Stocky and barrel-chested, his brown hair starting to vanish around the edges, staring in perplexity at the two young men who just stood up as if to challenge him, shifting to apprehension at the feline fury that accompanied them. Whom both of them recognized as Fat of the Mall Security duo of Fat and Fatter.
“Guards!?” Justin gasped, fumbling with both power pistols, and that feeling of it being too little, too late, of being caught flat-footed. “What the fuck are you talking about!?”
“Wait a minute!” Shades muttered, too loudly to rightly be called such, “How the hell would they even be able to find us here?”
“Stop! Wait, my friends!” DJ cried out, throwing up his arms in a frantic gesture of placation. “Dis is all a misunderstanding! Let me explain!”
“DJ,” the man asked, his apparent confusion quickly adding to Max and Shades’, let alone Justin’s, “who are these guys?”
“They are also people who were victims of the curse,” DJ told him, “just like us.”
“You don’t mean…” the man gasped.
“Deej!” a voice called out from the door. “Are these people giving you any trouble?”
Shades and Max were almost too overwhelmed by this pile-up of familiar faces to recognize Rod, and the redhead from the Twylight, their bandmates bottlenecked in the doorway.
“No, no trouble,” DJ called back. “They just haven’t heard de whole story, that’s all.”
“So let me get this straight,” Shades interjected, putting away his stun-sticks, and gesturing at the other guy, “this dude was a…”
“Yes,” the man replied, sounding a trifle chagrined, “I was a Security guard at that evil mall.”
“You…” Rod remarked, looking back and forth between Shades and Max and Bandit. “You’re the guys from our concert back there…”
“Took ya long enough,” Redhead remarked.
“Excuse me,” Justin blurted, pounding the table in growing frustration, “but would somebody please tell me who the hell all these people are?”
“I’ve got an idea,” Redhead declared, herding the others over and gesturing for them to move a couple tables together. “Why don’t we take it from the top, starting with some introductions?”
“This is Shades, and Max and Bandit,” DJ told them as they started rearranging tables and chairs, “the ones who figured out a way to escape from that sinister mall.”
“And that’s J R Serling the Twylight,” Shades told Justin, “the band we met before we escaped to Centralict.”
“Please, call me Rod,” he said, “it’s what my friends call me.” He then proceeded to run through the other band members: “Twyla McGill plays the sax, Brian Feehan on trombone, Dusk Winslow on bass, Vaughn Darden on keyboard, and Dan Zanotto on drums.”
“And this is my friend, Justin Black,” Max added, “the person I was searching for back then.”
“And is this the one you were searching for?” Twyla asked Shades, thumbing to Ma’Quiver, for she recalled DJ mentioning something about that.
“Um… no…” Shades fumbled the question.
“Dominik Ma’Quiver,” he introduced himself, “a fellow traveler.”
“And who’s that guy?” Justin demanded again, pointing at the first guy who entered.
“My name’s Bruno,” he told him, joining them as they began seating themselves in this new arrangement. “I’m sorry if I scared you earlier.”
“So why is a Security guard just hangin’ out here?” Shades figured there had to be a story behind this.
“Well… Where was I?…” DJ thought for a moment, then picked up where he left off before Bruno’s entrance caused such a stir: “As I was saying, we discussed our options, and decided to risk trying out your escape plan.”
“Hell,” Rod laughed grimly, “it looked like Bankshot’s days were numbered anyway!”
“I’m sorry about that,” Shades told them, remembering his and Max’s desperate struggle with the guards that night.
“Don’t be,” DJ replied. “We’re just glad you’re safe. If it wasn’t for your plan, I fear things would have been a lot worse for us…”
…The debate that night turned out to be a short one, DJ discovered, much to his surprise. Not only were Rod and the band unanimous on the matter, gung-ho to get on with both their tour and their lives, but Jillian also spoke passionately in favor, showing a decisive conviction he had not seen on her often shell-shocked face in all her time in that cursèd place.
Thus the subject quickly turned from whether to how.
Time, they quickly concluded, was of the essence. Just Rod and Dusk’s short excursion for last-minute items showed them Security out in full force, yet none of their activities shed any light on whether or not Max and Shades’ escape was a success. The very rumor that inspired their desperate plan meant they would need to take a very different approach to their own attempt. Much as DJ expected, the bookstore through which Max and Bandit originally entered the Mall from the Centralict Library was indeed closed down, not just for the day, but indefinitely.
It was already a harrowing trek through the dim, after-hours corridors of that sector, but to find out that they were already up against their own worst case scenario only made them feel even more desperate. Schlepping instrument cases, having to leave their amps behind, as the only cart they had mostly contained pieces of Dan’s drum set. DJ, Jillian, and Brian carrying what little else of their earthly possessions they thought they could keep.
All the while going out of their way to evade Security, as none of them held any delusions of having a satisfactory explanation for their covert convoy.
The last portion proved particularly nerve-wracking, switching to the back ways, which DJ was inclined to warn curse victims to avoid at all cost. Though he had no implement that was any match for the heavy barrier blocking the front entrance, Twyla’s father was a locksmith, and DJ had her practicing on Bankshot’s back door all day while that hall was quiet. Now she was forced to use what she had learned against that lock type by flashlight.
After about five anxious minutes of tinkering they were in, quickly crowding in out of the shadowy hall, then slowing down to make their way through the darkness of the storage room and into the store proper. Once there, Jillian, Dusk and Vaughn put on the earphones of their new radios and began to fumble their way around the sales floor while DJ and the others tried to stand watch. All of their eyes flicking to the slatted bars across the front of the store, the hall beyond only slightly brighter, quietly wishing it was already concealed behind a “Coming Soon!” façade or something.
Long past the point of no return, they sweated out the long minutes of their search, all too aware they had only hours left until the sector was open again, leaving them exposed.
“I’m getting something!” Jill barely remembered to whisper, she was so stunned at the bizarre sounds bombarding her ears.
As they tensed up, waiting, a light pierced the gloom of the bookstore, the heavy flashlight’s beam hitting her square in the face.
“I knew it!” shouted the Security guard as he ran up to the bars, fumbling with his keys. “I knew I’d find a lead if we kept an eye on this place!”
“Jill!” Twyla shouted.
As the guard started working on the gate, the intruders moved toward Jillian’s position.
“No… no yet…” Jillian could tell something was going on, yet had the unmistakable impression that it wasn’t complete yet. “We need more time…”
“Security!” the guard called into his hand radio, which was also making strange noises, though not as much as Jillian’s, “All available patrols, intruders at Point Alpha! Repeat, intruders at the fugitives’ last known location!…”
“Quickly!” Jillian gasped, increasingly certain that the escalating cacophony crescendo meant something was about to happen, beckoning her companions closer. “I think it’s about to open!”
“Halt!” shouted the guard as he finished fumbling with the heavy locks and started lifting the gate. “You won’t get away from us this time!”
As the rest of them scrambled to Jillian’s position, having switched on their flashlights and abandoned any pretense of stealth now that they were busted, the shouting and footfalls out in the corridor, converging on their location, served as a measure of how little time they had left.
In a stroke of inspiration, Twyla flashed her light in the guard’s face as he ran up to them, turning the tables on him.
“You’re not getting away!” he shouted, shoving Twyla aside and grabbing Jillian’s arm.
Rod and DJ quickly grabbed her other arm, turning their confrontation into a game of Tug-O-War, trying to move in the direction she had indicated.
By now, they could see glimpses of flashlight closing in on the store.
“Let her go!” Twyla screamed, keeping her light trained on the guard’s face so he couldn’t see.
Before Jillian could say anything, the noise peaked out and the room started shimmering…
“…The next thing we knew,” Twyla told them, “we were stumbling around the Centralict Library.”
“Kind of a funny story, that,” Rod remarked. “Seems it was after closing time there, too!”
“Yeah,” Dusk added, “but at least some of the lights were still on!”
“It was rather awkward,” Rod continued, “but luckily, we ran into a guy named Conan—”
“The librarian?” Max asked, even though he was already fairly certain.
“The same,” Rod answered. “I didn’t know you knew him. He just told us the library had had a lot of trouble with ‘walk-ins’ lately, and shooed us toward the exit before their own guards knew we were there. Seemed to be really preoccupied with something…”
“Probably the warpgate,” Shades concluded, “but while we’re on the subject of guards, let me guess, you tagged along through the rift with them?”
“Yeah,” Bruno replied, “I guess I was chasing them. It’s kinda strange. It’s like, one minute I knew what I was doin’, the next I was totally blank. There I was, grabbin’ this poor girl’s arm, hard enough to hurt her, and I couldn’t quite remember why…”
“You don’t remember anything about that mall?” Ma’Quiver asked, for Max and Shades had told him a bit about it during their long voyage.
“Not much, and most of it is hard to describe,” Bruno confessed, his mind dredging up only murky glimpses into what he could only think of as a “manly” environment, a Guys Only Zone that seemed to cultivate only the worst facets of masculinity. Of Jock Culture, the locker room, of Good Ol’ Boys. How it shaped them so insidiously into what they were. “It was like living in some cop show, but all about crooked cops who were covering up some dirty secret… When we left that place, I couldn’t remember why I was even wearing that uniform. It was like waking up from a nightmare you didn’t even know you were having.”
“Wasn’t it for all of us!” Rod laughed.
“So, the curse can be lifted…” Shades mused, dwelling for a moment on DJ’s account of the curse victim who blew his brains out, or the repairman who died warning him that fateful night. How no one there acted like they knew, just conveniently forgotten and back to Business As Usual. “All those shadow-people used to be real?”
“I think so, but I remember even less about my life before the mall than I do about being a guard there. I don’t even know if ‘Bruno’ is my real name. That’s just what the other guards called me, but we all had names like that. Bruno, Butch, Louie, Royce…” He looked at both Max and Shades, saying, “After everything we did to people, it just doesn’t seem fair to you guys I don’t remember any of it…”
“It was what it was,” Shades told him. “These guys hold no grudge against you, so I won’t, either.”
“Sounds like you were as much a victim of the curse as we were,” Max commented, trying to wrap his head around Shades’ theory of how the full curse seemed to overwrite a person’s identity and somehow re-brand them as empty shells of their former selves. “I just wish there was a way to break the curse once and for all and free everybody.”
“So do I,” Twyla agreed, “but I get the feeling that place is controlled by forces we don’t fully understand. Even if we went back and tried, I think we’d just end up in over our heads.”
“The smartest thing you can do is just try to stay free, and not stick your nose into other people’s problems,” was Justin’s two cents on the matter.
“So now that you are free,” Shades asked, “what do you plan to do?”
“For now,” Bruno told them, “I’m gonna stick around and help out DJ. If it wasn’t for these guys, I’d still be in that place, living a life that wasn’t even mine, so I owe them for that.”
“And what about you guys?” Max asked.
“Us?” Rod looked to his bandmates for a moment before he answered. “Well, we’ve really got nowhere to go right now, so we figured we’d help out DJ like he helped us. It was slow goin’, puttin’ the band back together. We took what we could, but we had to leave a lot of our gear behind…”
“I can imagine,” Shades remarked, recalling the handful of times someone in his old friend Sandy’s band, Nowheresville, forgot something, how much inconvenience one missing cord, or a broken guitar string, could cause.
“DJ’s been helping us put it back together since we got here,” Twyla added. “It’s taken us a while, since few ships carry any music supplies.”
“And that’s not even mentioning compatibility,” Dusk pointed out. “There’s no telling where most of this crap even comes from in this world, or if it’ll even work with your gear.”
“But in the long run…” Shades intoned, for as pleasant as this place seemed, he could no more imagine spending the rest of his days here than anywhere else he’d visited.
“Well, for the time being, we plan to stay here and try to get back on our feet, just like we’re helping DJ get back on his. But once Bankshot’s fully established, we plant to save up some money and tour the Sixth Dimension.”
“Sounds like fun,” Max smiled.
“So, how did you guys get here anyway?” Shades asked, figuring that if their journey was even half as eventful as their own, it would be a tale fit for a meal.
“Well, at first we didn’t know what to do,” Twyla told them, “so we ended up spending the night in a park in Centralict. The next day, we went back to the library again.”
“We tried to ask about you guys, but we couldn’t find that Conan guy again,” Dusk elaborated. “We just got this jerk who told us the place was closed. When we asked why, all he would say was something about a terrorist incident…”
“So that’s what they’re callin’ it,” Shades mused.
“Terrorists?” Justin blinked.
“What the hell happened there anyway?” Rod demanded.
“NK-525 happened,” Justin told him flatly.
“You see, there’s a gateway to another dimension on the thirteenth floor,” Shades explained, “and apparently it’s breaking down, which is why there are dimensional anomalies all around it. Justin managed to escape—”
“And that bastard came after me!” Justin jumped back in. “If these guys hadn’t escaped when they did, I’da been shit outta luck!”
“I imagine the library management doesn’t like the idea of that thing being there to begin with,” Twyla thought aloud, “so that’s probably why they’re covering it up. But why is something like that even there in the first place?”
As Shades and Justin went back and forth explaining about the warpgate, Jillian returned with more food, and Rude Bones in tow, tray in one hand, a bottle of something not-so-cheap looking to drink straight from the other.
“The food’s here!” the old man announced between swigs.
“You really are going to take advantage of DJ’s generosity for all it’s worth, aren’t you?” Twyla scolded.
“Little missy,” he informed her with a sly smirk and a wink, “were I twenty years younger, that ain’t all I’d take advantage of around here.”
“Once a pirate, always a pirate.” She rolled her eyes. “Even retired, you’re just a drunken lech.”
“Can you blame a man?” the old pirate’s tone taking a turn for the defensive as he took another pull. “I was a handsome devil, once upon a time…”
“I’ll be going back to finish the next course!” Jillian squeaked, edging out of Rude Bones’ reach as if from past experience.
“Ah,” Shades sighed, “the taste that doth provoke the desire, but taketh away the performance…”
They all had a good laugh, Rod looking blank for a moment, and Twyla rolling her eyes at him now.
“Ya know,” the old man told Shades with a gleam in his eye that completely undermined his jovial tone, “I ain’t raised a hand ’gainst anyone since I first came here eight years ago…”
In the meantime, Shades had partially drawn one of his stun-sticks.
“Hmph,” Rude Bones snorted, “not like I was actually gonna do anything, I ain’t drank that much, but DJ, I can’t believe you’re serving folks who are carryin’.”
“What’s he talkin’ about?” Justin demanded, his eyebrow rising sharply.
“Sounds like you forgot to tell ’em,” Dusk remarked.
“You see, the merchants here don’t like weapons,” DJ explained, seeing an opportunity to change the subject and cool the old pirate off before he drank any more of Bankshot’s most expensive stuff.
“But I thought you said there were no rules here.”
“There aren’t,” Rod assured them. “It’s pretty cool, like real anarchy. On this island, there are no rules, just agreements and understandings.”
“One of the things the merchants all agree on is that having weapons in their shops is a bad idea,” DJ elaborated, “so they all agreed not to support weapons. There may be no actual law, but most stores here won’t do business with you if you come in armed.”
“ ’Cept for the Jolly Roger, a’course,” Rude Bones reminded him. “Then again, they also sell weapons, so I guess it stands to reason.”
“All the same, it was something important for you to know during your stay,” DJ resumed, “but since I know you, I’m already sure you’re not gonna cause any trouble…”
“And since there aren’t any ‘rules’ to ‘break’ in the first place,” Shades grinned, “I take it we’re okay?”
“Right,” DJ nodded, “so dig in!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice!” Justin laughed as he did just that.