“Fancy meeting you guys here,” he remarked. “Can’t say I was expecting you, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In any case, this works out well, since I wanted to ask you for some advice. You know, practical advice, from somebody who’s been there.”
“What do you mean?” Shades asked.
“Fighting,” Rod elaborated. “Even one of you has seen more action than all of us combined. After hearing about your crazy adventures, I think it’d be a good idea to arm ourselves, and start practicing, before we set out to tour the world.”
“Good thinking,” Justin chimed in. “You can never be too well prepared out there!”
“There’s not a shooting range around here, but I suppose I could set something up.” Recalling their harrowing travel tales with every word. “I was just wondering if you guys have any pointers.”
“Yeah,” Shades told him. “First and foremost, always be sure you know what you’re shooting at before you shoot. The last thing you want to do is accidentally hit your friends.”
“I think that one’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Justin jumped in. “I’ll tell you the most useful thing I was ever told about guns, and I’ll do it for free ’cause you’re his friend. You wanna practice your quick-draw every day. I always practice ten times before I go to sleep.”
“That’s a keeper,” Shades seconded. Back when they first met, he had his doubts based on his companion’s crude form at hand-to-hand, but after witnessing Justin’s gunplay for himself, he could see just how skilled he really was in that department. “I’ve been doing that for a while, and it’s definitely helped.” Though not half as fast as Justin, at least he wasn’t fumbling it anymore. “You want to get it down to where you can do it in your sleep. A weapon is no use if you can’t get to it fast enough. An ambush won’t give you time to think about technique.”
“I see,” Rod nodded. “You guys weren’t kidding about all that shit, were you?”
“Damn straight!” Justin laughed. “Unless you can draw quick enough, and aim decently at the same time, your gun might as well be back on the ship for all the good it’ll do ya when you really need it.”
“I don’t know exactly how to say it,” Shades informed him, “so I’ll be blunt: you can’t think in terms of your old life. Master Al was a combat veteran, whereas I grew up in a civilian society. These days, I think I’m finally starting to get what he was trying to teach me all those years. I’m just glad I started to ‘get it’ before it got me.”
While they were talking, Rod was browsing the gun display, pausing at something that made him blink in spite of himself. At his request, Wilkins fetched it out of the case, allowing him to examine it. Both Justin and Shades trailed off as Rod turned over the peculiar piece in his hands, Shades especially, as something about it struck him as eerily familiar.
“Roulette?…” Rod stammered, rotating the gun to examine all six of its gatling-gun barrels. Attached to an assault rifle stock, with a stabilizing hand-grip on top. Four slots for power clips lined the length of the buttstock, Justin noticed. “My Zero Hunter weapon, just like in my dreams…”
Though not an exact likeness, Rod found the resemblance most uncanny.
“Roulette…” Shades also pondered that name, seeing Rod in a whole new light while holding that weapon. Certainly older now, but that was to be expected after seven years. “You mean, from the Resistance?”
“Wait a minute,” Justin blurted. “What are you talking about? You know this guy from somewhere?”
“Yeah…” Shades mumbled, his certainty building the more he thought about it. “But only in my dreams. We used to fight together, as a team.”
“Shades…” Rod mulled over that name. Of course, he had wondered why the name ‘Shades’ sounded so familiar to him back at the Mall, but back then he had been too preoccupied with the curse, and their first live show, to give it much thought. Now, holding this weapon, he found himself remembering a lot of things he hadn’t thought much about until he wound up in the Sixth Dimension. “It really is you, isn’t it?”
“But… I thought you were just a dream…” Or at least assumed he was back then, as he had no analogue to anyone he knew in the waking world. Just another ‘denizen’ of the dream world, if an ally rather than an enemy.
“Yeah, but I’m the one who told you not to use your real name there, remember?”
“Yes, the Resistance… the Zero Hunters…” Among them, a young man who called himself Roulette… a voice that was and wasn’t Carlos’, threatening them… It was starting to come back to him. All the crazy dreams he used to have when he was a kid. Especially that year. Things he had thought less and less about in the intervening years, while his thoughts were more focused on his more recent dreams these days. “I remember, you and Quincy, and Amy, too…”
“Amy?…” Rod paused for a moment. “You don’t mean…”
“Tomboy?” they both blurted in unison.
“You mean she’s the one you’ve been looking for all this time?” Rod gasped.
“What the hell are you guys talking about?” Justin demanded, looking back and forth between them.
“I’m not even sure where to begin,” Shades told his friend. “I used to think it was all just a dream…” Turning back to Rod. Roulette. “But if you were real…” Back then, he kept telling himself it couldn’t really be her, just another dream figment tagging along for the ride— too afraid to ask her in the waking world, despite being right in the next row in class, so close, yet so very far away, for fear she might think he was some kind of freak… “Then does that mean Amy…” Not so sure he liked where this was going, given the kind of dreams she starred in in this world, combined with the kind of dreams she used to turn up in back in his. “This could take a while to explain, but I’ll tell you about it later, okay?”
Looking a trifle miffed, Justin turned back to negotiating replacement flash and smoke bolts from Jolly Roger’s rather limited selection.
Turning back to Rod, Shades asked, “So, if you were real, then does that mean Quincy was real, too?”
“Yes,” Rod answered, his face turning somber. “He lived in another town, so it was only hearing about it from a friend who lived there that I found out what happened. We only met once, on a field trip, because we recognized each other in the waking world. But you remember how he disappeared, right before those last couple battles before the Rift closed?”
“Sort of.” Shades liked where this was going even less than thinking about the implications of Amy’s dreaming plight. Probably because it was another unwelcome factor in this equation.
“Well, he was found dead one morning,” Rod told him, his voice ashen sober. “I had to do some digging to find out, but it turns out he died in his sleep. Parents found him dead when he wouldn’t wake up for school. Not a scratch on him, cause of death unknown.”
“The Zeroes got him…” Exactly as Shades feared. …Will wake up dead (Trap)… Almost wishing he could forget Amy’s entry in the Book of Fate. Back when he was a kid, he sometimes feared that if he had taken even one wrong turn in some of those dreams, he would never wake up, but over the years had written it off as scaring himself needlessly. “Those weren’t just normal dreams, were they?”
“I think you’re right,” Rod agreed. “I’m just flying by the seat of my pants here, but the best theory I can come up with is that there is more than one level, more than one layer, to the dream world. For instance, there’s just your own dreams, which are probably no more dangerous than, say, watching a movie…”
“But go deeper down the rabbit hole…” Shades speculated, “and you end up someplace other dreamers can wander into, as well. And if you die there…”
“You don’t come back,” Rod nodded. “Of course, I can’t help thinking that most pass through that level from time to time, but most don’t stick around long enough to take any serious risks, or maybe wake up before they’re in too deep… I used to warn Quincy not to wander off on his own, but he always insisted on scouting out that weird No Man’s Land on the border of Zero territory. He always had a bad habit of letting his curiosity get the best of him.”
“And sometimes you couldn’t wake up,” Shades recalled, that was especially true in No Man’s Land, that eerie place where the fabric of the dreamplane itself seemed to have been corrupted by the Zeroes’ presence. “I hope nothing like that happens to Amy.”
“If I were you,” Rod said, face and tone dead serious, “I would try to catch up with her in there, even you can’t find her out here. I mean, I know she was a Zero Hunter like us, but it sounds like she’s forgotten how to fight in that world, and you might be able to remind her.”
“I see.” Shades nodded. “I’ve been having some creepy dreams these days, but none of them are like those dreams… It’s like I’m just a spectator, rather than a player. I don’t think I remember how to go all the way down…”
“You have to try,” Rod pleaded, “for her sake, as well as ours. You have a stronger connection to her, so you’re more likely to find her in there. To tell you the truth, I’m also having trouble getting into it, but I’ve seen enough to convince me that the Zeroes are back, and you don’t want her to have to face them a—”
“There you are!” Dusk poked his head in the door. “Everybody else is ready to rehearse! Come on, man!”
“Just a minute!” Rod called back, then turned back to Shades. “Just remember, it’s dangerous in there, so keep your wits about you. Don’t let the fog of dreams cloud your mind on that side. We’ll talk about this some more later, okay?”
“Okay.” Shades half expected this to be some kind of prank, but Rod knew way too much. Even Amy’s old Zero Hunter codename, something he had never told a soul in the waking world.
“Yo, Russell,” Rod turned to the proprietor, handing him the peculiar piece, “this thing’s an important memento from my childhood. I don’t suppose I could talk you into hanging onto this while I make payments?”
Leaving Shades to his own troubled thoughts as he wandered out the door with his new shoulder holster little more than an afterthought.