Summary: Wherein an alliance ends in betrayal, and the betrayed try to face the fallout without having a falling out of their own…
Categories: Non-Naruto Fiction > Original stories, Non-Naruto Fiction Characters: OC
Genres: Action/Adventure, Dark, Fantasy, General, Horror, Sci-Fi, Supernatural
Warnings: Dark, Death
Chapters: 33 Completed: Yes
Word count: 40975 Read: 13082
Published: 10/02/13 Updated: 14/03/13
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
18. XVIII by shadesmaclean
19. XIX by shadesmaclean
20. XX by shadesmaclean
21. XXI by shadesmaclean
22. XXII by shadesmaclean
23. XXIII by shadesmaclean
24. XXIV by shadesmaclean
25. XXV by shadesmaclean
26. XXVI by shadesmaclean
27. XXVII by shadesmaclean
28. XXVIII by shadesmaclean
29. XXIX by shadesmaclean
30. XXX by shadesmaclean
31. XXXI by shadesmaclean
32. XXXII by shadesmaclean
33. XXXIII by shadesmaclean
“Hand over your Tri-Medals. Now.”
Kato and her companions had their weapons drawn, covering the three of them.
Justin simply stood there, fists quivering.
“Don’t try anything,” Chase told them, “and no one gets hurt.” Retraining his sawed-off disrupter rifle for emphasis.
“Hey! What gives!?” Justin demanded, seeing Benton all over again.
“I believe it’s called a double-cross,” Shades muttered. He had seen this scene in so many books and movies, on TV… I should have seen this coming… Of course, he had meant to keep an eye on her from the start; instead, he and his friends ended up becoming so preoccupied with their predicaments in the Building… “You never really meant to team up with us, did you?”
For his part, Max stood there silently. For the first time in his life, he felt the between-the-shoulders sting of betrayal.
“I should have known…” Justin muttered. He should have remembered that he was dealing with a fellow opportunist. She had what she wanted, had her Triad at her back; she had her end of the deal. He resented her for even having friends to back her up, but also felt bad about dragging Max down with him. “Only a Cyexian would kick you when you’re down…” Then again, now that he thought about it, all three of them somehow managed to get out of the Building ahead of him, apparently far enough ahead of them to recover and get their act together. “Bitch. You used us…”
Kato held out her hand as she stepped in front of Shades. Who cautiously removed his medallion and handed it to her, careful not to make any sudden moves. “The card too,” she added, remembering the mysterious card he had paid off their damages at the Library with the other day, and he handed her that, as well. She then turned to Max, who stared at her in unflinching defiance.
As she glared at him, Max refused to budge, so she took the medallion by the chain, giving it a good hard yank.
“We trusted you…” Max said quietly, contemptuously.
“I didn’t want to fight you guys…” Kato muttered, trying to ignore the awkwardness she now discovered in betraying someone she had fought and risked her life alongside of, just kept telling herself this was for the Triad. “But I already have my own crew.”
“And to think, we saved your ass back at the library…” Shades hissed, then turned on Justin, saying, “I thought you said we could trust these guys!”
“And you said to give her the benefit of the doubt!” Justin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You bastard! Don’t you dare try to blame this all on me!”
“Don’t you try to weasel your way out of this!” Shades shot back. “And you even told her about my fuckin’ card!”
“Uh… guys…” Max looked back and forth between his friends, trying to figure out what to say. “Don’t you think—”
“Shut up, asshole!” Justin didn’t like to admit that this was partly his mess, which was usually his cue to duck out, but he was not going to let Max’s new friend lay all of the blame at his feet. “If you hadn’t taken so long—”
While Max fumed, and Justin ranted, and the Triad just gaped, taken aback by this heated argument, Shades lashed out and shoved Justin, who stumbled back, then lunged at Shades with a snarl of rage.
Before Max could make a move to break it up, Shades sidestepped and tripped Justin. From out of his jacket pocket he produced one of the “laser tonfa” he found in the Building, snapping it out and taking the barrel off of Kato’s power pistol. Max blinked at Shades’ new weapon, then decided this was their only chance to act. While Chase re-aimed his sawed-off disrupter rifle, George stood blank, and Bandit sprang at Chase, knocking him down. Just as George was recovering his initiative, Max jumped in and kicked him down even as he made his belated move.
When Chase lashed out with his rifle butt, knocking Bandit back with a snarl of pain, Max rounded on him with another vicious kick.
Meanwhile, Justin stood with his fists clenched, glaring back and forth between Shades and Kato, unable to decide who he wanted to kill more. Before he could make up his mind, though, Kato threw what was left of her pistol at Shades and bolted.
“Come on, guys!” she shouted over her shoulder as she ran, “We got what we came for!”
Even as Justin drew, Chase rolled over, pulling a grenade from his coat of arms, then scrambling away. Max turned belatedly from George to find himself caught in an expanding cloud of smoke. George stumbled out of that smokescreen and joined his friends as they ran, his two companions laughing wildly.
“Dammit!” Justin coughed, no longer able to see where to aim.
As they staggered out from the smoke cloud, the Triad already had more than a block’s lead on them, a strong head start.
Before anyone could think of a plan, they found themselves hot on the Triads’ heels. Shades held the lead with Bandit, closely followed by Justin. Max, who would ordinarily be in front, hung back, his wounded ankle sore and aching, yet he kept on anyway.
Bandit was pressed back at the corner when Chase started firing over his shoulder. In spite of this, they were gradually gaining on their quarry. Chase quickly gave up shooting and focused on running, but it made little difference.
Just when Kato and her crew were starting to flag, and it looked like Max and the others might catch up, she changed tactics. Signaling her friends, she jumped out in front of a passing car. When the driver slammed on the brakes, Chase hardly gave the poor man a second to bitch her out, opening the door and throwing him out on the sidewalk, holding him at gunpoint while the others hopped aboard. Then he jumped in and they peeled out, only seconds before their pursuers could reach the car.
“Shit! They’re gettin’ away!” Justin drew.
“Taxi!” Shades called, waving to a green car approaching them, emulating Kato. As they all piled in, he didn’t give the driver a chance to comment on Bandit, telling him, “Follow that car!”
Bandit found himself scrunched on the floor, and Max sandwiched in the middle. Justin rolled down the window on his side, as Shades did his, commenting, “I always wanted to say that…”
“Hurry up!” Justin shouted at the cabby, again pulling his double-barrel power pistols. “If you lose ’em, you won’t get anything!”
“Justin…” Max looked at his friend strangely.
“I’ll double your fare if you step on it,” Shades cut in.
And the driver did, beginning to close the gap. At least their driver was a good one, weaving through traffic while hardly even touching the brakes, as well as knowing the streets of Centralict better than the Triad. Still, Kato drove with reckless abandon, pushing the limits of both drivers’ legality.
Kato was driving, as was her specialty. George simply sat there, seatbelt strapped, just hopping to survive another of the Triad’s purely improvised getaways. Chase, as was his specialty, leaned out the window and shot back at their pursuers.
That and Kato’s reckless driving seemed to be the only things keeping the cab at bay, yet it was also messing up Chase’s shots. As far as he was concerned, she seemed to be enjoying herself a little too much at the wheel, but he had to admit she was up against a taxi driver. Not good odds by any of their reckoning.
“Step on it, Kato!” Chase shouted, “They’re gaining!”
George slid down in his seat as the taxi started shooting back, trying to make himself less of a target in his hundred-and-eighth Triad shootout in which he himself had more in common with innocent bystanders than actual participants.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” Kato shot back. “This boat handles like a tank!”
“I know!” It wasn’t like they had time to pick and choose under the circumstances, “But could you at least keep it steady! I can’t hit a damn thing!”
So far, a lot of collateral damage, but not so much as nick on his real target.
“Then next time, you drive!” Kato hung a hard left, clipping their right-hand mirror against the vehicle that originally had the right of way, and barely swerved in time themselves.
“Fuck! Are you trying to throw me overboard!?”
“Get your ass back in or you’ll cut your head off!” Kato recommended.
Trying not to dwell on how close a call that encounter was earlier. She had feared from the start that this Shades might have more tricks up his sleeve despite wearing a smaller coat than Chase’s, but she was still startled at how easily he segued his fight with Justin into a surprise attack against them. She would have to remember that trick, might come in handy someday…
For his part, Chase ducked back in again, deciding not to waste any more juice on cover fire that wasn’t actually covering anything, and just hoped Kato could hold out against the cabby a little longer. Both of them, likely George as well, all too aware that they were going to pick up flashing lights and sirens at this rate. Though they did have the advantage of having escaped from Centralict before, so even though things were shaping up to be yet another close shave, they at least knew where they were going.
They were nearing the harbor district, so there was still a chance.
“Now where did we park…” Kato muttered.
hitching a ride
“Dammit!” Justin sat back down. “It’s no good!” Having snapped off a few shots at the Triad’s tires, all he was hitting were road signs and other cars. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he kept expecting TSA guards to start shooting at them or something. He demanded of the driver, “Can’t you keep it steady?”
“Justin,” Max pleaded, “please don—”
“I think we’re almost to our stop,” Shades told them. Already he could see the town of Centralict giving way to docks and piers. He was beginning to suspect that the Triad’s escape route was neither as random nor aimless as it first appeared.
Sure enough, the Triad’s car stopped at a pier. The driver didn’t even wait for Shades’ cue to stop, just drove up as close as he dared and no closer. While the other two got out on Justin’s side, Shades dug in his pocket for enough cash to pay the driver, plus a wad of hazard pay, telling him: “Just tell ’em you were held at gunpoint or somethin’.” Cursing Kato for taking the Card, thankful he had gradually withdrawn a considerable amount of cash; he just hadn’t expected to need to rely on it so soon.
Meanwhile, Kato and George got out of the car and ran for the docks, and Chase hid behind the commandeered vehicle to lay down a hard-and-fast cover fire. Shades quickly joined Max and Justin in hiding behind the taxi while the driver ducked below the steering wheel. While Chase covered them, his companions made their way to a large cabin cruiser marked Triad III.
Not until the others were finished unmooring their ship did Chase lob out another smoke grenade and join their flight. The Triad III’s engines already roaring to life as Max and his companions staggered past the smokescreen. By the time Justin could see enough to aim, Chase was already onboard, the ship well underway. Though Justin still fired several useless rounds at it anyway.
“Dammit! We lost ’em!” Justin snarled, at last putting away his guns.
“Not yet!” Shades ventured. “Perhaps we can get a ship—”
“Did you say you need a ship?” a strange voice asked them.
They turned to the source of the voice to find an old man standing on the deck of another ship. Hair scraggly, mostly white, with a beard reaching almost to the belt of his grey robe, his eyes sparkled, as if laughing at a joke no one else got. In spite of all the shooting, he sounded as casual as if he were offering a ride in the rain.
In that short time they took his vessel in. About forty or fifty feet long with a wooden hull, the cabin looking like a cylinder laid on its side. A short mast stuck out behind the cabin. The name on the hull read: Reflection.
“Yeah!” Max called back, “Would you?”
Shades heard sirens somewhere in the distance, and noted that the cabby peeled out without so much as a backwards glance. Unlike Max or Justin, Shades— though having never heard that particular tone before— still recognized police sirens when he heard them.
“Den come!” the old man called out in his strange, unplaceable accent as they made their way over. As Max and Justin helped him unmoor, he asked them, “So, why are you after dem?”
“They stole something from us,” Shades answered simply, wishing he knew what to do.
The old man simply nodded, then went to start the engine. Once they were clear, the Reflection set out under the power of the small single engine, slowly picking up speed in the direction of the vanishing Triad III.
“What the hell! Can’t we go any faster?” Justin demanded, watching the Triad slowly pull out ahead. He couldn’t believe any seaworthy vessel would have such a small engine, and he wondered if they hadn’t just hitched a poor fishing boat. “Maybe we should’ve hijacked one…”
“Justin!” Shades hissed.
“Dis is fast as she goes!” the old man called back in a jaunty tone.
Shades listened to the man, trying to place his accent. A first, it sounded almost East African, then Middle Eastern… but never exactly sounding like any one of them. Never falling into anything he could place. The more he listened, the less it sounded like anything he had heard before, much like those rare occasions when Max spoke in his own hidden tongue.
An accent that didn’t go anywhere on Shades’ mental map; he also supposed this fellow came from a place he had never heard of, as well.
“Thank you for helping us,” Max told the old man.
“Is it just me…” Justin asked, in a restrained voice that sounded far too reasonable for him under the circumstances, looking at his companions with a mixture of confusion and frustration, then busted out with, “or am I the only one who notices that they’re fuckin’ getting away!?”
“Yeah, we see it,” Shades sighed, not liking his attitude at all. “But until we’re in a position to do something, what do you want?”
“If we ever do…” Justin muttered.
the Triad's escape
“When will those losers give it up?” Kato wondered aloud as the Triad continued toward open sea.
Aboard the Triad III, she and her friends watched the Reflection slowly fall away from them. Not much longer before they reached open waters, and their escape would be inevitable. Even from Centralict’s Harbor Patrol, given their slow response.
This, their third Triad ship.
The original Triad, a high-end cruiser they had appropriated, was lost in their first, bungled escape from Centralict Island. Later, the Triad II was a heavily armed smuggling ship that just happened to come into their possession. They then got lost inland on an island that turned out to be as large as a continent, and they never saw it again. Their departure from that realm had, of course, necessitated the acquisition of a Triad III.
Kato was pleased to be leaving Centralict this time with not only the same ship they came in, but also all of the Tri-Medals.
“What did they do,” Chase laughed, watching their opponents lagging farther and farther behind, “hijack a fuckin’ fishing boat?”
Even George thought that was pretty funny, snickering silently.
“Guys,” Kato broke in after a moment, in a tone serious enough to stop both of them in their gloating. “We need to talk.”
George cocked his head curiously, while Chase sighed and rolled his eyes.
“I mean it,” Kato told him. “Do you know what I went through in there?”
“No,” Chase pointed out, but his smartass jab fell short at the last second as he remembered his own fun experience in the Harken Building. Those guys had really given him a run for his money. Though in this case, he had to confess that that money just might have been worth it.
“I don’t care what happened to you, dumbass!” she told him. “You were the only one who was stupid enough to choose to go in there to begin with.”
George laughed silently at that one, seconding her motion.
“Even George laughs at you, man.” She loved telling him that one.
“Dammit, George!” Chase informed him, “She’s making fun of both of us!”
“That’s beside the point…” Kato told them, then launched into an account of all the plans she had been thinking about inside the Building, and later while waiting outside. George perked up, and at first Chase tried to tune her out, but she just kept scoring point after point about their missteps since arriving in Centralict, and he began to fear she might be on to something. Knew there would be no stopping her this time.
And so Kato continued on her roll, all the while glancing back at their pursuers falling hopelessly behind, allowing them to leave Centralict Island free and clear.
And so the chase continued for a little while longer, until the Triad III eventually pulled out so far ahead of the Reflection that the old man could only track them through a telescope.
At last, he put the thing away and reduced speed, telling them, “I am most sorry, my friends, but dey got away.” To find Justin glaring at him. Max looking at nothing in particular, his disappointment thinly veiled. Shades staring thoughtfully at the deck. Even Bandit appeared despondent at such an anti-climactic ending to the hunt. “Who were dey, anyway?”
“They called themselves the Triad,” Shades said.
“Their leader’s a Cyexian who calls herself Kato,” Max added.
“Her real name is Alexandra Aremac,” Justin cut in, then fell silent. Earlier, he had kept his power pistols out, but at this range it would just be a waste of ammo; so at last he put them away.
“Okay…” Shades wondered how Justin knew that, but decided to save it for later. At least until he remembered that name. He could still see it inscribed on the pages of the Book of Fate. Aremac, Alexandra. Holy shit…
“The other two,” Max continued, “were Chase Spencer and George, if those are their real names. George is like a…” Shades eloquently filled in the blank with idiot savant, “and Chase was the guy shooting at us.”
“Yeah,” Justin said, “and speaking of names…” He turned sharply on the old man, and demanded, “What’s yours?”
“A fair enough question,” the old man conceded, taking the three young adventurers in.
He seemed to be taking this a great deal more calmly than any of them would have expected. More so than anyone had a right to expect from someone who had tried to help having their lack of success taken out on them. As if things were not really as bad as they seemed.
“Justin, where are your manners?” Max chided. After all, this was his ship, and he could just as easily send them back to Centralict. “If you want to know someone else’s name, it’s only polite to give your own first.”
“Whatever,” Justin commented tonelessly.
“My name is Max,” he said, beginning the introductions. He patted his feline friend’s head, noting that the big cat didn’t seem to mind this fellow. “And this is Bandit.”
“Justin Black.” He spoke briskly, keeping his verbal distance.
“MacLean. Dexter MacLean.” Thankful that this man had turned out to be so patient and good-natured, choosing to reward his generosity with his true name. “My friends call me Shades.”
“And I am Hasahn Abu-Sharrah,” the old man told them, “and dis is my ship, de Reflection.” Deferring to Max, he asked, “So, Max, might I ask what it was dose Triad people stole from you?”
“I don’t know where to begin…” Max said, not liking the way Justin was glowering at him. Abu-Sharrah had tried to help them; he deserved to be let in on what he had involved himself with. Reaching into his pocket for the chain his medallion used to hang on, he continued: “They called it a Tri-Medal. Shades has one, too.”
“Had,” Shades amended.
Max went on to describe his medallion as best he could, and Shades elaborated on how his was of nearly identical design to Max’s.
“Tri-Medal…” Abu-Sharrah echoed thoughtfully, stroking his beard. “And both you and Max had dese things?” he inquired, amazed at such a remarkable coincidence, though moments like this tended to make him wonder if there really was such a thing, “but not you?”
Arms folded, Justin shook his head.
“Neither of us even knew what the hell they were before we met Kato,” Shades admitted. He was starting to get the impression that whatever these things were might not be unfamiliar to this guy. “I bought mine for fifty cents at some tourist-trap in West Glacier.”
“Mine was a gift,” Max said flatly, leaving it at that. And he wanted it back, it was about all he had left of his past. No one had ever done anything like this to him before, and in his own way, he was at least as angry about it as Justin.
“I see…” was all Abu-Sharrah had to say about it as first. He studied Max for a moment, unable to shake the impression that there was something very familiar about this boy. Figuring that if it was of any importance, it would come to him sooner or later— it always did— he asked them, “Did dey have any more of dem?”
“Just one,” Max replied. “Kato had it.”
“What does it matter?” Justin demanded. “Now that bitch has all three.”
“Because…” Abu-Sharrah smiled cryptically, “if dese ‘Tri-Medals’ are what I think dey are, dey have nothing without de fourth one.”
“What do you mean, fourth?” Shades asked.
Justin nearly gagged on that information.
“Dis Kato most likely assumed dat, just because whoever she learned of dem from called dem ‘Tri-Medals’ dat dere were only three of dem,” Abu-Sharrah explained. Likely on account of their shape, he reckoned. “According to legend, dere are four medallions like de ones you describe, though dere real names are long lost. I hear dey used to have one at de Centralict Museum, but de locations of de others were unknown.”
Shades, especially, noting the “used to” in there, recalling, as he did, that Kato never did tell them where she got hers from.
“What do you mean, unknown?” Justin demanded. Then fell silent, acutely aware that he had spoken. He shrugged inwardly. At least this was getting interesting.
“It is a little-known legend, dey were lost so long ago. What I have told you is about all even I know of it, and I’ve heard a lot of strange stories in my day,” Abu-Sharrah answered. “It is no wonder dey know so little, as well… Of course, de other three are only half of de puzzle.”
“De symbols you spoke of are of an ancient, forgotten language of a lost realm. De middle one is de key. It was said dat de other three could be placed against it to spell de names of de places where de treasure was hidden.”
“I get it!” Shades replied. Figuring that the obscurity of the script must have been why Kato pinned so much of her hopes on the Centralict Library. “Without the middle one, they can’t do anything with the other three medallions, right?”
Justin as well, with the grim satisfaction of knowing that at least the damn things weren’t doing Kato any good. Then he caught up with the other thing the old man said. “Wait a minute! Places? As in more than one place?”
Abu-Sharrah nodded again.
“Chill,” Shades muttered. “It’s not like any of this shit was even yours in the first place. What are you so pissed about?”
“Hey! She fooled you too!”
“And even though she lied about her name…”
“She said she didn’t like her old name,” Justin countered defensively. “As if a guy who doesn’t even use his own name should talk!”
“At least I told you my real name.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Justin shot back. “You’ve been trying to blame me from the start! You even attacked me back there, you bastard!”
“Oh. That.” Shades snorted. “You’re welcome.”
Justin simply glared at him.
“I’m sorry, man. To deceive your enemies, sometimes you must also deceive your friends.”
Justin decked him.
“I suppose I deserved that.”
He swung a second time, but Shades threw up his arm and blocked him, saying, “Don’t take me lightly. If you try that again, I will make you pay me back for the Card.”
And so Justin backed off, slumping in a corner and scowling at the others.
Max shook his head as if it really hurt, and Shades understood all too well. Only now Max was in his position, and he had stepped into John or Tom’s role in their endless feud.
While the three of them stood in silence, Abu-Sharrah cut the engine and started setting the sail to take advantage of the prevailing breeze. Max joined in helping the old man, using everything he remembered of sailing with his family as a boy.
“Maybe we should turn back…” Max muttered, finally breaking that awkward silence.
“You’re giving up?” Justin blurted incredulously, though not as heated as before, figuring that had to be a first for him.
“If I were you,” Abu-Sharrah suggested, “I would find something more fruitful to do with your time. Dose three sound like more trouble dan dey’re worth!”
Laughing in a timbre as silvery as his beard.
“I don’t know about that,” Shades said, pointing back at Centralict as the land thinned out on the horizon, nearing the vanishing point, “but if we go back, I imagine the authorities will want to have a word with us.”
Max nodded. So did Abu-Sharrah. Justin clammed up at the mere mention of the word authority.
“Then let’s keep following those bastards,” Justin said at last.
“Tell me,” Abu-Sharrah asked, “even if dey didn’t change course, how do you plan to do it?”
That took the wind out of his sails.
“Come inside,” the old man invited. “We will talk.”
Inside, the cabin was furnished sparsely, but what pieces there were appeared well-made. A table with rather limited seating; the small refrigerator and compact range in the tiny kitchen nook looked starkly modern against the rest of it. A cramped-looking cot and an open chest containing charcoals, paints, and a few very stylized depictions of some beach rounded out the remainder. A few exotic odds and ends here and there added to it an eclectic character that somehow fit its occupant.
“I don’t know where you’ve been, or how far you have traveled,” Abu-Sharrah told them, “but I am surprised dat you don’t know you have already lost de Triad.”
“What are you saying?” Shades asked when Justin didn’t. He and Max just looked intently at the old man.
“What I am saying is dat Centralict is but one of many realms,” Abu-Sharrah explained. “If we turned back now, we might still find it. But de farther away we get, de harder it will be to turn straight back. If we go far enough and turn around, we might not even find it back there anymore.”
“So it’s true…” Max mused, and Justin nodded with apparent understanding. “Abu-Sharrah, what is the Sixth Dimension?”
Now Shades really wanted to know what his friend was talking about.
“So you know dat much, at least…” Abu-Sharrah stroked his beard as he thought. “De Sixth Dimension, to use the words of a traveler I once met, is de Junkyard of all worlds. De Borderlands, some call it, soft places where de boundaries between worlds is thin, and realms are fragmented. De Ocean is a crossroads of sorts between many places.”
Shades remembered that some of what DJ said had hinted at this, but to hear such ideas as he had read about since he was a child, it was hard not to let his mind wander.
Max had heard some of this before, but still, ever since he left Paradise, things kept on getting stranger with every destination.
“Unless we kept deir ship in sight at all times,” Abu-Sharrah summed up, “we might not even end up on de same island.”
“So how do we navigate out here?” Something Shades really wanted to know. Justin, too, from the look on his face.
“In dis Ocean, you wander,” Abu-Sharrah elaborated. “Once you are away from de land, dere is no telling where de winds may take you.”
“Figures…” Justin muttered. Even the slim hope he held out that if they kept on the same way, they might catch up with Kato and pay her back for ripping them off in the first place, slipped away. Besides, he could almost hear the old man laugh, dey’ve got so much of a lead, you’ll never catch up with dem anyway! It was this thought that burned him the most.
“Wherever you go, you go at your own risk,” Abu-Sharrah cautioned them, then he put on a half-serious grin. “But before you go anywhere, dere’s de little matter of passage.”
Shades hadn’t thought Justin could possibly look any more resentful until Abu-Sharrah said that. Both of his companions looked at him as though they would tie him up and stuff him in a compartment or under the bed if he even thought about hijacking the Reflection. For his own part, Shades was chagrined to realize just how quickly he had become accustomed to relying on the Card in the short time it was in his possession. He turned to Max to see a very different reaction, though.
“We humbly offer what we can,” Max told the old man. “We will help you run the ship, we will share our food, and so long as we travel with you, we will help you in whatever way we may.”
“Who’s this we?” Justin demanded, seemingly looking for an exit, even out at sea.
“Of course,” Shades said after a moment, though he suspected Justin might have to have his arm twisted into keeping his part of the bargain. “I’ll admit, most of what I know, I’ve only read in books, but I’m willing to learn.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he opened his backpack. “I’m afraid this is all I have to offer…”
He trailed off as he noticed the brick-hard texture of one of the packages, and another one that felt like a sack of dust. When he unwrapped them, he found the contents were all rotten and rancid. Same for the next package, and the one after that, as well. As if its decomposition had somehow accelerated beyond anything a few hours should have caused. They could probably pot plants with it by now. Though Shades suspected that anything he planted in it would likely shrivel up and die.
The same horrified expressions seemed to cross Max and Justin’s faces almost simultaneously as they both rifled through their own packs. Some of it was bad, yet some of it was just fine. For a moment, all three of them looked among themselves as if the exact same unpleasant notion crossed their minds at once.
“You too…” Max gasped, noticing for the first time that Shades’ clothes smelled faintly of chlorination, like a swimming pool.
“That damn pool…” Shades hissed. His stomach lurched, and he tried not to think about it. Telling himself that if the food he had eaten had gone that way, he would have lost his lunch by now without having seen that. That’s what I get for taking food from a haunted place. Still, he was relieved that the bottled drinks he had brought from outside of the Building were unharmed, about all of his food that survived his little dip after escaping the Flaming Ghost. “All the food from the Harken Building…”
“De Harken Building!?” Now it was Abu-Sharrah’s turn to gasp, clearly taken aback by that name. Perhaps there was more of a tale to tell here than he had previously thought.
“You know about the Harken Building?” Max remarked.
“I have been to Centralict Island many times over de years,” Abu-Sharrah replied, “and I have heard rumors. Few escape dat terrible place.”
“The man I talked to said no one escaped.” Though Max knew that wasn’t true; aside from themselves and the Triad, he knew of at least three who had. As well as one who hadn’t.
He gave a start, remembering Chad’s tattered corpse, and how he feared his father’s old friend had ended up that way. As if on cue, thinking about his friends back there made his ankle start itching like crazy. Of course, he had meant to examine it more closely once he was safely out of the Building, but things had hardly worked out the way he ever would have imagined.
“Holy shit… What the hell happened to you?” Shades gasped as Max unwound the bandages.
“I’m just glad they didn’t get you,” Max told him, seeing that even Justin was shocked at how much his wound had festered. “He actually bit me…”
“Bit you?…” Justin gaped. “Who…”
Shades had noticed that Max wasn’t his usual high-octane self during that foot chase earlier, and now he finally understood why.
All the while, Abu-Sharrah examined Max’s ankle, then went over to a small chest, fetching out some bandages and ointments, rushing back to Max.
“Dis is not good…” the old man mumbled as he set to work on Max. After cleaning the wound, he redressed it, adding a combination of ointments. When he was finished, he said, “Bites are always de worst, no matter what bit you, but dat one might have killed you if de infection spread. You should take it easy for a few days, and I will keep an eye on it.”
“Thank you.” Max sighed audibly; after seeing how much worse it had gotten in such a short time, he had genuinely feared he was going to lose a foot.
That settled, they dumped the rotten food overboard and set about making dinner as they ironed out the terms of the three young men’s passage to the next viable destination. Ultimately settling for the terms Max originally proposed. Bandit, meanwhile, curled up on Abu-Sharrah’s cot for a much needed catnap.
And so they settled in for dinner, and starting from the beginning, or as close to it as each could— or would— come, the three of them started telling their respective tales over dinner.
Max told of washing up on the Isle of Paradise, with only Bandit for company, of about five years of solitude before Justin came along. And Abu-Sharrah nodded sagely, not at all needing to ask what had inspired Max’s choice of names.
Then Justin cut in about his years in the Triangle State. Though Shades did butt in at one point, laughing at Benton’s nickname “Banana Republic” and explaining why it was wasn’t a real republic. And Abu-Sharrah nodded, apparently having heard of the place. He continued telling about tangling with Slash and Trevor, and his subsequent stay at Pullman Mine Camp, leading to his final escape from the forces of the Triangle State Authority, finishing with the storm that dumped him in Paradise.
Shades listened, having heard some of it from Max before, but hearing it from Justin himself was much more intense. He found himself trying to picture what Lakeside would be like scattered with checkpoints, Secure Areas, even a Forbidden Zone or two. His quiet mountain home under a perpetual state of martial law. And after hearing his accounts of the crystal mines, he found himself thinking of his Cam-Jam. Of its plasma crystal power cell— the one that, in such a low-draw device, would last for years, before needing to be replaced— and found himself feeling just a little guilty for even having it. As he often did when he learned one of the dirty secrets of where so many things actually come from.
At Max’s prompting, Justin spoke a little about the Skerry, the ship he had sailed on as a little boy.
“Skerry…” Abu-Sharrah mused, “a most romantic name.”
“You know what it means?” Justin asked.
“Yes. It’s an old word for de rocks and de waves dat shift just off de shore. It sounds like a ship dat travels a lot, and seldom visits de same place twice.”
They all had a good laugh when Justin recounted how he first met Max, thinking that Bandit was trying to kill him. After that, Max and Justin went back-and-forth about life on a deserted island. But when they got to the part about the whirlpool and Tranz-D, Abu-Sharrah stopped them, saying, “I have been to many places, but I have never seen Tranz-D,” and one could hardly miss the open amazement in his voice. “You have indeed come far, my friends.”
“What happened to that place?” Max asked, wishing somebody knew.
“I don’t know for sure,” Abu-Sharrah answered, shrugging off their disappointment, “but from what you’ve told me, it looks like de machines have taken control now… Dere are many legends, and most of dem say dat it used to be a place of wonders, but few details remain. You are de only ones I have heard of who have ever seen it.”
Sort of like Atlantis, Shades thought, and he spent a couple minutes telling them about an ancient legend from his own world.
When Justin spoke of being hunted by NK-525, Abu-Sharrah expressed even greater concern over the nature of Tranz-D’s “catastrophe” and its implications. Then Max got them back on topic, telling about how he opened the warpgate to the Centralict Library, and his meeting with Conan the Librarian, as Shades called him. At which point the old man mused again about the fall of Tranz-D, and how that could be a very interesting development for the Library staff.
“Yeah, well ‘interesting’ ain’t the word I would choose,” Justin told him.
“Though I doubt it would make much of a tourist attraction,” Shades put in. After which, he jumped in, continuing their palaver by explaining a little about himself. Max had already heard a lot of this before, yet Shades seemed to have a knack for telling personal anecdotes as if for the first time. About what at times, anymore, almost felt like another life.
This America was nothing like the Triangle State, Justin reflected, envying him his apparently carefree life in that world.
Abu-Sharrah surprised them, Shades most of all, by remarking, “I hear dere’s beautiful country in de Flathead.” When he saw Shades’ jaw drop, he put his hands behind his head, lacing his fingers and cracking his knuckles as he said jovially, “We wanderers sure get around, don’t we? I go wherever de winds may take me.”
Shades then proceeded to tell about more recent events. Of his plans with his friends, his pending date with Amy, his fight with Carlos, of his last day on Earth. Even having heard the tale of Shades’ harrowing road trip, and subsequent wrong turn on the Highway 93 of space and time— which he had come to refer to as the “Flathead Experiment”— before, Max was still chilled by this second telling. Justin broke in briefly, lighting up at the description, and mentioning that had found one of those motorcycle things in the Harken Building. It was obvious to Max, Abu-Sharrah as well, that Shades still felt guilty about accidentally leaving John to the mercy of the hitchhikers, as well as whatever else was afoot that night. Still feared that Amy would be mad at him for standing her up.
And clearly worried about both of them, as if certain something bad had happened to them, or else was about to.
At this point, Max took over again, telling about the anomaly in the Centralict Library, then Shades about his experiences in the Mall. From there, the two of them went back and forth about their stay. All the while, Justin glared deathrays at Shades, occasionally interjecting about all the fun he had with the Enforcer.
Abu-Sharrah nodded, commenting on all of the rumors he had heard of phantom ports of call on the Ocean, of places people left because something just didn’t seem right. Dark whispers of how those who stayed behind were never heard from again, or else, those who left looked back to see the place was gone, as if it had never existed. Places no one else had ever heard of. Though the sea harbored myths from time out of mind, it all put Shades in mind of phantom cars and ghost towns he had read about. Much as he had always wanted to believe in them back then, his experience with the Mall and the Building served to cast out all doubt.
While Max and Shades explained their escalating troubles with the Mall’s sinister security guards, Justin added his own accounts of playing cat and mouse with NK-525, and how he eventually met Kato, the two of them working together to escape from Tranz-D. There was a note of bitterness in every word of that. Shades explained about figuring out the secret of the anomaly, and all three of them parts of their final showdown with the Enforcer.
When they explained how they learned that Kato’s friends had apparently entered the Harken Building of their own free will, Abu-Sharrah shook his head, lamenting that surely the two of them must have had no clue of the place’s true nature. Now it was Shades’ and Max’s turn to glare at Justin, and when his account proved to be largely uneventful until near the end, Shades’ glare intensified. In spite of all he had seen, it was still hard for Shades to wrap his head around the idea of climbing up all those stairs only to end up in the basement; Max, on the other hand, nodded in total understanding, having descended all those stairs to the rooftops. All the same, both were equally spooked by Justin’s descriptions of sprawling tunnels and cavernous chambers, especially the frozen storage area, which Shades could imagine all too clearly.
And so Max explained about what he found at the bottom of those steps. About the rooftops and the alleyways. About “them” and losing Bandit in the chase. At first, Shades had tossed in the word zombie, understanding at last the grim horror in his friend’s voice on the intercom, but ultimately decided that whatever Max had encountered was something else, and “zombie” just wasn’t the right term for it. Still, he told Max, “I believe you should be able to count on the dead to do two things: to smell bad, and to stay dead. And I don’t like not being able to trust them to do the latter.” And they all shared a nervous laugh. All of them were on the edge of their seats, though, as Max told them of his grueling battle with them, being bitten in the ankle, before retreating up the fire escape.
Shades again looked at Max’s bandaged ankle, and he feared he may have finally understood the horrible fate he was so certain awaited anyone who lingered in that twisted place too long. Abu-Sharrah seemed to have reached a similar conclusion, suggesting that destroying the “Unliving” (as Shades started thinking of them, wondering why that term should seem so familiar to him…) would likely have freed their spirits, or else perhaps that they were otherwise just empty shells, whoever had once dwelt in them long since departed. Either way, the gist being that Max would almost certainly have done them a favor by finishing them off. For his part, Shades was just glad he never had to meet those guys, and he could see from the wide-eyed horror in his face that Justin shared his sentiment.
It was in the midst of this thought that it dawned on him how close he may have come to meeting Max’s freaky friends. Skipping ahead to his own passage through what was likely the same vast roofscape, Shades told about how he met Bandit, only to lose him in the alleyways. “It creeped me out,” Shades said, though now he realized why. “It was like he knew what he was running from or something…” He explained about the backpack and skeletons and the abandoned gear, that sense of a desperate flight, then he showed them his prize, the “laser tonfa” he found in the backpack.
“Stun-sticks…” Max murmured. Though he had never seen any before, he had heard enough descriptions to know them when he saw them.
“What did you say? You know what these are?”
“Yeah,” Justin broke in, “so do I. They’re called stun-sticks. A couple mercenaries in the Triangle State had them, and I’ve heard that in some places they’re used by guards and in prisons and stuff. But I’ve never seen any with handles like yours.”
Max sat there in silence, letting Justin do the talking. In addition to Chad, the letter mentioned another, a woman named Teena, who had entered the Building along with his parents and Uncle Angus. If he remembered his mother’s account correctly, this Teena had also carried a pair of orange-bladed stun-sticks. Max just couldn’t remember if she made it out, though. Naturally, there had been a big deal about Chad, but he found he couldn’t remember what became of Teena for the life of him. He wondered morbidly what else he had managed to forget of his mother’s terrifying tale.
Of course, Max kept this to himself, as he resumed his own tale about that strange garden— and what Shades said sounded very much like traditional Japanese architecture from his own world— about finding that mangled corpse. He very nearly winced at calling Chad “the body” yet he chose to keep his name, and his parents’ connection to it, a secret because he just didn’t want to go into it. He kept the letter to himself to look at later, as well.
But he did show them his new laser sword— and Justin took this opportunity to tell them about the mysterious “laser whip” Kato had shown him as her souvenir, claiming to have found it inside the Building, clearly miffed that everyone else seemed to have found some treasure in there except he— and when Max showed them that scrap of poetry he had stumbled upon in passing, Shades blurted, “That has to be the other half!”
“Other half of what?”
“What you just showed us sounds like the beginning of a poem I found in this book,” Shades replied. “I’m not sure, but I think part of it was about the…” Realizing that he had gotten so lost in everybody else’s adventures, he had nearly forgotten the most disturbing thing that happened to him in there. “The book… I almost forgot… There’s something I have to tell you guys.”
Backtracking, Shades told of his wanderings. Since all of them were familiar with the eerie, not-quite-emptiness and the atmosphere of that place, he fast-forwarded to the part about the dead-end room, and the stairway leading down to the Book of Fate. Abu-Sharrah suggested, as he had at several other points, the possibility that the Harken Building’s true purpose was perhaps to protect something— which always put Justin in mind of the Obscura Antiques shopkeep’s comment on whether or not something was locked in, or locked out— but until Shades spoke of the Book of Fate, he had no clue what that something might have been.
They all looked as if somebody had stepped on their graves when Shades started rattling off names. Including, “Chase Spencer, and… what did you say Kato’s real name was?”
“Alexandra Aremac.” And for once, Justin was too preoccupied to put any venom into it.
“She was there, too…” Shades breathed, remembering that name. And he wouldn’t be too surprised if George’s name turned up in there as well, even if he didn’t see it. “And you were in there too, Justin, and so were you, Max.”
“What did it say?” they both demanded in almost perfect unison.
“It said you would be killed by an unknown enemy,” he told Max, who only shrugged, apparently having no more clue who this unknown enemy was supposed to be than he. “You, Justin, are supposed to die impaled on something.”
“When?” Justin asked, trying to sound skeptical but not quite pulling it off.
“It didn’t say,” Shades answered. “It never does. There were a bunch of names in there, thousands upon thousands, and I don’t even remember all the ones I did read. John and Amy were in there too, and it said that they would die unpleasant deaths.” There was no mistaking the desperation even his shades couldn’t hide as he said that. “I wish I knew where they are, what’s happening. How much time they have…”
“Were you in there?” Max demanded, concern written all over his face.
“Yes,” Shades admitted, “I was. It said I was going to be tormented for all eternity, as punishment for reading the book, I guess, but I managed to escape from the Flaming Ghost.”
“Flaming Ghost?” Justin half inquired, half scoffed.
“Yeah. He appeared while I was reading and tried to trap me there with a bunch of skeletons.” His narrow escape up all those stairs, then stumbling into the darkness, held them riveted. Even Abu-Sharrah seemed a trifle disturbed about all the doors leading back to the Flaming Ghost. That he had to keep climbing through windows and stuff, or only using doors that were already open, for most of the doors in that place seemed to be closed by default, resorting to any tactics he could think of to keep moving forward.
Or whatever passed for “forward” in that twisted maze.
That line of discussion led to Shades’ and Max’s unusual intercom conversation. Neither of them could quite place where they had gotten their ideas about the doors, mostly talking about dreams and such. Max thought about mentioning the custodian, but thought better of it, figuring the others would think he was crazy.
Then they wrapped up with the Triad’s betrayal, and the chase that led them to the harbor, and Abu-Sharrah offering them a ride.
“I see…” Abu-Sharrah stroked his beard for a long moment in thought, then turned to Shades and asked, “Tell me, do you ever have strange, unexplainable feelings about things? Perhaps see or… sense things other people do not?”
“Well…” Shades thought back to all the times in his life, especially lately, when his intuition had served him better than his reasoning ever would have. His parents and teachers had often told him he had an overactive— a word he quickly came to dislike— imagination, and though he could now recall a fair share of his own strange experiences, he realized that he often downplayed them as just figments of his imagination. Now, in light of all he had seen, he wondered. “Sometimes. Like when I was riding home that night… It was like an alarm going off in my head, that’s as close as I can describe it.”
“I think dere may be more to it dan dat,” Abu-Sharrah told him. “You may well have what some call de ‘gift’. I am almost sure of it. Everybody has it to some degree, but like all talents, some people have it to a greater degree dan others. It goes by many names in many places, and I am sure dat in time you might figure out how to use it.”
“You mean like psychic powers? Are you sure?” Shades asked. This all sounded too strange to be true, even after all he had been through. Of course, he had read enough about psychic phenomena to have an idea of what the old man was suggesting, and he could hardly believe he was hearing this from someone who struck him as being venerable and wise, to say nothing of practical and level-headed. “I’ve never had powers like that before…”
“Yet I think you had de potential,” Abu-Sharrah replied. “Perhaps it was instinctive, and de experience of crossing over between dimensions merely awakened it. You don’t believe me? You seem to be more dan just a little worried about your friends. Why is dat?”
“Perhaps.” Shades tried to keep his tone as neutral as he could. He would be lying if he said he hadn’t often dreamt of having special powers when he was a kid, but he still found this a little hard to swallow. After all, those were just dreams. All the same, he couldn’t help remembering that night, not to mention that one day during Christmas Break, and he wondered.
“Just listen to your instincts, and don’t second-guess yourself,” Abu-Sharrah advised. “If you find you can do or sense something, focus on it and try to learn what makes it tick. Any advantage you can gain in dis dangerous world may be de difference between life and death.”
“Thanks, man. I’ll keep it in mind.”
Shades had read a few books on the subject, but it had always sounded like mumbo-jumbo no matter how much he wanted to believe. To make sense of it. Now, hearing it from Abu-Sharrah’s lips, this mysterious old man was able to explain more in a few minutes than hours of reading. To think that the movies would have made a better source than all of those so-called experts put together… He concluded that maybe, just maybe, it was worth further investigation.
“Hey Shades,” Justin piped up, looking at Shades very intently, “do you think your powers would be able to help us track down Kato?”
Shades tried not to sigh too loudly; he should have known.
“Assuming I actually even do have any powers,” he cautioned, “I don’t think it works like that. I occasionally get hunches and feelings, but I doubt it would help me track somebody. Not like that. Don’t get your hopes up.”
No insults, no curses, no fuss— Justin just sat back in silent resignation.
“It’s okay, Shades,” Max told him. Not that he liked this situation any more than they, but he had seen worse— much worse— and he reminded himself that at least this time everyone he cared about still survived. This wasn’t much of a loss, not compared to everything he lost back then. Though disappointed, he now knew he had to move on.
“Max, snap out of it.” Shades tapped Max on the shoulder, bringing him back aboard. He had seen him do that a few times before, and it always made him wonder if his friend wouldn’t have been happier in another life.
“So,” Max asked, as if nothing had happened, “what’s our next move?”
“I don’t know about you two,” Justin muttered, “but I’m goin’ after that bitch and her crew, and if you don’t want ’em, then I’ll search for the treasure. Back in the Triangle State, those fuckers got everything! This time it’s just those three punks— not the TSA— and I’m not gonna let them do this to me!” He put a hand on one of his double-barrel power pistols. “I swear I’ll find ’em, and when I do…”
Justin trailed off, apparently too flustered to figure out just what he was going to do when (if) he did catch up with them. Shades looked into Justin’s eyes and saw nothing but rage. Even Max seemed taken aback by his companion.
“Dere’s nothing to be gained by taking it personally.” And for the first time since they embarked from Centralict, Shades saw a look of genuine shock at Justin on Abu-Sharrah’s face. He had clearly gauged Justin as being short-fused, but it was as if he finally understood the true depth of this young man’s resentment of the injustices he suffered in his youth. “Sometimes, you must learn to let it go.”
“Go fuck yourself, old man.”
“Justin,” Shades broke in, having had just about enough out of him, “are you really going to waste your life chasing everyone who crosses you?”
“If I have to.” Justin’s face was a mask of vindictive determination.
“I give up.”
“What the fuck do you know!?” Justin thundered. He had heard all about this America, and it burned his ass to no end to listening to platitudes from a man who took everything he never had for granted. “You’ve never had to live on the run! You never had to steal to live! You’ve always had it easy! Don’t you dare shrug your shoulders at what I’ve been through! She got you too, but I should’ve known I couldn’t known I couldn’t trust her… Why did I trust her!?”
With that, he turned and stormed out onto the deck.
Shades knew why Justin had trusted her. Had even considered answering that likely rhetorical question, but Max told him that bastard was pretty quick on the draw, and he decided not to press his luck, for fear of what little restraint he must surely have left. That, and he was sick and tired of arguing. He must have known the whole deal was too good to be true, surely he must have known; he wasn’t sure whether to pity the man or admire him. Right now, though, he was too fed up to care.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Max suggested, openly changing the subject. Shades forced himself not to shake his head wearily as his friend turned to him and said, “Hey Shades, why don’t you tell us a story?”
“I guess.” This whole line of discussion was giving him a headache. It took him a few minutes, but he finally thought of one he hadn’t told Max before. Remembering some of his experiences in the Harken Building, he began to relate some of his own personal memories from his childhood.
By the time they nodded off, though, he was beginning to wonder if that was such a good idea.
Morning came to find Max up with the dawn, standing of the deck of the Reflection, stretching. Bandit sitting on his haunches as his boy gazed out at the Ocean beyond. While Shades and the others were still asleep inside, he reflected on how great it was to once again have a sky above his head. He had not quite awakened with the crack of dawn, but now that there was an actual dawn to wake up with for the first time since he left Paradise, he was already falling back into a natural rhythm of sorts.
After all that storytelling last night, his dreams were all over the place. Of Tranz-D robots storming the Isle of Paradise. Of the Mall being part of the Harken Building. Of his parents and their party fighting their way through the Building. And, of course, of his own grim struggle within its many walls, as well as Justin and Shades facing those monsters…
“Ah! Good morning, Max!” Abu-Sharrah said, in a manner far too chirpy for anyone but a natural morning person, as he strode out onto the deck. Earlier, Max had seen him sleeping— or meditating, Max couldn’t really tell which— near the entrance to the cabin. “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Yeah… I guess so,” Max replied, the old man’s question dropping him neatly back into reality. “Did you sleep well?”
“You could say dat.” Abu-Sharrah headed for the bow deck, telescope in hand.
For his part, Max stepped back into the cabin, Bandit lingering for a moment, then trailing behind him. He saw Shades seated in the dinette chair, head tilted slightly to the left; through those mirrorized lenses, there was no way to tell if his eyes were really closed or not. Justin was curled up in the corner, snoring.
“Good morning!” Shades exclaimed, sitting up abruptly. Gesturing toward the Reflection’s small galley, he added, “Wake up! It’s breakfast time!”
“Morning?... Already?” Justin muttered, blinking away at the sleepiness as he rolled over and struggled to his feet. Like Max, his sleep had been most uneasy, frequently interrupted by nightmares about being chased by NK-525. Sometimes through Tranz-D, sometimes through the Harken Building; it didn’t really matter. NK’s dead, he told himself, I’m free of that bastard. Though he knew the Enforcer was gone, destroyed once and for all, he now understood it would be some time before he completely got over the horrors he had endured.
Shades stretched as well, again noticing how strange it was after all these years not to have that triangular medallion hanging against his chest. Easy come, easy go, he told himself, reminding himself that there was aggravatingly little he could do about it. Guess I’ll just have to find some other exotic trinket…
Unlike the others, though, his bad dreams had scarcely even involved himself. If it wasn’t John in some kind of trouble, then it was Amy. He hadn’t wanted to tell Max about how John was still grappling with his sinister doppelganger, both wearing grey trenchcoats, and for some reason fighting their recurring battle of wills in his neighbors’ bathroom, of all places. John’s reflection somehow as maniacal and dangerous to him as ever. Will kill himself… Murder… Those words by no means reassuring in the face of these foreboding dreams.
And Amy continued her ceaseless flight, only now she ran through parts of the Harken Building he recognized from his own creepy tour, as well as places he was sure his friends had described last night. In addition to her usual faceless pursuer, she was also accosted by spooky hitchhikers, shambling corpses, even forced to play cat-and-mouse with a certain black van in Justin’s parking garage when she briefly managed to lose her nemesis…
He shook it off, telling himself that now he was free, that now he could really begin the search for his friends. Still, the more he thought about their conversation last night, the more disoriented it left him feeling about just how long that night had really been. He was about to check his watch, but decided that, if they were passing through different realms, it would stand to reason that days and nights might not be the same length from one place to another.
“So what is for breakfast anyway?” Justin asked, noticing with some measure of annoyance how stiff his neck and shoulders were.
“More of the same, I would imagine,” Shades replied.
“Shut up.” Justin wishing silently that, just for once, the universe would give him a choice between something other than bad or worse.
“You shouldn’t complain,” Max told him. “Others are sharing their food with you.”
“As they say,” Shades added, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
“What the hell would you know about it?” Justin pointed out crossly.
Shades shrugged. Hope that’s not what the casserole dish is for, he thought, noting Abu-Sharrah’s stock of mostly canned and dried foods, remembering his old friend Sandy’s Spur-of-the-Moment Casserole. As its name implied, the exact ingredients varied from one casserole to the next, based on the contents of whatever cans he could scrounge up from his mother’s kitchen, all stirred together in one big bowl and nuked to perfection. Just add whatever’s in the cupboard! Vince would often laugh.
But before another argument could ignite, though, Abu-Sharrah returned, and they began preparing breakfast in earnest. Turned out that Shades was right, and their meal did bear a strong resemblance to last night’s dinner.
Shades himself ate light this time. Max and Justin had clearly traveled on seagoing vessels before, and it didn’t take them long at all to rediscover their sea-legs, while this was his first time on the high seas, and he was beginning to wish he had left his stomach back in Centralict. Thanks mostly to Sandy’s bandmate Becky Chandler’s family cabin cruiser, he had his share of experience boating on Flathead Lake, and he suspected that was all that kept him from losing his lunch. The real secret, he quickly figured out, was in keeping a balance, allowing himself to become neither hungry nor completely full.
Somehow the conversation kept revolving back around to the Triad and their betrayal; Justin just wouldn’t leave it alone.
“If you guys don’t want the damn things back,” he reiterated, taking the same tactic as last night, “that’s your business, I guess. But I’m goin’ after them, and when I get them, they’ll be mine.”
“Whatever.” Shades doubted anything he said was going to change Justin’s mind.
“There is the principle of the thing,” Max admitted, drawing on one of Shades’ favorite expressions. “They did steal from us, and I’m sure they’ve stolen from others, too. The problem is, I can’t see any way to take them back as things are.”
“Point,” Shades conceded. “Still, since there’s nothing we can do about it, then why worry?” Then, seeing a possible way out of this irritating repeat-loop, he offered, “But if we ever do run into them again, I’m behind you all the way about confronting them.”
“Yeah,” Max added, hoping his friend had figured out a way to appease Justin, “if we do meet them again, count me in.”
“But in the meantime, we should think of what we’re going to do right now.” Shades wasn’t about to devote his life to a wild goose chase. Or maybe he was, and it was just that he had his own to attend to already. After all, in such a vast world, without any leads, his own chances of finding both John and Amy were almost as astronomical as Kato’s. But that’s completely different, he told himself, then said, “It pisses me off too, man, but I’d rather get on with my life than dwell on the past.”
I already have enough past to try not to dwell on.
“Fine.” Justin was starting to conclude that he was alone in his quest for vindication.
“Kato is a fool,” Shades remarked. A fool who would probably waste her entire life chasing that particular rainbow. “If I were a betting man, I’d say her chances are about the same as being struck thrice by lightning.”
Abu-Sharrah just shook his head and kept out of it. Neither Max nor Shades were surprised to hear Justin’s response. Sadly, they both expected him to part ways with them at the first opportunity. Shades could tell Max really liked this guy in spite of his attitude, and he wasn’t sure how his friend was going to take it.
After breakfast, Shades stepped out on the deck with Max to practice with their new weapons, figuring it might at least take his mind off his unsettled stomach. The Reflection was a small ship, and there wasn’t a lot of room on the rear deck, just barely enough for their purposes. Shades’ stun-sticks were identical to tonfa, so there was no need to adapt any of his kata to them. One of the coolest abilities of these energy weapons, he quickly discovered, was that he could use arm blocks to deflect Max’s energy blades. Max’s ankle was still stiff, so he kept a mostly defensive stance while Shades practiced his offense.
Later, Justin got into the act, but at first he just watched. He didn’t have to observe long to realize that Shades’ unassuming appearance hid an unexpectedly competent fighter. Don’t take me lightly… Shades’ words echoed in his head, and he was now fairly sure that he would get his ass handed to him in a clean fight with this guy.
Guess I’ll have to get Max to train me some more, he thought glumly.
Two whole days passed, rather uneventfully, aboard the Reflection, and now passed into a third.
Abu-Sharrah laughed occasionally and remarked that they must be making good time, though there was no way for Shades to tell. Away from land, the Ocean looked like it would reach past the rings of Saturn. Even Justin and Max looked a little bored at times as they sailed, and Bandit mostly just slept in such a confined space.
On the plus side, Shades’ stomach had gradually settled down, and he was beginning to get the hang of traveling on the high seas. And his bad dreams about John and Amy also subsided, something he attributed inexplicably with the vibe of this old man and his ship. Along with no longer being seasick, he was also getting better at moving around, not stumbling as much during his training, which was a relief, as he felt it would become very important to be able to defend himself on a seagoing vessel from here on out.
He was also learning the ropes of seafaring, with Abu-Sharrah and Max, even Justin, giving him hands-on advice. Though he suspected that Justin was just looking to add another hand to lighten his own load. He had always wanted to learn, of course, but his interest had often been diverted to things he could make more direct use of, and now, at last, his chance had come.
On the downside, though, Justin remained distant and cutting, especially toward him, and took every opportunity to pull Max aside and train or just talk with him. A hell of a feat, given how small the Reflection was. During those times, he just gave them as much space as he could, putting on his headphones and losing himself in music. Shades had tried offering him some pointers from Master Al’s bo staff training, and much to his chagrin, Justin mostly seemed interested in using it against him.
He was beginning to wonder if this was what it was like for John and Tom all these years.
So he was left to wonder if this Justin Black was the type to hold marathon grudges, or if he was just slow to simmer down after getting that pissed off. Apparently, from what he could gather, even Max had never seen him this furious before, so he had no way of knowing. With no point of reference, all he could do was just try to be diplomatic while they were cooped up on this ship, and see what Justin decided to do the next time they landed somewhere.
Much like with Shades’ and the other’s dreams, Max’s ankle was also healing quickly. As if the infection itself had diminished along with the Building’s influence. To say nothing of the old man’s mysterious presence.
Though their first full day traveling aboard the Reflection left each of them with a little jet-lag at such a drastic change of pace from the days and weeks leading up to it. No guards, no automated security systems, no curses or seemingly bottomless mazes to be wary of. The absence of enemies and hazards was a welcome, if rather disarming, turn of events. Ill at ease at first, but gradually settling into a reflective detachment.
Out here on the Ocean, everything seemed so distant.
At times like this, Shades often wondered where his friends were out there, that strange mix of openness and hope, of distance and despair. To be so free, and yet so lost. What he would need was some kind of clue, some kind of sign, but one thing he quickly learned during his brief visit to Centralict was that foot-beat detective work was very time-consuming, yet he feared he would have to resort to that method everywhere else they went until he got a lead on something more substantial. Something he could work with.
Max sometimes wondered where in that blue-green expanse the Islands might be, yet just as quickly dropped it, for fear that thinking about it might somehow bring them there. And he could still no more explain himself now than he could back then, so it was probably for the best. Sometimes, he also wondered where the Isle of Paradise was, as well, but even though he sometimes felt a hint of homesickness, he was beginning to discover that he really didn’t miss the place as much as he thought he would. For now he was finally, truly free to explore, and increasingly his mind turned to the possibilities, of all the places his parents had traveled to years ago. All the places that now awaited him out there.
For his part, Justin mostly sat and brooded, wondering where in this maze of an Ocean Kato and her cohorts had gotten off to. The vastness of it all rubbing saltwater in that stinging cut in that proverbial place between his shoulder-blades that only betrayal can reach. Even so, there were times when he his mind wandered off to another ship he traveled on, and he found himself wondering if the Skerry was still afloat out there, and if he might see it again some day.
Thus far, the weather was partly cloudy, with only a hint of rain, and a steady wind sped them along. Though in what direction, none could tell. It was beginning to look like it was shaping up to be another dull day when they all heard Abu-Sharrah call out from the helm: “Max! Justin! Shades! Dere is an island ahead!”
Jumping at the chance to get out of this cramped ship, each grabbed their gear and prepared to see what this new place held in store.
The Reflection approached a dock reaching off the beach on the nearest side of the island. There were three other vessels docked there: a small, single-engine model, hardly capable of leaving the island by itself; a long, black boat that looked sleek, fast, and longer-ranged; the last was a ninety- or hundred-foot cruiser that took up most its side of the dock, the only one that even had a mast. There was still extra space on the other side, so they docked there.
Across the short expanse of beach was the entrance to an enormous estate that looked as if it took up a great deal of the island. Off to the right was a gate leading back into a jungle garden on one side of the island. Before them, the estate itself consisted of a massive, multiplex building that worked its way, level by level, up the mountain that formed the heart of the island. There were a good many windows, and only parts of each level were stacked on each other, making the whole thing look like a gigantic architectural “stairway” winding its way up the mountain to the very top.
Where a colossal, tilted wire-frame globe hung above everything. From afar, Shades borrowed Abu-Sharrah’s telescope, making out latitudinal and longitudinal lines, as well as one straight line through its polar axis. The tip of which was an arrowpoint that nearly gleamed in the midday sun.
Shades helped moor the ship, and Justin double-checked to make sure it was secure. Then they waited. When, after about ten minutes, they received no greeting, nor any kind of response, they decided to come knock.
“Keep your weapons handy, but don’t draw them,” Shades advised. It wasn’t a friendly gesture, he knew, but surely anyone living in these waters must understand the need for self-defense.
Justin understood. And was glad Shades didn’t insist on going in unarmed, as he half feared he would insist on doing.
Max wasn’t sure about the whole thing, so he looked to Abu-Sharrah, who appeared to neither approve nor disapprove. Merely observing.
Having decided to take the initiative, they stepped out onto the dock and headed for the beach, searching for any signs of habitation. As Shades crossed the dock on his way to dry land, he felt a vague, inexplicable sense of foreboding as he passed each vessel, almost as if each one were whispering some dark secret in his ear… He shook that thought off, telling himself that it was all this talk about psychic powers, combined with so much discussion and experience with real haunted places, mixed with the deserted feel of this area. That, and nothing more.
Then there was solid, sandy ground underfoot.
“For Sale. Dominion Realty…” Shades read from the sign posted in the sand next to the dock. “At least that explains why nobody’s home.” He whistled as he looked at the estate, adding, “I wonder how much they want for this place.”
“More than we’ve got,” Justin told him bluntly.
“Lighten up,” Max suggested, wondering if his friend was always this disrespectful of other people’s ideas, or if he just hadn’t noticed it until now. “It’s just a thought.”
“Let’s see… It says here they’ll take one million credits… or best offer,” Shades told them as he read still further, trailing off at this price. Unless one of these “credits” is worth a lot more than a dollar… “It almost sounds as if they’re trying to get rid of the place.”
“What could possibly be wrong with it?” Justin demanded, wondering why this Shades always thought about such strange things. This place looked at least as expensive as the estates of any of the Triangle State’s Úlite. “Ya know, we could probably find some pretty cool stuff here.”
“Wouldn’t that be stealing?” Shades intoned.
“Only if ya get caught,” Justin shot back.
“At least we’re being honest with ourselves…” Shades muttered, and Justin suspected he was rolling his eyes behind those opaque lenses.
“Come on,” said Max, “if there’s no one here, why not have a look around?” He turned to Shades, who was still examining the sign, asking, “Don’t you want to as well, Shades?”
“Of course,” Shades admitted. Like everything else he had seen since he took his first step into the Unknown, this place called out to him. Empty places always did, and in spite of his initial foreboding, this one fascinated him. “But I’d just like the tour. No five-finger discount for me.”
“You can do what you want,” Justin commented.
“I think I’m just going to go for a walk,” Max told them as he started across the beach. As different as Justin and Shades were, different as day and night in some ways, he hoped they would become friends. Though it seemed that Justin was dead-set on leaving at the first opportunity. He had an odd feeling about those two, and he wondered if it was anything like Shades’ hunches; the only way to know for sure was to let the two of them get to know each other while the three of them were still together. “Why don’t you guys take a look around inside?”
“Okay,” Shades and Justin said simultaneously, for different reasons, then turned and blinked at each other for a moment.
“Come on, Bandit. Wanna have a look around?” When the big cat failed to appear, he looked back. After being cooped up on that small ship for three days, he was sure his feline friend should be itching to go, but instead he stood quietly at the edge of the dock, refusing to step an inch farther. Max had only seen him do this once before, right before his run-in with the devilfish, and he wondered if it was something on the island Bandit didn’t like the smell of. “Bandit?”
“Someting is not quite right…” Abu-Sharrah mumbled.
“Just leave him,” Justin said as he turned to go.
“Are you sure dis is wise?” Abu-Sharrah asked. “Someting is not right here.”
“Who cares if it’s wise?” Justin demanded. As far as he was concerned, the old man was jumping to conclusions before they even knew what was here. He doubted anyone would notice a few missing items in a place this size. “The place looks pretty empty to me. Are you coming or not?”
“If you don’t want to come,” Max suggested, fearing that if Justin and Shades were crammed back on that ship again, they would just drive each other farther apart, and concluding that as long as Bandit stayed behind, he wouldn’t have to deal with whatever it was he didn’t like, “then why don’t you and Bandit watch the ship?”
Shades nodded, deciding that was a good plan. Someone waiting back at the ship would mean a quick getaway in case Justin did something stupid. I really won’t want to get caught here… But even so, he wondered, Why do I get the feeling no one’s going to come by here anytime soon?
Abu-Sharrah appeared to agree, as well. There was something amiss here, and he could not put his finger on it. At least from here he could back the others up.
As Max entered the garden, he strode past clumps of tall weeds near the entrance. He looked down at his feet, marveling at the stones that formed the path through the garden. Fitted together so perfectly that there was no need for cement or mortar.
The stone walkway quickly gave way to a dirt path leading deeper under the thick canopy of trees, the way becoming dimmer more quickly than he expected. His vision adjusted readily enough to the mild gloom, and he found the foliage to be denser here than in most parts of Paradise. The garden looked as if it was once well-kept, but had reverted to its natural state with long neglect. Many exotic sounds floated his way from the deeper woods.
Max hoped he wasn’t making some kind of mistake letting his friends wander off like that, but he was sure it would be worth the risk if the two of them would just talk to each other, find some kind of common ground. Though he quickly found it harder and harder to regard it as a risk, as the jungle beyond appeared quite benign. So far, he could see no sign of anything Bandit need be afraid of, but he figured he would be okay as long as he followed the first rule of wilderness survival and remained aware of this surroundings.
“What could be so bad about this place?”
not breaking, just entering
“Dammit!” Justin kicked the front door, then whipped out one of his double-barrel power pistols. “It’s locked!”
“No need for that,” Shades told him, stopping his hand. Just in case someone was here, he wanted to avoid damaging anything. Digging in his personal lock-picking kit, he came out with a hairpin; a few seconds’ probing did the trick. “There’s an easier way. Not breaking… just entering.”
“Could you teach me how to do that?”
“We’ll see.” Shades replied, not sure if teaching him to pick locks was such a bright idea. Just the thought added a touch of guilt to the giddy thrill of being an intruder. As for his own behavior, he couldn’t figure out who was encouraging who here. He just hoped the place was as deserted as it looked.
Justin led the way into the roomy entryway. The carpet looked rather pricey, yet was tracked with dried muddy footprints. In the coat closet were a couple of dusty jackets that evidently hadn’t been touched in a long time.
“I don’t see any signs of recent occupation,” Shades observed, noting how long-undisturbed this entrance appeared. Even the footprints looked as if they had dried anywhere from days to weeks ago. “But whoever was here last obviously had no idea how much this carpet cost.”
Justin shrugged. As if he cared about carpets; he wanted something he could carry off. “I want to see what this place has to offer.”
The next room was even bigger, and those muddy footprints crossed the beige carpet into the next room. They followed the trail into that room, where it veered sharply to the right, and into a door leading to a downward flight of stairs. But that was not really what drew their attention.
“You mean like that?” Shades intoned.
The tracks steered wide around an overturned sofa, and next to it a coffee table whose glass top had been shattered. It only took a moment to notice the bullet-holes that riddled the wall to their left. As if fired from the door leading to the stairs, rather than straight ahead.
“Like… that…” Justin trailed off, and Shades could almost see dollar signs ring up in his eyes as he looked past the ruined furniture, spotting a large gold coin lying in the middle of the mess. Jumping over the tipped couch, he all but pounced on it. Picking it up and testing its weight in his hand.
Shades stood as near as he dared, fearing that his companion might turn on him if he got too close. A closer look showed the coin to be over four inches in diameter and so thick that its smooth rim was clearly inscribed with characters of unknown origin. The first side Justin examined depicted a pentagram with a dragon’s face in it, its snout and four horns extending to each point. Between the star’s points were five more of the unidentifiable symbols. Justin flipped the coin over, revealing the face of a cartoonish, but demonic-looking, caricature of an old Oriental man. The edge of this side marked with more of those vaguely Asian-looking characters. At the top of it was a tiny hole with an equally tiny ring through it.
“Don’t tell me you actually want that thing…” Shades looked around, even though he was sure they were still alone. Though he was partly fighting his old instincts from back on Earth— there, this would be considered a crime scene, with that much rapped-about yellow tape— and he also just found this whole business a little creepy. For some reason causing him to wonder just what the authorities found back in Lakeside the morning after. “That’s practically stealing.”
“Just making sure we aren’t deluding ourselves,” Shades replied. Already knew Justin was going to take it; not like it was tied down or anything. “I still don’t like it.”
“Who the hell are we even taking it from?” Justin demanded, wishing Shades would stop being so jumpy. For some reason, it felt as if the temperature in the room had just dropped a couple degrees, but he shrugged it off as just a draft from the now-open door. “Nobody’s home, remember?”
“All I’ll say is that somebody was here with the ugly stick,” Shades commented, not liking this scene one bit. It was bad enough that for the love of money people could get pretty nasty, but that wasn’t all. He felt wrong standing in this place. It was enough to know that something ugly had happened here at some point, but it was a sense of that ugliness still lingering, perhaps even lurking around, that did it. This was much harder to shrug off than his unwelcome feeling at the docks.
“Ya know, I could probably fetch a good price for this somewhere,” Justin remarked, paying no attention to Shades as he stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “Come on. Let’s go see if there’s any more of this stuff in here!”
“You do that.” With his eyes, Shades followed the footprints to the stairs, very curious as to who had left those rude tracks. That, and he was quite frankly getting tired of Justin’s company. He had an idea what Max was up to, leaving both of them alone, and at first decided to put up with him for his friend’s sake, only now he just felt bad for Max. “I think I’ll see what’s down here.”
“Fine. No way in hell I’m goin’ down there.” Of late, Justin Black had become rather leery of underground places. Then he turned to resume his scavenger hunt for more valuables in the many rooms beyond.
Is it just my imagination, Shades wondered as he headed for the stairs, or did somebody turn down the heat?
“Just remember,” Justin called after him as he entered the next room, “I get a fifty-percent cut of anything you find!”
Shades shrugged and headed for the stairs. He looked down four flights of descending steps. The carpet on the stairs was dark, short and rough, so those muddy prints vanished by the second landing. Seeing all of this by the light of the skylight window hanging above the stairwell entrance, he commented, “Deep basement…”
He stood there for a long moment, listening to Justin’s fading footsteps, trying to figure out exactly what he was trying to prove to himself, before he descended. At the second landing was a mirror; as he looked at his reflection, he decided that his fiercely determined expression looked a little silly, even to his own eyes. Almost mocking him, it seemed. Right then, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to be a hero, though he would be content to know in his heart that he at least wasn’t a coward, either.
After his unsettling experience with the Harken Building, anyone with any sense would have turned around and walked away; Shades descended the rest of the way to the first door.
He checked it, and again finding it locked, whipped out one of his improvised lock-picking tools and went to work. As the heavy door swung open, he saw the unlit hallway beyond. Before he realized what he was doing, he was fumbling along the inside wall for a light switch.
Even after he flipped on the lights, the rows of doors lining both sides of the hall made him step back in spite of himself. Shaking his head— half in fear, half in disgust— at more Harken memories, he backed away. It wasn’t until he was up to the next landing that his mind caught up with what his feet were already doing. Understood what he instinctively wanted to know.
When he reached the top, it did much to ease his mind to find the room with the overturned couch again. Right where he left it. Tried not to sigh too loudly at this proof that he wasn’t in another maze again.
Still, he peered down the stairs, where shadows filtered the daylight shining down from the skylight to where he could barely see the bottom, and he knew it would be a few more moments before he summoned the nerve to resume his exploration.
Justin cases the joint
Not long after parting ways, Justin began to regret leaving Shades behind, but he firmly made himself drop the matter. Ever since he picked up that coin, he started feeling really edgy. Kept expecting alarms to go off and squads of troops to come charging in or something. Chalked it up to years of experience, combined with the feeling that obtaining this item seemed entirely too easy.
For all its size and apparent trappings, he found this house very empty. Scant furniture. Few drawers— admittedly simplifying his search for valuables— and little of any interest in them. Few ceiling lights, but a good many ultra-modern-looking floor lamps, at least one in each room. Also a lot of skylights throughout, enough to adequately light each room easily in broad daylight.
After a little while, he began to wonder if there was a thermostat somewhere around here, for it had become noticeably cooler since he first came in. After all, this place was clearly built by someone with a ton of money. Though perhaps a few bricks shy of a full load; the more he saw of this house, the more it seemed as if it was built purely for the sake of having as many rooms as possible. He only pondered it for a couple minutes, though, as the place’s origins failed to interest him nearly as much as its potential secrets.
Between this trinket, and the apparent opulence of the estate itself, he was increasingly certain there had to be some kind of hidden stash, a secret room, or a concealed vault, containing still more treasures; the only thing that worried him was the possibility that the coin’s presence out here in the open might mean someone else already found it. Still, he told himself that the fact that the coin was still here might also mean that not all of it was taken yet.
For a moment, a morbid image popped into his head, of two or three people all killing each other over it, and the treasure still lying there unclaimed.
This he thought about as he made his way up, the steps turning at angles with each overlapping section of the structure’s winding architecture, still he found nothing of any great interest. What little there was consisted mostly of mundane junk. If push came to shove, the coin would be prize enough— and to hell with anything Shades might have to say about it— but he still held out the hope that this bauble might be just the tip of the iceberg.
Along the way, he also found other rooms in which various other mishaps had apparently occurred. In the next room was a massive entertainment center, lying face-down on the floor. The flattened video game systems alone would be enough to make Shades weep. In another room, all of the pictures lay on the floor directly under the nails they originally hung from.
At one point, he found himself wondering why Shades hadn’t caught up with him yet, wondering just how big the basement could possibly be. Then wished he hadn’t, glancing around the room in a cold sweat for a moment as fun memories of his time in the Building flashed through his head. Then he calmed down, reminding himself that that ordeal was long over, and that this was just a plain, ordinary— if strangely built— house.
Now that the moment of lingering dread had passed, he was again in no hurry to see Shades any sooner than he had to. Though he was now irritatingly certain he would have to as long as he was with Max; knowing that the two of them had become such fast friends in such a short time was driving him nuts. It made him wonder if perhaps he and Jesse Fletcher might have gotten along better if they were free of the Triangle State— once upon a time, he trusted him almost as much as he now trusted Max. He finally dropped it, reminding himself that there was no point worrying about people who were long-gone, without so much as a hint he was even still alive anymore.
Making his way up, the notion popped into his head that the key to catching up with the Triad could be found right here on this island. He shook his head. Pissed off as he still was with them, he reminded himself that they could wait for now.
For the time being, he had his own treasure hunt to attend to.
Abu-Sharrah's bad feeling
Abu-Sharrah felt an abrupt and inexplicable chill, grabbing his attention like a cold, clammy hand on his shoulder.
His eyes snapped open as he sat cross-legged on the deck of the Reflection. They then worked their way up the beach to the entrance to the estate, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Yet something had interrupted his meditation, and the only thing he was certain of was that it had something to do with those bad vibes he was getting when he first disembarked with the others.
A sense of foreboding.
Then he saw Bandit pacing back and forth across the dock, where he had previously been nap-ping on the deck. Back-and-forth, occasionally throwing a nervous glance at the estate. Watched the panther bound across the dock and charge for the shore, only to falter near the end of the dock and retreat back to the ship.
And then start pacing all over again.
Something was wrong with this picture, that much the old man could tell. He knew this Max— who was still somehow vaguely familiar to him— and his companions were young and inexperienced, and he already suspected they had a bit of a reckless streak, but he had hoped they were experienced enough by now to pay more heed to their cat’s instincts. To not go charging in, apparently blind to whatever danger Max’s feline friend seemed to sense.
The Ocean was full of haunted places, and he just hoped his young friends hadn’t stirred up anything truly dangerous. In the meantime, he had promised them a ride to the next viable destination, so he continued to wait.
Max stops at the bridge
As he went in deeper, Max began to notice how much the foliage started to press in along the trail. And those exotic animal noises were now all around him, yet continued to stay out in the dense jungle beyond. In the midst of surroundings that vaguely resembled his former home, he found that he felt almost naked without Bandit by his side, accentuating his homesickness.
Curious as he was about places, and eager as he was to stretch his legs, he still hoped the island was as deserted as it appeared. Or at least, if not, that Justin wouldn’t get himself in trouble with whoever was here. He knew his friend’s mercenary style was a product of both his personality and his past, but he hoped some of Shades’ common sense would rub off on him. And Justin would quit rubbing Shades the wrong way all the time.
Farther up the trail, the path led to a small wooden bridge crossing a shallow stream. He stopped for a while near the middle of the bridge and looked up, seeing a few shafts of light piercing the narrow crack in the canopy overhead. Just wishing Bandit was here to enjoy it with him.
Wondered if Bandit wouldn’t want to take a dip in this stream. For a moment, he recalled how he had bumped into that devilfish years ago, and although he could see no immediate danger, he still decided against dipping his feet. No point in tempting fate.
So far as he could tell, there was nothing either man nor beast need be afraid of around here, still he felt it was best to stay alert. And hope his companions did likewise. The thought crossed his mind to double back a couple times, yet a peculiar intuition told him that it was best for those two to resolve their differences themselves. Just as he had for the last couple days aboard Abu-Sharrah’s ship, he dug back through his memory as he stood there, sure that he and Lance and Cleo, even Carlton, had had their share of disputes years ago, yet he could never recall any of them being that angry with each other back then.
He wondered if it was because they were only children, or simply because they had been friends for as long as any of them could remember. Just knew each other too well to stay mad at one another for long. Or was it merely the crazy circumstances under which he and his friends first met each other, combined with one mess after another?
More than anything, though, he quietly hoped it wasn’t one of those things he once heard Uncle Angus mumble about once, how some folks just weren’t meant to get along.
The more he turned it over in his head, the more it bothered him, just how little he could do about it. To stamp out the urge to go back and check on things there was no point in checking on, he resolved to walk all the way to far side of the island if he had to. Though he felt it would be taking advantage of their benefactor, he couldn’t help wanting to stretch out their stay on this island as long as possible. Or at least until Justin and Shades were on speaking terms with each other again. Given the tension onboard, he figured everyone would appreciate it in the end.
That turned his thoughts to Abu-Sharrah for a moment, and he hoped the old man wasn’t too bored back at the ship.
Shades searches the sub-basement
Drawn by an irresistible curiosity— which had only grown more so since ending up in this dimension— Shades went back downstairs again.
At the second landing, the stairs entered the hall from the side, about midway along its length. There were several doors on each side, and he found them as tightly locked as the door at the landing. It didn’t take long to remedy that, though each door made him hold his breath a little bit, no matter how foolish it made him feel.
For some reason, he half expected to find the room with the Book of Fate. And he just kept telling himself that no matter how eerie the place felt, it was only just the way it designed. That he had seen his share of abandoned places before, knew they took on an aura all their own.
He was pretty sure he felt alone down here, then again, it was a pretty big place.
For all the suspense his nerves built up, the rooms themselves turned out to be something of a letdown. On one hand, he was more than glad not to bump into any of the perils of their last destination. On the other, though, one whole room turned out to contain nothing but boxes of toilet paper, all clearly marked. Another was loaded with office supplies, and still others held furniture, batches of framed pictures that all looked like they belonged gracing the walls of corporate offices. Justin would have reported that it all matched the accoutrements upstairs.
One held stacks of empty, folded boxes; one room was totally vacant.
“I wonder if Justin wants any of this crap…” Shades muttered as he walked away from it. Then it was down the rest of the stairs, to the door at the bottom. This time, the door was unlocked.
Even so, he paused for a moment after turning on the lights, again assailed by that all too understandable desire to go back up and make sure the first floor was still where he left it. Fighting the impulse, he looked up at the skylight above, the blue sky seeming to mock him. Much like how “outdoor” vistas did inside the Harken Building, the disconcerting image popped into his head of himself being trapped down here forever, while the rest of the world went on about its business above…
Calming himself, he entered a hall very much like the one upstairs. Decided to start at one end and work his way across. The first door was unlocked, as well, and led to a small, grey-walled room with a desk, a couple bookshelves, and a closet in the corner.
Shades turned on the light, taking a quick cursory look around to make sure the room was as empty as he thought it was. The bookshelves were stacked with academic-sounding titles he decided he would have to take a look at later; no telling what knowledge he might glean about this realm. There were maps and charts scattered across the walls, but the one that held his foremost attention was framed above the desk. The whole thing was a collage of photos and sketches of that coin he and Justin found earlier, displaying both sides, from multiple angles. With a hand-written caption on the bottom consisting of a single word.
“Immortality, huh?” Shades commented to himself as he began searching the desktop. After lecturing Justin so much, he was taken aback for a moment when he realized he was wishing he had thought to bring his backpack. Doing so would mean having to eat his own words later, but he was at least going to grab an armful on the way back to the ship; now that Justin had set the precedent, he felt there was too much useful information here to abandon the chance.
Now that Justin had opened that door, he couldn’t bear to close it behind him empty-handed.
Wondering what the people who lived here might know about that creepy coin, he opened the top drawer of the desk, finding a notebook. That might have been rescued from a garbage can. The cover was torn, its spiral bent out of shape, several blank pages hung by a thread. On closer inspection, he could tell that entire pages were missing.
As much as it made him feel like a voyeur, he wanted to know what all of this was still doing in a house that was supposedly for sale:
(13/13/093) I am relieved to discover that the references in that volume to there being two other Amulets were an historical mistake. Once we have obtained the Amulet, we shall soon unlock the secrets of Immortality, that we may keep building our house forever…
Shades wasn’t quite sure what the author of this journal was up to, but he was liking it less and less the more he read.
Max at the crossroads
Farther along the trail, Max found himself at a fork in the path, pausing in his thoughts. Mostly he had been enjoying the more relaxed pace of this destination. After all the dangers he had passed through of late, he found it refreshing to just stroll around this tranquil island. +—— TOP OF THE WORLD —
Now, directly ahead was a tall signpost sticking out of the underbrush. A faded wooden arrow pointed in each direction. Both were labeled in offwhite lettering:
— THE BONE YARD ——+
Max stood there for a moment looking at the two signs. This “Bone Yard” held a certain intrigue, and he wondered if it bore any resemblance to the one Justin described on Benton Island— though how such a thing could be in the midst of such a beautiful garden bothered him. From the immediate upward slant of the left-hand trail, he suspected that the “Top of the World” likely referred to the top of the mountain, where that giant globe was.
Up to that point, he was beginning to weaken in his resolve to stall for time, of half a mind to go back in spite of himself, but this indication of potentially interesting landmarks recaptured his attention. Gave him an excuse to continue doing what he was already doing. Even gave him an idea of how he could do both things at once.
After all, if he hurried, maybe he could surprise Justin and Shades at the globe, he was sure they would go there before they were done.
Idly, he found himself wondering how the two of them were doing. He had two visions of them. In one, they had quit bickering and were getting to know each other, and were perhaps even starting to become friends. In the other, which he tried not to dwell on, there were still arguing, or worse, not even talking to each other at all.
Shades had told him a couple times about the ongoing feud between his old friends, Tom and John, and his lamentations about being caught in the middle. Now Shades was on one end of the rope, Justin the other, and now he had to play the peacemaker. If they were still fighting now, he feared he might have to ask Shades how he used to deal with it, because he was only drawing blanks. He hated the feeling that he was being forced to choose between two people he wanted to be friends with, wondered why both of them argued so much, from the moment they first met.
Wondered if the old and venerable Abu-Sharrah might have some insights into the matter, if he could actually have a word with him alone; there was something about a dispute like this, talking about it in front of everybody, that just… didn’t work, much as he would prefer to sit and talk everything out.
Trying to outpace his thoughts, Max quickened his stride.
Shades eats crow
There were lost chapters, missing pages, but what Shades could piece together so far made him like this coin, this Amulet, even less.
…Finnagan finally arrived with the Amulet. It took him several years, but late as he was, I paid him off. Unlike the others, the one he brought me was the real thing. It was more than worth the cost just to get it out of those damn fool archaeologists’ hands, and into ours, where it was destined to belong. Soon, our research will be complete, and we shall be able to fulfill our greatest dream…
More of the same rants he had seen in other scattered pages. Out of those damn fool archaeologists’ hands, and… sounded like something Kato might have said about his medallion, and the thought crossed his mind that he might just find a suitable replacement for it here on this island. But not this trinket; even if Justin didn’t want it, his own inclination would have been to leave that thing right where he found it. The entries ended abruptly on one final note:
(08/30/094) They all laughed at us, even our closest colleagues, but we shall soon have the last laugh! With the ancient incantations translated, we may now begin our ultimate experiment in the quest for Godhood! When next I write in this journal, it shall be as an Immortal!
The few remaining pages were all blank.
Fragments of a tale Shades wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know the rest of. A tale of obsession and madness, and the cold mute walls of this compound alone knew what else. And when he stopped to think about it, “compound” did sound like an apt word to describe this place. All he was sure of was that some bad Voodoo shit went down here before they ever set foot on this island, and as much as he doubted he wanted to know the details, his curiosity was getting the best of him.
Aside from the notebook, the top drawer was otherwise empty, but the desktop was scattered with a random assortment of items, the only one of which he could attach any meaning to was a map of an archaeological dig, showing where the coin was originally unearthed. No surprise, the location mentioned on the map was nowhere he had ever heard of.
“Naz-Nak Mesa…” Shades muttered, trying to figure out why that name made him picture a faded road sign on some dusty desert highway. Or, for that matter, why it put him in mind of Amy…
He paused for a moment, as if realizing what he was doing for the first time. Where he was. The room itself seemed to press in around him a little, and it took him a moment to snap out of it.
Shrugging and deciding that any damage was already done just by reading the journal, and he may as well finish what he started, he resumed his search, digging in the second drawer. Certain that he had heard of countries with smaller budgets, he reflected, as he flipped through bills and receipts totaling outrageous sums. Then again, it was hard to gain a sense of scale dealing with unfamiliar currency; he would have to compare those numbers against the real estate sign later. It might give him an idea of what one of these “credits” was worth.
The bottom drawer held nothing but a jumble of random office items. Idly shifting it around, his hand happened upon an ammo clip among the other miscellany.
“How nice…” Shades commented, stuffing it in his jacket pocket. Where there was ammo lying around, there was often a weapon to go with; he was about ninety-nine percent sure there was no one else here, still he had no interest in arming that one percent. Especially if the last people who lived here were even half as scary as that diary suggested they were. Seeing nothing else of any immediate interest, but making a mental note to come back for some books later, he turned to leave—
When he heard the closet door start to open. Wheeled around as the door swung open wider, feeling time slip into slow-mo for that moment. Even as he reflexively backed away, reaching for his stun-sticks.
He was chagrined, and rather relieved, as it sunk in that what he was watching was an enormous stack of musty old books and binders spilling out onto the floor, raising a thin cloud of dust. That and nothing more. Through the dancing dust motes, he could see that the closet was otherwise empty. The damn books having eventually fallen against the door, forcing it open.
For all he knew, just the mere vibrations of his footsteps may have done the trick.
“Try to give me a heart attack, will ya…” As coincidental as that must surely have been, he still didn’t like it. Walking around in a haunted basement all alone— I’m an idiot. Recalling, as he did, their most recent misadventures, he concluded that he was in good company. Again questioning whether or not to curse his near-compulsive curiosity about the Unknown.
Fighting down that lingering feeling from the Harken Building, that he had wandered into the set of yet another horror flick, he set out to see what the rest of this level was like.
Trying the next room, Shades found walls and rows of bookshelves. Lined with ancient-looking tomes, volumes of occult lore, the translations of languages he had had never heard of. And some he knew nothing about, for their covers were marked with flowing scripts, characters, runes and glyphs the like of which he had never seen before. He stared for a long moment at all those shelves and stacks of books, glancing through the sea of names, all seeming to whisper, You’re in our world now…
What sections of wall weren’t loaded with books were instead plastered with maps, charts, diagrams and a scrawled-over chalkboard.
It was beginning to look as though he would have to use both his own and Max’s backpacks to fetch the most important stuff.
Max and Justin at the Top of the World
At his brisk pace, it didn’t take Max long at all to reach the top of the mountain, finding a circular stone observation deck, the giant globe standing on a platform in the center.
Seeing no sign of his friends, he decided to stand at the globe for a few minutes and wait. Wondering if they had already come and gone, he contemplated going back down through the estate and catching up with them. Still, he was curious about this Bone Yard, so he decided to stick around for a little while, then go back down the trail.
While he waited, he looked down at the other side of the island, behind the mountain. On that side were even more docks, and a large gathering of ships moored there. At first he was alarmed at seeing so many, but then it dawned on him that nothing stirred among them, not a single sign of activity. They were just sitting there, empty.
He found something rather eerie about it; the word itself didn’t really seem right for such a pleasant-looking place, but it stuck in his mind nonetheless.
Just when he was about to leave, though, a door leading into the house popped open, startling him. After his most recent adventures, he was relieved to see Justin emerge. When Shades failed to appear behind him, though, he frowned for a moment.
“What’s wrong, Max?” Justin asked. “The view looks great!”
“Where’s Shades?” Max answered with a question of his own.
“Who cares about Shades?” Justin walked over to the observation deck railing to stand next to his friend. “He didn’t like my treasure, and he went off by himself.”
“I see…” Max had hoped they might reconcile their differences, but it was beginning to look like it just wasn’t meant to be.
“Check this out, Max!” Justin whipped out the coin, the only thing he had found so far, shoving it in Max’s face. “I found it near the front door, and I bet there’s more hidden around here somewhere!”
Max looked over the coin, not sure what to make of it. It appeared to be made of solid gold, so he guessed that was why Justin was so excited about it. Still, as interesting as this exotic object might have been to him under other circumstances, right now he just couldn’t get as fired-up about it as his friend was.
“Max…” Justin wasn’t so sure what Max was being so damn serious about, but that prolonged silence and only half-hearted interest in his amazing find, it drove home to him exactly what had been bothering him the last couple days. Since he wasn’t around, there was something Justin wanted to know. “About Shades… What do you see in that guy?”
“What do you mean?” Max wondered if perhaps he might have finally found a window into the nature of his friends’ dispute.
“He’s not like us,” Justin elaborated. “He never had to fight for what he had. He’s a soft, pampered, spoiled prick. He’ll only slow us down. He’s always had it easy… Hell, I’m surprised he even survived the Harken Building!”
“I’m not,” Max replied. He could sort of see what bothered his friend, but, “He may have had a peaceful life in his own world, but— in case you weren’t listening earlier— he has come through a lot to get here. He keeps telling me how afraid he is, but then he turns around and shows me his true courage. He’s got what it takes, Justin. Just you watch.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” While he pondered Max’s words, Justin turned his attention from the view, impressive as it was, to study the globe hovering over them. About thirty feet in diameter, mounted on three steel poles. The inside of the wireframe sphere was hollow, except for a line running through both polar axes, ending in a sharp arrow-point.
For a moment, he tried to figure out why that point bothered him so much.
At last, Justin asked, “So, you’re gonna go with him, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean? You can come, too.”
“But you guys… you’re just giving up on the Tri-Medals…” Justin stood there, the memories of one night’s conversation in Paradise now echoing bitterly through his mind as he tried to find the words to convey what he meant. Betrayal seemed to be his lot in life. Still, he said, “Come on, Max. Even if Shades doesn’t want his, I can see what that thing meant to you…”
“Justin, can we talk about something else?”
After that, the two of them stood there for a long moment, lost in thought. That after so many battles, on two different planes of existence, finally to be reunited, it just couldn’t end this way. Looking down on the dock, it only took Max a second to pick out the Reflection from up here.
Wondering offhandedly if the wise and venerable old wanderer might have any advice to offer, Max waved his arms on a whim, calling, “Yo! Abu-Sharrah! Up here!” But he was fairly sure the old man was meditating, or taking a nap, and didn’t see him.
“Don’t do that,” Justin told him. “He might come up here.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. …Other than that he’s a crazy old fart.”
“He did give us a lift,” Max pointed out. “No matter what you think of him, you do have to give him that.”
“Yeah, and soon I’m gonna be back on that ship with him,” Justin muttered as he turned and headed back inside. “And I’d prefer not to go back empty-handed. This coin is just the beginning— there’s gotta be more around here somewhere. See ya back at the ship.”
“Yeah. You too.”
Max stood there for some minutes, wondering how much longer he would be able to be with both of his friends, just how far Justin would go to have his revenge, then he headed back down the mountain, figuring that he now had no choice but to ask Shades and Abu-Sharrah for advice; after all, he had only until their next destination to figure out a solution before at least one of his best friends parted ways with him.
Thus he was in no particular hurry as he made his way back.
Shades' unsettling discoveries
On his way to the next room, Shades nearly tripped over a gun lying on the floor.
An assault pistol, he found upon further inspection. As a semi-retired soldier, Master Al had also given his core students a bit of an overview of firearms, as well as teaching martial arts, and Shades quickly concluded that it was a military-grade model, though illegally modified. At least according to the laws of his world, at any rate; for all he knew, there might be no laws about such things wherever this weapon came from. An extended clip, threads on the barrel to mount what would likely be a custom silencer, and a red laser sight. Checking the safety, he then removed the clip, finding only four more rounds left. He switched it out with the full clip he found back in the desk drawer.
“How pleasant…” Shades commented, now about ninety percent certain that what he held was the weapon that put all those bullet-holes in the wall upstairs.
Taking the gun with him, not sure if he really felt any safer with it or not, he opened the next door. The room inside was unfurnished, apparently still waiting for the lunatic owner of this place to find more random crap to fill it with. He was rather surprised that all the doors down here were unlocked. The level above contained mostly junk, yet it was all locked up tight, whereas this level, which actually held things of some value, was wide open.
Then, thinking of Justin, he wondered if perhaps they weren’t the first to prowl this house.
Shutting the door behind him, he tried the next one, looking inside and remarking, “He was a vet, too?…”
At first he found himself staring at the large surgical table in the middle of the room. Then his gaze roved around to shelves loaded with vials and bottles, most of the remaining wallspace taken up by charts showing the anatomy of various animals. Some familiar, some the like of which he had never seen before, as if he needed any more reminders that he was in another world. He would definitely have to come back for some of those; depending on the wildlife of different realms, the info might well be a lifesaver. On the far side of the room, cages of varying sizes were built into the wall.
The room itself even smelled like a veterinary office.
One of the cage doors was hanging partway open, and on some impulse he went over to check it out, finding another ammo clip, which he shoved in his pocket as he left the room.
The door after that let into a room stacked with empty pet-porter style containers of various sizes. Some looking like they were meant for rodents and other small creatures, a couple that looked big enough to hold a tiger. He also saw pots and planters loosely arranged on a long counter.
Shades gave a low whistle as he took in this room, pondering the variety of fauna and flora that could have been transported here in those containers. For a moment he wondered where all the animals that came here in them were now, then he remembered the jungle garden Max wandered off to explore. Wondered if perhaps something among them was what Bandit was so freaked-out about, if any of them was dangerous. Of course, Max was no stranger to wilderness survival, still it worried him just a little.
At least until it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a trace of these animals anywhere in the house; his best guess was that, with no one to take care of them, most of them, bereft of their natural habitats, probably died.
Though he knew he could be wrong, he was fairly confident that if there was anything dangerous on this island, there also would have been a warning of some sort next to that “for sale” sign. Surely this Dominion Realty couldn’t be that desperate to sell the place off.
Shaking his head, he went to go see what was in the next room, when he noticed that, unlike the level above, at the end of this hallway was a corner that turned right. Deciding to have a little fun with his new toy, Shades edged around the corner, pointing the assault pistol down the hall. The hall-way itself was almost too short to be called such, ending at an elevator door.
And at least now, he reflected to himself, he was beginning to understand the fascination with running around brandishing a gun.
Though he never would have expected to find an elevator in this place. Nor a lot of other things he had found so far, either, come to think of it. Wondered idly about where it would emerge in the building above. Figuring that this was probably how some of this stuff was brought down here in the first place, he shrugged as he pressed the button.
As he waited, though, hearing all of the mechanisms start up, he tensed up for a moment, remembering again how every door felt in the Harken Building. A few seconds later the elevator slid quietly open. Not sure what to expect, Shades flinched for a moment, then opened his eyes to see a squarish metal cart inside.
Just this and nothing more.
Shades released a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding. Shrugging his shoulders at this rather dull discovery, now that this mystery was solved, he turned to explore the rest of this sub-basement. Thinking to himself that he would either get a grip on his nerves, or else he would just have a psychotic episode or something.
After all he had been through of late, he was beginning to care less and less which.
Justin vs the entity
Justin was fast becoming very disappointed in this place, wondering if it was even worth the effort.
After leaving Max back on the mountaintop, he began working his way back down by a different route, checking rooms he had passed up on his way up, and this was at least the fifth kitchen he had found along the way. After digging through the drawers and compartments, most of them either empty, or else containing only mundane items of no use to him, in here he found the usual array of knives, forks, and other sharp objects. Including scalpels and other surgical implements that seemed horribly out of place in a kitchen. Along the way, he also encountered the occasional room that had been trashed like that first one, but no more exotic items.
This estate was not turning out to be the exciting treasure-trove he had hoped for.
Deciding that if he didn’t find anything in the next room, he was going downstairs to see what Shades had found, he strode into the next room. Now that he thought about it, according to many accounts, treasure vaults were often built into basements and cellars, and he wondered if that might be the real reason it was taking Shades so long to catch up with him. After all, lots of people claimed they had no interest in material wealth, but he found that line hard to swallow. The image of Shades stuffing his pockets with gold and jewels almost made him run back to the stairs in and of itself.
Then he relaxed, telling himself that if that bastard had found anything, Justin Black was gonna be the first to know about it. In the meantime, this room also turned out to be devoid of anything particularly valuable, so that made up his mind. Even as he wrapped up his search, he again tried to figure out how he was going to break it to Max when he left. After all, Max was the only real friend he had, and he found he seriously wanted to find a way to convince him to come with.
That, and his unfinished business with the Triad kept nagging at his mind, the idea that a solution to his problems could be found on this island, the answer hanging just out of reach—
As he left the room, he heard a clinking noise. So startled was he that he jumped into the next room, ducking around the corner as a butcher knife stuck into the wall, slashing his shoulder on its way.
Justin slammed the door behind him, the stray thought crossing his mind that NK-525 may have just saved his life— he was sure his reflexes weren’t quite that sharp before his fun stay in Tranz-D.
Hiding beside the door, both guns drawn, Justin waited to ambush his assailant when he came through. When nothing happened, he began to feel the sweat dripping between his shoulders, and he fought the impulse to just jump around the corner and start shooting. Just when he was about to risk a peek around the corner, he heard something that sounded like the drawing of a thousand swords, followed by a rapid barrage of thudding noises against the door.
“Damn…” Justin breathed.
Seeing the tips and edges of every knife and otherwise sharp object in the kitchen buried at least a couple inches into the door, it only took him a second to figure out that if he hadn’t moved when he did, he would have ended up a human pincushion.
Even as he slid back along the wall to avoid any other projectiles his thus-far unseen assailant could hurl at him, the door swung all the way open, banging against the wall with a loud slam that made him jump in spite of himself. As the door swung slowly shut again, Justin had to bite back another exclamation of alarm at what he saw. The kitchen door itself, with all the knives and shit shoved through the paneling clear up to the hilt.
Justin made a quick but careful retreat to the next room. This time kneeling behind a tall, solid wood cabinet— more than capable of absorbing a rain of knives— again set to lay in wait until his attacker revealed himself. Again he waited through a silence that was almost deafening, and again his unseen foe refused to show himself. Behind Justin stood a tall halogen lamp, a variation on the many kinds he had seen throughout the estate, and he considered tipping it over with his foot, trick the other guy into showing his hand first…
But as he toyed with the idea, glancing at one of the few pictures in this place that wasn’t a landscape, still-life, or a cheesy Motivational piece that Shades would classify as the elevator music of visual art, showing pictures and sketches of his new coin— which, like a few others he had seen along the way, never imparted any additional info about it— always with the caption “Immortality” on it somewhere, the lamp fell. On him. He felt a draft, and even as he muttered about the fallen lamp blowing his cover, how a puff of air from nowhere could knock it over in the first place, he felt something wrap itself around his neck.
Justin still couldn’t figure out how anyone got behind him so fast, but it only took him a moment to realize that it was the lamp’s own electrical cord that was looped around his throat. The cord tightened, and he fumbled both guns even as he thrashed against an attacker he still couldn’t see, even out of the corner of his eye. And still couldn’t touch, in spite of jabbing with both elbows. Struggling for breath, he whipped out his laser staff and made one last, frantic counterattack, slicing behind his head as spots started dancing in front of his eyes.
The energy blade didn’t seem to hit anything, but the cable went slack and slipped from his neck as he scrambled away. As he snatched up both power pistols, he saw the severed cord hit the floor in three pieces, only one still attached to the lamp itself. Then he staggered back warily, knees so shaky they would barely support him, into the next room.
If he had this right, two different rooms had just tried to kill him. Whatever he was up against was clearly fighting dirty, and with powers he didn’t know the full extent of. After the TSA, after Pullman Island, after battling NK-525 and all of Tranz-D’s legion of technological terrors, not to mention after the Harken Building, Justin Black thought he knew all there was to know about fear. Apparently, there were still a couple chapters missing from his lessons.
Even as Justin reholstered his guns, forcing his legs to move, to run back to the ship, he felt a rush of cold air blow past him from behind. Before he could make anything of that, he found himself dodging flying dining room chairs. If not for Max’s training, he wasn’t so sure he would have been able to hack and slash his way out of that room.
Much to his dismay, though, the next room’s walls were practically bookshelves. He ran as fast as he could, but he only made it to the middle of the room before a swarm of books launched themselves at him. He was able to dodge the first few, but when they hit him in several places at once, the multiple blows were enough to knock him to his knees. As he skidded across the floor on hands and knees, nearly losing his grip on his staff, even more books dive-bombed him, emptying the shelves.
Justin scraped by only by curling into a ball.
Bruised and battered, he staggered back to his feet, crawling out of the pile of volumes as they started regrouping. It took an effort to start running again, but he wasn’t at all sure he could get back up from another bombardment like that. Before any such thing could befall him, he slammed the door behind him.
When he felt that same draft sweep past him yet again, he dived under the pool table in the middle of the room. Just in time, as the pictures came spinning off the walls at him. He waited while shards of glass sprinkled all around him. In the midst of all this, it began to dawn on him that as long as he was inside the house, this thing would hold the upper hand with a bottomless supply of crap to throw at him at every turn.
Taking note of the skylight in the middle of the room, Justin scrambled on top of the pool table. Quickly discovering what a mistake that was when billiard balls came hurtling at him in rapid succession, such that he was barely able to avoid them without falling off the table. The tiny wrecking-balls burying themselves in sheetrock and furniture alike.
Inspiration struck as the room’s lone chair flew at him. Sidestepping it at the last second, he grabbed ahold of it, swinging it onto a new course, hurling it upward on its own momentum. Which was enough to shatter the skylight, sending another shower of broken glass down on everything. Wasting no time, he ran the last couple steps and jumped, gasping both as he chinned up— a feat he could definitely not have performed prior to Max’s intensive training— as well as at the cuts the jagged glass made to his hands.
He was forced to ignore his injuries as the chair made another pass at him, and barely dodged in time to avoid getting knocked back down inside.
As he turned to continue his flight, that he finally had a clear path back to the ship was the last thing Justin remembered thinking before the half-ruined chair rose silently through the skylight yet again. That burst of cold air was the only warning he had before the chair smacked him across the back of the head. He stumbled forward, falling down to the next level to land in an unconscious heap.
The chair dropped to the rooftop, falling still. For a long moment, everything was seemed to come to a halt. Some seconds later, a pool cue floated up through the broken skylight, drifting over toward Justin’s limp form. That green-chalked tip prodding and probing the side of his jacket, where he had stashed the Amulet earlier—
A purple spark arced out, jumping from that same pocket to the cue stick, causing it to fall to the ground.
After a silent moment, the cue slowly rose up again, and resumed picking at Justin’s jacket. Until a second spark jumped from the unconscious young man again, causing the cue to crash to ground once more. The cue snatched itself up once again, making one last attempt to pry at the pocket where Justin kept the Amulet, again thwarted by that same unseen force, and this time, the cue simply stayed put where it landed.
And Justin was just left lying there, untouched.
Out of the way for the time being, even if the job remained unfinished, so for now it had other business, other people, to take care of.
Shades meets the entity
As Shades turned from the elevator to the next door, he instead found himself looking deviously at his new assault weapon. A street-sweeper. A room-broom. Even Master Al didn’t have one like this anywhere in his collection.
There seemed to be no one else about on this island, so he decided to have a bit more fun with his new toy. Turning the knob and kicking the door open, he shouted, “Freeze! Police!”
Not only did he point the gun through the doorway but, on impulse, he fired off several rounds. It had been a couple years since the last time he went to the shooting range with Master Al, preferring to focus on unarmed combat rather than on weapons he was never entirely comfortable with, and he was still taken aback by how much kick an automatic weapon had. How it jolted him into squeezing off several more rounds before he could stop, jerking his arm upward with each shot. He just stood there for a moment, feeling more than a little sheepish at how quickly he had grown accustomed to just doing whatever he wanted during his Harken escapades.
His sheepishness quickly passed into shock and unease, though, as he looked around.
The room itself was a cavernous chamber, possibly even a natural cave, the walls all of rough stone, the ceiling reaching high enough to encompass the level above. In the center of the chamber was a raised circular dais bearing the mark of the pentagram with the dragon’s head in it. All around the room, geometrical patterns were etched, half-burned candles tipped outward at certain points. Yet what truly held his attention was that the walls and floor were marked with blood, long-dried blood.
Next to the dais lay a pair of charred human skeletons, their bones totally blackened.
“No way! That dude was serious…” Shades breathed, taking in this gruesome scene. This was enough for him. He turned to catch up with Justin, wondering, What has he found up there? Muttering, “No wonder Dominion can’t get rid of this place…”
Shutting the door behind him, he remembered that there was still one more door left. He struggled with himself for a long moment, but since ending up in this dimension, he found his already near-feline curiosity now bordered on insatiable. Concluding that whatever happened back there had happened too long ago to have any bearing on the present, he decided to finish what he started before he caught up with his friends. After what he had just seen, he couldn’t believe he was still doing this, and that feeling of pressing his luck returned, but his morbid curiosity turned him toward it anyway.
I really am going to find another Book of Fate if I’m not careful…
There was no light switch in the next room, but the reason was apparent enough, and just a tad disconcerting. This room contained shelves of lit candles, blazing warmly, illuminating an enormous silver statue of a four-horned dragon, the same as the one depicted on Justin’s coin, its jeweled eyes a burning, fiery red. By now Shades didn’t even have to look to know what the inscription on the base of the thing said.
He gasped, slamming the door shut, and backed away from it slowly.
What the hell was that all about? he demanded of himself, wondering what it was about that room he found so disturbing. Then he realized what it was. The candles in there. Were still burning. And if that was so, then there had to be someone around here to keep them all lit. It was the only way.
Deciding to stay cool, he headed back to the stairs. Wondering whether or not to keep his new weapon handy, finally just setting the safety and shoving it in his jacket pocket. So certain had he been that the place was deserted, largely convinced himself that there was nothing down here but the creepy experiences he brought in with him, he was dismayed, but not overwhelmingly surprised, that he hadn’t even given any thought to what to do if Justin’s little treasure hunt ran afoul of anyone here. Or, for that matter, just who still was lurking on this morbid estate, just what kind of person this was.
Realized that he need only wonder for a moment why no one showed themselves when they first arrived. On an Ocean like this, he would probably hide, too, if a boatload of armed folks just showed up on his own doorstep, and it made him wonder why Abu-Sharrah hadn’t said anything about it. The image popped into his head of the old man just ditching them here, but he quickly shunned it, unable to seriously picture their benefactor just up and abandoning them. Mostly, though, he worried about whether or not Justin had managed to get himself in trouble with the current occupant(s?) yet.
On the landing of the first basement level, both Shades and his train of thought came to a grinding halt between steps.
Hovering before him, in thin air, was another assault pistol, likely the same model as his, pointed right at him. Without thinking, he stepped slightly to the right, cursing himself even as he did so, the gun tracking him perfectly. Forcing himself not to make any sudden moves, he looked down to see an ominous red dot on his chest, covering his heart.
It took Shades a second to start breathing again, glad that at least it was too dark in here to peer down the barrel this time. Trying to cast his mind to some other line of thought than that heart-stopping moment back at the Mall, he instead found himself recalling something he also could have done without. Years ago, when he was still in grade school, he had gone out for a walk, and a wasp flew up from out of nowhere and lit on his face. Much like now, it had seemed to take forever as that little black-and-yellow bastard made a point of traversing every square millimeter of his lips, feeling the sharp little hooks of each of its legs sink in with every step. For him, time crawled almost to a halt, holding perfectly still until it finally flew away…
Forcing that image out of his head with an effort, he very slowly raised his hands behind his head, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Or something like that, it was all he could think of to do. As he began to master himself, he found that at least now he was starting to get an idea of just what was going on around here.
“Don’t shoot me!” Shades blurted, thinking even faster than he spoke, and just hoping he didn’t get himself shot, “Justin’s the one who’s got your amulet!”
Even as he said this, he felt an impression of distraction— at least he hoped it was distraction— and made his move for better or worse. Before it could fire a single shot, he threw himself at the floor, rolling underneath it. Passing through cold (not just thin) air, as he somehow expected to.
With what precious little time he felt that bought him, refusing to give his mysterious foe any openings on his account, Shades bolted up the steps, taking them two or three at a time. Several shots tracked him up the stairs, and he could glance over his shoulder to see that red dot closing in on his shadow. After he turned at the next landing, the gun went silent, and he envisioned it changing its mind and chasing him up the stairs. Feared it could move faster than him— knew the bullets could, if nothing else— so he had no choice.
At the next turn, Shades wheeled around, whipping out one of his stun-sticks. Sure enough, the gun was in hot pursuit and gaining, but he caught it completely off-guard as he lashed out at it. With the cutting blade on he struck the weapon, cleaving it in half and sending the pieces spinning and clattering back down the stairs. Wasting no time, knowing full well that this thing must surely have other nasty surprises to spring around here, he slammed the door behind him at the top of the steps.
Now that he had a moment to hear himself think, Shades couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that, if this entity was already after him, almost certainly because of this Amulet, that it must surely have found Justin by now. The first thing to do, he decided, was to go back to the ship. Anyone else who had managed to escape this thing would likely already be there. That, and he needed to warn Abu-Sharrah, they owed the old man that much. After that, he would try to figure out how to help Max, if he wasn’t already there when he arrived.
If he played his cards right, he could at least save Max, and have a fast getaway.
Justin blinked up at the sky as he started to come around, crawling slowly to his feet.
And very glad, he concluded as he looked around, that the levels of this place were “stepped” as they were, for if it were much farther down, he doubted he’d even be able to get back up. Still it left him lying there for a couple minutes with a dull ringing in his ears, vaguely remembering a dazed dream of being impaled on the “line” running through the globe at the top of the mountain. A thought that snapped him wide awake.
Likely on some lingering reflex from the Harken Building, he reached into his pocket for that curious figurine from Obscura Antiques. Only to find it broken in half. Not liking this omen at all, he held up both pieces for a moment, seeing that not only was it cleanly broken, but for some reason, the break itself was slightly charred, and he wondered. That, and he was fairly certain that the runes that were inscribed upon it used to be carved just a tad deeper.
Lying on the rooftop next to him was a pool cue, and he stared warily at it as he struggled back to his feet, ready to dodge if it so much as twitched, noticing as he did so that he some kind of greenish chalky stuff on his hand, which he somehow picked up after reaching into his pocket. Just like the stuff that seemed to be on the tip of that stick.
Wondering what this could mean, and fearing that whatever power the figurine once possessed was used up— no longer able to protect him as he now suspected it had, in some way he didn’t quite grasp— he shoved the ruined talisman back in his pocket, relieved to still feel his coin in there as well, then resumed his retreat to the ship.
Just the realization that whatever it was that tried to kill him earlier had left him alone only left him feeling even more on edge. Fearing he might come under attack again any second, he decided to follow his standard procedure for this kind of situation: get while the gettin’s good. Pausing only briefly to wonder at how he still had his prize, he wiped congealed blood from his hands on the ruins of that chair that knocked him down earlier, then picked up his laser staff and started moving.
For now, at least, there was nothing to attack him the rest of the way to the ship, and he had come too far to surrender this treasure now. He just hoped Max and Shades made it back to the ship, because he had no interest in going back into this deathtrap. As long as the old man and the ship were okay, he would have a fast getaway, and anyone still not there when he made it would have to fend for themselves.
Yet, even as he tried to tell himself that it was nothing personal, just staying alive as he always had all these years, Shades’ words (Any friend of Max’s is a friend of mine…) slapped him in the face. Reminding him that Shades even went so far as to volunteer to go to Tranz-D in spite of Max’s warnings. Even dared to challenge the Harken Building.
Dammit… You piss me off even when you’re on my side.
To say nothing of Max, whom he was beginning to suspect actually trusted him with his life.
In the midst of his self-argument, Justin noticed that he had worked his way down onto one of the patio sets that dotted the steps of rooftops. Apparently, they had been wandering around this island longer than he originally thought, as it was already late afternoon going on evening, and one thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t want to fight that thing after dark. Even the question of whether to take the risk of going through, or taking the time to go around took a back seat to worrying about having to go back for anyone.
He got his answer when patio furniture started dancing around him. Whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t through with him yet. As the pieces circled in on him, and Justin resumed this deadly dance, he found it every bit as unreal as he had his first time around. Having had enough of this twisted game, he brandished his staff and went to work.
It didn’t take him long, though, to discover that this thing wasn’t fooling around anymore. This new barrage was fast and furious, and it took everything he had just to stay half a step ahead of it at every turn. And it wasn’t going to get any easier, either; every piece he chopped became two, and even though the pattern itself became simpler as it expanded, the less it mattered due to the sheer number of projectiles.
Sensing that he was about to be overwhelmed, Justin slashed his way out to the next level in a flurry of his own, deciding to just make a break for it. As he ran, a fragment of chair struck his leg, tripping him, and he rolled across the rooftop as more pieces came flying at him in rapid succession, striking hard enough to shatter them. The world spun, and before he could reorient himself, he tumbled right off the roof, hitting the level below hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
The first thing he saw, when the world stopped spinning, was that a folded-up table parasol stuck into the roof only a few feet away from him.
Though he could see that he was almost to the bottom, it was clear this flight to the ship would be a fight to the finish. As he bent over to pick up his laser staff, the parasol plucked itself out of the rooftop and swung at him. Before he could regain his feet, he was struck by both the object as well as cold rush of force, sending him staggering right onto one of the compound’s many skylights.
Which cracked, then collapsed under his feet, depositing him on a couch. He hit hard enough to knock the couch over, and someone tripped over it, landing right on top of him with an incoherent curse. And so Justin broke his fall, just as the couch broke his own.
“Shit!” Shades muttered as both of them struggled to their feet. “Oh, Justin! So, you’re still alive, I see. Nice of you to drop in.”
“No time to talk!” And Justin wasted none in his haste for the door. Which promptly slammed shut in their faces. “Run like hell!” Justin slashed with his staff, splitting the door in half. “It’s after us!”
“Yes, I know,” Shades said matter-of-factly. Now he was no longer so sure why the entity came after him if Justin was still alive, but he didn’t really feel like sticking around to ask the thing. “I’ve been thinkin’. Maybe if you were to put that coin back—”
“No way!” Justin charged and kicked the door down. “It’s mine!”
Shades shrugged and took off after him.
The last room offered no resistance, and so they tore out across the beach. Both were heartened to see Abu-Sharrah alive and well and standing on the deck of the Reflection, waving now that he saw them. As the old man went to start the engine, it gave them renewed hope for a clean getaway.
Still Shades looked back, half-expecting to see some big ugly monster come tearing out the front door or something. Instead, the skylights exploded upward in a fountain-spray of glass, going from front to back in fluid succession. Shades could have sworn he heard a frustrated-sounding primal scream from inside the house, echoing through his mind. A sound he would not soon forget.
Justin paid no heed to what lay behind him, only potential escape ahead.
Fortunately, for him, Shades kept sneaking peeks over his shoulder, for it was he who spotted that by-now all too familiar red dot on Justin’s back, shoving him to the ground just half a second before the shooting started.
“What the fuck is that!?” Justin screeched as they started running again, somehow managing even more haste than before.
“Shit! It’s got another one!?” Shades broke off to the left, since it couldn’t aim two ways at once. As he expected, the entity continued to gun for Justin, blowing away the Dominion Realty sign in the process. Whatever that thing was, it clearly wanted Justin— likely this Amulet, as well— with a vengeance.
For his part, Justin scrambled just as fast as he had for TSA soldiers taking pot-shots at him as a kid, and just as he jumped aboard the nearest boat for cover, the thing ran out of ammo. Shades didn’t delay in taking advantage of the break, veering back toward the docks, dismayed at his friend’s absence as he arrived. Once onboard, though, he turned his mind to how to warn Max about this mysterious enemy.
If he’s still alive, that is.
Max and the gate
Max made his way back down the path in no particular hurry. Originally, he as going to pay a visit to this Bone Yard, yet as late afternoon faded into early evening, the canopy of trees above casting an even deeper shadow, he thought it best to return to the ship if they were staying the night on this island. Having made up his mind to forgo further exploration in favor of talking to the old man, seeking his counsel.
The more he thought about it, the less he was sure he wanted to see what awaited him upon his return. Wondered if things were going to get worse, cooped up with those two again if they were still on such rancorous terms with each other. Had been so sure, even if Justin wouldn’t lighten up, that Shades, at least, would find some way to smooth things over. Now he wondered how much longer both of his friends would be with him.
It just wasn’t fair, the way Justin was forcing him to choose sides like this. He wanted to be friends with both of them. His old friends had never done this to him back in the Islands.
Until his recent adventures reawakened it, it had become quite rare anymore for him to dream of his childhood. Dreams Shades would likely describe now as bittersweet. Sometimes, he felt it was all he had left, and that only made his current situation worse. Tormenting him at times like this with the fact that not only were those days long gone, but even this renewal of his dream of going off on adventures with his friends was in danger of being revoked before it rightly even got going.
In spite of his leisurely pace, the downhill cant of the trail still brought him back down the mountain fairly quickly, and he soon came in sight of the gates. Even so, he still worried that his indecisiveness may have already cost him any chance of consulting with Abu-Sharrah before his friends returned to the ship.
And that was when he first heard the sound of screams and breaking glass up ahead. Followed by shots, and more screaming. No clue what was going on, but he was sure his friends had gotten themselves into some kind of trouble, and he rushed to help them.
Even when things went eerily quiet, he kept running, hoping he wasn’t too late, and moments later he saw the gate slowly swing shut, hearing the lock clang home even from this distance.
Pacing himself as he drew near, he gauged his jump. The gate was taller than he, and lined with spiked metal poles across the top. When he got in range, he jumped, grabbing the crossbar running about a foot underneath the spikes, vaulting the gate and flipping over the spikes entirely.
Max hit the ground running, glad that his ankle was healing so quickly under Abu-Sharrah’s care. Doubted it would have supported him through a move like that even a day or two ago. On top of that, after all the screaming he heard only moments ago, followed by such overwhelming silence, he was immensely relieved to see Justin and Shades, as well as Bandit and Abu-Sharrah, alive, standing on the deck of the Reflection, waving at him.
They were shouting something, but he couldn’t quite make out what.
“Look!” Shades called, pointing at the jungle gate as it swung shut of its own accord. He was still debating whether or not to run the gauntlet to find his friend, in spite of Justin’s warning and his own unnerving experience in there. Justin had told him Max was still alive when they spoke on the mountaintop, and he was still arguing Max’s chances of survival. Now he decided to wait and see what happened next before he made a move.
“This isn’t good,” Justin muttered. “I think we should…”
Even as Abu-Sharrah raised a hand to point out a more hopeful reason the entity might want that gate closed, Justin faltered as they all saw Max come dashing into view. At first Shades and Justin expected Max to use his laser sword, and both of them were equally stunned to see him leap and vault the top of the gate. And hit the ground running, much to their relief. As he ran, they called out to him.
“Watch out, Max! It’s out there!” Shades warned. Certain it would be a matter of seconds before it went after Max. Justin had angered whatever malevolent presence it was that dwelled in that house, and Shades feared that if it couldn’t have Justin, it would try to take Max. “And it’s got a gun!”
“Get your ass in gear!” Justin added.
“Run, Max!” Abu-Sharrah called.
Then the shooting started again.
At least Max understood what that meant. He continued his flight, somehow managing to pick up the pace in spite of looking like he was already firing on all cylinders. Shades could see that red dot chasing him, the shots tracking him, coming closer and closer.
Abu-Sharrah scrambled for the helm, resuming his preparations for a hasty departure now that the gang was all here. Bandit had his paws up on the railing, watching Max anxiously though looking like he really wanted to bolt before the deafening roar of all that firepower. Tail twitching back and forth. Justin edged along the railing, apparently without even thinking for a moment that the entity could switch gears at any second and target him instead, the rush of the moment gripping him as he shouted, “Go Max! Dammit, you can run faster than that!”
“Max! Max! Max!” Shades chanted, recalling the strong effect it had on people in gym class. Noticed that, in the heat of the moment, he had drawn his new gun. And an idea came to him as he watched the entity’s targeting dot. Meanwhile, he continued to chant, “Maxi-mum! Maxi-mum!”
“Max!” all three of them cried out in unison as Max slipped and fell.
They watched in stunned silence as he hit the ground sliding, the entity’s shots passing over their target with his unexpected move. For his part, in what seemed like slow-motion to his friends, Max tumbled across the sand, bounding back to his feet and continuing his dash to the dock. Both Shades and Justin let out a sigh of relief, the latter noticing for the first time that he was holding his breath.
For his part, Max continued to zigzag back and forth, attempting to evade the thing’s aim.
“I’ll cover you!” Shades called out. He then implemented his new plan, aiming between the entity and Max and opened fire.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Justin screamed. He watched helplessly as Shades moved back and forth across the other targeting dot, bracing his arm across the top of the assault pistol in a desperate attempt to control his aim. “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind!?”
Shades gave no reply, continuing to chant and fire. It only took him a moment to see that his tactic was working like a charm, confusing the entity as to which red dot was its own. Hoping he could hold out long enough, he continued to confound the thing’s aim with his own laser sight.
By now, the others understood what Shades was up to, and even joined him in his chant.
“Oh yeah!” Justin found himself copying Shades. “Maxi-mum! Maxi-mum!”
“Whoo!” Abu-Sharrah shouted triumphantly. “Maximum!”
Then Shades realized that he really didn’t need to fire, that he was needlessly endangering his friend even as he was trying to save him. Instead, he changed tactics, holding his fire and fixating on the entity’s dot, he scarcely noticed when their enemy abruptly shifted its aim at them, and Justin belatedly hit the deck. Only one round hit the edge of the railing, then the shooting stopped with as little warning as it started.
“Yes!” Shades hissed as the entity finally ran out of ammo. All he heard now through the ringing in his ears was a repeating, frustrated-sounding clicking from somewhere out there. “Go for it, Max!”
Now able to take a straight path, Max made the rest of the way without difficulty.
“Alright!” Shades laughed, slapping hands with him.
“Damn!” Justin muttered as he got back up. “When you fell down back there, I thought your ass was toast!”
Waving it away, Max handed him one Shades often offered when he screwed up in training: “I meant to do that.”
And they all shared a relieved laugh for a moment.
“De important part is dat you made it,” Abu-Sharrah told him.
“Just one question,” Max asked as Bandit pounced on him, “Who was shooting at me?”
Relieved, but also strangely exhilarated, he realized. The rush. Feeling more alive, even knowing that his life could end at any second.
“I can tell you later,” Shades replied, rubbing his arm where the barrel of the gun burned him. I’m gonna feel that in the morning… “We had a close call, but I’ve got a feeling that thing’s got more tricks up its sleeve.” He motioned for them to duck down again. “For now I think we should get the hell outta here.”
“Damn straight!” Justin seconded.
Everyone paused, looking to Max. But as he got back up and turned to one of the other ships, it only took them a moment to figure out what he had in mind.
“I’ve got an idea.”
a ship of their own
“Hell yeah!” Justin crowed, wishing it was his. Now he knew what had been nagging him for most of his time here, at least before the kitchen tried to butcher him. These empty ships, just sitting there, waiting— all but begging— to be taken.
“Are you sure you want to do dis?” Abu-Sharrah asked, looking at them curiously. Clearly, he knew exactly what they were about to do. Just wanted to make sure they knew what they were doing. “I can still give you a ride.”
“We need a ship,” Max said simply. Trying not to dwell on visitors less fortunate than themselves as he spoke.
“We’ve imposed on you enough,” Shades replied. Remembering the gruesome, bloody spectacle he witnessed in that ceremonial chamber, he said, “And I’ve got a feeling that whoever brought those ships here won’t be coming back for them.”
“Wouldn’t that be stealing?” Justin asked, turning the tables on Shades.
“Who are we even taking it from?” Shades shot back, then stopped, taken aback by this strange reversal. “Hey, this isn’t like your little trophy. This is about survival.”
“Whatever.” Justin had risked his life for that little trophy, and he was not about to lose it at the last second. “Come on. Let’s go before that thing tries something else…”
Such as reloading, Justin realized, trailing off as yet another red dot appeared on Shades’ chest, tackling him just in time, but getting his own shoulder grazed in the process.
“Now we’re even,” Justin muttered, wincing at yet another pain he would have to ignore for now.
“Thanks,” Shades replied, “but it’s not really about being even, you know.”
Concluding that the entity would just keep shooting at them as long as they stayed within range, they turned their focus on which ship to make their escape in. Deciding that the other two were too limited-range to be traveling the Ocean in, they set their sights on the last one, a cruiser that was about a hundred feet long, looking to be in excellent condition. On a whispered count of three, they bolted across the dock and jumped behind the railing of that vessel. Staying as much below railing as they could, they undid the mooring lines one by one.
As Max and Justin finished unmooring, Shades crept over to the cabin door. Much to his relief, the previous crew apparently never got around to locking it before embarking on their ill-fated expedition, so he slipped inside.
“Please start…” Shades pleaded as he reached the helm. When the engines started with little difficulty, he signaled Abu-Sharrah, still aboard the Reflection, with a V, keeping as low a profile as he could. Waiting until his friends gave the word, he pulled out, keeping the bulk of their own ship between the entity’s firepower and the Reflection.
As they made their hasty departure, Max looked back, seeing an angry whirlwind of sand working its way across the beach toward them. As it drew near, he could make out, in the eye of the storm, a gun that he strongly suspected it had been shooting at them. Then, just as that dust-devil crossed the edge of the dock, it crashed to a halt, the gun clattering to the dock planks as it dissolved.
He wondered what that was all about.
“Fuck you!” Justin called out, waving the coin now that Shades had brought them well out of reach of any firearm. “It’s mine now, you son of a bitch!”
“God,” Shades muttered, “have you no shame?”
“All those people…” Max reflected grimly.
“What people?” Shades asked, clearly missing something here.
“Oh yeah, you weren’t there,” Max filled him in. “When I met Justin at the top of the mountain, I saw all these ships docked on the other side of the island. All of them were abandoned. Now I wonder what became of all those people…”
“We probably don’t want to know,” Shades pointed out.
“By the way,” Justin turned to Shades, “why did you stop here?”
“Oh. Right.” Shades then remembered why he came out here in the first place. “Dudes, we’ve got a problem.”
out of gas
“The problem, in a nutshell,” Shades explained, “is that we don’t have enough fuel left to go anywhere.”
“You’re shittin’ me,” Justin muttered.
“I wish I was,” Shades replied, “but I’d never joke about something like this.”
“So what do we do now?” Max asked.
Shades thought for a moment, then said, “Max, you said there were more ships on the other side of the island, right? Some of those ships must have more fuel. We could regroup and then see what we can do about getting more gas from one of those ships.”
“Are you nuts?” Justin demanded. “You expect us to go back!”
“I don’t think we have a choice,” said Max.
“For now we stay down, even though I think we’re out of range,” Shades told them, “and then we stay down some more. No telling what else that bastard might have at its disposal.”
That having been decided, they moved out to the point where they could barely make out the island anymore, hoping it was far enough. There, they stopped to patch themselves up between the ship’s first aid kit and Abu-Sharrah’s healing supplies, and tried to work out a more specific plan. The best they could come up with was snagging one of the other ships and trying to figure out a way to siphon fuel from it once they were at a safe distance. Or, failing that, just take the other ship instead.
Once they were ready, they began to circle the island at a distance until they reached the other side, the Reflection holding back even farther out of range. They all watched as the island seemed to rotate, revealing areas they hadn’t been to. Near the opposite side, they saw a natural harbor, with several mysterious squarish stone pillars thrusting out of the water. Leading to the top of the mountain was a broad stone stairway. At least two dozen vessels sat along the docks on this side, all of varying size, design, and origin.
They tried not to ponder how all of those poor souls ended up.
Deciding to try from among the ships closest to the edge first, the biggest of them presumably having the biggest fuel tank. Therefore, they figured, most likely to have the most fuel left to siphon. Or so they hoped.
Since Shades had the most experience maneuvering this particular vessel so far, he stayed at the helm. Deciding that the entity wouldn’t give them much time to make their move, they opted for the fastbreak approach, advancing as fast as Shades felt he safely could while still being able to stop in time. Pulling up alongside their chosen ship, laying low while Max and Justin went to work.
Still unsure if there was anything he could do to that effect, Justin at least tried to cover Max as he hopped aboard. Max, for his part, tried to stay low, tried not to think about how Justin would have made a smaller target. But Justin was, after all, the best marksman among them. Laser sword in hand, Max prepared to break into the cabin if need be.
All the while watching for little red dots.
Whatever they were bracing for, none of them expected a small object to sail through the air, landing on a nearby vessel. Even as Shades recognized what it must be, before he could shout a warning, there was an explosion that ripped half the ship apart. In that moment, all that came to mind was the fuel tank that was likely right under Max’s feet. The powder-keg of fuel he and Justin were sitting on, for that matter.
“Holy shit!” Justin screamed as he hit the deck, trying to figure out what the hell that thing was up to now.
“Max!” Shades called from the helm. “Get out of there! That thing’s got a grenade-launcher!” Thankful that it didn’t have a rocket-launcher, or else they’d all be dead by now, but, “We’ve gotta go! There’s no way we can withstand that!”
Max wasted no time turning back, but just then a second grenade arced through the air, striking near the base of one of those blocky pillars, shattering it.
“Max!” Shades and Justin cried out in unison, watching in frozen horror as the pillar fell, looming over the ship Max was still on.
As the mass of stone collapsed above him, Max dashed across the deck, taking a flying leap at their own deck. The whole thing crashing down right behind him as he flailed through the air. Landing on the deck, skidding right across and tumbling against the opposite railing as shards of stone streaked by overhead like shrapnel.
Shades was thrown from the helm, and Max and Justin tossed across the deck like ragdolls, the ship itself nearly capsized against the shock of the impact. As Shades hit the deck, in his mind he heard alarms, remembering that in the movies this would be the part where someone would shout Damage report! or Shields are failing! or some such, and sparks would start flying from all of the controls. But this wasn’t any movie, he had to somehow regain control of the ship or they would all die for real right here and now.
As the ship began to right itself, Shades crawled back to the helm, restarting the engines and moving away from the flattened, rapidly sinking wreckage of the other vessel, which he could barely make out through the debris splashed across the starboard windows. When he heard both Justin and Max shouting on deck, he at least knew neither of them had been thrown overboard. A miracle in and of itself, he decided as he poured on more speed.
Max and Justin stayed down, and both of them screamed in spite of themselves as another blast obliterated yet another ship. Clearly correcting its aim with each shot. Even as they moved very clearly out of range, several more ships exploded in a fiery tantrum, and there were even several short geysers as shots tracked their retreat beyond the docks.
“Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?” Justin moaned, knowing now, as he originally suspected, that to go back for another round would be suicide.
“I guess we have no choice,” Max said, looking up the mast, relieved to see that there was no serious damage to the folded sails. “Until we get more fuel, we’ll just have to travel the traditional way.”
Seeing this, Justin stormed into the cabin, demanding, “Why the hell did we just almost get ourselves killed when we didn’t have to?”
“I guess I didn’t think of that…” Shades said sheepishly, taken aback somewhat by how absent his own tone sounded, in light of everything that just happened.
“Well, why didn’t you?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Will you two please stop arguing?” Max sighed as he stumbled into the cabin. “None of us thought of it, so let’s drop it, okay?”
Before either of them could say anything else, though, they came upon the Reflection, where Abu-Sharrah waited and observed from a safe distance, and they came out on deck to converse.
changing names, changing luck
“Are you alright?” Abu-Sharrah called out as they drew near, having reached a safe distance.
“A few more bruises, but what of that?” Max replied, deciding not to think about what might have happened if he was still on that ship when the pillar hit.
“Yeah, we’re fine, old man,” Justin assured him, “no thanks to that idiot.”
“I heard that,” That Idiot muttered as he emerged from the cabin to join them. A strange turn of events, he reflected, having their own ship. Then again, at least now they would no longer be a burden to the old man. “Oh well. The important part is that we’re all still alive.”
“Yes, but you should really be more careful in de future,” Abu-Sharrah advised them. In spite of their inexperienced and reckless style, perhaps they did have what it takes to survive on the high seas of the Sixth Dimension, he reflected. At any rate, it looked as if they were no longer in any immediate need of his help. “Remember, dis world is vast beyond reckoning. Even an old man like me has never been to all of de different realms in dese waters, so do take care.
“If you’re still thinking about searching for de Tri-Medals,” he added, “I have a request. You may seek dem for the de rest of your life, and dere is no guarantee you will find dem. But if you do find dem in your possession again, I ask you to at least protect dem and keep dem out of de hands of dose who would hurt others to pursue de treasure.”
“I understand,” Max said solemnly. From what he understood of it, whoever it was who originally gave his father the medallion had apparently entrusted it to him in a similar manner, and thinking about that only made him feel worse for losing his.
Shades and Justin nodded, keeping their own reasons to themselves.
“So,” Abu-Sharrah asked them as they came aboard to collect the rest of their belongings, “is dere anything I can do to help you?”
“I think we’re alright now,” Shades told him. “We just stopped to talk, and also to thank you for all the help you’ve given us. With everything that’s happened lately, we have a lot to talk about.”
“I see.” The old man nodded.
“Thank you, Abu-Sharrah,” Max said to him.
“May you have a safe journey,” Abu-Sharrah offered his own blessing. This young man, Max, still seemed strangely familiar, like he should know him from somewhere… Figuring that if it was of any significance, he would remember it sooner or later, he finished, “Wherever de winds may take you.”
“You too!” Shades called. “Thanks for everything!”
“Goodbye!” Max was starting to get the feeling that, whatever Abu-Sharrah’s business was in life, it was bigger than all of them, in some way he couldn’t quite work out. Much like with DJ, though, he got that mysterious feeling that they were bound to cross paths again, somewhere down the way.
“Thanks for the lift!” Justin was just glad they now had their own ship.
“You’re always welcome aboard with us!” Shades told Abu-Sharrah as the old man headed for the helm. Once again they were on their own, but at least this time around they had better resources.
“Don’t say things like that,” Justin muttered. As much as the guy may have helped them, he still thought the old man was a little on the crazy side. “It might actually happen. Now, let’s put some distance between us and that monster.”
“I’ll second that,” Shades conceded, figuring that, after this, the next time all he had to say was that he had a “bad feeling” about something and leave it at that. Surely Justin wouldn’t tempt Fate a third time.
“You know, I don’t think we have to worry about that anymore,” Max told them.
“Why’s that?” Justin intoned.
“Yeah, that thing can go through walls and shit,” Shades pointed out. In retrospect, he was still amazed they even survived against such an enemy. “What’s to stop it from coming out here with that grenade-launcher?”
“But it couldn’t even get past the dock,” Max informed them.
“What do you mean?”
And so Max explained about the dust-devil with the gun, concluding with, “It just fell, like it lost its grip or something.”
“But what if that was just an act?” Justin pressed, as his trust was in short supply anymore.
“I don’t think it was,” said Shades, beginning to see what Max was getting at. “And as pissed-off as it was earlier, don’t you think it would have done something by now? It looks to me like it can’t even leave the island. Now that I think about it, I don’t think it can touch that coin, either. Think about it. If it could hide the damn thing, don’t you think it would have?”
They both thought it over for a long moment.
“Maybe you’re right,” Justin admitted, “but I still don’t like it.”
“Whatever,” Shades muttered. “There was some pretty fucked-up shit in that basement, but I could have got some interesting books if that thing hadn’t tried to kill me.”
“Ha!” Justin scoffed, “That’s nothing compared to what I went through to get this!” He held up the coin so he could admire it again. A gesture that reminded Shades of all too many RPG’s he’d played over the years. “I had to fight that bastard every step of the way!”
“That place was a lot more dangerous than it appeared to be,” Max agreed.
“You can say that again,” Shades seconded.
“That place was— oh, right.”
“And you almost got yourself killed over that thing,” Shades told Justin, “but I guess that’s your business. Personally, I’d have left it behind.”
“Wouldn’t wanna go through all that trouble for nothin’,” Justin retorted, shoving his prize back in his pocket. Bruised and scraped and sore from head to foot, he was glad not only to be alive, but to have something to show for it. As far as he was concerned, the coin was only the beginning of many exploits to come. “Don’t know about you, but I don’t like to walk away empty-handed.”
“I suppose. But now that we’ve got ourselves a ship,” Shades wondered aloud, “where do we go from here?”
“Wherever the winds may take us,” Max suggested, inspired by Abu-Sharrah’s farewell. It was just starting to dawn on him that, after all these years, he was finally in a position to go off on that ad-venturous voyage he’d always dreamed of. And he was pretty sure both of his friends felt the same.
“Hell yeah!” Shades agreed. All his life, he wanted adventure, wanted to go on a journey; back on Earth, he would have had his road trip to Alaska with Arthur, a part of him fearing that might be all there was, then a lifetime of his nose to the grindstone, but now he was here in the Sixth Dimension. Rather than doors closing on him one by one, the horizon was wide open again. Looking at the name above the cabin door, he said, “But I think we should lose the name.”
“But what’s wrong with the…” Justin paused as he read, a look of disdain settling on his face, “Rose Marine Queen?”
“The Rose Marine Queen?” Shades echoed mockingly.
“We need a new name.” Max made it unanimous.
“But what?” Shades was drawing blanks.
“How about the Maximum?” Max suggested, inspired by Shades’ chant back at the beach.
“After all,” Shades said, “this was his idea.”
“Yeah. Sure,” Justin agreed. “Well, it’s our ship now, so let’s have a look around.”
Shades nodded, thinking about an old superstition of the sea. Wondering if there was anything to it, in this world or his own. To change a ship’s name is to change her luck. Then again, given its last voyage, he couldn’t see how this ship’s luck could get much worse.
Then they set about inspecting their new ride.
the full tour
Touring the deck, they guesstimated that their new ship was about a hundred feet from stem to stern, give or take. About twenty to twenty-five feet at its widest, with three deck levels and twin engines. In addition to the spacious rear deck they stood upon, they found walkways leading to a narrow deck at the bow, and a ladder leading to a deck above the cabin where there was a second helm, offering a commanding view of the surrounding waters. Unlike, Shades noticed, the cabin helm, with only showed the front and some peripheral vision.
For all the destruction back at the docks, there was relatively little damage to the Maximum herself, and most of it cosmetic. The starboard windows suffered some cracks, but were miraculously unbroken, more because the brunt of the crash was directed elsewhere than anything else. Something would have to be done to secure them as best they could for now, and any other repairs would have to wait until their next feasible destination, as they feared there was little they could do about it out here.
After a cursory look at the exterior, they entered the cabin, the others seeing it for the first time. Inside, they found the pantry mostly full of food, as well as a working refrigerator and freezer, as well as a full kitchenette. Even a dishwasher.
From right to left, they saw the lower helm, an L-shaped dinette table, and a lounge couch facing forward toward a full entertainment center. Behind that, next to the pantry, was a narrow turn of steps leading below deck. The helm itself offered an excellent range of view for its position, comfortable seating, and a drink-holder.
“Cool!” Max remarked, taking in the sweeping view through the twenty-foot-wide expanse of cabin windows in front, the others admiring the scene and agreeing wholeheartedly with his most eloquently spoken sentiment.
“This place rocks!” Shades turned around several times, taking in the entire cabin. He was already beginning to think of this excellent ride as their collective prize, and as far as he was still concerned, Justin could keep his amulet. He’d always dreamed of having a boat of his own, and never would have imagined he would be living in one any time soon.
Justin nodded, actually agreeing with him for once, then said, “Let’s see what’s below.”
The steps were steep and narrow, but not overly so, turning right at the bottom. Below was a short hall with several doors branching out from it. Under the stairs was a small closet.
Toward the front was a step leading up to a door, which Max opened. Inside was a narrow room whose walls followed the curve of the bow. A tiny closet on the right, table on the left, and beyond a little square of floor; the rest was all bed. Two elongated portholes offered slivers of daylight compared to the skylight hatch leading to the foredeck.
On impulse, Max flopped on the bed, staring up at the skylight. Bandit jumped up and started poking around. After a moment, Max got up, having to crawl due to the low ceiling, and opened the hatch to peek outside.
“Looks like Max just found his room,” Shades remarked.
“Hey! What about— What about us?” Justin demanded sharply.
“We’ll come up with something,” Shades replied. “I don’t think you want to argue with the kitty.”
That settled, they moved on, finding a bathroom through the next door, and unlike most on ships like this, it was actually larger than a broom closet. The next led to a compact storage room, and they could see they would have to spend several hours taking stock of it later. The last one led to another bedroom. The bed was built into the cabin wall, and there was a small wardrobe and dresser nook. If there were any furniture, there would be no room left to walk. Two tiny portholes gave a limited view outside.
“You can have that room,” Shades told Justin.
“But where will you sleep?” Max asked him. As far as he could tell, there were no more rooms aboard.
“Oh, I’ll sleep near the helm,” Shades assured him. Bandit clearly liked the other room, and if he tried to claim this one, Justin would never let him hear the end of it. Besides, after years of camping out in the dining room, he was used to sleeping on couches, and believed he was the most qualified for what he was about to propose next. “That way, if something happens while we’re asleep, I’ll be right next to the helm.”
“Good idea,” Max remarked.
“Ya know, there’s a kitchen up there,” Justin pointed out, remembering Abu-Sharrah’s leftovers, the flavorless ration packs of Tranz-D, and Max’s survival diet back in Paradise. To say nothing of years of hunger in the Triangle State. “Let’s go see if there’s any food in it.”
Again, not a word of disagreement.
“Sweet!” Max remarked, finding a couple cases of soda in the fridge.
“Pass me one!” Shades called as he reached the compartment under the helm, coming up a moment later with the ship’s log book. As Justin chowed down on some chocolate chip cookies in the cupboard, Shades leafed through the Rose Marine Queen’s journal, wondering why he found himself digging through so many records of late. Mostly about the captain’s experience with the tourist business off the coast of Florida, he spotted a few entries that sounded suspiciously like they might involve illegal activities, and he wondered why smuggling immediately came to mind.
“Hey! This ship was from Earth!” Shades told them. Justin and Max turned from raiding the galley and joined him at the lounge table. Flipping to the last entry, he said, “Check this out, guys:
“Captain’s Log,” he began, in his best Shatner, “Star Date…” And trailed off as it dawned on him that no one here would get the joke anyway. One of those moments when he really missed his old friends. Then, more seriously, “Friday, July Fifth… 1996? The hell?… Oh well. I am writing this after the strangest day of my life.
“We encountered a strange yellow fog, and my passengers nearly panicked,” he resumed, skipping to the good parts. “After that weird fog passed, the water was purple, and calm as a swimming pool. There was no wind, not even a breeze, and the sky was light but there was no sun, and my compass was going crazy… At some point we must have passed out or something, because we woke up just lying on the deck. None of us could remember what happened in the meantime.
“When we woke up, the sky and sea appeared to be back to normal, but nothing else was. The compass still just kept spinning around until I could no longer stand to look at it. When we tried to make a distress call, we couldn’t pick up anything on the radio… What was supposed to be a three-hour tour has become a nightmare…
“We sailed on until shortly before dark. That was when we spotted an island, and unanimously decided to stop there for the night. We were originally bound for Andros, but I have no idea what island this is supposed to be…
“I never believed in the Bermuda Triangle. I’ve sailed these waters for over twelve years, and I always thought it was a load of crap… Now here we are with only a week’s worth of food, and no idea where in the hell we are. I just hope there is someone here who can help us.”
“Guess the joke was on them!” Justin laughed darkly, having seen that place’s welcome for himself.
“That’s not funny, Justin,” Max pointed out. “They’re dead.”
“Yeah, that could’ve been us,” Shades echoed.
“But it wasn’t. The difference between us and them is that we’re still alive. We even have our own ship now. What more do you want?” Justin asked, wondering what point there was in worrying about it now. “Let’s get the hell outta here. Just lookin’ at that island gives me the creeps. I don’t trust it.”
“I’m with ya on that one,” Max agreed.
“I second that motion,” Shades said, making it unanimous. Though he wished he could be as cavalier about cruising around in a dead man’s ship as Justin apparently was. Concluding that it was way too late to do anything about it long before they ever set foot on that island, to just drop the matter, he said, “Now all we need are some good tunes.”
One thing Shades, not to mention his friends, quickly fell in love with about the Maximum was her kick-ass sound system. Where Shades’ broad selection of music currently played on high volume. Shades had hooked up his Cam-Jam to the system’s input jack, turning it into a random jukebox of thousands of songs.
Fun for hours.
At first, their discussion kept revolving around their narrow escape. The prevailing conclusion being that the island belonged to some bizarre secret society or religious cult. There was some debate about the details, but all were agreed that they were trying to attain immortality by conducting strange rituals with that coin. And that, more than likely, something went horribly wrong, as they doubted the current state of affairs there was quite what these cultists originally had in mind. Apparently unable to leave, whatever was trapped on the island made a habit of killing anyone unfortunate enough to set foot on shore.
“Still,” Justin said, “we don’t really know much about that thing.” More than any of them, had made a point of watching until the island completely vanished beyond the horizon before he dared to let his guard down. “How do we know it didn’t follow us?”
“Think about it,” Shades pressed, having done so a good deal himself. He could never know for sure that it wouldn’t have tried to kill them all anyway, but he couldn’t help thinking it might not have been so vicious about it if Justin hadn’t taken the amulet. “If it could hide the damn coin, don’t you think it would have? I mean, it let you carry it deeper into the compound, and attacked you only after you headed back to the ship, right? I bet it would have attacked us both right then and there if we’d tried to just go back right then.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Justin conceded.
Shades didn’t dare mention it, doubting he could convince Max and fearing Justin might do something rash at the mere thought of it, but the idea had occurred to him a couple times to just go back and put up some kind of sign. A warning of some sort for future travelers. But the more he thought about it, he found he couldn’t think of anything the entity couldn’t think of some way to destroy anyway. Then again, at least if anyone approached the side they just left, all that wreckage would be certain to grab their attention.
That would have to do.
“So, how much do you think that coin is worth?” Max asked. After taking a brief look at the sinister artifact Justin had risked his life for, he thought it looked ugly, yet, in its own way, intriguing.
“Don’t know, but it’s gotta be a lot,” Justin replied. One thing that struck him as odd was realizing that he wasn’t the least bit suspicious of Max, and he was starting to get the impression that Shades really didn’t want anything to do with his treasure. “It feels heavy enough to be solid gold!”
“Yeah,” Shades asked point-blank, “but who are you going to sell it to?”
“Don’t know yet,” Justin said, wondering why Obscura Antiques immediately came to mind. Then again, he honestly could picture that decrepit old shopkeep buying it from him. Likely with just a shrug of his bony shoulders for the thing’s history, given some of the other items that graced his shelves. “Whoever’s the highest bidder.”
Figures, Shades commented to himself.
“I wonder where we’ll end up next?” Max interjected.
“Wherever it is, I’m hoping for a break from haunted places,” was all Shades had to say about it. And to think, if we first arrived on the other side of that island, we probably could’ve guessed from all those abandoned ships that something wasn’t right. That Abu-Sharrah’s pretty observant… he heeded all the clues we ignored… Note to self: next time we get no welcome, we circle around and check things out first. “Guess we won’t know until we get there…”
After that, the conversation became more lighthearted, turning to plans and reflections on how much fun it was going to be having their own ship. As the sun went down, the volume went up, the laughter became more frequent, and the atmosphere onboard became livelier. Max had heard it all before, but this was Justin’s first time, and he was quickly taking a liking to Shades’ taste in music. Not all of it, as it seemed to make allusions to places and things foreign to him, but there was a great deal of some songs that he could relate to, plus the music itself just had this energy that made it hard to sit still.
That, and he never got to listen to any music in the Triangle State.
And so their victory celebration went on most of the night.
After everyone else was asleep, Max stole out onto the deck of the Maximum. Under the moonlight, he unwrapped Chad’s skull, which he had packed out of the Harken Building.
Remembering what he could from Grampa Reno’s funeral many years ago, and improvising the rest as reverently as he could, Max spoke quietly, “Chad Owen, I have removed your remains from the place that defiled them. In place of my mother and father, who couldn’t, I now lay you to rest…”
Though an Outlander, to give him a proper Layoshan funeral, or as close to it as he could manage under the circumstances.
“I will take up your sword, and do you honor with its use. I now return you to Mother Ocean, that your spirit may find rest upon the winds of time.”
Slowly lowered the skull into the water and gently let go of it.
After standing and watching until it sank out of sight, he finally went back inside to join his friends and get some sleep.
They all slept in that morning. Even Max wasn’t up with the sun as usual. Justin crashed in his new room, dead to the world.
Shades was first awakened by the light that washed over him through the cabin windows. He was surprised such light could awaken him, as there was not much of it, just cloudy overcast. He rolled out of the couch and walked to the fridge for something cold to drink. Glanced at his watch, which had seen him through about five years of his life, entailed a lot of fond memories, seeing that it was a few minutes past midnight. Somewhere. Montana, perhaps.
“Man, I’d love to tell Einstein just how relative time really is…” And that’s to say nothing about this ship being from over a year in the future, yet somehow getting here ahead of us… It was still rather alien to him, how little time seemed to mean in the Sixth Dimension. Especially, it seemed, when things crossed over into it from other worlds, and presumably, other time-streams.
Thinking about it made him worry about John and Amy in a whole new way, wondering if they might have been hurled into the distant past or future in this world, and the only thing he could pin his hopes on was that they had all left their world from roughly the same time and place. And in a different manner than the Maximum.
A little carbonation perked him up, and after that he found some pancake mix and a bottle of maple syrup in the pantry, deciding a little breakfast was in order. Last night they concluded that most of the food onboard was safe, being dried or canned, but some of the perishables would have to go. It was hard to tell for sure, but the consensus of their judgment was that the ship had been derelict for anywhere from three weeks to a month by Shades’ reckoning.
Max wandered up from below, Bandit continuing to sleep now that he had the entire bed to himself, while Shades was still cooking, so he made some more pancakes for his friend.
“Max, you know Justin better than I do,” Shades began, deciding to take a page from his friend and go for the direct approach. “Do you think he’s gonna stick around? I can see that you’re worried, and he is your friend, so I want to help.”
“I don’t know,” Max replied. “I was hoping you might have some ideas. I mean, you told me about those two friends of yours, John and Tom, how they’re always arguing. How did you deal with it?”
“Very carefully,” Shades said, that line immediately popping into his head at the thought of his old friends. “Along the way I learned what the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ means, and I don’t want for you to have to go through that. Unlike John and Tom, I’m tired of fighting with Justin. Never wanted to to begin with. I just don’t know how to tell him that.”
“I see.” Max suspected it probably wasn’t so simple, and now he regretted not asking Abu-Sharrah about it when he had the chance. “Well, I guess we should take stock of our new ship today. I sure hope we have enough safe food to last for while, since we don’t know when we’ll see dry land again.”
“You bastards are eating breakfast without me,” Justin declared quietly as he reached the top of the steps. Not that he was surprised; Max was an early-riser, and Shades didn’t seem to need much sleep. Still, it was the principle of the thing.
He was awakened several times last night by strange dreams. All involved that mansion, and his coin, of course. Some included running— in slo-mo, as in any good nightmare— from something he could not quite see when he looked back. Then something, something much bigger than an electrical cord, and ice-cold, would wrap itself around his neck, and he’d wake up.
In the other dream, he would wander into the sub-basement, seeing parts of the place Shades only described to him. The details a lot more vivid than in any of Shades’ stories, and somehow he knows this is what it’s really like. Knowing what’s behind each door, but not remembering much upon waking. As he makes this tour, somehow already knowing that something malevolent awaits him at the end, he walks slowly. As if there isn’t enough suspense as it is. At last he enters the chamber with the dais bearing the symbol of the Dragon of… Shii?.. Jii?… he can’t quite remember what. There are candles glowing in geometrical alignments around the dais, where he could see two people, what appeared to be a man and a woman. Or rather their silhouettes, against a blinding explosion of red light. He would feel an intense heatwave wash over him, and awaken in a cold sweat.
Thinking about it, Justin remembered Shades telling a story the other night. About a young woman whose family was terrorized by a malevolent presence, at last being driven out of their house by it. He ended his tale by telling how she happened to wander past the old house one day, and found it for sale. Finding the door unlocked, she decided to see what became of the place, tried the phone to see if it still worked. Just as she picked it up, she felt cold hands around her throat, shoving her all the way out the door…
Stupid bitch, going back… as far as he was concerned. Sounded like something Kato would do.
And so Justin joined them for breakfast. Like his companions, he too was sore and stiff from head to foot after yesterday’s misadventures. Fresh cuts and scrapes still stung, bruises were still raw and tender. In his case, after all that being tossed about on the roof, sitting down was a particularly delicate task for Justin this morning.
“No worries,” Shades said as he washed down the last of his meal and turned to the galley to make more while Justin stared into space. “There’s more where that came from. You had a busy day, so we thought we’d just let you sleep in.”
“Oh. Right.” Justin shook his head and sat down. Much like with Obscura Antiques, he decided not to tell them about his dreams, and give Shades another chance to dis his coin. As it was, he was afraid the guy was gonna suggest tossing it overboard, as they planned to do with the spoiled food. Likely saying it was cursed or something. Something else bothered him besides his dreams, so he changed the subject, asking, “Say Shades, what did you say you read about me in the Book of Fate?”
“Well, for one thing, it never says when or where,” Shades reminded him. “It just says simple things, like So-And-So— will die in a fiery accident… That sort of thing. It’s all pretty vague. As I recall, yours said you would be impaled, though it didn’t say on what… Why do you ask?”
All Justin could think of was that giant globe at the top of the mountain, the sharp, gleaming tip of the arrow piercing its axis piercing him, as well…
“Justin? You okay?” Max asked, concern written all over his face. “You look kinda pale.”
“You look like someone just walked all over your grave, man,” Shades remarked. “So what happened to you?”
“I think you saved my life,” Justin told him, then explained about getting knocked out and seeing that unsettling vision of himself hung out to dry on that arrow. “Then did I escape the prediction?”
“Yeah, we didn’t die, and neither did anyone else,” Max pondered aloud. I bet Kato and Chase probably got away from the fates written in there. If Bandit hadn’t found those keys, I’m afraid we all might have died. “What does this mean?”
“I think it means I changed our fates,” said Shades, trying to reason it out. “After all, I escaped eternity with that damn Flaming Ghost, and I think that set something in motion…” On his last day on Earth, Mr Doppler was lecturing about quantum physics. Thinking about that now brought to mind the Uncertainty Principle, how an observer changes the variables and probabilities of an event merely by observing it. What does this mean, indeed. “Like re-tossing the dice… I couldn’t tell you if the predictions in that book have any accuracy to begin with, but personally, I think we should act like we never heard those predictions in the first place.”
Though he couldn’t quite help wondering about the other names, how he may have inadvertently affected the lives of people he had never heard of.
“Creepy…” In spite of his original curiosity about the matter, Justin found he now wanted to just drop it.
There was a long pause, but eventually the conversation resumed, quickly shifting to matters concerning their new ship. In addition to weeding out spoiled food, they also needed to find out what they had in the way of equipment and supplies. According to Abu-Sharrah, you could sail for days or weeks at a time in these mysterious waters without finding a single square inch of dry land, so there was no telling what they might need in the meantime. Today was going to be a very busy day.
After breakfast, they started searching The Ship Formerly Known As The Rose Marine Queen from stem to stern as planned. The weather stayed threatening, but didn’t actually do anything. Using the timer mode of Shades’ watch, they took turns manning the helm while the others rummaged around the ship, taking inventory.
First on the list was the storage room. Fortunately its contents were securely stowed, so there was little cleanup involved in spite of the explosions that rocked the ship yesterday. Among other things found were more canned food, some diving gear, life jackets and assorted flotation devices, flare, first aid and other emergency kits, fishing nets, and other useful items.
During Justin’s turn at the helm, while Max was digging through the closets, Shades started poking around in search of hidden compartments. There were passages in that log that were rather vague— missing dates and destinations and such— that he was increasingly certain had to do with smuggling. Couldn’t help thinking that, for all the talk about the tourist business, this ship didn’t seem to deal with quite enough clients to stay in the black, combined with the fact that nothing about this vessel was very ideally geared toward ferrying sightseers. It only made him even more confident it was really used to transport illicit items in or out of the States.
So far his attempts to find that well-hidden stash were all unsuccessful. Until the idea came to him to ask Max if he could have a look around his new quarters, which he strongly suspected were also the previous captain’s. As he entered Max’s cabin, he found himself remembering his old locker out of the blue. As a sophomore, he had traded it to Arthur in exchange for various favors, and now he wondered with a detached curiosity just what his friend had been doing with it these past two years. Even after getting burnt-out on football, Arthur entertained a variety of extracurricular activities, so there was probably still plenty of need for extra storage space strategically placed between various classes and clubs. Though now, for perhaps the first time ever, the thought crossed his mind of all the trouble he might have gotten himself into, depending on who he had traded with, and that brought him back to his original purpose.
First, he inspected Max’s closet, finding nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing of note about the small alcove at the head of the bed, either. Shades understood that the best chance of finding such things was to try to find “gaps” in the ship, where space seemed to be missing, and found he wished he had some kind of blueprints…
He was about to go see if there were any among the charts under the helm, when he happened to notice the drawers under the bed. The bed itself took up most of the cabin floor, but lining the front of the bed was a set of drawers. Shades removed the top drawer, surprised yet not so surprised that the rollers didn’t have stops. Setting it on the bed, he pulled out the next drawer, and the one after that. When he was finished, what he had was a panel with three slots in it.
And behind that, in the hollow space under the bed, was his contraband compartment.
“Hey guys! Come here!” Shades called, feeling behind the panels and finding some latches. Just as he unfastened the first one Max appeared, Bandit trying to squeeze past him in the narrow opening, wanting to see what Shades had found in their room. Even as the ship slowed down, he finished undoing the rest of the latches, and by the time he was finished, Justin had also come below to see what was up.
“What is that?” Max asked.
“It’s a smuggling compartment,” Justin told him. Had heard enough about them to know. Perhaps this guy wasn’t as useless as he originally thought.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Shades remarked dryly, “Now let’s see what we’ve got…”
The compartment was just large enough for an average-size person to fit into, so it took a moment for Shades to retrieve all three of the packages contained therein. The smallest was about the size of a shoebox, the next one was a little bigger, and the last one was a heavy steel case with latches on the front. They each brought one of the packages up to the lounge to examine them more closely.
“Now let’s see what this guy was smuggling…” Shades muttered, though he had his own suspicions, and he unlatched and opened the big case first.
Inside was a pair of very familiar-looking assault pistols, and extra room at the top for two or three more. The rest of the case was crammed full of ammunition. At least that explained why the case was so heavy.
“Well,” Shades commented, “at least we should be thankful they didn’t bring the rest of it ashore with them…”
Setting it aside, they opened the middle box.
“What is it?” he heard Justin ask.
“I don’t know,” Max had never seen the light-grey, putty-like material Shades unwrapped, or its like, before.
“Plastic explosive,” Shades remarked. Examining the black wrapper, especially the Eastern European-looking script printed on it in white, wondering just what place was going to be remodeled with this back on Earth. “I think we’ve got enough plastique here to blow this ship out of the water several times over.”
“Oh,” both of them nodded.
Justin swallowed hard at the memory of the entity shooting at them, then replaced the wrapper. Very gently.
Setting it aside just as carefully, Shades then whipped out his pocketknife to cut through all the tape binding the smallest box. As he put away the knife, the box slipped out of this arms, dumping three plastic bags on the floor.
Justin jumped in spite of himself, remembering what was in the last box.
“It looks like sugar,” Max observed, although he somehow doubted it was the white powder was.
“Holy shit! That ain’t sugar, man,” Shades gasped. What he was looking at was thousands of dollars’ worth of trouble. It wasn’t so much that he was surprised by its contents, as it was that he never really expected such a thing to fall into his lap. “This bastard was an all-around merchant of death, wasn’t he…”
“What do you mean?” Max asked, following Shades as he grabbed the bags and went out on deck with them.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Justin pressed him, “If they were smuggling it, that means we can sell it for a lot of money, right?”
“We are not selling this shit, we’re dumping it right now,” Shades told him, his tone leaving no room for negotiation. “It’s poison— it’ll make your teeth fall out. Trust me on this one, Justin, you don’t want anything to do with this. Think of it as a curse. No matter how much people think they like it, it will only bring them suffering. And I won’t be a party to it.
“We may have to do some dubious things to survive, like taking this ship,” he continued moderating his tone somewhat, slicing the baggies open and pouring the poisonous powder overboard, consigning it to the deep as Max and Justin watched him in floored silence, “but this is one line I will not cross. For all I know we may end up being mercenaries or something, but we are not merchants of death. Surely you didn’t fight this Triangle State Authority all these years just so you could become like them, did you?”
“Um, no,” Justin mumbled. “I just didn’t know what it was, that’s all.”
“Sorry,” Shades replied, tossing the baggies away as well. “Kinda lost myself there for a moment. Just trust me, it’s bad business, and we don’t want anything to do with it… I’ll be right back.”
“Really,” Justin told him. “You don’t have to go off like that. I don’t care what you think of me— there are even some things I wouldn’t do for money.”
“Good to know,” Shades replied, wanting to kick himself for making such a blunt assumption, still it was nice to know even the resident mercenary had standards. Deciding that he would tell them about it. Justin, especially, needed to know. Explaining to him that his world also had its share of problems, and about the probable history of the items they just found.
“I guess you just make your world sound so great…”
Max looked on, at first afraid the two of them were going to start arguing anew, and so soon after what at least seemed like a reconciliation.
“I didn’t mean to snap— I guess it was just the sort of thing I was afraid we were gonna find, and it’s something I feel very strongly about.” Shades’ account seemed to have diminished Justin’s enthusiasm, and he wondered if he was more upset at what he found, or that Justin sometimes just seemed to think of mindlessly selling anything he thought would sell, but he made a mental note to keep his cool next time and explain things more fully before jumping down his throat about matters he probably knew nothing about. “I’ll try not to go loose cannon next time.”
“What’s done is done,” Max said, taking both of them in as he spoke one of Uncle Angus’ favorite lines on the subject. Fearing there might yet be another dispute, he added. “Let’s just get back to work.”
“If you go off on your own, you can do whatever you want,” Shades said, thinking that perhaps the best way to resolve this was through consensus, “but not on this crew.”
And Shades was pleased to see that Max also backed him up now that he understood what the deal was, nodded his own assent.
“We should all talk and lay down some ground rules,” Shades continued, seeing that even Justin was actually listening, rather than tuning him out, on this one. “I don’t know where we’re going, or what we’ll be doing next any more than you guys, so it might be best decide for ourselves what lines we are and aren’t willing to cross. Agreed?”
Both of them nodded.
Excusing himself again, Shades then went below to wash his hands. Of course, he had been to his share of parties, including a few with college-age folks, had grown accustomed to bottles and six-packs— even the occasional stash— just part of the scene. Still, he had never run into the hard shit before, and found he felt dirty merely handling those bags.
When his hands were clean, he splashed his face a couple times, concluding that perhaps the greatest irony of the Great California Invasion could only be measured by the yardstick of how far people were willing to run from their problems before they finally noticed that they take most of their problems with them no matter where they run to. Not since the lawless days of the Old West, until last year armed robbery was largely unheard of in the Flathead.
And all, it turned out, for another fix.
After seeing that, he no longer wanted to just change the Maximum’s luck by changing its name, he also hoped to change its karma, as well. Back on Earth, it was scum, and he couldn’t help thinking that effected its luck, given the end the last captain came to. He still felt bad for the others, figuring that his last passengers were probably just for maintaining his cover, and though he supposed the guy was just filling one of many prescriptions for modern madness, still it bothered him.
This morning he found a bottle of the same kind of mouth rinse he used to use when he was a kid. A flavor that always brought back memories of the one place he had ever truly called “home”— be-fore Dad disappeared. It was the taste of dreams…
Only now all he could think was, That a man who sells coke to others takes such good care of his own teeth… Come to think of it, he himself was going to have to be more vigilant on that front in this world with no dentists. No fluoridation like back in…
That name just didn’t sound like it belonged anywhere in the Sixth Dimension. Hadn’t even been here a couple months, and already names that once rolled right off his tongue were starting to sound foreign to him.
Shades shook his head, then headed back up. He was still ambivalent about the weapons, but unlike narcotics, he could at least think of worthy causes they could be donated to, such as the liberation of a realm like Justin’s Triangle State. Then again, unlike explosives, guns and ammo could at least be used for self-defense.
Up top, Max and Justin had put away the weapons for now, deciding to take a meal break. The matter of the smuggling compartment thus resolved, they sat down to discuss their principles and positions on various matters over lunch before they set back to work on the rest of their organizing, for there was still much to be done before supper.
Tradewinds Mercantile District
The Maximum sailed along at a good clip with Max at the helm. The weather was partly cloudy, but the wind was steady this evening. Which was good, for in their time with him, Abu-Sharrah had told them that there were many lands to be found out there, and the best way to find land was to keep on as constant a heading as possible, to avoid turning aside as much as possible.
After six days, it was their dwindling food supply that made them hope more and more that the old man knew what he was talking about.
Max wasn’t overly surprised to find that he enjoyed piloting their new ship. Aside from the couple times his father indulged him on trips between Layosha and the others islands, he had never piloted such a large ship before. Had commanded a variety of fast and heavily armed virtual vehicles at Club Positronic back at the Mall, but as far as he was concerned, nothing compared to the real thing.
Over the course of those days, the weather fluctuated a good deal, but when it was decent, Max and Shades trained and sparred on the spacious rear deck of the Maximum. There was hardly room for such things aboard the Reflection, so it felt great to stretch their legs, even while onboard. In addition to practicing the kata Master Al taught him, Shades was adapting empty-hand forms to his stun-sticks, as well, training as if they were tonfa. He was especially stoked about being able to train to music again— Mosh-Fu, Arthur once jokingly called it, and the name stuck— since he couldn’t do anything of the sort while cooped up in that hotel room.
Sometimes Justin got into the act, too, and the more he watched Shades train, the more Max’s words (He’s got what it takes, Justin. Just you watch…) sank in, and the more he wondered if his friend was actually on to something.
One thing both of them were impressed by, in their own ways, was how quickly Shades was adjusting to seafaring. Max and Justin had plenty of opportunity to gain their sea-legs at a young age, but Shades seemed to be making up for lost time. Clearly a natural, and very enthusiastic at that.
For his own part, it certainly took some getting used to, but Shades quickly discovered that he really liked life on the high seas. Somehow always knew he would, had always wanted to. So Max and Justin continued to show him the ropes— the latter in exchange for more music and staff pointers— and Shades took on a more equal share of running the ship.
The other day, Shades happened to notice that their ship had a depth-sounder— probably not a bad idea for a smuggling ship running waters where sandbars and reefs were a constant hazard— and decided to try an odd experiment. But when he tried a depth sounding, he got no reading. At first tried to tell himself that the Ocean was just too deep out here, but when he looked over the side, it made him question if there was any bottom to those depths.
Much the way the Ocean itself seemed to stretch beyond where the horizon ended.
Shades was helping Justin that evening as Max manned the helm. The sun was setting behind them, and soon it would be time to change their shifts. On some unknown impulse, Max just happened to glance starboard, catching a shimmer of light. Locking the wheel, he reached over for the binoculars to take a closer look.
Sure enough, it was some sort of light, not just a trick of tired eyes.
Calling out for the others, he veered toward the light to take a closer look. Shades came up behind him, taking another pair of binoculars for himself. As they drew nearer, he saw more lights the closer they came, and Justin took up Max’s binoculars to get his own look.
It looked somewhat familiar to Justin, but was unlike anything Shades had ever seen.
The island itself wasn’t very large, probably smaller than Paradise, and mostly built-over with a ramshackle assortment of driftwood buildings. As the sky slowly dimmed, more and more lights winked on, some of them clearly beacons. Soon they could make out rows of docks, and various vessels sitting at more than half of them.
After their last misadventure with the killer mansion, they approached this island with caution. Unlike their last destination, though, here they quickly picked out vague movements of individual people on the docks. Which suited them just fine, for they had developed a certain wariness of empty places.
At last they could see the large sign on the arch over the dock entrance:
FOUNDED BY THE TRADEWINDS COMPANY
They easily found an empty dock and moored the Maximum there. Up close, nothing seemed amiss about the gradually slowing bustle in and around the docks, so they decided to keep their weapons concealed. Posted at each space was a list of rules visitors were expected to follow while staying in the Tradewinds Mercantile District, among them: No animals allowed.
Posted in about a dozen languages, most of which Shades couldn’t place, so he doubted they could get away with feigning ignorance.
“Then Bandit stays with the ship,” Max sighed, wondering if this was going to be a frequent issue in other realms, Bandit just looking left out as the cabin door shut behind them.
Beyond the archway were walkways leading to several shops. All made of the same driftwood beams, with small circular portholes here and there. A few people were still out and about, but things were clearly settling down for the day.
Justin led them to a building that was marked as a trading post. Inside, the air was laced with a variety of smells, the hodgepodge of the marketplace that Shades’ nose associated with second hand stores and pawn shops. Suggesting a comparable variety of things that were bought and sold here. A sign at the door read: We buy, sell and trade many items. Please ask about store credit.
“This place should suit our needs nicely,” Shades commented as he took stock of the place.
“You better believe it,” Justin told him, striding casually toward the counter, recalling one of the first rules of the street: never look like you’re carrying anything valuable. Doubly so if you actually are.
“Good evening,” the shopkeep said, taking in the three young men in turn. “What can I do ya?”
“We’d like to do business with you, if you’re still open,” Shades began, “but we don’t have any money…”
“But we’d like to make a deal,” Justin put in, trying not to wince at his companion’s total disregard for the most basic ground rules of the bargaining table.
“Fire away, young mariner,” the shopkeep replied, flashing a good-natured smile that was a primary staple of salesmanship, “I be all ears.”
“We have some stuff aboard our ship we don’t need anymore,” Shades jumped back in, trying to keep this as discreet as possible. Justin might have grown up around pirates, smugglers and mercenaries, but he had experience with a different kind of crook: the businessman. And there were issues of their backstory he was hoping to avoid going into in a place that appeared as legit as this. “Your sign says you buy, sell and trade, right?”
“What kind of stuff?” the shopkeep asked, keeping his tone casually neutral.
“This, for starters!” Justin showed him the coin, yanking it out of his pocket, while Shades tried hard not to wince openly.
“I see…” The shopkeep’s eyes widened for a moment, but quickly narrowed again. Grinning and addressing them in a manner Shades suspected this man ordinarily reserved for favored, long-time customers, he said, “Mind if I take a look at that for a moment?”
“Sure,” said Justin, resisting a lifetime of conditioning screaming at him to not let go of it. But he had seen enough business in the marketplace to know that no one in their right mind would buy something without examining the goods first.
The shopkeep inspected it for a couple minutes, even weighing it on a small scale behind the counter, most likely to confirm that it really was solid gold, before handing it back and retiring behind the counter, saying he would be back in a couple minutes. They heard him go up a flight of steps, then start digging around upstairs. To Shades, it sounded as if he was flipping through books for a couple minutes before he finally came back downstairs and addressed them.
“I do believe we’re in business, young man,” the shopkeep told them. “I would be willing to take it off your hands for twelve thousand credits.”
“Twenty-five,” Justin told him. “No less.”
Justin had listened to many people in the marketplace— people, mostly from other realms, who actually had money— and having observed the haggling game for so long, was pretty sure he had an idea of what he was doing.
For his part, Max watched silently as the bargaining continued.
“Twenty,” Shades interjected. Pretty sure that was about where the bidding would stop anyway.
“Sold!” the shopkeep crowed. “For twenty-thousand! ’Fraid that’s more than I can shell out in hard currency, so at least ten thousand of it will have to be on credit, good at any establishment in the Tradewinds Mercantile District.”
“Deal,” Justin said pleasantly as the shopkeep fetched out some credit vouchers, then turned and glared at Shades. The guy might well have a nose for finding treasure, but left something to be desired at the bargaining table, settling for too little. “I could’ve gotten at least twenty-one,” he hissed. “Next time let me do the talking.”
Shades listened sheepishly, now finding himself wondering whatever happened to the old and venerable art of haggling in his realm. Alarmed at first that anyone might question the price on the tag, then questioned himself and how he had become trained to assume the price was automatically right. He thought about years of being poor, and all the things Mom couldn’t afford…
Meanwhile, Justin pondered the transaction for a moment, feeling strangely hesitant to part with the thing. Then he thought about it for a moment. The creepy daydreams, the nightmares, the irrational feeling that what happened in that macabre estate wasn’t the first time madness and mayhem followed in this cursed object’s wake, or befell those who held on to it for too long. He could all too easily picture it sitting behind the counter at Obscura Antiques, perhaps right next to the ominous blade resting behind a very different shopkeep. Decided that, gold or not, its only real worth was what he could sell it for. That, and he was tired of Shades badmouthing it.
And so it was a done deal, and the shopkeep also agreed to appraise any other items from their ship they wished to sell or trade. Max and his friends were given ten thousand credits, mostly in hundred-credit notes and some coins, as well as a voucher with his personal seal, good at any other establishment on the island, for the other ten grand. Justin had little experience with hard currency, but knew enough to tell that whatever he was looking at, he was looking at a lot of it.
“Not a bad reward,” Max reflected, “for escaping a haunted island.”
“Haunted, you say?” the shopkeep intoned, though Shades was starting to get the idea that, for all his initial hesitation about him, this guy was inclined to shrug at shady clientele. Wondered if there was any other kind in these waters. “I’d be careful if I were you. ’Cause there are plenty of dangerous places out there, but even if I don’t question folks’ goods none too closely, some don’t trust stories like that. They tend to get suspicious.”
Shades quickly concluded that the shopkeep wasn’t about to share anything else about the coin. The man seemed to know something about it, and he had hoped for at least some tidbit from those books upstairs, but this fellow obviously played his cards close to his vest. Then again, this guy was also a businessman, not a sorcerer, and he bet, rather bitterly, that some of those arcane texts back on that island likely contained more info than that shopkeep would ever want to know.
“We use up the credit voucher first,” Shades and Justin said in near unison, then looked at each other for a moment, both deciding that things might go more smoothly from this point on if they both continued to maintain a certain measure of accord in future transactions.
Max kindly thanked the shopkeep for his advice, and then they set out to see what the Mercantile District had to offer.
the bargaining table
After looking around a little bit, they decided to check out a weapon shop Justin spotted, figuring that, with as many dangerous destinations as these waters seemed to harbor, a little extra ammo, at the very least, wasn’t such a bad idea.
Near the entrance was a display of weapons and body armor, along with war memorabilia from many times and places. A large bombshell, several flags (a couple of which actually looked familiar to Shades, but most gave a whole new meaning to the word foreign), an airplane propeller, and various odds and ends none of them had ever seen before, and whose exact purpose they could only guess at. What got most of their attention, though, was the front display.
Plasma rifle (single shot, 30 meters), it said.
The display itself consisted of a sheet of metal thick enough for tank armor, marked carbon-cobalt steel. Though it was it was not so much the slab of steel that drew stares as it was the gaping hole burned, melted right through the thing. Shades was pretty sure he could reach his arm right through it.
“Damn…” Justin remarked, then asked, “You got any more of those?”
“ ’Fraid not,” the shopkeep, who to Shades resembled a scruffier-looking seagoing version of old Gus from the army surplus store back home, told them. “Sorry ’bout that, folks, just haven’t got anyone to help me move that hunka metal anywhere yet.”
That was when Justin finally notice the Sold Out sign next to it.
“Must be popular,” Shades commented.
“Yeah, I’ll say,” the shopkeep replied. “Not three days ago, that last guy even insisted on buying the display model, even though he already had a ton of weapons on him. I mean, that big coat of his practically was a weapon! And that Cyexian with him, she looked pretty tough, too…”
He ground to a halt at the varied expressions on everyone’s faces.
“Was there a third member in this group, by any chance?” Justin asked point-blank.
“Yeah,” the shopkeep answered, his tone turning thoughtful, “a little guy who never speaks. A rather shifty lot, in my…” Then he paused. “You know those guys, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Justin told him, “they’re thieves.”
Like you’re one to talk, Shades thought, but kept his mouth shut for the group’s sake.
“They stole something from us,” Max explained.
“Dammit! We missed ’em!” Justin muttered.
Though to Shades, at least, Justin’s words seemed to lack the animosity they would have packed even a few days ago. As if, he suspected, his most recent exploits had rubbed the soothing balm of success, rather than the bitter salt of betrayal, in his wounds. As if perhaps he may have found something better to do, and Shades hoped this wouldn’t get him all fired-up again.
After a moment of awkward silence, the subject turned to weapons and equipment. The first order of business was more ammo, power clips all around. With mixed feelings, Shades decided to fix up and add the power pistol he picked up in the Harken Building to his arsenal. Some weapons to outfit the Maximum herself with, including three quadra-barrel laser cannons and adapters to run them on the ship’s power. This Max found some relief in; if Justin was willing to invest this much money in the ship, he was that much more likely to stick around for a while.
Each of them also picked up additional accessories, based on their own fighting style; scopes, hidden holsters or sheaths, even a few easily concealed pieces of light armor. Ever the pragmatist, Shades also recommended various pieces of survival gear, for both at sea and on land. Emergency signal flares, personal handheld radios with hands-free headsets, flashlights, lightweight LED head-lamps, batteries and extra power clips, thermos bottles and camping gear, lighters, some extra lengths of rope, among other odds and ends, anything they wished they had on previous legs of their journey, or things that looked like they would come in handy.
When Justin started asking questions about some of it, Shades simply pointed out that both he and Max did have plenty of experience being marooned on desert islands.
And Shades made out like a bandit on new reading material, a few of them books he was familiar with, the rest an experiment in pandimensional literature.
The store sold a wide array of weapons, from archaic to Shades’ idea of futuristic, blades spanning from broadswords to sleek blades vaguely resembling katana— as well as melee weapons whose designs none of them had ever seen the like of. A small but practical arsenal of martial arts weapons. And everything from crude firearms to energy weapons.
Which led to a very interesting item Shades found.
At first glance, they looked like oddly-shaped hand grenades, but the shelf label said something completely different. EMP Grenades, the legend read. Shades had heard of Electromagnetic Pulse, having read that it could disable electronics and power systems. But he had never heard of an EMP bomb this small.
“Wish we had a couple of these when we fought NK-525…”
“Had what?” Justin asked.
“These,” Shades replied, showing him the weapons.
He didn’t have to explain much to convince his friends they were a sound investment. Unlike his own world, where such things were more a thing of the past than the present, these waters held their share of pirates and marauders, and a quick getaway would be a handy thing to have. After all, sails versus the Maximum’s engines would be no contest. The idea even occurred to him that these might even have enabled them to stop the Triad, but he decided to keep that thought to himself, lest he get Justin started again.
In the course of their discussion, the shopkeep chimed in, cautioning them that plasma rifles and most other “pulse” weapons were immune to EMP, and all of them made a mental note of that.
In addition to buying weapons and equipment, they made some repairs and upgrades to the ship, selling off or trading any of their old gear they didn’t want, including the guns and explosives from the smuggling compartment. In exchange, they got food— mostly of the less perishable variety— mended sails, a full tank of gas, window repairs, and new markings bearing the name Maximum in red brush script. By the following afternoon, their ship was outfitted far better than any of them could have hoped for.
And they still had over seven thousand credits to spare.
Deciding that this was definitely a place to keep an eye out for in the future, they set out from the Tradewinds Mercantile District once more on their aimless voyage.
-early draft: 1996-7
-notebook draft: October 13, 2005 – April 29, 2006
-word-processed draft: May 15 – June 24, 2007
-additional revisions: May, 2009
This story marks the place where the Tradewinds series regains its sea-legs after a long, landlocked detour, as well as a transitional state within the crew themselves, following the Triad's betrayal. Given that everybody went their separate ways within the Harken Building, this was also our three heroes' first real adventure as a team, and even though it got off to a rough start, they seem to be getting their act together. One of the strangest things I had noticed when going through the older drafts while rewriting this story, was how they seemed to arrive overnight almost everywhere, rather than the final version, taking entire days between realms. As if even my narrative from that time period reflected my own impatience to "get past" the parts of the story that weren't focused on action or plot, rather than balancing the downtime between destinations with more character development and revelation. I'm not sure if it showed through as much in the later revisions, but one of my original inspirations for the island from this story was actually Resident Evil (and by that, I mean the original, with the mansion out in the woods), though in this case with an occult, rather than mad-science twist. For example, the scene where Shades reads the journal in the basement was based on a certain scene from the original version of the game (those of you who've played it probably know which one I'm talking about), but fortunately, like most everything else in the story, it ended up taking on a life of its own. Especially with the Amulet itself, which surprised me by turning out to be more important to the long-term storyline than I originally intended. Justin may have sold it off, but there's still unfinished business attached to it in the long run. On the other hand, there was a bunch of unnecessary baggage that didn't find its way into the later versions: a giant snake in the Bone Yard, a tentacle at the bridge, and a most suspicious bush that refused to stay put like a good plant should, among other pointless diversions. Probably for the best, as the entity itself was adversary enough for one island. This story is one part of what was previously a larger segment, but this seemed like a good point to divide it at, since the next part really works better as a story unto itself, so that's the way I wrote it.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.