Tradewinds 02: Paradise by shadesmaclean
Summary:

Wherein Max makes a new friend, and begins to adjust to his new life, even as he tries to pick up the pieces…


Categories: Original Fiction Characters: None
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Warnings: Violence
Challenges:
Series: Tradewinds
Chapters: 20 Completed: Yes Word count: 19768 Read: 22260 Published: 12/20/10 Updated: 01/08/11

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. XI by shadesmaclean

10. X by shadesmaclean

11. XI by shadesmaclean

12. XII by shadesmaclean

13. XIII by shadesmaclean

14. XIV by shadesmaclean

15. XV by shadesmaclean

16. XVI by shadesmaclean

17. XVII by shadesmaclean

18. XVIII by shadesmaclean

19. XIX by shadesmaclean

20. XX by shadesmaclean

I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
not a dream
Max felt something warm, wet and abrasive rub across his face.

He vaguely remembered having a dream about waking up on a beach… After being chased out at sea after… what had to be the worst nightmare of his life…

After a moment he became aware of the fact that he was lying on sun-warmed sand. He wondered why he was so tired… Of course, it made perfect sense to be exhausted after such a rigorous ordeal… He knew he must have tossed and turned all night to be this worn out…

Then he felt that strange sensation on his face again, tugging his senses still further into the here and now.

“What’s going on…” he muttered. He dug his fingers through the sand, finding that he still barely had enough strength to make a fist.

Experimentally, he opened his eyes.

He cried out in alarm and confusion as he looked up into the feline face staring down at him. Max rolled away with a yelp. For its part, the creature leaped away in the opposite direction.

Max pulled himself together, as quickly as one could be expected to after waking up in a place right out of a dream. He had to close his eyes for a moment to ward off the dizziness and headache that assaulted his eyes, making him see spots. After all, he was still very sore and stiff; he now knew that he was moving too quickly just yet. As he opened his eyes again and became more aware of his surroundings, it didn’t take him long to figure out their one stark implication: that had been no dream.

Max immediately focused on the creature before him, a cat of some variety. It sat over a foot tall, with short white-and-black fur of curiously symmetrical pattern, even on both sides. The cat, a cub of some feline variety that reminded him of a statue back in Layosha, sat and stared warily at Max. In those greenish-yellow eyes, disproportionately large on its young face, Max saw his own reflection for a second.

Though the cub had been startled by Max’s sudden reaction, it had already begun to recover its feline composure, and its look was now one of cautious curiosity.

Max looked back at the cub, wondering where the little guy came from. As an old piece of advice flashed through his thoughts, Max looked around sharply, to make sure they were all alone. He had been warned that mother animals seldom let their young out of sight…

But he didn’t see any angry mother whatever-it-was charging out of the bushes anywhere, still he decided to keep his guard up anyway. He had been told that cats of any stripe were creatures of stealth, and he didn’t care to find out the hard way. If this one was just a cub, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know how big its mother might be.

Max slowly reached over for his bag, which he had been clinging to for a good while when he was still unconscious, realizing once again how much his ordeal at sea had weakened him. He kept on moving slowly, making no sudden moves, and the cub began to regain its initiative, moving haltingly forward, keeping a close eye on Max as he reached into his bag and took out his father’s laser sword. There the cub hesitated just beyond arm’s reach of Max.

“What’re you lookin’ at?”

The cub cocked his head curiously at Max’s remark.

Max activated the weapon, bringing its shimmering, neon-green blade into radiant existence. Good. It still worked. He held his father’s blade before him, fascinated; he thought of all the times he had seen it, had wanted to wield it… and now it was his.

Yet his exultation was brief, for a moment later he remembered how it came to be in his possession, and his fleeting sense of triumph at this small victory, of not losing this irreplaceable family heirloom, instead soured into something bordering on shame.

He paused, seeing the cub staring into the blade, mesmerized. But not afraid.

Interesting…

Tiger. The word popped into his head. Though different in pattern, the cub resembled the creature the statue was named after.

Max sat there for a long moment, gathering his strength and his thoughts while letting the sun warm him. He was still wrung-out, his body ached all over. After he was back on his feet, he decided, he would have to see what else made it ashore with him.

In the meantime, his mind wandered back to the statue…

…Max stared up at the enormous cat that sat before him on an equally enormous pedestal that was almost as tall as he was.

At the age of six, there were still a lot of things that were taller than him. The grey-green statue towering over him was one of them. It was huge, even next to grownups, and Cleo had even told him Uncle Angus said it was
life-size. Its regal feline countenance, its entire form, was slashed with a deep-carved relief of stripes.

Engraved on the pedestal was a single word:
TYGER.

Though a few such things were supposedly waiting for them when they first arrived, the Ancestors had built many of Layosha’s most impressive monuments in time out of mind. Beyond Shipwreck Bay, in the shadow of the mountain, there was a clearing with ancient statues scattered about it. All of the statues were highly stylized depictions of various creatures, angular and simplified, but of only slightly exaggerated proportion. Legend had it that one of the original Ancestors was a master sculptor.

On Makando, there were several tall, very stylized stone heads that some said were even older than the Ancestors; there were even rumors of these statues being found on Cyexian islands, and possibly even in the Triangle State.

Guarding the entrance of the clearing on one side was a pair of lions; two turtles guarded another entrance, and a pair of very angular gargoyles guarded the third. Among others, there was an eagle perched on one block, an owl with big round eyes on another; a couple creatures labeled
Coyote, forever howling at the moon, at least according to Mom; a mass of tentacles, that many sailors told tales of, marked Devilfish; a horse; carved of dark grey stone, a small biped reptile which the Ancestors called a Raptor; a strange one marked Gryphon, which no traveler had ever claimed to have seen before; a coiled-up cobra, and some other small statuary. The largest of the statues, standing nearly twenty feet tall, was a rather more intricate and imposing reptile the artist called a Dragon.

And, of course, the Tyger.

“Dad, what’s that thing?” he asked.

“Well, Max,” said Robert, smiling as he looked the statue over, perhaps the only person in all the Islands (aside from his wife and possibly his brother) who had ever seen a real one before, “that’s a tiger. But whoever carved this spelled it strangely. That should be an
i instead of a y.”

“Oh.” Max was still learning his letters. And pushing really hard to be able to read Layosha’s small treasury of books for himself. “Have you ever seen one before?”

“Well, of course, son,” Robert laughed, still amazed at times by his son’s insatiable curiosity. He paused for a moment, remembering. “…I was in this place, a sanctuary, where these people were keeping a whole bunch of animals. If I remember right, they were protecting them from hunters. They had tigers there, and other really big cats.”

Then the important question. “Dad, how big is a tiger?”

“They’re… well, they’re about as big as that statue.” Though he was fairly sure that not all of the statues here were as proportionately scaled. For a moment, he had been taken aback by Max’s abrupt change of subject. Then again, he was glad to get away from where he now realized his last line of conversation was heading. Though Robert was very honest with his son, he also believed that children should let go of their innocence slowly, reluctantly. After all, it was not something that could be returned. He had seen for himself what growing up too fast had done to others.

“Why aren’t there any tigers here?”

“I don’t know.” Robert had no real explanation for that. “They probably wouldn’t like it here. We don’t have anything for them to eat, and I’m told they need lots of room to roam…”


…To roam. How far had he drifted?

Where am I? How big is this place?

Just when Max thought he couldn’t possibly feel any more alone, with that last thought he did. Completely alone. Wishing for his father only made it worse. Because he wasn’t there.

Between loneliness, pain and fatigue, it was all he could do to fight back the tears. As he sat there, trying hard to pull himself together, the cub slowly approached him. Max looked down at the feline face peering up at him, and he understood somehow that he had found a kindred spirit.

Or rather, one had somehow found him.

He tentatively reached out and patted the big cat on the head. And was surprised, yet somehow not surprised— as if he had done this before in a dream or something— when the cub walked up and brushed past his leg. As the cat sat down next to him, Max openly petted him.

Somehow he knew— once again, he was surprised yet somehow knew better— that petting the cat would make him feel better. At least now he no longer felt so alone. The cat started purring, and in that carefree, contented sound, he rediscovered the bliss of living in the moment.

He sat on the beach for a while, petting the big kitten, before he got up again. This time he was a little steadier on his feet than he had been last time. But he hadn’t eaten in nearly a day and was weak with hunger.

The past day was a bleary dream of sun and sea and exposure. Had slept briefly at some unrecalled point after the storm subsided. But of The Edge, or even Damn the Torpedoes or U-553, there was no sign. Not even his other pursuers were to be seen. Only miles and miles of Ocean in all directions making a mockery of every speck of dry land he had ever set foot on. Fearing he might very well die out there without ever seeing even a passing ship, he already started rationing out the small vessel’s limited food and water against the ravages of the elements.

So now, as he staggered across the sand, cub tagging along behind him, he reached into his bag and opened a waterproof ration pack. Remembering his survival training, he decided, in spite of his overwhelming hunger, to eat only half. During his fun little sea adventure, bookended between storms, he had learned that Triangle State military survival rations were not very appetizing. If nothing else, he had no idea if there was any more food to be found here.

Wherever he was.

As Max sat down and munched thoughtfully, he looked down and noticed that he had the little creature’s undivided attention. The cub just sat there, staring up at him with big, round pleading eyes, somehow managing to look so innocent and dejected that Max nearly laughed in spite of himself.

“You hungry, little guy?” Max found himself wondering when last the cub had eaten. He looked pretty scrawny. Hoping he wasn’t making a grave mistake, he gave the cub the other half of his ration bar. And the cub wolfed it right down, then looked back up at Max with an expression that was unmistakable: More?

This time Max did laugh, patting the cub, and said, “Nope. That’s all. We’ve gotta save the rest for later.”

The cub just looked up at him with this laughably quizzical expression that made Max bust out again.

So, Uncle Angus was right. A person (or cat) that was hungry enough would eat anything. That thought made him wonder for a moment how the sinister Triangle State Authority’s supplies had fallen into Cyexian hands. Then again, the Cyexians were pirates. Of course, he had heard even worse things about the Authority.

Even about slavery.

Yet little was known about the Triangle State. Because it held all the surrounding islands under military occupation, Layosha, though distant, beyond Cyexian waters, kept a low profile. With nothing of interest to them, it was doubtful the TSA would ever take an interest in the Islands, but Max’s people had no desire to fight a war without dire cause. Though the Layoshans would fight to the last defending their home and go to their graves, rather than live as anyone’s slaves, as they had held their ground against the Cyexians for countless generations. All the same, all the Islanders really wanted was to go about their lives in peace, and they already had enough trouble with the Cyexians. So Layosha chose to be little more than seafaring legend. A destination scoffed at by most and considered to be a myth.

Another of the Ocean’s phantom ports of call.
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
tagalong
After taking stock of his supplies— a few days’ worth of rations, a half-empty canteen of fresh water, a power pistol and two extra power clips, a flashlight and a spark-lighter— Max set out to explore the rest of the island. The little cub tagged along, sniffing curiously at this and that, but never straying far from Max’s path. If there was anyone else on this island, he wanted to know who they were.

And whether or not they were friendly.

He took it slow since he still hadn’t quite regained his land-legs.

Only a few steps, and he was startled by a flash of light, which he quickly realized was sunlight reflecting on something half-buried in the sand. As he stumbled closer, he nearly fell down in surprise upon seeing that it was his silver medallion. After a moment, he did fall down and sat there for a long moment, amazed that he even still had it. When he lost his grip and fell overboard during last night’s storm, he had hung on to it for dear life, but also lost his grip on it when a particularly large wave nearly drowned him just in sight of land.

He thought he’d lost it forever. Reattaching its chain, he hauled himself to his feet and struck out again.

He hadn’t traveled much farther before he came around a bend and stumbled upon more wreckage. Near the next curve in the beach were the remains of the small boat— barely seaworthy and never meant for long-range transport— that had brought him here. Just looking at the battered vessel reminded him of his wild ride; the chase and the storms had indeed been no dream.

He could tell at a glance that without a complete overhaul— including tools, parts, not to mention skills, that he did not possess— it wouldn’t be going anywhere ever again. But he dug through what was left of the boat anyway. The cub poked around, too, curiosity written all over his young feline face.

Underneath the pilot’s seat (or at least where the pilot’s seat used to be) was a storage compartment. Max read the manufacturing label stamped on the side of the compartment: Manufactured in --------ngle Sta----y Tri-Tech, a Division of C-----------stries. He couldn’t read portions, as they were blasted with carbon scarring. The name, what he could read of it, meant nothing to him.

He could only wonder how it had fallen into the hands of Cyexian pirates.

The cargo compartment itself was busted open, probably dashed against the nearby rocks on impact, and junk was strewn all over the sand near it. He immediately picked out a disrupter pistol (which was larger and heavier than his power pistol, even having an insulated handgrip along its heavy barrel, just like the one he had used the other night), another power clip, a small pan, some line and fishing hooks, an inflatable life raft (still in its tube), a spork and a survival knife, a frayed length of rope, a cracked mirror, and some clothes. He imagined all of these things might come in handy later, so he stuffed it all into his shoulder bag.

After standing there for a moment, reliving more of his wild ride than he cared to, he set out again, the mysterious cub at his side.

At first it was slow going, as he was still very sore and stiff. But the longer he was on his feet, the better he felt as his body loosened up. After about an hour or so, he was strolling along at a leisurely pace.

The whole way, he stuck to the beach. He remembered Robert explaining how, by walking around the shore of an island, one could get an idea of how big it was. And Max had paid rapt attention, wanting to know as much as he could so he could make his Dad proud when he finally got to go on that adventure he was always so certain they were going to have. As long as you’re on an island, his father had said, you’re never lost. No matter which way you go, you’ll always find the Ocean.

Thanks, Dad… he thought quietly, I just wish you could be here to see me…

Shoving such thoughts aside, he continued along the beach, refusing to move inland until he had some idea of how big this island was. Keeping in mind that he was in unfamiliar territory, that there was no telling who or what he might encounter. He had heard of uninhabited islands in the Ocean, but even though there weren’t any signs of habitation where he washed up, he had decided not to let his guard down.

There was the distinct possibility that he had ended up in Cyexian territory, or even the Triangle State. Either would be bad news; the Cyexians would almost certainly use him as a hostage to make demands on the Elders, and there was no way of knowing what the TSA might decide to do with him. Beyond those realms, it would be harder and harder to find his way back to the Islands.

But what would he say if he went back?

He started walking faster, trying to outrun the waves of grief and shame and guilt that were fast gaining on him. Part of him was still certain this was all a bad dream. That he would wake up any second now, and Mom would come and tell him everything was okay… But what would she think if she knew?

Freezing up might have been perfectly natural, under the circumstances, but it still didn’t feel like much of an excuse.

Meanwhile, the cub continued to romp gleefully around, apparently happy just to have some company.

With great effort, Max pushed his feelings back, telling himself they would be of no use to him right now. He needed to concentrate, focus on what was happening right now. His very survival depended on it. If there was anyone out there, he wanted to find them, not the other way around.

To take his mind off those painful thoughts, he decided to run through everything he knew about the Cyexians and the Triangle State Authority.

Somewhere beyond the disputed Island of Kinsasha was the edge of Cyexian waters. There were eight feuding clans, but the number of islands they controlled wasn’t really known for sure, rumored to be about a dozen. He knew they were a matriarchal society; his parents and Uncle Angus had told of Cyexian lands where men were slaves, and Mom had always laughed and said that sounded like a fun place to visit, as well as places where the matriarchy was more ancient tradition than current practice. Due to martial necessity, the clans here gave men certain allowances, but made it abundantly clear who was the boss. The Cyexians of these waters were pirates and scavengers, while the Layoshans, though known to dig through derelicts and ghost ships— and bring them back to the Islands, if possible— were more into salvage and trading for outside goods with the visitors they got every now and then.

The Triangle State, on the other hand, was something of an enigma. No one, not even his father (though he and Angus had once been held in the brig of one of their ships), had been there in the last forty or fifty years. Controlled— governed with an iron fist, from what he had been told— by the Triangle State Authority, what any Outlanders who had been there described as a sinister cabal of local despots who called themselves the Board of Directors, their domain was said to be three islands. And everything in between.

With so little useful intelligence— and a lot of creepy rumors— the TSA was a shadow that lurked quietly among Max’s speculations.

Occasionally, he chided himself for not paying enough attention to what was going on around him. But it was hard to keep his guard up when there was nothing going on, and the cub’s carefree meandering was equally disarming. The farther he went, the more he felt like the last person in the world.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the day wears on
By mid afternoon, he had left the beach, finding himself following a rocky shoreline bank that began at the end of the sand. It rose steadily upward for some distance before it leveled off and started working its way back down again. At its height, it was high enough to be rightly called a cliff.

Having still not fully regained his strength, Max stopped near the top for a breather. Feeling better, he chowed down another half of a ration bar, and of course gave the cat a few bites. He was still surprised at how hungry he was, and it took an act of willpower to put the other bars back in his bag to save for later.

Deciding to rest a little longer, he dug out the clothes in the pack, remembering something. The clothing was a military uniform bearing foreign insignias whose significance was unknown to him. The two symbols that stood out to him most were a patch that read U-553, and a round one that bore a sign that looked like a bent-up X. That same bizarre symbol was indelibly marked on the bag, as well.

Max was sure that the uniform and the bag, at least, had come from that mysterious submarine Slash now controlled. He remembered that one of the sub’s insignias had been painted over with Slash’s clan’s emblem, and he wondered where this U-553 had drifted in from. There had been something about that sub, and something about this symbol, that just gave him a bad feeling.

Though there was nothing he could do about the symbol on the bag, he ripped the insignias off the uniform. He was in unfamiliar territory, and decided it would be best not to hold any visible allegiances (especially not hinting loyalties of unknown implication) here until he knew who else was about. While on the matter of concealing affiliations, he also flipped over his headband, hiding his family sigil.

Max spent a little while longer playing tug-of-war with the cub before he chewed the strange patch in half. He was amused at how playful this little creature was. Marveling at how easily amused the cat was, Max kicked a bunch of dirt over the patches. The more he looked at them, the less he liked them anyway.

After about an hour or so up there, Max and his little friend found their way back out onto the beach again. It was rocky at first, but it quickly gave way to sandy shores once more. By now he was becoming more and more confident that he was soon going to come back to the place where he first started. Though the shoreline was very wavy most of the way, he was fairly sure they had almost come full circle.

But as the hours wore on, and the sun began to set, Max’s confidence began to waver. It would soon be dark and he still hadn’t found his way back to where he came from. More and more, he wondered just how big this island was. After all, according to most tales, deserted islands were supposed to be fairly small.

He stopped, just gazing out to sea as the sun set behind him. Deciding to set out again at dawn, Max prepared to spend the night here. And if he didn’t get all the way around the island tomorrow, he would decide then whether or not to turn back.

Lying down in the warm sand, well back from the tide, he settled in for the night.

Though, exhausted as he was, it would be a while before he finally fell asleep. He was still lost in unfamiliar territory, he still had no idea what he was going to do, and he still felt the events of the last few days ringing in his ears. He was tired, but he was also both excited and afraid.

The cub, who at first had kept his aloof, feline distance, finally came over. And, seeming to sense the boy’s misery, curled up right next to him.

Max had searched all day and held it at bay. But now, as he faced the darkness alone, it all came flooding back into his head. The whole nightmare. All alone, even with the cat curled up at his side, he finally broke down.

The cub looked at Max with a mixture of curiosity and concern, as a cascade of tears streamed down the boy’s face as his heart cracked all over again.

“No… Dad…” he sobbed, his voice little more than a choked whisper.

Later, he wouldn’t remember exactly when he finished crying himself to sleep.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
full circle
Max was up with the sun the next morning, the cub balled up next to his head like a furry pillow. His feline friend was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to go. Though more than willing to stick around for a couple minutes while Max split a ration bar with him. They weren’t all that great, but as Mom always said, it was better than a kick in the pants.

Then they were off once again. And it was easier going this time; though he was a still a little sore, yesterday’s exercise and last night’s rest had done Max a world of good. This morning he was fired up and ready for anything.

He hoped.

He walked around a couple more bends in the beach, and what he saw puzzled him for a moment. For it was the very spot where he first washed up; he recognized the large rock thrusting out of the sand near the water from the morning before. His long journey was abruptly at an end.

“Already?…”

The cub looked up at him, just as puzzled, seeming almost to chide Max for leading him in circles.

For his part, Max plunked down on the sand and stared ahead, dumbfounded, at the morning sky. This most recent development completely canceled out his inner debate about whether or not to turn back. All I had to do was just walk a little farther…

And then what?

Now he knew for sure that he was on an island, though there had been little doubt in his mind to begin with. He even had a vague idea of its size now. That just left the question of what to do next. He had been so focused on the present that he had given little thought to the future.

Now was the time to think ahead.

Though he still wasn’t one-hundred-percent sure of it, he was beginning to suspect that there was no one else on the island. Nowhere along the way had he encountered even the slightest sign of habitation. No boats or docks, no buildings or ruins, no campfires, no tracks or trails. Nothing.

It seemed as if no one else had ever been here before.

A real desert isle…

The thought thrilled Max— and scared him. He found himself living in one of his father’s adventures, but he was all on his own. He had only two or three days worth of rations left, and less than a third of a canteen of water— though he at least knew a solution to that problem, if he had enough junk parts to work with. He had no shelter, and only a handful of supplies.

And no one to turn to but himself.

It still took him by surprise to have to think in these terms. This place seemed to empty without any docks, any buildings, and not even a single ship hovering off the shore. Not just here, but everywhere he went.

As Max came and stood before the wreckage of the boat once more, he knew he was on his own. The shadow of fear rose up inside him once again, threatening to break him down as it had the night before. He knew he had to do something.

All he could think of was to explore further inland. As long as he could keep thinking and keep doing, he could keep from falling apart. He simply told himself that it would be good to find out more about the island.

He knew he had no choice. He had to know what was in there.
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a jungle in there
Now Max turned his attention to the jungle that encompassed most of the island. Though the island was nowhere near as big as Layosha, the primeval forest still loomed large and intimidating. The thing that bothered him most about this alien scenery was the familiarity of it— all the same kinds of trees and underbrush, yet nothing looked at all like any place he had ever been in his life.

As if his old home had somehow been rearranged.

In the spirit of his old friend Cleo, he gave his new little friend his best devil-may-care shrug and hefted the grip of his laser sword as he entered the wall of trees that guarded the edge of the beach.

Cautiously at first, but with increasing confidence in his solitude, Max ventured forth into the jungle, the little cub bounding happily beside him. A part of him kept trying to pick out the old trails of the Islands— and was repeatedly disappointed to turn up nothing but a few vague trails that at most might belong to small animals. The like of which could only be found with any frequency in the deeper parts of the Islands, especially Makando, with its swampland and large uninhabited areas.

Thus attempts at navigating by past landmarks only made a mockery of his ordinarily reliable sense of direction. Once he was in deep enough that he could no longer hear the crashing of the waves on shore as easily, the fear of getting lost haunted him once again, and he had to remind himself that he was on an island. That as long as he picked a direction and stuck with it, he would always find his way back to the beach. All the same, though, the trees were denser here than in most parts of the Islands, and he couldn’t see very far ahead of him most of the time.

Which brought him back to worrying about potential enemies. Yet, just as he had while traversing the shore, he again found no signs of habitation. No buildings, no camp signs, no sense of any human being having ever set foot in this place before him. The cub also seemed relaxed, prowling in and out of the underbrush as if his explorations were just some big game.

When he stumbled over an exposed tree root, his canteen fell out of his shoulder bag. Picking it up as he got back on his feet, he heard the few swigs’ worth of fresh water sloshing around inside, and began to wonder if he instead should have taken the time to try to rig up something to distill sea water to replenish his supply before heading inland. He mulled it over in his head for a moment, and was about to turn back, when he noticed a faint sound of water splashing somewhere up ahead.

After a short while, he came upon a fresh-water pool with a narrow cascade of a waterfall splashing down a short cliff higher up the mountain that seemed to be near the center of the island. He could almost see the top of the mountain from here, and he wondered if he could see the rest of the island from up there, like on the mountain lookout above Shipwreck Bay.

Max stopped at the edge of the pond near the waterfall and gratefully refilled his canteen with fresh flowing water while the cub drank deeply of a small pool near him. He was greatly relieved to know that at least that problem had been solved. Now he could use water more liberally on the climb.

Once they were up higher, the terrain became much more rocky, the dark, jagged stone edges softened by the scattered footholds of green that persisted all the way up the narrow mountain. There were places where he had to struggle from one hand- or foothold to the next, and since he was still sore and stiff, he had to stop and rest several times. The cub, meanwhile, was a true feline, an expert climber, and bounded effortlessly from point to point while Max struggled. Max took inspiration from his new companion, and began to imitate him as best he could.

As the sun climbed, so did they.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the climb
It was an exhausting endeavor, but they finally reached the top. Max hauled himself up the final leg in the midafternoon sun. And as he looked out, he saw the view from up here and decided it had been more than worth the effort.

For a while they sat and munched on food rations while gazing out at the Ocean. They had both worked up quite an appetite.

Max didn’t have much left in the way of rations, so he knew he would have to devote the next couple days to finding more food. Back when he was down at the pond, he had wondered if a birds-eye view of the island might help. Now he wasn’t so sure.

Yet for the time being he was content to pet the cat and peer down on different parts of the island.

Near the jagged tip of the mountain, there stood a large tree, its branches almost seeming to touch the sky from where he stood. Now that he had a chance to catch his breath, he decided to climb the tree and check out the view from there. An outcropping boulder gave him easy access to the lower branches, and from there it was a breeze getting the rest of the way up. He and Lance and Cleo had dared each other to climb tougher trees back home.

Thinking about them here felt so strange in this deserted place. The knowledge that somewhere back in the Islands, his friends were surely worried sick about him made him feel almost embarrassed to still be alive, yet unable to let them know. Even recalling the one time Carlton ever took the dare— and subsequently got stuck up in the tree and couldn’t get down without Ian’s help, somehow failed to yield a laugh, like it always had before.

Having climbed as high as he could, he looked out from this lofty perch, seeing even more of the island than he could from any of the other vantage points. The only thing he had ever seen like it was the Crow’s Nest back in Layosha. At the pinnacle of Shipwreck Bay the Islanders’ placed the mast of an old ship, and anyone who climbed up there could see all the way to the islands of Makando and Shindoji with a telescope from that lofty height. In much the same fashion, the view here was almost dizzying, and took some time to get used to.

Once he did, though, he sat up there for a long while, letting the wind caress his face while he simply thought about nothing before finally climbing back down.

Max stretched out against a slanted rock, and the cub flopped next to him. As he lay on the sun-warmed stone, he was again amazed by how simply blissful it was to sit and pet a cat. He was just nodding off when the cub rolled over and he spotted it out of the corner of his eye.

It wasn’t a natural marking, that he could tell right away, even though it was black like the rest of the cub’s fur pattern. At first he rubbed the cat’s tummy, listening to him purr. Curious, he sat up slightly, still petting the cub.

A closer look revealed it to be a series of numbers and letters tattooed down the length of his belly. As the cub peered up curiously at him, he read the numbers: E-86489-2. And below that: BANDIT.

“Bandit, huh?” Max looked down at the cub, who immediately perked up at the mere mention of that word. “Guess that’s your name, isn’t it, little guy? Bandit… Just like Grampa!”

He said it again, and the cub’s ears perked up once more.

“That’s your name, alright,” Max laughed. He had been at a total loss for what to call his new friend, but had grown tired of thinking of him as the cub. “You’re Bandit, yes you are!”

He spoke in a higher, chirpier voice, realizing after a moment that he was imitating an Outlander who once passed through Layosha with his cat when he was little. Bandit looked up at him as he spoke, and seemed to smile as Max petted him again.

The cat was yet a cub, though, and soon fell asleep, taking a nap next to Max. Who had greatly underestimated how drained he was, and quickly dozed off, too.
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
lofty perch
Max blinked his eyes, completely unsure of how long he’d slept, to see that it was late afternoon, going on evening, and dark clouds now gathered over their perch.

He was sure it would start raining before he could climb down. Once wet, the rocks would be slippery, and dangerous to climb. It would slow him down until nightfall, when it would be even more risky to climb in the dark.

“Looks like we’re stuck up here, little guy…”

Bandit glanced up at him knowingly.

So as the clouds gathered in the thundering sky, Max and Bandit sat under one of the two trees that grew near the top. Soon it began to rain, and the wind started picking up. But the two of them curled up in the junction of two great roots, and its broad spread of branches sheltered them from all but a few drops of rain. A minor nuisance Max easily remedied with the extra clothes in his shoulder bag.

As he sat there with his arm around Bandit, he couldn’t help thinking how amazed his friends would be to meet such a big cat. How much fun they would all have together, playing out in the forest and on the beach… It cut him deeply to even contemplate the dawning notion that he might very well never see any of them again.

And that, ironically enough, that same cute little cub was his only comfort here.

The whole course of events seemed a mockery of his childhood dreams. All the excitement he always felt listening to either of his parents telling stories about all the places they traveled to over the years. Even the ones about being stranded at sea, or out in the wilderness.

Only now, as he was marooned in the same basic situation, did the implications begin to sink in. The genuine risks, the lack of supplies and equipment. What it truly meant to have no one but yourself to fall back on. The thought that he couldn’t count on anyone to bail him out of this ordeal chilled him in a way the falling rain never could.

The shower lasted several hours, but Max and his new friend weathered the storm in comfort under the tree. By the time the rain stopped, the sun had all but set. It would be long past dark by the time the rocks were anywhere near dry enough to climb safely.

Max stood up once more and gazed out to sea in indecision, watching the sky grow still darker. Wondering where in that endless purple expanse his father might be. The curtain of clouds parted to show an impressive view of the stars.

Wondered for a long moment what he would do if he did see a ship approaching. Could he trust them? Would he be throwing away his only chance of escaping this island if he avoided them? They were questions he desperately needed to answer for himself, preferably before circumstances could ever force such a choice on him.

After a time, he went back and lay in the wet grass with the overgrown kitten balled up at his side. When he got cold, Max pulled the oversize coat out of his bag and wrapped himself up in it, retreating to the dry spot under the tree. Bandit grumbled at first, but followed him anyway. Max let him split half a ration bar with him before curling back up, and all was forgiven.

He felt the confusion of sleeping the last four nights in four different places he had never been before. Even the stars here were unfamiliar. In the same way as the almost-familiar forest.

Eventually, though, on his little perch at the top of his new world, he sank slowly into sleep.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the pain of loss
“Dad!…” Max woke up in a cold sweat, panic written all over his face. Snapping upright, he looked around frantically, his eyes adjusting to dim silver moonlight with uncanny quickness.

The images of those last few moments were etched in his mind’s eye, that final scream echoing through his head. It was as if he had just heard it only a second ago. He saw Bandit had jumped back, and was now staring at him, at first alarmed, then curious.

The nightmare still repeated itself even as his breathing began to calm. He felt alone and scared, feelings to which found he was becoming more accustomed than he had ever wanted to be.

“Dad… forgive me…”

Slowly, Max stood up, walking over to the edge of the cliff before him. He peered down at the narrow, shimmering strip of waterfall spilling below him. His gaze drifted up and out to the crashing waves that he could hear only faintly, perhaps just in his own mind, from on high. Past the shattered, shimmering reflection of the moon, to where the Ocean met the sky.

“Daddy!!…”

Max held nothing back as he screamed, falling to his knees. For somewhere beyond that horizon, dead or alive, was his father. And even from up here, that distance seemed endless.

“No… you can’t be…” he whispered.

He wiped his eyes as he rose slowly to his feet. The hot pain in his chest again threatened to stifle him, but after a moment he began to master himself. The pain seemed to draw from a well with no bottom, and seeing this, Max chose to accept the one hope his conscience could still compromise with.

“I know you’re still alive…” he said, his voice one of quiet, quivering determination. “You have to be. I swear…” Max clutched the silver triangle dangling under his shirt, a gift from the very one for whom he now made his vow, “Wherever you are… I will find you, father. Someday…”

He looked down to see that Bandit had walked up to him, looking up at him with big, unjudging eyes. Max ran his hand across the cub’s head, choosing for now to accept the cat’s irrelevant absolution, and walked wearily back to his resting place. Drained, but not quite running on empty (after all, the well was bottomless), he tried to hold back the tears as he wrapped his arms around Bandit.

He was glad to have company, and it seemed that his little friend was also comforted by his presence. Max wondered how long Bandit had been alone before he came along…

Before he knew it, he was asleep again.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
taste test
The first thing Max noticed when he awoke was that he was hungry.

He reached over and dug around in his pack. And brought out all that remained of his ration supply. As he sat there, he realized that perhaps coming up here yesterday was a mistake he couldn’t afford. He had at last come to that dreaded moment; as of today he would have to find his own source of food in this place.

He could put it off no longer.

His stomach growled fiercely, protesting three going on four days without a decent meal, and Bandit cocked his head at him.

“I bet you’re hungry too, kitty,” Max remarked, patting the cub on the head as he tore into the wrapper with his teeth. He longed to sink his teeth into something more tasty than these ration bars, and hoped to find some today. For better or worse, he split the rest of it with Bandit.

Once he was ready, it only took him a couple minutes to spot an easier way down the other side of the mountain. This path wasn’t nearly as steep, and it also wasn’t as treacherous and rocky. It didn’t take him half as much time to get down as he thought it would.

Nor as much energy, much to Max’s relief. Though he was rested, and nowhere near as stiff as he had been when he first washed up, his legs had grown weak and shaky with hunger. He was beginning to stagger under this near-starvation diet; had he grown up around survival rations, he would have known that they were never meant as a long-term substitute for real food.

He felt a sharp sense of loneliness that was a psychic match for his hunger pangs. The thought that he might never again taste Mom’s roasted fish or Dad’s stew (a secret family recipe that may never be passed on to another living soul) only served to underscore his feeling of being the only person in the whole world. A feeling that had haunted him with increasing certainty since he first started exploring this island.

He had seen various kinds of plants and berries in his wanderings, but he wanted to find something he recognized. Something he knew was safe, if at all possible. He and his friends used to eat berries as snacks when they were out playing. So, unlike many other castaways, Max had the advantage of knowing a little practical herb lore.

After a while, he found some berries that looked just like the ones he used to eat back in the Islands.

As Max agonized over whether or not to eat them (after all, this was a different island…), he listened to the sound of the nearby waterfall (but they looked the same…), and remembered his vow from last night. And decided to add on an important detail (might be poisonous…) he had overlooked before (just try one…) and felt was very important, though he couldn’t quite explain why.

One day, I will find a way off this island, Dad…

“I will train and become as strong as you…

“But first… I’m starving!”

At last, his hunger won the debate. He picked several berries and ate them cautiously, chewing them slowly at first. They tasted almost exactly like the one he remembered back home, and this made him more confident in their safety.

At which point he grabbed a whole handful of berries and just pigged out. After a couple handfuls, though, he slowed down, remembering what his mother had told him about how eating too fast you could make yourself sick. The bushes weren’t going anywhere, and for now, neither was he; he sat and started munching them down as he pondered his continued survival plans.

After he ate his fill— his first full meal in days— he sprawled out to take a nap at the foot of a tree, Bandit, to whom Max had also given some berries, passed out at his side. For the first time since his arrival, he smiled, sighing contentedly as he crossed his legs and threw his arm around Bandit, staring up at the canopy of branches. He felt better than he had in what felt like a very long time. Maybe it was the full belly talking, but he had grown quite certain of the island’s emptiness.

That, and he was so tired…
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
afternoon swim
Later in the afternoon, Max awoke from his invigorating nap to find Bandit missing. He looked around until he spotted the cub prowling around the bushes off to his right.

As he stood up, he noticed, and not just in passing now that he was no longer burdened with such concerns as food and water and tactics, that he was filthy. His clothes were ragged-out, and of course that could not be helped, but he hadn’t washed for days. And he had been so ravenous earlier, he hadn’t even noticed the dried, sticky berry juice that now stained his hands and chin. Which Bandit had meticulously washed off himself after Max fell asleep.

“Whoa! I musta been really hungry…”

In fact, he still felt somewhat full. It was a welcome feeling. Until now, he hadn’t fully realized how close a companion hunger had become lately. Practically his shadow.

Feeling refreshed and— for the first time in days— fully energized, he wandered over to the pond below the waterfall. Having nothing better to do, Bandit ambled off after him. At first, Max waded out cautiously through a shallow section of the pond, splashing his face several times. And finally just let himself fall in backwards, arms spread, into the cool water.

As he paddled and drifted around on his back, out of the corner of his eye he saw a few small fish cruising aimlessly in the deeper part of the pond. He noticed there was very little algae or growth on the water, which meant it was safe to swim in. Now that he remembered, there were swampy areas on Makando that his elders always warned him about— standing water, they’d called it.

And again that sense of something missing, and the answer always came down to all the people in his life he had left behind. It just wasn’t the same without Lance, Cleo and Carlton splashing around with him. It reminded him of a dream he had a long time ago, about finding a secret pool somewhere in the forest in Layosha. His first thought upon waking, of telling his friends the amazing secret he had discovered… only to realize moments later that it was all just a dream.

Much like how he found himself constantly hoping this was all just a dream, yet no matter how many times he woke up, here he was, still stuck on this mysterious island.

Max swam over near the waterfall and splashed his face several times in the steady trickle cascading down from the rocks above. The cold water was refreshing. In fact, it felt so great that he paddled out toward the center of the crystal-clear pool. He let out a whoop of exhilaration as he flipped and plunged into the water.

Fish scattered in the wake of Max’s joyful dive.

Then he paused. Bandit, who had been his shadow since he woke up here, was sitting at the edge of the water, refusing to go in. He would stick his snout in and lap up water. He would even stick his paw in, giving Max the impression of really wanted to join him, but for some reason holding back. But that was all. He otherwise just stared at Max with a blend of curiosity and an urgent but unarticulated concern.

Max shrugged his shoulders, deciding that the water must be too cold or something. Remembering his conversation about Tygers, Dad had told him that some cats liked to swim, even roaming between close-by islands, and others didn’t. He felt a brief flicker of disappointment that Bandit didn’t want to play in the water.

He only pondered it for a moment before he resumed splashing around, scaring still more of the fish he saw drifting lazily along the bottom.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
first catch
After playing around for a while, Max climbed back out and wrung out his clothes as best he could. At first it felt a little awkward standing around naked out in the open like this, but after a few minutes it began to sink in that there was no one here to see him anyway, and he started to relax. After throwing on his damp— but now much cleaner— clothes, he gathered his things and headed back to the beach.

He only paused a moment to grab another handful of those wonderful berries, figuring that if they were poisonous, he would have gotten sick by now.

He reached the shore just a little past the place where it rose up into cliffs. As he stood watching the waves, he remembered Dad telling his young students about journeying into the woods alone. Live in the reality of the moment… that’s what he’d said. He was beginning to understand that that would be the key to his survival here.

Max stood up straight, as he always did in training. Dad, I know you’re out there… You have to be… And long as I live, I won’t give up on you…

“I’ll find a way…” A lone tear ran down his cheek as he spoke. He brushed it aside, saying one of Uncle Angus’ favorite sayings, “Even if it kills me…”

There was much to be done.

“Hey Bandit! I’ll race ya!” he called out, kicking up sprays of sand as he raced back to the wreck.

Not sure what kind of game this was, but still up for it anyway, Bandit took off right behind him. And Max laughed, wondering if the little creature really understood what he said. Still he thought it was a good sign. It meant the cub approved of his new name.

Side by side, their long late-afternoon shadows rotating slowly like clock hands as they rounded the bends, the two of them ran all the way back to the shipwreck. By the time they reached the ruined hull of the boat, Max had been laughing so hard he was as winded as the cub. It hadn’t been too far, but as far as Max was concerned, it was a start.

“I bet you’ll run really fast when you get bigger!” he told Bandit as he mussed up the cub’s fur. And found himself wondering just how big his little friend might get to be. As big as the Tyger statue? Bigger? “Whoa, if you get too big, I won’t be able to keep up with you!” he laughed.

Bandit slipped away for a moment, crawling under part of the wreckage. A moment later, Max saw what the cat was after as a pair of crabs came scuttling out from under the wreck. Bandit leapt out a moment later, glancing back and forth, trying to figure out which one to pounce. He settled for jumping in front of the closest one, causing it to come to an instant halt.

As the other one scuttled away, Max whipped out his laser sword and cleaved it in half with a single stroke that buried over half the energy blade in the sand.

“Dinner!” came his triumphant cry.

He glanced over to see Bandit matching the other crab’s every move as it jinked from side to side, trying to scramble away. Bandit inching in closer, peering at this alien visitor, sniffing at this fishy curiosity. Max saw it coming even before his feline friend did as the crab reached out with one claw and pinched the cat’s nose.

Bandit jumped back with a snarl of surprise and pain, eying the small crustacean with venomous distrust. The crab, meanwhile, wasted no time in resuming its retreat back to the Ocean—

At least until Max’s laser blade sliced through it, too.

Even as Bandit was warily approaching one of the twitching crab halves, Max picked them up and shut them in one of the wreck’s empty compartments. Then he set out to find some wood while it was still light out.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
boiled crab
Max had to work quickly, because he knew sea creatures started decomposing rapidly after they died. He gathered as much wood as he could, managing to get enough before sunset, then dug a hole in the sand, well away from any tress or brush. Later, he decided, he would have to gather some stones and build a proper fire pit somewhere, but for now the beach would be a safe enough place. He then filled his pan with fresh water from the falls (which had slowed down to a small trickle since last night’s rain) and set it boiling. It had taken some doing, but he finally got the wood to light up.

Through all of this, Bandit remained parked right in front of the wreck’s compartment.

Now Max sat cross-legged in the sand, breaking off pieces of the crab halves and chowing down. All the time he had had to hold the pan steady over the fire while shooing Bandit away. In spite of this, he rewarded the cub’s cooperation— however reluctant— with whole chunks of crab meat. He broke it off the shell, and did the same for Bandit, deciding that the creature’s natural armor probably wasn’t very edible to him, either.

Sitting there reminded him of his family’s excursions to Makando, and even Kinsasha a couple times, what Mom always called a picnic. Dad would often laugh and say that, in spite of all the times he had to rough it back in the day, he never lost his enjoyment of camping and eating outdoors. At times like that, he always said that it was simply too nice outside to sit around inside. Always someplace well away from any of the villages or settlements, always someplace with a breathtaking view of the Ocean or the island scenery.

He kept expecting to hear Mom’s laughter, or one of Dad’s quips about how something reminded him of something from his travels. Sometimes it seemed as if everything reminded Robert of something else. Found he was beginning to understand the feeling, wondered if he really wanted to. It made him wonder how his father could laugh so much…

It was then that he realized it. Though Robert traveled through many hardships in his journey, being stranded, having to wander far-away lands, facing unknown dangers, he hadn’t always faced them alone. It began to dawn on him that what either of his parents were so fondly recalled wasn’t being lost or in danger, but traveling in the company of friends.

Max realized how much he himself had taken to leaning on Bandit, seeing his feline friend in a whole new light of appreciation. Wondered if someday he wouldn’t look back on this moment and laugh. Not about being stranded on a desert isle, but at spending time with a new friend, sharing this meal and building a new life here.

For the first time since his arrival, he started to find the idea of living here a little less frightening than before.

As he dug into piece after piece, he again gazed at the sea. His sense of longing was now mixed with fantastic curiosity. As he sank his teeth into every nook and cranny of shell, he wondered if he would ever get to see any of the myriad of places his parents and other travelers had told of. This only made him even more determined to find his way off this island. He didn’t know how, but as both Mom and Dad always said, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

As he fell back in the sand, letting Bandit lick the sticky fingers of first one hand, then the other, Max decided that he was going to build crab nets later. Crabs and berries, he thought, savoring the glow of warm food inside him. Not only needn’t he starve here, but so far, all the food he found tasted great!

As he dozed off in the flickering twilight of dying embers, he wondered what other kinds of food he could find.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
monster in the deep
Max awoke at dawn, half-buried in sand. Figuring that he must have dug himself in in his sleep, he stumbled to his feet, the sand whispering him a peaceful good morning as he rose. Bandit lifted his head and gazed at him with sleepy eyes, then casually stretched and rose to his feet.

Boy and cub, yawning and stretching at the same time.

Max grabbed his pan, then started at a brisk trot into the jungle, Bandit hot on his heels and gaining. After hitting his stride, Max broke out into an all-out dash, zigzagging through the jungle toward the pond. His sleepiness had completely vanished by the time he reached the clearing.

He let out a long, ecstatic whoop as he took a flying leap into the water. He swam out to the falls. As he paddled leisurely, he again watched Bandit dipping his paws in the water and staring out at the pond with wary uncertainty. Max glanced around the pond for a moment, wondering if his furry friend wasn’t worried about the water itself, but something in it…

He shrugged his shoulders as he climbed ashore, and wrung out his clothes. Bandit was more than happy to follow him away from the water. Max then washed out his pan and filled it with berries from a nearby bush. Breakfast time.

He laid the pan on the ground and started a small pile of berries. Which he of course shared with Bandit, who was crestfallen at it not being crab, but hungry enough to wolf down his share anyway. When Max had eaten his fill, he went back to the pond and washed it down with cool water.

After washing the pan again, he climbed a tree near the pond. A large branch hung out over the deepest part of the water, and he worked his way out onto it, using a nearby branch for support. He stood more than ten feet above the water, the branch barely giving under his scant weight. He looked down for a moment, then jumped.

As the water rushed up at him, Max could see just how deep this end of the pond really was. In that brief second he caught a glimpse of what appeared to be an underwater cave. As he descended, the haze of bubbles fizzled out, and he could see the gloomy shadows beyond the entrance. Now just a foggy black blur, the cave felt increasingly ominous as he drew nearer.

Not liking this sensation at all, Max thrashed wildly, finally working his way back to the surface, letting out gouts of air that might have been cries of alarm.

He coughed and sputtered, remembering how long he had been holding his breath. He looked down at the cave entrance, wondering where it led. Why he hadn’t see it before. And why he had almost panicked as he drifted down to it. Robert had constantly told him to always, always listen to his instincts, and the gut feeling he had only seconds ago was one of great danger. Yet he could see no threat…

That thought trailed off in his head as he looked once more in Bandit’s direction.

As always, the cat had stayed out of the water. Which, now that he thought about it, seemed odd since he remembered seeing Bandit playing in the light waves on the beach yesterday…

That was when he noticed the salty, briny, seawater smell; it had been there the whole time this morning, he just hadn’t been paying attention.

He glanced back at Bandit. Now the cub just stared out at him with big, round, anxious eyes. As if he was afraid of something Max couldn’t see.

Max started to backpedal toward land, wondering why this situation so thoroughly unnerved him; after all, he had been here before and nothing bad had happened…

Even as Max thought this, his gaze again shifted to the underground cave. (Blue hole, he’d once heard Ian call them blue holes…) Even as his mind shifted gears, telling him he was being foolish, he caught a faint hint of movement in the shadows.

At first, it was only vaguely distinguishable from the dim depths, as if one of the shadows had somehow detached itself from the cave floor and started moving on its own. Moving right toward him, and with increasing speed. Max froze as he saw the shadow change into a black mass of flailing tentacles reaching out for him.

As it was almost upon him, Max found his hands and drew his laser sword, now glad he had forgotten to take off his pants before swimming again. He lashed out at one of the dark arms even as he retreated from the ever-shifting mass of tentacles. His only thought was that the shadows in the cave had somehow come to life and attacked him.

One of the tentacles caught him by the leg as he thrashed in futile flight, hauling him back under. Where he knew instinctively he was about to be smothered by still more of the foul appendages. Time seemed to slow down: he watched the stream of bubbles trickle out of his mouth even as he screamed. Somewhere in that shimmering maw of a creature, he could see a razor-sharp-looking beak snapping at him.

In a last ditch effort, he swung again, hacking right through the tentacle gripping his leg.

In his panic, though, he lost his grip on the sword. He paddled back desperately, lucky to still have his leg after such a close shave, watching the radiant green blade fade into the black, inky cloud that now eclipsed the creature and was beginning to engulf the surrounding water. As he swam clear of it, he could see it expanding, mostly in the direction of the blue hole.

He could still feel something clinging to his leg, and this only made him swim harder in spite of the loss of his treasured blade.

Before he knew it, he was dragging himself ashore, coughing violently with the horror of those last few moments. A dreamlike haze was already settling over him, fogging the memory of what few details he had seen. He rolled over, propping himself on his elbows, staring at the big black, swirling blotch in the water.

And that was when something heavy clinging to his leg started twitching.

“Get it off! Get it off!” cried Max as he staggered to his feet, dancing a frantic jig with the flopping appendage. “Dammit!…”

In his panic he reached into a rip in his pants—

GET OFF ME!!

—and ripped off half of his left pantleg to free himself from the dying tentacle’s grip. He could feel the suckers even through his clothes, and he was careful not to touch them as he peeled it off his leg; mostly he was glad the legs of his pants had still been intact. Even so, it would still leave several circular welts on his leg.

For a moment, he simply stood there, shuddering with disgust. Bandit slowly approached him and his grim souvenir, wary curiosity etched in his wide eyes. Max watched as the inky blob began to dissipate, until he could faintly see a dim glowing bar of green.

“Oops…” he mumbled, finding words again, “I must’ve locked it on...”

Otherwise, it would have shut off the second he lost his grip. He knew the laser blade would last for about half an hour at most before it ran out of power. It was what Dad called a “pulse weapon” so it would recharge while not in use, gathering power from the surrounding energy fields of the environment. He didn’t quite get the mechanics of it, but he had once heard Robert and Alida attempting to piece it together.

If nothing else, the glowing blade marked its exact location, so he would still be able to find it later. Years from now, he would laugh about this when he recounted the tale. Right now, though, there was nothing funny about it; he was with Bandit on the subject of going back in.

When he turned his attention back to his feline friend, he found Bandit batting gleefully at the feebly quivering limb. Grabbing a fallen tree branch, Max picked up the tentacle with it. He threw it at some rocks— well away from the water.

For fear that it would come back to life or something.

Max would stand there staring at the green bar of light, chilled more by the fact that there was a monster down there than the fact that he was all wet. This prized possession— this ancient family heirloom— this incalculably vital tool— simply shimmered on the bottom, halfway between the shore and the cave. Just daring him to jump in and go get it. It may as well be on the other side of the Ocean for all the good it would do him there. Ultimately, he would stand there marking its location and warily eying the blue hole until that green light winked a good while later.

All the while, he fought back the maddening urge to just jump in and go get it. It looked so simple, but he knew better. The part that tormented him most was the recurring notion that by staying out of the water, he was openly admitting that he was afraid of that thing.

Devilfish. The name popped into his head, along with the menacing image of the statue in Layosha. And I am afraid of it. And the voice of reason, the voice of Robert, in the back of his mind, told him that he very well should be afraid of it. At least now he knew what it was that Bandit had been so afraid of.

But that didn’t mean he had to admit defeat. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that it was merely common sense to be wary of such a threat. The important thing, he told himself, was not to let fear cloud his judgment. He would have to come up with a plan.

Just like Dad would.

Max would spend hours thinking about it, brooding.
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
brooding
Max woke up the following morning with only one thought in his head. It was the same thought he had finally gone to sleep with. He looked around, noticing that he had kicked a great deal of sand around in this sleep. This didn’t surprise him; he could remember waking up at least once from nightmares about the devilfish. He honestly couldn’t decide which nightmares were worse, the devilfish or that fateful night.

He nudged Bandit awake, then headed for the pond as quickly as he could. And of course breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing that his laser sword was still right where he left it. Barely discernible, shimmering tantalizingly in the deep, but still there.

Somehow he would have to retrieve it because without it he was in trouble: that blade was both the single most useful tool he had, and a personal family treasure he felt awful about losing.

But just looking at the cave made him uneasy. Every time he pictured himself diving in to get his sword, he of course pictured the creature materializing out of the shadows to assail him again. Without a powerful weapon, or at least a decent plan, he was devilfish chow.

He stood before the pond, hefting his new disrupter pistol, wishing he knew whether or not it could do enough damage to fend off such a creature. More than once he pondered just jumping in and swimming after it as fast as he could, but he had seen firsthand how fast that thing was. Then he thought that perhaps he could jump in with the disrupter armed. Designed for use on the high seas, it was water-resistant to a depth of—

Max about jumped out of his skin when a dark shape emerged from the blue hole, cutting through his thoughts as easily as it cut through the water. Stepping back in spite of himself, he watched the blur of tentacles, briefly spotting a stump among them, overtake one of the fish, engulfing it in its dark arms. The thing he found most chilling was the fact that he had been so certain it was there the whole time. Just waiting for him.

As the creature propelled itself back to the cave, Max raised his disrupter and fired. The beam streaked through the water, leaving a trail of superheated bubbles in its wake.

And somehow missed by nearly a foot, even though he had aimed right at it.

He squeezed off several more shots as the creature sped up to escape its incomprehensible attacker in another cloud of that same black fluid. A dead fish, caught by one of Max’s stray shots, floated to the surface as its surviving fellows began to settle down. After a few moments, the thinning dark haze was the only sign that anything had happened here.

After another moment, Max looked down to see Bandit staring up at his disrupter pistol with wide-eyed awe. He lowered the weapon and patted the cub, reassuring him.

Max stood there for a long moment, pondering the devilfish’s escape. His aim had been true for at least one of those shots, of that he was certain. He had had the creature right in his sights…

Then he remembered something, and he finally understood. It was something Mom said once, something like reflection, retraction maybe… He couldn’t quite remember the word she had used, but he understood the concept. Whatever the word was, it meant that water bent light, as she had put it.

Which meant that his aim was no good from up here.

It began to dawn on him that he dwelt too much on his parents’ skills and abilities, on wanting to be as strong as them, though he understood all too well now that this battle could not be won by strength alone. Recalling the battles and challenges either of them had overcome against superior enemies and seemingly hopeless situations, he knew he would need to figure out a way to even the odds, if not turn the tables on the creature, in order to win here. Yet he just couldn’t come up with any situations of theirs that bore any resemblance to this problem…

Max holstered his gun and looked around. Seeing it was the best tool available, he picked up the fallen branch again and hauled it over to the water. Bearing in mind how fast the creature was, he waded warily into the shallow end, using the long branch to pull the dead fish ashore.

Its head was mostly gone, but the rest of it was okay. He and Bandit looked first at the slightly cooked fish, then at each other, not really needing their growing rapport to know they just had the same idea. Max turned and headed back for the campfire.

He would resume this endeavor after breakfast.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
wading into a nightmare
After a small feast of fish and berries, Max again stood before the pond. In his hand he held what might just be his secret weapon. While gathering wood to cook the fish, he had caught a glint of light on the sand. Not far from where the boat ran aground, he found what he now held in his hand.

A pair of work goggles.

Perhaps one of the Cyexians who used them was a mechanic, because the goggles were designed for doing on-the-spot underwater work. He searched the area very carefully, but found no other items. So he took it to camp with him to figure out how he might put them to use.

Of course, he had continued to think about the problem as he ate his breakfast. He knew there was no way to get at the laser sword without going in the water, and he knew the devilfish wasn’t there all the time. After all, it hadn’t attacked him the first couple times he went in there.

And that led to the question of where the cave led to. The salty, sea-smell the creature brought with it was a strong hint. That made him wonder how the pond water stayed so fresh. Or if the creature was always in the cave.

He remembered something his father told him during one of their training sessions: Use your enemy’s own behavior against him. And he remembered the words of his mother: Solving problems in battle is no different than solving any other problem in life. Faced with an adversary he was no match for otherwise, he was beginning to gain a new appreciation for the importance of strategy.

A plan had begun to form.

Before coming back to the pond, Max had tested the goggles at the beach, and they were indeed watertight. And just as important, they allowed him to see underwater with almost crystal clarity.

He stood before the water for some time before finally venturing in. Bandit simply looked at Max in a manner that made him certain the cub thought he was crazy. Maybe I am, he thought. But he was also scared to death.

Still he knew that if he was ever going to get his laser sword back, he was going to have to go in and get it himself. It was a risk he would have to take.

“Dad…” he said, his voice quivering more than he wanted to believe, “I’m not going to lose your sword… I’m going to find you,” he vowed, “and when I do, I’m going to give you back your sword…”

As he stood there, his courage very nearly failed, but he finally forced himself to go forward.

Goggles on, disrupter in hand, Max now approached the pond. He picked up the branch he had used to retrieve the fish. It was also part of the plan.

With every step he took, he felt like he was wading into a nightmare one step at a time. Once he was in deep enough, he wetted the goggles to make sure they were on tight, then headed for deeper water. As he neared the sudden drop-off to the deep end, he again marked the location of his laser sword.

All the while keeping a constant eye on a certain cave.

Feeling increasingly conscious of his vulnerability here in the devilfish’s home turf— like a fish out of water, only in reverse— he took the plunge.

His goggles fogged up for a moment, and he almost turned back. But then his vision started to clear, so he surfaced to catch his breath before going back down for real. He looked over his shoulder to see Bandit’s worried expression, and he knew he was on his own this time.

It would be the last thing he would see of the surface for what would feel like forever.

Knowing that he couldn’t drag this out any longer without losing his nerve, Max descended to the edge of the drop. He had to fight to keep his eyes mainly on the laser sword and only peripherally on the cave, not the other way around. After all, he could only hold his breath for so long, and he knew that the longer he took, the more likely it was that the devilfish would attack him.

That thought made him flail the branch even more as he attempted to drag it clear to his end of the pond. That is, as far from the cave entrance as he could keep himself and still reach. Now he wished he had trimmed a few branches off of it, it was unwieldy and sluggish to drag underwater and maneuver like this.

Even as he caught the laser sword, managing to rake it in a couple feet before losing it again, Max caught a shadow of movement out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, it was the devilfish, advancing cautiously to check out this alien intruder that had once again invaded its world. And Max’s laser sword was still out of reach against the creature’s speed.

It took a mighty act of willpower to overcome common sense and not try to flee. Remembering his disrupter, he aimed it at the devilfish. He had been hoping against hope that he could avoid a confrontation without at least regaining his laser sword, but it was clearly just not meant to be.

With a clear, unrefracted aim here underwater, Max fired. And without the distortion of perspective, his aim was true. He could feel the heated water sweep past him as he put several energy beams through the creature.

The results of his blasts were obscured by more of that inky black stuff as the creature fled this bizarre alien and its incomprehensible attacks. Not wanting to let it get away now that he had the upper hand, he fired repeatedly into the growing cloud of blackness. Firing from multiple angles, certain that he had to hit something.

For its part, the black fog expanded a little, then stopped. Max exhaled bubbles of triumph, for the cloud had also ceased any forward motion. He fired several more shots at it, just for good measure.

As the ink dissipated, he could see that the devilfish was no longer moving. Not even twitching. Somehow he had scored a fatal hit somewhere in that barrage. Now all that was left to do was pick up his—

In the end, it was Max’s still-lingering fear of the cave that saved his life. Even as he reached the bottom, another shadow stirred within the blue hole. Max nearly lost his breath as he realized a possibility he hadn’t previously considered.

There was indeed more than one of them.

Max’s reaction was almost pure reflex. Both of his parents would have been proud of their son’s resourcefulness. Without any conscious thought— which would have only slowed him down, perhaps fatally, in this case— he opened fire on the cave entrance, determined to not let anything get through. Firing more shots than before, he could feel the heat of the water around him begin to intensify. Though horrified at how he had underestimated the peril of his situation, Max had managed to not panic this time, and in counterattacking managed to do something useful.

For in his haste, he hit the inner wall of the tunnel several times, causing it to collapse in a cloud of mud. The second devilfish was no longer paying any attention to Max, as it was too busy escaping from the cave-in Max had triggered.

By now, Max had sunk to where his feet bobbed lightly on the bottom. Sensing his window of opportunity, he dove for his laser sword, then kicked off the bottom as he dropped the branch. As he ascended, his lungs felt like they were going to burst, and it began to dawn on him just how long he had been underwater, the devilfish briefly forgotten.

As he gasped at the surface, though, he again remembered that he was supposed to watch out for something.

Below him, and off to the right, the devilfish now hovered, having taken on a deep red color that Max instinctively distrusted. Without thought, he reactivated his laser sword. With his other hand, he aimed the disrupter pistol, hoping for a decent shot.

For its part, the creature eyed Max’s shimmering energy blade with a distrust born of experience. And Max could now see why. The swaying stump, where one of its tentacles used to be, told him everything he needed to know about this one.

Max stared down the devilfish as he let himself drift back toward the shallow part of the pond; but as he retreated to the safety of solid ground, the creature slowly advanced on him.

Once his feet touched the bottom again, he ducked back underwater, aiming his disrupter at it and opened fire. For its part, the devilfish charged at Max’s sudden move. One of his shots hit it, bringing it to a grinding halt as it once again sprayed that black stuff everywhere—

Max was sure he could score another hit, but his disrupter had picked a very inopportune moment to run out of ammo.

Belatedly he realized that he should have switched to a power clip that hadn’t been used in a major battle before going down here. For a moment he felt himself going limp, and very nearly lost his grip on his weapons. This was just too much.

In another life, Max might have had a wide range of choice words to choose from, but his tranquil Layoshan upbringing just hadn’t afforded him the same opportunities many other kids had. So, unlike many others who found themselves in this sort of dire situation, all Max could come up with was a sheepish-sounding stream of bubbles issuing from his mouth.

And, as if things weren’t bad enough already, the devilfish emerged from the black cloud to face him again. Seeming to sense Max’s horror (he’d once remembered Uncle Angus saying that predators could smell fear), it charged again. And, having decided that maybe he wasn’t quite ready to give up yet, the boy backpedaled for his life.

As his feet touched the bottom more solidly, he flung aside the disrupter, brandishing his laser sword with both hands as he continued his retreat. Wounded and enraged, the creature gave no more heed to Max’s alien weapon, closing the distance between them in a matter of seconds. Max slashed frantically at the water ahead of him, hoping to struggle free in time.

Right as the devilfish fell upon him, Max’s panic dropped away, and he experienced a moment of uncanny clarity. In his focused state, he slashed straight across, severing three tentacles in one stroke. In a flash of motion he had practiced with a short staff for months, he flipped the energy blade around, arcing it over his head and cleaving the devilfish right down the middle.

He continued to hack and slash, screaming incoherently, as he splashed away from his mangled attacker. The water around him black with blood and ink.

He scrambled ashore, still brandishing his laser sword to cover his retreat. Finally, he turned it off and sprawled on the ground, trying to regain his breath after his harrowing underwater battle. His lungs still burned, his arms and legs had turned to rubber, and his head was swimming, but he still clutched his father’s laser sword in his hand. As if he would never let it go.

Bandit slowly padded up to him, staring down at the boy’s goggled face. Then Max started laughing, almost hysterically at first, but then joyfully, triumphantly. Startled, Bandit jumped back, then walked openly up to him when he saw that Max was okay.

For his part, Max sat there laughing about his victory, imagining how amazed everybody back home would be if they knew, as he began to pull himself together.
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the Isle of Paradise
Max stumbled into the clearing and staggered into the water. Even as he fell in and glided out to the middle, he felt much of his weariness wash away. Though he could still feel soreness in muscles he never knew he had. He came up for air, feeling that strange, energized peace he always seemed to feel when he was in the water.

Then reflexively, his reverie broken by instinct, he shot a glance over at the blue hole. Or what was left of it, at any rate. Much to his unspoken relief, the entrance was still completely heaped with rubble. After his battle with the devilfish, he had gone down with his laser sword and hacked out the rest of the arch overhanging the cave entrance until only a few small currents of water flowed through. He was very curious about where the cave led to, but wasn’t willing to risk another devilfish attack at his only source of fresh water.

Though he still wondered about how the saltwater was kept in check.

For the past week or so, Max had been a very busy boy, and on top of that, he had been training really hard.

Among other things, he had cleaned up the devilfish mess as best he could, and now one could scarcely tell he had ever fought a battle here at all. He then finished carving up the two creatures, and made jerky out of as much as he could, as they had done with smaller ones back in the Islands; sadly, a lot of it went to waste because he couldn’t get everything set up in time. At first, he ate only a little of the meat, but fortunately it proved edible, so now he had a small stockpile of food. Which he of course had to lock up in one of the wreck compartments in order to keep a certain cat out of it. This gave him time to start building crude crab-nets out of wood and vines.

He had also built a full firepit near the beach, hidden behind an outcropping of rocks. He was still torn between his desire to be “rescued” (just like in Dad’s tales) and fear of being captured (also from his tales). He remembered Uncle Angus always saying it was wise to remain hidden unless you wish to be seen. So for now, as he hadn’t made up his mind, he mostly kept his presence here hidden from view, at least from out at sea.

As both a training exercise, and a practical project, he was dragging the wreck a little farther inland each day. It was slow going. While the sand made it easier to slide things, it also robbed him of much of his leverage.

Though he often slept on the beach, he had made a more elaborate camp farther inland near the pond. While exploring one day, he had found a cave near the base of the mountain. Since he found no threat within, and had found the back wasn’t too far underground, he had hidden a few of his items in there. He also started marking his days in Paradise in the traditional fashion (I, II, III…).

All the same, though, the back of the cave was too small for him to fit, a craggy opening even his laser blade couldn’t illuminate all the way. Bandit could squeeze in a little farther, and seeing the cub crawling around back there made him nervous. Though there was no visible water, he was still spooked by the whole devilfish incident, and feared his feline friend coming under attack by some as-yet unseen threat while completely out of his reach. In spite of Bandit seeming to sense no danger, he was still on edge until the very moment he got back out.

Especially since he very nearly got stuck.

As a result, Max cut down some heavy branches and built a crude barricade across the back of the cave. Figuring that if he was nearby, he would hear it if anything tried to come out, and if anything strange happened around here, he would be able to check the barricade to see if anything had passed through. Still, given how long he had been here now, without any other unforeseen predators popping out of the woodwork, his fear was beginning to fade, replaced by a peace of mind born of unbroken solitude.

On the subject of solitude, he could still find no explanation for what a cat like Bandit was even doing here in the first place. As he continued to explore more of the island, he kept an eye out for tracks or other signs of any animals, but he never found the mark of anything as big as this mysterious cat. Recalling, as he did, something his father said once about big cats swimming between islands, it made him wonder if there were any others around here, but from atop what he was increasingly thinking of as the Crow’s Nest tree, he could see not even a hint of land anywhere on the horizon in any direction, and he doubted Bandit swim that far on his own.

It was as if Bandit had appeared out of nowhere.

He had all the time in the world to think, and he had decided to use it. Robert always told him to make use of his environment, and he had; Alida had always taught him to respect nature and try to fall into the natural rhythm of a place, and so far he had sought to blend in as much as possible.

And, of course, he had also started mentally mapping more of the island.

But for now he was going to relax for a while. In the absence of the devilfish, Bandit no longer feared the pond, and now eagerly splashed in after him. In fact, the cub had proven to be an excellent swimmer, and loved the water, just as Max had hoped.

Earlier, Max had run up and down the level part of the beach, and had worked up quite a sweat. He had since regained his strength, but he had decided that wasn’t good enough. Here he was on his own, and so he decided that he needed to become stronger. To that end, he began training himself in every way he could think of. And Bandit tagged along merrily, always willing to “help” at every turn.

He started with working on holding his breath for longer. Not that he and his friends hadn’t played such games against each other in the Islands, but after his underwater struggle, he now saw a very practical purpose for such an ability. Among other things, he had cut down a sturdy branch, fashioning it into a crude staff. He also climbed trees at random, seeking the challenge of each individual tree, the taller the better.

Today, he had pushed himself farther than he had ever gone before, and he was exhausted. But glad. He just floated along aimlessly for a while, Bandit paddling around nearby.

There on the water, Max nearly fell asleep. He had found a quiet, detached bliss here on the island, far away from all the troubles of the world, but also an eerie loneliness. If not for Bandit, he thought on more than one occasion that he might try to build a raft and risk the perils of the Ocean in spite of himself. He knew he wasn’t prepared for the wrath of the sea, not with such a tiny vessel and so little in the way of supplies. The idea still occurred to him from time to time, but the island itself held its own allure.

His new life here held all the air of a dream; it was as if time passed differently here. In its own way, it reminded him of an old seafaring legend.

Though Mom said it went by different names in different realms, its most common name was Paradise, though where she came from they called it Fiddler’s Green. Yet, no matter how many names it was given, the legend itself went pretty much the same: since ships first set sail upon the Ocean, some old sailors spoke of an island, a beautiful, wonderful island, a peaceful, pristine place. Here the legends diverged, some speaking of treasures and riches beyond count, others of fantastic and wondrous people who dwelt there, still others of eternal youth. All tellers of this tale telling that whatever they had sought in life could be found in abundance on this mythic isle. There was one other thing all the legends had in common.

You could only “end up” there; you couldn’t get there on purpose.

Max sighed and paddled back to shore. His few years of training back in the Islands were enough to tell him that he was going to be really sore in the morning. But he would push on anyway. He knew that at his age he was still too young to endure the full training, but he was going to push it as far as he could. I’m on my own now, he thought as he wandered back to the warmth of the beach, so I’ve got to be strong

Paradise or not, he and Bandit would have to fend for themselves.
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
training
Max zigzagged through the trees, Bandit hot on his trail. As he charged out into the clearing, he sped up, taking a flying leap into the water. He hit the water with his usual enthusiasm, kicking off the bottom and blazing out into the deep end. Bandit splashed along right behind him, and just as he was catching up, Max dove straight down, scattering the fish that still swam there.

Max’s barrier still held, and there had been no signs of devilfish in weeks.

At the bottom, he crouched for a moment, trying to hold his breath for as long as he dared. When his lungs started straining, he pushed off, exploding from the water with a great gasp. He then swam back over to the edge, Bandit gleefully following, for he knew what time it was.

Max looked over his shoulder at his little friend, and it dawned on him that after these last few months, his friend wasn’t so little anymore. The cub was even starting to get to the point where he could keep up with Max for most of his training exercises. Again he wondered how big his feline friend was going to be when he was grown up.

There they stood, boy and cub, both shaking themselves off in the same comical manner.

“Breakfast time!” laughed Max as he fetched his pan and strode over to some berry bushes. Bandit came behind him, tail held high at the thought of food.

As usual, Max was up with the sun, and had gone for his customary “wake-up” dip before breakfast. After that, he would go check his nets. Then, as the sun climbed to its height, Max would climb up the mountain and ascend to the top of the tree on the cliff. He had started calling it the Crow’s Nest, naming it after the recently-replaced mast on the mountain above the Wandering Spirit, a popular lookout spot in Layosha, and during the time of day when the sky was brightest, he would perch up there and watch for the telltale gleam of a passing ship. So far, he had yet to see one, but, if he ever did, he held the cracked mirror from the wreck, and if he liked the impression that he got, he would signal them with it, just like his father had in his travels. From on high, he could see much of the island from different points, and had explored nearly all of what he could survey.

When he had tired of sitting up there waiting for the extraordinarily unlikely, he would climb back down and begin work on various projects and training games. He was slowly carving out a niche for himself, and Bandit seemed indescribably happy with his life here. Such was how Max spent his days in Paradise.

As he had come to think of it. After thinking about it so much, the name simply stuck. Though at times he was still bothered by the troubles that had led him here, he was beginning to lose himself in this serene new life.

Time seemed to have less and less meaning the longer he stayed. One day flowed into the next to the rhythm of the ever-present tide. The outside world began to feel increasingly distant, like the more far-fetched legends he had heard in his life.

He sometimes wondered if anyone else had been here before. Yet the more he searched, the more he doubted it; after exploring most of the island, he still had yet to find even a hint of anyone else’s presence. Though he took up his Crow’s Nest perch almost every single day, something told him no ship was likely to pass this way in his lifetime. Still, the Ocean held many mysteries, and Robert had become one of them. When he was up there, he yearned to be out among the rolling waves, for he was certain that his father was still out there; he still refused to believe he could really be gone.

For a time, he had also feared that perhaps Slash may have survived. Once he had dozed off up there and had a nightmare vision of U-553 surfacing near the beach…

Max shunned the thought as he munched a handful of berries, reminding himself that if those Cyexian pirates could find this place, they would have weeks ago. He once again found himself thinking about his most recent project, a small raft that he was half-afraid to complete. For fear that he might actually have half a mind to try it out. Though he knew it would take him months to finish, at the least. His laser sword made short work of the trees he had carefully chosen from around the island, but dragging each one to the secluded site near the beach that was his “workshop” would take weeks. If nothing else, it was good exercise, and it would give him still more to do with all the time in the world.

Just another day in Paradise…
XVIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the flood
Max stood on the side of the mountain, looking down on the mess the coming of dawn brought with it. He was still at least fifty feet above the waterline, which submerged most of the trees up to their lower to middle branches. His raft floated almost directly below him, moored to a tree.

Bandit stood above him, on a jutting slab of rock, still as bewildered as he had been the night before. Somehow, in a matter of hours, his island playground had become an underwater disaster area. But at least the cub— whom Max still tried to think of as such, even after all these months— had finally slowed down. After over a year of sustained growth, Max was starting to wonder just how big his feline companion was going to get.

In the end, it was Max’s “failed” experiment at shipbuilding that may well have saved their lives. The storm started innocently enough, but within the hour it became clear to him that this was more than just a passing storm, for the water and waves were advancing beyond the beach. Sloshing through the water, Max had gathered up the most important of his base-camp items, wading— near the end, practically swimming— to the raft. Which he had never dared take beyond sight of the island. The waves pushed them steadily inland, and he had to struggle at every turn to maneuver through the obstacle course of trees.

After that, it had been a harrowing climb up the mountain through treacherous winds and stinging sheets of rain. Bandit almost didn’t make it. The whole way, thoughts and fears racing through his mind about how he was going to distill water, where he was going to get food…

What in the world was he going to do if the water didn’t stop.

That night, he had gobbled up all the berries he had gathered for an after-dinner snack, not knowing when next he would get to eat. Though he was greatly relieved that the waters were receding now, he had stayed up almost all night under the roots of the Crow’s Nest tree, reassuring an overgrown kitten and quietly wondering if the seas were going to swallow the entire island. Had stayed up all night, telling Bandit all the tales he could think of.

The storm itself, the rising tides and flooding, reminded him of the legend of the Wandering Spirit. The very ship the Ancestors arrived on Layosha in, run aground in Shipwreck Bay centuries ago, its remains maintained by successive generations as a monument to the Ancestors. Though some even scoffed at it now, and questioned how anyone could survive such a cataclysm, a colossal tidal wave the like of which had never been seen in the Islands’ known history, great enough to deposit a vessel that massive beyond the beach.

For all accounts, even the wreck itself, testified to just such an event.

Though only scant records remained of it, somebody survived the disaster and founded the island nation of Layosha. Though many suspected that the survivors welcomed some Outlanders to join them, and the Elders often cited this theory as the reason for their periodic acceptance of Outlanders, such as his mother, into Layoshan society. Aside from the disastrous similarities between the legend of the Wandering Spirit, and his current situation, he wondered if it was starting a new life from scratch here that brought to mind the aftermath of such an event. Made him wonder how tough the Ancestors had it before they got settled, yet somehow he doubted anyone was going to drop anchor here any time soon, as his solitary year or so here attested, this place seemed to get even fewer visitors than the Islands’ rare Outlander arrivals.

Even after Bandit had finally gone to sleep, still he dwelt on that legend, wondering what he could learn from it, bleary-eyed as he watched a cloudy dawn. Of course, Max often told his feline friend stories about his old life. Stories that slowly began to take on all the distance and half-reality of some of the old legends. Sometimes he wondered; he knew it was all real, just as he believed in all of the places his parents told of, still at times it felt more like a dream than the past.

And he sometimes longed to go back, yet dreaded to face everyone. He refused to believe Robert was dead— if he could survive that, so could his father, end of story— yet he still felt unbearable guilt over not jumping in and helping him against Slash. But he felt even worse about stowing away in the first place, wondering what he could possibly have been thinking. Every time he thought about it, he couldn’t help thinking that he had only gotten in the way; with his son’s safety as a distraction, there was no way Robert could focus his full attention on fighting Slash. Had only gotten Ron— and possibly the others— killed. More than anything in these moments, he hated that sense of helplessness that accompanied these memories, and vowed that if ever again the lives of anyone he cared about were on the line, he would not hesitate to jump in and help them.

It was yet another thing he thought about a great deal over the past night.

But in general, it was a thing he thought about less and less as time drifted in and out with the tide. Though any time he looked out on the Ocean for long, he always wondered for a moment where his father may be.
XIX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
aftermath
Max dashed across the beach, Bandit holding a solid lead. Their tall, spindly shadows kicking up sand and keeping pace with them stride for stride as they grew taller in the setting sun. Soon they would head back to the pond for their evening swim.

Max kicked off a rock jutting out of the sand, veering off into the jungle. He laughed as the panther swung around to catch up with him.

As he swerved through the trees of his mostly invisible training ground, he found he was still amazed at how quickly the forest had recovered from the flood over the past three or four months. The jungle reclaimed everything in a matter of weeks. Anymore, there were few traces of the flood damage, as even the underbrush was making a comeback.

He and Bandit had survived the aftermath by eating berries and fruits that grew above the waterline, as well as using the two nets on what was left of the raft to catch fish and crabs, as well as scavenging and making jerky out of the creatures that had been “stranded” and left aground as the waters receded. Though it took a while for the pond to clear up; in the meantime, out of the wreckage of his ship, he had rigged up both a simple setup for distilling saltwater as well as collecting rainwater to drink and cook with.

Bandit bounded along, quickly catching up with the boy and overtaking him. Where Max again confounded him by jumping and kicking off a tree trunk with one foot, shifting and bouncing off another tree with the other, practicing a technique he had seen both his father and Angus demonstrate before. Anymore, he was getting pretty handy at bouncing off of random arrangements of trees. Bandit leaped and scrambled to match Max’s ever-shifting directions with a wild grace and agility that had in turn become Max’s inspiration.

The two of them continued to vie for the lead as Max guided them through the jungle on a completely random route.

Though much of his jungle playground existed in its natural, unaltered state, it was a clear reflection of the full extent of Max’s boredom as time went by. He had started simple, but just kept getting more ideas for training himself in different ways. Since he only needed to devote a few hours a day to finding food, he spent his waking hours training and working on various projects. In his spare time, he had dismantled the raft— which had not only been damaged in the storm, but also washed too far inland to do him any good— bringing what salvageable portions he could back to his original work site, and even modified the rebuilt raft some more, but still refused to take it anywhere out of sight of land. He rebuilt the firepit near the beach, also made bowls and other items out of coconut shells to replace the ones he was working on before the flood, replaced his crabbing nets— even built a sturdy hammock— out of vines and wood, and replaced much of what had been ruined or lost in the flood.

The flood had also done him one other service: it had dragged the wreck even farther ashore than he was beginning to think he ever could, almost to the edge of the jungle.

After kicking off random trees— having gotten good enough to land three in a row pretty consistently, and once nailed a fourth, but landed flat on his face at the end, which didn’t strike him as a very effective technique if it left you that vulnerable at the end— leaping and swinging on low branches, and balancing across a slender fallen tree, among other things, his path would eventually take him to the pond. Though he had taken to hanging out in different parts of the island from day to day, the pond was near the center of the island, and he always wound up there at some point. After cooling off, he and Bandit would go eat dinner, then tonight he felt like playing near the beach until sunset.

In addition to practicing the hand-to-hand and staff techniques he had been taught as much as he could on his own, he also took to practicing sword forms with his father’s laser sword. He had only one power clip apiece left for his power pistol and his disrupter, and thus could not count on such limited ammo to protect him for long if he were ever threatened, making his recharging energy blade his best asset. In addition to the deadly cutting blade, capable of slicing virtually any material, and could be repelled only by certain energy fields, according to his parents’ and others’ experiences, the laser sword had two additional modes. In stun mode, the blade’s energy field expanded, causing it to “solidify” by repelling physical objects— at least that was how his mother explained it. And having the non-lethal side effect of disrupting a target’s nervous system, rendering them unconscious. There were even two power settings, one that knocked people out, and one that just caused a stinging sensation and made localized areas go numb. An in-between mode, which his father often called a “solid” blade, expanded the field enough to repel objects, but not cause the stun effect. Some also called this “training” mode, and Max often used it practicing to avoid injuring himself.

At first he found it intimidating, trying not to picture himself facing such a fearsome opponent as Slash, yet after a while, he instead imagined himself off on an adventure like his parents’, fighting assorted foes while trying to envision their moves. How to attack, how to defend. It was all he could do in the absence of an actual sparring partner. But he hoped that, with time, which he now had plenty of, he could improve his skills enough to defend himself and Bandit, if need be.

Yet even as he dueled with imaginary intruders, he couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that he was never going to see any in his lifetime. If not for Bandit, he wondered if he would be able to stand it here as long as he had. Still, at times, he found he was almost at peace with accepting the idea of being here for the rest of his life, as the outside world faded away.

On the Isle of Paradise, the days seemed to have no end.
XX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
where the ocean meets the sky
The setting sun cast a red-gold light on the Ocean, setting the horizon on fire from Max’s view atop the Crow’s Nest.

He sat in his usual perch, as close to the top as the slender branches could support. Even a year ago, he could have sat a couple branches higher, but like his friend, he had grown a lot since then. Along with marking the days, he had also been marking his height every few months on one of the higher walls in the cave. Bandit sat on a different branch, but still within easy reach as Max put his arm around the big cat, mussing up the tuft of fur under his chin.

Because it was so hot today, he had decided to spend the night up on the mountain. Later on he would climb down and start making camp, but for now he would remain and gaze out at the Ocean.

Sometimes, when he gazed down from here, his mind’s eye superimposed terraced levels and landlocked house boats of Shipwreck Bay over the jutting slabs of rock that converged to form of the face of this side of the mountain. Even two years away from his former home hadn’t fully dimmed his vision of it. From this lofty vantage point, he could see the ghosts of his fellow Islanders making their rounds, just as he had watched them so many times back then.

At times like this, he occasionally wondered what everyone was up to, how they were doing after all this time. Though it would start innocently enough, it would usually end in picturing his mother all alone, the storm having whisked away both father and son, and it always left him with a deep sorrow that would take a long time to fade. Which was probably why he had come to think about it less and less as time went by.

Contemplating these things too long often made him wonder if this was what it was like to be dead. After being gone so long, he must surely be dead to the world.

Though the island had offered him peace and abundance, at times like this he became restless. Even from up here, the tide whispered its secrets, and he somehow knew he could hear them better if he could just get out there. The longing he felt sometimes completely overwhelmed the idyllic joy of his life here, taunting him with the one mystery he desired most of all to know.

“Dad…” Max spoke quietly, believing that on some distant horizon his father spoke his name and sought after news of his son.

Max would still be up there after dark, when he would finally come down by the light of the moon and stars.
End Notes:
-early scenes: 1995
-Notebook draft: March 11 – August 1, 2002
-Word-processed draft: July 28 – August 20, 2003
-additional revisions: May, 2008

In a lot of ways, this was one of the most challenging parts of the series to write, because the story itself is very different from most of what I write, since this is mostly an action-adventure type of series. Though necessary to the storyline, it took me a long time to get in the right frame of mind to write it. I think it took experiencing the pain of loss for myself to finally understand Max more fully. Time seemed to stand still for me at that point in my life, which really contributed to the feeling of time going soft while Max lived on the island. I was originally worried that I would lose everybody at this point, but I guess I must have done something right, given the solid response this story has gotten nearly everywhere I post it. Thanks for sticking around for the ride, and I promise the pace will start to pick up in the next part.
This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=10394