…And finds himself hanging out with some of those single-serving friends that sometimes tagged along with him in his dreams. For the course of his dream, they had been friends forever, but after waking up, he would quickly realize that none of them ever bore any resemblance to anyone he used to hang out with in the waking world. And although the details would slip away when he awakened, he would always be left with that eerie impression that it was a different bunch every time.
The place they are hanging out this time could best be described as an odd combination of mall and theme park. Mostly indoors, with a couple movie theaters, video arcades, numerous restaurants, animatronic animals singing and dancing, some outdoor carnival rides… All connected by a whimsical maze of halls, ramps and stairways.
As they make their way to another theater, discussing what movie to watch next— not that anything about these films will seem familiar to him after he wakes up— Shades somehow gets separated from the others while looking for a restroom. Almost in spite of having just boasted that he knew his way around here better than any of them.
Ever more chagrined and confused, his every turn leading him farther and farther away from them, until he finds himself wandering into some closed gift shop. The door is unlocked, and even though he knows his friends won’t come here, his feet lead him on anyway. Everything is dusty and neglected, as if it was not only closed for the day, but had been for some time, and he wonders for a moment why the door is unlocked like that.
The atmosphere quickly changes, the deeper in he goes, shifting from muted festive to forlorn to unsettling.
At first, there are no outward signs, just a sense of things becoming seedier, weedier, hinting at a history of decadence that strikes him as jarringly out of place in a kiddy-themed setting. It’s in the dingy back room that things start to take a turn for the ugly, starting with a disturbing desk calendar. Shades knew the type, having seen them in auto mechanics’, plumbers’, and the occasional cubbyhole or garage office, with their bikini-clad gals posing in front of cars and such, but all other resemblances end there.
The bound and gagged forms of emaciated women, like some kind of twisted concentration camp porn, stop him in his tracks, knowing that this would never pass muster anywhere, even as the blackest of parody. As well as the nagging certainty that there must be a law against at least some aspect of how these photos were even made…
All the more so, for the chilling intuition that these sick photos were not doctored in any way, and he turns to leave, no longer sure what he’s even doing in this horrific place. Yet as he turns around, he sees even more of the room, none of it any better, as far as he is concerned. Stuffed animal mascots hanging from nooses, or dismembered and laying in piles of their own stuffing in the corners, broken bottles, and mysterious dark stains his eyes refuse to linger on.
A den of depravity, whose demented history already history already seems to be seeping into his mind, whispering of things he never wanted to know. As if every corner of this place is now screaming of the sheer wrongness visited upon it. Both a warning, he thinks, and a cry for help. Last chance to turn back… each decoration seemed to say, Before you find out what really goes on in here…
The impression that each step is taking him deeper into some predator’s territory, and into its lair.
Every fiber of his being telling him to get out of here, while he still can, he stumbles back out into the store proper. Seeing a large bank of dusty windows overlooking the cavernous open levels above. Some kind of museum or gallery, with various vehicle displays, including an old bi-plane hanging from the ceiling, and he wonders how he missed all this on the way in. As he steps out onto the floor, wanting to be as far away from this little shop of horrors as his feet can possibly take him, he glimpses some steps leading up to a level above the shop, with a “CLOSED” sign hung across the stair landing on a chain.
Just as he’s about to head for the door, he hears a commotion up there, including a woman crying out for help, and bounds up the stairs. Even his waking mind will have a hard time sorting out the bedlam he blunders into next, a warren of business offices and personal quarters in total chaos. Young women being chased around by sleazy-looking men in business suits.
Near as he can tell, the women were being held captive before one of them somehow got loose, all of them looking like they seriously want out of this sick party. The hosts of this secret retreat— apparently going on unbeknownst to the rest of the park— could best be described as nothing less than slimy, degenerate Good Ol’ Boy types at their worst. And Shades is pretty sure this impromptu game of tag wasn’t in the event program, as they are going at it with a total lack of festive pretense.
Even as he tries to wrap his head around it all, catching glimpses of signs of torture, drugs, and hints of other mayhem that he knows now has been going on for a long time. Right under the park’s nose, almost certainly by someone with power and influence. With a strong suggestion of No Witnesses by the end of each sordid shindig.
His shock and horror giving way to burning rage at the horrific scene unfolding before him, he is about to jump into the fray, when he spots someone who stops him in his tracks.
But she doesn’t seem to hear him, and she doesn’t look back, either, focused entirely on the stairs he just came up only moments ago.
One of the Good Ol’ Boys in hot pursuit, but Shades reaches out his foot and trips him, sending him sprawling flat out on his face before he could reach the steps. Giving Amy a head start to the first landing, where she gains a further lead by jumping off the railing and onto the bi-plane hanging display in the chamber outside, dropping down onto a car display next to it on the gallery floor below, making it to the door as her pursuer finally stumbles to the bottom of the stairs. Cursing and screaming that she can’t be allowed to get out, no matter what.
He sees her run down the street, the other guy staggering to a halt as he runs out of steam, Amy having gained too great a lead to catch up with her by now.
Shades’ exultation at her swashbuckling escape is short-lived, though, as by now the others have taken notice of him, and not in a good way. The remainder of his dream becomes a blur of violence, blocking doors, flipping tables, using objects as improvised weapons, and just generally taking the fight back to these creeps any which way he can. Holding them off by any means he can muster, and hoping that even a few of their captives could escape from this splintering of separate, desperate struggles…
Shades was not terribly surprised to see that he had tossed all of his sheets across the cabin before he woke up from that bizarre ordeal. The last thing he recalled was something about a bunch of animatronic animals dancing around him all herky-jerky, singing something in a demonic chorus of chipmunk voices. As deep as he had gone, he was more surprised that he actually woke up at all. Especially since he couldn’t recall just how either struggle ended.
He sat in bed for several minutes, trying to piece it all back together. Second only to Amy’s dire cameo, the thing that disturbed him most was just how vivid, lurid, and, most of all, visceral, it was. As if he had just stumbled headlong through someone else’s nightmare. For so long, his dreams had been increasingly vague, sometimes not even about himself, the details skittering away from him, even as he opened his eyes, but this one…
For a moment, before seeing Amy derailed his train of thought, he had almost remembered how he did it. How he fought when he really got serious back in the day. The battle-fire, Rod called it. And then it all just slipped away from him, leaving him to struggle with the same desperation as if he was facing them all alone in the waking world. Even Amy didn’t seem to be her old Zero Hunter “Tomboy” self, who— battle for battle— vanquished at least as many Zeroes as he. Still, recalling her spectacular leaps back there, he pondered for a moment if she hadn’t started to remember how to navigate the dreamplane.
If she had really been a prisoner at all in there, or if she had actually dared to break into that Bad Business den for the sole purpose of setting the captives free. The sort of thing they used to do along the way in No Man’s Land, giving less fortunate dreamers a fighting chance to wake up. Though back then, the scenery tended to lean more toward industrial areas and mad science labs, and he didn’t consider the Zeroes’ new motif to be any improvement.
Then again, back then it had seemed as if the Zeroes were trying to push No Man’s Land farther up, as if to ensnare more dreamers. Even after his talk with Rod about it, the inconclusiveness of the whole matter still bothered him. Still found himself struggling with a vague sense of denial, wanting to be sure he wasn’t just confusing his dreams with some old cartoon they all used to watch or something. The way it seemed to get canceled mid-season, right before the big Final Showdown. As far as he could tell, they never really “won” so much as that mysterious rift in the heart of No Man’s Land simply fizzled out, and the whole Zero Menace collapsed in its wake. As if a window of sorts had opened, then closed, and they had merely held the fort through the worst of it. All the same, his own experience with this world had taught him that even a door which had been closed and locked for ages could all too easily be opened, so as far as he was concerned, Rod was more than justified in his concerns about the Zeroes returning again for some reason.
Without victory, there is only doubt…
Wished he could remember where he heard that old saying, as it summed up his current feelings all too well.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.
“You up yet?” Roxy demanded. “I’ll be leaving soon, whether you’re ready or not.”
“Just a minute!” he called back, hastily tossing on some clothes, then pausing to take a more thorough inventory of his weapons and gear before he headed out.
He found her out on the deck, watching the docks from near the gangplank.
“Justin turn up any new leads?”
“Nothing useful yet,” the bounty hunter replied. “Only that word on the street about our mystery dealer seems to match up, source for source. Hooded, elusive, and wearing some strange gloves that are almost certainly weapons. There’s another shipment today, so Justin’s already out. Let’s just hope his double life can handle a little more underworld scrutiny while we dig at the other half of the equation. Time to go see what the Stockade Gang knows about all this. Not just the low-level grunts.”
As Shades joined her, he looked over at the ridge overlooking the far wing of Anchor Point’s wide inlet, just before the lighthouse topping it, at the walled, guard-towered structure above the cliffs, and reminded himself that the people they were on their way to see had all done time there. Yarbo Stockade, after which the gang Justin ran afoul of yesterday had named themselves, and wondered if he was really cut out for this at all. Wondered if his terrible dream only minutes ago was actually a hint about Amy, or if all the violence that had kept him company since Alta had simply seeped into his dreams.
Recalling what he dealt with in there, he decided that he would need to toughen up some more if he was going to be any help to Amy at all against people like that.
As he walked, Shades had a hard time taking his eyes off that razor-wired wall up on the ridge. The Stockades were Anchor Point’s oldest gang, according to local lore. From what Roxy had gathered, all of their inner circle had done at least one stint there at some point, and having served time somewhere was a requirement for even joining them. Had they approached him first, instead of the Crays, he doubted Justin would have any trouble selling them on his fun stay at Pullman Mine.
Roxy had certainly done her homework, ingratiating his friend with the city’s underworld, still he hoped it would be enough.