Tradewinds 07 CH 19

As Shades did some practicing of his own, attempting to assimilate some of Max’s wilder moves into his own repertoire, he couldn’t help overhearing his friend singing in the shower. On one hand, he was impressed that Max had already learned most of the lyrics, but on the other hand, he found he was a little envious. Then again, he always was with people who could sing better than he, and that was a pretty long list. Once upon a time, on a whim, he had attempted to sing backup vocals for Nowheresville. They never made it through even one song. After all of them had a good laugh, Shades never brought it up again.

Some of those songs spoke of things that have (will have) happened in some world or another. It made him wonder what Max would have prevented if he could go back. Just what his friend lost so many years ago that could still bring such sorrow to his eyes. That could make him sing some of those songs as if from personal experience.

As for himself, if it didn’t make him think of John, then he thought of Amy. Just another reason why he couldn’t go back anymore. The endless questions. The endless questions family, friends, associates— the authorities— would pose to him. Not to mention how he would face John and Amy’s folks after that night. That, and he didn’t want to return to Earth without John and Amy, or at least finding out what became of them.

And of course, he was still worried about the guards. There was an intensity to that battle that was greater than any he had ever fought, even more personal than his desperate struggle on that terrible night, the like of which he had never experienced before. He was proud of himself for putting up such a good fight under such awkward conditions, but he was beginning to suspect that Max had fought tougher adversaries, as fighting them hardly even seemed to break his stride. As if even his run-in with Tranz-D’s robo-guards may not have been his first real combat experience.

And the guards’ injuries were escalating with every encounter, they would really be on the lookout for the two of them in the future. They would have to lay low the next day, and think of new ways to lower Max’s profile in public. After that door-to-door manhunt, though, he was even more worried about Bandit.

That they were on the alert for a black-and-white panther didn’t bode well for their long-term safety. Though they kept a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign up when they were out and about, they had to let the cleaning staff in sooner or later, which always meant sneaking Bandit out about every day-and-half. He hoped they didn’t notice the toilet plunger he bought, or the unusual number of newspapers he picked up in the lobby. Or that they were hiding a scratching post in the closet. Or any of the other more subtle measures they had resorted to in order to conceal their feline secret.

One thing he now understood: a panther was definitely not a house pet.

Nothing to do but be as vigilant as possible, Shades reflected as he trained. When Max emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, Shades decided to see just how well he had it down, unleashing his own version of Max’s kick.

“Whoa!” Max remarked as he watched his friend. “I didn’t know you could jump that high!”

“Not as high as you,” Shades conceded.

“Still,” Max told him, “it’s like on the diving board— you just have to get used to moving around in the air.”

“Yeah. I suppose.” Shades pulled off his other headphone, again telling himself that it was because it wasn’t part of the Shorin-ryu arsenal, “I just never trained in aerial moves.”

“Say Shades,” Max asked, fishing a plastic card out of his robe pocket, “who is this Dexter guy? Is he your brother or something?”

Shades was in the midst of switching off his Cam-Jam and wasn’t fully paying attention, so he reflexively snapped, “Don’t call me Dexter!”

When he saw the perplexed look on Max’s face, he realized that he had never told Max his real name. And that the card was his driver’s license, which must have fallen out of his pocket while he was changing earlier. During his time here, he had experimented with different identities, playing different roles without anyone here to wave his “normal” self in his face, building a new persona for himself. Something that more closely matched on the outside what he was on the inside. In all that time, he had never given his real name to anyone, save for DJ.

“Well, he’s me,” Shades finally answered, somewhat chagrined. All of his old friends knew that name, but since coming here, he had almost forgotten his old name, like something from a past life. “I didn’t mean to lie to you… It’s just been a long time since anyone called me that. I haven’t gone by the name of Dexter since I was in middle school. Everybody calls me ‘Shades’,” he laughed, tapping his shades, “so I guess it kind of is my name anymore.”

“Shades,” Max agreed, handing him his license back. Then he said, “There’s something else I’ve wanted to ask you about.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Well, it’s about this place…” It had been bothering him for some time, and now that he wasn’t busy swapping stories and learning the ropes, he had begun to sense it more and more the longer he was here, and he still couldn’t think of the words to describe it. “You’ve been here for a while… Doesn’t this place creep you out?”

“Yes. Very much so.”

“I’ve never felt anything like this before.”

“I have,” Shades admitted, “but not on this level.”

“You have?”

“Yeah. A long time ago.” Shades’ own imagination had spooked him out on more than a few occasions over the years, but what he had to deal with now was that this place was real. “Back before my dad disappeared, he was stationed in Alaska for a while. Well, one time we went out camping on the Deshka River, and my cousin Charlie was along for the ride. This place was out in the middle of nowhere, we had to go there by boat, it was so far from the nearest town. About the only ways you could get there were by boat or by helicopter. Dark side of the moon…

“Anyhoo, Alaska is also called the Land of the Midnight Sun because, during the summer it doesn’t get dark. We were there during the summer, and I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn’t get any darker than twilight for a few hours, then it gets light again.”

Land of the Midnight Sun… To Max, it sounded as fascinating as any place else he had heard of.

“That night,” Shades continued, “Charlie and I sat out on a dock on the river. I don’t remember what we started talking about, but it eventually turned to spooky stories. We just kept telling each other ghost stories, and the whole place just seemed to change. As I said, it doesn’t get dark in the summer, but after a while it was as if something happened to the place, it just got really creepy. And there was the tree.”

“A tree?”

“Next to the dock, along the bank, there was this weird, twisted tree. It probably wouldn’t have looked so bad from most angles, but from where we sat, it looked almost alive… I mean all trees are alive, but there was just something wrong about this one. Like it was gonna pull up its roots and attack us or something…”

Max couldn’t help shuddering; the thought of a tree up and attacking someone was so unnatural to him, he had a hard time picturing it.

“For a while, we were afraid to move, we had scared ourselves silly with our own stories. In fact, we sat out there all night, neither of us leaving our lawnchairs. After that, the tree didn’t look so evil anymore, but we never looked at it the same way again.”

Shades wondered for a moment why he had told this story. He knew it had just been their own childish fears, and sitting there well past their bedtime— as fathers are more likely to allow— messing with them. He had meant to use this as an analogy, but it worked all too well with the evil aura here. Now he found that his attempt to make light of their fears was starting to backfire on him.

“This place does the same thing,” Max told him after a moment of silence. “Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it.”

“I know.”

“Shades, how do you sleep with this going on?”

“Very carefully,’ Shades said, borrowing one of Arthur’s favorite answers to such questions. He himself didn’t get as much sleep as he would have liked, but he was fast adapting, finding that he didn’t need a lot of sleep to function. “Remember, it can’t hurt you unless you let it.”

“I guess, but it’s still creepy.” Now that the conversation had shifted this way, he found himself recalling old stories. Many tales passed through the Islands, but few as scary as this one. “You know, I remember a story I heard a long time ago. It’s about this ship called the Twylight.”

Just the name gave Shades the chills.

“It is said that this ship only appears in foggy weather.” Max had heard the tale of Twylight around the campfire, and now he felt the same tingle he had experienced back then. “People would just stumble upon it out of the mist. A derelict, never anyone onboard. No one knows what happened to her crew, but some of those who come aboard disappear one by one. Those who manage to get off always said that when they looked back, the ship was gone…”

“I’ve read similar accounts,” Shades told him. He wanted to laugh, but Max’s tale was too eerie to really make light of. Not in this atmosphere. Highway mythology had its ghost-cars, and the high seas had a much longer history of spook stories. “It makes me think of all those Bermuda Triangle stories I—”

“You know about the Bermuda Triangle!” Max remembered that strange book he had flipped through back at the Centralict Library, and he wondered how Shades knew about it.

“Yeah…” Shades paused for a moment, more spooked by this than by Max’s story. Chris Nimrod’s ridiculously long science-has-all-the-answers trip immediately came to mind, and he wondered what the little know-it-all would make of that. That Max had heard of the Bermuda Triangle held implications that sent his mind reeling. “But where did you hear of it?”

So Max told him about the book, and Shades realized that he had read the very same volume years ago. Then Shades indulged in his years of research on the Unknown, telling him of ghost ships, haunted houses, and other disturbing accounts he had read. The more they talked, the more a nameless fear began to permeate the room, as if something malevolent had settled in and refused to leave, simply staring at them. Even when they tried changing the subject, the conversation always found its way back to all things spooky.

And so it went until they were at last too tired to be creeped out, settling into an uneasy sleep.

Tradewinds 07 CH 18

It wasn’t until the door to their room was securely shut behind them that Max saw Shades’ previously hurried, impatient façade crumble into a look of unabashed relief.

There were times when neither of them thought they would make it. Even though the guards in that sector were preoccupied with both the boat mess, and their own injured comrades, it was still difficult trying to slip into a restroom unnoticed. Everybody noticed you when you were almost ass-naked. Just throwing on pants and shirt and shoes in the confines of a public bathroom stall felt like a race against time. Then they moved on to another restroom where people matching their former descriptions hadn’t been seen. Along the way, Shades stopped at a booth and bought both of themselves hats, and Max some sunglasses.

After hiding out at a café for a couple hours, they stopped at a beauty salon. In the catalog, Max got to see just how strange and exotic he could really be made to look, but settled for a major trim-job instead. All the way, he had tied his headband around his arm, concealing it under his sleeve. The whole way back to the hotel, they both watched each other’s backs constantly.

Yet as relieved as Shades was that the Management was still unaware of their hideout, his relief was no match for Max’s at seeing that Bandit was still there. And Bandit was tremendously happy just to be reunited with his companion after being all alone in that room all day. Still, Shades couldn’t believe they somehow managed to escape, fearing what might happen next time.

And he understood there would be a next time.

While he went first to shower and clean himself up more thoroughly, Max practiced his new kata in the middle of the room. Hard speed-punk blasted in his headphones, for neither of them dared to play it on speakers, lest a stray guest complaint draw unwanted attention. Like the stuff he had heard the day he first met Shades, this music had same basic (and bass) quality he had heard at Bankshot. Unconsciously, he had picked up the rhythm of the songs as he moved, which would provide Shades with more proof of Master Al’s assertion that if you can fight, you can dance, and if you can dance, you can learn to fight. Though so far, even after more than six years of training, his own dancing still left something to be desired.

Bandit sat on Max’s bed, watching his boy train with casual feline curiosity. For him, it was enough that Max was back, even though he returned smelling of the alien odor of chlorine. It was the time Max, and even Shades, spent here that allowed him to endure their absence.

Though focused on his forms, Max’s lingering edginess about their narrow escape was such that he jumped in spite of himself when he saw the bathroom door open out of the corner of his eye. Shades stepped out, dressed in a complimentary robe, a towel draped around his shoulders. He was pleased with both his friend’s rapidly evolving form and his enjoyment of the music he shared. That the release dates of many of these songs were no problem here in the Sixth Dimension, despite the fact that more than half of them were dated after his disappearance, and he suspected he would never quite get over the thrill of listening to the future.

“You might want to wait for the hot water to build back up a bit before you take your shower,” Shades told him. Even almost two weeks after the dirtiest week of his life, he still felt a newfound appreciation for washing up. He could see that his friend was very enthusiastic about learning new techniques, already assimilating both moves and vocabulary, and there was a finer point of Shorin-ryu that he wanted to demonstrate for Max while they waited. “I see you’ve been practicing your kata while I was in the shower.”

“What?” Max asked, removing his headphones. He was really looking forward to taking another shower. Though his parents, and a good number of Outlanders, had spoken of them, there was no such thing in the Islands. The closest thing was people standing in a stall and washing up sometimes when it rained, so to him it was amazing, not to mention refreshing.

“I said you might want to wait a bit before taking your shower. In the meantime, there’s something I want to show you.”

“What’s that?” Max could already tell that his friend’s teacher, this Master Al, was very knowledgeable about martial arts, just based on the things his student was teaching him. Although his first teacher had been Grampa Reno, Robert said that he had also learned from several other masters in the course of his wanderings. That same wisdom now encouraged him to expand his own knowledge and understanding.

“You’re getting that front stance down faster than anyone else I’ve seen,” and Shades had watched a few of his fellow students storm out of Master Al’s dojo in frustration over the subtle intricacies of stance and form, lacking the patience to cultivate and perfect it, remembered how long it took him to get the hang of it, “but there’s something important that I think will help you.” Max was a lot like himself, a lot like how Al described himself as a student, always needing to know the how and the why of a form or technique before it fully sunk in. Had always said that a great teacher learns as much from his students as they learn from him, and in Max, Shades saw an opportunity to take both of their training to the next level.

To that end, he was about to show Max a very important attribute of this stance. For in Max’s fighting earlier, he was inspired to show him something sensei had once taught him. He assumed his stance in front of Max, telling him, “This is something my teacher once showed me, and I think you’ll find it useful. Try to push me.”

“Okay.” Max stepped up and shoved Shades, who shifted slightly on his feet.

But never gave an inch.

“Now try one of those powerful roundhouse kicks you’re so good at,” Shades said. “Oh, and remember to come from the right. Just trust me on this one.”

Max stepped back, then jumped in with an arcing kick like the one he swept that guard off the boat with earlier. Shades’ arm block not only stopped Max in mid air, but moved right into shoving him flailing aside, where he crashed on the bed, startling Bandit. As far as Shades’ ability to defend was concerned, it would hardly have mattered which side Max attacked from; Max, on the other hand, had a choice of either landing on the bed, or being knocked into the room’s small desk.

“I didn’t know you were that strong…” Max muttered as he got back up.

“I’m not,” Shades told him. “And fortunately, I don’t have to be.” Seeing the confounded look on Max’s face, he laughed and continued. “You have little leverage when you’re up in the air like that, but I draw my power from the earth itself.”

“I see…” As Max ran back through that, he realized what Shades was talking about. During his time with Justin, he had been only slightly dismayed at the gaps he could see in his own training, and his scuffle with the guards had only reinforced his confidence. However, against a trained opponent like Shades, he began to see the limitations of having only a panther to grapple with. Apples and oranges, as Shades would have said. He had become stronger and faster over those five years, enough so to take down those guards— stronger and faster than them, yet not that much more skilled than them, he realized— but in this new sparring partner he had found new ways to challenge himself.

To truly resume his training. And for that he thanked his new friend. A challenge. And he found he liked it.

“I’ll show you another little trick he taught me,” Shades said as he stepped up to Max. He planted his foot on one of Max’s, then shoved him, sending him sprawling back onto the bed. “Pushing off the ground like that,” he explained as he helped him back up, “I can put my whole body behind my attacks. Try using a front stance.”

Max assumed his stance. Again, Shades tried to push him, even stepping on his foot like before, but this time Max found he could push back. He suspected that Dad would have taught him at least some of this had his training continued, but he was grateful for this little revelation Shades had given him, for he could now see holes in his jumping attacks which he was previously unaware of.

“Even though you’re bigger than me, I could still push you around because I was grounded,” Shades explained. “This stance gives you really strong balance and footing, so it works really well both defensively and off—”

Shades was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“I’ll get it,” Shades said quietly, gesturing toward the pack where Max stashed his weapons. “Don’t make a sound, but be prepared. Let me do the talking.” He walked over to the door and checked the peephole.

Guards. Of course.

“Open up!” his muffled voice commanded.

“Just a minute!” Shades called out in a Deep South falsetto. “Ah ain’t decent!”

The only place Max had ever heard such a dialect was in the animé Shades had shown him, so all he could think of it as was an “Osaka” accent, but his friend’s cartoonish tone left him trying desperately not to laugh aloud.

“Ah cain’t ansah the do’ raht now,” Shades piped up. “Whadda ya’ll want?”

A picture popped up under the doorcrack.

“We’re with Security, ma’am,” one of the guards said. “This man was involved in an incident that injured five of our officers. Have you seen him?”

Shades examined the picture, a composite sketch of Max, fortunately before his haircut.

“Have you seen this man, or a man seen with him wearing wraparound sunglasses?” a second voice added. “Or a big black-and-white panther? It’s very important.”

Max had reached into the bag and armed himself to cover the door now that Shades had stepped away from it, but he wasn’t sure if he could aim, he was laughing so hard.

“No, mista, ah’m afraid ah haven’t,” Shades told them, “but you fahn young men keep at it!” He wondered for a moment if women really did find disgusting slobs like that attractive. Though he found it more than a little disconcerting that he was being identified by his shades alone. And Bandit, too. “Ah’ll be sure ta call ya if ah see anything.”

By now, Max had grabbed a pillow to muffle his laughter, and hoped it wouldn’t come to a fight.

“Okay, ma’am. Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Anytime, sug!” Shades added for good measure.

There was a long silence after that. While Max tried really hard not to smother himself, Shades collapsed on the other bed, exhaling a long sigh of relief. Bandit just stared at them.

At last Max removed the pillow, asking, “Shades, do you always do stuff like that?”

To which neither of them could help laughing.

“It’s all about being able to improvise,” Shades told him after he caught his breath. “I used to do routines like that when people called to complain about Sandy’s band. Pretty good, huh?”

“Hell yeah!” Max replied. “What now?”

“Now we get our act together.” Max would have to learn the limitations of brute force in this place, that it was ingenuity and resourcefulness that kept you from disappearing around here. Alone, Shades would have disappeared sooner or later, but now that he was teamed up with Max, they had become a force to be reckoned with. Still, he feared there would be a crackdown coming. A measure of just how much trouble they were in. More than his own, paradoxically. “That was too close.”

Fortunately, the guards didn’t come back, and after a few minutes they were finally able to regain some measure of composure. After that, they practiced for a couple minutes before Max went in to take his shower. Before he went, though, he told Max to practice like he had in Paradise, until it stuck in his head and was second nature. He could see that underneath Max’s carefree façade was the discipline of a warrior. The way Max trained, as if preparing to face the entire Security force himself. There were definite differences, and Max’s training was clearly incomplete, but his native style definitely bore a strong resemblance to Karate, appeared to be the Sixth Dimension’s answer to his world’s martial arts styles.

Master Al had told him that you had to practice a technique at least ten thousand times to truly understand it, and it was only after years of training that he had seen what his sensei meant. It made him wonder how many times Max had practiced those moves back in Paradise.

Tradewinds 07 CH 17

It had taken a long time, with the usual stream of reports coming in about how the Intruder was nowhere to be found, but finally the most critical repairs were complete.

(AUDIO SENSORS: ONLINE…)

This was the first time the Intruder had openly taken the offensive. On top of that, Intruders trying anything but kamikaze charges were a rarity to begin with. Tactical analysis revealed the setup for a classic ambush.

(INFRARED SCANNERS: ONLINE…)

Of course, this was not the first time an Intruder had dared to attack the Enforcer. But unlike those before, who had been too poorly armed to do any real damage, and only ended up rushing to their deaths, this one actually found a way to fight back effectively.

(POWER LEVEL: 92.5%… 92.7%… 93.1%…)

Naturally, this would call for taking more precautions the next time.

(SYSTEM RUNNING: 98.6%… 98.8%… 98.9%…)

Seldom had an Intruder held out for this long. What few this sector had had, at any rate. Only the pair that disappeared over two hundred years ago held a longer record than this one.

(SUPER-LASER: ONLINE…)

Much better.

“ENFORCER UNIT NK-525-SLASH-XP-13 BACK ONLINE…”

Malevolent infrared optics lit up once again, and those hateful tracks started rolling once more as the Enforcer resumed its hunt.

Tradewinds 07 CH 16

“Hey! You!”

When Shades heard that from out in the pool area, he knew the game was up. He would find out later that Max had spent those two or three minutes making one last dive. Though he could only guess how the guards recognized him, his theory was that his friend’s moves somehow betrayed him.

Even as he snagged the extra backpack he had picked up for Max, his friend came dashing around the corner into the locker room. Tossing Max his pack, he simply grabbed his own and joined his flight. Realizing as he ran that he still held his towel in his other hand, thinking, What the hell… When exploring other worlds, it is important to know where your towel is.

Just more wisdom he would later have to pass on to Max.

A moment later, the two burly guards bolted into the room, accompanied by a male lifeguard. Their quarry tore out the other exit with a very reasonable disregard for the NO RUNNING sign on the wall. All the while, Max wished he hadn’t left Bandit back at the hotel.

“Dammit!” cried Fat, for Fatter was too out of breath to shout, even over this short distance, “Get back here, you two!”

But even now, their pursuit was running out of steam. Trying to chase them in bare feet was fast taking its toll on them. Even the lifeguard who had joined the chase, who was in considerably better physical condition than the guards, was also falling behind the two fugitives.

And Max’s lead was all the confirmation Shades needed. His friend was clearly accustomed to worse terrain than this in just his bare feet. Fortunately, his own martial arts training had involved hardening his feet against the elements. He now thanked Master Al for talking him into running laps around the block in the middle of February wearing nothing but his karate gi, or else he wouldn’t be able to keep up at all.

Understandably, people stared at the two barefoot young men being chased down the hall. As they ran swiftly past a trendy clothing store, the received cat-calls and whistles from some in the crowd. One of them, clearly having no idea what they were up to, but apparently thinking it was pretty cool, shouted, in an over-the-top bellow, “Fight the power!”

Just when it looked as if they might catch a break, another security guard, who just happened to be in the neighborhood, spotted them and got into the act.

“What now?” Max muttered.

“Gotta shake ’em somehow!” Shades wished he knew, and he was running out of time. Both of them were soaked from head to foot, and very conspicuously dressed. Or rather, almost the opposite. At least you’re not naked Still, he knew that nothing he could do next would be terribly prudent, and he always tried to practice what he preached.

Though of late, he was beginning to see the limitations of prudence.

Finding a way to escape from one guard would have been a feat unto itself, but when another pair joined the party, things were looking next to impossible. Even as they moved to intercept Max and himself, he could feel the pull of his old reality, and for a moment, he actually considered surrender. It was seeing his adversaries rush him, the knowledge that those who were caught here were never seen again, that snapped him out of it.

Shades managed to regain his initiative in time to dodge his attacker’s swing, sidestepping and tripping him. Max had taken a more aggressive approach, nailing the other guard with a flying kick that Shades only saw out of the corner of his eye, bowling his opponent over before he could even make a move. The guard who was already chasing them stumbled over the one Shades had tripped up, buying them a moment’s head start as they continued their retreat.

Now they just needed something useful to do with it.

As they scrambled around the corner, Shades pointed to the crowd up ahead in the brief instant when the guards couldn’t see his gesture, and Max nodded. Earlier, when they were out and about, Shades had seen a boat show down this corridor, and now he had an idea. For his part, Max was just relieved that at least his friend had a plan.

The two of them ducked into the crowd just as the guards stumbled around the corner. Bobbing and weaving, they got lost in the crowd and vanished almost immediately. Even Max, who should have stood head and shoulders above most of the crowd.

“Shit!” muttered one of the guards as they stormed through the crowd, pushing people aside, “Where did they go?”

“How do you lose two guys running around in their goddam bathing suits?….”

Shades had to admit it would be an interesting conundrum to solve on the fly if he didn’t already know the answer himself. The real question was whether or not anyone would give the poor pigs any hints. Likely, just on impulse, Max tried to peer out from their hiding place, but Shades grabbed his arm, stopping him.

“Did anybody see where those bastards went?” demanded one of the guards.

“They were dressed in swim trunks!”

Shades and Max held their breath.

And, just as they feared, someone in the crowd must have pointed at the low-built, compact cabin cruiser display, because the guards got really quiet. Everyone else, too, for that matter. As soon as the first guard came up the steps and hopped on deck, they knew there was no point in hiding anymore, and rose to confront them.

Well shit, Shades thought, for he had been hoping they could duck below deck and put on some clothes after the guards went by.

“Here they are!” shouted the guard as he charged at Shades, who held his towel in en garde stance. He tried to snap the towel at him as a feint, but the guard wasn’t having any of it. He batted the towel aside, and that was when Shades saw that he was armed with a nightstick.

Max took the next guard to come up the steps, kicking him over just as he reached the top, sending him toppling back on top of the guard behind him.

Shades tried to block his attacker’s swing with his free hand, but it was just a hair too late, and the club still scored a glancing blow, forcing him back. The guard, meanwhile, hung on to Shades’ towel, picking up the slack as he rushed him, slamming him up against the cabin wall. Though Shades had managed to brace one arm between the stick and his neck, the guard was stronger, and without any leverage he would be unable to break free, and so would soon be overpowered.

“You’re not so tough now, are you, punk!” the guard snarled, pressing harder. Shades, in a last ditch attempt to break his hold, tried to knee him in the groin, but the guard blocked with his own knee. “I’ll beat your ass for that!”

Max, seeing his friend’s plight, turned and attacked the guard. The guard, seeing Max out of the corner of his eye, swung at him, but Max dodged the back-swing. Shades, no longer bound by the nightstick, took his opportunity, letting go of his towel and leaning against the cabin wall, bringing both feet up, power-kicking the guard. As Shades staggered to his feet, the guard went sprawling the length of the deck and up against the railing. Max whipped out his own towel, snapping it in his face, much as he had seen Shades demonstrate with his whip, just as he was regaining his balance. The guard yowled in pain, and there was hardly any need for Max to knock him over the edge with his high kick, but there was no point in taking any chances.

Damn!” Shades had to admit that he was impressed at how quickly Max picked up on basic whip technique. That dude really knows where his towel is!

Unfortunately, while Max was busy bailing Shades out, another guard got up the steps, accompanied by a couple more who had just arrived on the scene. At the same time, one of the guards Max had kicked off ran over to the front of the boat trailer and started climbing in an attempt to catch them from behind. In his haste, though, his foot worked the front wheel lock— being shoddily secured to begin with— loose.

Max and Shades and their adversaries were really rocking the boat, foolishly placed at the beginning of a long series of inclined hall sections, and the whole rig started rolling downhill.

Which was probably for the best, as more guards were surely on the way, and the two of them would soon be in danger of being just a teeny bit outnumbered. Even so, after that chase, they were warmed-up, while the first guards were just starting to run out of steam, and the new ones were joining the fray fresh. All the while, people near the boat simply watched as it took off, not quite sure what to make of it.

Shades picked up his towel, and he and Max turned their attention to the new boarding party, both deciding at the same time that at least this situation had narrowed down the odds. The boat quickly picked up speed, traveling downhill on the cant of the floorplane, and the guards fell over trying to adjust to the acceleration. Shades steadied himself against the cabin, and Max, who grew up with the motion of seagoing vessels, jumped in to attack.

Ducking past the first two guards, and repeating his attack from moments ago, Max snapped his towel in the face of the last guard, who was still balancing precariously on the railing. This time, though, Max’s first attack was all it took to send him flailing overboard, falling out of reach. He turned to face the other guards as Shades rejoined the fight.

As the two pairs of adversaries went at it, the boat hit a dip on the next incline, gaining still more momentum, disrupting their fight. Shades kicked one guard in the face as he struggled to get back up. Max still grappled with the other for a moment, then bashed him with a vicious head-butt that made Shades wince at the sound of it.

All the while, the guard that had climbed up the front of the trailer had worked his way across the top of the cabin, and now attempted to tackle Shades. Max spotted the attack out of the corner of his eye, turning and cutting loose with a wild, backwards roundhouse kick Shades barely got out of the way of, taking the guard’s feet right out from under him. As he rolled and fell off the side, tumbling across the floor as he fell by the wayside, the guard Shades was fighting a moment ago rose to his feet and charged again, but Shades sidestepped and tripped him, sending him stumbling down the hatch below deck.

Fugger…” muttered the remaining guard, blood from Max’s head-butt oozing down his face, “Choo broke by dose!

Max, losing his balance after executing such a wild move on a moving vehicle, landed off-balance, stumbling against the railing. Shades slammed the cabin hatch shut before the other guard could get out. Refusing to let the remaining guard hurt Max while he was open, Shades stepped up to defend him. Though pissed off about his nose, the other guard was reeling on his feet as a result of that very attack, and Shades cut through his defenses with ease, landing several punches and kicks.

“Um, Shades…” Max had regained his feet and looked over the top of the cabin, seeing something he believed Shades should see.

“Yeah?”

“I think we might want to abandon ship.” Even as he said this, Max kicked the cabin hatch shut as it opened again, smacking the guard inside and sending him sprawling back below.

“Why?” But as he asked that question, he remembered they were still in a confined space, that they could only move so far before running out of hallway. “Oh, well why didn’t you say so?”

The guard with the broken nose tried to take advantage of Shades’ moment of distraction, but he blocked the attack, kicking him and knocking him back down.

As the boat cruised past a largish trampoline on display, Max and Shades bailed out, landing in the middle and bouncing off most of their impact before dropping to the floor on both feet. Shades, for a moment, trying to figure out why the image of John doing this in a storm immediately flashed to mind…

Both of them stood there for a moment as, seconds later, the boat crashed into a pyramid-shaped display of Cam’s Cola cans. The boat itself tipped on its side, rolling out of its trailer and spilling the remaining guard on deck tumbling across the floor. Having sailed uncommonly far for such a landlocked vessel. The whole wreck crashed through the display, sending ruptured cans cascading in a shallow, foaming tide of cola.

Max simply stared at this spectacular mess, lost in the moment.

“Now we’ve done it…” Shades tried to say seriously, thinking of how much trouble they would be in back on Earth. Tried not to laugh at what a ridiculous situation this really was, reminding himself that the trouble they were in here was greater still. To say nothing of what a wonderful role model he was being for his new friend. He grabbed Max’s arm and took off, saying, “Come on! Before they call for reinforcements!”

The two of them continued their flight, outrunning the bubbling flood of carbonation while a guard who just got there slipped and fell on his ass trying to give chase.

“Max, you’re gonna have to get a haircut.”

“Haircut?”

“But first we need to find a place where we can put our clothes back on and blend in a little more…”

Shades just hoped that the guards had been too busy chasing and fighting— and hopefully too thrown-off by the fact that he and Max were wearing only their swimming shorts— to have paid much attention to their faces.

Tradewinds 07 CH 15

After crawling as far away from the explosion as his battered, exhausted limbs would allow, Justin simply collapsed into a long, deep sleep. He would later remember little beyond the darkness, and ever-present hum of monolithic amounts of power. Curled up in the chill of the vents that reminded him so much of the cold concrete of the Ruins.

Much like his fun stay at Pullman Mine Camp, during his nightmare days here, sometimes he remembered things from his hazy days aboard the Skerry. That strange time of his life whose exact length was lost to him, when time almost seemed to have no meaning. Alone so much of the time, on such a large ship; wherever the passengers were, they seldom showed themselves to him. And aside from a few long-term crew members he only vaguely remembered, only a couple people stood out to him in his miserable remembrances at times like these, and on most of those occasions, her name always escaped him.

Eleanor.

When he was half awake, he grasped at long-lost names like straws. He knew he didn’t see her very often, though she seemed to have been around from before he ever came aboard. Eleanor never really spoke much, and he found he could not even remember the sound of her voice. The only other thing he could remember was that when she was about, she was often accompanied by a fluffy black kitten that he was fairly sure she called Poe. Everytime she came to mind, he found himself wondering where she was now, what she was doing.

Otherwise, the only other person who stood out in his memory was another whose name he had reclaimed only in his most desperate gropings in the darkness. Mr Morgan. The name itself was almost as hard to recall as Eleanor’s, and he still wasn’t sure just what the man’s exact purpose on the Skerry’s crew served. Just mental snapshots of a middle age man with a short, bushy beard, bespectacled, with eyes that seemed older than his years. Were he much older, he would have been more like a kindly grandfather, while what few encounters he sort of remembered having with the rest of the crew made him feel somehow underfoot. Morgan, as he recalled, was a guardian of sorts, for Justin was increasingly certain that he was wasn’t supposed to be onboard, and he was fairly sure he remembered the man teaching him how to read as well as sticking up for him.

These moments almost messed with his mind, tantalizing him with scenes that always faded into the mists of the past as he drifted toward consciousness. Though, unlike his stint in the mines, perhaps as a result of his growing desperation in this place that he strongly believed was never meant for humans to live, he was retaining more of it after he woke up. When he thought about it, it at first made him wonder why he was thinking about all this crap, before he finally realized it.

Because there was nothing here, and he was left alone with himself, alone with just his thoughts to keep him company…

After a while he was more awake, just resting his eyes and gathering his strength for what he knew was the next step. Free from the Enforcer, he could finally slow down and begin to formulate a strategy for getting the hell out of this place. He had managed to get in, so as far as he was concerned, there also had to be a way out.

NK-525 had left him no time to explore, or even to figure out much of anything. In his exploration of the ventilation system, he had seen other rooms besides storage, some of which had what looked like computer terminals. The chief problem being that he couldn’t use the computers, and be close enough to the door to disable the controls in case a certain mechanical monster just happened to stop by. And of course, given how everything around here was computerized, he feared that damaging the controls prematurely would somehow set off the alarms.

For now, he would take it slow, allow both his body and mind to recover as much as this hi-tech hell would allow, then build up a stockpile of food down here in the vents. As he woke up more fully, his mind began to pick up speed, racing with new tactics and ideas for eluding the other security systems. Now if only I had these vents back in the Triangle State…

For the first time in what felt like way too long, Justin Black could see a small slat of hope shining in through these seemingly impenetrable depths, hope that he may yet again see the light of day. Perhaps even hope that Max might somehow get to see it with him.

Tradewinds 07 CH 14

Max had gone swimming in his share of places. In the Ocean, on the beaches of the Islands and Paradise. Underground, of late. But he had never seen a swimming pool before.

“Remember,” Shades told him as they stood in the shallow end, “flow like water. This is the same method Master Al taught me, and it works really well once you get the hang of it. Now let’s run through it again.”

Last night, after stocking up on new disguises, Shades had asked for a demonstration of his new friend’s martial arts skills. Say Max, where’d you learn to fight like that? he had asked. And Max told him that everyone studied it where he came from. You seem to remember most of the moves just fine. To which Max told him simply, I kept practicing them. Shades had thought it best to take it easy the first full day, but he had seen Max in action, and was naturally curious about what he knew. So they spent about an hour or so showing each other their fighting techniques. No shouting or slamming, though. This is a hotel, after all, he had said, and more importantly, this is our sanctuary. We cannot do anything to draw attention to ourselves here.

So they had practiced very quietly. Now, though, they were at the Mall’s massive pool, surrounded by at least a hundred people in total anonymity, and they could be as loud as they wanted.

Max went another round, repeating the kata Shades had shown him last night. Master Al always said a word multiple times before he ever wrote it down anywhere. If they don’t know how to spell a word, he was fond of saying, then they won’t know how to mispronounce it, and he now made use of that same principle with his own impromptu student. As he repeated the sequence of moves Shades taught him, he was surprised at how similar the style was to his father’s, and Layoshan fighting techniques in general. Similar, but with some very clear differences. As he practiced, he tried to move as quickly as he could, without being held back by the water.

If you can learn to move that fast through the water, Shades had told him, you’ll move that much faster through air. Max now realized that this was what Robert meant all those years ago, when they went swimming, and he told all three of them to learn not to make any wasteful movements. Looking back, he wondered if Cleo or Lance ever figured it out.

Then he focused his attention back on his form. Over the years, he had become a very formidable swimmer by doing just that, unconsciously increasing the efficiency of his movements. Because of that, he was already starting to get the hang of what his new friend was talking about.

Shades himself was in his element in the water, gliding with every move in a way that on dry land made him look almost awkward by comparison. Though Max had demonstrated greater raw speed, he was still impressed with his friend’s agility underwater. Underneath his seemingly permanent denim armor, Shades was lean and athletically built, but not as skinny or wiry as Justin, and when he really got going, his moves seemed to slice through the water with almost no drag at all.

“I think you’re getting it,” Shades told him as he finished. Decked out in black trunks, and deeply tinted goggles, his hair was dripping wet as he stood and watched in the shallow water.

Max had noticed that his friend wore those dark glasses even in his sleep— or at least Max assumed he was asleep, it was hard to tell because he couldn’t see his eyes. Still, along with the swim trunks he had picked up earlier, he was grateful for his own goggles. Before they came, Shades warned him about the chlorine in the water, and though it didn’t bother him as much as he had feared, it still stung more than he was comfortable with. His unbound hair hung in his face as he finished and bowed (and Shades noted that Max even bowed without prompting, making him wonder if the practice was more universal than he would originally have thought), noting that what Shades had said about not taking his eyes off his imaginary opponent was basically the same was Uncle Angus’ warning about maintaining eye contact at all times while sparring.

He then glanced up wistfully at the skylights hanging tantalizingly overhead. It was very much as Shades told him; everywhere they went, whatever windows they could find hovered on high, completely out of reach. Tormenting him with a sky he felt he no longer walked under anymore. These occasional glimpses of day or night also underscored the awkwardness of being forever indoors. Just like during his excursion in Tranz-D, this place was difficult to tell time in, even with a clock.

Being cooped-up— even in a place as colossal as this— aside, there was something about this place that Max liked less and less the longer he was here. Something more than just the curse, this place came across as rather creepy in spite of its mundane, harmless appearance. Perhaps because of it, now that he thought about it; the fact that everyone moved about as if there was nothing wrong at all.

And he suspected that it was driving Bandit nuts, all alone back in their hotel room. He doubted he would ever get used to it, and even Shades seemed concerned about how the big cat would react to being alone in this place. To being alone in general; back in Paradise, the two of them, and later Justin, were never very far apart from each other.

In spite of this, Max found the waters of the pool had a very calming effect he knew all too well from his dips in the pond all those years. He remembered once hearing Mom saying that water was good for the soul. Making a mental note to talk to Shades about it more later, he turned back to their training session. The two of them carried on for another twenty minutes or so, even sparring a little in the shallow end, finally just goofing around showing off each other’s moves.

After a little while, the two of them got bored and wandered out into the deep end. Seeing that it currently wasn’t in use, Shades suggested the diving board. Max had seen it earlier; it had been years since he and his friends played on the board at the Shipwreck Bay docks.

“I’ll go first!” Shades called as he scrambled out of the water and climbed the steps. From the light in his eyes and the ecstatic grin on his face, he guessed Max had seen one before. “Allow me to demonstrate!” he said anyway, bracing his arms against the siderails, which always psyched him up for some reason, “Just watch me!”

As he watched his friend run out and bounce off the board as far as he could, Max figured Shades probably already knew how self-evident the concept was. He was starting to figure out Shades’ sense of humor, being a smartass, as he called it. As his friend kicked off the bottom, laughing as he rocketed out of the water halfway to his knees, Max climbed up onto the board, thinking only of how much cooler this would be than the branch back in Paradise.

Shades glided out of the landing area, to watch Max’s jump. He knew he was on mostly equal footing with Max, yet he also felt like a strange sort of shepherd. Though Max had fought alongside him the other day, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that he knew, after a fashion, how take care of himself, it was also clear that he was telling the truth about living years in seclusion. He’s clueless, at least about some things… And since I’ve gone to the trouble of enlightening him about so many things, I guess that would make him my responsibility…

What the hell, he always wanted a kid brother.

He watched as Max braced against the rails as he had. Max, of course, had jumped from higher places than this, but he had seen from Shades’ bounce what this board could do. In that spirit, he decided to show his new friend what he could do.

Max dashed down the board, springing off and flying as high and far as he could with a wild, exhilarated whoop.

“Damn!”

Little realizing how much he sounded like Justin with that remark, Shades watched Max soar through the air, for those couple seconds treating the law of gravity as mere suggestion. His head panned from right to left as Max skidded into the water with a far-reaching frontal splash. Landing some thirty or more feet from the board.

Surfacing with that silvery signature laugh of his.

“Whoa!” Max laughed, almost as amazed by how much bounce he had gotten out of the board. “That thing’s got bounce!”

You can say that again! Shades almost said aloud. He still just drifted there at the edge of the water, one hand gripping the ladder, as Max swam toward him. Where the hell did he learn to jump like that!? Unlike Justin, though, Shades understood that Max’s true power, like everyone else’s, came from within. Still, he could tell that Max clearly didn’t know his own strength— combined with that brawl with the guards from before, Max’s surprise at his own feat was proof enough of that— and even he had underestimated what his friend was capable of.

Now that he was rested, Max seemed to possess almost unlimited energy.

“You’re tellin’ me!” Shades finally said.

“I am,” Max replied, and they both started laughing.

Though Shades had to admit that he had never seen anyone who could jump quite that far, after thinking about it for a moment, he began to realize that Max’s leap wasn’t really as superhuman as he had first thought it to be. Yet there was also the execution, with its fluid, almost feline grace, that just took more… something than he had. He wondered if Max hadn’t been something of a daredevil back wherever he came from, for it seemed as if it was the sheer rush of the experience that powered him. And for all he knew, Max’s abilities might be only average where he came from.

“Okay…” Shades said as he climbed back up on the board, “Just for fun, let’s see if you can do this!”

This time, Shades did one of his best tricks. Going for height more than distance, he spun off the board, doing not just one, but two three-sixties before he hit the water. More than anything, Shades loved just grabbing as much air as he could, to feel the free-fall and look over everything from on high. And, for just one moment, to fly.

As he swam out of the way, Max got up on the board again. He remembered all the times he and Cleo and Lance had dared each other to do difficult tricks, and almost started laughing out loud. Then he sprang off the board, doing his own two-seventy.

And then some.

“Cool…” Shades was beginning to see that Max’s gifts also included great agility. Though hardly the most graceful landing, Shades realized that Max’s other landing had also been done spur-of-the-moment like that, too. Even when doing something he had never done before, Max had uncanny instincts for moving on the fly. He exhibited a kind of feline poise he had never really seen before. For some reason, he thought for a moment of his second-grade teacher, whom he swore was certain that all of the world’s ills could be remedied by good posture. She and his fifth-grade teacher, Mr Self Esteem, probably would have hit it right off. Of course, he also knew Max benefited from years of hard training.

“How was that, Shades?”

“You got the trick, and I loved the landing!”

Realizing that he couldn’t compete with Max in raw jumping ability, Shades decided to shift gears. Instead of doing any fancy stunts, he just leaped high and far, shouting, “So-Max-can-you-do-this!?” And managing to finish every syllable before he hit the water.

When she surfaced, he laughed, saying, “I hope I didn’t scare you,” remembering how embarrassed Arthur had been when he did that at a pool a few years ago. “This time, try shouting something before you hit the water!”

“Like what?”

“Surprise me.”

Max made another of his spectacular leaps, shouting a line from one of the street-fighting video games Shades had shown him at Club Positronic, “Extreeeme Jaake!”

“I’ve created a monster…”

And as they continued their game, daring each other to do the weirdest tricks they could come up with. Max often took the more athletically challenging tricks, but Shades turned the tables and leveled the playing field with some of his choices from past games. His ingenuity left them evenly matched in spite of Max’s edge, for his stamina did seem as boundless as his enthusiasm.

Over time, other swimmers wandered in and out of the game, but after a while, most of them fell by the wayside, becoming spectators as they watched their more daring peers go up against Max and Shades. Of course, Max’s jumping stole the show, especially when he jumped off the high board and actually touched one of the ceiling supports with his bare hands. Though they were no match for him, it really didn’t matter too much, fun was still the order of the day. Even after all these years, Shades was still amazed at how easily people made friends at swimming pools; sometimes he swore it must be something in the water, it just seemed to bring out the best in everyone everywhere.

While a couple other people were waiting to make their jump, Shades felt those strange alarms go off in the back of his mind. He vaguely remembered Dad referring to it as Red-Light/Green-Light, and it was fast becoming a part of his daily life here anymore. Since he first stepped up to the threshold of the Sixth Dimension, on the night of the Flathead Experiment, that inner voice had cranked up the volume, or his perception of it had somehow intensified, as if all of his senses had picked up on the broader spectrum of existence. As his eyes wandered along the other side of the pool, he happened to see two familiar faces stroll out of the locker room.

The two guards he met on his first night here, whom he had come to think of as Fat and Fatter, the latter trying not to look too self-conscious in trunks, sauntered over to the far side of the pool. Though they were almost certainly off-duty, he doubted they were out of their jurisdiction, not around here, not by any stretch of the imagination. As the two were busy trying to strike up a conversation with a rather attractive lifeguard, who appeared to be trying to ditch the unsavory pair, it dawned on him that perhaps he and Max had succeeded a little too thoroughly at trying to relax while hiding out.

“Hey, Max,” Shades muttered as he drifted over to his friend. Having decided that the guy currently jumping and the nubile young lifeguard would be the best distractions for their escape. He pointed out these new visitors, saying, “Don’t look now, but we’ve got trouble. You see those two over there?” When Max nodded, he continued, “Don’t look too long, or you might get their attention.”

“I know,” Max replied.

“We need to get out of here.” Shades pointed again, this time at the clock hanging on the far wall. It was doubtful that those bastards would recognize them as they were, but he had come to regard them as predators, ones that would be deadly to grow complacent around. “We can’t both leave at the same time. That would be suspicious. I’m going to make like I have to take a whiz, and go prepare everything. You wait here until the big hand on that clock moves two or three minutes, then follow. Got it?”

“Yeah.” There were a few timepieces like that in the Islands, and Mom had taught him how to read them.

“Okay, let’s go,” Shades said even as he went to climb out of the pool.

Once out of the pool, he made his way to the locker room as casually as he could. Though he had trained in bare feet studying Karate, he was still unaccustomed to moving without shoes in such a potentially dangerous situation, and wearing nothing but trunks only made him feel more vulnerable. Once in the locker room, he made right for his locker, then Max’s, glad that they knew the combination for each other’s locks.

It was as he was removing both of their backpacks, fishing out his towel and preparing to hastily dress, that he heard the commotion from the locker room.

Tradewinds 07 CH 13

Silence. Or at least as close to silence as it got here. Interrupted by—

A low, distorted voice:

“ALL SYSTEMS ACTIVATING… ACTIVATING… ACT—”

“—SYSTEM FAILURE!”

Then slowed down some more.

“REACTIVATION… CIRCUITS… OFF… LINE…”

Then rapid, high-pitched:

“ACTIVATING-BACKUP-SYSTEMS…”

NK-525 lay sprawled on its side across the hall from what was left of the utility closet in a heap. Limbs crisscrossed, sparks occasionally erupting from various sections of its body. Smoke drifted both ways down the hall.

(POWER LEVEL: 45.4%… SYSTEM RUNNING 23.7%…)

The flames from the closet were already guttering out, guards were spreading out into standard search formations all over the level.

(POWER LEVEL: 47.3% AND RISING…)

Cleaning drones were already arriving on the scene.

“ACCESSING BACK-UP DATA TRACKS…”

“ACTIVATING DIAGNOSTIC SYSTEMS…”

Time for a damage assessment.

(DAMAGE: CRITICAL…)

(ESTIMATE: 30% FUNCTIONAL…)

(WEAPONS: OFF-LINE…)

Not good.

“INITIATING REPAIR SEQUENCE…”

Then back to basics. Intruders…

(OPTICS: OFF-LINE… OVERRIDE…)

Nothing, but snow, and only static on audio sensors, then the hall came partway into focus, followed by heads-up display readouts.

“ACTIVATING BACK-UP MEMORY TRACKS…”

And it all started coming back. The so far unprecedented ambush, the chase, the closet the Intruder had booby-trapped. Then all systems went off-line.

(3 OF 4 BLASTERS BACK ONLINE… SUPER-LASER: OFF-LINE… SENSORS: 42.6% FUNCTIONAL…)

Still not enough.

(POWER LEVEL: 64.8% AND RISING…)

Repair robots finally arrived on the scene and started to work on the hall. Yet, given that rebuilding the closet was going to be a really long-term project on emergency power rations, some of them could be diverted to accelerate the Enforcer’s self-repair rate. Security took priority over all else.

Directive 86: Destroy All Intruders.

(SYSTEM RUNNING: 42.6%…)

Tradewinds 07 CH 12

The scene just kept repeating itself in his head, first one, then the other, crumbling to dust at the mere touch of his hand. Somehow those empty eye sockets still expressed the same terror and despair they had once conveyed in life; Justin often saw them staring at him whenever he closed his eyes. Those crumbling corpses just kept replaying in his mind in a repeat-loop that was maddening. They just would not go away. That day he had seen fear in a handful of dust, had held it in his hand.

Let it slip through his fingers.

The day those dead hands crumbled as he plucked their fallen guns, he irrevocably took up the torch for his fallen unknown fellows in some way he couldn’t quite describe. Had started to wonder if he had been cursed ever since. Taking up those guns, meeting those two lost souls, even before his first encounter with NK-525, had somehow been the prelude to horrors yet to come.

Even at Pullman Mine Camp, they dragged you back aboveground at sunset. There were no days or nights here; the days had all run together into one long nightmare that seemed to have no end. His knees and elbows bruised and blistered from endless hours of crawling around in these shafts, listening to the humming of the machines above, below— all around him. Time had indeed become relative in this maze of perpetual light (and underlying darkness), stretching out so that he could no longer tell minutes from hours, hours from days.

And that pair of long-dead Intruders had come to haunt his every waking moment, and much of his fitful downtime. To him, that closet represented all of this place’s dirty secrets. It reminded him of all that creepy old mining equipment on Benton Island.

And not just because of the barrels of blood he knew all too well had greased those wheels. Just like all of those discarded machines, as impressive as they were in all their die-cast glory, this place was hollow. Empty. Abandoned for so long, they no longer served any purpose. Much like the Junkyard Dogs— both here and there— having nothing better to do than terrorize the living, as if for its own sake. Yet clearly built on technology beyond his comprehension.

Tranz-D was built to last.

Judging from the apparent age of the corpses alone, this place had obviously been constructed in time out of mind. And had been deserted by human beings long before he was born. He had no idea what had become of all of the people that he was certain used to live here, but he wasn’t really sure he wanted to know.

The ghosts of this place called out to him.

Buried in the depths of these seemingly bottomless shafts and corridors, he increasingly felt that there was hidden something ominous, something big. Something monolithic and malevolent resided in these walls, possessed of a mechanical mind of its own. Everything here was possessed by digital demons, the machines now owned this place. Justin wasn’t sure how he knew some of this; the ideas just seemed to seep out of the walls and into his mind, almost as if that eternal hum were whispering its dark, lunatic secrets in his ear. Long-lost, forgotten, this place had lingered, biding its time. That it might someday reveal its existence to the outside world once again.

A force so powerful even the mighty hand that created it might not be able to stop it…

Justin shook his head. Damn place and its creepy thoughts… He refocused his attention as he sat on a box in yet another closet, waiting.

It was becoming increasingly difficult, dangerously difficult, to focus. The vent grill had already been removed, an instant escape hatch. Still he sat across from the door, laser staff handy to destroy the controls in case a certain Enforcer Unit should happen by. Every time he tried to do anything, there was that damn NK-525 on his ass.

Only the Enforcer stood in his way to freedom.

And, as if his very meditations on the mechanical monster had somehow summoned it, that tell-tale rattle of tracks came into earshot. Even as that sound drew near, as it inevitably did, he sat, prepared to retreat should that bastard decide to pay this particular closet a visit. Though not without leaving it some kind of clue. This time he was in luck, and NK passed by without even slowing down a bit.

Justin continued to listen to the source of that ominous sound as it passed on. Waited until it had quieted down a bit, so he relaxed slightly. Then tensed up again at the thought of what he was about to do, for he had an idea.

A really nasty idea.

Justin Black had been on the defensive for far too long, as far as he was concerned. He now stepped out of the closet, one of the fallen misadventurers’ guns in each hand. Moving as silently as he could, for he was still not entirely certain of any of the machines’ auditory ranges, and didn’t care to find out the hard way. Time seemed to slow down with every step as he prepared to make his move.

As he peered around the corner, he spotted his adversary a couple lengths down the hall. And seemingly oblivious to the fact that its quarry had somehow managed to sneak up on it. He was behind NK for a change.

Justin got the feeling that this didn’t happen to the Enforcer very often. He smiled for a moment at how he had turned the tables on his tormentor, savoring this moment. This was his first good look at his enemy, and what he beheld was a nightmare sculpture of steel.

For a second, he almost lost his nerve, then—

“Hey! NK-fucking-525!” Justin cried as he stepped all the way around the corner. And from there, he let his guns do the talking. He had no idea how much ammo was left in those ancient power clips, but with both barrels on each one fire-linked, spitting laser beams in a back-and-forth stream from alternating barrels, he vented his rage in raw energy. “You tin-plated son of a bitch! Your mama was a power-shovel!”

A rather useless tactic, he figured, insulting a machine, but he did have a lot of pent-up fury to unleash while he was busy living dangerously.

His shots splashed harmlessly off the Enforcer’s industrial-strength armor. Of course, he hadn’t really expected to do a lot of damage, even from behind, and, as always, he hated being right. It was only after the left-hand power pistol ran out of juice that he regained something resembling common sense, and decided to beat a hasty retreat. And just in time, as NK-525 wheeled around to face his sneak-attack.

“HALT!” NK-525 blared at him as it began its counter-attack. “SURRENDER! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!”

“Fuck you!” Justin screamed over his shoulder as he ran for his life.

Even as he snapped off several more shots with his remaining gun, he remembered his words when Max first spoke of training. Running? What the hell kind of fun is that? Now he was finding out for himself.

Earlier, when he still had the element of surprise, he had gone about gouging the walls and floors with his laser staff, marking the way back to the closet from four different directions. And being sure to trip a couple hall scanners while he was at it. Now he kicked a small box out of the doorway, suspecting that NK wouldn’t give him enough time to operate the controls this time, shutting the door behind him as several glancing hits ricocheted off it. Being a pulse weapon, and not subject to the ammo limits of his guns, he used his staff to demolish the control panel.

That, and he wanted as few sparks as possible, given what was inside this particular closet. It was when he first discovered it that his vicious plan had begun to form. That accomplished, he scrambled past sealed tanks marked with bright red warning labels as he dove into the vent shaft. He could already hear the Enforcer at his door, spouting its usual threats and commands, blasting away at the door as he scrambled madly, not wanting to be anywhere near this closet when that bastard finally broke through the door.

After many increasingly long seconds, he managed to get around the corner a way when at last it happened.

“…THERE IS NO—”

And NK-525 fired its super-laser one more time.

Which was where all those compressed tanks of hydrogen came in. Years ago, back in the Triangle State, he had seen a shipment of such tanks unloaded off the docks while he was out and about, overheard someone saying that a stray shot from one of their sidearms could blow the shit out of the entire ship. But it wasn’t until Justin stumbled upon such compressed tanks again years later that he would realize its long-bottled-up potential.

The noise was deafening, even louder than the explosive death of Trevor Fitzgerald, almost as loud in Justin’s ears as the end of Pullman Mine, as the Enforcer was blasted violently back across the hall. And Justin crawled for his life, trying to shield his face as best he could against the blast of heat and dust. He was desperate to be alive— even if it was only for a few seconds longer than his tireless hunter.

That motherfucker’s goin’ down if it’s the last thing I do!…

After a few moments, the heatwave of the explosion subsided as it washed over him, and Justin opened his eyes to discover that he was still alive. Of course, there was a distinctly suicidal feel to this plan, he knew that from the beginning, and he was glad that his kamikaze vision of going down with his foe hadn’t come to pass after all. As he inched along, he found he was finally able to banish the ghosts of those two dead men from his head. He had scored a blow of vengeance for them. For himself.

For all the Intruders out there, whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For the first time in days, in ages, he felt he might have a fighting chance of finding his way out of this twisted maze.

Though he resented the fact that he couldn’t go back to see his handiwork. To confirm the kill. Alarms were blaring after that last attack, just like on his first day here. He had no interest in battling the robo-guards so soon after surviving NK-525, despite how much he wanted to finish the job and piss on its broken remains.

Little did he know just how vulnerable the mighty Enforcer Unit was now.

Tradewinds 07 CH 11

“So, what do you think?” Shades asked from outside the changing booth at one of the mall’s seemingly endless list of clothing stores.

Shades himself had never been that into shopping. For toys, of course, when he was a kid, but the whole thing had somehow lost its charm over the years. Especially clothes. Often, he already had a good idea of what he wanted, and most of his browsing consisted of finding an acceptable price. In the last three weeks, he had had to dabble in degrees of fashion that he ordinarily reserved as girls’ turf in order to stay one or two steps ahead of the guards. In this twisted game, shopping somehow became a bizarre means of survival.

“They’re fine, I guess,” Max replied. To him, this place, though the styles were otherwise unfamiliar, looked like the entire wardrobe of the Islands all in one giant room. Many times, he pondered how worn and damaged his clothes had become, and of course there was nothing he could do about it, but over the years he had simply grown accustomed to wearing them. It wasn’t until he tried on new ones here that he realized just how poorly his old ones fit, as well, for neither the Cyexian nor the original owner were hardly one of his stature.

As they talked, Shades was strategically analyzing just how different he looked compared to when he walked in. The Interloper’s New Clothes, all over again. Much like how he had come to feel with each successive disguise change, like he was shedding his Earth skin, and donning subtle new armor for the Sixth Dimension. For Max, simply going native.

“Just make sure they’re not too tight,” Shades advised him, “most of this stuff shrinks in the wash.” In retrospect, he was now glad Mom had made him start doing his own laundry when he was younger; it had saved him a lot of potentially fatal mistakes at the hotel’s coin-op laundry. “In here, you can never have too much freedom of movement.”

When Max stepped out, he looked nothing like transdimensional fugitive that beat security guards black-and-blue as if he had trained to fight much stronger foes. Which Shades decided was a good thing, as Max had become the Outlander here, and was having a hard time keeping a low profile in this alien environment. This guy’s even more socially inept than I am… As the first real friend he had found here, he decided to take Max under his wing. And hopefully not abandon him, as he felt he had somehow done to John; though everything sort of just happened, he felt, in retrospect, that he had been too reckless that night.

Generations of military heritage seemed to frown on him at moments like this.

“Hey Shades!” While his friend was lost in thought, Max had ducked behind one of the sales racks. When he jumped back out, he was wearing a long grey coat vaguely matching the descriptions from Shades’ story. “Does this make me look like one of those hitchhikers?”

“Um… Yeah.” To him, Max looked a lot like a hitchhiker. Too much like one, in fact. The way it played right up to his last line of thought spooked him a little. Then, he regained his composure, saying, “That’s really creepy, Max.”

Max shrugged out of the coat, putting it back on the rack. Shades had told him about his harrowing ride home from work, and apparently he had underestimated how much the experience disturbed his friend. Hadn’t expected his attempt to make light of it to backfire like that, but it only took a moment to figure out why.

“Tell me more about John.”

“Sure…” Shades trailed off. There was a nameless fear that prowled this rambling building, and he suspected that Max was beginning to notice it, too. Its true nature still eluded him, but something, perhaps the place itself, seemed to feed off the very life-force of those who lived and worked, and died, here. Something malevolent, and almost alive. After a moment, he focused and continued, conjuring up the brighter days to lift the dark fog that was always trying to settle in around him anymore.

“Well, I first met John after Christmas Break when I was in the seventh grade,” Shades told him. “I came back to school and he just showed up in gym class.” Which was good, because before, that was the year none of his other friends were in that class with him. “We just sat and talked before class, and everything just sort of clicked.” Carlos extending the scope of his grudge to include Shades’ newest friend had only served to fortify their connection by the end of the week. “When I told him where I lived, I found out he didn’t live very far away. My old friend Arthur practically lived in Kalispell, and even Tom’s house was pretty far, so I didn’t get to see him very often outside of school. John actually lived within walking distance of my house, and we used to walk all over town, and go hiking out in the woods and stuff…”

Even as Shades spoke, Max pictured some of his old stomping grounds in the Islands, what he remembered of them, tried to imagine what it would be like if any of his closest friends had lived on another island, but mostly remembered all the fun he and Cleo and Lance used to have.

“Later,” he continued, “when we were in high school, John met this dude named Sandy who was trying to start a band. Later, another friend of ours, Vince, got in on the act, but it wasn’t until they hooked up with Becky that it really took off. We mostly used to just goof around, they’d piss off the neighbors trying to learn favorite songs and I’d mess with the minds of those who called to complain, but in about the last year or so, they got a lot more serious. They’ve even made a few original songs in the last few months.”

“What else did you guys do?”

“All kinds of stuff,” Shades replied. “I’ve thought about it over and over since I came here… How this whole place seems like something out of the Twilight Zone.”

“What’s the Twilight Zone?” Max wasn’t too sure he even liked the sound of the name.

“I’ll tell you more about it later.” Shades figured he would have to explain a lot of strange and unpleasant things about this place, and he didn’t know if he could even find the words to describe his impressions. “It’s too much like those crazy stories I used to tell Tom on the bus when we were in middle school. I’d just make up a series of bizarre events, and see if we could piece it together. Just making shit up as you go along… kinda like how I’ve been living these days.”

“You used to make up stories?”

“Used to? I never stopped!” Shades laughed. “Then again, most of my stories were based on stuff I’d read about paranormal events and stuff, but of course, when you get older, one day it just becomes uncool. You just don’t get as much of an audience anymore, and sometimes I think I’ve gotten a little rusty. But back in those days, Max, I thought they’d never end. We used to walk and ride the bus together every morning… Back then, it seemed like it would always be that way…”

“You had good friends.” After all, Max knew from experience. “Real friends.”

“I know.” He had never really thought about it before, and in recent days he had come to realize just how much he had taken each of them for granted. Still had trouble picturing resuming the journey of life without them. “Just that week, I was making plans with Arthur… putting the finishing touches on a road trip this summer that we had been planning since we were in middle school. I guess things got pretty fucked up.”

“Road trip?”

“Oh yeah. I forgot. You guys don’t have highways.” Don’t need highways. “Way out west, there were miles and miles of roads, probably more than you could explore in a lifetime… When we were in middle school, we promised each other that, after we graduated, we were gonna drive to Alaska and back. Just for the hell of it.”

Just for the halibut… as Arthur used to say. Just one last adventure.

“Alaska…” Max said, seeming to savor every syllable, as he often did when picking up the names of places he had never heard of. Though, Shades could tell, still hoped to see for himself one day. “Where’s that?”

“Well, it’s kinda hard to explain. I’ll see if I can find any maps from my world—”

That was when it happened.

Neither of them could explain. The only thing Max could compare it to was the expression that crossed Bandit’s face when he sensed something bad. To Shades, he simply felt something “shift” in the back of his mind, that must be how a mouse felt right before the cat pounces.

Anymore, he could smell a pig from a mile away.

Shades just happened to catch a glimpse of a security guard, flanked by several more, talking to a store clerk. “Max!” Shades hissed, pulling his friend down behind the rack, just a moment before the clerk pointed in their general direction. In the first of several mini-manhunts to come, it was clear to both of them that they were planning to rush the place, already storming in onto the sales floor. Peering over the side of the next rack, he saw that they had left a man at the door.

There would be no quiet way to leave.

“Shit!” Shades hissed, his mind scrambling for some kind of plan.

“What now?” Max whispered, already sizing up the numbers and possible strength of his foes.

Then the inspiration struck as Shades realized just how childishly simple the solution could be.

“This way…” he said, popping a mint and offering one to Max for good luck. “Just do what I do.”

A few moments later, a couple guards came through, combing through the aisles and wandering among the racks. They prowled around for several minutes, barging in on the dressing booths, much to the indignation of several occupants. Heading the party was a guard with his arm in a sling, and another who wore a band of gauze around his head, plus Fat and Fatter had also joined the party.

After searching for several minutes, they regrouped near the entrance.

“Dammit!” the guard in the sling muttered. A guard had sighted two people matching the descriptions of the two who had attacked them the day before, but it had taken time to bring together a suitable party to capture them. “We missed them!”

“We even looked in the restrooms,” said a guard who just walked up to them.

“Bastards must’ve left just before we came in,” the one with the headwrap commented, pounding his fist against a display counter. “Come on, let’s get the hell outta here.”

With that, they turned and stomped out.

Once the guards were gone, two coat racks started moving, almost simultaneously. Shades emerged from one, yanking a trenchcoat off himself; Max shrugged off a couple pairs of pants he had draped over himself.

Damn!” Shades muttered. Quite frankly, he was surprised that such a cheap trick actually worked. He had spent every second holding perfectly still, ready to knock the whole rack over on anyone who ratted him out. Lying in wait more than he was hiding. A little camo, plus that old ninja trick of taking advantage of the simple fact that the human eye needs motion to track things— hell, now that he thought about it, he had fooled Tom and John with similar tricks playing war games out in the woods on a few occasions. “I can’t believe that worked.”

“That was close!” Max agreed.

“You can say that again.”

“That was close!”

Then Max saw the comically exasperated look on his friend’s face.

“Oh.”

“I think we need to find another hiding spot,” Shades observed as the moved to the farthest checkout stand from where the guards had made their search as possible.

“I think you’re right.”

He knew he would have to talk to Max about the deathwatch. After all, one would have to be insane to just keep listening to it. This place shows some scary pictures, and he was grateful that he no longer had to face its mind games alone.

All the same, he suspected that Max was worried about Bandit, and he didn’t blame his friend one bit; even as they prepared to make their getaway, he wondered what this nightmare must be like for that poor cat.

Tradewinds 07 CH 10

While his two human companions were out and about, Bandit lay curled up on Max’s bed.

Before they left, Max and the one called Shades had set up a bunch of newspapers in the corner of the bathroom. When he looked around earlier for a place, he was led over there and encouraged to use it. It seemed very important to them. As a last resort, they hung a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, resigning themselves to doing at least some of the cleaning themselves.

It had taken some reassurance to get him to stay there without Max. For all the hours Max and his new friend watched TV, he had been able to sleep peacefully, basking in the warmth of their presence. Since they left, however, sleep had become all but impossible.

All his life, Max had always been around somewhere; though he sometimes wandered all over the island at will, his friend was never far away. The last two days had changed all that. Having passed through a series of strange places, the only constant left had been Max. After the dead, disturbing atmosphere of Tranz-D, to the equally strange place where they met the man with the cookies, to this place, with its host of exotic, tantalizing smells, that for some reason reminded him of that devilfish Max killed years ago.

It was the undersmell of the place. The smell of wrongness, even compared to the place the humans called Tranz-D. Underneath everything, and it nearly raised his hackles.

In spite of both humans’ reassurances, without his old friend, Bandit couldn’t help feeling abandoned; not since he was a cub, before he ever met Max, had he felt anything like this.

Part of it was that it was no fun being cooped up when there was a whole new jungle out there to explore. And then there were people, an entirely new feature of his existence, and most of them came bearing food and attention. There was a general sense of missing out on something.

And that only made this end of the bargain seem even worse.

Exploring it with his strange human friends was actually fun, but when he was all alone, this place started to show its true nature. And he was discovering that this place could become rather frightening when you’re all alone in it. The very walls seemed to lean close and listen for your heartbeat, a constant unhealthy presence in the absence of distraction.

After turning back and forth, prowling the confined floorspace of the room, Bandit curled up like an overgrown kitten, trying to somehow get back to sleep.

Yet the minutes dragged on…