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Author Topic: Tradewinds (Original Fiction)  (Read 26316 times)

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August 21, 2011, 04:03:42 AM
Reply #25
IX
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…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 21, 2011, 04:04:36 AM
Reply #26
X
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 22, 2011, 02:46:38 AM
Reply #27
XI
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 22, 2011, 02:47:29 AM
Reply #28
XII
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 23, 2011, 03:47:30 AM
Reply #29
XIII
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 eyeing 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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 24, 2011, 02:11:47 AM
Reply #30
XIV
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 discernable, 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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 24, 2011, 02:12:51 AM
Reply #31
XV
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 25, 2011, 02:56:21 AM
Reply #32
XVI
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 (llll).

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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 25, 2011, 02:58:00 AM
Reply #33
XVII
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…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 26, 2011, 05:29:56 AM
Reply #34
XVIII
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 26, 2011, 05:30:42 AM
Reply #35
XIX
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 27, 2011, 03:42:35 AM
Reply #36
XX
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.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 27, 2011, 03:45:10 AM
Reply #37
-early scenes: 1995
-notebook draft: March 11 – August 1, 2002
-word-processed draft: July 28 – August 20, 2003
-additional revisions: May, 2008
word count: 19,794

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. 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. Thanks for sticking around for the ride, I promise the pace will start to pick up in the next part.

-Standing backwards, Scoot.


COMING SOON: Part 3
Wherein Max gets an unexpected visitor, and word of the outside world, an account of smuggling, harrowing chases and treachery…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 28, 2011, 04:16:20 AM
Reply #38
“SHIPWRECKED”
The dawning of another day in Paradise: the sun shining, birds chirping, the eternal tide washing on the beach, as countless days before it had begun.

Only today there was something new under the sun in Paradise, something new for the waves to break against. Last night’s storm had dragged in what was perhaps not a true first, but was at least a second in the island’s known history. For stranded on the sand was the wreck of a small vessel. It was somewhat larger than the boat that washed up some five years ago, yet was of similar design, sleek and swift-looking. But no more, for the storm had hurled it against some of the rocks that peppered the beach near the cliff line. Now there was a gaping rip in the hull.

Painted above the gash was a symbol that Max had only seen in his elders’ descriptions, a symbol for which he had maintained a great deal of vigilance over the years.

The symbol of the Triangle State Authority.

This particular vessel was no derelict, though; its sole occupant had washed up a short distance away. Already he stood on shaky legs, staggering through the wet sand toward what remained of his ship. He was short and wiry, clothed in the ragged-out remains of light blue coveralls that bore the same insignia as the boat. A steel circlet and a length of chain dangled from each wrist.

His short black hair stood in sand-caked disarray as he scratched his head at the sheer misfortune of his wreck’s location. If it had only washed up farther down the beach, it might still be intact. Beached, no doubt, but almost certainly intact. His green eyes stared intently at the wreck, as if his gaze could somehow undo the damage, betraying ever greater dismay as it dawned on him that the ship that had carried him this far would never sail again.

Damn…” he croaked.

Wasting no time, he climbed aboard the wreck, which wobbled back and forth in its landlocked final resting place. He was very glad to see the standard-issue power rifle still in its compartment, as well as a med-kit he knew he could find uses for. Otherwise, all he could find was a few odds and ends that were either broken or of dubious use; just a mostly empty canteen, for whatever ration packs he had had been washed overboard in the storm. The boat clearly hadn’t been very well stocked when it came into his possession, but he had been hoping he had overlooked something before.

No such luck.

Now that he was armed, the young man turned more of his attention to his surroundings. He could see no immediate threat, but naturally wanted to be as well equipped as possible before exploring. After all, he was in unfamiliar territory, and very ill at ease with the knowledge that he couldn’t leave this place. That, and he had his own dark suspicions as to who he might find here.

He then set out. As he continued down the beach, he gradually regained his land-legs, and some of his strength, even as he adjusted to the shifting sand. At this point he wasn’t entirely sure where he had landed since he had deliberately sailed right off the Authority’s maps, or what he remembered of them. How he had made a point of going the “wrong way” for the Cyexian islands, as he sought to avoid them altogether. (Not that he was complaining about it) but as far out as he had been, he knew of no place the storm could have deposited him.

Unless…

No. He waved that thought aside. The mysterious island of Layosha was just a rumor, and even if it were real, it was said to lie beyond Cyexian waters. Unsure of what kind of welcoming committee he might encounter, he decided to keep his guard up. If nothing else, he had no idea who or what might live on this island.

He honestly hoped there was someone here who could help him repair his ship (if that was even possible without resources he doubted this place had), Layoshan or otherwise. Though he suspected that a helping hand— or even a friendly welcome— was more than he had a right to expect. As for where he was, there were rumors of uncharted islands, but he really didn’t believe there were any. Between the Cyexians and the Triangle State Authority, these waters had been very thoroughly explored.

But the Ocean beyond had not. Not by any means. Surely I’ve gone off the map… That thought intrigued him, as he had always wondered where all those travelers and traders came from (hell, where he originally came from, for that matter), but shed little light on his present situation.

Mostly he wondered at the sheer coincidence of this island being exactly where it was at the time.

At first, there seemed to be no signs of habitation, but as he crossed the beach, the young man found the watered-down remains of a campfire. If no one was currently here, then the area had only recently been departed, most likely because of the storm. Though it was so badly damaged that he couldn’t tell how old it was.

He suspected that there were others on the island, and he knew there might be other islands in these waters. Only a further search would reveal if the island was inhabited, or at least frequently visited.

Now certain that he was not alone, he hauled out the power rifle and kept it handy as he explored. He knew it wasn’t a very friendly gesture, but to him it was better than being defenseless, so he set it for stun, figuring that would be sufficient for self-defense. In unknown territory, no one could be sure what kind of welcome they might receive. He started thinking more and more about the possibilities he now faced. If he had truly broken free of the Triangle State and its ruthless Authority, and the feuding Cyexian clans, and he hadn’t stumbled upon legendary Layosha…

If I keep going this way… he finished aloud, “I’d never have to deal with any of those assholes again…”

I’d be free…

That thought stirred a mixed bag of emotions. If nothing else, no one knew him in the outside world, or knew that he was supposed to be executed. Or at least no one would know now.

About time I did something about these damn chains, he decided. He had had no time in his hasty departure from Pullman Island to work on them, and that tiny vessel rocked too much for him to even try it. Then that storm came up. The one thing that burned him now was that this mine camp uniform was the only scrap of clothing he had to his name. The Authority can still screw me over, even here…

But first things first. These chains were driving him nuts. That, and he was sick of being reminded of his captivity. On that note, he checked his right boot, relieved to see his secret weapon was still there, chalking his negligence up to disorientation. He wandered into some trees, looking for a sheltered place to work while he was so vulnerable—

His search was interrupted by a short yelp, followed by what sounded like laughter.

His chains forgotten for now, he took off in the direction of that sound, nearly falling flat on his face in the shifting sand. The laughter had ceased, and was quickly replaced with the sounds of an ensuing struggle. As he drew nearer to the source, he could hear low growling noises, that caused him to slow down as he approached.

He came around a dense growth of foliage and was brought to a halt at what he saw.

There on the ground lay a young man, and on top of him sat an enormous black-and-white cat. The largest he had ever seen; so large he nearly fumbled his power rifle at the sight of it. The young man appeared to be grappling with the creature, struggling to get out from under it. There was something he didn’t quite understand about this scene, mostly the young man’s lack of urgency, as if this were some kind of game or something, but it was his philosophy to shoot first and ask questions later.

So, not wanting to see what the big cat might do next, he shot it.

There were three reactions, in rapid succession, and only the first one was what he expected. That being that the cat, hit bang-on, reeled away from the young man and fell over with a shocked snarl. At the same time, the young man leaped to his feet, staring at the other in stark disbelief, gasping, “You killed Bandit…” The final reaction in this sequence happened too fast for the stranger to even keep up with.

Max sprang at him in a rage, kicking the stranger’s rifle out of his grasp before he could even think to fire a shot. In a blur of motion, Max’s foot arced back the other way, knocking the stranger flat on his ass. He barely rolled out from under his fierce opponent, but even as he was getting back up, Max kicked him upside the head, knocking him down again.

“So much for gratitude…” the stranger muttered, taking the fight back to Max with a charging uppercut. But Max held his ground, blocking the stranger’s attack and digging his heels into the dirt as his opponent ran into him. It was just beginning to dawn on the stranger just how much taller Max was than he when he was grabbed by his coveralls and kicked straight up into the air as Max rolled on his back.

Max rolled out from under the stranger as he hit the ground. Hard. He was still dazed by Max’s heavy-duty move as he struggled to his feet. Max, however, wasted no time in scrambling after the fallen power rifle.

As Max picked up the rifle, the stranger reached into his tall right work boot, desperate to out-match his foe’s unexpected swiftness. He pulled out something that looked like a longer version of Max’s laser sword, firing up a short blue blade at either end as Max raised his new weapon. At which point the stranger knew he had lost the race.

“The hell—?” was all the farther he had time to blurt out before Max shot him with his own gun.

-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 29, 2011, 04:06:56 AM
Reply #39
II
“…Wake up, whoever you are. I know you’re not dead.”

For a moment, the stranger wondered if his run-in with the mysterious young man and that big cat had all been a dream… but it had seemed so real… His head hurt like a son of bitch and his arm was numb… Maybe I’m still lying on the beach… Lying on the beach!?

He sat straight up, and a sharp pain sliced through his head.

“Don’t move!”

That voice spoke again, and he knew it had been no dream. He opened his eyes again to see the young man aiming his own power rifle at him. He took another look at Max’s clothes. Or what was left of them. Five years— though he didn’t know exactly how long this guy had been here— it was clear that they were well past worn-out. They were even more destroyed than his own, in spite of Max’s best efforts to take care of them. After all, they were the only clothes he had. The clothing he had found strewn on the beach, back then, had been a large and baggy fit. Now, most of it was still fairly loose-fitting, but too small; the pantlegs reached only halfway past his knees, one of them not even that far, having been torn at the seams on one side, and he had to wear the remains of one jacket as a vest, undone because it was too small in the shoulders. A couple toes stuck out of one of the boots he was now wearing.

Sitting at his side was the cat, staring at the stranger with mingled curiosity and distrust.

“But how…” the stranger stammered, letting himself collapse again. He just sat there staring back at the cat. “I thought…”

“Lucky for you, this thing was set for stun,” Max told him. He kept his guard up, but the fact that the stranger wasn’t attacking anymore was a hopeful sign. “Lucky for Bandit, too.”

Of course… The stranger then remembered that he had set it for stun mode, just to play it safe. He had had every intention of defending himself, but wanted to know who he was dealing with first. The Authority already wanted him dead; he hadn’t wanted to cause any trouble here if he could avoid it. So much for that idea…

“Bandit?” he finally managed.

“My kitty,” Max told him, patting Bandit on the head. He found this conversation strange; if he hadn’t talked to Bandit all the time, he might have forgotten how to speak altogether. “Now who are you and why did you attack us?”

“But I wasn’t attacking you,” the stranger told him. “I thought he was attacking you!”

“Why should I trust you?” Max demanded. “You’re from the Triangle State, aren’t you?” He knew the symbol well enough; he had been warned about it since he was a small boy.

“Well, yeah…” He knew he couldn’t deny the insignia on the back of his uniform. “But I’m not with them…”

“Who are you?” Max asked again.

“I’ll tell you who I am if you tell me who you are,” the stranger replied. “Dammit, I meant you no harm…”

“Fair enough,” Max said after a moment of thought. He was trying to play it cool like Cleo always did. At least this visitor had decided to talk rather than fight. And, if nothing else, he was someone to talk to.

“Don’t try to act so tough, kid,” the stranger told him.

“Look who’s talking,” said Max. As far as he could tell, this visitor couldn’t be much older than himself.

“Look, my name’s Justin. Justin Black.” And he wanted to get off on the right foot this time, especially since this guy held the upper hand. He just hoped he was right about this. The young man interrogating him didn’t seem like military material— too youthful, too trusting— but he sure as hell fought like it. Still, he didn’t think this guy was as cold as he was trying to act.

“My name’s Max,” Max told him.

“Look, Max, I’m sorry I shot your… friend. I thought he was attacking you.” But at least now he understood why Max had been so pissed. “I didn’t know he was your friend, man. Ya know, we really got off to a bad start here. I mean, since no one got hurt,” (at least not seriously, he thought, rubbing the side of his face where Max hit him) “why don’t we just forget about it?”

“I forgive you, if that’s what you mean.” Max still wasn’t sure if he fully trusted Justin, but for now he lowered the power rifle. “So why did you leave the Triangle State? And what are you doing here?”

“Where the hell is here, anyway?”

“Paradise,” said Max. The puzzled look on Justin’s face reminded him that Paradise was just a name he made up. “Well, that’s what I call it. I guess this place doesn’t really have a name. I’ve been here for years, and you’re the first person I’ve ever seen.”

“Years? What do you mean? Isn’t there anybody else here?” Justin looked around, seeing the island in a whole new light.

“Nope. Just me and Bandit.” This Justin would have been an Outlander in Layosha, but now he was an Outlander, too, and he wanted to know more about this visitor. “It’s a long story. But how did you get here?”

“That damn storm, that’s how,” said Justin. “Look, those TSA bastards had me in prison, and I escaped. That’s why I’m stuck in this stupid outfit… Say Max, could you get these fuckin’ chains off? They’re cutting my wrists.”

Max thought about it for a moment. He had once spent many hours thinking about what he would do if the Cyexians or any Triangle State people came here. Because Justin was being peaceable, even with the power rifle set aside, Max decided to take the risk. He tossed Justin his laser staff.

But kept his own energy blade a secret. For now.

“Thanks, man.” Justin was relieved to finally have a weapon again, just a matter of instinct. Yet he suspected he wasn’t going to need it in the near future; so far, this Max had proven less an enemy than he was a fellow castaway. The return of his weapon was proof of that. “Have you ever seen a laser staff before?”

Justin activated it, and a short electric-blue blade flashed into existence at one end of the handle.

“Yeah,” Max replied. “A long time ago.”

Meanwhile, Justin carefully held the shimmering blade up to the lock on his left shackle. Careful not to touch himself with it, he worked, the laser blade cutting through the steel as easily as it did through air. The binding dropped away from his wrist with a clink that belied its original strength.

“Now the right…” he muttered. He turned off his staff and offered it to his new friend. “Max, could you give me a hand with this?”

Max took back the weapon, figuring that if this Justin felt safe enough to hand the weapon back, he wasn’t really an enemy, reactivating it and cutting off Justin’s right manacle with noticeable care. Even so, Justin flinched for a moment with an energy blade hovering so close to his good hand. As he suspected, Max at least had a passing familiarity with energy weapons. Max turned it off and handed it back, all but confirming their truce.

“Hell yeah!” Justin laughed, rubbing his worn wrists. The shackles had clearly left their mark. He then turned back to Max and asked him, “So, Max, how did you end up here?”

“We were on a ship,” Max told him, pondering his words as carefully as he had cut his new companion free. “There was a storm… I don’t remember much, but the next morning I woke up here.”

“And no one else, huh?” Justin could tell there was something Max didn’t want to talk about; this mysterious young man was so up-front about most things, that already he found he could almost read him like a book.

“No,” Max replied. “I don’t know what happened to everyone else…” At least that he was certain of. “I got lost in the storm… The boat I got here in is on the beach, around the bend.”

“Sounds like you have a story to tell.”

“So do you.” The more Max thought about it, the more he realized what this meant. So many places he’d never seen… “If you tell your story, I’ll tell you mine.”

“Okay. Just one thing, though: you got anything to eat around here?”
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 30, 2011, 02:23:03 AM
Reply #40
III
“So,” Justin asked, “if you wound up here all by yourself, then where did he come from?”

“Oh, Bandit was already here. I don’t know where he came from,” Max told him. “It’s weird. I never found any other cats here. Not a trace. I’ve been here for years, and I’ve never seen anything…”

They now stood among some of Max’s favorite berry bushes. Max picked a handful of berries and handed them to Justin.

“You’re serious?…” Justin eyed them warily at first, but finally succumbed to his hunger and chewed a few of them suspiciously. He paused for a moment, then munched down some more. Clearly surprised at the fact that he actually liked them. “Damn! You didn’t tell me these things were actually good!”

“Yes I did,” said Max.

Justin grabbed some more berries and sat on a fallen log, getting up for seconds, and even thirds, he was so hungry.

Finally, he wiped his mouth and asked, “So, is there anything to do around here?”

“Yeah, lots of stuff,” Max replied.

“Like what?”

“I train.”

“Train?”

“Yeah,” Max told him. “I run and swim and practice my fighting skills… fishing…”

“Running? What the hell kind of fun is that?”

“It’s lots of fun, Justin. I try to beat Bandit. He always wins, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.”

“Great.”

“Do you want me to teach you how to fight?”

Justin pictured Max using him as a human punching bag. Then he thought about it. This guy was serious. Damn! He remembered his brief battle with Max, and pictured him beating the crap out of any of the TSA’s bastards, even Trevor. And winced at the memory of that battle.

“I guess so,” he finally told Max. After a moment, he stood up and said, “It looks like I can still stand, so let’s see if anything useful washed up here.”

His steps were shaky at first, but now that he was no longer weak with hunger, Justin was much steadier on his feet.

As they made their way back to the beach, Bandit tagging along but still keeping his distance from Justin, Max asked him, “Tell me, Justin, how long did you live in the Triangle State?”

“Well… You know, I’m not really sure… about six or seven years… I think…” Justin slowed down for a moment, as if his mind had paused too. He hadn’t really thought about it much in a long time. Had discovered that, as time went by, his memories of his life before the Triangle State grew more hazy with every passing year. He remembered the ship traveled a lot, yet the destinations remained vague in his memories, just fragments that felt more like figments. “I know I came there in a ship… but I don’t remember much… I think I was left behind or something… I don’t know what happened, really…”

He paused again, a look of inexplicable irritation crossed his face, and he said, “Look, Max, let’s just drop it, okay?”

“Sure.” Max could tell something about his thoughts had really gotten to him, in a way he had neither intended nor foreseen. Of course, now that he thought about it, he still wasn’t quite sure what he was going to tell Justin. He had made a bargain: a tale for a tale. “Well, there’s what’s left of my ship.”

By now they had reached the beach, and Justin could see what Max meant. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to give up. Now they had spare parts from two vessels, so he still harbored the hope of being able to piece something together.

They then continued up the shore to where his own ship ran aground, and Justin asked Max, “So, where did you come from?” He could see Max’s boat was a TSA standard model, but majorly stripped down. His guess was Cyexians. But Max didn’t seem to know much about either of them, thought he did know enough to know the Authority was bad news, so he wanted to know who he was dealing with.

“Well…” Max found himself pausing in spite of himself. “I ended up here about five years ago… Before that, I lived on an island…”

“So do most people in the Ocean,” said Justin. “What island? You don’t look Cyexian to me.”

“I’m not,” Max assured him, thankful for Justin’s change of subject, “I just don’t remember a lot about it. I’ve been here so long…”

“You’re not from Layosha, are you?”

The stunned look on Max’s face told him all he needed to know. “So,” he asked, “You know that name, huh?”

“Yes… Yes.” Max halted again. “I just haven’t heard it in so long…” But he saw his chance to keep his battle with the Cyexians out of this. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Yeah, but hell, I always thought Layosha was just a legend.” Then again, he also thought the Isle of Paradise was just a legend, too; now he wondered if that wasn’t where Max got his name for this island. “You used to live there? Seriously?”

“Yeah. I think… The name sounds right. So what do you know about the Islands?”

“Well, for starters, I didn’t know there was more than one.” So Layosha was real… He had often scoffed at it as a myth, but secretly he had always wanted to believe it: a place— any place— the TSA and the Cyexian clans didn’t control. “What was it like there?”

“I don’t remember much, but it was very… Hey, isn’t that your ship?”

It was perhaps proof that there was such a thing as a stupid question, given that so far as they knew there were only two shipwrecks on the whole island, but it bought Max some time to figure out what he did remember. He wasn’t being completely dishonest; during his years here, the past had indeed become more and more hazy to him. He didn’t want to lie to Justin, but he also didn’t want to talk about that night, and kept picturing accusations…

“Yeah,” said Justin, “whose did you think it was?”

That one got such a sheepish look out of Max that he couldn’t keep himself from laughing. Max looked strangely uncertain for a moment, then laughed himself.

Almost, it seemed, with relief.

Unless there were some tools and supplies in that wreck, Max wasn’t exactly sure what Justin thought they could do. One look at that gash was all he needed to know it had reached the end of its voyage. Though for now he would see what his new friend had in mind. This was the chance he had all but given up hope for, the chance to see the world. And perhaps seek answers to questions that had quietly haunted his otherwise peaceful days here.

He was rather dismayed to see the growing discouragement in Justin’s face as he again examined the wreck.

“Damn it all to hell…” Justin muttered as he took a closer look at the torn hull. It was now dawning on him just how much of his earlier appraisal had been mere wishful thinking. He kicked the hull, wincing at the pain that stung his foot. “Ow! Shit!…”

“Justin…” For all his years of isolation from human contact, Max had no trouble seeing Justin’s anger and frustration. But much to his chagrin, he couldn’t figure out what to do, or what to say, that wouldn’t just make things worse. So he just fell silent.

For one jarring moment, Justin thought he was going to break down, right here in front of Max. And for a moment, he really wished he was all alone here. The strength drained out of his legs, and he fell flat on his ass. He pounded his fist in the sand and started pulling himself together before rising slowly back to his feet.

All the while, Max simply stood and watched him, unwilling and powerless witness to Justin’s troubles.

“Guess I’m stuck here,” Justin muttered, turning and gazing silently at the incoming tide that had brought him to this place.

“I don’t know,” Max finally said, hoping Justin had cooled off enough to listen to him. It was little consolation, but, “I’ve been building this raft—”

At that word, Justin snapped his head back around, demanding, “What kind of raft?”

“Well, it’s not much,” Max admitted. “I really don’t have anything to work with here… Maybe we could use some of the stuff from your ship… and… I don’t know…”

At the very least it was an idea.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

August 31, 2011, 03:30:07 AM
Reply #41
IV
Max sat on a log, petting Bandit, Justin across from him, a small fire crackling and flickering in the dark between them.

They had spent most of the day looking over the two boats, and Max had taken him to see the raft. Examining the wrecks, and trying to form some kind of plan. If nothing else, discussing plans seemed to take the edge off Justin’s nerves; he was now calmer and of a somewhat more optimistic disposition. Max supposed it was mostly because it looked like they might actually be able to do something about it.

“So,” Max asked, remembering even as he spoke that he had already asked him that, “how long did you live in the Triangle State?”

That was a good question.

Justin tried to piece it together, but after a moment admitted, “Beats the hell outta me, Max. I mean, I know I was there for a few years, but I came from somewhere before that…” Again, that aggravating sense of it all slipping away from him, a half-remembered dream of seemingly unrelated scenes that sometimes played in his head like clips from some old film. “Since I was about eight or nine, I think…

“Before that, I went a lot of places… but all I can remember is… I don’t know. It’s like I know the place, but I don’t know what’s going on…”

Max saw how strained Justin’s face looked, as if he was really digging for what little he had to offer, and felt ashamed of what he knew he was holding back.

The last few years of Justin’s life had left him little time to ponder the distant recollections of a half-forgotten childhood. A few scenes faded in and out during his stay at Pullman Mine Camp. Otherwise, he didn’t think much about it anymore; most of his earliest memories felt more like daydreams, like glimpses of someone else’s life, rather than his own. Yet he was always the star of these one-act scenes. At times, he remembered more about these places than he thought he could possibly know, things he was certain he had never heard from any traveler.

“I used to live on a ship, but I don’t remember what it was called… Max, can we talk about something else for a while? This shit’s giving me a headache.”

“Sure.” Even Max could tell that Justin had tapped himself out. The intensity of his effort was written all over his face. “So what do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know.” Justin thought for a moment, then said, “I guess you could tell me about Layosha.”

At first Max was silent. They were both struck by the awkwardness of the day’s conversations. Justin at being free and not having to hide or be silent. Max at simply having another human being to speak to. In either case, each of them adjusting to changes in trends that had followed them for years.

At last, Max said, “Well… the Islands are beautiful, like here…” and tried to continue, wishing he had the words to describe his feelings, “and peaceful…”

“Peaceful?” Justin again rubbed the bruise from where Max had kicked him upside the head this morning. “Then where the hell did you learn to fight like that?”

“My dad taught me, of course,” Max said, then wished he hadn’t. He didn’t want to go there, so instead he asked, “Where did you get a laser staff anyway? I thought they were really rare.”

Earlier, Max had shown him his laser sword, and of course Justin had demanded to know why Max hadn’t told him about it earlier. Though once he thought about it, he realized that Max had only done what he would have. Kept it secret.

“I guess they are,” Justin replied. “I’ve heard of them, but this is the only one I’ve ever seen. I got it when I escaped from this guy, I think he was a mercenary. The Authority hires some tough guys from other realms to back up their guards.” He remembered his narrow escape from the Junkyard Dogs, and the trophy he claimed from their leader… “I don’t know where the hell they come from, but they’re always better armed than the other troops. So where did you…?”

“It was my dad’s. He lost it in the storm.” That was true enough.

Justin sat for a moment in silence, then said, “He must’ve been a hell of a fighter.”

“He’s a fisherman. And he has to be alive… I mean, I made it…”

“Yeah…” Justin had no memory of either of his parents, and for a moment he resented Max for even being able to remember his father. “So did everyone know how to fight like that?”

“Yeah,” Max said absently, “We had to. Because of the Cyexians.”

“Damn Cyexians…” Since his escape, he had been so preoccupied with the TSA that he had all but forgotten who had gotten him into this mess in the first place. And again his rage boiled over. “Damn you, Trevor! Damn you, Slash! Damn you all to hell!…”

Max froze at the sound of that name, seeing her again in the pouring rain as she faced Dad…

Bandit looked at Justin with growing alarm, then to Max in dismay.

Justin got a grip again, seeing the stunned look on Max’s face, and asked, “Do you know Slash?”

Max blinked, then answered, “Well, who doesn’t?… I mean, she is the most feared clan leader in these waters. But… what happened to you? She lives?”

“Last I saw of her,” he muttered. “I hope they got that bitch. It would serve her right…”

“Whoa…” Max wondered if Justin didn’t have more of a tale to tell than he originally thought. Not that he wouldn’t have listened anyway. After all, Justin was first news of the outside world he had heard in years. “You’ve gotta tell me about this.”

“Say, isn’t that crab done yet?” Justin had gotten a crash-course in herb lore for lunch, and he was famished.

Max peered into the pot for a moment, then told him, “Yeah. Looks like it. Remember, you have to cook it through or you’ll get sick.”

“Yeah, I know,” Justin replied. “Sorry. I just haven’t had much to eat lately, and those ration bars taste like crap.”

“No problem.” Max wasn’t entirely familiar with Justin’s vocabulary. Most of it seemed to consist of insults and curses, but he wasn’t sure what all of them meant.

“Say Max,” Justin asked as Max served up their supper, “where did you get that necklace?”

It took Max a moment to figure out what Justin was talking about, then he remembered the medallion that his father had given him all those years ago. He wore it everywhere, except when swimming, and had largely forgotten he even had it on.

“It used to belong to my father,” Max told him. “He traveled all over on the sea before I was even born, and I think he picked it up somewhere out there. He gave it to me for my birthday when I was a little boy.”

“Birthday…” Justin sighed, wishing for the first time since he was a child that he knew exactly when his was, and begrudged having to guess his own age. “Sounds wonderful.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry. So any idea where the thing’s from?”

“Nope. I don’t even know if Dad knew.”

So they sat and ate boiled crab for dinner, talking in circles as Max tried to describe the Islands and Justin tried to remember how he came to be in the Triangle State, finally settling for explaining about his life in that realm. Justin was still worn out from his harrowing escape, and though he was as fascinated hearing about a place he had thought a myth as Max was hearing about a place that had been an enigma even to his father, he was still unable to keep his eyes open for long. Just not used to staying up so late.

And though he would remember little of it upon waking, Justin again dreamed of the days before he was stranded in the Triangle State…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 01, 2011, 02:42:25 AM
Reply #42
V
…The smell of the sea is the smell of memory for those who’ve slept by its shores; for Justin, as one who has rested his eyes while sailing upon it, it is also the smell of dreams, as memories lost to his waking life flow through him in gently rolling waves.

Again he is lost in a haze that is more shadow than substance as he feels the world slowly rocking back and forth under his feet. Though he spent much of his most recent days on
terra firma, in his early years he would spend much of his time between lands and so when he was older he would have no trouble finding his sea legs. In fact, he has to come to like the sensation, he finds it relaxing; for the rest of his days, he will always fall asleep more easily on a seagoing vessel than anywhere else.

As Justin pads down the shadowy hall, passing a long line of closed doors, he again wonders why such a big ship is always so empty. It is always dark below deck, with only occasional small lamps on the walls to light the way. Sometimes he swears this ship is haunted, for everything onboard feels so old. As if it belongs to another era long past, long before his time.

It feels haunted to him, but not in a creepy way. For a child, this ship, like many things, simply
is. He accepts feeling lost most of the time as a simple fact of life, and spends much of his time at sea wandering the decks, though he seldom encounters a soul. He has come to know every inch of the ship; at this point in his life, it is the one thing he really knows.

Sometimes there are more people around, but most of the time he finds himself alone wherever he happens to be.

He sees no one on his way to the main deck. Even above deck it’s dim and murky, the sky full of heavy clouds. As usual, the decks are empty as he takes his ambling tour. There is a haunting beauty and allure in this place that would later make him wonder why so few people wished to come out here.

He is about to go back below to see if there is anything else to do, when he sees a lone figure on one of the upper cabin decks.

A little girl, about his age, wearing a dress that, on anyone else, anywhere else, would have looked silly and… somehow old-fashioned. In a way that (like so many other things in this place) he just can’t quite put his finger on.

These are strong undercurrents in his thoughts, but on the surface, he just finds himself feeling a little less alone at having found another human being. Time is a strange thing on the Ocean, and it often seems to slip through his fingers like the sands of the beach, to the point that sometimes he doesn’t know how long he’s been out here. Many people come and go at the blur of ports that swirl in the back of his mind, but she is a regular.

He knows not from whence she came, no more than he knows of his own origin. There is a certain “lost” feeling about her that seems to mirror his own. Her eyes are the grey of the sea, and they make her look wiser than her years.

Justin is certain they are windows to her own little world, both within, and without.

He isn’t really sure why he finds her so fascinating. The only thing he can come up with is that some part of his mind equates her with this ship. Somehow she just
belongs here.

He wanders over to talk to her, to find out where she’s from, for he has seen her out and about before, but never really had a chance to talk to her, this he thinks as he steps into the mist swirling along the deck…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 01, 2011, 02:43:26 AM
Reply #43
VI
Max was up with the sun, and with a stretch and a yawn, he took off with Bandit to the pond.

So when Justin woke up, he was all alone. He glanced around warily, then saw his power rifle lying on the ground next to him, and he relaxed a bit. Just to be on the safe side, though, he checked and made sure his power clip was still there. He didn’t really expect Max to do such a thing, but with everything he had been through lately, he didn’t quite put anything past anyone.

He sat there for about ten or fifteen minutes before Max returned, soaking wet, damp hair still hanging in his face.

“Where the hell have you been?” Justin demanded.

“Swimming,” Max told him. “I tried to wake you up, but you just kept muttering at me. Anyway, I got us some breakfast, too!”

Max had brought back a full pot of berries, and he and Justin dug in.

“I remember,” Justin declared out of the blue.

“You remember what?” asked Max.

“The name of the ship I was on before I wound up in the Triangle State.” He had been mulling it over in his head since he first woke up. It had been dancing on the tip of his tongue, just out of reach, and then he remembered it a moment ago. When he woke up, he also had a few fleeting memories of his dream before it all went skittering off into a confused jumble of vague images. “It was called the Skerry.”

Scary?” asked Max, “What was so scary about it?”

“No, not scary, Skerry…” Justin looked around and spotted a stick on the ground. He no longer remembered where he learned to read, except that he already knew a bit before he was left high and dry, and that he had learned a little more from a traveling teacher who later vanished without a trace, likely a result of her outspoken opinions about the Authority. “I remember the name.” After all, it was proudly displayed all over the ship. “It was spelled like this…”

S-K-E-R-R-Y, he drew in the dirt.

Max simply stared at the word.

“I don’t know what it means,” Justin told him, “but it always sounded kinda, well, eerie to me.”

“So how did you end up in the Triangle State?” Max asked, hoping that perhaps his new friend remembered more.

“Like I said,” Justin told him, “I don’t remember a lot. I think I got left behind…” The only really distinct memory he could dredge up was of wandering around the port of Benton, and not being able to find stem nor stern of the Skerry. “I guess I got lost or something.”

Just thinking about it conjured up this image of the Skerry sailing away while he was off aimlessly wandering every crooked corner of his unsuspecting new home…

In Justin’s words, Max heard the same sense of abandonment and confusion he had felt in his early days here in Paradise. As he had not felt in a long time.

“It was a big ship,” Justin continued, “I always felt lost… but not like I was in trouble or anything… I don’t know. It all feels like a weird dream. We went to so many places… I could’ve got left behind at any one of them.” He snorted, snapping out of his reverie. “But I had to get stuck in that hellhole…”

“It was really that bad?…” Max could feel the resentment and bitterness dripping off of Justin’s last words, and wondered what the Authority could have done to him…

“You have no idea,” Justin told him. “I spent most of my time hiding in the woods, outside of town… I had to steal food, clothes, shoes… I had to hide from the guards, or they’d just force me to work all day… I had no choice. I had to go into town to find food… and… and… You really don’t have any idea, do you?”

Max had been listening, and his jaw dropped steadily as Justin described a life he could barely begin to imagine.

“How did you stay alive for so long?” he finally managed.

“I did what I had to,” Justin replied. “I spent so long, just wanting out. I hated it…”

Max stood there for a long moment, then said, “Come on, Justin. I’ll show you around the island, and you can tell me what happened.”

“Okay.” Justin figured, why not. After all, no one had ever asked to hear his side of the story before. “I guess you could say the whole mess began one morning…”
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 02, 2011, 04:25:29 AM
Reply #44
VII
One morning.

That’s how these sort of things always seemed to start. One bright morning, one bright idea. Bright as the solid slat of sun on the concrete wall.

The sun that was inching its way down onto Justin Black’s cold, huddled form. He had spent the early hours of the morning curled up, shivering in the tattered remains of a blanket that had seemed a lot warmer when he first absconded with it almost two years ago. For now, though, he had been enjoying the growing warmth of the sun, for it would be gone in a couple hours.

After a while, Justin finally got up. He hung the blanket on a protruding hunk of concrete, not wanting the bugs or the rats to make it their home, and walked over to the deep slit in the concrete wall. He knew from experience that once he was up and moving, the chill and the stiffness would fade. The view from up here was one of the few things he really looked forward to on any given day. From up on this embankment, he could see many of the ships that passed through Benton Island’s ragtag excuse for a port.

Just another day in the Works.

Or rather, what was left of the Works. The ruins stretched out behind him in all directions, both above ground and below. From various overheard conversations, he had pieced together little, other than that the Works used to be a major facility when the Triangle State Authority first “annexed” Benton (once
Gwanga) Island many years ago, and that it was destroyed during a riot in that same era. Much of the ground-level portion of the Ruins had crumbled to a skeleton of its former self, and many of the underground parts were commonly thought to be unstable.

That, of course, being the very reason Justin chose it as his home. Though a few vagrants sometimes hid in the ruins above, no one dared venture into the crumbling basement levels.

Which suited him just fine; he knew the risks, and there were even some parts he dared not go because they looked a little
too unstable. This section— compared to its exterior— was quite solid. The Works’ reputation, combined with the fact that no one else had found the entrance to this level, served to make this the only place in the Triangle State where he actually felt safe.

At least until recently.

He first discovered this place over five years ago while being chased in the woods by some guards. Had fallen down into part of the basement, and the guards had climbed down after him. After what had felt like a terrifyingly long amount of time, scrambling through tunnels what were once hallways, he found the “entrance” to this area. It had been a tight squeeze, but Justin was skinny little bastard, and he made it just moments before the strobe of flashlight beams came zigzagging around the corner.
Come on, he had heard one of his pursuers say, If he went down here, he’ll be lucky if the roof doesn’t collapse on him! Like what had happened to some other guards a few years ago who went poking around down here. And another one said, Little streetrat thief! I hope the roof does fall down on you, ya little shit!

And they walked away, laughing wildly.

In the intervening years, Justin had appropriated a meager stockpile of supplies in this, and a couple other rooms. In a small pouch tucked in a crack in the wall, he kept a little money, though he ended up hoarding most of it; sometimes he would actually
buy food, but it always raised the question of where a dirty little streetrat even got pocket-change from in the first place. Unless it was canned, he couldn’t keep food in this place; the rats just ate it when he wasn’t around. Sometimes they were audacious enough to try it when he was. So he still had to go into town to find food on an almost daily basis.

It took his eyes a good while to get used to the bright light flooding that narrow concrete slit. After which he spent a couple wistful minutes watching a ship glide out of the harbor and off into the unknown reaches of the Ocean. Of course, he kept back in the shadows, for fear of somehow being spotted from afar, but he loved to look out from this underground highland perch. If he had a telescope, he would be able to see Pullman Island— which he would be visiting all too soon— from here. Before he found the hidden level of the Ruins, he had sometimes wondered what was up there, behind those mysterious concrete slabs up on the bank, where he could see narrow little windows. From this now obscure, hidden place, he could watch ships sail in and out from different parts of the Triangle State, and the vast reaches of the Ocean beyond… Then the fierce growl of this belly brought him back to the here and now, and he sighed, stretching and yawning as he turned back to his bedcorner.

Yet again, he was going to put his ass on the line just to bring back table-scraps.

Tucked in his fraying belt was a power pistol, and tucked away in several nooks and crannies of his hideout were several stashes of power clips. He kept them in two sets: one set was used (and he had no idea how much power was left), and new clips that were at full power. He always kept his pistol armed with one of the latter. He also had a couple other pistols and rifles hidden in the dark maze beyond, just in case.

Little did he know, but years before he ever set foot in the Triangle State, this place had once been used as a base by a group of guerrillas who had escaped from the mines. It was these freedom fighters who brought down the Authority’s wrath on the Works— already a
de facto home for the homeless— and reduced it to the Ruins. Had no idea that he wasn’t the first to wield that power pistol against its original owners.

In the corner, where he spent every night shivering on the cold stone, dreaming of sand and sun, was the flashlight he always kept close to him in the darkness of the tunnels. He would want that handy at the entrance when he returned; by now he knew his way around in the dark, but he still kept it close at hand for emergencies. And he wasn’t too keen on losing it in the dark either, given that he very nearly ended up as some guard dog’s chew toy getting ahold of it in the first place.

He picked it up, heading into the tunnels that were once hallways, switching it on briefly to make sure the batteries were still good. He also had a couple hard-won stashes of power cells hidden down here, too, along with various odds and ends he had managed to get his hands on over the years.

Though he knew the way by heart, he also remembered that it was the sound of dripping water that first led him to where he now went. Ever deeper he walked, skirting holes and small piles of rubble, until he came into a cavernous chamber whose floor was spotted with scattered puddles. This room lent every sound a deep atonal echo, robbed of any warmth by metal and concrete. The far wall of the chamber was crisscrossed with pipes, most of them broken, leaning at various angles. A few still ran unbroken, but Justin knew that nothing flowed through them anymore.

Only one was still running.

Trying to keep his feet dry, Justin made his way over to a pipe running at about waist-level. There was a large metal valve wheel, and he knew he only had to give it about a three-quarters turn to get a modest flow of water. He never gave it more than a full turn, though, fearing that someone might notice a decrease in water somewhere. He had no idea why this one was still running, or if anyone actually
received anything on the other end, but he wasn’t about to give the Authority any excuses to start poking around his subterranean home; he had enough trouble with them above ground.

After filling up a chipped plastic cup he kept near the pipe, he splashed his face a couple times, then cupped his hands and took several long draughts. Feeling refreshed, and more awake, he made his way back through the tunnels.

At some point, he turned a different way from where he came from, ultimately arriving at the entrance to his secret hideaway. He set the flashlight down, took one last swig of water, then set the cup down as well. Hidden in the rubble was a backup power pistol he kept waiting there, just in case.

Thanks to the Triangle State Authority’s Streetrat Subsistence Diet, Justin was just as scrawny was he was when he was a little kid, so he had scarcely had to alter the entrance since he first stumbled upon it.

Here there were gaping gaps in the ceiling, revealing patches of sky and trees. A couple rooms over, he found the ragged edge of a thick foundation, leading up to the ground in easy-to-climb steps. Looking cautiously to make sure no one else was about, he quickly ascended the steps and emerged into the woods above. Seeing the coast was still clear, he stepped onto one of the old paths and made his way to the shantytown below.

On the surface, things appeared to be set to go just like so many days before it, except for one small detail: Justin had made a little change of plans.

To most, the Works was a lonely place, but to Justin Black, it was a welcome reprieve from all the assholes he had to put up with on the rest of the island. Under the Works was the only place he had ever felt safe, but now even that might be taken away from him. At first he had dismissed it as rumor, but he had been overhearing an increasing amount of talk— and from all the wrong people— about the Triangle State Authority planning to tear down the old Works and build new Works on the same site. Even then he had held out the hope that it was all talk, as previous proposals had been over the years, but just the other day, he had caught sight of a survey team snooping around the aboveground portions of the Ruins.

Justin knew his days here were numbered.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 02, 2011, 04:26:25 AM
Reply #45
VIII
“…When I realized that there were two of them, I thought I was dead for sure!” Max told Justin. “I thought I had everything well in hand, but I hadn’t planned on two of them.”

“Damn, Max!” Justin laughed. “You’re nuts!”

And not for the first time in this particular conversation. After a while Justin had tired of telling Max about his life in the Triangle State for the time being, so Max was telling him about his confrontation with the devilfish. He still wasn’t quite sure if Max was pulling his leg, but if it was true, then as far as he was concerned that made his new friend either the boldest person he knew, or the stupidest, he couldn’t make up his mind which. Of course, Max had promised to show him the creatures’ beaks later.

Since breakfast, they had walked a considerable stretch of the beach as they talked. Max was giving his new friend a literal tour of his world, and Justin was giving Max a narrative tour of his. Bandit, of course, was still keeping his distance from Justin, but at least he wasn’t acting so jumpy anymore. Max took that as a good sign.

“Well,” Max told him, “I promised my father I’d give his laser sword back, you know… in case I ever ran into him again.”

“I still say you’re crazy,” Justin replied.

“Besides,” said Max, “It would’ve been a lot harder to survive here without it. And I needed to figure out a way to keep using the pond again, anyway.”

“So how did you get out of that?” Justin wanted to know how Max managed to best a big bad devilfish when he was out of ammo. Of course, he could have told Max to change power clips; where he came from, going in half-assed will get you killed. But he was far more interested in hearing how Max got out of this one.

“For a moment, I thought I was gonna die,” said Max. As he had gone on with his story, he began to realize how easy it was to laugh about a life-or-death situation that now lay behind him. No mistake, he had been terrified back then— one with any less fortitude or strength of will would likely have soiled himself— but only a hint of that fear lingered now. “It’s just, I went though so much trouble— I even got Dad’s laser sword back— I just couldn’t give up without a fight. I don’t know what came over me, but the fear just… went away. I just attacked the devilfish with my laser sword and chopped it to pieces. I saw my chance and took it.”

Justin walked along quietly for a moment. He had seen a dead creature hanging in the market-place on Benton Island that matched Max’s description of a devilfish, only where he came from it was called an octopus. And he had overheard the stories of some of the seafarers who lived there, and those who passed through.

Then he paused, saying, “Wait a minute! I thought you said the laser sword was out of power.”

“It was,” Max told him, “but it’s a pulse weapon, remember? Just like your laser staff.”

“Oh yeah.” Justin had always found his staff to be a useful practice weapon, for no other reason than that it never completely ran out of power

He had practiced with both the rifles and pistols in his hideout, but had to use “spark shots” because he couldn’t afford to waste power clips. It was a tedious process, loading a clip, then unloading and firing a shot with the latent “spark” of energy left in the weapon. He had to move quickly, because the spark wouldn’t linger for long, and it scarcely left a mark on whatever it hit. (Didn’t have much in the way of range, either.) Even so, he had discovered that he had a natural talent, and he had continued to perfect his aim.

Justin smiled to himself. Later on, he would have to show his new friend just how good a shot he was.

“So how good are you with a staff?” Max asked.

Justin couldn’t come up with an immediate answer to that one; his usual bravado had deserted him when it came to this matter. Until his final days in the Triangle State, he would have fancied himself pretty damn good. But after Trevor’s little reality check, he didn’t feel so hot about his staff-fighting skills. And Max had said that he trained with a staff. Given how tough he was hand-to-hand…

“I know!” said Max, excitement written all over his face. “We can spar against each other later!” It had been years since Max had faced another opponent. This would be a great opportunity to see just how far he had come in his training.

“Uh, yeah,” Justin replied, hoping Max wouldn’t beat him too bad.

“Hey Justin!” said Max, veering over into the foliage, “There are some good berries in here. Wanna stop for lunch?”

“Sure. Why not.”

So they stopped for lunch, and Max told him that later he would show him both of the devilfish beaks he had kept as both tools and trophies, and Justin, wanting to change the subject from sparring, agreed to resume his tale.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 03, 2011, 03:39:19 AM
Reply #46
IX
Looking back, Justin should have recognized his own peril, for everything was going all too smoothly that morning.

Of course, as such days tend to go, his mind was not on that line of thought. He took his every move in stride, but still found himself uncommonly pleased with how well things were going. Though he would not have considered it such until much later, today was indeed Justin Black’s lucky day, for, though he would pass through many hardships along the way, the path he chose that morning would ultimately lead him to escape and freedom.

After all these years, Justin had come to haunt Benton Island, a ghost in a land already over-populated with uneasy spirits. A phantom vagrant for whom most people’s attention seemed to slide off of like water off a shanty’s tin roof. He knew there were limits to how much he could get away with, but as long as he didn’t do anything to draw too much attention to himself, he could remain unnoticed by most people. Though he gave no conscious thought to this strange gift. When he was out and about, he was always on the lookout for trouble, always afraid of getting caught.

For there were a few guards whom he had had trouble with before, and they did seem to keep an eye out for him, unlike most people. He could often go for a couple weeks at a time avoiding them, but when any of them
did catch up with him, those bastards were his biggest source of trouble. It was like a game, he would later come to think of it, but one whose consequences could be deadly serious.

He had managed to sneak in and out of one of the groves, leaving with two large bunches of bananas. Unpursued, which was a hard thing to pull off this close to harvest. The guards from the other islands always called Benton
the Banana Republic, and he guessed that he was now eating the reason why. The island was a major source of local food and a modest port of trade. Over the years, he had observed that the TSA treated everything, even its own people, as a commodity.

The Crystal Islands, as the TSA had named them for their uncommonly large motherlodes of plasma crystals, marked one corner of the Triangle State, of which Benton was the frontier outpost. The Authority’s power reached from Crawford (where the Board of Directors resided) to the military base on Belvidere Island to Justin’s home on Benton. And everything in between. Beyond Belvidere there be Cyexians.

The last, but by no means least, corner of the TSA’s little empire, the island chain where the plasma crystals were mined. The jewels in the Authority’s iron crown. The “Banana Republic” hung at the far end of the cluster, and was the poorest in its supply of crystals. Even so, the TSA still kept a very visible military presence there.

No one seemed to know from whence the Authority came, at least according to what few historical accounts existed, though it seemed to have been there forever. Not more than a century, surely, but their arrival brought technology (and a hell of a lot of trouble) with it. Though well before his time, the locals’ second “revolution” came to a bloody and unexpected end when the Board of Directors financed more troops, more weapons, and all the mercenaries they could round up. The most callous and ruthless mercenaries money can buy. Assassins and bounty hunters and professional soldiers of fortune from such far-flung places as New Cali— even pirates— to augment their army.

Ever since, they kept a tight hold on all of the island’s resources, especially its chief export. The bananas Justin got were still ripe, which meant that they would be good for a few days. He dared not eat a single one until he got back to his hideout, then he munched a couple down and hung the rest from a twisted iron rod jutting out of the ruined wall at the entrance. This was the most critical score he had made in a long time. Without it, there was no point going forward with the rest of his plan.

He had then gone down to his quarters and gathered the rest of his supplies. Stuffed his pockets with power clips. Loaded his flashlight, a couple cans of food, a few other useful items into a worn shoulder bag someone had left unattended a few months ago. Filled a battered canteen with fresh water from the pipe.

And set out to meet his destiny.

He had become increasingly certain that the Authority really
was going to tear down the Works, and knew he had no other choice. He would have to find a way to escape the Triangle State. Not that he hadn’t tried before; he had been caught three times in the last two years trying to stow away on various ships. Fortunately, the people who had caught him, having seen for themselves what the Triangle State Authority was like, hadn’t the heart to turn him over, and had merely send him on his way.

This time, though, he had no choice but to succeed.

Justin now wandered through the shantytown of Benton (renamed after the Chairman of the Board who
annexed Benton Island so many years ago), near the docks. The place was only somewhat crowded at this time of day, as most of the people here had work to do. It didn’t take him long to reach the docks.

Where he had to be fairly careful and keep a low profile, as there were a lot more guards around than usual. Including a few he knew he absolutely had to stay away from.

He soon found out what all the guards were about. Along one of the docks he was searching, he came upon a Cyexian ship. She was a small, two-masted vessel her owner had named
Eye of the Storm, in true Cyexian fashion.

Right next to a currently unoccupied schooner he had set his eyes on.

If Justin had only slipped aboard the other ship when he had the chance, there would be no telling where he might have ended up instead of the Isle of Paradise. But in the end, simple curiosity changed Justin Black’s course for the rest of his days.

For better of worse.

It was more than just the fact that he had never seen a Cyexian ship up close before, it was also the voices he heard from within.


“…have to be sitting on this stuff, Slash? Even with the sub—”

The woman’s voice was cut off by a loud crash, and a cry of pain.

A second female voice— one that stunned Justin with its sheer hostility— cut in with:
“Never speak my name here, fool! And if you ever mention the other ship here again, I’ll rip out your tongue!”

“Y-yes, Your— yes, Blaze…” That voice was the most whipped, most subdued, Justin had ever heard in all his years in the Triangle State.

And that other voice was enough for him. The name
Slash was notorious even out here in the Banana Republic. Now he knew he wanted nothing to do with this.

He stood there for a moment too long in indecision, then started back toward the other ship—


“And where the hell do you think you’re going, kid?”

Justin stopped in mid stride at the command of that voice. Stopped him in his tracks as surely as if its owner was pointing a gun at him.

Which in this case it wasn’t, as he discovered as he slowly turned around to face his antagonist. At least that was some relief. Not much, given who he was now certain he was dealing with, but it offered a glimmer of hope of getting out of this without making a scene.

He tried to act casual as the three Cyexians leisurely closed the distance between them, but had to admit even to himself that it wasn’t working. Though he stood nearly petrified, his brain at least started moving again, and upon realizing the secret leaked in that last conversation, that he was going to have to try harder. That a group of Cyexian pirates had likely either stolen something, or might be trying to smuggle something in, was no great secret. Hence, all the guards that day. But that Slash herself dared to set foot in the Triangle State…

That was the kind of secret some people would kill over.

In that cold-sweating pause, which to him felt way too long to be real, he took in this trio who had taken such an unhealthy interest in him of late. One woman hung back from the other two, likely covering them. For a moment, Justin remembered his own power pistol, tucked into his belt and concealed beneath the worn rags of an old discarded jacket, out of reach, then forgot it. May as well be on the other side of the Ocean for all the good it would do him against ones such as these.

The next pirate was slight of build, but had a heavy disrupter pistol hanging at her hip. Quiet and mousey, and seeming horribly out of place in such rough company. Her eyes betrayed something bordering on innocence, and also suggested a keen intellect. He guessed right away who had spilled the beans, for she had a swelling knot on one side of her forehead.

And he knew without question who had meted out that little touch of discipline; there was no mistaking who was in charge of this crew. Or who had spoken to him one impossibly long moment ago. Though she wasn’t exactly what he was expecting.

For starters, he had been expecting her to be taller, and decked out in somewhat more elaborate garb. It took him a moment to catch up with the fact that if she was indeed visiting in secret,
of course she would be wearing some kind of disguise. She wore a light grey cloak with the hood draped over her head, and the rest of her clothing in no way stood out against the rest of her ragtag crew.

And her face. Even as he watched her expression shift from casual hostility to a suspicious sort of curiosity, he couldn’t avert his eyes from the sleek, black flames tattooed up both sides of her face. Nobody had said anything about tattoos. Not in any description he had ever heard.

Justin would never be sure how long that ominous moment really lasted before she spoke again, demanding, “Well?”

“I…” Justin knew this was getting off to a really bad start. “I’d never seen a Cyexian ship before” (true enough) “and…”

“You weren’t planning on taking anything that didn’t belong to you, now were you, little streetrat?”

“From you guys?” Justin remarked. “I’d have to be outta my mind!” Again, she had asked him a question he could answer with the truth. The real question, though, was did she know what he had heard.

“So, what’s in the bag?”

“Stuff,” Justin replied, trying not to betray how relieved he was at this change of topic.

Though Mouse seemed to look at him with the pleading kind of disapproval of one who has seen too many scenes like this play out before her eyes:
You’re pressing your luck, boy…

“Fair enough,” Slash muttered. “You live on this island?”

“Yeah.”

“Know it very well?”

“Yeah… I’ve been here for years…”

“Blaze” gazed at him for another of those long moments, appraising him. Watching him squirm under her harsh scrutiny. Then she asked the important question.

“So, how did a little vagrant you manage to get in here?”

“I… sneaked past the guards. You’re not gonna rat on me, are you?”

He glanced at Mouse, who appeared surprised and confused, seeming to be trying to second-guess what her boss had in mind, finally settling for a look of detached curiosity.

“Depends…” Blaze smirked, savoring the suspense Justin couldn’t hide no matter how hard he tried, before she continued. “Would you be willing to do me a favor in return, little man?”

“Well, I guess so…” Justin thought about it, then added, trying not to sound too suspicious, “What kind of favor?”

Blaze smiled. She liked her minions pliable, and not overly shrewd, but she would have been disappointed to find herself dealing with a candidate who wasn’t at least smart enough to ask
that question.

“How much do you know about the town on the other side of the island?”

“Bates?”

“Bates.”

Bates. Once the village of Gwanga, now just another shantytown whose name was erased by the Triangle State Authority. Justin didn’t get out that way very often, but he knew his way around, and he overheard enough stories to have an idea what was going on over there. He knew that Bates had a long history of harboring guerrilla movements that resisted the TSA’s authority, in the Crystal Islands in particular, and in the Triangle State in general. Of course, the Authority had repeatedly raided the town over the years, but some of the resistance members always managed to remain at large anyway. If not for Gwanga, Bates would probably be of even less importance to the TSA than Benton.

“Then you must know about Gwanga,” Blaze continued, all the while leading him by the shoulder, herding him back toward her ship. “Well, we have a shipment I think they would be very interested in.”

“What’s in it for me?”

For her part, Mouse seemed to be trying to look the other way.

“Deal,” was Blaze’s short, no-nonsense reply.

Now the ball was back in Justin’s court. She would let him open the negotiation, but he knew not to push his luck. Especially if this Cyexian really was who he feared she was.

“Could you get me passage out of this hellhole?”

She pondered his offer for a moment, then told him, “Passage is expensive in these waters. I can pay you seventy-five Triangle State credits. Twenty-five now, the rest after you’ve finished my little errand.”

“What good is money if I can’t spend it?” Justin demanded, for no one would believe a single credit of it was his, not a vagrant… Then he wished he hadn’t said that, expecting “Blaze” to knock him flat on his ass any second.

Mouse apparently expected the same thing, for she winced visibly at that last remark, bracing for the blow.

Instead, Blaze’s face broadened in a vicious grin, and she said, “You’ve got a point. Perhaps if you did me
more than one favor, I would be willing to get you out of this ‘hellhole’.”

Justin stood there for a moment, fearing she was still going to kick his ass.

“I was originally going to pay you to move part of the shipment,” she continued, “but let’s see if you can do the whole thing.” She seemed to instinctively see Justin’s talents for what they were, and the longer they stood here, the more convinced she was that he had just what it took. “If you pull it off, I’ll see if I can convince someone they need a streetrat on their ship. How does that sound?”

“How many runs do you want?”

“Three runs,” Blaze told him. “Three runs to freedom… Mister?…”

“Justin,” he replied. “Justin Black.”

“Blaze. So what do you say?”

“Make it a good crew I leave with, and I’ll do it.”

Mouse’s expression suggested that he had finally gone a little too far this time.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Blaze replied curtly. “I’ll get you whatever damn ship will have you. Unless, of course, you’d like to discuss the contents of your bag with those guards over there…”

“And I’m sure they’ll be very interested in your little shipment.”

Mouse looked more tense than ever, waiting for the inevitable explosion.

For a moment, Blaze
did look like she was going to reach out and strangle him, and Justin wondered if he would even live long enough to tell the guards anything, but then she cracked a smile and laughed, saying, “Kid, you’ve got balls. More so than most of these so-called men.”

Pure salesmanship. But she wondered if perhaps this Justin was more shrewd than she had given him credit for. Or was he just desperate? Either way, what it boiled down to was that he had a lot less to lose at the hands of the TSA than she did. She was not accustomed to having her own threats backfire on her.

On top of that, she resented being one-upped by a little boy.

As they shook hands, her grip was so tight, for a moment he was afraid she was going to break his hand out of spite. And so it was agreed: one way or the other, Justin Black was going to get the hell out of the Triangle State. Just not the way he thought.

So relieved was he to be away from her, that he could hardly focus on avoiding the guards.

“Don’t fuck with me, boy,” Blaze muttered as Justin wandered beyond earshot, “or you won’t live to see next week…”

It was not a threat. It was a promise.

She turned and boarded her ship, Mouse and the other pirate flanking her. Once below deck, Mouse slumped into a seat, and “Blaze” paced back and forth in thought.

“Do you really think that brat can pull it off?” the other Cyexian asked.

“He damn well better.” But Slash believed he could. “Hell, he’s desperate enough.” In all her years, she had never met anyone quite so determined to get out of the Triangle State. And that was saying something. “Besides, we need a fresh face. The TSA has found out our last couple errand-boys.”

She continued to pace, trying not to show how much the “tattoos” Mouse had painted on her face and arms bugged her. She knew that without them, the Authority’s agents would recognize her all too easily. Here,
Slash was known as Blaze, and on her rare visits, she served as her own “emissary” to the Triangle State.

Like the other clan leaders, she had her own spies in these islands. (Despite competing agendas, the clans all agreed not to interfere in each other’s business in this dangerous realm, in the interest of secrecy.) Not that she cared about agreements; it was just that it was getting harder and harder to get any reliable information out of this realm.

She had heard growing rumors that the TSA was preparing to go on the offensive against her clan. Armed with this bit of info, she had her own nasty surprise in store for them. Chairman Fitzgerald’s little “préemptive strike” against her was going to be pre-empted by a little trouble on the homeland front. Putting some of her clan’s surplus arms in the hands of her enemy’s enemies would keep them too busy within their own borders to concern themselves with her for a while.


Let the natives have their little rebellion. The TSA will crush them in time. They always do.

Though she still prided herself on keeping their secret weapon (Death From Below, The Sub Formerly Known As U-553) a secret, even after all these years, she increasingly felt that she had gotten too accustomed to setbacks these days. And while, on one hand, being the only Cyexian with a sub gave her an edge, on the other, having a “secret weapon” also meant that all eyes— even those of her fellow clan leaders— were more and more frequently on her. Even before that fateful night years ago, it had been getting harder and harder to maneuver.

Thinking back to that night still pissed her off, even after all this time. How Robert’s final attack had cracked a couple ribs— she would spend the next several weeks dealing with one mutiny scheme after another. What really infuriated her was that Robert remained unaccounted for after the sinking of
The Edge. At least she had learned that Angus had somehow made it back to Kinsasha, and she had seen Ron die with her own eyes, and Robert’s little brat had fled right into the depths of the storm. Now the boy and his father were both question marks, along with the two missing attack boats, and the Ocean was well known for posing more questions than it would ever answer.

Most vexing of all, that it had all happened on the eve of what should have been her greatest triumph. That years of waiting and planning had been undone by a child. And still being undone, every single day she had been forced to wait in the meantime, stuck in a holding pattern. While greater Layoshan vigilance, the schemes of her so-called allies in the other clans, and the machinations of the Triangle State Authority kept her occupied on all fronts.

Slash needed something to go right on this visit. Little did she know just how right. And, just like Justin, she would set back the TSA’s plans and get the break she needed. Just not the way she expected.

As she strode back and forth, lost in her own thoughts, her crew stood by silently, waiting.

Mouse leaned back, enjoying the cool sea breeze blowing in from the cabin window—

She froze for a second, trying to regain her composure before Slash turned back around. The cabin window. Had been open the whole time. Even before they stepped out. And now she found herself wondering if that little tramp Justin Black had overheard any of their earlier conversation.

Not that she was going to say anything at this point. She had already taken her lumps for this voyage. Though she might be the only one anyone might consider to be Slash’s friend, even Mouse was afraid of her.

Though her mother had named her
Nemesis, she had been called “Mouse” since she was a little girl. The name had simply stuck, and much to her chagrin, it was still an apt name. She wasn’t much of a fighter, still she had been there that stormy night, on the bridge of Death From Below, near the helm, threatening to shoot a gunner who had tried to fire on The Edge while Slash was still fighting her duel with Robert.

Not much of a fighter, but over the years Slash had found other important uses for her.

As Slash finished contemplating and began explaining her plans for Justin’s delivery, Mouse made a mental note to close the cabin window when Slash wasn’t looking…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 03, 2011, 03:40:50 AM
Reply #47
X
Justin was right. He really wasn’t as hot with a staff as he used to think.

After telling Max about his run-in with Slash, Justin had again tired of talking, so Max suggested sparring. Since they were currently near the main portion of Max’s jungle training ground, he had fetched his staves. He had told Justin: “Sometimes I break a staff in training, so I always make an extra one, just in case.”

And he found out right away that Max had learned some vicious moves with that weapon, as well. He wondered if Trevor could fight like Max. Then again, unlike Trevor, Max had offered to teach him rather than kill him.

It only took a couple minutes of sparring for both of them to realize that they were each in a totally different league, skillwise.

Now Max had been teaching Justin the same basic moves Robert had taught him as a child. And Justin was catching on more quickly than he had hoped. The more he watched, the more he was convinced that the staff was the weapon Justin was made for.

“One thing I don’t get,” Max muttered, having turned back to mulling over Justin’s story while his friend continued to practice, “is since when did Slash have tattoos?” She certainly hadn’t had any the day he met her. “No one ever said anything about tattoos…”

“I don’t know,” Justin muttered, continuing to repeat a sequence of moves Max had shown him, “maybe she got them just lately?” To be honest, he had also never heard any descriptions that included tattoos, either. “Maybe they’re fake. Not real tattoos, just painted on or something… After all, she was using a different name in the Triangle State.”

“That’s probably it.” Now that Max thought about it, it made sense. Just another part of her disguise when visiting enemy territory. As he thought this, he glanced back over at Justin and said, “No, you need to swing a little higher. Remember, you’re coming down on your opponent’s head or collarbone.”

He walked over to Justin and stood before him, saying, “See where your staff hits me? Keep picturing me in front of you and aim for where my collar would be…”

And so Justin continued to train for a while. But then he got bored, having decided that he had learned as much as he could for one afternoon. So he asked his new companion about Layosha again.

And Max again tried to tell him about his former home, but kept having trouble finding the right words. Instead, the subject revolved back around to Justin’s smuggling run. And Justin again found himself in a talkative mood.

No one had ever really asked him if he had anything to say before.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 04, 2011, 03:21:43 AM
Reply #48
XI
In a land where all the laws were against him, Justin Black had become the only thing he could be: an outlaw.

His journey that night was really nothing more than the next step in a trend Justin’s life had been following since he first got left behind on Benton Island. There was no place for him in a realm like the Triangle State, and the TSA and its agents only seemed to be interested in stamping out people like himself. So, all along, he had merely done what he had to do to stay alive.

And now, to escape.

Of course, he nearly got cold feet, and the big adventure to be almost never was. After his initial meeting with Slash, he had beat a hasty retreat back to the Works, where he pigged out on a feast of bananas. Best damn meal he’d had in months. If nothing else, if he hadn’t eaten them, the bugs would have anyway. He didn’t dare eat out in the open; if any guards came along, they would just take it from him and eat it themselves if it was anything good, taunting him with every
mmm! and ahh!, and if it wasn’t to their liking, they would just toss it on the ground and grind it into the dirt.

Finally, he summoned the nerve to prepare, focusing only on the thought of escape. Nothing else mattered to him at this point, he hated the Triangle State that much. If Slash could hook him up with a ship out of here, he was willing to run the gauntlet for a shot at freedom.

Of course, he had his doubts about whether or not she would keep her word. Though part of him felt like he was being played for a chump, he tried to put those thoughts out of his mind and reminded himself that he was doing her a major favor. Of course she would get him passage, surely it wasn’t as expensive as she had made it sound.

If nothing else, he reminded himself that Slash didn’t know where his hideout was, so if things went sideways, he could try to take the money and run. Gwanga was willing to pay a lot for Slash’s arms shipment, and if he came to believe she was going to cross him, that money could probably buy him passage without her help. Such thoughts were fleeting, though, for whether he wanted to admit it or not, he was terrified of the thought of having Slash after him.

Besides, the ship he was on had no food, and he couldn’t eat weapons, he reflected bitterly, so there was no point in taking the ship and running.

Still, he didn’t know what to do, so he just kept telling himself to keep pushing forward, and he would figure it out as he went along. Like he always had. That, and if he could just escape from this realm, he would no longer have to worry about Slash, even if he somehow pissed her off.

For now, he continued to focus on the task before him, reminding himself that if he screwed up here, he would have both Slash
and the Authority on his ass.

His time for considering such things was brief, though. Even before he set out, he had been given little time to think as Slash and Company briefed him on his name, ship, cover story, and other important details of his smuggling runs. Now he was quite certain that a patrol would come along at any moment, and he would have to explain himself to them. He kept running through the script, hoping they would buy it.

For after doubling back to the port and sneaking in the day after he met Slash, the Cyexians stuffed him in a crate. Once
Eye of the Storm was far enough out of sight of the Crystal Islands, he was let out and given a ship’s uniform, and presented with a small outrigger that bore the same name as the uniform. Once he reentered the Triangle State, he would call himself Jordan Robertson; he would be a ship’s boy for the crew of the Sea Breeze, which some of the Cyexians (also in disguise) posed as the rightful crew of. It was the first time in about seven years that he got to wear clothes that weren’t ragged-out. Though nobody said anything openly, he quickly got the impression that his significance in this operation was the fact that he was not a Cyexian, and so the guards would not be nearly as suspicious of him.

Fortunately for him, the
Sea Breeze outrigger was a fairly small vessel, or else he would have been in trouble. Years ago, he had been forced to work on a ship a little bigger then this, and he had taken in everything he could of its operation. This had been only a few weeks before he found the hidden wing of the Ruins, and though he was being punished for stealing a guard’s bag, he actually enjoyed the parts when the crew supervisors weren’t yelling at him, pretending he was off on the high seas. Away from the TSA, searching for a ship he could seldom remember the name of anymore, just for the hell of it. During his three-month sentence (which he had ended a little early with his successful escape to the Ruins), the only other bonus he got besides actually getting to eat every day without having to run, was that he learned nearly all of the basics of maneuvering a small vessel, and the Cyexians had given him a little refresher course anyway.

He was in no hurry, but he had to keep up some semblance of a pace, or else look suspicious. Off in the distance, just barely within reach of his light, was the buoy that marked his next delivery. The buoys were markers the TSA had put in place years ago, and they hadn’t changed much over the years, so all the fishermen in Bates knew where they were.

Which meant that they could be the “X” that would mark the spot.

Justin reached over and pulled a lever that had been rigged to the boat, releasing his payload.

He winced at the bubbles that chugged up from the sides of the outrigger, glad that there was no one in sight. The contraband was being hauled by cables underneath the boat, which could be released with a series of hidden “levers” that had been modified to look like part of the rigging. All he had to do was release each payload as he passed certain buoys.

The “fishermen” of Bates would take care of the rest. Now that he thought about it, he found he liked the idea of the villagers making such a catch, wondering if they might start a
real rebellion this time. He wasn’t sure why Slash was helping Gwanga, but he could see she at least had an ingenious plan for doing it.

After dropping his payload, he drifted along again, heading for the next buoy. With each drop, his anxiety had increased. So far, he hadn’t met with a single patrol, and he knew that as he got closer to the island, his luck would finally run out.

And run out it did, a few minutes later.

He was within a stone’s throw of the final buoy when the patrol boat came in sight and Justin found himself fixed in the sharp glare of a searchlight. It took an act of willpower to resist his instincts and not take off. He reminded himself that he was now Jordan Robertson, and he had never heard of anyone called Justin Black. In spite of his disguise, he silently pleaded to whatever gods there were that watched over smugglers and outlaws that none of the guards would be ones he recognized.

And the patron gods of smuggling smiled upon him that night, at least in that particular regard. Still, even though none of the guards would turn out to be the ones he was most worried about, they were Authority pigs all the same. But at least the wouldn’t have to worry about anyone recognizing him as the Streetrat of Benton and further complicating his mission. Though he did not yet know this, and so he continued sweating.


“Identify yourself!” a voice boomed on a megaphone. “Unknown Vessel, you have entered Triangle State Authority waters! You will stand down and identify yourself immediately! Identify yourself, Unknown Vessel, or prepare to be boarded!”

Then there was screech of feedback that forced Justin to cover his ears, as well as squint his eyes against the glare.

Aside from his laser staff (which he had kept hidden in one of the high boots that were part of his uniform), he had no weapons. The
Sea Breeze was a shipping vessel, and, as such, the ship’s boy would not be armed. Even the bogus crew Slash planted back on the ship were minimally armed; unbeknownst to him, Death From Below waited quietly for anyone foolish enough to attack her Trojan Horse crew, running silent, running deep.

It was only after the searchlight shifted to other parts of the outrigger that Justin was finally able to clearly see the faces of his antagonists, taking some relief in the fact none of them were the “trouble” guards he had to watch out for in the shantytown. In fact, he didn’t even recognize any of them. Yet he refused to relax, as if he needed to be reminded of the danger. In his experience, all TSA soldiers were trouble— some were just a bigger pain in the ass than others.

“Who are you!?” the guard demanded again, this time without the megaphone. Now that they were within earshot, he instead slung a power rifle on a shoulder strap. The rest of the crew was similarly armed, including one who manned a quadra-barrel cannon near the bow. That gun alone would be enough to sink a little ship like this in short order, and Justin knew it.

For his part, he just hoped they couldn’t tell how much sweat was pouring down the back of his shirt.

“Hey! We’re talking to you! What’s your name, boy?” The guard snapped his light back in Justin’s face, and he held up his arm to ward off the piercing shaft of light.

“J… Jordan. Jordan Robertson.” Justin silently cursed himself for nearly blowing his own cover.

The guards laughed, hefting their rifles. Then most of them shouldered their sidearms, seemingly amused at the boy’s trepidation. The guard with the light laughed again, telling him, “You don’t have to be scared of these, kid.”

“Not unless you’re pirates, rebels or troublemakers!” added another.

“So,” the other guard resumed, “what’s your business in the Crystal Islands?”

Justin took a moment to regain his composure before he spoke. “I’m with the crew of the
Sea Breeze. My captain sent me to pick up supplies. This is Benton Island, isn’t it?”

Even as he spoke, the guards ran several searchlights up and down the length of the outrigger. Of course, Slash had sent him “empty-handed” so his story would stick. Still, they could grill him, possibly for amusement, before letting him pass, and he was afraid they would somehow discover his remaining contraband.

His chances were shrinking with every passing second, and it took another effort of willpower to not look down, for fear that his hidden cargo was somehow visible.

Through all of this, the lead guard eyed him, finally saying, “Mr Robertson, this is just a routine check. There’s no need to be so nervous if you have nothing to hide. It would have been easier if you’d entered port during the daytime, you know.”

In order to avoid looking down, and possibly giving away the perilous secret bobbing below, Justin glanced from one armed guard to the next, not at all liking the odds he was taking in. Should this go sideways, he knew he wouldn’t get even halfway to the helm before they gunned him down. He felt so naked without his power pistol, and he still couldn’t figure out what to say to the guards.

Just when he certain they were going to board him, and somehow discover his secret, and capture him, and his bid for escape would end here, one of the guards said, “Give him a break, man. He’s just a kid. We should be keeping an eye out for Cyexians, not snot-nosed ship’s boys.”

The other guard thought about it for a moment, then asked Justin, “You’re really that nervous, huh?”

“Yeah,” Justin replied, “I’m sorry,” as he thought of a way out of this situation, “it’s just that guns make me nervous.”

True enough. Guns (at least when in the hands of others) did, in fact, make him nervous. Doubly so when he himself was unarmed.

“Ha!” quipped one of the other soldiers, “Since when do they send the ship’s boy at this hour?”

“But the Captain said I could!” Justin protested. “I worked really hard just so he would let me go ashore this time!”

“Lay off him,” said one guard, and another added, “He’s just a kid.”

Fortunately for Justin, the leader seemed to buy it, saying to his companions, “Come on. This kid’s no trouble.” Then he turned back to Justin, saying, “You’re free to go, boy. Move along.”

Justin returned to the helm as the patrol turned. He watched for as long as he dared, knowing instinctively that if he lingered for too long next to the buoy, he might yet arouse their suspicion. He cursed them under his breath for effectively sitting there watching him in the place where he was supposed to make his last drop, it was maddening.

Yet just when he thought the game was up, he came up with an idea. Hoping his luck would hold on the return trip— and that his dangling delivery wouldn’t drag on the bottom if he stuck to the deeper part of the harbor— he restarted the engines. This wasn’t part of the plan, but he could think of no other way to fulfill his purpose.

Had she known, Slash would have been very pleased with how well she had chosen her new delivery boy.

Though he passed a couple more patrols on the way in, no one else troubled him. After clearing docking space (which Slash’s crew had briefed him about, as well), he wandered into the Shantytown of Bates. The place had scarcely changed since the last time he found himself out this way.

Then again, nothing seemed to change in the Triangle State.
Same shit, different day, as the guards sometimes put it.

He found it strange passing through Bates as Jordan Robertson. After so many years of being Justin Black, he kept expecting trouble at every turn. Now he walked out in the open for the first time since he was a child. If not for the terrible risks he still faced in this place, he might have had time to enjoy his brief new life as something other than a streetrat.

It took all of his will to resist years of habit, and not try to hide and slink around. He tried to relax as much as he could, reminding himself that he was here on legitimate business. That someday soon, he would never again have to slink around everywhere, like the alleycat spooks that most of the guards and merchants took any opportunity to kick around.

The Anchor Lounge was still right where he remembered it, a large, glorified shanty with a big rusty anchor leaning over the entrance. Even at this hour, dim golden light and muted strains of conversation still leaked through chinks in the rickety old building. There was a burly man hovering near the door, and Justin knew from observation that guys like that were put there to tell guys like him to
get lost, kid, among other things.

Fortunately, “Jordan’s” contact was hanging out near the narrow alley between the Anchor and some other establishment whose exact nature he didn’t care to know. Slash had given him a description, and this man fit the bill perfectly. Of course, there was only one way to be sure; Slash had also given him a password.

Justin was about to make his move when a trio of guards stepped out of the Anchor. Not wanting any trouble when he was so close to goal— and so far away from his ship— Justin just kept on walking and came around for another pass.

This time there were no guards about, so he approached his contact.

According to Slash, the man’s name was Jimbo. He wasn’t much taller than Justin, but deeply tanned, his lineage likely that of those who dwelt in these islands before there even was a Triangle State Authority, and dressed in the shabby garb of a fisherman. Still, he noted, an improvement over anything he had worn in the last seven years or so. Which made sense to Justin, if he was connected with Gwanga. Even so, the man didn’t strike him as the “guerrilla” type, and he began to wonder if he didn’t have the wrong guy.

Then the man said to him: “Fishing’s slow these days. Spare a credit?”

To which Justin paused for a moment, remembering his line, then replied: “Don’t give up, I’m sure it’ll pick up soon. By the way, do you know where I can buy some supplies for my crew?”

“Perhaps,” the man, whom Justin was now fairly sure was Jimbo, said, fading back into the alleyway.

Justin followed, hoping he wasn’t drawing too much attention. At the other end of the alley, they came out on a quiet, deserted street.

“So,” Jimbo asked, “What’s your business?”

“My name is Jordan Robertson, and I’m with the crew of the
Sea Breeze. My captain sent me ashore to purchase supplies.”

“Ah,” Jimbo replied, seeming to scrutinize Justin as much as Justin had eyed him earlier, “then you’ve come to the right place. I can hook you up with just about anything you’d need. You can call me Jimbo.”

“Good,” said Justin, both playing along with the script, as well as expressing his relief at having found the right party. Still, he had to resist the constant urge to glance back and forth down the street, part of him expected this to be a trap or something. “We’ll need the basics, mostly. The Captain gave me a list…”

He fished out the list, which was really an encoded message from Slash.

Jimbo scanned the list for a moment, then told Justin, “Well, Jordan, I think I can round all that up in a day, two at the most.”

“Good,” Justin replied. “I will tell my captain, and return tomorrow night. I take it we’ll meet here then?”

“No,” Jimbo replied, his tone changing markedly. He lowered his voice to where Justin could scarcely hear it, then said,
“They know this place. We can’t meet here twice.” Then he resumed his previous just-doing-business tone, “Of course, if we meet out near the port, we won’t have to pack everything nearly as far. How does that sound, Mr Robertson?”

“Works for me,” Justin replied.

“Oh, and one more thing…” Jimbo leaned close to Justin. In a tone that sounded nothing like his Jimbo the Fisherman routine, he looked Justin right in the eye and told him, “If our catch isn’t there in the morning, don’t bother coming back.”

As he said this, Jimbo drew his finger across his throat in a familiar gesture. He and Justin stood there for a long moment in silence.

Then Jimbo smiled, turning away and saying in his previous pleasant manner, “Safe travels, young mariner!”

“You too…” Justin kept his voice steady, but shuddered with relief as he turned to walk away.

After that last conversation, the only thing on his mind was making that last drop on the way out, ensuring that no one could know that even a single part of the plan didn’t go exactly as planned…
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

September 04, 2011, 03:23:09 AM
Reply #49
XII
“How much farther is it?” Justin panted yet again as they struggled up a steep incline.

“Not very,” Max replied, and hardly for the first time in this particular conversation.

The two of them trudged up the side of the mountain, Bandit wandering in and out of the foliage as they went. The sun had risen almost to noon; they had stayed up most of the night while Justin told Max about his smuggling runs, so they had slept in. Before breakfast, they had raced to the pond, and, as usual, Bandit won. At the pond Max had nearly stripped down before he remembered Justin. It had been years since there was another around, and he had grown accustomed to swimming in the nude. He had done what he could to keep his own dwindling supply of clothes going, and that sometimes included giving them a rest.

For a man who was always on the run, Justin was huffing and puffing at the end of the race.

Just like me, Max had reflected, when I first started training with Dad…

“What all can you see up there?” Justin asked.

“Everything,” Max replied. “The whole island.”

“From one spot?”

“There’s several places,” Max told him. “Just a little farther…”

A few minutes later, they reached the summit. After a moment of catching his breath, Justin looked up and saw the commanding view Max had told him of. A couple more steps, and he could see the entire stretch of beach where he washed up the other day, and the Ocean beyond for miles and miles.

“So, what do you think, Justin?”

“Umm… Why did we climb up here again?”

“To build up your endurance— and to see the island,” Max told him. “Why? Don’t you like the view?”

“Yeah… I don’t know…” Justin gazed out at the Ocean, wishing he could be out there. “Don’t you wanna go see what’s out there, Max?”

“All the time.”

Bandit nudged up against Max’s leg, and he reached down and scratched him right behind the ears, right where he seemed to like it most.

After a moment, Max asked him, “So, if the other two runs went okay, what went wrong?”

“Everything.”

No matter how long Justin thought about it, he still couldn’t piece together exactly what the hell happened that day. In the space of thirty seconds… Jimbo, Trevor, Slash… Too much… He had never even met Trevor before that day, and it turned out to be an acquaintance he could have done without.

Though both of his latter runs had been even less eventful than the first, he had still spent both of them thinking this was too easy, and not in a good way. Especially the final run, which he had to do in broad daylight. On the plus side, it was only the remnant of the contraband the Cyexians hadn’t been able to rig up room for on the first two runs, so there wasn’t much of it, and he had been able to drop it all well before he got within sight of Bates.

“I just knew things were going too smoothly,” he muttered.

“Hey, Justin,” Max said as he walked over to his Crow’s Nest tree, “wanna see what Paradise looks like from up here?”

“Why not?” Justin shrugged, then climbed up after him.

Bandit just looked at them, cocked his head, then flopped next to a rock in the sun.

Justin perched on a branch, just a little above Max. From up here, he could crane his neck around and see almost the entire island, and practically all of the surrounding waters. It almost gave him a touch of vertigo, seeing all of this from on high.

“Cool isn’t it?” Max asked. “…So, what happened when you went to get the money?”

“They knew,” Justin told him. “Somehow they knew. And that bastard Trevor was there, waiting…”
-Standing backwards, Scoot.