EMP grenades when I did the word-processed draft of Part 10, pairing with the other Chekhov's Gun (props TVTropes), Chase's new plasma rifle, which was really more of a Chekhov's Dud in the original version, this time around instead providing an alternative way to sink Striker's ship at the turning point of the battle. To say nothing of the EMP grenade largely forcing everyone to fight at close quarters. Of course, Justin's still got three more left, but I imagine he'll use them sparingly.

As for the whole "Volume 1" business, I've largely been reconsidering the idea of even trying to publish this series in print any time in the foreseeable future, so I think I'll stick to online distribution for now. To that end, I plan to continue with Tradewinds as a serial, and see where it goes from there. I hope you've enjoyed it so far, as there is much more yet to come. Unfortunately, those parts will have to wait here until I have internet access again; I was hoping the next place I moved into would already have it, but it looks like I'll have to provide my own, and that will take time.
This story archived at http://www.narutofic.org/viewstory.php?sid=11044