into the mist from which it came...
“…ship, and this kid…” Max tried to press forward in spite of the static, no liking where Shades was going with this, dredging up the fate of Chad Owen. A man whose name neither Shades nor Justin would ever know. As nameless as his own remains would be if he didn’t find his way of this derelict of the damned. “Shades! Justin! Can you hear me?”
Yet all he could hear was the growing interference in his headphones, worse than before.
“Guys? Are you still there?”
“Max!” Justin’s voice washed in on the last wave of static, storm-tossed vocal debris: “…the hell… -ing on? … Not this crap… Shades! …in…”
And somewhere in the midst of that, Shades shouting, “Hold on!” Though whether to Max or himself it was hard to tell.
All the while, the mysterious little boy clinging to him tighter and tighter in escalating fright. As if, Max began to fear, the boy already knew what he was afraid of. As if he had seen this before.
They both staggered against the corridor wall as the ship gave a mighty lurch that nearly knocked Max off his feet, the child nearly falling off his back.
Figuring that couldn’t possibly be a good sign, he resumed his frantic search for the deck level, when he heard it.
“Abandon ship! We’re going down!…”
And when he looked around, he saw that the static in his headphones wasn’t the only thing gushing around here, as foggy, shimmering water started pouring in through side doors and passages.
Even more unsettling, what appeared to be random silhouettes flailing about his feet, seemingly drowning in the cabin walls and floors.
“Head-on collision!… Evasive maneuvers!…”
Of course, his radio wasn’t very encouraging, either.
“We’re hit! We’re hit!…”
As spectral as the water may have appeared, Max found the growing flood ice-cold to the touch, and, much to his dismay, dragging at his every move more and more as it accumulated.
“…taking on water on decks two and…”
Even as he spotted a stairway leading up to a higher deck level, the entire passage sprung even more leaks, a mounting waist-deep current pushing against him every step of the way.
“Hull breach!… It’s a mine!…”
Max half swam, half waded the rest of the way, but as he started up the narrow steps, before he was even half way up, the ship tilted sharply to starboard, nearly knocking him back down.
“Captain! We’ve run aground!…”
Max barely managed to catch the railing with his good arm, hauling himself back up as the ship shifted back, hunching forward almost to the point of crawling to keep the poor kid from falling off into the watery grave inching up behind them, and continued to climb.
“Where’re the lifeboats!? Where’re the lifeboats!?…”
A question— and an accompanying line of thought— he could really do without, as he clung to the desperate hope his ride would be waiting out there this time.
“My baby! Where’s my baby!?…”
Max tried not to wince at that one as he slogged down the gradually flooding corridor, though individual voices in that swirling cacophony were becoming harder to pick out against both the rising tide of incoherent screaming and, even more ominously, the waves of static inexorably drowning them out.
The child clinging to his back by now petrified by this escalating nightmare.
“Every man for himself!…”
Not the most reassuring sentiment on which to run into a sealed bulkhead. Grabbing the valve wheel with his good hand, he hauled on it as hard as he could. Feeling that cold dampness lapping up above his knees as he finally wrenched it open. A deluge of chill mist washed over him as he staggered into the second part of the passage. Spotting another stairway at the far end, he made for it as he could on the canted deck as frigid water began to spray from the wall and ceiling seams.
The steps themselves proved quite treacherous, nearly tripping him several times before he finally reached the top, beyond which was a short hall leading to a door hanging wide open.
Seeing a faint light on the other side, he staggered along, finally finding himself out on deck as vague shadows continued to scramble about in a general panic Max feared he would soon succumb to himself if he didn’t find a way off this vessel of the damned any minute now.
“Max! Come on, man!”
Shades’ voice, and not in his headphones.
“Dammit, Max! Where are you!?”
Justin, too, and somewhere in the haze off to port.
“Shades! Justin! Where are you!?”
“Over here, Max!”
Shades again, and definitely to port.
“Hurry up, Max!”
“You’re running out of time!”
That Max didn’t doubt in the slightest as he turned in the direction of his friends’ voices, trying not to slip as the deck was slowly slanting to port. As he drew nearer, he could see the faint outline of the Maximum up ahead. Yet he could see that the deck railing had sunk below the Maximum’s, that murky water lapping at it as it bobbed for a moment.
Bracing himself, resolving that a swim in those unfathomable depths was a last resort, he dashed across the remainder of the deck, bounding off the railing to grab as much air as he could as he jumped.
Perhaps it was the fog distorting his depth perception, but near the end of his leap, the Maximum’s railing seemed higher than he anticipated, reaching out with his uninjured arm, just barely catching it by the tips of his fingers. He only had to hang there for all of about two seconds to notice how damp and slippery it was, his fingers sliding—
“Max!” Shades cried as he appeared above him out of the fog, catching him by the hand just as he went over the edge. The weight of both Max and his prepubescent payload hauling Shades halfway over the railing in the process.
Shades braced both his feet against the hull railing and hauled with all his might, fiercely determined to be more useful this time than on Kon Kimbar. It probably helped that there was no one like Erix around to interrupt his rescue attempt this time, but even so, it took all his effort. Just the image of Max’s feet dangling, splashing the surface of those Stygian depths, gave him the extra incentive to dig deeper, finally pulling his friend far enough up to throw one leg over, the weight shift sending both of them crashing to the deck in an exhausted heap.
“Damn, that was close!” Justin called out from the upper helm. “I’m getting us the fuck outta here!”
As Max and Shades struggled back to their feet, they both turned to face the Sweet Lady of Twylight, the spectacle they beheld holding both of them transfixed. Even as they watched, the sloshing and gurgling of the static interference began to fade away, as well. For as the dread derelict sank into the doldrums, she appeared to almost sink into the fog itself even as the ghost ship faded through the receding mist as Justin maneuvered them away from it. From what, Shades was beginning to suspect, was likely a perpetually, eternally doomed vessel of the damned.
At last having vanished into the fog as if it had never existed to begin with.
It was then that Max remembered the little boy he picked up earlier, realizing that he couldn’t recall at what point the kid ceased to be hanging on to him for dear life. Much to his dismay, he also noticed that he no longer felt sopping wet from the waist down; now only his boots were damp. When he found he couldn’t see any trace of him on deck he began to fear the worst.
Sensing a presence he was previously unaware of, Shades jerked his head around for a moment, seeing what he would swear was the faint image of a little boy on deck near them. Smiling, it seemed, with relief. Now that he thought about it, Max had seemed somehow heavier than he remembered from their sparring matches, and the fog had almost seemed to cling to him before he made it aboard.
As if trying to drag him down to his doom…
Then they both heard it, very distinctly, in their headphones.
A child’s voice, saying: “Thank you! Thank you!…”
At last dying back down to complete radio silence.
“Max, what was that?” Shades asked. There was something eerily familiar about the child, as if he had seen him in a dream or something…
“I have no idea,” Max replied.
Both of them jumped, scared out of their wits by a thumping, scraping sound at the Maximum’s cabin door.
Then they both laughed in spite of themselves as it dawned on them that it had been going on all along, they were so fixated on the sinking of the derelict. Realizing almost simultaneously what it was. Shades very sensibly stepped aside as he opened the door and Bandit pounced on Max, both of them landing on the deck.
“I missed you, too!” Max told his feline friend as he got up and they retreated to the cabin.
Once Shades safely had the other helm controls, Justin wasted no time coming down, either. All of them hoping to leave their previous trouble behind in that ominous fog. For a time, they all sat in pensive silence, the oppressive, unnatural suspense from before their dread encounter settling back in like an unwelcome passenger they never wanted to pick up in the first place. On some unspoken cue, taking turns alternately peering forward into that eerie mist, not wanting to be taken by surprise now that they thought they had finally escaped, and backward, half afraid that ghost ship might somehow come back to haunt them. Just like the final twist of to so many dark legends.
Yet as they continued slowly forward through these dreary doldrums, each of them could swear the fog was finally beginning to lift, and for the first time since the start of this ordeal, they quietly changed the subject so as not to jinx their rising hope the worst was finally over.