Tradewinds 07 CH 08

Some hours later, Shades woke up from more of the disconcerting dreams which still haunted him ever since the night of the experiment.

Another terrible dream… he thought, as images swam vaguely through his head. But also intriguing, as most of the ones before it. Especially the way, for their short duration, they seemed to tie both his friends and events together in some way that eluded his waking mind. He could always feel the pieces falling away from him as he drifted upward toward consciousness again. And it always frustrated him, almost as much as being trapped and powerless in this limbo in the first place.

Since Max was still asleep, he crawled out of bed and turned on some animé on low volume.

Though Max still slept like a log, he accidentally woke Bandit, who curled up next to him as he watched. Shades found himself thinking about his first morning here, wishing for feline company. Max’s companion filled a Bandit-shaped hole in his life he had nearly forgotten after all these years.

Even as he settled in, an odd thought popped into his head. Before, he had had his hands full with the events of the past day, but now that he thought about it, he found himself wondering why he hadn’t been killed for warning Max about the curse, like the repairman had that fateful night. After thinking it over for a while, all he could come up with was that the curse, that the Management, had not yet fully claimed him. He still remembered DJ’s chilling admonition (Don’t sign anything!), that perhaps there was something more to it, that though trapped here he was still his own, unlike so many before who had been made into this place’s bitch.

With no definitive answers to any of his questions, Shades grew tired of turning them over in his head. For what had to be the millionth time in the last three weeks, he wished his friends could be here. With him, that was, rather than in this particular place. He wanted to have fun, was sick of brooding about things that were beyond his control, but something held him back.

It was then that the voice of Douglas MacLean spoke up. Life isn’t always fair. Shades couldn’t even remember how many times Dad had told him that. Just enjoy the good times while they last, Dex.

His father’s words made up his mind. As selfish as they sounded, even to himself, for the time being he would throw it all and just have some fun.

His mind started making parallels to all the trips he had been on when he was younger. How often most of the details were beyond his control, yet he just rode it out with a carefree childish stoicism he now realized he had lost somewhere along the way. Of motels and people’s houses, tents and sleeping bags, friends and annoyances, of having no say in most of it, but still treating it as an adventure.

Of waking up in the top bunk of a family friend’s camper van in the morning, after spending all day— and most of the night— at the State Fair when he was in the first grade, setting off a chain of favorite childhood memories, all leading back to how happy he had been back in the day…

…The sun shone that spring morning with a crystal clarity Shades would notice, years from now, had somehow faded from things as time moved on.

Unlike when Dad was stationed in bigger towns, neither of his parents seemed to worry as much about him wandering around Lakeside. Back in those days, this place was scarcely even known to the outside world, no trespassing and beware of dog signs the exception rather than the rule, and fences were just fun obstacles in his exploration and adventures. Even when he was older, he would never tire of walking the roads and hidden paths of this once quiet mountain town.

The sun caught glints and flashes off the lenses of the cool fold-up sunglasses he had talked Dad into buying him. Back before he was “Shades”— a name that would someday occur to him after seeing his reflection in a car’s side window, one he wouldn’t start demanding of the world until after his father disappeared— before he won the right to wear his namesake style in class, he was just Dexter MacLean. Dex to his friends. Once he hung his jacket in the locker room, he would take off his cool new specs, fold them up and stick them in their case, instead donning the dorky-looking glasses he would wear until he was almost in middle school, and go back to being just plain Dexter.

But for now, his mind would never deign to dwell on such things. Not with such a glorious morning to walk to school through. With so many paths to choose from, boredom was hardly a possibility once he went beyond his front door.

While others were standing around waiting for the bus— the crowded, noisy bus that would drag them all the way out to Somers and back before dropping off most of his classmates— he would walk a combination of main roads and secret trails to get to school. A major upside he would notice when he was older was that these walks never failed to put him in a good mood, even before school. Next year, though, he would have no choice but to ride the bus to Somers, but for now he was enjoying his final days in the third grade to the fullest.

This morning, he had taken a particularly winding road, cutting through a couple empty yards— not that anyone minded in those days— in a mostly downhill direction. Though variety was the spice of life with so many possible paths to take, he often preferred to use the hidden ways, the more woods the better. Once he got down to the highway, he cut behind the buildings that lined the highway, crossing a plank for a bridge over a deep ditch of spring runoff, entering the school grounds from the back of the playground.

He looked at his watch. Oh-eight-hundred hours exact. Still on time.

If he could find him in time, he would even talk to Darek for a few minutes before the bell. While everyone else went along with the script, these two played their own games, by their own rules. Before there was John or the band, before Tom, even before Arthur, there was Darek.

He first met Darek Chambers last year, when his family first moved to Lakeside. Their second grade teacher chose Darek to show him around on his first day, and they had become fast friends ever since. Little did he know his friend would move to Kalispell over the summer, then disappear altogether, but for now they were friends forever, as all childhood friends truly are.

Spotting his friend over near the outbuilding next to the gym, Dex took off his backpack. Digging past yesterday’s homework, he fetched out some Easter candy. Though food was frowned upon outside of the cafeteria without the teachers’ permission, he and Darek and some others had started conducting an underground candy trade during recess. It had all started last fall, with Halloween candy, and had experienced a revival of sorts after Valentine’s Day. One thing he had discovered this year, and would later cite as an inspiration for his and his friends’ Black Ops when he was older, was the thrill of flying below radar.

“Hey Dex!” Darek greeted him, backpack in hand. Though he often scoffed at the whole contraband candy thing and how silly it was, it somehow never stopped him from doing it.

“What’s up, Darek?”

“Whoa! Cool shades! Where’d you get those?…”

…At some point in Shades’ remembrances, Max woke up and joined him watching the toob. He had seen the screen when they first settled in, but had been too lost in all of the confusion of the past day to ask Shades about it. What he now saw totally floored him. Like some of the other devices his friend had shown him, the TV looked like it came straight out of Tranz-D.

Or straight outta hell, if you asked Justin.

The stories themselves varied, most of which was unfamiliar to him, which made sense, as Shades had explained that their origins lie in another world. The Islanders, collectively, had accumulated many tales from many lands, only a fraction of which he had heard in his eleven years there, most of them adapted from Outlander accounts. Still, he was moved by it all in a way that his friend found at once amusing and intriguing, shocked, fascinated, full of questions (only some of which Shades had answers to), once he even laughed so hard he almost rolled off the bed, to Bandit’s perplexity.

As Max and Shades watched this endless menagerie of images with his new friend, he felt a growing desire to leave it all behind. For a time, something inside of Max had simply snapped, and like his friend, Max shrugged his load. Consciously made the decision to let the burden slide from his shoulders, the stress of problems he could do anything about, the past, the future; for now just living from moment to moment.

So, for a few hours, the two of them experienced Away From Home Syndrome to the fullest, and Bandit enjoyed the first peace and quiet he had seen in almost two days.

Later, though, while Shades continued to chill with Bandit, Max found his thoughts turning back to Justin’s unknown plight.

Soon it was almost driving him to distraction. He kept reminding himself, as Shades assured him, that the guards were only programmed to capture and hold, but still he worried. Though he had never met the Junkyard Dogs, or the Enforcer, the primal, and by now rather unnerved, part of his mind suspected that that place still had claws and fangs that had not yet presented themselves to him.

Tradewinds 07 CH 07

“…And that was when I woke up in a room that, if I’m not mistaken, was just down the hall from here,” Shades said, concluding a tale he had come to wryly nickname the Flathead Experiment.

On the way to Shades’ hotel room, he had explained about the Card, the one from the First Municipal Bank of New Cali, that he had found that one eerie day. Any place that did credit, he could buy whatever he wanted, or draw hard cash to buy it elsewhere. Told him about hiding under beds, scrounging for change, and transforming into a vagrant before his very eyes before he discovered it.

Though they talked about all sorts of things on the way, there had also been moments of silence, as Shades had to take them “the long way around” the sector where they had fought the guards, and occasionally had to go even farther out of their way to avoid a few more. Often saying casual things like Don’t forget, we need to pick up that stuff we ordered, then detouring them in another direction.

Shades told his story while they situated themselves in the new room, this time a double. While they talked, Bandit caught some z’s on Max’s bed. It had been a trick getting the big cat through unnoticed, but Shades had managed to keep the desk clerk occupied with room accommodations while Max and Bandit slipped past. He still hadn’t figured out how they would continue to hide his new friend’s pet, but he was sure they would think of something.

“Whoa…” There were parts of Shades’ account that Max would have a few questions about later, but mostly he was lost in his description of a world he could hardly imagine. His parents had spoken of such places, but the concept of a continent was still hard to wrap his head around, a reversal of everything he knew. This Flathead Lake may well be bigger than the entire Isle of Paradise, yet completely enclosed by dry land.

An ocean of land, dotted with islands of water.

Now that they had spent an hour or so settling in, Shades was fairly confident that the guards were unaware of their presence here, and the time had come for show-and-tell. Max had spoken of, and was even wearing, a few souvenirs from Tranz-D, and he had accumulated more than a few items here that he was sure Max would find of interest. The first thing he wanted to know about though was, “Say Max. Earlier, when we were fighting those guards, I saw you had a gun hidden in your jacket.” When they were out earlier, he had been curious, but didn’t dare risk letting anyone out there see them with a weapon. “Mind if I take a look at it?”

“My power pistol?” Max had seen Shades in action against the guards earlier, could tell that Shades knew how to fight, and wondered what weapons his new friend possessed. “Sure. I guess.”

Shades reached into his backpack, coming up with Max’s Tranz-D jacket, which he had stuffed in there earlier.

“So, this is a laser gun…” Shades commented as he removed it from Max’s jacket. It looked like a cross between a firearm in his own world, and some movie studio’s vision of the future. His finger hovered near the trigger, but he decided that it wouldn’t be the brightest idea to actually pull it. It sort of reminded him of when Master Al showed him the pride of his sword collection.

“Wanna see my laser sword?”

Shades instantly perked up at that phrase, his imagination running on overdrive as Max removed the weapon from its concealment and handed it to him. Hesitantly, he switched it on, jumping in spite of himself when the radiant green energy blade shone forth. Years ago, Master Al had handed him the most prized blade from his sword collection, a katana that had once belonged to a prominent samurai from the Tokugawa Period. Hardly needed sensei to tell him the history of it. A real samurai blade, not a replica from some catalog. He could feel it. Had been at least half a century since the last time it was drawn in battle. Tokugawa, Meiji, Taishô, then a long dormant Shôwa and beyond, gathering dust in some retired World War II vet’s Hawai’ian home before Al bought it at an estate auction… no wonder it had grown so restless; unlike those cookie-cutter catalog blades, this one had tasted blood. A real sword that belonged to real warriors. Sounded cheesy, but it had felt like he was holding a lightning bolt in his hand. Back then, it was all he could do not to slice Al’s table in half, and this time he could not restrain himself.

He set down Max’s power pistol and tossed a complimentary bar of soap into the air, slicing it cleanly in two.

“Dude! That thing’s real!” Shades could see the shimmering blade. Could feel the pulsing power in his hands. And the two soap pieces on the carpet gave silent witness to the fact that these were no mere special effects.

“It’s got two different modes,” Max informed him. “That narrow blade is the cutting blade. Be careful. As you can see, that blade can cut through just about anything. If you flip that other switch, you get the stun blade.”

“Stun blade?” When Shades switched it, the blade shifted, becoming thicker and more radiant, due to the expansion of its energy field.

“There are two power settings,” Max continued, remembering everything his father had taught him about energy weapons years ago. “One will knock you out with just a touch, the other will sting, and make it feel like whatever part of you got hit went to sleep.”

Shades simply stared at the beam of energy, mesmerized in near-disbelief at what he held.

“Don’t worry, it’s safe,” Max assured him. “I’ve hit myself with a few times while training. Justin has a laser staff, and we used to train together.”

Haltingly at first, Shades reached out and lightly touched the blade. The closer he got to the center, the more the blade seemed to repel his hand, a tingling sensation that intensified the deeper his fingers reached into that shimmering green light.

“Just give it a moment, and you’ll be able to feel your hand again,” said Max.

“I see…” Shades said, shaking his hand as he gave the incredible weapon back to him. “I wish I had one.” Having seen this, he now felt that his own contribution to this exchange would be less than spectacular. Still, he reached into his own jacket pocket, fetching out his Cam-Jam. “This thing can hold five thousand songs on it…” He again reached into his pockets and came up with fold-up headphones. “And thanks to the Card, and DJ’s tracks, I’ve got over a thousand so far… and I got ’em for a song!”

He handed the device to Max. It was indeed pocket-size, light-years ahead of anything he had ever seen in his own world. And, in this case, waterproof to a depth of 50 meters, having paid extra (sort of, given the Card’s seemingly bottomless line of credit) for the “sports” model. After showing Max how to operate the controls, he let his friend flip through, sampling songs.

And was surprised to discover that Max was at least as thrilled with this musical wonder as he had been at seeing a weapon he thought only existed in sci-fi films, the way his eyes lit up and he appeared half his age.

Listening to it, Max realized that he had never asked Justin the customary question of if he knew any good songs.

After listening for a couple minutes, Max showed Shades the cards he had used to unlock the doors back in Tranz-D, and Shades compared them to the keycards to their hotel room. After showing Max the Card, explaining about how he used it, Shades shuffled through Max’s wad of bills, telling him, “Throw that Canadian crap out. It’s worthless in here.” Whoever this money had belonged to had been very well traveled, even before ending up in another dimension, for there were also pesos, yen, and something mysterious called “euros” in the mix.

Though Max was tired after such a long and harrowing adventure, his mind was still racing, and it was quite a while before he could sleep. For the rest of the night, Shades and Max spoke of many things. Of the mall and how each of them got there. Of Paradise and Tranz-D. Of Earth. Of the Centralict Library. John. Justin.

And that strange music Shades was dancing to earlier.

Tradewinds 07 CH 06

The sound of tracks had returned, and with it, all peace of mind fled in their wake.

Justin was immediately jolted awake by the ominously recognizable sound. He sprang bolt upright in his corner of the closet, fumbling for his fallen guns, which he had dropped from his hands in his sleep. Even as he tried to ready himself, his own mind kept trying to reassure him about his position.

If those damn robots can’t figure it out, why would that fucking rust-bucket be able to? It can’t it can’t it can’t it can’t…

His guns feeling strangely awkward as he picked them up, he knew something was wrong. Horribly wrong. Guns had always felt right at home in his hands.

And before he could aim either of them at the door controls, NK-525 burst in, guns blazing.

“DIE, INTRUDER! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!”

It would be the last terrifying thing he would ever see—

Justin snapped awake, this time for real.

To find that he was still slumped against the wall in the very same closet he had fallen asleep in. Though for a moment, that didn’t seem very reassuring. The only thing that brought him any relief, yet also a measure of chagrin, was the realization that he hadn’t dropped his guns, but had been clutching them in a white-knuckle grip.

“I’m still alive!” His voice so hoarse it was practically a whisper. He unclutched one of his guns and tried not to drink all of what was left of his water. A part of his mind still certain that he had died, died and gone to hell, as the TSA guards so often recommended him.

Then again, if there was such a place, he would not be too surprised if Hell bore at least a passing resemblance to Tranz-D.

Though for now, he was still alive. Soaked in cold sweat, but still very much alive. He shivered for a moment, bitterly pondering the fact that in this sterile environment, the only thing he could smell was his own sweat and fear.

And he was becoming increasingly certain that the Enforcer could smell the latter, if not the former. Sleep had done him good, but he still kept hearing the sound of those tracks anytime his mind got too quiet. Paranoid ears hear all too well. That dream had shaken him up even worse than he thought, and now he felt less and less safe, even in this place.

Jangled by his own dark visions, his mind was flooded with insane doubts. NK had passed by him once in here, but reassurance was in short supply, fast becoming a dream beyond a dream in this waking nightmare. The mere thought of this relentless foe he could not destroy paralyzed him with an unknown terror, both in mind and in body.

Gotta do something… Gotta get outta here… GOTTA GO!

With that, he finally found his mobility again, deciding with what decisiveness he could muster, to get the hell out of here. Yet even as he carved open the vent grill with his laser staff, ruefully wishing he had thought to do so before he fell asleep, he felt as if he was moving underwater. And issuing from the back of his mind, this soothing, hypnotically soothing, voice assuring him that it was all a dream, of course NK-525 couldn’t find him in here, after all it hadn’t found him last time…

Even as he waded through the motions, Justin recognized the voice for what it really was. In some other corner of the universe, that insidiously rational voice might have told him that the guy who’s followed him for the last block-and-a-half isn’t a mugger, just as it had sometimes back in the Triangle State that obeying the guards really was the Right Thing To Do. That the soldiers locking the whole neighborhood down really were acting in his best interests

Just as he was removing the grill, he heard it.

At first he thought he was losing it again, but the sound didn’t go away. Instead, it was coming closer. Its seemingly random patrols were back in the neighborhood again, and he feared his nightmare from moments ago was about to come true.

Hearing that NK-525 was nearly upon him, Justin freaked out, blasting the control panel and diving into the shaft.

And nearly got stuck.

“Oh shit!” Justin muttered as he struggled to get in. As small as he was, the vent opening was also small and narrow. His efforts becoming more and more frantic as the mechanical monster drew near.

Nearer.

Finally, Justin realized that he was hung up on the water bottle he was carrying. With no time left to feel sheepish, he worked his way the rest of the way in. He had no way of knowing whether or not the Enforcer was going to check this particular closet, but it was too late now. There was only one way left to go.

Forward.

By the time he was around the corner, he could hear NK’s harsh, electronic voice blaring its usual drill about how there was no escape. Punctuated by repeated laser blasts. He just kept crawling, and nearly screamed when the closet door finally crashed in.

All the while, he couldn’t help but wonder if that jarring nightmare he’d just had hadn’t somehow saved his life.

And so Justin crawled back into the darkness of the ventilation grid, trying to put his mind back together. Between almost thinking he was dead, and NK’s seemingly impossible appearance, he had very nearly lost it all. When he felt a side passage to his right, he actually rolled over, unzipping his mine camp coveralls and taking a much needed piss.

He had once again come within inches of losing his life, wondering what would have happened if he had obeyed that eerie voice and stuck around. As his mind calmed down, he wondered if he had somehow alerted the damn thing by shooting the controls or something. But all he knew for sure was that there was only one truly safe place, and he was in it.

Though part of him wondered if there really was such a thing, if even this place truly offered any real shelter.

He shook his head, trying to keep the voice of total paranoia at bay. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he was going to be spending a lot more time down here than he wanted to believe. For now he would also be sleeping in here, as well.

With grim resolve, he crawled forward, contemplating the new strategic implications of his situation. On his way, he crawled right past an ancient monitoring device, originally designed to detect obstructions in the ventilation system, now adapted by the System to detect Intruders in its paranoid efforts to exterminate them. Justin didn’t even notice the unobstructive sensors as he passed.

Tradewinds 07 CH 05

Fortunately, Bankshot was in a different sector than the one where Max and Shades confronted the guards not too long ago, but even so, Shades didn’t feel very secure as they were. Fortunately also, after a little while, Shades’ nerves seemed to settle, and stopped rambling and allowed Max more than two words in edgewise. Shades had stuffed his own jacket in his previously concealed backpack, and stopped at a store and bought Max a different one, as well a as cap so he could take off his headband and conceal his hair to some degree. Hoping that would change their appearance enough to buy some time, they continued on their way.

They walked in silence for a little while as Shades began to calm down, and Max said to him, “I’m sorry about the guards. It’s just that they reminded me of the ones… I seemed to have ruined our chance to escape.”

“It’s not your fault.” Shades could just about kick himself, but he refused to take it out on Max. “I was hoping to explain the Three Taboos and stuff after we escaped. Now there’ll be plenty of time to tell you about it later.”

Max shrugged, then broke the question that had been forming in his mind since the fight ended: “Shades, what is this place?”

“What do you mean?” Shades asked, then decided that he did know what Max meant, even if he didn’t know the answer to his question.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Max told him, deciding not to go all the way back to the beginning. That would be too much, too soon. “It all started when I wandered into this weird place called Tranz-D.”

“Tranz-D?” Since his arrival, Shades had heard of names he had never heard before, and Max had just added one more to the list.

“Yeah,” Max said, trying to recall what the librarian had told him. “It’s this other dimension that’s been sealed away for… ten thousand years. The walls were made of metal, and there were computers everywhere, and all these hallways, and there are doors to other dimensions. But there were also androbots” (not quite able to remember the librarian’s word for them) “that tried to capture me, but I escaped from them!”

“Go on…” Shades tried not to laugh at the term androbot, not wanting to be distracted. This is the most interesting thing I’ve heard all week! From the moment he first laid eyes on him, he suspected that Max wasn’t from anyplace these other people had been, but even he had underestimated how far Max had come from.

“After I got away, I found a map, and went to a door— a warpgate— that led me to a library,” Max continued, heartened by his new friend’s apparent interest. “I was hoping to find answers to things the computers wouldn’t tell me.”

Which led back to his original purpose.

“Shades, I have to find a way back. I have a friend who was with me, and I think he’s still trapped in there.”

“And what is your friend’s name?” Shades asked.

Little did Max know that his new companion was fast becoming an expert on losing friends under unusual circumstances.

“His name is Justin Black.”

“How come you’ve only got one name, and he gets two?”

“I don’t know.” Having more than one name was a common Outlander tradition— Wymore, his mother’s original “last” name, immediately came to mind, something he hadn’t thought about in years— so the concept of two names, nicknames aside, was still very new to him.

“Ah, well we can talk about it in a little bit,” Shades told him as they up on the entrance to Bankshot. They were so busy talking, he almost walked right past it. “Here we are. Let’s go talk to DJ.”

After one last glance to make sure there were no guards lurking about, they ducked inside.

The place was a lot quieter than it was during Mosh Hour, though some hip-hop tune Shades had never heard before was playing on low volume. Only a fraction of the previous crowd to be found here now, scattered to the four corners of the lounge. With as few visitors as he had had this past hour or so, DJ noticed them almost as soon as they came in.

“Hey mon!” he called out as he turned away from the back counter to greet them.

“Yo Deej!” Shades called back as he and Max strode over to the bar, Bandit strolling along behind them.

Shades loved just about everything about his place, from the real variety of music, to DJ’s penchant for playing uncensored versions most of the time, but there was one thing he found of greatest strategic significance. Even from his first escape onward, this was the only place that would hide him; somehow, in spite of all the time he spent here, it was his only haunt that Security was not aware of. To the contrary, totally oblivious. He knew DJ ran what was probably the Mall’s most discreet establishment, yet he still felt there was more to it than that.

Sometimes, he almost swore it was the music.

“Are dey with you?” DJ asked as Max sad down next to Shades, Bandit plunking himself down between them.

“Yeah. This is Max,” Shades told him, then lowered his voice a couple notches, “the curse’s latest victim. And the first person I’ve ever met who has no last name.” He then turned to Max, gesturing to DJ, saying, “My friend, DJ Rachid, owner and proprietor of this fine establishment.” Then back to DJ, patting the big cat on the head: “And last, but not least, Max’s kitty, Bandit.”

“Hi, Max!” DJ reached out to shake hands, and Max took a moment to figure out what he wanted, then took his hand. Then he leaned over the bar, extending his hand to Max’s companion, saying, “Hi Bandit!”

The gesture clearly meant in jest, yet all three humans ended up staring at each other for a moment after the panther actually put his paw in DJ’s.

“I never knew he could do that!” Max remarked after a moment, as confounded by this turn of events as his new friends.

“You didn’t?” Earlier, Shades had listened as Max told him about washing up on an island, and how his new friend was already there waiting for him. He wondered what other tricks Bandit had learned before he ever met Max.

“A lot of Outlanders often said that animals are dumb,” Max theorized, “but Bandit always seemed pretty smart. He even knows two different languages.”

“He does?” Shades asked.

“Yeah. Like this.”

Max then said something to Bandit in ancient Layoshan.

In response, the big jumped up and tackled Shades to the floor.

Even as Shades fell those two or three words resonated in his mind. To him, perhaps the first Outlander in at least a generation to hear the hidden language of the Ancestors, it felt as ancient as one of Earth’s forgotten tongues, with an aboriginal flow and beauty that made him wish everyone could speak it. He was hardly aware of the cat sitting upon him, filled with an inexplicable longing to see what kind of wondrous place such a language could originate from.

“We made up that one after I met Justin!”

“Cool!” To Shades, that made Bandit smarter than most people he had met. It wasn’t that he could follow orders— and dog could do that— it was more that he seemed to understand what they were talking about, even more so than any other creature he had met. Still, there was something else he wanted to know.

But DJ beat him to the punch, as he stepped around the bar, asking, “Wow! Where did you learn to speak two different languages?”

“Well… um…” Max, torn between his desire to tell them all about the Islands, and his painful memories of how that life was taken from him, settled for, “We all talked like that…”

The crowd had thinned out still more in the last few minutes, and the three of them realized that they could have the most remote corner of the lounge to themselves.

“I’d really love it if you taught me how to speak like that,” Shades told him as they took their seats. “Does your friend, uh… Justin, speak it too?”

“No.” Turning back to his friend’s predicament, Max was again stricken with frustration at how he kept drifting farther and farther from his goal, no matter how hard he fought against the current. “But I have to find him. Even he doesn’t know a lot about his past, but he told me he was from the Triangle State. Do you know where that is?”

Shades’ expression looked especially blank with sunglasses, and DJ also arched an eyebrow.

“You’ve never heard of it?”

“Should I have?” Wherever this guy’s from, it’s gotta be a lot more far-flung than most of these folks… Remembering what his new friend had said earlier about being shipwrecked on an uncharted island, he asked, “Where did you come from, I mean before you wound up in Tranz-D?”

“A long time ago,” Max told them, “I was stranded on an island. I called it Paradise.”

“Sounds like a pretty nice place,” Shades commented, judging from Max’s choice of names, and DJ nodded in understanding.

“Actually, I’m glad I left.” Now that he had a moment to think about it, it dawned on him that he had finally fulfilled the first part of his childhood vow, getting off the island. Still he wished Justin was with him now. “It’s tough being alone.”

“Alone?” Shades asked carefully. Then he realized that this Justin Black must have come along later on.

“After a storm, I found myself lying on the beach there about five years ago,” Max explained. Glossing over his harrowing battle with Slash, he told them, “Bandit was already there. I lived on that island for years before Justin was marooned there.”

“Oh.” Shades could tell there was a story here.

“Say Shades,” Max asked, changing the subject, “where do you come from?”

“A land called America, on a world called Earth,” Shades replied. “It’s in a whole other dimension. To be honest, I haven’t been in the Sixth Dimension very long either.”

“So… we’re still in the Sixth Dimension?”

All eyes on DJ.

“I… think so…”

“I guess even da Boss DJ doesn’t know, either,” Shades conceded. Then he asked, “Hey Deej, would you score us some Seltzers?”

“Sure thing!”

Shades could tell Max had been through a lot lately, and he knew they were both about to face even more trouble, so he had decided to start teaching Max the tricks of the trade for dealing with this world right from this moment.

“What’s a Seltzer?” Max asked.

“You’ll see…”

Max blinked at Shades’ sly smile.

A moment later, when DJ returned with all of their drinks, Shades handed a bottle to Max. At some point in his search among the vendors, DJ actually found an outfit that sold the stuff, an old childhood favorite of Shades’. Whoever made it had gone the way of the dinosaur, at least back on Earth. But not in the Sixth Dimension. Even in his short time here, he had heard it said that not even the dinosaurs had quite gone the way of the dinosaur in this world. Though his experiences in recent weeks had stretched the limits of what he thought he believed, still he knew better than to believe everything he was told. Still… He pondered these things for a long moment as he grinned at Max and said, “Thanks, man. Here, try one!”

“Okay…” Max hesitated at first, just staring at the bubbles trickling up through the bottle. This drink is fizzing at me! When he took a sip, he was struck by the lemon-lime flavor, which he had never tasted before, and carbonated bubbles, which his parents had told of, but he had never experienced before. “Wow!”

“Good stuff, ain’t it?” Shades laughed. Just wait ’til the sugar kicks in! As they laughed, he caught a glint of light on something dangling from Max’s neck. “Max, can I ask you something?”

“What?” Max sensed that his friend had seen something, perhaps as significant as the crossed-out swastika on his bag, but he wasn’t sure what.

“What is that?”

He pointed at the triangular medallion Max wore.

“This?” Max looked down self-consciously at his keepsake. Just when he thought the subject would turn to something less personal, it revolved back around to his past. “What about it?”

“Where’d you get it?”

“My father gave it to me when I was a boy.”

“I see. Do you know where he got it?”

“I’m not really sure. Why do you ask?”

“Because…” Shades reached under his shirt and fished out his own medallion, wondering if he might finally get some answers after all these years. “I’ve got one too.”

At first, Max just stared at him, then took off his own even as Shades removed his. Time to compare notes. DJ had had a couple tasks to attend to, and had returned to their table just in time for Shades’ revelation, and now he watched them as they set both medals on the table.

Max couldn’t recall Robert ever telling him where he got it from, so any information he could glean about this relic from so long ago would be welcome…

…Max stood in front of his mother and father on Layosha’s largest beach one majestic afternoon. Alida stood near her son, and Lance, Cleo, Carlton and Ron were there as well. As was fitting, this being Max’s birthday and all. His family and friends had thrown him the Islanders’ equivalent of a barbecue in his honor. They swam at the beach, played games while the grownups had their grownup conversations, and now all of his close friends and family gathered around to see the gifts Max would be given.

Especially to see what exotic artifact Robert had for his son this time.

After all of his extensive travels in the outside world, Max’s father had brought back many things. Some of these things he, and Alida and Uncle Angus, had given to friends, some things they had given to the Islands as a whole, and a small collection of items each of them had kept for themselves. Whatever all he had brought home with him, it had all fit on two ships, for that was all they had returned home with. Still it was more than he had left with; the largest, fastest, most heavily-armed ship the Islanders had possessed in generations, their new flagship, the Darkhorse, along with Angus’ Edge, made for an impressive homecoming. It was this bounty, combined with their extensive experience with Outlanders, that earned them their privileged status with the Elders.

Many of the gifts Max’s parents had given him came from this mysterious collection of intriguing junk. They had also given some of their friends interesting gifts from their little treasure-trove on occasion. And they would often spend a long time marveling at these glimpses of the outside world.

“And now it’s time for my gift, Max,” Robert told his son. Everyone watched expectantly, for no one had seen what he had brought. Robert reached up and took off the triangular silver medallion he had worn ever since his return to the Islands. He then presented it to Max, saying, “This medallion was given to me a long time ago by an old Outlander friend who helped me on my way. On your ninth birthday, I now give it to you, my son, to keep and pass on to your own child some day.”

He then handed it to Max, who for a long moment held it up in awe. Dad’s medallion…

“Wow…”

A sentiment echoed by all of his friends.

Alida beamed at her son with unabashed pride. Though Max had once overheard her confess that sometimes she feared without reason for her son’s future. But now was not one of those times; today was a day of celebration. She and her husband watched as their son and his friends shared Max’s new gift.

After Max had a moment to examine his new treasure, Cleo, Lance and Carlton crowded in around him, wanting to take a look at it. Max, deciding that he had the rest of his life to cherish it, handed it to Cleo, who turned to let Lance have a look while also studying it. Carlton cut in between to have his own look as Max simply watched them.

It was his day. His medallion. His friends.

And he was enjoying every minute of it…

…Along with memories of one of the best days of his life, Max also remembered bits and pieces of his parents’ conversations on the subject, both from during that gathering, and on other occasions. Once heard his mother lament to someone: He never fully explained what that crazy old man… Abu-Something-Or-Other— who we met several times on the way— what he told him, only to keep it safe. Once overheard his father when he confessed: I still get the impression that whatever it is, it’s part of something big, and perhaps it’s for the best that we don’t know… Lest the destiny connected to it catch up with the bearer, and Max wasn’t sure where he got that idea, yet it seemed somehow right to him. That Mom could sense the “powerful aura” of the man, and Dad reassuring her, The old man wouldn’t have given us anything dangerous… or something along those lines. And Mom saying (and he remembered how quietly she had spoken), Or at least more dangerous than you can handle. And for some reason, he pictured Dad placing his hand on her face, combing her hair between his fingers, when he said, Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s harmless here…

All so cryptic, shedding no light, nor even being worthy of mention.

While Max stared off into space, Shades was holding each medallion in one hand, looking back and forth between them. Though the symbols on each corner of the each triangle were different, he was certain they were of the same system. In all his life, he had never seen anything like it— he had even dug around in a few archaeology books and stuff. Somehow, though, he had never gotten around to making any serious inquiries about it. His imagination postulated all sorts of interesting possibilities— some big discovery, prehistoric civilization, proof of alien visitation— but his rational mind always won out, afraid of being laughed at (Chris Nimrod immediately came to mind), after being told that it had definitely come from a cereal box or some such.

Two medallions, both identical in size and shape, and of similar workmanship, but marked with different sets of alien characters.

As the humans stood around pondering, Bandit’s curiosity waned, and he finally just curled up and took a cat-nap.

“Dude! Simultaneous!” Shades remarked, a moment later regretting his choice of words, one of John’s old inside jokes. And for a moment he wondered if he and Max’s meeting wasn’t purely by chance. He had to admit that these two exotic artifacts seemed too closely connected to be mere coincidence. “This is weird!”

“Tell me about it!” DJ, who had previously stood by silently, watching them compare notes, added as he finally spoke.

“Yeah…” And now Shades wondered if the guy who ran that tourist trap in West Glacier all those years ago had any idea where he got this particular piece of junk from. Too many years, too many light-years, back to worry about now. “But what the hell are they?”

“I don’t know,” Max said. Whatever they were, they came from way beyond the Islands. And that seriously narrowed down anything he might know about them. “I don’t think my dad knew where it came from, either. This is very mysterious.”

“You can say that again.”

“This is very mysterious.”

“I don’t think he meant dat literally, Max,” DJ told him, trying to suppress a laugh.

“Huh?”

“I didn’t really mean for you to say it again.”

“Then why did you say…”

“It’s just an expression, a figure of speech.” But Shades could see his friend was visibly confused. “It means you… well… summed up the situation.”

“Oh.”

They spent a few more minutes talking about the medals, but when they started talking in circles, the conversation quickly changed direction.

“By the way, Deej,” Shades brought up, figuring that, while giving him a crash-course in Survival 101, he may as well let Max in on some of the Management’s dirty secrets, “we sort of had an altercation with the guards a while ago. We almost escaped— at least I think we did— but then they got in the way.”

“Dat’s bad, really bad,” DJ told them, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial hush. “I’ve told you before, don’t let dem get you, or nobody will ever hear from you again.”

“But we have to get out of here,” Max protested. Now that the novelty of seeing that Dad’s keepsake had an equally mysterious counterpart had worn off, he was growing frustrated, bordering on frantic, at how he seemed to be getting pulled farther and farther away from Justin with every passing moment. “Justin is still trapped in Tranz-D, and I’ve gotta help him!”

“Tranz-D?” DJ intoned.

“Come to think of it,” Shades said before Max could answer, “we still haven’t heard about how you ended up here. Maybe we should start there.”

“Fine,” Max agreed. Given that neither of them seemed to have any idea how to get back to the library or Tranz-D, he decided to tell his story.

And so the three of them killed a couple hours listening to Max’s tale, while Bandit slept at their feet.

Tradewinds 07 CH 04

Justin peered around the next corner. His heart was racing, his lungs burned, his side ached. At times like this, he seriously envied Max’s athletic abilities. I’m gonna end up becoming a hell of a runner myself simply by surviving this!

But for now he could take a break, as the hall was empty as far as the eye could see.

In the long run, he found very little comfort in that. If it was a trick, it wouldn’t be this place’s first. Since his encounter with the cleaning robots, he carried one double-barrel power pistol in hand, but kept his other hand free to operate controls, though always ready to draw from one of the holsters he had taken from the stiffs in the closet.

The emptiness only served to underscore the same questions he had been asking since he first set foot in this place. Where the hell are all the people? Why are their machines trying to kill me? This just doesn’t make any sense…

For a while, he had tried to look everywhere at once, but he quickly gave up on that idea. If he had somehow managed to lose this NK-525, then all he had to do was avoid sounding any more alarms. This whole experience had left his ears, and his nerves, ringing.

He had scarcely slept in the past forty-eight hours, and he felt utterly paranoid.

Somewhere along the way, he had heard stories about what happened to people who went too long without sleep. Stories of people seeing things, hearing things, losing touch with reality. It would start, as he was discovering for himself, with the slow breakdown of his ability to concentrate, making serious thought harder and harder. The Cyexian ringleader Slash was said to be like this, and he had seen it for himself on that fateful smuggling run. An insomniac, she was called, and if things kept up this way, he feared he may yet learn what that exotic- (and rather sinister-) sounding word meant.

The scenery here was creepy enough without hallucinations.

Exhaustion dragged at him as it hadn’t since his time at Pullman Mine Camp. His feet were sore, his knees and elbows were bruised and battered from hours of crawling through shafts, and in spite of the swig of water he had taken from the bottle only a minute ago, his mouth was still dry. On top of that, the feeling that he had somehow walked farther in one day than he had in his entire life. The place itself was neither hot nor cold, and what little ventilation there was felt forced. Everything about this place chilled him to the bone, yet he also felt hot and dazed.

He was starting to feel like he was going to—

Justin snapped out of it as he heard the by now all-too-familiar sound of tracks on metal plating. And by the sound of them, only a few intersections away and closing. Its incessant patrols were moving closer and closer to his position, and once it caught his trail, the nightmare would start all over again.

“Damn… it…”

Justin started forward, meaning to run. But the weight of fatigue and despair— of walls slowly closing in on him, of total futility— smothered his burst of adrenaline even as it started. He settled for stumbling several steps.

Pulling himself together, he scrambled over to the nearest closet. And when he tried to open it, it demanded a password. Same with the next one, and the one after that. When the third closet barred him, he just about screamed, picturing NK somehow locking all of the doors by remote or something.

And when the fourth door slid open without resistance, he ducked in.

One last, desperate idea… he thought as he huddled in the corner. He trained one of his guns on the control panel, meaning to disable it if the Enforcer stopped at this door. One last, desperate idea for the last desperate man in this automated hellhole…

Huddled like this, he made a smaller target.

Facing the door. It dawned on him with a dull sense of horror that he was now sitting in the exact same position as those two bodies in the other closet. That thought made him feel all the more desperate as he awaited an end more violent than any he had pictured in the Triangle State.

In his current jangled state of mind, it was all he could do to steady his aim with both hands, playing it as it comes, as he always had.

After a few moments, each longer than the last, those ominous tracks finally rolled back into earshot. For Justin it was maddening, the way they seemed to slow down as they drew nearer. He was increasingly certain they would stop any second.

Justin held his breath as the Enforcer rolled past, and then, after a few short ages, away from the closet. Somehow the hi-tech hunter had passed over its primitive prey. Later, he would come up with a few theories about that, but for now it was all he could do to exhale an impossibly long sigh of relief as the dreadful sound moved away from him.

In moments like this, he still wondered whether the thing— or something like it— had already done away with Max, or if his friend had somehow managed to survive.

Yet before he knew it, here in the mysterious sanctuary of the utility closet, he finally fell asleep into the troubled dreams of an exhausted mind.

Tradewinds 07 CH 03

“Max!” Shades shouted, scrambling to drag Max back to his feet in a mad frenzy to get away before the commotion started to attract the wrong kind of attention. Even as he spoke, he turned to help Max to his feet, hoping his new friend wouldn’t think him too rude, as he decided to escape now, apologize later.

Much to Shades’ surprise, Max was already bounding back to his feet, having rolled past the rest of the fallen clothes, and thus saw first what his companion had yet to notice.

“Where’d it go?…”

So focused were they on regaining their feet, they failed to notice that they had already attracted the wrong kind of attention as a pair of security guards came around the side of the atrium they just ran past only moments ago.

“Whoa! Hold on there!” shouted one of the guards as they stepped in the way.

Shades would curse his old-world reflexes for a long time to come, as he skidded to a halt before he even realized what he was doing. Unsure of what was happening, Max also halted. As soon as he did so, he found he now shared Shades’ unease.

“Where’s the fire?” the other guard asked. “Don’t you know there’s no running in the halls?”

“I’m sorry,” Shades said, alarmed at how automatically the words flowed from his mouth. He already knew his mistake, and it was all he could do not to kick himself at how easily he had fallen for it. Even as he tried to focus on talking his way out of this predicament, he remembered a bit of trivia Vince once ran by him, a little tidbit from one of his Drama classes. A uniform is just a kind of costume, his friend had said, and being a cop has a lot to do with acting. Something about police in some places doing local community theater acting, or some such. Now he felt the strain of trying to break away from the script of this charade after so many years of adhering to it. “We’re in a bit of a hurry. We have to get going, or we’re gonna be late.”

“Hey, Shades! It’s gone!” Max cried, pointing off ahead. Where there was once a bank of exit doors, there was now the entrance to some trendy clothing store. Still trying to figure out exactly what just happened, he demanded, “How’d that happen!?”

“I guess there is a time limit…” Shades muttered as he looked over and confirmed it for himself. Trying not to sound as bitter as he felt, he added, “That’s how.”

“But…” Max stammered.

“I don’t know either,” Shades told him, trying to console himself as much as his new friend. There were things he did know, but he would save those for another conversation. “It’s hard to explain,” (like some twisted curfew, he realized even as he said it) “and now is not the time or the place. Anyway, um, Max, let’s get going…”

He was liking this situation less by the minute.

“What’s the hurry?” asked the second guard. “We just want to talk.”

Yet even as he tried to move on, the guards moved in closer, barring their way.

“Just a minute,” said the first guard. “I could be mistaken,” though there seemed to be no uncertainty in his tone, “but you look a lot like a description of a young man wanted for questioning in the death of a repairman about three weeks ago. I think we should take you over to the main office to see if the others can ID you…”

And Shades knew they would.

“What’re you talking about?” Shades asked, deciding for feign ignorance. “What’s going on here?”

Shades spoke casually enough, but Max could still sense he did not like them, and was increasingly certain that the feeling was mutual. He had no idea who they were, but he could tell they were bad news. Their manner brought to mind Justin’s descriptions of TSA soldiers, and, even worse, his own memories of Cyexian pirates.

Even as they instinctively turned to start away from them again, one of the guards turned his attention to Bandit, demanding, “Hey, headband! You got a permit for this?”

Bandit fielded that one himself with a low growl, slightly baring his fangs. Apparently, he thought these guys were trouble, too.

“He’s with me,” Max told them. Though in such menacing company, he feared his feline companion might strike the first blow, something Dad had always cautioned him not to do.

Little did he know that Douglas MacLean and Master Al had taught his new friend much the same thing. Never be the one to start a fight, but if you must fight, then be the one to finish it. Or the Master Al version: We never throw the first punch. We just throw the second, third and fourth. That Shades was also bracing for the worst.

“What happened to the exit?” Max asked, trying to change the subject and defuse the situation, little knowing he was about to make it worse.

“What exit?” the first guard demanded.

“The one that was just there a moment ago…”

“There was never an exit there,” he told Max. “I don’t know what the hell you’re tryin’ to pull, but I’m not in the mood…”

“Then why don’t you escort us to the nearest exit?” Shades demanded. “After all, that’s what you security types seem to do best.”

Then remembered DJ’s ominous rumors about disappearances, along with how many times he had been told to watch what he wished for, knowing all too well that he couldn’t take back what he said.

“That does it!” thundered the second guard. “You wanna play games with me, smartass? Your ass is mine, punk!”

In spite of this escalation, Shades was still unprepared for the guard’s abrupt outburst, caught off-guard as he was shoved against the railing of the atrium behind him. But before the guard could continue his tirade, Shades righted himself, jumping in from several feet out of reach and kicking him. The guard fell on his ass, completely taken aback by this unexpected level of resistance.

“See?” Shades shouted, trying not to think about how dangerously close he had just come to sharing the aforementioned repairman’s fate, “I can push too, asshole!”

In the heat of battle, Max’s moves were pure instinct. Even while the other guard moved to restrain him, then tried to decide if he should move against Shades instead, Max simply acted. “You son of a bit—” was all the guard had time to blurt before Max struck him with a hard right.

And a sharp “Leave him alone!”

“Don’t you be gettin’ any funny ideas, boy…” the guard told Max as he whipped out his nightstick. Clearly intending to make an example out of this punk who dared to challenge his authority. “’Cause I won’t take any crap from you!”

Max clearly didn’t know the whole story behind this, but he seriously doubted it really had anything to do with Bandit. These two, like the bullies they were, liked to throw their rather ample weight around. So it was no surprise that they didn’t like Shades, since he chose to stand up to them.

“I warned you, punk!”

With that, the guard rushed Max, swinging his stick. Having been expecting a fight, what with all the trouble he’d had with guards lately, Max sidestepped him. The guard’s second blow connected, though, sending Max staggering.

Emboldened by his initial success, the guard advanced again. Max, though, was lost in combat mode, already shrugging off the blow. He stepped in past the guard’s reach, grabbing his arm in mid swing, twisting his opponent’s body around with it. His arm gave a loud, wet snap as Max threw him down.

After that, the guard just sat there, moaning in agony, his right arm hanging limply at his side.

“You bastard! You broke his arm!”

The other guard, meanwhile, had decided that Max was an even greater threat than Shades, turned to attack him while his back was turned. But Shades had other plans. Turning his back on him proved to be a mistake, as Shades flanked him with a low, sweeping kick, tripping him up.

Max, his opponent’s surprise attack revealed, turned and grabbed him and swung him around, slamming him against the railing. Sliding across the floor, he hit hard enough to send a spiderweb of cracks through the glass paneling, knocking him out. Meanwhile, the guard with the broken arm tried to reach out for his nightstick with his one good hand, but Bandit snarled at him, and he simply forgot about it.

Max and Bandit looked briefly at each other, then glanced around to make sure there were no more enemies. Then stood proudly, triumphantly, side by side. And Shades wasn’t sure quite what to make of it.

Apparently, neither was the crowd, for there was a long, awkward moment as they stared at this young man and his feline friend with a mixture of awe, horror and perplexity.

“Who do you think you are? Extreme Jake?” Shades finally managed. He had never seen anything like that in real life, not even in Master Al’s dojo had he ever seen someone fight without holding back like that. And he couldn’t help but wonder if this was more what his sensei would be like in a real battle.

“Who?”

“Never mind.”

“What’s wrong?” Max asked, seeing the troubled look on Shades’ face. “We won, didn’t we?”

“Um, you’ve heard the one about winning the battle but losing the war, haven’t you?” Shades gestured for Max to follow him, quietly fleeing the scene. “There’s more where that came from. As long as they can’t prove anything, we should be fine.”

“I don’t think so.” Now that Max thought about it, and he felt that Shades knew it, too. “They won’t forget us. They’ll be back.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Shades admitted. So much for reassuring him. And after the way our new friend busted ’em up like that, things’ll never be quite the same with those guys… As much as it cramped his style, they would have to lay even lower. “Fortunately, I know just the place.”

Max found himself recalling Justin’s descriptions of the Ruins, and wondering where Shades was planning to hide out.

“And keep your guard up,” Shades cautioned. Now that their shot at escape had failed, Max, my man, you’re about to get a crash-course in survival around here. “Those Security guys are sneaky bastards.”

“And they’re all over the place, aren’t they?” Max hoped his new friend knew what he was doing. “I don’t think we could beat all of them.”

“You got it. They’ve got us seriously outnumbered, but if we can keep it down to two-on-two, we can take ’em! For a little while, anyway. Still, it’s okay to be a little nervous— it keeps you from becoming overconfident.” And his own nerves reminded him just how new he was to this adventuring business himself as he wondered when exactly he started running his mouth so much. “Of course, you’ve got some kick-ass moves there, Max…”

“Where are we going, Shades?”

“The one place that’ll hide me anymore. You’ll see…” Shades smiled elusively. This just won’t do… he thought to himself, switching gears. He could change up his own style easily enough, but Max’s costume would need a complete overhaul. “Say, Max, you ever think about getting a haircut?”

“A haircut?” Max echoed.

“Yeah, and we’ll have to do something about those clothes. You look like you just survived a ‘B’ sci-fi flick, man.” Just looking at Max reminded him of his first day here, and he laughed in spite of himself. “There’s nothing we can do about Bandit, but we can at least clean you up a bit, maybe lose the headband…”

“Um…”

“Yeah, you look like a Hippie.” And for a moment, he could just hear Mom: Now don’t you be puttin’ down us Hippies… and for a moment couldn’t decide if he was sad or amused. So he switched gears again, saying, “And I can see that you have a gun hidden in your jacket. That’s a big no-no around here if you don’t want people to notice you. But the most important thing is a good disguise.”

“Uh, Shades…”

“Tell ya what. Let’s go talk to da Boss DJ first, then we’ll talk disguises.”

“Okay…”

Tradewinds 07 CH 02

Justin Black crawled on his hands and knees through the dark labyrinth of vent shafts for as long as he could endure before emerging back into what he was beginning to think of as aboveground.

After cutting the vent grill with his laser staff, he had quickly snatched it before it could hit the floor. The metal floor. Terrified it would reverberate for miles around. Anymore, he was terrified to make even a single sound; he still had no idea exactly what the hell an NK-525 was, or what its hearing range might be, but he didn’t care to find out the hard way.

Just that brief glimpse of his hunter was more than enough for him, thank you.

He was shocked to discover that, after over two months of not having people and things trying to kill him in Paradise, he actually had to get used to running for his life again. Those shafts had become his Works, his Ruins, all of these endless hallways had become the rest of Benton Island. Though the vents, unlike the Ruins, also granted him “underground” passage around Tranz-D, aside from dead air, they provided him with none of the bare necessities. In this new game of cat and mouse, the streetrat still had to come up for food and water.

Thinking about it only made him wish he had chosen to stay with Max. Perhaps the two of them together would have been able to watch each other’s backs in this twisted maze. All these years, he had come to trust only himself, yet he found that he wanted to trust Max.

And, much to his surprise, found he even believed he could.

And thinking about Max brought to mind the only other person he had ever thought he could trust. What felt like a lifetime ago, when his life of drudgery in the Triangle State was still fairly new to him. During his stay in Pullman Mine Camp, his thoughts had briefly touched on him at times, otherwise it had been years since the name Jesse Fletcher crossed his mind…

…At the bottom of crude stone steps of rubble left over from the TSA’s long-ago assault on the Works lay the entrance to the Ruins.

“Damn, Justin! You’re out of your fuckin’ mind!”

Though he had said it with a laugh, Justin’s new companion also held a measure of seriousness in his voice. Of course, Justin mostly felt a rush of pride at the other’s trepidation, an echo of his first pursuers’ thinly veiled anxiety. After all, that was the very reason he had chosen this place.

“And that’s why no one will find us here.”

Jesse had no answer to that.

Only hours before, Justin had met Jesse James Fletcher, the newest inmate of this ocean-locked prison. Another orphan, just like himself, but while Justin had no knowledge of his origins, Jesse at least knew he was from New Cali, though he had yet to tell him how he ended up in this far-flung hellhole. Jesse was perhaps a little taller, with reddish hair and blue-green eyes that always seemed to be looking far ahead of where he was.

They first met when this newcomer, whom he had seen around off and on lately, had dared him to venture into the Bone Yard, and after escalating to Triple Dog Daring each other, both of them ended up going. The Bone Yard was where the Authority scrapped all of its old mining equipment and military hardware, a walled junkyard guarded by a malicious crew known as the Junkyard Dogs. It was a stupid thing to do, and both of them were lucky to get out with only scrapes and bruises.

“Come on man,” Jesse said, “let me check it out…”

Along with being only person ever shown Justin’s secret hideout, there was also the matter of Justin’s new toy. Having escaped with it from one of the mercenaries, who, in typical TSA fashion, was one of their leaders. An interesting weapon, the like of which was seldom seen in this realm.

“Wait.” Justin paused now that they were underground, walking among the tunnels that were once hallways. There would be plenty of time to mess around with his new laser staff later, but for now there was something important to discuss. “Before we go any further… I need you to promise me that you’ll never tell anyone else about this place.”

“Come on, Justin, who’m I gonna tell?”

“Jesse. Swear you’ll never tell anyone where this place is.”

“Fine.” One thing Justin would learn about Jesse Fletcher was that he was quick with his wits, and with his mouth— he would later come to associate that face with con artists. “I swear I’ll never tell anyone about this place.”

“Okay.” Still, there was just something about that gleam in his eye that he wasn’t entirely sure he could trust, yet he had decided to take the risk. It would never occur to him until years later that he might merely have been lonely, but for now all he knew was that he was tired of having no one to trust, and somehow he saw himself in this newcomer. “Come on. I know it looks like it’s gonna fall apart if ya look it at wrong, but it’s safe enough.”

“Now let’s see that staff…”

“Don’t worry. Let’s go to the lower levels, then we’ll check it out…”

…When Justin heard the approaching whir of the cleaning drones for the first time, he freaked out, realizing that he had totally dropped his guard in his reverie.

Something was about to come around the next corner, and it completely had the drop on him. Even as he raised his power pistol, the first of the little metal boxes rolled into view, scrubbing the floor in their mindless automaton fashion. And Justin, of course, blasted it to bits with a couple clean shots.

“Shit!” he hissed, already bracing for another blast of alarms. Knowing he should run, yet his feet were bolted to the floor.

No alarms came, still he could feel cold sweat dripping down every square inch of his body, imagining half-seen visions of the Enforcer coming for him. Even as he attempted to make his feet move, he watched the little machines at work as more of them came around the corner, maneuvering around their fallen comrade with their customary chirps and beeps. Justin tried not to laugh out loud, for fear of other machines hearing.

Still he feared his shot may yet have triggered some as-yet unknown security system, and he started walking down a different branch, ready to turn that stride into a sprint if anything else came by.

As he made his hasty way, Justin wondered why he had thought of Jesse after all this time. Though the two of them managed to get on for a little while, they ultimately had a bit of a falling out later. Jesse storming out, claiming he was going to stow away on another ship, consequences be damned, and that was the last Justin ever saw of him. That was years ago, and Justin had long since written him off.

Still, Justin had to grant him one thing: whatever happened to him, Jesse Fletcher never did tell anyone in the Triangle State about his hideout in the Ruins.

Tradewinds 07 CH 01

“AWAY FROM HOME”
Max sat near the edge of the food court, munching down more of that too-tantalizing food that the places here seemed to specialize at, occasionally tossing one of those salty golden things they called “fries” to Bandit, who snapped them out of mid air.

He and his companion had wandered for hours, had even tried to talk to a few more people. His results ranged from wary sidestepping to questions about whether or not wild animals were allowed in here, including one person telling his friend Just smile and try not to make eye contact. Still no answers to how he got here, how he could get back to the Centralict Library, or what was going on.

And worst of all, feeling farther and farther from the action back in Tranz-D, no clue if Justin was even still alive.

He had been waylaid for a time by this place’s charms, and still harbored a fascination for the exotic scene he now found himself exploring. Yet he was also becoming increasingly frustrated with his situation. The librarian warned him, of course, but he still couldn’t believe how easily he had been sidetracked from his quest. He was no longer even sure what dimension he was in.

That, and his supply of those papers he had found in Tranz-D, which just as he had been told, Outlanders called cash, were dwindling, so he was beginning to suspect that food would soon be a lot harder to—

Damn! You keep feeding that poor kitty junk food, he’s gonna have a heart attack or somethin’!”

“Huh?” Max paused, French fry dangling from his fingertips, and even Bandit perked up, his attention swayed from his treat. His contemplations disrupted as this newcomer strode up to him. After a moment, he realized he had seen this one before. The young man still looked very much as he had when Max saw him moshing at Bankshot earlier. Only now, in addition to the heavy-looking jacket and reflective wraparound glasses, he had also donned light but rugged-looking black gloves that somehow all together gave him the impression of armor.

Girded from head to foot in a manner that made Max picture this guy fighting for some reason.

“Of course,” the stranger went on conversationally, “I’m not so sure those things are so good for people either, but hell, you only live once. Mind if I score a couple?”

“I guess…” Unsure what to make of this turn of events, Max decided to do the friendly thing and offer the young man some fries.

“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do…” he said as he grabbed a couple. All that fun during Mosh Hour had definitely worked up an appetite. And, in light of the friendly gesture, since Master Al had always told him, If you wish to know some else’s name, you should give your own first, he said, “Mind if I take a seat? All my friends call me Shades. And you are?”

“I’m Max.” Shared food, shared names, this guy was more friendly than anyone else he had met here so far. Not wanting to pass up a potential friend— and explanation— in this strange place, he was about to ask this Shades fellow if he knew anything about this dimension.

But before he could, Shades asked, “Max who?”

“It’s just Max. I have no other names.”

“Cool.” This made him the first person Shades had ever met with just one name. Simplicity.

“I saw you before,” Max told him, trying to remember the name, “at…”

“Bankshot?” Shades filled in the blank. “Yeah, I saw you, too.” Hard to miss with such strange garb and that big cat in tow. He knew he was pressing this conversation at a fast clip, but as much as it cramped his style, he hoped to plan first, get acquainted later. There was a distinct possibility here, and he could only conclude that it was sheer desperation that drove him to keep up this balancing act of talking out of character while his tone remained so natural.

He tried not to look at his watch, as he had done while talking to Amy in another mall. What felt entirely too long ago. Understanding instinctively this Max’s companion would be the deal-breaker, he then turned and asked, “Who’s your friend? Is it okay if I pet him?”

“His name is Bandit,” Max told him. So far, Bandit hadn’t hurt anyone, still he deferred, “Is it okay with you, Bandit?”

“Hey Bandit!” Shades chirped, reaching out casually, but not too quickly, and patting him on the head. The mere fact that this Bandit allowed him to touch him meant he had earned both their trust. Which was good for both of them in this place of perils he was fast concluding these newcomers were entirely unaware of. “Yeah… ’sa a good kitty…

“He seems to like you.”

“I have kind a thing for cats,” Shades explained. And he was fast starting to believe he had found a new friend in Max, if not his kitty. “And they usually like me. Bandit, huh. Even on both sides…”

“Huh?” Max had no idea what he meant by that.

“Oh.” Then Shades realized that he was thinking of aloud. “That’s just something my mom used to say about a kitten we took care of years ago. His name was also Bandit.” …Coincidence? This creature looked a lot like the cat who so unexpectedly took ill and died years ago, reincarnated with more attitude. “Anyhoo, Max—”

And that was when he saw it. Earlier, he was going to ask Max about the strange sigil on his headband, as well as where he had picked up his weird clothes and exotic feline friend. Then he saw the symbol on the shoulder bag, and everything else he was about to say came to a crashing halt on the tip of his tongue.

“What?” Even with those dark lenses over his eyes, Max could see the rest of Shades’ face change visibly at something he couldn’t see.

“No way…” Shades had seen some weird shit here in the Sixth Dimension, but… “You’re not a… Nazi… are you?”

“A not… what?” Max had finally figured out what Shades was gaping at. When he first laid eyes on that mysterious insignia on the uniform and pack that washed up with him in Paradise years ago, he had had a bad feeling about it, and now that unease he felt back then returned full force. Back then, he had hidden what he could, for fear of being associated with unknown allies or enemies, and he realized now that in all the confusion of recent events, he had completely forgotten to flip his headband, even.

“Um…” On one hand, Shades felt an inward sense of relief. His friend Arthur had always been an impeccable judge of character, (sometimes he swore) almost a mind-reader. He might not possess Arthur’s ability in that department, but he found Max’s reaction so transparent even he could read him like a book. Yet on the other hand, he also felt a mix of awkwardness and shame for such an insinuation. After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry, dude. Here, let me fix that…”

While Max stood puzzling over what a Nazi was, and why it would upset his new companion so much, Shades reached into one of his many pockets, fishing out a permanent marker he kept for just such occasions and went to work. Perhaps the only marker to ever leave its mark on two different planes of existence, including the very restroom where he dried his clothes once upon a time. When he was finished, the swastika on Max’s pack was marked over with a circle and bar similar to the Bad Religion “cross-buster” logo on his own backpack.

“There. Much better.” Shades stepped back and admired his latest handiwork. Much to his relief he saw that Max was also relieved. “You go around with that thing, and even in this world, somebody’s gonna kick your ass sooner or later.”

“You know what that symbol is?” Max was sure of it, from Shades’ reaction to it. “I found it years ago, and I’ve always wondered…”

“Where I come from, that symbol is practically synonymous with evil.” Then he remembered the reason he wanted to talk to Max in the first place, that the clock was ticking. “I’ll tell you more about it later. Right now we have more important things to discuss than fascism. Tell me, Max. How long have you been here?”

“Here?…” Max paused. That was a good question. Since leaving the sun behind, in a place he still thought of as being somehow “up” from here, his usually reliable sense of direction had deserted him. “Where’s here? I keep asking, but no one will tell me.”

“I’m way ahead of you, Max.” Shades had guessed right; something about this guy’s bearing suggested his new friend no more belonged in this place than he himself did. For finding someone who might listen, this was going better than he could have hoped. “But before I tell you anything else, it’s really important that I know what you’ve been up to. How long have you been here? I know this probably seems weird, but please go with me on this.”

“Well…” Max could sense an urgency about this one that he found hard to ignore. Still, after all he had been through in the last day or so, he had no sense of time left to speak of. “A few hours, I guess… I’ve just been looking around.”

“I see.” Shades tried to conceal his anxiety, telling himself that if Max had no way of telling time, it wasn’t his fault and was beyond both of their control. “I wish you knew, but it can’t be helped. You’ve already eaten the food…” He leaned closer, not wanting to be overheard. “But our time is running out, if it hasn’t already. If we don’t get out of here soon, we’ll both be trapped here forever.”

“What do you mean?” Max found that last unexpected, as no one here seemed to be worried about anything of the sort. Yet there was also an urgency to Shades’ words, and his manner, that alarmed him.

“Please, just take my word for now. I would rather explain it outside if we get free. I’ve been trapped here for almost three weeks, and if you aren’t careful, so will you.”

“How?…”

“Come on. One way or the other, I’ll explain later.” Shades grabbed one last bunch of fries, for the road. “I’ll even treat you to dinner, but we’ve gotta get going now. We may still have a fighting chance if we hurry.”

Max wasn’t sure exactly what got him on his feet. There appeared to be no present danger, yet this Shades knew more about his place than he did. More than anything, though, this guy seemed to be afraid of something, and though he wanted some answers, he had decided that it might be better to act now and compare notes later.

“But if you’ve been trapped…” Max began, trying to puzzle this out as they strode down the hall.

“I don’t know,” Shades replied, picking up the pace, “but if you can still find an exit, maybe we can both get out of here. But we can’t waste a second.” Somehow he knew, instinctively, “The longer we wait, the harder it will be to find it!”

Shades just kept accelerating, from a hustle to a brisk stride to a fast jog, dragging Max behind him. After a short way, Max got swept up in the moment, and Shades had to break into an all-out dash to keep up with him. By now they just charged down the halls, customers simply staring at them as they breezed by, so psyched they hardly noticed.

Ordinarily, Shades wouldn’t dare risk drawing so much attention to himself in this place, but the chance at escape was easily worth the risk, as far as he was concerned.

Together, they raced down one hall after another. Shades had expected Bandit to take the lead, of course, but he also found he was impressed with Max’s speed, as he could barely keep up with his new friend. Still, he was glad this stranger took him seriously, for he wanted to see Max and Bandit trapped here about as much as he enjoyed being trapped here himself.

It was a fate he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

“There it is!” Shades proclaimed as they came around the next corner. Ahead was a big block of exit doors, beyond which he could see daylight. Of course, he had seen a few skylights in some sectors, but all of them were placed completely out of reach. “You did it!”

In his rush of adrenaline— and hope— he even started to pull out ahead of Max, who genuinely seemed surprised Shades could keep up with him.

“Alright!” Max still wasn’t entirely sure what he was cheering for, but he was now certain an explanation awaited outside. He just hoped Justin could hang on until he could figure out how to get back to the library.

They were within about twenty yards of their goal when it happened.

Shades was going all-out, as he just couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen if they didn’t take this window of opportunity right now… Tunnel vision focused only on the exit door, so he didn’t even see it coming when someone burst out of a little-used side door with a huge hanging rack of clothes. All he heard was Max’s warning to look out, followed by the mover’s cry of alarm as he crashed into it, knocking he whole thing over and sprawling headlong across the floor tiles.

And Max, being unable to dodge in time, tripped over the rack, as well, crashing to the floor next to Shades.

Author’s Notes

-original version: October 13-31, 2002
-additional editing: October, 2008

This one wasn’t written for any Writing Challenge, just for Halloween that year. I just barely finished it in time, but it was well-received by those who read it.
Unlike the others (which still might be able to do so), this story does tie in with places and events from a longer series I’ve been writing, Tradewinds, which was previously in the closed-door phase. Since then, of course, I’ve started releasing that series one part at a time, so for the fist time, this is the “full” version of the story, including names anyone who read chapter 20 of “The Flathead Experiment” might recognize. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Lovecraft, and I decided to take a crack at the “first-person epistle” type tale, only with a more modern take. Yet still that existential, There-Is-No-God-In-Heaven, harsh, uncaring reality thing going on. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I did enjoy writing it.

THE ROAD TRIP 7: The Long Road

I woke up because I was too hot, and I had to take a piss.

I blinked my eyes against the glare to find myself sitting in the passenger’s seat of the Woody. It took me a moment to realize that the reason I was so hot was because it was now broad daylight out, and in another hour or so, Mark’s car was going to become a bake oven. The sky was now a blank blue desert sky, without a single cloud, nor a hint of last night’s fog.

I wondered in that waking moment if it hadn’t all been a dream.

Then I looked at the bottle of Cam’s Cola. Then at the shotgun lying across Mark’s lap. The broken window behind him. I glanced out the window to see that we were still parked out in front of the gas station in Cove on the Old Mesa Road.

And I remembered that I did have a dream that night. One that I would never forget. Then again, that’s what I suppose I get for sleeping in a haunted place. In the Borderlands.

I dreamt that that dead highway cop and his partner were cruising around Cove near dark. The two cops get out of the car in front of the house where we found the note and the map. They both look around again, clearly confused and more than a little alarmed, not only by how deserted this place was, but at how they had driven up and down Highway 40 for years and had never been here before.

I stand on the street nearby, telling them to turn back, to leave while they still can, but they don’t hear me.

All I can do is stand there and watch as the two officers walk toward the house with the light on. The sun is slanting, now casting everything in an eerie golden twilight, a storm color, though there’s not a cloud in sight. I’m thinking about how I don’t trust that light, when one of the officers takes one step too far and walks into nothingness.

I see him try to stop in mid step, but it’s too little, too late. I see the fat cop stop in his tracks, eyes bugging out. I hear what I know is the vanished cop’s voice, crying out for help, every word distorted and echoing weirdly, much like that howl that scared us out of Eyrie. After a moment of this, his partner finally finds his voice, and he cries out in surprise and horror, then backpedals toward the car. At which point he promptly hits the gas and tears out of Cove in squeal of burnt rubber.

As I sat in the ever heating car, I found I still got goosebumps thinking about that dream. This place was haunted, even by day. And somehow I knew that was what had actually happened last evening.

Mark awoke with a start, but at least he didn’t pull the trigger. In fact, he seemed quite surprised to see a shotgun in his lap. He looked around, then at me. Seeing the Cam’s Cola bottle in my hand, he cocked his head and said, “That was no dream, was it?”

“Nope,” I told him as I opened the door and got out. “I’m gonna go take a whiz.”

“Don’t have too much fun,” said Mark.

“Don’t I always?” I replied. But once I stepped out onto this haunted ground, I discovered that it held the power to instill fear even at high noon. The whole way behind the gas station, I kept picturing myself vanishing like that cop’s partner did. What I finally had to accept was that from now on, that might be a risk either of us would have to take in the desert, though the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that whatever happened to make people disappear was over right now.

Even so, I was still relieved to see that Mark hadn’t gone anywhere in my absence, and was now working on the Woody while sipping a Cam’s Old Fashioned Root Beer.

Cam’s Cola and candy bars: it’s a hell of a way to start your day! After our nutritious breakfast, Mark and I finally got the Woody running again and we were on our way. We left Cove and traveled to Highway 42 without incident.

And without meeting a soul.

Now I sit at a way station at the junction, staring out at empty railroad tracks running parallel to an equally lonely Highway 42 as I finish this account. We had to stop here a few hours to fix the Woody again. Again. So I took the opportunity to write down everything that has happened to us so far. Later, while searching through his stuff before we set out, Mark realized that the highway cop had left his driver’s license lying on the blacktop somewhere on the forgotten miles of Old Mesa Road. But I could tell he wasn’t about to go back for it.

Not like a Montana license was going to do him any good in this dimension anyway.

I wrote earlier that Project Metronome was without a face, but now I realize that it does have one, at least for me. I will always associate those words with the face of that dying highway patrolman, and the existential horror that gripped him in his final hours.

Now Mark and I prepare to face the horror head-on. As soon as we’re ready to leave, we will drive to Dusty Heights and try to find this research facility mentioned on both the note and the map. I don’t know what we’ll find, or if we have any chance of finding our way back, so I’ve left this account of our road trip in the hopes that anyone else unfortunate enough to pass this way will find it.

Out in front of the way station is a sign, and I found some paint and wrote “INFORMATION” in big red letters, and an arrow pointing to this building.

I remember when we were in middle school, Mark and I vowed to make a road trip to New Mexico after graduation and explore the desert. I never would have imagined it would turn out like this. I remember one of Master Al’s other students quipping once that his aunt always insisted that everything that gets lost ends up in the Twilight Zone, and I think that sums up our road trip in a nutshell. I can just hear Rod Serling now: …I present to you two friends, two young men traveling together in search of adventure. They are about to get more than they bargained for. For one foggy night, they crossed the border and drove into the Twilight Zone… or something like that.

Now it’s a long road ahead of us, and no idea where it will lead.

This production paid for by Camcron Industries and its subsidiary, the Cam’s Cola Bottling Company of Dusty Heights, Mesa District: proud sponsor of Dusty Heights Schools, Public Library, Coyotes Batball, and the Birkin Institute Research Facility.