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?”
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.
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…
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.
“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.”
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.