The only thing to at all contradict his growing sense of solitude was the occasional scrabbling or clunking that sometimes echoed to him from other parts of the ship. Betraying not a hint of apparent cause, whether by other people, or just the ship “settling” with obvious age and neglect. Also with no discernible connection to the random fits of equally random sounds in his headphones, either, quite possibly unrelated.
Though he had not seen a procession of shadows like the spectral parade he hid from earlier, this ship was one forlorn, haunting mass of shadows, a maze of deserted decks and corridors that rear-ranged itself behind his back to a degree he had not seen even in the depths of the Harken Building. Nothing he had seen here offered even the slightest clue to what happened to his friends. Or the Maximum, for that matter.
All he could do in here was just desperately hope that shadowy ship that sailed away earlier wasn’t his ride. Yet in spite of all his lingering fear, a part of him harbored a hopeful doubt. After all, it made no sense for his friends to just up and leave, it was the one proverbial chunk of floating wreckage he clung to amid the ruins of reality he now drifted.
Even so, it still gave him a chill to consider standing on the other side of the story.
In most of the Twylight legends, at least one person always seemed to get left behind, and he now wondered just how many ill-fated souls this grim fate had befallen over the years. Wondered if he hadn’t just seen a few of them earlier. As he wondered just how long Justin and Shades would keep vigil beside this derelict of the damned.
Had they panicked and fled at that bizarre phenomenon earlier? Somehow, he just couldn’t bring himself to picture it. For all his talk about being afraid, Shades always proved himself to be made of sterner stuff than he thought. No matter how much Justin claimed to be Looking Out For Number One, Max had never seen him abandon his friends. Though if he couldn’t find his way back to the right deck, back to the right ship, he had to wonder just how long he could reasonably expect them to wait for him.
In the end, even Mom and Dad and Uncle Angus waited only so long before they were forced to give their good friend Chad Owen up for dead.
It didn’t help to bring in Teena— whose stun-sticks Shades brought with him out of the darkest depths of the Building— how he could not, for the life of him, recall whether of not she made it out, too. Now he wished he could un-picture Chad’s tattered remains, as well as the unsettling thoughts of running across any of them onboard… Of being reduced to a ragged skeleton for some other unfortunate explorer to stumble upon. Without a name, without as much as a tale of how he came to rest there.
And it was in the midst of trying to calm himself in the face of such grisly possibilities that he heard the rising tide of static. Just like before.
Seeing shadows stirring farther down the passageway, Max beat a retreat in the opposite direction. Not wanting another ethereal encounter with whatever haunted this ship. The noises in his headphones eerily diminishing as he put some distance between himself, and whatever walked the decks back there.
Then, around the corner, he caught footsteps. Not on the radio, but with his own ears. Followed by what sounded like someone tripping and falling, and he kept expecting to hear someone cry out.
Tired of playing cat-and-mouse with this leaky boat and its never-ending host of noises, Max sprang around the corner, laser sword readied in his good hand.
Of all the things he might have expected to find, the little boy huddled in the corner was about the farthest thing from it.
In the midst of the events since he first ended up aboard this ghost ship, he had all but forgotten that he was originally searching for a child. Or at least he thought it was a child. At least before he started looking for Shades or hiding from phantoms. Now he stood before the boy he was so certain had scampered away from him right before the lights went out, and whatever happened happened.
After chasing and being chased by phantasms, he was a little thrown off at finding his quarry cowering in the corner, staring up at him with big, panicked eyes. Even lowering his laser sword did little to allay the boy’s terror. Denim jacket wrapped around him, knees quivering visibly through the tears in his pantlegs, blue-and-white glove on one hand, and an emerald ring on one finger of the other. Hands clutching shaky shoulders.
Small as possible, as if waiting, hoping for something horrible to pass him by unnoticed.
In those eyes, gazing up at him with apprehension and longing, Max saw himself. Those eyes mirroring the fear and uncertainty and homesickness of a boy not much older than this who washed up on a desert island once upon a time. Only, unlike with him and Bandit, this kid never found any relief, clearly forced to face this haunted vessel all alone.
Putting away his energy blade, Max reached out to the boy, who stared silently up at him, petrified.
When his hand actually touched the kid’s arm, they both gave a start. Max at confirming this one was indeed flesh and blood, rather than the spectral forms he occasionally glimpsed here and there. On his part, at what the child wouldn’t say. Simply shrinking back as if he just couldn’t cope anymore, tears streaming down his face.
“It’s okay,” Max assured him, wiping away the tears on his cheek, “I’m not a ghost. I promise I’m not gonna hurt you. So tell me, what’s your name? I’m Max.”
The boy stared blankly up at him, and Max would swear to his dying day the little tyke’s mouth never moved, but the voice that briefly surfaced from the sea of static washing though his headphones was definitely that of a child.
Sobbing: “Mom, please… I just wanna see Mom again…”
All Max could think was how he used to cry himself to sleep so many nights during his early days on the Isle of Paradise.
“Come on.” Max grasped the little boy’s hand, lifting him slowly to his feet. He had no more idea where the boy’s mother was than he knew the whereabouts of his own father, but he somehow doubted ‘Mom’ was anywhere on this creepy derelict. The only thing he could think of to do was to be the rescue he always hoped for back then. “This is no place for a boy.”
No place for me, either, he concluded as they set out.