“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 sweat 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.