The longer Shades wandered the hold, the more certain he felt that Max was nowhere to be found down here. As much as he wanted to believe his friend had moved on from this section, one way or another, he also suspected himself of simply using that as an excuse to go back up. Given that he could find no trace of any accidents or other mishaps down here, more mundane explanations for Max’s absence were fast evaporating, as he wished that fog outside would do.
To make matters worse, he couldn’t shake the common-sense intuition that, when whatever happened happened, Max should have tried to make his way back to the Maximum, yet he also saw no trace of him anywhere on the way down, either, as if he had disappeared as completely from this damnable derelict as he had from the airwaves. Combined with his past experience with this kind of interference, the ominous conclusion that this mystery would yield no easy answers, as he feared.
“Where the hell did you go, Max?” he demanded of no one in particular, startled by the sound of his own voice against the eerie quiet of the hold.
“Shades? Is that you?” Max’s voice piped up in his headphones, making Shades jump in spite of himself.
“Max? Can you hear me?” Questions building on the tip of his tongue too fast to articulate.
“Max? Shades?” Justin’s voice broke in. “What’s going on over there?”
“Max?” Shades demanded, going for the most critical question first, fearing this window of opportunity might not last long, “What happened? Where are you?”
“I don’t know,” Max’s reply hardly inspiring confidence, under the circumstances. “It’s like a completely different ship, our ship wasn’t out there any…”
As Max’s voice faded out on the rising tide of static, both Shades and Justin started calling out frantically, afraid of losing contact again. Though Shades would almost swear he could make out Max’s voice, if not his words, still it almost sounded like he was talking to someone else.
“Guys? You still there?” Max’s voice came back on as the interference receded.
“Yeah, you just scared us, that’s all,” Justin remarked. “Shades, is Max with you?”
“No, sorry,” Shades answered.
“What?” Max asked. “You didn’t make it off either?”
“Oh, I made it back to the ship,” Shades assured him, though he doubted Max would find the next part very reassuring, “but I kind came back.”
“But… the Twylight…” Max protested. “You don’t want to disappear, too, do you?”
“I don’t want you to disappear, either,” Shades told him, surprised at the resolve his voice conveyed. “I…” he stumbled for a moment, recalling Justin’s continued vigil aboard the ship, to say nothing of Bandit, “we’re not leaving without you.”
“Damn straight!” Justin added.
“Yeah, you don’t want to end up like that dead guy you found in the Building, do you? I’m still not sure what’s going on around here, but we’re gonna beat this thing together.”
“But how?” Max pressed. “I don’t think we’re even on the same…”
Whatever else Max was about to say was drowned in another wave of static. This one, they all noted anxiously, was laced with a lot more voices than the last.
“Max!” Shades cried out, hearing what thought— at least hoped— was Justin doing the same.
“Guys?” Max’s voice surfaced amid the garbled flood, though with each word he said, he became less and less distinct from the ever more choppy interference. “Are you… there?”
“Max!” Justin shouted frantically, the growing distortion on his end of the line mirroring Max’s, reminding Shades that he himself was still aboard the dread derelict, as well. “What— -ing on… this crap a— … —ades! … -ome in…”
“Max! Hold on!” Though Shades doubted either of his friends could hear him anymore. Against the rising tide of panic threatening to drown it, he mustered all of his will, determined to continue his search despite the growing legion of voices that almost seemed to be trying to drive him out.
At least until he heard one voice he could understand through all this indistinct babble.
“Abandon ship! We’re going…”
That last word itself drawn out into a convergence of sounds, merging into the deep groan of a foghorn. Though to Shades, what he was certain he heard underneath that was the moan of a thousand lost souls.
This time, Shades’ resolve was swept under as his feet took on a mind of their own. In fact, as he took a brief look at his surroundings, he finally caught up with what his feet were doing all along, as he was no longer down in the hold. All the while heeding that sense of an unseen clock ticking down even as it slipped his conscious mind in the face of so many abrupt and unexpected events, his feet gravitating back up the steps and out of the hold in spite of all his self-talk about not abandoning Max.
Now he wondered what the hell he was thinking, so casually challenging something he could hardly even fathom as he dashed down a corridor he didn’t even remember seeing earlier. Of course, now he found himself seeing lots of things he had no memory of seeing the first time around. The same shades of men— women and children, too, now that he had a closer look— fleeing up and down the passage in a general panic. Shadows slithering across the walls without source, shifting and changing direction even as what little in the way of light sources remained constant. Screams and cries and whimpers reverberating in his headphones, accompanied by crashing, shrieking metal, alarms, and, looming over it all, the sloshing static that at least sounded like a watery grave slowly drowning out the others one by one.
If merely seeing those shadow-shapes from the deck of the Maximum gave him chills, actually standing among them was almost enough to push him over the edge.
Just when he almost certain he had doomed himself alongside of Max, that Justin might well be the only survivor of this grim encounter, Shades staggered out onto the deck. Surrounded by fog, at first he could see nothing beyond the vague shapes rushing about, seemingly as aimless as himself. It was hearing a voice, shouting to make itself heard above the cacophony on the radio, that prompted him to yank his headphones off.
“Shades! Max!” Justin’s voice called out. From the opposite side of the deck than he recalled boarding from. “Is that you!”
Shrugging off his disorientation, Shades made a bee-line for that voice, clinging to that one life-line in the midst of all this chaos. Wondering all the while at how the deck could seem so big just because he couldn’t see more than a couple feet in front of him… Yet Justin’s voice at least sounded nearer, so he pressed on.
The deck railing seemed to appear out of nowhere, and he ran right up against it before he could hit the brakes, nearly toppling overboard.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Justin demanded from just to his left. “Move your ass!”
Spotting the side of the Maximum floating a couple feet away, he hopped the railing— all the while trying not to dwell on the impenetrable depths below— hopping forward again on that side and nearly falling on his face in an attempt to avoid any chance of falling back in.
“Where’s Max?” Justin asked.
“I don’t know.” Shades found it hard to make eye contact in spite of his mirrorized lenses. “I never found him in there…”
Even as both of them found a moment in the midst of this chaos to reflect on their own frustration at being dumped right back at Square One for all their trouble, something drew their attention back to the Twylight.
“The hell…” Justin blinked several times, already fearing that the vague shapes he was seeing were no mere trick of the fog. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
“I sure hope not.” And Shades meant every word of it. The color seemed to have drained out of his face as he tried to untangle the spectacle before him, a sight that was increasingly hurting both his eyes and mind to look straight at.
Overlapping specters of multiple ships of varying sizes and designs, sinking, tilting, shifting in too many directions and angles for him to keep track of. And a clown-car procession of shadows, jumping, stumbling, falling, flailing into those fog-shrouded waters.
The thing he found still more disturbing was the absence of any phantom lifeboats to go with.
“Max!” Justin screamed. “Where are you!?”