From the cockpit of his beached Albatross
, Roger Wilco could still see the explosion from around the bend in the shore, flinging debris from beyond the pines and into the sea. The explosion, which must surely have been Erix’s ship, was not what any of them expected, judging from the others’ reaction over the radio.
From the way the others cried out her name, it was Roxy who got caught in the blast, leaving him with the sinking feeling the bounty hunter must have blundered into some kind of trap.
As the noise of the explosion faded, along with the ringing in his ears, the pilot listened in tense anticipation. Far as he could tell, the others were still alive, though whether anyone else was harmed was too incoherent to determine. He watched Max run out into the open to see if there was anything he could do for them.
Thus it was only when he felt a laser gun pressed against the side of his head that he realized he was not alone, that the spectacle outside was not only a booby-trap, but also a diversion.
“Not one word, fat boy,” a soft, menacing voice warned him, “and not one move. You’re my ticket out of here. If you value your life, you’re going to start these engines and haul ass.”
Sweat dripping down Roger’s back at the understanding that he was now all alone with the infamous outlaw they had chased all the way from the island of Yarbo. Found it difficult to make eye contact with his one good eye, grey and intense, even harder to linger on his dead, glassy left, with the trio of scars streaking down that side of his face.
An old wound from the very foe he just acquitted himself of only moments ago.
“It’s not that simple,” the pilot told him, half afraid to speak, but all too well aware of how a lack of cooperation without any explanation might be construed. Though he kept a revolver from his own dimension concealed under the dash, as a last resort, he cursed himself for not arming himself sooner, as it may as well be out on the nose of the plane for all the good it was doing him now. Instead, he struggled not to even look in its general direction, for fear of giving it away. “We took some heavy damage from the storm, and lost both engines.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?” Erix demanded. “Just what kind of fool do you think take me for?”
“No fool, I assure you,” the pilot replied, still struggling to regain his mental footing after being caught unawares like this. Sweating, trying hard not to think about the hidden killswitch concealed among some of the older control switches, which he had installed years ago, as an anti-hijacking measure. And engaged behind everyone else’s backs after they embarked on this ill-fated hunt for the man who now stood behind him. “We’re as stranded as you are.”
“Start the engines now,” Erix repeated, “or I’ll just kill you and figure it out for myself.”
“If you’ve never flown a plane from my world before, you wouldn’t figure it out in time anyway…” Roger sighed, reaching for the controls, relieved that he thought to engage the killswitch before anyone else could board, fearing that even the slightest hint of operability— damage or no damage— might arouse suspicions of sabotage or subterfuge. “As you can see, we’re grounded. Believe it or not, the bounty hunter was looking to capture your
“That’s rich,” Erix snorted. “Wouldn’t’ve done her any good anyway.”“Roger, who are you talking to?”
a young man’s voice piped up on the radio, for Roger’s mic was still set to voice-activated, and the pilot winced, having no idea how his captor might react.“But Max is out here…”
another voice pointed out.“Then that means…”
There was no mistaking the alarm in Max’s voice as the three companions arrived at the same ominous conclusion.“Roger,”
one of them called out, “is Erix in there?”
For his part, Erix slid his free hand’s index finger across his throat in a gesture the pilot understood all too well.“I see him!”
one of them called out. “He’s inside with him!”“He means to maroon us…”
the other realized aloud.“Back to the ship!”
Max called out.
“Not so fast!” Erix told them, well aware that his previous ruse was at an end. “If you’ve figured out I’m here, then you already know I have a hostage. If you value his life, you won’t show your face anywhere near this plane.”“The joke’s on you, Erix,”
the first voice informed him. “That bird won’t fly anymore.”
“Way ahead of you, Shades” Erix countered, “so don’t get smart with me. I’m taking this man as both insurance, and as my personal pack animal. He looks like he could use the exercise… We’re going to be rounding up some supplies, and then you’re going to let us just walk right out of here, got it?”“Dammit…”
the other muttered.“Justin, he’s got us right where he wants us,”
Shades reminded him.“But what about…”
Max seemed to take some unseen cue to zip his lip.
“You, get up,” Erix commanded. “Slowly, and no funny business. Your life ends at the same time as your usefulness to me, remember that. Your only hope of surviving this is getting me back to civilization, or a working ship out of here.”
Roger doubted that, not just based on Roxy’s accounts of him, but a strong intuition that his first statement was truer than the latter, that even making it that far with him was no guarantee of survival. Despite several hours of elevation and applying cold packs, his leg was still extremely stiff and sore, so there was no hiding the full extent of his injury as he attempted to limp across the cabin at gunpoint, nearly falling on his face once he ran out of modular seats to lean on.
“You’re off to a bad start,” Erix chided him. “Playing gimp will do you no good. After all, if you can’t haul supplies, then your use is at an end as soon as I’m clear of them.”
“Just… just give me a moment…” Roger groaned, seeing something Erix apparently didn’t know about. Wincing in both pain and guilt, unsure how he could face Max after whatever happened next, he turned toward the compartment next to the tiny bathroom near the rear of the plane, telling his captor, “I keep some old military rations in here, in case I ever got stranded…”
Sure enough, Erix was so focused on watching Roger’s every move, he failed to notice the black-and-white panther, still hiding behind some empty cargo crates after being spooked by the explosion, until Bandit reached out with a snarl and slashed Erix’s leg as he moved belatedly to evade him.
“Holy shit!” Erix lost his grip on his power pistol as he staggered back against the cargo door.
As the big cat lunged at Erix again, Roger wasted no time locking himself in the bathroom, while Erix’s second evasion caught his wrist on the door latch, hauling the cargo door back open.
Pouncing again as Erix regained his balance, this time dumping him on the ground outside.
“Bandit!” Max wailed, watching them wrestle on the ground before Erix came out on top, holding one of his now-activated laser claws up to his feline companion’s head. Bandit, seeming to realize the threat, his struggling ceased.
“Good kitty. That’s more like it,” Erix remarked, dragging both of themselves to their feet. That cry, combined with the look on Max’s face, told him everything he needed to know about this one. Which was a good thing for him, since he could now see that they had the Albatross
covered from three points, with his back to the sea. “Next, you’re going to toss me some rope to make a leash out of.”
“Take me,” Max said instead, dropping his power pistol and raising his hands. Over six feet tall, and broad-shouldered, with shoulder-length blond hair bound by a headband adorned with an ancestral symbol. Though a swordsman and fighter of much untapped potential, none of his usual confidence was in evidence, his sea-grey eyes fixed on his feline friend.
“Nice try,” Erix taunted. He already understood that killing Bandit would set all three of them off. That for all his previous self-righteous talk, Max would kill him, or die trying. Under other circumstances, that could make for an interesting contest, but here it would be three against one, surrounded, with nothing to even the odds. “But I want to see you squirm, for the way you humiliated me back in Anchor Point. If I can’t have a pack animal, I’ll settle for a meat-shield until I’m clear of you.”
“But Bandit was injured in the crash,” Shades protested, figuring Erix would find out soon enough anyway. Though his sunglasses could make him seem opaque, the rest of his face betrayed his alarm and dismay all too transparently right now. Of more modest stature than his friend, his denim jacket and cargo pants somehow always conveyed an impression of armor, and Erix had already learned, holding him hostage many moons ago, that if nothing else, that gear contained a fair number of concealed weapons and tools.
For now, though, his power pistol drifted groundward in his obvious hesitation.
“Take me instead,” Max repeated.
“But you know he won’t let you live,” Justin pointed out. Short and wiry, with black hair and a quick, narrow face, he held a double-barrel disrupter pistol. Frozen pointed right at Erix, trigger finger straining against a lifetime of experiences that informed every fiber of his being that he needed to pull it, cursing the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to do that to the pilot who saved their lives only hours ago.
“How about I take you instead?” Erix drew his other power pistol to cover Bandit as he pointed at Shades. “We had so much fun last time, didn’t we?”
Shades swallowed hard at that prospect in spite of himself.
Though Erix kept a firm hand on the scruff of Bandit’s neck, the angle prevented him from piercing the big cat directly with his claws, instead keeping the pistol trained on him as he stood the rest of the way up.
“I’m not going to tell you again,” Erix warned them. “Lower your weapons, and prepare to pack. One of you is going to be my new—”
All eyes on Erix, so none of them saw it coming when a box went flying out of the cargo door, hitting Erix across the back of the head, knocking him flat on his face before he could make a move.
“That’s fat man
, to you!” Roger blustered as he staggered over to the cargo door. When he nearly tripped over Erix’s other power pistol, he merely scooped it up and appropriated it as his own as he hobbled over. “Nobody hijacks my
For his part, Bandit bolted the second Erix lost his grip, scampering over to Max as fast as his injured paw would allow.
“You killed my client, troublesome as she was…” Roger now stood over Erix, power pistol in hand. “You even tried to kill the rest of my passengers when we’re already stranded in the middle of goddamn nowhere…”
“Roger!” Justin shouted. “Finish him off! Now!”
Raising his own disrupter to do just that, as he feared this pilot lacked the wherewithal to go through with it himself.
Max reached over to retrieve his dropped power pistol.
Just when it looked like the dreaded outlaw Erix was going to die at the hands of some civilian pilot with almost no combat experience to his name, Roger looked over at them, as if realizing for the first time where he was, or what he was doing, and saw Shades facepalm at him.
Thus Erix took Roger completely by surprise when he scissored his legs, tripping him.
Roger howled in agony, landing on his injured leg.
“You’re as soft as the rest of them,” Erix muttered as he snatched up his other gun, pointing it at the pilot while they were still entangled, before Justin could even readjust his aim. “Nobody move!” Rubbing the back of his head with his free hand, still keeping his weapon trained on the pilot. He could feel blood oozing down his torn pantleg, and wanted more than anything to shoot that damn cat, but knew he needed the right moment. “You may not serve as a pack animal, but you’ll still do as a human shield. Now get up.”
“But my leg…” Roger groaned.
“If you can’t get up,” Erix warned him, “your worthless life ends here.”
“Then so does yours,” Max told him. Steadying his power pistol with stern effort. Trying not to think about what just happened to Bandit, lest he pull the trigger too soon and get Roger killed for sure.
“We have you surrounded,” Shades reminded him.
“You can’t shoot all of us at once,” Justin added.
“If I die, I won’t die alone,” Erix assured them, watching Roger struggle back to his feet. “I can take at least one of you with me, and you’ll have no one but yourselves to blame.”
Once the pilot was back on his feet, Erix stepped in close, keeping the pilot between himself and his enemies, to serve as a human shield if they tried anything else.
The others kept their position, remaining spread out, uncomfortably aware that Erix could hide behind his hostage, and still get off shots at them if push came to shove.
“Limp for your life,” Erix ordered as Roger hobbled along. “This is where we part ways. I won’t release him until you turn back for the ship.”
“And just how will you release
him?” Shades pressed, ignoring the sweat pouring down his neck with an effort. “Just from you, or also from the world of the living?”
“What’s worthless around here is your word,” Max stated, “and he has no reason to cooperate if you’re just going to kill him anyway.”
“You’re not getting past us,” Justin told him as they continued to bar his way past the abandoned seaside lodge, into the woods behind it.
“Which leaves us at an impasse,” Erix admitted. “That bounty hunter wanted me, but you just want to live, right?…”
Erix’s words drifted away from Roger as he thought hard. He could imagine no version of this where he would come out alive, and no serious chance of all three of his passengers surviving whatever happened next. He could leave his life in Erix’s deadly hands, or take it into his own.
Taking one last breath, Roger tried to elbow him, but Erix felt him shift in mid step. He got the foot-long energy blades built into Erix’s glove, right through the chest for his trouble. Puncturing his left lung and piercing his heart.
“So be it, Fat Man.”
This fatal blow turned Roger into a human sandbag, dragging Erix down with him just as surely as if he ducked.
Thus Justin, the quickest on the draw, missed him by a mile as Erix raised his power pistol and shot back, nailing him several times before he hit the ground.
Now trapped in this desperate gamble, Erix turned on Max next, seeing him falter with Bandit in the middle of their shootout, only grazing his shoulder with one energy beam before going down.
Shades thought fast, cutting loose with a barrage of stun shots, looking to avoid killing any of his friends while neutralizing Erix at the same time. But not fast enough, as Erix hit him while he was still tracking Erix’s sudden drop.
Bandit was almost upon him, snarling in inarticulate rage, but Erix shoved Roger’s corpse at the big cat, tripping him up just as he was about to spring. Thus Bandit landed flat on his face in a most unfeline fashion, as Erix whipped out one of his twin laser blades and decapitated him. Kicking the dead cat as he staggered back to his feet.
Badly wounded, Max still hung on to his power pistol, struggling to regain his feet, lifting his arm with painful effort, one last thought etched on his face as he raised his head and looked Erix square in the eye. Too slow, too halting; Erix shot first as he pulled the trigger one last time.
Offering the final word: “I told you… Hero’s die y—”
The words caught in his throat as an energy beam pierced his own chest.
For a moment, he could only stare in shock at the ghost who stepped out from around the corner of the abandoned lodge, cloak fluttering over squarish shoulder guards, one of several pieces of light armor she fortified military garb of unknown origin with. Caked with sand and soot from head to foot, her blonde hair blown all to one side in a manner that might have looked cartoonish if it wasn’t for the fire in her violet eyes. Her bulky disrupter pistol, with its wicked-looking bayonet deployed, aimed square at him, barrel smoking.
Erix struggled to raise his gun as the Cyexian bounty hunter put several more rounds in him, his power pistol clunking to the ground as he fell to his knees, then flat on his face.
“The rocks,” the Hunter replied, still keeping a keen eye on him as she strode up. The same rock formations that grounded his ship having clearly shielded her from the worst of the self-destruct charges. “Just barely enough time…”
Then her radio got damaged, so she chose to play dead and move in silence. And apparently took too long getting back. It all happened so fast, even as she was positioning herself.
At point-blank, she shot him with a couple stun shots, to be sure he wasn’t playing possum, then fired up her laser staff and cut his head clean off. She spat in the dirt, the taste of this long-sought victory bitter to her tongue as she surveyed the cost. Though she doubted anyone in this backwater realm could even afford the bounty Erix had racked up, she was dead certain his head would no longer be recognizable by the time she made it anyplace that could be mistaken for civilization anyway.
At this stage more of a personal point than a professional one, Roxy reached down and plucked out his glass eye. She then took his laser swords and energy claws, trophies he would never part with willingly. Proof of the deed, even if no one would honor the bounty for him.
She then punted his severed head into the waves, deciding that the scavengers could have it, a fitting end for one who left so many others for the carrion-birds.
Setting aside this matter, now dead as her nemesis, she turned to Roger, seeing that he had already bled out from wounds she would have no way of saving him from anyway.
“You delivered on all your promises,” she told the pilot. “If anyone failed here, it was I.”
Hearing a groan from off to the side, she perked up, seeing Shades rolling slightly on the ground in a vain effort to move, and rushed over to him.
“Amy… John…” he moaned, trying to sit up, but finding his body no longer wanted to cooperate with him. Tears streaming from behind opaque lenses as his efforts grew steadily weaker. Eyes dimming, even as they filled with a vision of mountains, and a desert sunset beyond, the disappointing sense of being so close, yet so far away. So many close calls, all over the Sixth Dimension, just to fall here, in the middle of nowhere… “I’m sorry…”
“I promise you… Dexter…” Roxy told him, choosing to speak the name his mother gave him, taking his trembling hand. During their flight from Anchor Point, she had added John’s photo, and all of Shades’ search information, to her datapad, just in case she met either of them anywhere in her own travels. “If we ever cross paths, I will tell them that you gave your life protecting your friends.”
Seeing that there was nothing she could do for him anymore, likely not had she been even a couple minutes earlier and had the plane’s First Aid kit right beside her, she stunned him and put him out of his misery. Lifted his namesake sunglasses, closing his eyes before gently lowering the mirrorized lenses back in place. Reflecting that they just somehow belonged
there, even in death.
Laboring to stifle her own attempts at hope, she turned to Justin next, finding him already dead.
“If I ever meet this Jesse Fletcher, I’ll kick his ass and let him know why.” She laid both of his disrupter pistols across his chest. “Then I’ll tell him about the real
Finding Max just as deceased, she bowed her head.
“You were an honorable man, almost to a fault. If there is anything beyond this life, I hope you find peace there that you couldn’t find here…”
Looking about the gravelly beach, the scene of so much death in just a couple short minutes, Roxy took a deep breath before offering them the closest thing she could manage to an apology for those who died fighting.
“Rest easy, knowing you are avenged…”
Finding herself standing all alone on an unknown shore, in an unknown realm, it took her a long moment to regain her focus and decide her next move.