Wherein it came from out of the fog…
Original Fiction Characters:
Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, SuspenseWarnings:
1. I by shadesmaclean
2. II by shadesmaclean
3. III by shadesmaclean
4. IV by shadesmaclean
5. V by shadesmaclean
6. VI by shadesmaclean
7. VII by shadesmaclean
8. VIII by shadesmaclean
9. IX by shadesmaclean
10. X by shadesmaclean
11. XI by shadesmaclean
12. XII by shadesmaclean
13. XIII by shadesmaclean
out of the fog...
It took an effort not to stare out at the impenetrable mist drifting around the ship. Sometimes it seemed as if the Maximum was dead in the water, still as if anchored, and that fog was passing them by. Wherever it came from to wherever it was going.
Such thoughts Shades kept losing his himself in as he tried hard to focus on the monotonous swirl of grey that only slightly parted before them as he manned the helm. In spite of the fact that they had encountered nothing thus far, the three of them unanimously decided to have someone at the wheel at all times, just in case. Even though there was only a hint of a breeze, so it was slow going anyway, visibility was nearly nonexistent.
As if anything could appear out of the murk.
Anything, even the ancient sailors’ fabled Edge of the World. Here There Be Dragons… Those words seemed to sum up these dreary doldrums, a little too aptly for his taste.
In spite of the lack of speed, for him it was still alarmingly limited visibility after an entire voyage thus far being able to see for miles in all directions. It made him feel somehow claustrophobic in spite of the seemingly endless ocean he had to keep telling himself still lay out there beyond that wall of haze, just waiting for the fog to lift.
He was sure his friends felt the same, but the most perturbing part of the whole affair was simply waking up this morning to just find it like this. Though initially alarmed, they talked about it over breakfast, at first concluding that the fog would burn off as the sun rose. Yet even the time it took to prepare and eat breakfast failed to even put a dent in it. He tried to tell himself it was just his imagination, but he was increasingly certain that it had actually grown dimmer as the hours dragged on.
At times like this he was inclined to wonder if the Sixth Dimension was more shadow than substance, a composite reflection of its peoples’ dreams and nightmares. A world sitting on the ragged edge of reality, always threatening to fall into the depths of existence. Never ceased to wonder at how this was a world of roads less traveled. Maps and signs and other references to mysterious places he never got to follow up on…
Then again, it was hard not to be fascinated, based on what the places he had been were like.
More than anything, though, he tried not to think about how this ship— originally from Earth— came to be in this world, tried not to ponder the Bermuda Triangle tale that was the logbook sitting in the compartment underneath him. He could tell it was starting to get to his companions, each in their own way. Though Max napped on the couch, Bandit curled up on the plush deck carpet alongside him, his sleep was uneasy, and he wondered if that creepy fog hadn’t somehow seeped into his dreams. Even Justin was uncommonly quiet and pensive, often staring out into that opaque vista, lost in thoughts he didn’t share with anyone else, for once.
After so many sunny days in the Kona Islands, Justin Black found this weather most oppressive. Though conditions for the last few days of their voyage were mostly cloudy with spots of rain, yesterday was bright and sunny, with a solid wind to speed them on their way. Now he just sat at the lounge table, staring out the window, recalling the last time in his life he had spent so long out at sea.
This weather set him thinking back to those dim days before he was stranded in the Triangle State. His oldest, murkiest recollections of traveling the high seas aboard a passenger liner called the Skerry. Truth be told, his memories of those days were few and far between, and even though his mind was almost overflowing with them during his last delirious days in Tranz-D, most of it faded away quickly with his departure from that nightmare. About all that was left was a meandering of dim passages, rows of doors, an old man named Morgan.
And a girl named Eleanor.
It was hard not to feel as lost as his past was in the mists of time as he stared out into nothingness and felt as if he was going nowhere. He had long since reconciled himself to the zero probability of ever finding out who his parents were, but now that he was free of the Triangle State, he found he wanted to catch up with that ship. Anytime he happened to think of it, he hoped to spot it at the next port they stopped at, and right now a part of him just kept expecting it to come drifting in out of the fog.
Like a ghost ship out of some old seafaring tale…
“Hey, Justin?” Shades piped up again, breaking the palpable silence that dominated the cabin all day. “Snap out of it.”
“Shut up!” Justin snapped, even as he wondered why he was so edgy in what by now should be familiar and comfortable surroundings. “Where do you get off…”
He trailed off as he saw what Shades was staring at out the starboard windows. At first he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, and that Shades was just asking for a second opinion, as he saw what appeared to be the ghostly outline of another ship out there. He jumped in spite of himself as Shades started the engines and turned around for a closer look.
“Wake up, Max,” Justin said. “I think you should see this.”
Max started awake, as if rescued from some dread reverie, blinking for a moment as he sat up. Wincing as he moved his injured arm a little too quickly. Though they had stayed on the island of Kon Kalona for a couple weeks after their battle with the outlaw Erix, the doctor told him it would still take another two or three weeks to fully heal, and was still set in a sling. Even as he swung his feet out and stood up, he had the feeling he was forgetting something, this atmosphere inspired such a dark mood to nod off into, but he woke up so abruptly—
After such a hasty summons from that uneasy sleep, it was his companions’ silence that caught his attention. Both Justin and Shades appeared to be searching for something in that fog he now realized he sort of hoped would be gone by the time he woke up, and he wondered what they hoped to find in this pea-soup. Bandit was already awake and looking about, though apparently had no more idea than Max what exactly was supposed to happen, but also sensing that same suspense.
At first, Shades thought perhaps he was only seeing things after all, after staring out into that swirling mist for so long, but Justin also seemed to have spotted something as well, so he kept looking. Max wasn’t really sure what his friends were so intense about, so he decided to wait and see, rather than break their concentration. Yet after passing through still more of that interminable mist, even going slow so as to avoid overlooking anything, both of them were starting to wonder if that hazy silhouette of a ship was just a mirage, nothing more than a trick of the fog.
Just when Shades was about to give up, having killed the engines to conserve fuel, as the Maximum coasted to a halt, they all saw it.
It was hard to tell if their ship was still moving, or if the other was drifting in the current, but the other ship at least appeared to sail in out of the fog. The bow thrusting out of the ever-shifting mists, on a direct course to cross their path. Shades sat there watching the rest of the hull materialize one foot at a time, and it wasn’t until Justin gripped his arm in alarm that it occurred to him to restart the engines and change course to avoid a collision. As he veered aside, then pulled alongside the other vessel, noting right off that she was at least twice as long as the Maximum, as they still couldn’t see the rear of the ship as they coasted side by side, thin wisps of fog streaming between them.
The three of them just sat there for a long moment, each lost in their own observations.
Now that he was awake, Max simply watched the unknown vessel, recalling his parents’ tales of haunted places. Likely the same accounts this fog reminded him of to begin with, and the most probable cause of his restless sleep earlier. Yet he could recall nothing about this particular vessel, nor anything even vaguely resembling it.
What’re the odds? Shades wondered.
To him, it looked a lot like pictures he had seen of turn-of-the-century ships from back on Earth. There was certainly nothing about its design or trappings that looked like it was made in his lifetime, he reflected, wondering if he was the first to notice that there wasn’t a single light on. Nobody’s home… Then the thought crossed his mind that perhaps this was just someone else that got stranded in this fogbank.
“Anybody home?” he enquired absently.
Max started, and Justin slowly turned his head.
“Let’s check it out,” Shades said, this time more firmly. Though he had no more clue than his friends what was up with this ship, it shared the same waters as they did, so it seemed a wise idea to investigate.
“We probably should.” Now that Max thought about it, he couldn’t come up with a single reason to be afraid of it. After all, it was just a ship. As mysterious as it seemed at first, he realized that, in this dense fog, even their own ship would probably spook other crews, just appearing out of nowhere like that.
As if thinking along the same lines, Justin commented, “I’m not so sure there’s anyone onboard to be scared by us. Just drifting like that…” As if the thought just occurred to him, he glanced over near the bow, noting the name. “The Sweet Lady, huh?...”
What looked like part of a pennant or banner on deck hung draped across the bow, but the words were still visible.
“Let’s go,” said Max. He felt he should know the name from somewhere. Something from his parents’ journey? Not a ghost ship, though. An old friend, perhaps.
“And if there’s anyone onboard, they might need our help or something,” Shades pointed out. Which was looking like a distinct possibility, given that the Sweet Lady didn’t seem to be running under her own power, possibly disabled.
“Maybe,” Justin mused, “and if there’s nobody aboard, we can take whatever we want.”
“Perhaps,” Shades replied, deciding that it might be a good precaution, he added, “but one of us should stay behind with the ship, just in case, and I nominate you, Justin.”
“Yeah,” Max seconded, “that sounds like a good idea. We can even use the radios.”
“If no one responds, we can make a boarding exercise out of it,” Shades elaborated, bringing out equipment they kept close at hand anymore, glad that Max’s agreement out-maneuvered Justin without an argument. “If we keep running into people like Striker and Erix, we’ve got to get our act together…”
Getting their gear together seemed to take the edge off the uneasiness this fog so easily invoked, and it wasn’t until they stepped out on deck that it crept back in. Tendrils of mist previously locked out of the cabin now flowed around them, as well as a faint chill on the damp air. Now that they had made up their minds to investigate the derelict that drifted in with this mysterious fog that itself rolled in while they were asleep.
In the several minutes their preparations took, there was no response from the ship, and the deck still looked as deserted as it initially appeared to be, though the haze made it harder to tell on the far end of the deck. Not a soul about. The three of them took turns calling out, announcing their presence and offering assistance if it was needed.
No response. A silence broken only by the lapping of the waves against their hulls.
Since no one answered their hailing, they looked amongst themselves, concluding that on some level they had already decided to board. So the discussion turned to how to go about it. Though easily twice her length, the Sweet Lady’s deck wasn’t much higher than the Maximum’s, so they bound the two vessels together with mooring lines.
That having been taken care of, all that was left was to actually come aboard.
touring the derelict
There was a long moment of hesitation, which all three of them attributed to that creepy atmosphere out here, then Max was the first to board.
“Let’s stick together until we’re sure there’s no one else onboard,” Shades recommended as he followed him. “No point taking unnecessary risks.”
“And I’ll back you up from here,” Justin nodded. And provide them with a quick getaway if anything did happen. He was torn between his own curiosity about this derelict, and peculiar wariness of a ship simply appearing out of the fog like that. Still, seeing both of them standing on the deck made it seem more substantial, more real, and not just some ghost ship.
After tuning and testing their radio headsets, and traversed the deck to find it as empty as it appeared to be, they proceeded to the cabin door. Shades was already reaching for his lock-picking gear while Max covered him, but he found the cabin door unlocked. So he opened the door, again calling out, stating that he meant no harm, and Max again repeated his offer to render aid if needed.
And again they were met with silence.
A cursory look around revealed the ship to be even more old-fashioned than Shades would have expected. Oil lamps instead of electric lights, they saw as they shone their headlamps around the cabin. Furniture designs that Shades would describe as practically antique, all wood paneling and scrollwork, accented by accessories and accoutrements that looked like something out of a turn-of-the-century period piece, even a shelf of old leather-bound volumes.
“This stuff is really old, isn’t it?” Max breathed, taking it all in. It reminded him of some of the older ships in the Islands, though Outlanders who visited in ships of this apparent age were few and far between.
“Yeah,” Shades replied absently. In addition to being old, the place also had a stuffy, long-abandoned air to it, and he was already fast losing any expectation of finding anyone else onboard. For a moment, he wondered if they were perhaps too late to help anyone here, remembering how ruthless both the pirate captain Striker and her crew, as well as those marauders that attacked the Kona Islands, were. Then again, he also saw no signs of violence, either; everything looked pretty orderly, if long-unattended. The thought also crossed his mind that perhaps the crew simply surrendered without a struggle, but he was also sure any pirates he could imagine would have torn the ship apart from stem to stern searching for valuables, and dropped it.
He and Max turned to each other for a moment as if sharing the same thought: neither of them could think of any rational reason to abandon a ship that was in such pristine and perfectly seaworthy condition.
Justin startled both of them out of their reverie as he demanded over the radio, “So, what’s it like in there, guys?”
“Well, it’s pretty deserted in here,” Shades responded after a moment. “Doesn’t look like anybody’s been onboard for days, more likely even weeks.”
“I think you’re right,” Max added, wiping his finger across the corner of a small table, leaving a visible streak through a thick layer of dust.
“Not really,” Shades told him, already sure he knew what Justin meant by that. “Just the usual odds and ends, nothing we don’t already have, if not better than this.”
“So what now?” Max asked him.
“I seriously doubt anyone’s been here lately,” Shades thought aloud, and Max’s observation of the dustiness in here was proof enough to him. “I think it’s safe enough to split up as long we stay in radio contact.”
“I guess so,” Max agreed. Despite the eerie atmosphere of fog drifting by outside, it was hard to be spooked for long by nothing. “It’s not like this ship’s very big.”
“Okay, I’ll head for the front of the ship,” Shades suggested, “and you search toward the rear.” This was just the sort of exercise he was looking to conduct. “And we maintain radio contact with each other at all times, remember?”
Continuing to converse with each other, the two of them split up, maintaining a running commentary on every section of the ship as they secured it.
Much like Shades, who kept one of his stun-sticks handy, using his left hand to open doors and such, Max kept his laser sword armed despite it being off-hand, thankful that their headlamps relieved them of having to occupy either hand carrying a flashlight. Both of them having decided that in such close quarters, melee weapons would serve them better than guns for self defense. Though in Max’s case, his right arm was still in a sling, meaning that opening doors and such was still a juggling act for him, making him all the more thankful that they had encountered no trouble so far.
Of course, after seeing how adept Erix was at left-handed swordsmanship, Max was already using this situation as an opportunity to train with his left, see how far he could take it.
“It’s strange,” Max reflected as he stepped off the stairs and entered the ship’s small hold, finding undisturbed stacks or crates that only furthered his belief that no one else had boarded once this vessel was abandoned, “that just a bunch of fog could make everything so…”
“Spooky?” Shades filled in the blank. “Abandoned places tend to be like that. There’s lots of weird stuff out in the woods back where I come from, but none of it felt as…” reaching for the right word, “unsettling as the places I’ve seen here.”
“Just an empty ship.” As if to remind himself more than his friends. Just fog. Nothing new to seafarers, even if he had never personally seen anything this thick, it was by no means the first time other travelers had. Not everything in this world is haunted…
Even as he thought this, Max heard a scraping sound from the far end of the hold, followed by a hissing gasp. Max raised his laser sword, shifting to compensate for his injured arm. A moment later, he heard a scrabbling sound, then spotted a flicker of movement around a nearby corner.
“Hey!” Max shouted, rushing forward to intercept the tied-down stack of boxes whoever that was just dashed behind would presumably emerge from.
“Max!” Shades called into the headset, “What’s going on back there?”
But when Max reached the other side of the pile, there was nothing.
“Where’d he go?”
“Aw shit…” Justin broke in on his end of the line, sounding alarmed, and entirely too spooked for either of their taste under the circumstances. “No way… It can’t be…”
“Now what?” Shades demanded, both the frustration and growing undertone of fear in his voice quite apparent. “Max, I’m coming to check it out…”
Before Max could warn them that there might actually be someone else onboard, he spotted a child-size figure out of the corner of his eye, seeing it scramble behind another stack of boxes near the back of the hold, and gave chase.
“Guys!” Justin snapped, “You gotta get off that ship! Now! It’s the—”
Whatever it was, they didn’t get to hear the rest of it, as their headsets filled with static, and what started out sounding like a foghorn, drawing out into the groan of a thousand rusty hinges, and Max’s light winked out, plunging him into darkness.
the Sweet Lady of Twylight
Sitting at the helm of the Maximum, Justin was rather surprised at his own growing unease. Initially, irritated that Shades had so smoothly written him out of this little expedition, he soon found himself torn between feeling left out, and the distinct notion that there was something wrong with this picture. It must surely be all those tales of ghost ships he overheard as a kid, he told himself, the dark side of seafaring lore.
That, and nothing more.
Still, he wondered if this derelict would make him even the slightest bit nervous if it had chosen to make its appearance in broad daylight. Even on an ordinary night, it still wouldn’t be as… creepy. After all, in this fog, what were the odds?
In spite of the mysterious anxiety clinging to his mind as the mist drifting by his window, as he listened to his friends’ running account of their exploration, he found it hard to remain on-edge with such a dry, uneventful conversation. But in spite of their descriptions, he just couldn’t help picturing them wandering the passages and corridors of the Skerry, wishing he could remember it in greater detail.
In the midst of his mental meanderings, he spotted a flicker of movement in on of the portholes along the derelict’s hull.
It was difficult to tell for sure in this haze, but he was half certain he had seen the face of a little girl. One whose face seemed awfully familiar to him, from the oldest, most faded memories of his childhood. Eleanor. For a moment, he was oddly chagrined at the thought that he might have actually said that out-loud, but since no one said anything he was fairly sure he hadn’t.
Whoever was peering out of that opening, assuming his weren’t just playing tricks on him, ducked out of sight almost the exact second he laid eyes on her, that fleeting glimpse just looked so much like the little girl who seemed like a perpetual passenger aboard the Skerry all those years ago. Aside from Mr Morgan, the only constant on that vague voyage.
That was when he realized that his friends were no longer paying attention to hear him mumbling names from his past anyway, as he heard Shades demanding, “Max! What’s going on back there?”
This snapped him back to attention, and he was about to break in with a few questions of his own, when he saw it.
Even in the midst of this abruptly alarming exchange, his eye still lingered on that porthole, and this time he saw a face he knew he recognized. A face he would never forget as long as he lived, Those faded words of warning, Beware NK-525!, flashed before his eyes as he beheld the crumbling visage behind the glass. A face belonging to one of two nameless souls long dead in the stark, forbidding halls of Tranz-D, and his tongue froze in terror rather than unleash his mind’s horrified cry at memories flooding into his head like icy water.
Then it was gone.
He gasped for a moment at how a little eerie atmosphere could make him see things like that. As he sat there, pulling himself back together, a stray puff of breeze blew through, making eddies and swirls in the fog in its passing, and flapping aside the banner draped across the bow for a moment, revealing the entire name of the ship.
Sweet Lady of Twylight.
“Aw shit…” And this time, Justin knew he was speaking aloud as he felt the hackles stand straight up at that name. A name that drifted through his mind like the same creepy mist that brought this derelict. One of the most haunting legends of the sea, and floating right before their eyes all along.
“No way… It can’t be…”
He had no idea what Max and Shades’ alarmed conversation was about, but he was sure it couldn’t be good, so all he could think of to do was warn them before anything else could happen.
“Guys!” he broke in, startled at how frantic his own voice sounded to his own ears. “You gotta get off that ship! Now! It’s the Twylight!”
Yet even as he blurted his warning, his voice was drowned out by a blast of static, and some sound that he would swear up and down consisted of a chorus of voices moaning into that static.
Shades makes it back...
“The hell…” Shades nearly fumbled his weapon in shock and dismay at sounds he wasn’t so sure he ever wanted to hear again, interrupting whatever Justin was trying to warn him about.
Sounds the like of which he hadn’t heard since that fateful night, and he feared what it might mean, accompanied by what sounded like a foghorn, though whether it was in his headphones or not he couldn’t even begin to tell.
Wasting no time, and being bombarded by an escalating cacophony in his ears every step of the way, he made his way back to the main cabin, and out on deck. All the while wondering how a mere derelict could cause so much trouble when it appeared to be completely deserted. At first unsure if he should be chagrined or relieved to see that not only was the Maximum still there, but Justin was standing out on deck, waving at him, he paused for a moment, wondering if this wasn’t some manner of practical joke, by chance.
All doubt was dispelled, though, when he heard what his friend was shouting about.
“Shades! What the hell are you waiting for? Do you want to be trapped aboard the Twylight forever!?”
Those words got him moving again, even as they chilled his blood. A name Max had mentioned once when they were swapping spooky stories, and much like his favorite Bermuda Triangle tales from his own childhood, it kept him awake that night. Then again, he reminded himself that the Maximum herself, nee Rose Marine Queen, was a living Bermuda Triangle story, whether anyone back on Earth would believe it or not.
A perspective he found rather less than reassuring under the circumstances.
Nimbly leaping the gap between the two ships, he made for the cabin, seeking to give them a swift escape from this mysterious menace, fog or no fog, when he saw Justin still waiting. Stopping short, and seeing that his friend hadn’t even made a move to untether the two ships from each other, he asked, “Wait a minute, where’s Max?”
“He hasn’t come back,” Justin answered starkly.
The fog seemed to somehow press in a little tighter around the two of them as they waited for their friend, almost mocking them. Both of them tried calling for Max, but all they got was this staticky interference that sounded like garbled snatches of someone else’s conversations echoing back at them. As the moments piled up, Shades considered going back for him, but found himself held back by his friend’s own ominous words, about a ghost ship people simply disappeared from.
And still no sign of him.
Peering into the cabin, he made another observation he could have done without, demanding, “Hey! Where’s Bandit?”
Both of them paused for a long moment, realizing that the last time either of them could remember seeing their feline companion was back when they first spotted that damnable derelict.
Shades was about to go look down below to check on him, when Bandit peeked up around the corner of the steps, a haunted look in his eyes that only added to his own apprehension. Still, it was no small relief to know that at least the big cat hadn’t sneaked over onto the other ship when no one was paying attention. After all, it was bad enough Max was still over there.
Shutting the cabin door, just to be safe, he turned to Justin, and as Max continued to remain both absent, and out of radio contact, he demanded, “What the hell is going on?”
“Well, you see, the banner…” Justin stumbled over the words as he tried to figure out where to begin explaining this increasingly inexplicable situation.
Max stumbled into darkness, the radio falling silent for a moment, the creaking and groaning of the ship as she rolled on the tide the sound to be heard.
When his light winked on again, he found himself gazing at large, dark wood-beam chamber stacked with dusty piles of crates and boxes, with dim oil lamps hanging from the rafters. Grit shifted under his feet, and the floorboards felt rotten enough to crack under him. It didn’t help that there was a thin mist drifting across the floor, and the other end of the passage looked as if it reached a good distance beyond where the Sweet Lady’s hull should have ended.
Still the same as it looked before whatever happened happened, at least until he turned around.
While what lay ahead of him still looked as it had in his split-second glimpse of it, gone was the hold behind him, replaced by similar scenery to the scene before him. He had somehow followed those running feet and wandered into a part of the ship that just didn’t belong. And worse, he quickly discovered as he stepped back around the stack of crates to find more of the same, he had no idea how to get back to that place.
His confused musings were interrupted by another scrabbling sound farther down the way.
Hoping for some answers, he took off after it. Again, he could have sworn he saw a small child dart around the corner ahead of him, so he followed. Around the corner he found a cabin door, and next to it a stairway leading up, and no clue which way to go.
He hadn’t heard any doors open or close, and when he tried it, he found it solidly locked. By the same token, he didn’t hear any footfalls on the stairs, either, but felt it more likely that someone could go up stairs more quietly than they could shut a door that fast. Fearing he may already have lost this mysterious person, he went up the steps, figuring the others were probably back on the ship, and it would be a wise idea to check in with them since there was still nothing but faint static on the radio.
At the top of the steps, he looked around again, feeling even more disoriented than in the hold.
Much like that last section of the hold, this area didn’t look anything like the ship they boarded, either. For starters, the cabin room was bigger, and had a noticeably higher ceiling. While the first place merely looked deserted, this room looked long-abandoned: drab and dingy, the wood of the furnishings looked nearly rotten. And that same dreary mist wafted throughout, giving it a clammy, clingy atmosphere that bothered him deeply.
“Shades? Justin?” Max called out, not just into his mic, but to the rest of the ship, as well. Standing for a moment in the eerie silence of this creepy cabin, he waited for a reply.
All his headset answered him with was a random series of odd clicking sounds before fading back to the faint static that wasn’t there before the lights went out, and seemed to be his constant companion since.
Deciding that he had had enough of this, he resolved to go back to the ship. Stepping out of the room proved still more disorienting, as it led to a hallway with several doors lining each side. The walls and fixtures appeared grimy and rusty, and the deck was slightly slippery in places, as if damp from the mist. The Sweet Lady he originally boarded wasn’t big enough to have corridors like this.
The only thing he had ever seen that even remotely resembled this were the twisted, meandering halls of the Harken Building, and that was a thought he could really do without right about now, he concluded, as he dashed down the hallway and through another door.
Paying little heed to which way he went on this strange new ship, he finally made his way out onto the main deck.
By now, he was hardly surprised to see that even the outside of the ship was much larger than the Sweet Lady’s. In fact, by far the largest ship deck he could recall having ever set foot on, just what he could see of it, as the far end was completely shrouded in darkness and mist. Still fogged-in, as he remembered from earlier, and if he wasn’t mistaken, that fog was even thicker than before.
Frantic to find the Maximum, he ran along the outer railing of the ship, dismayed to see that the deck level of this vessel was at least twice their own. Starting with what he hoped was the same side of the ship they boarded from, and working his way to the rear, then back toward the front again, he sought for even a hint of their ship. He was about to give up and try the starboard side, when he heard a foghorn echo in the distance.
Max turned to see what looked like the vague outline of a ship off in the distance.
As he watched, the ship, possibly the Maximum, sailed away into the mist. While he ran along the deck, calling out desperately after it. He staggered to a halt as he saw the other ship vanish into the fog.
If it was actually there to begin with.
For a moment, in spite of his injured arm, he considered just diving in and swimming for it. But a brief look down revealed that the waters here were murkier, what he could see of it through the fog so much thicker. For the first time, he got a good look into those hazy depths, at half-seen shapes that occasionally drifted across the surface.
And thought better of it.
Max stumbled away from the railing, struggling against the image of this, the largest ship he had ever been on, being just a tiny speck floating on a thin, grimy film underneath of which were deeper, darker waters than he ever wanted to imagine. Certain there were things in those abysmal depths big enough to swallow him whole, laser sword and all, even if that other ship were real, and didn’t change direction on him. A well upon which few gazed on more than just the surface.
It was in the midst of these stark contemplations that he looked up to the moon. After all he had seen, he was surprised at his own surprise to remember that there was no moon earlier. Let alone two of them. On hidden partway behind the other, both of them a lavender hue he had never seen before.
What is going on?
Shades and Justin debate
“What the hell is going on here?” Shades demanded of no one in particular, yet again, as he stared at that derelict with growing alarm and dismay.
“Max!” Justin called into his mic for what seemed like the hundred and eighth time. And, as before, all he got in reply was shimmering waves of static that almost seemed to rise and fall like the tide. Near the height of each static swell, he could almost swear he heard voices, but he could never quite make out what they were supposed to be saying.
Besides, he could see from the tense frown on his friend’s face that not only was Shades hearing it as well, but apparently none of those voices sounded like Max to him, either.
So the minutes ticked by agonizingly slowly on Shades’ watch as Max continued to fail to turn up, either in person, or on the radio.
Neither of them quite able to find the words to ask the simple question hanging on the tip of either tongue. No matter how obvious it seemed that the next logical step to find their friend would be to actually go in looking since he wasn’t responding. Yet both of them stood in that chill mist, unable to take their eyes off this foreboding ghost ship that seemed to have swallowed Max whole.
Just like in the legends, and both of them feared that if they took their eyes off the Twylight for even a moment, it might vanish back into the fog from which it came, taking Max with it.
“Now what?…” Shades finally said, summing up both of their frustration.
“Don’t look at me!” Justin shot back. Then, deciding that he didn’t like how that made him sound, even to his own ears, he added, “You’re the paranormal expert around here.”
“And I’m afraid I’m in over my head,” Shades admitted. “Unlike any of the books I’ve ever read, which can’t even be verified anyway, this thing is real. And he’s my friend, too, Justin. We need a plan…”
Frustrated and ashamed of his own cold feet. It was vexing, going on maddening, to remember, not too long ago, desperately waiting for Max to save him after his own failed attempt to save himself. And now Max seemed to be the one in need of saving.
Now Shades stood in Max’s shoes, and found himself lacking.
At last, he put one cold foot forward, swearing to himself that even if he couldn’t step into the Unknown as boldly as his friend, he would step as boldly as he could manage, for Max’s sake.
“Shades?…” Justin intoned hesitantly.
“We’ve got to think clearly,” Shades told him, pulling himself back together as he spoke. “If we give in to panic, that damn ship wins by default.”
“I know,” Justin said quietly.
Even as they wished for Max’s emergence from that ominously innocent-looking cabin door to make it unnecessary, the two of them continued their vigil. All the while trying to figure out how to go about searching for him when they weren’t entirely sure what happened to him to begin with. Weighing the risks of becoming an unsung part of the Twylight legend themselves. Wondering what possessed them to come aboard in the first place, and only being able to conclude that it was their own damn curiosity about the Unknown that got the best of them.
Mostly just drawing blanks.
Justin kept trying not to think about the things he saw in that porthole earlier, to tell himself that it was all in his head, largely failing.
While Shades kept expecting Max to just step out, telling them that he simply had some silly mishap down in the hold, or something along those lines. His pre-6-D self trying to rationalize it over and over, that it was just that, combined with some kind of glitch in their radio gear. That, and nothing more. Yet his mind kept revolving back to that story he once read, about the farmer who walks out into his field, waves to his family (as if for the last time), and disappears, never to be seen again. After all, he had seen more than enough in this world to convince him.
It was thinking about the radio, remembering the night he himself wandered off into the woods and vanished without a trace, that the beginning of an idea began to form. If not an actual plan, but at least the frost began to melt from his feet a little, bringing with it some small glimmer of hope he might yet see Max again.
the shades of men walk the decks
Meanwhile, Max’s mishap continued in the absence of any explanation.
After that other mysterious ship faded into the mist, he wandered the deck for a while. Seeing nothing else of any use out here, he finally summoned the nerve to go back inside. It nothing else, he told himself, that little kid he was so sure he saw earlier probably shouldn’t be walking around such a creepy place all on his own.
Resisting the strong impulse to toss his radio overboard, as it wasn’t enough that it taunted him with silence when he tried to talk to his friends, as absent from the sea above as they were from the airwaves. It also had to make eerie noises at him, and the part the disturbed him most was that none of the intermittent voices he heard sounded even remotely like either of his friends. Still, he understood that whatever was disrupting their radio contact might only be a temporary phenomenon, and if he could get in touch with either of his friends again, it might just be the single most urgent call of his life.
Or at least since their misadventures in the Harken Building, he reminded himself. Recalling that disturbing place probably wasn’t the smoothest move, he decided, yet it was hard not to think of his desperate intercom conversation with Shades, fearing that it might be the last time he ever got to hear his voice again. And he could all to easily picture them shambling about these abandoned, mist-shrouded halls… and was most relieved to know that this time Bandit wouldn’t have to experience that nightmare.
These thoughts led him to the jarring conclusion that if he was stuck here, Shades may also not have been able to make it back to the ship, either.
With a renewed sense of urgency, he resumed his search of the derelict. With every step noting how grimy the floor felt, knowing it could potentially trip him up if he had to run. Combined with a misty haze that was so thick, he could hardly see ten feet ahead of him in some sections, he was all too aware of how dangerous these narrow corridors could become were anyone, or anything, lying in wait for him. If there were any of them on this ghost ship, Shades would need some backup. And after his fun experience nearly getting mobbed by the walking dead, he didn’t feel up to taking such enemies on alone, either, injuries or no injuries.
His arm only served to undermine his confidence in a place that didn’t exactly inspire such feelings in the first place.
He debated with himself for a while about whether or not to call out to his friend, fearing that Shades might not be the only one around to hear him. For now opting for silence as he stepped up to one of the doors. The latch felt gritty to the touch, and both the mechanism and the hinges were rusty, such that even his slow, gentle movement still produced a stuttery grinding noise as he opened it. Having lost any semblance of stealth, he instinctively hung back, keeping the door between himself and whatever may be inside.
After waiting a few seconds, and getting no response, he peered around the corner, seeing an empty cabin. Rust-stained walls, moldy blankets scattered on the bunk, a blotchy dark mark in the middle of floor that he didn’t care to dwell on. Otherwise, devoid of anything noteworthy.
Max was about to move on to the next room, fairly confident that he was alone in this part of the ship, when he heard footsteps trudging down those eerie passageways.
Now sure he had celebrated too soon, he ducked into the musty room, hiding just around the corner so he could see anyone entering before they saw him. Laser sword clutched tightly in his uninjured hand, he killed the light, so as not to be seen first. Then he waited.
When he found he could make out more than one set of feet making that sound as they drew nearer, it was even less reassuring to him. Even as he tried to figure out what he should do, his instincts leaning toward bottle-necking any attackers in the doorway to hold them off, he spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye.
Max could hardly credit what he was seeing. What he saw, if he had this right, was the shadow of the open door inching ever so slightly along the wall. It took him a moment to figure out why this couldn’t be right when it finally clicked. The faint moonlight shimmering in through the room’s lone porthole hadn’t changed at all.
If the hairs on his neck weren’t standing before, now they were trying to leap off him altogether as he watched a parade of shadowy man-shapes march past the door in time with its own shifting shadow. He couldn’t recall later if he still heard footsteps, but his headphones piped up again, bringing him faint garbled snatches of conversation that somehow seemed to fit the spectral scene unfolding before him. All he could do was just stand as watch as a dozen or so shadows worked their way across the wall, the sound of voices fading into the pop and hiss of static.
On a walk from nowhere to nowhere.
It was then that Max finally remembered where he had heard the name Sweet Lady before. Not only did it have nothing to do with his parents’ travels, it was something he could kick himself for not remembering more easily before. From his own journey. So tired and muzzy earlier, but now he could see it clearly, printed on that scrap of paper he found in the Harken Building only weeks ago.
Behold, the Sweet Lady of Twylight… That this must surely be what Justin was trying to warn them about earlier. As the full weight of his predicament sunk in, he found himself looking around these dreary decks in silent horror.
Max would stand there leaning against the wall for some time, after that ghostly procession departed, only able to conclude that there was something terribly wrong going on aboard this ship.
Shades challenges the derelict
Shades stood as near the Maximum’s bow as he dared, liking neither what he had seen, nor what he had heard.
Max’s disappearance alone was enough to convince him that there was something very wrong on the Sweet Lady of Twylight. Or perhaps he should simply call her the Twylight, her true name. No matter what he called the thing, it didn’t change the fact that this ghost ship had swallowed his friend whole.
Just as all of the dread legends of the sea spoke of.
Shades considered himself a man of few superstitions, but he knew seafolk were a people of many, and he was fast figuring out why. Recalling the events of his passage into this world, the small radio in his pocket had by now become a regular part of his “investigative” equipment, and even now he kept it tuned in, hoping to catch something useful out of the occasional fits of random sounds that broke the otherwise faintly staticky silence on all frequencies.
While listening to his radio, he walked the entire length of the Maximum’s deck with the ship’s compass, originally from Earth— an object of some curiosity to him on this plane of existence. Yet no matter which way he went, the needle always pointed dead-center at that derelict. This he found even less reassuring than the radio interference, which past experience already marked as more than adequate cause for alarm.
Something was happening on that ship, and none of his observations so far were giving him even the slightest hint as to what.
He made his way back to the read deck. Very careful to mind his footing every step of the way. Not wanting to learn the hard way what might lurk in the depths of that pea-soup through which he got only brief glimpses of murky waters.
When he reached the cabin, Shades stood there for a long moment, frustrated at how this puzzle was proving as incomprehensible as a bad campfire horror story. But his vexation kept melting into a vague anxiety as he first glared, then stared in apprehension, at a place he now feared he would have no choice but to return to. With an effort, he suppressed what he was sure would have been hysterical giggles at how he kept expecting to hear a foghorn sound somewhere in the distance…
He was about to go ask Justin for a second opinion, when he caught something new on the radio. What sounded to him like random soundbytes from myriad splintered conversations, all jumbled together. This was the single biggest burst of radio activity since the initial event, and he already wondered what eerie turn of events this new anomaly would herald.
Even as he turned to tell Justin to be on his guard, he spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye. Wheeling sharply back toward the Twylight, fearing for a moment that perhaps this unearthly atmosphere was finally making him see things. For the shades of men who now walked the deck seemed to wander in and out of existence at random intervals.
An ever-shifting slice-of-life procession of sailors, passengers and shadowy shapes whose true aspect he could only guess at.
And among them, Max.
Looking confused, disoriented, lost. For a moment, Max turned his head and strode over to the railing. On the other side of the deck. Facing away from the Maximum, he stared out at sea after something Shades couldn’t see. Appeared to be calling out, but all Shades could hear was the shifting static and jumble of voices haranguing him through his headphones.
“Max!” Shades cried out. “Over here!”
But this shadow-Max gave no indication of even having heard him, continuing to stare, then wander off after something else he couldn’t see, fading away as the other figures already had.
It wasn’t until he heard Justin shouting at him that he realized the sounds on the radio had also vanished, so intent was he on trying to pick his friend’s form out of the fog that had once again swallowed him up.
“Shades! Hey! You awake!”
Trying not to look like Justin just scared ten years off his life, he turned to face him.
“What the hell happened, man?” Justin pressed him. “The radio went nuts again, and you just started staring off into space…”
“You mean you didn’t see it?”
“See what? And why were you calling for Max?”
“But I just saw him…” Shades trailed off. There were implications here he didn’t quite follow, but felt like curtains of fog being lifted away on the full gravity of their situation. That he wasn’t really sure he wanted to know, but felt sure he would have to risk finding out, possibly the hard way. With a grim expression, he told Justin, “I’m going back in.”
For once, Justin had nothing to say, just stared at him for a moment, finally nodding in what Shades assumed to be grave understanding.
“I think we’re running out of time,” Shades filled in the gap. “I don’t know if I can solve this mystery, but I have to try. For Max.”
“I suppose you’ve got a better chance, don’t you?”
“I sure hope so.” Even as he forced his cold feet every step of the way toward that ominous vessel, he could feel time slipping away from him like the sands of an hourglass he couldn’t see. A hidden time-bomb counting down to an unknown event. All he was terribly sure of was that they didn’t want to still be here when it finally happened. “I think it has to be me, if you didn’t see what I saw.”
Though easily twice her length, the deck was about the same height as the Maximum, so they had bound the two vessels together with mooring lines, which Shades used to steady himself as he crossed over.
“Better you than me.” Justin shrugged.
Though underneath his friend’s flippant tone, he was pretty sure he could sense a good deal of frustration and apprehension. At least that was what he hoped it was as he prepared to bet his life against one of the darkest legends of the high seas.
Max is not alone
Max continued his lonely walk among the dank, empty corridors of one deck level, then another, feeling for all the world like the last person left on this fog-shrouded sea. Feeling more and more as if he had somehow become a ghost himself, another lost soul on a ship he suspected was full of them. Was pretty sure several had briefly revealed themselves to him earlier.
The only thing to at all contradict his growing sense of solitude was the occasional scrabbling or clunking that sometimes echoed to him from other parts of the ship. Betraying not a hint of apparent cause, whether by other people, or just the ship “settling” with obvious age and neglect. Also with no discernible connection to the random fits of equally random sounds in his headphones, either, quite possibly unrelated.
Though he had not seen a procession of shadows like the spectral parade he hid from earlier, this ship was one forlorn, haunting mass of shadows, a maze of deserted decks and corridors that rear-ranged itself behind his back to a degree he had not seen even in the depths of the Harken Building. Nothing he had seen here offered even the slightest clue to what happened to his friends. Or the Maximum, for that matter.
All he could do in here was just desperately hope that shadowy ship that sailed away earlier wasn’t his ride. Yet in spite of all his lingering fear, a part of him harbored a hopeful doubt. After all, it made no sense for his friends to just up and leave, it was the one proverbial chunk of floating wreckage he clung to amid the ruins of reality he now drifted.
Even so, it still gave him a chill to consider standing on the other side of the story.
In most of the Twylight legends, at least one person always seemed to get left behind, and he now wondered just how many ill-fated souls this grim fate had befallen over the years. Wondered if he hadn’t just seen a few of them earlier. As he wondered just how long Justin and Shades would keep vigil beside this derelict of the damned.
Had they panicked and fled at that bizarre phenomenon earlier? Somehow, he just couldn’t bring himself to picture it. For all his talk about being afraid, Shades always proved himself to be made of sterner stuff than he thought. No matter how much Justin claimed to be Looking Out For Number One, Max had never seen him abandon his friends. Though if he couldn’t find his way back to the right deck, back to the right ship, he had to wonder just how long he could reasonably expect them to wait for him.
In the end, even Mom and Dad and Uncle Angus waited only so long before they were forced to give their good friend Chad Owen up for dead.
It didn’t help to bring in Teena— whose stun-sticks Shades brought with him out of the darkest depths of the Building— how he could not, for the life of him, recall whether of not she made it out, too. Now he wished he could un-picture Chad’s tattered remains, as well as the unsettling thoughts of running across any of them onboard… Of being reduced to a ragged skeleton for some other unfortunate explorer to stumble upon. Without a name, without as much as a tale of how he came to rest there.
And it was in the midst of trying to calm himself in the face of such grisly possibilities that he heard the rising tide of static. Just like before.
Seeing shadows stirring farther down the passageway, Max beat a retreat in the opposite direction. Not wanting another ethereal encounter with whatever haunted this ship. The noises in his headphones eerily diminishing as he put some distance between himself, and whatever walked the decks back there.
Then, around the corner, he caught footsteps. Not on the radio, but with his own ears. Followed by what sounded like someone tripping and falling, and he kept expecting to hear someone cry out.
Tired of playing cat-and-mouse with this leaky boat and its never-ending host of noises, Max sprang around the corner, laser sword readied in his good hand.
Of all the things he might have expected to find, the little boy huddled in the corner was about the farthest thing from it.
In the midst of the events since he first ended up aboard this ghost ship, he had all but forgotten that he was originally searching for a child. Or at least he thought it was a child. At least before he started looking for Shades or hiding from phantoms. Now he stood before the boy he was so certain had scampered away from him right before the lights went out, and whatever happened happened.
After chasing and being chased by phantasms, he was a little thrown off at finding his quarry cowering in the corner, staring up at him with big, panicked eyes. Even lowering his laser sword did little to allay the boy’s terror. Denim jacket wrapped around him, knees quivering visibly through the tears in his pantlegs, blue-and-white glove on one hand, and an emerald ring on one finger of the other. Hands clutching shaky shoulders.
Small as possible, as if waiting, hoping for something horrible to pass him by unnoticed.
In those eyes, gazing up at him with apprehension and longing, Max saw himself. Those eyes mirroring the fear and uncertainty and homesickness of a boy not much older than this who washed up on a desert island once upon a time. Only, unlike with him and Bandit, this kid never found any relief, clearly forced to face this haunted vessel all alone.
Putting away his energy blade, Max reached out to the boy, who stared silently up at him, petrified.
When his hand actually touched the kid’s arm, they both gave a start. Max at confirming this one was indeed flesh and blood, rather than the spectral forms he occasionally glimpsed here and there. On his part, at what the child wouldn’t say. Simply shrinking back as if he just couldn’t cope anymore, tears streaming down his face.
“It’s okay,” Max assured him, wiping away the tears on his cheek, “I’m not a ghost. I promise I’m not gonna hurt you. So tell me, what’s your name? I’m Max.”
The boy stared blankly up at him, and Max would swear to his dying day the little tyke’s mouth never moved, but the voice that briefly surfaced from the sea of static washing though his headphones was definitely that of a child.
Sobbing: “Mom, please… I just wanna see Mom again…”
All Max could think was how he used to cry himself to sleep so many nights during his early days on the Isle of Paradise.
“Come on.” Max grasped the little boy’s hand, lifting him slowly to his feet. He had no more idea where the boy’s mother was than he knew the whereabouts of his own father, but he somehow doubted ‘Mom’ was anywhere on this creepy derelict. The only thing he could think of to do was to be the rescue he always hoped for back then. “This is no place for a boy.”
No place for me, either, he concluded as they set out.
Shades at wits' end
Shades forced one foot in front of the other as he walked the deck of the Twylight.
Power pistol in one hand, leaving his other hand free to open doors and such. As if being seemingly alone on this spooky derelict wasn’t bad enough, that the interference continued to keep him out of contact with Justin only made it worse. And if those random snatches of conversations and intermittent garbled voices weren’t unsettling enough from the outside looking in aboard the Maximum, in here it was almost enough to make him toss his headset. If not for the foreboding intuition that he might need it one last time if he was to have any chance of finding Max and getting out of here.
Between the fog, and most of the derelict’s window angles, he could see neither stem nor stern of the Maximum, and he found he had to increasingly take it on faith that the ship was even still out there. Just as it seemed like his friend was no longer in here.
At first he was frustrated at having no steps to retrace to catching up with Max, when it dawned on him that he did actually know his friend’s last whereabouts before all hell broke loose. The hold. Much to his dismay, he could not, for the life of him, recall any details, as his memory of that horrifying moment was dominated entirely by Justin’s panic-stricken warning to get off the ship. Now his frustration was quickly cooling into apprehension at the mere thought of going that deep into the heart of this dread vessel.
Of getting to the bottom of this, he now understood, as his resolve became an increasingly slippery thing to hang on to with each step. To resist the frantic urge to just turn back, to return to the ship. To quit pressing his luck against the Unknown and write Max off as another victim of the Twylight curse and just admit defeat.
Each step of the way, chagrined, ashamed, mortified at the thoughts he was thinking. As if he could face Justin, let alone Bandit, without Max, or at least some idea of what happened to him. Disgusted, he asked himself if he would chicken out this easily if it were John or Amy he was searching these haunted decks for. Reminding himself there was no guarantee he would get to see his old friends ever again, he could not banish the shame of even thinking about abandoning his new friend in a place like this. Never mind that Max had risked his own life to save his before, it was the principle of the thing.
At the steps leading down to the shadowy hold, he paused for a long moment, breathing deeply, pulling himself together. Steeling himself against the ordeal of the Unknown that he was so sure awaited him in those swaying, creaking depths below.
“Justin,” he said into his mic as he took the first step of his descent, “I’m going down to the hold to look for him.” The lack of a reply only served to confirm his suspicion that the interference was still on. “I’m coming, Max. Just hold on…”
With every step he took, he struggled against his own imagination trying to run wild at what he might find down here. In the midst of these ominous ruminations, a surprisingly mundane possibility occurred to him, one almost disarming in its simplicity. What if Max just got into an accident or something? After all, though he couldn’t be completely certain, but he was at least fairly sure he heard what sounded like a crash on his radio right as it started going on the fritz…
Sure enough, at the bottom of the stairs, the first thing his headlamp’s beam lit on was a stack of crates. It didn’t take much imagination to picture some of them coming loose and falling on Max. If he was unconscious, that would explain why he wasn’t responding, or even if his radio was somehow damaged in the accident…
Just when he was about to scold himself for cowering at his own shadow, when Max might be in need of more down-to-earth assistance, it dawned on him that if Max’s radio was all that was damaged, that failed to explain why he never made it back to the ship. As well as remembering that it also failed to explain why this interference was cutting him and Justin off from each other, as well, without any equipment damage. Let alone the weird noises that weren’t there before the incident.
Still, the idea that Max might be injured spurred him on as he prowled among the stacks of crates. Once upon a time, he would have considered being worried about Max getting hurt almost silly, since he seemed to be tough as nails in the survival department, but right now he was still recovering from a broken arm. That, and the fact that he had even injured his arm in the first place, as well as his wounded ankle from the Harken Building, only served to remind him that, yes, Max was tough, but by no means invincible.
Deciding that the Building was not the sort of thing he should be dwelling on right now, he continued his search for even the slightest clue to where Max was last, or where he may have gone. All the while wondering why he was so certain they were running out of time, fearing that when whatever was going to happen finally did, none of them would want to still be onboard if they wanted to have any hope of escaping this nightmare vessel.
Aboard the Maximum, Justin sat on the lounge seat, staring at the fog-shrouded shape of the Twylight, looming over them as it loomed over all other legends of ghost ships and phantom ports of call.
Bandit perched next to him, paws resting on the back of the seat, his gaze every bit as intense as his human companion’s. After Shades crossed over aboard the derelict, he came back into the cabin to find Bandit had come back up from below, as if he already know something big had happened while he was hiding down there, and Justin made certain the cabin door was shut securely. He was pretty sure Shades was Max’s best hope of escape from that derelict of the damned, but he figured the least he could do for his friend was make sure he wouldn’t need to worry about his pet, as well.
Just as he didn’t sit at the helm, in spite of years of instinct and experience fairly screaming at him that he should be prepared to beat a hasty retreat from these haunted waters. Or rather, because of them, as he just didn’t trust himself not to bolt if things got to be too much for him.
So instead he sat there, absently petting and trying to reassure an overgrown kitten as he awaited the next twist in this convoluted chain of events, not quite sure what he feared more, something, or nothing.
The longer he sat there, the more Shades’ sense of “running out of time” rubbed off on Justin, and the fact that he still had no idea what even happened the first time things got weird left him at a total loss for what to expect next time. If Max returned without Shades? Or if neither of them came back? It was like standing out in front of the Harken Building all over again, only without any survivors to wait with or offer hope for the rest. After all, if Shades couldn’t find Max, it offered little hope of himself being able to find either of them, despite his own logic telling him that he should be able to just march right over there and drag their asses back aboard flying in the face of mounting experience attesting that things weren’t going to be that simple here.
…And then there were none.
He couldn’t remember exactly what it was Shades was blabbing about when he said those words, but the phrase stuck with him. What he imagined happening to himself if he challenged this derelict blindly. It was probably about the last thing he should be thinking about under the circumstances, but on the heels of that last ominous thought trailed a stray memory for his early days on Benton Island, from overhearing an argument with a TSA guard.
Justin was skulking around the harbor, searching for his supper and dreaming of stowing away on any one of those ships, when he happened to catch wind of an argument with a ship’s captain that he would find rather less than reassuring years later as found himself facing the same grim fate. Most of the backstory was lost to him now, something about the crew of a merchant ship towing a derelict to port with them and trying to sell it or some such, and the Authority, of course, having more than a few questions for the crew. Justin no longer even remembered whether the crew even got to keep the derelict as salvage or not, only the captain insisting the other ship was deserted when they found her.
His memory might have chalked the whole incident up as the TSA being a greedy bunch of dicks as usual, if it wasn’t for the fact that the man kept waving a ship’s log in the guard’s face, claiming that the derelict’s missing crew had a run-in with the Twylight, the journal entries apparently detailing an attempt to salvage the infamous vessel. Ending with one last, desperate search party refusing to leave without their own captain.
Once upon a time, he would have considered that kind of loyalty preposterous, the stuff of seafaring tales, and proof in and of itself that the logbook was a forgery. But now that he found himself confronted with the same scenario, he felt a strong compulsion to grab that Rose Marine Queen log that Shades occasionally made entries in and make one of his own. To leave the rest of the world some record of what happened to them.
At least until those words drifted back to him, along with the image of the last people he had met whose fates were recorded for future generations. That to sit down and write “last words” was to give up. And as he sat back down next to Bandit, he found he simply wasn’t that ready to give up on his friends just yet.
Though unsure exactly how long he could hold out before that impassive ghost ship finally broke him, he would wait. Not being able to talk to either of them made him feel very alone in spite of Bandit sitting next to him. Made him wonder exactly when he stopped being used to feeling alone.
Bandit turned to him, and Justin put an arm around the big cat, putting on his best face and telling him, “Don’t worry, boy, they’ll be back soon.”
The longer Shades wandered the hold, the more certain he felt that Max was nowhere to be found down here. As much as he wanted to believe his friend had moved on from this section, one way or another, he also suspected himself of simply using that as an excuse to go back up. Given that he could find no trace of any accidents or other mishaps down here, more mundane explanations for Max’s absence were fast evaporating, as he wished that fog outside would do.
To make matters worse, he couldn’t shake the common-sense intuition that, when whatever happened happened, Max should have tried to make his way back to the Maximum, yet he also saw no trace of him anywhere on the way down, either, as if he had disappeared as completely from this damnable derelict as he had from the airwaves. Combined with his past experience with this kind of interference, the ominous conclusion that this mystery would yield no easy answers, as he feared.
“Where the hell did you go, Max?” he demanded of no one in particular, startled by the sound of his own voice against the eerie quiet of the hold.
“Shades? Is that you?” Max’s voice piped up in his headphones, making Shades jump in spite of himself.
“Max? Can you hear me?” Questions building on the tip of his tongue too fast to articulate.
“Max? Shades?” Justin’s voice broke in. “What’s going on over there?”
“Max?” Shades demanded, going for the most critical question first, fearing this window of opportunity might not last long, “What happened? Where are you?”
“I don’t know,” Max’s reply hardly inspiring confidence, under the circumstances. “It’s like a completely different ship, our ship wasn’t out there any…”
As Max’s voice faded out on the rising tide of static, both Shades and Justin started calling out frantically, afraid of losing contact again. Though Shades would almost swear he could make out Max’s voice, if not his words, still it almost sounded like he was talking to someone else.
“Guys? You still there?” Max’s voice came back on as the interference receded.
“Yeah, you just scared us, that’s all,” Justin remarked. “Shades, is Max with you?”
“No, sorry,” Shades answered.
“What?” Max asked. “You didn’t make it off either?”
“Oh, I made it back to the ship,” Shades assured him, though he doubted Max would find the next part very reassuring, “but I kind came back.”
“But… the Twylight…” Max protested. “You don’t want to disappear, too, do you?”
“I don’t want you to disappear, either,” Shades told him, surprised at the resolve his voice conveyed. “I…” he stumbled for a moment, recalling Justin’s continued vigil aboard the ship, to say nothing of Bandit, “we’re not leaving without you.”
“Damn straight!” Justin added.
“Yeah, you don’t want to end up like that dead guy you found in the Building, do you? I’m still not sure what’s going on around here, but we’re gonna beat this thing together.”
“But how?” Max pressed. “I don’t think we’re even on the same…”
Whatever else Max was about to say was drowned in another wave of static. This one, they all noted anxiously, was laced with a lot more voices than the last.
“Max!” Shades cried out, hearing what thought— at least hoped— was Justin doing the same.
“Guys?” Max’s voice surfaced amid the garbled flood, though with each word he said, he became less and less distinct from the ever more choppy interference. “Are you… there?”
“Max!” Justin shouted frantically, the growing distortion on his end of the line mirroring Max’s, reminding Shades that he himself was still aboard the dread derelict, as well. “What— -ing on… this crap a— … —ades! … -ome in…”
“Max! Hold on!” Though Shades doubted either of his friends could hear him anymore. Against the rising tide of panic threatening to drown it, he mustered all of his will, determined to continue his search despite the growing legion of voices that almost seemed to be trying to drive him out.
At least until he heard one voice he could understand through all this indistinct babble.
“Abandon ship! We’re going…”
That last word itself drawn out into a convergence of sounds, merging into the deep groan of a foghorn. Though to Shades, what he was certain he heard underneath that was the moan of a thousand lost souls.
This time, Shades’ resolve was swept under as his feet took on a mind of their own. In fact, as he took a brief look at his surroundings, he finally caught up with what his feet were doing all along, as he was no longer down in the hold. All the while heeding that sense of an unseen clock ticking down even as it slipped his conscious mind in the face of so many abrupt and unexpected events, his feet gravitating back up the steps and out of the hold in spite of all his self-talk about not abandoning Max.
Now he wondered what the hell he was thinking, so casually challenging something he could hardly even fathom as he dashed down a corridor he didn’t even remember seeing earlier. Of course, now he found himself seeing lots of things he had no memory of seeing the first time around. The same shades of men— women and children, too, now that he had a closer look— fleeing up and down the passage in a general panic. Shadows slithering across the walls without source, shifting and changing direction even as what little in the way of light sources remained constant. Screams and cries and whimpers reverberating in his headphones, accompanied by crashing, shrieking metal, alarms, and, looming over it all, the sloshing static that at least sounded like a watery grave slowly drowning out the others one by one.
If merely seeing those shadow-shapes from the deck of the Maximum gave him chills, actually standing among them was almost enough to push him over the edge.
Just when he almost certain he had doomed himself alongside of Max, that Justin might well be the only survivor of this grim encounter, Shades staggered out onto the deck. Surrounded by fog, at first he could see nothing beyond the vague shapes rushing about, seemingly as aimless as himself. It was hearing a voice, shouting to make itself heard above the cacophony on the radio, that prompted him to yank his headphones off.
“Shades! Max!” Justin’s voice called out. From the opposite side of the deck than he recalled boarding from. “Is that you!”
Shrugging off his disorientation, Shades made a bee-line for that voice, clinging to that one life-line in the midst of all this chaos. Wondering all the while at how the deck could seem so big just because he couldn’t see more than a couple feet in front of him… Yet Justin’s voice at least sounded nearer, so he pressed on.
The deck railing seemed to appear out of nowhere, and he ran right up against it before he could hit the brakes, nearly toppling overboard.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Justin demanded from just to his left. “Move your ass!”
Spotting the side of the Maximum floating a couple feet away, he hopped the railing— all the while trying not to dwell on the impenetrable depths below— hopping forward again on that side and nearly falling on his face in an attempt to avoid any chance of falling back in.
“Where’s Max?” Justin asked.
“I don’t know.” Shades found it hard to make eye contact in spite of his mirrorized lenses. “I never found him in there…”
Even as both of them found a moment in the midst of this chaos to reflect on their own frustration at being dumped right back at Square One for all their trouble, something drew their attention back to the Twylight.
“The hell…” Justin blinked several times, already fearing that the vague shapes he was seeing were no mere trick of the fog. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
“I sure hope not.” And Shades meant every word of it. The color seemed to have drained out of his face as he tried to untangle the spectacle before him, a sight that was increasingly hurting both his eyes and mind to look straight at.
Overlapping specters of multiple ships of varying sizes and designs, sinking, tilting, shifting in too many directions and angles for him to keep track of. And a clown-car procession of shadows, jumping, stumbling, falling, flailing into those fog-shrouded waters.
The thing he found still more disturbing was the absence of any phantom lifeboats to go with.
“Max!” Justin screamed. “Where are you!?”
into the mist from which it came...
“…ship, and this kid…” Max tried to press forward in spite of the static, not liking where Shades was going with this, dredging up the fate of Chad Owen. A man whose name neither Shades nor Justin would ever know. As nameless as his own remains would be if he didn’t find his way of this derelict of the damned. “Shades! Justin! Can you hear me?”
Yet all he could hear was the growing interference in his headphones, worse than before.
“Guys? Are you still there?”
“Max!” Justin’s voice washed in on the last wave of static, storm-tossed vocal debris: “…the hell… -ing on? … Not this crap… Shades! …in…”
And somewhere in the midst of that, Shades shouting, “Hold on!” Though whether to Max or himself it was hard to tell.
All the while, the mysterious little boy clinging to him tighter and tighter in escalating fright. As if, Max began to fear, the boy already knew what he was afraid of. As if he had seen this before.
They both staggered against the corridor wall as the ship gave a mighty lurch that nearly knocked Max off his feet, the child nearly falling off his back.
Figuring that couldn’t possibly be a good sign, he resumed his frantic search for the deck level, when he heard it.
“Abandon ship! We’re going down!…”
And when he looked around, he saw that the static in his headphones wasn’t the only thing gushing around here, as foggy, shimmering water started pouring in through side doors and passages.
Even more unsettling, what appeared to be random silhouettes flailing about his feet, seemingly drowning in the cabin walls and floors.
“Head-on collision!… Evasive maneuvers!…”
Of course, his radio wasn’t very encouraging, either.
“We’re hit! We’re hit!…”
As spectral as the water may have appeared, Max found the growing flood ice-cold to the touch, and, much to his dismay, dragging at his every move more and more as it accumulated.
“…taking on water on decks two and…”
Even as he spotted a stairway leading up to a higher deck level, the entire passage sprung even more leaks, a mounting waist-deep current pushing against him every step of the way.
“Hull breach!… It’s a mine!…”
Max half swam, half waded the rest of the way, but as he started up the narrow steps, before he was even half way up, the ship tilted sharply to starboard, nearly knocking him back down.
“Captain! We’ve run aground!…”
Max barely managed to catch the railing with his good arm, hauling himself back up as the ship shifted back, hunching forward almost to the point of crawling to keep the poor kid from falling off into the watery grave inching up behind them, and continued to climb.
“Where’re the lifeboats!? Where’re the lifeboats!?…”
A question— and an accompanying line of thought— he could really do without, as he clung to the desperate hope his ride would be waiting out there this time.
“My baby! Where’s my baby!?…”
Max tried not to wince at that one as he slogged down the gradually flooding corridor, though individual voices in that swirling cacophony were becoming harder to pick out against both the rising tide of incoherent screaming and, even more ominously, the waves of static inexorably drowning them out.
The child clinging to his back by now petrified by this escalating nightmare.
“Every man for himself!…”
Not the most reassuring sentiment on which to run into a sealed bulkhead. Grabbing the valve wheel with his good hand, he hauled on it as hard as he could. Feeling that cold dampness lapping up above his knees as he finally wrenched it open. A deluge of chill mist washed over him as he staggered into the second part of the passage. Spotting another stairway at the far end, he made for it as he could on the canted deck as frigid water began to spray from the wall and ceiling seams.
The steps themselves proved quite treacherous, nearly tripping him several times before he finally reached the top, beyond which was a short hall leading to a door hanging wide open.
Seeing a faint light on the other side, he staggered along, finally finding himself out on deck as vague shadows continued to scramble about in a general panic Max feared he would soon succumb to himself if he didn’t find a way off this vessel of the damned any minute now.
“Max! Come on, man!”
Shades’ voice, and not in his headphones.
“Dammit, Max! Where are you!?”
Justin, too, and somewhere in the haze off to port.
“Shades! Justin! Where are you!?”
“Over here, Max!”
Shades again, and definitely to port.
“Hurry up, Max!”
“You’re running out of time!”
That Max didn’t doubt in the slightest as he turned in the direction of his friends’ voices, trying not to slip as the deck was slowly slanting to port. As he drew nearer, he could see the faint outline of the Maximum up ahead. Yet he could see that the deck railing had sunk below the Maximum’s, that murky water lapping at it as it bobbed for a moment.
Bracing himself, resolving that a swim in those unfathomable depths was a last resort, he dashed across the remainder of the deck, bounding off the railing to grab as much air as he could as he jumped.
Perhaps it was the fog distorting his depth perception, but near the end of his leap, the Maximum’s railing seemed higher than he anticipated, reaching out with his uninjured arm, just barely catching it by the tips of his fingers. He only had to hang there for all of about two seconds to notice how damp and slippery it was, his fingers sliding—
“Max!” Shades cried as he appeared above him out of the fog, catching him by the hand just as he went over the edge. The weight of both Max and his prepubescent payload hauling Shades halfway over the railing in the process.
Shades braced both his feet against the hull railing and hauled with all his might, fiercely determined to be more useful this time than on Kon Kimbar. It probably helped that there was no one like Erix around to interrupt his rescue attempt this time, but even so, it took all his effort. Just the image of Max’s feet dangling, splashing the surface of those stygian depths, gave him the extra incentive to dig deeper, finally pulling his friend far enough up to throw one leg over, the weight shift sending both of them crashing to the deck in an exhausted heap.
“Damn, that was close!” Justin called out from the upper helm. “I’m getting us the fuck outta here!”
As Max and Shades struggled back to their feet, they both turned to face the Sweet Lady of Twylight, the spectacle they beheld holding both of them transfixed. Even as they watched, the sloshing and gurgling of the static interference began to fade away, as well. For as the dread derelict sank into the doldrums, she appeared to almost sink into the fog itself even as the ghost ship faded through the receding mist as Justin maneuvered them away from it. From what, Shades was beginning to suspect, was likely a perpetually, eternally doomed vessel of the damned.
At last having vanished into the fog as if it had never existed to begin with.
It was then that Max remembered the little boy he picked up earlier, realizing that he couldn’t recall at what point the kid ceased to be hanging on to him for dear life. Much to his dismay, he also noticed that he no longer felt sopping wet from the waist down; now only his boots were damp. When he found he couldn’t see any trace of him on deck he began to fear the worst.
Sensing a presence he was previously unaware of, Shades jerked his head around for a moment, seeing what he would swear was the faint image of a little boy on deck near them. Smiling, it seemed, with relief. Now that he thought about it, Max had seemed somehow heavier than he remembered from their sparring matches, and the fog had almost seemed to cling to him before he made it aboard.
As if trying to drag him down to his doom…
Then they both heard it, very distinctly, in their headphones.
A child’s voice, saying: “Thank you! Thank you!…”
At last dying back down to complete radio silence.
“Max, what was that?” Shades asked. There was something eerily familiar about the child, as if he had seen him in a dream or something…
“I have no idea,” Max replied.
Both of them jumped, scared out of their wits by a thumping, scraping sound at the Maximum’s cabin door.
Then they both laughed in spite of themselves as it dawned on them that it had been going on all along, they were so fixated on the sinking of the derelict. Realizing almost simultaneously what it was. Shades very sensibly stepped aside as he opened the door and Bandit pounced on Max, both of them landing on the deck.
“I missed you, too!” Max told his feline friend as he got up and they retreated to the cabin.
Once Shades safely had the other helm controls, Justin wasted no time coming down, either. All of them hoping to leave their previous trouble behind in that ominous fog. For a time, they all sat in pensive silence, the oppressive, unnatural suspense from before their dread encounter settling back in like an unwelcome passenger they never wanted to pick up in the first place. On some unspoken cue, taking turns alternately peering forward into that eerie mist, not wanting to be taken by surprise now that they thought they had finally escaped, and backward, half afraid that ghost ship might somehow come back to haunt them. Just like the final twist of to so many dark legends.
Yet as they continued slowly forward through these dreary doldrums, each of them could swear the fog was finally beginning to lift, and for the first time since the start of this ordeal, they quietly changed the subject so as not to jinx their rising hope the worst was finally over.
-original notes: 2006
-notebook draft: Oct 13, 2007 – Nov 28, 2008
-word-processed draft: Jun 25 – July 14, 2009
-additional revisions: Sept, 2009
Suffice to say, this was a story I had wanted to tell for a long time, even hinted at it much earlier in the series, yet when I finally got to writing it, my enthusiasm came to a grinding halt about midway through, when I realized that I had been so busy thinking up other ideas for the Twylight scenario, I had completely overlooked the ending. (For the first time since working on Parts 1 and 2, I was writing almost entirely from scratch, with no prior drafts or manuscripts for reference, venturing into completely new, original territory with the plot.) From the start, the idea was a kind of ghost ship's ghost ship, drawing from some creepier seafaring lore, as well as my childhood fascination with the Bermuda Triangle, but for a long time, even though I had the concept of them "running out of time" for Max to escape, I could have almost kicked myself for not realizing the most obvious thing that could happen when Time's Up.
Along with ghost-ship stories, I will also confess a vague sort of Lovecraftian inspiration, as well, and while Silent Hill my have been an atmosphere/vibe inspiration in the beginning, weirdly enough, it was Fatal Frame that helped me see the ending. Ironically, by dragging everything back into the past, as the ghosts of the Himuro estate in the original game did. After despairing for weeks of how to finish, the idea was so clear, so obvious, once it hit me: a true Ship of the Damned, a sort of ghost of Everyship, doomed to sink over and over again, trapping the souls of anyone who went down with it. Once I had that in mind, the last three or four chapters fell neatly into place.
Which is good, because the whole affair took a lot longer than a mere thirteen chapters should have, so I've had to work even harder since to make up for lost time before I "catch up" with myself. After all, it's not like I could (or would!) resort to Fillers in this sort of venture. My only other regret with this, was that the timing of the series as a whole didn't allow me to finish this before Halloween, like I originally hoped, but at the same time, that is probably a good thing in the long run. I hope you've enjoyed the series so far, because their voyage is far from over.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.