Just the fact that his feline friend was so relaxed on this empty school ground was a great relief after some of their more harrowing experiences in empty, deserted places. Still, he found himself imagining the Layoshan Islands as empty and deserted as Adnan’s. He couldn’t help thinking about Shades’ verbal tour of Lakeside as his mind’s eye wandered the paths of his childhood from one familiar place to another, wondered why this place made it so easy to picture the hillsides of Shipwreck Bay totally vacant.
Found he had gravitated toward the playground, and lost track of time, as he couldn’t remember how long it had been since everyone previously checked in.
After being stranded aboard the Twylight, the last thing he wanted to consider was either of his friends trapped in such a predicament. Deciding to start with Shades, who was closest, he said, “Shades? Did you find anything?”
“Shades?” Recalling all too well the staticky radio silence of that ghost ship. “Shades?”
“Yo! Shades!” Even Justin jumped in, much to Max’s relief.
Yet still nothing.
“Come in!” Even as he spoke, Max turned to head for the Academy Building, wondering if perhaps they should have checked out the Camcron Building before splitting up…
“Are you there?” Even Justin was starting to sound frantic.
“Shades!” Max was already halfway to the gate.
“Yeah, I’m here,” Shades said, though he sounded rather preoccupied, at least from his tone. “Sorry, guys, I was just thinking, that’s all.”
“Don’t scare me like that,” Max told him. Now that it was all clear the whole thing was a false alarm, he wanted to head back over toward the cliff overlooking the shore. “Justin’s already in position, so at least it looks like our radios still work here.”
“There’s something I want to check out,” Justin piped up. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay,” Shades said, so Max figured he’d have some time before either of them caught up with him.
As Max crossed the playground, he stopped for a moment in front of the green machine. The Sleeper II, as strange to behold as a lot of things he had seen since he left the Isle of Paradise. Even so, it gave him a creepy feeling just to imagine it sitting anywhere in Layosha, not matter how still and silent it sat.
Not just here, he amended, but anywhere else he had been, either, the thing just did not belong.
Giving it a wide berth, he went over to the log cabin near the edge of the playground. The gaps between the logs were spaced for easy footholds between them, followed by the jutting ends of the corner joints, protruding just far enough to let him to get past the eaves and up onto the roof. Understandably, there was a fence around the perimeter, even taller than the rest, along the edge of the cliff, but from up here, he could see over the edge almost as well as if he was standing right in front of it.
Shades had told him earlier that this area looked a lot like his school’s playground when he was a kid…
…The playground of Max’s childhood would probably not have been most urban parents’ first choice, but was safe enough in spite of its appearance.
Though Max and his friends had free reign of the beach and the patches jungle and forest dot-ting the island of Layosha, there was a place they were particularly fond of playing. Around the way from Shipwreck Bay, on a small stretch of sand backed by steep cliffs, whose only access was the harbor proper, was a more modest shipwreck. Anchored by chains of steel and bonds of sand, inspected and found quite stable, having already been stripped of anything salvageable, it was now the ideal place for the Islander’s children to play at seafaring; when Cleo’s father, Ian, saw how much the kids took a liking to it, he made a point of maintaining it.
Max stood on the canted upper deck, Cleo manning what was once the helm, each of them holding a stick, Cleo’s branch forked with a handgrip that, to a child’s eye, looked a bit like a power pistol, Max’s piece of driftwood he imagined was his father’s laser sword. On the lower deck, Carlton held a telescope he borrowed from home, where he scanned the horizon, spotting the fishing ships as they returned for the day, black silhouettes floating against the shimmering reflection of the setting sun.
“Watch out!” Carlton called out to his friends in frantic warning. “It’s the Cyexian Fleet!”
Lance dashed out from below deck, carrying another long piece of driftwood he held like a power rifle, “Where?”
“Dead ahead!” Cleo called out, pointing at the approaching fishing ships as they headed for the harbor.
Of course, there had been no Cyexian Fleet since their grandparents’ time, not since the last time all dozen or so Cyexian clans joined forces against Layosha. Not since the days when another pirate named Slash menaced the Islands. All the same, it didn’t stop any of the four of them from hearing ominous talk about a woman in this era by the same name, with the same dangerous ambitions, possibly just crazy enough to try it if she got half a chance.
A fitting villain for their imaginary invasion.
“Don’t let them board us!” Max called, brandishing his blade as if being boarded were a foregone conclusion. “We can’t let them set foot on Layosha!”
“Battle stations!” Cleo shouted, remembering lines she had overheard from his father and Max’s uncle Angus conducting training drills aboard the Darkhorse and The Edge.
Carlton collapsed the telescope, stuffing it in a pouch in his belt, stepping up to what was likely once fishing gear, pretending the remaining swivel mounting was a quadra-barrel laser cannon, aiming it at the fishing ships.
They all stood watching the ships slowly advance, their child’s game having become unexpectedly intense, and Max wondered for the first time in his life what it would be like to face a real battle—
…Max was jolted back into the here and now as Bandit perked up at Justin and Shades’ return, the memory began to fade as subtly as it descended on him. It always intrigued him how his memory worked at times like this, especially now that he found himself in a new realm every time he turned around. Was beginning to understand how, for people as well-traveled as his parents, everything seemed to remind them of something else.
Now that he thought about it, in the intervening years, he had come to understand what it felt like to stand on the threshold of battle, and he wanted to chastise his younger self for being so eager. Having seen the carnage and mayhem of the battlefield for himself, he was just relieved his new friends were still with him through all of this. Personal experience cast the stories of the last great Cyexian War in a grim new light, made him hope his old friends would never have to see anything as horrible as Slash, or anyone else, uniting any of the Cyexian clans against the Islands in their lifetimes, wishing them peaceful lives.
Of course, now that he was older, he also understood that the real reason the Cyexians were reduced to occasional skirmishes, stunts like raiding cache supplies from Kinsasha— why there had been no real war in decades— was because of the rise of the Triangle State Authority. Once upon a time, he might have considered the Cyexian/TSA standoff to be good for Layoshan peace, but that was before he met Justin Black. Having heard his first-hand account of what the Authority was really like, he couldn’t help but feel guilty for the thought of all that oppression just for the sake of his former home.
Which brought him back to this business with Camcron Industries, which Justin said was some kind of ally of the Triangle State, so he was naturally curious to find out if his friends had learned anything else in the meantime.