Author’s Notes

-Original draft: 1997
-Notebook draft: August 03 – September 26, 2004
-Word-Processed draft: December 27, 2005 – February 18, 2006
-Additional editing: November, 2008

"Away From Home" was a continuation of the streak I was on while unemployed in 2004. The second time around, I gave a lot more thought to logistics, trying to make Shades’ and Max’s hiding out seem more realistic than the older version. That, and time and distance did me good, as I was able to see how random the incidents were in the older draft, and this time I was able to arrange events for both escalating tension, as well as greater balance with Justin’s side of the story, so that things would flow more smoothly into the next stage of the story. Though it still kept the cliffhanger ending, with Justin actually meeting another soul in Tranz-D, someone who’ll be very important in Parts 8 and 9, even as Max and Shades prepare to risk a dangerous new escape plan…

Tradewinds 07 CH 24

Justin walked down the hallway, trying to make as little noise as possible.

During his long years in the Triangle State, he had learned to move about very quietly, and now he was starting to get the hang of making little sound even on this metallic floor. Over the many over-long days since the Enforcer reappeared, he had not been idle. Both above and below ground, he was gradually carving away at the network of scanners surrounding the nearest rations storerooms, using the regenerating power of his laser staff to create a growing area where he could move about undetected. Using the existing markers in the hallways, and his own marks in the vents, he was hoping to work his way in a consistent direction. Perhaps eventually toward some kind of exit.

All the while trying to keep NK from sitting on the food supply.

Even the simplest aspects of his life had become overly complicated. When he was younger, he could get away with wearing dirty clothes all the time, but it was only after being able to wash everyday in Paradise that he realized just how thoroughly he had become desensitized to his own B-O; cramped in the shafts here, the only thing for him to smell was himself. He grabbed as much food as he could each time, and that was to say nothing of using the can, for he had yet to find an accessible bathroom anywhere that didn’t look like an even more likely tomb than a closet, so all he could do was use any closet where he could find something to wipe his ass with. And remember not to go back to that particular closet again.

For two infinite weeks, this was his life.

Lately, he had been having weird dreams about people he once knew, and people he only vaguely remembered, trying to give him directions. Seeing Eleanor and Poe vanish around corners. Trevor or Slash somehow pointing NK-525 down the hall, saying, He went that way! Mirage Mr Morgans warning him against going certain ways, often holding or pointing to warning signs he couldn’t decipher no matter how hard he tried. Visions of Jesse Fletcher trying to lead him down various hallways, saying, Max went this way…

He feared he wouldn’t be able to hang on to reason much longer.

Sometimes he wasn’t sure where he found the nerve to come out here anymore, but he knew his very survival depended on uncovering more of this place’s secrets. Just one unlocked door could be the difference between life and death. To that end, he had decided a little recon was in order.

As he peered around another corner, he froze.

In spite of the cleaning drones hard at work form floor to ceiling, there were still carbon scars streaking up and down the walls. Justin could tell right away that a massive firefight had taken place here at some point. From the looks of it, though, it appeared that there was heavy fire coming from both ends of the hall. The more he thought about it, this looked awfully familiar to him. It was when he saw the ladderwell door, the very one he had cut through gods alone knew how long ago, looking very much as it had when last he saw it, that he realized he had been going in circles.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt. Beyond rational thought. Almost beyond fear. This scenario was cutting him down an inch at a time.

“No…” It was all he could do to whisper.

Justin stood there for a long moment, trying to regain what little he feared he had left in the way of a grip, just staring at his handiwork from what felt like a lifetime ago. He knew the longer he stood around, the less time it would take the Enforcer to catch up with him, yet all he could think of was that this was the only place he had been through in all this time that he was sure Max had also passed through. The last place their paths crossed. Before, when he looked at this spot, he had imagined Max escaping the guards there, but this time…

Justin shook his head, as if negating how grim this scene looked to his now-opened eyes.

Seeing the ladderwell had just given him the idea of sabotaging sensors on adjacent levels to confound NK when the alarm system abruptly activated, scaring him so badly he cried out in spite of himself.

Fuckin’ A!” he screeched. “I didn’t even do anything!

He knew the drill. In a matter of moments, these haunted halls would be swarming with robo-guards and Junkyard Dogs, and the Enforcer wouldn’t be too far behind. Even as his mind raced, the only good thing he could think of, was that if he didn’t do anything to sound the alarm, it had to mean that someone else had, renewing his hopes that Max might still be alive. Wasting no time, he dashed down the hall, taking a couple random corners for good measure before popping open a storage closet, hoping he had enough of a lead—

“Get lost. This hiding place is taken.”

Justin simply stood there, struck speechless. It had been a small eternity since he had last heard a human voice.

Tradewinds 07 CH 23

While Justin was busy running for his life in the twisted maze that was Tranz-D, Max and Bandit lay curled up on their bed.

Seemingly sleeping the sleep of the just, though Shades suspected that his friend’s dreams were at least as haunted as his own, while he sat at the desk in their room. Pen in hand, nothing in mind. Max had a certain innocence about him, and he could sense that something deep inside his friend fought hard to keep it that way in spite of all that happened to him. He hoped someday Max would tell him what happened all those years ago.

All the same, though, he was grateful for Max’s company in this place where he walked alone among many.

So many, and he suspected that none of them were real. Turned into flesh and blood phantoms by the curse, empty shells that gave a whole new definition to facelessness. He had what so many of his peers seemed to want— a ton of money, even cool junk to buy with it— but he lacked the one thing he desired most, the freedom to come and go as he pleased. Trapped in a place that represented everything he had spent the last three years of his high school career trying to escape.

He would gladly trade the Card for a ticket out.

Max may have inadvertently caused a lot of trouble in the little time he was here, but it also had the side effect of shaking Shades out of his growing, numbing sense of complacence. Of almost three weeks of sinking deeper into limbo. And now Max’s misunderstanding with the mailbox had given him an idea.

As far as he could tell, people under the curse couldn’t get in or out of here, but things could. And did, on a regular basis. He had seen things that could only have come from Earth. Had seen identical CD cover art, and heard lyrical matches to songs word-for-word. And movies scene-for-scene.

And none of it was any sort of novelty here. Which meant that it was clearly going on before the Flathead Experiment. Though he and Max were unable to get out on their own, it just might be possible to send an S-O-S of sorts to someone on the outside who was not under the curse.

And again he wondered for a moment why so many things in his life ran on road-trip and seafaring analogies these days. Still, he couldn’t sleep, and this was all he could come up with. Had spent all that time talking Max to sleep, but had calmed his friend at his own expense, and now he couldn’t stop thinking about his own friends.

After a while, he finally put pen to the sheet of hotel stationery:

DEAR AMY,
EVEN AS I WRITE THIS, I’M STILL NOT SURE HOW TO EXPLAIN WHAT HAPPENED THE OTHER NIGHT, AS I STILL DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS MYSELF. FIRST OFF, I’M SORRY I WASN’T ABLE TO PICK YOU UP SATURDAY NIGHT, AND I HOPE YOU DON’T HOLD IT AGAINST ME IF WE EVER MEET AGAIN. I’M SURE NEWS OF MY DISAPPEARANCE HAS REACHED YOU BY NOW, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, AND I WISH I COULD TELL YOU WHERE I WENT, BUT I NO LONGER KNOW WHERE I AM. I HOPE I CAN CATCH UP WITH YOU SOMEDAY, BECAUSE I’VE ALWAYS LIKED YOU & WANT TO GET TO KNOW YOU. I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU UNTIL THEN.
-SOMEDAY, Dexter.

By the time he finished writing that, he began to wonder if he shouldn’t have written an apology to Amy’s parents. He supposed a part of himself still wanted to believe she still safely there to apologize to, and he had no clue what to write or how her parents might take it. That, and his growing conviction that she had made a disappearance of her own that night. He was still uncertain how he knew, but for now he felt farther from her than ever. And he had always felt as if he was on the outside looking in, the amazing disappearing boy. He wondered what she would make of his adventurous new lifestyle…

He then added the address she had given him that fateful day. He knew from years of wandering Lakeside roughly whereabouts most of his classmates lived, but still thought it would seem creepy if he already knew where to pick her up. Fortunately, the ink was only slightly smudged from that night’s storm, so now he had a clear mailing address to work with.

After pondering that for a while, he followed up with:

YO JOHN,
I HOPE YOU FARED BETTER THAN I DID FRIDAY NIGHT. I REALLY WISH WE’D WORKED OUT A BETTER PLAN. I FEEL TERRIBLE FOR EVEN DRAGGING YOU INTO THIS MESS. WHEREVER YOU ARE, I HOPE YOU’RE DOING BETTER THAN I AM. I STILL DON’T KNOW WHERE I ENDED UP, BUT I WILL TRY TO FIND YOU. IF WE EVER MEET AGAIN, I HAVE A NEW FRIEND NAMED MAX. HE HAS A COOL CAT NAMED BANDIT, AND I THINK YOU’D REALLY LIKE THEM. I REALLY HOPE WE MEET AGAIN, AND THAT YOU’RE NOT TOO ANGRY. I HONESTLY HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON THAT NIGHT, AND I’M STILL TRYING TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.

(OR, IF THIS IS TO MR AND MRS DOE, AGAIN I’M SO SORRY. I HOPE YOUR SON IS OK, AND I WILL DO EVERYTHING I CAN TO FIND HIM. I’M SURE BY NOW YOU’VE HEARD SOMETHING OF THE STRANGE EVENTS OF THE OTHER NIGHT, AND I’M AFRAID WE GOT SEPARATED IN THE STORM.)
-STILL SEARCHING, Shades.

While he had no idea where to even begin explaining anything to Amy’s parents without sounding like he was somehow involved in her possible disappearance that night, he had no choice with John’s. After all, he was the one who dragged their son out into that storm. That made him responsible. Then he added John’s address, which was scribbled among the notes in his wallet.

Even as he wrote, Shades wondered yet again what things would have been like if they hadn’t gotten separated. Would we have escaped the Mall as a team? Or would there now be three of us and a cat in this room? Or perhaps they would have wound up someplace else. And never met Max and Bandit in the first place. A tangled web of possibilities, and even Amy quickly figured into them…

Side-by-side, watching each other’s back, as he and Max now did for each other. It was as if his experience since that night had somehow opened up doors in his mind, or he had found some long-lost key. The certainty that the three of them had gotten mixed up in something that fateful night, something entirely too big for three teenagers to handle on their own.

For a while, he contemplated how to date these letters, finally settling for the increasingly meaningless numbers on his watch readout. Thinking about it, he felt as if time was still frozen on the Morning After back on Earth, and it almost gave him vertigo trying to picture it. As if this limbo-place were a detour in Time itself. Even his destinations were in another dimension, and was pretty sure no outfit on Earth could send packages to other worlds, but something deep inside told him that the 6-D Postal Service could.

Finally, he wrote:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONFUSE:
TRAPPED IN SINISTER MALL IN THE SIXTH DIMENSION WITH NO WAY OUT! REQUESTING RESCUE. FOR ANYONE WILLING TO RISK HELPING US, WE CAN OFTEN BE FOUND AT A PLACE CALLED BANKSHOT. DIRECT ALL QUESTIONS TO DA BOSS DJ, AND WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T TALK TO SECURITY. BEWARE THE CURSE! DON’T EAT THE FOOD! DON’T DRINK THE WATER! DON’T BUY ANYTHING! OR THE EXITS WILL ALL VANISH, AND YOU WILL BE TRAPPED HERE LIKE US. COME AT YOUR OWN RISK, BUT PLEASE GET HELP FOR US, FOR OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED.
-PRISONER

Shades read back his own S-O-S a couple times. It almost made him laugh. He just kept picturing some adventurous would-be Don Quixote finding this and questing for the Mall of the Curse. As much as it made him laugh, it was the most desperate thing he had ever seen written on a piece of paper. Having never read the words Beware NK-525.

Much to his relief, he was glad Max was finally starting to adjust to being back among people, yet he still had a long way to go. In the meantime, the two of them had to stand together. They were both prisoners, and there was no one else to turn to but each other; even were they not friends, it would be an alliance of necessity.

He still had no idea just where he was going to send that last to, but he figured he would think of something. Just writing it was a start, had allowed him to get a lot off his chest. Now that he had stayed up writing that, his eyes felt like they were going to fall out of their sockets.

Putting his letters aside, he decided he was exhausted enough to join Max in unconsciousness.

Tradewinds 07 CH 22

No matter who built this place, it was never meant for human beings to live.

This had become Justin’s single strongest conviction in the interminable days since he first found himself deposited here. Everything was possessed by digital demons, and he felt that something ominous slept in the bowels of this place. Even here in the darkness of the vents, he felt it pressing in all around him, smothering him.

No escape seemed to be this place’s mantra, and he was beginning to fear that all those damn machines just might be right.

In order to keep his mind off it, he found himself reliving odd chapters from his past. Although Mr Morgan was the one who first taught him how to read, he also remembered another who had taught him still more. He managed to forget a lot about the painful things that had happened to him in his early days in the Triangle State, so naturally someone who was actually kind to him would stand out.

There were people who passed through the Triangle State from time to time who actually decided to put down roots, and most of them wore out their welcome all too quickly. Bringing in “strange ideas” like democracy, human rights, revolution, or even the crazy idea that the Authority devote some of its vast wealth to benefit the rest of the islanders. And the Board wasn’t having any of it. Mercenaries, missionaries, wannabe revolutionaries, even peaceful individuals who only wished to help others, all of them labeled Instigators by the TSA.

Emily was one of the latter, a wandering teacher devoted to spreading literacy, a soft-spoken young woman who often spoke out openly against the tyranny of the Authority. In retrospect, Justin believed her intentions were good, but he had to wonder if she really knew what she was getting herself into. During her short tenure on Benton Island, Justin, among other streetrats, could go to her boat near the edge of the harbor for reading lessons and whatever food she could scare up. If she had just settled for giving free food to vagrants, she might have lasted for a while, but since she insisted on teaching, and trying to compile the sad history of the Triangle State (and worse, telling people, in her own words, to unite for justice in this place that Justice had long forsaken), all Justin remembered about it was that she was found dead one morning, floating in the water of the harbor.

Now that he thought about it, he remembered that there was also a young man in Benton who, he recalled, was in love with Emily, and if the stories were to be believed, killed several guards trying to prevent her death. Later, captured without a fight and sent to the mines; it was said that when Emily died, he had lost the will to fight. Had lost his will to live. As he remembered these bits and pieces of the tapestry of misery the Authority had woven into those islands, he wondered if that broken man and Jasper, the mad bomber of Pullman Mine, weren’t one and the same.

Emily, I’m comin’ home!…

Those words snapped back to him across time and space, and he was now certain it was so.

Anymore, Justin often found himself lost in these remembrances. During his days in the Triangle State, he had spoken less and less as the stakes became greater and greater, but during his short time with Max in Paradise, he had come to enjoy the singular act of conversation itself. Now he wished his friend was still with him, just so he could hear the sound of another human voice in this vast tomb of soulless machines.

At times, he was surprised to find that he feared finding Max’s Enforcer-mangled carcass on one of his supply runs almost as much as he feared his own death. Visions of his friend decomposing on some forgotten stretch of hallway, or charred and blackened in a closet somewhere. Or even of Bandit, who surely didn’t deserve such a gruesome fate. Of finding out that he truly was all alone against this monster.

As time dragged on, not knowing where Max was, or what was happening to him, was starting to become as maddening as his own predicament.

Tradewinds 07 CH 21

Shades and Max sat in a secluded corner of the food court, munching on burgers and fries from some place with a late-Sixties slant on futuristic. It was a new place, and much like other new places, where they came from and where they went was a total mystery. Staffed by the usual cast of cardboard shadow-employees. Back on Earth, Shades had sometimes wondered if the people he saw had any sort of life beyond that of their public face, sometimes even after he and his friends had made their own debut on the wage-slave scene— he feared these people no longer did. That their only reality was on stage. The way they had learned to simply not notice certain things. He suspected they wouldn’t even know how to go about quitting anymore. He often got the feeling that he and Max were seeing, walking through, a different world than those around them.

After two days, cooped up in their hotel room, it was time to catch a breath of fresh air. Or at least as fresh as any air here could be.

Shades was telling his friend more stories from his childhood in Lakeside. Wistfully recounting sunny summer Sunday afternoons; long lazy spring weekends; carefree romps through fresh winter snow; cloudy, moody autumn days. No job, no pressure, no problem. Sort of peaceful dreamy…

“Shades?” Max asked. He had told Shades all about his Crow’s Nest before, and now, “Did you have a place to go to think about stuff?”

“Yeah.” Shades often thought about his own Lookout in this place. About bringing Dad’s old binoculars up there years ago, pretending he was spying on enemy territory. More recently, going up there to practice his Karate. And nowadays, wondering how often Amy had passed through over the years. “And mine was a cliff, overlooking Flathead Lake.”

He often used to imagine it was an ocean. As a child, he had read not only of the Unknown, but also of epic adventures; it was how he thought his life, how the world, should be. That electric current of sensation as he stood up there, the wind whipping through his hair, that breathtaking sense of adventure and mystery that had followed him everywhere he went as a kid.

Had never really stopped following him.

Now that he thought about it. From the moment he was first told to get a job, it had merely gone underground, biding its time. Now, since he had wound up in the Sixth Dimension, it had resurfaced. The belief that he was destined for more than just work and worry.

Back then, his heart and mind were filled with visions of he and his friends going off on some big adventure. He suspected that he and Arthur’s road trip pact was some remnant of that. Somewhere along the way, he had fallen into the rank-and-file, discovered at first that he was actually afraid to leave his high-maintenance comfort zone. Even as he talked to Max, he vowed that if he ever escaped this air-conditioned hell, he would never go back to his old life.

He now had Max and Bandit at his side. And John and Amy to search for, for he still felt they had somehow not seen the last of each other. Just hitch a ride all over the Sixth Dimension…

After they finished their meal, they made their way along the least-used route they could find, Max finished his drink, tossing it into a blue trashcan built into the wall.

“Say Max,” Shades intoned as he noticed what Max was doing, “just were you planning to send that?”

He couldn’t help busting out laughing as a vision popped into his head of them receiving an angry letter telling Max to quit sending his garbage to their dimension.

“What did I do?” Max had seen Shades use the trashcans before, and he was quite sure he was doing it right.

“Well, you see, that’s a mailbox, not a trashcan…” At first, Shades was trying to figure out how to explain postage, when another thought occurred to him. He had probably wandered past those mailboxes any number of times, and only now did he realize an interesting possibility. “You can use it to send things to other places…”

“What is it?” Even with those opaque glasses, Max could see his face light up.

“I’m not sure… I think you just gave me an idea, Max.” Somehow things still got in and out of here, and he still had no idea how. “I’ll have to think about it later.”

And think about it very seriously, but for now Shades told Max to not put his garbage in the mail and they continued their conversation about Lakeside. The more Shades told him about his old home, the more Max wanted to see it for himself; hell, the more Shades told Max about it, the more he himself wanted to go back. Not just back through the dimensional rift, but back in time as well, back to when Lakeside was still a secret. Of course, he couldn’t help laughing when Max took his figurative California Invasion literally, though he found the image of a ragtag army of locals marching down to the lakefront rather laughable.

And Max found himself wondering, didn’t he and Justin once talk about California not too long ago? He wondered if this “California” Robert had spoken of from his travels, and this land Shades mentioned were one and the same.

“That reminds me…” Remembering when Max found his license in the bathroom the other night, Shades was reminded of something he wanted to show him. Reaching in his jacket pocket, he whipped out his wallet. “You asked me about my friends, and I knew there was something I was trying to think of yesterday…”

He then proceeded to show Max several wallet-size photos that he usually carried around with him. Of John and the band in Sandy’s basement. Arthur’s school picture. His mother and father in what was the last picture ever taken of them together.

“Your mother is a very beautiful woman,” Max told her. And he could see that Shades had very good friends, indeed.

“Thanks.” Shades found himself wishing he had a photo of Amy. At another mall, in another life, the two of them had walked past a photo booth. Admittedly, he was worried about being late for work, but he also hadn’t wanted to come on too strong.

Now he wished he had.

As Max looked through these glimpses of this friend’s life, he remembered a gizmo from Dad’s Outland treasure-trove, a device called a camera. His parents brought a few tantalizing pictures of the outside world home with them, and also several extra rolls of film. Of course, there was no place to develop them, so they remained locked up in a chest. It all made him wish he had a few photos to show Shades. Wanted him to see Cleo and Lance and Mom and Dad, wanted him to see the Islands, in spite of himself.

Found himself wondering how they had changed, what they might look like now…

As the two of them continued to talk, Shades began to feel the weight of this place on his mind. It was hardly the first time, but it still bothered him every bit as much as it did then, for he feared getting used to it. He could sense it was also bothering Max, but talking about old friends, good times, elsewhere, seemed to help more than he originally thought. Though he feared even that would eventually reach the limits of how much good it could do.

This was like a vacation in Hell.

Of course, with the Card, there were so many things he and Max could do. Except leave. With the exception of the guards, everyone acted friendly and chirpy. Too much so, and it was all fake. Everything looked like the most ultra-hip, ultra-modern suburban fantasy.

Underneath this front, though, Shades felt as if everyone was living in a bad dream that was trying just a little too hard to put on a friendly face. Everything felt like a mask. The place looked tantalizing on the surface, even though he had grown bored with the shallow trappings of malls a long time ago, still he sometimes got the irrational idea that if he put his foot through the sheetrock and plastic and cardboard, it would all be just as hollow as a movie set. Though he wasn’t sure he wanted to see what lay underneath the glossy surface, picturing shadowy cameramen, alien maggots oozing out, or just hungry darkness behind the stage sets.

It put him in mind of the one time he had tried to see what lay behind the scenes in this sinister place. Perhaps he had gotten a little too cocky right after he first obtained the Card, and he decided to take one of the side doors in the halls. In real malls, there were hallways and corridors used by everyone from janitors and security guards to shipping for the various stores, and he had wondered if perhaps there was an exit back there somewhere.

Sure enough, just like in his world, there were long passageways with occasional doors along the sides. Yet though it could have been his imagination, the halls seemed somehow dimmer, and dingier their real-world counterparts, and he quickly lost his nerve to even look behind any of the doors, as the entire atmosphere back there quickly flashed him back to his nightmare’s about Amy’s aimless flight through halls that looked entirely too much like these ones for his taste. That sense that, rather than escape, only traps or hidden dangers awaited him behind any of them.

Before he could regain the nerve to explore, though, he was interrupted by footsteps. Striding, patrolling footsteps, the sound alone of which made him certain it was the guards. When he fled in the wrong direction to get back out in the main hall, he quickly found himself racing down various passages trying to evade footfalls that seemed to approach from every direction. Rolling carts, talking voices, and the dread certainty that if he was caught back here, he would see a side of this place never seen by the public…

Just when he was certain that he was trapped back there, hopelessly lost and on the verge of getting caught, he bolted around a corner and found himself right back out in the mall proper. If he had thought his first-day experience with the pay-phone was unsettling enough, he quickly concluded that the back ways were never to be used as a hiding place or an escape route. The other day, after the pool incident, Max had tried to drag him into one of those doors when they nearly ran into some guards, but Shades resisted fiercely, at the time merely telling him it was a bad idea.

Later, would recount his harrowing experience behind the scenes while telling spook stories that night.

His time here held all the stretched-out timelessness of summer vacation when he was a kid. As if it could last forever, a thought that, in this place, he didn’t find very reassuring. Unlike this new nightmare, he actually loved summer vacation with a passion he held for no other season, not even Christmas. And mourned its loss, pining away for endless hours at work these past two summers. Time had seemed almost to stand still when he was a child, doubly so in summer. Which somehow seemed to last as long as the other seasons of the year put together. At least until the last week or so of August, when the gods seemed to press fast-forward. He would go to sleep one summer night, and the next morning Mom would be waking him up early and telling him that no son of hers was going to be late for school on the first day of the year, and, once upon a time, Dad telling him that fun was fun, but discipline was also important. Of course, Douglas MacLean was a man who also managed to have plenty of fun when he was off-duty, hunting, fishing, out-of-town vacations…

In spite of the dullness and complacence he resisted reflexively, he feared there was no time left for sleeping in. More and more certain was he that summer was passing into autumn, and Halloween would be hot on its heels. And something told him that he wouldn’t want to stick around for when the masks come off…

So naturally, he was in a hurry to test his new idea. With increasing frequency, he was plagued by nightmares about the guards capturing them, leading them away to a part of the mall he knew no one else ever got to see. Of being thrown out the “back door” into the void.

No return from 86… he thought and shuddered, wondering if it could be real, if that was what really happened to those who disappeared.

Tradewinds 07 CH 20

Justin reached out and pressed the button on yet another door, again getting the password prompt.

He pounded the wall— next to the controls, wasn’t going to make that mistake again. After building up his stockpile of food and water bottles, he had resumed his exploration, free of the Enforcer’s constant interference. In addition to those measures, he had also taken to using his staff— which, being a pulse weapon, wasn’t restricted by his ammo— to destroy hall and vent sensors as he went to make it harder for the security system to track him. Unfortunately, hours of walking up and down in different directions had still failed to yield a single unlocked door that didn’t lead to a storage closet.

When he first thought of it, his plan for accessing the computers he had seen through the vents in various rooms had seemed so simple, he could just scream. In the storage closets, he at least had stacks of boxes and other objects he could use to get up and down from high vents, whereas in most of the rooms there was little furniture, most of it built-in or too heavy for him to budge, and never anything right under the vent. It was hard enough getting down without twisting his ankle or something, and getting back up… left him without any useful escape route.

He was starting to think he would just have to risk it anyway… when he heard it.

“No… way… No fucking way…”

For a moment, he thought he was hearing things, that this place had finally succeeded in unhinging his mind. But when it refused to go away, he knew it was real. Even as his brain was telling him he should get his ass in gear, the rest of him refused to budge.

All of the hope he had felt earlier fell right out of him as he turned back toward his closet. Against the despair and denial weighing on every fiber of his being, he had to force one foot in front of the other every step of the way back as those tracks droned and rattled somewhere in this place’s bottomless background. When he reached the vent, he crawled in, wondering why he felt such a strong urge to just lie down and go to sleep, why his body felt so slow.

Maybe, if he just went to sleep, he would finally wake up from this nightmare…

But as he moved deeper into the shaft, he started moving faster, his fierce desire to live overruling his premature surrender before he could fully give in to it. Crawling faster and faster, becoming increasingly frantic. Imagining those tracks coming closer and closer. Even when he was around the corner, he kept on going.

It was only after he felt like he was going to pass out that he finally stopped.

But how…? his mind simply refused to finish the question. He had had a sinking feeling about leaving NK-525 behind after the explosion, but he had been so certain he had killed it. Now he wished he had taken the risk. For a moment, he wondered if there was perhaps more than one Enforcer Unit, but somehow he knew better.

Then, for the first time in years, Justin Black simply slumped where he was, just sobbing.

Tradewinds 07 CH 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not as high as you,” Shades conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? What’s that?”

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

“Yes. Very much so.”

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

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

“You have?”

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

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

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

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

“A tree?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

Just the name gave Shades the chills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tradewinds 07 CH 18

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

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

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

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

And he understood there would be a next time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But never gave an inch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shades was interrupted by a knock at the door.

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

Guards. Of course.

“Open up!” his muffled voice commanded.

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

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

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

A picture popped up under the doorcrack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which neither of them could help laughing.

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

“Hell yeah!” Max replied. “What now?”

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

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

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

Tradewinds 07 CH 17

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

(AUDIO SENSORS: ONLINE…)

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

(INFRARED SCANNERS: ONLINE…)

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

(POWER LEVEL: 92.5%… 92.7%… 93.1%…)

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

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

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

(SUPER-LASER: ONLINE…)

Much better.

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

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

Tradewinds 07 CH 16

“Hey! You!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What now?” Max muttered.

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

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

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

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

Now they just needed something useful to do with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They were dressed in swim trunks!”

Shades and Max held their breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haircut?”

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

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