Tradewinds 08: Centralict by shadesmaclean
Summary:

Wherein Justin meets another fellow wanderer, Max and Shades risk a dangerous new escape plan, and the pieces begin to fall into place…


Categories: Original Fiction Characters: None
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural
Warnings: Graphic Violence, Violence
Challenges:
Series: Tradewinds
Chapters: 17 Completed: Yes Word count: 23856 Read: 20720 Published: 05/08/11 Updated: 05/24/11

1. I by shadesmaclean

2. II by shadesmaclean

3. III by shadesmaclean

4. IV by shadesmaclean

5. V by shadesmaclean

6. VI by shadesmaclean

7. VII by shadesmaclean

8. VIII by shadesmaclean

9. IX by shadesmaclean

10. X by shadesmaclean

11. XI by shadesmaclean

12. XII by shadesmaclean

13. XIII by shadesmaclean

14. XIV by shadesmaclean

15. XV by shadesmaclean

16. XVI by shadesmaclean

17. XVII by shadesmaclean

I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a narrow escape
The two of them just stood there for a long moment, simply staring at each other.

Of course, who could blame her? Tranz-D had seemed so empty and deserted, even after the alarms, it was still so devoid of life until she spotted some armored figures marching down one of the halls, so she was surprised that this stranger had not only appeared out of the blue, but also just happened to stumble upon her hiding spot. Enduring some two weeks in hell had certainly taken its toll on the guy: dirty, tattered clothes, disheveled hair, and dark circles under his eyes gave him a crazed look that, combined with his sheer desperation, she found shocking, almost frightening. The double-barrel power pistol he pointed at her wasn’t very encouraging, either.

Of course, Justin wasn’t too happy about the power pistol this strange young woman was aiming at him, as well. After enduring so many days in this ungodly hellhole, he had begun to despair of ever seeing another living human being again, even Max. So he was also a trifle confounded by this turn of events. Whoever she was, she didn’t look like she could have been here for too long; her light blue hoodie, and baggy, multi-pocketed pants looked comfortably warm, and very much intact if a little worn. Not one strand of her straight black hair, which was slightly spiked in front, was even slightly out of place. She looked alarmed, but not terrified; definitely hadn’t been here for too long.

The two of them just stared at each other, waiting for the other to do something.

“Who the hell are you?” Justin finally managed.

“Alex-…” she trailed off, looking first sheepish, then outraged, saying, “Hey! I should be asking you that!” Then she seemed to think better of that, asking, “You’re not with the guards, are you? I didn’t do anything, I swear!”

“You know,” Justin began, “I really don’t think now is the time for—”

His words died in his throat as he saw her violet eyes bug out in shock and horror as she muttered, “… the fuck…”

Justin didn’t give her any more time, his mind making its own paranoid quantum leap from her horror to the thing here most likely to inspire that kind of reaction, sidestepping her gun to duck into the closet, dragging her along even as she turned that gun and instinctively started blasting whatever just came around that corner.

Even against the alarms, and her shots, Justin heard that digital voice, which to him had become the voice of Fear itself, start in with “INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT!” and bringing its fully-charged super-laser to bear on them.

The closet door barely slid shut in time for the intense energy beam to splash off it.

“What the fuck was that!?” the woman demanded.

“That’s NK-525, and it’s been trying to kill me for days!” Justin told her as he trained his own pistol on the controls and blew them away just as the shit hit the fan outside. He shoved her aside and fired up his laser staff as he reached the vent shaft, telling her, “And it’ll kill you too, missy, if we don’t get outta here!”

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Saving your ass,” he replied as he threw the grill aside. “Now get in there. That door won’t last long against that kind of firepower!”

With the door behind her getting hotter by the moment, she decided to trust the stranger, who seemed to know what he was talking about. At least for now.

“Move your ass!” Justin shoved her even as she crawled into the shaft, barely dodging as she kicked back at him.

“Hands off!” she muttered, having somehow gotten hung up in the vent opening. Outside, the thing this man called NK-525 was hammering away at the door, and she didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know it was going to give at any moment. Those robot guards had been trouble enough, and she had a stitch in her side from all this running, now she was becoming frantic in her efforts… Then she realized that she was hung up on her shoulder bag and shoved it aside with hasty chagrin.

“Hurry!” Justin knew from experience. “It’s almost through!”

Whoever she was, she was over half a foot taller than him, and not as skinny, so she was having a hard time in the narrow shaft.

“Next time we do this, I go first…” Justin grunted as he finally entered the vents. There seemed to be no way to stay ahead of that killer robot for long, but at least it would take a moment longer for that super-laser to recharge. “Can’t you go any faster?”

“I’m going as fast as I can!” she shot back. “How the hell do you stop that thing?”

“How the hell should I know?...”

Justin, fearing that he wouldn’t make it, shifted, spreading his legs and firing his power pistol back down the shaft, bringing some of it down behind him.

He became even more desperate when she got stuck for a moment getting around the corner. Small as he was, even he found the shafts a tight squeeze. Selfish as it sounded, even to himself, now he wished he had thought of that before he sent her in first.

Much as he feared, NK blew the door off its tracks before he was all the way around the corner. The woman cried out in alarm and started wriggling even faster. In the end, collapsing part of the shaft, in spite of the lost ammo, probably saved his life; even with the obstruction, and part of the ruined door leaning on top of the opening, it only took the Enforcer a moment to draw from its data tracks and figure out the Intruders’ strategy from past encounters. The fallen section blocked the first couple shots, buying Justin the extra few seconds he needed to struggle around the corner.

The two of them continued to work their way down the shaft, NK spouting its usual warnings about how there was no escape and resistance was futile.

“Don’t you dare try anything funny back there, either,” the young woman told him. “I’m armed, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, so am I,” Justin muttered, having somewhat more urgent matters than this stranger’s booty on his mind as they made their escape. “And if you think about farting, I’ll shoot your ass…”
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Max's first concert
When Shades and Max arrived at Bankshot, neither of them were expecting live entertainment. Yet outside they found a sign reading:

TONIGHT ONLY!
TWYLIGHT — LIVE!


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

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

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

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

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

“The usual. So, who are these guys?”

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

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

“Could be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Max.”

“Max who?”

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

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

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

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

Rod?” Max intoned.

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

With that, Rod went back to helping his bandmates.

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

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

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

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

“Take it away, Rod!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew, just knew, they would love it.

So lost were they in the music, neither Shades nor Max noticed the security guards DJ had had no choice but to have on hand for this event.
End Notes:
Twylight, like all other characters and events described in this story, is purely fictional, and any resemblance to any real person or group, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a treasure hunt
“Seeing as how we’re not about to get blown away by killer robots anymore,” the young woman muttered, still breathing hard as she was not as accustomed to crawling around down here as her companion had become, “would you mind telling me your name?”

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

“Fair enough,” she agreed after a moment.

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

“Kato,” she replied.

“Kato who?”

“Just Kato.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get out of our way.”

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

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

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

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

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

No response. From anyone.

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

“Give up, boy. Resistance is useless.”

“Step aside or fight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He finished by pointing the blade right at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking, “Are you okay, Shades?”

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

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

“What do we do now?” Max asked.

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

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

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

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

They quietly hoped their luck would change with the scenery.
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
some welcome info
Justin and Kato were searching for an unlocked door when they hit their lucky break.

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

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

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

“What happened here?” Kato wondered aloud.

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

“And why’s that?” Kato asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean your friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit!” they both hissed in near unison.

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

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

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

And so the two of them just stood there as silently as they could, guns drawn, as sets of metal feet trooped back and forth past the holding cell for some time before dying down again.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
escape plan
“I wish I knew more about this anomaly,” Shades muttered as he and Max took what felt like their thousandth stroll around the book store in the last couple hours. For days since he first met Max, he had felt as if the key to getting out of the Mall had been dangling just out of his mind’s reach. A few days before the Twylight concert, DJ had told them he was hearing rumors of unexplained disappearances at this book store. The very same one through which Max had somehow entered this cursèd place. And he felt very stupid for having never made the connection. “I just wish I knew a better way to detect it…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A race against a clock he couldn’t see.

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

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

He definitely had something.

Max put away the book he was looking at—

“Wait.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, excuse me, sir, can I hel…”
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the warpgate
“…Halt!” another computerized voice commanded. “There is no escape!”

“Not them again!” Kato groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About fuckin’ time!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’ve been told,” he confirmed.

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

“I was trapped in there for days!”

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

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

“Justin Black?”

“How do you know that name?”

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

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

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

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

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

“A very dangerous world,” Kato countered.

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

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

Kato slapped her forehead.

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

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

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

“INTRUDERS ON VISUAL!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And NK-525 followed. New place. New Intruders. Same old hunt.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Shades has his doubts
For a moment Max thought he heard someone talking to him. Then the voice distorted as the air shimmered for a couple seconds as he and Shades stepped through the rift, slipping quietly between dimensions and entering the Centralict Library. Both of them recognized the bizarre sensation from their own respective experience encountering it.

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

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

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

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

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

“Max?”

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, he figured Bandit had to stop some time.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
cornered reunion
Justin dashed down the aisles, Kato hot on his heels. The librarian huffing and puffing behind them. Finishing the pack was NK-525, matching their every turn. In such a confined environment, the Enforcer would catch up with them immediately if they stopped for even a moment.

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

“We gotta lose that thing!” Justin screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. What now?”

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

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

“Oh no…” the librarian mumbled sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

It now had them all right where it wanted them.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
mightier than the sword
Running into Justin and the others had slowed Max down enough for Shades to start catching up.

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

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

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

What the fuck can I do against that?…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max, I won’t let it… I won’t…
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
final showdown
The librarian had fainted dead away, which was probably for the best, as falling down made him less of a target.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they both started laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dude, chill,” Shades told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twilight Zone, indeed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yo.”

“And this is Conan the librarian…”

“Please don’t call me that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He whipped out the Card.

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

“You said it!” Justin added.

“Yes. I did.”

Shades rolled his eyes

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go to my office,” the librarian suggested, looking more and more distracted by the moment with those cards in hand. Administrators and paperwork already largely forgotten. “We can work out the details there.”
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Freedom!
“Yes! Freedom!” Shades crowed as he stepped outside the Centralict Library, and onto the street.

He and Bandit, and Max and Justin, at last reunited, and Kato, strode out the double doors at the entrance and down the wide stone steps out front. Having literally and symbolically left their former prisons behind. The Mall. Tranz-D. All of them were in high spirits just to see an open sky above them, except for one.

“Where the hell are they?…” Kato muttered.

No sign of Chase or George.

Meanwhile, Max was already filling Justin in on what had happened after they got separated. Like true adventurers, Shades reflected, already boasting of the perils they had faced. As they walked down the steps, Shades looked back, and a peculiar longing struck him. On their way out, he had a chance to glance among the stacks, seeing entire lifetimes of eras— centuries, if not millennia— sitting side by side on the shelves. To him, the library by which all others would be measured. For a moment, he felt a compelling urge to ditch his companions and go back in and just hang out for a while. A few hours, a few years, he was certain there were books in there he would never find anywhere else. Books he desired very much to read, and he vowed that if he ever passed this way again, he would stay, for a good long while.

For now, though, he had important matters to settle now that he was free.

While Shades arranged his settlement with the librarian, Justin went into one of the employee restrooms to clean up and change into his new gear. As well as use up an entire first aid kit and a half. They were the same strange clothes in which both Max and Shades were garbed, but he was elated just that they weren’t Cyexian, or rags, for that matter. Based on Max’s description of his friend, Shades had done his best shopping for him. The pants were a little long, but at least he could tuck them into his new Romper-Stompers— a surprisingly good fit— and although he had never seen underwear like the kind Shades presented, at least they were comfortable. Also included was a light, but warm, jacket that he could have used a couple weeks ago, as well as some other items he certainly wasn’t about to complain about.

Had suggested burning his old clothes, but that Shades person warned him from outside the stall that it would set off the fire alarms and draw too much attention. The mere mention of alarms was enough for him, and he settled for dumping them in the trash as Shades uttered a préemptive apology to whatever poor janitor happened to stumble upon it later. As long as he never had to look at them again; he was tired of being constantly reminded of his long-ended captivity. Besides, in a couple shopping bags, Max had brought him more stuff than all of his possessions in the Triangle State and aboard the Skerry combined.

During that same time, Max mostly kept a watchful eye on Kato, while she just stood around looking bored and irritated and impatient. Much as she was doing now.

“Now can we talk about the medallions?” Justin wanted, more than anything else, to simply get underway after so much dawdling.

“Now seems like a good time,” Kato replied, taking a good look up and down the sidewalk to make sure no potential eavesdroppers were loitering. At last, the second Tri-Medal… “We have other important things to talk about, but now is a good time. Mind if I have a look at that necklace of yours?”

“I guess…” Max and Shades said in unison.

Justin and Kato stared at Shades as he also took off a similar-looking medallion.

“You… you’ve got one too?” Kato had somehow hit the jackpot— two Tri-Medals in one day. She decided now that her harrowing experience in Tranz-D was more than worth it. “Can I see that for a minute, man?”

Shades shrugged and handed it to her.

Max almost said something, but kept his mouth shut, deciding for now that perhaps he may have overreacted to her being Cyexian.

Kato reached into the collar of her hoodie, fetching out a medallion of her own. As the three of them took turns examining them, Justin took a look at them as well. Even a cursory examination revealed them to have common origins: the same shape and color, and especially similar design elements, including the same style of symbols inscribed upon each of them, clearly part of the same original alphabet.

“Sorry about shoving everyone out so fast, but four-eyes there didn’t need to know about this…” And Justin had almost spilled the beans. The number of people she would have to cut in on this just jumped again, but she decided it was a small price to pay for what she had now. “These things don’t just fall out of the sky, Shades. Where’d you get this?”

“Some tourist-trap in Glacier Park about six, seven years ago…” What he wanted to know, after all these years, and especially in light of Max possessing one too, was what Kato knew that made her so excited about a fifty-cent trinket from another dimension. “What are these things?”

“Extremely valuable artifacts,” Kato told them, pausing for a moment to figure out what next to tell them of what she knew. As far as she was concerned, the fewer who knew the secret, the fewer rivals she would have to contend with. “As you can see, I have one, too.”

“Now we have all three…” Justin gloated, unable to believe how much his luck had changed in the last hour or so, that the first thing he would be doing upon regaining his freedom was going on a treasure hunt.

“The keys to an ancient treasure!” Kato finished, not to be topped.

“What treasure?” was all Shades could come up with to say.

“Yeah.” Though this had more than adequately piqued Max’s curiosity.

“Neither of you know what these are?” Kato asked.

Both of them shook their heads.

“I do,” Justin added.

“That’s just ’cause I told you, shorty.” Kato could see Justin hated it when she pointed out his height. “Those medallions hold the keys to the treasure of a lost civilization,” she told them. “We don’t know all the details, but I’ve researched it enough to know that these inscriptions tell of the location of hidden treasure. That was why I came to the Centralict Library in the first place. The fact that they exist is proof that they’re part of something.”

“But let me guess. You still can’t translate it, can you?” Shades wanted a plan. He put his own medallion back on. She would of course have to cut them in on the action, but he wanted to see if she knew what she was doing. On one hand, her explanation of his medallion’s origin seemed to ring true in a way he couldn’t quite articulate, yet he still wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to set out on a wild goose chase.

“Well, that’s why we’re here,” Kato said. Justin had been so excited, while this Max seemed somewhat standoffish, and then there was Shades, who seemed less inclined to listen to her than the others. “With the Centralict Library at our disposal, there’s gotta be something about the Tri-Medals. There ain’t a better place in the world to find it than right here.”

“Then why are we standing outside?” Max asked, now that he thought about it.

“Come on guys, quit askin’ stupid questions!” Justin pleaded. “You’re in, right?”

“Maybe you’re right…” Max conceded.

“Any friend of Max’s is a friend of mine,” Shades said. “If Max trusts you, I guess I do, too.” After all, Max had known Justin longer, but he felt that his friend was being uncharacteristically prejudicial about Kato just because she was Cyexian, and he hoped he would give her the benefit of the doubt as Justin apparently already had. Besides, he told himself, if all else fails, I’ll only be out fifty cents. Still, who’d’ve thought it could be so valuable? Only in the Sixth Dimension…

After thinking it over for a long moment, he told her, “There are two people in this world who are very important to me, that I’m searching for, and searching for this lost civilization should allow me to travel to a lot of places. We’ll give it a try, but if things go sideways, we reserve the right to go our separate ways. Also, if I find any clues to my friends’ whereabouts, I will also opt to drop out of the hunt to search for them. If that happens, we can discuss what to do with my… Tri-Medal.” Trying to wrap his tongue around the word. “How does that sound?”

“Okay,” said Max, glad to know that Shades hadn’t forgotten about his own friends in the midst of all this talk about adventure.

“As long as the three of us get a fifty percent cut of whatever we find,” said Justin, sealing the deal. “After all, Max and I already agreed fifty-fifty.”

“Deal,” Kato agreed.

“Now what?” Justin asked.

“Now we find out where those lazy bums wandered off to,” Kato replied.

“Oh yeah, I forgot all about them…” Justin mumbled.

“What lazy bums?” Shades asked.

“The ones who were traveling with me,” Kato informed them, realizing that, in her excitement over finding two Tri-Medals at once, she had forgotten about her friends. Who she had hoped would be loafing around somewhere near the entrance yet weren’t. “The three of us call ourselves the Triad. Chase is about your height, Shades,” pointing to him, “with red hair, but he likes to wear a wide-brim hat. He wears a big coat and carries a lot of guns. Kinda has a thing for weapons.

“My other friend, George, well, he’s a strange one. He’s a little taller than you, Justin,” smiling as he glared at her again, “with wild, scruffy-kinda brown hair. He’s got these eyes that always seem to be staring off into space. He may not be very bright, but for some reason, he’s a whiz with computers and mechanical stuff. I don’t know how he does it. I would ask, but he can’t talk. At some point before we met him, somebody cut out his tongue.”

“And where are these friends of yours?” Max intoned.

“That’s what I want to know,” Kato told them. She should have known Chase had other places in mind when he declined to help her research. “By now I suppose they’ve found some kind of trouble to get into… They know I hate it when they do that without me.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re asking for help?” Shades asked.

“I suppose I am,” she confessed. “The two of them are my team, so you can see how I can’t go anywhere until I’ve found them. The sooner we do, the sooner we can start searching for the treasure.”

“It’s not like we have anything better to do,” Shades told her.

“You did help Justin.” Max remembered his mother telling him that, even though the Islanders had their disputes with the clans of those waters, he should not judge all Cyexians he met by their deeds, that Cyexians had even helped her and Dad a few times along the way. “We should at least help you find your friends.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Max.” Justin really wanted to get going, but he was sure that having Kato’s friends along would improve their chances on the way. “Let’s go.”

“But where do we look?” Max pointed out.

“Let’s split up,” Shades suggested. “We can cover more ground that way. We’ll each check around a different neighborhood at the same time. Then we all meet back here in a couple hours and compare notes.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Kato.

“Let’s go already,” Justin insisted. A Layoshan and a Cyexian joining forces. Justin never thought he’d see the day. Now I have seen it all…

And so they split up to help Kato find her missing friends.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Obscura Antiques & Curios
Justin stood on a stretch of sidewalk, wishing that Kato’s friends would just show up so they could get going already.

To find the treasure. Now that he was no longer confined to any one place, he could hardly stand still. Hidden treasure. The sort of thing he had heard tales of, and had always dreamed of finding. If it was real, the possibilities were more than he dared hope for.

Still, he wasn’t sure he liked having to split the loot so many ways, but he figured if it was even half as big as she said it was, he could still live like a king on his share. That, and having the Triad as backup would be handy. And, of course, he had to admit that it was the others’ Tri-Medals that made this possible in the first place. And, now that he thought about it, he himself had actually considered braving a second run through Tranz-D to find Max, so he couldn’t really blame Kato for wanting to find her own crew.

“Going back in… Am I crazy?” he asked of the universe.

Then a horrible thought occurred to him. They couldn’t have… Just the thought that her companions may also have gone wandering into Tranz-D chilled his blood even in this warm, sunny weather. No. Don’t even think it. And he shook that thought off.

Still, after so many years in the Third World shambles of the Triangle State, and more recently the bizarre world of Tranz-D, this place felt so strange to him now that he stopped to notice it. No armed guards, no checkpoints, no shanties, no crowded, filthy alleyways. No endless hallways, no bottomless vent shafts, no robo-guards, no Junkyard Dogs. And, most importantly, no more NK-525. The more he looked around, the more he realized that this place looked more like some of the places he had seen in his travels on the Skerry, real towns and cities he only vaguely recalled seeing as a child.

As he wandered around, he spotted a store that immediately grabbed his attention. Somehow this place just didn’t quite belong, just didn’t look like the two buildings it was sandwiched between. It stood in sharp contrast with the red-brick, chirpy-named, ground-level entries on either side. A short stairway led down to an entrance that seemed to be constructed of some dark, almost black, wood beams. A sign hung at street level, in dark red letters, reading:

OBSCURA ANTIQUES & CURIOS
“…In the Midst of Life, We are in Death.”


And, underneath that, in fading letters: NEW LOCATION! CHECK US OUT!

“I wonder…” There was something about the place that struck him as disreputable, almost creepy. Yet his feet took him down those dingy steps anyway. His hand seemed to move almost of its own accord, even as he wondered why he was doing this, reaching out and opening the door.

Inside, he was greeted by an almost eye-watering wall of burning wax and incense. And a faint mixture of other smells he couldn’t place. Even his well-honed night vision took a moment to adjust to the dim light that scattered candles and oil lamps gave off. And he wondered if it was really worth the adjustment as he looked around.

Little knowing that Shades would have had the exact opposite reaction.

Along the walls were shelves covered with an assortment of strange objects. Standing shelves full of books, some ancient, some more recent-looking. Most written in languages he knew nothing of. On one shelf was a skull adorned with jewels. An ancient-looking camera. A small, ornate wooden box strapped with several strips of paper scrawled with strange characters. A book entitled Occult Theory for Novices. An Arabian oil lamp.

“This crap just ain’t right…”

“About that you are right, young man…” a raspy voice said.

Justin jumped, visibly startled, turning to face a short, decrepit-looking old man standing behind the cluttered counter.

The mysterious shopkeep continued, saying, “The owner of this place I am. Deal in forbidden objects from many realms, we do. Feel free to browse.”

Justin’s eyes traced the counter, where a bare lightbulb buzzed overhead. Behind him, and within the dusty glass display case, were even more peculiar things to pique what Justin had decided must be morbid curiosity. A stuffed owl. A small velvet case bearing a silver ring set with an emerald stone. A blue Egyptian figurine. A greenish glass ball. A scary-looking mask. An ornately scrolled jar containing what looked like an iridescent white feather of peculiar marking. A sheathed, curved sword on a rack.

There was a sign on the counter that read: Pretty to look at, pretty to hold, but if you break it, consider it sold. And below that: All sales final.

“What do you mean, forbidden?” Justin finally asked.

“Things most people fear or misunderstand. Things that are perhaps best left alone by most,” the shopkeep explained. “Sorcery, witchcraft, alchemy, occult rituals, and other esoteric arts. Haunted and cursed items, objects of power, black tomes and taboo texts, talismans… If forbidden somewhere it isn’t, sell it we don’t. Right now having a thirteen-percent-off sale, we are.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Justin told him; his long years as a streetrat in a marketplace had taught him to never tell a shopkeeper you have no money. Remembering what he was supposed to be doing, he asked, “Um, by the way, you haven’t seen a guy with a big coat and hat, or a guy who doesn’t talk, have you?”

“Indeed I have,” the shopkeep told him, a playful smile touching his lips. He had a strong impression this one was just a browser; then again, many of Obscura’s regulars started out just browsing their first time around. And he felt that this one would definitely drop by again some time. “Came in this morning, he did. Made an offer on the Melon” (gesturing to the green ball on the shelf) “and that ominous blade. Yes, very interested. But he just did not have enough.”

“Enough money?”

“Or enough chi.” The shopkeep nodded. “Finally settled on a little trinket that I’m sure one such as he will find a use for.”

Justin wasn’t quite sure what the old geezer meant by that, or if he really wanted to know.

“Was there another guy with him?” So he instead decided to get back to the point. “A guy who can’t talk?”

“Yes, tagging along he was…” Again with that sly grin. He pointed behind Justin, to that strange wooden box and its odd paper bindings, saying, “Wanted to know he did, what was inside the box. But nothing of wardings did they know, so open it they could not. Then again, I also know little of fuda spells… Mayhap that was for the best, as even I know not what is inside, nor whether what was sealed is locked out, or locked in…”

Justin just started at him blankly.

“Yes, a mindless fool that one seems,” the shopkeep resumed, “but speak he can. In ways his companions do not understand. Underestimate him not…”

“Well… thanks for the info,” Justin told him as he headed back for the entrance. Though this place wasn’t as bad as it had first seemed, he still had mixed feelings about it. “I hate to cut and run, but my friends are waiting for me…”

“Please take this with you, free of charge,” the shopkeep said, offering him a tiny mottled soapstone figurine carved with several runic symbols. “For some reason, no one will buy it…”

“Okay…”

“Regret it, you will not.” Few had the fortitude for those things in this world which were truly cursed, but he suspected this one would need all the help he could get in the near future.

Justin staggered back up the steps, blinking away at the daylight. Wishing he had more to go on, he headed back to the library to wait for the others. At least the knowledge that they had gone out here helped alleviate his fears about the other members of the Triad stumbling into Tranz-D. Kato might be willing to go back in there, but with Max now free, he had no intention of ever going back in there, not for all the treasure in the world. As he turned the corner, it dawned on him that he should have asked the old man if he knew where they were going.

Wondering for a moment if his little bauble was worth anything, then deciding that it was probably small potatoes next to the Tri-Medals, he glanced over his shoulder to see that that eerie entrance was no longer there. Just a shabby, long-neglected basement-level doorway. As if Obscura Antiques had never existed.
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Every Single Day
Shades crossed the street, pondering this most recent turn of events.

After the repeating scenery of the Mall, this place seemed almost unreal. For starters, it was so urban. Not Big City, but even more urbanized than Kalispell. At first it seemed surreal, after all he’d been through, just how normal everything looked here.

As the reality of his situation began to sink in, gravity almost seemed to take leave of both his mind and body. As if some terrible weight had been lifted from him, as if he had awakened from a nightmare. As he suspected Max and Bandit must feel, as well.

He experienced relief beyond his capacity to put into words, just to no longer be spinning his wheels in the Mall. Adding to his sense of stepping out of a nightmare and into a dream was this business about his medallion. After all, he had always wanted to go on a treasure hunt when he was a kid, and now he had a real one on his hands. Not to mention possible answers about the medallion itself. Yet he increasingly found his relief tempered by all the unanswered questions about the events leading up to this. He wanted to be excited about this treasure hunt, but his thoughts just kept turning back to John and Amy and that night.

Only an hour or so ago, he was trapped in the Mall, where he had feared he was doomed to spend the rest of his days. Had avoided the revenge of the security guards. Had even survived a battle with some kind of evil robot thing (and made a mental note to ask Justin more about that later) and helped save his friends from it. Yet now that he was free, he found himself thinking more about what happened that fateful night back in Lakeside.

He had held back all this time in order to maintain something resembling sanity back there, but now that he was free to explore them once again, the questions were back with a vengeance.

Who were those hitchhikers, and what did they want? Who was driving that black van? Why were they after me? What happened to John after we got separated? Why am I so worried about Amy? Were there others who disappeared, too? What the hell was that experiment even about?

Had turned all of this over and over in his head, but ultimately dropped it, feeling powerless to do anything about it. Had wondered offhandedly what the authorities back on Earth made of the whole thing. Of course, there was still nothing he could do about it. What had happened, happened…

“I can’t change the past…”

In the midst of his thoughts, he spotted a man walking down the street ahead. Wearing a tan leather jacket that looked very familiar to him. Remembering what John had been wearing that night, he saw that even the guy’s hair was the right color…

When the man turned a corner, Shades paused for a moment, hesitating in spite of himself. Then took off after him, dashing around the corner before he could get too far ahead. It only took a matter of seconds to close the gap between them.

“John? Is that you?”

“Who?” The man— who, Shades noticed as he caught up with him, looked nothing at all like his friend up close— stared back at Shades with a mixture of surprise and confusion as he asked, “Do I know you?”

“Sorry…” Shades apologized, feeling more sheepish than he believed the situation warranted. “I thought you were someone I knew.”

So much for wishful thinking… Shades thought as he watched the man, and all hope of seeing anyone he once knew, walk away.

But, hopes or no hopes, he vowed to keep an eye out for anything he might learn.

During the last month or so, both before and after Max showed up, he had given a lot of thought to how many friends had walked in and out of his life over the years. How many lives he himself had walked in and out of. How the ones you have when you’re older are never quite the same as the ones you had as a kid. The ones you wanted to grow up with together …and hopefully grow old together.

It was almost overwhelming.

All his life, he had heard others lament, I wish I had the answers. Now he was beginning to understand what they meant. And, like a lot of things he had come to understand of late, had never wanted to. Though he had escaped his imprisonment, he now knew that the ghosts of his past mistakes would keep coming back to haunt him. As much as he wanted to put it all behind him, he also understood there was nothing he could do but live with them. Every single day.

Even as he resumed the search already in progress, he vowed again to do everything he could to find the truth. Though something deep inside told him it would be a long time. If this world was even half as big as Earth— and he suspected it was bigger, much bigger— he knew the odds were against him. He decided to use this search for Kato’s friends as practice for the search for his own. Just wished he knew where to begin looking for these friends of Kato’s.

This time, there’s no looking back…

After waiting eighteen years for his ticket to adventure, he wasn’t so sure he wanted it if John or Amy couldn’t come along for the ride, too.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the streets of Centralict
Kato strode down the street, more annoyed than usual with her friends.

At times like this, she felt more like their babysitter than their leader. It was hardly the first time she found herself having to hunt those two down, but this time was totally different. While they were off getting themselves in trouble somewhere, she had hit on the find of a lifetime. Two of the legendary Tri-Medals in one day.

Even in the midst of her irritation, she found she couldn’t help thinking that Chase was gonna shit a brick, and George would be overjoyed.

And to think that Chase was the one who shrugged off the library as a needle in a haystack. So when it was time to make a plan, he was nowhere to be found, and George— who she now believed should have stuck with her for that errand— had tagged along with him. She knew she couldn’t trust either of them to stay put for long, yet she had sincerely hoped they would have found something to do at the library while she was doing all of the dirty work. Now, instead of working on translating the complete set, she was walking all over Centralict Island looking for them. Knowing him, she wondered dryly if she should start with the local jail.

I can’t take that guy anywhere…

On the other hand, these other three she was working with seemed to know how to get things done. Justin was close to being equal in the running-and-gunning department; this Shades had yet to show his true meddle, she suspected, but was quick enough with unorthodox tactics; Max, she couldn’t make up her mind whether or not she wished what she had seen was the limit of his fighting skills. After seeing them in action, she feared her team had become lazy.

And she wasn’t so sure she liked that panther, especially since it didn’t seem to like her.

When she spotted a street café they had seen the day before, she realized just how long it had been since she had last eaten. Her excitement was beginning to wan along with her strength, so she decided to have a bite to eat with her inquiry. If this turned out to be a good spot, they might frequent it while working on their research later. Perhaps that Shades fellow would be willing to treat them.

Deciding to put business first, she asked the waiter, “Excuse me, have you seen my friends?”

“Would you mind being more specific?”

“As I was about to say,” Kato went on, “one’s about this tall, wearing a big coat and a wide-brim hat, and the other’s a short guy with funny hair who doesn’t speak…”

She trailed off, seeing the waiter’s expression.

Them?” the waiter intoned, and she could tell from the look of disdain on his face that she had the right party. “The rudest people I’ve ever met. The guy with the hat tried to swindle me, and then that little brat with the funny hair flipped me off!”

“He’ll do that.”

Then he finished with one Kato had scarcely heard for the first time: “If you find them, tell them they’re not welcome here anymore.”

Kato decided that the waiter had asked for it, striking her as pretty stuck-up. Then the important part: “Do you happen to know which way they went?”

“How the hell would I know? I don’t care where they go as long as it’s not here.”

“You’re no good,” Kato decided out loud, turning and continuing on her way. So much for lunches at the café during their research… Maybe she should try to find a tourist directory of local “haunted” places; when he wasn’t causing trouble with other people, Chase was usually poking around in strange places. Old houses, abandoned buildings, weird shops— she had no idea where he found them all. “Have a nice day, asshole!”

She flipped him the bird as she walked away.

Even as she did so, a horrid thought crossed her mind. Weird places… No. He didn’t. Don’t even go there. Of course, most of Chase’s destinations turned out to be duds, but every once in a while, he managed to find something real, and those incidents were always the worst. If Chase and George had blundered into Tranz-D behind her, she wasn’t so sure she even could persuade her new companions to venture back into that twisted place.

After seeing Justin and NK-525, she was not sure even she could face the nightmare again.
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the Never-Ending Building
Max walked down the street, Bandit ambling along. Sometimes in front of him, sometimes behind. Always checking everything out.

The streets were sparsely traveled at this time but the few people Max encountered stared as if they had never seen anything like Bandit before. His parents had a few old pictures of some of the places they had seen in their travels, and this was like living in one of them. Except for that, and the astounding spectacles Shades had shown him in movies, he had never seen a real city before. The buildings loomed on all sides, utterly unlike anything in the Islands, seemed to grow out of the ground. There were no cars in the Islands— few vehicles of any kind besides boats— but they now passed him in both directions at regular intervals, and he could see what Mom meant when she called them land-yachts. Much like the Mall, everything here was built-over, with only a few trees, and little in the way of natural elements showing through; after five years of Paradise, and even his original home, there was nothing like this.

There was so much to see— a whole new world of it— it was hard to focus on his search.

In addition to the thrill of having a new place to explore, being reunited with Justin had lifted a previously growing weight from his shoulders. The longer they were separated, the more Max had feared for him, and seeing him again, alive, was the best thing to happen to him in a long time. Right up there with escaping from the Mall, and seeing Shades challenge overwhelming odds and win. Though he hadn’t known his friend for long, he could see that he was very independent, resourceful, and strong of will, and it was great to see him back to normal.

Or at least as normal as Shades got.

But for all of their recent triumphs, the question now lingered of what to do now that he was out of Paradise. After five years of solitude, broken only during its final months by Justin’s arrival, being back among people had done him a world of good, and Bandit seemed to be enjoying himself immensely now that he was no longer imprisoned in that hotel room day in and day out. Max had his doubts about this Kato, but he felt he could trust Justin.

And really wanted to know the secret of his mysterious keepsake.

Years ago, Robert had left the Islands with his brother, Angus, though Max was too young to remember the part about why, and explored all over the world. The Sixth Dimension. That name was seldom spoken there, but his parents were by no means the only ones who suspected that their little island was also part of that world. Back then, of course, he imagined teaming up with Dad, and with Lance and Cleo, setting sail on an adventure of their own, as he now sought to with Justin and Shades.

Thinking about it now, if felt like another life. Now, after all these years, he felt as if he had ended up in one of those tales, and it still felt that way. He found that time and distance could dull the pain in his heart only so much. It made him want to get out of his own life, find something new to do with it. To leave it so far behind him, it could never catch up to find him. No looking back, as he sometimes heard Shades mutter, and was perhaps finally beginning to take the hint himself.

…Every single day, as one of the songs on Shades’ Cam-Jam said.

As he pondered these things, Bandit pulled him aside into an alley. After a moment it became clear that his feline friend needed to take care of some business. He just stood there while his companion took a righteous dump, thinking.

By the time Bandit finished his attempt at pawing some of the loose gravel of the alley on it, he backed up from the wall a pace, as if noticing something he hadn’t sensed before. And apparently didn’t like the smell of. For a moment, Max also felt an inexplicable impulse to step away from the red brick wall before him. And as he did so, wondering what had spooked Bandit, he spotted something spray-painted on that wall in grungy green letters:

The building is hungry!

Those words stopped him in his tracks. He was sure he had heard them before somewhere. All he could come up with was his mother’s voice uttering that phrase and shuddering, leaving no doubt in his mind that there was something about it that Alida didn’t like…

“I can tell you didn’t just come from that door, or I doubt you would linger…”

Max wheeled around to see the speaker standing at the entrance to the alley. He was middle aged man in a long tan coat, with a bushy moustache and a fedora. Max looked back at the wall, noticing the emergency exit door for the first time. Acting as if he were hiding some great secret, the man looked up and down the sidewalk before entering the alley.

“How can a building have no exit, you might wonder?” the man continued.

“What do you mean?” Max asked, this stranger’s cryptic remarks having piqued his curiosity.

“Just that no one who enters the Harken Building ever comes back out,” he said, a little less cryptically. “Many have asked the question, a few brave souls have even investigated it, but no one has ever come back with the answer.” He leaned closer, saying, “That place has no exit. The door stands right there, but no matter how many people go in the front, no one ever comes back out of it. Those who enter are never seen again.”

“Who would go into such a place?” Max wondered why this sounded so familiar.

“Some,” the man answered, and for a moment Max was afraid he would tell him nothing more. Then, “Why, just this morning, I made a bet with these two guys that they couldn’t find the exit, and they accepted my challenge.”

Wondering if he would perhaps get to see more of this place that already so intrigued him, he asked, “So who were these guys?…”
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a solid lead
“…Where I met Max,” Shades finished a rather compressed version of his stay at the Mall.

“You were shopping!?” Justin exploded.

Being the first ones to reconvene at the library, Shades was filling Justin in on some of what had happened to his friend after they got separated in Tranz-D. And trying desperately to break the ice with Max’s standoffish friend.

“Dude, it’s not like we were on vacation or something,” Shades explained, his impression that Justin had already made up his mind not to like him getting stronger by the minute. “Those guards were trying to kill us. They hunted for us everywhere.”

“But you still had your weapons, and unlimited cash.” Something he would just about kill for.

“And I would have traded both just to leave,” Shades told him. “Look, I’m not going to do the whole more-tormented-than-thou thing. I saw that monster for myself, and I’m not trying to make light of what you’ve been through. I’m just saying that we had a few problems of our own.”

“Well…” Justin could almost see his point. Their situation sort of resembled his. But at least they got to stop and enjoy themselves sometimes. “At least you didn’t have to crawl around in the vents just to stay alive.”

Touché,” Shades conceded. “I guess Max and I did get to have some fun, too…”

“How the hell did you end up in there anyway?”

“It’s a long story,” Shades told him for the time being, “but I think I’ll let Max finish telling his own part for himself.”

“Any luck?” Kato asked as she strode up to the steps and fell in with them.

Both shook their heads at the same time.

“Shit.” Those two had gotten lost before— it seemed to be one of their specialties— but usually not this lost. “Dammit, I know where they’ve been, but not where they are.”

“They better not’ve gone into Tranz-D…” On some unknown impulse, Justin decided to keep his visit to Obscura Antiques, as well as the peculiar figurine the old man gave him, a secret. At least for now. It’s not like it had yielded any info on her friends’ current whereabouts, and he was pretty sure they’d think he was crazy. Wasn’t so sure himself.

So the three of them just sat there, trying to figure out what to do next.

After a couple minutes, Max came around the corner, Bandit in tow, saying, “Hey guys! What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Justin told him flatly.

“Good,” Max told them, trying on a variation of Shades’ style, “because I think I know where your friends are, Kato.”

“Then where are they?” she demanded, seeing only Max and Bandit, trying not to show her dread at the mere thought of having to venture back into Tranz-D.

“It’s hard to explain,” Max told them, gesturing for them to follow him, seeming not to even notice everyone else’s relief as he led them away from the library— away from the warpgate. “Come on. It’ll be easier if I show you.”
End Notes:
-early draft: 1997
-notebook draft: September 29 – October 28, 2004
-Word-processed draft: February 18 – March 09, 2006
-additional revisions: January, 2009

Well, what can I say? "Centralict" starts out climactic enough, but turns out to be a bit of a transitional chapter, not really part of Part 7, but setting the stage for Part 9. I ended up doing a lot of thinking when I went back to rewrite Tradewinds, and one of the things I did was make the events in Parts 6, 7 and 8 flow more intuitively. Believe it or not, the big showdown with the security guards was originally smack-dab in the [I]middle[/I] of the story that is now Part 7, creating a rather uneven flow to the escalation of the fights with Security. Something I paid a lot more attention to this incarnation, letting each battle build up naturally. Using the twin battles of the boat display and Justin's oh-so-close ambush on NK-525 as a climax to Part 7 allowed me to save the "farewell" fight with Security as a twin to the final showdown with the Enforcer in this story.

Of course, a lot of the divisions between Parts got redivided when I redid the series, and now that I'm past that phase, I can actually discuss it without any plot spoilers. Once upon a time, Parts 1 and 2 were originally all one story, and I was planning to do Max's back-story in flashbacks. But when I thought about Part 3, and how Justin was going to relate his tale, I felt that would be too repetitive, plus after contemplating it for a while, I decided that taking the direct approach to Max's last day in Layosha would give it a lot more impact, as well as immerse the reader more fully into this world before stranding the main character on a desert island.

Parts 3 and 4 were also originally one story, starting with Justin's shipwreck and tale, then dropping them into Tranz-D, but once I started delving more into Justin's background (and subsequently getting to know him a lot better as a character), I decided to focus one full story on him and the beginning of his friendship with Max. That, and, looking back, I realize now that my impatience as a writer rubbed off on the very timeline of events in the story itself, and it made more sense for Justin to stick around in Paradise for a little while, then move on to Tranz-D, whose conclusion would introduce readers to Shades, and Part 5.

"The Flathead Experiment" is about the only tale from the original to be left mostly intact, though with much better storytelling, and a more abrupt ending. What was originally the conclusion of Shades' misadventure became Part 6, also taking with it some of the beginning of what would become Part 7, allowing some exploration of the Mall itself as a backdrop before Max dropped in. I'm so glad I decided to drop the previous titles "Shop-Til-U-Drop" (the original name of the Mall before I decided that anything I tried to name it would comically rob it of too much atmosphere and decided to leave it nameless) and "Malled" and devoted more time to character and atmosphere development over the flat, boring filler I now understand the older version really was. Part 7 was a transitional phase, incorporating the ending of the "Malled" version, and the beginning of the next Part. (While we're on the subject of things I'm really glad I carved out, the oldest version also had a shape-shifting assassin with the cliché moniker "Chameleon" stalking around the Mall, pissed off at being trapped there, but it proved to be annoying distraction from the real story sitting under my nose.)

In fact, in the original version, the next whole phase of the series was two humongous (50+ chapter apiece) Parts, originally titled (and I can't believe I'm confessing this...) "All For One" and "One For All". Aside from being pure cheese and sounding highly derivative, it also crammed a lot of things together that just didn't flow very well as a lump-sum. What remained of the first portion after Part 7 was divided into Parts 8 and 9, while the second lump was divided into Parts 10 and 11, with much more satisfying results.

Though most parts of this story doubled in number, each one flows more intuitively, and is explored in greater depth than my impatient, headlong rush through the older version.
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