I live! I worked the holidays, and have been struggling with finding a way to continue this story (curse you motivation!). Luckily, I found time to write this new chapter. Happy New Years!
"How the hell can you see me?" Zak asked Hercules, raising an eyebrow. For whatever reason, Hercules's body language suggested that he was very relaxed when he should have been frightened. Perhaps the ocean tug was sensitive to the supernatural, and could see ghosts such as Zak. Wanting to intimidate the other, Zak shouted, "I'm dead! Blown to smithereens! Get lost!"
Instead of a proper response, Zak watched as Hercules began to slowly back away. Perhaps the ocean tug got the hint and decided to leave. However, within seconds, the chains began to tighten! Was this some kind of joke? Zak snarled and tried moving in an effort to free himself, but it was all in vain. The moment he tried to push forward, some new chains sprang up from the water and started to wrap around him.
Meanwhile, Hercules had stopped only just a few feet away and was watching the events transpiring before him with great interest. "You know trying to break free from the chains is useless, right Zak?" He asked, examining how the chains were cleverly wrapped around Zak's body. With a playful chuckle, he added, "Keep at it sweetheart, I'm enjoying the view."
"YOU SICK BASTARD!" Zak called out, trying to break free of the ghastly chains. Now that really pushed him to his limit. "You're just gonna tighten the grip and treat me like a whore, aren't ya?!"
"I was very disappointed when I couldn't reap your brother, Zak. However, you're a suitable replacement." Hercules chuckled, but the words he uttered were not his own. Given what the Z Stack had done in life, he had deserved this. To feel the pain that he put Zebedee, Sunshine, and even Zug and Zip through.
"You tried to kill Zebedee? You wipe that shit eating grin off your face or I'll do it for ya! Now help me!" Zak snapped, the chains now making a considerable dent to his stern. He bit his lip and tried in one last attempt to break free of the chains, but the pain his soul was enduring becoming too great to bear. To his shock, he noticed that Hercules was being engulfed by the fog. Oh that was it! He thought, and he tried pulling himself with enough force. However, at that moment, he screamed in pain as he felt his stack crack.
Hades now stood in the place of Hercules and smiled wickedly at Zak, feeling quite pleased with himself. He had his prey within feet in front of him, and now it was time to have some fun. "You're really that desperate, aren't you?" He asked, amused by the way Zak was feeling. He was still resisting of course, but the demonic tug had one unplayed card, one that could make Zak break. "Say Zak, I know a friend of yours who was in the same position as you. He couldn't fathom being chained and tortured on a daily basis, so I was merciful."
Zak's first impression was being unbound from the chains and run away from Hades, but the grip on his hull only tightened. He noticed filthy black smoke start to billow from Hades's stack, and he quickly realized that he was lied to. He was about to throw an insult when his attention was diverted to a distinct face that had formed in the smoke. Almost immediately, his eyes widened. "ZORRAN!? What are ya doing in there?"
"I won't go into details Zak." Hades purred, glancing at Zorran's soul. "Let's just say that he was reckless and paid dearly. I tortured him sufficiently, don't you think?"
Zak started to quiver in fear, as he certainly did not want to suffer eternity with a demon. Especially if the demon looked like Hercules. "Zorran, save me!" He said, feeling the chains tighten once more. However, Zorran gave no response. He didn't even bother to look at his dead comrade, and turned to face Hades instead. "We were fleetmates in life Zorran! I don't want to be beaten up by Star Stack for all eternity!"
"You want Zorran to save you? Pathetic." Hades taunted, inching closer to Zak. "Zorran can't even hear you cry. He's all mine, and your tiny addled mind can't comprehend it."
As Hades spoke, Zak turned back to Zorran and noticed ice. Zorran grit his teeth, but he let out a pained scream as chunks of ice began to break through his hull! "Dammit Hades!" He shouted.
"Stop it! Zorran doesn't deserve that!" Zak pleaded, mortified by the sight. "Lay one more touch, and I'll end ya."
"Lucky for me, I already broke him." Hades smiled, quickly dislodging the ice from Zorran's hull. "Since you're so concerned for dear Zorran here, why don't you take him in? Do keep in mind that he's quite the screamer."
Zak felt the chains' grip lighten up, and he looked up to see that Zorran was freed from the ice. "He didn't hurt ya too badly, right Zorran?" He asked, seeing that Zorran was slowly floating towards him. However, it looked like Zorran was still in pain. "Aren't-"
"YOU. FUCKING. IDIOT." Zorran roared, ramming his body into Zak. "You claimed you wanted to lead the fleet one day, yet what did you do after I died? You sulked like a fucking baby and made Zebedee charge of the fleet." Zak was alarmed and tried to utter an apology, but Zorran would have none of that. "You tried to kill Zeb when things went south, set Zug on a path to his own destruction, and shattered what little stability Zip had!" With a strong shove, he asked, "Is that your fucking idea of leadership!?"
Zak tried to withstand Zorran's blows, but it was a losing battle. "He's forcing you to say those things Zorran." He snapped, now trying to put up one last stand. "Snap out of it and get me outta here! C'mon, Zero wouldn't approve this sort of shit!"
"I know you better than you know yourself Zak. You would have committed mutiny even if I was still alive!" Zorran spat, the urge to tear Zak to pieces coursing within his being. "And knowing you, you'd break the kids' minds because you felt you were too weak compared to me and Zebedee. That isn't being a leader Zak, that's being a tyrant! A parasite!"
The moment Zorran said "parasite", Zak froze. Memories of his old fleet started to come back, and he remembered being called a parasite by a worker due to his bad engine. He tried to speak up, but tears started to trickle down his cheeks. For the first time in his existence, Zak truly felt what it was like to be a failure.
"Now we're on the same page, aren't we Zak? You barely have a taste of what I've been enduring since I fucking died and decide to come crawling to me for sympathy?" Zorran asked, ignoring Zak's loud sobbing as he struck him again. "Fuck. You. You deserve everything I've been through and more. You're dead to me."
Hades grinned as he watched Zak's emotions change from anger to shock to defeat, and he knew he had won. "Pride comes before the fall Zak." He simply stated, and watched as Zak began to be engulfed by the thick black smoke. The smoke dissipated, and Hercules was now in control. He tried to process what Hades had done, but that concern was put aside when he spotted the rising sun in the horizon. With great haste, he hurried away from the scene.
The next morning, Zebedee awoke to find workmen getting off of his body. He was confused, and with a groan, turned to see that a couple the Star Tugs were there. "Whaddya guys want?" He asked, not in the mood to speak.
"You're being put off of dry dock Zebedee!" OJ explained, gesturing to some cranes. "Once you're refloated, you should be able to start working again!"
"And what, so I get left for dead a second time?" Zebedee snarled, looking away from OJ. "I've heard enough about Zak wanting to take my life. Bastard didn't even want to lead the fleet in the first place, but decides I'll take the-"
"Zebedee, Zak is dead." Big Mac interrupted. "He blew out his engine trying to flee the authorities."
Zebedee looked up at Big Mac, wanting to doubt the other tug's claim. "I know I heard somethin' about an explosion coming from Up River yesterday." He said. "Was Zak caught in it?"
"He was." Big Mac confirmed, looking down at the water. "All that's left of him is some burned out steel. Warrior and I are takin' his remains to the breaker's yard this afternoon."
"Good." Zebedee bluntly said. However, something started to press on his mind. He knew he had seen Zip, but Zug was strangely absent. He now started to show worry, and be asked, "Where's Zug?"
"Zug… is with the Coast Guard." OJ answered with a frown.
"WHAT!?" Zebedee asked, and it was clear that he was visibly angry. "I've been in this yard for who knows how long and you guys didn't stop him from getting arrested?"
"Calm down Zebedee!" Big Mac pleaded. "Ye need to listen to us about-"
"Forget it!" Zebedee snapped. Meanwhile, he was finally placed down in the water. "I gotta get there and ask what's going on."
"Don't push yourself Zebedee." OJ said, trying to ease the harbor tug's nerves. "You just got placed off dry dock. No need to jump to conclusions just yet!"
Zebedee ignored OJ and watched as he was being supplied with coal. He had to get to Zug, he had to. He knew Zug was stupid, but he often protected him from Zorran and Zak's blows. Once the coal barge was empty, he stoked his fire and hurried away.
Elsewhere in the harbor, Zug was lost in his thoughts. He was due to be transferred to the Navy for a proper trial, and he worried about what was to happen. Would he be simply imprisoned, or face death? The Navy prisons were supposedly brutal, but their methods of execution were just as worse. A loud whistle caught his attention, and he looked up to see Zebedee steaming in. "Zebedee, you're here!" He said with with a smile. Perhaps he could finally get out and start life as a normal tug again! "Please, the Coast Guard has been keeping me here in awful conditions."
Zebedee said nothing and steamed into the dock.. However, he wisely stopped a few yards away from the switcher. His attention turned to some dents and scrapes along Zug's body, and he started to show concern. "What happened?" He asked.
Zug wanted to pin the blame on the Star Tugs, as bringing up Zak would certainly get him killed. However, he worried that Zebedee would catch him in his lies. Now to save face and make himself innocent. "I got into an accident hauling some barges." He started. "I got sent to Lucky's for repairs."
"That's bullshit Zug, I didn't see ya come there even once." Zebedee said, not believing what Zug said. He then examined the injuries and added, "Those weren't caused by an accident. They were intentionally inflicted. Now Zug, what really did happen?"
Zug was dumbstruck, and he frantically tried to come up with an answer. However, he was running out of options. "Zak forced me into working for him! He beat me if I screwed up." He mumbled, starting to inch back. "Please Zebedee, you have to believe me!"
"You did what?" The reason why Zug was arrested was now clearly explained. Zebedee was livid, and it was tempting to go over and smash Zug against the dock. Maybe sink him too. "I protected your ass from Zorran and Zak countless times, and how did you return the favor? You sided with my own brother and tried to kill me!"
"He forced me to though! I didn't want to go with it!" Zug pleaded, but he was sweating profusely. "I don't wanna die!"
"Zug, what you and Zak did was mutiny!" Zebedee roared, looking right into Zug's eyes. "You were still grieving over Zorran, which was why Zak took advantage of ya! We Zeds might have been placed with the Stars, but we never turn on another."
Zug was struggling to process the information, but he was still contentious. "Zak was right all along! Zebedee, the Stars brainwashed you!" He snapped. "Zorran would have never approved of you switching sides."
"He also wouldn't have approved of Zak turning you into his personal slave." The harbor tug snarled, inching dangerously close to Zug's bow. "He used you for his own greed, made you slave away while he reaped the profits. What part of 'used' do you not understand?"
Zug tried to speak, but he started to break down in tears. "Zebedee, I don't want to die! Please don't leave!"
Zebedee finally had enough. He knew it was going to hurt, but it was for the best. "You're no longer a Zed Stack to me Zug. I hope the Navy boys love you just as much as Zak did." He said, and he slowly went in reverse. Amidst Zug's sobbing, Zebedee turned around and sailed away.
At the same time, Ten Cents was sitting alone in the harbor. The circumstances of Zak's death were playing in his mind, especially as he witnessed Charon take control and put the burning harbor tug out of his misery. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks as he thought more and more about the murder. However, he had to keep a straight head and focus on his work. He tied some of his bow lines to some nearby cleats, wanting to spend some time in his own thoughts.
Hercules was on his way to do some contracts down the coast when he spotted Ten Cents. Perhaps it was unwise to be talking, but the ocean tug wanted to be kind. He quietly steamed up to Ten Cents, not wanting to disturb him. "Are you alright Ten Cents?" He asked in a quiet voice.
Ten Cents frowned and looked away, as he was too uncomfortable to speak. However, Hercules had a way of making someone like himself open up. "You shouldn't be here." He started, everything now spilling out. "I tried to stop him, but Charon took control of my body. He's been doing this for months."
Hercules was concerned, and it was clear that Ten Cents was going through a lot. Then with a heavy sigh, he said, "Ten Cents, I suppose it's finally time we discussed Charon. When Hades cured you of your plague, a piece of him had likely made its way into you. Then as you and Sunshine were snooping into my affairs, Hades… developed a desire to make you beck and call to him. To make you his eyes and ears of the harbor per say."
Ten Cents was mortified. He knew that Hades preferred to do his work without interference, and he felt that too in Charon. However, his motives struck a chord in his soul. "Why couldn't you stop him though?" He asked, glaring at the ocean tug. "He's a petty bastard if you ask me."
"He kept that desire a secret from me for months." Hercules answered, looking away from Ten Cents. "I didn't find out until you nearly died saving me from Timberwolf. I would have stopped him from making you one of his own, but it was a difficult situation. As a result of Charon coming about, it seems our minds are linked."
"I would have been spared so much pain and suffering if you became more firm." The switcher pointed out. "You're firm with us yes, but it might not be enough for Hades." He was rightfully furious, but it was pointless to argue. He undid his lines from the cleats and quietly sailed away, leaving a sorrowful Hercules behind.
As he sailed to do some contract work, he noticed some Navy vessels steaming towards the Coast Guard's dock. He then spotted Sunshine sailing right next to him, and he knew then and there that the issue was serious. "Oi Sun, what's going on over there?" He asked, looking down at his friend. "It's not common to see Navy vessels up here these days."
"The Navy's decided to give Zug a full trial." Sunshine replied, looking clearly concerned for Zug. "Zug's way too young to be getting sunk or locked up with a bunch of other criminals. Perhaps they've come here to take him away."
Ten Cents was troubled, but something inside him was telling him that Zug deserved it. He figured it was Charon's influence, as the Reaper loved to mess with the switcher. "What happens if charges are dropped against him?" He suggested, scenarios running through his head. "Would he even be welcomed back?"
"Who knows?" Sunshine mused. "I know Zip would have mixed feelings. Zebedee on the other hand. He might not have known that Zug was workin' with Zak."
"I bet Zebedee's gonna be pretty suspicious." Ten Cents added. Then, a thought came into his head. "Would Starr even sell Zug to a broker?"
"Perhaps. He's not been himself for the past few months." Sunshine answered. "Or he'll straighten out now that Zak's gone."
As they were talking, Ten Cents noticed that the Navy vessels were sailing away with Zug in tow. "So they're gonna try him after all." He remarked, and tears started to well up. "That poor tug…"
"Don't cry Ten, we did everything we could to help him." Sunshine whispered, gently nudging his friend. "Sometimes, it might be best to let time do its thing."
"I suppose you're right." Ten Cents said, now focusing on Sunshine. "C'mon, we gotta deliver the barges as Starr asked."
The Navy's larger facility was located down the coastline, and it was used to try vessels who had been arrested for criminal activity. Many of the vessels kept there were of unsavory repute, ranging from the mere rum runner to the ruthless mobster. It was no place for a switcher like Zug to be placed there, but the circumstances called for it. The Navy vessels sent to escort Zug knew it was cruel, but they took it as mere orders.
"We will need to stop and refuel at our Bigg City facility first." The first Navy vessel said, glancing at Zug. "We'd normally go for hours, but it looks like you're not made for long distances. We'll make sure you have enough coal for the journey."
"Stop giving him the look Zug. You made the choice to be friends with the notorious Zak and look what that's done." The second vessel said, but his tone suggested that he was taunting the switcher. "You can't even make the proper decision without someone sticking by you."
The words stung, and Zug was indignant. 'Perhaps it's time to give these guys a lesson.' He said to himself, and he wondered how to escape. An idea popped into his head, and he started to throw himself in reverse in an effort to at least make the task of towing him impossible.
"Hey!" The first vessel said, trying to press forward. "You can't do that! I still got a few lines tied to ya!"
The second vessel tried to stop Zug, but his own lines started to become frayed. Then, he gasped as the lines snapped. "Stop him! I've been cut off!"
For the first time in his life, Zug felt he had done something successful. Success quickly became fear, as he knew that the Navy would be onto him for sure. He cut off the first vessel's lines and hurried away back into Bigg City. The Navy tugs were in hot pursuit, and they could easily catch up to the switcher and corner him. Zug exerted pressure into his engine, and he hurried towards an old dockyard that had not been used in a long time.
"STOP!" The first vessel called out, but he panicked when he noticed that he was heading towards some pilings. He tried to kill his engine, but he rammed the pilings at great speed.
The second vessel was now tailing Zug, determined to catch him. However, he too was not as lucky, as Zug suddenly made a sharp turn. The vessel tried to stop, but he made contact with some more pilings.
"Finally I'm free!" Zug said, showing no remorse for what he had done. The Navy vessels would probably have to be rescued, but the tide would also worsen their injuries. Zug spotted a warehouse and slipped inside.
Hours passed, and Zug was still in the warehouse. He had fallen asleep, and was unaware of what was happening. Outside, the two Navy vessels had become rather weak due to their injuries. Then, all at once, the area became enveloped in fog. A loud scream forced Zug awake, and he slowly steamed out of the warehouse to see what was happening. Then, he saw it happen. A large tug had called forth smoke from his stack, and he quickly thrusted it into the helpless Navy vessel.
"Is… is that Hercules?" Zug asked himself, alarmed to see that the tug's body was rather slender. His observations were soon confirmed when he recognized Hercules's shape in the distance. "He does have demon powers! I was right!" He thought, now knowing it was too dangerous to stay out. He hurried back inside and closed his eyes, hoping that Hercules would soon be gone.
A week had passed since Zak's death and Zug's daring escape, and Bigg City was slowly starting to heal from their reign of terror. The Star Tugs were being kept busy with work, and Zebedee and Zip were called in to assist. At the Star Dock, Hercules waiting for Captain Starr. He figured it was because of a contract or something pertaining to Zug's disappearance, but he was surprised to see the Captain open the door and walk down towards the pier. "Something on your mind Captain?" Hercules politely asked.
Captain Starr nodded, and he soon climbed aboard his ocean tug. He sat down on the neatly coiled lines and answered, "Many things actually. I know I usually pull you aside for advice, but this is serious. Ever since Zebedee woke up, I've been contemplating adding him to the Fleet."
Hercules was taken back by the answer. "It might be best to do so, especially since his repairs were costly." He said, looking at Captain Starr. "I approve of this, but if you do purchase Zebedee, you have to purchase Zip too. Zip needs Zebedee in order to transition into normal life."
Captain Starr looked up at his lead tug, but there were some concerns. "What you've done with Zip was truly honorable, and it's surprising to see him grow grow and learn. However, I don't think I am financially capable of buying two tugs in one setting considering the costs of Zebedee's repairs."
"I know you're not made of money Captain." Hercules frowned. "But, Zip will be left alone if he gets sold. Possibly get preyed on by his new fleet mates for being a Zed."
"I suppose that would inevitably happen." Captain Starr added. "And I agree with you that it would be cruel to separate Zip from Zebedee considering his mental state." After a minute of thinking, he stood up and said, "I think I've made my decision. Thank you."
"No worries sir." Hercules replied, watching his Captain disembark. He then set off to get ready for some towing contracts, as he knew that the Fleet needed a lot of money to purchase the two former Z Stacks. Along the way, he had the feeling that someone was watching him. He shrugged it off as nothing out of the ordinary and sailed on, unaware that Zug was trailing behind him…
That evening, Zip was helping some crab fishing vessels out to sea when he spotted a vessel heading towards him. He was bewildered, but he tried to blast his hooter in hopes that the vessel would stop. He was surprised to hear that the vessel answered back, and that the vessel sounded like Zug! "What are you doing here?" He asked, calling out to the smaller switcher.
"I need some help towing this barge." Zug replied, being forced to shout as the distance was great. "It's little heavy you see."
Zip knew that the Navy wanted Zug's head, but he was still a friend. Or so he thought. "Zug, I can't help ya out. What if I get arrested?" He asked.
Zug then got closer, and he was hauling a barge was shown to be filled with ropes and old wood pilings. "Not unless we kill the fucker." He said, and Zip could notice that Zug's speech had become incredibly slurred.
"Wait… who do you wanna kill exactly?" Zip asked, raising an eyebrow. "The sparks from your stack might set the barge alight."
"Hercules. I saw him kill some vessels last week." Zug answered. "C'mon, we gotta stop him for good."
Zip became apprehensive. While Hercules said that Zug had seen things, Zug did sound enticing. "I gotta help these guys out first." He said, becoming uncomfortable.
"This is more important!" Zug said. "You either help me, or I gotta do this myself."
"So you plan on sticking the barge in him? Feels like a big thorn if you ask me." Zip said, smiling sheepishly.
"So you haven't changed then, huh?" Zug huffed. "Looks like I'll be doing this myself then. Maybe get Zebedee to accept me again." With that, he set out towards the open sea.
Lillie Lightship was out and about, guiding vessels into Bigg City Port. Her movement was rather slow this particular night, and her light was hidden somewhat by the fog. Zug squinted his eyes, and was alarmed. "So that must be Hercules!" He said, confident his target was in sight. He hurriedly realigned his barge into a battering ram, and started to pick up speed.
Meanwhile, Lillie was looking for any vessels coming towards her. However, she heard an engine thrumming loudly. She tried to pick up on who it was, but was alarmed to see Zug heading towards her! "What the!?" She gasped, and blasted her horn.
Zug's eyes widened and he tried to stop in his tracks. However, it was too late. He rammed right into her, causing considerable damage to her port side. Her light flickered off and on, and Zug realized he was in trouble. "I'm sorry Lillie." He said, shyly inching away from where he rammed Lillie. "It's just that Hercules could be anywhere and I have to stop him."
"Pardon?" Lillie asked, trying to comprehend what Zug was saying. "You deliberately tried to kill me! How does Hercules equate to all this?"
"I saw him kill some Navy vessels." Zug answered, but was disappointed to see that Lillie did not believe him. "Please Lillie, he can murder all of Bigg City!"
"Perhaps the account was fabricated by you. The Navy found their vessels dead at an old harbor, and were convinced you killed him." Lillie pointed out.
Zug was trying to come up with another counter argument when he heard whistles he did not want to hear. He turned to see that the Coast Guard had heard Lillie's horn, and he was not pleased to say the very least. "Zug, back away from Lillie Lightship this instant." He ordered, not wanting a confrontation.
"Or what?" Zug asked, becoming incredibly nervous. "You're making a mistake arresting me!"
"I saw everything Zug. You attempted murder!" The Coast Guard retorted. "Now calm down and back off from Lillie."
While all of this was happening, Hercules steamed into the scene. He examined the damage, and his face became serious. "That is enough Zug." He said. "Ramming into the lightship hm? The Navy is going to be pleased with the assault charge brought up."
"Zug, you are under arrest." The Coast Guard ordered. "Undo the lines to the barge and I will take you into port."
At that moment, Zug pushed aside his concerns and any other fears he had. "You're why my friends think I'm dead to them!" He shouted, and started to build up steam. "You ruined my life with your magic demon powers!"
"Zug, stop!" The Coast Guard shouted, but Zug was becoming too dangerous for his own good. "Hercules throw your lines!"
Hercules nodded, and threw his lines at Zug's aft bollards. "Easy Zug, I just need you to stop." He said, but Zug tried swatting them away.
Zug let out a shout, and looked like he was going backwards in fear. However, without warning, he lunged forward towards the mighty ocean tug. Ropes went flying, and one rope smacked Hercules right on the cheek. Meanwhile, his bow struck Hercules's own bow, causing a dent. Realizing he needed more force to sink his foe, Zug tried to inch back and prepare for a second strike. Hercules's demeanor had changed, and he finally had enough. He felt something surge within him, and he lunged forward with all his might.
Zug's eyes widened, and he tried to hurry away. However, he felt Hercules ram at him at such incredible speed he felt his body start to crack...