Tradewinds 14: No Way Out by shadesmaclean
Summary: Wherein tomorrow is a long time coming…
Categories: Non-Naruto Fiction > Original stories, Non-Naruto Fiction Characters: OC
Genres: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, General, Sci-Fi
Warnings: Death
Challenges: None
Series: Tradewinds
Chapters: 26 Completed: Yes Word count: 46526 Read: 11082 Published: 07/06/13 Updated: 02/07/13

1. I by shadesmaclean

2. II by shadesmaclean

3. III by shadesmaclean

4. IV by shadesmaclean

5. V by shadesmaclean

6. VI by shadesmaclean

7. VII by shadesmaclean

8. VIII by shadesmaclean

9. IX by shadesmaclean

10. X by shadesmaclean

11. XI by shadesmaclean

12. XII by shadesmaclean

13. XIII by shadesmaclean

14. XIV by shadesmaclean

15. XV by shadesmaclean

16. XVI by shadesmaclean

17. XVII by shadesmaclean

18. XVIII by shadesmaclean

19. XIX by shadesmaclean

20. XX by shadesmaclean

21. XXI by shadesmaclean

22. XXII by shadesmaclean

23. XXIII by shadesmaclean

24. XXIV by shadesmaclean

25. XXV by shadesmaclean

26. XXVI by shadesmaclean

I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a brush with the law
Justin Black stood over near the corner of the general store, staring out the window at the clouds looming over the street, threatening rain. Just as they had all day, even before they arrived on the sleepy Isle of St Lucy. Though he didn’t much care for browsing books they way Shades and Max did, for now, it beat being cooped-up aboard the Maximum all day every day between realms.

Six days since their encounter with the Twylight derelict, and the memory of it still gave him chills, even here on dry land. Though talkative enough about it as the fog slowly lifted that day, the two of them seemed to have satisfied their curiosity about the Unknown for the time being, as the subject changed more often than the weather for the remainder of their voyage. Which, much to his own surprise, somehow hardly stopped himself from thinking about it in the meantime.

Turning his thoughts back to the here and now, he cast his eyes back down to the rain-dampened road outside, leading back to the harbor. The town itself, also called St Lucy, mostly sprawled across the coastline on this side of an island that was likely bigger than any of the Kona Islands, but possessed little depth beyond the coast. Quickly drifting off into thinly populated settlements across the rest of the island, according to what local info he could find.

Almost everything he saw hinting at a more prosperous past than present.

Not that he really cared; he was just taking this opportunity to stretch his legs. Since there didn’t appear to be much of anything going on here, and Shades’ had already finished his personal inquiries at the local establishments, about the only thing left to do was pick up some supplies. Even adding the modest reward money from the Kona Council, none of them felt like lingering here and blowing any more money than they needed to.

A couple aisles over, Shades stood in front of a section of used books, looking to see if anything here caught his eye.

During his time in the Sixth Dimension, especially while he was trapped in that creepy mall he started out in, he had found— and, of course, read— books which did not exist in his where and when. Even purported copyright dates on many of those volumes told him he had seen glimpses of possible futures. Just knowing that he had gotten to read sequels that hardcore fans of various series might have to wait years for gave him a giddy thrill few things could compare to. Before they even met Hasahn Abu-Sharrah, these findings were by far the most compelling proof he had seen of what the venerable old wanderer meant about this Ocean being the crossroads of all realms.

If anyone had written it, even in a parallel universe or something, he figured it could perhaps be found somewhere in this dimension.

Seeing, upon further inspection, that if anyone else he liked had written anything new, it clearly wasn’t anywhere to be found in this backwater realm, he turned to see if his friends were ready to get down to business yet. After asking around the usual places, his ongoing search for John and Amy had proven as fruitless as his attempt at finding some interesting reading material in this picked-over used book collection. Thus his interest in this fading island port town was diminishing by the minute, and he was ready to get this show on the road and see what awaited them at their next destination.

As he turned to go find Max and Justin, he felt an odd flicker in his perception, a momentary skip that gave him an uneasy feeling, as if he had just seen in the corner turn and picked up the exact same object off the same shelf only a moment ago…

Then all was calm again. The alarms in his head stopping as abruptly as they started, as if he had never had the feeling to begin with. After a confused moment, he shook his head, chalking it up to how little sleep he had gotten in the days since their run-in with that damn derelict.

Max, meanwhile, had moved on from the book section, already making a mental checklist of things they would need to stock up on for their next voyage.

For him, it was enough of a bummer that local law prohibited Bandit from even setting foot off the ship on this island, so he saw little point in hanging around in a place where his feline friend wasn’t welcome. To say nothing of how the chill, damp weather in this realm was bothering his still-healing right arm more than he expected. As much as he enjoyed those couple weeks of rest and relaxation in the Kona Islands, after leaving the Isle of Paradise, anything less than exciting was starting to feel boring anymore.

“I take it you’re ready?” Shades asked him as he came around the corner.

“Yeah,” Max replied. “There just isn’t much going on here, is there?”

“You got that right,” Justin added as he joined them.

“Then I guess it’s time to get down to business,” said Shades. “Let’s finish our shopping and blow this joint, go find someplace a little more exciting.”

“Not to mention someplace where it doesn’t feel like it’s gonna rain all the time,” Justin put in.

Yet before they could get started, three masked figures burst into the store, guns drawn.

“Hit the deck!” the robber taking point shouted as two of them stormed the front counter. “This is a robbery!”

“Just give us all your money,” demanded the third one, who hung back to cover the door, “and nobody gets hurt!”

For his part, the store clerk turned white, looking only a matter of seconds from fainting dead away, all but confirming for Max and his companions that this was not a common occurrence in these parts.

At the moment the thieves barged in, the three of them were standing behind a nearly ceiling-high shelf of goods, and the fact that none of the robbers even noticed them seemed to confirm, on some unspoken cue, that those guys clearly didn’t have their act together. Shades nodded slowly to his friends, and their nods were all the confirmation he needed to know that they were all on the same wavelength.

“Hey! You!” the one at the counter shouted, pointing his gun at a random customer, sounding more frantic than menacing with each syllable in spite of himself. “I told you to get—”

But as he turned the gun in-between targets, Shades made his move, sliding out from behind the shelf aisle and getting right in between the two robbers. Both of them froze up as Shades grabbed each of them by the collar of their coat, hauling them together head-to-head. While both of them were stunned, Shades stepped around, catching the second robber’s gun-hand wrist, flipping him over and breaking his grip on his weapon.

“Don’t even think about it,” Justin told the third one covering the door as he stepped out, already having beaten him to the punch with his own double-barrel power pistol, stopping the robber in his tracks.

While Shades was disarming one of the two stunned robbers, the first one stumbled against the counter, then recovered enough to wheel on Shades while his back was turned. He didn’t get very far, though, as Max stepped in, watching his friend’s back. Blocking the masked man with his good arm, guarding his injured one, then kicking his opponent hard enough to bowl him over the counter, the terrified clerk bolting out from behind it in a general panic.

Max then rushed the one Justin was covering, punching him hard in the solar plexus, crumpling him on the floor in a breathless heap.

Just when it looked as if the three of them had this robbery well in hand, the robber who fell behind the counter popped back up with a pistol the hysterical store clerk had completely forgotten he even kept under there for just this sort of occasion.

On reflex, Justin shot him.

As the body hit the floor, a man in a tan police uniform kicked the door wide open, pointing a shotgun at them.

“Freeze! Police!”

Justin turned toward him, but faltered as he realized the man already had the drop on him.

“Put it down, now!” the lawman warned. “I can nail all three of you from here with this piece.”

“He can, Justin,” Shades warned him, having already put his own hands up. Relieved to see Max follow suit, for he already got the impression this guy didn’t like energy weapons. “We’ve got no choice but to surrender.”

All of Justin’s past experience with the Triangle State Authority pushed against it, he finally decided not to call this guy’s bluff. Forcing himself to drop his gun, already fearing he would regret it. Still, Shades seemed to know of this weapon, what it was capable of, and he didn’t.

“Now,” the cop ordered, “move over with the other two.”

“Officer,” Shades began, though he already had this sinking feeling they were starting off on the wrong foot, “this isn’t what it looks—”

“That’s for the Magistrate to decide.”

For now, the best thing Shades could think of to do was keep his mouth shut, as he already suspected this fellow didn’t like not being able to see his eyes.

“He was going to shoot us!” Justin blurted.

“Hmph, it’s a good thing I happened to be in the neighborhood,” the officer proceeded, keeping the three young travelers in his line of fire as he crossed the room toward the counter, where the one Justin shot lay sprawled on the floor behind it. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but there are laws against carrying guns in town, my shifty friends—”

“Sheriff! Sheriff!” a very hysterical clerk screeched as he ran back into the room. “Help me!”

In fact, ran right into the sheriff.

While the sheriff tried to calm the babbling young man, Justin had taken about all he could stand. In that brief moment of distraction, he scooped up his power pistol, shoving both of them aside and bolting for the door.

“Justin!” In the heat of the moment, Max took off after him.

Shades sighed, and, not wanting to be left holding the bag, followed them. Not wanting to deal with this cop who was as suspicious of them as he was of the robbers, he called over his shoulder, “Sorry, officer! He’s kinda had some bad experiences with cops before!”

All he could bank on as they fled was that the remaining two robbers tried to make their own getaway, and the sheriff quickly found himself tied up subduing them. Likely burned him to no end that he might never get to find out for himself who these three young men were, or exactly how they fit into this strange, botched robbery.

It was only a short walk back to where they docked, so all they could do was hope the sheriff didn’t call for backup or something.
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
hermitage
“Brilliant plan, Justin,” Shades muttered, “simply brilliant.”

“Well pardon me all to hell!” Justin shot back. “What was I supposed to do?”

Max just shook his head.

“We could have tried talking to them,” Shades suggested. “After all, you were only defending yourself.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Justin told him. “That guy didn’t even like us, who knows what he would have done…”

“Is there any point in arguing about it anymore?” Max sighed.

“Max, he nearly got us all arrested, when we were just trying to help.”

“Yeah, and there’s no telling what they would have decided to do with us if we surrendered.”

“Or if we got caught instead?”

Bandit sitting on the floor behind Max, looking quite bored with the whole affair.

“But we didn’t, did we?”

“That’s beside the point,” Shades shrugged, “but what’s done is done. I suppose we should just be glad we managed to get away.”

Max nodded to himself as he piloted the Maximum. Much like his friends, increasingly certain they had passed out of range of any immediate pursuit, the Isle of St Lucy falling farther out of sight behind them. Yet still looking over their shoulder as they continued on their way to places unknown.

“Yeah,” Justin replied, “so what are you so pissed about?”

“The supplies, remember?” Shades reminded him. He could also point out that his companion’s little stunt could have gone very badly very easily, but decided not to go there. “To say nothing of fuel. We have no idea how long we’ll be out here before we find another island.”

Max, seeing that the two of them weren’t finished arguing, put on some headphones and started listening to one of Shades’ playlists to pass the time.

“Nothin’ we can do about it now.” Justin had made a mistake, and he knew it. After all, Shades was the only one among them who had much experience with non-military police, so he pointed out, “And it’s not like police are the same as in your world everywhere we go.”

“Still,” said Shades, “it’s not like we did anything wrong.” As irritated as he was at Justin’s fugitive relapse, all he could do was keep reminding himself just how drastically different his experience with law enforcement was where he came from. “The shooting would probably have been ruled as self-defense—”

“Damn well better be.” In spite of the fact that there were no signs of anyone coming after them, still he clutched one of his last two EMP grenades, just in case. “I even kept ’em set on stun when we go ashore, so it ain’t like I killed him or anything.”

“Yeah, but even so, now the sheriff’s suspicious of us, so now we won’t be able to go back there again for a long time.”

“Not like there was anything going on there anyway.” Justin knew from past experience that that sheriff was the type who would always be suspicious of them from now on. “So let’s just drop it.”

As the two of them continued their heated discussion, Max happened to spot something off to starboard, and veered over in that direction. Much as he suspected, it was an island, and he was fairly sure he could make out another off in the distance, both smaller than the one they just left, barely visible in this dim, overcast weather. At first he was confused, as he didn’t recall seeing any other islands on the way in, at least until he remembered that they originally approached St Lucy from the other side, and had departed rather hastily.

His feline friend sat up and took notice, as well.

“…Yeah,” Shades conceded, “I guess this has become rather pointless by now. But could you please try not to be so rash dealing with the authorities from here on out? By the way, Max, is there any particular reason we’re changing course right now?”

No reply.

Shades got up from the lounge table, pulling one of his earphones out and again asking, “Max, where are we going?”

Max jumped in his seat, then simply pointed in the direction Justin was already looking, to the small island that now lay dead ahead and closing.

“Yes, I see,” Shades told him, “but why are we going there?”

“I thought I’d just take a look.” Max shrugged. Though aware he had done it on a whim, he didn’t see any harm in it.

Just like Max, Shades also hadn’t heard anything about an island out here. Of course, even as he grabbed a pair of binoculars, he could already tell it wasn’t nearly as big as St Lucy. Still, as obscure as the place surely was, he understood there might well be other reasons for the omission, though he had to admit most of them were harmless enough.

“Are you nuts?” Justin demanded. “That’s the first place they’re gonna look for us!”

“I don’t think they will,” said Shades. “Given the hurry we were in when we left, the last thing they would expect is for us to still be hanging around this neighborhood.”

“But what if they do know?” Justin pressed, recalling how extensively the Kona Island Patrol radioed each other.

“Would you rather go back and explain everything to the guy with the boom- stick?” Shades asked. “Besides, I doubt they do. It doesn’t look like there’s much of anybody out here anyway. We shouldn’t have any trouble with a remote location like this.”

As they rounded the island, they could now see a small dock, with a lone house set farther back among the evergreens that dominated the landscape in this realm.

“If nobody’s there,” Max thought aloud, “maybe Bandit can get out and stretch his legs a little.”

“Fine,” Justin agreed reluctantly, figuring that, if nothing else, they could no longer be seen from St Lucy anyway in this weather. “But just for a look around. First sign of trouble, we’re outta here.”

Clutching that EMP grenade for emphasis.

“Agreed.” Shades hoped an uneventful stopover on this quiet island might calm his friend’s nerves, and give this unexpected unpleasant episode a somewhat better ending to remember it by. “And we keep our weapons concealed, just in case someone is there. The last thing we want is for them to think we’re robbers and call for help.”

Justin nodded absently, his attention shifting to the island itself as they drew near.

Much as Shades suspected from what he could make out through his binoculars earlier, the lone house appeared to be a “log cabin” type, with a second floor and a steeply-pitched roof. A second-story balcony hanging over a quaintly fenced front porch. Off to the side, he spotted a simple swingset made from a board and some rope, swaying forlornly in the breeze as it hung from a branch on one of more than a dozen pines surrounding the house alone. The scenery overall putting him in mind of the Pacific Northwest back on Earth.

In fact, as he stepped out on deck with Justin to prepare for landfall, he noticed that the air even smelled a lot like his former mountain home, much more so than the port town they just left, but with a dash of salty sea breeze.

There was a small supply shed next to the dock, and a small boat moored there, likely sufficient for travel between here and St Lucy, but little more. Even were it not there, though, the dock was too small, the water too shallow for the Maximum, so the best they could do was drop anchor and pull up perpendicular to the end of the dock itself.

Figuring the smartest thing would be to avoid the house and stick to the shore if no one came out, they paused when someone finally emerged from the house to meet them.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
tea and conversation
The lone man, clearly past middle age, with a scruffy nest of greying hair and stubble, stopped short a moment as Justin joined his friends on deck. Even in the dull grey light of that clouded sky, his black-and-red checked flannel coat stood out even when he stood still. Then, if they weren’t mistaken, his hesitation seemed to pass as his eyes settled on Bandit, and he made the rest of the way over, waving to them casually.

“Ho there! I don’t get too many visitors out here,” the old man called out. Pointing back the way they had just come, he told them, “If you’re looking for the Isle of St Lucy, it’s that way.”

“Thanks, but that’s alright,” Shades assured him. “We just came from there, and were looking to see what was out this way.”

“I see,” the man replied, seeming to relax a bit more at these visitors’ casual demeanor. “I’m afraid there isn’t much out here anymore. Not since the school closed down, at any rate.”

“We were just passing through,” Max told him. “My name’s Max,” and seeing this fellow’s lingering gaze fixed on his feline friend, he added, “and this is Bandit.”

“Shades MacLean,” Shades introduced himself, already quite certain this guy knew nothing of what just transpired back in town.

“Justin Black,” Justin shrugged, figuring that, with the others’ names, the damage was already done.

“You can call me Donaldson,” he told them. “So, what brings you to the Isle of St Lucy?”

“Well, actually…” Shades thought fast, digging through his wallet for his photo of John and the band. Fishing out the picture, he handed it to Donaldson, saying, “I’ve been looking for an old friend of mine. His name is John Doe. You haven’t seen him, by any chance?”

It started drizzling even as Donaldson shook his head no.

“Well, no need to stand out in the rain,” Donaldson invited, gesturing for them to follow. “I live alone out here now, so I don’t mind the company. Why don’t you all come inside, and we can talk?”

“Why not?” Shades saw no horn in Donaldson’s offer.

Justin, meanwhile, took one last look over his shoulder, in the general direction they just came from, before joining them.

“Of course,” Max knew all too well what it was like to live alone. I wouldn’t have minded more visitors… Then, almost as an afterthought: “Can Bandit come, too?”

“Yes, by all means,” Donaldson replied as he led them up several steps onto the front porch, past a dark-stained wood plank picnic table off to the side. A set of carved wooden wind-chimes tinkled as he opened the door. “I don’t know what kind of cat that is, but we used to have a dog, Daisy…”

On the inside, Donaldson’s place didn’t look nearly as Spartan as its exterior would have suggested. For such a remote location, the old man clearly had at least most of the modern conveniences, an old-fashioned woodsy atmosphere permeated both the interior and exterior, a mix of items that would look almost antique by Shades’ standards, as well as decorations that had an almost “native” look about them, though he had no clue where exactly they might be native to. The whole place definitely carried a woman’s touch, yet showing distinct signs of more recent occupation by someone who had lived alone for a while, rustically decorated to a degree that hardly seemed the style of a bachelor or a hermit.

As they sat down in the rather spacious living room that occupied most of the first floor, Shades spotted several portraits sitting on the fireplace mantle, what appeared to be a somewhat younger version of Mr Donaldson, as well as a woman of similar age, a little boy, and what looked like a Gold Lab; while most of them appeared to be set here on this island, and a few from St Lucy, several backgrounds included a building that looked to him to be a school of some sort.

While his human friends seated themselves in several chairs that looked comfortably worn enough to have hosted plenty of company over the years, Bandit curled up on a corner of a large area rug that struck Shades as just such a natural place for a pet to hang out around guests.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” Donaldson said, stepping into a kitchen that was likely the other main room on this floor. “You like tea, right? The Missus used to make the best tea, but mine’s not so bad either.”

Justin was the first to notice the small table off to the side with some radio gear sitting on it, likely for emergency use out here. He quietly pointed it out while Donaldson was out of the room, Shades quickly thinking to shush Max for fear he might say something out-loud. So they waited in silence as the minutes piled up, trying not to look directly at it lest Donaldson see them eying it when he returned.

A few long minutes later, Donaldson came back in with several ceramic mugs of tea, saying, “I already had a pot boiling earlier, so I hope you like it.”

“Thank you,” Max replied. Tea of any variety was a rarity in the Islands, so for him, this was a treat he hadn’t enjoyed in many years.

Justin nodded, even as he carefully sniffed it, trying to figure out what it was.

“Sorry to impose,” Shades told him as he took his cup.

“Not to worry,” Donaldson said as he went back to the kitchen to fetch some honey and cakes. “Anymore, I always make more than I meant to…”

“Bitter…” Justin muttered. “You got anything else?”

“Here,” Shades told him, handing him the honey, “try adding some of this.”

Seeing Bandit watching the cakes intently, he turn to Max, saying, “Don’t worry. They should be alright. Daisy always ate plenty, and it never did her any harm.”

“Thank you,” Max replied, handing a couple to his feline friend.

“So, you’re searching for an old friend?” Donaldson asked. “Or are all of you looking for him?”

“Oh, just me,” Shades replied, “and actually, I’m looking for two people. John’s just the only one I have a picture of. The other’s a girl named Amy, but I’m guessing you probably haven’t met her either, have you?”

“No, I’m afraid I haven’t,” Donaldson shook his head after listening to Shades’ description. “So, what do you guys do?”

“Well…” Max found himself at an uncomfortable loss for any legitimate occupation their activities fell under, “we travel around on the Ocean…”

“Seeing the sights and meeting the people,” Shades filled in, not wanting Justin to panic again. Especially since he seemed to be struggling not to look at the radio. “You know, doing the odd job here and there to pay the bills.”

“It’s always been our dream to go out and see the world.” Max sounded much more confident this time, and even Justin seemed to relax somewhat.

“Well, it’s important for young people to have goals,” the old man conceded, a wistful look crossing his face for a moment. “Then again, aside from the ancient Shrine of St Lucy, there aren’t any sights to see in these islands anymore. Trade has been in decline for a long time, and the one offer to revitalize St Lucy only seems to have made things worse.”

“What happened?” Shades asked, the strong impression settling on him that this fellow had something to get off his chest.

“Well, for starters, I’m sure you must have seen another island out that way,” Donaldson explained. “Adnan’s Island. There was a school out there, and I used to teach at it. It was the pride of St Lucy.”

Was?” Shades intoned, wondering why he kept referring to it in the past tense.

“You see, Adnan’s Academy was a kind of boarding school, where the youth of St Lucy studied for weeks at a time, it was supposed to be our hope for future generations, but as time went by, the administration became more and more ambitious. Of course, I’ve a had a lot of time to think about it these days, and while we may have been able to afford it back when the economy was better, I believe our biggest mistake was getting too comfortable with the way it was run. Perhaps if I had convinced the others of the need to scale back a bit, we wouldn’t have ended up like this…”

“What happened?” Max asked.

“I suppose we knew it was too good to be true,” Donaldson sighed, “but the school was already in trouble before that, due to lack of funding, and it was only a matter of time before we got shut down if we didn’t do something. That was when Camcron Industries came in with an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

“What kind of name is Camcron anyway?” Max wondered aloud.

“From what I understand,” Donaldson mused, “they’re some big corporation from New Cali. I guess they’re into a bunch of different fields, and the Research Institute that set up shop here was some kind of subsidiary of theirs. The funding they proposed was enough to keep the Academy in the black. Much as I hate to admit it now, even though I didn’t really trust them, the only other choice would have been to dismiss a lot of folks and cut classes back to less than half of what they used to be… so I went along with the rest of the administration, and I’ve regretted it ever since.

“Sure, with the Institute’s funding came new installments to the rest of the campus, and at first the only catch was the construction of the Camcron Building. They just had to build it right in the middle of the island, right in the big field behind the main Academy building, but that was just the beginning.”

“So what were they doing out there?” Shades, of course, had read of his fair share of scandals and shenanigans, so he was already quite suspicious of any corporation just waltzing in and offering to help people without pretense. After all, last he checked, even philanthropy had a tendency to come with hidden strings attached.

“I don’t rightly know,” Donaldson confessed. “The building itself was reserved for only the Institute’s projects. Even we weren’t allowed to see much of the place. I’m not really sure what they were researching in there, but they sure seemed to have a lot of specialists on staff, and they were pretty vague about just what they specialized in. I got ahold of a document once that mentioned certifications in various sciences, especially physics. No matter what they were doing in there, it could just be me, but that building just does not look right on Adnan’s, just doesn’t fit…”

“But what happened to the school?” Shades asked.

“It shut down barely a fortnight after I left,” the old man replied. “I was getting more and more concerned about how the entire school seemed to rely on Camcron after a while. I guess I underestimated just how dependent everyone had become, and my attempts at investigating things on my own— fruitless as it was— ended with the rest of the administration turning against me. I suppose they were looking out for Adnan’s in their own way, but in the end it gained them nothing.”

Ah, fun with office politics… Shades decided to keep that thought to himself, having learned more about it than he cared to after leaving the easygoing atmosphere of Master Al’s shop for the non-stop rumor mill of the service sector.

“You see, not long after I resigned, the school just simply shut down. Not even any advance notice. No explanation given, but the last time I was in town, I was told Camcron just pulled the plug, and by now the whole thing was so far in the red they couldn’t keep the doors open anymore. That was a couple days ago, and I’ve heard no further word.

“It’s the end of an era— even I went to school there when I was a boy.”

“Why would they do that?” Max wondered aloud.

“Probably did whatever they came here to do,” Shades muttered. Yet, at the same time, there was something about this that didn’t quite add up, making him wish Donaldson knew a little more. “Leaving someone else to clean up their mess…”

Shades yawned, wondering how he got so relaxed so soon after a run-in with the law. As he took another sip of his tea, a horrible thought occurred to him. Tried to recall how many old tales involved travelers being drugged by over-accommodating hosts, even as he swallowed another sip. Had to admit, it would be a safer way to deal with three potentially dangerous visitors: just dope them up, then get on the radio after they nodded off…

On one hand, he could taste nothing odd, and Max, who had already finished his tea, was still awake enough, but on the other hand, he knew some drugs took longer to take effect than others. A quick glance down at his own cup revealed that he had already downed most of his, so at this point he found there was really nothing any of them could do about such a scenario anyway. If nothing else, for once he took some comfort in Justin’s edginess, as his friend kept glancing out the front windows at random intervals.

It was in the midst of this pause that Justin realized he gotten so wrapped up in the old man’s story, he was no longer sure anymore just how long he had gone without checking out the bank of windows looking out on the dock out front. Which he had specifically chosen his seat to take advantage of. A quick look outside revealed the waters out front to be as unoccupied as he remembered them to be, much to his relief.

“By the way,” Donaldson asked him, making Justin start in spite of himself, “are you expecting somebody?”

“Um… no…” Justin stammered, wanting to kick himself for dropping his guard like that. “I was just… ah…”

“We kinda ran into some trouble back in St Lucy.” Max was growing tired of deceiving the old man, he was quite sure by now that there was no harm in telling the truth.

“Max!” Justin demanded, “What are you doing!?”

“It’s okay, Justin,” Shades tried to reassure him and Donaldson, “it’s not like we did anything wrong. You see, Mr Donaldson, there was this robbery at the general store while we were there, and a fight kinda started…”

“Was anybody hurt?” Donaldson asked.

“Well, I imagine the robbers aren’t feeling so smart right about now, given how quickly they got busted,” Shades told him, “but the sheriff tried to arrest us, too, probably thought we were accomplices or something…”

“But you aren’t,” Donaldson started out with a measure of certainty, but faltered with, “are you?”

“Hell no!” Justin’s eyes blazing with indignation as he spoke.

“It was a hectic situation,” Shades jumped back in, “and we, well, kinda panicked and ran away, but at least no one got hurt. Well, besides the robbers.”

“I see,” Donaldson said after a moment of thought. “If you were robbers, I doubt you would have mentioned anything about a robbery, or just sat down for a cup of tea. But tell me, why did you run away if you committed no crime?”

“I don’t like guards, or cops, or whatever,” Justin answered. “They always think I’m guilty, even when I didn’t do a damn thing… Where I come from, they treated me like a criminal just for living.”

“He had no parents and lived on the street.” For Max, it was still a hard thing to imagine.

“I guess old habits die hard,” Shades sighed, “though the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that sheriff would’ve been trouble even if we had surrendered. After that, I guess we were all a little worried he’d come after us or something.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about Sheriff Boggs.” Donaldson clearly seeming to know of whom they were speaking. “When Camcron showed up, one of the first things they did was start paying off the local authorities, I’m sure of it. Boggs hasn’t lifted a finger outside that town without their say-so ever since. And you don’t have to worry about me, either. You tell the truth too easily to be outlaws, so I wouldn’t turn you in to the likes of him.”

Justin visibly sighed with relief.

“By the way,” Max asked, since Donaldson brought the subject back up again, “what’s going on at the school anymore?”

“Nothing, so far as I know. No one goes out there anymore. Heh, I might just go back out to Adnan’s and take a look around some time. I bet I could live out there and no one would notice.”

“Why are you telling us all this?” Justin figured part of it was just the old man getting something off his chest, but he also wondered if there wasn’t some other reason now that this turned out not to be a diversion while the Harbor Patrol showed up.

“I suppose I just wanted to talk to somebody, and you boys seem trustworthy enough. You do strike me as the inquisitive types, though, so I thought you might find it interesting. I’m no longer the Headmaster, and I see no harm in taking a look around, seeing if those Institute people left behind any clues of what they were doing.”

Shades could tell this fellow’s story had already piqued Max’s curiosity, though he still wasn’t sure what Justin’s angle on this was. He himself was intrigued enough to pay this island a visit. In fact, he was pretty sure that was the old man’s intention.

“The place isn’t haunted, is it?” Justin asked point-blank.

“Haunted?” Donaldson looked confused for a moment, then started laughing. “Good heavens, no! Of course not! I not only taught there, I also went to the Academy myself as a lad. I’m sure the children may have their own spook stories, but I can assure you all of it is just silly childish superstition.”

There was an awkward pause that finally ended with Shades standing up and telling their host, “Well, it’s been nice talking to you, but we should probably get going.”

“Well, I hope you enjoyed the tea, and the conversation.” Donaldson also seemed to take that silence as his cue.

“We did. Thank you.” Max arose, as well, taking that same unspoken cue that it was time to leave. “I wish you luck, whatever you decide to do next.”

“It was nice talking to you,” Shades added. A little odd, but… “Maybe we’ll drop by again some time if we happen to be in this neck of the woods.”

“Same here,” Justin put in hastily as he joined them, Bandit stretching and bounding after them.

“I hope you have a better luck at your next destination, my young friends,” Donaldson told them as he opened the door and saw them off.

As they made their way to the Maximum through the misting rain, Shades’ glance happened to fall upon a pair of oak trees near the homemade swing set. Arrayed between them were two large whitewashed planks sticking out of the ground, with a smaller one off to the side. He could see words painted on each one, but at this distance he couldn’t read what was written on them, though he could hazard a guess.

It drove home to him just how lonely this Donaldson fellow must be these days, and it made him feel even worse than he already did about his suspicions of the tea.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
waiting out the rain
And so the Maximum set out again, this time for a destination that wasn’t unknown for a change.

“We’re going there, right?” Justin asked, though there was little in the way of uncertainty in his tone.

“Adnan’s,” Shades confirmed, Max nodding from the helm. From that, he was quite sure his friend wanted to see this place as much as he did, and he figured if Justin minded at all, he would have spoken up by now. “I figure it can’t hurt to take a quick look around.”

“Maybe,” Justin replied, “but what if the old man calls out the guards anyway?”

“I don’t think he will,” Max told him. “He said he doesn’t mind.”

“Besides,” Shades added, though to him Justin’s protests didn’t seem to pack much conviction, “it doesn’t make any sense to. Even though he didn’t know about the robbery, he could’ve gotten on the horn and called for help while we were still outside, and once he invited us in, he knew outlaws wouldn’t let him get near the radio.”

Justin had to admit Shades had a point; they were inside sipping tea easily long enough for this Sheriff Boggs and his men to book it out there.

“And trying to lure us over to this island isn’t much of a plan, either,” Shades went on. “Think about it: Donaldson’s little island is like a midway point between St Lucy and Adnan’s, but as you can see, he’s still closer to Adnan’s, so even if he called the cops, we’d be able to see ’em comin’ from too far away to catch us.”

They could barely see the fuzzy outline of St Lucy from Donaldson’s, whereas Adnan’s was visibly closer. Now that they were closer to Adnan’s, they were all fairly sure that even on a clear day it would take a telescope to see St Lucy from there.

“All we have to do is sit around for about half an hour or so, and if no one shows up, it means we’ll have the place all to ourselves,” he concluded. Though Mr Donaldson hardly struck him as the Nosy Neighbor type who had nothing better to do with their life anymore except sit around spying on the surrounding woods and calling the cops every time the neighbor kids tried to use any of the hidden trails, even if he was, “Any attempt to entrap us would have to involve us getting too far away from the ship to get back in time.”

Justin nodded quietly, satisfied there were no holes in Shades’ analysis, still he kept watch behind them.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Max admitted. “Are there really people like that?”

“Yeah, some,” Shades replied. “Lakeside’s pretty laid back, but there were several crotchety old men and women— Californians, I’ll bet— who seemed to think kids playing out in the woods was some kind of crime. Even if you never set foot on their own property, they still treat the surrounding woods as if they owned that, too, and would try to cause trouble if you lingered anywhere within sight of their house. I wouldn’t put it past people like that to turn around and tell the cops we were trespassing, but Mr Donaldson’s not like that. He has a sense of… propriety about that school, so I bet if we stopped there without talking to him, he definitely would have called the police, but cares too much about the place to use it as bait like that.”

As the Maximum drew nearer, they could see Adnan’s Island was much bigger than Donaldson’s place, but clearly smaller than the Isle of St Lucy— probably less than a hundred acres, by Shades’ rough estimate— though they would have to see the overall shape of the island to get a better idea. On Justin’s suggestion, of course, Max had been keeping Donaldson’s island between themselves and the port of St Lucy, forcing any potential followers to reveal themselves from a tactically safe distance, yet their approach still led them to a line of docks on a small stretch of beach, a stone wall shoring up the left side, flanked on the right by an embankment rounding the shore on either side. High ground, they quickly discovered, that occupied most of the island as they circled around.

Not only was it just as overcast here as it was everywhere else they’d been in these waters, but the rain started coming down harder as they neared it, a welcome that seemed more than a little lonesome to all three of them.

In keeping with the precautions they had all decided upon in the aftermath of past misadventures, they circled the island in spite of its harmless appearance. Counterclockwise, to stay out of the port’s line of sight while they were doing it. Above the docks, on a gently sloping hillside, they could see a large red brick building with a broad wing on each end. The same building pictured in the photos on Donaldson’s mantle. Off to its right, they could barely make out the edge of a faded brick building partially obscured by towering pines. Crowning the long rock ridge that ran along the shoreline out this way were still more, with an occasional section of chain-link fence peeking out.

“…Luckily, there were plenty of shortcuts that no one minded at all,” Shades continued to elaborate about the secret trails around his home town while Max listened intently, and Justin took over maneuvering the ship. “Though there was something I saw at Donaldson’s that reminded me of a trail I used to take to and from school. It started with this trailer court off the road leading up to my house. On the other side of it was a field, and beyond that some woods, which give way to somebody’s back yard. Not one of those paranoid people I was telling you about earlier— more likely folks who had kids of their own— these guys didn’t mind, as long as you were just passing through. They even had a German Shepard, that would even come out to greet you, though I can’t recall his name right now… Of course, that was back before everyone started bringing in snarling Dobermans and pit-bulls you had to ‘Beware’ of.”

As they came around the far side of the island, the highlands sloped back down to sandy shore, adorned with three short docks, two ending with diving boards. Four platforms that looked like dock segments floated, anchored a short way out in that small inlet, though today’s weather failed to put any of them in the mood for swimming. Up the hill behind it, they could see several buildings, including one that reminded Shades of the gym from his old grade school, which was in a separate building than the school itself.

“Just like summer camp…” Shades reflected. “Too bad about the weather.”

“Shades,” Max reminded him, “what were you going to say about that shortcut?”

“Shortcut? Oh yeah. I used to go that way all the time back in the third grade, but one day I spotted a side-trail leading away from the main one. Did you see the markers next to the swing back there, Max? What I found looked a lot like those. Only the names— though I don’t remember them anymore— sounded like pet names.”

“Grave markers, right?” Justin muttered.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they were graves, probably previous pets. Of course, I’ve found a lot of things out in the woods, mostly stuff other people left behind. I guess the markers I just saw earlier reminded me of it.”

Around the rest of the way back to the main docks, that side of the island consisted of more rocky banks topped with more evergreens. While the whole scene put Shades in mind of a moody spring day back home, all three of them were relieved to see there were no unwelcome arrivals in the meantime. Nothing on approach, either, so they felt safe enough to consider landing. They would have preferred the docks on the other side, but the inlet was clearly too shallow for a ship the size of the Maximum, so they now hung just out of reach of the nearest dock.

“Shall we?” Justin asked.

They knew exactly what he meant. Knew the risks. The Sixth Dimension was full of them.

“Let’s.” Max, of course, was game. He figured Bandit was, too, given how little chance his feline friend had had to stretch his legs since they left the Kona Islands.

“Let’s not,” Shades recommended, looking out at the rain still pouring outside, “at least not yet.” One of Master Al’s students, who used to live in Oregon, once told him that there was no point in trying to out-wait the rain there. As much as this realm reminded him of the Pacific Northwest, he reminded himself that this was the Sixth Dimension, and decided to see if that wisdom held true here. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”

“I guess so.” Now that he thought about it, Justin noticed he was also hungry. That, and he could see that Max was also looking a little put-out at the thought of trudging around in the rain, now that it came to it. “What’s for dinner?”

“How about stew?” Max suggested. If nothing else, now that he thought about it, Bandit didn’t much like rain anyway.

So while they waited for the rain to stop, they dropped anchor just out of reach of the dock, and Shades showed Justin how to cook beef stew.

“It’s kinda funny,” Shades remarked, watching the rainfall blurring their view of the island, “I never expected to go back to school so soon. Back on Earth, I was about to finish four years of high school and then… well, I had no real plan for what to do next. If there’s one thing I’ve gained since ending up in this world, it’s an idea of what it’s like to do things my own way.”

“So,” Max asked, “do you think this school will be like the ones where you come from?”

“Hard to say,” Shades answered. “I imagine there’ll be some differences, but we’ll see soon enough. By the way, Justin, you’ve been pretty quiet since we left Donaldson’s place. And you hardly even tried to argue when we decided to come here, I’d think you’ve got your own reason for going.”

“Sorry. I guess it’s just nerves,” he replied. “I feel like a sitting duck out here, but there’s something I want to see, too.” He knew he had heard the name before and was trying to remember where. “Ever since that old man mentioned the name Camcron, I knew it’d drive me nuts if I didn’t find out for myself if it was the same group.”

“You’ve heard of them?” Max interjected.

“Yeah, they were the Authority’s biggest buyer for plasma crystals,” Justin muttered. “Their biggest supplier of weapons and shit, too.”

“I see.” Shades discovered newfound suspicion in Justin’s words since they left earlier, strengthening his own resolve not to leave this place without first taking a look around. Remembering something Donaldson said earlier, about Camcron being based in New Cali, he fished his Cam-Jam out of his pocket, flipping the music player over and examining the corner of the casing. There he saw the words Manufactured by Camcron Industries etched in the plastic in tiny print. Which brought to mind the cans of Cam’s Cola in the fridge. “Well, I’ll be damned. These guys are everywhere.”

“You got that right, and I wanna know what those bastards were doing here,” Justin told him, then asked, “But what do you expect to find in this place?”

“Memories,” Shades answered simply. Now that they hovered just in front of Adnan’s, his head was fairly reeling with them. The evergreens covering much of the island made him homesick just looking at them. “This place is like a moody spring day.”

Then he went silent again, pondering his own choice of words.

“Oh.” And here I was wondering what you were after… And Justin, of course, was trying to figure out if old man Donaldson had said something he missed. “So you don’t have any sort of plan.”

“You’re thinking too much, reading too much into it. You honestly thought I was after something, didn’t you?” Shades laughed. “Sorry. ’Fraid I didn’t hear about any sunken ships or buried treasure here, I just came to stop and see the sights. Besides, if that company dumped the school like that, I doubt they’d leave anything terribly valuable behind.”

“No, I suppose they wouldn’t.” It made sense to Justin. Then again, his last couple adventures in burglary were almost more trouble than they were worth, and he wondered if perhaps this time it would be best to take it as it comes.

“What can I say?” Shades resumed, “This realm looks so much like the forests back home. The woods were always right out beyond my back yard, beckoning me to go wandering around out there.”

“Anything in particular?” Max had come to know that look— likely a reflection of his own when he got like that, he figured— lost in memories. And even though, unlike either of them, Justin had nothing about his former home to miss, it didn’t seem to stop him from lapsing into wistful periods of uncharacteristic silence, brooding over one window view or another. In his own case, he had never seen trees like these before, thus this was like getting a glimpse into his friend’s world, and it fascinated him as much as anyplace else he had never seen before.

“The Thompson place,” Shades replied. “Before I lived in that dump of a trailer, we originally had a nice house out near the old Base.” It dawned on him that, without even a map of his old home, that last bit of geographical information meant nothing to the others, yet he still said things like that out of habit. And probably will for a long time to come… “Anyhoo, that was before Dad disappeared, and Mom couldn’t afford to keep it. It wasn’t exactly a mansion, but it sure as hell felt like one. It was spacious, and I had an enormous bedroom. Of course, it was supposed to be a rec-room, and it doubled as that, too. It was also surrounded by woods on all sides, and I used to play out there all the time.”

“And this place reminds you of it?”

“Yes, Justin. Sort of. Then again, I’ve also been having dreams about it lately. Weird dreams.”

“And how would that be different from all your other dreams?”

“Justin. It’s just that this building… Ah, never mind. I’m probably just a little homesick.”

“Is the soup ready yet?” Max asked, ending the moment of silence Shades left off on.

“Not yet. Stew takes time,” Shades answered, glad that Max was so good at changing the subject, as he went to check on it. He didn’t want to give the past too much power over the present, but this very place was making that difficult. Taking a taste test, he told them, “It should be done in a little while. And Justin, you’re a damn good cook! A veritable culinary wizard!”

“You know I hate it when you call me things I don’t know the meaning of, man.”

“What I mean is, you’ve got the knack,” Shades replied. Had to admit he was becoming increasingly impressed with his friend’s mastery of this ship’s pantry. “Normally, I’d say not to trust a skinny cook, but you’re definitely an exception to the rule.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” said Justin. “After all, I like my food to taste good, too, you know. Just because those Authority bastards never let me have any decent grub doesn’t mean I wouldn’t figure out how to work with what I had.”

“That’s what ya gotta do.” Max knew from years of roughing it.

“And he’s modest, too!” Shades laughed.

“Damn straight!”

After that, the conversation became more subdued, fading almost into silence once the stew was ready. They found themselves sitting there, trying not to be stifled by the weight of this atmosphere. Throughout most of their meal, the three of them simply stared at the island they were hovering just off the shore of, Adnan’s itself looking grim and foreboding under the current heavy sky, though Shades, especially, could imagine it looking very pleasant and inviting when it was sunny out. For now, though, even Max’s most light-hearted comments about the food were submerged under the silence that seemed to be this place’s trademark.

As if St Lucy, and everything in the surrounding waters, was waiting for something.
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Adnan's Island
“The rain has stopped,” Shades observed.

By the end of their meal, they were so lost in thought that none of them even noticed exactly when it stopped. And in all that time, not a single vessel had shown itself out this way, so even Justin felt more comfortable about leaving the ship. Despite the fact that it had stopped raining, the clouds hadn’t let up one bit, leaving it looking as if it could start pouring again any time it felt like it.

“Let’s make a few things clear,” Shades told them as they grabbed their gear and moored the ship, preparing to explore Adnan’s Island in earnest. Like his friends, he had noticed some dangerous trends in some of their most recent adventures, and wished to establish a few ground rules before embarking on this one. “For now, no matter what, we do not split up. No one messes with anything, or takes anything, without consulting the others first. And if anything bizarre happens, we regroup back at the ship immediately. Agreed?”

“Does it look like any of us disagree?” Now that Justin was no longer worried about getting busted by a surprise raid, he couldn’t wait to get moving. Even though he didn’t really see himself walking away from this place with anything of value, a couple of their last stopovers had taught him that some things were better guarded than they appeared to be. That, and he found he was beginning to rediscover just how much fun it could be to just explore, in and of itself.

“Sure, let’s get going while it’s still light out.” Max found that he was becoming almost as restless as Bandit at the prospect of getting out and stretching his legs. Of course, he understood Shades’ concern for safety, but he also knew if they were too cautious, they would burn up all their daylight. There comes a time, he concluded, when you just get tired of being scared, of jumping at shadows, when it’s time to get down to business. “After all, they say it’s not wise to set out after dark.”

“As long as we all agree. This place shouldn’t pose any problems, but let’s stay outside for now,” Shades suggested. Though he knew curiosity would eventually overcome them, for now it seemed safer to find out what, if anything, was going on out here, before venturing inside. “Get the lay of the land before we move in deeper.”

Bandit was practically leading them as they made their way up the dock and past a boathouse. As often as he seemed to end up ‘guarding the ship’ anymore, it was clear he had every intention of getting some fresh air before they left.

The dock led to a concrete walkway leading up the hill to the school building looming over this rocky stretch of beach. The main building was a red brick affair, three floors and two broad wings protruding toward the sea, all banks of dark, blank windows. Guarding the stone stairway leading up to the main entrance was a pair of stone lion statues. Inscribed in the stone archway framing the door, in fancy script, were two words: ADNAN’S ACADEMY.

“Looks like the same place from the pictures,” Shades remarked.

There were two other buildings immediately in sight. Off to their right, at a slightly higher elevation, stood another three-story building of very faded red brick, making it look visibly older than any other building they had glimpsed in their circling of the island, with two blocky tower wings. Almost directly behind the Academy building, in the middle of what was once an open field sloping down to the docks and floating platforms on the other side of the island, they saw the prime source of their curiosity.

This one appeared to be only a one-story square of floorspace, built of deep red brick and raw concrete sections embedded with narrow floor-to-ceiling strips of dark-tinted window. While the main building had its share of windows, and the other had big, tall blocks of them on the second floor, this one only had a few, spread at regular intervals. The whole thing looking much more modern than anything else on campus, every square foot boasting of corporate backing, and Shades could tell from his friends’ expressions that he wasn’t alone in agreeing with Donaldson that it just looked horribly out of place here.

The Camcron Building.

“So this is it,” Shades mumbled as they drew near enough to the tight row of dark glass doors that served as they only visible entrance, reading the name off a small bronze plaque embedded in the foundation. As if they really needed any further confirmation at this point. “The building the Institute Built.”

“What is it?” Justin asked, seeing Shades tense up.

“You know what I said earlier about my dreams?” Shades took a half-voluntary step toward the doors as he spoke. “In the woods behind that house— if you went back a ways— there was a huge embankment leading down to what looks to have been a gravel quarry, and a bunch of garbage bins for local use. Beyond that were some more woods, with a playground, and, even deeper, this building…”

“Shades?” Max looked at his friend with some concern, noting how his voice was becoming more and more distant with every word.

“Of course, it didn’t look anything like this place…” Shades put his face up to the glass, peering into the dim interior. “But it had the same feeling to it, that it just didn’t belong there…” The main portion was an open corridor, dividing that level into four quadrants, and in each corner, several doors, as well as a couple dormant vending machines near the entrance. “In those dreams… the parts I remember… there’s something sinister going on inside…” Railing dividing the main area into walkways skirting four square openings in the floor in two rows, revealing an entire level directly below this one. “I just wish I could remember what…”

The whole place looking dead and deserted.

Shades closed his eyes. For a moment, he felt an odd kind of vertigo, accompanied by a sense of déjà vu, as if he had done this in a dream or something. As well as that same aura from his childhood dreams, that vague notion of something lying dormant within that should probably just be left to sleep.

“…I think we’re alright as long as we stay out of this building.” Shades opened his eyes again. He had no more idea exactly what this Institute was researching out here than he did precisely what he thought they were safe from, but the idea of a large corporation from another realm choosing such a remote location to pursue it bothered him on some intuitive level.

Of course, the fact that Bandit hung back several paces behind them, giving the building a wary look, hardly inspired confidence, though he could wrap his head around the idea of anything dangerous being built in the middle of a school campus.

“You okay?” Max asked. Though he most certainly agreed about this business of the building looking like it didn’t belong, there was something about his friend’s distant, vacant expression that didn’t belong on his face, either.

“Yeah, I think so.” Shades shook his head. “From what I can see, the place is bigger than it appears to be.” Then, realizing how that sounded in light of some of their previous destinations, he quickly added, “No, not like that. I mean it’s got another level below. No telling what they may have left behind.”

“Hey! Look! There’s some kind of tower over there!” Justin pointed off to their left, into some woods, wanting to turn their focus away from the Camcron Building. Much like Max, he had come to be able to read Shades in spite of those opaque lenses, like his old friends before them, and, much as he hated to admit it, his friend had kinda spooked him out a moment ago, looking as if in a trance when he spoke about the place.

“A… steeple?” Shades cocked his head, recognizing the structure right off. Or at least he thought he did, it just looked too much like one to be a coincidence. Letting Justin lead him over, he wondered vaguely what kind of religions he would find here in the Sixth Dimension.

There were paths leading away from the building toward the edge of the island in all four directions, but the path leading into the woods on that side would take them to areas they hadn’t seen yet.

They didn’t have to venture very deep among the trees to see the rest of the building. Faded grey paint peeling off the walls and weeds growing out of cracks in the foundation gave lonely testament to long disuse. Including a type of weed Shades hadn’t seen in years. Tall— some of them along the wall taller than Max— narrow stems bristling with rings of narrow leaves, with an explosion of lavender-pink blossoms at the top. Though he had no idea if such things held true in this world, it was said the rusty red in the leaves served to mark the end of summer in the far north, signally the onset of winter.

“Fireweeds…”

“You’ve seen them before?” Max asked, struck by the tallest flowers he had ever seen as much as by all the plantlife he was seeing here for the first time.

“Yeah, they grew all over the place up in Alaska.” Back when his father was stationed in Anchorage, he used to walk past whole rows of them around the neighborhood, even dominating the typically prevalent dandelions in some sections. “I’m told they’re edible, but that the leaves are kinda bitter.”

The fireweeds, though, could only hold their attention for so long in the shadow of this deserted place. Hanging from the eaves above the front steps, faded letters marked it as Adnan’s Chapel of Saint Lucy. Peering through the dusty glass, they could see right through the vestibule into a dim sanctuary, full of cobwebs, rows of dilapidated pews leading up to a bare altar.

Which, after a few of their more recent experiences, they were relieved to see didn’t bear any wacky markings.

“Not much here,” Justin commented, wondering why the atmosphere here was making him so edgy. All he could come up with was Shades’ eerie talk earlier.

In the woods beyond the abandoned chapel, they could spot several cabins, with a hint of other small buildings beyond that, so they turned back toward the building on the other side of the Academy.

“Yeah.” Though relieved that Bandit didn’t seem to mind this place, there was something in the air about this deserted area in particular, as well as about all these building and no signs of occupation in general, that just felt off. The emptiness. He kept finding himself picturing his childhood home of Layosha with no one about…

Shades wondered if he wasn’t just spooking himself out anymore, especially after that peculiar feeling he got back at the Camcron Building. Sure, he was still getting used to the idea of having some kind of latent psychic ability, and this island was kinda eerie, but for the company to simply dump this place, all he could come up with was that perhaps whatever they were working on hadn’t worked out the way they wanted. Just cut their losses and moved on, so it stood to reason that anything still left in the facility couldn’t be too terribly dangerous, nor very valuable.

As they walked away, Shades looked over his shoulder one last time at the ruined chapel. While most of the island’s facilities at least appeared to have been in use up until only recently, this one looked as if it had been forgotten and neglected for many years. Then again, once he thought about it, he suspected that organized religion didn’t easily hold roots on such an inherently chaotic plane of existence. Even that Shrine of St Lucy back in the port town sounded more like a tourist or historical site than one of any religious significance anymore.

Up close, the building next to the main one proved somewhat smaller, its faded bricks and worn façade making it look much older than the others. In the back, the wall bulged out in a convex bank of windows on each floor, the upper floor likely offering a sweeping view of what they could now see was a sports complex behind it, possibly even the waterfront in the lower elevation beyond. Failing to be of any interest to them, it only held their attention for a moment before they moved on to the outdoor complex.

Based on what they could see from here, they were all pretty sure they were approaching the highest elevation on the island, it’s far edge overlooking the sea could be seen even from this side. About a six-foot height of chain-link fence bounded several buildings, open fields and courts. Through a gap between two of the buildings, they could see a playground on the far side.

Shades’ lockpicking skills made short work of the padlock on the front gate, and they were in. Even on closer inspection, Shades couldn’t place the markings on the courts and fields, none of them quite matching any sport he was familiar with, though the net spanning one of them did suggest some kind of racket sport. One building housed what appeared to be a multi-purpose gymnasium, one was set up with assorted weights and training equipment, and one was an indoor swimming pool. Passing among the empty structures, they could see it was all in pristine order, as if it had just recently gone out of use, simply shut down.

Not evacuated.

For which Shades, especially, was greatly relieved, as it furthered his growing belief that, whatever the Institute was working on, it at least wasn’t anything hazardous. Since they left the facility earlier his mind had turned to past shenanigans from his own world, from unethical medical experiments to hiding toxic waste in playgrounds to the most far-fetched conspiracies he had ever seen splashed on the cover of tabloids, while he was busy contemplating possibilities for another dimension. Combined with what things he had already seen in this world, and he could only remind himself that Donaldson didn’t seem to be afraid of this place. If he had seen any signs of a hasty departure, he would have told his friends to bolt. Even without knowing exactly what type of business they were in, there was just something about that name, Camcron, that sounded somehow wrong to him.

Too harsh, too mechanical sounding.

Perhaps because of its panoramic view of the surrounding waters, they found themselves drawn to the playground on the far side of the complex. Unlike the inland portions of the fence, the outer perimeter was taller, with an inward-leaning angled section across the top, likely a safety precaution given the high, rocky embankments they had seen earlier beyond this point. While they would probably have to dig through the equipment sheds to figure out exactly what sort of sports were played in this realm, the playground equipment was much more straightforward, consisting of several sets of swings, a slide, seesaws, a jungle gym and some monkey bars, a merry-go-round, as well as a small log cabin and a wooden house on stilts, something from his own childhood school playground Shades hadn’t really expected to see. As Max and Justin examined various pieces and Bandit sniffed around, he gravitated toward the far end, though still careful to stay in clear sight of his friends.

Once he was past the log cabin, a large green object behind it drew his attention. Up close, it appeared to be a random construct of gears and pistons and housings. A machine whose function Shades couldn’t even guess; as far as he could tell, it didn’t look like it “did” anything. Just a painted-over industrial sculpture, a theory further confirmed by a bronze plaque embedded in one of the four concrete blocks that served as its base:

“THE SLEEPER II”
by G H BARTOK


Below that was inscribed: “Initiative is the key to unlock potential.” and –Donated to Adnan’s Academy by Camcron Industries. Seeing its origins, Shades looked at it again in a new light, trying to picture this strange piece of industrial art gracing the playground at Somers South, or even Central. His first impression, even before reading the plaque, was that it almost looked friendly, almost, as if trying a little too hard.

“What the hell is that?” Justin demanded, not liking the looks of the thing at all. Reminding him entirely too much of abandoned mining equipment from the Triangle State, or the dusty, dormant machinery he saw in the Harken Building, for comfort. And just when he was starting to feel more relaxed after that spooky moment at the Institute building.

“Hmm… Where I come from, it would be considered industrial art, a rather abstract one, at that, but here…” All he could think of, harsh and accusatory as it sounded, was the concept of Camcron trying, for lack of a better word, to ingratiate itself to the children of St Lucy. Progress! Personified…

“But what’s it do?” Max asked.

“It doesn’t do anything,” Shades replied, though he couldn’t help taking a step back in spite of himself. Could almost picture the gears turning… Then stopped, reminding himself that it was just a sculpture, all the components were even painted over. For that matter, the structure itself made no mechanical or functional sense.

Now that he noticed it, the one thing that would continue to bother him, even after he walked away, was a keyhole in the housing above the plaque.

Shades’ foot shifted slightly, brushing against something on the ground. What looked something like a mobile phone from his own world only sleeker. Dark grey and partially hidden in a clump of grass. Wondering how it ended up out here, he nudged it with his toe.

“Whatcha got?” Justin asked casually, looking over his shoulder.

“Looks like a phone—”

At which point it started beeping insistently at them.

“Creepy…” was Shades’ only comment on the timing of it.

Concluding that it must be more weather-resistant than he gave it credit for, given how long it must have sat out in the rain, he picked it up. Not sure what else to do, he hunted among the controls, noting both its familiarity and its relative complexity, he spotted a button marked TALK. Wondering who it might have belonged to, he answered it.

“Hello?…”

“You have to get out of there!” a desperate-sounding female voice immediately whispered. “They sent him! He may already be in St Lucy! Get off the island before they activ—”

Then was just as abruptly cut off with a sharp click.

“What did they say?” Max asked.

“Okay…” Shades trailed off for a moment before resuming, “I think this qualifies as ‘something bizarre’ happening.” Dropping the phone, he turned back in the direction they just came from, telling them, “I think we should get out of here.”

“What did they say?” Justin pressed.

“She got cut off before she could tell me anything useful,” he said as they followed him back out of the playground, “but it sounded like some kind of warning. Something about getting off the island before something happens.”

“Before what happens?” Max wondered aloud.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think we should chance it. She sounded pretty scared,” he replied. “We all agreed to go back to the ship if anything weird happened. I don’t know about you, but that lady seemed to be scared of something, and I don’t wanna stick around to find out what.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone’s around…” Max observed.

That still didn’t stop Justin from looking around anxiously as they left the sports complex.

As they passed the Camcron Building again, they all found themselves casting wary glances at it as they continued their retreat. Shades again struck with that unsettling feeling from earlier, again wishing he knew why that place so firmly put him in mind of the ominous building from his dreams, much like that cryptic warning they just received moments ago. Making him feel less certain than before about this all just being his imagination.

By then, though, they were in such a hurry— almost running— that he had no time to sort it out.

Driven by Shades’ mysterious sense of dread, they wasted no time heading back to the ship. Feeling sheepish, yet unable to shake that sense of urgency, even as they unmoored the Maximum and pulled out. Mr Donaldson’s vague remarks about the Institute starting to sound utterly spooky with that incident still echoing in their minds.

Justin busy at the helm, Max watching the surrounding waters in case they got any unexpected visitors. Shades keeping a watchful eye on the island itself as they pulled away, wishing that mysterious caller had gotten the chance to say even a little more before getting cut off, just a hint of whatever it was they were supposed to be running from.

Each of them struck by a lingering bad feeling, even after they made it off the island without a hitch. Striking Justin, especially, as strange, given that they managed to get away before anything could actually happen. Kept looking over his shoulder, expecting all the buildings to explode.

Or something. Like his companions, he had no idea quite what was supposed to happen.

Though as the island got smaller and smaller, fading away as they sailed out from the realm of St Lucy, they felt safe enough to kill the engines and go back to wind power. Simply relieved to have escaped. From what, precisely, didn’t really matter. Just that they made it out. After their past experiences with places more easily entered than exited, anymore they were just glad to continue coming and going as they pleased.

“I wonder what that was all about,” Max remarked, finally breaking the brooding silence looming over the cabin, making the others jump in spite of themselves.

“Don’t know.” Shades had heard a terrible urgency in that voice, as if she knew something horrible. If not the whole story, he speculated, though now he would never be able to put that odd intuition to the test.

“Don’t care,” Justin stated. On one hand, Shades’ hunches could be a handy early-warning system. On the other, though, his friend’s mysterious gift still spooked him at times. “Whatever it was, it’s back there. Meaning it’s not our problem anymore.”

One thing he know they were all in agreement about that place, and it felt good to be putting some distance between themselves and it.

“Still, I wish we knew what was going on out here,” Max said.

“Why did that crazy old man send us out this way again?” Justin found himself feeling increasingly suspicious that Donaldson knew more than he was letting on.

“He didn’t ‘send’ us anywhere,” Shades pointed out. “We came out here of our own free will.”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah, but the way he talked about it…” Max pondered aloud.

Justin nodded.

“While he certainly talked about it in a very leading manner, I don’t think he meant for that to happen,” Shades argued. “I imagine he’s as curious as we were, which is probably why he kept going on about it.”

“Yeah,” Justin told him, “but we’re not goin’ back to tell him about it.” Though of half a mind to go back and give the old man a piece of his, he decided it was best to avoid any further entanglements with this realm. “We’re gonna get the hell out.”

“Oh, I’m with you on that one,” Shades agreed, though he still felt a twinge of remorse about leaving Donaldson in the dark. “That call really creeped me out. Plus I just don’t like the sound of that name, Camcron.”

“What does it mean anyway?” Max wondered, along with the question of why he hadn’t asked sooner.

“If it’s anything like most company names back on Earth,” Shades hazarded a guess, “I doubt it’s a real word. Probably an acronym or abbreviation or something. I’m not even sure what sort of industry they’re in, though they almost sound like some kind of conglomerate, an octopus with its tentacles wrapped around a bunch of different stuff. Maybe that’s why I don’t like the sound of it, so harsh, mechanical-sounding…”

That image immediately reminded Max of the devilfish he tangled with years ago.

“Like the TSA.” Justin tried not to dwell on his impression of the ghosts said to walk among the cast-iron skeletons of Benton Island’s Bone Yard, hiding from the Junkyard Dogs years ago… Shook his head, wanting to get out of that department. Then he perked up, saying, “Come on, guys! We made another of our great escapes without even having to fight or anything.”

“Hell yeah!” Max joined in, trying to go for spirit even in this place that seemed to dampen it.

“I guess so.” Shades figured they would be talking about this all the way to their next destination. Strange, given how uneventful most of their brief visit to St Lucy actually was. Figuring it was a little late to jinx himself anyway, he added, “Doin’ it with style, right?”

“Damn we’re good!” Justin, for one, was starting to wonder why they were so jumpy earlier. Why that sense of foreboding for events that were fairly tame by their standards, now that he thought about it. After all, they were now safely on their way to places unknown, having escaped whatever danger they had been warned about. “It’ll be clear sailing from here on out!”
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
St Lucy Again
It was still cloudy the following day, threatening rain.

Weather Shades, just like his friends, had hoped they had left behind back in St Lucy. Breakfast this morning was a quiet, drowsy affair, consisting of conservative portions in light of their failure to obtain more supplies the day before. While Shades manned the helm, and Bandit napped lazily behind him, Justin finished the breakfast dishes and Max trained.

Given that it would still be another two or three weeks before his arm fully healed, he had of course modified his training routine, among other things, doing pushups on his one good arm.

“Sweet merciful crap!” Justin blurted. He had seen Shades doing pushups on his knuckles before… Now Max too? “What are you doing?”

“I thought I’d try it, just so I can keep training my until my arm mends,” Max told him. “Shades recommended it.”

“Figures,” Justin muttered.

“You’ve seen me do it before, haven’t you?” Shades asked, “So why are you making such a big deal out of it now?”

“Well, yeah, I have, but…” Justin stumbled over the words, wondering why he was so edgy this morning. Just watching Shades’ methods, especially the fingertip variants, made his own trigger finger twitch. “Um, doesn’t that hurt?”

“Kinda,” Max admitted.

“At first,” Shades conceded, recalling when he first began training with Master Al some seven years ago. It was one of those things he had to get used to, right along with outdoor training in bare feet and learning break-fall and rolling techniques. “But once you… get used… to…”

He trailed off as he saw the look on Justin’s face, staring out the forward windows.

Chiding himself for not paying attention to piloting the ship, Shades grabbed the binoculars at the helm. He needed only to focus the lenses to confirm that the hazy blotch up ahead was indeed land. As they drew nearer, they could make out pine trees and densely wooded shoreline, with what appeared to be a seaport off to port.

“Land? So soon?” Max clearly sharing his companions’ unease this morning, which he had hoped to disperse by focusing on training.

All three of them sat as eerily quiet as the port was familiar as they approached, each of them a little more awake than they were only a scant moment ago.

“No way…” Justin gasped, though they all noticed it by then.

All recognized the port of St Lucy.

“Dammit, Justin!” Shades couldn’t believe this, it was just too stupid. Yet it was also really weird, as well. “You got us turned around!”

“Me!? How do you know you or Max didn’t on your shift?”

“Guys?…”

“Because I never turned at any point,” Shades shot back, “that’s how.”

“Oh, so that means I did?”

“Guys…”

“How the hell should I know?” Shades was starting to regain his composure, but he still didn’t like this. That foreboding feeling from yesterday was back with a vengeance. One of those times he wished he had gotten to talk to the wise and venerable seafarer Abu-Sharrah about this sort of thing before they parted ways. “Sorry, man. Whatever happened, we’re here. Now we just need to deal with it.”

“So what’s the plan?” Max asked, noting that they were now nearing the outer harbor, and still proceeding.

“We get the hell out of here,” Justin replied flatly. “I don’t wanna run into that damn pig again.”

“We’re too close now,” Shades pointed out. “Turning around and fleeing would definitely draw suspicion.”

“Then we just sail right in?” Justin demanded.

“It’s about the best we can do,” Shades replied. “Once we find a spot where we can more discreetly turn around, we can leave more quietly, without drawing more attention to ourselves. Besides, if we keep a low enough profile, we could even refuel.”

“And just how do you propose we do that, huh?” Back in the Triangle State, their ship would be marked. It would be a long time before one could return without the Authority waiting for them. “Do you really think they’re that stupid?”

“The question is,” now that Shades thought about it: “are they really that paranoid? Not everybody is like your TSA, and given how little effort they put into chasing us yesterday, I doubt they’re expecting us back so soon.”

“And we really do need more fuel,” Max put in. “There’s no telling how far to the next place, and we’re running out. I think we may have to risk it.”

“Fine.” Much as Justin hated to admit it, both of them had a point. “But there’s no way in hell I’m getting off this ship.”

Not wanting to attract attention, they approached slowly, Justin feeling the whole way like they were walking into a trap.

“Why are we going so slow?” Max asked in a hushed voice. “Won’t they think we’re up to something?”

“You’re probably right…” Shades mumbled.

“Hey!” Justin hissed, “I’m in no hurry to get locked up.” Been there, done that.

“I’m just trying to act casual,” Shades replied, then cocked his head for a moment. “And why are we all talking so quietly anyway?”

After all, it wasn’t like anyone outside the cabin could hear them, yet they still approached the refueling station in tense silence.

The port of St Lucy had a couple general use fuel pumps on one dock, which put Shades in mind of a seagoing gas station as he handed Max the money. Remembering a useful piece of advice he had picked up about these sorts of matters, he told his friend: “Okay, remember, Max, don’t tell them anything more than they ask you. With luck, we can be in and out of here before anyone even thinks to alert the authorities.”

From breakfast to this… Shades thought, still trying to get over the awkwardness of their situation, When did I start to get used to this?

Max stepped out to tether the ship and deal with the pump attendant. Figuring he was the most logical, and least suspicious, choice, while Justin covered him and Shades held the helm, ready to give them a quick getaway if need be. It was all Max could do to not look too nervous as he nodded to the bushy-bearded man in the booth, who subsequently started the pump as Max walked over to pay the fee. He took some relief from the fact that the man appeared curious, but not suspicious, mostly bored, apparently failing to recognize the ship’s name. Of course, he began to wonder if Justin’s less trusting nature was starting to rub off on him as the thought crossed his mind the guy might just be pretend—

“ ’Mornin’!” a voice called from behind him.

Startled, Max wheeled around to find himself face to face with Sheriff Boggs, standing on the dock next to him. Just as he remembered him from the day before, about Shades’ height and stocky in build, with a stern demeanor. Though he couldn’t help but notice his manner appeared much more pleasant than when he busted them yesterday. Max’s heart sank as he tried to figure out whether to fight or try to explain.

Instead, he found himself saying, “Good morning. How’s it going?”

“Quite well,” Boggs replied, “Just on my way for some morning coffee before I take up my rounds. Say, you’re new to these parts, aren’t you?”

This is it…

“Yes, I am,” Max told him. “We’re just passing through.”

That seemed honest enough to him.

“Travelers, huh?” The sheriff tipped his hat to Max, saying, “Well, safe journeys, young man. If you’re coming ashore, you might visit the Shrine of St Lucy while you’re here.”

“Perhaps I will.”

With that, Boggs walked away.

Sighing inwardly, Max turned back to the task at hand.

Though he may have felt more relaxed for the remaining several minutes it took to refuel the Maximum, when he came back inside, he found that both of his friends had become even more tense he first stepped out. Even Bandit seemed disproportionately relieved to see him return. Justin, especially, armed and looking as if he expected Boggs to come back with reinforcements at any moment.

“What the hell did you tell that guy?” Justin was still slack-jawed at how Max got rid of the sheriff so easily.

“I… I just told him we were just passing through. I don’t think he knew who I was.”

“You sure?” Shades asked tensely. Unless the sheriff already just happened to be in the neighborhood, that was too quick for him to have been summoned on such short notice.

Justin still covered the cabin door, double-barrel power pistol in one hand, EMP grenade in the other, as if he still expected this to be some kind of setup.

“Yeah, he treated me like a total stranger.”

Now that they were finished, Shades began to slowly move them away from the port, and so far they could see no sign of pursuit.

“Weird…” Shades commented, as he just wasn’t used to cops where he came from being that negligent or forgetful. Then an odd thought: “Maybe old man Boggs was paying so much attention to us during the bust, he never really caught Max’s face.”

“I don’t know…” Max wasn’t used to being overlooked.

“And why didn’t he recognize our ship’s name?” Justin pointed out.

Now that they thought about it, port officials did register all ships docking here, even if it was only for a day.

“Hard to say…” To Shades, this was strange, but not outrageously so. “Maybe he just hadn’t had his morning coffee yet.”

But it just didn’t come off as funny as he thought it would.

“Well he did say…” Yet even Max found that hard to swallow.

“The important part,” Justin told them, noting how far they had made it from the docks without a hint of anyone following them, “is that we got away without any trouble.”

“Somehow he didn’t recognize us,” Shades thought aloud. “That’s gotta be it. Even if that store clerk cleared our names, I can’t see any sheriff worth his salt not wanting to at least get a statement from us. We are witnesses, after all.”

By the time they put St Lucy far enough behind them to see beyond any doubt that no one was giving chase, they felt confident enough in their escape, yet ill at ease in spite of it.

“Guys, while we’re in the neighborhood,” Shades piped up, “let’s go see if anything happened over at Adnan’s.”

“Are you nuts?” Justin demanded. “We should get the hell outta here while we can. Why keep pushing our luck?”

“Because I really want to know,” Shades told them, “and admit it, you guys do too, right?”

“Of course,” Max replied.

“Well, yeah, I guess,” Justin admitted. “But how are we going to do it?”

“Let’s sail around ‘behind’ Donaldson’s island,” Shades proposed, “that way, if anyone is watching, it looks like we already left St Lucy, and we can approach Adnan’s unseen from the seaport.”

“I guess there’s no harm in looking.” Justin didn’t really like it, but at least Shades had a decent plan for how to go about it.

“You know,” Shades said, an idea just occurring to him, “maybe I can hit redial on that phone, find out who that was. I mean, it didn’t look like anything happened back there, but whatever that weird phone call was about, it didn’t feel like a prank.”

“If these Camcron people are up to anything,” Max remarked, “we should find out what.”

“Why? It’s not our problem.” Though Justin already knew what both his Resident Philosopher and Champion of Justice had to say to that.

“Remember, Camcron’s from elsewhere,” Shades reminded him. “Even if they took their Research Institute someplace else, I still want to know what those creeps wanted with this school.”

“We should at least take a look,” Max agreed.

“Okay.” Justin knew when he was out-voted. “But we do it carefully.”
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
training exercise
Upon arriving on Adnan’s Island, they weren’t really sure whether or not to be surprised that everything was still there.

For starters, everything looked just as it had the day before, to say nothing of every bit as brooding. Everything still intact, everything still standing. Begging the question of whether or not anything actually happened.

As a simple precaution, they circled around the island again, seeing the docks on the far side just as deserted as before. All the windows of every building as dark as they left them. If anything had happened in the meantime, there was no way to tell from here.

“Let’s take a closer look,” Shades said as they came back around to the main docks. No new arrivals, either, so once again they had the island to themselves. In spite of how eerie it felt, he could tell his friends also wanted to know what was going on.

No one said a word as they pulled up and docked.

As they prepared to disembark, Shades brought out their radio gear, saying, “For now, we’re gonna stick together, but I think we should carry these. Just in case.”

“No argument here.” Recalling their last couple expeditions, Justin was glad he thought of that.

“Though it doesn’t look like anything happened, we should still keep our guard up,” Shades went on. “If it proves safe enough, we might spread out and test the range on these things. We could use it as a training exercise. We’ve been lucky so far, but if we keep running into people like Erix and Striker, we need to get our act together.”

Perhaps he was putting too much stock in dreams, but anymore he often got the peculiar feeling that still greater challenges awaited them along the way.

“Black Ops?” Max asked, recalling Shades’ nickname for his and his friends’ mostly late-night antics and exploits back on Earth.

“Not quite,” Shades replied, not liking the idea of doing something like that after Mr Donaldson practically agreed to look the other way while they were out here.

After we’ve secured the area.” Justin paused for a moment, realizing, to his chagrin, that that sounded like something Shades would say, then shrugged it off.

About then it started to rain, and the three of them seemed to arrive at an unspoken agreement to take their investigation inside.

“Where do we start?” Max asked as they made their way up to the main walkway in front of the Academy.

“The main building,” Shades decided, seeing no apparent signs of any recent activity beside their own between the dock and here. “It’s as good a place as any to start.”

He picked the lock on the large double doors and they were in. It was more of a disappointment than a surprise to try the light switches and find the power shut off. Switching on their headlamps, they ascended a couple more steps from the foyer into a grand hallway running both left and right from this middle segment, doors lining both sides.

Their steps echoed deeply in the silent building.

Across from the front entrance, they found the main offices. The lock put up a bit more resistance than the rest, but Shades got it open, then proceeded to demonstrate the “infiltration” training idea he originally had in mind. From there, they turned left and went down one side of the hall. Shades picking the locks and opening each door. Justin checking inside, power pistol readied. Max standing to the doorknob side of each door to cover Justin.

Bandit tagging along idly, watching them with detached curiosity.

They continued like this, using Shades’ plan, going up one side of the hallway and down the other, finding nothing but vacant classrooms interspersed with the occasional office. Finding ascending and descending stairways at each end, they decided to investigate the second floor first. Finding more of the same— unoccupied rooms full of tables and desks and empty offices— they moved on to the top floor to find it just as deserted.

As they headed back down to check the partial basement, Shades wondered why he hadn’t thought to check down there first, thinking it would have been more strategically sound. Then again, given that there were only three of them conducting this exercise, that still would have left the ground floor and both stairways uncovered. By that point they were getting pretty good at their roles, so he mostly just cautioned them against getting bored and losing focus, while Justin wondered if they weren’t going a little overboard with this.

Although giving the impression of having been run decently once upon a time, this basement level had, at some point, fallen out of use, relegated to the storage of unused desks, chairs, and piles of boxes. Everything now blanketed in dust and cobwebs, what few windows there were confined to the rooms themselves and the stair landings. A grimy shaft of light slanting down from the steps at the far end, with lines of shadowy doors in between.

“So, where to next?” Max asked as they finished their rounds down here.

“That other school building, I think. But first…” Shades trailed off, looking down the dim, shadowy hall to one of only two unlocked doors on this entire level, marked BOYS, “I’ve gotta go.”

“But I thought we weren’t supposed to split up,” Justin reminded him.

“I know what I said,” Shades replied. Still vividly remembered what happened the last couple times they let themselves get separated, which wasn’t helping. “You just stand out here and wait, in case anything other than shit happens.”

Justin and Max agreed, sharing an edgy laugh.

As Shades entered the restroom, he pondered again, as he occasionally did, how what few rules existed in the Sixth Dimension as a whole tended to resemble those of a horror movie. Don’t get separated. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t go out after dark. Don’t answer the door. Don’t go in the basement. Don’t go back for anything.

And one that gave him a chill: Never say you’ll be right back.

Given how many of those rules he walked all over since setting foot in St Lucy, he now wondered why he didn’t just think to use the restroom on the ground floor. Yet he was not about to go back and tell Justin he just retreated from nothing; perhaps if he was alone…

The room itself had a couple sinks, a length of mirror, and related fixtures. Two urinals across from them, and three stalls in the back. Most of his light came from a frosted slit of a window near the ceiling, and everything smelled mildewy.

Deciding to maintain an attitude of vigilance, he picked the rearmost stall for its proximity to a ground-level escape hatch, should he need it. It was only after he locked himself in that it dawned on him that a threat could also enter by that way, as well. That was when he spotted something scrawled among the juvenile graffiti on the divider wall.

In that shaky hand in which all but the most adept of vandals seemed to be able to manage:

PROJECT PITHAGORUS
DR GRADY
CAMCRON INDUSTRYS
THE BERKEN INSTATUTE
THE SLEEPER I
THE SLEEPER II


Arrayed around the usual Shithouse Poet Anthology, with a bunch of arrows connecting them in an arrangement whose significance would probably only reveal itself to him with more info to fill in the blanks. As he lowered the toilet seat, he caught a whiff of stale ashtray, for the first time noticing a small collection of snubbed cigarette butts back there. Given such an out-of-the-way location, it was hard to imagine faculty or staff sneaking off down here.

Now he was quite sure the students of this particular school couldn’t possibly be any older than himself.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
splitting up
“What’s taking him so long?” Justin hissed, looking back and forth down the shadowy hallway.

“I don’t know.” Max didn’t feel much like going in to check.

“This place is—”

They both jumped in spite of themselves when the door popped open and Shades stepped out.

Seeing his friends’ expressions, he quipped, “What? You think I fell in or somethin’?”

“Huh?” Max scratched his head.

“You forgot to flush,” Justin pointed out.

“Oh no, I flushed, but the plumbing’s out.” Though he didn’t know if it was just because the basement was no longer used, or if it was shut down throughout the whole facility. Either way, Shades almost shuddered to think of what that room was going to smell like for the next person to enter it. “But at least there was still some t-p.”

“Don’t go there, man,” Justin muttered, remembering all too well the unlimited supply of useless, crumbling toilet paper he found in Tranz-D. Of course, even improvising on that part, it was finding a place where you wouldn’t find yourself cornered that was the real challenge.

“Come on, guys.” As intriguing as Max found this abandoned island, he didn’t really like the idea of just standing around this creepy old basement. “Let’s get going.”

Having taken care of business here, they moved on to secure the next building. Surely the oldest on campus, they closed the distance quickly to escape the rain that was still pouring when they exited the main building, the whole thing looking forlorn and melancholy up close as well as from afar. This time, Max stayed on the ground floor while Justin and Shades located the stairs, one flight on either side. Finding no basement, they switched back to Shades’ original formation, finding several art rooms on the first floor, with a drawing studio and a band room on the second, each of them with big banks of high-ceiling windows offering a sweeping view of different sections of the island on either side.

Each of the “towers” on either side of the building turned out to be dark, dingy storage areas. Up here, they had to tread lightly, having spotted several broken floorboards. Paint peeled off the walls, the windows in each of the row of narrow rooms showcased years’ worth of grime and cobwebs, everything, including boxes of musty old books and equipment, buried under a virtual lithosphere of dust. Unlike hints they had seen on the other levels, revealing plainly the Academy’s attempts to conceal this building’s true age, possibly as old, if not older, than the crumbling chapel out in the woods. Standing at a window in one of those tiny rooms offered a bird’s-eye perspective of the woods nearby.

The view was lonely.

After that, they trudged over to the Camcron Building, a move which they were all somehow dreading. Just like the first time they came here, the place didn’t even look like it had been touched since it was shut down. This time, Shades tried the lock, discovering that, unlike any others they had seen on the island, this one required some kind of magnetically coded key. An obstacle which he had no implement to circumvent.

“Let’s just bust in,” Justin suggested, kicking the door to find the glass panel as hard as steel.

“Justin!” Max hissed as his friend cursed his stubbed toe and whipped out his laser staff.

“Let’s not,” Shades told him, “and say we did.”

“But why?” Justin demanded, though, now that he stopped to think about it, his mind now posed the same question to himself.

“I don’t think Donaldson wants us to go that far,” said Max. So far, they had been careful only to enter and look around, without damaging anything, and he wanted to keep it that way.

“Who cares what the old man wants?” Though even as he spoke, Justin wondered why he was so nervous about entering this place anyway. “Didn’t he say this place wasn’t part of his school anyway?”

“Perhaps,” Shades conceded, yet he couldn’t quite shake off that sense of foreboding, nor quite remember just what it was about those dreams that he was supposed to be afraid of, “but maybe we should come back to it after we’ve searched the rest of the island. We might even find the key, and that would definitely make things easier.”

Justin raised his laser staff.

“Wait.” Shades put up his hand. “While I have no doubt our weapons could break through, still there might be alarms or other security systems.”

“Not like there’s anyone around to do anything about it,” Justin snorted.

“Most likely,” Shades conceded, “but while alarms may not be a problem, booby-traps or auto-weapons might. I think we should be careful with that place. Let’s at least see if we can find the key before we do anything drastic.”

Justin cringed at the mere mention of automated weapons.

“By the way,” Max pointed out, gesturing out from beneath the square block of roof that hung over the entrance, “the rain has stopped.”

On some unspoken accord, the three of them turned and walked away. Having decided to leave it for now and explore the rest of the island. Each of them found he was strangely relieved to just walk away from that building, even Bandit.

Given their last couple misadventures, there were moments when Shades wasn’t entirely sure this was such a bright idea, but now they were already here, and there was no danger in sight. Still, as much fun as he had sailing the high seas, he was also suffering from “cabin” fever. Need to get out and stretch his legs, and he felt his companions felt the same.

That, and in spite of all he had been through, the Unknown still beckoned to him as seductively as ever, leading all three of them on to the rest of the island.

Next, they made their way over to the chapel, finding it as empty, and as spooky, as before, recalling there were parts of the island out this way that they didn’t get around to seeing on their first visit. In the woods beyond, they spotted several small buildings beyond the trees. Revealed, up close, to be five circles of four small log cabins, with a large open space line with rows of benches for gatherings, all facing the same long-extinct bonfire, placed roughly in the center of the five circles. The whole thing surrounded by such dense growth it was no surprise they couldn’t see it from out at sea, despite being able to faintly hear the tide from this location.

Each of the roughly fifteen-by-twenty-foot cabins was named: one circle themed after trees, one after birds, flowers, forest animals, and fish. A door and two windows set in a small porch under front eaves: very ideal-looking, putting Shades in mind of a couple summer camps he had been to over the years. A cursory inspection turned up bunk beds, footlockers, and a couple small desks in each one. And not much in the way of floorspace in any.

Off to the side, overlooking the water recreation area beyond, stood a three-story lodge. On the first floor, they found a large kitchen and high-ceilinged dining hall of long wooden tables. The half of the second floor that the dining hall’s high ceiling didn’t occupy had a railing looking out over it, as well as a couple small supply rooms. The third floor consisted of what appeared to be personal quarters for teachers and staff, though they suspected that some of them supervised the students in the cabins, and much like there, was also largely devoid of personal possessions.

Finding nothing of interest, they quickly wrapped things up, passing the waterfront on their way to the sports complex. In the boathouse, they found life vests, a rowboat, canoes, and various water toys that left them wishing the weather was more accommodating. Unlocking the nearest gate to the complex, this time they entered all of the buildings, and found them as shut down and empty as they appeared to be. They lingered for a moment in front of the drained swimming pool inside the last building any of them checked before Shades spoke up.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say we’re the only people on the island,” he said, his voice echoing hollowly through the chamber. As he joined his friends on their way out the door, he switched on his radio, gesturing for them to follow suit, saying, “So what say we test the range on these things?”

“Okay.” Max also felt quite confident in the island’s emptiness. As far as he could tell, nothing had happened since they left, the whole place looked exactly as it had the day before.

“Why not?” After being cooped-up on the ship so much, Justin decided he wouldn’t mind a little time to himself, with nobody looking over his shoulder all the time.

“Alright, then how about you go back over to the woods,” Shades suggested. “Max and Bandit can stick around here, and I’ll go back toward the main building.” That way, as long as one of them was at the midway point, they could still stay in indirect contact, even if the two farthest of them were somehow out of range. “How does that sound?”

Both of them nodded.

“And we stay in touch on the way,” Shades instructed. “If any of us drops out of radio contact, the others immediately converge on their last known position. Let’s move out.”

That settled, they split up.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Shades' reminiscence
Shades only took a few minutes to reach the Academy Building.

As he made his way, he wondered if the others felt as weird about wandering all alone out here as he did. Somehow things looked grey-er, more colorless than they should, even in such dim, cloudy weather. At first, he tried avoiding the Camcron Building altogether on his way back, but curiosity won out, and he made a closer pass at it.

And managed to spook himself out for his trouble. Though being near the building only caused a faint buzzing on his radio, it was enough to steer him away from it. As if he expected the place to swallow him whole or something now that he was all alone. Though the building hadn’t generated any serious interference, that was enough for him.

After all, he told himself, if there’s no one in there, then there’s nothing to be afraid of, right?

Still, he couldn’t shake the ominous feeling from those old dreams, wishing he could make the connection. It was bad enough that any time he stood near the place, he thought he could feel an incredible energy pulsing through the ground beneath it, a sleeping power he couldn’t quite describe. Just once since he came to this dimension, he wanted it to be just his imagination.

“I’ve reached the building,” Shades checked in, followed by Max and Justin. “I’m going to check the reception from inside.”

As he approached the stone steps, Shades noticed a little bronze plaque on the pedestal of each of the pair of lion statues perched on the base of the steps. The one to the left read: “Imagination is the mind’s eye.” On the right: “Knowledge is to the mind as light is to the eye.” Both quotations apparently attributed to one Abbot Adnan, whom Shades was increasingly certain was the founder of this island school.

“Refreshing choice of school mottoes,” he commented.

Shades stood for a moment, admiring the craftsmanship of both lions, wondering how much such ornamentation must have set them back. And the two stone sentinels stared unflinchingly back at him. As if posing some unasked feline question.

Then he went inside, switching on his headlamp, recalling how dim it was in here without the power on. Every footstep echoing all the more deeply in these cavernous halls now that he walked them alone. Remembering the main office, he crossed the hall and started hunting among the drawers and cabinets.

Beyond the door, surprisingly few of them were locked compared to schools where he came from, yet still yielded no more than a handful of keys. Most of which appeared to be of obscure use in various corners of the campus, a couple of which may have been of some use to them earlier. And definitely nothing that looked like it would fit the magnetically-coded keyhole he had seen on the Camcron Building’s door, the like of which he had only seen on a couple of his high school’s most high-security computer labs.

Realized that he had reflexively started sneaking and being overly quiet when his friends’ radio check-in made him jump in spite of himself.

If nothing else, though, it brought him much relief to know his radio still worked indoors here. Supplying him with the confidence to try the other thing he wanted to do while he was here. Shutting the office door behind him, he set out to find a classroom he saw earlier.

He stopped for a moment at the stairway, his eyes immediately drawn to the darkness at the bottom, then he turned and went upstairs to the third floor.

One of those anomalies that served to indicate just how quickly the place was shut down was the number of un-erased chalkboards he had seen along the way. At the time, it reminded him of something his sensei, Al Fairbanks, used to say, about pronouncing a term or name multiple times before he ever wrote it down: If you don’t spell it for them, then they won’t know how to mispronounce it. Right now, though, there was one particular chalkboard that stuck in his memory because it was something the like of which he hadn’t seen since he was in grade school.

I will not play around on the front steps of the Adnan’s Building.

Over and over at least a couple dozen times across both boards. As he looked it over, he found himself wondering whatever happened to this most clichéd staple of public school discipline. To say nothing of what was so wrong about keeping the two big cats down there company for a little while.

All for just playing around…

…Dexter MacLean and his friend Darek stood in front of the chalkboards in their classroom at Somers South School. Unlike the rest of the Lakeside facility, the third grade classrooms were part of the same building as the gym, which also doubled as a cafeteria, with a door connecting between the two. Each of them using one of the big erasers to clean up one of the room’s two chalkboards.

While the two of them toiled and sneezed at chalk dust, they could hear their classmates just outside, enjoying their afternoon recess.

“I can’t believe Mrs Rowan’s making us do this,” Darek muttered, using one of the smaller erasers to clean off the big one.

Darek Chambers, like most of his peers at that age, was a bit taller than him, with light brown, almost blond, hair and brown eyes, a quick smile and typically easygoing nature. His claim to fame at school was that he liked to draw cool military stuff, and wanted to do comic books when he was older. The two of them first met last year, in the second grade, after the MacLean family had moved down from Alaska, and the teacher asked Darek to show the new transfer student around. Dex and Dare had been fast friends ever since.

“Commandos…” Dex half snorted, half laughed, sneezing at another snootful of chalk dust. “Who woulda thought the
recess duty had more stealth than an enemy ninja?”

Of course, they had been told not to play on the old abandoned bleachers behind the gym, but that hadn’t stopped them from hanging out back there off-and-on these last few months without any hassles.

“Dex, I told you,
Commies on your six, but no, you were still setting up the charges…”

For a moment, both of them glanced over at the teacher’s desk, pondering a certain locked drawer. Somewhere in there, beneath a pile of toy guns, action figures, and a growing chunk of Darek’s Lego collection, was their secret weapon. The
charges, consisting of Darek’s dad’s discarded alarm clock— the old-fashioned dial type, complete with a pair of alarm bells on top— hooked up to several taped-together toilet paper tubes they had colored red to look like sticks of dynamite, with a broken TV remote for a “detonator” would look more silly than dangerous to any but the eyes of the children who cobbled it together, but to them, it was their newest makeshift toy for war games.

“I thought we were still playing,” Dex told him, “that you were gonna cover me until I could throw some grenades” (the so-far undetected, and thus un-confiscated, pine cones in his coat pocket) “or somethin’… You know, we need to make up a better verbal code.”

When he was older, Dexter MacLean would look back and realize that if they had brought the same gizmo with them to school ten years later, its discovery would have brought the bomb-squad with it, along with a huge legal mess that would have seemed as out-of-proportion as this did to two little boys back then.

“You know,” Dare remarked, remembering something his older cousin often said, “they’re just trying to make an example out of us. I mean, we weren’t even
doing anything, were we?”

Though they both knew this could easily get worse if Mrs Rowan were to find out they had been back there more than once. Let alone that they, and others, would come back after school, or on weekends, and climb up on top of the dugouts in the long-neglected baseball field behind the gym, which those same bleachers faced. Just because they had done something without any of the grownups knowing about it. They would come to notice, as they got older, that authority figures had a tendency to get rather uptight about that sort of thing.

“No…” Dex thought aloud, “we just went someplace others didn’t.” An idea started to creep into his head. Something so subversive, it would take him years to realize its full potential, but the seeds were already sown. “Come on, there’s nothing dangerous about those bleachers, not compared to the gate-swing. Just… out of bounds…”

Near the middle of the playground at Somers South was this thing that looked like a yellow iron gate, but with no fence to go with. Every recess, and even after school, kids would pile on it— two on a side— and other kids would swing them around on it. Looking back on it, he would realize later that at least as many kids got hurt on that thing any given year as on all the other playground toys put together— strangely enough, no more than single digit per year— yet it wasn’t until he was in high school that anyone thought to take it down.

Then again, being made an example of was nothing new to either of them. Much like Dare, he wasn’t really a troublemaker. At least not in the traditional sense. Much like his friend, his mind was just never on the same wavelength as his peers.

In retrospect, he would often suspect that
difference probably played a major role in drawing them— as well as most of his future friends— together to begin with. A kindred spirit of sorts.

And this often made a lot of his teachers a little nervous. Granted, all children are little characters, but the boy who would grow up to be Shades MacLean, along with the sort of people who tended to gravitate toward him, swung a wide orbit, just didn’t fit any of the stock roles. A few teachers were somewhat understanding, but until he first met Master Al in the fifth grade and started learning how to play to his own strengths with society, most regarded him as if he had a few screws loose.

Even then, unbeknownst to either of them, Mrs Rowan stood and quietly regarded them from beyond the doorway in the other classroom, listening to her two pupils continue to converse in a manner entirely too precocious for kids of either their age, or their grade point average…

“…Shades! Yo! Shades! Come in!”
The escalating voice on the radio dragging him back from his homesick reverie. “Are you there? Shades?”

Both Max and Justin calling out to him.

“Yeah, I’m here,” Shades responded, startled at how loud his voice sounded against the silence. “Sorry, guys, I was just thinking, that’s all.”

“Don’t scare me like that,” Max told him, and Shades was pretty sure their fun experience aboard the Twylight was still fresh in his mind, too. “Justin’s also in position, so at least it looks like our radios work here.”

“There’s something I want to check out,” said Justin. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Shades said quietly as his friends signed off, and the silence moved back in on him.

As he turned back to the chalkboard, remembering all the strange kinds of trouble he had gotten into when he was a kid, often without even trying. One of things he had noticed about the great mysteries of the adult world was that they really weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Didn’t seem so great, now that he had solved so many of them.

On impulse, he grabbed an eraser, wiping it in a straight line through all the not’s in each line. “I will play around…” Now that he had some time to ponder his latent powers, it shed some light on just how different he must have seemed to others.

His friends, as well.

Of course, he always wondered what became of Darek. At some point during the summer between the third and fourth grade, supposedly moved to Kalispell, but he never saw him again. As if he simply vanished off the face of the Earth. That year, he would meet Arthur LaRoch, and later Tom Robinson and Master Al…

He had once heard someone say that people can’t stand greatness in their midst. Discouraged in youth; considered dangerous in adults; looked down upon as pride in middle age; dismissed in old age; and maybe, just maybe, reconsidered after one was safely dead. No longer a threat to the self esteem of the living. Regardless of what individual forms their talents took, he realized now that he always thought of his friends as truly great, that they seemed to think of him likewise, and he had always sought to live up to their expectations. But given that society seemed to be governed more by envy than appreciation, he wondered how much potential simply went to waste in this system.

Here in the Sixth Dimension, he had seen glimpses of the challenges that awaited them in this world, the like of which he never would have imagined existed, and what he had faced so far served to show him both how far he had come and just how far he had yet to go. Wondered if they hadn’t won all their battles so far by luck more than skill, felt he must become stronger to have what it takes for the sake of his friends. Both old and new.

Something only time would tell, but he would take it and run with it as far as he could. Not sure he was exactly destined for greatness, but he would gladly settle for rising above mediocrity.

Changing his mind, he wiped the eraser across the entire board, feeling his skin crawl at the gritty feel of chalk dust on his hand, recalling how much he disliked the sensation. Still he pressed on, using the big eraser to form choppy lines. Forming a message for future generations should the school eventually reopen:

MY CONFORMITY EXPLAINS NOTHING. filled the chalkboard in ragged, ghostly lines.

Then he walked away, whistling innocently.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Justin's reminiscence
Justin checked in with the others, then approached the cabin marked Pine, finding the door unlocked, as Shades left it earlier.

While he was no stranger to intrusion, it was only of late that he was starting to get accustomed to intruding on unoccupied places. Sort of took the fun out of it. Though there was also a sense of things being too easy, and he had to remind himself that this place wasn’t that last place.

Lying on the floor partway under the bed was a notebook. He had seen it earlier, but decided to leave it alone since Shades didn’t seem to want to mess with anything, so he now took this opportunity to examine it more closely. Flipping through it, it proved to be a student’s journal, full of notes and boring day-to-day details as far as he could tell, as least until he saw the later entries. Something about the building of two weird sculptures, and strange lights and noises out in the woods at night.

After a moment, he shut the book, deciding to look at the rest of it later, as it was starting to creep him out in this setting.

He knew he had agreed not to take anything without consulting the others, but they were the only ones here. Saw no harm in taking something others left behind. After all, what Shades didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

Yet, as he stuck the notebook in his backpack and turned to leave the cabin, he paused for a moment, wondering why he expected that Sheriff Boggs fellow to just barge in on him, on the heels of that, found himself recalling a conversation with a different lawman…

…Justin sat on a bench with a beach view on Kon Kalona. Normally, this would be a relaxing setting, watching the tide roll in with the Kona kids playing all the while. Now that he knew his friends were going to be alright, he really didn’t care to hang around the infirmary itself while Max and Shades were receiving follow-up examinations of their injuries from the battle with Erix.

It was having Chief Toma of the Island Patrol sitting next to him that left him anything but relaxed.

Grunting as he sat, for the burn on his back was still giving him grief, reminding Justin that this man
did put his life on the line for him during the Seeker hijacking, taking a hit for him when he saw the enemy about to open fire on them. That he likely owed Toma his life. Making it all the more awkward to think that the first question to come to mind was to wonder what Toma wanted with him.

“Pleasant evening, isn’t it?” Toma asked, settling in.

“I guess,” Justin replied, struggling against a lifetime of instinct in order to look him in the eye. Found he again wished the bullet graze on his leg would heal enough for him to go swimming without the risk of infection.

“I take it you’re not used to talking to folks in our profession, are you?”

“No, I suppose I’m not.”

“Why is that?”

“Have you ever heard of a place called the Triangle State?”

“Yes,” Toma replied, his tone turning more somber at the mention of that name. “Tell me, do they still mine crystals there?”

“Yeah, and they use people like me to do it.” Justin found he wished he didn’t sound so bitter about it, but he just couldn’t help himself. “I grew up there, so I can tell you just how lucky you are there’s no more gold here.”

“I see.” Toma nodded. “So what do you plan to do now that you’re free, Mr Black?”

“Justin, just Justin.” Figuring it wouldn’t hurt to talk, he told him, “Max and Shades want to stick around for a while after the Festival. It makes sense for Max to heal his wounds some before we set sail again, but I’m worried about what we’re gonna do when the money runs out.”

“I’m guessing your friends don’t approve of stealing, do they?”

“Hey! It’s not like I
wanted to steal to live!” Justin snapped. “Do you think I wanted to be a streetrat?”

A long, awkward silence.

“No, I suppose you probably didn’t,” Toma finally said. “I’m sorry, Mr… Justin. Still you
do seem like the ‘lone wolf’ sort, so I’m surprised you’d be friends with someone like Max.”

“We first met when we were stranded on an island,” Justin told him. “He’s the only real friend I’ve ever had. He watches my back, and I watch his. And I guess Shades is okay, even if he does piss me off sometimes…”

“Looks like you’ve come a long way.”

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” Thinking about the differences between the Triangle State and the Kona Islands brought up an important question.

“Go ahead.”

“Why did you join the Island Patrol?” Now that the question occurred to him, he just couldn’t let it go. “You’re not like the guards back there, the Council’s nothing like the Authority…”

“I’d say it’s
because I’m not like them,” Toma answered. “But tell me, why do you carry those guns?”

“To defend myself?… I, uh, never really thought about it…”

“When I draw this gun,” Toma told him, “it’s for one reason. It’s because I want to protect these islands and my people. That’s the whole reason I joined the Island Patrol. Of course, it’s also important that the people can also trust me to protect them, or else there’s no point to it.”

“You really are nothing like the Authority.”

“But the real question is: can your friends trust you when you whip out those guns?”

“Of course they can!” Then Justin paused for a moment as it dawned on him that this is what Toma really wanted to know from the start. “Because… I guess I want to protect them, too.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Toma flashed him a smile never seen on the face of any TSA guard as he told him: “Have fun at the Kona Festival, and enjoy your stay in the Islands, Justin Black.”

With that, Toma stood up, heading back to whatever he was originally doing…


…And Justin turned to close the cabin door behind him to find that conversation lingering in his mind, just like that evening.

Thinking back to the moment of the robbery in St Lucy, and found that all he was thinking about was protecting himself and his friends. Yet now he also found himself thinking about the scene through Chief Toma’s eyes, saw something that wasn’t even on his radar: a store clerk and several innocent bystanders. Found himself even more frustrated at this glimpse of the moment from Sheriff Boggs’ perspective, yet at least now he was sure Shades would agree with him about sticking around to explain would be a bad idea.

Based on what Mr Donaldson told them, he also strongly suspected that this Boggs fellow would probably have a very different conversation in store for him.

As he turned to head back to Max’s position, he found himself facing the steeple of that deserted chapel out in the woods.

“Shades?” Max chimed in, “Did you find anything?”

Silence.

“Shades? Shades?” Max again, sounding quite concerned.

“Yo! Shades!” In spite of the island’s innocent appearance, their encounter with the Twylight was still very fresh in his mind.

“Come in!” Max sounded even more alarmed.

“Are you there?” Justin demanded.

“Shades?” By now, Justin could picture Max immediately heading for the Academy Building. Shades’ last known position.

“Yeah, I’m here,” Shades finally replied, though he sounded rather distant. “Sorry, guys, I was just thinking, that’s all.”

“Don’t scare me like that,” Max told him.

As Shades continued his report, Justin happened to spot something in the woods beyond the chapel, telling them, “There’s something I want to check out. I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Shades said as they signed off, and Justin could hear the relief in their voices.

As he walked by the chapel, he found it as empty, and eerie, as before. Venturing deeper into the woods on that side of the island, he got a better look at the strange blotch of bright red that stood out against the natural green of the forest. A very large red shape that, he noticed once he was past most of the trees, proved quite familiar.

“THE SLEEPER I”
by G H BARTOK


This sculpture was similar to the first one they found earlier, yet configured differently. A different-looking machine that made no sense, but built on the same formula as the first. While any color probably could have worked out on the playground, that bright fire-engine red here in the middle of the woods made no attempt at all to blend in with its surroundings.

“Potential can only be unlocked with the key of Initiative. Donated to blah, blah, blah…” Justin read from the matching bronze plaque at the base of the sculpture. More meaningless motivational gibberish, as Shades would probably say. This must be what the notebook was talking about, he figured, all that stuff about lights and strange activities out in the woods.

As he stood before the red machine, he, like Shades, noticed the keyhole above the plaque. And he, like Shades, didn’t like it. Could picture someone turning the key…

But he also couldn’t figure out what it would do.

Just like Tranz-D, that was what those sculptures felt like. Those nightmare days he spent there were by far the worst time of his life, and he wondered offhand if the damn things hadn’t given any of these kids here nightmares. Then again, they also reminded him of the rusted-over junk from the Bone Yard on Benton Island, capable of remind him of nothing but memories he could do without.

Justin lingered for a moment more before heading back.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Max's reminiscence
Max wandered among the empty sports complex buildings, Bandit tagging along.

Just the fact that his feline friend was so relaxed on this empty school ground was a great relief after some of their more harrowing experiences in empty, deserted places. Still, he found himself imagining the Layoshan Islands as empty and deserted as Adnan’s. He couldn’t help thinking about Shades’ verbal tour of Lakeside as his mind’s eye wandered the paths of his childhood from one familiar place to another, wondered why this place made it so easy to picture the hillsides of Shipwreck Bay totally vacant.

Found he had gravitated toward the playground, and lost track of time, as he couldn’t remember how long it had been since everyone previously checked in.

After being stranded aboard the Twylight, the last thing he wanted to consider was either of his friends trapped in such a predicament. Deciding to start with Shades, who was closest, he said, “Shades? Did you find anything?”

No response.

“Shades?” Recalling all too well the staticky radio silence of that ghost ship. “Shades?”

“Yo! Shades!” Even Justin jumped in, much to Max’s relief.

Yet still nothing.

“Come in!” Even as he spoke, Max turned to head for the Academy Building, wondering if perhaps they should have checked out the Camcron Building before splitting up…

“Are you there?” Even Justin was starting to sound frantic.

“Shades!” Max was already halfway to the gate.

“Yeah, I’m here,” Shades said, though he sounded rather preoccupied, at least from his tone. “Sorry, guys, I was just thinking, that’s all.”

“Don’t scare me like that,” Max told him. Now that it was all clear the whole thing was a false alarm, he wanted to head back over toward the cliff overlooking the shore. “Justin’s already in position, so at least it looks like our radios still work here.”

“There’s something I want to check out,” Justin piped up. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Shades said, so Max figured he’d have some time before either of them caught up with him.

As Max crossed the playground, he stopped for a moment in front of the green machine. The Sleeper II, as strange to behold as a lot of things he had seen since he left the Isle of Paradise. Even so, it gave him a creepy feeling just to imagine it sitting anywhere in Layosha, not matter how still and silent it sat.

Not just here, he amended, but anywhere else he had been, either, the thing just did not belong.

Giving it a wide berth, he went over to the log cabin near the edge of the playground. The gaps between the logs were spaced for easy footholds between them, followed by the jutting ends of the corner joints, protruding just far enough to let him to get past the eaves and up onto the roof. Understandably, there was a fence around the perimeter, even taller than the rest, along the edge of the cliff, but from up here, he could see over the edge almost as well as if he was standing right in front of it.

Shades had told him earlier that this area looked a lot like his school’s playground when he was a kid…

…The playground of Max’s childhood would probably not have been most urban parents’ first choice, but was safe enough in spite of its appearance.

Though Max and his friends had free reign of the beach and the patches jungle and forest dot-ting the island of Layosha, there was a place they were particularly fond of playing. Around the way from Shipwreck Bay, on a small stretch of sand backed by steep cliffs, whose only access was the harbor proper, was a more modest shipwreck. Anchored by chains of steel and bonds of sand, inspected and found quite stable, having already been stripped of anything salvageable, it was now the ideal place for the Islander’s children to play at seafaring; when Cleo’s father, Ian, saw how much the kids took a liking to it, he made a point of maintaining it.

Max stood on the canted upper deck, Cleo manning what was once the helm, each of them holding a stick, Cleo’s branch forked with a handgrip that, to a child’s eye, looked a bit like a power pistol, Max’s piece of driftwood he imagined was his father’s laser sword. On the lower deck, Carlton held a telescope he borrowed from home, where he scanned the horizon, spotting the fishing ships as they returned for the day, black silhouettes floating against the shimmering reflection of the setting sun.

“Watch out!” Carlton called out to his friends in frantic warning. “It’s the Cyexian Fleet!”

Lance dashed out from below deck, carrying another long piece of driftwood he held like a power rifle, “Where?”

“Dead ahead!” Cleo called out, pointing at the approaching fishing ships as they headed for the harbor.

Of course, there had been no Cyexian Fleet since their grandparents’ time, not since the last time all dozen or so Cyexian clans joined forces against Layosha. Not since the days when another pirate named Slash menaced the Islands. All the same, it didn’t stop any of the four of them from hearing ominous talk about a woman in this era by the same name, with the same dangerous ambitions, possibly just crazy enough to try it if she got half a chance.

A fitting villain for their imaginary invasion.

“Don’t let them board us!” Max called, brandishing his blade as if being boarded were a foregone conclusion. “We can’t let them set foot on Layosha!”

“Battle stations!” Cleo shouted, remembering lines she had overheard from his father and Max’s uncle Angus conducting training drills aboard the
Darkhorse and The Edge.

Carlton collapsed the telescope, stuffing it in a pouch in his belt, stepping up to what was likely once fishing gear, pretending the remaining swivel mounting was a quadra-barrel laser cannon, aiming it at the fishing ships.

They all stood watching the ships slowly advance, their child’s game having become unexpectedly intense, and Max wondered for the first time in his life what it would be like to face a real battle—


…Max was jolted back into the here and now as Bandit perked up at Justin and Shades’ return, the memory began to fade as subtly as it descended on him. It always intrigued him how his memory worked at times like this, especially now that he found himself in a new realm every time he turned around. Was beginning to understand how, for people as well-traveled as his parents, everything seemed to remind them of something else.

Now that he thought about it, in the intervening years, he had come to understand what it felt like to stand on the threshold of battle, and he wanted to chastise his younger self for being so eager. Having seen the carnage and mayhem of the battlefield for himself, he was just relieved his new friends were still with him through all of this. Personal experience cast the stories of the last great Cyexian War in a grim new light, made him hope his old friends would never have to see anything as horrible as Slash, or anyone else, uniting any of the Cyexian clans against the Islands in their lifetimes, wishing them peaceful lives.

Of course, now that he was older, he also understood that the real reason the Cyexians were reduced to occasional skirmishes, stunts like raiding cache supplies from Kinsasha— why there had been no real war in decades— was because of the rise of the Triangle State Authority. Once upon a time, he might have considered the Cyexian/TSA standoff to be good for Layoshan peace, but that was before he met Justin Black. Having heard his first-hand account of what the Authority was really like, he couldn’t help but feel guilty for the thought of all that oppression just for the sake of his former home.

Which brought him back to this business with Camcron Industries, which Justin said was some kind of ally of the Triangle State, so he was naturally curious to find out if his friends had learned anything else in the meantime.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Shades gets fired
As both of his friends approached his position, Max hopped down from the cabin to join them.

The scene putting Shades in mind of his old friends all hanging out at the Somers South playground, as if this place didn’t already make him homesick as it was. Seeing Bandit hop down only made him wonder what people would have thought to see them walking him down the streets of Lakeside. Justin wondered if he wasn’t getting a glimpse of Shades’ childhood here.

“So,” Max asked Justin, “what did you want to check out?”

“There’s another of these things,” Justin pointed at the Sleeper II sculpture, “over by that abandoned… church… thing.”

“Really?” Shades tried not to sound too ashamed, but for some reason, the idea of Camcron putting more than one of these things on the island bothered him more than he would have expected. Then again, it dawned on him that the number II in its name should have served as a hint. “I’m surprised we didn’t see it.”

They all gravitated toward the green machine as they spoke.

“It was there,” Justin insisted. “It was out in the woods, so you couldn’t really see it well from that side.”

“Sorry. It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Shades tried to explain, figuring his last remark must have come across wrong, “it’s just that… Hm… I guess it would blend in, what with that green color and all.”

“Actually, it’s red,” Justin told them. “It’s marked Sleeper I, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same as this one.”

“Mysterious…” Max remarked, wondering if that was where they were heading to next.

“I suppose we’ll check that out next,” Shades said as he walked up to the green machine, having remembered what he originally wanted to check out here. Even as he scanned the ground near it, he tried to figure out why this business of a Red Machine and a Green Machine bothered him. Much like the Camcron Building, and his mind’s association with another out-of-place building in his own world, having something to do with old childhood dreams he wished he could remember more about. “But right now, let’s see if we can’t find out what that weird call yesterday was about. If anything.”

Feeling odd about it even as he spotted the phone and picked it up again, Max and Justin watching with quiet intensity.

For his part, Shades was just glad that the buttons bore at least a passing resemblance to phones back on Earth. Perhaps form does follow function… he speculated as he hunted among the controls. Finding a button that appeared to dial the number of the last caller, at least if he understood correctly, listening to at least a twenty-odd-digit dialing sequence.

Extreme long distance…

They stood in tense silence for nearly a minute or so as it rang multiple times, waiting.

After letting it go long enough for his dead grandmother to pick up, Shades clicked if off in disgust. For all the suspense they had built up, it was just so anti-climactic. As far as he was concerned, if whatever that woman called about was so damn important, there should presumably be someone on the other end of the line waiting to hear from whoever it was they were trying to warn in the first place.

Then again, if she was cut off…

All four of them, even Bandit, jumped when the phone started beeping.

“Umm…” Shades answered, “Hello?”

“Director Grady,” a bold, gruff voice demanded.

“Uh, no, I’m afraid I don’t know anyone named Grady. You see, this phone—”

“Shut up!” that voice roared at him. “Don’t give me that crap about how he’s not in! You think you can run your own little agenda out there, do you? Well, pack your bags, Grady! You’re fired!”

Then his disembodied antagonist hung up with a loud slam somewhere on the other side of the ether.

Seeing Shades’ sheepish expression, Max and Justin asked, almost simultaneously, “What did they say?”

“Apparently, I’m fired.” Shades shrugged, wishing he knew more of what that was about. “No big loss. I wouldn’t wanna work for him anyway. He sounds like an asshole.”

As they stood there, it started raining again, as the sky had been threatening to do all day.

“Shit. Let’s go back to the ship.” Justin, for one, saw no more point in hanging around.

“Yeah,” Max agreed. This place started out somewhat intriguing, but without any further information, this was starting to get old. Even Bandit seemed to be getting bored.

“I suppose.” Shades tossed the phone aside and turned to join them as they headed back to the ship.

They were about to begin preparing lunch, when Justin, perhaps on some lingering outlaw instinct of his, happened to look off in the general direction of St Lucy, spotting a dot bobbing on the horizon.

“Guys!” Justin snapped, grabbing his binoculars for a closer look. “Don’t look now, but I think we’ve got company.”

Sure enough, it was a small boat, and headed in Adnan’s general direction. Even in this murky weather, it wouldn’t have to get too much closer for the Maximum to potentially be within their visual range, too, assuming it wasn’t already. Even as they tried to figure out what anyone could possibly be up to out here, Shades’ closest guess being perhaps some kind of routine check on the school campus, a more ominous thought occurred to them, recalling the first phone call they received.

They sent him! He may already be in St Lucy!…

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Shades remarked, recalling the fear in that mystery woman’s voice, combined with the fact that the guy who just fired him sounded pretty confident of some kind of consequences if this Dr Grady didn’t leave the Institute quietly. If this was the him that woman was talking about, “I don’t think we should stick around to find out who it is.”

“I’m with you,” Max agreed. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Damn straight,” Justin said, stepping out to unmoor the ship while Shades took the helm.

Once they were set, Shades fired up the engines, and they made a hasty retreat from Adnan’s Island, abandoning all pretense of stealth in order to gain a solid lead on them. All three of them couldn’t help thinking that the rain, tiresome as it had become to them, may have just saved them a lot of trouble with its timing. After all, if they hadn’t gone back to the ship when they had, there was no telling how close that unknown vessel may have gotten— perhaps even landed— before any of them were even aware of it while they were off exploring the rest of the island.

With such a large head start, it didn’t take them long to start widening the gap between themselves and the unknown vessel, but none of them lowered their guard for a good long while, even after both the ship, and Adnan’s Island, faded out of sight.

It was only once they were well away from the realm of St Lucy and well on their way to parts unknown that they remembered the red machine. Shades, especially, wishing he had at least had the chance to go and examine it before they left Adnan’s. So many unanswered questions, and now they would never know.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
St Lucy yet again
The following morning turned out just as cloudy and brooding as the last.

They again had breakfast and settled in for what usually turned out to be a week or two between realms. Over breakfast, the conversation centered around the Camcron Building and those two Sleeper sculptures. That building, especially, proved a tantalizing question mark that each of them had a slightly different take on.

“I still think we should have gone in,” Max insisted, figuring Justin, at least, would agree with him.

“Are you nuts?” Justin still couldn’t pin down exactly why he was so hesitant about it. Odd, given that he would ordinarily be gung-ho for casing the joint. All he could come up with was how much trouble he went through the last few times he simply barged into places without knowing what he was getting into. Tranz-D. The Harken Building. That haunted island estate. “I think we should have tried to find out what those bastards were doing in there before going in.”

“I think we were probably smart to stay out, no telling what they were ‘researching’ in there, though you can’t help but wonder…” Shades knew it was easy to be brave now, but whenever he walked past that place, he couldn’t help feeling as if he had experienced it before, in a dream or something, and the foreboding impression that taking that building lightly would be a dangerous mistake. “It felt really weird standing near it… like there was some kind of energy source in there… But I’m not sure. Maybe we were just spooking ourselves.”

“Well, I suppose now we’ll never know,” Justin remarked. Last night, in his cabin, he had flipped through that diary he picked up before he finally crashed, but there were only a handful of entries that had anything to do with the building, or those two machines, and none of them shed any light on what it was that was actually going on. Which only added to his frustration, since even bringing it up would amount to admitting he had broken their agreement, so he kept his mouth shut about it.

“I guess.” Max resumed his turn at the helm now that he was finished eating. As Justin and Shades continued to discuss the building and Camcron’s possible motives for setting up a research facility in a backwater realm like this, he spotted something on the horizon. He rejoined the conversation with: “Hey guys, I can see something up ahead.”

Both of them turned and looked forward, for none of them were expecting such a short trip.

Each of them had their own bad feeling about this, recalling yesterday morning.

“No… No way…” Justin stammered, noticing it just before his friends did.

No way out… Shades’ thoughts finished for Justin, though he didn’t like where his intuition was going with this. By different paths, they were working their way toward the same conclusion. “I’ve seen this shit before…”

Max looked back and forth between his two friends for a moment, the last to recognize, expanding before them in the front window, the Isle of St Lucy.

Again.

“Something’s not right here…” he muttered.

“You’re tellin’ me,” Shades commented.

“I am,” Max insisted.

“But how…” Justin tried to wrap his head around how they could have gotten turned around not once, but twice in a row, shaking his head as if in negation of reality.

“I think I have an idea.” To Shades, this scene looked exactly as it had, down to the angle of their approach, the day before. And the day before that. And he was starting to harbor suspicions about the day before that, as well.

“Don’t tell me…” If Justin could read his thought, he would probably concur in spite of himself.

“We’re going in,” Shades said, having come up with a perfectly plausible plan to test his theory. As he ironed out the details in his mind, he tried to fight back the panic lurking in the back of his thoughts, trying to creep back in at the thought of it being true.

“But what about Sheriff Boggs?” Though Justin knew he was asking mostly on reflex. “I’m not setting foot off this ship unarmed, man.”

“I don’t think Sheriff Boggs will be a problem,” Shades told him, a grim smile crossing his face. “And quite to the contrary, not only do I not expect us to go in unarmed, I think we should come prepared for battle.”

“Why?” Of the three of them, Max was the only one who didn’t quite get it. Even Bandit seemed to look at him with that knowing expression of his. Still, he found he was starting to get an idea. Whatever we do, we keep ending up back in St Lucy…

“If I’m right,” Shades said as they approached the port, silently hoping with all his heart that he wasn’t, “we’re gonna have to be if we’re going to stop a robbery.”

The implications of his words left a lingering moment of silence as they began planning in earnest.
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a little test
Justin yawned with extreme boredom.

Like Shades, he had been digging around the general store for nearly two hours, and the clerk was starting to watch them with growing suspicion. Yet not enough to convince him this guy had been held at gunpoint just the other day. A fact he liked less than he thought he would, especially as it dawned on him that this guy might ruin their little party before it could even begin.

For his part, Shades wished he knew what time they came in on their previous visit. Of course, they sent Max in first to purchase supplies, while Justin watched from the alley across the street, and he refueled the ship. Now Max and Bandit guarded the Maximum, as he was becoming increasingly certain they would need to make a hasty departure when they finally left.

Turned out Sheriff Boggs stopped by again while he was refueling the ship. Asking the same questions he asked Max last time. And now, here as well, the store clerk showed no sign of having seen any of them before, nor of having been through anything so traumatic as an armed robbery any time lately. It was hard to imagine either a cop or a businessman being that forgetful with faces.

Thus both of them shifted back and forth between bored and anxious as the scenario only half played into their theory.

“Shades,” this was driving Justin nuts, trying to keep his guard up against something his rational mind told him shouldn’t even be able to happen, “maybe you were wrong a—”

“Don’t let your guard down,” Shades admonished, a tense look of concentration written all over his face. “I’m getting that weird feeling, just like be—”

—fore… he finished in his head as three very familiar-looking masked, gun-toting figures barged in through the door.

“Hit the deck!” the robber taking point shouted as the other two moved toward the front counter. “This is—”

Was all the farther he got before Justin and Shades fired several rounds of stun shots into their midst, cutting down all three of them before they even knew what hit them.

“Damn…” Justin felt an icy chill as he beheld the scene before him. This is exactly what happened the last time we came here…

Little realizing his thoughts and Shades’ matched perfectly.

“Looks like I was right…” Shades muttered, struggling against that sense of reality trying to recede from him, for he was now certain what would come next.

“What now?”

Before Shades could remind his friend to stay focused, Sheriff Boggs burst into the store, shotgun aimed right at them.

“Freeze! Police!”

Justin’s little nightmare began again.

“Don’t worry, officer, they’re only stunned.” Shades somehow managed to sound reassuring despite the fact that he was reliving events from two days ago.

“They tried to rob the place,” Justin added, trying to focus.

Shades knew this point was critical, that he couldn’t let the shock of their discovery throw him off for this next part.

“Drop your weapons!” Boggs ordered, gesturing with his shotgun, concluding that the would need backup to deal with this mess.

They dropped their weapons, both nodding to each other.

“Looks like it’s a good thing I was in the neighborhood,” Boggs remarked as Justin put his hands up, and Shades put his out. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we’ll sort it out at the—”

As Boggs whipped out his handcuffs, wanting to bind this shifty-looking fellow first, Shades quickly flicked his hand over, snatching the cuffs and jerking the sheriff around. With a quick motion, he twisted Boggs’ arm, wrenching the shotgun out of his hand, shoving the startled lawman against the door he just came in. Shades stepped away a moment later, leaving Boggs handcuffed to the door handle.

“How’d you…” Boggs trailed off, simply staring back and forth between his cuffed hand and the door in total confusion.

“Sorry about that,” Shades told him, grinning with a newfound appreciation for the disarming techniques Master Al taught him. Kicking the shotgun out of reach, he finished, “but I’m afraid we can’t stick around this time, either.”

“Hope we didn’t scare the shit outta you,” Justin said to the petrified clerk as he retrieved his guns.

“Too late,” he replied, stumping away woodenly.

Shades couldn’t help laughing in spite of himself as he picked up his power pistol. As they breezed past a flabbergasted Sheriff Boggs, hoping to leave his awkward sense of unreality behind him in this general store, he remarked, “Well, you know what they say…”

“Shit happens,” Justin finished as they left.

Leaving the sheriff and the clerk staring after them, then back at each other in confounded silence.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Project Pythagoras
“That was fucked up!” Justin remarked as the Isle of St Lucy receded behind them.

“What happened?” Max demanded from the helm. Judging from the rush they were in when they boarded, he was almost afraid to ask. For it seemed they were indeed wise to be prepared for a fast escape.

“It happened again. The robbery… from the other day…” Shades wondered how it could be so difficult to say the ridiculously obvious. The same day had just repeated itself for them three times in a row.

This situation, in the last few hours, had become much more serious than any of them wanted to believe.

“That… How is that even possible…” Max was still trying to wrap his head around the idea, to find that he was coming up rather short. Found he was wracking his brain, but even among the most bizarre of his parents’ stories, he couldn’t think of anything even remotely like this.

“We keep going the same way, ending up here…” Shades thought aloud. Recalling, while he was at it, an old joke his friend Vince, John’s eccentric bandmate, was rather fond of. Einstein’s Definition of Insanity. The most concise, scientific definition of insanity ever devised, Vince would tell him with that Cheshire Cat grin of his: Insanity is when people keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting to get a different outcome. “It’s kind of a long shot, but let’s loop around the other side of St Lucy and leave this realm by a different way. It’s getting kinda late, and we already know it’s just gonna rain for most of the rest of the day, so we’ll try to leave one last time. If this attempt fails, we’ll go straight to Adnan’s tomorrow and take the place apart ’til we get to the bottom of this. How does that sound?”

“I guess.” Though Justin already had his doubts.

“Okay,” Max agreed. “At times like this, I really wish we got to talk to Abu-Sharrah more about some things.”

“Too late now,” Justin muttered. Ordinarily, he would prefer not to have anything further to do with that peculiar old man, but right now, some of his sage advice would be welcome. Still, “The old fart ain’t here to help us. This time, we have to get out of this mess all by ourselves.”

“Let’s try it,” Max said as he took them around the far side of St Lucy, hoping that a different approach would do the trick.

All the while, keeping an eye out for any signs of pursuit by the local authorities. Though just like last time, they would have their hands full with those robbers, this time they had humiliated Sheriff Boggs while they were at it, and if there was one thing Justin Black had learned about authority figures anywhere, it was that making fools of them was the fastest way to piss them off. And Shades suspected that once Boggs recovered enough to remember he still had the keys to his own cuffs, he was increasingly certain it would be a bad idea to linger in the islands this time around.

They sat in silence as Max took them around. Once they were safely on their way from the Isle of St Lucy on their new heading, without a hint of interference, everyone started to relax. Shades lounged on the couch, and Justin went below to his quarters to do some reading.

He wasn’t quite sure how to break it to his friends, but he seriously doubted just going a different route would solve all of their problems. If there was any truth to that student’s diary he was reading last night, they would be in big trouble. Had no idea how all this was related, or what that research institute could possibly have done to make days repeat themselves like this, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that their troubles were just getting started.

This he thought as he dug among the covers where he hid it before he went to his night shift at the helm. Yet no matter which way he shifted the blankets and clothes strewn across the small bed, his efforts revealed no sign of the journal. At first, he found himself suspecting Shades, in spite of the fact that he had never once caught him in here, nor seen any signs of anyone sneaking in when he wasn’t around, but even as he dug around, a disconcerting thought occurred to him.

The notebook had vanished as if it had never been there to begin with…

“Yo, Justin!”

Shades knocking on his cabin door, jarring him out of his thoughts as he turned to this dresser, wondering why he hadn’t thought to hide it in there in the first place—

“Mind if I come in?”

And then he did.

“Hey!” Justin wheeled on him, wondering why he felt so sheepish when he seemed to be missing what he would have been trying to hide anyway. “Don’t you know how to knock?”

“I did,” Shades reminded him. “Is there anything I can help you with, man?”

“No, nothing.”

“You sure?” He had noticed Justin seemed to be spending an awful lot of time in his quarters lately, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was up. “You seem to be missing something.”

“Did you take it?” Justin demanded, though, now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure what would bother him more, the idea of Shades sneaking into his room, or the other, less reassuring, possibility creeping into his mind.

“Take what?”

“The notebook—”

“What notebook?”

“Alright, fine, I took a notebook when we were on that island yesterday,” Justin told him, deciding that coming clean was the fastest way to get to what he had to say. “It was something somebody left behind. In one of the cabins on Adnan’s. I didn’t think it would hurt anything.” Seeing the exasperated expression on Shades’ face, he added, “Come on, you don’t think this trapped us here?”

“No, I don’t,” Shades replied, wondering, strangely enough, if Justin’s sticky fingers hadn’t just done something right for a change. “It’s not that. I just wish you’d told us sooner, that’s all. Anyhoo, I didn’t know you were the bookworm type. Just what is it about this notebook that you found so fascinating?”

“Well, there was some stuff in it about Camcron, and about those statues,” Justin told him. “That’s how I found out about that red one out in the woods. I don’t know what the hell they were doing there, but they were really secretive about it.”

“Mind if I take a look?” Shades was increasingly certain his friend was sitting on some important clues whether he realized it or not.

“That’s the problem,” Justin explained, “I can’t find it.”

“For real?” Shades really didn’t like where this was going.

“It was here when I was reading it last night…”

“But not today?”

“No, now that I think about it…” He was in such a hurry to breakfast before they found themselves back in St Lucy, he couldn’t remember if it was still there. “But that’s not all. Though those bastards tried to keep it a secret, someone found out something about it anyway. They were working on something called Project Pythagoras.”

Pythagoras?…” Shades realized he had been so preoccupied with those Sleeper sculptures and the Camcron Building itself, he had forgotten all about the name he had read, scribbled in that bathroom stall. At the time, he wasn’t completely sure it was Pythagoras— simply a misspelling or a misunderstanding between dimensions— but now that name was filling his mind with ominous new implications. “What did they find out?”

“I don’t think they found out anything else,” Justin said. “At least not from what I read.”

“I see,” Shades replied. “This doesn’t bode well for our plans. In fact, I imagine we should probably expect to end up in St Lucy yet again.”

“And I’ll bet whatever Camcron was up to on that island has something to do with it.”

“I’m glad you’re here to tell us these things,” Shades informed him. “Project Pythagoras… At least now it has a name.”

“So you think so, too?”

“I was kind of afraid of this for a while now, but this pretty much proves it,” Shades replied. “Tomorrow, we should probably just go straight to Adnan’s Island and investigate this ourselves. In the meantime, we should probably go up and tell Max.”

He was pretty sure Max wouldn’t be happy about the situation, but he might at least be curious to finally find out what was up with that Camcron Building.
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
St Lucy revisited
When the next day dawned as grey and drab as those before it, none of them were terribly surprised anymore.

After all, based on both the events of the first three “days” combined with Justin’s intel about Project Pythagoras, it was exactly what they were expecting. Exactly what they were afraid of. And when they again spotted the Isle of St Lucy looming into view after breakfast yet again, it was all the confirmation they need. It was now plain to see that there would be no simple solution to this.

This realm’s problem had become theirs, as well.

Having already seen this episode before, they immediately veered away from St Lucy and made for Adnan’s, where they now suspected the only way out of this whole mess would be found. They wasted no time docking in front of the defunct school. Once they assembled their gear, they made for the green machine, Sleeper II.

Sure enough, that mobile phone was lying on the ground. Exactly where Shades found it the last couple times, now that he thought about it. In spite of tossing it in a different random direction each time before.

“As I thought…” Shades mused, then turned and told Justin, “That probably means your notebook is right back in that cabin where you first found it. I suppose you should bring it back here for investigation.”

“Why here?” Justin asked.

“Because I’m gonna be opening a little answering service here,” Shades replied, picking up the phone, “and hopefully I’ll be getting some answers, too, while I’m at it.”

That settled, Max went with Justin, wanting to see the red machine while they were out that way. Remembering how much it would rain here, Shades set up shop inside that playground cabin, not wanting to stray too far from the phone’s original position, for fear of interfering with the reception and missing his call. Sure enough, it started raining almost as soon as his friends were away from the sports complex, so he was glad the roof was tight enough to keep the rain off him.

Since last night, he had done a great deal of thinking about Camcron Industries. From what he could gather, it seemed to be a powerhouse manufacturer from New Cali, whose products seemed to find their way into far-flung realms. And New Cali, said by many to the biggest city in the world. Given how big this world was turning out to be, he figured their headquarters must be pretty impressive. Their financial backing considerable, to place something as expensive as the Camcron Building and commission sculptures way out in a backwater realm like St Lucy.

As the minutes ticked on, he found himself wishing he had a more reliable means of telling time in this realm; the fact that the events were repeating themselves meant that each of these things would always happen at the same time, which just left the question of what time that actually was. The weather was no help in that regard, either.

A short while later, Justin got on the horn, reporting, in a voice that still registered a strong incredulity in spite of all they had seen, that the notebook was exactly where he found it the first time. Since it was raining, Justin decided to stay in the cabin for now. Mean while, Max and Bandit headed back to the ship to begin preparing lunch.

As well as keep an eye out for approaching ships. Though it seemed unlikely, given the lack of any response the times before, they had actually talked with Mr Donaldson the first time around. And, as Justin very astutely pointed out, had the tactical sense to skirt around behind his back on their last visit, whereas this time, in their haste to investigate Camcron, they had sailed right by in plain sight. And then there was that strange business from their last visit before, with that mysterious ship that spooked them, whose crew, situation, and disposition, where unknown to them.

The way they figured it, if no one came out in the next couple hours to question them, it seemed likely they would be good for the day; after all, the authorities would soon have their hands full with a robbery back there.

Though it kinda worried him a bit, he just reminded himself that Sheriff Boggs was in the neighborhood, and he did have a shotgun, so it wasn’t like—

Shades’ thoughts were interrupted by the beeping of the mobile phone, nearly making him fumble it in spite of the fact that it was the exact turn of events he was waiting for.

“Hello?” Shades answered as he pushed the button.

“Director Grady,” a gruff voice he remembered all too well from the other day barked at him.

“You again,” Shades remarked. “Good. I’ve got a lot of questions for you.”

“I’m the one asking the questions around here,” that voice shot back. “Now where is Grady? Answer me.”

“Dr Grady has left the building,” Shades informed him, “so you’ll be dealing with me now. Now, you tell me, what is Project Pythagoras? What were you trying to accomplish?”

“Pythagoras…” the voice hissed. “Who are you?”

“None of your damn business,” Shades told him. “Now what the hell did you do to these islands?”

There was a long moment of silence, during which Shades was afraid the guy was going to hang up before he finally spoke again.

“I don’t know who you think you are,” the voice warned him, “but you won’t feel so smart when Mr Geist arrives.”

“Who?”

“Pythagoras is our research, and we won’t let Grady or whoever you work for steal it!”

Then he slammed the phone, just like before.

“I don’t ‘work for’ anybody,” Shades muttered, frustrated that his attempt to shake the other guy up, and hopefully shake a little info loose, had failed to yield any useful intelligence, “and you can’t fire somebody who never worked for you in the first place.” It left him with a maddening impression that this guy knew a lot more about the whole affair than he was letting on. “Fine then, we’ll just see about that…”

With that, Shades jabbed the RECALL button.

Though after ringing several times, the line cut off, leaving Shades’ questions, and a piece of his mind, stranded on the tip of his tongue.

Disgusted, he leaned against the wall and waiting for the next call. He already knew there would be at least two; based on their different arrival times, he knew the other one wouldn’t be for at least another three or four hours. While he was at it, he planned to stick around and find out if this Grady fellow had any other incoming calls of any significance today.

Now that he thought about it, the repeat-loop at least explained a couple mysteries about the phone itself. Though he figured it was at least moderately water-resistant— had to be in order to still be functional after sitting out in the rain like that— he was still surprised it could survive for days at a time. Now he knew it had only been out here for one, most likely. And while he could perhaps be mistaken, given the differences in technology in this dimension, it was his experience that battery life in portable electronics was a little too sketchy to hold a decent charge for days on-end.

As he looked out the window and contemplated how lonely this playground looked under this gloomy sky in its present deserted state, Max and Bandit returned from the ship, bearing thermos canisters of steaming hot stew and one of cocoa. Max was about to go take one over to the student cabins but the rain had let up in the meantime, and Justin made his way over even as they gave him a buzz to tell him soup’s on. As he ducked into the tiny cabin, he took out the journal, which he had been digging through while he waited out the rain.

“I take it everything’s okay back at the ship?” Shades intoned.

“Yeah,” Max told him, “looks like no one’s coming out here today.”

“So, any luck?” Justin asked.

“No, not really,” Shades replied, “but at least this time I didn’t get fired.”

“Okay,” Max suggested, “then let’s eat.”

While they ate, they flipped through the notebook, searching for any more clues about Project Pythagoras. Yet the lion’s share of it was just a student’s diary, concerning itself primarily with day-to-day life at Adnan’s, what few parts there were about Camcron shed no new light on anything they already knew. More questions than answers, and mostly focused on those two Sleeper sculptures than anything else.

After lunch, Max and Justin hung around for a short while, but just as they were about to head out and take another look around the red machine, the phone started beeping again.

“Hello?” Shades answered again.

“You have to get out of there!” the panicky voice of the mystery woman gave her desperate warning yet again. “They sent him!”

“Who?” Shades demanded, though he was already half afraid he knew what she was going to say next.

“Mr Geist!” the mystery woman told him emphatically. “Who else?”

“Who is Geist?” Shades asked, going for the direct approach.

“No time!” she pleaded. “He may already be in St—”

And then the line went dead, just like before.

Though already fairly sure of the outcome, he tried the RECALL button once more, just in case; it came as no great surprise when that line sounded to him like it was out of service.

“Who was it?” Justin asked.

“She didn’t say,” Shades told him. “Just like before. The same grim warning, then she got cut off. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m pretty sure whatever she was trying to warn us about has already happened…”

“And who the hell is Geist?” Justin added. In the absence of any other info, that was what he really wanted to know.

“Sorry, I got so wrapped up in the notebook, I forgot all about that part,” Shades apologized. “That guy from before— the one who fired me— said that someone called Mr Geist had been sent here, and he seemed to think we were gonna get it when he arrived.”

“But didn’t that woman also say he was coming?” Max pressed, based on Shades’ end of that phone conversation.

“Yeah,” Justin seconded. “What was he sent to do?”

“No clue,” Shades admitted, “but whoever he is, he sounds like bad news. Even so, we know he doesn’t arrive anytime today, so I think we’re alright.”

“We should still keep our guard up,” Justin remarked, recalling that mysterious ship they fled from last time they were here, which he couldn’t recalling seeing on any other repeat.

“So, what now?” Max asked.

“Well, I think we’ve learned everything we’re going to out here,” Shades told them, stuffing the phone in his jacket pocket. “What say we actually see for ourselves what they were doing in that building?”

“Let’s,” was Justin’s grim reply.

“I guess we have no choice,” Max agreed, he and Bandit exchanging a nervous glance.

That settled, they headed for the Camcron Building. Though Shades harbored his own misgivings about abandoning his stakeout before it was complete, he would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit he was getting bored with it. That, and they were running out of daylight, plus he was increasingly certain they had already gleaned as much information from outside sources as they were going to. If nothing else, he was pretty sure at least some of that communications gear on the roof of the building was somehow tied to that phone’s long-range reception anyway, so as long as he kept it on him, he doubted he would miss any important calls.

Max and Justin flanked the entrance, power pistols drawn, while Shades stepped up to the door, stun-stick readied. On their previous visit, he had ransacked the Academy’s administrative offices, but never did find the magnetically coded key the door to this building seemed to require. Instead, recalling as he did that whatever those doors were made of, they were clear as crystal and solid as steel, he fired up both cutting blades, opting for brute force.

Four crisscrossing slashes later, the lock between them fell to the floor with a dull clank.

The very second Shades kicked the door in, alarms started blaring from all corners of the building. Shades hit the deck, and just in time, as Justin opened fire with both guns. A couple shots actually made it inside, while the rest were cut off by heavy armor plates that sprang up from a slot between the segments of concrete in front of the door, the remainder of Justin’s energy blasts splashing harmlessly against it.

Max took a dive as well, careful not to land on his injured arm. As such, he was the first to notice that the Camcron Building had thrown up blast plates over all of the window slits, as well. The alarms muffled, yet still going off, they heard, as Justin stilled his trigger finger.

They sat there for a long moment in understandable indecision before Max stepped up to the metal barrier with his laser sword. Justin, unpleasant memories of Tranz-D’s automated hell ringing in his ears with that alarm, ducked around the corner. Shades did so, as well, stun-sticks as primed as Justin’s guns to back Max up.

With several swift strokes, Max carved out a new entrance, the reinforced plate hitting the floor with a massive, reverberating slam, announcing their presence even more loudly than all the alarms.

After another long pause, to confirm that there were no auto-guns or robo-guards or anything waiting to ambush them, they hesitantly entered the main hall.

What got them moving again was hearing a pre-recorded voice over the intercom, announcing: “ACTIVE SECURITY MEASURES BREACHED!… EMERGENCY DATA PURGE SEQUENCE NOW ENGAGED…”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Justin demanded as they ran up to the nearest door.

“It means we’re running out of time,” Shades informed him, pondering the irony that what he said might not even be technically possible in St Lucy on this particular day.

The room itself was occupied only by several large tables, a dozen or so chairs, and a few empty boxes, having clearly been gutted from its original use.

“Where to now?” Max asked.

“Downstairs!” Shades concluded, remembering the basement level, and they bolted down the nearest of two stairways in the main open area.

At the bottom, they found a door marked Research Control, and Max again chopped down the door. The darkened room was currently lit by nothing but the dim glow of mostly blank computer monitors. The equipment itself looking, to Shades, decades ahead of anything he had ever seen.

Yet before any of them could even begin to figure out where to start, they were greeted by another dispiriting message from the intercom, even as the alarms faded out: “EMERGENCY DATA PURGE COMPLETE… ALL SECURED DATA IS NOW DELETED…”

As the room fell into silence, all they could do at this point was stare at blank screen prompts, and one central monitor that read: Data deletion: 100% complete.

“What the hell do we do now?” Justin moaned.

“I guess we really do need the proper key…” Shades muttered, for he really hated being right about things like these.
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
better luck next time
Seeing nothing of any further interest, for the Institute didn’t seem to keep any physical records on the premises, they filed back out of the Camcron Building to find Bandit waiting anxiously outside.

Having exhausted all of their current leads on Adnan’s Island, they trudged back to the ship through the pouring rain. Shades chucking the mobile phone aside with the maddening foreknowledge that when next he returned to this island, it would be right back where he originally found it. Justin, on the other hand, hanging on to the journal; though he knew they had a time limit before it, too, magically returned to that student’s cabin, and he had his doubts about whether even Shades would be able to wring any more insight out of its vague pages, he still felt those two damnable machines were as much a part of the puzzle as the building itself.

“By the way,” Max told him, for, seeing the remaining dishes from lunch reminded him of something that had completely slipped his mind while they were investigating the phone and the building, “I forgot to mention it earlier, but while I was making lunch, I noticed something really weird.”

“Like what?” Justin asked as they prepared to depart. Almost afraid of what Max might say next, in light of all they had seen lately.

“Well, you know how that book you found disappeared?”

“Don’t tell me…” Shades suspected that he had already figured out what his friend was about to say.

“You see, I think I made the very same stew that Justin made the other day…”

“What do you mean, the very same stew?” Though Justin already didn’t like where Max was going with this.

“Guys, I can’t find any of the stuff we bought yesterday. I went looking while the stew was cooking…”

“You mean we wasted all that money—” Justin began, already seeing it all sitting back on that pansy-ass store clerk’s inventory shelves…

“I doubt that,” Shades assured him grimly. “I’ll bet if we count it, we’ll find we’ve got the same amount of money we started this whole mess with.”

“I guess that makes sense…” But, like most things about this whole affair, it made Max’s head hurt just thinking about it.

“Donaldson…” The more Justin thought about their conversation with the old man, the more certain he was that he wanted them to go there. “That son-of-a-bitch! I’m gonna kill him!”

“I really don’t think he knows,” Shades said, trying to calm him. “It’s not his fault— in fact, I’m pretty sure we got stuck the moment we entered these waters. Everyone else seems to be trapped in some kind of repeat-loop, and I’d bet Mr Donaldson wouldn’t remember us, either.”

“Why don’t we go talk to him?” Max suggested.

“Yeah,” Justin agreed darkly, “I think we should have another chat with the old man.”

“I agree,” Shades concurred. “But you’re not killing him.”

“Then let’s go,” Max said, changing course toward Donaldson’s small island.

“When you stop and think about it, he is our only remaining lead,” Shades remarked. “After all, he was the principal there, so he must know some things we don’t. The only other thing I can think of is the kid who wrote that diary, but even if I thought he actually knew anything else, there are other issues.”

“Like what?” Justin asked.

“Like even finding him, for starters,” Shades pointed out. “We’re outsiders, so we can’t exactly go around asking such suspicious-sounding questions. And even if we came with the pretense of ‘returning’ his diary, it would still raise issues of what we were doing out here. No parents worth their salt would buy our…”

He trailed off as they came in sight of Donaldson’s island, spotting a second, even a third, vessel docked there. Along with Donaldson’s small craft, there was another small vessel, looking like any of at least a dozen or so they had seen around the harbor back in St Lucy. The other, bore white-and-red markings, they all noticed, matching that of the Harbor Patrol boats they had seen back there, as well. Max reflexively slowed down at this unexpected sight.

“Justin,” Shades said, thinking fast, “I hate to make you sit out in the rain like this, but would you go up top and hide below the railing? You’ve got one of your EMP grenades handy, don’t you?”

Justin nodded, relieved to have a backup plan.

And so they approached the docks at a more modest speed, coasting in close at a broadside angle. Max cracked the window next to the helm in spite of the weather, the better to hear what was going on. Shades put on a plain grey ball cap he had picked up in the Konas and stepped out on deck to do the talking while Justin secretly covered him.

They all had a sinking feeling when the only person to emerge from Donaldson’s cabin was Sheriff Boggs.

“Who goes there?” Boggs demanded, shotgun at the ready.

“Just a couple passing travelers,” Shades replied, remembering to keep Justin’s presence hidden.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” the sheriff countered.

“And just what business do you have with Mr Donaldson at this hour?” Though given what the old man had said about him being on Camcron’s payroll, he already had a bad feeling about his chances of angling for info.

“How do you know Donaldson?” Boggs’ eyes narrowed in an open display of suspicion. “You hardly strike me as former students.”

“He’s a recent acquaintance,” Shades answered. “We just want to talk to him, Boggs.”

“That’s Sheriff Boggs to you, boy. And just where did you get my name? I’ve never seen you before…” At that point, he seemed to notice the Maximum’s trajectory, demanding, “You just came from Adnan’s, didn’t you? What were you doing out there?”

“None of your business.” And Shades reminded himself that Justin’s EMP could prevent any pursuit. “Did Camcron send you out here? What have you done with Donaldson?”

“Camcron…” Boggs raised his shotgun. “Who do you work for? What the hell are you talking about?”

“We just want to see Mr Donaldson.”

“Well, you can’t.”

“Says who? You?”

“Says the Reaper,” Boggs shot back. “Of course, you wouldn’t know, but there was a robbery in St Lucy today. I lost one of my best deputies, and the store clerk was wounded. We got two of ’em, but one stole a ship.

“He came all the way out here— whether to hide out or take that old fool hostage, I’ll never know— but by the time we caught up with him, he had already killed Donaldson. I was just about to issue a report back to headquarters when you showed up. Now tell me, what are you doing here?”

“So that’s how it ends…” Shades realized they had forgotten about the robbery, that they had no clue how the original sequence of events played out on that front. “Looks like we missed him this time…”

“What’s going on? Who are you?”

“I guess you really don’t remember us, either.” Shades now knew there was nothing further to be gained from this verbal fencing match, so now all they needed was an opening to escape. “Looks like Camcron screwed you over even more than you know.”

“Don’t take an attitude with me, boy…”

“And don’t you ‘boy’ me, lapdog,” Shades shot back, deciding to pose one more question as a parting shot, though he doubted he would get an answer, “and one more thing: what do you know about a Mr Geist?”

“Just that if you don’t know about him, you ain’t supposed to. Now get off that ship. You’re under arrest.”

“I see. So that’s how you’re going to play it this time.” Shades was just thankful Justin would have the element of surprise when he made his move… “Well, I’m afraid we have to be going now…”

“And just what makes you think you’re going anywhere?”

Re-aiming his shotgun for emphasis.

“Looks like we’ll just have to talk to Donaldson next time.” Trying not to shift his head toward Justin’s position.

“Next time… Have you lost your mind?”

“No, just—”

Right then, Shades’ rebuttal was interrupted by another deputy stepping out of the cabin, calling, “Sheriff! We’re ready to… Who are those—”

Was as far as Justin let them get before popping up and stunning Sheriff Boggs. Shades hit the deck, and Max took that as his cue to fire up the engines. As they pulled out, Justin chucked the EMP grenade into the Harbor Patrol ship as Max poured on more speed.

Once they were out of range, Justin came back down, and Shades told him, “Sorry I made you use one of those, but if it’s any consolation, I imagine you’ll have it back in the morning.”

Didn’t care to find out how being thrown in a jail cell would affect the loop, and suspected Justin felt the same, but kept that part to himself.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” he said as he shook the rainwater out of his hair. He sneezed loudly, adding, “I just hope I don’t catch a damn cold from that.”

“I doubt that will matter in the morning, either,” Shades pointed out. “What matters now is getting our act together, and planning for the next round.”

“Donaldson…” Max said quietly.

“Not just Donaldson,” Shades intoned. “The people of St Lucy may have originally let Camcron in, but they didn’t deserve this ending. While we’re busy trying to escape, we should try to give St Lucy a better day.”
XVIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
St Lucy once more
The next morning started out just as ominous and overcast as the repetitions that preceded it, dark and cloudy, threatening rain.

Again they ate in silence, waiting for the inevitable next step. Until they reached St Lucy, there just wasn’t much to talk about. Last night was all about strategy, today would be all about seeing how far they could carry it out.

As they ate, Shades recalled a haunting dream he had last night. In it, he saw the children of St Lucy being moved out of Adnan’s. Teachers, staff, as well as several men in business suits, whom he suspected were with the research institute, leading the students down to several ships. The kids themselves looking both confused and excited, as if they themselves just found out they were moving. One even tried to go back for something, but the suits wouldn’t let him.

Though he doubted he would ever know if that was really how it all went down, upon waking all it made him think of was just how sinister the name Camcron sounded.

This whole repeat-loop scenario was starting to remind Shades of how people used to always greet him repeatedly at work. As if they hadn’t just met five minutes ago. Stuff like that got on his nerves very quickly.

What John would have called a monotonous phenomenon. Just like these islands now.

He shook his head, concluding that nostalgia would be no help here. Thinking about the past and his old friends may have been okay before, when they were still blissfully unaware of their true predicament, but now he needed to focus. After all, he really wasn’t so sure his old friends would necessarily be any more help than his current companions, so it was imperative that he got it together so as not to be a burden.

Predictably enough, shortly after breakfast, the Isle of St Lucy loomed in sight. In addition to preparations, they would need to stop over here first. After all, since the same day kept repeating itself, there was one problem in St Lucy that needed to be taken care of.

First, they stopped to refuel, confident that no one would recognize them. Sure enough, Max ran into Sheriff Boggs, who once again failed to remember him. Meanwhile, Justin and Shades took care of the supplies, finishing with Shades making an anonymous call to the police. If they were going to have time to investigate Adnan’s, they wouldn’t be able to stick around to intervene against the robbery— let alone risk getting killed or arrested themselves— but they figured if the local constabulary had a heads-up on it, they would hopefully be able to stop the robbery without anyone getting killed. Plus, it would have the bonus effect of keeping Boggs’ watchful eye turned away from Adnan’s.

All three of them wondering what the looks on those poor bastards’ faces were going to be this time when they tried to rob that store.

That settled, the made for Donaldson’s place next.

Even if they knew how to operate the computers, knew exactly where to look, the data purge itself still wouldn’t leave them enough time to take advantage of it. The next step was to learn as much about the island as possible. If they could find a proper key to that door somewhere, they could surely bypass the Camcron Building’s security measures altogether. Hopefully.

Sure enough, taking stock before and after shopping, they were indeed starting the day each time with the same money and supplies as before, just as Max suspected. Just as predicted, the journal disappeared again, at some point while Justin was sleeping. And Justin’s budding cold evaporated, as well.

And, as always, just as any time before, any attempt to stay awake simply ended in them nodding off at some point lost to memory, and waking up to the same dismal morning.

Wasting no time, they approached quickly, then slowed down to a more casual pace once they were in sight. Max taking the upper helm so they would all be above board. Mr Donaldson was standing off to the left of his home, chopping firewood next to a shed half hidden behind the cabin itself. When he noticed the ship approaching, he stuck the axe in the chopping block and started toward the dock.

Again, they pulled up to the tip of the dock, and Donaldson again stopped short of the dock, until he spotted Bandit, whose presence among them seemed to reassure him.

“Ho there!” he called out, sounding much as he had before, “I don’t get too many visitors out here. What brings you out this way? Ship troubles?”

“No, actually,” said Max.

“Mr Donaldson,” Shades told him, “we need to talk to you.”

“Do I know you?” Donaldson wondered for a moment if they were perhaps former students or something, but no matter how hard he looked at them, they failed to bear any resemblance to anyone he had ever seen before.

“No, I suppose you probably don’t,” Shades remarked cryptically.

“But we know you.” Justin’s words only added more confusion to the old man’s face.

“At least not yet,” Max put in.

“It’s a long story,” said Shades, “but the important part is that we’ve got an idea what Camcron did to St Lucy.”

“Camcron…” Donaldson paused in mid step at that name. “Did Boggs send you?”

“No,” Max assured him, “we’re not with them.”

“You could say we have a common enemy and a common problem.” Shades was hoping more to pique the man’s curiosity than to frighten him, but he was having trouble hiding his amusement at this strange conversation. “We’d love to stick around for some of your delightful tea, but I’m afraid we’re in something of a hurry.”

“But how…”

“Why don’t you come with us?” Max invited.

“We’ll explain everything we know on the way,” Shades promised him straight-up.

“The way to where?” Donaldson clearly starting to become suspicious of them again.

“To Adnan’s.”

“Adnan’s?” Donaldson put his foot down. “What’s this all about?”

“We need your help,” Shades told him flatly. “Besides, I believe you want to know the truth about Camcron and Project Pythagoras, don’t you?”

“Pythagoras, huh?” Donaldson thought about it another moment, figuring that these young men weren’t Sheriff Boggs’ type. And if they were with Camcron, they wouldn’t reveal so much so easily. That this might well be his only chance to find out the truth. “Just a moment. Let me go get my coat.”
XIX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
another chat with Donaldson
“So basically, you’re telling me that this day has been repeating itself over and over?” There was no mistaking the skepticism in Donaldson’s voice, written all over his face. “But wouldn’t I remember?”

“No one else seems to, either,” Max told him as they continued explaining the events of their last four visits. “Not even Sheriff Boggs, and we’ve met him more times than anybody else here.”

As the Maximum sailed toward Adnan’s, they explained the situation to Donaldson in greater detail.

“You don’t remember getting killed last time, either, do you?” Justin pointed out.

“What?”

“You see, there’s always this robbery at a store in St Lucy,” Shades filled in the blanks, “and if we don’t interfere, it ends with people getting killed. One of them always comes out here to hide out or something, and ends up killing you.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Donaldson looked as if someone just stepped on his grave.

“This time, we made an anonymous call to the police before we left St Lucy,” Max assured him, “so they should be able to stop it this time around.”

“This time…” Donaldson was still trying to wrap his head around this whole scenario. “I just can’t believe this is happening.”

“To you, it was just today,” Shades explained, relieved that Donaldson was buying enough of their account to hopefully make it far enough to find more tangible evidence, “just as it is for everyone else around here.”

“But you came from outside…” Donaldson thought about that for a moment. “If that’s really the case, then that would explain why they were in such a hurry to leave at the end…” Though he still didn’t completely buy this, he would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit he was at least intrigued by it. “But how is it even possible for them to do this?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Max told him with grim determination.

In addition to a coat better suited to the weather and a couple other odds and ends, they also rigged up and towed Donaldson’s boat along with them. They had every intention of leaving the realm of St Lucy the moment they managed to stop Project Pythagoras, so if they succeeded, Donaldson would need his own way to depart Adnan’s Island.

“Shouldn’t we tell the people back in St Lucy?” Donaldson suggested, wondering what they would think about it.

“No, I’m pretty sure it would be a waste of time,” Shades replied. “We don’t have any proof they would accept, so I doubt they’d believe us anyway.”

“And don’t forget about Sheriff Boggs,” Justin reminded them darkly.

“Yes, Boggs would definitely try to stop us,” Donaldson agreed. “I’m pretty sure he’s on Camcron’s hush-money, so he’s got too much to lose if this gets out.”

“The biggest irony,” Shades remarked, remembering their confrontation with from him the previous time, “is that he doesn’t even realize that he’s a victim, too.”

“You really didn’t know about all this, did you?” This whole conversation was starting to make Justin feel bad about what he had said before. But still, “Then why did you try to talk us into going out there anyway?”

“I’ll admit that I must have tempted you,” Donaldson admitted, finding it strange to hear about his potential intentions being played out without even having to do it, “but I was only curious. I would never have imagined anything like this was going on… To be honest, I was afraid they might be doing something dangerous, like weapons or toxic chemicals or something, but then they left. I figured if they were building anything dangerous in there, they probably took it with them. But from what you say, it sounds like the experiment’s still going, isn’t it?”

“Sure looks like it,” Max agreed.

“I see.” Justin nodded.

“And now I know I was right about one thing.” Donaldson stared fiercely at Adnan’s looming in the distance. And on it, a particular building. Found that, the closer they got to the island, the more plausible all of this started to sound as he remembered the way the Institute research staff and their bribed puppets were behaving toward the end… “That lousy Director Grady was up to something, and now that I’m here, I’m going to find out what. I’m going to help you stop this thing.”

“Whatever it is,” Shades mused darkly.

The island itself seemed to pose some grim challenge to them as they arrived.
XX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
shedding some light
Upon making landfall, they wasted no time docking on Adnan’s, working their way up toward the Academy building.

Even as the others pressed on, though, instead Donaldson turned aside, leading them to a section behind the boathouse, past an overturned rowboat and several various colored canoes on a rack. A sign on the door read: WARNING! HIGH VOLTAGE. Before Shades could bring any of his lockpicks to bear, Donaldson reached into his coat pocket and produced a ring of keys.

“The weather notwithstanding, there’s a reason I went back to the house,” he explained, sorting through the keys. “As this was a remote location, all staff members had keys to the basic facilities. As Headmaster, I made backup copies of them, just in case of an emergency.”

“And let me guess,” Shades read between the lines, “you just happened to ‘forget’ to return those ones?”

“Well, actually…” Donaldson stammered, managing to look more sheepish than authoritative as he found the key he was looking for and opened the door. “They never knew about it.”

“Pretty clever,” Justin commented.

Inside was a cramped room with a generator occupying most of its floor space. On the wall was a box of switches, apparently controlling the power to the rest of the island. They quickly discovered, though, that Camcron had slapped their own padlock on the master lever. Which Max promptly made short work of with his laser sword as Donaldson marveled at his now companions’ weapons.

“Let there be light!” Shades called triumphantly as he threw the main lever back on. As they turned to leave, a stray thought occurred to him, and he asked, “By the way, you wouldn’t happen to have a ‘spare’ key to the Camcron Building, would you?”

“No. Only the research team themselves and certain Camcron officials had keys. Even as Headmaster, I was denied any.” There was no mistaking the resentment attached to that memory. “But I know a good place to start looking. Then again, why don’t we just break in?”

“It’s no good,” Justin muttered.

“You see, we already tried that last time,” Shades confessed. “That building has its own advanced, independently-powered security system, and that place can lock down like Alcatraz. And even when we broke through that, the computers inside erased all their data.”

Frustrating as the whole incident was, Shades was still sure it was better intel than just a bad feeling about not playing the place by its own rules, even as he wondered what else Camcron may have equipped the place with.

“So I guess we have to find the real key,” Donaldson conceded glumly as he led them toward the Academy building, for he had seen that door was set with no ordinary lock.

“That’s part of why we enlisted your help,” Shades informed him, “because you know this place better than we do. And when the sun rises, we’ll have to start all over again.”

Justin shuddered at the thought.

They then entered the main building, turning the lights on and unlocking doors as they went. The whole place looking rather foreboding now as Donaldson guided them all the way to the administrative offices. Starting with a separate office in the back, belonging to one Superintendent Strick, as the sign on the door indicated, where they started digging through drawers and files in earnest.

“Hey, what’s that?” Justin asked, gesturing toward a small device over in the corner.

“That’s a film projector,” Donaldson told him. “We used it for assemblies and special classes. It was getting pretty worn-out, so at first we were relieved when Camcron replaced it with a couple new ones…”

Based on what they had seen inside the Camcron Building, combined with Donaldson’s remarks and the disparity of the technology gap, he just didn’t have the heart to tell the old man just how much Camcron had shortchanged them in the tech department. Just how cheaply their puppets in St Lucy appeared to have been bought off.

On the other hand, Shades was no stranger to this kind of technology divide. To see, say, an old-fashioned steam radiator in one building, and slick, ultra-modern accoutrements in the next, was nothing new. In rural Montana, nearly three centuries stood side by side, as if the past and future had experienced some massive tectonic upheaval, being shoved down and thrust upward into the same chronological strata. The sleek prototypes of a century around the corner could be seen on the same street as the clunky contraptions his grandparents once thought of as State of the Art, and out in the alley, one would find relics of a century long past.

Still, he wondered what these islands’ older generation thought of Camcron and all of their technological trappings.

“You know the TV back aboard the ship? It’s what people used before they invented television,” Shades explained, trying to recall when last he had seen a filmstrip at school. Fourth grade? Fifth? Moments like this always made him wonder how a county that collected such exorbitant property taxes from retired California accountants, movie moguls and celebrities ended up with such a poorly funded school district anyway. “You point it at a screen— the big blank space on the wall would work, too— and it shows the film on it.”

“Never mind that,” Donaldson said as he brought out another key and opened his usurper’s desk, bringing out Mr Strick’s personal log. Flipping to the last entries, he read: “It can’t be true. I’ve been hearing rumors that they plan to shut down the school, but that can’t possibly be true. It can’t be after all they put in. It must be just a rumor. After all, whatever the Camcron Building is for, it sure eats up a lot of power, so I’m glad they’re at least paying their own way. I’m sure they must know what they’re doing.

That’s what I’m afraid of… Shades thought.

“Here’s the last one,” Donaldson told them, then resumed: “This deal is getting worse all the time. That man, the one who always hides his hand, promised me Camcron could revitalize this Academy, but now Grady comes to me and says the funding’s all run out. The day after tomorrow, I will have no choice but to send everyone home until this crisis is resolved. I want answers, and I expect to get them. Hmph! Strick always talked tough, but I would bet my salary he was just another puppet.”

“You may be right,” Shades told him as he dug out another torn scrap of handwritten paper. “Here we go: When Dr Grady saw the children were playing on the lions on the front steps of the Academy, he yelled at them and chased them away. He then had the audacity to give notice that he didn’t want anyone playing with the steps. Camcron may be helping fund this school, but he doesn’t OWN it! What’s so important about those steps anyway? He’s already stopped the student paper from publishing any more ‘What’s Cooking In the Camcron Building?’ stories because they were getting on the Director’s nerves. For that matter, even my own letters to the paper back in St Lucy never ran, either, and it looks like no one will stand up to them. Camcron now owns St Lucy.

This is even worse than I feared would happen if we let them in, and now I no longer know what to do anymore. I stayed on, even after Nora passed on, for the children, because I hoped to make a difference, but fear I have failed them. I’m going to stop writing in this journal from now on because I think Grady has someone spying on me, and I fear he is quietly turning the rest of the administration against me.

Shades stopped reading there, noting the look of consternation on the old man’s face, which Max already seemed to have noticed.

“That brown-nosing, no-good…” Donaldson hissed. “I was wondering where that disappeared to…”

“Um, I’m sorry if that was something personal.” Shades now realized he had gotten so carried away reading it, he hadn’t given any thought to who might have written it, only that it looked as if it had been pilfered from its original author, and therefore might contain some useful info.

Then again, now that he thought about, perhaps it did.

“No, it’s alright,” Donaldson assured him. “It’s not anything I wasn’t expecting to find. In fact…” He whipped out some budget documents he had dug out of the filing cabinet. “After seeing these numbers, I’m beginning to see just how much power they held over everybody. Just look at these department budgets.”

He laid the papers out on the desk.

“But what do they mean?” Justin asked.

“It means,” Donaldson elaborated, “that everyone on the school board, as well as the administration, was taking more money from them than they told me. This is how Grady got them all on his side. But Adnan’s has never needed this much funding to operate… Could this be why Camcron shut him down?”

“Could be,” Shades commented, remembering that bombastic phone call. “Maybe he made promises he couldn’t keep, so the parent company pulled the plug on him…”

“A lot of information…” Max muttered.

“But no keys,” Justin pointed out.
XXI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
secret of the statues
“What’s so special about those statues?…” Shades asked himself for what felt like the hundred and eighth time.

He had been pacing in front of those lion statues for over fifteen minutes, while his companions watched him with growing bored and disinterest. Previously poking around by the side of the stairway, Bandit now watching with his usual feline detachment. It started drizzling in the last minute or so, and he felt Justin was going to ask if they could go back inside any moment now.

“Come on, man…” Sure enough, Justin piped up right on cue. “You’re thinking about this too much…”

“I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something here… There was something this Dr Grady was acting entirely too defensive about, for him to have gone to so much trouble over it.” Then again, now that he thought about it for a moment, that note wasn’t the first time he had seen mention of the lion statues. “Never mind. Maybe you’re right. Let’s go back inside.”

Once inside, Shades led them upstairs, to a classroom he had seen on a previous visit. Though the thought crossed his mind to check that bathroom stall in the basement, he doubted the scribbling of a few names they were already familiar with would shed any new light on this conundrum. That, and he was afraid of what he knew he would— or rather, wouldn’t— find in there.

As it was, it still messed with his mind going back to that room and looking at the chalkboard. As if he needed any further evidence at this point, yet it was still hard not to think that someone was going around “resetting” things behind them. Such as, say, a chalkboard he very distinctly remembered erasing and rewriting a couple days ago.

I will not play around on the front steps…

Just as he had originally found it. The original message itself, though, he now saw in a new light, potentially the clue they were looking for. And he had actually erased it the last time.

“As I thought,” Shades muttered, “there is something important about those steps. Could just be me, but it seems like Grady’s just a little too protective of that place, even though it’s not part of the Institute’s turf…”

“Maybe it’s because of all the money Camcron invested in it,” Donaldson suggested. “The more funding the school collected, the more the smug little weasel acted like he owned the place. Come to think of it, one of the first things they did, even while they were still working on the Camcron Building, was remodeled the front steps of the Academy. They were real’ secretive about it, too— put up these mesh fences around it while they were working on it…”

He trailed off, seeing the expression on Shades’ face.

“What is it?” Max asked, hoping his friend had a new plan to try.

“Maybe it’s not the lions,” Shades mused, “but the stairs themselves… Let’s go back out and take another look.”

And so they trooped back down the stairs and out onto the steps in spite of the rain. He had already examined them to see if a key, or anything of note, may have been placed in the crack, but the artfully sculpted stonework was smooth and completely devoid of grooves or slots. Now Shades went every step in search of cracks or slots, or even a loose brick for a dead drop, but the masonry was indeed very new, and free of any apparent defects. Just like the lion statues.

Back to Square One.

Imagination is the mind’s eye… Knowledge is to the mind as light is to the eye…” Max read from the plaques. “It almost sounds like a riddle.”

“Yeah, it kinda sounds like one…” Now that Shades thought about it, it sounded like something from one of his old video games.

“Perhaps, but those creeds were well established since the Order of St Lucy first founded this school,” Donaldson informed them, “I’ve gone to this school since I was a boy, and I can tell you for a fact that there’s nothing…”

“What do you mean?” Justin asked, leaning against one of the lions, “And what does that have to do with—”

Justin instantly jumped back, reflexes sharpened by so many close calls, as the lion statue rotated on slightly on its base, turning toward the steps.

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” Shades laughed. Since both plaques mentioned eyes, “Justin, keep turning that statue.” As he positioned himself at the other. “I think you just solved the puzzle.”

Sure enough, both statues rotated quite easily on their bases, locking into place once they faced eye-to-eye. A section of the side of the staircase swung inward with a whisper-quiet grinding sound. Revealing a hidden portion of the Academy building’s architecture.

Donaldson looked on in silent amazement at the secret entrance that had been sitting right under his nose.

“I’ve been thinking along the wrong lines…” Shades realized aloud. “Guess I just never thought anyone would build something like this in real life…”

Bandit simply regarded them with a look that seemed to say, Took ya long enough.

Same side of the stairs his feline friend was sniffing around earlier, Max now noticed.

“I know the old ways never really took root here,” Donaldson pondered, “but I never thought the Order was prone to go this far back in their homeland… Or was this something Camcron built here?”

“Maybe a little of both?” The thought popped into Justin’s mind, though he didn’t dwell on the history lesson for long.

They entered the secret door single file, Donaldson leading the way, unable to resist seeing this place he had walked on all this time without even knowing. Inside was a short stairway that ran parallel to the exterior steps above, leading to a secret room. As they descended into the gloom, they brought out their lights.

At the bottom of the dusty stairway was a small room. Once he was down there, Shades spotted a string dangling from the ceiling, pulling it to activate a bare lightbulb. Illuminating a cramped, cluttered study. On the desk were some papers and a ring of keys that Shades quickly recognized as being of the magnetically coded variety.

Taking one of the papers, he read: “Something about Camcron’s New Cali headquarters… Let’s see: …requesting more TH-49 temporal flux converters diverted from Project Pythagoras, and sent to Project Metronome in Dusty Heights, Mesa District, and the groundwork for starting Project Empty Set. There’s also a hand-written note at the bottom that says: Your cooperation is expected, Dr Grady. According to the updated time-tables, Dr Pelkey is still working on back-engineering the stasis units in a more affordable process, so there is still a limited supply. In the meantime, we installed the TerTech subspace communications relays, as per your request, so we would appreciate it if you answered our calls more often… Sounds like Adnan’s fell victim to Camcron’s internal politics, as well as Pythagoras.”

“What’s that one about?” Justin asked about the second note.

Mr Geist,” he read, not liking the sound of the name any more than the first time he heard it, “Use these keys to get into research lab. Once activated, Project Pythagoras need not be shut down, for the sake of the experiment, but it can be paused for short intervals using the keys in the main chamber. Remember to turn them in the correct order. Signed, Kay.”

“So these are the keys to the Camcron Building?” Donaldson commented, for they looked very much like the ones Grady carried.

What was the Science Department up to at this school? Shades shuddered, wondering who would see fit to use an entire realm of people as lab rats.

“We got the keys,” Justin said, turning back toward the stairs, “now let’s move.”
End Notes:
*the names "Mesa District" and "Project Metronome" should sound familiar to anyone who's read "The Road Trip" :)
XXII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
investigations and explanations
Minutes later, they stood before the Camcron Building once again. In spite of their haste to get there, they simply stood in front of the those imposing yet innocent-looking doors. The same place they had twice turned back from, and now recalling what happened the last time they actually dared to enter.

After that long moment, Max stepped forward. “Let’s go.”

As he inserted the key and turned it, he and his friends, remembering the Building’s reactive defenses, flinched in spite of themselves. Even Donaldson, having only heard their descriptions of it, took a reflexive step back. This time, though, the door swung open on silent hinges, accepting the coded key without any fuss.

Their noses were greeted by the Smell of Progress, a scent Shades could never quite pin down, but always contained at least a whiff of newly-fabricated synthetic materials.

With no alarms, nor any other interference to stop them this time, they made their way cautiously to the stairs. From their past visit, they already knew the first floor was just a front, an empty shell whose only purpose was likely just for show. The real research equipment was in the basement, the most likely place to uncover whatever other secrets this place might be hiding. Down in the “pit” was the door marked Research Control that they remembered from last time.

Sure enough, another key on the ring opened that door.

This time, instead of blank, clueless monitors, the computer lab was fairly alive with on-screen activity this time. Streams of raw data they doubted anyone but the original researchers could interpret. Turning on the lights this time revealed rows and banks of terminals more advanced than any Shades had ever seen. Justin and Max, however, had seen Tranz-D, entirely too much of it in Justin’s case, so he seriously didn’t like the look of this room.

In the center of the room, the apparatus that quickly grabbed everyone’s attention was an upraised circular console protruding from the floor, underneath of which hung a matching unit suspended from the ceiling, the mountings of both appearing to be designed to retract when not in use.

Unlike before, this time Shades could feel tremendous energy down here, as if the very air were alive with it.

“This time we should be able to get some useful information out of this thing…”

Awakening the sleep-walking machines one by one, wondering all the while if they weren’t interrupting something left to resume on its own, but at least there were no alarms, so they continued hunting among the control panels and screens. Now that they were deep inside the Camcron Building, that sense of wrongness that lay on these islands thicker than the clouds was even more intense. The hum of computers and the intermittent clack of keys were the only things to interrupt the silence.

“If he was even half as good with machines as Kato said he was,” Justin remarked, recalling the silent member of the Triad, “I bet that little twerp George could make himself useful right about now.”

No matter what terminal they tried, any screen that looked like it did anything useful demanded a password.

Shades was beginning to agree with Justin, at least until an idea popped into his head.

“I’ve got it!” Shades declared triumphantly. Recalling the names of those two industrial sculptures, he hopped over to what appeared to be the main control board and keyed in the word Sleeper.

To which the computer spat an incorrect password prompt at him.

“Okay… Guess I don’t got it.”

“Dammit,” Justin muttered, “don’t get our hopes up like that! I thought you had it.”

“Any ideas?” Max asked Donaldson.

The old man shrugged weakly.

“Hmm…” Shades thought for a another couple minutes, then: “Let’s see, what was that sculptor’s name again?… Burton… Bardok… Bartok…”

After trying several variants, the screen screeching error messages at him all the way, he finally got a spelling the system seemed to accept. Once again, Shades mused, just like something from out of one of his adventure games. A couple seconds later, a list of option menus opened up to him.

“Now we’re in business!” he crowed, scanning down the menus. “Holograms?… Here, I’ll see if I can up the specs I just pulled up on there…”

Moments later, a muted column of light bridged the floor console and its ceiling-mounted counterpart. In that glowing pillar of light, a three-dimensional relief map of the St Lucy and Adnan’s flashed into existence. Engulfing the two islands was a pair of overlapping translucent pink domes, expanding well into the surrounding waters beyond.

“Well, at least that explains a few things…” Shades commented.

As he zoomed in on Adnan’s, finding the controls surprisingly intuitive for such complicated-looking technology, the source of the spheres quickly became apparent. According to the map, each one was being generated from a different point on the island. Zeroing in on one of those points revealed it to be out in the woods, between the abandoned chapel and the cabins.

Just as Shades was beginning to suspect.

“Cool!” Max remarked, watching this display in rapt amazement.

“Amazing…” Donaldson breathed. Though not entirely sure what was going on, he was still stunned at the breadth and depth of what the Institute was hiding from St Lucy.

The holo-display then traversed the island to the middle of the playground on the other side.

Justin shuddered as it went exactly where he expected it to, remembering the other of the two Sleeper sculptures.

Much like his friends, the schematics of Project Pythagoras sent Shades’ mind reeling. The super-science of it was beyond him, but the basic premise seemed to be, “Apparently, it creates two overlapping fields of effect. As I understand it, we need to disrupt both of these temporal fields in order to break free of the repeat-loop effect.

“Since that seems to be what’s causing this,” Shades told them, though he was beginning to suspect that even Donaldson was catching on, “we need to figure out how they work.” So this is Project Pythagoras… But why would anyone in their right mind design something like this? “But the real question is, how do you shut this thing down?…”

Some more digging yielded some more surprising info about the Camcron Building itself.

A moment later, a new image appeared, this time a 3-D map of the building. Looking at these holographic projections gave Shades a giddy feeling of living in some of his childhood sci-fi fantasies, but he tried to stay on task in spite of this. Inside, he was intrigued to find that the elevator in the center of the building not only went between the ground level and the basement, but also extended beyond this level, reaching down to a massive chamber several levels underground. Sitting at one end of the room was an enormous machine. The virtual view showed them a catwalk and steps leading up to the machine, and zooming in still more revealed a panel with two keys inserted, one highlighted green, the other red.

Almost simultaneously, they all remembered the mysterious keyholes in the two Sleeper sculptures.

“Project Warder…” Shades read the heading, wondering why he didn’t like the sound of that name.

“What now?” Max asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Justin replied.

“Right. To the elevator,” Shades agreed, and they all rose to take a more literal approach to getting to the bottom of this.
XXIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
sub-basement
Given that there originally appeared to be only two floors to the entire building, no one gave the elevator in the square central block a second glance.

Once inside, a new conundrum presented itself as the only two marked buttons only denoted the ground and basement floors. Underneath the buttons was a keyhole, so Shades tried the keys one by one, finally finding one that fit. At first, nothing happened, but when he turned it the other way, it clicked into place, and the car began to descend.

No one said a word as they rode down to the sub-basement.

After a disquietingly long descent that put Donaldson in mind of just how much dirt they dug out of the site during its construction, the door opened, depositing them in a short, dark corridor, auxiliary lights winking on at the elevator’s arrival.

Though the metal walls were lined with computer panels and displays, the first thing they all noticed, sprawled on his side out in the middle of the floor was a corpse.

Dressed in a light blue shirt and black tie, with a white lab coat. Lying on the floor next to his half-curled hand was an ID badge that pegged him as one Director Marcus Grady. Or at least he was; fired or not, all he was directing now was rigor mortis.

Shades looked down at Grady’s inert form. From his neatly cut hair and thin, metal-rimmed spectacles, to his short-trimmed moustache and goatee, the guy struck him as the type who tried to look more hip and less uptight than he really was. All he was missing was a ponytail. Reminding him of his old supervisors at work and teachers at school.

Trendies…

Donaldson turned white, then green. Granted, he never really liked Grady, but that hardly meant he ever wanted to see him dead, either. Whether or not he had ever seen a dead body before was unknown to his companions, but surely he was a stranger to murder.

The pool of blood congealing under his lifeless form originating from a puncture wound in his back. The cause of death was clear, but not the culprit. Given the current state of affairs in these islands, whoever had done this must surely be long-gone, still that made it no less unsettling.

Though the thing driving Shades buggy was the fact that the corpse couldn’t possibly be more than a day or two old. No matter how much of a prick he may have been in life, by all accounts, it just didn’t seem right for anyone to have to keep decomposing and rewinding over and over like this. And the more he thought about it, the more it began to dawn on him that they had no way of telling just how long this realm had been stuck in this repeat-loop, the worse it was.

Just what kind of scandals do they have in this dimension?

Though he would never be entirely sure if Grady necessarily deserved such a grim fate, he couldn’t help thinking this guy had still brought it on himself, somehow.

Max, on the other hand, was bothered by something much more immediate about their surroundings.

“Justin…” Max turned to his friend, already dreading the answer, “Is it just me, or does this place?…”

“Yeah…” For his part, Justin wasn’t sure whether or not he found his friend’s recognition of the resemblance at all reassuring. “It does look a lot like Tranz-D.”

That got Shades’ undivided attention as he turned to them. After all, he had gotten only a glimpse of that dread place, so he would have to rely on his friends’ memories and intuition here.

“Trans-what?” Donaldson asked.

“It’s another dimension,” Shades explained, opting for the compressed version. “Max had been there before, and Justin was stuck there for a couple weeks, being chased by killer robots.”

“Damn straight, and this place looks way too much like it for my taste,” Justin already disliked the basement lab above, but this area completed the look from floor to ceiling, dredging up memories he could really do without. “Let’s be done with this and get the hell out of here.”

“Yes,” Max agreed, “let’s.”

“I’m with you,” Shades replied, for in addition to the atmosphere, it was getting harder and harder to shake that the vibe of that creepy building from back in Lakeside. Wishing he could remember more about those dreams. Yet all that came to mind was that unhelpful— and hardly reassuring— image of being chased by something unseen, and the jarring knowledge that if it caught up with you, it was instant death…

But time was of the essence, he reminded himself as he unlocked the door at the other end of the passage, hoping that as long as they had the proper keys they would not invoke any further security measures.

Just like in the 3-D maps they viewed above, the next section was a massive chamber, at least as big as Shades’ school gym. Its true scope gradually illuminated by a scant scattering of light panels. Taking up the far end of the cavernous room was a machine as big as the boiler from his old elementary school, an image he didn’t particularly like in this setting, done in the same warped style as the machine sculptures above, only in dark grey. Up some steps in front of the machine was a catwalk, and in the center of the thing was the panel from the hologram, and set in it were two keys— one red, one green.

“Amazing…” Donaldson marveled with both awe and trepidation, “to think they built all this under here…”

His voice echoing deeply in the sepulchral silence of this hollow space, for indeed, whatever was down here, it was big.

Justin, wanting to be away from this spooky subterranean memory hole, rushed up the stairs.

“Wait!” Shades shouted, remembering that note from that secret room, “Don’t mess with those keys!”

Max took off after his friend.

But it was too late as Justin grabbed the green key and turned it, removing it from its slot.

“It said there was a specific order!” Shades warned him, wishing he knew what that order was.

“See! No big deal!” Justin called back, reaching for the red key, “Now, let’s get out of this—”

Justin was cut off mid-remark by an ominous rumble, and an alarm started blaring.

“You’ve done it now…” Shades muttered.

“Oh my god…” Donaldson, for his part, felt weak in the knees. Even before the place was complete, he never liked the Camcron Building. Only now, belatedly, did he realize the significance of the names Warder and Sleeper. “It’s awake!”
XXIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a boss battle!?
That rumbling kept escalating until it made the entire floor shake. Justin scrambled down the steps as the catwalk crumpled and bent apart with a distinctly metallic screech. Shades stumbled back toward the door, while Justin and Max drew their weapons against an unknown menace.

Right before their eyes, the bizarre mass of machinery began to transform. Parts shifting and turning, resolving themselves into the body and limbs of a blocky mechanical monstrosity. It was a sight to behold as it arose from its mountings against the wall, a pair of frightful red optics phased on, glaring at them through the gloom. The thing called ‘Warder’ stood a full twenty feet tall standing upright, with a bulky body, steel pillars for legs, and battering-ram arms that were every bit as massive.

It knocked the ruined catwalk aside with a casual sweep of one of those arms, a kitten batting a twig, then began to advance.

“For the love of God, open the door!” Donaldson wailed.

Before Shades could make it there, though, an enormous steel blast door slammed down over that section of the wall. Trapping them with the monster. Just like in one of his adventure games, he thought, rather less than enthusiastically.

“Open the fucking door!” Justin screamed. His mind clawing its way uphill against an avalanche of nightmare memories of NK-525, and all of Tranz-D’s robotic legions. Knew now he had been too hasty, too careless; like most of Tranz-D, this thing was a baited trap, and he had taken that bait hook, line and sinker. Both double-barrel power pistols firing alternating barrels as he backed away.

None of his shots causing any noticeable damage, his energy bolts splashing harmlessly off its thick steel skin, as shot after shot lit up the room.

“I can’t!” Shades shouted back. “It’s sealed!”

At first, the Warder simply regarded them, optics shifting to each of them in turn, then it took a swing at Max with one titanic fist. Max barely jumped out of the way, trying to favor his injured arm. The swing was slow, but he could tell, just from the dent it put in the floor, that it packed a monolithic punch.

Just one blow could easily be fatal.

Meanwhile, Donaldson backed up against the wall, white as a sheet.

Hoping his friends could hold out a little longer, Shades whipped out his stun-sticks. Firing up the cutting blades, he tore into the layers of armor plating barring their flight, hoping to open an escape route. Just eye-balling it, he was quite certain that behemoth shouldn’t be able to fit into the corridor beyond, offering a fighting chance to make it to the elevator. His only thought of a desperate need to retreat and regroup, to form some kind of plan against this unexpected and immensely powerful foe.

Yet no matter how deep he gouged the blast doors with his energy blade, his short foot of cutting edge just couldn’t penetrate all the way.

“What the hell are you doing!?” Justin screeched.

“The armor’s too thick!” Shades shot back, trying to figure out the fastest way to scrape out an escape hatch without a deeper blade like Max’s.

Whose weapon wasn’t going to be in any position for lending to other causes for the time being. And worse, could only be gripped with his uninjured left hand, for as far as he could tell, their only option was to face the beast head-on. As Max steeled himself for the next attack, he shouted, “Justin! Cover me!”

Justin, having seen for himself that the machine’s armor was too heavy for his power pistols, changed tactics, aiming instead for its optics and sensor housing mounted on its bulky shoulders. Several blasts hit around the robot’s upper torso and head, probing for some kind of exploitable vulnerability. For its part, it moved one massive arm up to shield its largely utilitarian face.

Taking his chance, Max dashed up, laser sword at the ready. At the last moment, Justin stopped firing to give him an opening. But once the heat was off, that gave the Warder a chance to resume its own offensive, lashing out at Max again.

Who dodged at the last moment, slashing with his energy blade. The severed hand, even bigger than Max, crashed to the floor with a thunderous clang. Ignoring the fallen hand, Max continued to press his assault with a flying leap to the metal giant’s waist, slicing again. The laser blade bit deep into its thick plating, leaving a sparking gash as Max kicked off and jumped away.

The Warder stepped back for a moment, apparently re-evaluating the situation. As Max backed off to do some assessments of his own, the others watched in stunned silence as the stub where the thing’s hand used to be folded back with a whirring sound, and the barrel of some unknown weapon extended in its place. With that, the machine turned its attention to Max’s friend.

“Oh shit…” Justin muttered sheepishly.

“I think you pissed him off.” Shades still found himself feeling numbed by the seeming unreality of this whole situation. Although he had felt from the start that there was something powerful sleeping down here, this was, once again, nothing like he was expecting, and he continued drawing blanks as his mind groped frantically for some kind of plan.

“Please! No!” Donaldson cried weakly, backing further against the wall, as if he could simply disappear into it.

The mystery weapon, almost as big as one of the Maximum’s quadra-barrel laser cannons, started spitting intense energy beams at Justin, who started scrambling madly to stay out of its crosshairs, racing as fast as if the Enforcer were still on his trail. Blast after blast lit up the dim chamber, tracking him through the darkness with ruthless mechanical persistence. Doing the only thing he could think of at this range, Max whipped out his power pistol and opened fire.

The only thing he succeeded in doing, though, was turning the malevolent machine’s attention back on himself.

In the midst of all this, Shades had ceased examining the blast door, at first terrified of getting hit by stray shots while chipping away at it. Now focused intently on the Warder itself, as he suspected there was no way in hell he could take out that door in time while it was still on its rampage. Selfish as he felt for even thinking such things, at least before, Max and Justin were keeping it distracted from him while he tried to crack the door, but the introduction of firepower on its side changed everything. Instead, he shifted his efforts to finding a way to fight that thing, to take it out.

He watched in rapt suspense as Max jumped over the machine’s severed hand as he scrambled madly to stay ahead of another line of shots that gouged the concrete floor.

Justin, retreating to the far side of the chamber, holstered his double-barrel power pistols and unshouldered his crossbow instead. Loading one of the few specialized bolts he had left, he just hoped it would give him a long enough window of opportunity to follow up with his next move.

Yet even as Justin prepared to make his move, he saw Max trip over a deeply gouged stretch of floor, sprawling headlong across the ground, a barrage of energy beams lancing past overhead. The shots paused as the machine re-aimed at him. Max stared up at the Warder, laser sword held before him, painfully aware that it would not be enough to block that much firepower, any more than he would be able to dodge this time.

“Max!” Shades cried, rushing to his friend’s aid.

He stopped short as something whizzed by overhead with a twang that could be only one thing.

“Cover your eyes!” Justin warned them.

Even as they did so, a blinding flash of light illuminated the room, right in the Warder’s face.

“Eat shit, motherfucker!” Justin screamed at the metal giant, having had more than enough of being hunted by machines the first time around. Letting his crossbow hang from its shoulder strap, he whipped out one of his two remaining EMP grenades and hurled it at the thing right on the heels of his last shot, then turned to run again. After all the fun he had in Tranz-D, he figured a weapon like this would surely come in handy in a fight against machines.

As Max stumbled back to his feet, the machine’s sensory systems recalibrated in the wake of that flash bolt, then turned its attention back to Justin. Who belatedly realized that, in his attempt to keep a cautious distance between himself and that mechanical monster, he had backed himself into a corner, leaving himself nowhere to run. The machine directed its aim at Justin.

And nothing happened.

Justin heaved a sigh of relief, thankful that his flash bolt and his short flight had bought him enough time for the EMP to work. Finally allowing himself to relax, now that this harrowing ordeal was over, he turned to his friends—

And the Warder shifted its stance, even as Justin’s own inner voice warned him it was too soon to celebrate, aiming to stomp on Max. Though the EMP wave seemed to have disabled its external weapon, its core systems were apparently protected by some sort of countermeasures. They all noticed its fearsome optics were still glowing all along, and Justin finally understood what he had overlooked.

As its colossal foot came crashing down, Max rolled out of the way. Seeing what might be his only opportunity at this range, Max bounded back to his feet, then rushed that massive leg, laser sword cocked back. With one clean swing, he sliced the limb off just below the knee.

The leg toppled over with a reverberating bong that echoed through the entire chamber, and the Warder fell to its one remaining knee. Max ran around behind it, looking to take out its other leg while it was still off-balance, but the machine swung at him with its remaining arm, forcing him to fall back. He could feel the frightening rush of displaced air as he evaded that mighty sweep.

The machine had completely ignored Shades up to this point, much as it had Donaldson, and even now it continued to focus on Max as Shades made his move. There was something he had noticed about their mechanized adversary he wasn’t so sure his friends had, and that nagging little voice in the back of his head was telling him it might well be their only chance. Taking a running start across the remainder of the chamber, he ran straight for it brandishing both stun-sticks.

Taking advantage of the machine’s missed back-swing, with a mad rush of adrenaline he leapt up to the armored brute’s bent knee, then reversed the grips on both stun-sticks, jumping again and plunging them into its enormous chest. Solidifying the blades for purchase and hanging on for dear life. Of course, the foot-long blades were no more able to fully penetrate its thick steel hide than they were those blast doors, but using them as pegs, Shades was able to scale the thing’s torso in this fashion.

At least until the thing finally noticed him. At which point it reached up with its one good arm, clearly meaning to pry this meddlesome human loose. Having finally seen what Shades was up to, Justin aimed carefully at the machine’s head, forcing it to again raise its arm to ward off his shots. Max, at first seeing his chance with its remaining arm occupied, was about to take out the other leg, then hesitated as he realized that if the machine fell over right now, it would squash Shades like a bug.

Shades, meanwhile, struggling desperately to make it in time to avoid his automated adversary’s crushing grasp, dangled by one arm, reaching frantically for the exposed panel on its chest. Clearly visible to him now, he could see it was exactly what he instinctively expected it would be, and he swung one last time. Reaching out and clutching the red key in his hand, he twisted it and gave it a hard yank.

“Got it!” he called out triumphantly.

Much as he suspected, the Warder came to a grinding, shuddering halt. Feeling the whole thing tipping forward, he stuffed the key into his pocket, taking up his other stun-stick again and kicking off its broad torso. Swinging as far to the side as he could, Shades hit the ground tumbling away as the massive machine came crashing to the ground with an earth-shaking impact that knocked everyone— even Donaldson huddled in the far corner— flat on their asses.

As he hauled himself to his feet, noting scrapes and bruises he would definitely feel in the morning, Shades looked back at the machine. Afraid that it might come back to life or something, but those dead, dormant optics only served to confirm his intuition. Reaching into his pocket, he fished out the other key he had managed to turn, the one Justin hadn’t removed.

“Don’t know if that was the right order,” he muttered, “but I guess it got the job done…”

“That was nuts!” Justin remarked.

“Are you okay?” Max asked as he got back up.

“Yeah,” Shades muttered, “though my arms and shoulders feel like stretched-out rubber bands…” Still, he had to admit that even though he had taken a terrible risk, it had totally paid off. “Let’s get out of here. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t trust that thing.”

“Yes, I agree,” Donaldson put in weakly as he stumbled out of his corner, “but how? The door is still—”

No sooner did he say this, than the alarms— which had gone silent at some point lost on them in the midst of all that chaos earlier— started back up again. The rumbling, too, they noted with growing apprehension as they looked about anxiously for some as-yet unseen threat. All three of them drew their guns and reflexively started shooting at the still-inert Warder, but Justin’s was the only one still firing, as much to their chagrin, they belatedly remembered Justin’s EMP grenade.

It was only after the rumbling, and the accompanying alarms, stopped that any of them glanced back at the entrance to see that it was the blast doors raising back up into place all along.

“Well, I’ll be damned…” Shades remarked in quiet astonishment, knees buckling, remembering another, almost comically quirky, point about video game boss battles that nearly made him laugh. “It just opened.”
XXV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
pausing Pythagoras
“Um, sorry about your weapons,” Justin mumbled sheepishly, for he now realized that he had done at least as much damage to his friends as he had to their enemy with his EMP stunt.

“No worries,” Max replied, holstering his power pistol, and taking some relief that he had left his power rifle back on the ship.

“Yeah, the gun’s replaceable,” Shades pointed out, “and a small price to pay for our lives”

“If you hadn’t done that,” Max reminded him, “we’d all be dead now.”

“Still, if you want to make it up to us,” Shades told him, “then next time, try not to be so reckless in the first place.”

“Yeah, like you’re one to talk after that last stunt!” Justin laughed.

“That nearly gave me a heart attack,” Donaldson informed them. “Now let’s get out of here. Just looking at that thing makes my hair want to stand on-end.”

So, without further ado, they made their way back down the corridor to the elevator, riding back up to the ground floor in a deafening silence, that horrible unforeseen battle still ringing in their ears.

There was an unspeakable sense of relief walking back out of the Camcron Building, and a sense of hope that even Adnan’s repeatedly ominous sky could not fully suppress. Though at least it had stopped raining for the time being while they were inside. As they filed out the door, they were all reminded of something they had all forgotten, even Max.

A certain black-and-white panther standing vigil under the eaves, just outside the main entrance, and looking more relieved to see his boy than words would ever hope to convey.

“I’m glad to see you, too, Bandit.” Max patted him on the head, though he was also a little perturbed that he had managed to overlook his feline friend for so long. “You were out here the whole time? …Oh well, at least I didn’t have to worry about you down there.”

And Shades again found himself wondering if that cat didn’t have more common sense than all three of them put together.

“So we have the keys,” Justin said, “Now what?”

“The statues…” Shades thought about this for a moment, remembering those cryptic keyholes. “But which one to use first?”

“Let’s start with the one in the playground,” Justin suggested, already worried that they might have a couple more unpleasant surprises ahead of them. “The one in the woods is closer to the ship, so we should do that one on the way back.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Max replied.

“Wait.” Donaldson brought them to a halt. His knees were still shaky, but his voice was solid. “That note said something about turning those keys in the correct order. But was that just for that ‘Warder’ thing, or did it also mean these ones, as well?”

“That’s a good question,” Shades conceded. Compounding things was the fact that the note was clearly written with the assumption that its intended recipient already knew. Or was it? After all, now that he thought about it, there were clues to the other puzzles, as well. Calling to mind the inverted Motivational Poster gibberish each one was dedicated in the name of: “Let’s see… Initiative is the key… Hey, Justin, what did that other sculpture say again?”

Potential…” Justin mumbled, his mind switching gears, “…can only be unlocked… with Initiative’s key… At least, I think that’s how it went…”

“Close enough for government work,” Shades told him, fairly confident he had figured it out. “To think, someone actually found a use for that corporate ‘inspirational’ garbage. It’s inverted. They both say the same thing, only phrased in opposite directions. Meaning we need to turn both keys at the same time.”

“But how the hell do we do that?” Justin had a point about the at the same time part.

“Simple,” Max told them. “If we go get those radios we used last time, we can tell each other when to turn the key.”

“Good thinking,” Shades said, wishing he had thought of that. At the same time, it also occurred to him that they had completely forgotten them this particular outing. Which was probably for the best, he concluded, as that meant they were safely back on the ship, where Justin’s early EMP wave couldn’t hurt them. Along with his Cam-Jam, stilled plugged into the Maximum’s sound system, eliciting another sigh of relief. “We can split up into two teams that way.”

“Then let’s hurry,” Donaldson reminded them. “It’s going to be dark soon.”

Not wanting to run out of time and have to start all over again, they went back to the ship and picked up their radios at a brisk pace.

“Mr Donaldson,” Shades said, “you should probably go to your ship and get out of here. Time is of the essence, and we don’t know what might happen next. If we should meet again…”

“No,” Donaldson told them, quite firmly. Though he didn’t want to be attacked by another machine, “I want to see this through to the end. This is our school. Our island, so… even if this is my last contribution to the children of St Lucy, I have no regrets.”

“Very well.” Shades could see the resolve in the old man’s eyes, and nothing left to do but respect it, for better or worse. “You can come with me. We’ll take the playground.”

“And me and Max’ll take the one in the woods,” Justin nodded, swapping keys with him.

With that, they split up.

While Justin and Max made their way to the red machine and waited for them, Shades and Donaldson took the somewhat longer route to green one. As they walked into the playground, Shades was fairly sure he could hear the late Dr Grady’s mobile phone beeping. Practically beckoning them to their destination.

There was no need to answer it— they already know what it was about— but since it was still beeping when they got there, Shades picked it up anyway.

Deciding that this time he would have the final word against the anonymous prick on the other end of the line, he answered.

“Dr Grady!” that same bombastic voice snarled at him, “If you don’t pick up this instant, I’ll have you…” Then, apparently hearing the line open, he said, “So, you’re finally ready to face the consequences, are you?”

“We already have,” Shades informed him, “and Grady’s long-gone, pal.”

“Don’t give me that crap!” the voice shot back. “You put him on right now!”

“No can-do, unless you happen to be a medium. Apparently, you didn’t get the memo,” Shades notified him, “but Dr Grady is no longer among the living, so you’ll be dealing with me now. The truth has been exposed, and soon the people of St Lucy will be free of Project Pythagoras.”

“Just who the hell do you think you are!?” the voice on the other side demanded.

“My name is of no concern to the likes of you,” Shades told him. “I’m just a passing traveler who hates having to keep repeating himself.”

“So, a wise-ass, huh? Oh, just you wait…” that voice dropped several notches to a threatening growl. “When Mr Geist shows up, you’ll find out just how little you comprehend…”

“Sorry,” Shades chuckled, trying not to laugh outright at the sheer impotence of the sound of empty threats from a distant realm, “but unless your little friend just happens to show up in the next five to ten minutes, he’s shit outta luck. I imagine, though, he will have a lot of explaining to do when the locals welcome him.”

“And just where do you think you’re going?” An almost smug sense of satisfaction oozing out of every speaker hole, making Shades quite sure this bastard knew about the repeat-loop all along. “There’s no way out!”

“Oh yes there is,” Shades said triumphantly. “I hold the key in my hand, and when I leave this prison, I’m unlocking the door behind me on my way out.”

With that, Shades hung up on him with a victorious grin.

“Why didn’t you let me talk?” Donaldson asked. “I have a few choice words of my own for Camcron, you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do,” Shades held no doubt about that, “but I think it’ll be safer for you if you don’t broadcast your own name. I have no clue who this ‘Mr Geist’ is supposed to be, but these guys have hired some pretty scary people, from what we’ve seen. Besides, I think it’ll rattle more cages back in New Cali if that asshole has to report that ‘everybody in St Lucy’ knows the truth, rather than just one person who can easily be silenced, don’t you?”

“I see,” Donaldson conceded. “Then I guess I’ll have to get on that when we’re done here, won’t I?”

“Hey! Are you guys ready?” Justin demanded on the radio. “I don’t wanna have to do all this shit over again!”

“Sorry about that. Little unfinished business,” Shades replied. Taking out the key, he said, “We’re in position now, and ready when you are.”

“Okay,” Max radioed back.

Just like what he had glimpsed with the red key earlier, there was also some kind of computer chip embedded in the grip of this one, as well, and he was relieved now that all that shooting at the guardian earlier hadn’t damaged it.

“Insert keys,” Shades instructed as he did so. “Okay, on three. One… Two… Three!

At both locations, they turned the keys.

There was a second or two of eerie silence, then the gears started turning. Painted cracked and peeled away in places as various parts ground into motion. Just like in the Warder’s chamber, there was a deep rumbling as the Sleepers awakened.

“Ah fuck! Not again!” he heard Justin wail, his voice, along with the sound of Max’s laser sword, drowned out by a rising tide of static interference. Rather less than reassuring, he reflected, recalling his own uneasy thoughts about that keyhole from the moment he first laid eyes on it. Even as Donaldson staggered away from the thing, apparently not as prepared to face it as he may have thought, Shades, like his companions, braced himself to do battle once again.

Only to see after a moment that they wouldn’t have to. Though the wheels were clearly in motion, the machine was not actually transforming. He couldn’t quite tell what, but it was clearly doing something.

At both locations, they all jumped about ten feet when the air started shimmering for a moment.

Both Shades and Donaldson looked around; just as he suspected his friends would, as well, he could tell something very basic and fundamental had changed around here.

“Back to the ship!” Shades ordered, imagining Max and Justin turning to leave, as well. “We don’t know how long it’ll last!”

“You don’t have to tell me twice!” Justin’s voice confirming that their radio reception was indeed back again.

By the time they all reached the docks, Donaldson was puffing for breath, but looking more confident and resolute than they had seen him in their time here. They quickly prepared the Maximum for a for a swift departure. Both Shades and Justin handing Donaldson the red green and red keys, as well as the ones for the Camcron Building, for safe keeping. The old man stood on the dock as they prepared to launch.

“Well, it’s been real,” Shades told him, “but according to what I read, what we did just pauses the thing. Hopefully long enough to get out of range before it starts back up again. But as I understand it, at least now it will start repeating from that point. Meaning you will remember this time around, and now that we’ve unraveled all the dirty secrets of Project Pythagoras, you have a whole island of evidence to convince everyone back in St Lucy.”

“I see.” Though Donaldson had expected as much, based on Shades’ earlier responses.

“Just be careful of Sheriff Boggs,” Justin cautioned.

“I will,” Donaldson assured him. “That just leaves the question of Camcron’s other puppets…”

“Oh, and watch out for that ‘Geist’ fellow.” Shades had very nearly forgotten that part. “He sounds like bad news, and Boggs seems to know something about him, as well, so watch your back.”

“Will do.” Donaldson’s expression turned decidedly somber for a moment as he spoke again. “There was one more thing I’d like to say. I don’t know if you knew this, but I had a son once upon a time. He died in a boating accident when he was only twelve years old.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Shades bowed his head.

“The more I look at you,” Donaldson went on, “the more I see what my boy might’ve grown up to look like. Would you do an old widower a favor and tell me your name? Your true name, I mean.”

“It’s Dexter,” Shades told him. “Dexter MacLean.”

“Dexter…” The old man nodded. “I’ll pass that along at Nora’s grave next visit.” Then, taking them all in, especially Bandit, he said, “Before you folks came along, I was at wit’s end, didn’t know what to do anymore. Ever since my wife fell ill years ago, I’ve dedicated my life to the children of St Lucy, but when Camcron took over the school, I just felt more and more hopeless. I’m very glad to have met all of you, and swear St Lucy will offer you the warmest of welcomes should you ever pass this way again.”

“Your generosity is appreciated,” Max told him from the upper helm. “We wish you the best of luck in restoring your school, Mr Donaldson.”

“Farewell,” Donaldson said, “and thank you.”

As the old man stepped back, the Maximum pulled out, fleeing Adnan’s as swiftly as they could.

Hopefully this time for good.

A few minutes later, it started raining again, and Max came down as Justin took the lower helm, anxiously asking, “So, do you think we got away this time?”

“I sure hope so,” Shades remarked. “Nothing against Donaldson, but if I ever see that island again, it’ll be too soon.”

“Damn straight!” Justin agreed.

“But will the others be free?” Max wondered.

“I wish I knew,” Shades told him bluntly, “but at least now they have a fighting chance. Most of the core parameters on Project Pythagoras were restricted by another level of password, but, if nothing else now Donaldson knows. Maybe he can figure out the rest.”

He hoped everyone back there would be alright.

“Either way, it’s not our problem anymore,” Justin said. “At least I hope it isn’t.”

“Well, now we wait and see,” Max told him.
XXVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
tomorrow finally comes
Shades slept in his usual place on the couch near the helm. As he slowly awakened, he vaguely dreaded what he might see, though in his half-awake state he couldn’t quite remember what it was he was supposed to be so apprehensive about. Found he couldn’t quite get back to sleep, either, as he felt too hot to get comfortable.

He rolled over, opening his eyes— and immediately snapping them shut again against a glare that dazzled him in spite of his shades.

Damn sun…

Then he opened them again sharply, blinking away furiously to adjust to a light greater than he had become accustomed to of late, which it now dawned on him could mean only one thing, now that he was awake enough to make the connection.

“Max! Justin!” he called out as he rolled over and sat up, knees and ankles were sore from that crazy jump he made against the nasty robot guardian thing, but now that he was more awake, he took that as a good sign. Arms and shoulders stiff, as well, but it was a welcome, satisfying sensation. Feeling a rough battle’s worth of scrapes and bruises made for still more compelling evidence, as, during the repeat-loop, any injuries or other conditions they may have acquired during the previous visit always ‘went away’ while they were asleep, so… “Wake up, guys! We made it! We’re free!”

Down below, Max blinked away at the sleepiness, and Bandit looked up from his side of the cabin for a moment in idle feline curiosity. Wondering, perhaps, what the humans were making such a fuss over during his nap time, then nodded off again. For his part, Max glanced up, seeing sunlight streaming through the skylight on him. Like an old friend, he reflected, smiling as he sat up.

It was already looking like a great day, indeed.

In his room, Justin slowly, cautiously, opened his eyes, looking around blearily. At first, unsure if it was even worth it to wake up, with the kind of days he’d been having lately. And already, Shades was yelling at him about something…

Then the words finally registered.

Seeing the sunlight dancing on the water outside his porthole snapped him awake, and he bolted out of his cabin and up the steps to the bridge. A moment later, Max came up, as well, Bandit tagging along at his side. Now that he saw it for himself, Justin blinked. Both at the atypically welcome glare, as well as a desire to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.

“Is it really over?” he asked.

“Yes. At long last,” Shades remarked, “tomorrow has finally come.”

“Had to sooner or later,” Justin said, smiling for the first time since this ordeal began.

“A beautiful sunrise,” Max agreed.

“That it is…” Shades seconded.

“So, what’s for breakfast?” Justin interjected.

“Hmm…” Shades pondered a moment before answering, “I’m thinking anything besides whatever we had during our stay in St Lucy.”

“Sounds good to me,” Max added.

With that, they settled in for breakfast. Any lingering doubts or worries were quickly dispelled by the fact that their money and supplies had failed to magically revert back to their pre-repeat-loop status. In spite of the cheerful mood as they ate, nagging doubts still tried to creep in from time to time, a rational enough reaction after the repeatedly unsettling events of that day, but when the Isle of St Lucy failed to appear before them in their sights by the time they finished eating, they took that as the final proof they needed.

As Shades took his turn at the helm, he decided to keep an eye out for Camcron and its sinister Research Institute in the future. If they could do this… Interdimensional technology opened up possibilities he hadn’t seriously considered before. If it could be made to do more practical things, it could be a powerful tool in his search for John and Amy. Even, potentially, a way back home.

Of course, anymore, that line of thought, of going back to his own dimension, opened up a mixed bag of feelings. Homesickness and restlessness, loneliness and comradery. Though he knew he wouldn’t give up the search, had no intention of going back with so many questions left unanswered, his time here had served to make him wonder more about what he might do, where he might go next, if he did find his old friends. Perhaps, he concluded, it was a decision best left until he had caught up with them.

If nothing else, he was beginning to feel that, from here on out, he could face the distance from here to there, even the distance between himself and his friends when they were finally reunited.

Though Justin smiled outwardly, for he was indeed thrilled at finally being free again, he was also deeply troubled by what he had seen underneath that building. He wasn’t sure if they others would buy it, but he would swear up and down that whole portions of that computer apparatus looked like it was copied straight out of the derelict halls of Tranz-D. Wanting to know how the hell these guys got their hands on technology supposedly sealed away for thousands of years in the void between dimensions, let alone who in their right mind would attempt to rebuild it, he vowed to keep his ear to the ground for any further word of this Camcron outfit.

While Justin brooded, Max found himself picturing Mr Donaldson getting more people to investigate Project Pythagoras, wondering what else they might find.

“You know,” he told them, absently scratching Bandit behind the ears, “I think the people of St Lucy are going to be alright.”

“I’m sure they will,” Shades nodded. “If nothing else, it was an interesting day.”

“It sure was!” Justin told him pleasantly. “Now let us never speak of it again.”

And so the Maximum sailed on, destination unknown. Just as it should be, her crew concluded, looking out and enjoying a sunny sky they had feared they would never see again. A sky that told them it would be a great day, without a doubt.
End Notes:
-original draft: 1998-9
-notebook draft: Dec 28, 2008 – June 09, 2009
-word-processed draft: Nov 02–25, 2009
-additional revisions: Dec, 2009 – Jan, 2010

While Part 13 was a step into new territory, with nothing more than notes existing for it prior to the notebook draft, 14 brought me back one last time into territory I had covered in the older drafts. Much like what went before it, this one also underwent a lot of major changes between drafts. Often, a "repeat-looping" scenario is used for "Bottle Episodes" (props TVTropes) in TV shows, or as a way to conserve set budgets or some such. In writing though, simply copy-pasting text will merely bore the reader. In addition, my own vision of the story included a lot more variation between cycles.

One of the things this story originally included was a "Read The Book" scenario, in which Justin found a book written about the same-- or else a very similar-- situation, but there were always issues with spoilers, or making things too easy for our heroes, so that ultimately got cut. It's only remaining vestige is the diary Justin snags from the cabin, which provides a couple clues, but doesn't give it all away. The other thing that got the axe was a derelict with the horribly cheesy name Davey Jones. Part of this was because I had already done a story about a derelict at this point, and the other part was because there were gruesome clues that the crew had gone insane and killed themselves after experiencing too many repeats. Aside from a lame and pathetic end, being permanently dead would also contradict the repeat-loop itself, and adding more (especially unrelated) characters to the mix would only stretch and dilute things, so I left it out entirely.

Which came back to one of the key questions I had to resolve before I even proceeded with the notebook draft: the full extent of the repeat-loop. In the end, it was a video game I played years ago, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, that set the tone for the repeat-loop this time. The only thing the crew would keep between repeats was their memories, and built the scenario and tactics of their adventure from there. While I had thought about letting them hang on to "key" items between repeats, it only seemed to crack open a Pandora's Box of inconsistencies that would have undermined the story's credibility.

Some other important aspects were increasing both Sheriff Boggs' and Dr Grady's mobile phone's involvement in events, as well as creating a more definitive backstory about Grady's ouster from the Institute and its impact on Adnan's Academy. As well as Mr Donaldson getting killed by the fugitive robber if the robbery scenario ran its original course. And while Donaldson and Boggs got to keep their names throughout the different versions, the earliest draft called Grady "Birkin" (a name Resident Evil fans ought to recognize), but later decided the name was entirely too derivative, and so my nod became more subtle, relegating it to the name of the Research Institute itself, rather than a specific character.

In the original version, our heroes never set foot inside the Camcron Building until their final visit, yet that struck me as horribly unrealistic when the time came for the rewrite. Yet, when I tried to think of compelling reasons for why this should be, I realized that the answer was simple: given that they didn't know about the inner workings of Project Pythagoras, the mere deletion of data as a security measure would have been enough to halt their investigation. Thus, a very realistic way to herd them into finding the proper key without turning it into a Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence (props TVTropes). Of course, even the guardian itself underwent a few changes. In its original incarnation, I had named it "Sentinel" (after a local newspaper where I lived); it wasn't until over a year later, watching the first X-Men movie, that it dawned on me that naming a gigantic robot Sentinel would come off sounding very derivative, even if that wasn't my intention.

From here on out, though, there are no more old manuscripts, so everything from this point on will be entirely original to the notebook drafts. I'm not sure how much effect it will have on how long it takes to write each part, but I guess we will see. This had me rather worried, based on how long it took me to come up with the ending to Part 13. But part 15, at least, so far offers hope that it won't average much shorter or longer, per chapter, than the draft-based versions before. Even so, I fear the gaps between parts will become longer from here on out. Rest assured, though, this is my life's work, and I have no intention of abandoning it; no matter how long it takes, Tradewinds will continue to the very end.
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