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.
“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.
Author's Chapter Notes:
a reason to act