Tradewinds 08 CH 11

The librarian had fainted dead away, which was probably for the best, as falling down made him less of a target.

Bandit crouched, snarling, almost every hair on his body standing on end.

Max stood his ground, laser sword drawn, trying to focus on the foul machine’s wooden aim, so far having managed to deflect all of its shots.

“This is not happening…” Kato muttered as she crouched behind the cart, hoping for a chance to return fire, but unsure if she could face this nightmare creature again.

Justin immediately concluded that she had the right idea, and crowded in next to her behind its limited cover as he started firing wildly.

Kato continued hoping that perhaps this time her friends would show up, Chase hammering the thing with some new toy from his arsenal— hell, she would even settle for George reprogramming the bastard by remote or something. “This is not happening…”

“YES IT IS HAPPENING, INTRUDER!” NK-525 declared, in a voice they would later decide was sounding less and less robotic with every word. “THERE IS NO ESCAPE! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE! ADMINISTERING DIRECTIVE EIGHTY-SIX! DIE! DIE! DIE!”

Then it brought its fully charged super-laser to bear, and just from the looks of it, without even having seen it in action, even Max wasn’t sure if his energy blade could handle that.

Max!!” Justin screamed, firing furiously at his seemingly unstoppable nemesis. To no avail.

It wasn’t until it was already upon them that anyone, even the Enforcer, heard the rapid series of crashing noises that seemed to be getting louder every second, coming closer. Max, who had just thought of turning his energy blade on the shelves themselves to cut out an escape route if the Enforcer would actually give him an opening to do so, instinctively hit the deck, and Justin pressed in behind the cart still more, further crowding Kato. For its part, NK looked to the right in just time to detect the very large bookshelf falling toward it.

The Enforcer started to roll back, but was too slow, and it found itself sandwiched between the fallen shelves, which had toppled like dominoes. The combined weight of over half a dozen shelves of books was more than its cybernetic strength could move. Its super-laser now pinned down at an odd angle, and instead of firing its powered-up beam, it emitted only a shower of sparks.

“IT’S JAMMED!” the Enforcer screeched, its voice now digitally contorted in what sounded unnervingly like rage as it tried to gain some kind of leverage with which to free itself.

Max, seeing what might be their only chance, sprang to his feet and charged.

Firing up his energy blade, he hacked the malevolent machine’s laser arms off before it could readjust its aim. He jumped out of the way of its claw arms, then jumped back in with another slash of green light. The same armor that had shrugged off Justin’s power pistols was no match for a laser blade as Max sliced and diced, unleashing his wrath upon this monster that had tried to kill his friend, and Justin just watched.

“SYSTEM ERROR! DESTROY… ALL… IN… TRU… DERS…” NK-525’s voice now distorted to the point that they could barely understand it. “—OFF… LINE… BZZZT… UNIT… N… BZZZT… K… 5… 2— BZZZT— HATE… YOU… BZZZT… SYN… TAX… ERR… RORRR…”

Was the last thing ever heard out of NK-525.

In the silence at the end of Max’s counter-attack, the only sound they heard was a voice cry out triumphantly, “Hot damn!”

“Shades?…” Max looked up from his fallen foe, seeing his friend climbing over the mess of toppled shelves. “You did that…”

“I told ya,” Shades replied: “The pen is mightier than the sword!”

Then they both started laughing.

“Good one!” Max patted Bandit on the head, relieved that his friend had stayed low and thus come through that whole firestorm unscathed. He could tell that, whatever doubts his friend had been grappling with before, when the time came, Shades delivered. Still had his touch. Max had seen him in action, and strongly believed he had the makings of a warrior if he kept pushing himself beyond whatever limits previously bound him. His friends were still alive, he had found Justin again, the evil robot thing was dead, now was the time to celebrate their escape, and their victory.

“Is it over yet?” Kato asked, peering over the top of the smoking, carbon-scored cart, power pistol drawn, just in case it wasn’t. At first she thought that perhaps her friends had found her, but she saw no sign of Chase or George anywhere.

“Don’t worry, Kato, it’s safe to come out now,” Justin told her mockingly, seeing her exasperated scowl. But as he watched Shades making his way over, what he really wanted to know was, “Who the hell are—”

Then the wreckage of NK-525 made a noise, that put Shades in mind of a radio-controlled truck stripping its gears trying to climb over something that was too big for it.

Taking his cue from Max, Justin whipped out his laser staff, tearing into the mangled machine with a torrent of his choicest words.

DIE!” Justin just kept hacking and slashing, taking out all of his rage, all of his horror for every second of his ordeal, on the twitching pile of spare parts half buried under ruined shelves and books. Scraps of metal and paper flew in all directions. Even after the thing had ceased to make a move, or a sound, still he went on, those two dead wanderers in the fore of his thoughts. “Fuckin’ DIE this time you piece of shit!…

After a minute or so, he finally stopped, panting for breath, having run out of coherent words that could even begin to convey the depth of his fury.

Surrounded by lacerated plates and servos and severed circuitry, all that remained of the dreaded Enforcer Unit.

“Dude, chill,” Shades told him.

And after catching his breath, Justin again demanded, “Who the hell are you?”

“The guy who just saved your ass,” Shades told him. “By the way, you’re wel—”

“This is my friend,” Max cut in, smelling an argument as he had often smelled a storm on the way back in Paradise.

“I think we should go talk someplace else,” the librarian muttered as crossly as he could manage as he staggered to his feet. He had regained consciousness during Justin’s outburst, but was still pretty shaky. “If this hadn’t saved our lives, I’d be trying to figure out who’s going to clean up this mess, and replace all those books.”

Though grateful for his life, he still couldn’t help being angry and saddened over the loss of any of those books. He supposed that was probably what made him a librarian. Already he could see a mountain of paperwork before him, as well as administrators demanding explanations, and he knew he would end up doing all of the reshelving himself, as well. It seemed to be his lot in life.

“He’s right. Let’s save the introductions for another floor,” Shades said, sticking one earphone back in. “I’ll explain on the way.”

And so the others filled Justin and Kato in about the dimensional rift as they made their way to the stairs. Both Shades and the librarian suspected that the anomaly didn’t exist all the time, but none of them felt like pressing their luck. After everything any of them just survived, none of them would be surprised if they had just used it all up of late.

On the way, they happened to pass by the room with the warpgate, and they all paused for a long moment in spite of themselves. The doorway still opened into the empty room Max had come through when he first opened it. Yet just a few feet away from it was a window offering a thirteenth-story view of the buildings on the other side of the street.

Right where the corner of that harshly sterile room should be, a perfectly tangible optical illusion hanging suspended above the street.

Shades knew that if he peered out the window, he would see no room out there, and trying to picture it gave him a mental kind of vertigo. Seeing that Bandit wanted nothing to do with the place made him want to tell Max that curiosity killed the cat, but even in this short time he had come to know his friend’s philosophy on that: he still believed satisfaction would bring him back. He looked through that open door, knowing what he was seeing couldn’t possibly exist, at least by the rules he had been taught in science class, yet it was still real. A portal to another dimension.

Like all things Unknown, that room called out to him.

Yet the voice that beckoned him from this surreal entrance, seemingly stepping out into nothingness outside, also gave him the creeps. Inviting in its apparent blankness, yet also alien and forbidding in its eerie silence. As well as the knowledge that that killer robot had also come through the doorway, as well as Max and Justin. He lingered there for a moment before that spooky door, trying to resist the urge to go in and take a look around.

Twilight Zone, indeed…

Kato and Justin reflecting upon their recent narrow escape, both of them simultaneously swearing that if they were to ever return to that twisted realm, it would be all too soon. Justin looked at that impossible entrance and shuddered, resisting the mad impulse to whip out both guns and start blasting. Whatever else was in there, he decided, it was best not to provoke it. As far as he was concerned, that door could remain shut for another ten thousand years. He could see that even Max looked upon that door with some trepidation, now that he had seen NK-525 for himself.

Instead, he settled for spitting through the door and summing up both his opinion of the place, and his experience there, with just one finger.

Max, knowing full well the dangers his friend had faced in there, still felt a lingering curiosity. And a touch of homesickness; after all, he had left his long-time home in Paradise somewhere back there what seemed like a disproportionately long time ago, from a direction that still hurt his mind to think of as somehow “above” them.

In the end, though, it was seeing Bandit’s reaction that made up his mind.

First Kato and Justin, then Max, and finally Shades turned away last. Not that this unreal vista didn’t tantalize him with similar thoughts as Max, but he couldn’t help thinking about this place’s disturbing implications. Almost a premonition.

Once some doors are opened, they can never be closed again… For better or worse, Tranz-D had just been added to that list.

They stopped just long enough to pick up the bags of stuff for Justin and their search that they had dropped earlier, then continued on their way, wasting no more time. Once they were safely down the stairs and on another level, they stood, ranged around the librarian. A few introductions were clearly in order.

After a moment of hesitation, Max took the initiative, saying, “I’ll start. I’m Max, just Max. Shades, this is my friend, Justin Black.”

“Um… hi.” After everything he had been through, in both the last few days and the last few years, he wasn’t really sure what to say.

“And Justin, my newest friend, Shades MacLean.”

“Yo.”

“And this is Conan the librarian…”

“Please don’t call me that.”

Shades laughed in spite of himself, and Justin and Kato laughed too, though she was still too winded to laugh very hard. Yet neither of them seemed to quite understand what they were laughing about really, just trying not to look left out of the punchline. Max wasn’t really sure what to make of it, so he simply concluded his end of the conversation.

“And this is my friend, Bandit.” There was only one person in this party Max was not familiar with, and the one thing he noticed about her was starting to make him edgy, reminding him of things he wished to forget. That, and he noticed that Bandit seemed to be keeping Max between himself and this young woman. “Now it’s your turn, Justin. Who’s the Cyexian?”

Shades also turned to her. Max had told him a little about the things he had seen and heard of, and now he was seeing one of these things for himself. Lavender eyes. He had never heard of such a thing before, and part of his mind kept insisting that they had to be contacts or something. Had to be.

“Whoa, Max. I know what you’re thinkin’, but let’s hear her out. Her name—” Justin began.

“Hey! You talk to me!” Kato snapped indignantly, drawing herself up to her full height. She knew the eyes, the indelible mark of her Cyexian bloodline, were always a dead giveaway. And she didn’t particularly care for the way this Max person’s eyes regarded her. But she cooled off after a second, saying, “I’m Kato. I was searching this place when I got lost in Tranz-D.”

“That’s where I met her,” Justin filled in. He knew Max was originally from the Islands, but he never expected such animosity from him. The Cyexians of those waters may have had a reputation as pirates and scavengers, but he had to wonder if his friend didn’t have a little personal experience of some kind, to be so harsh to a total stranger. “We just managed to escape from that fucked-up place, but that damn NK-525 followed us. Anyway, the important thing is that I found you.”

“Same here,” Max told him. “Shades and I had just come looking for you.”

“Really? What the hell took you so long? Never mind. As I was about to say, you know that weird necklace of yours? She’s got one just like it, and she says—”

Shhh!” Kato hissed. She glared at him for a moment, wondering if anyone had ever told him he had a big mouth. She knew they would have to let Max in the secret, and she feared she would end up letting this “Shades” fellow in on it, as well. Otherwise, the fewer who knew about the treasure, the better. “We can talk about that later.” She turned to the librarian, saying, “Sorry about the mess, but now that that thing is dead, we’ve gotta be going.”

“Not yet,” Max replied. “It’s true that we saved his life, but that battle still ruined part of his library. We should at least help him clean up the mess.”

Shades was both amused and dismayed by Justin and Kato’s twin looks of consternation. He wasn’t too enthused about it himself— the cleanup, or going back to that level— but he knew his friend was right.

Before either Kato or Justin could formulate a word of protest, the librarian told them, “I appreciate the offer, but what really concerns me is the loss of all those books.”

“I see…” Max had no idea what to do about that.

“I understand.” Fortunately, Shades did know what to do. “As long as they weren’t one-of-a-kind or something, I might be able to pay for some of the damage.”

He whipped out the Card.

“Oh yeah…” Seeing the Card reminded Max of something else. He dug in his pocket, fishing out the cards he had brought with him out of Tranz-D. He had hung on to them for his search for Justin, just in case. He reached out and handed the librarian the cards, saying, “Here. I’ve found Justin. I don’t know what all they do, but I nave no more use for them. They might come in handy for you, though, because it’s dangerous in there.”

“You said it!” Justin added.

“Yes. I did.”

Shades rolled his eyes

“Thank you, both of you,” the librarian said. “If you think you can pay for it, I can give you an estimate.” He took the cards from Max, the Enforcer’s damage all but forgotten now that he had this mysterious new piece of the puzzle that was Tranz-D.

Damn! That friend of yours is loaded!” Justin remarked, eying the Card as Shades slipped it back in his coat pocket. “How much money does he have?”

“Even he doesn’t know,” Max answered simply.

They talked for a minute or so before noticing that Kato was just standing there tapping her foot with both arms folded across her chest.

“Let’s go to my office,” the librarian suggested, looking more and more distracted by the moment with those cards in hand. Administrators and paperwork already largely forgotten. “We can work out the details there.”

Tradewinds 08 CH 10

Running into Justin and the others had slowed Max down enough for Shades to start catching up.

Had just come around the corner in time to see them, then a strange robot, turn another corner. He heard shouting and laser fire. And a menacing digital voice declare:

“THERE IS NO DESTROYING THE ENFORCER! PREPARE FOR EXTERMINATION!”

Upon getting his first, brief glimpse of NK-525, and hearing that distorted, inhuman voice, he felt a nearly overpowering— but perfectly understandable— compulsion to about-face and run in the opposite direction.

What the fuck can I do against that?…

In his mind’s eye, the guard’s gun was still pointed at his head. Only this was much worse, and time was running out. That thing around the corner seemed to him death incarnate. He knew Max, and the others trapped over there, were in mortal danger, but all that came to mind was grim speculation about how many times he had cheated death lately, how little luck he must surely have left by now. How every time he dared to think he was in the clear he was confronted with an even greater threat, and Max’s words (I still believe you’d help me…) stung more than ever.

It was hearing Max’s battle cry that snapped him out of it.

All that was left was to figure out what to do.

He had originally turned to flee, but had paused for a moment in his hesitation. Now he looked at the aisle next to him, all the while trying to ignore the fear that that mechanical monstrosity would somehow notice him. It was in the midst of his frenzied thoughts that he noticed the shelf sections, how perfectly aligned they were, and remembered a peculiarly mischievous idea he had had years ago.

It didn’t seem like much, but, having no weapon that was any use against such an enemy, it was all he could come up with.

Back then, he had relented, somewhat taken aback by the mere thought of how much of a mess it would cause, but now he decided the time had come to sate his curiosity. The shelves here were about as tall as the shelves at his old middle school library, and crammed with books. Wondering if he could even budge such weight, he pushed experimentally against the nearest shelf. He had to push pretty hard, but he could make them wobble.

Then, leaning against the shelf with all his might, he pushed with his legs.

Max, I won’t let it… I won’t…

Tradewinds 08 CH 09

Justin dashed down the aisles, Kato hot on his heels. The librarian huffing and puffing behind them. Finishing the pack was NK-525, matching their every turn. In such a confined environment, the Enforcer would catch up with them immediately if they stopped for even a moment.

“Pick it up, professor!” Kato shouted back at the librarian, who was lagging. Of course, tired, battered and hungry as she was, she feared she wouldn’t be able to keep up much longer herself, and wondered where the hell this Justin learned to run like that.

“We gotta lose that thing!” Justin screamed.

“Stairs!” the librarian panted. “We need—”

Was all the farther he got before Justin tripped over a black-and-white panther that just dashed around the corner. Then Max tripped over them, Kato couldn’t stop in time, and the poor librarian ran right into the whole dogpile. Even as they stumbled to their feet, they continued their flight, ducking around another massive squarish pillar just in time to avoid a barrage of energy beams.

“Max!” Justin greeted his friend, who started running alongside him. At least one thing was going right. Even in the midst of the chase, he wondered if Max would notice how much faster he had gotten. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you went back!”

“I kinda got sidetracked!” Max told him as they ran. “And what are we running from anyway?”

That!” Kato informed him, thumbing back at NK, which had come dangerously close to catching up with them a moment ago, and would surely have blasted them if not for all the pillars and banks of shelves that made for at least momentary cover.

“Oh. What now?”

“Stairs!” the librarian gasped again, trying to regain his bearings after so many random twists and turns. “If we—”

Unfortunately, even as he was trying to remember which way to the nearest stairway, and Kato was about to suggest that they split up since there was only one enemy, they were all just reacting from one second to the next, so even he didn’t know the next turn was a dead end until it was too late. They had already gone too far to turn around by the time any of them realized their predicament, then went several more shelf-lengths to the end before turning around to face their pursuer. NK-525’s armored bulk blocked the only way out.

“Oh no…” the librarian mumbled sheepishly.

“Shit!” Justin muttered, shoving him aside and whipping out his power pistol.

“Where are those bastards…” Kato muttered as she ducked behind the only piece of cover she could find, a book return cart in the corner. For the third time in one day, she found herself facing death without either of her friends with her.

Max fired up his laser sword, seeing no way out, and Bandit backed up into the corner, snarling and hissing at this unnatural predator, this thing, the like of which he had never seen before.

“THERE IS NO DESTROYING THE ENFORCER!” NK-525 slowed down, having cornered its prey. It advanced slowly, all weapons powered up. “PREPARE FOR EXTERMINATION!”

It now had them all right where it wanted them.

Tradewinds 08 CH 08

For a moment Max thought he heard someone talking to him. Then the voice distorted as the air shimmered for a couple seconds as he and Shades stepped through the rift, slipping quietly between dimensions and entering the Centralict Library. Both of them recognized the bizarre sensation from their own respective experience encountering it.

“This is it,” Max told Shades as he looked around. “We made it.”

“Damn! You weren’t kidding about this place…” Shades looked around. On one level, he was relieved simply to be out of the Mall, as if he had awakened from a nightmare, and because of that he felt that sense of mystery and adventure he had once tried to describe to his friend also reawakening. So, even in the midst of his relief, this library, just a glimpse of the labyrinth of bookshelves Max had told him of, now aroused his curiosity, and he wished to see the true depths of this place. “If this library is half as big as you say, then it’s the biggest I’ve ever heard of. Even if you lived here all your life, you still wouldn’t be able to read all this!”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Max replied. He wondered if maybe this time he would actually get to look around a bit before they left. Still, his thoughts were mostly focused on Justin, whom he hoped was still alive, wherever he was, and the more immediate concerns of their present location. “We should get off this floor until we’re ready to go to Tranz-D, and go try to find that librarian.”

“Good idea,” Shades agreed. After more than a month imprisoned in that evil mall, now that he was finally free of the curse, he still wasn’t sure how he felt about plunging into another maze so soon. “Let’s get off this floor before we end up someplace else. And also gather what intelligence we can before rushing in.”

“Let’s try to find the stairs,” Max suggested.

“Max?”

“Yeah?”

“In all the confusion and hustle,” Shades said, still keeping one earphone on in case another rift opened, “I never got to thank you for saving my life back there, against the guards. I thought I was dead. Thanks, Max.”

“No problem. I doubt you would have done any less for me.”

“I’m not so sure,” Shades confessed. He hated to admit it, but he had genuinely frozen up in that critical moment; even now, reliving those few seconds ratcheted up his blood pressure several notches and cut him short of breath. He had always liked to believe that he could be a hero, and now that he had been tried, he was found lacking. In his old life, he had had his share of friends, but few whom he believed were anywhere near as bold as Max. Just thinking about it filled him with a shame he had never felt before; even the fact that he hadn’t soiled himself like that guard leader had was little consolation. “I think my nerves are shot.”

“I still believe you’d help me,” Max told him. After learning what his friend had been through lately, he could hardly blame Shades for stumbling under such grim circumstances. “You’re not a coward, if that’s what you’re thinking. Don’t let it shake you.” As Robert always said: “Somebody once told me that if you truly care about someone or something, you can be as tough as you have to be. Besides, there was nothing you could do. He had you that time. That’s why we look out for each other.”

“I suppose.” There’s somebody out there, Master Al always told him, who’s got a can of whoop-ass with your name on it. Or, as someone else had put it, there’s always a bigger fish. He didn’t like the thought of letting his fear control him, but after the mounting perils of the last few weeks, he wondered if he wasn’t cracking under the pressure. Or was it just fear of guns? After all, now that he thought about it, he couldn’t recall ever having one pointed at him before. Al had taught him that fear can be a healthy thing— a warning signal that could keep you from becoming overconfident— but to freeze up was to let it destroy you, as it would have back there. The fact that Max was giving him his own largely untried advice was proof that he had managed to teach him something, yet he began to wonder if he was going to be a burden in Tranz-D, a liability rather than an asset. “But I’m not sure if I should… Hey! Wait!”

While he was busy brooding over how helpless he had been against that last attack, Bandit perked up, apparently catching wind of something interesting, and took off. Max ran after his feline friend without any hesitation. Leaving Shades just standing there.

Then he also started running, but both of them were so fast, and already had such a head start, he feared he wouldn’t be able to catch up.

Still, he figured Bandit had to stop some time.

Tradewinds 08 CH 07

“…Halt!” another computerized voice commanded. “There is no escape!”

“Not them again!” Kato groaned.

The robo-guards continued to fire on them, continued to tell them how futile resistance was.

“I’m getting really tired of hearing that!” Justin muttered, firing away with the only power clip he had left. “Are you sure this is the right way?”

“Yeah!” Kato glanced at the map again, then added her own return fire. It had become harder to navigate than ever since they ran into the guard patrol a couple minutes ago. She wouldn’t have been so sure of her directions in the long run if they didn’t have such a short way left to go. “Come on! We’re almost there!”

“I hope so!” Justin had no idea how much— rather, how little— ammo he had left, and he feared that another patrol— or worse, the Enforcer itself— would show up.

They ducked around another corner, hugging the wall in an attempt to stay out of the line of fire.

“Halt, Intruders! Do not enter!” the remaining guard declared, “That is a restricted ar—” before Justin nailed it, right in the faceplate.

“We made it!” Kato recognized the door from when she came in. “This is the place!”

“About fuckin’ time!”

Before more guards or anything could show up, they bolted through the narrow room, past the metal poles, through the warpgate, and well into the Centralict Library before they stopped.

Kato was breathing hard, leaning against a bookshelf, dropping the map on the floor.

Justin, though tired, benefited from Max’s survival training, and would later wonder if he would have had any chance of escape without it. For now, though, he wasn’t entirely convinced they were out of this yet. Kato might feel relieved, but he stood for a long moment, power pistol trained on the last section they passed through; that door was still wide open, and he was seriously thinking about going back and doing something about it, but after a moment decided that revealing himself to be near the entrance might be more dangerous than just moving on. After all, those guards might be able to reopen the door anyway, so it was better if they didn’t know for sure where he went. He thought about destroying the controls once and for all, but there was still the possibility that Max might still be trapped in that hi-tech hell, and that was a risk he couldn’t take.

After a minute or so, and no sign of pursuit, be began to relax and look around.

“This place… it’s so big…” was all he could come up with to say now that he actually started to notice his surroundings. Much like with Max when he passed through, he found it hard to believe there could be this many books in all the world, let alone in one building. He had seen a few bookshelves when he was younger, but those paled in comparison to what this place had to offer. “There must be thousands of them…”

“More like millions,” Kato told him. “What you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. There are entire levels of this. Why do you think I came here? I figured if anyplace would have what I was looking for, this would be it.”

“Actually, we have over five hundred million books and other documents stored here,” a voice informed them from behind.

So focused were they on where they had come from, they were paying no attention to the way before them. They both jumped at the short, rabbity, balding man who now stood behind them. Kato immediately relaxed, recognizing him as a librarian. Justin, on the other hand, wheeled around, pointing his double-barrel pistol squarely at his head, and the man’s metal-rimmed spectacles slid halfway off his nose in shock.

“Who the hell are you?” Justin demanded, seeing the man throw his hands up reflexively at the mere sight of his weapon. After being hunted for so long by the relentless, tireless machines of Tranz-D, he had no intention of falling here, just when he had regained his freedom.

“Relax,” Kato snapped. “He works here.”

Justin tried to, putting away his weapon, saying, “Sorry. I’ve been having a shitty week.”

“Okay…” The librarian hesitated a moment before introducing himself. “My name is Conan Swanson, Branch Manager. Weapons are prohibited in the Centralict Library, so I would appreciate it if you put that thing away and didn’t use it here again. Why are so many people bringing guns here lately anyway?…”

“You in charge of that weird door back there?” Kato started in. Now that she wasn’t running for her life, she was righteously pissed, and wanted some answers. “You should really just close the damn thing! I almost got killed in there! Why the hell is it even open? That place is dangerous!”

“If you are referring to the warpgate to Tranz-D, I don’t know how to close it. There is a warning over the door…” Then the librarian trailed off, realizing the implications of what they had just told him. Recently, he had been coming up to the thirteenth floor more often in spite of himself, drawn by a growing curiosity to see if anything had happened with the warpgate. “Wait a minute. Are you saying you just came from Tranz-D?”

“Miles and miles of hallways, killer robots, and other fun shit?”

“So I’ve been told,” he confirmed.

“I got lost in there,” Kato added. “That place is a goddam maze!”

“I was trapped in there for days!”

“Really? How did you…” The librarian stopped, noticing just how much this young man matched Max’s description of his missing friend. “You’re Justin, aren’t you?”

At that name, Justin’s eyes narrowed in customary suspicion. “And if I am?”

“Justin Black?”

“How do you know that name?”

“A couple weeks ago, a guy named Max came through here and—”

“Max!” Justin cut him off. “Max was here?”

“Yes,” the librarian told him. “So you are Justin Black… Anyway, he came through many days ago, saying he was looking for you.”

“Tell me,” Kato broke in, now that they had confirmed this Max guy was still alive, “have any of those robots ever come into the library?”

“No, not a trace,” the librarian assured them. “I’m beginning to think that this world is outside of their jurisdiction or something, given how long it’s been open. Of course, it’s been sealed for ten-thousand years, until Max opened it. I must admit, I’ve always been curious about that door. There’s a whole new world beyond it…”

“A very dangerous world,” Kato countered.

“We can talk about the door later,” Justin cut in. “I want to know what happened to Max. Where did he go? Please tell me he didn’t go back in there.”

“I’m afraid I don’t really know,” the librarian told them. “I talked with him for a while, told him what I knew, and he said he was going to look up some information and go back in to find you. He was quite determined, and I have to admire his courage.”

Kato slapped her forehead.

“He came back up here and I haven’t seen him since. Of course, there’s also the matter of—”

“Aw shit!” Justin muttered. “You mean we gotta go back in there!?”

“Great…” Kato said dryly, shaking her head in disgust, “just what I need—”

“INTRUDERS ON VISUAL!”

That voice was burned into Justin’s memory, and he instinctively shoved his two companions around the corner just before the fireworks started. The Enforcer still looked a little beat up from Justin’s ambush, but otherwise functional. Though Justin noticed that its voice now sounded a little warped.

Apparently, unlike the other machines, NK-525’s jurisdiction didn’t end at the warpgate.

“Not that fucker again!” Justin cried, feeling the nightmare return anew.

Though NK had refrained from using its super-laser in its opening barrage, its shots still lit off half a shelf of books.

“Hey!” the librarian shouted at the Enforcer, for a moment having forgotten himself in his outrage at the destruction of part of the collection, “No discharging of firearms on library property!”

“SILENCE, BIO-CREATURE!” the Enforcer thundered. “6-D WARPGATE HAS BEEN COMPROMISED!… SURRENDER THE PASSCARD NOW, INTRUDERS!”

None of them stuck around to find out what the murderous machine was talking about.

And NK-525 followed. New place. New Intruders. Same old hunt.

Tradewinds 08 CH 06

“I wish I knew more about this anomaly,” Shades muttered as he and Max took what felt like their thousandth stroll around the book store in the last couple hours. For days since he first met Max, he had felt as if the key to getting out of the Mall had been dangling just out of his mind’s reach. A few days before the Twylight concert, DJ had told them he was hearing rumors of unexplained disappearances at this book store. The very same one through which Max had somehow entered this cursèd place. And he felt very stupid for having never made the connection. “I just wish I knew a better way to detect it…”

While he was at it, he hoped desperately that it was a two-way phenomenon, unlike the rest of the ways into here. He feared that if this “errand” took any longer, the store staff would start to get suspicious. Without Bankshot to fall back on, that only left their hotel room. Whose safety, though they had found Bandit and everything intact, came further into question with every passing moment, which meant that they were rapidly running out of options. He had feared something like this would happen sooner or later, the one contingency for which he had nothing even resembling a plan. He didn’t know how the situation could get much worse, but he knew he didn’t want to find out; the leader of the guards had surely sworn vengeance, so if there was any chance of escaping them once and for all, he knew they were looking at it right now.

It made him nervous, knowing that they might get busted for loitering or something, while trying to keep up the same routine: Max— who hardly looked like the literary type in spite of all the time he had spent in all of the book stores— browsing while Shades wore his headphones and tried to look bored out of his gourd. Bandit tagging along for the first time since the beginning of this ordeal, wearing a jury-rigged bag of equipment strapped to his back, with the words “Helper Cat” scrawled on it in the hopes that it might confound any questions about his presence. At least as long as he behaved himself. It was a risky move, bringing him out when he was the least disguisable, but there was no other way to do it without leaving him behind. After so many long days of being cooped up, Bandit seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

The hours after their battle with the guards had been hectic. They had to approach their hotel room with caution, and both of them were immensely relieved when Bandit was sound asleep, waiting for them. After finalizing their basic plans, they strategically packed everything they could, while still leaving a “residual presence” of sorts lying around the room; Shades even paid for several more days so it would look like they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The voice of Douglas MacLean guiding Shades like an uncharacteristically helpful drill sergeant on that front. Then, of course, they had had to take their sleep in three-hour shifts, with one of them covering the door at all times.

After all, If Security did have an eye on this room, all this flurried activity might trigger a surprise raid.

Shades had no idea how much money was on the Card, and he hated blowing so much of it on a room he hoped never to see again, but in addition to his tactical concerns, he also knew they might have to return if their first attempt failed. When they finally arrived, though, their heightened sense of suspense was raised still further by a sign at the door reading: THIS STORE CLOSING TOMORROW FOR REMODELING. Their window of opportunity was indeed closing fast.

If the store was shut down (presumably Management’s attempt to cover up the unexplained disappearances while they still could), Shades might just be forced to use the lock-picking kit he had been putting together since he first wound up here, an extension of his kit from Earth, though he had doubted it’d be much use in Tranz-D anyway. To say nothing of the near-impossible tactics of trying to hold this sales floor position if push came to shove, especially armed with just Max’s power pistol. Though he shuddered at the memory of that grim moment, the guard leader somehow had possession of a gun, and he had no idea if the guards had any more. All he knew for sure was that he had seen no place in this entire mall that sold firearms, though he wondered if perhaps pellet or paint guns might at least do enough damage to hold the guards at bay for a time.

Before coming to the store, not only did they pack all of their most important possessions, they also packed up extra gear for their search for Justin. A pair of boots, pants, shirts, jacket, backpack, belt, flashlight, anything they thought Max’s friend might need in a place like Tranz-D should they find him. In addition, they also brought along some food, a couple canteens, a first aid kit, extra batteries, and other items they might need in the long run. After all, Max told Shades how poorly equipped Justin was at the start of their adventure.

They had even figured out a simple way to carry it around without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Shopping bags. Best damn camouflage one could use, and it had been sitting under his nose all this time. As with the dimensional rift, the answer was ridiculously self-evident once he saw it. Was going about this the wrong way from the start, trying to conceal his backpack when there were other bags you could carry around here that no one gave a second glance at.

A lesson in conformity and complacence turned against itself that he would keep in mind.

While Shades listened for their signal, Max grazed all the books he didn’t ordinarily have time to check out during his brief excursions in public. The thought of vastly more books awaiting him on the other side in the Centralict Library was never far from his mind. It was getting harder to keep his guard up, even though Shades needed to devote most of his attention to the reception.

Still, he was impressed. He never would have dreamed of his friend’s plan. So, how are we going to find it? he had asked. Don’t worry, Shades told him in a tone that made him want to hit the deck, I’ve got it all worked out. If this thing’s anything like the dimensional rip back on Earth, it should crank out one wild FM signal! Max understood. A way to detect it. And somehow he knew it could work.

At last, Max’s long-delayed rescue attempt for Justin would begin.

Trusting Max to be his eyes and ears, Shades continued nodding to a non-existent beat and focused on the transmission as they continued their slow leisurely lap around the store. Things had become eerily quiet of late. In this ominous silence, he could feel the deathwatch ticking, faster than ever.

A race against a clock he couldn’t see.

He was about to suggest to Max that this section was too boring, when he was interrupted by the first radio signal of any kind that he had heard since he left Earth over a month ago. Alarmed at first, then elated, for the sounds in his headphones sounded a great deal like the otherworldly noises he had heard the night of the Flathead Experiment.

Max, seeming to sense Shades’ change of expression, turned to his friend. At that same moment, Bandit also seemed to pick up on something. Shades nodded to both of them in confirmation.

He definitely had something.

Max put away the book he was looking at—

“Wait.”

“Why?”

“It hasn’t opened all the way yet,” Shades told him, barely remembering to keep his voice down in spite of the headphones in his ears. After all, the anomaly couldn’t exist all the time. Even the Management wouldn’t be able to cover that up for long. The one thing on their side was that the Management had started to move against it; it suggested that perhaps the hole had become larger of late. Yet it also meant they were running out of time. “The signal is faint, but getting stronger…”

Max nodded and continued scanning the shelves, albeit with considerably less interest than a moment ago. Now that escape was so close at hand, it was all he could do just to stand still.

“Stronger…” Shades could barely contain his excitement, kept telling himself that after a month and a half, he could wait just a couple more minutes. The key he had found before finally turned. Now he just hoped he knew how the lock worked. “Any second now…”

While the two of them were busy anticipating the opening of the dimensional rift, a store clerk silently approached him from behind. For the past couple hours, off and on between customers, he had watched these two young men and their exotic pet parading through the place as if they had nothing better to do. Something about that bothered him, but it wasn’t until a few minutes ago that he realized what: that cat looked just like the description of one accompanying two men Security had posted warnings about. The bulletin had recently been upgraded to “armed and dangerous” so he had hesitated at first about what to do. Finally, he decided to call Security first, then try to distract them for as long as he could before they could leave.

As the store clerk hesitantly approached the two, they turned, as if headed for another section, then stepped into thin air.

“Um, excuse me, sir, can I hel…”

Tradewinds 08 CH 05

Justin and Kato were searching for an unlocked door when they hit their lucky break.

True to the tactics he had developed over the course of his time here, and she deciding that anyone who had stayed alive for as long as he had must be doing something right, they waited until NK-525’s patrols moved on to another area before venturing into the halls again. By watching each other’s back, they could work together to accomplish more while they were out. Even so, Justin still didn’t expect to find anything so useful so quickly.

“Hey Justin!” Kato whispered loudly as she peered around the next corner. “Take a look at this!”

About halfway down the hall block, a door lay on the floor in two crudely cut sections, as if they had been cut down from within.

“What happened here?” Kato wondered aloud.

I sure as hell didn’t do it,” Justin muttered. But this definitely looked like it was done with an energy blade. “And I’m pretty sure you didn’t do it, either.”

“And why’s that?” Kato asked.

“Well, you don’t have a laser sword, do you?”

“Well, no,” Kato confessed, “you’re right. I didn’t do that.”

“Then who…” Justin’s question answered itself as his heart leapt. He rushed into the room, Kato tagging along behind him. As she stood there, struck by her companion’s abrupt change in disposition, he searched through the room for something she didn’t know of.

A room, which to her, looked like a cross between a hospital room and any of several holding cells she had seen in her travels.

“What does this mean?…” Justin muttered as he examined the compartments on the wall, which had all been cut open in the same fashion as the door. It was the pile of clothes— very familiar-looking clothes— that confirmed his theory. “This is Max’s stuff!”

“You mean your friend?”

“Yeah, and he must’ve had his laser sword with him, too,” Justin told her. “That means… he might still be alive!”

Though it left the peculiar question of why he had left his clothes behind. At least until he saw that there was more clothing in some of the compartments. After all, he couldn’t really blame his friend for wanting to change after wearing the same rags for some five years. To say nothing of blending in, since most of these clothes looked like they might actually belong to this place.

“Shh! Keep it down!” Kato hissed. The fact that the doorway behind hung wide open left her feeling especially vulnerable in this place. And something else in this room had caught her attention. “Let’s see what this thing does…”

Seeing the computer terminal built into one wall, Kato walked over to it.

“I wish George was here,” she said flatly. “He’d know how to—”

Then, much to her surprise, the screen lit up without any further prompting, displaying the same sector map it had shown the last time the system was activated.

“A map…” Kato commented, noting their own location, then one particular place caught her eye. “6-D Library… That’s it! That must be where I came in!”

“How do we get there?” The only problem Justin could see was that they couldn’t take this computer with them.

“Let me try this…” Though not the virtuoso adept that George was, Kato did have a passing familiarity with computers. The difference in language was frustrating at first, but it didn’t take nearly as long as it had taken Max for her to get a printout of the map. “This oughta do the trick!”

“Then let’s get our asses in gear.” Justin had spent at least two weeks too long in here, and was more than happy to see an end in sight. Not only did it look possible that Max may already have escaped this nightmare place, it was looking more and more likely.

They were about to make their move, when the by-now familiar sound of marching metallic feet started clomping into earshot. In those first days, patrols had been frequent, and Justin had been especially afraid to leave the vents. As day after miserable day passed, though, they became more and more of a rarity. Even so, Justin’s ears were still tuned to the sound.

Shit!” they both hissed in near unison.

While Justin, knowing that if the robo-guards caught them, the Enforcer wouldn’t be too far behind, was trying to figure out how to get out of the virtual trap this room constituted, Kato grabbed his arm, dragging him over to a closet near the edge of the room.

“Over here!” she whispered as she shut the door.

As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, for there was the same thin clear strip above this door as there was in the hall closets, he looked around frantically, noting with growing concern that there were no vents in this closet. He tried to make up his mind whether to bolt and try to make a run for a hall closet, or lay low here and hope for the best, since the troop levels were back up with the new alarms, and there was a terrible risk of getting bogged down fighting the robo-guards— or worse, the Junkyard Dogs— while the Enforcer closed in on them from an unknown direction. The thought of getting killed now, when he was so close to escape, was more than he could bear.

And so the two of them just stood there as silently as they could, guns drawn, as sets of metal feet trooped back and forth past the holding cell for some time before dying down again.

Tradewinds 08 CH 04

“Well, Max,” Shades told his friend not long after the party began to die down, “I think it’s time to hit the sack.” He shoved the Twylight CD he bought at the end of the show in his jacket pocket, looking forward to adding these new songs to his Cam-Jam later. As he had suspected, Rod and Company played a full set, and what few of the tapes and CDs they had with them had mostly sold out. And he and Max had helped. Now he was tired but wired, wanting to get some shuteye in spite of his growing desire to try their first real attempt at escape. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a busy day!”

“Yeah, I know.” Max had had an awesome evening, the best he could remember having in years. Though he was also eager to try Shades’ new plan. “I just wish we could stay a little longer.”

“Same here,” DJ added, “but I don’t blame you. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, mon.”

“And all that jazz.” Shades knew what this man, who he was already starting to think of as an old friend, was getting at. He knew he was witnessing the end of another era, here and now, and in spite of wanting out so bad, knowing it was coming to an end this time and having a chance to say goodbye before turning the page and starting the next chapter of his life still somehow didn’t make it any better. “I think we’ll be taking our leave now. If you ever get out, look us up. I have no idea what we’ll be doing, but I’m sure it’ll be something interesting.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for you.” Anymore, Max didn’t like to believe he was leaving anyone behind forever. In the quiet between events, his anxiety about Justin had grown almost daily, but he got the peculiar feeling that he would definitely cross paths with DJ again some time. “If we ever find a way to help you out…”

“Goodbye, my friends.” DJ put a hand on each of their shoulders.

“We’d love to stay and chat, but…” Shades walked away, pulling Max behind him.

“Live long and prospa!” DJ gave them the Vulcan hand sign as they went, nearly flooring Shades with the thought that anyone in the Sixth Dimension knew what it meant.

“And may the Force be with you!” Rod called out as he came up to the counter. The drummer, a redhead with long, slightly curly tresses, rolled her eyes, knowing how Rod loved to annoy Trekkies. And trendies, among other things. Rod just gave her that innocent look, like What? and laughed it off.

“And you just remember where your towel is!” Shades laughed as they walked away, Rod scratching his head, the reference apparently lost on him, the redhead laughing and swiping one hand over her head in a gesture of agreement.

This was how Shades wanted to remember da Boss DJ, laughing and having a good time among friends. In case they never saw him again.

“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” Max asked as they left Bankshot for what might well be the last time and started down the hall.

“Who knows, Max?” Shades laughed. Though he also believed they hadn’t seen the last of each other. “Who knows?”

The Twylight concert had gone on well after the hours of other places in this sector, and the corridor was dark and empty as they walked.

“I kinda wish we could take this place with us,” Max told him. “DJ shouldn’t have to be locked up in here…”

“Yeah.” Shades knew what he meant. What made it tough was having to remind himself that it was DJ and Bankshot he was saying farewell to, not the Mall itself. “I’ll second that—”

“You’re one hard son of a bitch to find…”

Neither of them recognized the voice, but they both knew trouble when they heard it, and there was apparently someone else they had not seen the last of. Again, neither of them knew the security guard who just stepped out of the shadows under a nearby escalator, but both of them remembered Fat and Fatter, and that one guard whose arm was still in a sling from his first meeting with Max, and the guy from the boat incident, his nose still taped. Not even Shades knew all of the twenty or so guards the once-vacant atrium was now crawling with. Caught in the middle, the two of them were surrounded as the guards maneuvered to encircle them.

“But now that we’ve finally caught up with you,” resumed the first guard, who appeared to be the leader, “you’re coming with us. One way or the other.”

“Ya know, we were thinkin’ about leaving,” Shades conceded. For the last week or so, likely because of the very rumors DJ had passed on to them, the ones that inspired Shades’ new plan, things had been too quiet. Much too quiet. He had sensed things were building up, and he had been hoping to exit stage left before they got to this scene. In a way, though, he was strangely relieved that whatever was going to happen finally had; he was never fond of long waits. “Seriously, guys. We’ll be gone by tomorrow…”

“It’s too late for that,” the leader told them, “as I’m sure you already know. Have you ever heard of the Ring of Fire?”

Shades had. Though he had no idea if Max had heard of it. He knew from a hundred action flicks that this was the scene where the main characters get pummeled, that what was coming next was not going to be pretty. In fact, downright ugly, yet even in spite of the prospect of getting the crap beat out of him by almost a dozen guards (apiece)— or perhaps because of it— he just couldn’t lose the unreal notion that he could somehow talk his way out of this.

“The only way you’re leaving,” the head guard informed them, a vicious grin crossing his face at the thought of the beatdown to come, “is through us. So what’ll it be?”

“Get out of our way.”

No one expected Max to say that. Not even Shades.

The leader cocked an eyebrow. “What was that?”

“You didn’t bring enough guards.” Max knew their last fight had led up to this. As Dad always told him, Violence only leads to more violence. These guys gave them no choice but to fight, and he wondered why Shades, who was ordinarily so sharp, couldn’t see it.

“We got you outnumbered, punk!” one guard added for good measure, several others agreeing with him rather vocally.

“I don’t care what you try to do to me, but I won’t let you hurt my friends,” Max said quietly. He was now on fire— to his eyes, all of them looked like Slash’s crew, and he was determined to do a better job standing up for Shades than he had for Ron all those years ago. I’m much stronger now, and I won’t fail this time… “I won’t back down. I’ll fight you all if I have to…”

No response. From anyone.

Shades could only listen as Max took the words he wanted to say right out of his mouth. And spoke them with a power and a force he couldn’t have managed. He had no idea if Max was bluffing, but he looked like he was sure as hell gonna try to take them. And he found that his friend’s fire was catching; as those words echoed in his mind, he felt his own fear receding.

“Give up, boy. Resistance is useless.”

“Step aside or fight.”

Even the guards were taken aback for a moment before the shit hit the fan.

Then it came, all at once. Leaving Shades no more time for trepidation, which was fine with him since he was tired of feeling it. He knew there was a slim chance of surviving this, but only if he and Max could keep each other’s back. Back-to-back and side-by-side, this was the kind of melee combat Master Al— Robert, as well— had spoken of, the kind where your enemies can really get in each other’s way. It was the only thing they had going for them against so many.

The fact that most of them brandished nightsticks made this the most dangerous fight Shades had ever fought. Max, meanwhile, seemed to fight as if being ridiculously outnumbered was nothing new to him. But it didn’t take Shades long to lose himself in the chaos of combat.

Even so, it was a struggle not to be distracted thinking about how long he had held out so far. As the first wave was driven back, he risked reaching down, for one of them had dropped a nightstick, wielding it like a tonfa as Master Al had taught him. With the bo staff as a close second, it was his best weapon, and he flipped and twirled it a couple times to get the feel of this one, deciding that he needed to be more assertive. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Max crack two guards’ heads together, shoving them aside as the next wave hit.

Later, Shades wouldn’t remember much of the next part of the battle, just a violent blur of punching and kicking and blocking, and a desperate hunt for an opening to break free of this Ring of Fire to make a much-needed retreat. Given what they were up against, they weren’t doing all that bad at first. Though there couldn’t have been more than a dozen opponents for either of them, to Shades, the parade of attackers seemed almost endless. At first, they were able to hold their own, neither of them giving more than a foot or so in any direction, but it didn’t take long to lose home ground, finally losing their whole “back-to-back” formation altogether. Somewhere in there, Shades had picked up a second nightstick, giving him enhanced blocking, as well as extending his reach, with a swift kick here and there for good measure. One of the few things he clearly remembered about that brutal minute or so was seeing another of Max’s mighty roundhouse kicks, this one sending its mark spinning several times before he hit the ground.

The next thing Shades remembered was staggering after an awkward block, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, when things got worse.

“That’s quite enough out of you…” the leader declared, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth. He had envisioned his posse having some fun with these two before showing them the door, but this was fast becoming humiliating. Enough was enough. “First you, then your friend…”

It wasn’t so much the leader’s words that froze him in place as it was the big, high-caliber-looking gun he was pointing at him. Shades didn’t so much drop both nightsticks, as he simply lost his grip on them altogether.

Staring down that barrel, just a sliver of finality, Shades felt the icy stab of fear, real mortal fear, on a whole new level, exceeding all of the horrors before this. He had been in dangerous situations before, but somehow he had always known, just known, he would make it, yet that little voice was now ominously silent. The bottom of that hollow, phony reality that had been slowly crowding out every facet of his life since he first set foot in this place dropped out from under him, and time seemed to slow almost to a halt. He had survived the hitchhikers, the Black Van, the Experiment, even the curse, only to be killed by something so mundane as a handgun. And none of the voices from the back of his mind spoke up to object to this fate in any way, or express even the slightest word of disbelief…

Max, meanwhile, was beginning to realize that the odds were even worse then he wanted to believe. He sensed his friend was buckling under this onslaught, and their window for escape was shrinking faster than he had feared. Even he wouldn’t be able to hold out too much longer at this rate, and he knew it. And once Shades fell, all of them would gang up on him. Not to mention that he will have totally failed to protect his friend.

The only thing he could come up with was to use his secret weapon, his last resort.

Shades had warned him not to carry weapons in public here, but he had gotten to where he could hide his laser sword even from Shades. Had refrained from carrying his power pistol, but after that chase at the pool, he concluded that this place could throw more enemies at him than he could possibly beat with his bare hands. So now the time had come, and Max unleashed his most powerful attack, jumping into the midst of his foes, that bright green energy blade lighting the dim chamber with arcing flashes and strobes as he swept one guard after another with his stun blade. The only tactic left to him was to make sure each opponent he knocked down stayed down.

Process of Elimination. Little knowing how much both Robert and Master Al would agree on that strategy in this situation.

Shades, though, was missing out on Max’s radical display of swordsmanship, as the head guard’s gun held his undivided attention.

“Now,” the leader sneered, “this ends here—”

His words were cut off in the same half-second as the barrel of his gun in a lightning flash of green. Max had seen his friend’s plight, working his way over in a whirling flurry of slashes. He struck the leader with a high kick, knocking him flat on his ass.

He finished by pointing the blade right at him.

“Don’t touch him!” Max snarled, bringing his burning gaze as fully to bear on him as his energy blade. Every second reliving that fateful night, fiercely determined not to repeat it. No matter the cost. “I’ll kill you!”

Both he and Shades fearing that he might really have meant that last.

The leader simply gaped at Max as if he had never seen him before, words having deserted him. On the subject of desertion, he briefly broke his eyes away from that fiery gaze to see that the rest of his men were either out of commission, or had fled in terror at Max’s unleashed fury. This only added to his own panic.

Holy shit! Shades slowly crawled to his feet, trying to keep his balance. Trying to catch up with this total turn of events. Wondering just how much Max had been holding back before. Who’s the herd now, smarty-pants?

“No more!” Max screamed, and the leader flinched. “Go…” he hissed. “Now.”

The leader’s movements were jerky, almost wooden, as he let what was left of his gun slip from his grasp and crawled away from Max. Shades noted, with that shimmering green blade hovering in his face, that the big bad security guard had pissed himself. As the leader stumbled away, whimpering, Max extinguished his energy blade.

Asking, “Are you okay, Shades?”

“I… think so…” It took him a moment to find his words. “Let’s go.”

Max helped him to his feet, and the two of them beat a hasty retreat up the stilled escalator at the far end of the atrium. Wanting to keep to another level until they reached the hotel area. Neither of them knew how many more guards this place held, but they didn’t want to find out the hard way.

“What do we do now?” Max asked.

“I don’t know.” Shades paused for a long time before he answered. “Now we get our act together. For real. We also stay fully armed from now on.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Max was glad to see that Shades was pulling himself back together as quickly as he was.

“We have to assume Bankshot isn’t safe anymore, based on where they ambushed us.” Shades wanted out more than ever, and was making a conscious effort to put some distance behind that strange freeze-up. (Only to be killed, if Max hadn’t kept his back, by the one man in the crowd with a gun…) So Bankshot was no longer a safe place, and he didn’t want to endanger DJ. “We also have to be ready for trouble when we try to leave. Come to think of it, we should assume that they know where our room is…”

As they planned their approach, they worried about everything they left back there. Their other disguises. Their other weapons. And, most of all, Bandit. Max had never been so afraid for his friend since they nearly got separated in Tranz-D.

They quietly hoped their luck would change with the scenery.

Tradewinds 08 CH 03

“Seeing as how we’re not about to get blown away by killer robots anymore,” the young woman muttered, still breathing hard as she was not as accustomed to crawling around down here as her companion had become, “would you mind telling me your name?”

“Only if you tell me who you are,” Justin conditioned.

“Fair enough,” she agreed after a moment.

“My name is Justin Black,” he told her.

“Kato,” she replied.

“Kato who?”

“Just Kato.”

“Just Kato?” One name… he thought, but he doubted she was from Layosha. Then he remembered her eyes, her violet eyes, and one other people he knew of that had no last names. Or rather, in their case, kept their family names a secret to outsiders. The thought made the vent shaft feel so much smaller. “You’re Cyexian, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. What’s it to you?” Of course, Kato was used to this, it happened so many places she went. “And is it okay to get out of the damn vents now?”

“Not really,” Justin muttered as he paused next to a vent grill, carefully cutting it out and slipping quietly to the floor, “but we should be okay here if we stay quiet. There are sensors in the halls and the vents, but I’ve broken most of the ones in this area.” And, while he was being suspicious, he just happened to remember something else she said in their earlier encounter. “So Kato, what was that about an Alex earlier?”

“Well…” Kato paused for a moment before answering, using her exit from the shaft as an opportunity to think. She had been hoping he hadn’t caught that in all the confusion. The only explanation she could think of was seeing his outfit, which looked so much like they did back where she came from. She still had no idea why she was telling him this, but she figured it was all in the past anyway. “Since I already said it, I once went by the name Alexandra Aremac. That’s what my father tried to name me. I go by my Cyexian name, Kato. My mother was Cyexian, so I respect her with the name she gave me.”

“Aremac…” Justin had heard that name before. “Wait! You mean Director Aremac, of Belvidere?”

“You’ve heard of him?” Then she took a closer look at his trashed Pullman Mine Camp uniform, realizing that it was more than just a passing resemblance she had seen earlier. “You’re from the Triangle State, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m from Benton,” Justin told her. There was no point in lying about his past. He was free now, the Triangle State was a million miles behind him and falling. “So what was it like being the daughter of one of the Board of Directors?”

“Don’t go there,” Kato warned him with a grim laugh. “What can I say? He was an asshole, a real class act. Took me away from my mother when I was little, even sent her away. It doesn’t matter how big that house was, it wasn’t a home. I had no freedom, so I finally stowed away on a freighter and never looked back.” She still wasn’t sure why she was talking about all this; all she could come up with was that, as a fellow survivor of the TSA, he, unlike most people, might actually understand some of it. “Bet I haven’t missed a damn thing, have I?”

“No, not really.” He didn’t know exactly when Kato escaped, but thinking back served to remind him just how repetitive the Triangle State’s history really was. “Same old shit. Rumors, mostly. TSA attacking Cyexians, Cyexians smuggling, still fighting with the Layoshans, or something like that…”

Then again, the Cyexians causing trouble for the Islands was apparently something that had been going on since time out of mind.

“Oh,” he added, “and some guy blew up Pullman Mine.”

“Seriously?” Kato looked at him for a long moment, then asked, “You don’t mean…”

“No,” Justin snapped, “It wasn’t me. Though I kinda wish it was. Still, I escaped in the confusion and stole a ship.”

“So how the hell did you get in here?” Kato asked. Her strange companion looked like he had been here for a while. Too long for her taste.

“Well, after I escaped from Pullman,” Justin explained, “I got caught in this storm and got shipwrecked on some lost island. Later, I was sucked into this whirlpool and fell into a cave. The only way I could find was a hole in the wall that went to this place. Then I got lost, and that damn NK-525 thing’s been chasin’ me ever since. Now it’s your turn.” He doubted she had ever been to the Isle of Paradise. “How did you end up here?”

“I got lost,” Kato admitted. “I was checkin’ out the Centralict Library, and I found this weird door. There was a sign saying that it was a warpgate, or something like that, leading to a place called Tranz-D. I went too far from where I came in and couldn’t find my way back. I was trying to find someone to help me when I somehow set off all these alarms, and suddenly the whole place was full of those robot guards, so I hid in a closet…”

“So there is another way out…” Justin mused. And now the nightmare finally had a name. Tranz-D. His whole experience here was like all of his years in the Triangle State compressed into a couple weeks. “All we have to do is get to this library you’re talkin’ about.”

“But how the hell are we gonna do that? All these halls look the same…”

While Justin was pondering Kato’s point, he saw something dangling around her neck, and asked, perhaps a little more sharply than he meant to, “Where’d you get that?”

“What?” Kato demanded defensively, then realized what he was talking about. She tucked the small, triangular silver medallion, which must have slipped out while she was crawling around in the vents, back inside her hoodie, saying, “It’s none of your business!”

“I was just wondering.” Justin hoped his alliance wasn’t about to crumble over a necklace. Then his suspicions turned in a darker direction. “Wait a minute! You didn’t run into a guy named Max around here, did you?”

“What are you talking about? You’re the only person I’ve seen here.”

“Then where did you get that?” Naturally, he didn’t want to believe this Kato could betray any of this place’s almost nonexistent list of allies, but a part of him couldn’t help imagining her picking that strange medal off of Max’s broken body. Cyexians were scavengers, after all, as well as pirates. That, and he so desperately wanted to know, once and for all, if Max was still alive.

“Well, I didn’t take it from that guy, if that’s what you’re think—” Kato paused in mid rebuttal as the implication of Justin’s words sank in. She perked up as she asked him, “So who is this guy, and why do you think I got it from him?”

“Well, he had a necklace just like that… Wait a minute!” Justin, himself being something of an opportunist, knew instinctively that she was pumping him for something, and he wanted his cut of the action, or at least the info. “Why are you asking me this?”

“Okay.” Kato could tell this Justin wasn’t going to tell her anything useful unless she leveled with him. “If you tell me about your friend, I’ll tell you what I know about these medallions.”

“Okay,” Justin agreed, now that he was being let in on the ground floor. “As I was saying, his name is Max. He has a big, black-and-white cat named Bandit, and was the only person living on the island I got stranded on. You see, he fell into the whirlpool, too, but we got separated, and I’ve been trying to find him ever since.”

“Did this friend of yours tell you anything about his medallion?”

“Not really. He said he got it when he was a kid, but he had no idea where it came from. So tell me, why are you so interested in it?”

“Well, I had to do some digging just to find out what I do know,” Kato explained, opting for the condensed version. “Those things are called Tri-Medals, there are three of them, and they are ancient artifacts from a lost civilization. According to legend, they are the key to finding their long-lost treasure.”

“What kind of treasure?” Now he was glad he had pressed her for details.

“The legend is pretty obscure,” Kato admitted, “which is why I was trying to find more information at the library. I’ve been following this legend for a few years now, and if what I’ve read is correct, this treasure is supposed to be one of the biggest ever amassed in one place. But we still need to find the other two before we can even try to decipher them…”

We?” Justin asked, surprised to have been included so soon.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” Kato added, so excited at finding such an unexpected lead in such an equally unexpected place, she had almost forgotten to tell him the rest of the story, “that I have two friends. We call ourselves the Triad, and we’ve been searching for the other two Tri-Medals for a couple years now. Chase didn’t want to go to any library, so he probably dragged George off someplace with him. I wish they were here right now. Having the two of them here with us now would be a huge help in this crazy place.”

“More like an army,” Justin muttered. “Now that would help.”

“Yeah, probably,” she conceded, “but don’t knock it. You’re pretty good with a power pistol, but Chase ain’t so bad himself. And he’s got a lot more weapons than you do.

“Then again, George was never much of a fighter, but he kicks ass with computers and stuff. I’m sure he could find what we need— maybe even reprogram those bastards to fight for us instead of against us! But seriously, I don’t know where the hell he learned any of it, though, because he’s also mute. I don’t know what all happened to him before we met him, but he lost his tongue somewhere along the way. Sometimes I think whoever did that also did something to his brain while they were at it, because he’s kinda weird. Spacey. But he’s cool.”

“I guess it would be better than nothing,” he had to admit. “But still, I just wish I knew where the hell Max went…”

“So do I,” she told him, “and not just because of the Tri-Medal thing. We can use all the help we can get in here. Hmm… I don’t think we’re going to get far searching for him like this. I think we should try to get to the library— there’s gotta be a map around here or something— hook up with my crew, and come back here more prepared. Not to mention better armed. What do you think?”

“I don’t know…” On one hand, Justin felt something that he was starting to suspect was shame at the idea of leaving either Max or Bandit alone in this twisted place, even if only temporarily. On the other, the mere thought of being able to get out of here was beginning to overwhelm him, and he feared that just the memory of NK-525 might be enough hold him back from returning for his friend, and this bothered him greatly. He had lived most of his life on the defensive, but he didn’t like to think of himself as a coward. Telling himself that he could destroy the Enforcer once and for all with backup, he told her, “I think we need help. Let’s try to find this library of yours. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck here as long as I have.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” As far as Kato was concerned, Justin’s strung-out appearance spoke for itself, told her all she needed to know about Tranz-D. That, and she didn’t want to embark on such an adventure without her friends, let alone by herself with this stranger. A chance to rest and re-equip before plunging into the depths of this labyrinth seemed like a good idea to her. “There must be someplace around here that has maps or something. This place is simply too big for people to just know their way around.

“So, if we do find your friend, do you think he’d be interested in a little treasure hunt?”

“I’m sure he’d be willing to listen.” As far as Justin knew, Max had no knowledge about the Tri-Medals. “Still, we’re not going to run into any trouble at the library, are we?”

“You mean the robo-guards?” Kato asked, “No. There’s none of that shit at the library.”

“Good. I think I’ve had about as much as I can take here.”

And so Justin and Kato started comparing notes, trying to come up with some kind of plan.

Tradewinds 08 CH 02

When Shades and Max arrived at Bankshot, neither of them were expecting live entertainment. Yet outside they found a sign reading:

TONIGHT ONLY!
TWYLIGHT — LIVE!

Inside, they found a larger crowd than usual. The setup on the karaoke stage, where he and Max had a fun time belting out a few tunes on occasion, was being moved aside, and several speaker amps, as well as mics and various instruments, stood in their place. Even the lounge tables were being rearranged around the show.

“Hmm…” Shades commented as he looked around, “I never knew Bankshot got live entertainment…”

While Max wandered over to take a gander at the stage set, Shades ambled over to the bar to talk to DJ and see what was up.

“Yo Deej!” Shades called, seeing his friend serving drinks with his usual flair, “I never knew you did live shows here!”

“We do now!” DJ informed him as he sprayed something greenish and carbonated into a glass of shaved ice and sent it down the bar to someone near the end. Of course, the place had an awesome bar setup that DJ was fiercely proud of, so it came as no surprise he would find something to do with it, even in this place where the Management didn’t allow alcoholic beverages. If nothing else, Bankshot served the widest assortment of soda flavors Shades had ever seen. “What do ya want?”

“The usual. So, who are these guys?”

“Dey’re J R Serling and Twylight,” DJ replied. “De newest residents here.”

“I suppose there’s a story here,” said Shades, knowing exactly what type of residents Deej was talking about. He snatched up his drink, reflecting that being the friendly guy behind the counter did make one privy to a lot of secrets. After digesting that info for a moment, he asked, “By the way, the R in there wouldn’t happen to stand for Rod, would it?”

“Could be.”

“Please tell me they’re not some whiny alterna-crap, are they?” Of course, he knew DJ had better taste in music than that— and DJ managed to give him a hurt look that suggested he have a little faith— but he was still kinda worried because whoever they Twylight guys were, they also happened to be the only act around. Then again, seeing the range of instruments mostly set up on stage did give him a peculiar feeling. “Anyhoo, how did they end up here?”

“Given where you’re staying,” DJ told him, “I’m surprised you missed dem.”

“No way…” Slept right through your window of opportunity… Helluva way to start your day… “That’s gotta suck. So, do you really have enough equipment to pull it off?”

“Guess we’ll find out…” Of course, DJ made no secret of the fact that he had a high-end sound system at Bankshot, which Shades always said was such a tragedy to waste on karaoke. “I’ve only heard a demo CD dey’re packin’, but if I like deir live show, I’ll try to get dem a regular act. So what’s up with you and Max? It’s been a while.”

“Same-old, same-old,” Shades told him. Same old curse. Same old places. Same old friendly and courteous Security staff. “Max and I are thinking about heading out into the Unknown.”

“And just how are you going to do dat?” As Shades’ words sank in, his voice dropped a notch or two; Management had a thousand eyes and ears, he had learned during his years here. “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Shades replied. For some time, he felt as if Max somehow held the key to this prison, and thanks to recent rumors, he believed he had finally found the key he felt he was so close to. Now he just had to figure out how the lock worked before it was too late. As they talked, he casually slipped a folded-up napkin across the counter, saying, “You remember what I said about Max entering this place a little differently than most people? That’s all I can say for now.” DJ crumpled the napkin, then surreptitiously stuck it in his pocket. “You might try it yourself if you ever get sick enough of this gig.”

After Max’s encounter with the mailbox, Shades found himself looking around anew. Even at the phone booths, but just the memory of his first unnerving experience with them was enough to hold him back. No matter how many numbers he knew, he already knew that, wherever the mail might or might not be delivered in this dimension, the Operator was quite explicit on this subject. This line doesn’t serve that area code… and so forth. Since he had no way of knowing at what level he was being blocked, it was beginning to make him nervous about his little “s-o-s” but there was nothing he could do about that now.

The most he could do was offer DJ the same chance at escape that he and Max would soon be testing out.

“I see.” DJ resisted the urge to snatch the napkin back out, making a mental to wait and examine it in greater privacy later. “So tell me, when are you going?”

“A-s-a-p,” Shades informed him. “I guess this show will be our going-away party…”

While they were talking, the band was almost finished setting up. Shades expected that in a few minutes da Boss DJ would jump over the counter, as was his usual fashion, to go introduce them. Meanwhile, Max had struck up a conversation with one of the band members.

While Shades had seen stage sets before, Max had never seen anything like it. Had seen most of the instruments, or variations thereof, as a child, either in the Islands or with more musically inclined Outlanders, but remembered only vaguely. A double-guitar thing the like of which he had never seen before, bass, trombone, sax, drums outfitted with an extensive array of percussion, a couple mic stands… and Max was fascinated with every piece of it.

“You look like you’ve never seen a double guitar before,” remarked a young man wearing a charcoal grey pinstriped suit. He walked across the small stage, looking from Max over to Shades at the bar, then back, asking, “You a friend of DJ’s?”

“Yeah,” Max replied. In his short time here, he had met a wide variety of people, heard languages and accents that were completely new to him, and had seen things he would never have dreamed existed. Had very quickly come to know what Shades meant when he said that variety was the spice of life. “This place is pretty cool, isn’t it?”

“I suppose,” the man said, then lowered his voice a notch and asked, “So, you know your way around here pretty well, don’t you?”

“I guess.” Though of course Shades had been here longer and knew even more. “By the way, I don’t know if DJ told you, but—”

“He did,” the man assured him, seeming to relax more now that he was sure Max knew of the curse as well. “So what’s your name, man? I’m John. John R Serling.”

“I’m Max.”

“Max who?”

“Just Max.” Though many Outlanders had more than one name, he still wasn’t fully used to it in his everyday life. “It’s the only name I’ve ever had. So, how did you end up here?”

“We spent the night at the hotel,” he told Max, who immediately realized that they must have just missed each other back there. “And right at the beginning of our first out-of-state tour…”

“Hey Rod!” shouted a female-sounding voice from behind the stage, “I know you like to hang with the crowd before the show, but we have to finish setting up!”

“I know,” he said. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

Rod?” Max intoned.

“Rod’s my middle name,” he explained. “It’s what all my friends call me. Just a warning when you have kids— don’t let their uncle name them.” Then he winked. “Anyway, we need to finish setting up. Maybe I’ll catch you later. Enjoy the show, Max!”

With that, Rod went back to helping his bandmates.

A moment later, Shades came up, saying, “Hey Max! The party’s about to start!” His enthusiasm was quite possibly the greatest Max had seen in all this time. He handed Max his drink, adding, “These guys should kick ass! And this is your first concert, too, isn’t it? If even half of what DJ says is true about these guys, you’re in for a real treat!”

And so the two of them went over to a table to await the start of the show. Max told him about his brief conversation with Rod, and Shades speculated about the array of instruments on stage. A short while later, DJ hopped over the counter and made his way over to the stage to announce the band.

“Welcome, everyone!” DJ crowed, and Shades wondered if his friend hadn’t done something like this in his previous life, before he ended up in here. “Tonight I am proud to announce Bankshot’s first-ever live concert. Please give a big Bankshot welcome to Twylight!”

And the band itself gave a wild musical flourish as the audience cheered.

“Take it away, Rod!”

As DJ hopped down, the lights dimmed down to almost total darkness. Then blacklights came on, turning the members’ plain suits and instruments a rainbow of fluorescent colors, except for Rod’s guitar, which remained black. With that, Twylight launched right in.

Shades could tell right away that this was going to be a great show. A full set. They were dead-set on playing a real live show somewhere, thus they busted out here. As if to make up for all the concerts they would be missing elsewhere.

He could see Max having the time of his life. Just as he himself had at his first show.

As he listened, Shades found himself half-remembering a song from his dreams when he was a kid. At first he had thought it was something that had been playing on the radio in the morning, before he woke up, yet he could never remember much about it. One of the strangest disappointments in his life was finding out that this mysterious song just didn’t exist. Years later, he wished he could remember something of it for John and Sandy. For a moment, a stray memory crossed his mind, of once hearing Amy humming part of it in class, but he was fairly sure he must have been mistaken.

Of course, it had been a long time since he had thought about it, and now that he had, he wondered if he couldn’t find it in this world if he searched long enough.

As he suspected from the selection of instruments, Twylight did indeed play something akin to ska. And something else, something that was not ska, as if someone had invented a whole new way to play punk rock on horns. He just wished he had the words to describe it, and knew that Sandy would be tearing his hair out at Shades’ attempts to do so. Hell, while he was at it, he may as well wish his friends were with him to hear it for themselves.

He knew, just knew, they would love it.

So lost were they in the music, neither Shades nor Max noticed the security guards DJ had had no choice but to have on hand for this event.