“Yo, Shades! You gotta see this!”
Shades slept, splayed out across the rear lounge seat of the Maximum, grey cap over his face.
“Yeah…” Rather sleepily. “What is it, guys?”
That was definitely Justin’s voice.
He took the hat off his face and sat up.
Throwing his legs over the side, he sat all the way up, donned his shades— puzzled that he could not recall taking them off to begin with— and put his cap on straight. He looked around, a frown touching his lips at the observation that no one else was on deck. Seeing no one at the upper helm, either, only a blank, sunless slate of sky overhead, he figured they must be inside. Though that still didn’t quite mesh with the voice he was sure he heard just a moment ago, he went to look anyway.
Grabbing his denim jacket, he entered the cabin.
Inside, it only took a moment to notice that the main cabin was unoccupied, as well. The engines were off, and Justin’s gunbelts hung from the helm seat, both double-barrel power pistols holstered. There was a box of crackers on the table, and the stereo was playing the Twylight’s rendition of The Song on low volume.
With growing unease, he went below.
A quick glance at Max’s quarters, with his door characteristically hanging wide open, revealed only the usual mess of blankets and other assorted items scattered across the bed, upon the middle of which shone a square of light from his open sunroof. Perfectly framing his laser sword, a sight that put Shades in mind of Bodeen, much to his dismay.
Justin’s room was also open. And empty.
The bathroom door was also open, and he could see no one was in there, either.
After finding the storage room empty, as well, he headed back up, wondering how such friendly, familiar surroundings could feel so ominous.
“Guys…” he muttered as he came back out on deck again, his own voice making him feel nervous in spite of himself, “This isn’t funny…”
In fact, it was fast becoming very eerie, as far as he was concerned.
Still no one outside, he looked around some more.
“Guys, if this is a joke…”
Shades trailed off, spotting something he hadn’t seen before: a ship, sitting almost side by side with the Maximum.
Unnerved at how he could fail to notice that sitting there all this time, he stepped back to take it all in. The vessel itself wasn’t much bigger than theirs, but was much more luxurious-looking. The only thing to mar its austere aesthetic was that everything was blank, save for the nameplate, which read Ø.
The Empty Set… Shades recalled the term from Algebra class. For sets of equations with no solution. Why don’t I like the sound of that?
Wondering what else he may have somehow missed since he woke up, he looked around. What he saw left him feeling even more disoriented than the spontaneous existence of a ship he had never seen before. Miles and miles of water, all the way to a hazy horizon that was indistinguishable from the from the empty sky above. Water as still as a pool, and not a hint of a breeze.
Not even the doldrums they slogged through before the Isle of Castaways were this dead.
Walking over to the lounge seat and picking up his power pistol, frowning again, as he was fairly sure he had a shoulder holster. Having armed himself, he decided to board the Empty Set, figuring there was nowhere else his friends could have gone. Telling himself that this must surely be what they tried to wake him up for, he climbed up onto the railing and hopped across, seeing the deck as deserted as their own. Though he found the ship’s abrupt and unexplained appearance rather disturbing, he could think of no other explanation for where they were.
“Hello!” he called out.
Keeping his power pistol handy, he explored the deck, finding even the far side deserted. By now certain that something was very wrong with this picture, he approached the cabin door. Finding the door unlocked, he entered, no longer sure what to expect. Not liking this situation at all, he went inside, finding the cabin as devoid as the deck.
Part of him expected Max and Justin to just pop out at this point and tell him it was all just some weird prank, but was soberly silenced by the part of him that remembered their fun exploration of the Sweet Lady of Twylight. That part of him expected to find them dead, or held captive, or something. Quickly found that last line of thought, recalling their battles with Striker and Erix, made him wonder for a moment what that crazy son of a bitch might actually do if he got a shot at revenge.
Then he shook that thought off. This whole situation was disconcerting enough as it was without dragging old enemies into it. Everything was just so damn still, combined with the interior walls being all grey, and unfurnished as a house no one had moved into. Felt the atmosphere becoming increasingly stifling, being all alone out here with these two ships, surrounded by endless miles of Ocean.
When he was certain his friends were there only a matter of moments ago.
Minutes stretched out like taffy as he explored this dull derelict. His search, though, turned up no one. Just to be thorough, he decided to check the bathroom.
Which proved just as vacant as the rest of the ship.
He was about to turn around, this whole business getting to him more and more by the minute, when he spotted a movement in the mirror, passing right behind his reflection. A shape he instinctively disliked the outline of, and wheeled around as if attacked. Above all else, wanting to know how that trenchcoated figure got in here to begin with.
Only to discover, to his horror, that he was not nearly as alone as he was a moment ago. In that brief moment he turned his back on the cabin, he was somehow surrounded by a gang of identical figures. Mobbed by a memory of a stormy night back on Earth, assailed by hitchhikers.
…Or should I now call you stowaways?
Now that he got a good look at them, he wished he hadn’t. Under those wide-brim hats, none of them had a face. Just a blank stretch of pale flesh where eyes, mouths, noses, should be.
Even as his mind chased its own tail over where so many enemies could possibly have hidden in such a sparsely-furnished vessel, coming out of the woodwork, he noticed that the interior was somehow getting dimmer, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. The glimpse he caught out the cabin window was overwhelming enough to distract him from his bizarre attackers. High above, looming over them, was of a vast, cyclopean ceiling of green-grey stone, without a single wall or pillar in sight out there.
So mesmerizing was this sight, it wasn’t until a couple trenchcoats grabbed him with their cold, clammy hands that he belatedly realized his own perilous lack of focus. As they pressed in around him, he struggled to break free. In his panic, he pulled the trigger several times, but with his arms pinned, his shots went nowhere useful.
Shades heard himself cry out in horror and revulsion as their blank faces started to bubble and blister, slits ripping open into glowing red eyes, and gaping, ragged maws of darkness—
“Hey Shades! Wake up! You’re gonna miss it!”
Shades sat bolt upright, cap falling into his lap. At first blinded by sunlight much brighter than the sunless haze of what he was fast realizing was a only a dream, he blinked it off, his surroundings coming clear. Clear as the sound of Justin’s voice, only now coming from the upper helm.
Clear as the “official” Twylight bootleg playing on low volume, which he now realized had grown fainter during his ethereal ordeal aboard the Empty Set.
Despite it all being just a dream, he still couldn’t repress the instinct to look around frantically for a moment. Only to see he was surrounded by ships. Remembering that they were, in fact, in a harbor, he looked up at the ancient city of Alta looming over them.
The main city of the island of Konosha, built upon layers and generations of buildings, mostly made of the same red-orange stone quarried from farther inland. Reflecting the late morning sun a radiant red-gold. Much like in Bodeen— as Shades was beginning to suspect— its social strata was as stepped and terraced as its topography, with its most influential residents dwelling among the upper reaches, several towers and spires standing above the entire island, even some leftover scaffolding from the ongoing earthquake repairs.
“To the right!” Justin shouted, pointing toward something among those towers, binoculars in hand. “You’re gonna miss it!”
Turned out Shades was looking in the right direction to catch it, his startled eyes most likely drawn to the movement. A bright green triangular shape, standing out in sharp contrast against the tower it just passed in front of. Shades could hardly believe his eyes as he watched it drift down along the skyline, about the last thing he expected to see around here.
“A hang glider…”
“What?” Justin demanded as that green wedge vanished behind a massive block of buildings in the direction of the Market Quarter. “You know what that thing is?”
“Yeah.” Shades stood up, then went to join his friend up top, still feeling a tad disoriented after his harrowing experience only moments ago. “They’re mostly used for recreation in my world, but they do have practical uses, too.”
“You mean it can fly?” Justin blinked, putting away the binoculars now that the show as over.
“Sort of,” Shades explained. “It just gets some lift from air currents, but its range really isn’t that far. Whoever was using that one was probably just riding the updrafts from all those buildings, but he probably had to land by now…”
Despite the peculiar spectacle, Shades’ ears were still ringing from that whole nightmare. And with good reason, for it served to drive home to him just how complacent he had become during their (mostly) peaceful stay in Para-Para. How much he was paying for it now.
About a week after departing the Isle of Castaways, they stopped on the small island of Tovar. After staying the night in the sleepy fishing village of Tovar’s Landing, they picked up some supplies and continued on their way. The frequently moody weather since they left probably hadn’t helped with that, but for the next twelve days it sped them on their way, arriving in Konosha the day before, passing by its sister island of Amarrah, and the city of Alta by late afternoon.
During their time back there, Shades had slept quite soundly, in spite of Rod’s talk about the dreamplane, but it slowly crept up on him once they departed. As if the island’s influence extended even into his dreams. After Tovar, though, it came back with a vengeance, as if to make up for lost time. The whole reason he went back to sleep and took a nap today was because he was getting so little peaceful sleep in recent days, and was surprised at how much trouble he was having getting used to it again.
Even so, most of them weren’t even about him, whereas, now that he was awake, he couldn’t help but feel targeted. Recalling how these sorts of things worked before, he now understood that the other ship, Ø, was a trap. Understood now that he was safe enough aboard the Maximum, as it represented Home Turf in his mind, but the moment he set foot onto the other deck, he crossed the line. Even knowing the other ship was meant to lure him deeper into the dreamplane, where he couldn’t wake up as easily, he got the sinking feeling that his own growing anxiety might have eventually empowered the enemy to board the dream-Maximum anyway.
The most ominous part, that nearly dropped the bottom out of the pit of his stomach, was the dawning certainty that his faceless foes were no ordinary nightmares, but Zeroes.
They came in as many forms as there were fears in this world, creatures made of nightmare. But unlike normal nightmares, even weaker Zeroes could kill, and the stronger ones… You either ran like hell (as Rod recounted) from them, as few could fight them at all, or you try your damnedest to wake up. A tall order, as the deeper layers they lurked on were harder to come back up from. Though he and his friends, the Zero Hunters, managed to fight them on more or less equal terms…
It bothered him deeply that he couldn’t remember that part; it was like forgetting how to swim, or ride a bike, it just seemed so natural back then.
If they were indeed back, as Rod feared, it was not a prospect he looked forward to at all, even less at the thought that Amy may already have been grappling with this all on her own.
“I didn’t get to see what the guy looked like— too far away,” Justin cut back in, “but ya still gotta wonder who he was anyway. Hell, maybe Max might get to see more, ya think?”
“Could be,” Shades replied, turning his mind to the here and now. Figuring it would be a little awkward to thank Justin for waking him up. Bailing him out of, was more like it, and very likely saving his life while he was at it. Always the early riser, Max left Bandit napping below and went out for a morning stroll in the Market Quarter, possibly within walking distance of wherever that glider landed. “I’m more curious about why than who. I think I might just wander over there and poke around. There’s got to be a story behind that.”
Chapter notes: It's a trap!