weathering the storm
The rain pounded furiously against the hundred-foot cruiser, the waves pushing the modest-sized vessel around as her crew worked the controls as best they could.
While rain washed off the forward windshields in sheets that greatly hindered visibility, the crew of the Maximum rode out the storm inside, the cabin as bright and warm— and most of all, dry— as the sea outside dark, windswept and raindriven, the darkness broken only by an occasional strobe of lightning. Hot cocoa and canned soup from the ship’s stores, and damp towels hanging from anything that might serve as a hook. The storm had come with little warning; it was no mean feat taking down the sails as it hit, but fortunately, they had at least some practice at it in more ideal weather.
“…Of course, what happened to me that night isn’t entirely unheard of,” Shades told his companions, then took another sip of his hot chocolate as he glanced out the port windows. Still raining. Just as it was that fateful night, he reflected, his mind’s eye haunted by snapshots of what he had seen, scrambling through the dark woods, every move he made only taking him farther away from his friends… It was a memory he tried not to dwell on as he continued on his way searching for those friends. “When I was in grade school, I once read an account about a man who was just standing out in a field, just waving to his family and friends, then vanished. At first they thought maybe he just fell in a hole or something, but even though they searched the entire field, they couldn’t find any holes.”
“And they never heard from him again?” Max asked, though that was a common ending to many of his friend’s tales of the Unknown. Of course, like several of his stories, it did sound an awful lot like what happened to Shades the night of the Flathead Experiment, as his friend jokingly called it. A real-life spook story he would never forget. Now that it was dry enough, he bound his shoulder-length blond hair with a black headband, marked with his family sigil. One of only a couple treasures from his childhood home of Layosha, the Islands having fallen years and countless miles behind him. Storms always reminded him of the night he lost his home, threatening to dredge up memories he felt he could do without.
At times like these, he took a measure of comfort in his feline companion, Bandit. As a cub, the black-and-white panther was the first and only friend he met on the otherwise deserted island he came to call Paradise. He saw it as a good sign that the big cat, at first so upset by the storm, was now sleeping soundly on the lounge bench— it meant he was adjusting still further to sea travel.
“Once. Once.” Shades smiled mysteriously as he continued his tale. The erstwhile high school senior nudged his namesake wraparound sunglasses back up his nose, trying not to shrug right out of loose-fitting robe from the captain’s quarters closet. His pants and denim jacket hung up to dry with the towels, and his short brown hair still hung limp in his face. “They say his wife went out one day and heard his disembodied voice calling for help. And that was the last anyone ever heard from him.”
“Creepy!” Justin remarked from the helm, where he continued to battle the storm raging outside. The young fugitive from the Triangle State was short and wiry, making control difficult and his primary focus under such rough conditions. Wishing he had a headband like Max, he again swiped his shaggy black hair out of those shifty brown eyes that indelibly marked his years on the street as he glared at the limited view the rain afforded him. Wishing he understood why rain bothered those two so much; Shades would mostly just stare out the windows, and Max, though the youngest in this crew, his grey eyes would come off looking older than his years.
He had to concede, though, that he would once have dismissed a story like this. Sometimes, it took falling into a hole that was never there before or since to make more skeptical folks believe. And in his case, falling down holes between dimensions had only led him to still stranger experiences.
To say nothing of this ship, which Shades could confirm was originally from his world, having somehow ended up on the high seas of the Sixth Dimension. Originally belonged to a smuggler, but they had made a few modifications themselves. Now it was the closest thing any of them had to a home, traveling together all over the Ocean.
Until this storm, they had cruised rather uneventfully these past eight days. Eight days since their run-in with the Cyexian pirate Striker and her crew, as well as Kato and the Triad, who had stolen Max and Shades’ medallions— which Kato called Tri-Medals— and still no sign of pursuit. From either of them.
It was getting harder to keep their guard until the sixth day, though, when all three of them were startled by a squadron of black jets passing by overhead, their engines scaring Bandit below deck. What the hell was that!? Justin had demanded, How the hell should I know? was Shades’ initial response. Max just stared at this spectacle above their heads in silent wonder, too awestruck for words. As best they could figure, it was a flight of fighters of unidentifiable design and origin, seemingly on a course from nowhere to nowhere.
Just to be on the safe side, they changed their direction every other day— even trying the same general heading as those mysterious black jet fighters— but never back the way they came. Otherwise, nothing noteworthy had happened lately, at least until this storm.
“Say Justin,” said Max, seeing how tired his friend looked, “You want me to take over for a while?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” Justin replied, hopping out of Max’s way as he took control of the helm. Max, six-foot-four and solidly built, could exert more leverage on the wheel, doing the same work as Justin while still being able to tune in more to the conversation, whereas Justin could now relax and join in more.
“Tell me,” Max asked Shades as he wrestled the ship back under some semblance of control, “has anything else strange ever happened back where you come from?”
While Shades pondered that question for a moment, Justin took to re-checking both of his double-barrel power pistols. Though they had lain in the sterile darkness of Tranz-D for years uncounted while their former owners crumbled to dust, even though they were apparently water-resistant, he had been through a lot with them at his side. They had saved his life multiple times, and he had even snatched them while escaping Striker’s sinking ship, he had taken such a fancy to them. The only thing he didn’t get to take was that backstabbing bitch Kato’s Tri-Medal.
Though the spare clothes from the closet, dry as they were, fit none of them particularly well, Justin was visibly the worst off, the baggy hooded sweat shirt and tropical shorts trying to fall off of him with every other move. On Max, everything appeared too short, too small in the chest and shoulders, and though they were still too baggy for Shades, they were at least about the right length. Even garbed in borrowed clothing, while their own dried, Justin’s companions still wore the triangular silver medallions they had fought so hard to reclaim, first from Kato, then from Striker. Supposedly the keys to some long-forgotten civilization’s treasure, Justin considered it such a waste to keep them separated like this, yet he had to admit that without the fourth one, and a means of translating the arcane symbols on them, there wasn’t much either party could do with them.
“You know, I just remembered something,” Shades told them after a long silence. It was hardly the first time he had drawn from his store of eerie tales to pass the time, but Max’s query made him realize he was so busy contemplating paranormal accounts from other times and places, he neglected one from right in his own back yard. “When I was a kid, I heard about this hotel down near the lake, just out of town, that was supposedly haunted. There were some weird rumors going around about the place before it closed down.”
“What kind of rumors?” In spite of his own creepy experiences and misadventures with some of their more recent destinations, Max found himself developing something of a fascination with this whole Unknown business.
“While I’ve heard scarier stories about hotels, this one hits pretty close to home.” Close enough to ride my bike to, he reflected. “And not just because of its location, but because it might very well have been real. Before the Bay View Hotel closed its doors, it experienced a sharp decline in business, which was said to have been caused by strange and disturbing things happening there.”
“Like what?” Though Justin wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know, he was having a hard time coming up with things more disturbing than the last couple places they visited. Yet he doubted Shades would; he had done it before and would probably do it again.
“It was said that some people simply disappeared, for starters,” Shades said. “At first they were just treated as the usual missing-persons type of cases, but the strangest part was that none of the missing guests had any plausible explanation for vanishing, none of the typical motives or causes. And all of them, in the space of a few months, all involving the same place. I imagine their management probably tried to downplay the whole affair, possibly even tried to cover some things up for all we know, but word got out and people quit staying.
“And it wasn’t just people disappearing,” he added with a cryptic smirk. “They also said that sometimes people just appeared, too, people who were not on the guest roll, walking out of locked rooms, often confused and disoriented. Some of them didn’t even speak English, and some were dressed very strangely.”
“Who were they?” Max asked.
“No one knows,” Shades replied. “It was said that they would just run away, and nobody saw ’em around again. That, and there was talk of people hearing strange noises from unoccupied rooms and maids finding weird messes, knocked-over furniture and stuff. But that wasn’t the only thing that happened back then.”
Shades’ dramatic pause was interrupted by a particularly bright flash of lightning, then punctuated by a blast of thunder whose timing, as far as he was concerned, couldn’t possibly have been better.
“The part that creeped me out the most,” he resumed, “has to do with a guy who ordered breakfast by room service. But when the tray arrived, he lifted the lid to find, instead of his breakfast, a strange piece of fruit. Sadly, no one had a camera handy, so all I have are conflicting descriptions of the fruit. Mostly about it being brightly colored, even striped, but the one thing they all have in common was that it was shaped really different, didn’t look like any kind of fruit known to man.”
All that came to Justin’s mind was those unhallowed shapes hanging in some frozen meat locker in the twisted depths of the Harken Building, and he shuddered at the memory of it.
“What did it taste like?” Max asked.
“Who knows?” Shades remarked, for a moment confused by his friend’s choice of questions. “I doubt anyone tried to eat it. According to the story, the staff put it in the fridge and called some experts from some university to come examine it. But when they opened up the fridge later that evening, they found that it was all rotten, black and shriveled up so you could no longer tell what it was.”
This time, all three of them thought of the same thing: the food they had taken from the Harken Building in their explorations, which, once outside, had decomposed in a matter of hours as most things would have taken weeks.
“The whole thing was written off as a hoax, the fruit was thrown in the trash, and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.”
“Maybe it didn’t belong in that world…” Max theorized, puzzling over the whole matter.
“I suppose,” Shades conceded. “Some of this was in the papers, some it may have just been rumors and playground spook stories, but now I’m starting to wonder if there wasn’t more to it. Even though it happened years ago, now I can’t help thinking it might have something to do with what happened to me. I wish I could go back and investigate more…”
“Let’s talk about something else,” Justin suggested; in addition to the Building and his delightful stay there, this talk of haunted places was bringing back memories of an island they only recently visited. Given that no name was ever mentioned, it would likely be forever referred to as the Haunted Island, and even though he had obtained a gold amulet there that fetched a handsome price in the Tradewinds Mercantile District— even the Maximum herself, in their hasty departure— being attacked by an army of household appliances and furniture on that killer island was not his idea of fun. Anymore, he felt as if he had lived through several of Shades’ stories, and thus wasn’t really interested in hearing about them. The guy never seemed to run out of the damn things.
“Alright,” Max agreed reluctantly, seeing that the subject had worn out its welcome with him. On the other hand, after years of isolation, any word of the outside world was music to his ears, and he especially couldn’t soak up enough of Shades’ accounts of the Unknown.
“Yeah, I guess,” Shades agreed, though he himself couldn’t stop wondering if there wasn’t some sort of connection between the Breakfast Exchange Program and the Flathead Experiment.
For a while, as Max struggled with the helm, Justin tried to teach Shades a card game from the Triangle State— which to Shades bore a passing resemblance to Poker back on Earth— with a deck of cards from the ship’s lounge, having to improvise for unfamiliar suits. Though they ultimately had to give it up because of the tossing of the ship kept shifting their chips around.
Eventually, Shades took Max’s place at the helm. Being most accustomed to late hours, he would hold the fort first shift while the others slept. Max sprawled out on the dinette bench seat, Justin crashed on the couch in front of the entertainment center, rather than their cabins.
For the duration of the storm, they would all stay at or near the bridge, just in case.